Derrick gently lowered Char's body down onto the mattress of her bed, slowly sliding his arms out from under her body before straightening back up. She stirred a little in her sleep, then when he drew the comforter over her body, she curled up into a fetal-style position and gradually faded back into slumber. He watched her for a few moments, his expression serene, but still wistful.

He had stayed wide awake long after Char had slipped off to sleep. When she'd begun to shiver in the drafty air of her living room, Derrick had decided to pick her up from the floor and carry her upstairs to the bedroom to let her sleep more peacefully. He wouldn't have been able to sleep even if he wanted to- not with the thoughts running through his head.

Derrick backed away from the bed and sank down in a chair by the window, leaning his arm on one of the rests and bracing his fingertips against his forehead. The emotions he was feeling were almost similar to the ones that he had when he was first released from prison. The sight of the electric fence sliding back for him had felt peculiarly unreal as he'd stood just outside the heavy steel door, his belongings still in the plastic bag from when he'd first been booked. Derrick had thought about little else but freedom for every day of those three years that he'd been locked up- but the day that it had finally come, all of the anticipation and impatience he'd been forced to deal with had suddenly vanished. Instead, he had felt only a vague kind of disoriented uncertainty. He'd lingered there in the outer yard of the prison staring at the open gate for several minutes before the guard had opened the door behind him and asked what the hell he was waiting for.

The situation that he was now facing with Char now reminded him of that same sensation he'd had when suddenly faced with a life of freedom; they both involved receiving something that he had always wanted, but still made him feel unsure or afraid of actually getting it and discovering that it wouldn't be what he had thought or expected it to be- or worse, that it was just a matter of time before he would somehow lose it.

Ever since the day that he had left the prison, Derrick had still been asking himself every day if he was actually free. It had seemed for a long time that he didn't even have the answer to the question- not when he'd been broke and living with Hiram, struggling to find and hold onto stable work while Wade and Trina made him feel like the scum of the earth. While he hadn't been wearing an orange jumpsuit, the circumstances of the outside world hadn't been a vast improvement from incarceration. Then, just when he'd been thinking that his life would never be anything but a journey from prison to prison, Char had came into it. From that point on, the doors of Derrick's prison on the outside had seemed to open wider and wider. Before they met, he couldn't have even begun to imagine himself with a stable job, real friends, a home of his own, and a relationship with a woman who completely loved and accepted him. All of those things had just been impossible. But suddenly, the impossible had become possible, and he had them all- and Derrick didn't know how to handle that. The fear that he had felt the day of his prison release had made him almost want to turn right back around and run back to the 'safety' of his cell. That same sensation of fear was tempting him to retreat back from the contentment of his job, of his relationship with Char, his new friendships, and new home. He was afraid that it would always be there at the back of his mind, telling him that all of it was too good to be true, that no matter how much his life changed, he himself would always be the same person- a white trash dropout with a bigoted past.

Derrick stayed absorbed in his thoughts in the chair by the window, watching the beginnings of dawn creep up over the horizon. When the first rays of sunlight pierced through the blinds, Char started to stir from her sleep. Her eyes fluttered open, then searched around the room a little before landing on him. She slowly sat up in bed, her gaze meeting with his. Her hair was tumbled and mussed around her head and there were tired circles beneath her eyes, but to Derrick she still looked as beautiful as ever.

"Hey." she said softly.

"Hey." he answered, getting up from the chair and coming over to sit next to her on the side of the bed. He smoothed back some of her hair gently, "How you doin?"

She nodded, "Okay I didn't come to bed at all, did you?"

Derrick shook his head, "No. Wasn't that sleepy. I didn't want to disturb you though."

"You seem plenty disturbed to me." Char remarked pointedly. He shook his head, but avoided her gaze,

"Don't worry about me, I'm fine."

She bit her lip, pausing a few minutes before trying again, "I'm not a porcelain doll, Derrick. You can tell me how you're really feeling. I won't break. I can handle whatever it is you're not saying to me right now."

"It's not what you're thinkin', Char.."

"What do you think I'm thinking?"

"You're thinkin' that I'm havin' second thoughts about what I said last night; I'm not. You're thinkin' that I regret what happened; I don't. I don't regret us. That's the truth, I swear.."

"...But?" she pressed.

Derrick sighed, "I'm not used to havin' good things happen to me. Not on purpose. This, us- it's one of the best things I've ever had goin for me. I just can't get over this feelin' that I'll do somethin' to drive it all away."

"What makes you think you're the only one that can do something wrong?" she asked, "I'm the one who's been divorced, Derrick, remember? I'd say your track record was better than mine."

He shook his head again, answering shortly, "It's not the same thing."

"Why not?"

"Because you're you, and I'm me, that's why."

She frowned, drawing back a little, "Wait, what does that even mean?"

"Jesus, Char, can't you see? Rich Black nurse- poor, White ex-skinhead? It means not normal. We're not normal, and we both know it. No one who knows us is gonna treat us like we are. My adopted father wouldn't even let you inside his house, do you think your family is just gonna welcome me with open arms- the guy who said you couldn't do your job because you were black?"

