Winds of Change

Part 3

Ugh.” Dar swallowed several Advil, washing them down with a swig from a chocolate milk chug. “Mind if we order room service isntead of going out?” She asked, as she heard Kerry return from the bathroom after storing their overnight sundry kits.

Of course not.” Kerry went over to the luggage stand and removed Dar's pyjamas from it, retreating back to drape them over her partner's shoulder. “Get undressed, and I'll see what they have to offer. Do you really think I'd rather go out to eat in downtown Washington and risk running into people who think they know me?”

Dar was glad enough to exchange her jeans and sweater for her long, threadbare tshirt, folding the clothes and packing them neatly before she picked up a magazine and retreated to the couch in their sedate hotel suite and curled up in one corner, willing the drugs to quickly settle her cramping.

Pain in the ass. Dar exhaled, and opened the magazine, full of the ochre and sand colors of the Southwest. She'd started feeling it as the plane took off, and resigned herself to dealing with the monthly annoyance. “Should be a pill for this.”

You mean to prevent it?” Kerry sat down next to her with the menu. “I've been saying that for years. At least it was a short flight.”

Short, and private. “Mm.” Dar flipped the pages. “I really am gonna miss that jet.” She mused mournfully. “Spoiled my ass.”

We just have to get rolling fast enough to get our own, hon.” Kerry studied their choices. “Twice grilled par boiled snails, or hamburgers?”

Dar looked at her, one brow arched.

Yeah, I know. But those conch you brough into the cabin were sort of snail like. I thought maybe you'd gotten fond of them.” Kerry smiled as she picked up the phone. “Hello, yes. I'd like something delivered”

Dar went back to studying her magazine, looking at the pictures of the rafting trip they'd planned. It looked fun, and exciting, and she could almost feel the twisting and turning of the boat going through the rapids.

It made her smile. Even the thought of having to sleep in a tent didn't really bum her out. “I bet when we're out there at night, we can see a lot of stars. Like out on the water.”

Kerry leaned on the back of the couch and looked at the page. “You're really jazzed about this, aren't you?”

Dar nodded. “I am.” She said. “I really want to make up for not taking vacation for fifteen years, and it's going to be pretty cool, out there with that small a group.” She flipped a page. “We reserved for the first trip of the season.”

April.” Kerry nodded. “So we can take the RV around to all the parks first, then end up there for the rafting trip.” She exhaled in contentment. “This is going to be so much fun.”

It was. Dar wished they were already on the other side of the remaining two months of work. The thought of going through the stressful separation was starting to annoy her. “Just you and me and Chino, seeing cool stuff. I even got them to send me a brochure for hot air balloons.”

Oo. Hot air balloons.” Kerry rested her head against Dar's shoulder. “I saw those on TV taking off at dawn once, is that what you mean?”


Kerry closed her eyes and imagined it, the silence of the pre-dawn and the soft hiss of the wind. “Awesome.” She sighed and got up, replacing the room service menu on the desk in the room and retrieving her own set of pyjamas. It was after dark, the flight had landed just after sunset and they had a full day planned for tomorrow with meetings at the White House in the morning, and the Pentagon after lunch.

Then a late night flight home, at their own schedule, with a weekend to look forward to. Kerry slipped into her shirt and put away her traveling clothes. “You think they're going to mind me being at those meetings, Dar? I could just hang out here if you do.”

Don't care.” Dar had her head resting against her hand, as she studied the pictures. “They tell you to leave I'll be right behind you.”

Kerry regarded her partner with a smile. “At least we don't have a Louisiana lawyer with us this time.” She closed the top on the suitcase then she went over to the window, looking out at the familiar landmarks. They'd decided to stay in the center of town this time, and if she were on the roof of the hotel she could hit a few of them with a rock.

It felt strange, to look out at that landscape, and yet feel so disconnected from it. She no longer even felt her father's shadow there, and she was debating whether or not to call her mother, who she knew was here in town in her Senate offices.

After all, she'd just seen her. Right?

So what if they throw us out?” Kerry mused. “We could go to a museum.”

We could go have lunch with your mother.” Dar countersuggested. “Or go swimming in the Potomac.”

Kerry chuckled. “I forgot you're not fond of museums.” She said. “Oh hey.. how about the Air and Space Museum?” She turned to find a much more interested pair of blue eyes watching her. “Ah, better?”

Air and Space? Absolutely.” Dar put the magazine down. “Though, I have to admit the first time I wandered into a museuam of modern art and saw something of my mother's it was hoot.” She leaned her head on her hand. “It was some stupid new client meet and greet, and I remember the jackass regional salesman turning to me and saying something snarky like. 'I'm sure theres no relationship to you, right?”

Kerry chuckled. “Did you say there was?”

Sure.” Dar grinned. “Stopped all conversation within hearing. Pretty funny actually. Remind me to tell mom about that when they get back.”

Okay.” Kerry squirmed around and put her head down on Dar's thigh, regarding the swirled plaster ceiling. “So what do you think they're going to ask you?” She asked. “Hey, maybe they want to make you the US's chief nerd.”


Nerdmeister in chief. I like that. It's got a nice ring.”

Last thing I want is to be a federal employee.” Dar draped her arm over Kerry's body. “Though that would get around the non compete injunction.”

A knock sounded on the door at the same time as Dar's phone rang and Kerry unwound herself to get up and walk over, opening the door and gesturing the room service waiter in. She followed him over to the desk and waited, signing the room charge and giving hin a brief, polite smile.

He left without commenting.

Nice guy.” Kerry remarked to the closed door, before she returned her attention to the tray. She sorted out the silverware, half listening to Dar's end of the conversation. “Problems, hon?”

Dar rolled her eyes. “Trying to bring the new datacenter live. Having routing problems.” She mouthed. “Give me some ice cream.”

I was going to suggest we eat that first anyway.” Kerry brought the bowls over. “It'll melt otherwise, and it looks a lot better than the burgers anyway.”

Dar set her bowl on the sofa arm and manuevered a spoonful of the chocolate into her mouth, as she listened to the phone. “Well.” She managed to swallow in time. “You know what? I'm not going to drag my damn laptop out, Mark. Get in there and figure it out.”

She got another few spoons down before she had to talk again. “Then we need to hire, in addition to a CIO, a damned senior network engineer.” She listened. “Fine, I'll talk to Mari in the morning. In the meantime get in there or get someone in there and waste some brain cells on it”

CIO, and VP ops, and senior network engineer, and network architect, and writer of adorable gopher programming.” Kerry was ticking off on her fingers. “Y'know what, hon? It's going to be freaking expensive to replace us.”

