This was the last time she was going to see him. Be with him. Once he and Taz were reunited, Steph would be the third wheel. They were strong though. She was weak, despite what he'd said. Nothing would be the same from this moment on. In all likelihood it had been ruined the moment she'd made her drunken confession. I couldn't possibly have sex with you, wasn't going to strengthen a relationship or take it to the next level. The invitations to dinner would dry up, that was for sure. They weren't going to be keen on sharing food with the crowbar that had forced them apart. The sledgehammer which had attempted to smash their relationship. Steph was happy for them though. It seemed unexplainable. Was she becoming less toxic? It didn't fit with her self image at all. Selfish was her middle name. Self obsessed was her natural state. John was talking. To himself. Itemizing things. Unconnected incidents and thoughts. Steph wrapped her soul in his pleasant voice for the last time. "Why do you do that?" She asked, in an attempt to interact with him before it was too late. It had been too late before he carried her to her bed last night. "List all those things about Taz and Bella." John gave a wry smile along with a shrug. "It's how I work as an analyst. Collect all the facts. Even those which don't seem connected to the problem. Statistics is great if you're dealing with a large number of things or people. When it comes down to the individual though it's a lot more difficult. It's another reason I still do all those adult education courses. It's amazing how often the things I learn from them can help me with my work. Learning to dance helped me discover my first galaxy." He was a bit manic right now. John drummed on the dashboard nervously. "What do you think I should say to her? How do I make Taz believe in me again?" This was new. She'd seen him undecided about something, never uncertain. The tidal wave Steph had caused was disturbing him. She owed him something. She owed him everything. "She's always believed in you John." It was the first wise thing she'd ever said. "She's told me something about her life before meeting you. It must have been so hard for her to trust you, but she did." John looked at her for the first time since they'd set off. "But supposing I've broken that trust. I mean I didn't tell her what I was up to. I didn't out and out lie to her, but I didn't tell her the truth. That's just as bad. I should have come clean from the start. Then as things progressed I had a hundred opportunities to let her know I was hoping to adopt her. I got selfish to, you know. I watched all the videos on YouTube, where foster parents adopted the child placed with them. They looked so happy. But of course they wouldn't post the ones where they went berserk or rejected the move." Oh Jesus, she'd contaminated him with her self doubt. Being with her had taken the shine off his life. It would have been better if she'd simply tossed acid in his face. Steph placed her right hand on his knee. Gave it a squeeze. Snatched her arm back before she could infect him. "I know you'll both get through this little hiccup. The two of you only need a bit of space." She could feel his eyes on her. "Thank you for being a good friend." She almost choked on that. Steph could feel the pressure in her eyes and chest. Yes, friends is all they could ever be. Thanks to her. The downpour continued to gain in strength. It was July after all. So you had to expect torrential monsoon rain. The water was already inches deep on some of the roads. Small rivers had formed and a few raging torrents. One of which was rushing through the car park outside the local nick as they drew up. Some of the search party were already there. Sheltering under the canopy outside the main entrance. Steph parked in the only space she could find. Four inches of water flowing by her driver side door and heading into the overwhelmed drain. Even jumping from the car her feet got wet. She locked it, heading over to where her former friends were now congregated. Fortunately they all ignored her, instead they chattered to John. Karen was already inside. They weren't allowing the rest of them in. Possibly afraid there might be some civil disturbance. Not that it mattered for long. The locked entry door blared and the opened. Karen letting John in. The others followed, without invitation. Only the women though. Steph found herself carried along with them. She lingered by the door as the others headed to the front desk, where a harassed constable was using the phone to summon his superior. His face went white when he saw the mob approaching. The young man gabbled into the receiver before placing it back on the phone cradle. Karen towered over him. At just over six foot and wearing three inch heeled boots, she towered over most people. John stood beside her a look of determination on his face. "The sergeant will be here shortly. Now if those who aren't directly concerned, could wait outside please." Marcie folded her arms, glaring at him. "Not a chance. We're not leaving without Taz. If we have to we'll link arms and do a sit in. Helen, if they try to force us out call the news media. They'll love this. The police fitting up a young black girl for a crime she didn't commit." The constables face went red this time. Before he could issue a denial, the door behind him opened. The sergeant stepped through, spotted Karen then palmed his face. "Oh Christ it's you." He moaned. "Sergeant Bill Cotter." She responded. "How are you doing these days? If I didn't know better I'd think you didn't like me." He moved up behind the desk tossing