The Road Back Home

Part 18-25

by Lynne Norris

May 2001


Chapter Eighteen



"I can't believe Michael would do something like that to his brother." Robert rubbed his forehead in agitation and leaned against the kitchen counter. Nothing prepared him for Michael's bitter resentment and violent outburst towards his brother, earlier in the evening. He wanted to bridge the gap between himself and Jeff but the evening only made the chasm seem wider.

"What's not to believe?" Alice shook her head in dismay and slumped into a chair at the kitchen table. She set her head in her hands and groaned. "Don't you understand I taught him it was okay to treat Jeff differently by throwing him out of the house?"

Robert gulped down a mouthful of scotch to calm his ragged nerves before he crossed the room to stand beside his wife. "If that's the case, then we're both to blame."

Caroline looked up from her seat on the other side of the wooden table. After shifting Zachary in her arms, she leaned forward and grasped the older woman's forearm with her hand, pulling Alice's hand away from her face.

"I know you both and you did not teach him to be violent. Mike's always had a temper. When he feels threatened he acts like a cornered animal and comes out with his claws bared."

"What was so threatening about asking our oldest son to come home?" Alice asked. "I don't understand."

Caroline released Alice's arm and sat back in her chair. "Maybe it's all those memories he's stored up since he was a kid. I told Alex and Regina earlier, he felt like his relationship with you, would somehow change if Jeff came home and you accepted him back into the family."

They all looked up at once as they heard footsteps approaching on the hardwood floor from the hallway.

Realizing they were talking about him and Michael, Jeff stopped just inside the doorway, unsure of what to do. He looked hesitantly at both his parents and then at Caroline.

"I just wanted to get some coffee." He motioned awkwardly with his hand and walked over to where the pot was sitting on the counter.

"There's some ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet if you need it." Alice turned in her chair to look at her son. The entire evening it felt like her heart was breaking as she realized she hardly knew the man her son had grown into.

"I'm fine," he muttered, wishing he were anywhere but here at the moment.

Jeff's hands trembled slightly as he poured his drink into a mug and dumped a spoonful of sugar into the hot liquid. Acutely aware of the furtive glances cast in his direction, he retreated from the room and walked aimlessly into the foyer where he looked over at his father's study.

Desperately wanting quiet solitude, Jeff turned and tip toed up the stairs, careful to miss the third step from the top since he vaguely remembered that it always creaked loudly whenever it was stepped on. It's funny, he thought, the weird things I'm remembering about this place.

Jeff turned around at the top of the stairs and looked sorrowfully at the wall where his pictures were missing. Wow, I guess you really did despise me that much, Mom.

He tried to convince himself that it really didn't mean that much to him, but it was useless. He trudged down the hallway. Halfway, he stopped and peaked into his sister's old bedroom, where he saw the walls still decorated with her plaques and trophies from high school.

Stung, Jeff ducked back out and continued toward the room at the end of the hall. He reached inside and flicked the switch on the wall, bathing the white washed walls in a soft, luminescent, glow from the overhead light. With a brief hesitation, he stepped into what used to be his bedroom.

There was no helping the initial wave of jealousy and resentment that he felt as his room stood in stark contrast to his sister's.

A stranger walking into the room would have never known it used to be a young boy's bedroom. The wild array of rock posters that adorned his ceiling and walls, the collection of fantasy novels and World War II tanks and aircraft models he spent hours assembling and painting were gone. He stood in the center of the room and regarded the old Captain's desk and chair with a cool, detached expression on his face.

Well, what did you expect after all this time, a welcome home party? Jeff laughed caustically at himself as he strode across the room. He lowered himself to the floor, and leaned back against the wall. He pulled his legs up to his chest, rested his forearms on his knees, and watched the tendrils of steam curl up out of the mug of coffee.

All he wanted was to feel like he belonged again. He exhausted himself over the years with the mental gymnastics of trying to make himself believe that none of this mattered and that he didn't need his family to feel whole.

After all, Darryl was his family.

Darryl was the only person besides Regina who had bothered to care enough to drag him out of the black depression he fell into after Tom died. When he was beyond hope and wishing he could just die himself, it was Darryl who encouraged him not to give up and hold on because he'd taken all the bad things that life had thrown at him and survived in spite of it all.

Still…there was no denying the amount of pain he felt when he got the urge to pick up the phone and call his parents just to talk but didn't. The most important part of his life was Darryl and he couldn't share that part of him with his family.

Jeff tilted his head back against the wall and swallowed, fighting the lump he felt in his throat as his emotions roiled inside.

A moment later, he heard the telltale creak of the stair from outside in the hall, as someone climbed up the steps.

So much for being alone, he thought testily.

"Not like you remember it, I guess," his father remarked from the doorway.

Jeff shook his head, keeping his eyes averted from his father's gaze.

His father glanced around briefly and then stepped into the room. He held out a pint of milk. "Here, you forgot something."

Jeff reached up and took the carton from his father.

"See, I still remember some things about my son after all these years. Surprised?" Robert settled himself onto the floor beside him with a groan as his aging joints protested the strain.

"No," Jeff whispered ruefully, as he poured the milk into his coffee. He closed the container and set it on the floor beside him.

They sat in silence, the only sound was the hissing of the baseboard heaters as the heat cycled on again.

"What happened between you and Michael tonight?"

Jeff stared down at his hands. "What does it matter?"

Robert frowned as he looked over at his son. "Jeff, despite what you may think, I…you're still my son."

Jeff continued to stare down at his mug and shook his head as he listened to his father stumble awkwardly over his words. You can't say, 'I love you.' Can you? "I guess Mike didn't approve of me being here." The slump of Jeff's shoulders and the deep sadness in his voice betrayed the heartbreak inside.

"So he decided it was okay to punch you. He didn't have any right to do that to you, Jeff."

Jeff had a biting, sarcastic remark on the tip of his tongue, but he bit it back as he recalled Regina's words about not letting his stubborn pride in the way. "I was never very good at ducking and weaving," he offered quietly instead.

Robert cleared his throat before he finally spoke again. "There are some boxes of your stuff in the closet over there. You ought to look through them to see if there's anything you'd like to keep."

Jeff looked sharply at his father and then glanced over at the sliding doors. After a moments hesitation, he slowly rose to his feet, walked over to the closet, and started to slide open one of the doors.

"Don't open the right door." There was aloud thud as the wooden door popped out of the track and hit the floor. "It always jumps off the track," his father finished half-heartedly.

"Sorry."

His father shrugged indifferently. "Try the other one."

Robert watched with cautious anticipation as his son knelt and pulled out one of the worn cardboard boxes.

Carefully, Jeff peeled the packing tape off the box and pulled it open. He sat back on his heels and pulled out a gunmetal, gray, fighter jet with the letters 'USA' emblazoned proudly on its wings.

"I remember making this. It took weeks to glue all the parts together and then paint them." He ran his fingers over the contours of the plane, his eyes widening in youthful excitement as he examined it. "It's a P-40 Warhawk fighter."

"Ah, so you still remember." His father picked up the milk carton and climbed stiffly to his feet. "I think that B-25 transport model we worked on is in one of the other boxes, if you're interested."

Jeff rubbed his hands over his face, wiping tears away in an irritated gesture. "I didn't think Mom kept any of my stuff."

Robert looked away, unable to bear the pained expression on Jeff's face. "I packed your stuff away after you left."

"I didn't leave," Jeff shot back.

There was a brief hesitation as Robert let the bitterness of his son's words sink in. "You're right, you didn't leave. We threw you out of the house," he acknowledged quietly. "I know I can't change what happened and maybe it doesn't make much of a difference now, but I'm sorry." I'm sorry for all the time we wasted, for waiting so long to ask you to come home.

Jeff stared down at the model plane he was holding in his hands - a relic of his childhood and of a happier time with his family. He blinked back tears and furrowed his brow, trying to maintain some semblance of control while his father was still in the room.

Robert stood motionless a few feet away. He sensed the turmoil behind his son's mask of indifference and stepped back. "I'll um, I'll give you some time alone to go through your things." Quietly, he stepped back toward the door and was gone.

Jeff stared at the spot where his father had been standing and shook his head. It almost hurt more, knowing that his father regretted his decision but had never said anything to him about it. Jeff doubled over and buried his head in his hands, as a wave of grief swept through him.

Hunched over the box, he cried alone for what seemed an eternity to him and then, exhausted, he slumped back against the wall and closed his eyes.

******

Caroline looked up as Regina walked into the brightly lit kitchen followed by Alex. She'd been shocked, to say the least, when she heard Alice talking about Regina dating a guy last year. Her shock turned to utter disbelief when the words engagement entered into the conversation about Michael's older sister.

She met Regina when she first started dating Michael in their senior year of high school. At the time, Regina was a quiet, introspective woman who was totally absorbed in her studies. That abruptly changed one summer after Regina returned home from college with a different light shining in her eyes. It wasn't until one of Regina's friends from school came to visit, that Caroline began to realize what had changed.

Sarah was the woman's name and Regina was in love with her.

Caroline wasn't the only one to notice the difference. Regina's mother took an instant dislike to the woman and the house had turned into a battleground. Whenever Regina was going out with Sarah, her mother would find fault with everything about the woman and clearly vocalized her dislike about her daughter's choice of friends.

It was a different time and Regina wasn't prepared for having to defend herself or who she chose to love. Over time, the relationship between her and Sarah deteriorated and finally ended less than a year later.

Although, they never talked about it, Caroline could see how hurt Regina was and knew as any woman does what it's like to see the death of a first love.

That was over six years ago and as far as she knew Regina was never involved with anyone else until Derrick. She wondered at the time if Regina was being true to herself.

Today she had finally gotten an answer to her question.

It was only when Regina sat down across from her and raised a questioning eyebrow that Caroline realized she was staring at her and turned away blushing.

From across the table, Alice spoke to her daughter. "Did you eat enough at dinner, Regina?"

Regina turned her attention to her mother and sighed. "No, not really." She glanced over at Alex who settled quietly into the chair next to her. "How about you? Do you want a sandwich?"

"I could eat more." Alex replied and then gently clasped her hand around Regina's arm, pulling her back when she started to get up. "Stay. Just tell me where everything is and I'll make it."

The younger woman looked back at Alex in surprise. The pale blue eyes only revealed a genuine desire. "Sit with your family," Alex whispered in her ear as she stood up from the table.

Regina directed Alex to the appropriate drawers and cabinets for a knife and plates. She watched as her partner retrieved the roast from the refrigerator and then expertly carved several slices of meat onto a plate.

What I would give to be in Provincetown with you already. This hadn't been a pleasant experience for anyone today and she knew despite her own discomfort that Alex remained steadfast beside her throughout the entire ordeal

"Anybody else want some?" Alex asked over her shoulder before she wrapped up the meat and set it back on the shelf in the refrigerator.

"No, I'm fine," Caroline replied, a sly smile crossing her lips. What better way to get to the skeptical mother-in-law? You do take good care of her daughter. Don't you, Alex?

"Not for me." Alice waved her hand.

Alex crossed to the table and set the plates down in front of herself and Regina. Her partner wasted no time starting to consume the sandwich.

"You weren't hungry. Were you?" she teased Regina as she sat down.

Caroline chuckled. "I seem to remember you and Jeff practically eating your parents out of house and home when you were teenagers."

Regina made an indignant noise and swallowed a mouthful of food. "Hey, we were just very active kids."

"Mm, getting into trouble was more like what you two were usually up to," her mother chimed into the conversation.

"Gee, thanks, Mom."

Alex laughed at the comical expression on Regina's face and then quickly ducked away from the playful swat directed at her.

"Alex, you can sit by me. It might be safer for you over here," Caroline offered and winked at Regina mischievously.

"That's all right, I know where she sleeps." The words were out of Regina's mouth before she could stop to think about whom she was saying them in front of. Her eyes widened to the size of quarters and Regina blushed crimson to the roots of her blonde hair.

"Oh god," she groaned, wanting desperately to just slip beneath the table into oblivion.

Her mother sat back stiffly in her chair with a dismayed expression on her face.

Alex stared at Regina in disbelief, then, quickly bit into her sandwich, and chewed in silence. You sure do and now your mother does too, Reg.

"So, Alex," Caroline fumbled desperately to direct the attention away from Regina as the stricken woman tried to regain her composure at the table. "Robert said you had been sick the last time he saw you."

Alex groaned inwardly as the conversation suddenly went from bad to worse. She swallowed and glanced over at Regina who was starting to return to her normal skin tone. "Uh, yeah, there was an accident at work."

"What happened?" Regina's mother leaned forward in her chair and rejoined the conversation, grateful for any change in the topic of conversation.

Alex pressed her lips together briefly and frowned, as she decided how she wanted to answer the question. "There was a car accident and a boy died in the emergency department. We tried everything, but there was nothing we could do to save him. It was pretty awful. His father was out of his mind with grief."

Regina had recovered enough from her embarrassment to wonder if Alex would actually tell them what happened. It was still incredibly difficult for her partner to talk about the subject, but she knew that talking about it was as important a part of the whole process of healing as Alex's physical recovery had been in those first, few days.

Alex gnawed on her bottom lip for a second before she continued. "We had the person who was responsible for the car accident in the other exam room." Her eyes took on a haunted, far away look as she stumbled awkwardly over her words. "This other patient had a gun… things got crazy…"

In her mind, she could hear the crash of the supply cart in the hallway and saw the father burst into the room brandishing the weapon in the air. "Somehow the father got a hold of the gun."

She felt the warmth of Regina's hand as the younger woman wrapped it around her upper arm reassuringly. The gesture comforted her and calmed her racing heart. Alex swallowed a couple of times, forcing herself to gain control of her voice which was already starting to waver as she spoke.

"I remember him coming into the room. He demanded that we let the woman die. We tried to calm him down," Alex said, looking directly at Regina.

"You were in the room while this was going on?" Alice cried out in shock, as she looked at her daughter.

"Yeah, I was there. We all were," Regina replied evenly, without taking her eyes off of Alex.

"I told her to get out," Alex explained quickly. The whole time, she'd been terrified the man would turn the gun on Regina if given the opportunity. "He was breaking down right there in front of us."

Alex grimaced and stared down at her hands, which were visibly trembling. The flashes of memory were so vivid it was like she back in the trauma room all over again. Her breathing went ragged and she shook her head. Her jaw muscles clenched as she tried to clamp down on the emotions that threatened to overflow.

She felt Regina's hand slide down her arm and the smaller fingers intertwined with hers. It took a few moments and then she was able to finish. "I don't remember much after I heard the gunshot."

"Oh my God!" Alice stared at her daughter incredulous that she had been witness to such violence. "You saw her get shot?"

Regina nodded silently, not trusting her voice.

Caroline gasped and covered her mouth with her hands. "Jesus, I had no idea! I'm so sorry, Alex. I feel awful for asking."

Alex shook her head and pressed her lips together, still staring down at the table. "You didn't know," she answered with a voice that was still hoarse with emotion.

"This is the same place where you work now?" Caroline asked incredulously.

"Yeah, it hasn't been easy going back there, but at least I'm here and able to give it a try." Alex turned her head, and looked at Regina and then down at their linked hands. "I wouldn't be here right now if it weren't for Regina."

Speechless, Caroline sat back in her chair and stared at the two of them for a moment.

Regina glanced up as her father entered the kitchen from the hallway. "Dad was there." She nodded at him as she continued to speak. "In fact, he just met Alex before everything happened."

Robert looked startled as he gazed at his daughter and her companion who were sitting across from his wife, holding hands. A peculiar expression glinted in his eyes before he looked away.

Subtly, Regina squeezed Alex's hand and then slipped hers out of the warm embrace they had been sharing. It was all right, she reflected to herself. Her parents could think what they wanted. This was the person who captured her heart and ignited her soul with a passion that went far beyond any physical boundaries.

"Where's Jeff?" Regina asked.

"He's upstairs going through some of his things."

"Not anymore," Jeff stated, as he walked into the kitchen, carrying a box in his arms.

"What's in there?" His sister leaned forward and peaked into the container as he set it down on the table.

"They're just some old, model airplanes I made when I was a kid." His voice downplayed the emotions he felt, knowing that his parents, or at least his father, saved some of the most cherished things from his childhood.

His mother's only reaction was to glance in the box and then she abruptly stood up. She retrieved the empty plates from the table and placed them in the sink.

Jeff ran his fingers over the edge of the box as he briefly pondered the decision he arrived at while he was sorting through the boxes filled with childhood memories. Memories that made him remember there was a time in his life when he believed his father was a hero, like most children believe of their parents.

He realized while he sat alone in his old bedroom that he didn't need these things to make him feel like he belonged here. What was important was whether he wanted to.

He slid the box across the table to his sister-in-law. "Caroline." Jeff cleared his throat. "I know Mike always liked these models when we were kids. Lord knows we fought over them enough. I'm sure he doesn't have any use for them now, but maybe he'd like Zachary to have them when he's older."

Caroline stared incredulously at him and then, without a word, she lifted Zachary into Alex's arms much to the taller woman's surprise and stood up. She wrapped her arms around Jeff and squeezed him tightly. "I want my son to have them," she whispered, as her lips brushed his cheek.

******

Regina all I'm saying is, think about it. A relationship with a man is difficult enough," her mother said as she walked out of the kitchen with her daughter by her side.

"Mom, I can't believe you're going to start this all over again."

Alice stopped in the foyer and glanced over at the tall, dark-haired woman, standing by the front door. If her daughter could see the distrust she had in her expression, so be it, she didn't care. "I just can't imagine that she can make you happy. I don't understand. Why would you want this life?"

Regina ignored her mother's question, refusing to be baited into another argument. Instead she smiled as she watched Alex lean in and say something to Jeff that made her brother laugh. "Mom you don't have to understand - just know that I'm happy.

Alice looked back at her daughter and sighed in exasperation.

"We have to go, Mom," Regina said softly. She saw an anxious, almost fearful expression cross her mother's face before the older woman embraced her briefly.

As they separated, Robert walked past them, carrying his sleeping grandson in his arms. "Jeff, are you sure you're okay to drive Caroline home?"

"I'm fine," Jeff assured him.

Regina walked over to Alex and slipped her arms inside the sleeves of the coat that the taller woman was holding out for her.

"Thanks," she whispered, glancing back over her shoulder into sparkling, blue eyes.

"My pleasure," Alex replied and ran her hand over Regina's back affectionately. It had been an uncomfortable experience to say the least and she felt a weight lifting from her as they got ready to leave.

"Hey, Sis. I need my keys." Jeff held out his hand expectantly.

Regina dug into her pockets and then tossed them to him, smiling as he snatched them out of the air.

Caroline stepped forward and gently lifted Zachary out of her father-in-law's arms. "It's time to take my little man home."

"You're going home?" Alice asked hopefully. She'd been worried all night about what Mike's behavior might do to her son's relationship.

"Yeah, Mike and I need to talk and it wouldn't hurt him to apologize to his brother."

Jeff shrugged indifferently and opened the front door. He appreciated Caroline's sentiments but he didn't hold much hope out for any kind of reconciliation with his brother. "Let's go."

One by one, they all filed out of the house until it was Jeff and his parents left inside. He looked at both of them briefly and then held his hand out to his father.

"Come here," the older man growled and pulled his son into a hug. "I'm glad you came home."

Jeff pulled back from the embrace first and stared down at the hardwood floor. "Me too."

He winced and pulled away as his mother's hand lightly brushed over his bruised cheekbone. "I'm sorry Michael did this to you."

She looked up into his hazel eyes and smiled sadly. "I don't know that sorry mean that much after all these years."

Jeff leaned in and kissed her cheek. "It does," he said and quickly turned away so they wouldn't see his tears as he walked out the door.

******

Alex strolled to her Jeep with an arm draped over Regina's shoulders. She squeezed her and cast a quick glance down at her lover's somber countenance. "Nickel for your thoughts."

Regina wrapped an arm around Alex's waist and leaned in against her taller frame. "I guess I just feel sad."

The older woman remained silent and let her fingers curl around Regina's shoulder. At her truck, Alex turned around and leaned against the hood of the vehicle.

Regina pressed against her and nestled her head against the Alex's shoulder. She bit her lower lip and her eyes filled with tears as she felt the gentle pressure of Alex's hand as she stroked her hair.

"Anything I can do?" Alex watched the blonde head shake back and forth and heard the quiet sniffle.

"Just hold me."

"Always," Alex whispered. She suspected her partner prepared herself for a negative response from her parents towards the two of them and was blindsided by her brother's hostility with Jeff. The taller woman pressed her lips to the top of Regina's head and closed her eyes. When she opened them she looked across the driveway and watched as Jeff descended the steps and headed towards them.

Halfway, he stopped and trotted over to his rental car and unlocked it for Caroline. He took his nephew from her as she crawled into the back and secured the car seat in place.

Jeff looked over at Alex standing a few feet away with her arms wrapped securely around his sister and smiled shyly at her. He carried Zachary over towards the two women.

"Hey, say goodnight to your nephew."

Regina wiped her eyes and turned around as Alex released her. She smiled when Zachary scrunched his face up, rubbed a fist over his eyes, and then yawned. "Ah, he's exhausted."

She lifted him up and planted a kiss on a chubby cheek. "Say goodbye, Alex." Regina waved Zachary's arm at Alex.

The taller woman arched an eyebrow and waved briefly at Zachary.

"Well, we had quite a night didn't we?" Caroline ambled over and joined them. She hunched her shoulders and stuffed her hands in her pockets.

Jeff scuffed the heel of his shoe on the gravel. "We should get going. I have an early flight out tomorrow." He handed Zachary to Caroline and then wrapped an arm around Regina's shoulder. Gently he guided her away from Alex. "You've got someone special there, Reg."

A sweet smile crossed the younger woman's lips in response. "I know." She looked over at Alex and then back up at Jeff. "You know you have an open invitation at my place."

"Thanks." He leaned closer and gathered her into his arms. "I may just take you up on that sooner than you think."

"Good. I'm going to hold you to it." Regina stepped back as Jeff let her go. There was a part of her deep inside that ached at the sadness that emanated from her brother's eyes.

After, they all said goodbye and were in there cars, Regina leaned back in her seat and looked at Alex's profile silhouetted by Jeff's headlights as he backed his car up.

"What are you thinking?"

Alex turned in her seat, draped an arm over Regina's shoulder, and brought her face close to the blonde's. "I was just wondering how you would feel about waking up in Provincetown tomorrow morning, instead of our hotel room."

"Ooh, I'd love to." Regina raised a hand and let her fingertips graze the soft flesh of Alex's lips. Her brow creased in concern. "Do you want to sleep for a while before we leave?"

A low growl rumbled from the brunette's chest and she captured one of Regina's fingers between her lips. She shook her head as she slowly released it. "No, I'm fine, and I'll be even better when we get there."

Chapter Nineteen

Jeff felt a quiet melancholy settle over him as he pulled into his sister-in-law's driveway. Michael's taunting words echoed in his mind. Did coming home fulfill your expectations? He wished he'd had the guts to wipe the sneer off his brother's face when he uttered the bitter remark.

He shifted the car into park and let the engine idle. The headlights illuminated the garage at the end of the driveway and their glare reflected back off the windows, forcing Jeff to blink and look away.

He watched Caroline turn and look over the seat at her son's sleeping form. Her eyebrows knitted together in concern as Zachary shifted in the car seat and whimpered in his sleep. After a moment, she glanced back at Jeff and met his steady gaze.

"I'm glad Zachary is too young to remember what happened tonight." Caroline rested an elbow on the lip of the window. She settled her head in her hand as she studied her husband's older brother, wondering briefly what the evening's events would do to Jeff's already jaded view of his family. In her mind, she couldn't reconcile that it was her Michael's hand that put the ugly, discolored mark there in the first place.