Dar gave her a look. Then she looked back at her phone in surprise. “He hung up on me.” She said. “I wasn't even that rude, was I?”

Kerry ran her mind over the words. “No, you really weren't.” She said. “I think Mark's really pissed off we're leaving.”

Dar put the phone down and recaptured her bowl. “Is that any reason to hang up on me? I didn't call him, he called me for help.”

Mm.” Kerry pressed her shoulder against her partner's.

I don't want them to call me for help, Kerry. I want the to start thinking for themselves.” Dar went on. “If I have to piss people off to get them to do that, then fine.”


Dar rested her head against Kerry's, and sighed.

Kerry offered her some butter pecan, and they munched in silence for a few minutes. Then Kerry wiped her lips with her napkin and picked up her own cell phone. “I'll call him.” She said. “Let him vent at me for a while. Maybe an idea will bounce ouf of that and he'll have a brain wave.”

I love you.”

Kerry smiled, as she hit one of her speed dials. “Back at ya, and hold that thought, because I think this ice cream's about enough dinner for me so we can head off to that big bed after this.”

Mm.” Dar wrapped her arms around her partner and nuzzled the side of her neck. “Sounds good to me.”

Hey Mark, it's Kerry.” Kerry wrapped one hand around Dar's arm. “Yeah, I know, but you know, it's gonna happen. What can I do to help?” She felt Dar's breath warming her ear. “No, honest, I can't. She's not feeling well.”

Dar's brow lifted.

Yeah, that time of the month. So can I get the vendor on the phone for you? No? Oh, okay, you did? Good. Call me if you need me.” Kerry folded the phone shut and held a hand out. “C'mon. He's fine.”


They'll get through it.”



Kerry twitched her jacket straight as she followed Dar through the gate towards the security entrance of the blocky office structure ahead of them. She remembered their last visit, and she was hoping this time it would be both shorter and more pleasant.

Dar was presenting her identification to the guard, and she motioned Kerry forward as the man studied them with a frown. “Are we dangerous again?” Kerry handed over her company credentials. “Dar, dont you have an invitation?”

No.” Dar waited, rocking back and forth a little as the guard went to go make a phone call. “I have, I think, an email from that guy's admin telling me what time to be here. Not worth booting the laptop.”

Okay.” The guard came back. “Ms Roberts, I've got you on the list, but not this lady.” He indicated Kerry.

Please call whoever made the list and have her added. I”m not coming in without her.” Dar responded in a mild tone. “I was asked to come here, not the other way around.”

The guard looked grumpy and frustrated, but he just shrugged and went back to the little booth guarding the entrance and got on the phone.

Dar hummed under her breath. “Glad I took all those Advil before we left.” She commented. “Otherwise I might have seen jail time in my near future.”

Kerry chuckled. “Yeah, glad I took some too. My cramps lasted way longer than usual this time.” She leaned against the fence post and pulled out her new gizmo, tapping the screen and regarding the results. “You can actually surf the internet on this thing, Dar.”

At one bit per twenty seconds?”

And it has ringtones. You can make your phone ring songs.” Kerry went on. “How about if I had jingle bells as my phone ring?”

How about if you record me singing jingle bells for your phone ring?” Her partner countered. “At least that would be unique.”

Oh honey, in a freaking heartbeat.”

Dar grinned, then turned as the guard came back. “Well?”

It's okay.” The guard said. “Please come with me.”

They followed him past the booth and in a side door, which he carefully closed behind them before leading them on. The halls were all polished linolium, and despite the fact it was a civilian office building there was a touch of the military about it. Kerry kept her eyes slightly down as she walked, just keeping aware in her peripheral vision of the fast moving bodies going in either direction around her.

Then they were going down a hallway and into an antichamber, that she last remembered filled with nervous, rushing people dealing with an unimagined disaster.

Now there were four or five people present, quiet, calm, giving her and Dar brief glances and then returning to their work as they passed them by and went into the conference room.

Please wait here.” The guard said, then left them.

Dar went to one of the comfortable seats and took it, resting her forearms on the table and folding her hands. “Sit.”

Kerry took the chair next to her and settled into it. She could feel her heart thumping a little, and she was aware of being nervous but she wasn't entirely sure of why.

Time ran out to think about it, as the door opened and Michael Bridges came in. “Ah.” He regarded the two of them. “You two siamese twins or something? I only asked for one of you.” He was tall man, with a craggy face and a spare frame wrapped in expensive silk trousers and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

Yes.” Dar responded in a mild tone. “Next question?”

We were separated at birth.” Kerry added. “But in reality, Mr. Bridges, if this is a professional request, I have a piece of it because I am the operations vice president of ILS. If it's a personal request, I have a piece of it because Dar's my spouse. It's just how it is.”

Uh huh.” Bridges closed the door, then went to his seat and sat down. “Well as it happens you all did me a very big favor so I suppose you can bring anyone you like in here.” He paused “Glad you skipped that lawyer though. God damn he was a pain in the ass.”

I'll pass along that compliment.” Dar said. “So.” She pushed the envelope she'd brought with her over to him. “That's the bill for your last favor.”

He took the envelope and tossed it into a bin behind him. “All right, so let's get down to brass tacks.” He paused. “What the hell does that mean? Who uses brass tacks anymore, anyway?” He didn't wait for an answer. “Here's the situation. What we found out a couple months ago is there's too much we don't know.”

Kerry cleared her throat, and waited for him to look over at her. “Didn't know, or didn't recognize?”

His lips twitched faintly. “Good point. Maybe both. Maybe that plus we didn't know our ass from a hole in the wall, maybe that plus no one had the sense to share anything with anyone across the hallway. Could be.” He said. “Point is, that has to change.”

Dar nodded. “That's a point.”

I know we gave Easton a budget to revise all his dinosaur systems. He's talked to you about that?” Bridges looked at Dar.

He's our next stop.” Dar responded.

Bridges nodded. “Okay, that's his problem. My problem is, I need someone to take charge of how we deal with technology and information and all that horse crap at the federal level. I want to bring you on board as what we're calling the.. ' He glanced at a paper he was holding. “Half ass horsecrap. Anyway, they want to call it the techno czar.” He looked at Dar. “When can you start?”

Dar blinked. Then she turned and looked at Kerry. Then she looked back at Bridges. “Are you saying you want me to come work for you?”

