Disclaimer: Anything you recognise from Blue Heelers remains property of Southern Star and Channel Seven. However, after having already written twenty episodes set in the True Heelers universe, I'm sure I own bits and pieces of it by now.

Summary: It has been over two months since the events of "Confidence Man" and life is going on for the officers of Mt. Thomas.

Episode 21: "Illusion Of Life"

Summary: In the season two return, the Heelers are placed in the firing line when Piper's past catches up with her. A new officer arrives in Mt. Thomas with a startling connection to his new colleagues, while Mark contemplates his future and what is really important to him.

Amy buried her face in her hands momentarily as she tried her utmost to calm her racing heart while her mind whirled about, barely able to focus on one thought for any longer than a few seconds, save for why she was there. It had been over two months since her miscarriage and life for the police officers of Mt. Thomas had returned to some semblance of normal. Or, as normal as it could be when they were still overworked and understaffed. Headquarters hadn't sent the replacements that they had been promised time and time again and they were beginning to wonder if they'd ever get their officers.

As Amy sat back on the hospital bed, the springs of the lumpy budget mattress stuck into the small of her back uncomfortably. But she didn't think about that. No, her mind had abandoned that train of thought almost as quickly as it had picked it up as she raised her head and went back to staring at the white door with its small glass pane. Zoe would be back soon, surely. She'd be back and then it'd all be clear. And, as Amy thought over just why she was there, she found herself wondering just what it was she felt. Relief? Grief? Shame? All of them? None of them? She couldn't make any sense of the strange feeling that tugged at her heart and mind, keeping her from any logical train of thought.

Finally, a set of light, high-heeled footsteps echoed down the corridor towards the room where Amy sat, her hands clasped together in her lap. She knew it was Zoe long before the older woman's kind face appeared in the glass pane, framed by tight dark ringlets. Zoe crossed the room to her, her expression melancholy and her eyes almost brimming with tears. Only Zoe's deep-rooted professionalism kept her from displaying just how personally involved she truly was. She set her familiar wooden clipboard aside as she approached Amy, placing a sympathetic hand on her shoulder as she moved.

A shiver went through Amy's spine. Zoe didn't even need to say it.

"I'm sorry," Zoe told her in a tiny whisper that made the strange feeling that swelled within her became more intense by the second. No, she told herself as her heart began to beat a little more urgently in her chest. Zoe didn't need to say it.

She kept her head down as she returned to the station, hoping that her immaculately done hair would be enough of a curtain to keep her colleagues from prying. Or, even worse, PJ. She could fob Mark, Dash and even Nick off with some half-hearted excuse, but not PJ. Almost twenty-five years in the job had made him a body language expert and she liked to think that his innate knowledge of her ran even deeper than that. She could never even attempt to put this past him. She needed something to distract her, to get her mind off what Zoe had said and back onto something more natural and comforting.

As she entered the CI office, PJ was sitting behind his desk, looking rather frazzled as he sorted through piles of paperwork that almost hid his face from view. His head snapped up at her entrance, a warm and relieved grin spreading across his weary face. Amy tossed her hair back from her face, trying her hardest to return PJ's gesture. She could tell by the way PJ's brow furrowed that he noticed her distraction. He was suddenly on his feet and had her in his arms before Amy even realised. She welcomed his embrace, wrapping her arms around his waist and burying her face in the crook of his shoulder. "You sure you're alright?" he queried, closing his eyes momentarily as he ran the palms of his hands along her back, enjoying the feeling of her so close to his heart. "Last time you said you had the flu…"

Amy pulled away, a nervous, teary laugh escaping her lips as she looked up to PJ with shining eyes. The uncomfortable feeling that her hospital visit had brought on had all but vanished, replaced by the extraordinary security of PJ's strong and loving grasp. She wanted to tell him, but something held her back. She couldn't shatter him again. Not when he was walking again after the wheelchair. He'd put so much effort into walking and now that he was back on his feet, he could barely keep still. He had enough of his own burdens, who was she to give him anymore?

"I'm okay," she reassured him, reaching up to caress his cheek, tracing his cheekbone with her thumb. Her touch seemed to soothe him, adding weight to her words. Words which he, quite understandably, was cautious about trusting. She pulled away, patting his arm as her voice attained a certain quality that told PJ that the topic was well and truly closed for the time being. "Have Headquarters gotten off their backsides and sent us some replacements yet?" she queried as she headed over to his desk, picking up a folder as she began to skim over its contents.

PJ frowned before nodding slowly as he took the folder from Amy's hands. "Yeah," he replied with a vague gesture of his hand towards Mark's office. Amy let her gaze drift over to it briefly, focusing on Mark's hunched shoulders worriedly, before returning to PJ. "Someone rang Mark while you were at the hospital. Apparently numbers are a bit down this year, so we're only getting one Constable."

She froze, staring at him with a perplexed frown etched into her features. Indignation rose within her at the thought of Mt. Thomas being passed over by the powers that be, yet again. They had a crime rate to rival Melbourne and were so notorious as to be police folklore, yet were perpetually understaffed. A more naïve part of her mind questioned this, unable to comprehend why or how, but logic overpowered it. She knew as well as anyone else how police politics worked. Just because Mt. Thomas had the crime rate, didn't mean that they'd get the resources. It was as simple as that.

"Do you know who they're sending?" she asked, her eyes narrowed and her brow creased.

He nodded, setting the folder aside and reaching out to wrap his arms snugly around Amy's waist, pulling her close to his body. She stared up at him in bewilderment for a brief moment, before a content grin crept across her lips. Since the miscarriage, they'd been so wrapped up in one another that the rest of the world had almost become irrelevant. If only they weren't so understaffed…

"Yeah," he explained, raising a hand from her waist to play with the soft, silky strands of her fringe. Her hair was soft and set off the emerald green of her eyes so stunningly that it almost startled him. Everything about her seemed so beautiful and exquisite that he almost had to pinch himself just to believe that a second of it was real. "Some Probationary Constable fresh out of the academy. A mate of mine in Melbourne reckons that we're getting some Superintendent's kid. Wouldn't give me a name, though."

Amy laughed, looking away as she shook her head in disbelief. She hadn't been in contact with a Probationary Constable in so long that she had almost forgotten what it could be like to have one around. Kelly and Joss had left those days behind during her time in Melbourne and Homicide hadn't exactly given her much uniformed contact. It could be nice to have someone new around. Someone to remind them all of what it was they were fighting for.

Nick sat back at his desk, fingers intertwined behind his head as he stared at the computer screen in frustration. He hated technology. Computers had stopped agreeing with him a long time ago, by which point he'd risen high enough in the ranks to have enough people to do the work for him. But here in Mt. Thomas, there weren't enough uniforms beneath him, especially now Kelly and Joss were gone. So he was stuck doing his own paperwork.

At the desk across from his, Dash was working at her own computer, looking thoroughly bored. Although Nick would never tell her, he was glad to have her around. She could be a pain when she wanted to be, but at least they understood one another. And there was a strange kind of respect between them. Sure they'd tease each other, but it was never serious. Just some light-hearted fun. It was almost like old times.

He was disturbed from his lazy reflection by the sound of the buzzer from the reception area. He very nearly leapt out of his chair in surprise. He could now see just why people like Ben and Jonesy had hated that buzzer so much. Turning his gaze towards Dash again, he could see that she was regarding the figure on the monitor with curiosity.

Nick frowned thoughtfully as he too studied the image on-screen. It was a young man, probably only in his early twenties, wearing a police uniform. Neat brown hair was brushed down around his face, with a soft fringe falling over his forehead. He looked a little on the short side, but still fairly sturdy. But even so, he looked slightly uncomfortable in that police uniform. Definitely only a new kid.

He turned back to Dash, raising an eyebrow as they shared a mutual smile. There was something oddly heartening about a Probationary Constable.

"I'll grab it!" Dash explained, waving a hand towards Nick vaguely. As she disappeared into the reception area, almost bouncing with enthusiasm as she walked, Mark stepped out from his office. His eyes were lit with a vague curiosity from behind his reading glasses, asking Nick silently for an explanation.

Nick nodded towards the door Dash had just went through as he sat forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his desk as he turned back to his computer. It was still not agreeing with him, it seemed. "It's our new kid," he told Mark simply and no more needed to be said.

Mark nodded, folding his arms across his chest as a distant smile crept across his face. He fondly remembered Kelly and Joss as Probationary Constables. They had brought such vitality into the station that he hadn't seen before or since. He was hoping that this new officer could help breathe a little life into the team.

As Dash opened the door to the reception room, she found a broad cheerful smile creeping across her lips. The young man before her seemed quite different in person than he had on camera, with a beaming grin that instantly put her at ease. He was barely taller than her, but he was sturdy and calm. He was only young, perhaps scarcely older than she had been when she'd first joined the force, but there was something in his pale olive eyes that could have easily convinced Dash that he was much older. A kind of wisdom and maturity that almost startled her. But, overall, he made her feel comfortable and his extended hand confirmed it for her. "I'm Probationary Constable Barnett," he explained as Dash took his hand.

She could help a tiny chuckle as she finally pulled her hand away. He was strong for someone of his size and age. "I'm Senior Constable Dash McKinley," she introduced herself, gesturing vaguely to the badge on her chest.

He nodded, his eyes narrowed in bewilderment. "Dash is a strange name," he observed, before turning a violent shade of red. He averted his gaze, mumbling an embarrassed apology under his breath. He was nervous, Dash could tell. He was uncomfortable and gave her the impression of a kangaroo caught in the headlights.

