Chapter 20

"Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma," Anna babbled as she wound her little fingers around the rails of her crib. "Ma-ma-ma," she cooed, before cramming one of her tiny fists into her mouth and rubbing it against her sore gums. Her toes pushed at the fuzzy pink blanket at her feet, and she again started to jabber into the still night, knowing, instinctively that one or both of her parents would soon arrive if she just kept up her restless chatter. Her blue eyes lit up and she squealed with pleasure when she heard the telltale thud of feet approaching, and she blinked against the sudden brightness of light when the little lamp in the corner of the nursery suddenly came on. "Ma-ma-ma," she cried out, struggling to pull herself up to meet not her mother, as her baby gibberish would seem to indicate, but her father, bleary-eyed yet still smiling down at her.

Ethan's blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he lifted his happy daughter up into his arms, pink blanket and all, and he buried his nose in her soft, dark curls as he reached out a hand to snag the baby monitor on his way out of the room. "Not Ma-ma," he murmured, breathing deeply of the sweet baby smell. "Da-da. Da-da," he repeated patiently.

Eyes as wide and fathomless as the ocean stared back up at him, the voice he loved so silent for only a moment before starting up again, and Anna was gleeful, joyful as the word started to bubble from her lips, over and over again as they breached the barrier to her parents' bedroom. "Ma-ma-ma, ma-ma-ma."

Propped up on one elbow, her hair a dark waterfall of disheveled curls, Theresa watched their approach, not even bothering to hide her amused smile or the deep sense of satisfaction at hearing Anna repeat the favored word in her admittedly limited vocabulary. "That's right, Anna Banana," she beamed as Ethan placed the wiggling little sprite in her welcoming arms. "That's Mama's sweet girl."

Ethan pretended to be put out by his little daughter's obvious adoration of her mother, but he (not so) secretly relished it. Still, a part of him really did hope there was some truth in his ensuing prediction, however jokingly delivered as he wrapped his arms around his little family and pulled them close. "The next one's first word is going to be Da-da. Mark my words."

Theresa giggled into her husband's shoulder.

Anna gurgled happily then clapped her hands gleefully together before exclaiming, "Ma-ma-ma!"

Ethan chuckled at his daughter's reaction and captured her little fist before she could place it back into her mouth. For his efforts, he ended up with a couple of his own fingers being furiously gnawed on, as the baby was surprisingly strong, especially when motivated. "Daddy's fingers are not a teething ring," he scolded lightly as he removed his fingers from the gummy little mouth, cringing slightly at the glistening moisture he encountered.

Theresa's dark eyes were sparkling with suppressed laughter as his blue eyes searched for something to wipe the drool from his hands, and finding nothing, settled for rubbing his fingers across the worn material of his pajama pants. Finally, an incredulous, traitorous giggle escaped at the action. "Ethan, really."

"Theresa, really," Ethan echoed teasingly, stealing a kiss from her laughing mouth, much to the delight of their babbling daughter. "She has a couple teeth in there already, and she knows how to use them."

"Ma-ma-ma!" Anna squealed.

"Da-da," Ethan insisted, tickling the baby's protruding little tummy. "Da-da."

"Ma-ma-ma," Anna merely grinned back at him.

Ethan groaned and fell back against the pillow he shared with his wife, defeated. "The next one," he promised.

Theresa merely curled tighter in his embrace as they waited for sleep to creep up on their daughter again, made a laughing promise of her own, "We'll see about that."

"She seems perfectly healthy," Eve delivered her verdict with a smile. "If not a little small for her age," she added with one look into Sheridan's disbelieving yet relieved blue eyes. "And that's not really concerning, considering how petite Theresa always was."

Sheridan released a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, returned Eve's smile with a shaky one of her own. "It's just…" Unable to find the words to voice her fears, she drew her bottom lip between her teeth, stroked her thumb across Anna's petal soft cheek as she curiously inspected Eve's stethoscope.

"Sheridan," Eve gently prompted, taking a seat in the chair beside the other woman and patiently waiting for her to gather her thoughts in the correct order. "You know," she finally spoke again, "some regression's to be expected in cases like Anna's. Losing her parents, being uprooted from everything she's ever known…it's only natural."

Sighing heavily, Sheridan informed Eve, "Ethan always said she was a talker. Before she even had her first tooth, Anna did nothing but babble, mostly nonsense words, but she was never quiet. Sometimes, he said, they'd even find her in her nursery, just happily jabbering to herself as if she had a captive audience, and maybe she did." Sheridan smiled slightly as she turned to meet Eve's compassionate dark eyes. "Ethan didn't even care that her favorite word seemed to be Mama. In fact, he loved it." Tracing a finger down the bridge of Anna's button nose, she murmured a confession, one altogether unsurprising to the doctor. "She doesn't talk anymore. She cries. Sometimes she laughs. But she doesn't talk."

"She will," Eve said simply. "When she feels safe again," she began, only to pause at Sheridan's sharp intake of breath.

Sheridan's blue eyes were bright, shiny with emotion as she faced Eve. "You don't think she feels safe?"

Eve carefully rephrased her sentiments, giving Sheridan's restless hand an encouraging squeeze. "I think she does, feel safe with you," she elaborated. "But I'm not so sure she feels safe in the knowledge that you won't be taken from her like her parents were. She's simply too young to tell you how she's feeling, even if she were talking to us right now."

Sheridan nodded her understanding, though it was evident Eve's earlier words still stung.

"You and Luis just have to keep doing what you're doing," Eve continued. "In time, she'll come around." Giving Sheridan's hand another understanding squeeze, she stood up and carefully disentangled her stethoscope from Anna's small hands. "Right, Sweetheart?"

Anna looked up at Eve with large, solemn blue eyes, at once innocent yet wizened. She didn't make a sound when Eve plucked her up from the examining table, merely stared deeply into her eyes.

Turning once again to Sheridan, who'd yet to rise from her own seat, Eve offered another nugget of advice. "I think you should set her up with a regular pediatrician. I can even give you a few recommendations if you'd like."

Sheridan nodded noncommittally, still focused largely inward as she slowly stood, slipping her purse strap back over her shoulder and gathering Anna's things together as well, careful not to forget the pink blanket she was so deeply attached to.

"As much as I enjoyed visiting with this little one," Eve smiled kindly at the child carefully cradled in her arms, "this clinic is really better equipped for other things. But you already knew that, didn't you?"

Sheridan stilled momentarily beside her before holding out her arms to receive Anna and pressing her lips against the tiny girl's soft dark hair. "About that," Sheridan ventured with a soft sigh.

"Uncle Hank!"

Hope's young voice rang out loud and clear, and Hank hurriedly snapped the book in his hands closed and turned it face down on the table before he stood up to accept the little redhead's exuberant hug hello. "Hopey-wan, excited too I am."