Good catch.” Bridges said, dryly. “Yes.”

Me personally?” Dar clarified. “As in, not the company I work for?”

Bridges laced his fingers together and gave her a faintly exasperated look. “Yes you.” He glance at Kerry. “No offense, Stuart, but you were not in our plans.”

I'm not offended.” Kerry said. 'So don't worry about it.”

Dar inhaled and exhaled. “What exactly does this position do?” She asked. “Aside from talk to the press in incomprehensible terms about things they don't and won't understand?”

The presidential advisor chuckled dryly. “Don't worry, Roberts. Its not a talking head job. I don't think you really fit the administration's image ideal in any case.” He cleard his throat. “The job is to find a way to get this government the ability to see into everything and anything, and find out what's really going on. Needs.. what do you call it? Software. Whatever.”

What do you mean by everything and anything?” Dar asked.

Everything. The internet, the phones, we need to see everytthing people are doing so we can find these bastards and get them out of here.” Bridges said. “So you agree? When can you start?”

You want me to figure out how to spy on everyone.” Dar clarified.

Bridges shrugged. “You could call it that, I suppose. But if a terrorist is sending an email to another terrorist about planting a bomb, I want to know that.”

Kerry watched Dar's profile, which was as still and cold as she'd ever seen her.

Well.” Dar folded her hands carefully and precisely ont the table. “That's not something I want to do. So you'll need to look elsewhere for your candidate.” She stared Bridges right in the eye. “I'm sure there are a lot of them out there.”

Bridges cocked his head to one side. “You understand what kind of offer this is, right?” He looked at Kerry. “I know you understand, so why not explain it to her?”

I do understand.” Kerry said. “And I really don't have to explain anything to Dar. She gets it.” She leaned forward a little. “Wouldn't this really be something better just outsourced, or maybe you could create a group in the Joint Chief's office to handle this?”

No.” Bridges shook his head. “Every existing division in this government wants to be put in charge of this and the infighting ain't worth it. I need an outsider.”

Kerry nodded. “I see.”

He looked at Dar. “Want to think about it for a couple days? Look, Roberts, I know you probably want to work for us about as much as I want to have to pay you, but I'm a realist, and despite how hoary and old fashioned it is to say it, I'm a patriot. We need to be able to do this so that no one can do what they did on September 11th. You agree with that, yes?”

Actually no I don't” Dar said. “I don't think you can ever stop someone from doing that at the sharp end. You have tos top them wanting to.”

Ah. Kerry felt a sense of pleasurable surprise hearing the words, but had no time to appreciate them as she sensed Dar starting to move and she got her feet under her to stand up.

I'll spend the weekend thinking about what you asked.” Dar said, crisply. “Talk to you on Monday.”

Bridges looked relieved. He stood up and held his hand out. “Monday it is. Have a good weekend ladies.” He got up himself and ushered them out, holding the door open for them and gesturing to the guard. “Please walk these folks out, Dustan. They're friendlies.”

The guard smiled at them, and opened the outer door. “Yes, sir, I will take good care of them.” He held the door for them and followed them out, as the sound of the halls started to echo around them.

Dar and Kerry exchanged glances. Then Kerry reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose, giving her head a tiny shake. “Dar, I need a drink.”

Me too.”

Well, hey.” Dustan the guard's ears pricked .”I know a good sports bar round the corner, wanna go there?”

No thanks.” Dar sighed. “We've got to go to the Pentagon.” She put her hand on Kerry's back as they maneuvered thorugh the crowd. “But with any luck, Gerry'll have scotch in his desk drawer.”


They didn't get far after leaving the White House. Dar found the first little grill and pulled into the parking lot, turning off the rental cars engine and leaning her hands on the wheel. “My brain hurts.”

Kerry had her arms folded across her chest, and she regarded the windy and overcast weather outside with a pensive expression. “Are you really going to think about this?”

Dar's eyebrows twitched and hiked. “Hell no.” She said. “What I am going to think about is how to say kiss my ass in some politically acceptable way that won't mean I get the last twenty years of my tax returns audited by members of the Westburo Baptist church.”

'That guy really wants you. I was joking before, but sheesh.” Kerry exhaled. “What do you think about his idea?”

His idea to spy on everyone?” Her partner said. “I think I”m going to find another country.”


Dar half turned. “Kerry, if he'd asked me to coordinate the intelligence services, or evaluate new technology, or find a way to integrate the multitude of data systems... maybe I would have thought about it for a few minutes. The country needs that.”

Kerry nodded

But figure out a way to snoop on my neighbors? Not my gig.” Her partner released her seat belt. “Let's get a cup of coffee or something.”

Kerry got out and zipped her jacket closed, as they walked across the parking lot towards the grill. She paused in mid step when Dar did, and stopped when her partner turned to face her. “What?”

Listen.” Dar's face was unsually somber. “I'm really sorry that guy was such a jackass to you.”

Kerry smiled. “Thank you sweetheart, but I felt nothing but happiness that he didn't want any part of me. Honest.” She patted Dar on the chest. “C'mon. It's cold out here.”


Really.” Kerry towed her towards the door. “If I'd wanted a political career, don'cha think I could have managed one from my family?”

No, I know.” Dar opened the door and follwed her inside. It was early for lunch, and there were only a few patrons inside, mostly at the bar. They were given the once over as they walked by, and settled gratefully out of sight in a small booth against the wall.

They looked at each other, then started laughing. “How in the hell do we get into crap like this, Dar?” Kerry asked, after a moment of chuckling. “That's crazy, you know?”

I know.” Dar glanced at the waitress as she arrived. “Coffee for me.” She eyed Kerry. “Want to share some sliders?”

Sure.” Kerry agreed. “Ice tea for me and one of the six slider plates.”

The waitress studied her briefly, then nodded agreement and took the menus back, disappering behind the service counter without any comment. “I think we were just pegged as not being from around here, Dar.” Kerry mused. “We should have ordered a salad to share.”

Yuk.” Dar was busy with her little gizmo. “I'm going to text the pilot and see if Gerry's available now. Maybe we can get out of here early.”

Music to my ears.” Kerry leaned against the seat back, folding her hands over her stomach. “How about some handball at the gym tonight?”

You feeling brave?” Dar laughed, as she finished texting, then pressed one of the dialing buttons. “You know, I sorta like this thing.” She put it to her ear. “Yes, this is Dar Roberts. Is General Easton there? I'd like to talk to him for a minute.”

