A word of warning: This fic will contain disturbing, adult themes. If you don't think you can cope with inflicted violence on women and rape scenarios, you should consider finding a different story to read.

Not mine, never will be. Joni and Rob, I will claim. If you want to use them, let me know.

As always, reviewers are worshipped for their contribution.

There was a woman standing outside the door, smoking a thin, unfiltered cigarette and looking at the ground. Seth looked at her, looked at the baggage spread around her feet, surmised that he should perhaps recognize this woman, but didn't. She was roughly his mom's age. Her hair was dyed black, judging by the blonde roots that were showing through. Her nails were bitten and her blue eyes, when she finally looked up, were bloodshot and tearstained.

"Uhm, hello." Seth said. He didn't let go of his grip on the doorknob.

"Hi. Is Kirst around?" She gave his mom a nickname he had never heard before; his mother wasn't really the type to garner nicknames. The only one she had that he knew of was reluctantly accepted, adorned by his grandfather, answered to with gritted teeth.

"Yeah, let me just grab her." Seth turned around to leave, turned back to either invite her in or swing the door shut again, thought against this as he turned, swiftly turned again and paused briefly before he started for his mother's office. Ever since she'd been home from Suriak, she'd been alternating between gardening, attempting to cook and cleaning out her office.

"Mom, someone's at the door for you." Seth knocked at her office door, although it was ajar. She was standing over a shredder, feeding it from a large stack of paper that she'd piled on her desk. Her hair was loose, only just hiding gaunt cheekbones which became more apparent as she tucked it behind her ears before she turned and smiled at him.

"Who is it?" Kirsten followed him out of the office, shut the door behind them as Seth shrugged.

"Okay, thanks." Kirsten shook her head behind him as Seth offered a wave over his shoulder. "We'll be in the lounge room." He said as they went separate ways at the hallway. Kirsten smoothed her hair before she walked into sight of the doorway. She was expecting Charlotte maybe, or a Newpsie that Seth had conveniently forgotten. What she didn't expect was Joni Cadwell, the girl she'd shared so much with at college when they were both still relatively hopeful about life and where it was going to take them. Now, over twenty years later, she was standing at the door, still smoking the cigarettes they used to share over strong espresso while they talked about the world and what kind of impact they were going to make on it. She wondered if Joni had achieved any of her goals.

"Joni!" Kirsten rushed forward, on impulse hugged her friend. The hug she got in return was as strong as she remembered, the kind of hug they would give each other when both were drunk in a nightclub and had just reunited after being dragged to opposite corners of the dance floor in the thrust and pull of gyrating bodies.

"What are you doing here? How did you find me?" Kirsten asked, pulling back. She noticed the luggage for the first time.

"Do you need somewhere to stay?" Joni looked into her eyes for the first time and Kirsten felt like she was pulled back through time, back to when Joni used to show up, in tears, freshly bruised from the latest guy she'd hooked up with. It was a vicious cycle that Kirsten, and other assorted friend's best efforts had never been able to pull her out of.

"God. Again?" She pulled Joni inside, yelled to the boys who reluctantly appeared.

"Can you take these bags up to the guest room. Please?" Kirsten gave them a smile as they dragged themselves towards the door.

"So this is where you ended up?" Joni looked around herself as Kirsten led her through to the kitchen. She wasn't sure whether it was with awe, jealousy or some other emotion she couldn't place.

"Yes. Tea, coffee?" Kirsten asked. Joni leant on the counter, wiped her eyes.

"Coffee. I'm sorry to just show up. It was the only place I could think of that he didn't…" Kirsten picked up both filled coffee mugs, motioned for Joni to follow her outside. She didn't want the boys to hear whatever Joni was going to say. She was sure Ryan had heard or seen much worse but, as silly as it seemed, she wanted to shield Seth from whatever Joni had to say about why she was crying and walking so stiffly.

They were both settled on the outside table, had looked over the sinking sun for several minutes before Joni started speaking.

"I'm so sorry, Kirst, I know we haven't spoken in years… I managed to find Taryn's number and she told me where you were. I didn't want to come here, but you were the only person I could think of that could help me…" Joni sniffled, looked down into her coffee cup as she wrapped her hands around it.

"It's okay." Kirsten reached out a hand, was surprised by the ferocity with which Joni gripped it. After more than ten years in Newport, living in a bubble world where friends were more like distant acquaintances and aloofness was a way of life, Kirsten had forgotten what real friendship felt like, how strong the connection could be.

"It's okay, really. Just tell me what happened." Joni wiped at her eyes again, her sleeve catching on the edge of the table so that it rode up, allowing Kirsten to see the deep purple marks on her arms.

"It was Rob. We met… A few years ago." Kirsten felt sudden sadness at the way in which she didn't know what was going on in Joni's life. They'd called themselves soul sisters- Joni had been a bridesmaid at Kirsten's wedding, although she'd worn extra makeup on her shoulders to hide the bruises inflicted by the latest boyfriend. After Sandy and Kirsten had moved in together, it had become harder to keep in touch with friends they had made through college. It was as if becoming a couple had isolated them from everyone else. Joni, too, had faded into the background.

