For the millionth, and second last time you'll ever have to hear this, I'm sorry it took so damn long to update. A part of me didn't want to upload the last 'official' chapter apart from the epilogue… on the bright side, it's a long one, and I think it wraps everything up nicely for the most part – and what it doesn't, the epilogue will.

Thank you to my beautiful readers for your never-ending patience with me and my constant failure to update in a reasonable time frame :P this story has been a huge thing for me over the past few years, and – aw shucks, I promised myself I wouldn't get upset until I posted the epilogue, haha!

Look, thank you all for being so supportive of my writing, even in the earlier stages when my abilities were… questionable, to say the least. I hope you enjoy this chapter, just as I hope you've enjoyed the rest of the story. I know I've enjoyed writing it.

xxx

The air was too cold as the ferry hit the city dock; Veronica's jacket was far too thin to provide any warmth in this horrible weather between Winter and Spring. It had always been a pet peeve of hers, this... indecisiveness in the weather. The sun was shining, yet everything was frosted over... and unless you counted the people bustling around, unloading suitcases from the ship, calling to each-other in foreign tongues... nothing was moving. Everything seemed...

Well, dead. That tended to happen in Winter; things died. It was a fact of life. Everything that had been growing for three seasons, the new life that everyone had become accustomed to... vanished in one. The thing that kept time moving, though, the promise of spring and summer... all that had been lost would grow again, more beautiful than before.

Veronica shook her head violently, forcing her mind onto more practical things, refusing to let her eyes scan the area for a familiar head of dark hair. She knew Tom wouldn't be here, but no matter how hard one tries to extinguish that small flicker of hope, it doesn't go out until you see the evidence that it never existed in the first place. The empty dock before her was all the evidence she needed, and gritting her teeth and ignoring the hand that a young worker extended, she climbed down the slippery ladder by herself.

She had been an idiot – she could see that now, and the clarity of it all was actually painful now that the damage had been done. Mineral Town had been a mistake... she'd hurt her family, and lost her husband. Of course, the latter had simply been an issue of time, and the former had taken place long before the trip to Mineral Town had crossed her mind – but things could have been postponed; old wounds should have been left to heal completely before her presence in her siblings' lives could rip them open again.

And she could think about it for the rest of her life – try to puzzle it out, try to see what she could have done differently... but she didn't have the rest of her life to herself. Her daughter – her baby – her tie to Kayla's father, uncle, aunt, grandfather... all the people Veronica had lost. One lost to death, one lost to another woman... and two lost to herself. Jack and Jill had forgiven her – that was the difficult part. Because when she couldn't forgive herself... their pardons were completely irrelevant.

Everything passed in a surreal blur, buildings and nameless faces whipping past the taxi she had somehow gotten herself safely into. She couldn't remember rattling off the familiar address, but as the car pulled up to a familiar large brick house, recognition brought her back to reality. The well-kept garden, the large gates, the fountain that she'd thrown countless pennies into as a child – her mother's house, and the promise of her little girl just inside. She was suddenly desperate to see her; desperate to see Jill's eyes and Tom's hair, her father's chin, her mother's nose and Jack's smile... Veronica's daughter didn't resemble her in the slightest, only the people she loved, and that was the way it should be.

God forbid her angel should be ruined by turning out anything like her mother.

"Thanks," she murmured, passing the driver a ten dollar note. "Keep the change."

"Miss, you're fifteen short," he coughed. Veronica glanced up in bewilderment at the electronic screen displaying the fare.

"I don't think I have fifteen more on me," she whispered, pulling out the look that let her have her own way with almost any man she met, and kind of hating herself for it.

"Then you should've caught the bus," he sighed, jerking his thumb towards the door. "Go on, get outta here before I change my mind."

"Thanks," she said once more, dragging her suitcases hurriedly behind her and stumbling a little. She should have blushed when she didn't have the money; a few months ago she would have been mortified beyond belief - but things like that seemed kind of trivial to her now. All she wanted to do was hold Kayla, and the only thing slowing her down was herself. She quickly picked up the pace, tripping a few more times in her haste to get up the endless white stone stairs before rapping on the large door sharply, her patience wearing thin.

The sharp clicking noise of heels on polished wood sounded from inside the house, and when they became muffled, Veronica could picture her mother cutting her way from the hallway through the lounge and walking over the beige carpet. She really did know this house as well as she knew her own name... though she hadn't realized it until that moment, this had been the only home she'd ever known.

"Veronica," Linda Evans exhaled, pushing the door open and throwing her arms around her daughter. She smelt sweet; comforting, and Veronica breathed in deeply.

"Mom," she choked, ashamed of herself as easy tears sprang straight to her eyes.

"Welcome home, darling," she smiled, and it didn't help to see that her eyes were suspiciously bright, too. Her words were so fitting; it was all Veronica could do from transforming into a blubbering mess. She shook her red curls back and blinked a couple of times. "You look so tired," Linda continued, her voice concerned. "Have you been sleeping?"

Not recently, her daughter's brain replied. Her mouth lied however, assuring Linda that it had simply been a long ferry trip. "So you don't mind if I stay in my old room for tonight, do you?"

"Of course not," she laughed. The beginnings of silver roots were just noticeable in her blonde hair. "Where's Tom? Is he coming in?"

"He went straight home," Veronica told her, biting her lip hard. True, he would have gone straight home when he got to the city a couple of weeks before, but by now he and his things would be well and truly gone. Woe betide the fate of any photographs, clothes or belongings he'd left behind – fire restrictions or not, she was having a 'farewell' bonfire when she got to her house. "Um... where's Kayla?"

"She's playing in the nursery," Linda said with a fond smile. "She's an absolute darling. Were you here when she started talking?"

"Of course," she replied defensively through narrowed eyes. "I was only gone for three months, Mom. How much could I have missed?"

The older woman raised an eyebrow and took her daughter's face in between both her hands, examining it. "Honey... you look ill."

"Kayla," Veronica growled, wrenching her face away and staring sullenly at the floor. Her mother nodded slowly, looking a little confused, but started down towards the nursery again. They didn't cut over the lounge area this time, making their way through the well-decorated, familiar hallway before Linda stopped just outside a door. "Mom," Veronica whispered, shaking her head in disbelief. "Jill's room... you didn't..."

