15. Enter the lioness' den.
"How's that coffee?" Mason asks as he sips from his own to go cup. His other hand steers his car down my street.
He has been incredibly attentive all morning; making sure that I was fed and comfortable. He even laid out a pair of his joggers and a t-shirt for me to wear as I had no clothes. As we left his flat, he bought us coffee from the shop over the road. I'm grateful that he did as I'm barely awake. I hardly slept last night; my mind running in circles. All I saw when I closed my eyes was the house and the flames.
I turn in the leather seat to look over at Mason. "It's good."
He hums, glancing at me briefly, "And how are you?"
"You've asked me that five times this morning," I reply.
"I'll keep asking until you answer me honestly."
"I'll be okay." I say, squinting my eyes from the sun. It glares through his window, hitting me directly.
As I blink away the haze it leaves behind, Mason brings the car to a stop. We're parked across the street from my house. I swear the air surrounding us still burns the back of my throat as I inhale; the effects of the fire reminding me of what happened. Suddenly, I'm back here, it's dark and the twins are nowhere to be found. I wince at the memory and take a tentative step forward. Mason notices my reluctance and circles the car to reach me, placing his arm around my shoulders.
We both look towards the house.
I don't know what I had been expecting to find, but a shadow of black, charred ash surrounding the windows wasn't it. It looks as though some sort of monster is reaching out to us. The exterior of downstairs doesn't look damaged, but the door is decorated in police tape.
My shoulders slump forward. I tried really hard to make the little place a home for the twins and now what?
"The upstairs isn't safe but we can have a look downstairs, if you want?"
I nod softly and follow his lead. The front door isn't locked, but the tape hasn't been disturbed so I can only assume it hasn't been ransacked. Mason crouches down, stepping through and then helps me to do the same. Once we're inside, I take in my surroundings.
The stairs that sit directly in front of the door look like the ascent into hell with the top steps being black. I drag my eyes away from it, following Mason through to the living room. It looks as I left it and that's what scares me. It's as though nothing has happened here. The dark marks on the ceiling suggest something different.
I walk towards the fireplace, my hands intent on finding the framed photograph of myself, Rowan and James. It was taken by my mum the last time she visited. We took the twins to the zoo and had a blast. I draw it into my chest, grateful to see them, if not in the flesh.
Mason clears his throat behind me, "The guys found what caused the fire when they were doing their final checks."
I nod briefly, "Ava's pretty shaken up about it." I clutch the photograph and approach him, "Let's get out of here. I need to see the twins."
Once we're back in the open air and are approaching the car, I hear my name being called out from behind me. I turn to find Ava in the doorway of her house, waving to me. With a quick, glance at Mason, I rush towards her.
"Hey, hun. How are you feeling today?" I ask as she steps out.
She looks as though she hasn't slept in all honesty.
"I keep thinking about the worse case scenario and how that would've made me a murderer. I'm a bit freaked out."
"Both of us should've checked the straighteners. It's alright, Avaline. The twins are fine, in fact, I'm about to go and pick them up from Joel's. Wish me luck."
She nods softly, eyes glancing behind me to where Joel stands.
"He saved James."
I too look back at him. My eyes meeting his as I say, "He did."
"I like him." Ava whispers before hugging me.
"Me too, Ava, me too. Now, go and get some sleep. I'll bring the twins around when you've got some. And don't think I won't know if you haven't. Your mum will tell me." I wink and pull out of her arms.
Mason smiles as I approach him a few minutes later. He opens the passenger side door for me.
"You don't mind taking me to Joel's do you? He's about twenty minutes away." I ask as he fills the driver's seat.
He shakes his head, "Why would I mind? I've already told you that I want to help."
"But... You spent last night saving my child and half of the night checking on me. You can't have slept much. You must be knackered."
"How do you know I checked on you?" He sets the car in drive and we head off down the road. "Were you not able to sleep?"
"I did for a while. I'm not complaining that you care, I'm not. It was nice knowing that you were there. Even if there was the other side of the door." I tease.
"Next time I'll have to come in."
My words are barely a whisper but the blush in Mason's cheeks tell me he heard them. With a soft grin, I turn to stare out of the window.
It's clear that the gated house we pull up to isn't Joel's. Chloe has a good job, so of course she can afford a place like this. It's brick, three-storeys and has a large, stone driveway. I feel underdressed for the occasion as I climb out of the car.
Mason and I agreed on the drive here that he was better staying in the car. The twins don't need to be confused today. I also would prefer not to introduce him to Joel just yet. My ex has a habit of being quite the ignorant bastard when it comes to the men in my life. So, I blow Mason a kiss before heading towards the door.
Chloe answers. She's dressed in a silk robe and fluffy, white slippers. Her hair is pushed back by a leopard print bandana. As she sees me she doubles over, her eyes widening.