Kerry smiled, considering the sense of relief she felt. Part of her, she knew had been a little afraid the government was going to ask Dar to do what Dar had mentioned – a logical, and needed request she knew would have tugged hard at her partner's innate sense of honor and likely resulted in some real soul searching on her part.

This? Write a program to spy on citizens? Aside from outraging Dar, it shunted aside any other consideration of the request and selfishly, she was glad.

Glad. Absolutely happy that that took one piece of complication out of her life, and left only Gerald Easton and his systems refresh.

Okay, Gerry, we'll be there in about forty five minutes.” Dar was speaking into the phone. “See ya.” She closed the phone and put it on the table. “I think I”m going to end up being a jackass to him.” She remarked. “After that last meeting, the less I have to do with the people in this town the happier I'll be.”

Kerry picked up her tea and sipped it. “You don't expect me to disagree, do you?” She'd been prepared to. She'd had all her arguments marshalled and her objections ready, absolutely intent that nothing was going to get their hooks into her beloved without her having a chance to stop it.

Kind of skanky, in an overpossessive, really, honestly selfish kind of way, but Kerry was in a place where she cared more about their future together than that.

No.” Dar mixed as much sugar and cream into her coffee as was possible given the level in the cup. “I know you're here to keep me from doing something stupid.” She glanced up, her eyes twinkling a little. “I don't think you have anything to worry about though.” She added, as a blush became evident on Kerry's face.

Sorry I'm that transparent.” Kerry muttered.

Shouldn't you be, to me?”

Kerry took a breath to protest, then paused, regarding the look of mild affection on Dar's face.

Remember you once made me promise I'd think of both of us before I made decisions, even about myself?” Dar asked. “When I quit that time?”

Kerry nodded.

Trust me.”

Kerry blushed again, this time more intensely, as she moved her cup to let the waitress put the sliders she now had no interest in eating in front of them. “Wow.” She said, as the woman left. “Now I feel like a complete creep.”

C'mon, Ker.” Dar picked up a mini burger and took a bite of it. “Ease up. We've got a twenty minute scope inspection and then we're outta here. I want to go back to planning our trip.”

Kerry studied the angular face across from her. “Why the hell am I being such a jerk?” She sighed, shaking her head a little and picking up a burger. “Maybe I need to go get my head examined.”

Dar munched in silence, regarding her.

You think Doctor Steve knows someone I can talk to?” Kerry nibbled at the bacon sticking out of the slider.

Probably.” Her partner swallowed and took a sip of coffee. “Yeah, I think he does. He suggested someone he knew for me to talk to after they told us about Dad.”

Did you?”

Dar's lips twitched “What do you think?”

Kerry felt the angst ease a little. “Let me guess, that would be no.”

Correct. But doesn't mean you shouldn't, if it would make you feel better.” Dar said. “There's a lot of people that were part of that whole situation that say they've been socked with PTSD.”

You think that's what this is?”

I have no idea, hon.” Dar selected another burger. “I don't know if there is anything for it to be, but if it'll make you feel better to talk to someone, hell, do it.”

Kerry chewed thoughtfully for a few minutes. She watched Dar's body language, the relaxed and easy motion matching the casual speech. Things usually didn't chew at Dar, she knew. Her partner tended to dismiss things that were in the past, the one exception to that had been her relationships but even now that seemed to have faded, and left her living pretty much in the moment most of the time.

There was value in that. Kerry wished her mind worked the same way. “Meh. I'll talk to him next week.” She concluded. “So – this government offer.”


Why you?” Kerry asked. “I mean, don't get me wrong, sweetheart, you know I think you're the greatest gift to IT the world has ever seen.”

Dar started laughing.

But why would this guy want you to come work for him? I love you, but you'd be a political nightmare and we both know that.” Kerry wiped her lips. “I don't really get it.”

Dar sat back and took a sip of her coffee, clearing her throat a little. “Those are pretty good.” She indicated the plate. “I think this guy is someone who mostly cares about results. I'm sure he knows my background and my rep, and he's made the decision that he's willing to deal with that to get what he wants.”


Victim of my own success.” Dar reiterated her earlier statement. “He asked for the impossible, and I made it possible. I can see why he wants someone like me to make this impossible dream of his reality.”

Is it impossible?”

Dar motioned the waitress over. “It's impossible for me.” She handed the woman her credit card. “It's not right. I won't do it. I'm sure they'll find someone who will.”

Kerry rested her hands on the table. “Dar?”


I actually suggested that to them.”

What?” Dar's head cocked slightly. “That they find someone else?”

That they go to the Tier 1 providers and put their sniffer in there to find bad guys.” Kerry answered, quietly. “I didn't even think about it from a personal angle. I just wanted them out of our datacenter.”

Dar blinked a few times, much as she had in the White House office. “That when they wanted in to Herndon?” She asked. “When I locked everything down?”

Kerry nodded.

The waitress came back and handed the check to Dar, with a pen and a slip. “Here you go.”

Thanks.” Dar signed it and took back her card. She folded the receipt up and stuck it in her pocket, then leaned her elbows on the table. “Given where we were right then, you told them the right thing.” She said. “It's the same thing we told the yahoos in that guy's office the last time. Follow the money.” She held up her card, then put it back in her wallet. “Besides I'm sure that idea occurred to more than one person.”

True.” Kerry slid out of the booth and followed her towards the door. “But Dar, that's what we told them to do, wasn't it? To find those people, they would have to do that.”

Dar exhaled. “Mm.” She opened the door back out into the cold windy weather. “In an abstract sense yeah.” She admitted. “So I guess I'm sounding pretty hypocritical, but all the same, Im not doing it.” She insisted. “Besides, by the time you designed a metric and parser, the real bad guys would find out how to hide from it, and it ends up becoming a way to embarrass political rivals.”

Kerry sighed. “That's probably very true.”

Probably?” Dar opened her door for her, and watched her slide inside. “Think your father would have used it to get dirt on people?”


Dar closed the door and walked around to the driver's side, pausing to glance around the parking lot before she opened the door and got in. Just a scattering of cars were around them, but one had a guy behind the wheel, reading a newspaper and she spent a moment indulging in a moment of spy fantasy.

Then she shut the door and started the car, wanting nothing more than to get past the Pentagon and go home. “Today is kinda sucking.”

Kerry reached across the center console and put her hand on Dar's thigh, rubbing gently with her thumb against the cotton fabric covering it. “Yeah.” She agreed. “Let's hope it turns around.”