"It's not like she's going to be back to claim it anytime soon," she snapped back, however, her face soon softened. "But... how are they? Jack and Jill? Did anything happen between Jack and that lovely girl who came to stay?"

"Ann?" Veronica asked sullenly, rolling her eyes. She and the fiery waitress hadn't been the best of friends, to put it lightly. They were far from the ideal pair of sisters in law. "No. They were just friends, you know. He's... he's in love –" she smiled, despite herself, "– her name's Mary. She's very pretty, nice manners, intelligent... they balance well. It's nice."

"Oh," Linda beamed, her eyes sparkling. While Veronica had been her baby, and received a large amount of attention as such, she was always her father's child. Jack was far and away their mother's pride and joy. First born, only son... it made enough sense. And, of course, the middle child had been constantly overlooked. "That's lovely. He told me about her. I can't believe he's... he's coming back. He must have been so sad to leave her." She hesitated, with a look on her face like she was forgetting something, before her eyes lit up. "Jill? How are things for her?"

"Can I tell you later, mom?" the red haired woman begged, practically dancing on the spot. "I want to see Kayla."

"Yes, yes," she exhaled, twisting the silver doorknob and slowly peeking around the corner. "…Kay?"

Veronica pulled the door wide open beside her, too impatient, then stopped in her tracks. "My God..."

She was... so much more amazing than she'd ever remembered. None of the photographs taken could do any justice to her. It... must be criminal for a two-year-old to be that beautiful – nothing could take away from her adorable white smile, the bright blue of her eyes, her perfect dark curls with a pink bow, undoubtedly courtesy of Linda. A complete darling – nothing like her mother in any way, exactly how she wanted it.

"Mum," she bubbled, reaching up towards her grandmother with chubby hands. "Mum." Linda looked slightly embarrassed as she scooped Kayla up, letting her snuggle into her shoulder.

"She started calling me Mom, and... it was nice," she said, a blush growing on her cheeks. "I let her, and it's become a bit of a habit. Of course, she knows you're her mother... she's just being mischievous, calling me it."

"Mum," she said again, pointing to a beanbag and pile of books in the corner where Jill's bed had once been.

"Shush, sweetie. Not just now. Look, mommy's right there!" She turned Kayla towards her mother, and her big blue eyes widened in alarm. She squirmed into her grandmother's shoulder, peeking at Veronica shyly. "Don't be silly, Kayla. There's your mommy. Veronica."

She peered up again, her eyes more interested than alarmed now. "Icka."

"That's right," her grandmother cooed, nodding enthusiastically. "Veronica. Mom."

"Mum," Kayla garbled, pointing to her grandmother again. "Mum. Icka."

"Come here, Kay," Veronica whimpered, holding her arms out for her. She squirmed a little, reluctant to leave the woman holding her, but giggled as long red curls tickled her face.

"Icka," she said proudly, confident with her very cute pronunciation of her mother's name. Veronica beamed down at her, breath catching in her throat. How could she have ever left her? Of course, back then... she hadn't felt that Kayla was as important as she was now. As awful as it sounded, her daughter had not been the main thing in her life – now, she was the only thing she hadn't lost. And yet, she'd been away from her long enough at such a young age that the girl had already started calling somebody else her mom.

"Kayla can stay in her room here, and you can stay in yours," Linda was saying, interrupting a quiet moment. Veronica shook her head slightly, gazing down at her girl, her huge blue eyes travelling the room excitedly, and suddenly, she... she wanted Kayla to herself for the night.

"Mom?" she said, touching her arm lightly. Linda glanced at her curiously. "I... changed my mind. I think I'd better get home to Tom –" she stumbled over his name, but it went unnoticed. "– he'll want to see Kayla."

"Honey, you look exhausted," her mother protested.

She shook her head adamantly. "I'll rest better when I'm at home – I mean, at my apartment. Really."

She stared at her daughter for a few moments, and for an instant there was something unrecognizable in her pale blue eyes. "I'll call you a taxi," she finally sighed, turning away and walking into the kitchen.

Veronica backed into the hallway, Kayla still resting on her hip, and located her Mom's handbag by the front door. She ducked down, rummaging through it with one hand until she found a wallet, before pulling out a twenty to cover the taxi fare. Linda would have gladly given it to her, she knew that – hundreds, thousands if she'd explained the situation... stealing wasn't necessary, but she would rather take the guilt of pocketing money than the shame of admitting that she didn't have any. She had, after all, grown up with excessive, disposable cash... and to find herself stupid enough to wind up in this position...

"I got someone who was just around the corner; he'll be here in a second," Linda announced as she walked back into the room. The younger woman hurriedly shoved the money into the back pocket of her jeans and received a confused, worried glance. "Veronica... are you sure you're okay?"

"Fine," she snapped more aggressively than intended. Her mother took the tiniest of steps away from Veronica, her cheeks beginning to flush scarlet.

"Sorry, darling."

"Don't be," she exhaled slowly. To the immense relief of all, there was a knock at the door and both women hurried to answer it.

"Afternoon, Miss," the cab-driver said, grinning at the two women and Kayla. He was a good looking young man, probably twenty-five – blonde and tall – a refreshing and surprising change from the majority of balding, middle-aged men who seemed to drive the taxis around the city. "I'm afraid I've got a little bit of a situation," he continued sheepishly, wringing his hands together. "I hope you don't mind – I've got my wife and a good friend in the car; I've got to take them somewhere now and did promise that I would – unfortunately, I'm still on duty. Of course, I'll take you to your destination first, but do you mind sharing the cab? I'm so sorry to ask –"

"That's fine," Veronica interrupted, waving one hand to cut him off mid-apology. "I don't mind."

"I can call you another cab, Veronica," her mother said over her shoulder, her lips pursed together disapprovingly. Her daughter shot her a quick scowl.

"I said, it's fine." Just get me out of here. The blonde man shot the red head another grin, reaching forward to pick up her suitcases. Veronica caught a glimpse of a wedding ring on his finger, biting her lip and glancing down at her own. Truthfully, she wasn't sure why she was still wearing it. "Okay, uh... bye, Mom."