"Nice, Yoda," Kay rolled her own eyes in greeting, unceremoniously plopping down in the chair opposite him. She waved Beth off when she started her approach from across the Book Cafe and explained herself when her uncle gave her an odd look. "Reese is meeting us here in about five minutes."

Hope, who'd taken it upon herself to scramble into her uncle's lap as soon as he was seated again, shifted around on his knee to make herself more comfortable. Peering up at him with eyes that were big and round and blue, she told him, "Mister Reese is taking us to a rescue shelter in Castleton, just like the one he got Sadie from, and I might even get to play with some of the puppies."

Hank looked to Kay again, and before he had a chance to ask questions, she was supplying him with the answers. Vague answers, but answers nonetheless.

"Reese knows a guy," Kay shrugged. "And I already told Hope-less here that there probably weren't any puppies at the shelter." To her kid sister, she reiterated, "For the last time, it's not that kind of a shelter." Focusing her attention back on Hank when Hope frowned, she continued, "That's not the main reason we're going anyway."

"We're going to take Sadie to visit all the old people at the home," Hope couldn't help but butt in, fine red strands already slipping free of the short pigtails she proudly sported. "Mom made me pinky-promise not to stare because some of them don't have their teeth anymore, and their chins do like this." With those words, she demonstrated exactly what she meant for her uncle.

"Do not do that in front of any of them," Kay warned her sternly while Hank struggled to smother his own amusement. "She already got in trouble with Dad this morning for asking Tabitha if she was a witch."

Hank chuckled outright at that one, leaning down to murmur against Hope's cheek as she rested her elbows on the table and gave Kay a long, accusing look for essentially tattling on her. "I asked her the same thing when I was a boy, and if memory serves me correctly, so did your sister over there."

Hope's nose scrunched up as she glared indignantly at her sister. Casting her little head back against Hank's shoulder, she peered sideways at him. "I heard Daddy tell Mom that she's at least a hundred years old. But she always looks the same, Uncle Hank. She does."

"She does," Kay reluctantly agreed. "But that doesn't mean she's a witch."

Hank had good reason to believe he failed to hide his smirk from his littlest niece quickly enough, from the giddy twinkle in her blue eyes and the telling expression of pure exasperation on Kay's own face. "What did she say when you asked her?"

"Well," Hope giggled.

"A better question would be what did she not say?" Kay finally gave in to the infectious humor of the situation and laughed at her uncle before raising her hand in a wave.

The casual gesture failed to escape Hope's attention, and the little girl slid off of Hank's knee, gave him a fierce squeeze around the neck, and bounded to Reese's side. "Mister Reese! Sadie!" Immediately, she dropped to her knees, a ready and willing recipient of the canine's boisterous affection.

"Guess I know where I stand," Hank merely grinned. "With both of you," he muttered partially under his breath when he got another glimpse at the smile on Kay's face, soft and welcoming, and if he wasn't grossly mistaken, a teensy bit adoring. But hey…what did he know? Apparently, jack, because he'd been hitting the books and studying about fatherhood, hell, parenthood in general, all day like it was some kind of test to be passed. And really, it kind of was. His stomach gave another nervous lurch at the thought of the impending doomsday dinner with Gwen's father, but he was able to keep his cool, keep his wits about him, until Kay hugged his neck, whispered her own goodbye in his ear.

"Reading up on your dry cleaning, I see."

A toothless, smiling baby mocked Hank from the book's back cover while he struggled to find the words, just the right words, to throw Kay off track, but if the devilish twinkle in her eyes was anything to go by, any such attempts were completely doomed and utterly futile, so he simply gave her a look of what he hoped passed for warning and not the panic he felt beginning to seep into his very pores. Clearing his throat, Hank dared her to say anything more. "What can I say? I'm dedicated."

Kay grinned, unperturbed. "Cleaning lady by day…"

Hank hastily cut her off. "Don't you have somewhere you need to be?" He cast a glance in Reese's general direction.

Across the Book Café, Kay caught Reese's blue gaze before his cheeks pinked, and he glanced down at the watch upon his wrist. Beside him, Hope frowned at her sister for taking so very long when she was literally bouncing in place in her own excitement. Grudgingly, Kay backed off from their little impasse. Still, she couldn't resist one last, parting comment underneath her breath. "The mileage I can get from this…"

Hank quickly shut her up, though, with his own brand of goodbye. "I think you two make a cute couple."

Kay's eyes widened, and her mouth fell open in protest.

"Knew I could get you with that one," Hank grinned. "Time's wasting. It is a senior citizens' home, after all."

Sam was whistling a happy tune as he bounded up the Bed and Breakfast's front steps, a handful of cheerful daisies clutched in one fist. Just inside, a quick inventory of his surroundings confirmed for him what he'd already guessed; he'd missed Kay and Hope by mere minutes. The smile on his face dimmed but remained, and he was just about to wander toward the kitchen in search of Grace when a familiar voice stopped him.

"Grace is upstairs," Pilar informed him, graciously allowing him to take their sleepy granddaughter from her arms when she reached the bottom step.

Gently pressing a kiss to Anna's velvet cheek, Sam arched an inquisitive brow at her.

Pilar easily read his unvoiced worries and rushed to reassure him. "She just had a few things to take care of before your lunch date. She is fine."

Holding up the daisies for Anna to inspect, Sam insisted with laughing blue eyes, "I don't think it's called dating if the two parties involved are already married."

"Are those flowers not for Grace?" Pilar asked, her own dark eyes dancing when Sam couldn't deny that the flowers were, indeed, a token of his goodwill and affection. "It has been a long time, but not that long, Chief Bennett," she teased.

With slight chagrin, Sam admitted, "They are for Grace. They're for all my girls, Hope and Anna included."

"I'm sure the little one will be disappointed she missed you," Pilar said, in a tone imbued with much fondness for the little one, as she was prone to calling Hope. "Let me put them in a vase of water for safekeeping," she offered.

When Pilar had taken all of the daisies but one from him and left, Sam twirled the final daisy between his fingers for Anna to admire.

With tiny, careful fingertips, Anna touched the soft white petals, her blue eyes luminous and clear as she emerged more fully into wakefulness. She startled, however, when Sam lifted the flower to her nose, and blinked up at him somewhat uncertainly.

Unseen, Grace watched her husband expertly gentle the little girl in his arms back to calmness, and when she was certain she wouldn't frighten the child, announced her presence. "I always knew you'd make a wonderful grandfather someday."

Sam's eyes lifted to watch his wife's progress down the stairs, and he noted the soft wistfulness in her eyes, in her tone of voice, but refrained from apologizing, knowing, from years of experience that, though healing, the nerve of that particular vein of conversation was still exposed, still too raw to withstand debate, even further acknowledgment beyond Grace's own really. They were the walking wounded, he and Grace, and the bandages weren't quite ready to come off. But day by day they were getting better, and if the shy smile his wife gave him as he held the small flower out to her in offering of peace was anything to by, there was hope for them yet.