Caroline turned her gaze out the window. "When Mike walks into the room, Zachary just lights up; to him his father walks on water."

Jeff lowered his head and ran a hand over his face. "I think we all felt that way at some point about our parents. I learned a long time ago that they're just human, suffering from the same frailty and weaknesses as everyone else. The sooner he learns that, the less he'll be hurt in the end."

"Don't say that." Caroline's voice broke and she covered her mouth with a trembling hand.

"Why? It's true." He flipped his hand in growing irritation.

"I want him to look up at his father and see the man that I know he is," Caroline pleaded.

Jeff exhaled and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Caroline. I just don't know that side of my brother. If that's what Michael wants him to see, then he will." He managed to get the curt response out, firmly setting the responsibility of Zachary's opinion of his father on Michael's shoulders.

"Jeff, I know there's no love lost between you two, but it would mean so much to me if you would just talk to him."

"How can you ask me that, Caroline?"

"He's your brother."

Jeff snorted and shook his head. "As if that should mean anything at this point. What the hell do you want me to say to him?"

Caroline leaned over in the seat and wrapped her hand around Jeff's arm. "Jeff you're the same man who gave me that box of airplane models to give to your nephew. So don't try and convince me you don't care, because I know you do."

Jeff closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Why don't you go inside, Caroline. It's cold and I'm sure you want to get Zachary to bed."

"You're going to give up just like that?"

"Hey, it's late, and frankly I've been through enough crap for one day."

A light flicked on inside the garage and then they heard the rumble of the door as the automatic opener was engaged. A familiar figure walked toward them, stopping just inside the door.

Jeff turned off the headlights when he saw his brother bring a hand up to shield his eyes from their brilliant glare. Impatiently, he reached across the front seat and opened the door for Caroline.

"Look, it's not going to work. He had seventeen years to think about it and the first thing he does when he sees me again is take a cheap shot at me."

Jeff watched as Caroline's expression sobered and she huddled deeper into the heavy, wool coat she was wearing.

"If you go back to California tomorrow, do you think you'll ever talk to your brother again?"

No, Jeff thought to himself as he stared back at her. He realized his silence was an admission and looked away.

"That's what I thought," Caroline replied sadly.

He remained silent the entire time while she stepped out of the car and then retrieved her son from the back seat.

Why the hell should I care? Jeff flinched when Caroline slammed the door and walked away from the car. He threw the gearshift into reverse, looked over his shoulder out the rear window, and then stepped on the gas. As he backed out of the driveway, he caught sight of the cardboard box sitting on the back seat.

"Ah, shit!" He hit the brakes hard, causing the car to lurch to an abrupt halt. After he fumbled for the handle in the dark, he finally got the door open.

"Caroline! Wait!"

He watched her stop halfway, turn around, and look back at him. She made no move to return to the car.

With an exasperated sigh, Jeff grabbed the box from the rear of the car and then stepped out of the front seat. He could see Michael studying him from inside the garage and he wished he could read what was going on behind the enigmatic expression on his brother's face.

"I…um," he hesitated. Jesus, what the hell am I doing? "You forgot the box." Brilliant. You're a lawyer and that's the best you can come up with?

"I guess I did," Caroline stated offhandedly.

"I called your parent's house and they said you weren't there." Michael stepped forward and took the car seat from his wife's hands.

"I changed my mind and Jeff gave me something to give to you."

Michael stared through his brother. "I can't imagine anything he could have that I would want."

Jeff gnawed on the inside of his lip, wondering briefly if he should just chuck the whole box at his bull-headed brother's head and leave now, with what little dignity he had left. He exhaled forcefully and shook his head, wondering why this seemed so important now, after all these years that he try and rebuild a relationship with his brother.

"Look, I really don't care what you do with this stuff." Jeff stalked past Caroline and set the box on the top of the garbage can that was sitting next to the garage door. "They're some old models that I made when I was a kid. Dad gave them to me today."

Michael turned his head and scowled at his older brother. "Why would I want those things?"

"Michael, just listen to him," Caroline insisted.

Jeff's eyes met Michael's and he returned the hardened look with one of his own "Like I said, you can throw them out or maybe, you'd like your son to have then one day. There was a time when you couldn't keep your hands off them."

He ran his fingers over the top of the box, searching for something to say, then, stepped away from his brother and headed back to his car. As he opened the door, he stopped and looked back.

"Caroline's right, Michael." He offered her a gentle, knowing smile. "I do care, and whether you like it or not, I'm still a part of this family. The question is whether you want to be a part of mine."

He hesitated uncertainly before he got back in the car. Without another glance at his brother, he backed out of the driveway, wondering briefly if he would ever hear from Michael again.

******

Alex entered their hotel room and shed her black leather jacket, dumping it unceremoniously over the back of a chair. She tossed her keys onto the nightstand next to her pager.

Her younger companion strode in behind her and slumped onto the king size bed with a loud groan. "I can't begin to tell you how glad I am that's over," Regina stated and dropped her head into her hands.

"It was pretty rough," Alex admitted, judiciously keeping her opinions of Michael to herself. She could see the tension settle in her partner's shoulders and scooted back on the bed so she was sitting behind Regina with her legs straddling the smaller woman's hips. "Come here."

She pulled Regina closer and started massaging the taught muscles at the base of her neck. "You're really tight up here," Alex tilted her head and peered around to look at Regina's face. "Are you okay?"

"I think so." Regina leaned back into the strong body behind her and sighed. "I don't know why I feel the way I do. Jeff's the one who got treated like shit today."

"You love him. Why wouldn't you be upset?" Alex kept up the kneading motion with her hands, wishing she could take away some of the hurt Regina was feeling.

"God, I can't believe what a prick Michael was. I guess I know how he really felt about Jeff and me all those years."

Alex pulled Regina back and rolled onto her side so they were curled up next to each other.

"Are you still up for driving out to Provincetown tonight?" Regina inquired. She nestled closer and rested her head on Alex's outstretched arm. Inhaling deeply, a contented smile formed on her face as she savored the clean scent that lingered on her lover's body.

"Absolutely," the brunette responded and then nuzzled the back of Regina's neck with her lips. She smiled at the soft purring noise her partner made and felt a stirring sensation in her groin as Regina pushed her hips back against her body. In response, Alex stretched the fingers of her hand out and teasingly slipped them beneath the waistband of the blonde's jeans.

"I thought you wanted to leave." Regina arched her back and rotated her hips into Alex's belly.

"I do," Alex chuckled seductively and kissed her cheek, knowing full well that if she stayed right here, there was no way they were going to make it to Provincetown tonight. "Let me go throw some cold water on my face and then we can go."

"You're such a tease," Regina pouted at the sudden loss of contact that left her feeling empty and wanting. She rolled onto her stomach when she heard the water running in the bathroom and settled her chin on her forearms. Several tendrils of hair fell forward and Regina brushed them back behind her ear.

Her thoughts turned inward as her mother's parting words to her replayed in her mind from earlier in the evening. Of course any relationship can be difficult. We've certainly had our share of obstacles, but we've made it so far. I wonder if any of that would matter to you, Mom.

She propped her chin on her hands and stared at the wall with a thoughtful expression on her face. I wonder where we are going.

Regina picked up Alex's beeper, turned it over in her hands, and looked at the time displayed on the screen. Just after ten. If we leave now and don't hit any traffic we'll be in Provincetown by one in the morning at the latest. Not too bad.

Out of habit, she checked for any pages and unexpectedly found one. Oh boy.

"Alex?"

"What?" Came the muffled response as the taller woman walked out of the bathroom while she wiped her face dry with a terry cloth towel.

"You got a page from the emergency department."

"What?" She reached for the beeper. "Let me see. I know Jon is covering for me while I'm away." Alex strode over to her jacket and pulled out her cellular phone. She hardly looked at the keypad as she quickly punched in the numbers.

The doctor tapped her foot impatiently, waiting for the connection to be made and then spoke after the voice on the other end told her she reached Saint Xavier's Emergency Department. "This is Dr. Margulies. Somebody paged me."

She waited again as she was put on hold. A moment later a wry grin broke out on her face as a familiar voice came over the line.

"Hi Sandy. What's up?" Alex rolled her eyes as the nurse recounted the chaos of the last couple of hours.

"What are you doing calling here while you're off?" Sandy asked.

"I got a page earlier," Alex replied.

"I don't know who paged you. At least, nobody is owning up to it and anyway. Jon is here manning the zoo."

The doctor chuckled at the image her mind conjured up. "Anything going on that I need to know about?" Alex inquired, as she ran a hand through her thick mane of hair.

"Some guy in a suit, was here looking for you earlier, but he wouldn't leave a name or tell me what it was about."

Alex could hear the irritation in Sandy's voice. "Was it someone from the hospital?"

"I didn't recognize him, but that doesn't mean anything. You've seen on suit, you've seen them all," Sandy drawled. "Oh I almost forgot. Pediatrics called a code six, twice tonight. I haven't heard anything official, but security has been crawling all over the place."

"So no one knows if a patient is actually missing or if it's just a drill." Alex glanced over at Regina and shrugged.

"No, not yet," Sandy replied.

Alex heard loud voices in the background and then Sandy's voice came back through the line. "I've got to go Alex. We've got two gun shot victims on the way."

"Talk to you later. Bye." Alex turned her phone off and tucked it back into the pocket of her jacket.

Regina sat up on the bed and leaned forward. "What happened?"

Alex shrugged. "Pediatrics may have a missing patient on their hands."

"You're kidding me! Maybe I should call the unit and find out what's going on."

Alex frowned. "No, don't do that. We don't even know if it's for real and there's nothing you can do about it from here anyway." She turned away and tucked a few items back into her duffel bag. "Besides, if they did have a kid run off it's going to end up being a police matter," she added offhandedly.

There was a hesitation before Regina spoke quietly. "I guess you're right."

Alex heard the catch in Regina's voice and turned around. Her eyes widened slightly when she saw the hurt expression on her partner's face. "I'm sorry, Reg. That sounded pretty callous." She sat down on the bed, rested her elbows on her knees, and looked over at Regina.

"It's all right." Regina averted her eyes from Alex gaze and then looked intently at the floor.

"No, it's not. You have patients up there, so you have every right to be concerned. I shouldn't be telling what you what to do." Alex slipped her arm over the blonde's shoulder and sighed. "You always think about everyone else before yourself. My motives were purely selfish."

"What are you talking about?"

Alex snorted, feeling rather ashamed that she so easily discounted Regina's concern. "I just don't want anything to happen that would ruin this time we have together."

Regina considered this while she regarded Alex's stern profile. "I think I can understand why you would feel that way."

"Do you?" Alex asked, afraid to voice what she was feeling.

Regina leaned back, supporting her weight on her hands. "Maybe I don't, but I know how I felt when you first went back to work. I resented it." She met the wary blue eyes and continued. "I resented it for all the times you sacrificed yourself to do what was right and no one bothered to even acknowledge what you'd done."

Alex blinked, surprised at the anger she heard in Regina's voice.

"So, I decided that it was all right to be selfish about the time we spend with each other. After what we've been through I think we deserve to be for a little while."

Alex studied Regina serious expression for a moment. "I wasn't sure what you would think of me if I told you that very thing. It's not wrong to feel that way is it?"

"No, it's not wrong and I'm not even sure it is being selfish," Regina reaffirmed tenderly, as she gazed fondly at the proud and stoic woman. She ran her fingers through Alex's long hair, lifting it back off her shoulder. "It's human," she admonished gently and pulled her lover closer, affectionately kissing her cheeks and forehead before lightly touching her lips.

Relieved, Alex let out a sigh and a slightest hint of a smile played around her mouth. She started to say something else when Regina leaned closer and kissed her again. She lost track of her thoughts instead, reveling in the sensations of Regina's lips on hers and the warm hand lazily caressing her neck.

Regina slowly pulled away and smiled at Alex's slightly unfocused gaze. "You don't need to worry about what I would think of you. I love you." With a smile, she tugged the taller woman to her feet. "Now I believe we have someplace to go."

******

"Terry do you know where TJ is?" The nurse glanced at her watch, as she stepped into her patient's room. The last time she checked, which had been over an hour ago, her patient had been curled up on his bed, staring at the television. Now, not only couldn't they find him, but the plastic bag filled with his clothes was gone as well.

The young girl slowly pulled her eyes away from the television program she was watching to look at her. She shrugged. "Sometimes he goes down to the cafeteria to get something to eat."

"What? He has no money!" the nurse exclaimed and then shook her head. "Oh never mind." She ducked back out of the room and Terry heard her call out to the nurse's station. "Tell security to check the cafeteria!"

Are they gone yet?" TJ craned his neck to peer up at Terry from beneath the bed.

"Shush. Just a minute." Terry crawled off the bed and shuffled out into the hallway with her IV pole to look. She returned after a brief inspection. "There's still one security guard hanging out at the nurse's station."

"The one that likes that nurse with the blonde hair?" He made a face and unrolled the towel where he hid the small stuffed animal he stole from the gift shop earlier that day.

It was easy since they were heaped up in bin by the door. All he did was wait until the woman behind the counter was distracted and then he stuffed the orange and black striped tiger underneath his shirt and slipped away unnoticed.

"Yeah," Terry responded.

TJ scooted out and sat cross-legged on the floor. "Thanks for not ratting me out." He tied the shoelace on one of his sneakers. He scraped at an old, brown bloodstain on the worn canvas.

"You're not welcome." Terry pouted from her perch on the hospital bed.

"I'm not going to another foster home," TJ replied.

"Isn't that better than living on the street?"

TJ stared up at her. "You wouldn't understand." How could she? Terry had two parents and a house to go home to. Nobody had ever gone into her room in the middle of the night, woken her up, and told her to pack up her things because she couldn't stay there anymore.

The first time that happened it was because the cops found out his father was selling drugs out of the house. "We're going to take you someplace where someone can look after you," the man in the uniform told him.

He believed them, but it turned out to be a lie. Nobody told him how the foster parent's real kids would resent him and make his life a living hell.

The last foster home he'd been in was no better. He suffered a beating at the hands of the woman's drunken boyfriend one night. When it was over, he curled up in his bed and lay awake, afraid to go to sleep.

Without any real conscious thought as to where he would go, he had shoved his few possessions into a backpack and silently crept out of the house while everyone else was asleep. He couldn't quite remember how long ago it was but he did know he was never going back.

TJ stood up and looked down at Terry. Her back was to him as she sat with her knees pulled up to her chin. He saw the shudder as she breathed and realized she was crying.

He looked nervously at the door, knowing he couldn't stay long. They were looking for him. "Here." He unceremoniously shoved the stuffed animal into her hands and stepped back.

Her eyes widened in surprise and she wiped her nose, sniffing loudly. "You're the only friend I have here," she whispered. It was true. TJ was the only kid on the floor who regularly came to visit her. He even brought her a bag of potato chips or an ice cream bar from his occasional late night jaunts to the cafeteria.

TJ looked down at the floor and frowned. "You're my only friend too," he said, when he looked back up at her.

Terry knelt on the mattress and crawled over to where he was standing and hugged him. "Where are you going?"

He shrugged as he stepped back self-consciously. "I don't know."

Terry wiped her eyes and reached into the nightstand by her bed. "Here." She shoved her gray sweatshirt into his hands. "Take this. It's cold."

With a grateful smile he tugged it over his head. "Thanks." His eyes darted up to her face and then he kissed her quite awkwardly on the cheek before he walked to the door.

He peered out into the corridor, waited until the coast was clear and then sprinted down the hall to the doors that led off the pediatric unit. He yanked the door open and bolted across the tiled floor to the open stairwell. With his heart pounding in his chest, he waited, listening for any voices. Hearing none, he scampered down the three flights of metal steps to the ground floor.

He noticed a couple of people dressed in scrubs and lab coats walking towards him but they were completely engrossed in their own conversation and ignored him. He saw the exit sign up ahead and walked quickly towards the revolving door.

"Hey!"

His whole body jerked, when he heard the sharp voice. He glanced up and saw the gray-haired man, dressed in green scrubs, mopping the floor off to his right.

"Watch your step there, son. The floor is still wet."

TJ nodded and then stepped into the doorway. The cold air was a shock after the heat that was being pumped through the overhead vents in the doorway.

He pulled the sweatshirt sleeves down over his hands when he stepped outside. Without a backward glance he walked along the sidewalk and disappeared into the dark.

******

Alex rolled over in the queen-sized bed, folded her hands behind her head. The ride across the narrow peninsula the night before had been relatively uneventful. After stopping at a roadside diner for two large cups of coffee they were quickly on their way and arrived at Alex's apartment on the Cape, early in the morning.

The bright light from the sun was just starting to peak through the glass doors that led out onto the small balcony. Through the windows, Alex could see the late winter sky. It was the off-season in Provincetown, and the town stood in stark contrast to summer season when its streets teamed with people.

She reached a hand out and stroked her fingers through the silky, flaxen hair that surrounded her lover's head in a disheveled halo on the pillow. Her expression softened as she studied the fair-skinned woman's youthful features.

Who would have guessed that this ornery, cynical, and untrusting soul would have found someone who believed enough in her to remain steadfast by her side? Certainly, not me, the doctor thought to herself.

Alex lifted a lock of Regina's hair and curled it around her fingers while she continued to sift through her emotions. They'd known each other for almost a eight months now. It was hard to believe that it passed as quickly as it did.

The gray emptiness she drifted in before she met the Regina had been transformed and in its place was a landscape of vibrant colors. There were times when Alex looked at Regina and she wondered, what in her life she'd done right to deserve such a wonderful gift as her love.

Whatever it was, she vowed silently to god, that she'd spend the rest of her days trying to make sure she didn't do anything to lose what had become as essential to her as the air that she breathed.

Alex exhaled softly as she acknowledged the powerful emotions stirring inside.

A tender smile crossed her lips as sleepy, green eyes fluttered open. Beneath the warm down covers, Regina shifted in the bed to curl her body into Alex's and wrap an arm firmly around her waist.

"Morning," Alex whispered, with an amused expression on her face.

Regina stretched and rubbed up against Alex's naked body. "I don't think I remember falling asleep last night."

"You mean this morning," the taller woman replied in an uneven voice as her body responded to the contact.

Regina blinked and lazily let a hand drift up and graze Alex's breast before it settled on her shoulder. "I'm so glad you suggested we come out here instead of staying at the hotel. It makes yesterday seem like it happened a long time ago."

"I wanted us to have more time together." Alex's eyes twinkled gently as she looked at Regina's wistful smile.

"So, what do you have in mind now that you have me all to yourself?" Regina squirmed closer and playfully nibbled the skin along her jaw. Her fingers caressed her neck and she teased Alex with her fingernails.

Alex flashed a smile and let a hand stray over the silken skin of her lover's belly. "Oh, there are a few things I could think of," she replied, deepening the pitch of her voice, the one she knew drove Regina to distraction.

"Really? Mm, tell me," Regina coaxed in a huskily, as she abruptly scooted up and straddled Alex. She nipped lightly at Alex's earlobe, sending a shiver down the taller woman's spine.

"There's a little café where we could eat." Alex caught her breath as a sensual wave of heat shot straight to her groin and ignited her desire. "Breakfast," she gasped, as Regina trailed her lips along her collarbone and then captured a nipple and tugged on it gently.

"Then what?" Regina ran her tongue along the underside of Alex's breast and then moved up to suck the hardened nipple between her lips again. Slowly, she relinquished the swollen bud and focused her attention on the other one. "Mm, still thinking?" she asked, as she lay kisses across Alex's shoulder and then down her arm to taste the tender flesh along the inside of her elbow.

Regina trailed her fingers over Alex's belly, skirted the dark tangle of hair, and then caressed the skin of her inner thigh.

Alex attempted to lift her head up and let it fall back onto the pillow with a groan. "You talk about me being a tease." Regina smiled wickedly, before she tossed the bedcovers back and continued her slow, exquisite torture.

Nothing escaped her attention as she traced the contours of Alex's calf with her tongue. Her exploration took her back the inside of Alex's thighs where she rubbed her cheek over the quivering muscles.

"Oh," Alex arched her back and dug her heels into the bed as Regina's fingertips traced a meandering path over the fine, pale-colored hairs running down the center of her taut belly.

"Oh, what?" Regina teased, as her hand stroked over the coarse, dark hairs covering Alex's mound.

Alex shuddered as Regina parted her moist lips. "Oh god." She moaned and her hand covered Regina's guiding it to where she needed her to be. Her body shuddered and she was sure she was going to explode long before Regina released her.

"Not yet," Regina told her. She straddled Alex's hips again, leaned forward, and touched her lips to the sweet mouth below her. She increased the pressure, her tongue slipping between those lips, teasing the softness of her lover's mouth. Slowly she pulled away and smiled into the blue eyes before she left a searing trail of heated kisses along Alex's long frame.

"You're going to kill me," Alex rasped, as she watched Regina slide down her body and settle leisurely between her legs. The only response she got was a knowing, seductive smile.

Regina teased Alex, blowing softly on the coarse hairs before she nuzzled the silky wetness of her swollen lips with her tongue. A moment later, Alex's breathing went ragged and she pressed her head back into the pillow. Her hands clutched the sheets and she arched her hips, encouraging Regina to go deeper.

As Regina matched the rhythm of her lover's hips with her thrusts, Alex reached overhead and grabbed the headboard. Their movements rocked the bed.

"Look at me, Alex." Regina lifted herself up, still working her fingers in and out of the warm, wet, suppleness of Alex's sex. She watched the blue eyes darken with unrestrained passion as they fixed on her.

Alex whispered Regina's name, chanting the words, "Don't stop, please, don't stop," she cried out, and her body arched and her hips bucked as the first waves of her orgasm raced out from her center. Bright lights danced in her vision and she clutched at Regina's shoulders in an iron-like grip.

As the last shudders coursed through her, Regina wrapped herself around Alex and let the quiet afterglow consume them.

Sometime later, Regina smiled at the sight in front of her as she sauntered out of the bathroom. Alex was stretched out asleep on her stomach, head resting on her arms, with the bed sheet tangled around her waist. Her long dark hair, splayed out over the muscular expanse of her back.

Unable to resist, Regina straddled the firm buttocks and began massaging the strong shoulders. She pressed against the firm body and laid gentle kisses over the smooth skin until Alex stirred and lifted her head up.

"I guess we missed breakfast," she commented in a sleepy voice.

"We sure did." Regina rested the palms of her hands on Alex's back, enjoying the warmth and the strength she felt beneath them.

Alex twisted beneath her, struggling to look up into those green eyes, which had held her captive during their lovemaking earlier. Up until now, she'd always been the one to initiate anything between them. "You, um, were more-" Alex frowned searching for words. "Aggressive today."

She watched the blush creep up Regina's neck and highlight the blonde eyebrows. Regina ducked her head and started to roll off of Alex to hide her embarrassment.

"Hey." Alex shifted and caught Regina's arm, stopping her. "Come back here," she whispered and struggled to sit up beneath her lover. She lifted the Regina's chin with her fingertips and kissed the soft, full lips. Alex's tongue grazed the edges of her teeth before gliding over Regina's tongue in a playful caress. She pulled away and looked into uncertain green eyes. "I liked it very much."

Enough said, she flopped back down onto the bed and tucked her hands behind her head to watch Regina. A smile played at the corner of the blonde's mouth and her blush continued. Instead of trying to slip away, Regina snuggled down on top of Alex and buried her head in her neck.

"I um…bought some books the last time I was here," she confessed.