"Goodbye," she said with a smile, kissing her daughter's hair gently. "Bye, Kayla." She kissed her granddaughter's hair as well, waving once more and closing the door once they were halfway down the path.

Veronica paused at the fountain while walking to the bright yellow taxi, and in an instant, had pulled the ring clean from her finger and tossed it into the clear waters, leaving it to glint inconspicuously against the coins gathered on the bottom. She would tell her mom what had happened before she could notice it there. Then again, the chances of her actually looking closely enough to see it weren't too likely. "You okay, Miss?" the driver asked, and she glanced up distractedly with a quick smile.

"Yes..." He opened the back door and the young woman retreated in, barely noticing the man sitting next to her. She clutched a fussy Kayla tightly on her lap, exhaling slowly as she realized she didn't have to lie any longer. The blonde man got into the cab, turning and flashing another smile.

"My name's Jake Andrews. This here is my wife, Rachel –" a relatively pretty young woman in the front seat turned and peered around to smile. She was clothed in an expensive looking silver dress and had obviously just been to the salon; Veronica briefly wondered where she was going. "And next to you is my good friend –"

"Kai," the man next to Veronica cut in, extending a hand. She turned her head to examine him and raised an eyebrow, reluctantly impressed. He had a very dark tan; so dark that he had to have foreign parents – she would have guessed that he was a foreigner himself, but he wasn't carrying an accent. His hair was even darker and had a careless, tousled look to it, while his eyes were darker still and sparkled even in the poorly lit cab. His white teeth were showing as he grinned, and he was dressed in a very flattering black suit – obviously going the same place as Rachel. "Nice to meet you."

"Veronica Smi – Evans," she retorted eventually, refusing to use the name of her husband, whether it was her 'legal' name or not. The man's eyes widened a little when he heard the last name. "Is there a problem?" she asked, more curious than annoyed.

"I... just... knew someone who had that last name," he shrugged. His grin returned as he continued. "But I guess it's not exactly uncommon."

"Where to, Veronica?" Jake requested from the front seat. She rattled off the address, and he nodded sharply. "That's on the other side of the city. Should get there in twenty minutes."

"You don't need to be somewhere before then...?" Veronica asked slowly, truly curious about where they were going.

"Nah," Kai answered for him. "Rach and I are going to a restaurant opening in about an hour. I'm a chef, so... I guess I've got to keep tabs on my competition."

"You have your own restaurant?" she pressed, vaguely interested. He blushed slightly and glanced to the front of the cab, where Jake and Rachel were involved in a conversation about a recent news event.

"I work at a couple of places around the city. No place of my own, right now. I mean... I used to travel to a little town and run my own restaurant there during summers... but it wasn't right for me there –" He shrugged. "– I'll end up selling it. Too small... no real business opportunities."

"Ah," was Veronica's quiet reply. Kai smiled, reaching out and tapping Kayla lightly on the nose.

"She's beautiful. Is she yours?"

"Yes," Veronica said, a hint of pride in her voice. "My daughter. Her name's Kayla."

"She looks just like you."

She shot him the most hateful glare she could muster; he literally, subconsciously scooted as far away as he could without removing his seatbelt and jumping out the door. "She does not," she managed through gritted teeth, "Look anything like me."

"Well, actually –" he began, before apparently thinking better of it. "Well... she's gorgeous. I guess you have a husband...?" he blanched slightly, seeing Veronica's instant reaction to that. "I meant, uh, fiancé. Partner. Boyfriend. I –"

The red haired woman stared at him for a few moments, truly unsure how to answer. Legally, she was still married... though Tom had made it perfectly clear that that wasn't how their relationship stood emotionally. "No," she eventually murmured. Kai seemed to realize that he'd stepped on another landmine, and quickly changed the subject.

"I have a friend who lives in the same apartment as you," he observed. "You don't know a girl named Lucy, do you? Robinson?"

"Blonde?" she asked, closing her eyes briefly and trying to picture the young woman who lived across the hallway. Kai nodded, his face lighting up.

"She's big into the cooking scene, as well. Really successful – I mean, to live in that area you kind of, uh, have to be. In fact –" he launched into a description of an event they'd been to recently, chuckling to himself as he replayed several situations 'Lucy' had gotten herself into. Veronica found herself actually laughing after a few minutes; the sound shocked her so much that she stopped immediately, as did Kai. "Sorry, did I... did I say something wrong?" he asked, frowning.

"No, I just..." There was a long pause. "We're nearly at my apartment." Sure enough, the streets were flying by, more and more familiar now. Kai was silent until the taxi pulled up right outside the apartment block.

"Twenty six dollars forty," Jake called from the front seat, not paying much attention to Veronica's reaction as he adjusted the mirror. She pulled the twenty out of her pocket and closed her eyes in mortification. Twice in one day? Really? Kai reached out; for a moment she genuinely thought he was making some strange attempt to hold her hand, but he silently put a ten dollar note into it and glanced back out the window. Veronica opened her mouth to protest, before realizing that she didn't really have another option, handing the money to Jake, and climbing out of the car, struggling to hold Kayla to her chest. Jake began to step out of the car as well, but Kai clamored out before him and held up a hand.

"I'll take her bags up. I want to drop in and see if Lucy's coming tonight, anyway." Jake shrugged and got back in the cab; Kai grinned in Veronica's direction once again. "Which floor?"

"Twelfth," she replied meekly. Kai's face lit up.

"Same floor as Lucy. Awesome."

She smiled awkwardly, a little puzzled by his ever-present enthusiasm. She didn't know all that many people who could still talk normally to an unfamiliar person who had – and she knew she had, albeit unintentionally – come across as more than aloof and strange and, well, broke... several times in the last twenty minutes. Yet he kept the smile firmly on his face, never failing, and seeing it there made her want to smile. Almost. "Th-thank you for the money, in the cab. I don't usually... like, at all. Ever. I just got caught out..."

