A/N: Hello again, ILC'ers, I'm very happy to be posting another chapter for all of you after just two weeks since the last update! Thank you so much to those who have reviewed and/or added this story to your favorite/follow list. Things are going to start getting serious between Derrick and Charmayne from this point on, so be sure to keep reading and as always, let me know what you think of this new chapter!

Derrick turned the ignition dial on the dashboard to the left, killing the engine of the compact excavator. Pushing up the protective eye goggles from his face, he wiped at the thin sheen of sweat that had formed on his brow and jumped down from the vehicle. He let his gaze sweep the landscape of the site around him. At present it wasn't much more than a wide expanse of large holes and mounds of dirt with wooden stakes scattered about to methodically mark off specific spots for construction. In about three or four more months, in place of the dirt and holes would be a three story building for a branch wing extension of the hospital that would be specifically for cancer patients and their families. He and the rest of Malcolm's crew had been working on the new site for a few weeks. It was already forty five minutes after work was supposed to have stopped for the day, and just about all of his co-workers had already stopped and went to the break trailers to prepare to leave. But Derrick had stayed for a while longer, wanting to finish the task he'd been working on before going home for the night. For him, this particular job was more than just a matter of coming into work every day. Lexi's own condition had made him especially sensitive to what they were building, and he wanted to put his absolute best effort into it.

A little over six weeks had passed since he'd started working for Malcolm. And for the first time since he could even remember, Derrick could say that things in his life were beginning to look up.

The most important thing was that Lexi was getting better. Really, and truly better. The Tefroline had done exactly what Charmaine had said it would, fighting the infection in her body and breaking her fever. She'd gone through a rough patch for few days, much like when she'd first begun chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Trina and Derrick had both been alarmed, but when they were alone, Charmaine had assured him that the reaction was normal, "Her body's not quite used to the antibiotic. It's normal to seem like it's worse before she actually gets better. Just give her a chance to."

Derrick had still been skeptical, "Yeah, but what if-"

"Derrick," Char had interrupted, "It's going to be alright. You did the right thing. Trust me. Lexi's going to get better."

And she had. Her chemotherapy and radiation treatments had finished and after receiving the all-clear from Haller, Lexi had been able to return home from the hospital a week or so ago. Her hair hadn't begun to grow back yet, but she wasn't vomiting anymore and her appetite had come back. She had begun to laugh and smile again. The light had come back to her eyes. They still had to wait a couple more weeks for the results from the biopsy that would reveal whether or not the treatments had succeeded in sending her into remission or not, but there could be no doubt that giving Lexi the Tefroline had been the right decision to make. Derrick didn't even like to think about what could have happened if Trina had decided to do nothing instead- if Char hadn't been so adamant and fought so hard...

Besides his daughter's improving health, Derrick's own personal situation had also begun to improve. He was genuinely satisfied at his new job. Dansville Construction was the best run company he'd ever seen in the business, and Malcolm was the best guy to have as a boss. The advance that Malcolm had given him when he'd first started had been the start of a pay rate that was not only fair, but significantly more than he was used to getting when working for Walt. He'd been able to set aside some money for expenses that he'd wanted to give to Trina to make up for missed child support payments. He'd never forget the look on her face when he'd presented her with that first check. She'd just stared at it for a long moment, seeming unaware that her mouth was hanging open.

"...Is-is this some kind of joke?" She finally managed to sputter, "Because if it is, it's not-"

"It's no joke, Trina. I know it's not near enough of what I owe, but if you give me a few months, then you'll get the rest-"

"Derrick, what the hell is going on here?" She'd broken in impatiently, "I swear to God, if I find out that this money is coming from some bank job or if you're running product for some drug dealer-"

He'd shook his head, giving an empty chuckle that was meant to mask the hurt that her words had caused, "Right. Thanks a lot for that, Trina. Now that you've got that off your chest, will you just take the money?"

With the kind of money that he was making now, it wouldn't be very long before Derrick could begin saving to buy other things; more things for Alexis, a new truck, an apartment of his own to live in. It could be the beginning of a new and better quality of living if things stayed on the up and up like this...

It didn't take Derrick very long to see that his employer had been perfectly serious when he said that Dansville's first priority was teamwork; all of the employees, whether they were foremen or regular construction workers all worked interdependently with each other. There was none of the petty disagreements or conflicts that he'd witnessed on Walt's construction sites. No one was competing with anyone for anything, or on any power trips. What's more, there seemed to be a genuine feeling of brotherhood among the men that Derrick had never witnessed, not just on construction sites, but between people in general. They loaned each other money, gave rides to and from work when one of their cars was in the shop, went to each other's kid's plays and recitals, visited in the hospital when someone had a new baby, went bowling on the weekends, played poker together every Wednesday night. As simple as it may have seemed, the people seemed to just like each other.

Despite witnessing the camaraderie that existed between his co-workers, Derrick had nonetheless remained introverted and kept to himself much of the time. His experiences with people, both in and out of prison, as well as his insecurities regarding his past had created a wall of distrust that he surrounded himself constantly. These guys may have seemed nice enough, but all it took for most people were to hear the words 'ex-con' to make their niceties disappear quicker than you could blink. So long as he was able to come in every morning, put in a hard day's work and collect a good paycheck, Derrick didn't need anything else.

As he pulled off his thick, rough work gloves, Derrick turned at the sound of a sharp whistle from behind him. He turned and saw that Donnie was approaching him, accompanied by three other guys that he frequently hung around and joked with: Duane, Frankie and Pete.

"Hey Derrick," Donnie called, a light grin on his lips, "The hell you tryin' to do, man? Malcolm sees you puttin' in all this extra time after we're supposed to be clocked out, he may try and up all of our hours!"