"For me?" Grace murmured.

"For you," Sam told her, his fingers sliding across her own before he dropped his hand to his side, curled the arm holding Anna tighter. "Always for you." A throat politely cleared behind him, and Sam traded Anna for the picnic basket Pilar held in her hands. "You're welcome to join us," Sam began, only to have Pilar give a subtle shake of her head, "on our next picnic." Coughing to cover up his own embarrassment and the sudden, inexplicable case of butterflies he'd apparently been stricken with, Sam held out his arm to Grace and was forever grateful when he felt the gentle pressure of her touch on his skin.

"You never told me where we were going," Grace remarked, "on this date of ours."

Her becoming pink cheeks and the sparkle in her blue eyes told Sam she was teasing him, and he felt warmth blossom in his heart and unfurl throughout his limbs, and soon, he was whistling again, but not before teasing her back. "And ruin the surprise?"

"Where's Anna?"

"Hi, Honey," Sheridan's nostrils flared at the effortless way Luis had of putting her completely off-balance, all with one simple question, and the smile on her lips flattened into a hard, straight line. "Nice to see you, too."

Frustration coiled in Luis's gut, but he forced himself to relax (or at least make the fruitless attempt) and pasted on a smile for the benefit of the real estate agent watching them both with undisguised interest. Sliding his lips over Sheridan's temple in a brief kiss, he hissed a quiet warning before he withdrew, "Knock it off."

With considerable effort, Sheridan matched his expression and offered her hand to the woman no longer lurking in the background but standing just a few steps in front of them. "I'm Sheridan Crane," she introduced herself to the woman with the steely gray hair and icy blue eyes. "Nice to meet you." She tensed when Luis drew his arm tightly about her waist and trailed his mouth hotly across her cheekbone, the woman's name was all but lost to her.

"Lopez-Fitzgerald," Luis corrected. "Anna was supposed to be with you. Where is she?" he repeated.

Sheridan nonchalantly shrugged his arm from her waist and stepped forward to re-introduce herself to the woman whose eyes were no longer icy but shimmering with appraising amusement. "Sheridan Crane Lopez-Fitzgerald."

"I go by my maiden name professionally, too, Sheridan, but the only name you need to know me by is Louise."

Sheridan's response was a bright, beaming smile, and she fell into step beside the older woman as she turned to lead them both across the street, and the first of three houses they were scheduled to view during Luis's brief lunch break.

Disgruntled and still a little put off by her repeated discounting of his questions about Anna's whereabouts, Luis followed them both, grumbling just low enough for Sheridan but not Louise to hear, "Professional shopper maybe. Professional pain in my ass." If he weren't so damned irritated with her, he would have grinned at the ice queen glare she sent him, but he was, and he'd sooner spit nails than let himself tip his hand to feeling any kind of emotion for her, good or bad (except annoyance, of course).

The first house was perfect in every way except for one.

Sheridan smoothly covered for Luis when he balked at the price, playing it off as something else altogether. "Our family is small right now, but both of us would love a house full of kids."

Ably reading between the lines, the real estate agent smiled at them both. "And what a lovely houseful it'd be." Glancing in regret at the watch on her wrist, she looked first to Luis, who couldn't seem to meet her eyes, then settled warm blue eyes on Sheridan's slightly flushed face. "Then I'm afraid you'll find neither of the other two houses fit your needs." In the face of Sheridan's obvious disappointment, Louise seemed to consider her words carefully before she gave them an alternative suggestion. "There is a property," she began, "further out of town. It would give your family room to grow."

Sheridan asked the question before Luis could. "How much further out of town?"

"Closer to the coast," Louise answered. "But not all that far."

"Sheridan," Luis started to quietly object.

Recognizing a prideful man when she saw one, Louise hoped to put him more at ease with her next revealing statement. "The house needs some work, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald, mostly superficial improvements. The foundation's sturdy, perfectly safe, and the grounds could use some restorative landscaping. Once upon a time, it was a beautiful estate, and it could be again, if someone were merely willing to put in the work."

"Tell us more about the house," Sheridan pleaded, her innate curiosity definitely piqued.

"Personally, I think it's a steal," Louise told her, encouraged when Luis seemed interested as well, albeit grudgingly.

"In here, Pilar."

Ivy's voice was muffled as she called out to her, but Pilar still found her easily, waiting expectantly, nervously even, in what had once been the nursery to all the Crane children, from Julian himself to the youngest daughter born of Julian and Ivy's own union.

The room had been transformed into a pink wonderland with pastel accents everywhere, and it looked like something out of a child's hazy, magical dream with dolls, stuffed animals, even a whimsical rocking horse.

Pilar's breath caught, and her smile grew tight. Her Theresita would have loved to have given Anna a room like this. "Mrs. Crane," she finally murmured, overcome with emotion at the thought of all of the things her daughter would miss out on in the miracle of Anna's life. "Ivy, this is…this is too much."

"Nonsense, Pilar," Ivy shook her head, grabbing onto Pilar's hand as she approached. "It won't ever be enough. I've missed too much. We've missed too much. We're going to make the most of what we've been given. Right, Darling?"

Anna allowed Ivy to take her into her arms without too much of a fuss, and soon the pair of them were wandering the room, inspecting all of its hidden (and not-so-hidden) treasures while Pilar watched them both with a contemplative expression on her face. Eventually, Anna's eyelids grew heavy, and as she rubbed at her eyes with her fists, Ivy retreated to the rocking chair by the window to rock her to sleep, humming softly to her.

Pilar pulled a blanket up over Anna's back when Ivy gently lay her down, and the women lapsed into silence, one long and contemplative, full of nearly as much regret as joy in being witness to the simple beauty of watching their granddaughter sleep.

"I can't believe Luis agreed to let her come," Ivy finally said, keeping her voice a soft whisper so as not to wake the slumbering child. She whipped shocked blue-green eyes to Pilar's face with her responding admission.

"Luis never would have allowed Anna to step foot in this house." Pilar retreated into the growing shadows that had started to dapple the room. "What my son does not know, in this case, will not kill him. In this, I agree with Sheridan."

"Sheridan." Ivy was awe-struck, grateful, indebted, and she owed it all to one person. "Sheridan did this?"

"She did."

"I can't believe she did this," Ivy murmured, tracing loving eyes along the sweet lines of Anna, all the little imperfections that added up to such a perfect blend of the parents who had borne her. "She loves him, Pilar, yet she did this for me."

Pilar was quietly accepting of a truth already known to her; she didn't attempt to deny it (oh, but her son did, with every fiber of his being, he refused to believe such a simple, undeniable truth), merely spoke a truth that was even more irrefutable. "She loves Anna more."