"Don't worry about it," he breezed, making the woman at his side fall silent. They got in the elevator and Veronica's heart started pounding faster, imagining what would happen if the man she still resentfully loved was standing in the apartment, waiting to apologize... waiting to beg her to take him back. And they could watch their beautiful daughter grow up, and grow old together... "The doors are gonna close on you," Kai said suddenly, snapping her back to a harsh reality where the chances of Tom waiting for her were slimmer than her pre-baby waistline. She hurriedly followed him out of the elevator doors while Kayla yawned quietly and buried her little head in her mother's shoulder.

"Here," Veronica said, rummaging for her keys and letting the door swing open. Truth be told, she wasn't sure what to expect, but... she didn't expect that everything would look so much the same as she'd remembered. She had thought that... without Tom's presence, the room would be bare... cold. And it was, but not in any way that her eyes could see.

"Wow," Kai whistled, both eyebrows elevated. "Nice apartment."

"Thanks," she murmured distractedly, her eyes fixed on a sheaf of paper on the bench. She set Kayla down gently on the floor, before walking over and picking the pile up. When the words on the paper registered, she dropped it like it had burned her and clapped her hands to her mouth, instant tears springing to her eyes.

The bastard had left the divorce papers for her – and as if that wasn't enough of a slap in the face – left a yellow sticky note with the words 'Welcome Home, Baby' printed in his recognizably neat handwriting attached to the first page.

"Uh, Veronica, are you okay?" Kai asked, leaving the suitcases at the door and hurrying to the woman's shoulder. He got a glimpse of the papers in her hand before she shoved them behind her back and turned to face him. His dark eyes were wide with shock and concern – Veronica dreaded to think about what he could possibly be seeing in hers.

"Thanks," she managed to whisper in a strangled voice. "For the suitcases. Maybe you... should go..." he didn't even flinch at the insensitive words, nodding in understanding and striding over to the door.

"You sure you're okay?"

She nodded silently, the tears that were streaming down her perfect cheeks betraying her as a bold-faced liar. "Take care of yourself, Veronica." His gaze was steady and worried. "See ya, Kayla." He shot one final, distressed glance and closed the door quietly behind him.

"Come here, honey," Veronica choked. Kayla pouted, her dark curls bouncing as she toddled over. Her mother took a seat on the couch and set her down on her lap, facing her so she could examine the child's face, trying to see the resemblance that Kai had spoken of.

It was there, she immediately realized with a sinking heart. She didn't have Veronica's eyes... she didn't have the same hair, or nose, or ears – but there was something in the general appearance of her face that reminded Veronica of the woman she saw in the mirror each morning.

And filled with self-loathing as the tears started up again, she silently asked God why he would curse such a beautiful little girl with such a horrible affliction.

xxx

"Are you scared?"

"Terrified," Mary replied breathily, staring blankly out at the ocean as the ferry approached slowly.

It was just after dawn, and she was standing with Jack a little way in front of her parents, Gray, Jill, and Ann. The weather was strange – it wasn't quite cold enough for a jacket, nor was it quite hot enough to go without one. There was no breeze either – everything was just very, very still, almost as if time had temporarily frozen.

Jack smiled gently, taking her hand in his and squeezing lightly. "You'll be okay. Just think of everything that you're going to see out there."

"I am," she assured him, flashing a quick smile in return. "I'm just... going to miss Mineral Town as well, you know?"

He studied her face briefly, exhaling. "I know." He reached out to lightly brush her hair back, but flinched as a powerful shove in the small of his back prompted him to smack her in the face – very lightly, but a smack nonetheless. She wrinkled her injured nose at him, rubbing it gingerly as Jack turned to glare at the culprit.

"You guys have a whole ferry trip to yourselves and then ages in the city!" Ann exclaimed impatiently. "Pay attention to us!"

"Quiet, you nuisance," he commanded, glancing fearfully at the skeptical expressions on Basil and Anna's faces and calling out to them as they approached quickly. "Accident!"

"Did you just punch my daughter in the nose?" Basil asked, sounding genuinely confused. Ann chuckled slightly, prompting another fierce glare from Jack.

"I swear, that doesn't happen often."

"Often?"

"I'm fine, Daddy," Mary laughed, screwing up her nose a few more times for good measure. Her words seemed to do little to alter the nervous expressions on her mother and father's faces, and she frowned. "Uh, honestly, it was an accident –"

"No, we know that honey," Anna said with a quick smile. "It's... it's not that." She glanced at her husband as her smile became sad. "I suppose it's just... n a few – well, minutes – you're going away to a strange place... and we don't know when we'll see you again. We love you so much, and we want you to be happy but... it's just hard."

"I know, Mom," Mary said softly, her eyes beginning to grow suspiciously bright. Basil put one arm around Anna before reaching out for Mary, and as she quickly ran into his hold, Jack took that for his cue to inconspicuosly walk away to where Gray and Jill were standing with Ann. He had to do an almost comical double-take when he realized, however...

"Ann... are you crying?"

"S-shut... up," she stuttered, frantically wiping her nose on her sleeve and blotting at her eyes. "I get really bad hay fever at this time of the year, a-and –" She blinked furiously, shaking her head. "Can I talk to you alone for a minute?" Gray and Jill exchanged alarmed glances behind her, while Jack raised a surprised eyebrow.

"Sure you can. But I have to tell you, if this is a confession of love... really bad timing, Ann."

"Don't be disgusting," she scoffed, prompting Jack to look a touch offended and pout slightly as he led her away to a slightly more private and distanced area of the beach, right next to the stairs leading to Rose Square. She glanced at the ground nervously, sniffing and wiping her nose again. "Okay, so I suck at this, and if you laugh, I'll mess you up."

"I probably won't laugh," Jack replied solemnly, painting on a straight face. "What's up?"

"I just –" she exhaled, closing her eyes tightly before blurting out a string of words. "I mean – we argue, all the time, you know? I mean, we argued about five minutes ago. But it's not... bad arguing. I mean, sometimes, I... like it. It helps if I've been stressing all day or if I'm about to have a nervous breakdown – I just think, hey, I can take it out on Jack, because I know you won't really get mad at me for it, and you'll... you'll make me feel better." She glanced at him briefly, her cheeks colouring. "I guess I'm just... going to miss that. I'm going to miss you, and it's only really registering now that I'm not going to see you or talk to you every day, and... I guess I don't know what I'm going to do without you."