"Yeah, I can't be stayin' round here any later than normal quittin' time," Frankie said, also smiling, "I know you're still new here and you wanna make a good impression on Malcolm and all, but if I'm not walkin through the door at home at 5:30 sharp to give my wife a break from the baby, she'll have my nuts in a vice!" The four of them all laughed at that, as Donnie gave Derrick a gentle nudge in the ribs,

"But seriously though man, is that what it is? You worried about Malcolm? Don't worry about that, it's all good. Trust me, if he didn't want you here, you'da been gone."

Derrick shook his head, trying to hide how awkward he felt by appearing nonchalant, "N-no, it's just... I just like to finish what I start, is all." He started off in the direction of the office/breakroom trailer on the construction site while the others followed him.

"Well you look pretty done here, to me!" Duane cut in, "And if you don't mind me sayin', in need of a tall cool one! What do you say you come on out with us tonight to Mario's?"


"Yeah," Pete cut in, "You know, every Friday night all of us get together with the wives and girlfriends and head out to Mario's for some beer, pizza and a coupla laughs. Why don't you come?"

Derrick did know about the tradition. What he hadn't known, or expected, was to receive an invitation to the outing, especially when he tried so hard to keep to himself all this time.

He blinked, caught off guard, his mind scrambling for an answer, "Uh...I...I don't think so. I got some things I should-"

Even before he had finished, they all made sounds and groans of disapproval and protest, "Ohh, c'mon now," Donnie said, "Don't give me that man. I know we all ain't geniuses, but we all do know what bullshit sounds like when we hear it!" They laughed again as they went inside the trailer and to the locker section, where he saw that Sean was already there and getting his things together to leave.

"Hey Sean, " Duane called out, "You were all on that hermit shit when you first got here, tell your boy Derrick here that we're not a bunch of animals, and we all know how to have a good time!"

"Well, hold up now, 'cause, we know that we can't speak for Duane here," Donnie said, pointing at his coworkers almost ostentatious, bulging biceps, "He's built like a bear and when he gets a few in 'em, starts acting like he's Rafikki from The Lion King!" He began going into an exaggerated pantomime of the Disney character around Duane while the others roared and howled good naturedly.

Sean smiled at the joke, then briefly exchanged a short glance with Derrick. The smile faded a little from his lips as he looked back down towards the locker, "If he doesn't want to, he shouldn't go." he said answered calmly.

Derrick could sense the tension that still existed between him and the only other white man on the construction site. The other guys had pretty much left him alone, but they hadn't displayed the frosty indifference that Sean had given him ever since his first day when he'd made the comment about them being the only ones of their kind. He hadn't anticipated that kind of behavior from Sean in the same way that he hadn't expected to be so openly and readily welcomed from the others.

Frankie groaned as he tossed his hard hat onto the locker shelf, "Shit man, there ain't nobody that spends thirteen hours behind the wheel of a compact excavator and doesn't need a drink! I remember when Malcolm had me behind that thing for the Dennison Headquarters job, you guys remember that? Jenny had to give me back-rubs every night for a month to get that crick out of my neck! C'mon Derrick, don't try to front. Go home, call a sitter, tell the Missus you're takin' her out with some of the guys on the job- our wives and girlfriends'll be there too, so she won't be the only one."

Derrick shook his head, "I don't have a wife or a...a girl."

"Oh well, that's no big deal," Pete chimed in, "You can be like The Bachelor over here," he gestured towards Donnie, "And just have him set you up with one of the names in that famous Little Black Book of his, ain't that right?"

Donnie smiled smugly, "If you really need the hook-up, I got you, bro. All you had to do was ask."

"Yeah, just make sure you don't set him up with that Gina broad!" Frankie said, "Nothing against her her, but she laid on the charm a little thick for Jenny's liking, and I know I'm not the only poor bastard here that spent that night in the dog house, am I right?" the others made sounds of agreement while Donnie chuckled again,

"Nah, y'all don't have to worry about that- Gina's name's been officially crossed outta the Little Black Book. I'll find someone nice for Derrick, but not that nice!"

"Look, really, you don't need to bother," Derrick managed to break in, "I really do got something to do tonight. I can't blow it off, it's kinda important." he added, not knowing why it suddenly seemed to matter so much to him that they didn't take him for a stuck up prick.

Duane's locker was next to his and his forehead crinkled a little as he turned to look at him, "Oh yeah? Everything alright, man?" There was honest concern in his eyes and Derrick saw it mirrored in the looks of the others.

"Oh yeah, yeah, everything's fine, it's just, um..." he tried to think of a fake excuse, but none entered his mind. "It's my...it's my weekend..." he looked up at Duane, "To see my daughter."

Duane's eyes flickered open a little wider in mild surprise as he smiled, "Ohhhh, so you got a kid? That's wonderful man, why didn't you say so? I got three of my own, so I know how it is."

"Derrick, you got a daughter?" Pete too looked surprised, "I didn't know that, how old is she?"

"She's six."

"You got a picture?" Frankie asked. "We're all proud papas here, man. We like pictures." He smirked wryly, adding, "All except for Donnie here, and he'd be one too if he quit dickin' around and settled down." They all laughed at that, Donnie included. Derrick paused for only a moment, then reached down into his jeans for his wallet. Opening it up, he folded back the worn, faux leather flap to the picture protector section that held the only pictures of Lexi that he owned and held it out to Frankie. There were only two; one of them from when she was first born (Trina had sent him the picture while he was still in prison, a message scrawled on the back that read: Your daughter was born today. Take a good look because this is the first and only time you'll lay eyes on her if I have anything to do with it), the other was Lexi's Kindergarten school picture- taken right before she'd gotten the leukemia diagnosis.