Hoping to put him at ease, she waved her hand dismissively. "Yeah," she told him with a light laugh that almost seemed to echo around the reception area, "it is a bit unusual, isn't it? It's not my real name. My real name's Deidre, but no one uses it unless they want to be in great pain." He looked up to her with a start, only for his face to flush with relief at the sight of her winking playfully. "Anyway," Dash continued, lifting the swing-top counter for him to come through. "You've got to have a first name, Probationary Constable Barnett. You can tell me, it can't be any worse than mine."

"You'd be surprised," he told her with a weak chuckle, before finally sighing resignedly. "It's Ringo."

Dash's jaw almost dropped open in disbelief. "Ringo?" she queried with a broad smile. "As in Starr? As in The Beatles' Ringo Starr?"

Ringo nodded sadly, running shaky fingers of one hand through his hair while he adjusted his black backpack with the other. "Yeah," he replied dismally. "My Mum had an obsession with The Beatles. Four kids all named after them. Johnny, Georgia, Paul and me."

Dash had to fight the urge to laugh. She'd often wondered about why her parents would have come up with Deidre, even after nine children. Suddenly, she just felt very glad that they hadn't had decided on the same path that Ringo's parents had. "That must be hard," she told him, earning a puzzled stare in response. "I mean, being the one named Ringo."

"You don't know the half of it," he commented as he turned towards the door leading back into the muster room. "So, am I going to get to meet anyone else…Dash?" He shot her a playful smile, which brought Dash to laughter.

She got the feeling that they were going to get along just fine.

Ringo's eyes widened as he cast his gaze around the muster room, his mind frozen in awe. He'd seen police stations before, but this one seemed very different. His father's station had always had a cold, antiseptic feel to it that had always made him feel strangely unwelcome. He'd expected the Mt. Thomas station to be more or less the same, even after the warm reception he'd received from Dash. But Mt. Thomas was different. There was a homely feel to the muster room and the four officers who looked up to stare at him as he entered. The station felt more like his home than his home had ever been.

The eldest of the group stepped forward, whisking his glasses from his nose in one swift movement as he offered Ringo his hand. Ringo took it, offering the taller Senior Sergeant a respectful smile. "I'm Senior Sergeant Mark Jacobs," Mark explained as he pumped Ringo's hand a couple of times before stepping back. "There's supposed to be a tradition of calling the man in charge 'Boss', but that died with the last Senior Sergeant. Just call me Mark. Everyone else does."

Ringo opened his mouth to argue, but found that nothing came out. He didn't like the idea of calling his superiors by their first names. He could handle Dash, but he wasn't so sure if he'd be able to manage Mark. The thought of what his father would say was almost physically painful. "I'm Probationary Constable Ringo Barnett…" He paused, certain that he'd heard a chuckle from the direction of the tallest officer. He sighed, before finally shrugging. Mark quickly reassured him with a friendly smile.

"Welcome to the team, Ringo," he told him, clapping him on the back before turning to the other officers. "Dash, you've met. Ah…there's Senior Detectives Amy Fox and PJ Hasham," Mark motioned over towards the plain clothes officers, who both stepped forward obliging to shake Ringo's hand. They seemed nice enough, Ringo decided. Even though PJ seemed to be studying him a little too intently. "…and your Sergeant, Nick Schultz."

Nick rose to his feet at the mention of his name, staring down at Ringo coolly as he shook his hand. He was much taller than Ringo, and the height difference unnerved him somewhat. Everyone except Dash was taller than him, but Mark, Amy and PJ didn't seem to tower like Nick did. If it wasn't for the uniform, Ringo wasn't quite sure if he'd have picked Nick as a copper or a criminal.

As if sensing Ringo's uneasiness, Dash leapt forward, patting Nick's shoulder playfully. "Don't worry about Nicholas here, Ringo," she reassured him with a laugh. "Nick's bark is worse than his bite. You're just a big softy, aren't you Nicko?"

Ringo watched in curiosity as Nick glared at Dash momentarily, before a smile spread across his face. "Deidre might just be right, Starry," Nick mumbled, pulling away from the younger woman's grip. "But she's not right about everything, despite what she might think."

Dash stared at him in mock indignation, barely restraining laughter. "You're just begging for me to kill you, aren't you?" she asked him, dragging Nick off to the mess room as their bickering continued. From behind him, Ringo could hear chuckling from his new colleagues.

"Welcome to Mt. Thomas," Amy told him with a knowing grin. It was a grin that instantly told Ringo that, no matter how insane his colleagues might appear sometimes, he was going to like this town.

But out of the corner of his eye, he could see that PJ was still studying him. The name PJ Hasham was familiar, he was certain. But he just couldn't remember why.

Amy followed PJ back into the CI office, a broad and content grin upon her lips. Ringo Barnett's arrival had pushed her appointment with Zoe to the back of her mind, where she was quite content to let it stay until she was ready enough to deal with it. She wasn't entirely sure when that would be, but she was just grateful for the distraction.

Ringo seemed like a nice enough guy. A little overwhelmed by his new colleagues and first posting, perhaps, but he seemed friendly and almost wise beyond his years. The moment she'd laid eyes upon him, she'd known that he'd make a good officer. Just as long as he got the right training.

PJ flopped down behind his desk, chin resting in his hand as he stared at the CI laptop imploringly. It was almost as though he had drifted away to another place and time and it made Amy curious. She pulled her chair over and reached out to squeeze his hand within hers. "Do you know him?" she queried, earning a puzzled look from PJ.


"Ringo Barnett," she explained, squeezing his hand tighter in the hope that it would make her words sink in. "You seemed a little distant. Do you know him?"

He frowned distractedly as he considered Amy's words, before shaking his head slowly and deliberately. "No," he replied softly, his brow furrowing in deep thought. "His father was an instructor at the academy when I was there, but I've never laid eyes upon the kid before."

"Then why were you staring at him like that?" Amy asked him, narrowing her eyes in bewilderment. PJ's behaviour and comments had become almost cryptic and she wished more than anything else that he would just go back to his usual straight-forward and direct self. She had wanted a distraction, not some puzzle involving PJ and the new Probationary Constable.

PJ sighed, before shaking his head bleakly. "I don't really know," he confessed quietly. "I just…his face…the way he moves, the way he talks…there's something familiar there. It's like…I've met him before but…but that's impossible. He wouldn't have even been born when I met his father." His frown grew more intense as PJ's confusion deepened. "There's just something about him, Amy. Just…something I recognise."

Amy sighed; resting her chin in her hand as she considered PJ with a sad sympathy. She could tell how badly this was troubling him and how desperately he wanted to know why he felt so drawn to this new officer. "Maybe you should talk to him," she suggested with a thoughtful shrug. "Maybe he'll have some idea."

He nodded, meeting her eyes lovingly. Yet, beneath all the love and adoration his eyes offered her, there was preoccupation and distraction. "Yeah," he agreed as he lent over to kiss her lips tenderly. He treasured every second of their lips connecting, until eventually he broke away. "Maybe he'll know. Maybe I should…" PJ trailed off as he cast he gaze across the photographs on his desk, only to freeze in horror as he fixated on one in particular. Amy frowned in concern as she followed his gaze to an image of Maggie Doyle. The frame looked battered and almost partly melted, but the image was beautiful and clear, as though newer than it was.

PJ picked it up, not once tearing his gaze from the image of Maggie's face. Amy felt something burning within her. She was certain it wasn't jealousy. It was more like frustration. He was so focused on this photo that he wasn't telling her what was going on. She finally placed a tender hand upon his shoulder, which seemed to startle him back to earth. "He's like Maggie," he whispered, handing the photograph to Amy. Amy took it in confusion, staring up at PJ with narrowed eyes. "Everything I thought about Ringo that was familiar…it's because I recognised it in Maggie…and Pat too."

Amy stared down at the photograph, frowning as she looked over Maggie's face. She wasn't quite sure that she could see anything of Ringo in the youthful pale face looking lifelessly back up at her or the beautiful blonde hair that almost seemed to bounce around Maggie's face. But as she began to think of Pat, she found herself wondering if maybe PJ was correct. If Pat had been a good forty years younger, he and Ringo would physically have been not too dissimilar. And, the more she thought about it, the more she found herself realising that Ringo and Maggie did have similar cheekbones and similar smiles.

"You could be right," she admitted as she offered PJ the photograph, "but what's the connection? It could just be coincidence…" She paused, suddenly realising that she didn't quite believe that. Sure, coincidences did happen, but not quite like this. No…this was more than just coincidence and she knew it.

A new life seemed to suddenly rush into PJ as he turned to the laptop and began typing hurriedly. Amy's eyes widened in surprise. "I'm going to find out," PJ told her. "Whatever Ringo Barnett's connection to the Doyles is, I'm going to find out."

Ringo frowned as he stared at his locker, feeling a little disheartened by just how empty it was. He was neat and tidy by nature and had never really been one for accumulating junk. With only a jacket and spare uniform inside, his locker looked almost tragically empty. He imagined that his desk would be the same. All his new colleagues had desks cluttered with photographs, files and little bits and pieces and even Amy's desk looked relatively cluttered. As he closed his locker silently, he heard a loud knock at the closed mess room door.

Barely seconds later, it opened to reveal PJ standing in the doorway, holding what appeared to be a small photo frame in his hands. The older detective invited himself inside, offering Ringo a kind of preoccupied half-smile. "How's your first day going?" he queried, trying to make conversation.