Realization swept Ivy into its arms, pulled at her already aching heartstrings. "She didn't do it for me."

"No, Ivy. She didn't," Pilar patiently, gently replied.

"She did it for her."

In the company of furry friends and one very energetic little red head, Sadie barked happily, racing back and forth across the expansive field of green located directly behind the shelter in Castleton.

"Throw in some chocolate ice cream and the Purple People Eater and this is Hope's idea of Heaven," Kay remarked dryly.

"The Purple People Eater?" Reese's blue eyes narrowed in amused confusion behind the lenses of his glasses. He shifted on the picnic bench to face Kay more fully.

Her skin felt warm, heavy, where his jeans-clad knee pressed lightly into her thigh, and it was all Kay could do to suppress the shiver that threatened at the innocent touch. Putting a little distance back between them when she pivoted to meet his eyes, she couldn't tamp down the inexplicable happiness she felt at the way he unconsciously scooted closer to her. "I don't share the same warm feelings for that pillow that she does," Kay explained. "I keep telling Mom that thing's a safety hazard, but Hope can't sleep without it, so…"

"Safety hazard?" Reese quizzed, his blue eyes starting to twinkle as his analytical brain started to put together the pieces and Kay's own dislike of the pillow made much more sense.

"I value the ability to breathe, thank you very much," Kay smartly rejoined.

The twinkle in Reese's eyes started to travel, and before he could stop it, he regarded Kay with a full-fledged, unapologetic grin. "The Purple People Eater," he repeated knowingly.

Against her will, Kay found herself smiling back at him, and silence fell between them, as had been happening more and more lately (not that she'd noticed, no). Her joyous expression faded when Reese blurted out a question, one that reminded her that maybe she had been staring into his eyes a wee bit too long.

"What did your uncle say to you before we left the Book Café?"

"What?" Kay stumbled over the question, flustered and more than a little bit defensive as she felt her cheeks start to burn under Reese's careful, too-observant, scrutiny. "Why do you ask that?"

"Because," Reese shrugged. "That's the first time you've been able to look me in the eyes all day."

"Reese," Kay sighed. "That's not true. You're imagining things."

"No," Reese said simply, adamantly. "I'm not."

He tried and failed to hide his disappointment in her answer, and Kay felt compelled to tell him the truth, at least as much as her suddenly fluttering heart would allow her to admit (Her uncle Hank was way off base, her and Reese a couple…pfft!). "Uncle Hank thinks…he said…"

"What?" Reese softly prompted her to continue.

With great reluctance, Kay confessed, "He thinks I might have a crush on you. But that's crazy, right? We're friends, real friends this time." Reese went very still for an agonizing minute, and Kay wanted to blurt out the truth, the real truth she'd only just realized in that moment, but she hesitated too long, because Reese was nodding and saying something, only she couldn't hear what he was saying over the roar of her own thundering heartbeat in her ears. Her stomach clenched, and her throat grew tight when she realized in her state of blind distress that he was agreeing with her.

"Definitely crazy," Reese was saying, looking down at his white-knuckled fingers where they rest just inches away from touching her. Drawing his hand into a fist, he pulled it back, and attempted to joke, only Kay didn't see the humor in the situation, not at all. "Besides, why go after Clark Kent when you could have Superman?"

"They're the same person," Kay snapped, disbelieving that they were actually having this conversation. They were friends. Friends, dammit! And if her feelings for him maybe (really?) went a little further than that, well, then too bad. There were other people to consider here, most importantly, Sara. Thankfully, Reese was able to see past his own hurt feelings to reach the same conclusion. Or at least it seemed like it, when she gently reminded him. "Don't make this into an issue, Reese, when it's not. I'm your friend. That's all I am. You have Sara."

"I have Sara," Reese agreed quietly. Another silence lapsed between them, this one fraught with near-suffocating tension as neither found themselves able to meet the other's eyes.

Finally, Kay had had enough. Standing up, she dusted off the seat of her shorts. "We should be heading back. The Bed and Breakfast pretty much runs itself in the afternoons, but I don't want to leave Mom shorthanded, especially since she gave Pilar the rest of the day off."

Reese nodded in acknowledgment. "I'll round up Sadie and Hope."

"Meet you at the car?" Kay asked. "Reese?" she prompted. The ugly edge of sharpness she heard in her own voice made her wince internally (she didn't particularly like herself when she was being a bitch), but she couldn't seem to stop herself, not when she felt backed into a corner with an issue she wasn't yet ready to confront. Still, Reese had shown her nothing but kindness, kindness she didn't deserve, so she softened those brittle, defensive edges as she repeated his name. "Reese."

"Give me five minutes."


Sam's voice, so close to her ear, made Grace shiver, and her nose grazed his cheek before she leaned back to stare into his searching blue eyes. "Why would I be disappointed?" she finally asked him. "This is beautiful."

Taking in the park on a perfect, golden afternoon with its brilliant, cloudless azure sky and the flowers in riotous bloom, Sam had to agree with her, but not for all the same reasons. With his arm braced behind her, he could feel the heat of her skin through the thin cotton of her tee-shirt, feel each steady (and sometimes unsteady) breath that she took in. They were impossibly close, and she'd made no move to put distance between them as she would have in the immediate past. Actually, she seemed as reluctant as he to give up any one of those delicious points of contact. Add in the fact that she'd smiled at him more in the last hour than she had seemingly in years, and it was a beautiful day indeed. But Sam chose to leave all of that unsaid. Instead, he sighed his agreement, tucked a strand of auburn behind her ear, careful of the daisy he'd placed there on a boyish whim. His eyes dropped to her lips longingly, and he breathed out a plea. "Grace."

Grace placed two fingers on his lips, shook her head. Her head said not yet, but her heart and her eyes betrayed her as they fell to his mouth in indecision (clarity and the remembered pain of that night won out). She traced the smooth flesh with gentle fingertips, only looking up at him when he shivered in kind. Dropping her hand back to her side, she apologized, "I'm sorry, Sam. I just…not yet, okay? Not on this perfect day." She melted into his side appreciatively when his arm wrapped around her back, pulled her to him in a loose hug, and his mouth stirred the hair at her temple.

Sam contented himself with holding her as the minutes passed, and they watched the young families and children at play in a peaceful, reverent hush. It was Grace that eventually ended it, with a gentle, knowing laugh as they watched one young child play a one-sided game of fetch with her canine protector/companion. "You do realize we're going to have to get Hope a dog?"

"Every over word out of her mouth is Sadie this, Sadie that," Sam agreed with a chuckle.

"Don't forget Mister Reese," Grace stated.

"She's just as over the moon about him," Sam grinned. His grin fell away with the fading of his wife's humor. "Maybe she's not the only one."