Frankie's brows rose and he smiled appreciatively as he looked at the pictures, "Damn...she's gorgeous. How the hell'd she end up comin' from you?" He winked at that, and Derrick, recognizing the joke, chuckled along with the others, who all (except for Sean) had come closer to circle around Frankie to see the pictures.

"Yeah, she uh...she kinda takes after her mom for the most part." He said, sliding his hands into his pockets, feeling slightly embarrassed at having the most intimate, personal part of his life put out in the open. However, he also felt slightly proud at Lexi being admired; she was the light of his life, the only thing he'd ever done that he was proud of. It felt good to have that acknowledged by people who seemed altogether good and decent.

"Ehh, I don't know about that, man." Duane said, "I see a little bit of you in there, too. You did pretty good. What's her name?"

"Alexis... we call her Lexi."

"Lexi...well, anytime she wants to play Barbies, tea party or dress up, she's welcome to come over and throw down with my girls: between the three of 'em, they got just about every toy Mattel ever made!"

Pete closed his locker with a bang, facing them as if preparing to make an important announcement, "Well ladies, I'm about ready to get this show on the road! Derrick, you got a beautiful kid, and I hope you have a ball with her tonight, but if I don't get one or two beers in my system within the next hour, or possibly even three or four, I... am gonna flip a shit!"

With that, and another roar of laughter, the four of them began to file out of the locker room, Donnie pausing as went by Derrick, "Let me know if you want the hook up for next week now, Derrick," he said with a wink, "Man's gotta have some fun every now and then, y'know!"

When they had gone, only Sean and Derrick were left in the room. The easy atmosphere that had been in the air when the others were present quickly evaporated, being replaced with a somewhat thick and awkward tension. Derrick began to hasten his pace at removing his work gear and getting his things together.

"So who was it?"

He looked up and over at Sean, surprised to hear his voice, "What?"

Sean wasn't looking back at him, continuing with what he was doing, but he replied, "I asked who was it: the person who turned you against them."

Derrick frowned "'Them'?" he repeated, a sharp edge entering his voice.

Sean seemed unphased by it though, meeting it with one of his own, "That's right, them: Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, gays- minorities. The people you were talking shit about to me your first day here. Don't gimme that look, man. It's a little late for all that. If you're gonna let that bullshit come out of your mouth in the first place then it seems to me you oughta be able to back it up and at least defend it."

To his own dismay, Derrick felt his face begin to heat up and burn in abashment and he looked away, "And you think I owe you some kinda explanation?"

Sean shut his locker with a bang, "All I'm sayin' is, they're good guys. All of them: really good guys. And despite the fact that you've been actin' like they all got some kind of contagious disease, for whatever reason- they all do like you. I don't know you, man. I don't know what the hell you've been through, where you come from, and truth is, I don't really care to. But whatever shit it is that you've been through or are goin' through, whoever it was that fed you that racist bullshit- none of that needs to matter here, you understand? You come on this site with these guys, and you need to check all that shit at the door. Because they don't deserve it. There's not a man here that I wouldn't take a bullet for and wouldn't take one for me. Maybe you needed that White-Against-the-World shit in the pen, but you don't need it here."

Derrick froze at that, feeling his pulse begin to quicken. Sean saw the change come over his face and sighed heavily, "Your arm, man." he said in response, gesturing to an old tattoo on Derrick's forearm. It was a crudely done sketch of a clock with all twelve numbers on the face, but with missing little and big hands. It had been a popular tattoo for convicts given long prison sentences, meant to symbolize the way that many of them simply lost their normal sense of time during their incarceration.

Derrick started to attempt to cover the tattoo, but paused when he saw Sean pushing up his own shirt sleeve. There was an identical drawing of the handless clock etched into his own skin, although his was visibly more faded and older than Derrick's. Their eyes met with each other and held for a long time, exchanging gazes of Derrick's surprise, Sean's resoluteness, and a mutual understanding.

"Grand theft auto, larceny, breaking and entering." he stated, "Seven years in the pen, seven more of parole."

Derrick stared at it for a long moment before finally saying, "And...and Malcolm still took you on?"

"Only one who would. If he hadn't given me a chance I don't know what the hell woulda happened to me or how long it woulda been before I went back to the only thing I thought I was good for. That man gave me my fuckin' life back, Derrick. A chance at finally havin' a life I could be proud of. And I'd be willin' to bet that he gave you one too. If you wanna buy into all that racist bullshit about affirmative action, quotas and illegal immigration, then you go right ahead- but don't do it when you're on a Dansville construction site. Go back out on the streets where you're broke, jobless and a piece of shit and nobody gives you a chance or a damn about you- but don't bring it here. You understand?"

A long silence passed between them. Finally, Derrick spoke, "I got nothin' 'gainst these people, Sean. I don't. Malcolm's a straight guy- I respect him..." he shrugged guiltily, "But I can't help what I seen, or what it's made me believe. Maybe you never been passed over or rejected just 'cause you were a white guy, but I have. How am I s'posed to just forget all that?"

"No one's asking you to. But don't think you're the only one who's got it rough just because of what you look like. All I'm sayin' is...take a closer look at things, Derrick. At people. It's not all black and white."

He turned and started to leave the room, but paused, "And come out with us once in a while, huh? It'll do you good."

Derrick shook his head, "I can't."

"Sure you can."

"No, really, I can't. I don't wanna be a third wheel to anybody and there's no wife or a girl-"

"There's always a girl, man." A small smile tugged at Sean's lips, "Whether you got a wife or steady or not- there's always a girl."