Dar paused as they reached the exit, and waited for traffic to slow before she pulled out. She glanced in her rear view mirror out of long habit, and felt a faint shock as she saw the guy with the paper behind her, waiting to turn as well.

Coincidence? “Yeah, let's hope so.” She replied, turning right out of the lot and proceeding along the street, keeping an eye on her mirror until she saw the guy pull out also, but to the left, heading away from them. She exhaled “Let's hope so.”


Gerald Easton's office was quiet, and there were comfortable leather chairs to sit in near an open space off to one side of his desk. Kerry took a seat as the general arranged for some coffee, leaning back and crossing her legs at the ankles. Off in the distance she could hear the sounds of construction, or more to the point, reconstruction as the area damaged by the attack was rebuilt.

Now then, Dar.” Easton crossed over to them and took a seat. “What's this all about you leaving?”

Dar cleared her throat gently. “We're resigning.” She said. “Kerry and I. We gave ILS six months notice.” She exchanged looks with her partner. “We're going to form our own company.”

Hm.” The general looked thoughtful. “Well now, that's a bit of good news.”

About to continue speaking, Dar halted, and looked at him in mild puzzlement.

It is?” Kerry asked, equally surprised.

The generals admin came in with a tray, bringing it over and putting it down. She poured out cups for them and handed them over, then smiled, and withdrew.

Easton took a sip of his and wriggled his nose a little. “Sounds funny, a bit.” He admitted. “Fact is, there's been a bother about your whole lot there, being in so many areas, y'know?”

No, I don't know.” Dar said.

You mean, because we're international?” Kerry interpreted. “Is that it?”

Easton nodded. “Too big an exposure, people say.” He said. “Some of the spooks were talking to us about it the other day. Said it was dangerous, having all those technical things in the hands of people who talked to so many non Americans.”

Dar reached up and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “You're kidding me, right? Most of the Fortune 500 are international.”

Sure.” Easton agreed. “But they don't handle all our private stuff, don'tcha know?” He reached over and patted her knee. “That's what I wanted to talk to you about, in person. We want to do that project, but I'm getting a lot of push back on using all those fellers of yours who aren't from around here.”

Wow.” Kerry remarked. “General, most of the staff that handle our government accounts are from the US. Only a few of the follow the sun monitoring services aren't, so we can give 24 hour support.”

Easton shrugged. “Got those spook fellers who think differently. Told the President we should change it. So here you are, and I'm thinking I'm going to have bad news for you, and then you tell me this. Wonderful. So we'll just hire you to do it. Problem solved.” He looked extremely pleased. “Nicely done!”

Dar set her coffee down. “Gerry, we can't do that.” She said. “I'll be under a non compete clause, and it'll take us at least a year to get our company set up and going to where we'll be able to take on something as major as this is.” She said. “Especially since we'll in effect be taking this business away from ILS.”

Pah.” Easton said. “That's just legal mumbo jumbo. We'll pay off that other thing, why now, it's chicken feed to the dollars they're pushing at me.” He said. “Best news I could get, you saying you're cutting out of there, Dar. I was feeling bad, don't you know? About taking the work away. Would have anyway, but still, this is better.”

Kerry rubbed her temples. “Dar, you want me to have boxes of Scotch sent to the board for your next meeting with them?”

Dar sighed. “Gerry.” She said. “Of the two offers I got today, believe me, yours is the one I'd jump at. But I can't just... “ She paused. “I've got a pension and out package coming to me.”

Ah” Easton nodded. “Understand that, Dar. I really do. Got mine in my back pocket too, don'tcha know? But the fact is, the boys upstairs don't want us to put our fannies where someone might take a shot at them.” He said. “I know, how about we just draft the two of you? That'd get around your lawyers, eh?”

Whoa.” Kerry held a hand up.

Dar sighed.

C'mon now, Dar. I know you filled out a draft card.” Easton chuckled. “But we'll find a way around it. Long as I know you're bound to get off their payroll, we'll think of something.”

Dar propped her head up on her hand. “Got any whiskey? It's been that kind of day.”

Now, Dar. Relax.” Gerry patted her knee again. “What did the executive branch want from ya?”

Don't ask.'” Dar slid down in her chair and put her arm over her eyes.

They want Dar to be the technology czar for the government.” Kerry supplied helpfully. 'She doesn't want to.”

Hell no!” General Easton straightened up. “That's a scapegoat looking for a place to be shot in. Heard them talking about that. Let em find some politico to fill that slot.”

Dar sighed. “I just want to go to the Grand Canyon.” She said, in a mournful tone. “Play with my dog, watch Kerry take shots of the sunset, and park my RV downwind from the barbeque grill. Is that too much to ask?” She looked over at Gerry. “After we leave ILS in March, we're going on a tour.”

Easton studied her.

The agreement that Dar is going to sign requires her to stay out of our industry for a period of time.” Kerry explained to him. “So we're going ot take time off and go travel.”

The General sighed. “Soldiers don't get vacations, ladies. Not when we're at war.”

We're not soldiers.” Dar slid upright. “I had the chance to do that, and I turned it down.” She met the General's eyes. “If we can work out a way to work together, that's great. If not, Gerry, I'm sorry if you don't want to continue with ILS. They're a good company, and they have a lot of good people who have done a very good job for you this last year.”

It's politics, Dar.” Easton said. “Nothing personal, you know? I'm sure we can work something out. I've got no quarrel with your people, in fact, I like that McLean fella a lot. Got a good head on his shoulders. But I trust you.”

Dar sighed again.

Victim of your own success, sweetheart.” Kerry had, at this point, to find it almost funny. “You said it.”

I said it.” Dar agreed mournfully. “Now I wish I'd stayed a technical manager running saturation reports on the tenth floor.”

I”m glad you didn't .We would never have met.” Kerry said. “General, I”m sure we can work something out. Even if Dar can't participate officially, there's no reason I can't sign a deal with you.”

Easton beamed at her. “That's the ticket!”

Kerry.” Dar eyed her.

You were the one telling me to get moving on setting up the company.” Kerry reminded her. “Fish or cut bait, Roberts.” She watched Dar's hands, waiting for any sign of the fidgets she knew meant she'd pissed her partner off. But they remained relaxed and open on her knees, until one lifted to prop her head up. “Dar, someone has to do this. You know they need it. If not us, who?”

General Easton sat back in his chair, sipping his coffee, his eyebrows wiggling around as he listened.