"Maybe," Grace mused. "Kay's been hurt so much already, Sam. She doesn't even know how she feels about you and me and whether we fight to stay together or let ourselves drift apart. Any feelings she might have for Reese…" she trailed off, just as unsure, it seemed, as her daughter. "She says they're friends," she eventually offered.

"Let's hope they stay that way," Sam murmured into her soft hair. "I think he's good for her."

"Hmm," Grace hummed her agreement. "Would you say the same about your brother and Gwen Hotchkiss? Something's going on with those two."

Sam groaned into her ear. "I thought Sheridan and Luis were a dangerous combination. Hank and Gwen, those two are all wrong for each other. Too bad my brother can't see that."

"Yeah. Too bad," Grace repeated, not quite as convinced.

Hank found Gwen, looking downright despondent beneath the protective cover of a thousand bubbles in the bathroom when he got back to the apartment.

"Daddy canceled our dinner," she told him. "Said he had an important client in town he needed to entertain. Personally, I think he's avoiding me. He's not stupid, Hank. He knows something's up."

"Of course, he knows something's up," Hank played it straight with her. "You're his little girl. Dads know these things."

One of Gwen's brows arched high on her forehead. "Is that so? Isn't your experience somewhat limited?"

Hank shrugged, seating himself on the closed toilet seat and leaning down to loosen and remove his shoes and socks.

"Your experience better be limited," Gwen warned, unable to disguise the interest in her moistened eyes when he stood up and pulled his gray tee-shirt up his back and over his head.

"Trust me, Babe," Hank remarked as he undid the button of his jeans and slowly started to lower the zipper. "I'm flying by the seat of my pants here." He grinned as said pants pooled at his ankles, and all that remained was his boxers. Gwen's reaction to the boxers was more than expected; it was desired.

"Little green men?" Gwen slid deeper into the bubbles with a groan and time-perfected roll of her eyes. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Don't worry," Hank quipped as his boxers joined his jeans on the floor. "I'm not naming our kid Mulder or Scully. Skinner sounds kind of tough, though."

"Who said you're naming our kid anything?" Gwen shot back, sitting up and scooting forward to allow him room to slip in the tub behind her.

Hank was glad she couldn't see the grin he was sporting from her vantage point, due in equal parts to her effortless give and take with him and the acceptance of him here, in this tub, with her. He didn't have any illusions, but they'd come a long way from that first drunken night, and he liked to think they could keep it up, for their kid's sake, of course. "So your dad bailed, and you decided to play hooky the rest of the day?" That innocent question earned him a sharp elbow to his gut, and he wisely kept his mouth shut, at least until he'd given her a much-needed chance to vent the troubles of her day.

"Every time I looked at Barbara I had this uncontrollable urge to puke."

"Who's Barbara?" Hank idly wondered, slinking an arm around her waist and resting his hand lightly on her lower abdomen without thinking about it.

Gwen drew in a sharp breath at the unconscious gesture but continued after taking a moment to regain her composure. "My secretary," she explained.

"I can see where that would be a problem," Hank murmured against the crown of her head as she rested more fully against him. The sensual slide of her wet skin against his own made his body tighten in all sorts of delicious ways, but it was obvious she needed a listening ear not another round of what he had quickly learned was highly addictive sex.

"I told Daddy I'd finish my paperwork at home, had Barbara reschedule all of my appointments, and here I am," Gwen told him wryly. "I'd just refilled the tub with hot water when you let yourself in uninvited. For the third time."

"You are looking a little pruny," Hank teased, gently blowing air across her exposed neck and stirring the wispy little curls clinging there. The rest of her blond hair was in a messy knot atop her head, and truthfully, he'd never seen her look more appealing, and he found her plenty sexy before. Unthinkingly, the hand on her abdomen skirted lower, tantalizingly close to the heat he'd come to know intimately.

Gwen covered his hand with her own hand, leaned her head back on his slippery shoulder, and huffed in annoyance when he continued to hover there, clearly undecided on how to proceed. Nipping at his neck with her teeth, she arched her back, and she felt Hank's breath catch in his chest when the bubbles slipped away to reveal her pink flesh. Her legs shifted restlessly in the water in encouragement, and she guided his hand where she wanted it. "Stop being such a boy scout, Bennett. You've already gotten me pregnant. What's the worst that could happen?"

What's the worst indeed, Hank thought as he felt a swell of affection toward the woman in his arms, in all her bossy, prickly glory, even as she started to come apart under his sure touch. Damn.

"Take a look around," Louise advised Luis as she dropped a ring of keys in his palm. "Imagine those beautiful babies running down those porch steps to welcome Daddy home."

"You mean those porch steps?" Luis hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "Those are borderline dangerous." He was exaggerating, of course. In places warped or just plain weathered beyond repair, the steps had obviously seen better days; so had the house. Still, Luis had no problem doing just as she'd proposed, and his heart was worse for wear for it as his mind regaled him with all the reasons it would never happen the way his dreams wished it to. "You don't have to do this. We can schedule an appointment to look at the house some other time."

The corners of Louise's mouth curled upwards. "Something tells me I can trust you, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald, and no. It's not the uniform," she headed him off before he could make the tired suggestion. "Besides," she patted his arm in goodbye, "an appointment wouldn't be necessary. I'm afraid there aren't many dreamers left in the town of Harmony able to see past the broken steps or the abandoned flower gardens, the faded paint or the dusty windows, to recognize the potential of this old place. Looks like your wife might be one of the last ones left."

Luis's eyes sought out Sheridan's solitary figure, slender hands gripping the porch rail, blue eyes cast toward the ocean, deep and blue and endless in the distance. When he met the real estate agent's gaze again, it was soft and knowing, and he felt the need to rid her of the expression. "I'm not a dreamer; I'm a realist."

Louise merely shrugged and waved at Sheridan when she turned to them with a serene smile on her face. "That's what you have her for, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald, to allow yourself to dream every once in a while." Letting that statement sink in with her stubborn, prideful client (yes, she'd already pegged him as such with only a little bit of evidence to go by, but, in her line of work, you quickly learned to be a pretty good judge of character) for a moment, she turned to make the short walk to her car. "Keep the keys, Mr. Lopez-Fitzgerald. They're yours for the week." When Luis started to object, she explained, "I've no need of them. I'll be out of town visiting my grandchildren, but when I get back, you can return them or choose to keep them permanently. You know where to find my office."

Swallowing his pride, Luis tried one last tactic in his arsenal: truth. "I can't possibly afford this place on a cop's salary, fixer-up or not, so we should just save each other the trouble, and end this right now."

Fitting her keys in the ignition, Louise didn't discount his words, but she didn't let them change her mind either. "You might be surprised," was all she said, before her aged BMW rumbled into a thrumming purr, and she was soon out of sight, following the winding road that disappeared through the thick, shaded backdrop of trees that had shielded the house from their view until they'd crested the last gentle hill.

