A/N: This was written for the Spring fic contest over on at Sierra Oscar. Very much a standalone.
He entered the church with more than a little apprehension. Having followed the directions to the letter he'd been confused when the road had tailed off into a quaint village but decided that the 'third building on left, set back in road' mentioned in the email would most likely be a pub. When he saw the small overgrown churchyard encased by a prickly hedge he'd at first done a double-take, then the thought that had been niggling him since he'd first opened his inbox that morning returned with a vengeance.
Normally he wasn't one for churches and the like. Neither were many people in this village, if the fine film of dust on the top of the nearest pew was anything to go by. But even he had to admit it looked peaceful, pretty even, with the spring sunlight drifting through the stained glass and illuminating the floating particles in the air. However, there was a corner still struggling in the shadows and that was where he found her – unsurprisingly.
His trainers clipped loudly on the floor as he made his way to the front. She must've heard him but she didn't make a sign she had. It left him sat beside in the front pew staring at a portrait of the crucifixion whose only purpose seemed to be to remind him he'd skipped breakfast.
Finally, he said, 'It's back, isn't it?'
She let out a dry chuckle. 'Always were too sharp for your own good.'
'One of my better qualities, weren't it?'
'How's it helping you out as Inspector?'
'I'm getting stabbed more if that's what you mean.' He paused and risked a glance sideways. She was staring ahead, almost as if she didn't know she was doing it. Her cheeks were more hollow than he remembered, giving her the look of a prisoner on death row. Her hair was growing out as well. Not for the first time in recent months he wished he'd thought to call her himself. It seemed inevitable now, sat here in some nameless village, that this was the way it was going to end up if he hadn't.
'Job getting you down?' she questioned, catching him off-guard.
He tried to smile but failed. 'Never been a good mediator.'
'Prefer to be down there with the troops sticking the boot in.'
'Yeah, something like that.' After a moment of hesitation he asked, 'How long?'
'Have I known or have I got?'
'Well,' she said, inhaling the musty air deeply, 'you don't get out of buying me an Easter egg, that's for sure. In fact, I want a mountain of chocolate this year. Never been one for the light stuff but...'
He could only nod, waiting for the next bit.
'Months,' she went on finally. 'Both cases.'
His incredulous snort echoed around the church. 'Why the hell didn't you tell me?'
She shrugged. 'You had enough on your plate.'
Turning sideways, he demanded, 'Look at me. Look me in the eye.' It took her a moment but she eventually did so. A pair of hard crystals glared back at him, daring him to continue. It was just fortunate he'd had plenty of practice in this department. 'What did you think you were doing, hmm? Just keeping control, same old Gina Gold. You don't get to do that with this.'
'Looks like I did, doesn't it?' she said coolly.
He growled under his breath. 'You can't just spring this on me. It's unfair. You've had months to get used to it so you can just sit there and tell me it's fine. Well, it isn't.'
Her eyes had never left his. 'Have you finished?'
'Yes,' he muttered tightly.
'Good. Now, let me tell you a few things you need to know. You can even ask some questions.'
'Don't grant me the honour.'
'Dale, do you want to know or not?'
He sighed and looked back to the depiction of the crucifixion ahead of him. 'What are you doing in this backwater first off?'
'Locals think it's quaint.'
'Yeah, it's really you. Honestly, always pictured you settling down in a place like this.'
'I joined a support group,' she said finally, causing him to splutter. 'Look, do you wanna hear this or not?'
'I do,' he said, trying to wipe the smile from his face.
'Shut it for a minute then.' She waited until his face was semi-clear then returned her own gaze to the front. 'I'm staying with a family used to watching people die.'
He flinched. If she saw she didn't draw attention to it.
'It's good. Yeah, it is. They don't try and talk to me or any of that rubbish. And they pick me up off the floor if I need it doing. More patients out there than you'd think – no family or friends to look after them.'
'You've got friends,' he said quietly.
'You're not watching me die,' she said with more of the old bite.
'What, that an order, is it?'
After a second he prompted, 'Go on.'
'Not much more to tell. When the time comes there's a place I'll... Well, you know.'
'You're awfully calm about this,' he observed. Then he looked around the church. 'You found God or something?'
She laughed throatily. 'What do you think?'
'I think,' he said slowly, 'that facing death head-on does funny things to a person.'
'Faced it plenty of times before,' she said with a wave of her hand, 'and I didn't start praying for absolution then.'
'Fair point. Alright, what do you need? Don't think I buy the idea you invited me down here for a nice chin-wig and a catch-up.'
'Come on, there's a pub down the road. Tell you all about it over a drink.'
He stared at her as they rose. 'Sorry, why didn't we meet there in the first place?'
'Doesn't open for another five minutes. Besides, it's quiet in here.'
'You hate quiet.'
'Have to get used to it, don't I?'
'Don't say that,' he said. Automatically, when he saw her lean slightly he reached out a hand to steady her. The look on her face made him withdraw instantaneously. 'Sorry. So what's it all about?'
'My will,' she said. 'As my executor you should know about it.'
He opened his mouth then closed it again. In a few moments they had reached the door and he allowed her out first. He stopped and glanced over his shoulder, watching the dust they'd disturbed continue to swirl haphazardly around. He almost heard a whisper of some kind, or at least a noise that set the hairs at the back of his neck on end. Then he shook off the idiotic idea and followed her out into the sunshine.
The light almost blinded him. 'Was it dark in there or what?'
'Always feels like that coming out of church. Come on – this way.'
She led him across the grass, still wet from the recent rain, and onto a dirt path beyond.
'You know your way around here alright,' he commented.
Shooting him a glare, she negotiated a mess of tree trunks and then patted him on the shoulder. 'Keep up.'
He let her go on ahead for a second. Nothing much had changed – not really. She still walked with the same purposefulness; she could still turn you to stone with a glance if she felt like it. No, he'd seen her weak before and this wasn't it. Now she was...
'Same old Gina Gold,' he murmured aloud.
'Will you get a move on?' she called. 'Job of an Inspector's to help the troops, not stand back looking pretty.'
'Yeah,' he said softly, 'only if they let me.' Jogging to catch her up he deliberately slotted an arm around her shoulder. 'Don't argue, just walk.'