"Fine, Senior Detective Hasham," Ringo replied, standing up a little straighter in the presence of a superior officer. His father had often told him that detectives moved in a different circle to uniforms, but you had to treat them with respect all the same. Even if they didn't return it.

PJ chuckled lightly as he waved off Ringo's formalities. "Mate, you're not at the academy now," he explained. "PJ's fine. The only person who has ever called me anything more formal than that was my mother. Out here in the sticks, you don't have to worry about the formal stuff."

Ringo nodded sharply and had been about to reply with 'yes, sir', before quickly remembering PJ's words. He relaxed slightly. "Sure, PJ."

"That's more like it," PJ commented with a grin, before his expression grew more sombre. He perched himself on the edge of the mess room table, before looking down to the photograph in his hands. He didn't love Maggie in the way he had once done and the passion he had for Amy couldn't be matched, but he felt like he owed it to Maggie to find out about Ringo all the same. The more time he spent in Ringo's company, the more certain of that he became. "How's your father going? I haven't seen him since I was at the academy."

"Fine," Ringo answered shortly, his cheerfulness vanishing. He didn't like conversation about his father, the man who had only ever talked about the police and made him work five times harder than anyone else to impress him. And talking about his father only ever made him wish that his mother hadn't died when she had. "Can we…talk about something else?"

PJ nodded as he folded his arms across his chest, a little confused by Ringo's reluctance to talk about his father. But he decided not to pry. He'd worry about the Doyle connection before he messed around in anything other aspect of Ringo's life. "Sure, mate," he replied. He paused for a long moment, before finally daring himself to meet Ringo's wise eyes. "You ever heard of a man called Pat Doyle?"

The look of horror that passed through Ringo's face was unmistakable. PJ almost recoiled from it. Pat's name had brought on such a visible reaction that it scared PJ. Ringo finally nodded slowly. "My dad talked about him," he mumbled, all of his confidence and enthusiasm ebbing away. PJ stomach began to tie itself into knots in his abdomen. Why on earth would Pat's name reduce Ringo to this? Something was desperately wrong. "He was a criminal, a corrupt copper. He destroyed his family." Ringo's words cut PJ deeply, making him want to be very ill. But he noticed that there was a dullness to Ringo's voice, almost as though he didn't really believe what he was saying. "Why do you ask?"

"It's just…you just reminded me of him, that's all," PJ replied, shrugging thoughtfully. His words made Ringo look disgusted, as though the thought of being compared to Pat Doyle was simply abhorrent. "He's not as bad as you seem to think he is," PJ continued quickly, his heart beginning to pound urgently in his chest. "He's a good man and he didn't destroy his family. And he wasn't really as corrupt as you think." PJ waited, wondering if Ringo would comment, but instead he just stared at him blankly. "I've known Pat for a very long time. Your father's got him completely wrong."

Ringo frowned at PJ's words, something stirring within him. It was an old suspicion, one that had been telling him for about as long as he could remember that the Doyles weren't as bad as he'd been told. Johnny, Georgia and Paul had simply accepted the version of the Doyles that their father had told them, but Ringo couldn't. But how was PJ related and why was his name familiar? "How do you know him?"

"Pat Doyle was almost my father-in-law," PJ explained, unfolding his arms as he looked at the photograph thoughtfully. For a moment, he was hesitant about giving one of his only remaining pictures of Maggie to Ringo, but he quickly dismissed it. It felt right. Ringo took it, his eyes widening. "That's Maggie, Pat's youngest. She was an officer here for six years. Six wonderful, short years. I loved her. We were going to get married. But she got messed up in something that she shouldn't have and was killed."

Ringo's mouth suddenly dropped open as memories surfaced. PJ Hasham…of course! Hadn't his father mentioned him, once or twice, in connection to Pat Doyle? It was all coming back…PJ had been Pat's daughter's fiancée…the daughter that had been killed by her own brother, who had been killed by Pat in return.

"Why did your father tell you all that?" PJ asked, his voice a little indignant.

The Probationary Constable stared at PJ in uncertainty for a long moment, before finally flopping back against the lockers and beginning to speak. "My mother was Pat Doyle's little sister."

Mark passed a hand across his weary eyes as he crossed the muster room, returning to his office from the lost property cage. With Ringo still settling in and Nick and Dash now preoccupied with the Widgeree pub robbers search, there was no one left to sort out the mess it had become. So he'd done it himself. It was an act that he knew was beneath his rank and he was certain that Tom Croydon probably would have reminded him that it was something Nick should have sorted out, but he didn't care. Besides, it kept his mind busy, especially with Penny acting the way she was.

She was having an affair, that was for certain. He'd suspected it for over a year, but he'd never been able to prove it…or, not until he'd come home late to find another man's wallet on the table. He'd left it there, not wanting to start an argument and he was sure that Penny didn't know that he'd seen it, but it had made him feel sick. He'd pushed her into the arms of another man and, if it wasn't for their daughter at uni in Melbourne, he was sure that they'd be divorced by now.

He'd left the house as soon as he could without arousing Freya's suspicions. But Freya was smart; she'd probably worked it out for herself. He had to admit, anyone could have worked it out after the toxic silence that had hung over the table at breakfast. Mark couldn't even look Penny in the eye for fear of bursting into tears or throwing up or both at the same time.

And then there was Piper. He could have tolerated Penny's affair if only Piper would return his calls. But everyday he rang her office in St. Davids and everyday was told she wasn't in by some lowly uniform. That one kiss still tingled on his lips, comforting him and reassuring him that the thirty-five years without her wouldn't matter now she was here again. But the memory of the kiss was slowly fading after so many months and it pained him to realise that she was only in St. Davids, but as unreachable as if she was on the other side of the world.

He was so preoccupied with his own painful thoughts that he didn't notice the slumped, frightened figure in the chair opposite his desk until it spoke. "Mark?"

Piper's voice hit him with all the force of a speeding car, yet it sounded strange and unfamiliar. Mark's eyes widened in surprise at the sight of her, but it quickly turned to horror. She was wearing a hastily thrown-on tracksuit and her hair wasn't done, leaving little curls to fall down around her face. What was perhaps most worrying of all were her eyes. They were tear filled and red and betrayed all the fear and shame that Mark had never thought her capable of. Not the Piper Morris who had shown up every man at the academy.

"Piper," he whispered, crossing the office to her slowly, barely remembering to close the door behind him. Not that anyone was going to eavesdrop, anyway. He found that his voice barely came to him now that he was faced with the woman he had only seen in dreams since September. "What…what the hell happened to you?"

She stared up at him, not really registering his words. She just wanted to stay here forever, listening to the beautiful sound of his voice. She treasured every syllable of it, letting it remind her of what had undoubtedly been a simpler time. She missed those long academy days of lying together in bed, their fingers intertwined and warm sunsets dragging on for hours. She missed the tender kisses, the caresses from a man who didn't see her scars, her hurt, her shame. Just a man who loved her. And she'd thrown it all away not once, but twice. "I'm scared," she finally explained, her voice almost breaking into sobs. "There's a…there's a price on my head."

Mark's jaw dropped open in horror. He didn't need to ask Piper what she'd meant by a price on her head. Someone wanted her dead and there was a reward going for the person who killed her. In his shock, his mind only numbly considered the rumours about her that had circulated over thirty-five years ago. "Why?" he demanded in a voice scarcely louder than a whisper. "Why would they want you dead?"

"You're a smart man, Mark," Piper told him, shaking her head in disbelief. She had expected him to remember as soon as she told him. "You know why."

"The rumours?" he mumbled, shrugging weakly as he blindly felt his way around to his chair and pulled it close to Piper. He couldn't bear to tear his gaze away from her for even a second. "But…but that was such a long time ago…and they were just…"

Piper shook her head slowly. She reached out, closing her hand around his. Her touch seemed to light something in his eyes, something she'd almost forgotten existed. The passion and the life she had loved about him. The arty, intelligent suburbs boy who'd joined the coppers to please his veteran father. "They weren't rumours, Mark," she told him pointedly. "Warren Kane had an empire. I was one of his call girls, his favourite call girl supposedly. I thought it would be an easy life, until I found out the hard way. He wouldn't let me go, I knew he'd never let me go. So I reported him to the coppers and their idea of a reward was to keep my record clean."

Mark shook his head; he wasn't going to listen to this. He'd heard these rumours at the academy and he hadn't believed a word of it then and he wasn't going to believe a word of it now, not even when it was coming out of Piper's mouth. "No," he told her firmly. "Don't say that…"

"Please…" Piper whispered imploringly, squeezing his hand so tightly that Mark was convinced that she'd cut the circulation off. "I'm not lying. I wouldn't lie to you now, not when they've found me again, not when they're going to kill me…"

He frowned, his mind whirring at high speed. He could remember everything now, every little detail of the rumours. But clearer than that were the memories of what Piper had told her about her past, her family. They'd spent endless days talking about their families, about how they had both joined the coppers to live up to expectations, about how they'd both get to the top and show everyone what they could do. "What about everything you told me?" he asked, his voice close to wobbling and breaking. "What about your war veteran father and grandfather, what about your nurse mother and teacher older sister? How do they fit into this call girl story?"

"They don't!" Piper cried, tiny tears breaking free of her eyes and sliding down her cheeks. "They're not real! They never have been and never will be! I made them up!"