Alex arched an eyebrow and tilted her head to look at Regina, thinking back to last summer and wondering when she read them. "Really. That was quite a while ago."

Regina giggled and nodded her head. "You're telling me."

Alex laughed at her remark and tickled Regina's side with her fingertips, causing her to squirm. "So, I guess you liked them."

"Very much," Regina whispered, still keeping her head buried in Alex's shoulder.

"Maybe we should get some more." Alex rolled over and pinned Regina down, a predatory smile crossing her features.

"We'll miss lunch," Regina gasped at the sudden change in her position.

"I'll make it up to you later," Alex replied, as she ducked her head and kissed Regina again.

Chapter Twenty

Alex strolled down the quiet sidewalk with her arm draped affectionately over Regina's shoulders. Both of them were bundled up in layers of clothes and heavy coats. It was almost comfortable in the sun but the shady overhangs of the storefronts brought an instant reminder that winter was reluctant to let go of its hold on the region.

Alex hugged the shorter woman to her, then, turned as Regina slowed and peered into another store window. She felt her shiver slightly and brought her lips close to her ear. "Are you warm enough?"

"Perfect," Regina replied, smiling up into sparkling blue eyes. She snuggled closer within the embrace of Alex's arm and sighed contentedly.

They had lounged in bed together until late that morning after they spent a leisurely time in loving exploration. It felt wonderful and the rest of the world with all its incessant problems seemed to fade farther away, unable to intrude on their special time together.

"Anything particular you'd like to do?" Alex asked, as they resumed their walk.

The narrow street opened up as they neared a wharf. The sweet smell of chocolate and fudge filled the air around them. "Oh boy. I hear my sweet tooth calling me." Regina flashed a gleeful smile at her companion as she lifted her head and inhaled the fragrant aroma of the confections.

"I can't believe they're actually open," Alex replied as she trotted up the concrete steps and pulled the door open for Regina. "After you." She waved her arm in front of her and gave a half bow.

Regina winked playfully at her as she slipped into the warm, sweet smelling environment. "Wow! Look at all this candy."

Alex walked up beside Regina and rested her elbow on the glass counter top, as she eyed the trays of fudge that were arrayed in the case below. A playful smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth and she cocked an eyebrow up when Regina tilted her neck and smiled up at her. Unable to resist the opportunity she leaned closer and whispered in Regina's ear. "Isn't chocolate an aphrodisiac?"

A blush immediately crept up Regina's face and the blonde covered her face with a hand. "You're incorrigible, Alex. You know that, right?"

A middle-aged woman with her hair pinned up in a bun, turned around, leaving the taffy she was working with and smiled at the two women across from her. "What would you ladies like?"
Alex cast a quick glance at Regina and answered first. "I didn't realize you did such a big business that you stayed open all year."

A smile broke out on the woman's face. "You'd be surprised how many people buy this stuff and have it shipped all over the states. Do you know what you'd like yet?"

Regina cleared her throat and nodded. "I'd like a quarter pound of the dark chocolate fudge with nuts please."

"Actually, make that a half pound," Alex added.

"Oh, you have a sweet tooth. Do you?" Brown eyes regarded Alex from across the counter. "Coming right up. Do you want me to put it in a box?"

"Can you put half of it in a box and the other half just wrap up in a bag?"

"Sure." Came the reply and the woman turned away to retrieve a medium sized, white cardboard box from a cabinet.

Regina reached out and ran her hand down the front of Alex's off-white, ribbed sweater, shaking her head as she regarded the taller woman. "A half-pound? Sandy would have a heart attack if she saw the hunk of chocolate you just bought."

"Well, I thought I might give her a small bit of it when we get back." Alex brought her thumb and index finger together, indicating a very small hunk of fudge.

"I think you can spare more than that little bit," Regina teased and grabbed hold of Alex's hand playfully. She quickly found herself turned around and wrapped up in a tight hug.

A deep throaty, chuckle escaped Alex's throat as she picked up Regina and set her down, facing the doorway. The younger woman fell into a fit of giggles and walked over to the counter to pay for their purchase. She turned and wagged a finger at Alex. "You do not need anymore chocolate."

In response, Alex pushed out her lower lip in a pout and sauntered over to the door.

Regina paid the woman behind the counter for her purchase, and then followed Alex down the concrete steps. Standing on the sidewalk, she opened one of the packages and broke off a piece of fudge, which she immediately started to nibble on. "Alex, do you want a piece?" She watched as the taller woman came to an abrupt halt at the edge of the sidewalk. "Alex?"

"Huh? What?" A stricken expression crossed Alex's face and she swallowed nervously. Her breaths came in short gasps and her stomach tied up in knots. She swallowed and clenched her jaw as a tide of guilt, remorse, and a deep sense of loss filled her soul.

She wasn't prepared for the visceral response at seeing Lana's store a mere fifty feet away in the distance and could barely contain the tears that unexpectedly brimmed in her eyes.

A hand touched her side and she closed her eyes before she looked into the green ones that she knew were watching her.

"Alex, what's wrong?" Regina asked, as she looked into the tormented blue eyes.

Alex raised her arm and then let it drop limply back to her side and shook her head. What a blubbering idiot I am. Come on get it together here. "Nothing. It's okay."

She'd been so engrossed in their walk a few minutes before she hadn't even realized how close to the store they were. Irritated with herself, for letting her emotions get the better of her, Alex turned away from Regina to collect her thoughts.

Regina could tell by the clipped response and the rapid darting of Alex's eyes that she wasn't telling her everything. She reigned in her initial response to pepper her with questions, knowing that if she gave the woman some space she would eventually get around to telling her what was wrong.

Instead, Regina slipped an arm through Alex's and turned her so they were facing the bay. "You asked me what I wanted to do earlier. I want to take a walk by the water."

"That's easy enough," Alex replied in an oddly subdued voice as she stepped down off the curb.

Regina glanced back over her shoulder as she fell into step beside her partner. There was no one in the street behind them and she wondered briefly what Alex saw that caused such an intense reaction.

She glanced off to her left and spied a small wharf with its boat slips and something came to her in a flash of memory. Regina tightened her grip on Alex's arm and snuggled closer as they walked. You were so worried about how I would feel coming back here that you didn't stop to think about how it would affect you. Did you, Alex?

The wind blew at their backs as they walked along the sidewalk and approached the jetty.
Regina tilted her head and closed her eyes for a moment while the wind to lift her hair from her face. She soaked in the rhythmic rumble of the waves as one after the other, they swept in from the depths, gathering strength, and speed only to crash into the sand and resume their journey back out to see again.

"I love to listen to the sound of the ocean," Regina remarked, breaking the silence between them. "It's soothing."

"Soothing," Alex repeated, shaking her head in wry amusement.

"You don't think it is." Regina blinked as the sun peaked out from behind a dark cloud.

"I guess. I don't think of one of the most powerful forces on earth as being soothing." Alex shrugged indifferently.

Regina regarded the sad expression on Alex's face for a moment and then straightened her shoulders before letting go of her arm. "Come on. Let's walk out on the jetty." She held her hand out to Alex and then hesitantly let it drop as her companion made no move to take her hand. With an exasperated sigh, Regina turned and stepped up onto the rocks and began carefully picking her way across them.

After walking for several minutes, Regina finally turned around and scanned the distant shoreline for Alex. She was surprised not to see her anywhere. She ran a hand through her hair; a mixture of disbelief and anger running through her. "Dammit, Alex. Where the hell did you go?"

She toyed with the idea of walking back in to find Alex, but her stubborn nature won out. With a grim expression on her face she turned and continued to walk farther out on the jetty.

She tried to think about everything that they had done today and pick out what it was that caused Alex to be so upset. The only place that managed to get her was mad at herself for not asking the woman what was upsetting her when she saw the change in the expression on her face.

Had she done something to upset her? Regina didn't think so but, at this point she wasn't sure anymore. She cupped her hands together and blew on them before she jammed them back into her coat pockets and resumed her lonely walk away from shore.

******

Alex watched Regina for a moment and then looked over at the small diner. She frowned not quite understanding why she was feeling this way now, after all this time. I have no right to this, not after everything I've done. Frustrated, Alex bent down, picked up a medium sized stone off the ground, and tossed it in her hand before she threw it out into the waves. A plume of water shot up as it plunged into the water.

After a few minutes, she gazed back out across the rocks and was surprised at how far out Regina had already walked. Great, now I've gone and pissed her off.

This was not how she envisioned their day and Alex sank deeper into her sullen mood. She ducked her head and walked over to the diner. Inside, she walked up to the counter and ordered two hot chocolates. Disgusted with herself, she leaned on the counter, waiting for the waitress to finish filling the two Styrofoam cups with the hot beverage.

Ten minutes later, carrying a cup of hot chocolate in each hand, Alex walked back out to the jetty. She stepped up onto the mile long outcropping of rocks and frowned when she spotted the dark silhouette of her partner standing off in the distance.

She called her name out but the wind carried the sound back towards the shore and she knew unless Regina turned around she wouldn't know she was there.

******

Regina was cold, angry, and upset as she hunkered deeper into her wool jacket. She walked out as far as she felt comfortable going and now was trying to decide if she wanted to start the equally long walk back in towards the shore. The wind had kicked up again and the dark waves sent a cold, salty spray up over some of the rocks below her.

She scuffed the toe of her shoe against the rock and turned around. She let out a startled gasp when she saw Alex walking towards her across the rocks.

The taller woman stopped a few feet away and just looked at Regina. After a moment's hesitation, she set the two cups down on a flat rock and stepped closer, her gaze settling on her partner's face.

"I'm sorry." She glanced down at her sneakers and sighed.

"You should be…sorry," Regina answered shortly, still confused, and hurt about what happened.

Alex darted a quick surprised look over at the fiery, green eyes. "I don't know what happened back there." She shook her head and stuffed her hands in her coat pocket to keep from fidgeting. "I mean I do, but…damn, this isn't coming out right."

A gull squawked as it flew in for a landing a few feet away from Alex and hopped around, searching for the odd scrap of food and any shells that might have lodged between the rocks.

Regina looked away from her. "I stood out here trying to figure out what I did wrong."

A gust of wind whipped the hem of Alex's coat whipped around her legs and she turned her head against the chill. "You didn't do anything wrong, Regina. It was me."

When she got no response from the blonde, Alex stepped closer. "Please look at me." She expected to see tears brimming in her eyes when Regina finally turned her head and looked at her.

There were none.

"I…I," she coughed and cleared her throat, then tried again to put into words the private, inner feelings she seldom acknowledged to herself, let alone to another human being.

Patient green eyes met hers when she hazarded a glance over at Regina.

Alex ducked her head and frowned as she stared down at the rocks beneath her feet. "I don't know why it happened, but I felt it when we came out of the candy store. We were down the street from where Lana's store used to be." She took a step and turned, putting her back to the wind.

Now, facing Regina she continued haltingly. "I felt guilty about being here…with you." Alex saw the look of bewilderment and hurt in Regina's eyes and cringed, wondering if she was making things worse by telling her the truth. "I don't know if I can explain this."

"Try," Regina answered over the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks.

Alex shook her head and looked out at the dark clouds gathering on the horizon. "You know what happened the last time you were here."

"Yeah," Regina drew the word out slowly, trying to figure out where Alex was going with this.

"Before you called me that night, I came out here and spread Lana's ashes out over the water." Alex pressed her lips together, remembering the moonlit night and the quiet sense of finality she'd felt standing out here alone. "At that moment, I never planned to come back here. I told myself I didn't deserve to have that kind of happiness ever again after everything that happened." Alex let her voice trail off and stared down at the water lapping up onto the rocks. "Now, here I am with you." Alex spread her hands in defeat and hung her head.

Regina stared in disbelief at the bowed head. She had no words to answer what Alex just told her. Not knowing what else to do, she walked the short distance to where Alex had set the Styrofoam cups down and retrieved them.

"Here." She pressed the now lukewarm cup into Alex's hands and stood next to her. A shiver passed through her as another cloud passed in front of the sun, blocking the warmth of its rays again.

Her initial response to Alex's words was to be angry and then resentful. How could she compete with Alex's feelings of guilt and remorse for what happened in the past?

Then she had another thought that tempered her raw emotions. Six months ago, you would have never told me that, Alex. Regina sighed to herself as she pulled open the lid on the cup and inhaled the pleasant aroma of the hot chocolate before she sipped it.

Her eyes roamed cautiously over the grim countenance of her lover. I guess this is something we're going to have to work on together, because I don't think either one of us can do it alone.

"I don't want you to believe that." Regina reached out and touched one of Alex's arms.

"Believe what?" Alex blinked and turned her attention back to Regina.

"That you don't deserve to be happy." Regina reached up and ran the back of her knuckles against the soft skin of Alex's cheek. "I don't choose to believe that."

The taller woman closed her eyes and exhaled softly. "Your hands are freezing," she commented gruffly, as her larger hand covered Regina's. "I'm sorry." Alex turned her head and pressed her lips into Regina's hand before she pulled the smaller woman closer, and tucked her hand into the pocket of her coat.

Regina tilted her head to look up at Alex. "Let's walk back so we can find someplace where we warm up and get something to eat."

******

They were both cold and hungry by the time they reached the center of town. The sun had begun its descent towards the horizon and the sky was painted in brilliant shades of burnt orange and reds.

Alex felt the smaller woman shiver against her and she pulled her underneath an awning out of the wind. "Do you have any preferences where we go?"

Regina shook her head and pressed her hands up between their bodies, warming them between the layers of Alex's coat. "No," she replied, fighting not to let her teeth chatter. She looked across the street at the restaurant on the corner. Through the windows she could see dim lights and the outlines of tables and a bar. "What about over there?"

Alex looked across the street and shrugged. "Okay." It wasn't what she had in mind, but then again she had no one to blame but herself for ruining her own plans for a romantic dinner and evening.

She let the door shut behind her, shutting out the wet, damp wind that was beginning to blow in off the bay. Alex blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. She looked around the rustic looking establishment. Fishnets, spears, and other whaling implements adorned the planked walls and ceilings above.

A haggard looking man with his hair pulled back into a ponytail, sat by the jukebox, staring intently at his drink. Behind the bar, stood a young man with curly, black hair and a nose ring, looking expectantly at Regina. Except for the four of them the establishment was otherwise empty.

Regina looked over from her perch on the stool. "What do you want to drink?"

"Whatever you're having is fine." Alex walked over, pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of her wallet, and set it on the bar. "It's quiet in here," she commented to the bartender.

"It'll fill up later. We've got a band coming over to play tonight," he replied and then retrieved two frosty mugs from inside a freezer and poured their drinks. He set them down on the counter and looked over at Alex. "You want to just keep a tab running?"

She shrugged a shoulder indifferently and pocketed the bill. "Sure." She glanced outside where large, fat raindrops were starting to spatter on the windows and then looked back at Regina who stared at her over the brim of her frothy mug. "We might be here a while." Alex sipped her beer and rested an elbow on the edge of the bar.

"Let's go over there." Regina tugged Alex's arm and pulled her off the stool. She directed her companion to a dimly lit corner of the room and settled comfortably into a chair.

Alex draped her coat over the back of a chair and reached for Regina's as the blonde shrugged out of it. Quietly, she settled into the chair opposite her friend and focused on her drink.

They were both quiet for a few moments until Regina cleared her throat and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the wooden table. "What was Lana like?"

The question caught her completely off guard and she missed the edge of the mug with her lips and sloshed the amber liquid on the table. Alex muttered a curse and quickly grabbed for some napkins to clean up the spill. Her eyes flicked over at Regina who was watching her intently.

"Sorry about that." Alex set her mug down and took a breath.

Regina shook her head and looked away, her fingers fidgeting nervously on the tabletop. "I just…obviously you've been thinking about her and…well, I was curious."

Alex stared at Regina from across the table. She saw the blush color Regina's fair-skinned features and reached across the table to clasp her hands inside her larger one. "It's okay. I just wasn't expecting that particular question," she assured Regina with a squeeze of her hand.

So, what was Lana like? She felt a pang inside as she recalled the pictures she kept in her nightstand and realized they were the only two she had of the woman.

"Lana was a brilliant doctor." Alex trailed her fingertip down the side of the mug. "She was compassionate and dedicated." She looked over at Regina and tilted her head, knowing that wasn't what Regina really wanted to hear. "What do you want to know?"

"How did you meet her?"

A wry grin crossed Alex's face and she sat back in her chair. "We were in medical school together. We ended up being lab partners in gross anatomy."

Regina wrinkled her nose at the memory of that particular class and the stench of formaldehyde that clung to their lab clothes for an entire year.

"Actually, it was pretty funny," Alex continued. "It was one of the first days in lab and we were all standing around waiting for the professor to unzip the body bag. He was an egomaniac and loved making a big production of it." Alex shook her head in disgust. "You remember Richard?"

"The doctor who treated me up in Boston?" Regina's face brightened for an instant.

Alex nodded. "He brought a bag of Granny Smith apples with him each day. I guess he thought it was a good way to get everyone to loosen up," she chuckled at the memory of loudly munching on an apple and the looks the two of them were getting from their colleagues. "Anyway, this blonde-haired woman is standing in front of me during one of the lab sessions. I remember the professor unzipping the black bag in front of us and all of a sudden she leans back against me."

Regina raised an eyebrow and leaned forward again. "What do you mean?"

"I mean her whole upper body." Alex patted her chest and smirked. "I look over at David and he's laughing. So, I nudge her and the next thing I know she's on the floor out cold."

Regina covered her face with her hand. "Oh no. She passed out."

"Cold." Alex grimaced. "David never let either one of us live it down. He said it gave new meaning to having someone throw themselves at my feet."

"So, did you two start seeing each other after that?" Regina tilted her head and gazed over into Alex's face.

A flicker of emotion showed in the blue eyes and Alex cleared her throat. "I guess you could say that."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Regina cracked a smile at the older woman's evasive response.

Alex sat back in her chair and folded her hands on the table. "I don't know that you'd call it dating, Regina. Things were always…intense between us. It was either good or it was bad. There wasn't much room for anything in between."

"Oh." It was Regina's turn to sit back. She studied the grain of the wood, her fingers idly tracing the whorls as she considered what Alex told her and how it made her feel. It felt weird and she was a little surprised at the unmistakable sense of jealousy that reared its ugly head. Stop it. Regina chastised herself. You asked her, so deal with it.

Alex finished drinking her beer and set it back down on the table. She nodded when the bartender walked over and asked if she wanted another drink. "Do you want another one, Reg?"

Regina jerked her head up at the sound of her name. "Uh, yeah. That's fine and can we get some menus too?"

The curly headed man nodded and strolled back to the bar to refill their mugs.

"This time I'll try not to spill half of it on the table," Alex offered jokingly as she watched Regina warily from across the table. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." Regina tucked a few strands of hair back behind an ear.

Alex leaned forward and she slid her hand underneath Regina's to still the nervous tracing. "You know, for all the things we were to each other, Regina." Alex focused on the startled green eyes and continued. "Lana and I were never best friends."

"You loved her though," Regina replied, looking down at the thumb that was massaging her hand.

"As best as I was able to back then." Alex sat back as the bartender returned with their drinks and menus. She waited to continue until after he left. "I was a different person when I met Lana, and you know what medical school was like. Weeks at a time would go by and we would hardly see each other."

Regina offered a knowing smile as she recalled the endless hours spent researching and studying. It all seemed like a blur with classes, labs, and examinations that left little time for the normal things in life like eating and sleeping.

"We were two ambitious people and there was little room inside our egos for each other. Looking back now, I think I knew then, that our relationship wasn't going to last."

"Why do you say that?" Regina asked and then sipped her beer, peeing over the rim at Alex cautiously. "You took care of her right up until the very end."

Blue eyes met hers and then looked away, staring out the window at the pelting rain. "Guilt is a strong motivator." With that last remark, Alex slid a menu across the table and opened hers, signaling that the conversation was over.

******

Regina skipped along every few steps to keep up with Alex's brisk pace. "You'd think the devil was hot on your tail the way you're walking."

Alex snorted and pulled her keys from her pocket as she rounded the corner from the street and walked over to the door to her apartment. It wouldn't surprise me if he was, she brooded silently. She unlocked it and held it open for her companion to pass through.

Regina started to say something but stopped and simply trudged up the stairs when she saw the grim expression on Alex's face. Over the past few months, she'd gotten better at reading her companion's moods, knowing when to push and when to back off and give her time to herself.

Alex followed Regina up the stairs and stopped short when she realized she was about to plow right into her.

"What are you doing?" She tried to step around Regina.

Regina stepped sideways and blocked her path. "I'm waiting for you to stop your self-flagellation."

Despite her bad mood, Alex had to bite the inside of her cheek to fight a smile from forming. "Is that what I'm doing?" she asked, her eyes level with Regina's as she stood a step below her.

"Ha, ha." Regina took the keys from her partner's hands and walked toward the apartment door. She unlocked it and waited for Alex to join her inside before she spoke again. "I'm not sure what's going on in that head of yours, but you need to stop and listen to me," Regina said, as she shut the door and then faced her lover.

Alex folded her arms across her chest and pursed her lips together as she met Regina's defiant gaze.

"I'm glad I talked to you about Lana."

Wordlessly, Alex dropped her arms to her side and turned away. She shed her coat and walked over to couch where she sat down and tucked a leg up underneath her. She wasn't…talking about that time of her life dredged up all kinds of bad memories.

"Why?" Alex asked quietly, without looking up at her.

Regina joined her on the cushions and leaned back. She could see the strain on Alex's face as the dark-haired woman stared down at her hands that she had linked together in front of her. She willed her stomach to stop churning before she reached out and touched Alex's hands with her own.

"I needed to know if there was still room enough inside your heart for me."

Alex stared at Regina in wide-eyed disbelief. "Y…you're kidding, right?" she managed to get out around the lump that suddenly formed in her throat.

Regina lowered her gaze and shook her head. "After what you said earlier, I…I wasn't sure," her voice trailed off and it was her turn to stare down at her hands, clutched together so tightly the skin over her knuckles turned white. Self-consciously, Regina loosened her grasp and flexed her hands.

Alex looked away sharply and clenched her jaw, fighting the sudden wave of heart-breaking pain in her chest. It was another lesson about how very fragile everything was for them still.

Very slowly, Alex raised an arm and rested her wrist on Regina's shoulder. She curled her fingers around the smaller woman's neck, and lightly grazed her thumb against Regina's cheek. "I guess what I said didn't leave you much reason to believe otherwise."

A tear splashed down on the back of one of Regina's hands. "Oh, Reg," Alex whispered, as she inched closer. She wrapped an arm around the younger woman's shoulders and pulled Regina to her. Alex pressed her lips against the top of the blonde's head and held her close. "When I'm with you…the rest of the world could fall apart around us and it wouldn't matter as long as we're together."

Regina let out a strangled cry and snuggled her body up against her partner's sturdy frame. She gazed up at the chagrined expression on her face. "I…it's just you don't say what you feel and sometimes…I just need to hear you say that."

Alex tilted her head back and exhaled, feeling very far out of her element. "I'm sorry. I…um…I'll try to be better at telling you from now on." Her heart slowed its wild beating and she rubbed her hands over Regina's back. "I'd be lost without you, Reg."

The stark look in the blue eyes when they focused on her, said it all. Regna leaned in and touched her lips to Alex's mouth in a reassuring gesture of tenderness. "I would be too."

Regina closed her eyes and the last thing she felt before she finally drifted off to sleep was the pressure of Alex's strong arms as they wrapped around her and the whispered endearments that made her want to believe that everything would be all right.

