Chapter Thirty-Five

"We find happiness in unexpected places. We find our way back to the things that matter the most. The universe is funny that way. Sometimes, it just has a way of making sure we wind up exactly where we belong." –Meredith Grey

"So how much farther exactly?"

Meredith groaned as April Kepner spoke up again. She'd just gotten used to the peace and quiet… the wind whispering through the pine trees, the gentle gurgling of the creek off to their right. And now here was April, back with the whole "are we there yet?" routine. Apparently, her roommate had yet to grow out of it.

Meredith stole a glance at her husband hiking beside her, but amazingly enough, Derek didn't appear the least bit annoyed by April's continued badgering. In fact, it was almost crazy how happy he seemed out here in the forest. It was as if nothing in the world could possibly trouble him.

"It's not that much farther," he called back to Kepner. His smile was relaxed, easy going.

April's was… not. Her teeth were clenched in exasperation as she wiped a stray lock of hair from her forehead.

"You said that half an hour ago," she griped. "And I think you said it ten minutes before -ow!"

Meredith rolled her eyes as April nearly tripped over a branch. The girl hopped around for a second like a cat that had just encountered a puddle and Meredith wanted desperately to mock her, at least a little. It would just be so easy. The problem was, she was every bit as out of her element as April herself. After all these years living in Seattle, the woods were still pretty much foreign territory for Meredith, filled with new sounds and smells, and a startling lack of cell phone service...

And yet, here she was… slipping and sliding over pine needles as they trudged up the mountain side. April had regained her footing and was trailing along with Alex and Avery. Meanwhile, Lexie had shot out ahead. Meredith could just see her red baseball cap through the trees.

"Are we getting close, Lex?" Derek shouted up to her. Lexie didn't bother to stop as she peered over her shoulder. Her smile could be seen from miles away.

"We're almost there!"

Derek turned back to Meredith and she could tell he was savoring the moment. They were out… they were hiking… reveling in this beautiful weather…

"See?" he said cheerfully. "Almost there."

"Oh thank god," April piped up behind him. "Because seriously, this backpack is killing me."

Meredith bit her tongue... And just like that, the moment was gone, dashed by a tiny, impatient control freak. She loved April, but really, the girl looked like she was heading for the Andes. They'd already set up camp and this was just a simple day hike… at least that's the way Derek had described it. He'd advised everyone to bring only the basics. But April was carrying three clanging canteens full of water and enough snacks to feed their group for a week.

"Remind me again why you invited them," Meredith lowered her voice as she moved closer to Derek.

Avery had definitely been camping before. And Meredith was ready to listen to Derek's instructions, on packing and anything else that might come up. But April and Alex were completely hopeless. One insanely over-prepared, the other with only a single change of clothes for the entire trip. No PJs, no jacket… just an extra T-shirt, tossed into a shopping bag.

"I brought them for you." Derek reached for her hand. "I thought maybe you'd have more fun if they came along."

Meredith had to press her lips together to keep from laughing. Oh Derek... How do you not know me better by now?

"You thought I'd have more fun if you invited the children?"

"Well there was no way I was gonna get Christina out here."

"No, you're right about that," Meredith concurred.

She knew Christina and even if she'd had some extra special fishing trip, she still wasn't going to step foot in a forest, not if she didn't have to. Christina appreciated the finer things in life… like bathrooms and electricity.

"She's probably curled up on the couch with some medical journal." Meredith pictured her friend, glass of wine in hand, reading up on the latest surgical technique. "That's what I'd be doing if I was at home."

"Oh, really?" Derek teased her. "So you wouldn't be upstairs with me?"

"Well no, because you would be out here."

Meredith could tease him right back again. It was one of the things she loved about their relationship.

"Try to keep up, Dr. Shepherd."

"Oh I will," he laughed.

And Meredith laughed with him…

She couldn't help it… She was happy. Her husband was clearly thrilled to be back in the wilderness, sharing this part of his life with her. His eyes were actually sparkling in the afternoon sunlight… God, she loved those eyes. There was a reason he'd earned the McDreamy nickname. And here in the woods, it seemed even more fitting.