"Derrick, how my family feels about you is my business-"

But he cut her off in mid-sentence, "No. No it's isn't: it's mine too, Char. We both know how they're going to react when they find out that you're with me. I'm not an idiot; I know what it means to you that you're in this now- what it would mean to your family, all your friends. They're gonna hold me responsible for us from now on- I'm holdin' me responsible for us."

"Our relationship is not just your responsibility, Derrick! I am going to have some part to play in it, and I don't need you to try and protect me from my family, my friends or the entire world! I've already had enough men in my life trying to do everything for me that they thought was right, and I don't need it anymore, I need you to just-" She broke off then, readjusting the sharpened tone of her voice, "I need you to you."

"I am me, Char. That's what I'm afraid of. I can't act like I came into this as some innocent, and I can't act like you're not the one takin' a bigger chance on me than I am on you. We both know you got more to lose in bein' with me. Everybody who sees together will know that."

"I don't care about everybody, Derrick. Don't let this relationship always be about that first day we met in the hospital- I had to let it go to even allow myself to think about being in this. How we met..." She shrugged, "It's in the past. So just leave it there."

Derrick didn't answer to that, just looking back out the window. Char sighed, leaning back against the pillows and averting her gaze to the ceiling. A long silence passed between them before she abruptly spoke again,

"Egg in a basket."

He frowned and turned around, "Huh?"

"You said you wanted to know how I liked my eggs." she met his gaze again, "I like them made egg in a basket. You cut out a hole in a piece of bread, then crack an egg into it and toast it over the stove. I like the yolk fully cooked."

Derrick stared at her for a moment, puzzled at the sudden change in subject. Then he saw the playful glint in her eyes and couldn't withhold the grin from breaking out over his face. They shared a small laugh and he nodded as if to apologize for the grim tone of the earlier conversation, "Alright, alright...what else?"

"I like to sleep on the left side of the bed."


"Always. I can't sleep if I don't. I have bad hair days in the summertime, just after it's rained- the humidity makes it look like a chia plant." He laughed at that as she continued, "Cameron Woods gave me my first kiss when I was ten years old on the Ferris wheel at the summer carnival. It was a dare he took from his friends. He tried to put his tongue in my mouth, but I punched him in the stomach at the last minute. I get my period during the last week of every month as long as I'm not too stressed out, and you will definitely know the difference between that and me just being a pain the ass."

"How do you figure that?"

"I get hot flashes; the air conditioning is always turned up on high- even during the winter, so I hope that's not a problem."

Derrick shook his head, still smiling at her, "No." he said, "I think I can handle that."

"Good." She nodded with a satisfied smile of her own and beckoned to him with her head, "Now get over here." He stretched out over her, looking down into her eyes as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Their lips met in a long, but gentle kiss. When they separated, she murmured, "'s your turn."

"Uh uh," Derrick said, "You didn't finish yet."

"What else do you want to know?"

"Your biggest hope and your biggest fear."

A sudden change appeared over Char's face, the contentment in it rapidly fading away. She looked away from him, not saying anything for a long moment. Her arms stayed around him though, and he could feel them tighten a little as she shook her head, "Another time." Her voice was noticeably quieter and almost seemed wistful, but before Derrick could ask her what was wrong, she had raised her mouth to his for another kiss. It wasn't long before it intensified, and he could feel the familiar heat of desire from the night before begin to warm his body again.

They were both just beginning to succumb to it, when the sharp, unexpected sound of the doorbell rang from downstairs. At first, neither of them paid it any mind at all, letting it ring a second and third time. Then Derrick heard a muffled, but undoubtedly familiar voice shout through the front door,

"Char? Char, c'mon, it's me, open the door."

Derrick froze, raising his head up in alarm as Char groaned in irritation.

"Seriously, Donnie? Dammit..."

"Shit," he muttered, immediately rolling off of her and getting up from the bed, "This is bad...Did you know he was gonna be comin' here?"

"God, Derrick, do you really need to ask that question?" she asked, also getting up from the bed and hurrying over to one of her dressers, yanking open the top drawer and rummaging around in it. She retrieved a pair of panties and bra from it and tugged them on, "It's Saturday morning, Donnie's usually not even up at this hour- he's usually holed up in his apartment sleeping off a hangover with his latest groupie!"

"Well that's not what he's doin' today," Derrick said, "And I doubt he brought one of his groupies over here now! If he never shows up like this, then what the hell's he doin' here now?" Char didn't answer that, but he was too distracted to notice. He swept his hair back from his forehead and groaned, "My clothes are still downstairs on the floor...Shit, this is bad..."

Char was slipping into a bathrobe and tying it at the waist, "Look, don't panic. Just wait up here. I'll handle this, I'll tell him-"

"Tell him, tell him what, Char? It's seven forty five a.m. and my truck is in your driveway. You don't need to tell him anythin', he already knows what's goin' on!"

"Well maybe I can just say that you came over last night to help me fix my heater, and then we got to talking and it was so late that you just stayed the night on my couch-"

"Oh c'mon, you know he's never gonna buy that- you wouldn't buy it!"

"Well I'm not exactly used to making up stories to tell my brother to keep him from finding out that I got laid by one of his friends, Derrick!" she retorted, "So if you'd like to come up with a believable lie to tell, be my guest!" The doorbell rang again, this time in rapid, impatient succession followed by the sound of a fist pounding on the front door,

"Char!" Donnie called, "C'mon, open up, I ain't got all day!"