******

Alex woke first and blinked her eyes in confusion as she looked around at her surroundings. Guess all that talking wiped us both out. Regina was still asleep with an arm wrapped tightly around Alex's waist. She watched the tiny muscles twitch as the younger woman smiled peacefully in her sleep.

Cautiously, Alex ran her fingers over Regina's cheek and brushed her hair back behind her ear. She had never been very good at verbalizing her emotions and it grieved her to know that what she shared with her yesterday caused Regina to doubt her love.

Alex shifted on the couch and gazed down at her still sleeping lover, then, whispered softly. "Don't give up on me, Regina. I promise I won't ever make you doubt my love for you again. You mean too much to me."

Alex lay quietly for as long as her body would bear and then gave into her body's need to stretch. She grunted softly as a vertebrae popped in her back. That'll teach me to fall asleep on the couch, Alex chided herself.

Across the room, a shrill beeping broke the silence and she muttered a curse as she glared at the two duffel bags that were lying on the floor at the foot of the bed.

Regina grimaced in her sleep and reached up with an arm in a feeble attempt to stop the noise. Alex caught her arm before it collided with her nose.

"Reg, wake up." She massaged the younger woman's back and shoulders with her hands as she whispered to her.

The only response she got was a low groan and then Regina burrowed her face into Alex's sweater before she stretched and lifted her head.

"Morning," Alex said, as one green eye stared up at her and then closed.

"What is that god awful beeping?" Regina mumbled.

"It's one of our pagers." Alex shifted and struggled to push herself up as she extracted herself from Regina's grasp. She stumbled across the floor and then cocked her head as she knelt beside their bags.

She unzipped Regina's bag, pulled out the offending item, and switched it off. "Damn thing," she muttered. She studied the backlit display and turned back to the couch. "Reg, it's your beeper."

"Throw it out." Came the grumbled response.

Alex rolled her eyes, walked back to the couch, and stood beside her with a sympathetic expression on her face. "I don't think I can do that, love. Here." She held the black pager out to Regina.

"Ugh, I can't even open my eyes yet," the blonde complained as she took it from Alex and attempted to read the number.

"Need the phone?" Alex held out her cell phone to Regina.

"Thanks." Regina rested her head against Alex's thigh as she typed in the numbers and waited for the connection to be made. She tilted her head up to gaze at Alex and smiled at her rumpled appearance. "You look cute…hello? This is Dr. Kingston. Someone paged me."

Alex reached down and offered a friendly scratch between Regina's shoulder blades while she spoke.

"Uh, I'm sorry," a meek voice replied on the other end. "I didn't mean to bother you."

"Wait, who is this?" Regina frowned, not recognizing the young voice.

"It's Terry."

Terry? Who do I know named Terry? Then, Regina recalled the young girl who she had given her pager number to before she left for the weekend. "Terry, what's wrong?" she asked, her voice tinged with concern.

"I wasn't sure I should call you."

"It's okay. I told you to call me if you needed to. Tell me what's wrong." She glanced up at Alex and smiled apologetically.

"It's TJ. He left the hospital."

Regina ran a hand through her hair and suddenly sat up straighter. "What do you mean he left?" Her voice rose an octave.

"He ran away the other night. The nurse told him they found another foster home for him to go to."

Regina rubbed her face, wondering what she should say to the girl. "Terry, I'm sure the hospital has people looking out looking for him. He couldn't have gone far."

There was silence on the other end of the phone and then Terry quiet voice came through the line. "I know. I'm just scared for him. I'm sorry to bother you, Dr. Kingston."

The line went dead and Regina groaned, as a feeling of helplessness overwhelmed her.

"What was that about?" Alex draped an arm over Regina's shoulder and sat down beside her, studying the anguished expression the blonde's face.

"Do you remember the code six from the other night? It was one of my patients."

"Ah, I'm sorry, Reg." Alex squeezed her shoulder. "Who was that?"

"One of the kids I was treating on the pediatric floor. You must think I'm really stupid for giving the service's number out to one of my patients."

"No, it's just not something I would do. So who's this missing kid?"

"A teenage boy who came in with a head trauma a couple of weeks ago. I guess he didn't like the idea of going to another foster home." Regina stared down at the phone and shook her head. "How can a kid just walk out of the hospital without anyone seeing him?"

"Probably not as hard as you think, with the way staffing is on the floors at nights."

"I feel awful. Terry's upset and I think she expected me to be able to do something." Regina frowned and stood up suddenly. She pressed a hand to her temple and closed her eyes in concentration. "Wait, oh, what's radiology's number?"

Alex rattled the number off and watched uneasily as Regina paced.

"I need to speak to Dr. Summers, please. This is Dr. Kingston." Regina stopped and stood in front of Alex as she waited. "I ordered a CT scan of his head. His white blood cell count was slightly elevated and psych was trying to delay his discharge. I thought that if there was something that could justify keeping him it might help."

Alex raised an eyebrow but kept silent, knowing full well that Regina was taking a risk ordering a test under these circumstances. She watched as Regina turned away from her as she started talking into the phone.

"Hi, Dr. Summers," Regina answered as the doctors voice came over the line. "I ordered a CT scan on a sixteen year old boy who was a John Doe."

Regina frowned and shook her head. "No I don't know his hospital number but he was on pediatrics. Sure I'll hold."

While Regina waited, Alex took the opportunity to dig her toiletries out of her bag and headed into the bathroom.

"Dr. Kingston?"

"Yes, I'm here," Regina answered, smiling briefly, as she watched Alex's shirt fly out onto the bed followed by her jeans and then undergarments.

"I have the results of the CT scan. Everything is fine."

"So there's no evidence of any new bleeding from the original injury to the brain?"

"No, he just needs to be kept on his anti-seizure medications for the time being."

She knew this, but the doctor's re-affirmation brought the seriousness of the information home to her. "Unfortunately, our patient happens to be the one they called the code six for the other night," Regina replied. "I'm away and just found out today."

"Oh, yes, I remember hearing the code called. Well, let's hope they find the boy soon. I know I don't need to tell you, but without them he's at serious risk for complications."

"Yes, I know. Thank you, Dr. Summers." Regina shut the cell phone and tossed it down onto the couch with a sigh. "Now what do I do?" She had a sudden vision flash in her mind's eye TJ, standing on a street corner lost and afraid.

It was a few minutes before Alex emerged from the shower with a towel wrapped around her lithe body. Her skin was tinged a healthy pink from the hot water. "Hey, what's the long face for?" She strode over to where Regina was sitting on the couch and cocked her head.

Regina dropped her head into her hands. "The CT scan was negative, but I know he's not taking his seizure medication. He's at risk, anything could happen."

Alex stared down at Regina and considered what they could reasonably do. "Why don't you call Dr. Timmon's office or the Pediatric department and see if they've heard anything about this kid's whereabouts."

She turned to walk away when she saw the doubtful expression on Regina's face. "Hey, I'm sure they're doing everything they can to find him."

Alex crouched down in front of her, tilted Regina's chin up and pressed her lips to Regina's mouth in a soft, reassuring kiss. Her eyes twinkled softly after she pulled away and spent a moment just looking into the green eyes before her. "You know something. That kid is very lucky he's got you to worry about him."

Chapter Twenty-One

Some time later, the two women left Alex's apartment and walked down Commercial Street to a small street side café that faced the bay. There was an eclectic air to the interior, with pastel colored murals painted on all the walls and old-fashioned ice cream parlor stools along the counter that gave the place an eccentric retro design.

Regina rubbed her nose and looked up at her companion. "Kind of bright, huh?"

Alex arched an eyebrow as she watched a waitress grab two menus from the counter and head in their direction. "It looks like the Easter Bunny nibbled on the wrong patch of grass and then came here to paint the eggs."

Regina stopped laughing just long enough to hear the waitress introduce herself as Allison. They had their pick of where to sit and the waitress guided them to a booth in the back corner that overlooked the water at Alex's request.

"Would you like anything to drink?"

"Two coffees, please," Alex replied, as she settled into the booth.

"Certainly." She flashed them a bright smile and sauntered back behind the counter.

"Alex wouldn't you love to have a room painted like this with all these wild and crazy colors?" Regina leaned across the table and smiled up at her.

Two blue eyes peered back at her from over the menu. "You're kidding, right?"

Regina held the smile as long as she could and then dissolved into a fit of giggles again. "Sorry, I think this place is making me feel goofy."

"Well, if you really like these colors, I'm sure we could find some edible body paint in one of the stores and play connect the dots later," Alex deadpanned, enjoying the wide-eyed expression on Regina's face for a few seconds. "Breathe, Reg."

"Hmm, maybe we should go check one of those stores out. That could be interesting." Regina arched an eyebrow and blew a kiss across the table at Alex.

The taller woman leaned back against her booth and groaned. "God, I walked right into that."

They carried on for a few more minutes, totally absorbed in each other, until they both ended up laughing so hard that tears rolled down their cheeks. Alex held her hands up in surrender.

"No more. Please, you're going to kill me if we keep laughing like this."

Regina inhaled and regained some of her composure before she opened the menu and quickly read it over.

Their waitress appeared, having taken the silence at the table, as they were ready to order. "So what would you ladies like to eat?"

Alex coughed and cleared her throat as she glanced across the table at Regina. The blonde was blushing badly and trying desperately not to burst out laughing again. "Fried eggs over easy and pancakes, for both of us," she answered quickly.

"Great, thanks." Allison gathered up the menus and graced them both with a bright smile.

Regina tried desperately to keep a straight face as the waitress left to place their order and then sunk very low in her booth and started to laugh again. "Teach us to have conversations like this in public," she finally managed to get out.

"Mm and who started it?"

"Okay, okay truce. I can't handle any more laughing right now," Regina replied, still holding her stomach. She decided it felt good to laugh and carry on like two kids.

Regina glanced out the window at the water. She was glad to be out of the apartment. After placing telephone calls to Dr. Timmons office, security, and the pediatric floor she knew no more now than she had after her brief conversation with Terry. She still couldn't shake the haunting image her mind conjured up of TJ all alone possibly sick or hurt.

"Hey. Where did you go off to?" Alex waved her hand in front of Regina's eyes, smiling as the blonde blinked her eyes and refocused on her.

"Sorry. I just can't get him out of my head." Regina toyed with her fork and shook her head as she let out an exasperated sigh. "It's like he just disappeared into thin air and nobody seems to know anything, let alone, care very much that he's gone."

"Security filed a missing person's report with the police department and they've probably checked every inch of the hospital to make sure he isn't hiding out somewhere," Alex told her. "It's been forty-eight hours so the police are officially involved."

Regina set her fork down and took a sip of her water. "I just hope they find him and that he's okay. The longer he goes without his medication the more at risk he is for having a seizure."

Alex pressed her lips together and tilted her head, feeling the worry, and genuine concern Regina expressed. "I know you're worried about him. Let's eat and try to enjoy the rest of today." She stopped and leaned forward as Regina turned her head and looked out the window with a forlorn expression on her face.

"I just wish there was something I could do," she whispered, her voice trembling slightly.

Glancing down at her watch, Alex considered if there was any benefit in returning a day earlier than they planned. It wasn't what she wanted to do, but if it made Regina feel better she decided it would be worth it. "It's eleven o'clock now. If you wanted to, we could drive back after we eat. Maybe there is something we can do to help."

"You would do that?" Regina regarded the serious expression on Alex's face as the older woman steadily met her gaze.

"Yes," Alex replied and leaned back as the waitress arrived with their plates of food. She let an easy, graceful smile cross her lips, while she was swept in by the look of quiet admiration and love she was getting from across the table.

******

Alex draped an arm over Regina's shoulder as they walked down the street after they finished and paid for their meal. She felt better having food in her stomach, the dull headache she had earlier was receding and Regina seemed to be in better spirits as well.

"Ooh, how pretty."

Alex turned her head and looked over to see what had caught her partner's attention. A wooden box supported on a sturdy pedestal, its locked glass lid, protecting a small array of sparkling jewelry. Alex glanced up at the store and saw the lights on inside. "It's open. Do you want to go in?"

"Do you mind?" A curiously shy look crossed Regina's features when she looked at her partner.

"I wouldn't have offered if I did."

Regina laughed, not quite understanding the nervousness she felt in her gut as she tugged Alex's hand and started up the brick steps.

A red-haired woman looked up from behind the counter. "Hi," she greeted them with a friendly smile and went back to her work.

After returning the greeting, Regina's attention was immediately drawn to a glass case to the right of the door. It was filled with ear rings, specifically a beautiful set of sparkling sapphire stones that winked at her from underneath the lights.

Regina looked back at Alex and raised an inquiring eyebrow. "I'd like to see that pair, please." She pointed down at the gleaming azure jewels inside the case.

Alex's heart skipped a beat and her throat went dry as she looked on. While the woman retrieved them from the case, she discreetly slipped over to the other side of the store and took great interest in the necklaces laid out on the white background. Her eyes strayed over to the rings and she briefly studied several of them as she took a few deep breaths, wondering why she felt so out of control.

Soft footfalls, muffled by the carpeted floor approached and then she felt a warm presence at her back. Alex shifted and turned around, her eyebrows creeping up beneath her bangs when Regina held the sapphire-blue, gemstone earrings up next to her face.

"I think they'd look beautiful on you," Regina commented softly.

Alex swallowed and ducked her head, feeling a completely unexpected surge of adolescent awkwardness. "With this long hair? You'd never see them," she replied, feigning a casual offhandedness she didn't feel.

Regina made a clucking noise with her tongue and lowered her hands. She slipped one into Alex's hand and laced their fingers together. "You would if you pulled it up, just like you did when you had to give that presentation at the hospital last summer."

She waited for Alex reaction, knowing she remembered exactly what she was talking about. Regina certainly did. Alex had managed to turn an incredibly hostile environment to her distinct advantage that day. "You looked really hot, um…" A blush colored her face and she shook her head. "You looked really nice in that blue pant suit you were wearing."

"You," Alex cleared her throat and looked down at the floor before she tried again. "You remember that?"

Their eyes met and Regina simply nodded her head. "So, listen…just don't say anything right now."

"Bu…Reg, you don't…I." Alex stammered and didn't get to finish as two fingers pressed against her lips, quieting her strangled protests.

"Shush," she gently chided her and felt a tremor run through the hand she was still holding. Regina smiled up at the bewildered blue eyes that stared back at her, knowing she'd caught Alex completely off guard. "Maybe when we get back home, we can go out someplace nice one night and you can wear them, because I'd really be honored to get them for you."

She'd be honored? Alex met her gaze and got lost in the quiet regard, as she thought about that.

After a moment, Regina turned, but before she could walk away, felt the warm weight of Alex's hands on both her shoulders and was pulled gently back against the taller woman, and heard these whispered words.

"Thank you." Alex squeezed her shoulders and leaned around to place a soft kiss on her cheek.

"You're welcome." Regina closed her eyes briefly and smiled as a warm, wonderful feeling flowed through her as she walked back to the counter.

Subtle things were changing between them, Regina acknowledged; like the fact that Alex had shared some of her insecurities about their relationship with her the day before.
Even though it had been painful to hear the words, she knew it meant that some unseen barriers were finally sliding away.

The woman behind the counter, gladly wrapped up Regina' purchase, smiling as she handed it back across to the blonde. "You picked out a beautiful pair of sapphires."

"Thanks," Regina replied, thinking they were almost as captivating as the Alex's blue eyes. She chuckled at the thought. No way do they even hold a candle to your baby blues, Alex.

When she was finished, Regina joined Alex over by one of the glass cases and stood beside her. She bit her bottom lip and arched her eyebrows as she looked up at the serious expression on Alex's face. I hope she doesn't think I got her these because she offered to go home early. Regina tossed the thought away and nudged Alex with her hip.

"You ready?"

"Yeah." Alex nodded her head and gave her a crooked half smile before she walked over and opened the door for Regina.

After walking along the street for a few minutes, Alex guided Regina down through a half-filled parking lot to a small patch of beach. There was an old sun-beaten, turquoise colored row- boat that looked like it had seen better days lying upside down, half-buried in the sand.

Their shoes crunched softly through the sand as they trudged over and took a seat on the end of the boat. Regina snuggled closer to Alex and wrapped an arm around the taller woman's waist to ward off the chill of the damp sea air. A stiff breeze lifted Alex's hair, blowing it back off her face while she soaked in the blissful feeling of her lover's embrace.

Alex cleared her throat and gave Regina a nudge with her shoulder. " So, do you think your Mom is over the shock of your declaration the other night?"

"What? Oh, geez." Regina rubbed her face sheepishly. "That just slipped out of nowhere. I wanted to die."

"Mm, I think that made three of us at the time," Alex deadpanned.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to embarrass you."

Alex let out a soft chuckle and rubbed her temple. "You didn't, well not too badly. Just caught me by surprise. I'm pretty sure we answered any lingering questions she had when she walked in on us kissing."

Regina ducked her head and groaned. "I'm sure I'll hear about that the next time I talk to her. My parent's are not big on public displays of affection."

Alex felt the slump in Regina's posture and sensed the quiet depression settle over her partner. "Hey. What's up?" She ran her fingers through the pale hair and sucked in a breath at the forlorn expression on Regina's face.

The blonde shook her head. "Right when we were leaving my mother was questioning why I would want to be with you. I don't know if she's ever going to accept our relationship or you."

Alex drew the collar up on her coat and stared down at the sand. She didn't worry so much about herself and what Regina's mother thought. If the woman chose not to like or accept her, then, so be it, but she knew it was important to Regina and at the moment she wasn't quite sure what she could do about it. She offered up the only thing she knew to be true. "Sometimes the only thing that brings people around is time."

They were both silent for a while, lured in by the rhythmic sound of the surf. There was less of a breeze today and the warmth of the sun could be felt when it poked through the high clouds.

Regina glanced up at the intense profile and caught Alex staring out at the horizon, a faraway expression on her face. "What are you thinking?"

Alex looked down at Regina and then refocused her attention out at the water. "Do you remember the fire fighter we met over at the clinic?"

"Yeah, his name was Todd, I think," Regina answered tentatively, wondering what had brought this subject up. She had a suspicion that at the time Alex had been more than a little annoyed at the innocent attentions that the young man had shown her.

It wasn't until they finally broke past the hurt and confusion did Regina realize the extent of the emotional turmoil and stark vulnerability that haunted her partner. Little pieces fell into place and some of pain receded that night they talked, leaving them a chance to start to heal the wounds that were keeping them apart.

Alex's voice interrupted her thoughts. "Didn't he mention that there was a kid that got attacked right by there?"

Regina leaned back in Alex's arms and regarded the sober expression on her partner's face. "Yeah, he did. The night he came over with Dana's…um…the German Shepard he rescued. Sorry, I didn't mean to bring that up." Regina smacked the side of her head. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Just what she needs is a reminder of who shot her.

Alex pulled Regina's hand down. "Hey, don't do that." She cupped Regina's face with her hand and regarded her seriously. "I don't want you to feel like you have tiptoe around that subject. It didn't do us much good when we did before. Did it?" Her voice lowered and gentled as she rubbed a thumb over Regina's cheek.

Regina blinked and stared up at Alex. "No, it didn't," she admitted quietly and leaned into the caress, glad that they regained the quiet intimacy that had become a wonderful part of their relationship. "Alex, you didn't really think I was interested in Todd, did you."

Alex darted a sideways glance at Regina and exhaled forcefully. "Blunt and to the point as usual, eh?"

Regina let her hands fall down between her knees and studied the faded and peeling paint on the boat. "Sorry, I just remember…and I wanted you to know, that was never the case."

"I know that." Came the soft, rumbling reply as Alex wrapped an arm around Regina's shoulder and pulled her close. "I just…wasn't feeling really very good about who I was or what had happened." Alex hesitated and then looked right into Regina's eyes. "I couldn't help but think that it would be a hell of a lot easier for you to be with someone who didn't have a whole lot of baggage they were carrying around."

"It wouldn't have been easier," Regina sighed, remembering the long, interminable seconds in the emergency department when she could feel that force, that life giving bond that was her partner's soul slipping away. "I almost lost you once. I don't for any reason ever want to know that feeling again. It would kill me."

Alex blinked and let the fiercely spoken words sink inside her soul. "That's not going to happen. I'm not going to leave you, ever."

Regina studied her and then tilted her head, as she let herself drown in the depths of those blue eyes. "You mean that."

She looked at Regina and smiled. Yes. There were so many things she'd come to look forward to in their relationship and she realized that she didn't want to have to live without them.

She loved to hear her infectious laughter and watch Regina toss her head back with a radiant smile on her face. What she had grown to like the most, was how Regina would touch her when she was telling her something, just reach out and put a hand on her arm or shoulder. They were simple gestures but they had woven themselves into the tapestry of her soul and awakened a desire deep inside that she long ago shut the doors on.

A tiny smile formed on Alex's lips and faintly uncertain, pale, blue eyes peered out underneath wind-rumpled bangs. She could feel a moment unfolding between them, one that would forever be etched in her memory as she looked deep into those green eyes and saw reflected back a look that gave her the courage to speak what she already knew was etched forever in her soul. They were she realized, the truest words she'd ever spoken and they came from somewhere deep inside her heart in a rush of emotion.

"We've kind of done this sickness and in health thing already and if…you'll have me…I'd like a chance to find out about the good times and bad times too." Alex waited, watching the stunned expression blossom over Regina's face.

A second later, she found herself enveloped in a passionate hug that rocked her backwards over the keel of the upended boat and dumped them both unceremoniously in the sand.

Regina picked her head up and brushed her hair back off her face. "Oh, I…that was bad. I'm sorry."

"So that's what they mean about being knocked off your feet." A low, rumbling chuckle trickled up from deep inside Alex's chest as she peered up into the mist green eyes.

"Um, I know it's not the most traditional way…" She glanced around her immediate surroundings with a rueful eye and moved her arm in a wide arc, enjoying the feel of the course grains on her fingers. "No ring and not exactly the romantic setting you deserve, but I promise when we get back I'll make it up to you."

Regina shook her head and kissed the tip of Alex's nose. "I don't need you to make anything up to me." A serious expression took over her face and Regina sat up, straddling Alex's hips. "In fact, if you told me you wanted to be one of those doctors who travel around the world from place to the next, setting up clinics and the like, I'd be right there with you."

"Really?" An excited fire glinted in Alex's eyes.

"Absolutely." Regina sat back and smiled, tracing her fingers over the strong, angular planes of Alex's face. "Do I detect a bit of wanderlust in you?"

Alex's lips curved into a grin and she reached up lacing their fingers together. "You know what I've always dreamed of doing. Travel to some of these countries that don't have a good medical system in place, teach them what we know and help them set up clinics."

"That sounds like it would be exciting."

Alex wrapped her hand around Regina's neck and pulled her down for a kiss. It was several moments before they broke off.

Just then, Regina lifted her head and frowned. "Alex, get up." Regina leaned back and stumbled to her feet as the leading edge of the first wave washed up onto the sand.

She winced at the assortment of curse words that spouted out of Alex's mouth as she hopped to her feet and danced away from the oncoming surf.

Regina glanced up at Alex, watching as sand and droplets of water exploded from her hair as she shook her head vigorously. Her quick reflexes allowed her to avoid most of the water but her sneakers and upper half of her coat were soaked.

Casting an annoyed glance at the incoming tide, Alex muttered under her breath and then turned to look at Regina. "Oh, so you think it's funny. Huh?" A rakish grin spread over her face.

Regina shook her head and stepped back, doing her best to stifle a giggle. "No, no…but you have to admit it was…Alex," her voice lowered and she started to backtrack up the sand toward the pavement. "Alex don't you dare, that water is freezing."

"It is, is it?" A diabolical grin crept over Alex's face and Regina shrieked as the taller woman darted after her.