"Because the real story makes me sick to think about, let alone anyone else!" Piper snapped, glaring at him hard. Mark was a nice, affable kind of man who was quite intelligent, in his own way. Surely he couldn't be this stupid. She decided to put it down to denial. He'd kept her on a pedestal for so long and now she was coming down and proving herself to be more flawed than he ever could have known. "My mother died when I was six. The next night, my father came to my bedroom and told me how much I looked like her. Then he raped me." Piper paused as she heard Mark make a weak kind of choking sound. "He didn't just do it once; he did it night after night until I was seventeen years old. Then I walked out. I went to school that morning and never went home. I fell in with Warren's crowd."

Mark looked away momentarily, desperately willing himself to not show the anger he felt deep inside. It wasn't anger with Piper or the lies she'd told him, but rather with the circumstances that had brought Piper to Warren Kane. "You should have told me…" he began, only to find himself interrupted.

"Why?" she asked him, no longer yelling. Instead, her voice had dropped back to a soft whisper, one which was closer to the Piper he remembered. "What good would it have done? I didn't realise then that I had a price on my head. I've only just worked it out. They've been tracking me for years and now they've found me, they're going to kill me. I'd thought it was over, Mark. But…but then the rumours started and I guess that was only the beginning."

Sudden realisation spread across Mark's face. "That's why you broke up with me?" he queried, eyes wide. "You knew I'd heard the rumours and thought I'd be disgusted?"

She stared at him coolly. "Well, weren't you?"

"No," he replied, looking to her hand around his. The sight brought a trace of a smile to his pale lips and gave him heart. Whatever else had happened and whatever else was going on, she was here with him, holding his hand. "No. You didn't need to break up with me, Piper. I loved you then and I love you now, no matter what else happened." He reached out, gently cradling her chin in the palm on his hand. "I'll always love you. You're the one I should have married."

Piper wished more than anything else that the tears on her cheeks would just stop. But she couldn't. Mark was saying everything to her that she'd ever dreamed of hearing him say. "I wish I was the one you married," she whispered in reply.

Amy bundled the pile of paperwork on PJ's desk up into her arms and headed off towards one of the shelves against the wall with a heavy heart. It had been easy to forget about Zoe's words when she had people around her to keep her distracted. But with PJ having a deep and meaningful with Ringo in the mess room and Mark preoccupied with a rather shaky looking Piper in his office, she was on her own.

She still didn't know how she felt about her diagnosis, if she was to be totally honest with herself. But, somewhere deep inside her, she was certain that she'd chosen the right thing. It just remained to be seen whether or not PJ felt the same way. Telling him was going to be the hardest thing. He had enough on his plate without more of her problems.

She dumped the pile on the shelf before turning back to the last few remaining. Without anything else to do, she'd turned to cleaning up. It seemed that, in times of uncertainty, her first instinct was still to clean.

Without warning, the door to the CI office opened. The sound startled Amy so much that the files slipped from her arms, falling to the floor with a dull thud. She let a groan of frustration escape her lips as she crouched down, forgetting to even check who had entered. She soon realised as Mark began to help her tidy up.

"Sorry," she told him with a weak smile as he handed her the few sheets of paper he had managed to grab. He eyed her worriedly.

"Are you okay?" he asked her as he watched her dump the now unordered and crumpled files back on PJ's desk. "You look like you could do with a scotch or a good coffee at least."

She turned to him, laughing wearily at his comment. "Whatever happened to caffeine being bad for you?"

Mark frowned at her in bewilderment, before suddenly remembering the early morning several years before when he had sold Amy chocolate on the grounds that chocolate caffeine was better than coffee caffeine. The fact that she even remembered that brought a weak laugh to his lips, before Piper's revelation hit him. "Piper Morris is in danger, Amy," he told her in a voice that Amy barely even heard, "and I need your help."

Amy's eyes narrowed in confusion as she watched Mark pull a mobile phone from his pocket. It was a fairly old model, much bigger than any phone she had seen in the last five years or more. An old Nokia, she realised as he played with the keys for several seconds before offering it over to her. Her brow furrowed as she took it from him and began to read what was on-screen. It was a text message. "You might still be breathing," she read, her voice soft and thoughtful, "but it's just an illusion of life. You're the walking dead. You've been living on borrowed time and I'm coming to collect…Warren." She stopped when she reached the name at the end of the message and looked up to Mark in confusion. "Who's Warren?"

Mark sighed resignedly as he took the phone from Amy and gestured for her to follow him back to his office. "Someone you should be glad you don't know," he told her simply, effectively ending the conversation.

Amy followed Mark out of his office almost fifteen minutes after she entered. He went to lead her back to the CI office, but noticing PJ's return, changed his mind. Instead, she followed him down the corridor to the mess room. Once inside, Mark locked the door and turned to her, as if begging her with his eyes for some kind of solution. And, as she perched herself on the table where PJ had been sitting not long before, she feared that she didn't have the solution Mark so desperately sought.

"Warren Kane's still a big-time force in Melbourne," Amy mused, shrugging thoughtfully. "I didn't recognise his name straight away, but…God, she's lucky to have survived this long if she managed to shut down his biggest brothel." She paused, watching as Mark's expression fell.

She wished that she knew what to say, but she simply didn't. She'd played with fire before and she'd gotten burnt from the experience. But Lloyd Johnson's Homicide corruption was different to Warren Kane's city-wide empire. Lloyd had played on people's fear. She had freed herself from him by showing him that she was no longer afraid. But Warren…she got the distinct impression that standing up to Warren would do nothing more than get Piper killed sooner. Warren was a different kind of enemy.

"What can we do?"

"I don't think there's anything we can do, really," Amy replied with a weak shrug. She felt almost guilty about crushing Mark's hopes like this. She had been wrapped up in her own world lately, but not so much that she couldn't see the burning love Mark had for Piper. She wanted to soothe him somehow, reassure him that it would all be alright, but she couldn't. Not when she wasn't so sure that it was even possible for this to have a happy ending. No matter how she looked at this, Piper couldn't win. "I want to tell PJ."

Mark frowned, a little torn. He already felt bad enough for bringing Amy into this, but he had thought she'd know what to know. She was intelligent and she'd spent a long time in Melbourne. Not to mention how she'd brought down Lloyd Johnson's corruption ring. He didn't know if he really wanted PJ involved as well. "Are you sure?"

Amy considered Mark's question momentarily, before nodding. No, she wasn't entirely sure, but she wasn't sure about anything at the moment. PJ had experience on his side and, if it came to the last resort she hoped not to have to raise with Mark, then PJ knew about Witness Protection too. And, if she was entirely honest, she just wanted him there for security. She'd feel safer if he was involved too. "He's got contacts and experience," she told Mark simply. "I can't offer that."

He thought over Amy's words, before finally smiling weakly in response. That was all the agreement Amy needed. She slipped off the table and headed back into the main station, leaving Mark alone in the mess room. It was ironic, he realised dismally as he flopped back into the nearest chair. He was surrounded by people, but he'd never felt more alone in his life.

Mark tapped the steering wheel impatiently as he drove, casting brief glances to Piper out of the corner of his eye. She sat in the passenger seat, every ounce of the self-confidence and driving determination he had known of her having disappeared. She was slumped against the car window, her forehead resting on the cool glass. It was a cool evening, given the sweltering heat of that day. But Mark had hardly noticed. He'd spent most of that day keeping Piper hidden in his office while Amy and PJ had been busy on the phone. All they'd managed to work out was that Warren Kane was after her. There was definitely a price on Piper's head.

They were heading out to the old Anderson place on the property next to Mark's. PJ had told him that he needed to get Piper somewhere safe overnight and the grim look in his eyes told Mark that it was best not to argue. And, remembering the spare keys that the real estate had forgotten to collect when the Andersons moved out three years ago, he'd decided that that was the perfect place.

The house loomed up ahead, large and lonely despite the well-established trees that surrounded it. As Mark pulled the car to a stop, he took it in with a half-smile. It was truly a beautiful country property. "Here it is," he told Piper, finally shattering the uneasy silence.

She turned to him, looking startled yet comforted by the sound of his voice. She treasured every syllable. "It's beautiful," she replied in an awed whisper as she took in the building. Then she added, without thinking, "It's the kind of place I dreamed of living in when I was a kid."

Mark turned to her, the weak glimmer of hope in his eyes making Piper realise just what she'd said. Pulling her jacket tighter around her torso, she forced a tentative smile. Mark returned it. "So did I," he confided gently and, without another word, climbed out of the car and headed over to the house with Piper close behind.

The steaming coffee permeated Amy's vision so unexpectedly that she almost jumped. Looking back over her hunched shoulder, she met PJ's eyes and offered him a weak smile of thanks. He leant in to plant the tenderest of kisses on her lips and Amy found herself melting with pleasure at the connection. She'd yearned for him throughout that day, yearned for the simplicity and gentleness of their lives barely twenty-four hours ago. But as he finally pulled away, she realised that Piper would have to come first.

He slipped around to his desk, sinking back into his office chair. He rose his feet to rest them upon the desk's surface, intertwining his fingers behind his head. If Amy hadn't known him better, she would have sworn that he was completely calm and at peace. But she did know him better and she did know that he was just as torn as she was. Mark had been such an affable Senior Sergeant and a much better man to fill Tom Croydon's shoes than they would ever have initially expected and it hurt them to think of what this would do to him.

Finally, PJ spoke. "I've gotten onto a mate of mine in Witness Protection," he began hesitantly. "He's dealt with some of the people who have off sided Warren Kane in the past. He reckons that Piper's as good as dead unless…" He trailed off, not needing to continue. Amy's slow and deliberate nod told him that she understood perfectly.