"Okay, okay, I'm coming!" she yelled back testily. She started to rush from the room, but stopped and gestured to Derrick, "You may as well c'mon and get dressed- you don't want him to see you in your birthday suit."

He followed her downstairs and into the living room and grabbed up his clothes from where they'd been discarded on the floor. Char picked up her pajama camisole and panties as well and shoved them into his arms, "Here, hide these and just get dressed in the bathroom," she muttered, "I'll see if I can get rid of him."

Derrick shut the bathroom door just as Char was opening the front door. He dressed quickly, hearing her and Donnie's voices out in the hallway. He hesitated before going back outside, taking a deep breath and trying to make himself appear as calm and natural as possible. He could hear Donnie's voice as he slowly walked down the hall and back to the living room. It was low and almost seemingly solemn,

"...can't just keep this a secret from him forever. I think he has a right to know, Char. Especially now that things are getting...serious between y'all."

"It doesn't have anything to do with us." Char answered. "It's in my past- you said so yourself."

"C'mon now, you know that ain't the same thing. You know he'd wanna know. there are some things a man don't wanna know about his woman's past, Char- but this ain't one 'em. 'Specially not Derrick. From what I know about him, I can tell that-"

Derrick appeared in the entryway just then, and Donnie immediately stopped talking mid-sentence. A hasty, embarrassed smile appeared on Char's face as she cleared her throat nervously,

"Hey, there you are! How's your neck feeling?"

Confused, he frowned a little, "Huh?"

"You know- from sleeping on the couch last night?" When he still didn't respond, Char paused to briefly widen her eyes knowingly, "How is your neck doing?"

He blinked, suddenly comprehending, "Oh. Oh! Oh yeah, um...fine. It's not too bad. Compared to the cot we got in the pen it's like a feather mattress, you know?" He gave a small, depreciating chuckle that she feebly returned, but Derrick could tell that it had fallen flat. He turned and nodded in greeting to her brother, hoping that he seemed breezy and natural,

"Hey, Donnie, how's it goin?"

"Not too bad, man. I got no complaints. What about you, 'sides the neck?"

"Oh, no, no it's...fine. I'm fine. I'm actually just on my way out, I got some things to take care of today. I uh...I didn't expect to see you here this early."

Donnie shrugged, "Guess that makes two of us then. Nothin' bad happened with Lexi, right?"

"No, she's fine. She stayed the night with her mom."

"Uh huh. And you came to stay over here?"

Derrick and Char exchanged an uncomfortable glance with each other before Derrick went on, "Uh...yeah. Well at least, that's how it turned out. Right when I was leavin' Trina's place, Char called me up and said there was somethin' wrong with her water heater. She asked me to come and take a look at it and then we..." his voice trailed off and he could feel the heat rising up to his face, "We just got to talkin' and it got pretty late. I was kinda beat by then and Char didn't want to risk me drivin on the road like that so she just let me...crash on the sofa." He locked eyes with her, "Right?"

She nodded quickly, "Right! Yeah, that's, that's exactly what happened."

Donnie was chuckling and shaking his head before Derrick had even finished talking, "Y'all are really sad, y'know that? Just sad." He clapped his hands together once, "Tell you what, I'm gonna do everybody in this room a favor and just kick this weak-ass monkey off y'all's back so no one's gotta be feeling awkward or embarrassed about nothing anymore, okay? So...y'all had sex. Judging by how nervous you are, I'm gonna guess that last night was the first time. Nobody's gotta go into any details, cause I'm not gonna ask no embarrassin' questions; I'm the brother, I don't even like imagining what Char looks like naked, so I sure as hell don't wanna think about her naked with another guy. I'll just accept this as all apart of a normal relationship between two adults, mind my own business, and keep my mouth shut. We cool? Alright," he gave Derrick's bicep a firm, good-natured punch, then leaned forward and brushed his lips against Char's forehead, "Now that we got that outta the way, you got anything a brotha can eat in that fridge of yours, sis?"

Char seemed mildly stunned by the bluntness of his words, but she still managed to nod and reply, "There's some leftover turkey sausage and eggs and a jug of Sunny Delight."

"All I needed to hear." Donnie went past them and into the kitchen without another word. Derrick and Char stood there for a few moments, neither speaking at first. He gave her an uncertain, questioning glance and she shrugged, as if indicating that she didn't anymore of what to do or how to act than he did.

Donnie's voice called out from the kitchen, "Y'all gonna chill with the weird looks and sign language long enough to come in here and eat, or you gonna make me throw down on this good food by myself?"

At that, they both broke into slow, but warm smiles. Char shook her head ruefully, rubbing her eyes,

"Yeah. Yeah, Donnie...we're coming."

"So how long are you gonna be workin' this graveyard shift?" Derrick used his shoulder and cheek to hold the cellphone to his ear as he stepped into the windpants that he slept in at night. He'd just gotten out of the shower a few minutes ago and heard his cellphone ringing. It was late at night, so he had rushed back to his bedroom where it was sitting on the dresser to answer it. The caller had been Char, calling him at work while on her break.