"No, I'm serious. I haven't been out with no one in I don't know how long-"

"So you haven't been out- fine. But I know there's still a woman on your mind. We're men; if we're not thinkin' about food, sports, or our kids, we're thinkin' about a woman. Am I right?"

Derrick didn't respond. Somewhere in the past few moments of Sean talking to him, a sudden, unexpected image appeared in his mind.

Charmayne's face. Her smiling face.

Her eyes. Green eyes flecked with hazel.

Why had that face been the first one to appear in his head at the mention of being romantically interested in a woman? And why did thinking of those eyes give him that warm, but comforting sensation in his belly? Alright fine, Char was beautiful- he had acknowledged that to himself long ago. But he'd been around beautiful women before- he didn't think of them and feel like this.

He was so lost in his thoughts he didn't realize that he hadn't answered the question. Sean meanwhile, smiled wider as he stared at Derrick. "Yeah." he said with a nod, "There's a woman, all right. Ask her out, man."

Derrick blinked, startled, "Wh-what?"

" The woman you're thinking about. I said you should ask her out."

The heat rushed to his face at actually hearing the suggestion said out loud, "What? No, no- no! I can't even think about-"

"Why not?"

"Well, because, I-I-" He swept his hand over his hair nervously, inwardly cursing at the way his tongue felt completely tied in his mouth. He gave a short, impatient scoff, "Look, there just ain't a woman, like I said!"

Sean didn't seem convinced, "She married or somethin'?"

"No, she ain't married, but that's not the-"

"She have a boyfriend?"

"No, 'least I don't think so, but even so, I can't just-" Derrick froze, realizing he'd trapped himself in his own lie. Sean was still smiling gently, but it did nothing to quell his anxiety- not just at his having blurted out the truth about this thinking about Char often, but at having to face the truth about the likelihood of her ever considering going out with him anywhere. He finally gave a faint sigh of defeated resignation, "...I can't. And even if I did, she'd never say yes."

"How d'you figure that?"

Derrick shook his head grimly, "She wouldn't. Trust me...she just wouldn't."

"You're never gonna know for sure 'less you try. C'mon, man- the worst that can happen is that she says no."

To Derrick, Char saying 'no' would be the least of the things that could go wrong. She could also slap him, cuss him out, refuse to even see Alexis anymore- all of which he wouldn't necessarily blame her for doing. All of those things didn't make the risk of actually asking her out on a date worth it- especially any damage that he could inflict to her and Lexi's relationship.

He shook his head again, "I'll see you 'round, Sean."

Sean, seeing that the conversation was as good as over, nodded with a sigh. He paused before walking out of the room, "I know what the pen does to you up here, Derrick," he said, tapping his temple, "I understand. But we're not locked up, anymore, man. We're free. Take it from someone who had to find out for himself; you gotta be free on the inside," he tapped his head again "'Fore you can really know what's it's like to be free here on the outside."

Lexi squealed in delight as Derrick used the back of his hand to send a little wave of water in the bathtub up into her face in a light splash. The floor surrounding the tub and Derrick's own clothes were splattered with water that had sloshed over the rim during the past fifteen minutes, but he didn't mind. The time he would have to spend cleaning it up later was more than worth seeing that look on his daughter's face.

"Look Daddy, I'm a mermaid!" Lexi exclaimed as she shimmied her body back and forth through the water,

"Yeah, I see that," he said laughing, "But I'll tell you what sweetheart, Daddy wants to get his little mermaid all dried up and into bed so she doesn't catch little prune fingers!" he reached out and wiggled his fingertips across Lexi's tummy, causing her to squeal with more laughter.

Five minutes later, they finally emerged out of the bathroom, Lexi wrapped in a bath towel in Derrick's arms. He carried her into his bedroom and began drying her off and helping her get dressed in her pajamas.

"Daddy, guess what?" Lexi said, her eyes still shining with excitement as he rubbed the towel across her limbs gently.

"What, baby?"

"The circus is coming!"

Derrick put on his best expression of surprise, giving a gasp and widening his eyes, "What? The circus? Here?" He clicked his cheek and shook his head in disbelief, "Naw, that can't be true..."

In truth, he had known about the circus coming for some time past, and had already begun saving the money to be able to take Lexi when it arrived in town within the next two weeks. Trina never liked taking Lexi to things like the circus, carnivals, fairs or amusement parks; she claimed there were too many people and other kids with contagious germs and that they were just an excuse for Lexi to eat junk food. So far as Derrick was concerned, what he did with Lexi when she was with him was his business, and to Hell with Trina's objections. He wanted it to be a surprise for her though, knowing that it would be something the two of them would truly be able to enjoy together.

Lexi was nodding her head furiously, nearly bouncing up and down with excitement,"It is, it is! I saw it on a commercial on tv when I was watching Blues Clues! They said it would be here in two weeks- and there's gonna be bears and tigers and monkeys and can we go, Daddy? Can we go, please?"

Derrick pulled her Princess Aurora nightgown over her head, smiling at the exuberant lilt in her voice and the way she scarcely drew a breath as she talked. It made him all the more aware of how overjoyed she would be when she discovered his surprise, "What? You mean you're not scared of all those lions, tigers and bears?"

She shook her head, "Nuh uh, not if you're there with me. Char gave me a big book about lions and tigers the last time me and Mommy went to the hospital." Her eyes reignited as if just getting an idea, "Hey Daddy, can Char come with us to the circus? Can she?"

A sharp clench had entered Derrick's stomach at the first mention of Char's name. To conceal the anxiety he suddenly felt, he cleared his throat, "I'm uh...I'm...I'm not too sure about that, sweetheart."

