Act I

Outside Cedars Hospital, the late January day had turned colder, and as the sun dropped behind the thickening dark clouds, Olivia shivered and tightened her coat around her as she hurriedly typed out the text to Rafe: Good news, Rafe! Today should be the day that your mom comes home from the hospital. We'll talk to you in a few days. Be safe! Love, Olivia.

Olivia hit the send button and dropped her phone back in her pocket then quickly retrieved her gloves. When the wind kicked up, she bounced on her toes and moved behind a retaining wall to block the blustery winds. She was waiting for Anna to come by with Emma. It was Emma's day for martial arts practice, and Anna had offered to drop her off so the young girl could help with getting Natalia home. Olivia had determined that, in spite of the chaos of the last couple of weeks, she'd do her best to keep their daughter's life in order. No matter how much Emma pouted or stomped off to her room because she'd rather be close to her Ma than go to school or other activities, Olivia made sure she got out of the hospital anyway.

A buzzing in her pocket let Olivia know she had a text come in. She fished it out quickly and frowned for a moment when it wasn't Rafe. Usually, he'd send a quick message back to let her know he got the text even when he couldn't respond more. She brightened though at seeing Ava's name.

We're ready here!

Olivia slipped off one glove so she could send a quick confirmation back, and when she looked up, she saw Anna and Emma walking briskly across the parking lot.

Olivia smiled brightly at her daughter. "Hey, Jellybean!"

Emma rolled her eyes and shook her head a little. "Mom! I'm not a little kid anymore. Don't call me that!"

"What?" She teasingly ruffled Emma's hair causing the young girl to pull her head away and move out of her mother's reach. Olivia turned back to Anna and said, "Thanks for dropping her off. How was the lesson?"

Anna shivered behind her scarf and raised her chin just enough to speak, "No problem, and it went great. Emma's learning so fast! But let's get inside though where it's warmer, and I can talk without my teeth chattering."

The two women walked down the hospital corridor while Emma trailed in behind them. Anna pulled off her gloves and sniffed back a runny nose caused by the cold air outside. She looked at her friend and smiled. "So, it looks like today is the big day, huh?"

"Yep, she finally gets to come home. I thought I was a bad patient, but she can't stand to stay still for too long," Olivia said with amusement and Anna smiled back.

They stopped in front of the elevator, and Olivia pressed the up arrow.

Anna glanced at her friend who looked like she was finally catching up on her sleep. Natalia had been making drastic improvement in the last several days and had even turned away some pain medications yesterday. Supposedly, that's what convinced Rick Bauer to green-light Natalia for release. The broken ribs would take the longest to heal, but x-rays yesterday showed them healing quicker than expected. As long as Natalia didn't push it, she would almost be back to normal in a couple of weeks. "Are you sure there's nothing I can help with?"

Olivia shook her head, making her hair fall in her eyes. She pushed it behind her ear and smiled at Anna. "No, you've done more than enough. I can't tell you how grateful we both are for all you've done."

The younger woman nodded in understanding. "I'm always there if any of you need me."

The elevator dinged signaling its arrival. Olivia smiled at her friend. "Thank you. Do you want to come up?"

"Unless you need me, I'm going to head down to the morgue to check on some evidence from Eleni before she leaves for the day," Anna answered as she tilted her head toward the stairwell. She glanced over at Emma who was waiting for her mom inside the elevator. "I'll see you next week, Emma."

"Okay," Emma mumbled.

Olivia waved goodbye to the other woman as she stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for Natalia's floor. When the door closed, she looked over at her daughter who was picking her nails, the purple nail polish slowly flaking away under her efforts. "How was your day?"

Emma shrugged before answering, "Fine."

"Didn't you have a math test today?" Olivia questioned, trying to get the young girl to talk more.

"Yeah," Emma said but didn't offer any more information.

Olivia waited for more details, but when none were forthcoming, she took the direct route. "How do you think you did?"

"Okay, I guess." Emma sighed and crossed her arms.