Derrick had been moved into the duplex for nearly a few weeks by then, but the hospital had been asking her to work the overnight shift for the past month or so, making it harder for them to see each other as much as they would have liked to. Sometimes they managed to grab a quick hamburger together for dinner just as Derrick was getting off work and Char was preparing to go in, but for the most part their chief mode of communication had been made through phone calls they made when one of them was on break at their jobs.

Char sighed heavily, "God, who knows? With Heather on maternity leave and Yvette taking the transfer to Macon, I'm down four extra pairs of hands that I really couldn't afford to lose. The only thing I can think of that's worse than these hours is this cup of coffee from the breakroom that I'm trying to gag down to keep me half awake for the next six hours."

"Isn't there some kind of temp they can bring in to help pick up the slack?"

"Ideally, yes- but circumstances around here haven't been ideal for a while."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, the Hospital Budgeting Committee believes that eight to ten patients per nurse is the proper standard of care at the moment, so until something goes wrong and malpractice suit gets filed, we don't have any choice but to keep our hands full around here."

"There's got to be somethin' you can do to complain about that, Char. As Head Nurse can't you go before the committee and lodge a complaint or make a special plea?"

She sighed again and he could hear the dry tone of her voice increasing, "I could...but seeing as Wade Carson is one of the chief executives on the Budgeting Committee, I don't really see the point. In fact, the only thing I'd probably end up accomplishing is getting our resources cut even further."

Derrick shook his head, "Dammit. Is there one inch of that place that asshole doesn't have his nose stuck in?"

"None that matter to me- and he's made plenty sure that none of us up here forget it either. Our department's been taking a lot of heat from the brass upstairs since that Tefroline thing. I think Wade finally figured out that using budget cuts, pay reductions and lost vacation time to make my staff resent me was a worse punishment than just getting me fired- smart bastard."

"Is it really that bad?"

"Management's never an easy job, but someone's gotta do it. You don't have to be too worried- nobody here likes the politics of hospital administration, but most of them understand. There's just always the one bad apple, you know?"

Derrick's expression grimmed, "Tia." he said, not even needing to ask.

"Yeah. You know, I really don't care about her petty water cooler gossip about hospital cuts and bureaucracy, I can deal with that. It's when she starts bitching about-" She stopped short then, catching herself. She didn't need to finish for Derrick to know what she was talking about.

"I'm sorry, Der." she was saying, "I shouldn't have-"

"Sure you should." Derrick said simply, "It was the truth and I want to hear it even it bothers me. People like Tia and Hiram...they're just not gonna ever accept or understand us, y'know?"

"I wouldn't exactly put Tia in the same category as Hiram," Char said, "I may not be her favorite person in the world right now, but I've still know her for years and I know that at heart, she's a decent person."

"Char, you said it yourself: the whole Pedes ward knows we're together because of Tia and her big mouth. She's got the other nurses questionin' your authority at every turn. You told me she sasses off to you on purpose just to get under your skin- you call that decent?"

"Yeah, I do. She's not trying to be malicious, she just doesn't want-"

"I'll tell you what she doesn't want: she doesn't want us together, and she's got no problem makin' everyone else feel the same way. Jesus, sometime it feel like I can't even go and visit you anymore without gettin looked at sideways from every nurse on the floor. And then she's got your ex down there every five minutes breathin' down your neck- "

"Can we please just...leave Jackson out of this?" She broke in, "God knows I'm never over the moon about seeing him, but even I can own up to the fact that he's concerned about me. And Tia may have her bitchy moments, but to be fair to her, she's just concerned about me too. This is just her ugly way of showing it."

But Derrick wasn't convinced to feel sympathetic,"Concerned, concerned about what? That just because I'm white, I can't possibly be good for you?"

"Derrick," Char's voice was still steady, but twinged with a tension that he could feel simmering just beneath the surface of impatience, "It's a little bit more complicated than that."

"Complicated how? It's just color, Char. That's what it boils down to, ain't it? My color. "

"Maybe it does, but will you try and be a little more understanding? Tia doesn't know you the way that I do. The only person she knows is the white man who said that I couldn't do my job because I was Black."

"Char, I apologized for that. I apologized long before you and I even started dating, and I did everything I could to make it up to you for that. It's in the past now, we've both moved on- why can't she just get over it when it didn't even happen to her?"

"Yeah, well how do you know it never has?" The sharp irritation in Char's voice was unmistakable now, and Derrick could sense the beginning of an argument. But even that wasn't enough to make him want to change the subject.


"You really think that just because you've never heard anyone question Tia's ability to do her job just because of her color that it means it's never happened? Don't you think that's being a little arrogant and insensitive?"

"I didn't say that it never happened to her, but it doesn't have nothin' to do with what happened between us."

Char sighed frustratingly, muttering under her breath,"Yeah, well maybe it doesn't in your world."

