Chapter 37

Home empty-handed

Year of the Rooster

Saturday 20th August 2017

Three Anchor Bay, Cape Town

-10.04am

They didn't know what to do with themselves once they were back at Sara and Pieter's at last. It had been a long 24 hours, to say the least, because it had, it had been almost 24 since they had last been here, last been home, to where home was at the moment, at least. Thankfully there was no one around when they first arrived in through the door, the house was quiet; Nikki guessed everyone must be in the garden, down the bottom, out of the way. She knew Leo had phoned on ahead before they arrived back to update everyone: Janet, who had stayed behind with Jenna, Jasper and Jacob during the night of frantic searching, Martha and Zaretta, who had initially been out with the second search team but had been sent home for a break a few hours ago now, and Sara and Pieter's two sons Ethan and Callum, both who had been out all night and seemed somewhat reluctant to reveal where they had been.

No one wanted to say anything, of course, not to Sara and Pieter who had enough on their plates at the moment as it was, but the general consensus amongst the many guests currently spending more time at Sara and Pieter's house than they were was that the shock of Bai Lưu's attack on their mother and the consequent nerve damage and possible paralysis she was facing had caused them to go off of the rails a little. It was difficult to know what to do; Ethan and Callum Lamprecht were 17 and 15 years old respectively, old enough to know for themselves what appropriate behaviour was and what it wasn't, old enough to make their own decisions and face the consequences. Nikki certainly didn't feel that she was in any position to be asking them where they had been all night when they turned up the following morning dirty and dishevelled and smelling strongly of alcohol, not to press them and demand an answer when they refused point-blank to tell her, at least. That was for Pieter to be doing, not her, as the only parent the boys had living with them at home at the moment. The only issue with that of course was that Pieter had barely been at the family home either over the past few days, had clearly been trying desperately to lose himself in work to take his mind off his wife being in hospital, her future and chance of recovery still uncertain. Had he even noticed the change in his sons' behaviour? Nikki wasn't entirely sure, but she didn't want to be the one to tell him.

Walking down the hallway into the kitchen, hand clutched tightly in Harry's, both of them still shaking considerably, felt horribly to Nikki like walking through a ghost house. She had been to this house countless times over the past few years but never before had she known it to be so quiet; it was rather eerie. Everyone had thought it best to keep out of hers and Harry's way, she supposed, knowing what had happened, that once more they were returning still as a couple, a couple very much in love but still not the family they should be. Just that mere mention of the word 'family' even to herself, within her own thought process, was enough to bring tears to Nikki's eyes once more, just when she had thought she had no more left to shed.

Why had she allowed herself to cling to the hope within her that this time around it was all going to work out, that this time she was going to get her daughter back at last? Why hadn't she kept her feet on the ground a little, reminded herself that this was Bai Lưu and the Phoenix Movement they were dealing with, that there was a very great possibility that it was all going to go horribly wrong? She had known from past experience that the harder she clung onto the hope, the more painful it would be if it didn't work out the way she so desperately needed it to, but still she had done it, hadn't been able to help herself. Which meant that now it was all over as far as the Phoenix Movement and Bai Lưu was concerned, in the aftermath, the pain she felt was worse than ever before.

Because the fact that it was over, that the man who had raped her six and a half years ago was now dead and the movement who had all but forced him to do it was captured at would be brought to justice at last… surely she should be happy now that it was all over? Except that she couldn't be. Not while her baby was still missing.

She wanted nothing more than to lock herself away and breakdown and cry, to scream and curse at the world and the unfairness of it all, but Nikki couldn't of course, she knew she couldn't. Not just because it was still possible that Joycelin might be found, that she was going to be no good to her as a mother if she was a quivering wreck, but also because Harry was struggling to cope this time around far more than ever before. All through the past three years of hell Harry had been her rock, held her together through the worst of it all, but this latest development in the search for their daughter seemed to have proven too much to bear. Nikki couldn't recall ever in all her years of knowing Harry Cunningham ever seeing him cry even half as much as he had in the past 12 hours, since Anton Radebe had shot Bai Lưu dead before he'd had the chance to reveal where he had left Joycelin.