She gave a distracted sigh as she let her head fall back, biting her thumbnail absentmindedly. "She's the walking dead," she mused, remembering the text message with a sickening lurch. "She's still breathing, but it's an illusion of life." She frowned as she sat forward, clasping her hands around the warm surface of the mug to steady her pounding heart. "How are we going to tell Mark that she needs to go into Witness Protection?" she asked him plainly. "It'll break his heart. He loves her, no matter how much he's attempted to hide it. It was pretty bloody clear from the moment she walked into this station…"

PJ sighed as he rose to his feet, his casual demeanour broken. He placed a tender hand upon Amy's, offering her a kind and somewhat distant smile as he gently pulled her to her feet. He enveloped her in his arms and, for a long moment, Amy wondered why he was making this sort of gesture when he'd normally be more preoccupied with the case. Then, she remembered Maggie. He'd once been in Mark's situation, faced with the possibility of having the woman he loved alive and breathing, but beyond reach.

"We'll help him," he told her pointedly. "We'll be there for him as good mates should. All of us. Between his mates and his job, he'll make it. I'm sure."

Ringo squinted through the darkness as he cast his torch around the National Park. Although he would never admit it to Dash, he wasn't very steady on his feet in the dark. He much preferred broad daylight, where he had more than just a narrow stream of light to guide him.

She walked somewhere beside him, her calm and regular breathing comforting him somewhat. She was a country girl; she knew this place like the back of her hand, or even better if Nick was to be trusted. Unlike him, who had never been any further than half an hour away from Melbourne before. He was more accustomed to skyscrapers than national parks. Having Dash with him was a relief.

From beside him, her voice pierced the silence. "You scared, Ringo?"

He jumped, spinning to face her in surprise. He stumbled backwards at the sight that greeted him. She was grinning broadly and laughing as she aimed her torch up from underneath her chin. The light cast frightening shadows across her face and, in his frazzled state, Ringo fell backwards with a groan. Within seconds, he was laughing too as shock gave way to flooding relief. "I know that you're meant to hang shit on the new kid, but come on!" he told her with a mock disapproving shake of his head. "Couldn't you come up with something that hasn't been a mainstay of every horror movie made within my lifetime?"

Dash, a little startled herself by Ringo's response, lowered the torch as she almost doubled over laughing. She finally stepped forward, offering Ringo her hand. "You alright?" she queried.

"Yeah, yeah," he replied as he took her hand, slowly clambering back to his feet. "I landed on the one part of me that has its own built-in airbag."

It took a brief moment for Ringo's comment to sink in, but Dash burst out laughing when she finally realised what he'd meant. She gave him a playful slap as she headed off again, casting her torch light across the well-worn path. "You're a dag, Ringo," she told him with a light chuckle.

Ringo quickly jogged along to catch up with her, panting slightly. He was rather athletic and had always taken well to sport. In fact, he'd taken to everything except cooking without much difficulty. But he was tired and it had been a while since his high school hockey days. "Yeah?" he retorted as he stuck out his tongue in reply. "Well, so are you."

Dash stopped, her mind momentarily cast back in time. The last time someone had called her a dag was Tom Croydon the day she had left Mt. Thomas and the police force. A distant smile crept across her face at the thought. She loved her colleagues and the town as it was now, but she couldn't help but regret all the time she had missed.

As she finally snapped back to reality, she noticed that Ringo had walked on ahead, a little more confident now. Sudden realisation struck her as she remembered just what lay ahead of this track. "Ringo!" she called after him in alarm as she hurried after him. "Watch out for the…"

But her last word went unheard as Ringo's cries of surprise and pain echoed back to Dash and the shadowy figure vanished from sight. Barely half a second later, she heard a sickening thud and a second moan of agony. Her heart pounding a mile a minute in her chest, she realised that he had been hurt. "…cliff," she finished in an inaudible mumble as she raced over, careful to stop at the cliff's edge.

Shining her torch downwards, she quickly found Ringo. He was sitting upright about a metre below, his torch lying just within arm's reach and his hands clasped tightly around his ankle. His eyes were closed tightly and his lips pressed hard together. He was in agony, but doing his very best to pretend he wasn't. He looked up at the sudden light, squinting against it.

"You right, mate?" Dash asked, crouching down at the cliff's edge. Seeing the genuine concern written in her face, Ringo softened his expression.

"I think I've sprained my ankle," he told her, his voice wavering with the pain. Frowning, he snatched up his torch and cast the stream of light around him in curiosity. His brow furrowed ever deeper as the light fell upon a large black lump which appeared to be a garbage bag. "What's that?"

Dash's eyes narrowed in bewilderment as she turned her torch to the bag. Barely seconds later, she was carefully climbing down the cliff face, ignoring Ringo's pleas for her not to. As soon as she reached the bottom, she headed over to the bag which lay just out of arm's reach of Ringo. She yanked it open and almost stumbled back in surprise when she realised what was inside. There were two sawn-off shotguns lying atop of money, jewellery, paintings – in fact, it appeared the bag contained anything that the owners could have gotten their hands on. "It's the Widgeree pub robber's loot," Dash told Ringo as she tied the bag shut again and combed hair back from her eyes thoughtfully.

"We need to radio Sir," Ringo told her, fumbling at his belt for his portable. He ignoring the puzzled stare that Dash was shooting him, her expression blank as she tried to realise just who Ringo meant by 'Sir'. Finally, she realised that he was talking about Mark.

She shook her head. "Nah, don't bother," she told him as she sat down beside him, resting her back up against the rocky cliff face. "There's no reception out here. No radio, no phones, no nothing."

Ringo's face grew more desperate at the calm composure that Dash maintained. Why was she sitting down? They'd just found an armed robber's loot and his superior officer was just sitting there! "We need to get this back to the station, then," he pointed out in frustration.

Dash seemed amused at the hint of anxiety in his voice. For the first time in his life, Ringo was cursing a superior officer, even if only inwardly. "We won't even get as far as the nearest tree with your ankle," she pointed out calmly. "I can't carry your weight. Besides, we can always be here waiting for them when they return to collect their loot."

The younger officer was still thoroughly confused, and perhaps a little outraged at Dash's decision. This wasn't protocol, he was certain. He was beginning to wonder if Mt. Thomas even knew the meaning of the word. They were good coppers, yes, and as straight as they came, but they were a little apt to bending the rules when it suited them. He wasn't quite sure if he approved of that. But he knew better than to argue. If there was one thing his father had made damn sure he'd learnt, it was that you didn't argue with rank. Never argue with superiority.

"So," Dash began, intertwining her fingers behind her head, "you mentioned siblings before that were named after the Beatles…"

Ringo turned to stare at her, becoming distinctly uncomfortable at the mention of his siblings. He didn't want to tell Dash about them, but he knew he couldn't hide them from her. "Yeah," he mumbled in reluctant agreement. "Johnny, Georgia and Paul." He paused, the last name almost being lost in a teary gulp. He couldn't cry, there was no way he could let himself cry. "They all joined the coppers. Johnny's with Homicide, Georgia's the youngest female Senior Sergeant in the state and…Paul is…well, he's…"

Sensing Ringo's distress, Dash found herself reaching a very definite conclusion. "Dead?" she offered with a sympathetic shrug. He turned to her in surprise and nodded slowly.

"Yeah," he replied with a heavy sigh that betrayed all the sadness that he was trying to hide from his eyes. "He died in his second year in the job. He was shot trying to protect a group of hostages in a bank siege. He was the third youngest of us. He was the only one anywhere near me in age."

Dash nodded sympathetically as she drew her knees up to her chest. "How old are the other two?" she queried.

"Johnny's turning thirty-six this year," Ringo explained with a kind of half-smile. "Georgia turned twenty-nine early last month. If Paul hadn't been shot, he would have been twenty-five this year." He sighed dismally, clasping at his ankle tighter to try to numb the pain that was swelling inside of him.

"That's a bit of an age difference," she observed, staring at him with a distant kind of expression on her face.

Ringo nodded. "Yeah," he realised as his half-smile faded. "They were always going to have four kids, but Johnny happened a bit early. They saved the last three until they were ready." Frowning, he let his chin rest dejectedly on his knee. "Johnny was the jock of the family. The favourite. Never a question about how good a copper he'd be, he was practically worshipped just for breathing. And Georgia…she was just as athletic, she preferred footy to dolls. Neither of them had much time for books. Paul and I weren't as athletic. Paul still played footy, mind you, but he didn't enjoy it. He was really into the humanities. If it wasn't for the expectation that we'd all become coppers, he would have made a good social worker."

"And what about you?"

"I…I guess I just lived for science. I was good at hockey, but it wasn't something Dad liked very much. He didn't understand anything other than footy and the police force. I don't think he could understand me…I guess that's why I had to work about four times as hard as the others to get any kind of reaction out of him." He turned to Dash almost pleadingly, little tears forming in his eyes. "He didn't even come to my bloody high school graduation," he confided in a distraught whisper. "He was there when I graduated from the academy, but he wasn't there when I got the award for being DUX of the school. He wasn't there when I got the biggest bloody honour I've ever had. But he was there when Johnny won best and fairest in the under-18s and when Georgia was accepted into the AIS and…and…and I can't believe I've just told you all that!"

Dash tried not to laugh at the bright red blush of embarrassment that filled Ringo's face. He had clearly not been thinking about what he'd been saying and had confided much more than he had wanted to. But, instead of laughing, she wrapped a comforting arm around his shoulders and pulled him close to her chest. It seemed to soothe him. "What about your mother?" she queried gently. "Where was she in all this?"