"He was great. I really thought he was different… You know, than…" She trailed off and Kirsten remembered what she was thinking of. She never quite knew how Joni, the laughing socialite who, pre-Sandy, made her dress up every weekend, regardless of whether they had any place to go out or not, always ended up with men who hurt her. Sometimes they hurt her only with words but, more often than not, she ended up with bruises and, on one occasion, broken bones. She seemed to attract them without knowing how, seemed to radiate something that made her all too susceptible to the charms of cruel men.

"I know." Kirsten gave her hand a squeeze, encouragement to continue.

"Well, he was great. He was gorgeous. He was so kind… We moved in together after a few months. It was happy for a year. Then… I don't know, he ended up like the rest. But he was different, he apologized." Joni's eyes searched Kirsten's, looking, perhaps, for an absolution that Kirsten couldn't provide. She wasn't going to tell Joni that it was right to let a man hit her, and then explain it away with a bunch of roses in his arms.

"Anyway, we stayed together for another few months but I left. My wrist, he… Broke it." Kirsten sighed, reached out her other hand to use it to cover Joni's.

"That leaves a gap of a few years. What happened?" Kirsten asked. Joni half shrugged, took a look out at the dying sun.

"There were a few years when I was on my own. I had a good job, at a publishing firm, then he came back. I tried to avoid him, tell him to go away but…" At this, Joni sighed, looked distant for a moment while she paused. "I just remembered how good it was when it was good. He was so… Well, you know. So we tried it again, but… Same thing as before, without the apologies. I tried to leave, but he got me back, threatened my sister, trashed my car. I thought he'd kill me. And then…" A repressed sob suddenly broke free from Joni's throat. Kirsten let the silence build, used it to move closer to Joni. Whatever the next truth was, she was sure it wouldn't be pleasant.

"I found out I was pregnant and he… He just snapped when I told him. I thought he'd be happy, thought it would make things better…"

"The baby..?" Kirsten asked, almost not wanting to know.

"He beat me so badly and I just wouldn't stop bleeding… Oh god, my baby…" Joni was openly sobbing, and Kirsten leaned in to embrace her. She couldn't believe it had come to this, couldn't believe something like that had happened to someone she knew, to Joni. They'd giggled together in college, swapped clothes and shoes like sisters, been each other's emergency backup on dates that went wrong, swapped sex tips gleaned from magazines as well as real life experience. They'd been best friends, almost able to read one another's thoughts. Joni had always known when Kirsten was upset, had appeared with a bottle of wine and a shoulder she could cry on. After both being evicted from their apartments because of unpaid rent, they'd lived briefly in a mail truck together, before Kirsten had met Sandy and moved in with him. She couldn't remember now why they had stopped being such close friends.

"Shhh…" Kirsten felt for Joni's loss, thought briefly of the child she had aborted by choice. As Joni's sobs eased slightly, back to hiccups, Kirsten lifted a hand to wipe her own tears, shed largely for Joni but also for herself, the guilt she felt at not being able to help, at Joni having to face something like this alone.

"I went to hospital for a while… He found me, threatened to kill me again so I left and found you. I don't know what to do next, he's going to kill me if he finds out where I am… I'm so sorry, but I don't think he'd know who you were, where you lived. I just need to heal a little before I find somewhere else to go." Joni's sobs started in again, and Kirsten stroked her hair, remembering when it had been flame red. They'd both dyed their hair, painted their lips to match and descended upon an unsuspecting public. Neither had needed to pay for any drinks that night. Kirsten wondered briefly what had happened to that girl, the one who had changed her hair colour at will and laced up thigh high boots with hot pink laces. She supposed she'd lost her somewhere between meeting Sandy and moving back to Newport.

"It's okay, Joni. Whatever you need, stay here as long as you like. I'll tell the gatesmen to keep an eye out for him, and he won't find you here, okay?" Kirsten held Joni back from her as they looked at each other's eyes, finding a flicker of whatever it was that had drawn them together that first week at college, although it was almost hidden amongst the history both held. Joni, and her addiction to men who hit and Kirsten, with her various vices… Alcohol… Carter…

"Thank you. Really, thank you. I knew… I could always count on you, Kirst." Joni leant back on Kirsten's shoulder, but instead of sobbing, lay quietly. The darkening hue of the sky made the shadows blend with the air, placing a sooty layer over everything. Finally, as the shadows lengthened to black, and lights appeared in the house, Joni sat up.

"I might have a shower…" Kirsten got up, waited for Joni, put an arm around her as they went inside. She saw the boys sitting on the couch, knew they were sneaking surreptitious glances, wondering who the woman was who had come in and so abruptly burst into tears.