"My world? What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Tia's fifteen years older than me, Derrick. She came into the nursing field in a time when Black people were struggling just to get accepted into RN school , let alone get licensed and find jobs. For the first ten years of her career, she was taking home a paycheck that was one third of what someone with her qualifications should have been making- one third of what her white co-workers made in a year. She had the highest patient turn-over score in the Pedes ward for seven years straight, but was never offered the position of Head Nurse- not even once. She could have went north or out west for the better job and pay that she deserved, but instead she's stayed here in Atlanta for all these years because she was dedicated to using her skills to help better her community. Maybe Tia's never had a white father question her abilities to take care of his daughter, but she's had more than her share of racial discrimination in her career- even more than me."

"Char, I don't want us wastin' this time talkin' about Tia. I'm sorry all that shit happened to her, but I'm not responsible for that and it's not my problem now- now she's my problem, and I don't have to like or feel sorry for her just because of somethin' bad someone else did."

"Well maybe you could try thinking about how maybe now you know how it feels to have your life judged by someone who doesn't know or accept you for who you really are."

"I can't believe you're actually defendin' her to me- you don't owe Tia anything, Char. You don't have to take her side just because she's the same color as you- not unless some of the bullshit she says is actually startin' to make sense to you now."

Char clicked her cheek exasperatedly, "Oh c'mon, you know that is not what I meant."

"You know what," Derrick, swept his free hand over his still damp hair, rubbing his forehead a little, "I don't know what you meant- and I'm really not sure I even want to know right now. It's late and I need to get some sleep so I can get up for work in the morning, so can we just save this conversation for another time?"

"Seriously?" She said incredulously, "This is seriously the way you want to settle this right now? You're rushing me off the phone?"

Derrick could already feel the strings of remorse pulling at his conscience, but the stubborn side of him wouldn't allow him to give them any heed at that moment, "Char, I just don't want to start a fight-"

"Don't try and feed me that line, Derrick, we're already in a fight. Why don't you try growing a pair and actually finishing it?"

His jaw tightened with the tension of his own temper, but Derrick managed to keep himself in check, "I'll come by the hospital tomorrow." he said curtly.

"Don't bother." Char snapped back and before he could say another word, he heard a small click and the sound of the dialtone. He shut the phone and roughly threw it back onto the dresser. A hair brush and bottle of cologne went clattering to the floor, but he didn't bother to pick them up, striding down the hallway to the kitchen. He got down a glass from the cupboard and started to turn on the faucet to get some water from the tap, but hesitated, as if in deliberation. After a few moments, he opened the cabinet that was directly over the sink and after pushing aside a few jars of peanut butter and reaching to the back, pulled out the solitary bottle of Jack Daniels.

He had just finished pouring the amber colored liquid into the glass when Derrick heard a knock at the front door. Frowning, he whirled around in surprise.

What the hell...

His eyes looked in the direction of the crevice just between where the top cabinet met the ceiling where he kept the locked and loaded Glock 20. He briefly considering getting it down, but before he could make a decision, heard a familiar voice call his name through the door.

"Derrick? It's me."

Derrick swiftly crossed the room and swung the door open. Trina was standing on the front stoop, a suitcase resting on the concrete next to her. She was holding a sleeping Lexi against her shoulder.

"Jesus Christ, it's the middle of the night Trina, what the hell happened?" He exclaimed, reaching out to pick up the suitcase and help her inside. "Was it Wade, did he do somethin-"

"No, no, don't panic, it wasn't like that. We're not in any danger, I just couldn't..." she let her voice trail off as he shut and locked the door behind her, "Can we lay Lexi down first before we talk? I don't want her hearing any of this."

"Yeah, of course- c'mon." The two of them went off in the direction of Lexi's bedroom. Ten minutes later, she was dressed in her pajamas and tucked into her bed, while Trina changed her clothes in Derrick's bedroom as he waited outside in the living room.

She came back out with her hair flowing free and loose, barefoot and dressed in a white loose-fitting button up shirt. Derrick pretended not to notice that the linen barely reached down to Trina's knee, and that she had left it unbuttoned low enough for him to make out the black embroidery over the top of her bra, instead averting his gaze elsewhere as she sat down close beside to him on the sofa, tucking one leg beneath her. He waited as she rummaged through her purse and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, pulling one out and sticking it between her lips.

"Alright," he said, "You wanna tell me what happened back there?"

"The inevitable happened, that's what." she answered bitterly, holding the cigarette between her fingers and exhaling a stream of smoke. "Wade's been gone for a while, but he came back home out of the blue tonight... he brought that model slut of his with him."

"He what?"

"It was going on midnight- Lexi had been asleep for a while, but I'd just gotten out of the shower. I hear the front door open and shut. I figured that Wade would show up again at some point- but not like this. Not with her. I never thought... I didn't actually believe he'd ever bring her into our house-" She broke off, cradling her forehead in her hand.

"Shit..." he muttered, "Trina, I'm so sorry. Really, I am."

"Yeah." she said, nodding as she took another drag from the cigarette, "You and me both. I don't even fully remember what happened, Derrick. I just...I lost it. I uh...I think I may have attacked her."

"You think?" he repeated, his tone skeptic, and she sighed, nodding,

"Alright fine, so I know I attacked her. I was shocked and upset, okay? It was bad enough that Lexi answered the phone when that bitch called the house, now I have to just stand by and watch her move in to my home when my child's sleeping upstairs? It was a stupid thing to do, but I just couldn't help it. Wade broke it up before it got too serious, anyway."