Ringo closed his eyes momentarily, desperately trying to force back the tears that wanted to overwhelm him. "She was shot and killed in the line of duty when I was six months old."

"I'm sorry," Dash whispered, a little stunned. She should have guessed, she realised as she kicked herself inwardly. Ringo hadn't once mentioned his mother and she should have guessed that she was dead. "I didn't know my dad, either," she told him, hoping to maybe calm him with a story or two of her own. "He was killed in a tractor accident when I was two years old. He was working out in the field when it rolled. He died instantly."

Ringo didn't reply to this. Instead, he pulled away from Dash's sympathetic hold and fixed her with a curious gaze. He was silently pleading with her for more information.

"Mum had her hands full. She had nine kids to look after," she continued. "The oldest, Charlie, was twenty. He had been about to go off to the city for work, but he decided to stick around and run the farm. I was really close to Mum and Charlie. The others were my playmates but…they all grew up and left and got their own lives. They all kept calling me Deidre, even after Charlie gave me the nickname Dash. Charlie's always been a bit like a big brother and father all rolled into one. He still lives here, with his two daughters. He's even baby-sitting my little girl, Phoebe, right now."

Ringo didn't ask about Phoebe and he didn't ask about Charlie. Instead, he directed his questioning in the one direction that Dash had hoped he wouldn't. "What about your other seven siblings?" he asked her curiously. "And your mum?"

Sighing resignedly, Dash felt a couple of stray tears sliding down her cheeks. "They died," she told him simply. "Mum was hit by a car nearly ten years ago and…and my other brothers and sisters were killed in accidents and by illness. It's just Charlie and me now. And our kids."

Ringo opened his mouth to offer her some sympathy, but never got the chance for the sound of footsteps came from the cliff top above them. The two shared a knowing glance as they reached down to their belts and drew out their guns. Raising them to the cliff's edge, they found themselves aiming at two large male figures. The pair was shocked by the sight of the police officers – one standing in the standard police stance and the other still sitting, wincing with pain. But neither man made any attempt to run. Raising their arms skyward, they knew they were gone.

"You're under arrest," Dash told them as she holstered her weapon and began clambering up the cliff face while Ringo kept his aim steady. His first arrest.

Sitting behind the wheel of Chris' car, PJ couldn't help but feel a little edgy. He hadn't slept at all that night and he knew that Amy had been just as awake beside him. She sat beside him in the vehicle, biting her bottom lip absentmindedly as she stared fretfully out the passenger side window. The bags under her eyes were evident and her face almost devoid of colour. He knew how frightened she was of Warren Kane, even if the man was now in his seventies. One brush with the organised crime of Lloyd Johnson had been enough to make her fear it intensely.

In the back seat, Mark sat beside Piper, clasping her hand tightly in his lap. So tight, in fact, that PJ was certain that he was cutting off circulation. But Piper didn't seem to mind. If anything, she was relishing the contact.

PJ had told them not to take the same car twice and, deciding that his car was too familiar to the crooks of Mt. Thomas and Amy's Vee Dub too distinctive, he'd opted to borrow Chris'. And, chuckling at the lack of explanation from PJ, Chris had agreed. She'd been pretty easy-going with lending her car to coppers in the past and PJ was one of her oldest mates. As far as she could see, it couldn't do any harm. The comment had almost made PJ vomit at the thought of what harm it could do.

He began to tap the steering wheel impatiently, suddenly wishing that he didn't have to obey the speed signs. He wished desperately for his flashing blue light which would give him permission to make the trip back to the station from the old Anderson place go faster, but he knew that he couldn't use it even if he had it. It would be like handing Piper to Warren Kane on a silver platter.

Out of the corner of his eye, PJ saw Amy lean forward to turn on the radio. Much to her frustration, they were out of range and could only pick up static. But, while Amy was bent over adjusting the radio, a bullet smashed through the window, passing right where her head would have been.

The sound of the gunshot and smashing glass stunned the group and PJ, at first a little oblivious to the fact that they were being fired upon, looked around him aimlessly. But the sight of the shattered glass and Amy placing her hands protectively over the back of her head brought the truth sharply to him and he slammed the brakes on hard.

As soon as the car was motionless, he crouched down as best he could, shielding his head with his hands as Amy had. He was vaguely aware of Piper and Mark in the backseat, Mark pushing himself down upon Piper as he covered her with his body. And, from somewhere in the distance beyond the confines of their vehicle, he could have sworn that he heard squealing tyres.

Slowly, he pushed himself up, looking to Amy worriedly. It took mere milliseconds for him to realise how close the bullet had come to hitting her and his stomach gave a sickening lurch. Silent, tiny tears welled in his eyes. "You alright?"

She tentatively raised her head, casting a blank and shell-shocked gaze around her. Little fragments of glass slid from her black jacket as she stirred, her whole body almost aching from the sheer terror. Her mind ran so fast that it was barely processing dim white fuzz. She opened her mouth to reply and, for a long moment, found that she couldn't speak. Finally, a weak and croaky reply left her lips. "Yeah, I'm fine."

PJ returned to sitting, letting himself sink back into the seat before turning his head back slightly towards Mark and Piper, who were still lying low. "You guys still breathing?"

"I think so, yeah," Mark replied, climbing up off Piper as it became increasingly clear that they weren't about to be shot at again.

Nodding to himself, PJ lifted his foot off the brake and cautiously started Chris' car again. "Right," he said, more for his own benefit than the others'. "We go back to the station; I take the car back to Chris and we don't tell the uniforms, got it?" The other members of the car didn't answer or argue with PJ's instructions. Instead, the rest of the trip back to the station passed by in the uneasy silence of those who have stared death in the face and only survived by mere chance.

Mark and Piper didn't stop to speak to Nick, Dash or Ringo as they passed through the muster room, making a beeline for Mark's office. Mark was still clutching Piper's hand, so tightly in fact that anyone who hadn't already worked out their romantic connection would have drawn a pretty accurate conclusion.

Amy and PJ followed much more slowly and, determined to keep up the appearance of calm composure, stopped at the sight of Ringo hobbling around to the fax machine on crutches. The detectives stopped, a little bewildered. "You've been here for a day and you've already hurt yourself!" PJ observed, shaking his head in numb disbelief. "What have you done to yourself, mate?"

Walking over to the small gathering with a small grin on her face, Dash supplied the answer. "He fell off a cliff last night in the National Park."

"You what?!" PJ demanded, a little angry at the thought of Maggie Doyle's cousin doing something so dangerous. After Ringo had told him about his connection to the Doyles, PJ had vowed silently to make sure that Ringo Barnett didn't end up in the same place as his mother's relatives. He was staying on the straight and narrow and becoming a good copper. And after telling Amy, she'd vowed the same thing.

"I didn't watch where I was going," Ringo explained, his face red and his voice carrying all the embarrassment of a schoolboy being chastised by a teacher. "But we found the Widgeree pub robbers loot and we caught the crims too. They're over in St. Davids lock-up."

PJ's earlier anger disappeared at this and instead a kind of pride was growing. "You caught them?" he asked in disbelief and, at Ringo and Dash's nods, he turned to head to Mark's office. As he walked, he turned to Amy, his glowing eyes meeting hers. "That kid's going to be one hell of an officer someday," he told her and Amy nodded thoughtfully in agreement.

A lump formed in Amy's throat as she and PJ led Mark over to their office, locking the doors to stop their uniformed colleagues from entering. They'd both long worked out what was going to have to happen to stop Piper from being killed and the shooting that morning had only confirmed it. They hadn't spoken since PJ had dropped the car back to a furious Chris, who moaned loudly about the repair bill, but didn't ask what her car had been used for. She was smart enough to know that if PJ wasn't going to tell her, then there was no point in asking.

"I hope Chris didn't give you too much trouble about the car," Mark told PJ with a half-hearted chuckle that he had hoped would lighten up the heavy frowns on his colleagues' faces. It failed miserably.

PJ sighed as he perched himself on the corner of his desk. "Well, she's vowed never to let the police borrow her car again, but she seems fine about it. I think she understands that something much bigger than a broken window is going on here."

Amy nodded sadly as she digested PJ's comment and tried to calm her still-racing heart as she turned her gaze upon Mark. Her superior was fidgeting and looked distinctly uncomfortable. It was then that she realised he knew. He knew what the only solution available to them was, but could barely admit it to himself, let alone them. She felt sorry for him. "We can't protect Piper, Mark," she finally told him, shrugging sadly as she folded her arms across her chest, pulling her black jacket tighter as she did so. "Warren Kane practically has an army of hit men just waiting for an opportunity like this morning to kill her off. The longer we continue with this charade, the less likely it is that she'll get out of here alive. We only have to let our guard down for half a second, Mark. That's all it'll take…half a second…"

Mark nodded resignedly, burying his face in his hands as he massaged his temples. Desperately, he searched the depths of his mind for another answer, any answer. But nothing came and he numbly realised that it was because there was no other answer. They couldn't protect her forever, not in Mt. Thomas. For as long as Piper Morris continued to exist as an identity, Warren Kane would hang over them like a bad smell. She needed to disappear and Witness Protection was their only option. "I know," he told them weakly, peering out from between his fingers. "I just…I can't let her go. I let her walk out of my life thirty-five years ago and I can't do that again. My life's just an illusion of happiness, of perfection. I love her."

His confession struck a chord in Amy and PJ and, absentmindedly, they reached for each other's hand. "I spoke to a mate of mine about this yesterday," PJ explained gently. "He's familiar with it, he can get it organised quickly. If I get onto him now, she can get out of here today." He paused, shrugging weakly. "It might be easier if you break the news to Piper. She's probably already worked it out herself."