When the elevator lurched to a stop at their destination, Olivia was grateful for the interruption. Lately, talking to Emma had become like pulling teeth. She had thought that all of them seeing Felicia Boudreaux would have helped Emma, but for such a talkative girl, she was becoming more and more withdrawn. Olivia sighed as the doors opened and she watched Emma step off the elevator, her head bowed slightly. With all the craziness that Emma had seen in her short life though, Olivia had been surprised at her resilience, until now. She shook her head and followed Emma down the hall. Of course, she had to remind herself that Emma was also a prepubescent girl. Strange behavior wasn't exactly strange.

Pushing open the nondescript door to Natalia's room, Olivia was pleased to see the turn in Emma's behavior as she ran over to the side of Natalia's bed and hugged her gently. The brunette was sitting up and in her own clothes. It was evident that she was more than ready to get home. Earlier that day, she had been relegated to the bed to oversee Olivia's packing abilities. A small suitcase with changes of clothes and essentials for both women stood by the door waiting to leave as well.

Natalia pulled back from hugging Emma and smiled. "Hey, how's my girl been?"

"Good!" Olivia marveled at how simply being near Natalia made her daughter sound younger…happier. Natalia always seemed to have that effect on people. Emma bounced a little and asked, "Can you come home now?"

"As soon as Dr. Rick comes back and says so." Natalia tucked some hair behind Emma's ear.

"Well, he needs to hurry up!" Emma exclaimed, making both women chuckle.

Emma settled in to telling Natalia about her day as they waited for Rick. Olivia sat and listened quietly almost afraid to interrupt for fear that her daughter would stop talking. Her mind wandered as she listened to Emma talk. Eventually, she glanced up. She noticed that Natalia was looking at Emma, nodding, but her eyes were far away. She could see the loss and sadness, even fear, hidden in the darkened depths. Natalia was physically present, but not really there.

Olivia sat up in her chair intending to see if Emma wanted to go to the cafeteria for some dinner when Rick entered the room. In short order, he examined Natalia's wound and poked at her ribs, the bruising now a faint greenish yellow. Pleased with the diminished swelling and redness of the wound, he signed the paperwork to release her and Natalia followed suit, scribbling her name below his. Olivia noticed how Natalia grimaced under Rick's examination, but she knew how anxious the brunette was to get home and didn't want to delay it. Besides, the whole family would be around to help Natalia as she recovered so there was no reason to stay in the hospital.

Olivia smiled and turned to Emma and Natalia sitting on the bed. "I don't know about you two, but I'm so sick of hospitals! Come on, let's get out of here."

****

There wasn't much creepier than a morgue after dark. That's why Anna hustled down the stairs to the basement as fast as possible, careful not to spill the two large cups of coffee in her hand that she had picked up in the cafeteria. She bumped the door to the morgue open with her hip and raised her hands in the air as Eleni looked up.

"I come bearing gifts!" she declared.

Eleni chuckled. "Hey, I'm the Greek here. I'm supposed to say that!"

Standing up straight, Eleni smiled wearily and slipped off her gloves and protective glasses with practiced ease, setting them aside. She walked around the metal table and met Anna on the other side, taking the proffered coffee in her hand. She took a long sip and sighed. "Thank you for this. It'll make this night go faster."

"No problem. So," Anna tilted her head and queried, "What have you found out?"

Eleni took another swallow of her coffee and began talking as she walked over to the cold storage units along the wall, "The gunshot was obviously what killed him. No surprise there. However, there were numerous defensive wounds, old and new, all over his body - forearms, shoulders, face."

With a jerk, Eleni pulled the rack out of the wall that held Michael Howard's body.

Anna looked down at the body on the rack, a neat incision line extending from the base of the neck to the bellybutton and across the base of the ribs. Eleni came up next to her, snapping on a new pair of gloves as she moved, and reached down to lift the dead man's hand.

"See, here." Eleni pointed out the marks of old lacerations, and alongside those, new ones. Eleni placed the hand back down and pointed to other marks on the man's shoulder and face. "There are more fresh lacerations here, the chest, and stomach."