She managed to duck under the outstretched arms once and then realized as she whirled away that Alex was chasing her right back to the water's edge. Regina closed her eyes and huddled down waiting for the inevitable…that never came. Carefully, she peaked out from one eye and sucked in a breath when she saw blue eyes peering at her from very close range. Oh damn, she cringed.

"Gotcha." Alex winked and hopped back a step when Regina swatted her arm at her in mock annoyance.

"You're a brat."

Alex arched an eyebrow and pulled Regina closer to her as another wave swept up over the sand, leaving a sweeping arc of foam only inches from where they were standing. "I am no such thing, but I will be an ice cube pretty soon if I don't get out of these wet clothes."

Regina fell into step alongside Alex and sighed as she eyed the water dripping from her coat and the puddles forming around her sneakers with each step. "Sorry about that. I looked up and the wave was right there."

Alex snorted and nudged Regina with her hip.

******

They enjoyed a long hot shower that culminated with Regina pushing Alex onto the queen size bed and settling against her warm, naked body. It was nice, she mused, just to lie there afterwards in a contented haze, her fingers idly tracing the contours of her lover's body.

Later, after Regina's stomach had made itself known she had run out to the store to gather a short list of supplies that Regina wrote down while she was still lounging in their bed.

Alex purchased everything that Regina requested and even managed to find a kit of multi-colored threads that she used to make bracelets with when she was younger. Alex snorted and shook her head at her childish indulgence as she tromped up the stairs to their apartment.

What would Regina think? Sorry excuse for anything after what I said earlier.
With a disconcerted grunt she opened the door to the apartment and stopped, her jaw slackening a little as she took in the sight of the flickering candlelight that was illuminating most of the apartment in a soft yellow glow.

"Bu…wh…Regina?"

"Hey." The smaller woman stepped up beside her and smiled shyly. "I hope you don't mind, I rummaged through the storage closets and found all these." Regina waved her arm around the room. "Guess you like candles, huh?"

Alex felt one of the bags lifted out of her arms and she blinked as she looked around the apartment that had been transformed in her absence. "I forgot I had all these candles."

"Is it okay?" Regina asked quietly, trying to judge her partner's muted reaction.

"Okay? Regina, it's more than okay." Alex set the bag she was holding down on the table and took the younger woman in her arms. "It's beautiful."

"I'm glad you like it," Regina whispered, against the leather coat.

"I love it." Came the quiet reply. Alex closed her eyes and hugged the smaller woman to her.

They held each other for a few more moments and then Regina peered over into the bag. "Ooh, you got wine."

"Well, I thought it was appropriate for the occasion." Alex let her arms drop to her side and she regarded the contents of the bag with a suspicious eye. "You want some help with the cooking?"

Regina shook her head, pulled the still damp coat off her partner's shoulders, and set it on a hook behind the door. "No. Go sit over there and relax."

Alex eyed her for a moment and then sauntered over to the leather couch and flopped down. She drew the small kit out of her pocket and peeled the plastic off with her fingers. Her eyes darted over to where Regina was busily chopping something up by the sink. Satisfied that she was engrossed in her task, Alex selected the colors she wanted and started to work on her project.

It was a comforting feeling to sit here in Regina's presence Alex mused, as she stole occasional glances at the younger woman while she worked on the bracelet. She suspected that all the talking they did over the past few days had brought them closer and the possibilities of where there relationship was going intrigued her.

"Alex?"

Regina's voice caught her attention and she looked up. "What?"

"What made you think of that kid getting attacked by the clinic?" Regina glanced over and then went back to chopping up the vegetables for the stew she was making.

Alex stopped the motion of her fingers and sighed. "I don't know. I guess you got me thinking about your patient." Alex regarded the green eyes thoughtfully for a moment and gnawed on her lower lip before she spoke again. "Do you still want to drive back? We could leave tonight after we eat."

Regina stopped what she was doing and looked over at Alex. "No, but thanks for asking. I appreciate it. I'll call security later on and see if they've heard anything. Maybe they'll have some good news."

Alex watched as Regina dumped several handfuls of vegetables into the pot and then opened a package of meat and started chopping it up into neat cubes. The sound of sizzling reached her ears and the sharp tang of garlic and onions tickled her nose. She glanced down at her handiwork and tied a final knot to secure the bracelet together.

After stretching, Alex tucked the bracelet into her pocket and stood up. Her nose twitched as she inhaled the smells of vegetables sautéing in the pot.

"Wow, that smells great," she offered, as she walked up behind Regina and peered into the bubbling mixture.

"Good. I hope you like it." Regina glanced back over her shoulder. She added the cubes of meat and stirred them around in the mixture.

"I'm sure I will." Alex leaned closer and dropped a soft kiss on the side of Regina's neck. She smiled when she saw the smaller woman shiver and nibbled her earlobe.

"Hey, no fair. You're distracting the cook."

Alex chuckled, and stepped back a little and continued watching the younger woman with interest. "How about I pour us some wine?"

"Mm, good idea." Regina wiped her hands off on a dishtowel and turned to face her taller companion. There was something she'd been meaning to do for quite a while now and an opportunity never seemed to present itself at just the right moment, but tonight things were falling into place nicely.

She accepted the glass of wine Alex handed her and sipped it, her eyes twinkling gently as she looked back at her lover over the edge of the glass. "Come with me." Regina reached out and took Alex's hand, leading her over to the sliding glass door.

Alex reached out, and unlocked the small latch and slid the door open. "It's a little cold out, don't you think?"

Regina, not to be dissuaded, handed Alex her glass of wine and stripped the blanket off the bed.

Alex raised an eyebrow. "Are you planning on being out here for a while?"

"Well, the stew does need to cook and I thought it might be nice…" Regina draped the blanket over Alex's shoulders and then set the glasses of wine out on the rail of the deck. "…If we stargazed for a bit." With a smile, she slipped herself underneath the warm folds of the blanket and wrapped her arms around her lover.

Alex stared at her for a moment before she closed her eyes, tilting her head, as a memory jogged bits and pieces of a simple request made through a haze of pain all those months ago.

Regina waited for Alex to refocus on her and tugged her out the door onto the small deck. "So, I was telling you about Orion's Belt the last time we did this."

Alex grinned and wrapped her arms around Regina's middle, pulling her close in front of her. "I remember." You were standing so close to me, my insides were all tied up in knots I was so nervous. I should have known then what was happening to me then.

"Did you know that in Greece, Orion was the son of Neptune?" Regina tilted her head and looked up at the shadowed face behind her.

"He was a hunter and Diana's lover, right?"

A delighted smile broke out on Regina's face. "Ah, you remember a bit of Greek mythology, too!"

"I used to read some books about it when I was a kid, yeah," Alex admitted quietly, enjoying the warmth of her lover's body pressed up against her in contrast to the chill of the night air around them.

Regina reclaimed one of the glasses and took a sip of wine, then offered it up to Alex who willingly obliged her. The taller woman leaned over, cupped Regina's cheek with her hand, and pressed their lips together, sharing the berry tasting liquid with her.

Alex lifted the glass from Regina's hand and set it back down on the railing before she reclaimed her lover's lips in a long, leisurely exploration. Her hands wandered over the soft curves and firm muscles, building a fire in her belly that extended outwards until her breathing became ragged.

She felt the smaller woman tremble against her and eased off, resting her forehead against Regina's. "We'd better stop that or I know we won't be eating any dinner. Do you need to check on it?"

"Nah, it's on a low flame, so we have plenty of time to snuggle," Regina replied, running her hands over Alex's back. That was another thing that was different between them now she realized. After her injury, Alex had quietly rebuffed Regina's tentative advances at intimacy, but now that they gotten past that rough spot, it was like they both craved the security of each other's touch.

Alex hugged Regina against her, nestling the blonde head beneath her chin. There was a contented, peacefulness about standing under the stars like this, something she'd never felt before, but yet somehow familiar and comforting at the same time.

"Give me your hand."

Regina frowned but lifted her right hand and Alex grasped it gently in her larger one. She watched with shy interest as Alex drew something from her pocket and wrapped the finger wide band around her wrist.

"You made this." Regina's voice faltered, as gentle fingers brushed against her wrist, tying the ends into a secure knot.

"Yeah, I wanted to give you…something today. I mean…" Alex exhaled, but didn't let go of Regina's wrist. She stepped around, drawing Regina into the light that filtered through the sliding glass door from inside the apartment. Her heart was pounding so hard in her chest she was surprised that Regina couldn't hear it.

Regina wasn't sure but she thought she could see a faint blush covering Alex's features as she stumbled over her words. Why are you so nervous?

"See, I used to read these books about the Middle Ages, too. My brother and I would pretend we were knights, and plan elaborate battles and rescue people from the evil warlords."

"Who were you rescuing?"

Alex sucked in her lower lip and closed her eyes. "My mother." It was an admission she never made to anyone before and had only recently allowed herself to open those doors to the painful childhood memories she kept tightly locked away. "We weren't very good at it and most times we just pissed my old man off with all our running around and hollering."

Regina rested her head against Alex's chest. "I wish I knew you when I was younger. We would have made great friends."

Alex snorted and wiped her eyes, grateful that Regina wasn't looking up at her. "Regina, I was bad news back then and everyone knew it. Your mother would have taken one look at me when I was a kid and chased me off with whatever she could get her hands on."

"I would have found a way to be with you."

This brought a smile to Alex's face, knowing that when Regina decided she wanted something she usually got it.

"The um…knights," Alex continued. "They used to paint designs on their shields so they could identify their allies in a battle."

"Like a coat of arms," Regina offered, staring up into Alex's face with a look of wonder in her eyes.

"Yeah, something like that." Alex's finger traced the braided lengths of the bracelet. "The colors all meant something. The red symbolizes someone who is brave and strong, the blue is for loyalty," she hesitated, swallowing nervously before she continued. "The gold symbolizes generosity and the green is for hope, joy and love."

Regina started to say something and Alex shook her head, covering her lips with two fingers.

"Let me finish or I won't get this out. Remember when you asked me why I got into Emergency Medicine last year?"

"Yeah, you said that way you didn't have to get involved with the patients. Just sew them up and ship them out." Regina recalled the stilted conversation clearly.

"I didn't give you the whole answer." Alex inhaled, fighting back the hoarseness in her voice. "It was a way for me to try rescue people in trouble. Growing up, I could never do that for my brother or my mother. The funny thing is, after all this time I never realized that I needed somebody to save me too."

"That's not true."

Alex shook her head. "You were brave enough to stand beside me regardless of the consequences last year. You stood up for me when I couldn't do it for myself and despite everything you found out about me, you still loved me. Nobody has ever done that before." She hooked a finger under the bracelet and looked into Regina's eyes. "I just want you to know how much I love you."

"I love you, too." Came the quiet, sure reply. Regina laid her head against Alex's chest and closed her eyes. Warm tears trickled down her cheeks as she soaked in the meaning of everything that Alex told her.

They stood beneath the starlit sky and watched as it filled with the evening stars. Alex hugged Regina one last time before she reclaimed their wine glasses and guided her back inside.

She refilled their glasses and set them on the table, all the while thinking about how much each of them had changed since they first met. Alex straightened and regarded Regina as the smaller woman walked over to her.

Regina clasped Alex's hand in hers and kissed it. Her eyes twinkled as she pressed her body against Alex, enjoying the tingle of anticipation that ran up her spine.

Alex chuckled softly and wrapped her arms around Regina. "I guess you'd like to eat later." She gasped softly on the last word, as her belt buckle was unclasped.

"Much later," Regina purred, as she tugged the belt from Alex's waist and walked slowly backwards towards their bed.


Chapter Twenty-Two

It was a couple of hours before sunrise but Alex was lying in bed awake, thinking. The past couple of days had been a welcome respite from the troubles of the outside world. Alex turned her head and gazed down at the peaceful smile that graced Regina's face as she slept.

Regina's question about there being room in Alex's heart for her, had shocked the older woman into recognizing how much she was still keeping Regina at arm's length. She wasn't doing it intentionally, but the fear of being that open and vulnerable to anyone, was getting in the way of showing Regina how much she truly needed and wanted their relationship as a part of her life.

She made a very conscious decision to set aside her fears and let Regina past those final defenses. After all her experiences, she didn't expect to feel this way or to fall so deeply into something that made her willing to risk her heart again, but despite everything, she had.

So much had changed between them over the past couple of days. Their conversations, at times, were poignantly uncomfortable but in the end, Alex realized that they both gained an insight into each other's closely guarded fears and insecurities. Last night, she'd fallen in love all over again as she held Regina in her arms. There were moments where she felt like their two bodies had been one person, sharing the same soul.

Alex reached out and stroked Regina's hair, brushing a few strands off her face. A rush of emotion, made her heart clench and she closed her eyes to fight back the tears that welled up and brimmed her eyelids. I don't know why or how you came into my life, but whoever might be up there looking over us, thank you.

Beside her, Regina stirred and opened her eyes, blinking as she focused on Alex's face. "What are you doing up?" Her voice was a bit gravelly and she cleared her throat. "It's early."

"Watching you sleep." Alex gave her an appreciative smile.

Regina exhaled softly while she curled her hand around Alex's upper arm and settled her face against the warm shoulder. "Thank you." Regina kissed Alex's collarbone and smiled, closing her eyes.

"For what?" Alex covered Regina's hand with hers.

"For making last night so special."

Alex slipped her hand beneath Regina's and intertwined their fingers. The rest of the world could wait she decided, as she closed her eyes and let Regina's quiet breathing lull her back to sleep.

******

Later while she finished with her own packing, Regina regarded Alex curiously out of the corner of her eye, as the taller woman stuffed her clothes into her canvas duffel bag. She could see the rigid set of her partner's shoulders and the subtle tensing of the muscles along her jaw line, her suspicions about the unsettled feeling she sensed growing in Alex confirmed.

She guessed at a couple of things that might be causing Alex's upset but, Regina knew her partner's stubbornness would keep her from initiating the conversation so she decided to find a tactful way to open a door for her.

Regina closed her suitcase and then walked over to the small kitchen to retrieve the leftovers from the refrigerator. She filled a bowl with the stew, then, set it inside the microwave and turned it on. Wiping her hands on a paper towel she pulled off a roll, she turned around and watched as Alex walked around the corner.

Anxious, blue eyes met Regina's and Alex slowed to a halt a few feet away from her. She tucked one hand into her pant's pocket, hooking her thumb through her belt loop. "Good idea." She motioned with her other hand indicating the leftover food. "We can eat something now and not have to stop on the way home."

"I thought so," Regina replied as she glanced at the microwave, waiting for the timer to go off. When it did she pulled the bowl out and carefully set it on the table with a fork. "You don't mind sharing, do you? It'll be less to clean up." Regina smiled and patted Alex's side affectionately.

The motion became a caress and she moved closer, wrapping both arms around Alex's waist. She looked up and met Alex's gaze, matching the taller woman's smile with one of her own as strong arms enveloped her in a hug.

"Are you okay? You seem kind of quiet." Regina slipped out of the embrace, asking the question in a casual voice.

Alex simply nodded and claimed the chair beside Regina, smiling as a thigh pressed against hers and remained there.

Obediently, she accepted the spoonful of food from Regina and chewed absently. She rested her elbows on the table while her gaze wandered outside the window to the trees that were still several weeks off from setting their buds.

Admittedly, she'd been restless since she'd woken up, an uneasy, edgy feeling filled her gut. Knowing she was going back to work tomorrow had set her mind into overdrive about all the unfinished business waiting for her at the hospital.

Alex's eyes narrowed as she thought about the upcoming deposition. When she first discovered what was happening, the whole thing seemed like it was a simple case of greed; one doctor's own ambitions gone awry. Since her return, she'd come to realize her first impression was most likely wrong.

"Here eat some of this." Regina pushed the bowl in front of Alex, interrupting her thoughts.

Alex pulled her eyes away from the window and glanced at Regina. "Thanks." She took the fork and speared a hunk of meat. There are too many unanswered questions and nothing seems to be making sense. Why would someone pull all of those charts out of medical records…unless they're trying to hide something? There must be information in those charts that they don't want legal to see. Why take the risk, now? Desperation?

"What's going on inside that head of yours today?" Intense green eyes regarded her solemnly from close range.

Alex stopped mid-chew and stared at Regina, caught awkwardly between deflecting her concern and allowing the younger woman in on a hunch that she hoped to hell she was wrong about. A chagrined expression crossed her features when she acknowledged to herself that she couldn't just pretend that everything was okay anymore and expect Regina not to question her.

It wasn't fair to either of them. They knew each other too well and had come too far, to go down that road again.

Alex wasn't sure exactly what Regina was thinking, but she didn't have to. The expression on Regina's face said it all. There could be no more half-truths between them, not if she wanted what they had built together to work.

It was a simple decision once she took a few seconds to look at her priorities. The tension eased in her shoulders as she gazed back into Regina's eyes. "How did you know something was wrong?"

Green eyes twinkled back at her in what looked like amusement and Regina ducked her head before she answered. "Mm, let's see, you furrow your brow and won't make eye contact when you're hurting. When you're nervous you fidget more and when you're deep in thought you stare out the window for long periods of time. Take your pick."

Regina reached out and laid her hand over Alex's forearm, squeezing it gently. "You forget, I got plenty of practice reading all those little signs when you were hurt. Lord knows you didn't verbalize it to me."

Alex pressed her lips together and averted her eyes. "Sorry I gave you such a hard time through all that. You didn't deserve it." She snorted derisively and shook her head. "It's a wonder you just didn't kick me out on my butt some days."

"I wouldn't have done that to you." Regina edged closer and tucked dark strands of hair back behind Alex's ear. "I knew some of what you were feeling would get better with time, the rest…" her voice trailed off as Alex met her concerned gaze, "you have a hard time letting people take care of you. Just remember, I want to be able to do that for you if I can."

Regina studied Alex for a moment longer as her thoughts revolved around one of their earlier conversations. She smiled when Alex tilted her head and leaned into her touch. Regina pressed her lips against Alex's head and sighed, deciding not to bring up the topic of Alex talking to a psychologist just yet. Later, we've had such a good time. I don't want to mess it up. "So, what were you going to tell me?"

Alex exhaled, collecting her thoughts before she answered Regina's question. Truth time. "Someone at the hospital is covering up what's really going on with the drug trials. I think Dr. Jameson is just the tip of the iceberg."

Regina straightened in her chair, releasing Alex from her embrace. "Why do you think someone's covering up?"

Alex watched the limbs outside the window sway in the breeze for a second before she turned her serious gaze to Regina and took in the startled expression. At that moment, she cursed herself for admitting her suspicions and hoped she wouldn't regret her decision later.

Alex toyed with the fork in her bowl, as her appetite suddenly vanished, replaced with an annoying sense of nausea. "All the patients' charts that we found who were involved in this supposed study were taken from medical records."

"W…well, maybe the hospital's attorneys requested them for the deposition?" Regina offered hopefully.

"I don't think so." Alex shook her head. "I got paged before we left on Friday. The attorney doesn't have them and wanted to know if I knew where they were."

"Do you think it might the case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing? I mean we've seen that happen before."

"No. I keep thinking there has to be a reason why these patients were picked to be in the study." Alex pressed her lips together and stared down at her hands. "You read those charts, tell me what you remember."

Regina frowned and spread her hands out on the table, trying to pull together fragmented memories during what had been an incredibly stressful time in her life. "They were all cardiac patients."

"Right, I remember that, but there was something else. Let me think for a minute." She stopped and closed her eyes, pulling up details she hadn't thought about since she'd been shot. The answers were there if she could just remember. After several minutes, Alex slammed her hand down on the table as she got a clear picture in her mind of the admission sheets. That was it! "Not one of those patients had insurance."

"What?" Regina eyebrows rose in surprise as she digested this new information. "I guess thirty patients with no insurance is outside the realm of coincidence."

"I think whoever was running this scam was specifically targeted indigent patients. They knew they couldn't afford the medical care they needed and would jump at the chance of trying a new medication depending on their individual situation."

"Why would they do that?"

"Normally, the hospital would eat the cost of treating indigent patients. It's how we maintain our tax-exempt status." She formulated her thoughts as she answered Regina's question. "If what I'm thinking is right, then, the hospital has stepped up its drug research program because they've found a way to offset the financial losses by entering patients into the drug studies instead of treating them with what would normally be the standard of care."

"I just don't understand why someone would do that."

Alex shrugged. "Maybe whoever decided to do this, wanted the financial gains so badly that they don't care about the consequences anymore. They had a good thing going for them. No one would have ever found out what was happening if Dr. Jameson hadn't gotten sick."

"You're pretty sure someone else higher up knows what's going on."

Alex nodded her head. "Dr. Jameson was never very organized and he could barely put together a budget without help. There's no way he devised this whole thing himself. Someone else was calling the shots."

"Any idea about who that might have been?"

Alex tilted her head and pressed her lips together. "I don't know."

Regina leaned forward and rested her forearms on the table. "I hate to even ask this, but what about Dr. Mitchard."

Alex pressed the bridge of her nose with her thumb and index finger. "Anything is possible at this point." One thing is for sure. I have to find out who's involved and make sure they're stopped before this gets any worse than it already is. She smiled half-heartedly at Regina and stood up. "Let's head out."

******

The taller woman looked up at the façade of the large medical center after she stepped out of the Jeep in the Emergency Department parking lot. She stretched her arms over her shoulders and shook her head, grateful that after the six-hour drive home the evening before, Regina insisted that she stay the night. I think she was surprised that I agreed so easily, Alex mused.

A moment later, she heard the passenger door shut and watched as Regina walked around the vehicle to stand beside her.

"Are you going to talk to her today?" Regina looked up at Alex and shielded her eyes from the early morning sun.

"Yes. That's the first thing I'm want to do today," Alex replied as she started to walk towards the entrance of the medical center.

Regina took a breath, forcing her voice to remain calm, despite the nervousness in her gut. "Please be careful."

Alex turned her head and smiled at Regina. "I will be, don't worry. I'll page you after I finish talking with her." She slowed to a halt and pulled the glass door open, waiting for Regina to precede her into the building.

"Good, because I don't want to worry about what you're up to all day." Regina reached out and touched Alex's arm as she walked through the open door into the lobby. "Good luck."

Regina stepped out of the way of a woman being wheeled toward the door in a wheelchair. A smile crept over her face when she saw the newborn baby, swaddled in blankets, being cradled in its mother's arms. The baby reminded her of what her nephew might have looked like at that tender age. That has to be the most incredible thing a woman can do in her life. Regina shook her head and looked at Alex.

"Well, I better go or I'll be late for rounds on the unit."

"See you later." Alex winked at her and enjoyed the warm smile she received in return.

With a wave, Regina trotted down the hallway and disappeared around a corner.

Alex turned and strode down the corridor, weaving her way through the steady stream of staff members and visitors who were walking in the corridor.

At the end of the hallway, Alex bypassed the elevators and took the stairs, climbing them two at a time until her legs began to burn. The fatigue irritated her and she pushed herself up another flight to the third floor where her office was located. She came to the decision over the weekend that her body was healed enough to start returning to her normal routine of working out on a daily basis. This, she thought, would have to do for now.

At the top of the stairs, she stopped for a moment to catch her breath and collect her thoughts about her impending discussion with Cassandra Mitchard. She needed information and hoped that the Vice President would be a good place to start.

After entering her office, Alex cast a cursory glance at her desk, noting with a combination of irritation and disappointment that no charts from medical records were there. She picked up the phone on her desk and punched in five numbers. She sifted through several pieces of mail while the phone rang several times.

"Medical Records, this is Robin DeSimone."