"I…I want to go with her." Mark told them firmly, pressing his tightly clenched fists into the pockets of his police pants. It was the only way he could stop them from shaking with a mixture of fear and dread. "If…If Piper goes into Witness Protection, then I'm going with her."

Amy frowned, sharing a concerned glance with PJ. The dark look in his eyes said it all. "I don't think that's such a good idea, Mark," she told him sadly. "I mean…"

"I know what it'd involve and I don't care," Mark interrupted, staring across his colleagues with a hard expression upon his face. "I just…I just know that I want to be with her."

PJ slipped his hand free of Amy's as he crossed the office to his superior, offering his a supportive hand upon his shoulder. "Mate, what about Penny?" he asked him quietly. "Surely you can't just leave her?"

Mark laughed weakly at PJ's comment, shaking his head slowly. "Penny means nothing to me, PJ," he told him sadly. "She's…she's been having an affair for over a year and I've just been looking the other way because I didn't want her to find out about Piper. She'd probably be happier to see the back of me."

"Then…then what about Freya?" PJ queried, meeting Mark's eyes with a kind of sympathy that Mark knew was born of experience. He knew that PJ had been faced with this situation before – the choice of letting someone he loved go into Witness Protection and the question of whether or not to follow. "Whatever you feel about Penny…surely you couldn't do this to Freya? Could you live with yourself, knowing that your daughter thinks you've run away with you boss to Melbourne, never to contact her again? Or if she thought you were dead, even when you were alive and well? Could you really spend the rest of your life without your daughter?"

Mark's face paled at the mention of his daughter's name. He hadn't thought much of what following Piper into Witness Protection would mean for Freya. He couldn't have cared about Penny, in fact, she'd probably be happy to see him go, but Freya was different. His little girl, his princess. He loved her more than he had ever loved anything before, perhaps even more so than Piper. PJ was right; he couldn't do that to Freya. He shook his head reluctantly. "I can't let Freya think those things," he admittedly in a shaking, teary voice. "I've got to let Piper go alone. Freya's more important."

PJ had called Witness Protection and they'd agreed that Piper's only option was permanent protection. For all intents and purposes, Piper Morris would disappear off the face of the planet after accepting a posting in Melbourne. But, in actuality, Piper would be whisked far away from Warren Kane and PJ's suspicions led him to believe that they might even take her overseas. And, while it hurt Mark intensely to let Piper go, he knew that he loved her enough to not want to keep her somewhere where she could be hurt. He loved her enough to know when to let her go.

Evening had fallen across Mt. Thomas, blanketing the town in a cool darkness. It was going to be another cool night, Mark was certain. And a late night, with Piper being picked up with the Witness boys at eleven. Mark knew that he'd very possibly get home to find Penny in bed with the same man who had left his wallet behind. But he couldn't think of that. No, better to think of his little girl, his Freya. Letting Piper go didn't feel so hard when he thought of his beautiful daughter.

For the first time since yesterday, he had the office to himself. Piper was back in St. Davids with Amy and PJ, packing a few things. They'd decided to protect themselves with the public this time, opting for a bus rather than a car. At least, they had reasoned, if anything happened, they had witnesses to testify.

A soft and cautious knock sounded at his door and Mark's head snapped up instinctively at the sudden noise. The station had been silent, with Nick and Dash now getting Ringo drunk at the Imperial. He had become too accustomed to the quiet. "Come in," he called, realising that it was Piper peering through the glass pane.

Piper entered slowly, her hands clasped together in front of her stomach. Despite her haphazard appearance and blotchy skin and red eyes from crying, she still looked beautiful. Mark couldn't help a smile as he rose to his feet, crossing the room to her as she closed the door behind her. She clutched a small black overnight bag in her hands. "This is all they'll let me take," she explained at the puzzled look upon Mark's face. "If I take much more, it'll make me too easy to trace."

Mark nodded understandingly as he reached out, running his hands along her shoulders and down to her wrists. It was a soothing gesture and one that eased the pounding of Piper's heart slightly. But part of her hated him touching her, fearing that it would simply make her cry all over again. "We wasted so much time," he told her sadly, letting his fingertips graze the backs of her hands. They were so soft, even to his well-worn skin. He closed his eyes momentarily, as if trying to commit every sensation to memory. "We should have built our lives together. We should have had it all."

"We could have had it all," Piper conceded dismally, pulling away weakly from Mark's touch. It was about to bring her tears and she simply refused to let herself go to pieces now. "I didn't give you the credit you deserved. I thought you'd be like everyone else, but you weren't. You would have understood. I should have let you love me."

"It wasn't entirely your fault," he told her firmly, looking up to her with regret shining in his eyes. "I didn't take the rumours seriously. I had you on a pedestal and…and it made me blind. If I had have opened my eyes, I would have seen the truth and not just what I wanted to believe. I would have loved you even more."

Mark's words made Piper's heart flutter in her chest until she finally had to look away to stop herself from kissing him. She wanted him now more than she ever had, yet this was the one time she couldn't have him. It would only destroy every bit of the conviction that she had built up.

"I…I…" Mark sighed in frustration as the words refused to come. "This has all happened to us so fast that I…I guess I haven't really worked out how I feel about this or…or what it is I wanted to say…"

Piper frowned at Mark's comments, before shrugging weakly. "Well," she told him slowly. "I suppose I could ask Witness Protection to give me a couple more days, at least…"

"No," Mark told her firmly, grabbing her wrists again as he held them close to his chest. Piper stared at him in confusion, feeling bewildered at his change of heart. He didn't want her to go, but here he was telling her that she couldn't stay. "If you gave me more time, I'd only use it to find a way to make you stay. I can't do that to you. I love you enough to know that it's time to let you go."

Little tears filled her eyes as she let his words roll around her dazed and weary head. She wanted to throw herself upon him and cry until there simply wasn't a tear left, but she didn't. She couldn't. Instead, she nodded thoughtfully and spoke almost without thinking. "I love you enough to know that I've got to let you be with your daughter."

The car park was dark and the dim overhead lighting did little to light the surroundings as PJ pulled his car to a stop. Somehow, Warren Kane hadn't worked out what was going on and hadn't sent some of his men out to eliminate Piper. In a way, he was relieved. This was the final hurdle. Once Piper was in the hands of Witness Protection, it was over. She would be gone forever and there would be nothing Warren Kane could do to get at her.

From where she sat beside PJ, Amy could just make out the dimly-lit figures ahead. They were large men, perhaps even to rival Nick in height, and stood beside two vehicles. They were fairly ordinary vehicles, she realised, despite knowing very little about cars. They were the kind of cars that she wouldn't give a second thought to if she passed them on the road. Perfect disguises.

She and PJ climbed out of the car and headed over to the men. One of them beamed at the sight of PJ. "Mate," he told her, offering a hand which PJ quite happily accepted. "Is this the fiancée? Because I have to say, you've still got it if she is!"

Amy frowned, her indignation swelling as this old 'mate' of PJ's spoke about her as though she wasn't there. But, much to her relief, PJ reached over and squeezed her hand encouragingly. The gesture told her more than words ever could have. This 'mate' was a sexist pig, but he was good at what he did and would get Piper to safety. And, for that, Amy forgave him and offered him a half-hearted smile before turning back to Mark and Piper.

The pair had climbed out of the car and still clung to each other's sides as they approached the gathering. The other man who didn't seem to know PJ motioned to one of the Witness vehicles silently. And, as Piper moved towards the vehicle, it finally seemed to strike her what this meant.

She turned back to Amy, PJ and Mark, offering them a hint of a smile. The smile, coupled with Piper's more relaxed hairstyle, took Amy by surprise. If life hadn't hardened Piper like it had, she would have been a very beautiful woman, even in middle age. And the thought saddened Amy. In Piper's eyes, she could see a world of possibilities that had never been realised. And, suddenly, Amy wished that she'd gotten to know Piper a lot better than she had.

"Thank you," Piper told them, clutching at her bag so tightly that her knuckles were turning white. "Thanks for everything. I treated you all like shit and…and I'm sorry for that."

At Amy and PJ's mumble of good luck, Piper turned her attention to Mark. He stood alone, his hands thrust deep into his pockets as he tried desperately to keep them from trembling. He kept his head down as she approached him, despite eyeing her intensely, as though he was trying to keep the mental image of her in his head forever. He was building a lifetime of memories in just a few short minutes.

His head finally snapped up as she reached up to his cheek, cupping his face in her hands. The gesture forced him to meet her gaze and every little bit of the resolution he had formed began to crumble. He had vowed not to kiss her, but he couldn't keep that promise. Slowly and without thinking, their lips connected, the embrace being more than enough to whisk them away from reality and into their own little world. Every emotion that either of them had ever felt flowed through the kiss as Mark let his hands rest upon the seductive curves of her hips. It took all the self-control he could muster to finally pull away, letting his hands rest upon her shoulders as he took in the little glimmer in Piper's eyes.

From somewhere nearby, Mark was vaguely aware of PJ's mate from Witness Protection clearing his throat with such self-importance that it made the rest of the gathering wince. "So, anything else you two love birds want to get over and done with?"

Piper turned back to Mark, offering him a reassuring smile. It was a kind smile, the likes of which Mark hadn't seen upon her face since those long, loving days at the academy. Her eyes soothed him somewhat, telling him that the pain would go away and that everything would be fine without her. Still not tearing her gaze away from him, she shook her head slowly. "No," she replied quietly. "I think we've said everything that we wanted to say."