"Why not? Char said she loved the circus when she was little."

"Yeah, but...we haven't seen Char in a little while, and she may be really busy taking care of other kids at the hospital."

"Mommy has her phone number, maybe she can call her and ask her to go."

He shook his head, "I don't think that's such a good idea, Lexi. You know Mommy doesn't really like the circus. We gotta keep it a secret 'tween us, ok?"

Lexi paused at that, as if pondering a feasible solution to the obstacle he'd presented to her, "Then you can go there and ask her if she wants to go with us."

Derrick was silent at that, stumped as to how to combat the suggestion. Instead he reached out and patted his daughter's cheek with a feeble smile, "Why don't you go brush your teeth for bed, 'kay sweetie?"

Lexi was undeterred though, "But you're gonna go to the hospital and ask Char to come with us, aren't you Daddy?"

He looked away, wincing, "Lexi..."

"Don't you like Char?"

"Baby, of course I do, it's just..."

"Just what?" There was such a tone of innocent, genuine concern in her voice. It almost seemed ridiculous for Derrick to hesitate in agreeing to her request. Almost.

"Sweetie, I just don't think that-"

"Please? Please, Daddy?"

He sighed, silent for a long moment. "Be Daddy's good girl and go say goodnight to your Grandpa, hon. We'll talk about this later."

Hiram was sitting in his usual place in front of the tv when Derrick and Lexi came out into the living room area. He smiled when he saw her and held out his hands, "Hey now, what's got my little honeybee all frownin' like that, huh?"

Lexi let him take her into his arms and plant her on his knee, her face and voice glum with disappointment, "Daddy won't ask Char to come with us to the circus!"

Derrick's eyes briefly met with Hiram's from over Lexi's head and he quickly looked away at the wry smile that the older man flashed him, before reassuming his concerned expression when looking back at Alexis as he tried to assuage her.

Although Lexi talked about her all the time, Derrick hadn't said a word to Hiram about Charmayne. He considered it pure luck that his daughter hadn't mentioned her color, and that so far as Hiram knew, Char was just the friendly, heroic, white nurse at the hospital that Lexi had come to adore. He didn't have to wonder what Hiram's response or reaction would be if he were to discover the truth- he didn't even want to think about it. Not when he already knew what the outcome would be. He didn't know what he would say to Hiram when the day came that Lexi blurted out that Char was black- in all honesty, he was hoping that that day just never came around.

Derrick came over to Hiram's chair, reaching out to take Lexi back into his arms, "Alright, baby, c'mon. Time for bed. If you're a good girl and go to sleep, then Grandpa'll make you chocolate chip pancakes in the mornin', that sound good?" The promise of anything with chocolate chips was enough to make Lexi temporarily forget about her disappointment. Fifteen minutes later, Derrick was slowly and silently rising up off his bed and sliding his sleeping daughter off his lap and onto the mattress, pulling the covers up over her body before slipping out and shutting the door behind him.

He went back out and through the living room into the kitchen, retrieving a beer from the fridge. As he went by, he caught Hiram's eye and saw the mischievous grin from earlier that his foster father was now giving him again.

As he sat back onto the sofa, he leaned back with a tired sigh. Jerking the cap off the bottle, Derrick took a long sip, then lowered the bottle away to his lap, closing his eyes. "You may as well stop smiling me like you're some kind of goddamn Cheshire cat, Hiram." he muttered.

Hiram only chuckled, the sound low and throaty, "Charmayne, huh?"

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

"Pretty name. Exotic. I bet I can guess what she looks like."

You lose, old man, he thought grimly, but replied, "She's Lexi's nurse. That's it."

"No, no!" Hiram said, his voice playful but insistent, "I may be old as Hell, but I still know your type, boy!" He stroked his rough chin with his fingers, looking upwards, "Let's see...slim probably...pale skin...she got deep blue eyes, don't she?"

Instead of the description that Hiram was giving, Derrick saw the shapely curves of Charmayne's hips accentuated through the fit of her khakis. He saw her eyes again- not blue, but green pools peppered with brown flecks. He went back over the last time he'd seen her in his mind, seeing the round tops of her breasts that her blouse just managed to sculpt out beneath her lab coat.

His mouth suddenly felt extremely dry again and he took drink from the beer bottle, this one longer and deeper than the first.

"Derrick?" Hiram called out, "I'm right, ain't I?"

"Nope." To be fair, Hiram's description of Derrick's 'type' would've been dead on roughly six years ago; it was pretty damn close to Trina's physical attributes. But like his relationship with Trina, a hell of a lot had changed in those six years.

"Ohhh, so you're into somethin' little bit different these days, that what you're sayin?"

"No, I'm sayin' that Char-I mean, Nurse McKenna- is Lexi's nurse, and that's all she is."

Hiram only shook his head and laughed, "You're a shit liar, boy, y'know that? A shit liar."

Derrick sighed heavily, "Jesus Christ..." he murmured. First Sean, then Lexi, now Hiram. It seemed like nobody in his life was going to let him keep Char off his mind. "What's the matter with you people? I'm not...she's not... it just ain't like that."

"Well hell, Derrick, even if it ain't, maybe it oughta be!" Hiram retorted, "A good lookin' man like you in his prime don't need to be alone!"

"I'm not alone, I have a daughter. And then there's this nosy, crusty old bastard that I live with who-"

"Dammit, you know that's not what I meant. C'mon now I may be old, and it may have been a while for me, but I still know what a young man like you needs to keep him...satisfied."

He groaned frustratingly, "Hiram, will you just stop..."