"Hi, Veronica! How are you doing? Come in!" She gestures to her hands, "Sorry, we've been making pancakes this morning and the kids suggest we get our hands messy. That's why I won't hug you. Come in! Come in!"
I take a deep breath and enter the lionesses' den.
She leads me through a large foyer and into a kitchen. I am taken aback by the size of it. It's basically the size of the entire downstairs of my house. I would admire the glossed wood cupboards or the marble countertops, but my twins have seen me and are rushing across the black and white tiled floor.
"Mummy!" They reach me, throwing their small arms around me.
"How are my favourite people doing?" I ask, crouching down to tug them to my chest.
My heart feels physically lighter upon seeing the two of them.
"Oh, don't go getting her clothes covered in flour." Chloe speaks her disapproval from behind me but the three of us ignore her.
"How did you two sleep?" I ask knowing neither had their favourite teddyies with them for the first time.
"I missed Mason." Rowan pouts, her pretty eyes searching mine with childlike wonder.
Joel enters the kitchen, repeating his name.
"Morning, Joel." I stand up, taking the twins with me. Both cling to either side of my torso like baby monkeys.
My ex rounds the counter. He examines my outfit before meeting my eye. "Roni. Why does my daughter miss Mason?"
"Mason is her bunny rabbit." I reply with a snap.
Joel rolls his eyes.
"How's Mabel, mum?" James asks, twirling a strand of my hair in between his slim fingers.
"She's great. She's with Ava until we can find a place to put her."
"I'll pick the hamster up later and bring her here." Joel says.
"Here?" I ask, "Why would she come here?"
My ex bursts out laughing.
"Joel." Chloe shakes her head, "Come on you two, let's get dressed shall we?" She smiles at me before explaining, "My sister came around with a few of her children's clothes. For now they'll do."
I place the twins onto their feet and they rush off with Chloe.
"Joel, why do you look like the cat who got the cream?"
He grins, "I find it hilarious that you think you're going to be able to take the kids today. You have no place for them, Roni. They're staying here."
"Hold on. What makes you think I'd let them?"
"Maybe the fact that your babysitter burnt down your house." He responds.
Would I get away with smacking him around the head with Chloe's smoothie maker?
"Ava made a mistake. Don't think that you're keeping the twins, Joel. I have full custody until your stupid hearing."
"You have two weeks, Roni, but you have nowhere for them to sleep. Until you can promise me that they have a bed and a roof over their heads, they stay here."
"You're a fucking joke." I spit.
"Language." He narrows his eyes.
"I can't believe you."
"I can't believe you have your new fling sitting in my driveway waiting for you." He glances out of the kitchen window.
"He's a kind man. A much better person than you and he's only here because he cares about me." I attempt to fight back.
"I don't care, Roni. I want him off my property. You too."
His words are like a punch to the gut. I don't know how to respond. I once loved the man standing in front of me more than anything, but now all I see when I look at him is a coward who abandoned me when I needed him the most. I can't stand him and the fact that my twins share his DNA sickens me.
"I'll tell the twins you said goodbye."
With a defiant glare, I calm myself, "I'll say goodbye. You fucking dickhead." The latter leaves my lips as I step out of the kitchen.
I don't want to leave them, but if I spend another second with this man, I might end up in prison for manslaughter.
Mason and I have been back at his place for a few hours. Neither of us have spoken about what happened at Joel's. I don't want to tell him that my ex has full control over my children. It's too hard to think about as it is. He's aware about how upset I am, but doesn't question me on it.
Instead, he's been telling me about his job. The amount of hardwork a firefighter goes through to become one is astonishing.
"You really had to climb that many stairs?" I ask, taking the mug of tea out of his hands as he sits down by my side.
"Yep. I held the record for fastest climb for a good year."
"It was difficult, but yeah. That sense of accomplishment I got at the end was worth it." He explains.
"Wow. You're like a superhuman."
"Veronica, you're too kind!" He holds his chest in a dramatic fashion.
"What's the plan now then?" I ask.
"With the film or your children?" He replies cautiously.
He raises an eyebrow, "You'll get them back, I promise. I'll help."
"Oh yeah?" I nudge his shoulder with my own as we get comfortable.
"I've found a place they can stay."
I nearly spit my tea in his face.
A slow laugh greets my ears as he takes in my expression. He wraps his free arm around my shoulders, "Relax, Veronica. I'm not asking you to move in. I'm just suggesting it because I have a busy work week ahead and that will give them the time to get comfortable here without me bothering them."
I rest my cheek against his chest, "Can I think about it?"
"Of course. Now, San Andreas or The day after tomorrow?"
Mason's collection of disaster films mystifies me.
I take a sip of tea and reply,
"The Rock all the way."