Mark nodded in agreement as he finally withdrew his hands from her shoulders, letting Piper head over to the Witness Protection cars. She disappeared inside and, without another word; the two men began to drive away. He craned his neck for one last look and, much to his excitement; he saw a glimpse of her as she waved goodbye.

And, as it struck him that she was now gone forever, the tears that he had fought to contain began to slide down his cheeks as great choking sobs consumed him.

The house was silent as Mark closed the solid oak door behind him, the dim light from the kitchen seeping out and bathing him in its glow. Barely remembering Penny's obsession with a clean carpet, he slipped his work boots off his aching feet and crept across the living room. He had half-hoped that Penny would be waiting up for him; ready to reprimand him for not ringing her. She used to do that a lot, he realised with a smile as his raw red eyes began to water. Even a couple of years ago, she would have worried about him. Now, she didn't even care.

The kitchen bench was clean, save for a single folded slip of paper which bore his name in a hurriedly drawn scribble. Yet it was somehow very neat and clearly Penny's handwriting. He grabbed it eagerly and unfolded it, some naïve part of him wondering if Penny had been so romantic as to leave him a love note. In hindsight, he almost laughed at the thought.

Just seconds later, he folded the note again, his face bearing a hardened expression of resignation. He wanted to scream, he wanted to shout, he wanted to cry out at the top of his lungs that this was all unfair and demand that he get some good luck for a change. But he knew it would serve nothing except to wake up Freya, who had probably cried herself to sleep if Penny had told her anything about this. Penny had finally taken the leap – Mark had chosen the job over her one too many times and she had walked out. She'd be back tomorrow for the rest of her things and divorce proceedings would follow. And, if Mark needed his opinion of her lowered any further, than she had succeeded. She didn't care about Freya. She could stay with him, for all she cared.

After several heavy breaths, he set the note back on the bench and turned to the fridge for something to eat. Numbly, he realised that he hadn't eaten since that morning and his stomach was rumbling in protest at the lack of food. There wasn't really much in the fridge to eat, he realised sadly. Just the basics and some left-over pizza. He made a mental note to go shopping tomorrow as he stuffed the container in the microwave and set the timer.

He slipped down the hallway, his bare feet padding along the soft carpet. Perhaps Penny's pedantic neatness had served a purpose, he told himself with a half-smile. She'd left two things behind for him – clean carpet and a beautiful daughter.

Freya's bedroom door was open and a warm orange glow emanated from the overhead lamp on her bedside table. The teenager was lying under the covers, her hand resting atop of an open book. The light highlighted the wet streaks on her face and the paleness of her skin. She had cried herself to sleep, Mark realised with a pang. Penny walking out had upset her and she tried to read to ease her devastation. For a brief moment, Mark felt a furious rage swell within him at the thought of anyone hurting his princess like that. But the rage passed and he stepped into the room, crouching down at Freya's bedside.

He combed the fine strands of her silky black hair back from her face, smiling as he took in her sleeping form. Time had flown from the day that he had held his infant daughter, cooing over her tiny form as she slept. The memory made his decision not to go with Piper feel right, no matter how much it hurt him. PJ had been correct. Freya did matter more to him than Piper.

Mark gently lifted her hand from the book and carefully slipped a nearby piece of paper inside to mark Freya's page. Setting it aside on her desk, he switched off the overhead lamp as he bent down to kiss her cheek softly. "Goodnight, sweetheart."

Amy had barely gotten through the front door of their home when PJ slipped his arms around her waist, pulling her close to his chest. She closed her eyes tightly, feeling quite content to bury her face in his old leather jacket as his hands ran tenderly along her back. His touch was soothing and eased her frazzled nerves after the events of the last two days. And then there was Zoe's diagnosis, which she had managed to force so far into the back of her mind that she'd very nearly forgotten in the adrenaline rush of getting Piper to safety. She was going to have to tell him sooner or later, no matter how much she didn't want to break his heart. She loved him and he loved her and she owed him the truth.

Her thoughts were interrupted as PJ spoke, his voice soft and betraying the fact that he was close to tears of exhaustion. "I love you so much, Amy," he told her gently, every syllable weighted with such honesty that it almost made Amy want to cry. "I'll never know what it was that I did to deserve you, but I know that I love you. Every second I have you in my arms, my heart swells so much with happiness that I almost think it will burst. I treasure every minute of every day that I wake up with you in my arms. And if the last couple of days have taught my anything, it's that I never, ever want to let you go."

The tears slipped down Amy's cheek silently, the reaction so natural that she scarcely realised it was happening. She lifted her head from his shoulder, meeting his gaze with all the strength she could muster. His tender, wise eyes were filled with tears that he barely held back. And as she stared up at him, she raised her hands to his cheeks. The touch made her words seem even more real. "I would never want to let you go," she whispered, letting her fingertips travel from PJ's cheekbone to his lips. They were soft and made her skin tingle with excitement. "If I…if I ever had to go into Witness Protection, I'd want you to come with me."

PJ paused, a little taken aback by her comment. He frowned at her bewilderedly as Amy drew her fingertips away from his lips. "Are you sure?" he asked her quietly, earning a firm nod in response.

"Yes," she replied, nodding to emphasise her point. "If I ever had to start my life over, I'd want to start it with you." She let a half-smile draw across her face, highlighting her features with a kind of hopeful sadness. "I had so many plans for life, so many dreams but…you're the only dream I've ever had that didn't die in the face of reality."

The tenderness and honesty of Amy's words stunned PJ as his heart fluttered in his chest. He let his hands drift up from Amy's waist and began to play with the messy strands of hair that framed her beautiful face. Finally he smiled, leaning in to kiss her tenderly. Moments later he pulled away, still grinning broadly. "There's plenty of time for dreams," he told her gently. "Dreams we'll make together."

She nodded slowly, before her smile began to fade. She had to tell him. No matter what burden it put on PJ, he deserved the truth. He had given her more love, kindness and friendship than she had ever thought possible. Honesty was the least she could offer him. "My hospital appointment yesterday," she began, her heart pounding increasingly faster in her chest as PJ's brow furrowed in curiosity at where she was going. "I…I lied. I don't have the flu."

"I didn't think so," he whispered, nodding thoughtfully as he let his hands slip back down to her waist. The blank expression on his face made Amy feel almost sick to her stomach. She suddenly wished that she didn't have to tell him. She knew she had made the right decision in regard to Zoe's diagnosis, but telling PJ that was a whole different matter.

"I…well, I…since the miscarriage…" Amy suddenly stopped, realising that she was getting nowhere very quickly. Every sentence sounded so perfectly crafted in her head, but she changed her mind as soon as a few syllables left her lips. She pressed her lips together tightly and closed her eyes momentarily as she tried to formulate the words in her mind. Finally, she decided to be blunt. She peered up at him sadly as she opened her eyes. "My periods didn't come back after the miscarriage," she told him dismally, waiting for a reaction. But PJ didn't react. Instead, his curiosity deepened. "I…I knew I wasn't pregnant, so I went back to Zoe and…she diagnosed Asherman's syndrome yesterday."

PJ's eyes widened as Amy finished, his mind blank. But, deep inside, he could feel himself wondering why Amy seemed so frightened of telling him. He couldn't quite understand why she seemed so uneasy. "The scar tissue has returned?"

Amy nodded as she sighed regretfully. "It's practically destroyed my uterus," she continued, her voice growing ever weaker as she spoke. "Zoe…well, she said that even if they removed the scar tissue, the chances of conceiving and carrying to term are basically non-existent. She wanted to try to remove the scar tissue anyway, but I told her no. I've been through it before and…God, PJ; it was scarcely more bearable than the abortion! I…I can't go through it again. And, besides…I don't think I want children anymore, anyway."

PJ nodded in understanding as he pulled Amy closer to his body, smiling to himself as she grew frustrated. She wanted some kind of reaction, something to tell her whether or not she'd just destroyed his dream of a family. But, when he finally let her move away from his chest, he was smiling weakly. "It's okay," he reassured her gently. "I don't know if I want kids anymore, either."

"You…you mean you're not…upset?" Amy asked him, bewildered by his response. She narrowed her eyes in puzzlement.

"Upset?" he repeated, shaking his head firmly. "I've got the most beautiful girl in the world, I've got my life and I've got great mates. What right do I have to be upset? I mean…I used to think that life was simply about having kids, giving my mum grandchildren, but it's not. Not anymore. My priorities are very different now, Amy, and kids don't matter that much." He paused, remembering Amy's comment just minutes before about dreams and plans. "You're not the only one who's seen their dreams dying in the face of reality."

Amy's eyes widened at this, her expression taking on the appearance of a young child's. It felt as though a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. PJ didn't care about having children. He would have wanted them if she could have had them, but he didn't care anymore. He, like her, had seen too many dreams die to lament lost ones. He was content with what he had. In fact, content didn't seem strong enough a word. He had everything he could want or need.

"Who needs a baby?" he continued with a laugh. "I've got you. I love you so much, Amy Fox. My heart doesn't need a baby to be full."

He kissed her, the tender touch of his lips on hers reassuring her that everything he had told her was the truth. Children or no children, they had each other. And that was about all that mattered to either or them.

Next episode... "Everybody's Human"

A Heeler's life is left hanging in the balance after a horrific car accident, leaving the other officers in shock. Dash is mortified to discover that her daughter's father is in Mt.Thomas and is too busy for his apology.