"Uh huh. So just how serious is it then?"

Trina paused for second, blowing out another stream of smoke, "She'll have a black eye tomorrow. Some pretty bad scratches on her face that'll probably scar. And she'll probably have to get her gay hairdresser friend in New York to replace those ten grand extensions I ripped out."

Derrick sighed heavily and leaned his head back against the cushion of the sofa, "Jesus, Trina..." Suddenly before he could even help it, he heard a small laugh escaped from his lips. Trina cracked a smile before joining in with him, "I guess you really gave it to her, huh?"

"Not as much as I wanted to." she said dryly, "Not by a long shot."

"You think she or Wade's gonna be pressin' charges?"

She shook her head, "I don't think so. If I was gonna be in jail, a cop would've picked me up by now, and even if she wanted to sue, Wade knows that it won't do any good. He's already going to get everything we have in the divorce settlement, there won't be anything else to gain from it. I don't have time to worry about her, Derrick. I've had a lot worse problems in my life than a size 0 bitch in heels."

"I know, Trina. Hell, after dealin' with me and my bullshit, I'll take my chances with you over her any day." Derrick replied.

"I didn't mean to just barge in on you like this. I know you said you wanted some extra time to fix some things up with the place before Lexi and I moved in but-"

He cut her off, shaking his head, "No, no, no- you know I don't even wanna hear that. You're the mother of my little girl and you needed a place to go- you're not bargin' in anywhere. You're not alone in this Trina. You got me, remember?"

She smiled again, and offered the cigarette to him, "I remember." she murmured softly.

Derrick took it, but rather than taking a drag, stubbed it out in a paper cup that was sitting on the table next to the couch. Trina clicked her cheek, giving him a light slap on the arm,

"Derrick! Dammit, I just bought those on the way over here!"

"Then I guess you wasted your money- 'cause movin' in here means you're gonna quit this shit."

"What? Mr-two-packs- a- day is telling me that I'm quitting smoking?"

"That's right, cause Mr-two-packs-a-day has been clean for two years."

Her eyes widened, "Two years? You're kidding right?"

Derrick shook his head, "Nope. I tapered off when I got out from the pen. Can't even really take all the credit; it was hard tryin' to support the habit when I was behind on child support payments. So I guess I got you to thank for it."

Her expression sobered at that, and she looked down into her lap as if mildly embarrassed. Derrick cleared his throat, slapping his hands on his knees and leaning forward,

"So...can I get you anythin'? If you're hungry, there's a couple pizza joints still open we can order from-"

"It's okay. I'm not really hungry."

"A drink?"

"Fine, just as long as there's no alcohol in it." she replied, "For once I just want to stay clear. I'm not feeling real picky, so just give me whatever you've got that's good."

"Comin right up." He replied, getting to his feet and going into the kitchen. He returned with a tall glass that had been filled with a dark, fizzing liquid, and topped with a scoop of french vanilla ice cream from the freezer. Trina's eyes widened a little when he handed it to her and she took a sip from the straw,

"Root beer?" she said in surprise, "Derrick, you don't even drink root beer. You hate it, you wouldn't even touch it when we were kids."

"Yeah, I know."

"But you still just happen to have some sitting around in your fridge? What kind of sense does that make?"

He shrugged a little, " I always just pick up a can or two when I'm buyin soda for the week. Feels like one of those habits that you can't really shake, you know?"

"Habit? What do you mean a-" she stopped short, her eyes widening in sudden recollection, "Oh my God," she murmured, "Root beer floats- I used to drink root beer floats when we were kids!"

"Drink?" he repeated, "Don't you mean you used to inhale 'em?"

Trina was rapidly nodding in agreement, "Yeah, yeah, you're right. I was addicted to them. There was this old country store down the road from my folks house that made the best root beer floats in the world. Oh God, I lived for those things. But Mom never let me have them because she said they had too much sugar and that I was getting fat." She gave a quiet gasp, "Derrick- that's how we met! You were in the country store one afternoon at the same time as we were. I tried to buy a root beer float and you heard my mom stop me. So you followed us home... and later that night, you climbed the walnut tree outside my bedroom and threw stones at my window until I came to see...and you had a root beer float with vanilla ice cream in your hand. For a minute I couldn't even speak I was so surprised, so you talked first. And you said-"

"'Hurry up girl, this shit's gonna melt before you can even eat it!'" Derrick finished for her, a small, reflexive smile on his lips. Trina laughed then, nodding in agreement,'

"That's right...oh God, I thought you were the cutest thing I'd ever seen. I let you keep coming back night after night to sneak me up those root beer floats. Then it stopped being about the drinks and became about..." she nodded her head from side to side with a rueful grin, "Other stuff."

"In the beginnin' you wouldn't even go drivin' with me unless I had some root beer waitin' in a cooler in the truck bed."

"Yeah, my standards sure were high back then!" Trina said wryly, "Figure it out: most girls were waiting for jewelry, flowers and candy, but I had to give It up for a root beer float!"

"I bet you wish you could take back that first night you ever let me in your room, huh?" Derrick said, smiling in self-depreciation, "One root beer float...and now you got all this shit to deal with."