"Hell no, I won't! Now you be honest with me, boy, when was the last time you got you a good piece of ass?"

Derrick's eyes flew open as the blood rushed to his face, "What?!"

Hiram chuckled again, "That got your attention, didn't it? Well, answer the question!" When he was met with only silence, he shook his head in sympathy, "Hmm...been that long, huh?"

Derrick still didn't answer, partly out of an admitted embarrassment on his part, and partly because he didn't want to discuss that area ( or non-area) of his life with anyone, much less Hiram.

The truth was that he hadn't been with a woman since the day he'd gotten out of prison.

It was just something that most newly released convicts did; if they didn't have wives or girlfriends to return home to, they stumbled into the nearest bar they could find, and found a woman who was just as equally desperate as they were for a one-night stand that could be shaken off and forgotten in a few hours or the next morning. Either that, or they went to the nearest street corner to pick up a hooker.

Derrick hadn't had to pay for his pleasure that first night of his release from prison. Not long after he'd sat down at the bar to have his cheap beer, he'd been joined by a strawberry blonde in tight jeans and low-cut blouse. Sherri. That had been her name. Looking at her, he'd been able to tell that there was probably a time when she'd been an attractive woman. But those features had been worn away by the tell-tale signs of drinking, smoking, and overall exertions that came with a hard, exhausted life. The two of them had exchanged brief conversation that was lightened with the booze, then went back to her one room apartment off the highway. Derrick had expected the sex to be something that would help rid him of the caged, helpless feeling that being behind bars had given to him, to help him release all of the anger, frustration and self-hatred that he had pent up inside. But as he had rolled off of Sherri and stared up at an old, brown water stain on her ceiling while she slept, he had realized that those were feelings that would probably never leave him for as long as he lived.

After that night, Derrick just hadn't seen the point in pursuing any other romantic or sexual relationships with any other women. He couldn't conscience spending the money for a hooker to give him a blow job or a screw in the back of his truck, not when he already was struggling to help financially support Lexi. The position he had found himself in upon release from prison: jobless, nearly broke, with not even a high school degree, had made any desire he may have had for companionship evaporate when posing one simple question to himself: what woman would want him the way that he was now?

"So, you gonna tell me about her?" Hiram's voice interrupted his thoughts, "This Charmayne?"

Derrick had leaned his head back against the headrest again, "She's Lexi's nurse. There's nothin' more to say about her."

"Yeah, but what she's like? You been at that hospital enough so that you gotta know somethin' about the woman by now 'sides just what she looks like."

He sighed heavily, "If I tell you, will you leave me alone about her?"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever you say." Hiram answered, waving his hand dismissively.

Derrick paused, his thoughts returning to Charmayne as he tried to summon up the words in his mind to describe her, "She's...she's a good nurse. Real hard workin' and dedicated. She really cares about the kids she looks after. She fights for 'em like they were hers. She's smart- sometimes I thought she knew more about Lexi's disease than the doctor. I think- I know, she really cares about her. She was good to her..." he paused, before adding, "She was good to all of us."

"She was the one who shaved your head, wasn't she?"

Derrick nodded, "Yeah. Trina thought I was nuts and overreactin', but she understood it. She fought for Lexi to get the Tefroline." his voice softened a little, "She saved her."

Hiram smiled, "And she's beautiful." he said, making it sound more like a fact than a question, "Ain't she?"

As he considered the question in his mind, Derrick felt the sinking feeling reenter his stomach. He let his eyes close, seeing Char's face again in his mind. "Yeah." he murmured, "She's beautiful..."

Derrick walked up to the window of the hospital pharmacy, reaching back into his rear pocket for his wallet, "Hi, how you doin?" he said to the pharmacist, "I'm here to pick up a prescription for Roberson- Alexis Roberson, I was told it would be ready today.."

The woman looked through a computer screen for a few moments, before replying, "Yes...for the Tefroline?"

"That's right."

"I'm not seeing a record that you've been coming here lately, were you filling the 'scrip elsewhere?"

Derrick paused, looking away and hoping his face wasn't flushing, "Yeah um...we were getting it filled at the Rite Aid on Peachtree for a while, but uh...their pick up time was getting to be too long so this time I thought I'd fill it here."

The pharmacist nodded her head to the line behind him, which was already crowded with several other people, "Hmm. Well we have our share of busy days here too, Mr. Roberson. It is a hospital- I could make you several other suggestions of pharmacies in the area that wouldn't be nearly as congested."

He nodded hastily, "Yeah, sure. I'd-I'd appreciate that." He knew how silly his explanation had been, but honestly nothing else had been able to come to his mind.

And he certainly didn't intend on telling her the real reason that he'd come there.

The truth was that there was really nothing wrong with the wait time at the Rite Aide pharmacy on Peachtree. It was prompt, dependable and the employees there were perfectly friendly. And yet, when it came time for him to pick up his daughter's next scrip for the Tefroline, Derrick had called the pharmacy on Peachtree and canceled the prescription, then called the pharmacy at the hospital and ordered it from there instead. He could've tried to lie about his reasons to anyone else, but he alone knew what he had really been thinking of when he'd done it:

Charmayne wouldn't be at the Rite Aid on Peachtree. She would be at the hospital. The hospital that had its own pharmacy.

He'd finally been able to get Hiram to stop pestering him with questions about her the previous night, but when he'd gone to bed, Derrick's thoughts continually returned to Char. He thought about the last time that they'd seen each other, how much Lexi talked about her. Then he'd thought what Sean had said.

He knew that he was essentially crazy to even be thinking of doing the idea that had come to his mind sometime around four a.m. that morning. He knew that it was a long shot. He also knew that it was likely that even if he did work up the nerve to do this, it wouldn't result in anything but his own humiliation and a possible wrecking of any good opinion that Charmayne may have had for him.