a folder onto it. "I was doing alright until you turned up Karen. I'm still dealing with the carnage you've inflicted on half a dozen officers. PTSD, after being cross examined by you. Poor sods still don't know which way is up. I shouldn't do this, but because it's you, take a look." He turned the folder round for Karen. She opened it then read the notes thoroughly. Flicking backwards and forwards a couple of times before dropping them back in front of the sergeant. "So let me get this straight Bill. Do correct me if I'm wrong. You've got a fifteen year old girl in a holding cell. A child you've kept alone and locked up for hours, for a minor shoplifting offence. The only reason she was caught, being her returning the stolen item and confessing. Thanks to you we can all sleep safe in our beds. As long as no one mugs or rapes us. Is she really a danger to the public, or am I missing something?" "Look. It's not my fault Karen. She's on the at risk register. We were asked to bring her into protective custody by the local authority. They've got a social worker on the way. There's nothing I can do until he or she arrives." Karen folded her arms, shaking her head. "Oh Bill you disappoint me. This gentleman is John Bennett, legal guardian of Tamsin Aleisha May Clarke, not Fagin. He's not training a team of pickpockets and petty thieves. He's a well respected professional with impeccable credentials. Someone who has been checked on every possible database for even the most minor of offences, and found clean." Karen's eyes sparkled. "Now tell me Bill, if this was some white upper middle class woman who'd been caught with a frozen chicken stuffed in her pocket, would you be holding her or would you have simply issued a caution or warning?" "She's not in a holding cell. She's in an interview room with a WPC. My hands are tied here Karen. I have to keep her here until the social worker from child services have interviewed her. If I don't there'll be hell to pay." She leaned on the desk with both hands. "I want you to think for a minute Bill, who would you rather lock horns with? An overworked, stressed out social worker with too many cases? Or me? How long are they likely to be anyway." "They're busy. Two or three hours they said." Bill stroked his chin, he was thinking. "I could let you in to see her I suppose. As her legal counsel I'd have to. Of course you'd have to sign in to do so." The lawyer chuckled. Grabbed the sergeant by the cheeks kissing him on the top of his head. "Clever boy. Tell me where to sign and I'll go interview my client." While he sorted the paperwork, Karen and John conferred. She asked him if there was anything he needed her to say to Taz. "I'm a bit of a mess as it is. I love her. I always will love her. She's family. I trust you, you'll know what to say." They hugged warmly. Karen followed the sergeant back through the door after signing in. Then they waited. Five minutes became ten minutes, became days. Stephanie still hung back. An observer, because that's all she was worthy of being. The others were supporting John. Comforting him and telling him everything would be alright. It was still quite tense though. Until the door opened again and a sheepish Taz stepped through. Her eyes downcast, she risked a peep at John. Breaking into a huge smile which faded momentarily. "Is it true?" She asked him. "You want to be my dad?" "If you'll let me, nothing would please me more. It would be the happiest moment of my life." There. That was it. Steph had been forgotten. As should be the case, given the havoc she'd wrought. The agony she'd inflicted. There they all were and kissing and cheering as the young girl was welcomed back into the fold. There they were. The two of them. Staring at one another with undying love in their eyes. Shining out of them like e beacon. All that warmth while she was cold. Alone forever. It would be best if she sneaked away now. John and Taz could catch a lift with one of the others. Steph's eyes stung. Her vision blurring. Then the hostile crowd turned towards her. All those eyes with unreadable expressions. She sniffed. Scraped at her face as the liquid leaked from her eyes. "I wish you'd never made me fall in love with you." The dam had broken. Those tears she hadn't cried, because she didn't cry. There was nothing she could do to prevent it from pouring out now though. She'd held it back for so long her strength had finally failed. "I'm nothing. I'm filth. He knew it. Why couldn't you see it? When I said I couldn't sleep with you... I didn't mean... What's the use? You hate me because I'm hateful. I'm infectious and unclean. That fucker... When he dumped me, he left me a parting gift. Antibiotic resistant gonorrhea. It was a real bad one to. It wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't gone crazy. I got drunk every night. Slept with two men, giving it to them. Boy did they not like that. It would have been three only it hurt so much I couldn't fuck him even pissed out of my skull. Now I just freeze up. I can't be intimate with a man anymore because I can't stand the pain. So that's it. I'm unclean. A filthy dirty whore who's incapable of having sex. I could tell you about all the chemicals they had to put in me to treat it. How sick they made me. It doesn't matter though, because I deserved all that suffering. Now you know. My dirty secret. Patient zero in a public health crisis. Why did you make me love you, when I'm not fit to be loved?" Steph, tears pouring from her eyes, spun round heading for the exit. Thunder and lightning, dark skies and torrential rain. Even God couldn't wash away her filth.