Dar remained silent for a minute, then she half shrugged. “We'll work something out.” She conceded. “I”d feel a lot better about bringing the military into the 21st century than dealing with politics.”

Kerry patted her knee.

Great.” Gerry said, after a bit of silence. “Well Dar, how are your folks? I tried to give them a call the other day, but no one was home.”

Ah.” Dar took a sip of coffee. “That reminds me. Can you get them to leave my dad alone?”


They're trying to drag him back into active service.” Dar said. “He and mom took off for a while to get away from it.”

Easton frowned. “Hmph.” He considered. “I suppose he's inactive retired... I know they're doing some stuff with retention, but surely he'd not be in line for a call back?” He said. “I'll sort it out, Dar. Should only die once for your country, eh? He's put in his time.”

That's what I thought too.” Dar said, in a quiet voice. “Gerry, I don't want to lose my father again like that. Tell them to lay off, please?”

There was an awkward little silence, then Easton leaned forward and put a hand on her arm. “I'll take care of it Dar, I promise.”

Thanks.” Dar exhaled. “And I'll do my best to sort out this contract.”

Deal.” The General stood up. “Tell you want, c'mon to dinner, the two of you over at our place. We've got a pile of puppies there, don'cha know? Alabasters. I think one's going to your family.” He looked over at Kerry. “Jack's carrier's out in the Med, but the wife'll be glad for company.”

Sure.” Dar answered. “That'd be great.”

Never say no to puppies.” Kerry smiled. “We'd love to.”


The puppies were as adorable as she'd imagined them to be. Kerry sat with her legs sprawled out in the utilty room of the Easton's house, as the litter of eight puppies climbed all over her, snuffling and squeaking and bringing back memories of Chino when they'd first gotten her. “Oh my gosh.”

Dar was in the living room with Alabaster and the Eastons, and Kerry had tactfully elected to spend some time with Alabaster's litter to give them some privacy. The puppies were eight weeks old, and in a week or so one of the little girls would be leaving for Michigan.

Sweetie, you'll love it.” She told the chosen one, who had a little red collar on and a perfect black button nose. “There are two little kids to run around and play with, and a big, big yard for you.”

The puppy sat back and stuck her u shaped tongue out at her, small silky ears flopping around as she rocked her head back and forth, squeaking with delight when Kerry picked her up and cuddled her. “You're such a cutie.”

Curled up next to her was a large black Labrador, who, she'd been told, was Buford the puppies father. He seemed very relaxed and dignified, his muzzle resting on her thigh as he watched his puppies gamboling around.

Kerry chuckled softly, as she felt a tug on her shoelaces, and a nibble on her ear at the same time. The puppy smelled clean and dusky ,it's breath holding that indefinable scent of new life and she had a sensation of being surrounded by that steadfast ly trusting adoration she'd come to associate with her own pet Chino.

It soothed her soul.

You know what, you little baby you, I want you to be good friends with my niece and nephew.” She informed the puppy. “I know Sally's going to love you, so try not to eat all her toys before you grow up, okay?”

The puppy made a squeaking, growling noise as she snuffled down the back of Kerry's collar, makin Kerry bite her lip to keep from giggling. She looked down to find another puppy, a chocolate brown little boy climbing up on her leg to sniff at her kneecap. “Hey, I'm not your bed!”

The puppies were a range of colors to her surprise. Of the eight, five were a creamy whiteish gold like Chino, two were chocolate brown, and one was inky black.


Kerry looked up to find Dar in the doorway, watching her with an affectionate smile. “Oh Dar, they're so darn cute.” She indicated the puppies, two of whom had rambled off to investigate this new intruder. “I'm remembering all over again the day we got Cappuchino.”

Dar sat down on the step and scooped up a puppy. “That was a beautiful day.”

It was.” Kerry watched the girl puppy chew her finger. “That was the day I knew we were us.” She watched the smile on Dar's face broaden. “So I hope this little girl makes Sally as happy as Chino made me.”

Aw.” Dar leaned against the doorjamb, giving the brown puppy in her arms a scratch behind his ears. “I remember just thinking about you and your little spaniel and how angry that made me.” She said. “Just so pissed. I wanted you to know I was committed to our relationship and that wasn't ever going to happen to you again.”

Kerry nodded, savoring the moment. “So what's going on out there?” She asked. “We okay with them?”

Yeah.” Dar gazed fondly at the little boy puppy. “They've had time to come to terms with the fact I'm gay.” She said. “Did I ever tell you they were hoping Jack and I would get married?”

Kerry made a little face.

I told Jack if it came down to it, I'd have a kid with him to give Gerry a grandkid.” Dar recalled. “Glad I dind't have to make good on that. He's hooked up with a supply lieutenant and it looks serious.”

Guy or girl?”


Ah huh.” Kerry pursed her lips and nodded. “Well, I think my eyes would turn lime green if I had to deal with that, but you know, Dar, I did tell you your genes should stay in the pool.”

We have a dog.” Dar stated. “Matter of fact.. “ She eyed the puppy. “Think Chino wants a little brother?”

Do we want to deal with Chino's little brother?” Kerry demurred. “You're the one who lost half their shoes.”

They reluctantly extricated themselves from the furry pile and rejoined the Eastons in the living room. “Those puppies are so cute.” Kerry dusted her hands off. “Thanks for letting me snuggle with them.”

Oh, that's all fine, honey.” The General's wife smiled at her. “Now tell me, you're that nice young lady who talked to us about Thanksgiving dinner, a few years back aren't you?”

Kerry chuckled. “Matter of fact I am.” She admitted. “I think I saved Dar from brussel sprouts.”

You did.” Mary Easton agreed. “I told Dar then I thought you were fond of her, and I was right.” She bravely asserted. “Wasn't I?”

No doubt at all.” Dar agreed. “Thanks for not freaking completely out about us, by the way. My parents were really proud of you all.”

Easton chuckled with a touch of embarassment. “Different times.” He said, briefly. “But after all, we've known you since you were knee high.”

They walked into the dining room where a meal of meat loaf and sides was waiting. Kerry excused herself to wash her hands, and pondered her reflection in the mirror as she did. “Do I even remember what it was like to be on the other end of that phone call?”

She remembered getting it. Mari's admin had called her, apologizing for interrupting her but saying someone was calling asking about Dar, and Maria was out. Could she talk to them?