But despite all of that, Derrick was still standing there in the hospital pharmacy, a mere two floors separating him from the pediatric wing of the hospital and the nurse that he had come to ask out on a date.

When he'd paid for the Tefroline and left the pharmacy, he stood in the hallway for a few moments, his gaze shifting between the elevator, and the sliding doors at the other end of the hall that led to the parking lot.

Two voices screamed at him in his head, one telling him to go out the sliding glass doors before he could make a complete and total ass of himself, the other telling him to grow a pair, get on the elevator, find Char and ask her out.

Normally it would've been his more pessimistic side that won out, but to his own amazement, Derrick found himself on the elevator, and pushing the button that would take the car to the third floor. He felt his pulse beginning to quicken and his palms sweat from anxiety. When the doors slid back with the bell tone, he hung back for a few moments, the last bit of his reluctance and second thoughts tugging at him.

Just at that moment though, a familiar voice from down the hall outside called out, "Hold the elevator!" An arm stuck out against the left side of the sliding doors and one of the nurses from the Pedes ward scurried into the car. It was Yvette, one of Char's nurse friends. There was a stack of papers underneath her arm and she breathed a sigh of relief, "Thanks! This stuff is so heavy there's no way I could wait around to catch the-" she looked up at his face then, her own lighting in recognition, "Oh wow, Mr. Roberson, hi! We didn't expect to see you around here," Her face sobered in apparent concern, "Is Lexi suddenly feeling-"

"Oh no, no," he quickly said, shaking his head, "No, it's nothin' like that, she's- she's doing good. Matter of fact, she's doin' great. I was just downstairs pickin' up her prescription. It's really workin' wonders for her."

She smiled in relief, "That's wonderful. You know, we all are rooting so hard for her to get better." Her brow crinkled a little then, "But...if she's okay, then what are you doing up..." Her voice trailed off confusingly.

Meanwhile, the elevator doors were beginning to slide shut. Derrick hastily reached out and punched the door's 'Open' button, glad that it gave him a chance to try and think of a way to give his reply. "Yeah, um...about that...do you, uh...do you know if Charmayne's around today?"

"Char? Yeah, she's here. You want me to find her for-"

"No, no, don't worry about that, I can-I can find her myself." He stepped off the elevator before she had the chance to ask him anything else, "I'll see you around." He raised his hand in brief farewell to Yvette's still perplexed expression.

When the elevator doors had slid shut, Derrick sighed heavily, sweeping his hands over his face, then crown frustratingly. This was a mistake, he thought to himself, Best thing you can do for yourself is just hurry up and get right back on that elevator and get the hell outta here before another one of those nurses recognizes you. Or worse, before-

"Derrick? Whoa-"

He spun around at the sound of the familiar voice and in doing so, knocked against against the person that had been standing behind him. He turned just in time to see a pile of bed pans go crashing to the floor.

Derrick looked down in horror as Charmaye bent down to retrieve the bed pans and immediately joined her, kneeling down on one knee, "Shit!" he muttered, inwardly kicking himself for being such a clumsy ass,"God, I'm-I'm so sorry, I didn't see you there."

Char shook her head with a small chuckle, "No, no, it's fine. Don't worry about it, I shouldn't have snuck up on you like that."

They finished gathering up the bed pans and Derrick reached out for the biggest stack, "H-Here, let me...let me give you a hand."

"Well normally, I'd say not to bother but," Char stood up, dusting her hands off, "I've been toting these things back and forth for the past three hours and to be honest, I'm sick of it!" She grinned, then saw the look on his face, "Derrick, is everything ok?" A flash of panic flashed across her face, "Has something happened to-"

"No! N-no, Lexi's fine, thank God." Derrick's eyes seemed to be going everywhere but Char's face. From behind her, he could see the nurses station a few feet away, where he could see several of her other friends and co-workers gathered. The sight of them did nothing to ease his nervousness- nor did the sight of Char herself.

She was wearing her normal lab coat over a cream colored shirt and khakis. Her hair was swept back and up in a high bun but a few strands had managed to escape and hung in her face. All in all, her appearance was normal and not much different than how he was used to seeing her- but for some reason, on this particular day, Char just seemed to look even more beautiful than he remembered her to be from the last time he'd seen her. As he looked down at her, Derrick felt the sinking feeling enter his belly, making him feel all the more foolish for even standing there in the first place.

Fuck, Roberson, what the hell made you think she'd ever go out with you?

Char's brow was still in a frown of concern, "Well, what's the matter? You look like someone who's about to get a root canal. Is it something about Trina? Wade?"

He shook his head again, "No, it's ...it's nothin' about them."

"O-kay..." she shrugged, "Then what?"

Do it. You're here now- just do it...

He paused again, "Can we uh...c-can we talk?"

She gave a small smile, "I thought that we already were."

"No- well yeah, I- I know that,but I mean- I mean can we talk...alone?"

Char's brow rose a little, "Um...sure. We can do that. Tia," she called out to one of the nurses, "Would you mind getting the rest of these bed pans out to the rest of the patients?"

Derrick saw the way Tia's gaze slightly narrowed as she looked at him. While most of the other nurses on the staff had thawed to him and were cordial and friendly to him by the time Lexi left the hospital, Tia had remained just as chilly and frigid as the day that he had fucked up and slighted Char for being black. He was fairly certain that her opinion of him hadn't changed-and it probably never would.

Nevertheless, she nodded, coming out from behind the nurse station and over to where they stood, reaching out to take the bed pans from him. Tia's eyes met with Derrick's as she did, her look speaking volumes: Don't fuck with her again. Don't you even think about it.