"I used to think that," Trina admitted, "I used to hate myself for ever opening that window." Her expression softened, "But I don't anymore."

He looked over at her in surprise, "No? Why not?"

She shrugged, "Maybe...maybe you're not the only one who's changed since then." She paused, then, looking down into the glass "Derrick?"


"Why did you change? When you first went away you were so...different. You were so much like Hiram, Jimmy and the others. I used to look at you and see people who were so lost and unhappy that I thought you couldn't change even if you wanted to. But you did change. They didn't, but you did, Derrick." She looked back at him then, "Why?"

Derrick didn't answer at first, pausing as he contemplated the answer, "Jesus, Trina... I don't know. It was a lot of things. Bein' locked gave me a lot of time to think. I thought about the way you looked in the courtroom the day I was sentenced. For weeks, I couldn't get it out of my mind; you sittin' in the back cryin' and holdin' onto your stomach. Sometimes when I look at you, I still think of that day...and it shames me. I know I could never understand what you went through after the baby came; bein' kicked outta your parents house, havin' no money and nowhere to go. No amount of pain I could ever feel could ever make up for that. But if I could somehow make you know what it felt like to be locked up in that tiny jail cell...and knowin' that you were goin' through it because of me-" He shut his eyes against the resurrection of the memory in his mind,

"I went on day after day knowin' you'd probably hate me for the rest of your life for what I made you and Lexi go through while I was on the inside. I knew I deserved that a lot of ways, I know I still do."

Trina bit her lip, remaining silent for a long moment. Finally she shook her head, "No." she murmured, "No, you don't." She set the rootbeer float down on the table next to the sofa, then reached beside her, placing her hand over his. Derrick gave a small start at that touch, looking up at Trina in surprise. Her voice was hushed and slightly shaking, but her gaze was riveted to his as she went on,

"I had to survive, Derrick. My parents kicked me out. I had nobody to turn to. Not my family, not the people that I thought were my friends, not the people that I thought were your friends- no one. I didn't have any money. I had a sick baby that needed medications, doctor's visits, operations. I had to do something. I had to whatever I could to survive."

He nodded, "I understand-"

"No!" she interrupted sharply, "No, don't...understand. When you first went away to prison, I made up my mind that I was going to hate you for the rest of my life. I was going to blame you for every problem that I had, make everything that was bad and unfair in my life your fault. I wanted to make you sorry. I knew what Wade was when we first met. I knew he was just a selfish, pompous asshole and that I wasn't much more to him than the Jaguar he parked in front of the house for everyone to see. But I didn't need to love him- I just had to survive."

She sniffled a little, brushing her fingertips across her eyes briefly, "I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I never meant to hurt you. It wouldn't be true, I did. For a while after I first married Wade- after I thought that Lexi and I were secure- hurting you was all I wanted to do. But then you got of prison. By then, I could handle the skinhead bullshit. I could handle you being a deadbeat. I could handle you not giving a shit about me or Lexi. But I couldn't handle it when all of that changed...when you changed."

Ever since she had touched him, Derrick had felt an uncomfortable sensation creeping up on him in his belly at Trina's words. In reality he was only half paying attention them, instead thinking about the mysterious change that had seemed to come over his ex-girlfriend in her behavior and attitude towards him. All of the 'un-Trina-like' words, gestures, and considerations that had been bewildering him for weeks now suddenly began to fall and fit together like the pieces of a puzzle and the change she'd gone through was becoming less and less 'mysterious' to him.

Derrick stayed very still and rigid, examining and listening to Trina as she went on. He could feel the last of his most stubborn doubts and denials slipping away from him as grim, stupefied realization sank in. The truth of what was happening (what had been happening for longer than he'd been willing to see) had just been so unthinkably ridiculous a thought that he hadn't even bothered to consider it possible. But it wasn't impossible- it was all true.

Trina really wanted this. She wanted him.

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, "Look, all of that stuff is in the past now. You don't gotta say all this-"

"Yes I do." she interrupted, calm but firm, "I need to say this, Derrick. We both need me to say this. For four and a half years, I'd been trying to forget everything I ever remembered about the boy who climbed a ten foot walnut tree just to give me a rootbeer float. I'd thought I'd buried all the feelings I had for you. But I saw how much you loved Lexi. I saw how much she loved and depended on you. On the night you shaved your head for her...I know I tried to pretend that I didn't care and that I thought you were just being stupid. But it wasn't true. was like we were little kids again, and you were climbing the walnut tree to bring me a drink. When you did that, I knew that you'd never stopped being that boy..." Her eyes raised to look at him again and he could see the sheen reflected in them, "And I'd never stopped being that girl that fell in love with you."

Derrick sucked in a low, heavy breath, slowly shaking his head, "Trina, c'mon... don't do this. You're just upset and vulnerable about Wade. I don't want you sayin anythin to me that you can't take back or that you'll be sorry I heard later."

But Trina didn't seem deterred or rebuffed by his warning, "I'm not sorry, Derrick. And this isn't vulnerability or grief's just me." Her hand slid away from his hand and further up his arm. Her touch was as slow and caressing as the new tone in her voice,"We both made a lot of mistakes over the past few years. But now we both have the chance to make a fresh start and finally do the one thing that's right for us- and for our daughter."

