I know I haven't updated in a long time, I'm sorry. I kind of lose the incentive when I feel like people aren't enjoying the story any more, but there were a few people who read and reviewed loyally through the entire fanfiction – to name a few, LuckyStars14 and Stevie Radleigh, and obviously Never-Clip-My-Wings-x – and I think anyone reading this really deserves another chapter.

How wonderfully wacky is Waterloo Road in Scotland? Can't wait for Heather Peace to come back. All is not lost – Tom&Nikki WILL get it on.

She was paler than he remembered her. And smaller. In sleep, even the strongest men seemed small, their fingers tucked into fists and their mouths lolling open slightly.

Nikki's hair fell like a blanket over her face, shielding her eyes from the harsh glare of the hospital lights, or perhaps hiding her from Tom.

He sank down into a chair beside her bed, because he wasn't sure how long his legs could hold him up, and he felt himself shift slightly as Josh sat down too. He could feel his son's gaze burning into the side of his face, asking so many questions to which there were no answers, or no simple answers, anyway.

"Get out of my face, Dad," Josh moaned sometimes, "I'm 18. I'm a big boy now – I can look after myself."

Maybe that was true, but at the moment Josh needed protecting whatever he said. Tom only wished someone was here to protect him. Sometimes you got sick of being the adult, the one everyone relied upon; sometimes you needed to curl up in a ball and sob into the carpet and be comforted by someone else.

Sometimes, when you'd avoided the truth for so long, you stopped remembering someone for who they were, and started remembering them for who you thought they were, or who they could have been.

Tom had allowed himself to forget Nikki's frailty, brushed away her sharp temper, the way she locked herself away from the world; he'd focused on the way her lips curled up softly when she was happy, on how wonderful and natural and complete it had felt when he'd held her in his arms.

So sitting here now beside her, seeing her for who she was again (although he wasn't sure he knew who she really was, even now); it felt like a bit of a shock.

He shook her arm gently, "Nikki?"

Her fingers fluttered under the blanket, then fell back down. He leant over and brushed her hair from her face, and saw the dried blood staining her cheeks, the way one of her beautiful eyes was completely swollen up. Her neck was slashed, the ugly stitches holding the skin together making her look like she was in a movie. He was frightened of what lay further down, beneath the blankets.

But then there was always something deeper, something you didn't notice; you gradually peeled away layers, like with an onion, and every time you cried a little bit more. With Nikki, the pain was almost ceaseless.

"Nikki? I'm here," he took her hand, very gently, the way he'd taken Josh's hand when his son had first woken up after the incident – as it was referred to – in the toilets with Nikki. That felt like a while ago now. "I'm here now."

"Tom," she whimpered.

"Yeah. And Josh is here."

She looked up at him pleadingly with one eye, as though she wanted to say so much, but couldn't manage any of it.

"I know," he said, "I'm sorry too."

"Josh," she tried to lift her other hand towards him, "How– how are you?"

"Good. I've been taking my medicine. The shrink is pleased with me."

"My boy." Her voice was croaky, the way a proud mother's might be when she wrapped her arms around her son as he returned from war. Her hero. Josh was Nikki's son now, really, wasn't he?

"It's okay, Nikki," Josh said. Tom smiled at the way his son spoke that word, remembering how it had always been 'Miss' before. "It's going to be okay."

"I know. It will be."

"Does it hurt?" Tom asked.

"A bit."

"You should've told us. You shouldn't have suffered on your own. I would always have been there for you; I would've done anything to–"

"Tom," she whispered, and he realised he had tears streaming down his face, suddenly, like someone had flicked the switch on the waterfall, "I know. That's why I couldn't; I didn't want you– I didn't want to hurt you."

"You think this doesn't hurt?"

"Dad," Josh pleaded.

"No, he's right, Josh," she said, "I know. I was a coward. And the thing is, when I've got... when I've got you two, I don't want to die. It's just a... it's something I've always been bad at: admitting I need help. I only wanted to protect you both."

"I know," Tom said. He kept hold of Nikki's hand, and brought it up very gently to his face, kissing her fingers, then wiping away his tears with them.

Her lips somehow managed to form the ghost of a smile, "It's taken me a while to– to get through to your... to your soft side, Mr Clarkson."

His tears tasted salty, "Oh, shush."

"Can you two be romantic later, please?"
"Sorry, son," Tom said, "Look, I'm going to go and clean myself up a bit. Just promise me you won't do anything like that ever again, Nikki. I can't cope with thinking you feel like that."

"I'm sorry."

"Promise?"

"I promise."

"Okay," he kissed her forehead, pushed back his chair and left the room.

For a while, Josh didn't say anything else. He wasn't sure what there was to say, really. He reached out for the glass of water on the bedside table and helped Nikki drink through the straw, supporting her head.

"Do you miss your mum, Josh?"

He blinked. "Sometimes."

"You know, I wouldn't ever try to replace her. If you don't like me being with your dad, like... well, in a romantic way, then..."

"No. I mean, I do like it. I like you being with us. I like it when we have pizza, and when we can chat about how the day's gone. I like you helping me with my homework, and how you're always there if I need to tell someone something."

She lay back again, "I'm glad."

"And I like how you make my dad happy."

"He makes me happy too."

"That's okay, then," Josh said, "I don't miss my mum because she was a good person. I miss her because she was my mum – you know, even if someone is horrible, you can still love them."

"I understand that."

He nodded. He thought she did, and that was another thing he liked about Nikki. She really did understand things. "But I love you too. Like, you're sort of my mum now. I'd miss you, if you weren't here."

Nikki smiled and closed her other eye, and they didn't say anything else. Josh bent his head and she moved her fingers so that she was stroking his hair, very gently, and when Tom came back they were both sleeping, and Nikki didn't look quite so small any more.

XxXxX

Reviews would mean a lot to me!x