"Thanks, Tia." Char was saying, "I'll just be a few minutes." She gestured to Derrick once his arms were free, "C'mon, we can go in the lounge." He followed her into the room at the end of the hallway, shoving his hands into his jean pockets so he didn't have to keep wiping the damp palms on the fabric of his pant legs.

Char shut the door behind them, then went to lean against the countertop of the kitchenette, folding her arms over chest, "Okay, Derrick; what can I do for you?"

It was there. The moment of truth. There was no getting out of it now.

"Well, um...first I just thought you'd wanna- wanna know...Lexi misses you. A lot."

She smiled and nodded, "I miss her too. How is she?"

"She's doing great. The Tefroline's made things so much easier. The nausea's completely gone, and she's got her appetite back. She's even wantin' things like ice cream and cookies now."

"That's fantastic, I'm very glad to hear it."

"Yeah..." his voice trailed off as a silence entered the room. Outwardly he seemed calm enough, but inside, he was a mess. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd asked a woman out on a date- it was probably Trina, when they first met- which hardly worked for a comparison, since this was a completely different situation.. Back then, his idea of a date had been a ride in his truck to Lou's Bar where he tried to score a lay in the parking lot to win a bet with his friends. And back then, he hadn't asked out any girls that he'd insulted just because they were black. There was that too.

"Look, um...I know that Trina was the one to take Lexi home from the hospital, and since I was workin' that day, I didn't really get a chance to...thank you."

"Thank me? I don't understand."

"I just...I just meant that I know you really went out of your way for Lexi- to help her. Then lettin' me stay past visitin' hours, the hair thing and with the Tefroline...I know you didn't have to do all that."

Char shrugged,"It's my job to do what I can to help my patients, Derrick. You don't have to thank me for that."

He shook his head. "I think I do. I know you don't got any kids of your own, but... when you come this close to losin' em-" he broke off momentarily, ducking his head a little so that she couldn't see the moisture that still pricked at his eyes every time he thought of how close to death Lexi had been, "It doesn't get worse than that."

A new, strange expression had come across Char's face. For a few moments her own gaze averted from Derrick and her voice was quiet as she replied, "...I believe you."

"Then you gotta understand why I feel like I owe you somethin'. If not for that, then at least for the job at Malcolm's. I'd really like to find some way to-"

"Derrick," she broke in, "You really don't have to do anything to try and pay me back. I did what I did because I wanted to- not because I expected some kind of payment back from anybody in the future."

She wasn't making this any easier for him, that was for damn sure. The way this was going, he couldn't even try to pass this off as a 'thank you' outing for everything she'd done for him and Lexi.

Swallowing hard, Derrick took a deep breath, "Look. Charmayne..." That caught her attention; that he had said her name. Although she'd given him the permission to do so a long time ago, Derrick still had hesitated in using it when addressing her. Most times he dropped the using of a name altogether. It made it easier for him to avoid trying to figure out just where exactly he would stand in the scheme of their relationship. But considering what he was about to do, that convenience was about to be completely stripped away.

"I um..." he continued, "I hope you don't take this the wrong...I mean, I...I hope you don't think this is too..." Christ, he was already blowing it. If he didn't hurry up and spit it out, he knew that he'd never be able to. Giving a short sigh, he took a deep breath and looked her square in the eye. This time he spoke perfectly clearly and without missing a beat,

"Look, I know this is comin' completely out of nowhere for you. I know it probably won't make any sense, and it may just end up in me gettin' my face slapped. And that's fine. I ain't gonna pretend like you don't got a right to do that. But I'm gonna say this anyway. The truth is, ever since Lexi got home- ever since the thing with the Tefroline...I've been thinkin' about you. I don't know why, but I do. I think about you alot. Not all the time, but...y'know, kinda close to it. And this mornin' I got this idea in my head that maybe, maybe I'd come here and ask you if you'd wanna go out sometime to get some dinner, see a movie, anything. I guess what I'm sayin is...I'd like for you to go out with me. Really. And I know- I know that's gotta sound crazy to you and now that I'm here, now that I said it, I'm pretty damn sure you're gonna say no, but I just thought-" he broke off then, sighing again, "Why the hell not at least try?"

From almost the very first sentence he'd spoken, Char's facial expression had changed instantly. Throughout the course of his monologue, it'd kept right on changing, going from what seemed to be one level of complete shock and disbelief to another, rising higher and higher with every word he said. By the time he finished, her mouth was literally hanging open a few inches, and her eyes widened. She said nothing, only staring at him. She stared...and stared.

To Derrick, the silence, as well as the look on her face was all the answer that he needed. He slid his hands back into his pockets, "Look, I'm...I'm real sorry for takin' up your time, I- I should just go. Forget about everythin' I just said if you want. Please don't let it change how you see Lexi, she really- she loves you. A-and I at least hope you and I can still..." he let his voice trail off at that, shaking his head, "I'll go. Sorry, that I- I'm real sorry." Without even waiting to see if Char intended on ever saying anything, he quickly left the lounge. He doggedly avoided the gazes of the other nurses as he nearly sprinted to the elevators. Once he was inside and the doors had closed, Derrick reached out to push the button that would take him back down to the first floor, but his hand paused in mid air, and he hesitated. His fingers slowly curled into a fist that he gently pounded against his forehead in frustration.

"You idiot," he muttered to himself, "You fuckin idiot..."

Deep inside, he had the horrible, sinking feeling that he had just completely and totally ruined everything that there'd been between not only he and Char, but Char and Lexi; not only what had been, what was, and what could've been...