Of course she could. She recalled the little, nervous start she'd gotten over it, almost a sense of guilt as she spoke to this unknown, friendly sounding woman, taking posession of her new lover while wishing wistfully she was going to join her for the now sprout free meal.

She'd forgotten completely about it, in her own holiday misery.

Drying her hands she returned to the dining room, taking her seat at Dar's side and putting her napkin in her lap in time to hear Dar relating a story about her and Jack in a tree that she thougtht she'd heard at a party sometime. “I can picture you doing that.” She said. “I remember coming into that wiring closet on our first floor and finding you hanging up side down like a bat.”

'Why were you doing that, Dar?” Mary asked.

Why was I doing that.” Dar mused. “Damned if I remember. Was I stretching my back out?” She asked Kerry. “Yeah, I think I was. After sitting on that concrete floor all that time. I”m not a kid anymore.”

Oh you poor thing.” Mrs. Easton mock clucked her tongue at her. 'Wait till you get to be my age, young lady. Then we can talk about aches and pains.”

Well, Dar's retiring, matter of fact.” General Easton said. “From that company, that is.”

Really?” Mary said. “My goodness.”

Dar nodded. “We both are.” She indicated herself and Kerry. “But we're going to open our own company after we take a break to go do some traveling.”

That's wonderful.” Mary said. “Could you hire Gerry? He needs a better job.” She eyed her husband. “And Jack also. His air group is being assigned to active duty in the Arabian Sea and I don't mind telling you, it makes me nervous.”

The general frowned. “Least he's not on the ground, Mary.”

Anytime.” Dar said. “I told Jack the last time we hung out I'd be glad to hire him at ILS, matter of fact.” She looked at her plate of meatloaf with satisfaction. “Hell, I hired my father.”

He's a great research analyst.” Kerry spoke up.

See?” Mary said.

Now look here.” The General shook his fork at them. “I'll retire soon enough! Service has been my whole life. Done us well so far, hasn't it?”

Yes but you're here.” Mary said. “Jack isn't.” She turned and regarded Kerry. “He's my only child.”

Mary, enough.”

The general's wife subsided, but her expression was still stormy, and Kerry sorted through possible changes of subject. “So, aside from my sister, do you have homes for the rest of those adorable little kids?”

Gerald Easton gave her an approving look. “Well now, most of them do, in fact.” He said. “Only ones we have left to place is one of the brown boys.”

Dar and Kerry exchanged looks.

Really.” Kerry said. “So tell me, do Labradors like company? We worry about Chino home alone all the time.” She explained. “Do you think we can maybe give that little boy a home?”

Easton's eyes lit up. “Why sure! That's a grand idea, isn't it Mary?”

Absolutely.” His wife agreed at once. “You know, they're really social dogs. Alabaster is such good stock, we only breed her every couple of years, and quite a few of her pups have gone on to do all kinds of things. But she's always a little disconsolate when all the puppies leave. I'm so glad she has Beauregard to keep her company.”

They are very social.” Kerry said. “They're almost human, you know? Their expressions and everything. I really think Chino understands what I'm telling her when I talk to her.”

Got the smarts of three, four year old kids.” Gerry relaxed, happy to be discussing one of his favorite subjects. “Very smart animals.” He glanced to the side as Alabaster arrived, as though she knew she was being spoken of. “Isn't that right, madam?”

Growf.” Alabaster uttered, sitting down next to him with her tail sweeping back and forth.

So of course, it would be great company for her to get her little brother.” Mary said. “Have you thought of breeding Chino?”

No.” Kerry said. “Dar and I have such a busy life, it would be hard to do that, but I think we can handle another puppy, now that we'll have more time for a while.”

Not for too long.” General Easton winked at her. “Got customers lining up. Don't forget that.”

Dar and Kerry exchanged another glance, with a completely different set of emotions reflected in it. “Right.” Dar said. “So tell me about Jack's new squadron. New planes?”

They launched into a military hardware conversation that left Kerry and Mary Easton regarding each other in bemused silence. “Do you like Washington, Kerry?”

No, not so much.” Kerry had finished her meatloaf, and was now sipping on the blackberry ice tea Mary had served with it. “I spent more than enough time here while I was growing up. Never really liked it.”

No, I guess not. Gerry told me a little about you having some family issues.” The older woman looked at her sympathetically. “My father was a state representative. I did my share of cheese and pate parties.”

Yeah.” Kerry smiled. “It can be tough for a kid growing up in that world. That was one of the reasons I wanted to get my sister to get a dog like our Chino for her little girl. I think she feels it, and they've had some family problems so..”

Mary smiled back. “Nothing like a little unreserved love, is there?”

No. Nothing like it.”

I was so glad when Jack said Dar was going to take one of the last litter. When she was here, she seemed a little sad.” Mary lowered her voice. “I always felt she missed out not being in the service, no matter what I said before about Jack being out there. It's a family, you know?”

Kerry nodded. “I know. I'm glad there's a family now around her.” She said. “I love her parents.”

The Lord certainly looked after them.” The general's wife said. “No doubt.”

Well. “I'm sure something was.” Kerry said. “Good people have a way of winning out that way.”


Kerry stretched out in the passenger seat, watching the dark streets go by as they headed for the airport. “They're a nice couple.”

They are.” Dar agreed. “I”m glad we stayed and had dinner with them.”

And got a puppy.” Kerry chuckled. “Was that hasty?”

I like hasty.” Dar asserted. “Besides, it's true. He'll be company for Chino, and he can go in our RV with us.”

Kerry thought that was going to be more chaos than the casual words indicated, but that was all right. “Let's make sure the RV has a washable floor.”

Mm.” Dar turned into the small private airfield, already spotting their plane waiting to one side of a fenced wall. “That'll be a pleasure to deal with after all the crap we're going to have to get through with all this.” She shut the car off and got out, handing over the keys to a uniformed valet.

Thought about what you're going to tell them?” Kerry zipped her jacket up and followed her partner into the airfield building, lifting a hand in greeting at their pilot.

I already know what I'm going to tell them. No.” Dar handed over their overnight bag. “Sorry to keep you so late, Kent.”

No problem. Friend of mine came over and took me for dinner.” The pilot assured them. “And I took a four hour nap. It's all good.”

They followed him out to the plane and boarded, trading the cold wind for the smell of leather and a hint of aviation kerosene. Dar dropped into a seat, then grimaced as her phone rang. She removed it from her pocket and glanced at the caller ID. “Uh oh.”

Uh oh?”

Alastair.” Dar hit the answer button. “Dar Roberts.” She enunciated clearly.