"So why did you come out then?" He glanced at her with genuine interest. "Because I will say, I'm kind of surprised. Grateful, but surprised."

"I came because of you," she responded sincerely. She grabbed his arm to steady herself as she hopped over a fallen tree. "You obviously love it out here, so I thought I'd see if I could love it here too."


"And..." She tilted her face towards the sky, ignoring the fact that sooner or later she was going to have to pee in the bushes. "And I'm still working on it."

Derek's smile spread into a grin. The fact that she was making an effort probably meant more to him than if she'd instantly loved it.

"Thank you."

He leaned over and planted a tender kiss on her cheek as Meredith let out a sigh of contentment.

"Oh dude, seriously?"

And here came Alex, grumbling right behind them. Meredith had almost forgotten he was back there, but now he was only too happy to make his presence known.

"Is this what we have to look forward to all weekend?" He wrinkled his nose in disgust. "'Cuz that wasn't in the sales pitch."

"Oh shut up."

Meredith scowled in his general direction, then put her arm around Derek's waist. It wasn't the typical family camping trip, but it still felt right, hiking up in the hills, the kids complaining around them... all except the youngest one, who was practically skipping off in the distance.

"Well at least Lexie's enjoying herself."

Derek shaded his eyes as he attempted to keep track of her. Meredith couldn't tell if it was the woods that Lexie was really enjoying, or just an afternoon away from the hospital. Maybe it was a bit of both.

"She's still trying to get over Mark…" Meredith explained. "She got hurt… again. Which is exactly what I knew would happen."

"Well, she's the one who broke up with him again," Derek reminded her. He certainly cared about Lexie, but he could also see it from Mark's point of view. "I'm not sure she gets to be heartbroken twice."

Meredith raised her water bottle to her lips, taking a long swig as she paused to consider what her husband was saying. Yes, he had a point. But on the flip side, Mark Sloan had managed to surprise Lexie with two different children in less than two years. On the scale of relationship growing pains... that was definitely near the top.

She swallowed the water, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

"It's complicated…"

"It's stupid is what it is," Derek replied quietly. "They're both just making themselves miserable."

"Well, what are they supposed to do?"

There was no simple solution for something like this. Mark was stepping up, preparing to be a dad, but Lexie wasn't ready for any of it. And neither of them wanted to compromise. How could they when there was a child involved?

"She cares about him," Meredith motioned towards her sister. "And he cares about her, but Lexie's young and they're both busy and stubborn-"

"And stupid," Derek cut in.

Meredith couldn't help but nod in agreement.

"That too…"

She remembered that night, years ago, when she'd tried to dissuade Mark from dating Lexie. This was why. The two might have chemistry, but both had issues in the romance department.

"Of all the people to fall for each other…"

She was interrupted by a noise a few feet back and realized that Avery was clearing his throat. Crap, once more, she'd forgotten that they were not alone. The kids were still bringing up the rear, listening in on every word she was saying. Lexie would absolutely kill her if she found out they were discussing her love life so openly.

"Just enjoy having a camping buddy, okay?" Meredith changed the subject in a hurry, giving her husband a pat on the shoulder. "Because this Grey doesn't fish. That one..." She watched her little sister bouncing up the hill in excitement. "That one actually might."

"Yeah, good luck with that," Alex snorted, drawing her attention again. Maybe he was feeling left out of their conversation, or maybe it was just his love of sarcasm, but either way he was in fine form today.

"Ten to one she'll drop her pole in the lake. You'd better not put her in charge of our dinner."

Meredith cast a glance over her shoulder, staring him down on Lexie's behalf.

"What, you want to give it a try?" She gave him a fake smile, since the answer was obvious. Alex could barely fold up a sleeping bag. Asking him to catch their next meal was a hilarious prospect.

"We do have extra fishing poles if you'd like," Derek offered. He couldn't resist ragging on Alex as well. "You don't mind cleaning the fish, do you? The scales actually come off pretty easily."

Alex hastily shut his mouth, but now even Avery was piling on.