She was leaning in closer towards him, the hem of her shirt gaping open to the point where her entire chest was nearly exposed. Derrick was doing his best to avoid even looking in its direction, instead doggedly gluing his gaze to the floor. But that wasn't throwing her off in the slightest. The fingertips of one hand were brushing against his hairline, while the other was inching over his chest. One smooth, hairless leg was pressing against his and he could feel the warmth of her body. Trina's voice was like silk in his ear, "C'mon Der," she whispered, "Don't act like you still don't want me- we both know that's not true."

Derrick closed his eyes, shaking his head, "I can't..." he murmured, "I can't do it."

"It's alright. You don't have to be nervous." she whispered, "I want you to."

"It's not that. I just can't do this is all. Trina, stop...stop and listen to me-"

"Shhh. Just relax..." Her hand was moving closer to the waistband of his wind pants. Just before she could nudge her fingertips underneath the elastic, Derrick managed to grab the hand and hold it fast,

"No, stop- listen! I'm sorry, Trina. I swear to God, I didn't mean to give you the wrong idea or lead you on in all's probably my fault. I shoulda been more careful. But you were in trouble and I wanted to help. I wanted to show you so bad that I was different from before. If I woulda known it would lead to all this, then I never woulda let this-" he broke off, shaking his head helplessly, "I'm sorry baby, but I just...I don't have those feelings for you anymore."

Trina didn't answer at first, seeming deep in decision. Without another word, she leaned in swiftly, her mouth raising to his. Derrick managed to stop her just in the nick of time, catching her face in between his hands and drawing it back, "No." he said, his voice raising a little. Seeing the flicker of hurt in her eyes, he let go with a heavy sigh and stood to his feet, walking in a semicircle around the room and rubbing his eyes wearily.

Trina stared at him for a long time, her gaze searching and confused. Finally, she slid back on the sofa, pulling the lapels of her shirt closed and crossing her legs. Every inch of her face betrayed her wounded pride, but her voice was level and serene when she spoke again, "There's someone else, isn't there?"

"Shit..." Derrick muttered. Dropping his hands, he came back and crouched down next to where she was sitting, his voice desperately earnest, "Trina, you gotta believe me: the last thing I ever wanted to do in all this was hurt you, or give you the wrong idea."

"You're seeing another woman." she stated, sounding more certain this time. She gave a short, mirthless chuckle, looking upward, "Of course you are. Jesus, I should've known..."

"Will you just listen to me?"He pleaded, "We don't gotta let things be the way they used to be between us. We can still be friends, Trina-"

"Just don't!" she snapped abruptly, "For God's sake, Derrick, do me a favor and at least spare me the 'friends' speech- spare me that, if nothing else!" Both of them fell silent again and Derrick decided to just wait, sitting against the armrest of the sofa rather than back on the sofa next to Trina, who looked as though she wanted to disappear into herself.

"I'll check me and Lexi into a hotel tomorrow morning." she said coldly.

"No!" Derrick immediately objected, guilt and remorse written in his features, "Trina, you don't gotta do that. We had a plan, remember? You and Lexi were gonna move in with me-"

"Yeah, we did have a plan, Derrick. The three of us were gonna be a family together- that was my plan, but obviously you were making other plans behind my back-"

"Jesus, no, it's not like that! Just because you and I aren't together doesn't mean the three of us can't be a family together-"

"I don't want me or my daughter under the same roof of some other bimbo you picked up and brought home from the bar. If that's where you want to place your priorities, then that's fine, but don't even think about trying to make me and Lexi apart of it for one single minute." She stood to her feet, raising her hand in his face to halt another attempt he made at an explanation,"Just save it. We'll be out of here first thing in the morning." Trina turned and started off down the hallway to the bedroom.

Sheer panic and desperation made his mind go blank. The words slipped out of his mouth before Derrick even had time to think, and the instant after he said them, he instantly wished he could take them back, "I'm not seein' someone else!"

Trina halted in her tracks then, pausing and looking back. The suspicion that still lingered in her eyes kept him from immediately correcting the lie and instead only pressing him to go further.

"It's not like that, Trina." The blood was roaring in Derrick's ears, as if entreating him to stop, but he paid it no mind, "I just don't think this is a direction we need to be takin' with our relationship right now. I think we need to take some time to adjust, y'know? But there's no other woman."

The anger had faded from her eyes, and she came back a few steps in his direction, "Do you swear?" she asked. Derrick took a deep breath, nodding his head,

"Yeah. Yeah I...I swear. Please- don't leave."

Trina hesitated for another moment or two, but finally, she nodded, "Okay. Okay, we'll stay." She came over to where he stood, "I'm sorry I blew up like that, I shouldn't have. I can wait for you to get comfortable with all this, Derrick. Take all the time you need." She smiled again, and he feebly tried to return it, grateful when she wrapped her arms around him in an embrace so that she couldn't further examine his face. She stayed in his arms, not pulling away. Derrick returned the hug as he best as he could, but his insides were dropping and his heart was pounding so loud he couldn't believe that Trina wasn't able to hear it.

Shit. His mind repeated it over and over again. Shit, shit, shit...