"Can you tell what made them?" Anna asked and stepped back as Eleni re-covered the body then pushed the rack back into the wall, closing the door to seal it shut.

Nodding, Eleni pulled off the gloves again and sat down on a stool near her. "The jagged edges and shallow depth would lead me to think they're scratches caused by fingernails. That's not all though. There are other injuries."

"Really?" Anna asked.

"Bruises on the ribs," Eleni answered and sipped her coffee.

"He was kicked then."

"The mark wouldn't indicate a shoe. That would leave a more defined, much smaller mark. It's too long and across the back, instead of on the side, which is where kicks usually happen," Eleni clarified. She paused before adding her last bit of information, "And, it looks like he was engaged in sexual activity when he was killed."

Anna swallowed. "I don't think I want to know how you know that and I definitely don't want to see it."

Eleni laughed for the first time that day. "The engorged blood was still prominent in the organ when he died so that's where it stayed."

"Ew! See, I really didn't need to know," the detective joked causing both to chuckle. Anna processed the information and then had an idea. "Hey, the rape kit that was done on Kathryn Howard, did you ever get it from the hospital?"

Eleni shook her head, the dark curls bouncing around her face. "Nope, not yet. Somehow there's always a delay or interruption, but I can't finish my report without it."

"Let me make some calls. If I can get it over here tonight, could you get the DNA results ASAP?" Anna thought out loud, already knowing who she'd call.

A mischievous smile came over Eleni's face. "Of course."

"Wonderful!" Anna pulled out her phone and sent a text to Mallet, asking him to be ready on her word to collect the rape kit results and take them down to Eleni. "I'm going to have Mallet deliver them here as soon as we get the word."

"I'll get on it as soon as it arrives." Eleni took a long swallow of her coffee and sighed in pleasure.

Anna nodded. "Good. Jeffrey O'Neill is pushing hard to bring this case to trial and Doris's firm is doing the defense. Both of them need this evidence, but only one needs a fast turnaround. And it's not Jeffrey."

"I'm your girl then!" Eleni smiled happily; glad to be moving forward with this case again. Besides, she was ready to get that body out of her freezer! Death didn't wait for anyone, and her small set of body racks were nearing the full-capacity limit.

Thinking about the station and work made Anna remember that at one time Eleni and Frank had been very much in love. It was hard to believe, but it was true. She had seen them talking a few times in recent months and wondered if there was some renewed interest going on, but events of the last several weeks probably hadn't done much for rekindling a romance.

With everything that had been going on with her boss, Anna felt sad for him. Frank had lost a brother in an accident, he had fallen for Natalia only to discover later that she was in love with Olivia, his youngest daughter was being raised by Natalia and Olivia, and his eldest daughter was dead at his own hands. The years had not been kind to Frank, especially the last few years. The only silver lining for her boss seemed to be Francesca and Eleni.

When she looked up from her coffee cup to see Eleni yawning, Anna realized that the horrible turn of events had taken its toll on the ME too. Looking over at her friend, she smiled with affection. "I haven't much of a chance to ask until now, but…how are you doing?"

Eleni closed her eyes tight and tapped a finger against the side of the coffee cup in her hand. "I'm doing okay. I'm better when I'm working. At least this way I know I'm doing something worthwhile. It's better than sitting around doing nothing."

"Speaking of which, how's Frank?" Anna wasn't trying to sound condescending, but the chief had been out of commission for a couple of weeks to recover from what had happened at the lighthouse. It worried Anna though because he rarely came out of his small apartment. He was scheduled to come back to work next week, but Anna couldn't help but wonder if he was ready.

Eleni rubbed at her tired eyes. "As good as can be expected. He doesn't talk much, even to me. Most of the time he stares off into space and drinks too much beer." She sighed and looked at her friend sadly before continuing, "I was trying to hold off on the service for Marina until Frank was more together, but…"

"There's never a good time to bury your child," Anna commented quietly.