Despite its unkempt appearance, it truly was an estate, in every sense of the word. It was sprawling, almost stately, and the porch that had so captivated Sheridan from the moment she'd stepped outside of his jeep wrapped around three of its four sides. Once upon a time, it might have been white, pristine, but now its walls looked almost gray, and were in desperate need of a new coat of paint. Luis couldn't even begin to fathom the costs of such superficial improvements, and he hadn't even taken a look inside yet. Sighing heavily as he walked up the stone pathway surrounded by overgrown beds of flowers on either side, he carefully mounted the steps en route to Sheridan, his mind already made up. He'd keep the keys only until he could return them. In the meantime, it wouldn't hurt to explore the place; Marty had already called him and offered to pick up the rest of his shift in what was a very uneventful day at the Harmony P.D., and even though Sheridan was conceivably the last person on Earth who could help him unwind, he was going to give it his best shot. As he approached Sheridan from behind, she turned around, rest her back against the railing to track his progress and crossed her arms across her middle.

"You don't have to stay, you know. You can go back to the station."

"And how do you expect to get home?" Luis mirrored her position.

Sheridan's lips twitched. "I thought I might hike back to Coast Road, maybe hitch a ride."

Luis's eyes glittered blackly at her as he stifled the reaction he knew she was seeking and knew his next comment was unexpected by the way her blue eyes widened, and a short, startled laugh escaped her. "Show a little leg?"

"I don't know," Sheridan stifled the smile that threatened as she continued to tiptoe through the minefield that was her relationship with her reluctant husband. "Do you think it would work?" Luis's heated dark eyes traveling up and down the graceful length of her bared legs told her what his words dared not, and there was no denying continuing down this particular path would be playing with fire so she changed tactics on him, answered him again, more thoughtfully this time. "Ever heard of a cab, Lopez-Fitzgerald?" She turned back around, gazed at the breathtaking view in front of her, inhaled the smell of salt drifting in on the ocean breeze. Every muscle in her body tensed when Luis joined her, and they stood side by side. She studied him out of the corner of her eyes as he started to speak.

"You're not taking a cab. I can take you."

"What about work?" Sheridan softly questioned.

"Not that many lawbreakers today," Luis shrugged. "Not even a jaywalker."

Sheridan smiled at his sarcastic undertone, gifted him with the answer he'd been doggedly pursuing for much of the day, at least part of it. This unspoken truce they had going for them in this moment was too nice, too welcome to spoil with the whole truth. "Anna's with your mother."

"Good," Luis nodded, caught Sheridan's eyes again. "Good. That gives us time to look around."

Sheridan's eyes sparkled and her smile widened in pleasure. "Don't you mean explore? This place is amazing."

"This, coming from Harmony royalty?" Luis shook his head in disbelief, but nevertheless, he couldn't stop the smile that crept across his usually stern features. "Okay," he relented. "Explore then. Any ideas where we might start?"

"Oh, I have a few," Sheridan grabbed him by the hand, much like a child in her enthusiasm. "Just follow me."

Luis did (as if he were capable of doing anything else in that moment).

Somewhere between Castleton and Harmony, Hope had fallen comatose, not even recounting her various thrilling adventures of the day in extreme detail enough to keep her heavy-lidded eyes open. Sadie lay beside her in the back seat of the car, her head resting across Hope's lap as she too dozed, the soft golden fur at the nape of her neck clenched tightly in the little girl's hands.

If her little sister's insecurities ran deep, Kay knew her own ran even deeper, and shifting her eyes from the rear-view mirror and back to the road in front of them, she found she couldn't look at Reese, couldn't find the right words to make everything right again. Because it wasn't right, not like it had been; it was broken, and in trying to do the right thing, be the good girl, she had been the one to break it. She felt the terrible, foreign urge to cry, felt the sting of traitorous tears in her eyes, but she blinked them back, watched her picturesque little hometown pass them by as they grew closer and closer to home. She'd shed her flip-flops as soon as they'd left the shelter, kept them off and waited in the car as Reese had stopped the car to buy ice cream for Hope, for them all, and now she hugged her arms around her knees for comfort. Without Hope's incessant chatter, it was so terribly quiet, and for the first time in a long time, Kay didn't know how to breach the silence. In the end, Reese ended up doing it for her.

"Your ice cream's melting."

Biting her lip and staring out the window, Kay forced a response past the tightness of her throat. "You can have mine."

Reese sighed, and a minute later, an uncharacteristic curse flew from his lips.

Kay looked over in time to witness what remained of the melting mess slipping down the front of Reese's shirt, between his legs, and into the driver's seat. Kay fumbled for some napkins, quickly withdrew her hand when Reese snatched them up. Stung, she desperately searched for the words to lighten the black cloud disposition Reese had adopted since they'd departed Castleton, and finally muttered, not unkindly, "You might want to check into getting your subscription updated, Four Eyes. You can't even hit your mouth." She drew in a quick breath, sure she'd gone too far, only to release it when she saw a hint of the humor returning to Reese's blue eyes as he regarded her from the other side of the car.

"Four Eyes," Reese's mouth quirked in a half smile. "That one takes me back."

"Reese, I didn't mean it. Not that way at least."

"How did you mean it?" Reese quizzed. "As a term of endearment?" he deadpanned.

"Then?" Kay threw her head back, took a deep breath as she recalled the girl she'd been so long ago, sometimes selfish, pointedly oblivious, often unintentionally cruel. "I'd have to say no. Now?" she waited until she had his full and undivided attention. "Maybe."

"Kay." Reese's embarrassed blush traveled from his cheeks, all the way down his neck, disappeared beneath the vee of the shirt stretched taut over his chest.

Kay plowed straight ahead. "No. Don't do that. Don't do that. I'm trying to tell you how I feel, and I don't do things like that often."

Startled blue eyes zeroed in on her momentarily before focusing back on the road. "How you feel?" Reese fished.

Kay rolled her eyes, slid her feet back into her shoes, rotated her body slightly in her seat. She vaguely recognized that they were turning down the street to the Bed and Breakfast as she concentrated on finding the right words to make Reese understand. "I feel like me when I'm around you." Frustrated, feeling that her words were inadequate, she continued, "I don't have to hide anything. I don't have to pretend. You knew me when I was at my worst, and you still like me. Not too many people can say that."

The car having slowed to a stop outside the Bed and Breakfast during her little outburst, Reese put it into park and killed the ignition, tried again, "Kay." He had much the same results.