"I've put you in the guest room. My room is just downstairs and down the hall. If you need anything, just ask. Feel free to treat this place as your own, okay?" Kirsten gave her a final hug at the doorway to the guest room, once again reminded of a friendship that should have been kept alive with more effort, rather than placed on a backburner when life got in the way. Maybe if Joni had known she had somewhere to go sooner, maybe… As if knowing what she was thinking, Joni returned the hug just as intensely.

"There was nothing anyone could do. It's just… it's always me. How many times before have you had to pick up the pieces? I've missed you, Kirst." Joni shuffled into the guest room, and Kirsten walked downstairs. She reached the bottom of the stairs before she had to brace herself against the hand rail. She slowly sank to the bottom step as she felt the full weight of what she had been told hit her. God, not Joni. Not her baby. Kirsten gasped as quietly as she could, felt the tears coming faster. She wiped her eyes quickly as she heard what she assumed was Seth coming down the hall. It was Ryan.

"Uh, are you okay?" He asked. Kirsten managed a shaky smile, not wanting Ryan to think anything was wrong. She knew he wouldn't buy it.

"I'm fine." Kirsten turned her head away, wiped the last of her tears. She managed to stand, but still felt like her legs were going to slide out from under her.

"I was just going to get a DVD from Seth's room…" Ryan let his thought trail off.

"It's okay, Ryan. Just an old friend with some… bad news." Sandy chose that moment to walk through the door. Kirsten managed another smile, hoped he wouldn't call her on the tear stains that must be one her cheeks, reflected in her eyes.

"Kirsten, Ryan. Sorry I'm home late… The new guy is a real pain, every t must be crossed, every i dotted. Honey…" Ryan chose that moment to escape as Sandy made his way over to kiss Kirsten.

"What's wrong?" He said quietly. Kirsten leaned in to hug him, needed to feel his solid warmth to ground her.

"Joni's here. Taryn told her where I was… She needs to stay for a while. She…" Kirsten remembered she hadn't told Sandy much about her life pre-him. He wouldn't know about Joni's track record, her abundance of past relationships that always ended, and for a large part were sustained, through tears.

"Her last relationship kind of ended on bad terms, and she needs somewhere to feel safe." Sandy nodded.

"Are you okay with this?" Sandy's voice was concerned and Kirsten was again reminded of her past mistake, the way Sandy was watching her and trying to keep her from anything that would send her back into an alcohol-induced, inebriated spin. Kirsten nodded slowly, managed a smile that wasn't so fake. Sandy kissed her on the forehead.

"So, have you made us any culinary delights, my darling?" Kirsten managed another smile as they walked into the kitchen, his arm heavy and warm around her shoulders.

"I don't want to drive Joni away. Take out tonight I think. Your choice." Kirsten leaned in as he hugged her again, thinking of how close she had been to losing this, losing him.

"I'll call now." Sand pulled the menus out of the drawer and started perusing them. Ryan passed on his way back to the lounge room, and Kirsten followed him in.

"Guys, the woman, Joni… She's a friend of mine from college, she's going to stay with us for a while."

"Awesome, do we get to press her for stories about you in your college days?" Kirsten gave Seth a look, and he quietened.

"She's been through a rough… time." Kirsten looked down until she felt the tears recede.

"It's okay, Mom. She's in the folds of Cohen love now." Seth finished speaking and looked vaguely disgusted.

"Maybe that wasn't the best choice of words… Anyway, we'll play nice." Kirsten smiled, nodded, before going back into the kitchen.

"Chance to find out about The Kirsten in her wild child days." Seth's eyes were animated as he looked over at Ryan. Ryan just shook his head.

"Hey." Joni said softly as she entered the kitchen. Kirsten had been pouring herself an ice water, got out a glass for Joni. Sandy had disappeared to shower before dinner was delivered.

"Hey." She replied, handing over the chilled glass. Joni accepted it gratefully, moved over to sit at the table.

"I didn't mean to burden you with all this." Joni said. Kirsten smiled.

"It's okay. Really." There was silence between them, but it was comfortable, familiar. The doorbell rang, and Sandy's voice echoed down the hall.

"I'll get it," she heard him yell, got up to busy herself putting out plates and cutlery. Joni got up to help but Kirsten waved her back down. As soon as Sandy arrived with the takeout, Ryan and Seth magically appeared at the table.

"Joni, this is Ryan, Seth." Kirsten motioned to each of them with the placemats she was holding.

"Hey." Ryan and Seth both said. Joni nodded, affronted with the images of Kirsten's children, images of what she could have had years from now.

"Hey, Joni, how are you?" Sandy arrived with his arms laden with food. Seth and Ryan relieved him quickly, digging through to find their favourite types.

"Hey, Sandy."

"Moo shui?" Sandy asked, offering Joni a container. She smiled, took it, grateful to be part of this well rehearsed family routine. She caught Kirsten looked at her concernedly, gave her a slight nod, letting her know that, while not okay, she was on the path towards that.