Eleni looked down quickly, nodding to herself. A tear fell and she quickly fought down the urge to release the pain. She had been trying so hard to be strong for everyone, especially for Frank. Every day though it got harder and harder. At least Marina had wished to be cremated. Eleni was thankful for that. She didn't think she could handle the thought of Marina's body in a freezer less than twenty feet away. She kept busy with work. While it was horrible that it had happened, she was almost grateful for Michael Howard being an abusive bastard. At least she didn't have to be reminded of her catastrophic failure as a parent. If she had only been more persistent in getting Frank to hear her out on what she knew of Marina's illegal activities, maybe this would have never happened. Frank blamed himself, but no one blamed themselves more than she did.

Anna stood and reached over to squeeze Eleni's shoulder, but when the other woman began to cry in earnest, Anna pulled her into a hug. When Eleni pulled away and looked up, Anna rubbed a hand kindly over her back. "If there's any way I can help, let me know. Ever since I've got to Springfield, I wanted to give Frank a swift kick in the ass." Anna was pleased when her effort to break the sad mood caused her friend to laugh.

"Most people do at one time or another," Eleni commented, then murmured jokingly, "I know I have more times than I can count."

When Anna left and stepped out into the cold night air, she pulled her coat around her tighter before pulling out her phone. She sent a text to Doris seeing if she could frighten some underlings into releasing the rape kit results. Certainly, it would help Anna that she knew someone who knew the governor. She followed up her text to Doris with a call back to the hospital where she asked for Lillian Cooper. If there was anyone she could trust at the hospital in this matter, it was Lillian.

"Hey, it's Anna…um, Detective Li," she corrected. It was always hard in this close-knit community to forget to follow protocol. No wonder so many lines got blurred!

The older woman greeted her pleasantly, "Oh, yes, dear. How can I help you?"

"I'd like to ask a big favor." Anna smiled and crossed the street to her car.

"Anything," Lillian quickly responded.

"I've put in some calls to have the rape kit in the Howard case released for Lt. Andros to test. Mallet will be coming by to get them and hand-deliver them to Eleni. Could you ensure that he gets them?" Anna slipped into her car and wasted no time starting it, quicklyflipping on the heat.

"Don't worry, Detective. I'll take care of it," Lillian assured her and Anna knew she meant it.

****

Natalia hid the discomfort of the ride out to the farmhouse. The last thing she wanted was to take a pain killer that would numb the emotions she felt at finally coming home. At worst, she feared going back to the hospital, so when Olivia hit a dip on the long gravel driveway, she gritted her teeth against the pain. She knew it would take time for the pain to ease in her broken ribs, but that time couldn't come soon enough.

Bright lights lit up the farmhouse as they drew closer. When Olivia parked behind Ava's car, Emma didn't hesitate in jumping out of the backseat and racing to the door.

Natalia swung her door open and before she could get a foot on the ground, Olivia was there taking her arm and helping her to her feet.

"Here, let me help you," Olivia whispered.

Natalia huffed at the exertion and the comment. "Thank you, but I can do it. I need to do it."

"There will be time for that. I'd hate for you to wear yourself out before you ever get in the door." Olivia pulled the small suitcase out of the backseat and guided Natalia forward with her free hand resting on the younger woman's waist. She leaned down and spoke quietly, "Besides, there's a toddler in there that's very eager to play with her Mama."

Natalia couldn't help the smile that came to her face at the mention of Francesca. Even though she hadn't been in Marina's captivity for that long, she felt like it had been a hundred lifetimes. She had missed her family and her home so much!

Slowly and carefully, they climbed the steps to the porch. Olivia kept a guiding hand on Natalia's back as she opened the front door to their home.

"Surprise!" Ava, Leyla, and Emma yelled as they jumped from the shadows. Natalia yelped at the noise and barely held back the wince of pain that coursed down her arm and across her chest.

"Didn't I tell you all not to do that?" Olivia chided the girls as she helped her partner remove her coat.

Leyla stepped forward with Francesca wiggling in her arms. The toddler reached out desperately for her mother. "Sorry. We're all just so happy you're home, sis."

