TITLE: THE ONE CONSTANT

AUTHOR: MINN

DISCLAIMER: I don't own nothin' - mores the pity - just playing. No character was really harmed during the typing of this nonsense. The creators of Third Watch are, of course, gods

CHEERS! to all the kind folks who said such nice things about my maiden outing "Grace", and about the follow-up-story-that-isn't-really, "The Replacement".

EXPLAINATION: This here tale gets into the nuts and bolts of how Gracie came to be. If you have no idea who Gracie is, it might pay you to have a wee looksee at my other stories "Grace" and "The Replacement", which basically lead up to this here offering.

FORGIVE ME!: Everything I write I can guarantee is the work of my own sick and twisted little mind - but if anything I write does resemble something that's gone before I can assure you it's pure coincidence - (hangs head in shame) because I don't actually READ much fic (sorry to all the wonderful authors on this site!) But have had occasion to catch up with a few stories recommended by others and have enjoyed them immensely. (Can I stop greasing now?) Also, if you see a phrase or a word that seems a bit odd it's because I'M FOREIGN! New Zealand English is a WHOLE different animal - but I've tried to be careful.

SOMETHING ELSE TO NOTE: Season Four of Third Watch hasn't started screening in New Zealand yet so I haven't actually seen the 'new improved' Fr*d or The Anti Cruz. I promise I will do rewrites the MINUTE I do get the opportunity to see them, but in the meantime I beg your collective indulgence on this - if these two characters sound a little "off" in this fic, don't worry - I'll fix the blighters eventually! And so on with the show...

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THE ONE CONSTANT

Part 2

It was some time before Faith felt composed enough to return to the gathering. She would have preferred to hide out in the room with just Gracie for company, and she supposed no one would have blamed her. They would have understood. But she felt a keen sense of obligation to them all, no doubt driven by the sense of guilt she could not shake.

Well-wishers making polite inquiries after Grace Eve set her on edge the minute she rejoined them. Her relatives, Fred's relatives, assorted friends and colleagues were all suddenly like strangers she could hardly bear to be in the same room with. At a time when intellectually she knew she needed all the support they were offering her, she felt herself recoiling from it.

Faith's growing sense of agitation was not quieted any when she caught sight of the look Emily was giving her from across the room.

Charlie appeared by his mother's side and wrapped his arms around her in a tight, needy embrace.

"You OK?" she asked quietly, stroking his hair.

He nodded but clung to her grimly.

Emily watched and Faith saw the look on the teenager's face darken.

Small talk with assorted relatives wiled some moments away, but Faith felt as if time was dragging its heels. She wanted to round everybody up and herd them out the door, by force if necessary, because no one looked as if the notion of leaving had even crossed their minds.

"They're just being supportive," she told herself. "You should be happy they care."

Faith noticed Emily had ranged closer. The look on her face made her uneasy; it was a look Faith had seen on the streets many a time, just before trouble came calling.

She watched as relatives of Fred's cornered Emily and began to make a fuss of her. As it had so often since her father's death, the attention brought her to tears. Faith relaxed a little as the dark look softened, but tensed again when the fuss was over. The hard, angry glare Emily reserved especially for her mother returned with a vengeance.

"Where's your gorgeous little sister?" the relative asked of Emily.

The teenager's expression became one of steely determination and it sent a chill through Faith.

"My sister?" Emily announced in a voice loud enough to reach all corners of the room. "Gracie's not my sister."

It seemed as if the whole room suddenly took a deep breath in.

"Emily..." said Faith quietly.

The hard glare intensified. "Why don't you tell them, mom?"

"Tell them what?" Faith asked calmly enough, though her voice threatened to betray the tension she felt.

"About Grace!" Emily snapped.

Faith took a step toward her.

"Go on, deny it, you bitch!" Emily raged. "If Grace is my sister, why the hell does she look so much like Bosco?"

Emily wasn't prepared for having her face slapped, especially not as soundly as it was. The hard look of anger was temporarily exchanged for an expression of surprise, but returned multiplied once the shock subsided.

When Faith spoke her voice trembled. "Get out of my sight."

"Go to hell!"

Emily fled the room and Faith, standing amongst those closest to Fred, earnestly wished she too could leave. But she stayed, taking deep breaths in an effort to regain her composure.

Faith looked around the room. The looks of compassion that had so irritated her before had suddenly become expressions of concern - and doubt. She turned to Charlie and was distressed to see a look of suspicion clouding his face too.

She thought of her beautiful daughter lying safe in her crib, blissfully unaware of the storm that was about to break over them both.

-

The door opened to reveal an elegant woman in her 60's.

"Manfred!" she smiled, enveloping the old man in her arms. "It's so good to see you!"

Manny returned the woman's embrace warmly. "And you, Isabelle. It's been too long."