"You're the friend I don't deserve," Kay told him. "The friend I don't ever want to lose, and if that means I have to protect you from the screwed up mess that I am, I'll do it. I will. I need to know you'll always be there." She frowned when she realized Reese's attention had strayed from her near the middle of her impromptu monologue, and Sadie's loud bark had her looking over her shoulder. Sighing, she released the catch on her seatbelt and pushed her door open before her father could do it for her.

Reese had exited the car on his side, and already had Hope carefully gathered in his arms and waiting for her father when he met him. "Chief Bennett," he greeted respectfully.

"Powerless to resist my daughter's charms, I see," Sam remarked with a smile as he eyed the unmistakable evidence of Hope's weakness for chocolate all over Reese's clothing.

"Which one, Sir?" Reese replied automatically, softly, his blue eyes bright and brave behind the lenses of his glasses.

Sam regarded the young man for a long, thoughtful second before gently taking his youngest daughter into the safety of his arms. "Both of them," Sam answered, just loud enough for Reese to hear as he leaned forward to take on Hope's slight weight.

Hope woke up just enough to breathe her happiness into the crook of her father's neck as he cradled her close. "Daddy." She giggled when Sadie licked her hand goodbye and promptly fell back asleep with a quiet snore that had all three of them smiling.

Sam nodded at Reese and turned to go back up the walkway, his hand poised to open the gate. "Thanks for taking care of my girls today."

"Dad," Kay groaned, giving him a pointed glare.

"You should drop in for dinner sometime," Sam suggested. "Bring Sadie with you."

Sadie barked in appreciation at the extended invitation and whined at the loss of Hope's company as her little friend disappeared from her sight, carried by her father. She was still whining when Reese ushered her into the car and shut the door.

Reese started to walk back around the car, back to the driver's side when Kay's smaller hand shot out, clasped his tightly.

"You should, you know," Kay repeated the invitation, loosened her intense grip. "Mom's learned a lot of new recipes from Pilar over the last few years. I promise. There won't be a Tomato Soup Cake in sight."

"Actually," Reese said, "I never thought it was that bad." He dropped his hand back to his side but didn't make it more than a few steps before Kay had captured it again, and his blue eyes searched her solemn face, waited for her to say something other than his name.

"We're good? Right?" Kay blurted. "You and me?"

Reese answered her with a painted on smile. "Yeah. Yeah, Kay. We're good." His eyes fluttered shut when she lifted on her toes to give him a grateful, relieved kiss on the cheek, and he squeezed her hand in his own. "Say bye to Hope for me, okay?"

"I will," Kay promised. "Don't forget that invitation," she reminded him as she backed through the gate and watched him climb behind the wheel of his car. "Bye, Reese."

Reese lifted his hand in a wave and watched her, until she had jogged up the steps and let herself inside. "I won't."

"I take it Pilar's gone," Julian murmured behind the lip of his glass of brandy as he turned from his perusal of the window and the compact little car traveling down the hill and through the gates.

His comment was delivered without spite, without malice, and Ivy's blue green eyes narrowed at her husband in consideration before she replied. "She is." Stepping deeper into the study, she closed the door quietly behind her. "But then, you already knew that."

"Hmm," was the only recognition she received from Julian.

"She had Anna with her."

"I know," Julian confessed.

Indignation and anger swelled within Ivy at his reaction, or lack thereof. "Why didn't you come see her?" His answer was unexpected and brutally honest.

"She's not my granddaughter, is she?" Julian finally snapped. "Just like Ethan wasn't my son."

Ivy's ire faded, and a foreign emotion filled her, pity, remorse for what she had unwittingly taken from Julian with her coerced confession of truth all those years ago. His firstborn not his own but that of another man, a man he'd despised, Sam Bennett. The granddaughter that should have rightfully been his first grandchild under the bonds of their marriage, stolen from his grasp. His grief denied the validity and weight that it deserved. Shame stole the words from her powerless throat, until she admitted something she had long denied. "He was just as much your son as he was Sam's, Julian. He never stopped thinking of you as his father."

Julian's laugh was a painful, bitter thing. He doused the jagged ache of it with the tang of the alcohol on his tongue and gave his deceitful wife a long look. "Look at you, Dear, trying to be comforting. You don't know that. You don't know anything about Ethan's feelings before he died. Do you know why?" he posed, seeking, in that moment, to strike out a poisonous hand and make someone else feel the same pain that had him in its relentless grip. "You don't know because Ethan cut you completely off from his life too."

"You're a cruel bastard, Julian Crane," Ivy gritted out through clenched teeth, her previous happiness in the wake of Pilar and Anna's visit vanishing in the blink of a tearful eye. "But you're hurting, and just this once, I'm going to make allowances for that."

"You foolish woman," Julian stared at her with eyes that were dark and damp and approaching desolation. "You foolish woman," he seethed as the glass in his hand shattered, splintering into his flesh and drowning out the emotional pain that held him in its violent vise.

"Julian," Ivy gasped, rushing forward to help and being denied.

Julian compressed his hand into a fist, fumbling one-handed with the drawers of the antique cherry desk. Drop by drop his blood spilled onto its surface until another liquid joined its descent, and bewildered, he looked to Ivy as he dropped heavily, tiredly into the chair bumping against the backs of his knees. "You cost me my son."

"I know," Ivy cried, but it was too little too late, years, decades even. "I know," she repeated as she took his wounded hand between both of her own and cradled it with more tenderness than she'd ever allowed herself to show for the man who'd never known much more than her carefully controlled disdain.

"You cost me my son," Julian choked out as he bowed his head and let the animal sounds of long-held in grief come tumbling out, finally. "How could you?"

"Forgive me," Ivy rasped. "Forgive me."

"Your closet geekdom knows no bounds," Gwen muttered as the closing credits of The Empire Strikes Back scrolled across the television screen in her living room.

"Says the woman who owns every cheesy 80's film featuring the Brat Pack ever produced," Hank grunted as he jockeyed for a more comfortable position on the couch they were both currently sprawled across. He settled for throwing her long legs over his lap, sneaking the remote for good measure. "What were you? An embryo?"

"A twinkle in my father's eye," Gwen quipped, stealing the remote back from him.

"More like the dollar sign in your mother's…"

"Don't finish that thought, Bennett," Gwen warned, just moments before shoving a handful of popcorn in her mouth.

In deference to the unpredictable nature of her morning sickness thus far, Hank had foregone all butter on the snack, but for a minuscule, microscopic hint. That attempted act of trickery came back to bite him in the ass, big time, as Gwen took one bite and practically catapulted off of the sofa.

Gwen barely made it to the bathroom before she dropped to her knees and started retching uncontrollably. She groaned as Hank gathered her hair in his hands and eased himself into a sitting position behind her.

Hank kept his eyes tightly shut for the duration of the particularly nasty little spell, opening them only when he felt her collapse exhaustedly against him. With his arm around her waist, he shuffled and scooted them backward until he felt the solid, supporting length of the wall and brushed his mouth against the shell of her ear. "I'm going to go ahead and apologize," he murmured.