"Robin, it's Alex. Where are those charts I requested last Friday?" Alex pulled out her chair and settled into it as she waited for the woman's response.

"Not even a good morning or how was your weekend?" Robin asked, her voice taking on a hurt note.

Alex opened an envelope and glanced at a memo before she set it down. "Good morning Robin, now where are the charts?" She heard a sigh on the other end of the phone before the director finally answered her question.

"I have a faxed response from the company that converts our charts to microfilm format. It says that those charts were picked up three weeks ago."

"You're kidding me? Why would they be microfilmed if we need the originals for a deposition now?"

"I don't know but, I can have them recalled if you need them," Robin offered.

"No. Fax that letter over to me now. I want to read it myself," Alex ordered and then rattled off the number to the fax machine in her office.

"Hold on." A minute later, she heard Robin's voice again. "It's on the way. Does this have to do with Dr. Jameson?"


"Why do you ask?"

"No reason. I just like to know what's going on. That's all."

"Thanks for your help, Robin." Alex hung up before she could hear the woman's response. No sense in feeding the grapevine. She swiveled her chair around and plucked the paper out of the fax machine. Her eyes quickly scanned the document and then she picked up the phone again and dialed another number.

The phone was picked up after two rings. "Microdoc, this is Melanie. Can I help you?"

"Yes, this is Doctor Margulies from Saint Xavier's Medical Center. I need to know if you have some medical records of ours and how quickly I can have them recalled for a deposition."

"Give me a second to bring that screen up on my computer," the woman told her on the other end of the phone. "Okay, read me the medical record numbers."

One by one, Alex read the numbers off to the woman. She heard the tapping of fingers on a keyboard as the numbers were inputted into a computer.

The tapping stopped and then Alex heard the sound of the person clearing their throat. "Are you sure those are the right numbers?"

Alex double-checked the numbers. "Yes, they're the right ones. What's the problem?"

"None of those charts appear in our system."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, as far as I can tell, they were never picked up from the hospital."

In response, Alex closed her eyes and pressed her fingers against her temples. "I have a copy of a letter on your company's letterhead, stating that these charts were picked up three weeks ago by your company."

"Yes, it's a form letter the computer generates when the charts are processed. We scan the numbers into our system at the pick up site so we can track them from start to finish. I don't know how a letter got sent out without the charts being processed in the first place."

"Is there a supervisor there I can speak to?" Alex pulled a pad of paper over to her.

"Not at the moment, but I can have him call you later."

"All right, but I want his name and number now." Alex reached for a pen.

"His name is Edward and this is his direct line."

Alex quickly scribbled the information down on a piece of paper as it was given to her.

"Thanks," she replied and hung up the phone.

Alex stood up and stared out the window as she tried to make sense of what she had just learned in the last few moments. Someone was lying, that was clear enough. What she needed to find out was, who and why. With a growing sense of concern, she left her office, locked her door, and walked up three flights of stairs to the fifth floor.

She stepped out from the stairwell and walked down the hallway towards Cassandra Mitchard's office. Her steps carried her past a secretary's desk that was, for the moment unoccupied. Good, she thought to herself, relieved that she didn't have to talk her way past the woman.

Alex hesitated at the door and glanced in to see Cassandra sitting behind her desk talking on the phone. What she heard sent a chill up her spine.

"No, tell them everything is under control. There's no need to get cold feet. We're ready to go ahead with the next to studies as planned." Cassandra looked up and her eyes widened when she saw the doctor standing in the doorway. She immediately lowered her voice and abruptly ended her conversation.

As she hung up the phone, Alex stepped into the office and shut the door firmly behind her. "Morning, Cassandra." The dark-haired woman lowered herself into a leather chair opposite the Vice President's and graced her with a cool smile.

"I have a meeting. You'll need to talk with my secretary to set up a meeting." Cassandra started to collect a few folders on her desk, pointedly avoiding Alex's gaze.

"This won't take long," Alex assured her. The doctor sat back and folded her arms across her chest. "I want the truth about the drug trial that Dr. Jameson was conducting and I want to know where the medical records are for all those patients."

Cassandra leaned back in her seat and gazed at the far wall. "I'm not discussing this with you."

"Robin DeSimone in Medical Records told me the charts were sent out to be microfilmed. I called the company to recall them and found out that they have no record of them ever being picked up. What's going on?"

Cassandra paled slightly and moistened her lips with her tongue. "Alex, this is something our legal counsel will deal with. That's why we have them - to protect the hospital."

Alex shook her head in disbelief. "They'll make sure the hospital is protected! What about the patients? Who the hell protects them?"

The sharp sound of the Vice President's hands slamming down on the desk punctuated the silence that followed. "This has nothing to do with you. Stay out of it!"

"Don't give me that line. I'm already involved in the deposition for this whole mess. Why do you think I'm trying to find the charts?"

"Don't worry about the deposition. It's simply to tie up any loose ends with Dr. Jameson. Your predecessor didn't play by the rules and for that he was terminated. With any luck it'll be a distant memory for us all soon."

Alex crossed her legs and glowered at Cassandra. "Aren't you worried about the kickbacks he got, putting the hospital in jeopardy?"

Cassandra snorted, picked up a pile of charts, and walked around her desk. "No, the hospital won't let that happen. Besides all we've done is offer patients an alternate treatment regimen."

That's why the charts are missing, Alex thought. All right, time for a little damage control before I really get myself in over my head. "Well, that's comforting to hear."

Cassandra studied the doctor, weighing the truthfulness of her words. "So, I take it you're still on the team then."

"That's why I came up here." Alex met her steady gaze and held it until the Vice President looked away and cleared her throat.

"Well, I'm glad we finally came to an understanding on this. I'd hate to lose you, Alex. You're a good doctor," Cassandra replied, pulling herself up straighter. "There's a black tie affair on Friday night. It's to kick off the fundraising campaign for the new cardiac wing." She pulled out a square envelope from her desk drawer and handed it to Alex. "As the new medical director of the Emergency Department, you should be there to demonstrate your support."

This is a command performance, no doubt. "I wouldn't want to miss it," Alex replied.

"Good, I'm glad we got things cleared up between us. I was beginning to worry that we might lose you as well." Cassandra walked to the door and opened it.

Alex smiled. "You won't lose me."

"Let me know if there's anything that you need for the clinic downtown. We all want it to be a big success."

I bet you do. Alex fought the urge to shiver in revulsion as she listened to the drivel. "I'll be sure to let you know," she replied over her shoulder as she walked towards the stairwell. Suddenly feeling like she put in a ten-hour shift already, Alex rubbed her eyes and stifled a yawn before she headed down the stairs to the Emergency Department. She wondered briefly Regina's day was going any better and hoped that it was.


Chapter Twenty-Three

Regina walked into the suite of Pediatric offices located on the third floor of the medical center and signed in at the front desk. The walls were painted a clear blue, summer sky filled with billowy, white clouds.

She noted in the sign in log that Dr. Timmons had arrived only minutes ahead of her and was still probably in the office. Since the office staff wasn't in yet Regina walked unchallenged down the hallway towards the Pediatric Director's open door.

The older doctor with salt and pepper hair was just shrugging out of his overcoat when Regina tapped on his door.

"Hi, Dr. Timmons."

"Hello, Regina." His face brightened and he tossed his coat over one of the chairs in the cluttered room. "I trust you had a good weekend off."

"Yes, it was the first time that my whole family was together in a while." She looked at the walls of the office and glanced at the vast array of diplomas and certificates the doctor had earned over the years.

"Good to hear." He picked up a pile of charts and set them down on windowsill behind him.

Regina cleared her throat and gripped the back of the chair in front of her. "Dr. Timmons has there been any word on the boy who disappeared from pediatrics Saturday night?"

The pediatrician frowned as he turned back and sifted through some papers on his desk. "I'm afraid not. The whole thing is just a mess." He stopped and placed his hands on his hips, a distressed look on his face. "It seems our young patient simply walked off the floor unnoticed."

"I'm really worried about him. He was on anti-seizure medication."

"I know. I'm concerned about him too. Listen, I'm glad you stopped by. I had my secretary call a list of patients we saw in the Emergency Department last week that need follow-up. I planned on seeing them in the clinic downtown today. Unfortunately, because of this boy disappearing I'm going to be tied up in meetings all day. I want you to go down there and cover for me."

"You're talking about the clinic across from the fire department? I didn't think it was open yet."

"We got a certificate of Occupancy from the town on Friday and most of the equipment is there now. It's still a little unorganized but, it's functional." Dr. Timmons picked a folder and handed across the desk to Regina. "Here's the list of patients."

Regina opened the folder and looked at the list of patients. An eyebrow lifted in surprise. "That's quite an ambitious list."

Dr. Timmons waved his hand. "Don't worry. Half of them probably won't show up for some reason or another. I recruited one of the nurses from the ER to be there, so you won't be working there alone."

"Oh, good." It would be kind of creepy being there all by myself. "Do you know if the police are looking for TJ?"

"TJ?" Dr. Timmons furrowed his brow and then recognition flashed across his features. "Oh, the boy, right. We filed a missing person's report. One of the detectives was here on Sunday asking question, so I imagine they are."

Regina nodded her head somberly, wondering where the boy was right now and if he was safe. "Do you want me to stay for rounds, then?"

Her director studied her for a moment and then shook his head. "No. You've got you're work cut out for you." He went back to searching through his desk and then stopped. "Oh, before I forget. Here are the keys to the front door and the small one is for the medicine room."

"Well, I guess I'm all set then." Regina jiggled the keys in her hand and looked at the folder with the list of patients in it. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Dr. Timmons walked over to the door, reached up, and pulled a white lab coat off a hook from behind the door. He looked over at blonde haired woman sensing the nervousness there and smiled reassuringly at her. "You'll do fine. Help is just a phone call away if you need it."

Regina nodded, feeling a bit foolish for the nervous jitters that beset her. Why do I feel like this? I know what I'm doing. What difference does it make if it's in a hospital or a clinic? Maybe my cycle is getting close? She turned and walked out of the office, still chastising herself mentally.

Regina was still lost in thought as she walked onto the pediatric ward. She stopped at the desk, unsure of why she'd come here when her responsibilities took her elsewhere today. A unit clerk glanced up at her, offering a wan smile before she returned to her task at the computer.

Her green eyes glanced up and down the hallway. Regina smelled the distinct odor of hospital food before she saw a small-framed woman step around the corner, pushing a large, metal, food cart.

Terry. Regina sighed, wondering what the girl thought after their conversation on the phone the other day. Somehow she felt like she had let her down, although she wasn't sure what there was she could do to make the situation any better.

With a determined set to her shoulders, she walked down the hallway towards Terry's room. At the door, she stopped as she listened to the muted sounds of the television. She tapped on the door and waited a second before she entered the room.

Regina pulled the curtain back and peered down at the young girl, curled up in a tight ball on her side. "Terry? It's Dr. Kingston." The girl shifted under the covers but didn't respond. The gentle hiss and click of the IV pump drew Regina's attention and she glanced at the bag of fluid, noting the dosage of the chemotherapy. I guess they're bringing out the big guns now, she thought soberly.

She lowered the rail and sat on the edge of the bed. "Terry, I'm sorry about TJ."

A sniffle confirmed her suspicions that Terry was indeed awake and Regina waited for the girl to speak.

"Do you think he'll be all right?" Came the whispered voice.

"I hope so," Regina replied honestly.

"I miss him." Terry shifted in the bed and looked up at Regina from beneath her tousled bangs.

"You two were getting to be friends."

Terry nodded her head as she plucked at the white sheets with her fingers. "He brought me snacks from the cafeteria because the food sucks."

As if on cue, the woman Regina saw in the hallway entered the room, carrying a tray of food. Regina shrugged her shoulders in apology and noted the sympathetic look the woman gave Terry.

"It's better today. French toast and oatmeal," the woman said as she set the tray down on the table.

"I hate oatmeal," Terry complained.

Regina screwed up her nose. "It's not one of my favorites either. Maybe I can find a way to make it taste better," Regina offered. "I'll be right back." She disappeared out of the room and located the pantry on the floor.

She rummaged through some drawers and found where the nursing staff hid their stash of snacks and condiments from the cafeteria. Pleased with what she found, Regina sauntered out of the pantry.

"Okay, let's see if this helps," Regina announced when she re-entered Terry's room a few minutes later. She set the packets of raisins and brown sugar on the bedside table and folded her arms across her chest to wait.

Terry wrinkled her nose and peered at the offerings suspiciously. "Maybe if I make it really sweet, I won't notice the lumps."

"My thoughts precisely."

Terry mixed the condiments into the oatmeal. Tentatively, she poked her spoon into the mixture and tasted it. "I guess it's okay," she admitted grudgingly. She took another bite and leaned back against the pillows. Brown eyes stared up at Regina. "The doctor says my hair is going to fall out."

Regina returned Terry's gaze and nodded her head. "It's one of the side-effects of the chemotherapy."

Terry frowned and squirmed against the pillows. She reached behind her and pulled out a stuffed tiger. "That's where you went!" she scolded the stuffed toy and then looked up at Regina. "Will it grow back?"

"It takes awhile but it usually does." Regina leaned closer and fingered the tiger's black, velvet ear. "Did your parents give you this?" she asked, trying to figure out what to say to Terry next.

Terry shook her head, absently stroking her thumb over the sleek fur. "No, TJ gave it to me."

"Really?" She wondered how he had the means for such a gift and then discarded the thought with a shrug of her shoulders. "That was sweet of him." Regina smiled down at her affectionately. "Terry do you want to ask me any other questions about the chemotherapy?"

Terry stopped petting the stuffed animal and then shook her head. "No. I want to cut my hair off before it falls out."

Regina pressed her lips together and inhaled deeply. She chose her words carefully, not wanting to influence Terry's decision. "You could do that."

"My mother wants me to wear a wig."

"What do you want to do?"

Terry shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know."

"I don't think you have to make a decision about the wig right now."

"You don't understand. It won't be my decision. She'll just go out and buy it." Terry wiped her eyes in irritation and sank lower in the bed.

Ah, there in lies the problem. "Have you talked to your mom about what you just told me?"

"She won't listen."

The conversation brought back memories of her own teenage years and the sometimes, volatile relationship she had with her mother. "Terry, don't assume she won't listen. You owe it to both of you to talk about it."

"Okay." Terry swirled the spoon in the oatmeal and looked up at Regina. "Are you going to look for TJ?"

A half-dozen different answers flashed in her mind but only one came to Regina's lips as she stood there. "I'm going to try and find him."

******

An hour later, after an uneventful bus ride downtown, Regina unlocked the clinic doors and walked through the front entrance. A rueful smile crossed her lips as she looked around the clinic, recalling Dr. Timmons earlier words about the condition of the place, unorganized but functional.

With the remaining time she had left before the first patients that were scheduled to come in for appointments started to show up, Regina began to move some chairs to the waiting area for patients and family to sit in.

She unpacked some essential supplies and found the boxes containing the necessary forms for the charts. Regina looked up when she heard the front door open.

"Hello?" a female voice called from the waiting area.

Regina straightened up and wiped her hands off on her scrub bottoms. She walked around the corner and smiled when she saw her friend. "Hi, Sandy!"

"Oh thank god." The nurse set the box she was carrying down and then gave Regina a hug. "I wasn't sure who was going to be here, but I sure am glad it's you." Sandy slipped out of her jacket and tossed it over the desk. "I didn't see your car outside. How did you get here?"

"I took the bus."

"Oh." Sandy frowned in confusion. "What happened to your car?"

"Nothing. I rode into work with Alex."

Sandy nodded her head, hoping that things were working out between her two friends. She looked around the open room with raised eyebrows. "Dr. Timmons has an interesting definition of functional."

Regina laughed and nodded in agreement. "My thoughts exactly." She pointed to the desk. "I left the list of patients there."

Sandy raised her eyebrows as she read through the names. "Here, I had the unit clerk make copies of all the intake notes from the patient's emergency room visits." The nurse rummaged through the box she brought with her and handed Regina a stack of files.

"Good. At least I'll have some idea of what their follow-up visits are for," Regina commented, as she started to read over the notes.

"How was your weekend?" Sandy asked.

Regina brushed her hair back behind her ears. "Alex and I drove up to my parent's house. It was the first time my oldest brother had been home in over ten years."

"How did it go with your family?"

Regina rolled her eyes. "It was very difficult for Jeff. I think by the end he was wondering if he made a mistake coming home."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Sandy offered, as she unlocked the cart the held the clinic's supply of medication.

Regina folded her arms and looked down at her feet. "I'm going to give him a call this week and see how he's doing."

Sandy's eyes fixed on the multi-colored bracelet tied around Regina's wrist as she walked over to the doctor. "That's new." She reached out and slid the woven bracelet around Regina's wrist so she could see the intricate pattern. "I love the colors in it."

Regina fingered the bracelet, a warm feeling igniting in her chest as she remembered what Alex said to her that night out on the deck. "Thanks. Alex made it for me while we were in Provincetown."

"Wow. She made it?" Sandy's eyes widened with surprise. "Who knew she could do that."

"It surprised me, too," Regina admitted quietly.

"So, I guess things are going better for you two." Sandy glanced briefly at her friend, probing gently with Regina where she dared not tread with Alex. She rechecked her count and wrote the quantity of the drugs on the inventory sheet.

"We're just taking it a day at a time, but yeah, I think things are better."

"Nothing wrong with that."

Regina looked down at her watch. It was ten minutes to nine in the morning and they would be at the clinic until at least six that evening. "I better call Alex and let her know where I am. She thought I was going to be at the hospital all day."

Sandy looked up as the front door opened and a middle-aged woman bundled in a purple down jacket, walked in carrying a young child. "Go ahead. I'll get her settled in a room."

Regina walked behind the desk and picked up the phone. After keying in the numbers she waited as the phone rang several times.

"ER." An agitated voice answered.

"This is Dr. Kingston. I need to speak to Dr. Margulies."

"Hang on."

Regina looked up as Sandy appeared and handed her a file.

"We've got a two year old girl with a kidney infection. She was seen in the ER last week, hospitalized and then discharged over the weekend."

Regina opened the file and read through it while she waited on hold. "Okay. I want to get a new set of labs before we prescribe anything. The antibiotics she was on should have taken care of the infection."

"I'll get the blood drawn." Sandy winked at Regina before she turned around, and stopped at one of the carts where she selected the rubber-stopped glass vials she needed.

Regina glanced at the list of patients and exhaled.

"Dr. Margulies here."

She smiled, hearing the deep timbre of Alex voice through the phone. "Hi, it's Regina."

"I know your voice," Alex chuckled, pleasantly surprised to hear Regina on the other end of the line.

In the background, Regina could hear the overhead paging system announcing an all clear on a fire drill. "It sounds kind of crazy there."

"What makes you say that?"

Regina snickered, hearing the tinge of sarcasm in her lover's voice. "I can just tell. I called to tell you I'm downtown at the clinic all day."

"What? I didn't know they approved it being open yet." Alex hesitated and then asked. "You're not there by yourself are you?"

"No, Sandy is here with me. Dr Timmons scheduled the pediatric follow up visits down here. Listen, I've got a patient waiting to see me," Regina explained quickly. "Can you pick me up when you're done?"

"Sure," Alex replied. "If you get done early, ask Sandy if she'll give you a ride back to the hospital. That way you won't have to wait there alone."

"Okay. I'll talk to you later," Regina replied. She hung up the phone and then realized she didn't ask Alex if she got to talk to the Vice President yet. She tucked the thought away in the back of her mind as she opened the patient's file and focused on the task at hand.

******

Alex set the phone down in the cradle and looked over at unit clerk. "Donna, where are the charts I need to sign?"

The brunette pointed down the hallway. "They're in the nurse administrator's office. It should be unlocked."

"Thanks. If anyone's looking for me that's where I'll be." Several minutes later, the attending was settled behind the desk.

She frowned as she flipped through the pages of order sheets, which were followed by the hand written history and physicals taken by the Emergency Department's residents. She read over several consent forms signed by the patient's that allowed the physicians to perform invasive procedures. Satisfied with what she read, she co-signed the order for narcotics and then closed the chart.

Over the course of the next several hours, she worked her way through the stack of charts. As she read over the notes, her mind continued to run through all the questions no one seemed to have answers for regarding the missing charts.

If the charts aren't at the company that does the microfilming, then where the hell are they? "Jesus." Frustrated at the lack of answers, Alex picked up another chart and opened it. She shook her head and signed off on discharge orders for three patients.

"You don't sound happy."

Alex looked up and saw Jon leaning against the doorframe, with a newspaper tucked beneath his arm. "No, I'm fine."

"Well, I've got some news that might cheer you up."

"Yeah, what's that?" Alex leaned back in her chair and tilted her head, regarding her colleague.

"Here." He dropped the newspaper on the desk and pointed to a small article at the bottom right corner of the page. "Read that."

Alex glanced up at Jon and then started to read the small print. "Dana Romano…" she glanced up at him and then continued, "was convicted of manslaughter in the second-degree, driving while under the influence, and criminally negligent homicide. Is this today's paper?" She opened the paper to look for the date.

"Yes." He smiled and sat on the edge of the desk. "You know that's a maximum prison term of seven and a half years."

Alex shook her head in disbelief. "I didn't think Dana's court case was coming up that soon."

Jon looked down at his hands. "The mother of that kid has a good attorney and he really pushed things along for her."

"Sounds like you kept in touch with the family." Alex stared down at the paper and frowned as a myriad of conflicting emotions warred inside her.

Jon shrugged. "She lost a son and her husband is in jail. It was the least I could do."

"You don't have to justify yourself to me." Alex rubbed her face as a wave of exhaustion hit her.

"I know it was just a bad situation all around. I thought this might help you put closure on some of what happened."

Alex looked at Jon and scowled at him. "Since when did you start to dabble in counseling?"

He held his hand up, warding off the angry look he was getting. "I don't. It's just from one friend to another. That's all."

Alex closed her eyes and took a breath to calm her racing heart. "Thanks."

Jon tapped his knuckles on the desk and looked at Alex. "Those files you told me about never showed up."

"I know." She motioned him closer with her hand. "Close the door."

"Shit." Jon kicked the door with his foot and folded his arms. "Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like what you have to say?"

"Those files were apparently picked up by the company who does the microfilming for the hospital." Alex folded her arms. "When I called to get them sent back, I was told they have no record of them being picked up."

"Where are they?"

"Your guess is as good as mine." Alex met his bewildered gaze and sighed.

Jon hung his head and sighed heavily. "I don't like this."

"Neither do I." Alex leaned forward. "Jon, not a word to anyone on the staff. As far as I'm concerned, any drug trials in the emergency department that are ongoing or proposed at this time are suspended until this whole mess with Dr. Jameson is over. No one talks to anyone unless they come to me first."

"You got it." Jon stood up from the desk and opened the door. Half way out he stopped and turned back around to face Alex. "Hey." He ran a hand over his mouth, stepped back in the office, and shut the door behind him. "I may need to take some time off on short notice."

"Everything okay?" Alex tilted her head and studied Jon, aware of his discomfort.

"Yes and no. Chris is pregnant."

"That's great! Congratulations." Alex moved from her seat and sat on the corner of the desk. "You two will make great parents."

Jon pressed his lips together and ran his hand through his hair. "It's not the first time. She's miscarried two times before and the docs are considering this a high-risk pregnancy."

"Is she still working?"

"Yeah, as long as she doesn't start to have any cramping or bleeding she'll stay on. I told her she doesn't have to but she wants to stay busy so she's not thinking about it constantly." Jon's shoulders slumped and he shook his head. "I just want to be there for her more this time. She won't admit it, but I know she's scared."