"Oh man, I'm gonna go hungry, aren't I?" He shook his head in an over exaggerated display of sadness. "I knew I should've brought that extra beef jerky."

"Alright, shut up."

Alex gave him a shove, the kind that brothers would give one another. Meredith's heart actually warmed at the sight. A few months back, the two had been in a knock down, drag out fist fight. Thankfully, that phase had passed and now they simply needled each other.

"I'm serious," Avery pressed on. "I think we'd better start rationing the snacks. April, whatever you have-"

"Shut up!"

April suddenly stopped in her tracks, catching everyone by surprise. The rest of them slowed to a halt as her eyes went wide, then focused on some point far beyond them. It was Lexie… Meredith realized. She was gawking at Lexie, who'd paused a quarter mile ahead, just shy of the overlook.

"Haha, we're there!"

A grin spread across April's face as she elbowed the boys out of her way.

"We're there! We're there!"

And with that, the once irritable resident took off running, charging up the hill towards her youngest roommate. The extra weight from her backpack made her appear all the more comical as she scrambled over a series of boulders, fighting not to tip over backwards.

"Okay, what just happened?" Derek's mouth fell open as he took in the scene. Meredith was equally puzzled. One minute they'd been kidding around and the next… It was as if April had heard a starter pistol nearby.

"Did someone give her coffee?" Her husband surveyed the troops. "Because I thought we talked about that. We all know that Kepner and coffee don't mix, not on long trips…"

He trailed off as Alex snickered beside him. Their generally sardonic friend had evidently forgotten all about the proposed fishing trip, because while everyone else looked on in confusion, Alex seemed nothing short of delighted.

"Oh come on, Karev," Derek put his hands on hips. "Are you kidding me?"

"Dude, I didn't… I didn't give her anything…" Alex sucked in some air, still fighting to hold in his laughter. "It wasn't me."

"He's telling the truth," Avery quickly came to his defense.

He wouldn't normally support a guy who was acting so guilty, but they'd been pushing water on April all morning, extolling the virtues of proper hydration. No way would they let her have any caffeine, not with the long drive they'd taken that morning.

"We stashed the coffee pot in the closet, I swear. We knew how hyper she'd get otherwise."

"Maybe this is just how she acts out here…" Meredith suggested. It was a horrifying thought. This was afterall, only the beginning of the trip. If this was April's reaction to all the fresh air… then the fact was, they were totally screwed.

"No way…"

The same thought was clearly dawning on Avery.

"No way. She'll have us all up at 5AM tomorrow… This is supposed to be a vacation-"

And that was when Alex really broke down. He immediately brought his hand up to his mouth, hoping to lessen the volume of his laughter. But it was too late. The damage was done.

"What?" Meredith trained her gaze squarely on him. "What did you do?"

Alex simply shook his head, refusing to respond as the giggles took over.

"I will hit you…" she warned him. "And I promise you, it'll hurt."

"Alright, alright…" Alex backed away from her, even as he struggled to get his words out. But finally, finally, his laughter died down, at least enough for him to speak up again. It didn't help that they could still see April a thousand feet up the path, making a mad dash for poor, oblivious Lexie.

"I told her we were doing a wilderness… challenge." The sentence split into pieces as he took a deep breath, still trying to contain himself. "When we left the camp site… I told her it was part of the hike."

"What?" Avery stared at him, uncomprehending. "What the hell's a wilderness challenge?"

Meredith pondered the answer for a split second, and just like that, the mystery was solved. She wondered if anyone else would figure it out. But no, Derek was just standing there with his arms crossed… and Avery, he still hadn't learned about Alex Karev.

"It's something he made up," she spelled it out for them. "He's been messing with April all along, feeding her crap about some fake competition."

"Well that sounds about right…" Derek nodded. Sadly, he wasn't at all surprised by this news. Avery, on the other had, certainly was.

"Wait…" He shifted his attention straight back to Alex. "You're the reason she's been acting so crazy? Dude, I caught her loading my backpack with sticks!"