His expression was a mixture of surprise and a peculiar sadness. "Ann –"

"No," she said quickly, holding one hand up, "Can you just... not? I mean, I just came down here to say goodbye, and now I'm realising that the only time I've ever had to say goodbye like this is with my Mom... and I don't even remember that."

"I'm not dying," he said gently, "I'm going to come back and visit –"

"When? In a year? For how long, a few days? A week if I'm lucky?" She bit her lip. "It's just not going to be the same here without you, that's all I'm saying. And I kind of hate that." She rolled her eyes, smirking slightly as she wiped further tears away. "God, I'm a sap."

"We can talk on the phone whenever you want," Jack insisted. "I can still drive you insane without being there physically, you know. Don't you underestimate me."

She snorted in a remarkably un-ladylike manner, shaking her head. "That's the thing. I love Jill and Gray, and Karen, and Popuri, and Elli... I love Cliff. And I kind of love you a little as well. Don't let that go to your head. But..." she shrugged in a failed attempt at non-chalance. "It's not like any of them can just replace you. You drive me so completely insane that there's nobody to replace you with here even if I wanted to. But... you'll be off meeting a whole bunch of red-haired chicks who can be your best friends over there, and in a month it'll be all, 'Ann? Annnnn. Sorry, nope, doesn't ring a bell. Hold on, wasn't she some waitress I knew once?' And I'll still be like 'Gee, I miss my best friend Jack.' It's kind of gonna suck."

He moved forward to grip her shoulders firmly. "In twenty-four years, I have never – maybe thankfully – come across anyone even remotely like you. Somehow, I don't think that's going to change in the next month, or year, or, uh, ever."

"You say that now," she grumbled sullenly, folding both arms over her chest.

"I mean it," he said sincerely, leveling her with a sweet smile. "Oh... and I love you too."

She made a peculiar choking noise at that as furious tears welled up again and she half-hugged, half-tackled him around the waist. "I'm going to leave in a few seconds," she mumbled as clearly as she could with her face pressed into his chest, "Because I don't want to watch you get on the ferry. So, I'm just – I'm just going to say that I love you, and I'll miss you, and you'd damn well better call me every day because if you don't I'll get on a ferry and drag your ass back home like I did with Cliff." She glanced back up and jumped on her toes to spontaneously kiss his cheek, missing and barely grazing his chin. He smirked, then bent down so he could kiss her cheek softly in return, prompting her to make another choked noise and mutter a muffled goodbye, before turning away from him and running up the stairs and out of sight as fast as her relatively small legs could carry her.

Puffing his cheeks out as he exhaled, Jack shook his head slightly to clear it. That one goodbye was more painful than he'd originally imagined – he was going to miss the idiot to absolute pieces, and it was making him nervous to realize that Ann wasn't the hardest goodbye he would have to make this morning. He blanched as he turned to notice the ferry a lot closer than it had been previously.

Very nervous.

He let his gaze fall on Jill for a split second and was instantly overcome with a feeling of intense sadness. Her facial expression and body language were completely and totally closed off, and had been for the past few days as the deadline of Jack's departure came closer and closer. Even Gray, standing with an arm wrapped tightly around her shoulders, wasn't seeming to connect to her at the moment. He quickly glanced to where Mary and her parents were crying – her mother, at least – and engrossed in a deep conversation, then exhaled again and started making his way back to Gray and Jill.

"You sure you've got everything you need?" Gray asked as he returned, trying to start up the conversation. "The farm still looks basically the same."

"Yeah," Jack nodded distractedly, "I think so. There's not much I really need to take with me... most of my stuff is still in the city anyway."

"Right," Gray replied quickly. There was a long silence before he let go of Jill and took a step back. "Well, I've just remembered the... thing, that I was meant to – with the – I'll be over there." He hurried away to stand by the pier, raising one hand to wave at Zack as the ferry pulled closer.

"So... how are you feeling?" Jack asked his sister, feeling oddly awkward about it. She shrugged, examining her fingernails as if they were infinitely more fascinating than her brother's permanent departure.

"Okay. You?"

"Jill," he begged, touching her lightly on the shoulder. "We can't do this now. If we... you know, detach ourselves, we're going to regret it."

"I'm not detached," she mumbled, none-too-convincing. "It's early and I'm exhausted. Besides, you're not leaving for –" she glanced up, and her face fell completely as she watched the ferry begin to dock. "About... ten minutes..."

"Please, Jill."

Her chest tightened instantly and she ducked her head to fight back the inevitable. "I honestly don't know what to say now. I've said everything I can. You know I hate this. I don't want you to go –" she rushed on as he tried to interrupt "And I know, that's selfish of me to say, and you miss it there, and you and Mary are going to go be in love and see Mom and Veronica every day, and that's all great, but..." she frowned, willing herself not to cry; not yet. "Weren't you happy here?"

"The happiest I've ever been," he answered, completely truthful. "I do love it here. I loved living with you, even when we were fighting and screaming bloody murder at each other or completely not speaking. And I loved waking up every day knowing that I would see my baby sister and I'd be able to protect her, and I hate that that won't happen anymore." His voice was quiet, and he shook his head slightly as he maintained steady eye contact with her. "Leaving you is the hardest part of this."

"The thing is, I miss you already," she said urgently. "I miss you and you're standing right in front of me – what the hell am I going to feel like when I haven't seen you for months?"

"But you'll have Gray –"

"And you'll have Mary, but like you said, you're going to miss me anyway." She searched his face briefly, hesitating. "I didn't have many friends growing up, Jack. You, Tom, and at times Veronica – that was it. And he's – Tom's gone now, and I have Gray and that's so much better for me... but you're the one that's always, always, always been there, since the day I was born. You made my favorite honey sandwiches for me, and fought bullies for me, and taught me how to ride a bike, and helped me with essays, and you'd play my girly computer games with me when I was little, because I didn't want to play the scary violent ones. You're the first person I told when I broke up with Tom and when I left home, and you were the first person to care enough to find me. And then you came here, and you've been looking after me ever since, and I just want to know how the hell I'm meant to deal without you!"