Her pain was instantly forgotten as she put her hands under her daughter's arms. "It's okay. Come here, my little Sweet Pea."

As soon as Natalia had her daughter's weight fully in her arms, she hissed at the pain, unable to suppress it. Olivia immediately reached past her and took Francesca. "Whoa! Rick said no lifting. Maybe we should take it slow."

"I'm fine," Natalia nearly growled. "I want to hold her."

Olivia quickly scrambled for a solution. "Um, okay, let's go to the couch. Ava, would you get the medicine for Natalia out of my purse?"

"No medicine; but couch…yes," Natalia clarified and walked away heading for the living room.

Olivia shrugged at the two women. "You heard her." Francesca wiggled as her mother held on tight. Finally, the fidgety toddler tugged at a strand of hair. "Ow! What was that for?"

Francesca pointed a stubby finger in the direction of the living room. "Mama…down."

"Okay, okay." She put her daughter down on increasingly steady legs and smiled as the little girl toddled off to the living room. "And that's why they're called 'toddlers'."

The three women followed the youngest member of the Spencer-Rivera clan into the living room. Emma had settled in to play a game on her Nintendo DS, a gift that Leyla had gotten for her while in Chicago, as Natalia braced her side with a pillow and sighed at the relief it brought. Francesca struggled a little but finally pulled herself up on the couch after Olivia gave her a small push on the bottom and sat down by her mother. Natalia wrapped her free arm around the small girl and hugged her close, kissing her curly head of hair. the fresh clean scent of her calming Natalia's frayed nerves and tired body.

Natalia looked up at Ava and Leyla. Ava scratched at the back of her neck, a nervous gesture she apparently picked up from Olivia, while Leyla shoved her hands in her jeans pockets and looked down. "It looks like you two have been busy."

Across the room, near the fireplace but not too close, was a brand new twin bed with a side table. Natalia could tell it was simple but not cheap. The bedspread was a tasteful neutral beige with hints of purple paisley swirls in various sizes throughout it. It could suit virtually any décor, and her gaze lingered on the feeling of familiarity she couldn't quite place. A pitcher of filtered water and a clean glass sat on the table along with a slender vase of gerbera daisies.

Ava spoke first. "We, um, thought that the less you had to exert yourself, the faster you'd recover."

Leyla added, "I found the bedspread in your old bedroom. It was tucked away high on a shelf. When Ava called and let me know what happened, I asked Mom if I could bring it home for you. At first she said no until I told her why. She then said I could take it as long as Dad didn't see me leaving with it." She paused a moment, debating on telling her sister the last part. Finally, she said, "Mom told me she was going to Mass the next morning, and she'd say a prayer for you."

Natalia sniffled, remembering why the bedspread was so familiar. "That was the bedspread to my first big girl bed - a white canopy bed." She looked over at Olivia, who had sat down on the couch next to Francesca. "Thank you."

"While I'd love to take credit for anything that makes you smile like that, it was their idea," she said and gestured to the two older girls.

"Hey, I helped!" Emma piped up.

"Oh, look! It speaks!" Ava poked fun at Emma.

Leyla laughed when Emma stuck her tongue out at her older sister, but came to her niece's defense. "Actually, Emma did help. She picked the flowers out and read the directions for putting the bed together."

"Thank you, Aunt Leyla. By the way," Emma looked at her mom, "the cattle prod I had to use to keep these two from killing each other is in the hall closet."

As both older girls gasped at Emma in disbelief, Natalia smiled at her family. "I've missed you guys!"

"Back at ya." Ava smiled.

"Okay, now that all that mushiness is out of the way, and you all know I don't do mushy, let's get ready for bed. Emma, could you take Francesca upstairs and get her changed?" Olivia stood up.

Natalia heard Emma sigh and looked over in time to see her roll her eyes at her mother. "Actually, I'd like to spend a little more time with Francesca. Why don't you go get ready, Olivia, and come back for her when you're finished?"

"Are you sure?" Olivia questioned and looked at the toddler quietly playing with her toes as if they were the most fascinating thing in the world.