"For knocking me up or for sneaking butter into the popcorn?" Gwen sighed as she dropped her chin to her chest and let him rub his free hand up and down her arm.

"Both?" Hank ventured.

"It takes two to tango," Gwen let him off the hook. "And I haven't exactly been showing any restraint."

Hank grinned into her hair.

"If you even think about repeating a word of this…" Gwen trailed off.

"Trust me," Hank chuckled into her ear. "Nobody would believe me."

Gwen yawned as he started massaging her shoulders.

"Want to call it an early night?" Hank pressed a kiss behind her ear.

"If I could move, that'd be a brilliant idea," Gwen mumbled sleepily. "Maybe I should just bring my pillow in here. I'm going to be spending a lot of time in here anyway."

"Sit up for a sec," Hank instructed. With a groan and an embarrassing pop of his joints, he stood up, grabbed her toothbrush from its holder, and squirted some toothpaste on its bristles. "Necessary evil," he said, holding the brush out to her. He readied a glass of water for her as she completed the difficult (easy) task and offered it to her, along with his hand. "Easy, easy," he crooned as she stumbled into him with a small moan. "Just a couple sips. Just enough to rinse the fuzz out."

Gwen gagged with the first taste of the water but was able to complete the task, and she sagged gratefully against him as he took her by the shoulders and steered her toward the bedroom. "This isn't going to earn you a spot in my will," she said, as he stripped the covers back and helped her slide beneath them.

"Who said anything about a will?" Hank smirked. "I'm just hoping for the spot of honor on the birth certificate."

Gwen searched his dark eyes for a moment. "Do you think I'm embarrassed of you, Bennett?"

"I'm not exactly Camelot material," Hank shrugged as he fluffed her pillow up behind her head. He walked around the other side of the bed and started scooping up laundry for the wash.

Gwen shifted underneath the blankets, following his progress around the room. Her folded hands beneath her cheek, she admitted, softly, seriously, "I'm not ashamed of you, Hank. I'm ashamed of the behavior that led to me and you meeting up in that bar. I'm ashamed that I can't tell my child that I loved its father when he or she was conceived. So you see. It's not you I'm embarrassed about."

"Tell him you liked me, a helluva lot more than you should have, and somehow, you knew you'd be safe with me."

Gwen held out her hand as Hank passed by, brushed it across the back of his jeans clad knee. "Am I? Safe with you?"

Hank smiled down at her. His brown eyes were serious. "What do you think?"

The kitchen was large, open, and had an ocean view Luis had only ever seen in pictures in magazines. In his mind's eye, he could see Anna, short legs dangling from a stool, dark curls spilling over her shoulders, slurping cereal from a spoon as he hurried to finish his own breakfast before heading off to work. Maybe Sheridan would have learned to cook more than scrambled eggs by then (probably not).

"Luis," Sheridan rounded the corner of the granite-topped island in the center of the room. "What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking none of these appliances are less than twenty years old."

Disappointed, Sheridan turned from him, walked out of the room into another large room with several tall windows and peeling rose wallpaper. The hardwood floor beneath her feet creaked only slightly as she crossed it, and the splintered pane of glass felt cool beneath her touch despite the warm afternoon temperature. "This must be the living room."

"Looks like it."

Luis's strong voice echoed in the empty room, and Sheridan's blue eyes shifted to study his profile as he stood before a massive stone-hewn fireplace. The gold of his ring burned against her skin as she studied him without his knowledge, the mythical houseful of children and her morning visit with Eve weighing heavily on her mind. She hastily looked away when his dark eyes caught hers, twisting the band nervously around the delicate appendage. "I'm just gonna…"

"Go ahead," Luis cut her off in anticipation. "You don't have to wait on me." His sense of self-preservation prevented him from following after Sheridan, even as his conscience whispered at him not to let her go, and he moved from room to room downstairs, inspecting this and that and mentally tallying everything that would have to be done to make the place habitable again. By the time he'd mounted the stairs and wandered down an endless hallway, peering inside each and every open door in search of his wayward wife, evening was fast approaching, and against his will, he was growing concerned. He found her in the last room he looked in, in what appeared to be an abandoned nursery, her hand splayed against a window through which the sun seemed to kiss the sea. Luis hesitated to cross the threshold, but he needn't have; Sheridan sensed his presence anyway.

Her voice a soft, throaty whisper, Sheridan trailed a fingertip through the dust gathered on the window sill, gazed sadly out at the vista before her. "I wonder what happened to them—the family that lived here." She turned shimmering blue eyes on Luis, studied him openly, waited for him to speak. "Somebody loved this place once, loved each other here."

The sun haloed her hair golden, and Luis, for once, didn't bother to take up the contrary stance because somehow, impossibly, he felt it too, on the same visceral level that told him he hadn't been wrong to give her a chance, all those years ago. But that was then. This was now. Luis was older, wiser, less inclined to feel the sting of her betrayal again. And those dreams of a house full of dark-haired little girls and blue-eyed little boys were just that where Sheridan was concerned, dreams, pipe dreams. "Maybe," Luis acquiesced gruffly, unwilling to give her anymore than that. "It's getting late."

"I know," Sheridan acknowledged, discreetly knuckling away the tears that had gathered on her lower lashes.

"We should get going," Luis softly told her, turning to leave when she gave a short nod in response, pushing back mightily at his body's instinctual response to comfort her. Still, he doubted he'd succeeded in keeping the note of concern out of his voice when she offered him a wan smile.

"I'll be right down," Sheridan murmured.

"I'll wait for you in the jeep."


So I know it's been forever and a day since I've updated this fic, but I hope you guys are still interested in finding out how this saga plays out.


Feedback would be lovely.

A lot of stuff going on with the different relationships in this chapter.

I hope you enjoyed the Ethan/Theresa/Anna flashback, however bittersweet. Look for more of those in future chapters.

What do you think, so far, of the way Hank and Gwen are handling their impending parenthood? And things aren't just physical anymore, as Hank is coming to realize. Will Gwen be next?

Kay is so confused. She's trying so hard to be good, but will it matter in the end? Looks like there's still some feelings there on Reese's end, huh?

Grace and Sam insist on doing that slow burn. Hopefully, you guys will be half as invested as Sam with their eventual outcome when all is said and done.

Julian and Ivy surprised me? What about you?

And Luis and Sheridan, Sheridan and Luis. *shakes head* How long will it take for them to get their act together and realize they want the same things, with each other?

Of course, there were other things I'm excited to read your feelings about, but that requires your full cooperation and the click of a button.


Feedback is love!

Your thoughts and continued support are welcomed and much desired.


P.S. This might just be the longest chapter I've ever written. Hopefully, it'll tide you over when RL inevitably strikes again.