"But you've done it before, Jilly," he pleaded, using his childhood name for her and feeling altogether too emotional. "You were so brave to come here and you handled it so well by yourself until I followed. Maybe you weren't making a farming fortune, but you were surviving, and you know so much more now. You've watched me on the farm. You know how it works. You don't need to be scared about managing by yourself."

"I can't, Jack," she said, her voice strained.

"Listen to me," he insisted, placing both hands on her shoulders. "You are beautiful, and smart, and funny, and so, so strong. You've been through a hell of a lot more than any other girl I know your age – and you know what? You're alive. You dealt with it, you moved on. You know you can, and I get that you're scared – I get that you're terrified. I'm terrified of making such a big change too. But you're going to learn so much more about yourself when you don't constantly have your big brother standing over your shoulder, and you're going to learn to be as proud of the girl you are as I am, and you're going to love her as much as I do. Almost."

"God," Jill managed, sounding completely strangled, "Stop. I, I swore blind to myself that I wasn't... going to cry."

"Hey, I'm going to cry," he half-laughed. "Feel free to join me."

"Jack! Boarding you now, departure's in five minutes!" Zack yelled from across the beach. Jack paled, biting down hard on his bottom lip as he turned back to his sister.

"You don't understand how much I'm going to miss you," she murmured resignedly, impatiently wiping the first tear away from her cheek.

"I do," he replied, his tone humorous as he hugged her briefly. "Like, fifty percent less than the amount I'm going to miss you." He pulled away, giving her a weak smile as he nodded towards the ferry. "I have to go."

"Do you love me, Jack?"

His gaze fell on his little sister and he traced her face for a moment, committing it to memory. "More than anything in this world, Jill."

"Jack," Mary called, her face ghostly white as she watched Zack throw first her suitcase, then Jack's, on deck. "We have to go."

With Jill following behind, he walked over to where Gray, Anna, Basil and Mary were standing together on the pier. Gray kissed Mary lightly on the cheek and gave her a small smile that she returned, followed by Jill doing much the same. Gray then shook hands with Jack, and when Basil clasped Jack's hand, the older man's eyes were teary.

"Look after my little girl," Basil said simply, his voice quiet. Jack had to smile.

"I'll do my very best, sir – but I somehow think I'll end up needing her more than she needs me."

With nothing to say for once, Anna kissed her daughter's hair lightly, followed by the same for Jack, then took a step back to stand arm in arm with her husband, further back on the beach, where they would stay to watch the ferry depart. Gray followed shortly, tactfully standing back again to leave Jill as the last person standing with her brother after Mary had stepped on to the boat. He squeezed his sister's hand tightly, pulling her forward to press his lips firmly against her forehead, before closing his eyes and following his girlfriend on board.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked the dark-haired woman one last time, gently wiping a tear away from her soft cheek with his thumb. She gave him a wavering, yet brilliant smile.

"Yes," she whispered, gazing out at the vast ocean. "I'm sure."

The ship's foghorn sounded loudly, blaring out over the quiet of Mineral Town's morning – a sound that would barely be heard over the bustle and noise of the city when they arrived. And then they were moving slowly, the boat beginning to rock from side to side as the pair gradually left their loved ones behind.

"Jack!" a small voice called; he turned to see his sister running down the pier with her hand outstretched. He grabbed it tight and leaned down to kiss it once more, holding on until the very last, until a sudden rock of the boat and the distance between them forced them to truly let go. "I love you," she called, tears streaming down her face without apology now.

"I love you too," he replied, not even embarrassed to find tears of his own suddenly in full force. Mary was crying softly beside him; he wrapped his arms around her as he watched Mineral Town slowly fade away – first the people; Jill, Gray, Mary's parents – then the detail of the trees, the beach, the buildings – and then finally the island itself, disappearing until it was indistinguishable on the horizon from the hazy blue-green of the ocean. And finally, when he was certain that he could no longer see any of the place that had once been his home, he turned away from the past, taking Mary's hand as they looked towards the city and their future together.

xxx

She hadn't spoken for three hours.

Truth be told, it was beginning to frighten him a tad. They had literally been there in the same spot on the beach since the ferry left – well, she had – standing at the edge of the pier until the ferry was long gone from sight. He had walked up to join her after about ten minutes; at some point they had moved from a standing position to a sitting one, with her tucked between his legs, her back resting on his chest. Yet still, she was staring blankly out at the water as if expecting Jack to come home suddenly, and in all that time, she hadn't uttered a single word.

"We're going to get sunburned," was all he could think to mumble to break the silence. His words made Jill jolt, as if she had completely forgotten he was there, before her body relaxed and she settled back against him once more.

"I'm scared," she admitted quietly. Gray raised his eyebrows slightly.

"What are you scared of?"

Another silence followed, before she shrugged so slightly he barely noticed it. "I guess... going back to the house without Jack tonight. I know you said to him before he left that the house barely looks any different... but if feels different. He's not there anymore. He's not going to come in after working and trample mud all over the floors, or impulsively cook a hot breakfast in the morning, or watch any of those awful, boring farming documentaries on the television. It's going to look different, and smell different, and sound different, because he doesn't live there and he'll never live there again... and that scares me."

"Is there anything I can do?" Gray asked, feeling completely helpless. Jill tilted her head back so she was smiling at him almost upside down.

"I feel okay now... better, I mean. Just... can you stay with me for awhile? I don't want to be alone; not yet. If you could stay for a few nights – or as many as you're willing to... I just know that sleeping in the house alone is going to be the hardest."

"I'm there for as long as you'll have me," he said adamantly, kissing her blonde hair. "I don't want you to be alone either. And hey, staying with you beats alone in my room at the inn any day, now that Cliff and Ann are married. I mean, not that it didn't already," he rushed, "It's just that I... I get the lonely thing, too. And it's not like I enjoy company as much as you do in the first place. So, I'll stay for as long as you want me."

"I want you for as long as you'll stay," she replied quietly, a significance behind her words."

"Don't tempt me or I'll stay forever," he said gruffly, letting one of his hands trail down her arm to grasp her smaller hand. She squeezed it momentarily, her gaze back on the ocean.

"Why don't you?"

"Why don't I what?"