"Do what you need to do. We'll be fine here." Alex laid a hand on Jon's shoulder. "I hope everything works out all right."

"Thanks, Alex." Jon stood up and gave Alex a nervous smile. "I'll let everyone know that we're suspending any ongoing projects for the time being."

"Good." Alex watched Jon leave. Her eyes scanned the shelves of medical texts, binders and nursing books and then found what she was looking for.

Alex pulled the phone book down and found the section for county and government listings. After flipping through several pages, she wrote a number down. She drummed her fingers on the desk while she considered what to do. Cassandra, you have another thing coming if you think that I'm going to be a pawn for you.

With a grim expression on her face, she walked out of the cramped office. Alex walked down the corridor and passed several stretchers and wheelchairs that lined the hallway. About half the rooms in the emergency department were filled with patients and the staff was enjoying the brief lull in the usually steady flow of cases.

Alex nodded a hello to one of the nurses as she walked past the desk. She continued on, pushed the glass door open and walked down the concrete steps to her Jeep.

After unlocking the door, she settled in behind the wheel. Alex pulled out her cell phone and dialed the number she had written on the piece of paper.

The phone rang several times and she was about to hang up when a male voice came over the line. "Office of the Inspector General."

"I wasn't sure there was anyone who would still be there this late," Alex replied.

"We're always here," the man said. "What can I help you with?"

"I need to speak to someone about possible fraudulent drug trials that are being conducted."

"Can I get your name?"

Alex hesitated, knowing there was no return when she crossed this particular line. "Alex Margulies. I'm a doctor."

"Doctor Margulies my name is Matthew Weber. I have two questions for you. Where do you work and where are you calling from?"

"I work at Saint Xavier's Medical Center and I'm calling from my cell phone in my car."

"Stop, that's enough. Give me your pager number." After Alex recited it to him he continued. "I'll page you to a number this evening and we'll set up a time and a place where we can talk."

"That's it?"

"For now."

Chapter Twenty-Four

"Do you want me to wait with you until Alex gets here?" Sandy placed the last of the patient files into the five-drawer file cabinet.

"No, Alex said she would call if she was going to be late." Regina looked up from washing her hands and shook her head.

Sandy slipped her jacket on and regarded Regina dubiously. "I don't like leaving you here alone."

"Don't worry." Regina dried her hands off on a paper towel and then tossed it into a waste container. "I'm going across the street to talk with Todd."

"Who's Todd?"

"He's the fireman we met here a few weeks ago," Regina explained.

"All right." Sandy locked the door to the file cabinet and then walked to the door. "I'll see you tomorrow then."

"Well, hold up. I'll walk out with you." Regina grabbed her coat and followed Sandy out of the clinic.

They parted at the sidewalk. Regina looked up and down the street for Alex's Jeep. When she didn't see her she trotted across the road. She shivered in the damp air. Her thoughts wandered to TJ and she hoped he was safe.

The lights from inside the firehouse cast the misshapen shadows from the trucks outward onto the pavement. She could hear raucous laughter and voices from inside and she called out. "Hello."

"Hi there." A tall, burly looking man with a goatee and moustache walked towards the front of the garage.

"I'm looking for Todd. Is he around?"

"Yeah, he's upstairs." He tilted his head and let out a piercing whistle. "Yo, Todd. You've got a visitor."

A few moments later, a door towards the rear of the garage opened and claws scrabbled across the concrete floor. "Lucky, heel." The large German Shepard stopped lunging ahead against his leash and fell into step along side his master. Todd's face brightened when he saw Regina standing beside his friend. "I haven't seen you in a while. What brings you here?"

Regina reached down and scratched between Lucky's pointed ears. "I worked at the clinic today and figured I'd stop by to say hi and ask you a question." She glanced down as the dog grumbled and pressed against her. "He's a pleasure hound."

"Always. You have a friend for life there. Why don't you come inside?" Todd motioned with his hand.

"I'm waiting for Alex to pick me up."

"No problem. This is Moose by the way." Todd jabbed his thumb at the taller man.

Regina smiled up at him. "Why Moose?"

Todd chuckled. "Besides being incredibly hard-headed, he's the strongest guy on the unit."

Moose puffed his chest out proudly at the compliment.

"Regina is a doctor at the Medical Center." Todd continued his introductions.

"Oh. What department do you work in?"

"Pediatrics," Regina replied.

Moose nodded tersely. "Well, I've got to get back and finish cleaning our gear. Nice talking with you."

Todd watched him leave and then looked back at Regina. "His ex-girlfriend works at the hospital. It's still a pretty sore subject for him. So what do you want to ask me?"

Regina laughed as Lucky nudged her hand and leaned against her. "There's a patient that disappeared out of the medical center on Saturday and no one can find him. He has a traumatic brain injury. I just wanted to know if you can keep an eye out for him in your travels."

"What does he look like?" Todd's brow creased in concern.

"He's approximately fifteen years old. His head was shaved about ten days ago and he has a half-moon scar on the left side of his head," Regina said.

"What's the kid's name?"

"I'm not even sure it's his real one. He told me it was TJ."

"I'll let the guys know." Todd looked over Regina's shoulder. "Any idea why he ran off?"

"I think he was trying to avoid going into another foster home."

"That's tough." His eyes followed a pair of headlights as they grew closer and came to a stop in front of the clinic across the street. "Is that your ride?"

Regina turned just as Alex stepped out of the Jeep and shut the door. "Alex. I'm over here." She waved at the taller woman.

The doctor glanced at the darkened windows of the clinic and then walked across the street. "Hey. What are you doing over here?" Alex asked as she walked up beside Regina.

"I was just telling Todd about that pediatric patient. I thought maybe it would help since he's downtown and we have absolutely no idea where this kid ran off to."

"It couldn't hurt. Alex nodded and gave Todd a reserved smile. "He's gotten big since the last time we saw him." Alex stooped down and ruffled the coarse hair around the dog's neck.

Todd laughed. "Tell me about it. I pay his food bills."

"Speaking of food," Alex jumped in, grateful for the excuse to end the conversation. "You ready to go home?"

"Yeah, I'm starving." Regina replied. She turned to the fireman and smiled. "Thanks, Todd. Let me know if you hear or see anything about our friend."

"I will." He nodded and waved his hand as the two women turned and walked back across the street.

******

"You're awfully quiet." Alex cast a glance at her companion, wondering why she was being so quiet on the ride home. She slowed the Jeep and turned into the driveway of her condo.

Regina rubbed her face and stifled a yawn. "I'm just tired. Sandy and I treated thirty patients today."

Alex regarded her thoughtfully and then caressed Regina's face with her hand. "Let's go inside and get something to eat."

"Sounds good to me," Regina said, as she stepped out of the vehicle. She followed Alex up to the door and leaned against the taller woman as she unlocked the door.

"Hey. What are you doing back there?" Alex asked, over her shoulder.

"Mmph. Nothing, you feel good that's all," Regina replied in a sleepy voice.

Alex smiled and stepped inside. She closed the door and turned to Regina. "Come here." She wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and hugged her tightly. Alex closed her eyes and pressed the full length of her body into Regina, marveling at how well they fit together. "Wait here," she guided Regina to the leather couch and nudged her back onto the cushions. "I'll see what I can scrounge up for us in the kitchen."

One green eye opened and regarded her skeptically.

"Tch. Have more faith." Alex swiped her hand across Regina's knee and walked away.

She opened the refrigerator and cringed at its meager contents. Alex made a mental note to stop at the grocery store before she invited Regina over again. "Okay." She rubbed her hands together and then reached for the eggs. "Looks like we're having breakfast for dinner."

"Are you talking to yourself?"

Alex turned around to see Regina leaning against the doorframe with her arms folded across her chest. "I thought you were tired."

Regina shrugged and pushed off the wall. "Not anymore. Do you want some help?"

Alex gave her a sheepish look and held up the carton of eggs. "It's not like we're having anything lavish."

"Let's see what else you have hidden away in here." Regina rummaged through the refrigerator, pulling out several items, while Alex set a pan on the stove.

"I talked to Cassandra today," Alex offered, as she cut off a pat of butter and dropped it into the frying pan.

"How did it go?" Regina looked at her and then pulled a knife out of a drawer.

"Not good." Alex shook her head. "Do you want four or six eggs in the omelet?"

"Four," Regina said, as she cut up a pepper. "What did she say?"

Alex cracked the eggs and drained them into a bowl. "I walked in on a phone call that she obviously didn't want anyone hearing. From what I overheard, she and whoever else is involved has no intention of stopping any of the drug trials that might questionable."

"What did you say to her?" Regina turned the burner on and scraped the chopped pepper into the frying pan.

Alex didn't answer and her brow furrowed as she stirred the eggs with a fork. "I played along with her.

Regina's eyes widened and she grasped Alex's forearm. "What do you mean, 'you played along with her'?"

Alex leaned on the counter. "She wanted to know if I was still on the team. I told her I was."

"Have you lost your mind?" Regina's eyes widened in disbelief.

"Maybe." Alex cringed before she told her the rest. "I also called the Office of the Inspector General today."

Regina pulled a spatula out of a drawer and fussed with the mixture of egg and green pepper. "Is there anything else I need to know about?" She closed her eyes and shook her head. "If there is, I'm going to need a Valium, right now."

"The guy I talked to is going to page me tonight so we can set up a time and a place to meet."

"Sweet Jesus. You've already made up your mind to do this." Regina turned off the burner and pulled two plates out of a cabinet.

"Yes I have."

"Why didn't you tell me you were going to do this?" Regina stared down at the counter, trying not to get angry with Alex. Her heart fluttered in her chest and she forced down a wave of nausea.

"Reg, I didn't know what I was going to do right up until I was talking to Cassandra. She told me I would be expected at a black tie affair to kick off the fundraising for the new cardiac wing."

"Wait a minute. I thought that idea got canned when they were six million in the hole at the end of last year."

"It was, but apparently they found a way to fund it."

"Alex, don't be the one to do this." Regina stepped in, wrapped her arms around her waist and rested her head on Alex's shoulder.

Alex linked her arms around the smaller woman's waist. "Reg, my gut tells me I'm too close to what's going on, not to get involved. I don't want to be on the wrong side of this battle when the game is finally up."

"I'm scared for you." Regina tilted her head up and looked at Alex.

Alex kissed her forehead and hugged her. "Let's eat before the eggs get cold."

*******

It was ten o'clock and Alex was stretched out on the leather couch with Regina tucked in against her side. They spent the last couple of hours debating what Alex was about to do and they were both exhausted.

Regina sighed and rubbed her hand over Alex's shirt. Her fist clenched and she grabbed a fistful of fabric and tugged it several times. "I hate it when you're right," she grumbled.

Alex ran her hand over Regina's face, stroking her gently. "It's not about me being right. It's about doing the right thing. I can't in good conscience let them continue to do these drug tests. At best they're not getting consent from the patients and at worst they're falsifying the data to get the drugs out on the market sooner."

Regina jumped as Alex's pager went off. "Son of a bitch," she muttered as her heart raced nervously.

Alex lifted it from her belt and squinted as she read the numbers. She reached behind her and picked up the portable phone that she had set on the table earlier. Silently, she punched in the numbers and waited for a voice.

"Weber."

"Hello, Matthew."

"Good, I'm glad you called me back. Do you know where Hawke's Nest Reservation is?"

"Yeah, I used to run there all the time."

"We'll meet at the south entrance in the parking lot at six tomorrow night."

"I'll be there," Alex replied. Click, the connection cut off and she set the phone down on her stomach and sighed. I might as well get this over with now. "Regina…" She studied the blonde who was looking back at her with a wary, resignation on her face and realized she couldn't expect her not to come with her. "Do you want to be to come with me tomorrow?"

"What?"

Alex chuckled at the perplexed expression on her partner's face. Not what you were expecting was it? "Do you want to come with me tomorrow?"

Regina studied her for a second and then nodded her head. "Someone's got to look after your butt. Might as well be me." She settled her head back down on Alex's chest and nuzzled the softness of her breast through her shirt. "So what happens now?"

"I suppose he wants to find out what I know so far and then make a decision to go forward with an investigation or not."

"Can I ask you a question?"

"You just did." Alex's body shook as she stifled her laughter.

"Brat." Regina smacked her on her hip, then, propped up on her elbow to look at Alex. "Do you remember the girl with the tumor in her leg?"

"The same one who called you over the weekend?"

"Yes."

Alex nodded her head slightly. "I know who you're talking about."

"She wants to shave her head before all her hair falls out."

"Mm. That's what Lana did." Alex shifted on the couch so she was lying on her side with Regina pressed up against her. "What did you say to her?"

"I told her to talk to her mom and see if they could agree on something." Regina draped an arm over Alex's hip and slid one of her legs in between the taller woman's thighs.

"Sounds reasonable," Alex replied softly, waiting for Regina to get back to what she really wanted to ask.

"Alex, what happens if the investigation proves there is something illegal going on?"

"I guess it'll go before a grand jury." Alex rubbed her hand over Regina's back in a reassuring motion.

"No, I mean what will happen to you."

Alex heard the concern in Regina's voice and looked at the worry-filled green eyes. The realities were there, staring her in the face. Legally, the hospital couldn't do anything, but the fact remained, her decisions were sure to set off a chain of events that once started could never be pulled back. "I don't know, Regina."

The blonde cupped her hand around Alex's cheek and rubbed her thumb across her lips. "Well, whatever happens, we'll get through it together."

Alex smiled and closed her eyes. She leaned her forehead against Regina's in quiet relief. "I'm glad I have you with me."

"You are. Are you?" Regina worked the top two buttons loose on Alex's shirt and nuzzled the warm skin, inhaling the subtle fragrance of her perfume.

Alex inhaled sharply as Regina nibbled at the base of her neck and felt her shirt being tugged from her pants. She watched as Regina undid another button and moved her lips lower and brushed over her cleavage. She shifted and rolled over, pinning the smaller woman beneath her. Their eyes met and a mischievous smile spread over Alex's face as she leaned closer and then ducked her head to nibble at Regina's earlobe.

She moved lower and began a slow, leisurely exploration of Regina's neck, teasing her with soft nips of her teeth. Beneath her, Regina squirmed and moaned softly, her hands urging Alex on as they moved across her back and shoulders.

Slowly, Alex pulled back and smiled down at Regina as she sat back on her heels, straddling her hips. Her body was tingling with a pure animal arousal of their contact and she ran her hands over the front of Regina's shirt, caressing her breasts through the cotton fabric.

She stared down into unfocused green eyes, tugged playfully at Regina's belt, and then kissed her chastely on the corner of her mouth. She pushed herself off the couch and stood up.

Alex took Regina's hand and led her up the stairs into her bedroom. She turned the light on and turned to Regina. "Come here." A wistful smile crossed her lips and she brushed her fingers through Regina's hair. She trailed them down over her shoulders and then unbuttoned Regina's shirt the rest of the way.

Regina's eyes closed and she inhaled sharply as Alex's lips brushed along her neck, down over the swell of her breasts. Her hands clutched at Alex's hips and tilted her head back.

Alex ran her lips along her up turned chin and then captured her lips in a slow, tender kiss. Her hands slid up over Regina's back and unhooked her bra, which she let fall to the floor between them. "I love to touch you," Alex growled, closing her eyes and rubbing her cheek against Regina's.

After a time of touching and caressing Regina's body, Alex sat her down on the bed. She tugged off her shoes and socks and gently pushed the younger woman onto her back.

She kicked off her own shoes and stepped out of her pants. Alex joined Regina on the bed and kissed her again. Her fingertips traced a lazy pattern across her eyebrows, down her nose and around her mouth, which she punctuated with a kiss before she renewed her tracing around her ears and down her shoulders.

Alex maintained eye contact with Regina the entire time watching her face flush with excitement as her fingers circled around her breasts. She trailed her lips down between her breasts, smiling as she heard Regina's breath catch in her throat.

Regina's hands grasped Alex's shoulders and pulled her back up. Ignoring the buttons on her shirt, she pulled Alex's shirt over her head. A mischievous smile touched her lips as she pulled the cloth down over her wrists and left the cuffs buttoned. Her hands roamed unchecked over Alex's naked body.

Alex chuckled and shook her head. "Oh no you don't," she said, deftly undoing the buttons and tossing her shirt to the floor. She leaned over Regina, planting her hands over her head and staring down at her.

Unable to resist the sight of her raised brown nipples surrounded by slightly darker areola Regina lifted her head and pressed her mouth over one breast, breathing warm air over the sensitive flesh. She caressed the other breast with a free hand, enjoying the sensual chemistry between them.

Alex's head fell forward and she moaned softly. She reached down, and worked Regina's belt loose and undid the button.

Their mouths met in a passionate kiss and Regina arched against Alex's body, seeking more contact. Alex tugged the zipper down and broke off the kiss to pull Regina's pants off.

Alex reached an arm down and caressed one of Regina's calves while she rubbed her face over her belly and inhaled the heady scent of her arousal. She ran her hand up the inside of Regina's leg, intermittently massaging the muscles and teasing with her nails.

Regina lifted her leg over Alex's thigh, pushing her hips up as Alex's fingers finally caressed and glided ever so softly over her swollen lips. "Please," Regina breathed arching her back to push herself onto Alex's fingers. Her hands brushed through Alex's hair and grasped the back of her head, guiding her mouth lower.

Regina's hips rocked, matching the rhythm of Alex's fingers as they filled her and then her body trembled anew as soft lips enveloped her clitoris. The trembling started in her center and spiraled outwards. Her hands clutched at Alex's shoulders, her fingers clamping and unclamping until she arched her back in orgasm.

Afterwards, Regina lay half on her side with Alex curled up and resting her head on her belly. She ran her fingers through the dark hair, lifting it up and letting fall over Alex's shoulders.

Alex caught her hand and planted a kiss on the soft skin of her palm. "You doing okay?"

Regina smiled and squirmed closer, still feeling tiny aftershocks of pleasure down below. "Wonderful." Her eyes twinkled and she laughed softly at herself.

"What?" Alex lifted her head and studied the changing emotions on Regina's face.

"I was just thinking."

"Mm. About?" Alex propped her head on her hand in anticipation.

"Wouldn't it be incredible if we could make a baby?"

Alex's eyes widened. "Well, unless I missed a class in medical school I don't think we're going to have much luck with that."

"Tch." Regina rolled her eyes. "I know that," she replied and ducked her head to hide a blush. "I just think it would really be beautiful if we could, that's all."

Alex stared at her and swallowed as her heart pounded in her chest. "Did you want to have a baby?"

"I don't know. I think at some point I reconciled myself to never having that be a part of my life, but after seeing Zachary I started thinking about it again." Regina looked up at Alex. "Don't worry it's not like I'm going to go find a donor and get pregnant or anything. I just was thinking about it. That's all."

Alex sat up and scooted up to the head of the bed. Okay, breathe, Alex. She's just thinking about it. Agh! If she's thinking about it that means…what? Does she want to have a baby and she's afraid to say anything? Crap! A kid! I don't even like them. She stared down at her hands and exhaled. "I never knew you felt that way."

Regina shrugged and curled up on her side. "Will you hold me?"

"Sure." Alex curled around her with her belly pressed up against Regina's backside and her arm draped over her middle. She rested her head on the pillow and stared at the wall while she listened to Regina's breathing as it slowed and became deeper as she relaxed and finally fell asleep. Alex rubbed her eyes and snuggled closer realizing that she never considered the possibility that Regina might want to have a baby. It certainly put a different perspective on things.


Chapter Twenty-Five

Alex opened her eyes and blinked in the darkness of the bedroom. She stretched and arched her back away from the mattress. Beside her, Regina stirred under the covers and mumbled sleepily.

"It's early. What are you doing up?" Her grip tightened momentarily around Alex's waist as she snuggled closer.

"I couldn't sleep," Alex grumbled. Abruptly she rolled over, dislodging Regina's grasp and sat up over the edge of the bed.

"Hey, what's wrong?" Regina reached up and rubbed her back affectionately.

"Nothing." Alex stood up and searched around the dark room for her duffel bag. The illumination from a single street lamp silhouetted her body as she moved about the room until she located it in the corner where she'd placed it before she went to bed. Alex fumbled through her duffel bag for her sweats and running shoes.

Regina sat up and pulled the covers over her chest, as she watched Alex pull her sweats on. "Where are you going?"

"Running," Alex replied curtly, pulling a running shirt over her head.

Concerned, Regina sat up and took her hand. "Are you sure you're ready to do that?"

"It's been too long. I need to run." Dammit, I need some time alone to think, too.

"Okay," Regina replied hesitantly.

For a moment, they both stared at each other in the gray light of the room and then Alex lightly squeezed Regina's hand before letting go.

"I'll see you later at the hospital," Alex said and then stepped out of the room, carrying her sneakers.

What happened between last night and this morning? She was fine when we went to sleep. Regina stared at the space where Alex had just been standing in utter confusion and then flopped down onto the bed. She wrapped her arms around Alex's pillow and closed her eyes as tears welled up in her eyes.

Outside the condo, Alex tied her hair back in a loose braid and slowly stretched her legs. She forced herself not to think about Regina, knowing she ran out leaving the younger woman confused and upset. Her thoughts turned to last night's conversation as she jogged in place on the macadam. A baby? I wonder how serious she is about doing this. My God our whole lives would change.

With a grim determination, Alex started to run. The only sound aside from the occasional car in the distance was the rhythmic pounding of her feet on the road. Her body responded sluggishly at first as it protested the increased demand she placed on it.

Angry at the fatigue and the memories, Alex ran up the steady incline of the hill. It's been one crisis after another since we've been together. I love her, but I want some time just for us. Is that so selfish?

She crested the top of the hill and felt her body settle into a more comfortable rhythm as the initial shock to her system eased. She didn't say she wanted to do this right away. A baby? What the hell do I know about being a parent?

Alex adjusted her stride as she reached a grassy stretch of land that led into a small park at the end of the cul-de-sac. She ran until she doubled over coughing, as the cold air burned her lungs. "Shit. I'm out of shape."

Alex dropped to the ground on the dew-covered grass and pumped out a flurry of push-ups. She gritted her teeth, hating the weakness she felt in her arms and chest. She pushed herself past the trembling and burning sensation until all she focused on was the rushing of her pulse between her ears.

Exhausted she sat back on her heels, tilted her head up to the sky, and closed her eyes. Regina's words echoed in her memory. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could make a baby? Alex dropped her head forward and staggered to her feet. With her hands on her hips, she stared down the hill at the dark outline of the Saint Xavier's before she started a slow jog back down the hill.

An hour later, Alex walked into the Emergency Department and headed into the locker room. Alex grabbed a pair of scrubs from the linen cart and tossed them onto the bench. The run made her feel a little better, but she was still unsettled by Regina's comments.

The locker room door opened and Sandy walked into the room and slumped unceremoniously onto the bench. With a groan, she opened her locker and stared bleakly into the narrow space. "Do you think anyone would notice if I shoved myself in there and just hid for the rest of my life?"

"That's a little extreme. What the hell would you do that for?" Alex snapped her scrub pants at the back of Sandy's head.

"Hey!" She rubbed her neck and then did a double take when she looked at Alex. "What the hell are you doing down here?"

"What do you think I'm doing?" Alex opened her locker and hung her keys on a hook inside.

Sandy shrugged and started changing her clothes. "I figured you were getting assimilated by the suits."

Alex snorted and pulled her scrub pants on. "Sorry to disappoint, but I'd rather be treating patients. So tell me why do you want to hide in the locker?"