Anton… Bai… it was horrible, it was all just horrible. Nikki shuddered at the mere thought of it as she filled the kettle, before leaning back into Harry's warm embrace and wrapping her arms around his neck tightly, holding him close. Leo seemed to have disappeared; off out into the garden, Nikki suspected, to give them some time alone to grieve, to rage, whatever they needed to do. Leo had his own experience of losing a child, of course, as Nikki remembered only too well, but it was far from the same. Not to say that the pain she and Harry felt at losing Joycelin was any greater than the pain he must have felt at losing Cassie, nor vice versa, that wasn't what Nikki meant at all. It was simply a completely different situation. The grief concerned was not comparable, not in the slightest, but that was not to mean that Leo didn't understand, couldn't relate to the pain Harry and Nikki were experiencing. Somehow he always seemed to know exactly what to do at any given moment, had done all night long during the search of Three Anchor Bay with the police team. He had known when to give them space and when they needed him there, which questions to burden them with and which to come up with a solution to himself. Not for the first time, Nikki had found herself immensely grateful to have him as her friend.

"Nikki?" Harry's voice was barely a whisper as he called her name softly, sadly, perhaps making a conscious effort to keep his voice quiet because he didn't trust himself not to break down once more. It was horrible seeing him like that, Nikki pondered, horrible seeing him so visibly distraught and knowing that there wasn't a thing she could do about it. The only thing which would make it all better would be to have their daughter back again, the one thing Nikki couldn't give him no matter how badly she wanted to be able to, how badly she wanted it herself. The last time Harry had seen Josi had been when she was not even 3 months old, still a tiny baby fresh out of the special care unit; they had only had her at Martha's with them a couple of weeks before she had been snatched from them. Harry had missed out on even more of their daughter's life than Nikki had; whether that made it better or worse for him under the circumstances, Nikki honestly didn't know. She didn't really want to think about it.

At the sound of her name Nikki looked up into her partner's eyes, sympathetically, doing her best to hold herself together for his sake. She couldn't stand to see Harry so emotionally distraught again, not for a while, at least. Harry reached out tenderly to tuck a stray curl of hair behind her ear, hand lingering on her cheek for a moment before he pulled her in closer still, rested his chin on the crown of her head.

"I'm so sorry," he whispered into her hair, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "I'm so, so sorry for breaking down like that."

"It's alright," Nikki assured him softly, tightening her hold on him a little. "Harry, there's no need to apologise, absolutely no need. God knows I've fallen to pieces on you enough times."

"I know," Harry sighed, voice more than a little pained. "I know. But… but you're her mother, I mean, it's got to be worse if…"

"And you're her dad," Nikki said firmly, knowing exactly where this conversation was headed, why he was feeling guilty, and determined to stop it in its tracks. "And you're her dad, Harry, biological or not. You're a thousand times better a father than that horrible man, the best daddy she could ever hope for, I promise. I know you love her like your own biological child Harry, I know, so what does it matter if she's not? She's just as much your baby as she's mine, so don't you ever think even for a second you've got less of a right to fall to pieces and grieve than I have, OK? Promise me? We're her parents, Harry, we both love her unconditionally. That's all that matters."

Harry just nodded; his eyes swimming once more as he tightened his embrace on Nikki once more until she was so close to him she could have sworn she could feel his heart beating in synch with hers. "I know," he whispered softly, "I know. How are you coping?"