"Stay forever?" she pressed, more than entertaining the idea. "Move in with me, Gray. It's not like we haven't temporarily lived together before. And we're engaged, this kind of seems like the next logical step. You'd be closer to your work, and neither of us would be lonely."

A smirk flashed across his face as he watched her face intently. "You're actually serious."

"Why wouldn't I be?" she insisted. "Come on, you know we'd be amazing living together."

"I would love to," he said sincerely. "Honestly, I can't think of anything I would love better at the moment – but I think you should take more time to think about whether this is what you want, and make sure you're not just rushing into this because of Jack."

She looked slightly affronted as she shifted herself to face him completely. "Gray, I love you. I'm not just saying this because I don't want to go home to an empty house, and I don't want you to think for once second that I am." She shook her head. "I want you to move in with me because I want to spend the rest of my life with you. We're engaged, Gray, and as far as I know, that's pretty permanent. I want this, and if you want it too... why would we wait?"

He kissed her gently, cupping her face with his hands. "Of course I want it."

"You're not replacing Jack, either," she said softly. "You're two different people – and Jack's in my past, and he's going to be in my future – but you are my future. We're going to work out, I know that. We're meant for each other."

A rare, brilliant smile lit his face up and he wrapped his arms around her again, holding her tightly – and knowing now that he would never have to let her go.

xxx

"... I did it." The expression of total shock on Mary's face was priceless as she sat by Jack's side in a taxi speeding to his mother's house, staring at him. "I actually – I mean, I'm here."

"Yes you did and yes you are," he nodded with a grin, reaching out and squeezing her hand tightly. "How are you feeling?"

"I don't know," she replied, sounding slightly breathless as she stared out of the window next to her. "I don't know how to feel. I'm... overwhelmed. I mean, it's a good feeling... it's just... a big feeling. And your –" she exhaled slowly, closing her eyes for a moment. "Now I'm going to meet your mother."

"Don't be scared about Mom," he laughed, brushing one hand in the air casually. "She's only ever kicked about eleven girls out of the house and made me break up with eight or so. She's cool."

"Somehow, that doesn't make me feel better," she murmured, turning to stare at the city flashing past her window. "God, this is... unreal. It's like I'm dreaming or something – it's so different."

"I kind of get that too," Jack said, twisting his mouth slightly. "And I lived here for the vast majority of my life. It's a completely new world." He turned to her once more, smiling. "I must admit, you're taking all this a lot better than Ann did. She wouldn't even get in the taxi without a huge amount of force."

"I read a lot," she murmured absently, as if that was the explanation for everything. "How long will it take to get to your mother's house?" When she didn't receive a reply, she turned to see Jack in deep thought, his mouth slightly open. "... Jack?"

"... Mom doesn't know you're coming," he said slowly, twisting his mouth. "Awkward."

There was a long silence before Mary managed to choke out the single word, "What?"

"God, I can't believe I did that," he groaned, smacking his hand to his head. "I was so caught up in the last minute stuff, changing the bookings to account for two people, arranging the farm for Jill – I haven't even spoken to Mom since you agreed to come with me."

"B-but she's going to freak out!" Mary exclaimed worriedly. "She's going to think it's so… so rude of me to just, intrude, and she'll tell you that you have to get a more polite girlfriend who lets people know in advance when she's going to be living with them!"

"It's only for a few days, and like she'll care," Jack said, rolling his eyes. "You don't know Mom… when Veronica and I threw parties there'd be up to thirty or forty very drunken teenagers crashing at our house for the night. You're not going to be imposing or anything like that. I'm really sorry I didn't tell her, I am, but it's also really not a big deal. You'll be like… a surprise present. Like a kitten, or a potted plant."

"I don't want your mother to think I'm a potted plant!"

"Well, not literally. Ah," he smiled, clapping his hands once. "Home sweet home."

Startled by how suddenly they seemed to have arrived, Mary gave a barely audible whimper as she looked up.

And up.

And up.

"That's not a house," she murmured, shaking her head a few times in disbelief. "Jack, mansion is an understatement."

"It's not much, but it's home," he said, bowing his head humbly and receiving a smack for his efforts.

"This is… incredible," Mary blurted out, shaking her head again. "I've never seen anything like – you grew up here? You went from here, to that tiny little run down farm? God, no wonder you came back here… I just can't believe you stayed for so long when all of this was waiting for you."

"There was more than enough to stay there for, my dear," he said with a side-smile, getting out of the taxi and walking around to Mary's door, opening it and extending one hand to help her out before moving over to pay the driver. "Come on. Deep breaths."

"I'm not scared," she retorted defensively, her face ghost white. She silently walked with Jack up the huge staircase, carrying a small bag of her belongings timidly in front of her, and stood to the left and slightly behind him as he confidently rapped on the large door.

After a minute or two the door opened and there his mother stood, frighteningly perfect and intimidating in a mass of makeup, perfume, and immaculately styled blonde hair. She didn't look a day older than thirty five, though taking into account that Jack was twenty four… Mary's guessing was probably a tad off. Hopefully.

His mother blinked at Mary once, then turned to Jack, a questioning expression on her face. "Welcome home, darling. Uh…"

"Hi, Mom. This is Mary," he said simply, a look of pride about him as he gestured to the woman by his side. Linda paused, giving the dark haired girl a once-over, before her face broke into a bright smile.

"So, you're the girl who's managed to tame my son. I'm Linda Evans. I've heard a lot about you – and don't think I'm saying that to be polite. I'm rarely polite when I don't have to be."

"Case in point," Jack mumbled under his breath.

"It's lovely to meet you," Mary said shyly, her gaze fixed on Linda's. "You have a wonderful home."

"Well, you've only seen the outside," she said with a bright smile. "Come in, you two. I've missed my darling boy." Throwing her arms around Jack, she led them into a wide hallway and straight down into a bright, spacious kitchen. "I only made lunch for three; I didn't know you were bringing your friend. Luckily Veronica cancelled –"

"Veronica was going to be here?" Jack asked, frowning. "Is she… spending a lot of time here?"

"She'd been avoiding me," Linda said, rolling her eyes. "You know it took her until yesterday to tell me that she was finally out of that toxic marriage? She honestly thought I'd be disappointed in her, of all things. Idiot child."