Natalia smiled. "She's fine. I'm fine. Go!"

Olivia nodded at her partner in agreement, thinking a few minutes wouldn't hurt anything. "Okay, but holler if you need anything."

"I will," Natalia assured her.

Everyone scattered to their rooms and bathrooms to get ready for bed, even Ava was rooming with Emma so she could be close by to help. Natalia yawned and looked down at the little girl curled up next to her. "It's just you and me, little bit." She pushed a lock of curly hair out of her daughter's face and whispered, "I swear you've grown like a weed since I've been in the hospital."

Francesca stopped from obsessing over her toes to look up at her mother. She used Natalia's shirt to pull herself up to a standing position next to Natalia, who watched her little girl as bright, playful brown eyes met their tired counterpart. "You're up to something, aren't you?" Natalia wondered, warily.

The toddler suddenly put her tiny hands on each side of Natalia's face and smiled mischievously, little dimples showing on her pudgy cheeks. "Mama?"

"Yes, my Sweet Pea." Natalia rested her head back on the couch, wondering at the intense love she felt for her child. The emotions never failed to overwhelm her, and all she wanted was to hold her little girl close.

Bracing herself against Natalia's face, Francesca suddenly leaned over and gave her mom a loud, smacking kiss before breaking out into giggles. Natalia joined her and Francesca was delighted at pleasing her mom. She threw her little arms around her mom's neck, and Natalia wrapped her in a tight hug. All was good until Francesca dropped in Natalia's arms, making all of her weight put pressure on Natalia's upper body.

"Auuggghhh!" Natalia growled in pain and tried to disentangle herself from her daughter's grasp. "Stop, Francesca! Let go! Get off of me!"

The little girl dropped away from her mother and scrambled back into the corner of the couch. Tears fell from Natalia's eyes at the pain, but as she looked up to see the scared and hurt look in Francesca's innocent brown eyes, her full bottom lip quivering, Natalia began to sob. "Oh, baby, I'm so sorry."

She reached a hand out to Francesca, but the little girl cringed away. "No, baby. It's okay. Don't be afraid."

"Mama, mad," Francesca pouted and sniffled.

"No, Mama's not mad. It just hurt a little when you did that," Natalia said, trying to console her daughter.

"Hey, is everything okay?" Natalia had been so involved in the moment that she didn't hear Olivia come out of the bedroom. She looked up to see her partner looking down at them with a worried frown.

Natalia quickly brushed her tears away. "Everything's fine."

Descending the stairs, she took in the scene. It didn't escape Olivia's attention that Natalia was gripping her side, and Francesca was hobbling off the couch. When Olivia reached the bottom of the stairs, the little girl waddled over as fast as she could on her short legs. Olivia bent down and picked her up.

"Mama hurt," Francesca whispered and looked at her sadly before dropping her head to Olivia's shoulder.

She pulled her daughter close and kissed her head before looking over at Natalia. "Are you?"

Natalia was so tired. She just wanted to go to sleep. Sighing, she rubbed at her red eyes and glanced up to make eye contact with Olivia. "I was, but it passed. I'm fine now. You remember what it was like for you. How bad you wanted to hold Emma?"

Olivia walked over to the couch and sat down with Francesca in her arms. "I remember. I also remember a certain brunette giving me grief about not resting and allowing myself to get well so I could be here for Emma…and her."

Natalia let her head fall back on the couch and blew a frustrated breath out.

Olivia tilted her head as she regarded her partner. Finally, she came to a conclusion and spoke, "Let me get Francesca settled in Leyla's room, and I'll go get a blanket and pillow so I can sleep on the couch."

Natalia shook her dark head and squeezed her eyes tight to keep tears from falling. "That's not necessary, Olivia."

She reached out her free hand to cup Natalia's cheek. Her thumb caressed the dampness away, and she was relieved to see Natalia relax into her touch. "Yes, it is. Now, stop being so difficult, lady, and let me play doctor." Olivia wiggled her eyebrows for effect making Natalia chuckle.

****