"Too long," she agreed, letting her eyes travel to where Manny's companion stood gently rocking her fussing infant.

"Isabelle, this is Faith Yokas and her daughter Grace Eve. Faith, this is Isabelle Bryant."

Isabelle extended her hand and shook Faith's warmly.

"I'm pleased to meet you Faith," she said, smiling welcomingly.

"And you," Faith replied.

"Please, come in the both of you."

Isabelle's apartment was light and roomy, tastefully furnished and spotless. Faith felt the tension in her begin to ease a little as Isabelle bid them both to make themselves at home, chatting animatedly with Manny from the kitchen as she prepared coffee. As Manny had promised, Isabelle had an easy charm about her and Faith found her thoroughly likeable.

A beautiful coffee service was placed before them complete with a plate piled high with delicious looking pastries. For the first time that day Faith felt her appetite stir itself into life. Isabelle poured the coffee into delicate cups and presented each of her guests with one. She placed Faith's on the coffee table in front of her as Faith continued her attempts to pacify Gracie. Gracie, however, was not to be consoled.

"May I?" Isabelle asked.

Faith cast a glance at Manny.

"We didn't call Izzy the Miracle Worker for nothing, Faith," the old man chuckled, supping on his coffee like it was nectar.

Faith watched carefully as Isabelle gathered Gracie to her.

"She's so beautiful," Isabelle murmured.

"Everyone says that," Faith replied, sampling the coffee. It tasted every bit as good as it smelled.

Gracie's protesting began to ebb away and soon she was gazing up at Isabelle in total fascination.

"Told you," Manny murmured, reaching for a pastry.

"Wow," Faith said, genuinely surprised.

"What can I say?" Isabelle smiled, "It's a gift."

"One of many," said Manny.

"You're just an old charmer aren't you Manfred?"

Manny shrugged. "It's a gift."

Isabelle regarded Faith warmly. "Manfred tells me you need a place to stay for a while?"

Faith nodded sadly and stared down at the cup in her hand. "I don't know how long for. I'm hoping things will..."

Isabelle's eyes drifted in Manny's direction as the sentence was left unfinished.

"You're a friend of Manfred's Faith. You and Grace Eve are more than welcome to stay for as long as you need to."

Faith looked at her daughter, who lay happily gazing up at Isabelle, her tiny fist clamped around the woman's index finger. Gracie was an excellent judge, and if her daughter was happy, that was good enough for Faith.

Later that evening she sat quietly listening as Manny and Isabelle shared stories of their experiences at the high school where they had both taught almost 30 years before. The meal they had just shared had been as delicious as it was substantial, and Faith's appetite had surprised her with its enthusiasm.

Manny raised his wineglass in a toast. "To Izzy. Still the finest cook in New York City - dare I even say, the world."

Faith raised her orange juice. "It was a great meal, Isabelle. Thank you."

Isabelle waved a dismissive hand at them both. "All my life I longed to be able to paint like a great Master. And then I realised - my talent lies firmly in the kitchen."

"And we're so grateful that it does, my dear," Manny chuckled.

"You're too kind," said Isabelle theatrically.

Manny watched Faith picking at the edge of the napkin that lay across her plate.

"Did little Gracie settle alright?" he asked.

"Eventually," Faith replied quietly. "She was a bit grumpy but it's been a long day for her...and new surroundings. A lot's happened around her just lately."

"She is such a sweetheart," Isabelle enthused.

"Fred adored her..." Faith was suddenly very still.

Isabelle cast an inquiring look Manny's way, but Manny gently shook his head.
Faith, however, caught the look.

"There's a few things you should know, Isabelle," she said.

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to Faith."

"I think it's best..." she replied quietly, taking a deep breath in. "To cut a really long story short, I buried my husband Fred yesterday."

"Oh my dear," Isabelle whispered.

Faith's face became an expressionless mask. "After the funeral my daughter Emily decided everyone should know that Gracie isn't Fred's daughter. This morning my father told me I was nothing but a worthless slut and he wasn't about to have someone else's bastard living under the same roof with him. My other children wouldn't talk to me, and my mother left the house early and told me not to be there when she got back." Her voice began to falter. "I couldn't face going back to my own apartment...too many memories..."

Isabelle nodded understandingly. "Your friends? They wouldn't help you?"

"I didn't like to ask - most of them have known me and Fred forever, you know? I couldn't face them..."

Isabelle nodded and glanced at Manny once more. "And Gracie's father?"

Faith shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "He's...gone," she murmured. "No one knows where he is. He doesn't even know Gracie's his."

After a moment's anguished silence, Faith rose from the table. "I think I'll turn in now..."

"Of course" said Isabelle, watching as Faith hugged Manny and then bid them both goodnight.

They watched her go, and it seemed to them as if Faith carried the weight of the world upon her shoulders.

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TBC - Assume nothing!