"My mother... a flair for the mature insults," Jack laughed, standing up and stretching his legs. "Mares, I'm going to take our stuff up to my room if you want me to show you around –"

"Plenty of time for that later," Linda said, waving one hand. "You go. Let me get to know the girl."

"Alright… play nice," Jack said with a grin, nodding to his terrified girlfriend then heading out of the kitchen. Linda moved over to a fridge the size of a small country and pulled out a whole lettuce, before walking over to the sink and beginning to shred it with her hands.

"You – you must have missed Jack when he was away," Mary said quietly in an effort to start a conversation.

"Yes," was Linda's curt reply. "I did."

"O-oh. And, I guess with Jill still over there – I mean, it can't be easy having your children so far away. I know it was really hard for my parents to let me go."

"I suppose," the older woman said shortly, heading back to the fridge and selecting several tomatoes to bring to the bench.

"… Right," Mary nodded, folding her hands in her lap and glancing urgently towards the doorway, unsure of what exactly she'd done to offend this woman.

Taking up a large, sharp knife, Linda started cutting up tomatoes with a little too much dedication, before beginning to speak, still not making eye contact with Mary. "I'm sorry if I come across as stand-offish, because the truth is you seem to be a very genuine young woman. The thing is though – let's not beat around the bush – Jack's a rich man, and he's only going to get richer."

"Excuse me?" the dark-haired girl asked in disbelief, her eyes wide behind her glasses. "I'm not sure I understand you."

"He's very attractive too, but let's face it, it's a lot easier to find an attractive young man than someone with the money Jack has. I mean, girls your age marry eighty year old wealthy men all the time – that's how truly desperate some of you get."

"Are you… are you accusing me of being a gold digger?"

"Sweetheart, don't take it personally. I'm only going on past experience here, and Jack really does seem to like you an awful lot. You can't expect me to hand out my approval to every Sally or Jessica or Georgia that waltzes through here."

Mary had always considered herself a patient person, but at that, she stood up and folded her arms over her chest angrily. "I'll have you know that your son and I were together for months before I heard anything about this company. We never talked about money because we were kind of busy falling in love. And if you can't see how completely extraordinary your son is, and the only reason you can see for me being with him is money, then I'm not sure I want your approval!" A long silence followed, before…

"I like you," Linda said, nodding as if she were agreeing to a casual remark. "Good girl. Don't be one of those bimbos who lets yourself get walked all over." She smiled. "I do believe that your heart is in the right place. Just as a side note though, if you hurt my boy, my people will hunt you down. Okay?"

Looking dazed, the ex-librarian nodded slowly. "I'll keep that in mind."

"Good girl," Linda repeated with a beam, walking over to throw her arms around Mary. "Welcome to the family."

xxx

"Jill... are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm just kind of dizzy," she mumbled in a low voice, her head resting back on Gray's chest. They were both seated on the single bed in his room, his back against the headboard and Jill's small body positioned between his legs while his arms wrapped around her protectively.

"Just... let me know if it gets worse," he implored her, his left hand stroking the delicate engagement ring on hers. "I hate seeing you like this."

"Nothing's wrong," she laughed. "Come on, I haven't slept properly in awhile, that's all. I don't freak every time you have a headache."

"... Uh huh," Gray said slowly, his mind flashing back to the previous day when he'd accidentally lightly banged his elbow against the wall and Jill had spent about an hour begging him to go see the doctor about it.

"It's easier than I thought it would be, you know," she continued, staring at her hands. "Being here without Jack. I have you to thank for that. You've just... having you around, I don't get the chance to be lonely."

He tightened his arms around her for a moment. "Well, I'm not going anywhere."

With a soft smile, she turned to kiss his cheek lightly before staggering to her feet, a deep frown on her face. "Gray, I don't feel so g-"

The blacksmith let out a soft curse as he sprang to his feet, managing to support most of the woman's weight before she hit the ground. "God, are – Jill?"

She whispered something incoherent through half-lidded eyes as he scooped her up in his arms easily, hitting the door with one shoulder as he raced down to the clinic, trying not to jolt her. She had, for the most part, come to by the time they were actually standing in the clinic doors and she weakly struggled until Gray let her down to stand on her own feet with his support.

"What's the problem?" Tim asked, all business as Elli stood diligently behind him with a clipboard, her stomach beginning to noticeably protrude.

"She just... basically fainted at the inn. I mean, she wasn't unconscious but she – I mean, she's been feeling dizzy all day and –"

"Right," he said sharply, cutting Gray's ramblings short. "Jill, come with me and we'll do some quick tests – blood pressure, heart rate, maybe a blood test. It's most likely just a combination of the heat and stress." He led the blonde away and held up a hand as Gray moved to follow. "No need; there's no reason to panic. This should only take a few minutes. Have a seat."

A few minutes passed, then ten, then twenty, and by the time half an hour had gone by Gray was just about ready to storm into the doctor's office. Luckily, there was no need as Tim pulled the door opened and beckoned for Gray to join them. The blacksmith absently noted, as he took the seat beside Jill, that she looked just as – if not more – pale as when she'd come in.

"Well," Tim began, staring at the papers in front of him, "All good news. The fainting was just the result of low blood pressure and Jill standing up too suddenly – it's really very normal at this time, and combined with the hot weather –"

"Normal at what time? She doesn't usually just go around fainting, you know."

With a small smile, Tim inclined his head towards Jill who hadn't broken eye contact with the wall since Gray had sat down. After a long moment, she slowly turned to face her fiancé, her expression mixed between a tearful smile and an almost blank confusion.

"I'm pregnant."

xxx

Ohohoho. You knew I couldn't finish this baby (Eh? Eh?) without one last twist. Possibly too much information, but in my mind, the, uh... conceiving happened on the night Jill ran to Gray and they made up over the Veronica lie and he proposed, which, if you take Harvest Moon seasons into account, would make Jill about three months pregnant.

Thank you again, all of you. To the people who have reviewed without fail, you're wonderful. To the people who have been reading all along and haven't reviewed, now's probably the time to do it ;) but thanks to all of you as well, for giving Starting Over a chance.

See you in the epilogue!