Chapter One

Two weeks later and Maria Jackson still has dreams of flames, wakes up and thinks she smells burning. Sometimes she screams in her sleep as the fire consumes her, and a nurse appears by her bed, telling her she mustn't disturb the other patients, and to calm down because it's only a dream. She wishes it had been.

Two weeks after the house fire which took her father and Maria Jackson still has nightmares.

. . . .

Sarah Jane Smith was preparing breakfast in her spacious kitchen-cum-dining room, her apparently teenage son Luke in his usual place at the table, with his laptop.

She knows he pretends to read all his emails, but his eyes only really light up at the sight of one name: Maria. Recently, though, he hadn't heard anything from her, and although he didn't say anything, Sarah Jane knew it bothered him.

''Mum,'' he said suddenly, and she couldn't place the tone of his voice, she'd never heard him use it before. ''I think you should read this.''

Curious, Sarah Jane came to stand behind her son to read over his shoulder. The screen showed an email, quite a long one, and as she began to read her eyes widened and in true cliche style, she actually felt weak at the knees.

Dear Luke and Sarah Jane,

I'm sorry I haven't written to you in a while, but there's something I've got to tell you. It won't be easy, but I've been putting it off long enough. I think the best way is for me to just...tell you straight.

Two weeks ago, there was a fire, in our house.

It started in the middle of the night, when we were asleep. Dad woke me. He managed to get to my room before the flames did, but the fire was right behind him.

The house is all on the ground floor, so dad lowered me out of the window. He was just about to follow, but...

I saw him dying, screaming as he burnt. I tried to pull him through the window but I wasn't strong enough. I was useless. He saved me but when it mattered, I couldn't save him.

They haven't found his body. They said...that they couldn't tell which were his ashes and which weren't. A neighbour dragged me away from the window and called the fire brigade but they were too late to save anything. I was taken into the hospital, where I am now. I wasn't burnt very badly, but according to the doctors I'm suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome.

But now I've got nowhere to go. It isn't as if I've got any other family in America, and my mum and Ivan have just left on a three-month cruise. They can't be contacted. So I'm staying here for now.

I'm sorry for springing this on both of you...but at least I've said it now.

I hope you are well.

Yours, Maria.

Sarah Jane placed a trembling hand on Luke's shoulder, feeling an odd sense of numbness. She'd seen so much death in so many far-flung places in her old life, but this was something new. Alan Jackson: neighbour, team-mate, friend, gone. And poor Maria.

''I can't believe it,'' she said, in a voice which sounded somehow hollow.

They both stayed there, staring blankly at the screen and feeling desperately useless. Finally Sarah Jane turned and rushed out of the room. Absently Luke noted the sound of her footsteps ascending the stairs but he did not move, could not bring his eyes to leave the typed words, as if doing so would somehow be betraying his friend. If he'd been paying attention he might have wondered why his shoulders were suddenly shaking and a lump had appeared in his throat.

. . . .

Mr Smith was quickly able to scan every data bank for US hospitals and locate one Maria Jackson, who'd been admitted to the Washington DC Central. He gave Sarah Jane a contact number and in minutes she was through.

''Hello, this is Sarah Jane Smith speaking. I'm calling about one of your patients, Maria Jackson...''

. . . .

The next twelve days passed slowly and painfully. They told Clyde and Rani the next day, and Clyde had let his emotional barrier down far enough to show he really cared, while Rani, who didn't know Maria or Alan but had heard so much about them seemed to grieve as much as the others.

Luke's schoolwork slid as he found himself unable to think of anything but Maria, while Clyde's teachers were astonished at the drastic improvement in his classwork as the teenager suddenly began to apply himself fully in order to leave less time for him to be thinking about her. Haresh Chandra was surprised when his daughter burst into tears at the dinner table at his suggestion that something terrible must have happened to the Joker in the Pack for him to suddenly become the model student. Sarah Jane spent her days clearing out the second spare room and checking the fire alarm periodically until Mr Smith informed her that he would alert her of any technical failure before any harm could be caused.

The hospital's liaison committe phoned Sarah Jane back and it was arranged that Maria would board a plane bound for England that weekend.

. . . .

When Luke had imagined their first meeting with Maria since she'd left for Washington he'd pictured a lively, happy reunion and the exchange or news. Instead when they reached the airport they greeted the broken shell of the girl they'd known, seemingly smaller, hair hiding half her face, clutching her suitcase as if it were a lifeline.

She collapsed into Sarah Jane's arms and Luke could only watch as his friend fell apart. He picked up the suitcase and walked in front of them back to the car park, steady pace anchoring him somehow, as if that could keep him from going under.

Maria sat next to him in the backseat of the car and, not knowing what to say, he tried to avoid her gaze. He couldn't resist glancing at her a few times, though, the excitement of being next to her again overcoming even this gravest of situations for a moment.

She caught his eye and gave a half-smile. ''Hello, Luke.''

He tried to smile back but couldn't. ''Hello.'' He paused, feeling he should add something but having no clue what. ''I...'' he began, but trailed off.

''You don't have to say anything,'' she said quietly, and slipped the hand nearest him towards his own.

He curved his fingers around hers tentatively, felt her grip tighten. They stayed like this for the rest of the journey home.

. . . .

The second spare room, which Sarah Jane had cleared out for Maria, was the one adjoining Luke's, which had been the first spare room. Luke watched from the doorway as Maria took the few belongings he had out of her case and put them in the chest of drawers. One she'd finished she sat down on the bed and rested her chin on her clasped hands.

Unsure if it was the right thing to do but acting on instinct, Luke came to sit beside her and she rested her head on his arm. He could have kicked himself for flinching slightly but soon forgot this thought as he realised she was sobbing into his shoulder and he had no idea what to do about it.

In the end he did nothing, and stayed sitting there until she had finished, hating himself for being unable to help.

. . . .

AN: I've been waiting to post this for some time, but wanted to wait 'til I'd finished one of my other in-progs, cuz I'm a bad person and I start lost and finish few. But, yeah...I'd appreciate some feedback on this one as I wasn't sure about posting it. Updates will be slow but they will come, peace out! :)