"I'm OK." Somehow Nikki just knew that he wasn't talking about Joycelin anymore, he was talking about the other revelation of the previous evening, the one which had left her completely shell-shocked, almost a little numb. The idea of Bai Lưu and her mother… that was going to take her a long, long time to even begin to get her head around it all, Nikki suspected. At the time when Bai Lưu had first revealed his relationship with her mother to her it had thrown Nikki completely, reduced her to tears, threatened to shatter her world into tiny pieces. Her mother had been raped, he mother had been raped by the same man who had raped her, fathered her child, biologically speaking only, but still… when she had first found out the mere thought of it had made her want to vomit. But not long after she had been confronted with that harsh reality, Anton Radebe had pulled the trigger of his police issue shot gun and Bai Lưu had fallen to the ground, and from that moment on Nikki had been preoccupied with far bigger issues. At this moment in time it upset her, hugely so, but she hadn't the time or the energy to let it get to her too much, to deal with it just yet, not whilst her daughter was still missing. It was all going to hit her later, she knew it, painfully so and so much harder than it would have had she simply dealt with it here and now. But that wasn't an option, she couldn't let it beat her, Nikki knew she had to hold herself together for her daughter for the time being.

"I'm OK," Nikki insisted again, seeing the sceptical look on Harry's face. "I'm fine, honestly, I… I just want to focus on finding her," she sighed softly, knowing that Harry would pick up on the change of 'her' whom she was talking about.

"I know," Harry sighed, eyes swimming with fresh tears once more. "I know. God, I wish I could just tell you that it's all going to be OK and we'll get her back but I know there's no way…"

But Harry never got to finish his sentence. Because at that moment the landline began to ring, caused them both to jump a little, alarmed at the harsh electronic bleeping interrupting their peace and quiet, a peace and quiet filled with uncertainty and dread but a peace and quiet all the same. It was Nikki who jolted herself into action first and shuffled tiredly, emotionally and physically drained from the drama and trauma of the night before across the room to pick up the phone.

"Hello?"

Harry watched Nikki anxiously as she listened to whoever it was on the other end of the line, trying to pick up hints from her body language, her facial expressions, anything which might give him a clue as to who it was who was calling. It couldn't be about Joycelin, Harry tried to assure himself, the police would have tried his and Nikki's mobiles first before they called the landline. He found himself pulling his mobile from his pocket at that point even though he knew only too well that had there been a message, a phone call then he would have heard it, Nikki would have heard it too. Sure enough, no messages.

So it wasn't about Josi… was that good news or bad news? Harry wasn't sure. In some ways no news was good news of course, but at the same time he couldn't quite get the 48 hour rule out of his mind. More than 12 of those hours were gone already now, and then of course there was the fact that Bai Lưu had taken Josi wherever the bloody hell he'd left her the morning of handover day, the Friday, which meant she'd been hidden away all alone god only knew where for more than 24 hours now… poor baby, 24 hours was a horribly long time for a six year old to be all by herself. She must be terrified… Harry didn't even want to think about that, it was too painful. But then he supposed she had been forced to witness far worse things over the past six years… what exactly that might have been Harry really, really didn't want to think about at all.

"What?"

Nikki's startled tone pulled Harry from his thoughts, brought him back down to earth with a thump. His girlfriend of the last 6 years, love of his life, was still stood in the corner by the kitchen table, phone held to one ear, an expression on her face which Harry couldn't quite place. It was a curious mixture of fear, shock, horror, confusion and guilt; yes, that was the best way Harry could describe it, with the grief and the trauma and the heartache of their long night searching for their daughter in vain mixed in along with it.

And then Nikki froze for a moment, let out a soft exclamation of shock, a gasp and a sob merged into one. She leant back heavily against the kitchen table, looked across the room at Harry and met his gaze with wide, fearful glazed-over eyes, lips quivering a little.

If that wasn't a warning sign to Harry that something was horribly, terribly wrong, then nothing ever would be.

I told you I'd be better next time :) I wasn't going to upload this until tomorrow, but it's now a reward for Lizzi and Issy for staying off the internet and revising all day :) Thank you so much to everyone who reviewed despite the horrifically long gap between updates: Amy, Abbie, Scarletpoppy, Lizzi, Dinabar, Emma and Carriad1987, you guys are seriously amazing, honestly, I can't thank you enough. Please keep reviewing! :P

More soon, promise, the next chapter is already written :P

Love Flossie xxx