"Well what if you needed to make a fire later on?" Alex was grinning like an idiot as he explained April's twisted rationale. "She was helping you stock up. Just be glad she didn't want you to freeze."

"Are you kidding me?"

"I'm not," he shrugged. "That girl picked up half the damn forest for you."

"Oh come on, Alex…"

Meredith tried to glare at her friend, to make him feel bad about his ridiculous prank. But honestly, it just wasn't that easy. Avery, who'd suffered the most with his weighed down backpack, was already beginning to waver. It was hard not to in the face of such absurdity. Even Derek was having a tough time acting pissed.

"Is that why she kept scribbling in her notebook whenever I talked?"

He was undoubtedly recalling the beginning of their hike, when April had peppered him with so many questions.

"Survival skills quiz tonight," Alex filled in proudly.

"And tying ribbons on the trees?"

"In case you ditched us out here to find our way back."

"Well we might ditch you later," Meredith interjected.

She was still determined to be the adult in this situation, because someone had to stick up for April. But damn… Alex had really outdone himself with this one… It was almost impressive.

"April, what the hell?"

And now they all turned as Lexie began shouting. April had finally reached her, and as they watched, she plowed right past the younger Grey, knocking Lexie aside in a move that would make the NFL proud. As far as April was concerned, the race was on and she was winning. So without so much as a glance back at her friend, she sprinted the last twenty feet up the mountain, then threw her hands straight into the air. And here it came, the triumphant howl.

And it was loud… echoing down through the valley below. It reverberated off the surrounding hillsides, drowning out the animals and the wind and any other sound that the forest could offer.

"Wow…" Meredith murmured. "That's just… wow."

Far off ahead of them, Lexie plainly agreed with her sentiment. She looked back at her sister in total bewilderment, rubbing her bruised shoulder. Meredith's only response was a sympathetic nod. Apparently, the competitive spirit was alive and well in April Kepner. Very much alive.

"Holy crap…" Alex breathed.

Even he couldn't believe what he'd just witnessed… It might have been his best joke ever, played on a friend who would probably kill him. Just the thought of it made him start laughing again. And this time, Avery joined him. They were like two kids on the playground, one admiring the other one's work. Hell, there was even a hi-five in there somewhere.

Meredith watched the whole thing unfold, then leaned in closer to her husband, the better to be heard over all that commotion.

"Is it wrong to say that she scares me a little?"

The humor of the situation certainly wasn't lost on her, but April's intensity had just reached a whole new level. And it was just as impressive as Alex's prank.

"Seriously. She just body checked my little sister."

"Well, you're the one who invited her to live with us…"

Derek slipped an arm around Meredith's shoulders. Somewhere close by, April was still pumping her fists in victory, but all Meredith could see was the tiny, bemused smile, playing across her husband's face.

"Now here's the real question…" He dropped his voice to a stage whisper, then brought his lips right up to her ear. "Who wants to be the one to tell her that there isn't a prize?"

Annnnnd we're finally back to flashbacks! I did promise, didn't I? :) The good news is, this is a fairly happy one and it should last for at least a couple of chapters. I always enjoyed the idea of a "family" camping trip and this is basically the set up for that. It's fun to revisit the more recent characters and see how they interact in a totally different environment. Alex messing with April… Avery unable to choose which side he is on and Lexie, dealing with yet another break up. Plus, Meredith and Derek are happy for now as they near a pretty big turning point in their lives.

Basically, this chapter and this flashback overall, are meant to serve as a contrast to Meredith's current life. This was basically her life at its best (short of having Zola), hanging out with her family and friends, away from all the stresses of her job. Now everything is sadness and guilt and anger. But this trip was fun and that is what Derek is trying to remind her of in the future. They had a good time, so why throw that out just because it reminds her of the plane crash?

Anyway, as I mentioned this flashback will continue for awhile. It's basically a little story unto itself and I hope you've enjoyed it so far. Please let me know what you think. Are you curious about what April will do when she learns about Alex's prank? Want to know how Lexie deals with her break-up? Ready to see more of Meredith and Derek together? I'll try to update soon. In the meantime, please review. You guys are the ones that keep me writing at this point!