Sandy tied her sneakers. "Long story. It involves blue paint, a new carpet, and my ass being grass when I get home. Do you think I could work a string of double shifts?"

Alex rolled her eyes. "It sounds like it was an accident."

"I wish. If it hadn't been preceded by a fight about painting the room a neutral color for…Alex she wants a baby!"

Alex stopped pulling the scrub top over her head and stared at Sandy. "She what?" Great what is it? A god damn epidemic? "Tina?"

"Who the hell do you think I'm talking about?" Sandy slammed her locker and banged her head against it. "We've been together for ten years and not once has she ever brought up having a baby. Now all of a sudden her biological clock is ticking."

Alex exhaled slowly trying to slow down the rapid beating of her heart. "Sandy…"

"I don't want a baby, Alex." Sandy closed her eyes and leaned against her locker.

"What did you tell her?"

"Before or after I spilled the paint?"

"Does it matter?"

Sandy slid to the floor and buried her head in her hands. "I told her if I wanted to have a baby in my life I would have married a guy and had two point four kids, a dog and a white picket fence."

Alex continued to stare at the nurse, resisting the urge to cover her mouth in a sympathetic reaction. Thank god I went running this morning and kept my mouth shut. "You could work double shifts if you want but I don't think it's going to help."

"No shit."

A moment later, the locker room door burst open and one of the nurses poked her head inside. "We've got multiple traumas on the way. A school bus ran a stop light and plowed into a van."

Alex finished changing and slammed her locker shut. "How many?"

"Three major and ten minor traumas."

"Who else is on?"

"Dr. Washington, yourself and Dr. Torres."

"Sandy call the pediatric intensive care unit and tell them we may need beds." Alex hurried past her into the hallway. The doors to the ambulance bay burst open and two paramedics rushed a stretcher through the door.

"Maggie, I need your help," Alex said, as the nurse walked out from behind the nurse's station. Out of the corner of her eye, Alex saw the tall, blonde-haired Vice President bearing down on her. Damn, now what does she want?

"Dr. Margulies."

Alex turned her head. "What Cassandra? She grabbed a yellow, isolation gown from one of the linen bins and shoved her arms into it.

"I need you to be at the dinner on Friday night by six." The Vice President trotted alongside the doctor.

"That's important enough for you to tell me now?" Alex upper lip curled into a snarl and she fought to hold back the blunt accusation that formed in her mind. Oh yes, this is important enough for you to be down here right now, so the whole staff can see you've got me involved in your little game.

"There's a new cardiac study we're about to start and I want you to meet our lead investigator since the Emergency Department will be involved in the patient selection process."

Alex waved her hand in irritation and turned her attention to the paramedics. "What have we got?"

"Eight year old boy with a fractured tibia. He's complaining of shortness of breath. His pressure is one hundred over sixty."

"Alex."

"I heard you," Alex snapped. "I'll be there, when I get there." Alex grabbed hold of the stretcher and guided it into the open trauma room.

She grabbed a fluid shield mask from one of the boxes on the wall and tied it behind her head as she entered the room. Outside in the hallway, she heard Jon barking orders out in the hall as another patient was brought in. Okay, one thing at a time. Let's do this. Alex grabbed hold of the backboard and looked briefly at the brown-haired boy. "On my count, one, two, and three." Four pairs of hands easily lifted the boy onto the treatment table.

"Where's my brother?" the boy wailed as Alex started to examine him.

"What's his name?" Maggie asked, as she cut the boy's shirt off with a pair of blunt nosed scissors.

"Joey," the boy gasped out in between sobs.

Maggie looked at one of the technicians as he set a tray of instruments onto a metal stand. "James, go see if you can find anything out about his brother.

"Gotcha." He ducked out of the room.

Alex positioned the stethoscope in her ears and listened to the boy's chest. "Good breath sounds bilaterally." She moved the stethoscope to listen to his heartbeat and then flipped the instrument around her neck. "Let's get a trauma panel, type and cross match for two units of blood. I need two more IV lines with normal saline and get a catheter in him, now." She quickly examined his abdomen and chest, probing for any tenderness with her hands. "Does this hurt?"

The boy shook his head, fighting back a fresh wave of tears.

"What's your name?" Alex asked, as she continued to examine him for any other injuries.

"Robert."

"You're going to need surgery to fix your leg." She glanced up at Maggie as the nurse finished inserting an IV into the boy's arm. "Find out where the parents are. We're going to need their consent for the surgery."

Alex peeled off her gloves and stepped away from the table. "Get x-rays of the lower leg, anterior, posterior and oblique views. Call orthopedics and let me know if there are any changes in his condition." The door to the adjacent trauma room swung open and Sandy stuck her head into the room.

"Alex, Jon needs your help, now."

Alex nodded her head as she stripped off her gown. She grabbed a clean one on her way into the room and quickly shoved her arms into it. "What have you got?" Alex asked over the din of the alarms that sounded incessantly from the wall monitor. She pulled gloves from a box and slipped them onto her hands.

"The kid's got a crushed pelvis and internal bleeding," Jon answered as he sutured a chest tube into place.

The boy grabbed the oxygen mask from his face and writhed on the table. Alex grabbed the plastic mask and replaced it over his nose and mouth. "Easy. Keep this on."

"It's hard to breathe," he cried.

"Hang on. It's going to be okay," Alex re-assured him.

Meanwhile, Sandy ducked around a resident who was inserting an intravenous line into the boy's arm. She grabbed a package of Vaseline gauze from an instrument tray and packed it around the tube exiting from the boy's chest.

The nurse glanced up at the monitor and rattled off the vitals. "His blood pressure is one-twenty over eighty. His pulse is sixty. Jon his oxygen sats are dropping."

Alex pulled the stethoscope from her neck, adjusted the earpieces, and bent over the boy's chest. "Open an intubation tray," she ordered as she listened to the breath sounds. "He's got scattered rails bilaterally."

One of the technicians tore open a sterile package and set it on a metal stand by the head of the stretcher.

The door to the trauma room banged open and Alex felt a chill run up her spine as the sound brought back a flood of memories. One of the nurses stood in the doorway. "Dr. Washington we've got a fourth critical coming in."

"Get Dr. Ortiz. He's finishing up in trauma two." He looked up at Alex whose face had gone pale. "Alex, you okay?"

She shook her head and blinked trying to refocus her concentration as the noise reverberated inside her head. "Yeah, I need a laryngoscope."

"It's coming," Sandy called from the across the room.

"No, I need it now." Alex picked up the endotracheal tube from the tray and held her other hand out. "He needs Versaid."

Beneath her on the table the boy looked up at her through the oxygen mask. "Am I going to die?"

Alex stared down at him and her mind flashed another image, and for a horrifying instant she was back on that table staring up at Regina. Still haunted by the intrusive and fragmented memories she rasped, "No, we need to put a tube in your mouth to help you breathe."

Her hand closed reflexively around the laryngoscope as Sandy placed it in her palm. Alex watched as the resident drew up the dosage and injected it into the IV line. Almost immediately the boy's eyes rolled back in his head as the drug took hold.

"Where's the hematocrit?" Jon asked, watching intently as Alex bent over, tilted the boy's head back and started to insert the endotracheal tube.

"It's low at thirty-one," Sandy called out.

"I'm in," Alex said, as she finished the procedure and inflated the balloon to keep the tube in place.

"Let's move him now!" Jon grabbed the stretcher and kicked the brakes off the wheels of the stretcher.

Sandy attached the bag-valve mask and started to ventilate the boy's lungs.

"Let's go." Alex grabbed the drug box and pushed the stretcher ahead of her.

The hallway was an obstacle course of visitors and gurneys as the injured from the accident scene flooded the emergency department. Somehow the three of them managed to dodge through the crowded hallway and turn a corner into a corridor that led to the operating suites without incident.

As they reached the OR doors, Alex stepped back from the stretcher. "I'm going back." She turned and trotted back to the emergency department, keenly aware of the bitter taste of adrenaline remaining in her mouth. Alex detoured into the locker room and stumbled to the sink where she gagged and coughed. Her hands trembled as she turned on the cold water and splashed it on her face. Come on. Get a grip. You need to get back out there and take of the rest of the patients.

By sheer will alone, Alex walked back out into the hallway several minutes later. She stopped at a stretcher and bent over its young occupant. "What's your name?" Alex asked, as she slipped the stethoscope from around her neck.

"Joey."

"Do you have a brother?"

The boy nodded. "He was sitting in front of me in the bus."

"What's his name?"

"Robert."

"Is he all right?"

Alex listened to the boy's chest before she answered. "He broke his leg and he needs surgery."

"Can I see him?" He sat up on the stretcher and peered around the hallway.

Alex pressed up against the stretcher as on of the technicians wheeled a stretcher past her. "After we finish checking you out first. Does anything hurt?"

"I have a headache. Can I get up?"

"Not yet." Alex placed a hand on his shoulder to steady him.

"Where'd you go?" Sandy asked, as she hung an IV on the pole of the stretcher.

"Locker room," Alex answered curtly, as she flicked a penlight at the boy's eyes and watched his pupils react. "His brother is in room four. He can stay with him but he needs to have another neuro check done in an hour," Alex told her and then moved on to the next patient.

It was several hours later before all the patients were treated and the emergency department had returned to its normal level of chaos. Back in one of the empty trauma rooms, Jon and Alex sat opposite each other at a treatment table, finishing the last vestiges of paperwork before their shift ended.

Alex signed her last note and flipped the chart closed with a relieved sigh.

"Congratulations," Jon said, a smirk crossing his face.

"On what?" Alex's head jerked up and she stared at him with a blank expression on her face.

"Surviving your first marathon since you've been back."

Alex rolled her eyes. "Is that all? No wonder I feel exhausted.

"How about we head down to the diner and get something to eat," Jon offered.

Alex shook her head. "Sorry, I've got something I have to do."

They both looked up as the door to the room opened. Regina stepped into the room and hesitated before she walked over to the stretcher. "Hi. I was looking for you."

Alex rubbed her neck and forced a smile. "I'm here."

Regina glanced at Jon. "You both look beat."

He yawned and rubbed his unshaven face. "We got hammered today."

"I know. We got three admissions in the Pediatric Intensive Care unit and two on the step down unit."

Regina touched Alex's shoulder. "You ready to go?"

Alex nodded her head, grateful for the warmth of Regina's hand on her shoulder. "Yeah, let me go change my clothes and I'll be right back."

Regina slid into Alex's chair as the taller woman left the room.

Jon continued to write in several charts before she he finally sat back and tossed his pen on the table. "Finished." He studied Regina for a moment before he spoke. "How do you think she's doing?"

"Alex?" Regina raised her eyebrows. "What do you mean? Here?"

Jon rested his forearms on the table. "She looked like she was really struggling to stay focused during the trauma today."

Regina glanced at the door and then looked back at Jon. "Did she make any mistakes?"

"Well, no."

"Then cut her some slack, Jon. She's under a lot of stress, but she's working though it."

Jon regarded Regina seriously. "Are you being objective or are you just protecting her?"

The door to the trauma room opened and Alex walked in. She stopped as Regina and Jon squared off at each other, neither aware of her presence for the moment.

Regina bristled at the comment. "Of course I'm protecting her. I also know her well enough to be sure that she wouldn't do anything to compromise a patient's life."

"I know Alex would never hurt anyone intentionally-"

"Hey, what the hell is going on?" Alex walked over to the table and looked back and forth between the two doctors.

Regina stared openmouthed at Alex. "I-I."

"Don't." Alex held her hand out to Regina and turned to Jon. "If you're concerned about my performance then you come to me, not Regina. Are we clear?"

Jon leaned back, his eyes widening. "Alex, I'm just concerned."

Alex leaned over the table and glared at her colleague. "I don't want your concern. Save it for your patients.

"I'm done here. Let's go, Reg. We have an appointment we need to keep."

*******

They were both quiet as they waited in the parking lot of Hawke's Nest Reservation. Alex stared grimly out the window, keeping her thoughts on a tight rein. She could sense Regina's upset as the smaller woman sat quietly beside her. Alex seesawed between being angry with Jon for voicing his concerns to Regina and upset at herself for jumping on the defensive so quickly.

"Alex," Regina started.

"Do you really want a baby?" Alex blurted out. She glanced nervously at Regina and then puffed her cheeks out before she rubbed her eyes.

"I knew that's why you were upset this morning." Regina turned in her seat and faced Alex. "Why didn't you say anything?"

Alex rested her elbow against the window and rested her head on her hand. "Honestly, you blew me away last night. The thought never really crossed my mind that you would want something like that."

Regina was quiet as she looked down at her hands. "Alex, I don't want to get pregnant right now."

"But someday." Alex leaned against the door and stared out the window.

"Someday, I'd like to get pregnant and bring a child into the world." Regina reached out and rubbed the back of her fingers against Alex's cheek. "Talk to me. Tell me what you're thinking."

Alex closed her eyes and shook her head. "I don't know if I want that."

A heaviness settled on Regina's chest as she studied Alex's angular profile. "Ever or just now?" she asked, feeling like the wind got knocked out of her.
"I don't know. Right now, I just want us to be together."

"We are and we always will be." Regina leaned forward and pressed her lips against Alex's temple.

Alex sat, quietly absorbing Regina's words. She watched a blue colored sedan pull slowly into the parking spot next to them. "I think he's here."

Regina peered around her, and observed a lanky, brown haired man with a boyish face step out of the car and looked expectantly at Alex from across the roof of his car.

Alex opened the window partway and raised a questioning eyebrow as she looked at him.

"Dr. Margulies?" His voice carried easily in the crisp, cool air.

"Yes."

"I'm Matthew Weber."

"Show me some identification first." Alex stared at him impassively.

He walked around his car to Alex's vehicle while he fumbled inside a pocket of his gray over coat. He pulled out his wallet and flipped it open.

Alex peered at the laminated card and then nodded at the investigator. "All right Mr. Weber, now what?"

He peered in the driver's side window and frowned when he saw her passenger. "I thought you were coming alone."

"This is Dr. Kingston," Alex replied with an icy stare.

Regina mustered a smile as she leaned forward in her seat to acknowledge the man standing outside Alex's door.

Matthew simply nodded and backed away from Alex. "Let's talk out here."

Alex opened her mouth to speak, but Regina cut her off. "Don't say it. I'm going with you."

A slow, side-ways smile crept over Alex's face. "I was just going to ask if you're ready for this."

"Oh, I thought…"

"I was going to ask you to stay," Alex finished for her.

Regina ducked her head. "Sorry, I should have let you finish."

Alex squeezed her hand, then, stepped out of the vehicle, and followed Matthew to a picnic table several yards away from where their cars were parked. She rubbed her hands together and pulled the collar up on her coat as wind swirled around them, lifting and twirling the dead leaves into the air.

"I don't want to chance talking in the car."

Alex shrugged indifferently, although she wondered if he wasn't being a tad paranoid as she sat on the bench across from him. A smile briefly warmed her eyes when she glanced up as Regina sat down beside her.

Matthew looked at both women, his face hardening into an expression of intense scrutiny. "I appreciate your cooperation doctors but I will warn you, this is not a game."

"We're both well aware of that." Alex leveled an irritated gaze at the investigator. "Get on with it."

"Fine." Matthew pulled out a small notebook and pen. "We already know that the hospital is involved in some questionable relationships with drug companies. Up until now, their legal department has been able to take advantage of every possible loophole available to them. We need someone on the inside. I'm hoping you're willing to do the right thing."

Regina leaned forward. "Do the right thing? Wait a minute. Alex hasn't done anything wrong."

Matthew ignored Regina and spoke to her taller companion. "Alex you have knowledge of fraudulent drug trials being conducted at the hospital. If you choose not to assist the investigation you can be prosecuted for obstructing justice."

"That's bullshit. She called you." Regina slammed her fist on the table.

"Reg, it's okay." Alex pressed her leg against Regina's as she glared at the man across from her. She was surprised when her lover leaned across the table and got to within inches of the investigator's face.

"Do you want our help or are you just trying to intimidate us? We can very easily call my attorney and you can deal with him and not us. It's your choice." Regina finished her short speech and slowly sat back down on the bench.

Matthew bowed his head and sighed before he looked at Alex again. "Fair enough. I just want you to know that once the hospital finds out your assisting in the investigation, they will use anything they can to rattle you."

"I'm well aware of that," Alex said.

"First, I need to know exactly everything that you've found out or have first hand knowledge of."

"Most of what I have just leaves more unanswered questions," Alex replied.

"It doesn't matter. If it's enough to justify getting a warrant it'll be worth it."

"I can put something together for you."

"Good. Now there's a dinner taking place on Friday night that we're very interested in. Do you know about it?"

"I've been invited." Alex assumed a bored expression on her face while inside her guts stirred as she anticipated what his next remark would be.

"Would you be willing to wear a wire?"

Alex squeezed Regina's thigh before the younger woman could lend voice to the concerns that were evident in the tensing of her whole body. "Why me?"

"You've done what it would take us another six months to do. We don't have time to plant someone in their midst so we can find out the extent of what they're up to."

"Why can't you just get a warrant to get the information that you need?" Regina asked.

"Like I said before we have no just cause to do that. At the moment, our suspicions are not enough."

Matthew stopped and studied Alex before he continued. He'd done his homework and hoped the knowledge he gained would pay off. One name in particular had popped up on many occasions as he checked out Alex's past and then suddenly the trail of credit card reports and other electronic data that was kept stored in large databases at the bureau just stopped. His search brought him to a jail cell and one bitter and angry Dana Romano. "Can I talk to you privately for a minute?"

Alex darted a glance at Regina and then back at the dark-haired man sitting across from them. "What ever you need to say you can say right here."

Matthew nodded, a little surprised by that. "Your choice, Dr. Margulies."

Uh oh. Alex tensed as she sensed the change in the man's tone. Beside her Regina fidgeted and she knew her partner was aware of the shift in the tone of the conversation as well.

"The statute of limitations on the possession of drugs and selling them is six years. There are two years left on that statute in your case. If you agree to wear the wire on Friday, I can make those two years go away and you won't face any charges now or in the future."

Alex swallowed, her ears burned hot and her stomach roiled in reaction to what she heard. She braced her elbows on the table to stave off the uncontrollable trembling that started in her gut. Even after all this time it still comes down to this.

With a resigned sigh, Alex lowered her head and then looked over at Regina, not sure what she would find in her eyes. What she saw was a look of quiet acknowledgement without a hint of recrimination.

"I'm sorry." She didn't know what else to say.

They held each other's gaze, conveying more in that one unspoken moment than a handful of hurried words would have accomplished. Alex looked back at Matthew and nodded her head. "I'll do it."

For the next two hours, Matthew reviewed what information the government wanted to collect for their investigation. Both Regina and Alex were exhausted by the time they finally returned home.

Alex leaned against the wall, with her arms folded over her chest, quietly gazing out the window of Regina's condo. She closed her eyes and tried to slow her racing mind. On the ride home she came to the conclusion that maybe this was justice being played out, since she did everything she was being accused of. Alex yawned and cracked her neck to relieve some of the tension she felt in the muscles.

"Alex come and sit down." Regina looked up from opening her mail and patted the chair next to her.

Blue eyes rolled in her direction and the taller woman walked to the table and slumped into the chair.

"Tired?" Regina ran her fingers through Alex's dark hair.

The older woman nodded and rested her face in her hands. "Why aren't you angry or yelling at me?"

Regina stared at Alex. "You're doing a good enough job of beating yourself up. You don't need me to add to the pile." This got her a tiny smile and Alex lifted her head up to look at her. Regina rested her head on Alex's shoulder and inhaled the subtle, spicy scent of her perfume.

"This could get ugly in the next few days."

Regina nodded her head soberly and pressed her face into the curve of Alex's neck. "I know."

Alex wrapped an arm around Regina's shoulder and kissed the top of her head. Her thumb grazed Regina's cheek and wiped away a tear. "You know there's no guarantee the district attorney will agree to throw out the charges against me."

Regina lifted her head and wiped the tears from her eyes. "I choose to believe that he will, Alex. I have to."

Alex was silent as she stared down at the table. She exhaled and then looked into the pair of stricken, green eyes. "I guess I always felt that I was living free on borrowed time." Alex glanced up at the ceiling and took a nervous breath. "Maybe this is, it…the proverbial other shoe falling."

"No." Regina scooted forward in her chair and squeezed Alex's hand. "It's been four years and you've turned your life around. You're not that person anymore. I wouldn't be with you if you were."

Alex nodded her head in quiet acknowledgement. "I know. Listen, I wasn't mad at you before in the car. I was upset at Jon for putting you in the middle of everything."

"I wasn't sure," Regina acknowledged quietly.

Alex reached out and turned one of the envelopes around to read it. "What's this?"

Regina squinted her eyes and read the address. "My lease is up in a month."

Alex bit back the question that was on the tip of her tongue, prudently deciding that at the moment it wasn't the right time for her to ask Regina if she wanted to take that step with her. She wants a baby. I don't. Why would she want a commitment if we don't want the same things? "I think we should hit the sack. It's going to be a long couple of days." With a sigh the taller woman, stood up and stretched. "You coming?"

"Yeah. I'll be there in a couple minutes." Regina watched as Alex walked over to the bedroom and disappeared inside.

What if she decides she never wants to have a baby in her life? Then what? Well, we've come this far together, Regina thought to herself. It's not the time to have a crisis of faith. She propped her elbows on the table and rested her head in her hands.

After a quiet moment of reflection, Regina picked up her cell phone and dialed a number to the police station. She listened as the phone rang several times and then a gruff voice answered on the other end. Officer Briggs."

"Hi, this is Dr. Kingston from Saint Xavier's. I'm calling to get an update on the boy who's been missing since Saturday."

There was a monosyllabic grunt on the other end. "Hold on." A few seconds later the officer came back on the phone and spoke. "Sorry, ma'am but we don't have any new information on him yet."

"Nothing?"

"No ma'am."

"Are you even looking for him?" The words leapt from her mouth before she could thing about what she was saying.

"Ma'am, we get hundreds of reports of missing children every year. We go through the same procedures for each of them."

Regina sighed. "I'm sorry. I just can't believe he's disappeared and no one has seen him."

"It's tough. Sometimes these kids don't want to be found and they just slip into the shadows of street life."

Regina shuddered at the images that conjured up. "Let me give you my cell phone number. If you hear anything please call me."

The officer took down the number as she recited it. Thanks," Regina replied when she was done and flipped the phone closed.

She walked into the bedroom, stripped off her clothes, and tossed them into the hamper. "You asleep?" she whispered, as she crawled into bed beside Alex.

One blue eye opened and peered back at her. "No, I was just thinking." Alex reached out with her arm in an invitation to Regina.

With a smile, the blonde snuggled down beside her and rested her head against Alex's shoulder. "I'm going to be covering down at the clinic for the rest of the week."

Alex nodded her head and continued to stare up at the ceiling.

Regina traced a fingertip over Alex's collarbone. "I want you to come down there before you go to that dinner on Friday."

Alex looked at Regina and gave her a nervous smile. "Why? So you can make sure I look presentable," she joked in a feeble attempt at humor.

Regina shook her head and kissed Alex's neck. "No, silly. I want to be able to wish you luck before you go."

Alex slid an arm around Regina and pulled her close. "Are you upset about what I said earlier?"

"You mean about you wearing a wire for Matthew. He's using you and that pisses me off."

"I know. I meant about the baby."

Regina rose up on her elbow and peered down at Alex. "I'm not upset, disappointed that you don't feel the same way, but we've never talked about it before this. Things have to be different than they are right now and we both have to want that." She leaned down and kissed Alex's collarbone. "Tomorrow's another day. Go to sleep."


Continue to Part 19


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