Hey there Dar.” Alastair's voice echoed softly. “Just wanted to find out how everything went today. Boards a little anxious.”

Dar sighed. “With good reason, Alastair. I don't have news you want to hear.”


Kerry removed her jacket and hung it up in the little closet, as the flight attendant came out with some cappucino, and a plate of warm cookies. “Oo.”

You know, Ms. Stuart, I have to say I really wish you two weren't leaving the company.” The woman said, with a sigh. “I'm sure going ot miss you.” She offered the cookies. “The last exec plane I worked the only thing I got to service was vodka and caviar.”

So you like cookies and hot mocha better?” Kerry laughed, taking a cup and a cookie. “I'll tell you it's nice to come back to after a day like today.” She could see Dar's grimace. “Better get her some milk.”

Look Alastair.. what do you want me to tell you? Want me to lie? I didn't ask for this.” Dar leaned back in her chair and gave Kerry a pathetic look. “It was about as welcome as a hemorrhoid.”

Gotcha.” The flight attendant went back to the small galley as Kerry brought her cookie over and broke off a small piece, offering it to her beleagured partner.

Dar accepted it, chewing and swallowing it as she listened. “Just don't say anything about the government position. The board half figured that was something directed at me personally anyway. I'm going to say no.”

Kerry fed her another piece.

Well, honestly Alastair, it was me that got them Gerry's contract.” Dar said after another long moment of listening. “I get their point, we are international.”

The flight attendant came back and offered a glass of milk, which Dar took after giving her a bemused glance, which she then turned on Kerry, who smiled and took the seat next to her.

Then I suggest you tell the board we're going to have to form a US only subsidiary if they want to pursue that. Maybe I can convince Gerry to go that route.” Dar said. “I gotta go, they want to take off.” She paused to listen. “Yeah, I know Alastair. For what it's worth, I”m sorry.”

She hung up as they started to taxi and let the device rest on her thigh, turning her head to regard Kerry. “He thinks they're going to want me to come to Houston again.” She said. “Maybe I'll get lucky and they'll decide to let me get out of there early.”

Us.” Kerry replied instantly.

Us.” Dar took a sip of her milk. “I hope to hell they find someone to take this damn job soon.”


Look at her.” Kerry was sitting on their couch, as Chino subjected her to a complete and very thorough sniffing. “She knows I was messing with those puppies.”

Of course she does.” Dar was standing looking out of the sliding glass doors, watching the lights of the channel blink in their red and green pattern. “You smell like puppy. You think she's dumb?”

Kerry studied their pet, whose tail was wagging wildly. “I think she likes it.” She stroked Chino's thick fur, and the dog settled down and put her head on Kerry's lap, tail still thumping against the couch surface. “What do you think, Chi? You want to play with your little brother? He's really cute.”

She glanced at Dar's back, seeing the tension in the shoulders facing her. “You still freaking out?”

Dar's hands lifted and then fell again. She turned and came over to the couch, sitting down on the other side of Chino and draping her arm across the back. “I feel bad.” She admitted. “I wasn't counting on Gerry's deal.”

Yeah.” Kerry slid her arm outside Dar's and stroked the skin of her shoulder through her shirt. “But what you told Alastiar was right, Dar. You did get that account for ILS. I remember when it happened.”

I remember using it to make your numbers work and save your buddies jobs.” Dar mused. “But it was legit. That second one, when I coeerced him into giving me all those extra contracts to keep my mouth shut on the Navy base, that wasn't so legit.”

ILS won, either way.”

They did.” Dar let her head rest against the couch back. “You know what, maybe I don't feel bad. Maybe I'm just frustrated at being in such a weird spot with everyone.” She admitted. “Anything you particularily want to do this weekend?”

Hm.” Kerry accepted the subject change gracefully. “I don't know. We'll figure something out tomorrow.” She held her hand out palm up. “It's midnight. Want to join me in our waterbed?”


They got up and went into the first floor bedroom, where they undressed in companionable silence, and then eased into the waterbed.

The phone rang.

Dar sighed, and reached over, picking up the reciever. “Hello?” She said, then paused. “This is Dar Roberts.”

Uuuuuggghh.” Kerry eased over and snuggled up next to her, listeing to the voice issuing from the telephone. “That doesn't sound good.”

Dar moved the phone closer to her. “Go on.”

Okay, Ms. Roberts? Look, I know it's late, and I”m sorry, but they cut all this stuff over to the new place yesterday and we're having all kinds of problems with it. I'm getting chewed alive.”

The man's voice sounded aggravated and upset. “It's not fair, you know? They just told me to deal with it.”

Who told you that?” Dar asked, gently.

Night supervisor in ops, in Miami.” The man responded. “I”m sorry, I'm Jack Bueno. I'm kinda new. I forgot to introduce myself.” He added. “I know the chain of command and all that but I”m running out of things to tell these customers so I figured I'd put my cojones on the line and see if I could get some help.”

So you want me to help you?” Dar asked, as Kerry rolled off in the other direction and got out of bed, a mild, bemused expression on her face. “For technical problems?”

Ma'am.” Bueno said. “I don't mean to be rude or anything, but your name's all over the base configs of everything in this center. I hope that's not because someone has your login.”

Dar chuckled. “No, it's not.” She rolled out of the bed herself. “All right, hang on, and let me get some lights on here and go into my office. See what I can do to get things sorted out for you.”

Thank you.” Bueno's voice sounded utterly relieved. “I'm real sorry to get you out of bed. I just didn't know what else to do.”

You get points for doing it.” Dar pulled a shirt over her head and trudged from the bedroom into her office, finding the lights already on, and smelling coffee on gust of air coming across the living room. “Matter of fact, I'm sorry you had to call me. Dissappoints me like you would not believe.”

Yes ma'am, I get that.”

Call me Dar. It's after midnight.” Dar sat down and flicked on her monitor. “By the way, welcome to ILS.”


Kerry rested her head on her hand, as she scribbled notes on a light purple notepad with a dark purple pen. It was four AM, and she'd been recording changes her harassed partner had been making in the new data centers's networking. “Want more coffee, hon?”

I want a shotgun and a concrete block construction wall.” Dar growled, making Kerry smile in pure reaction. “I am so pissed.”

I know.” Kerry reached over and patted her arm. “How about a chocolate milkshake instead of coffee?” She watched Dar's profile, as it's tension eased and one brow rose, reading the positive reaction with no trouble at all. “Be right back.”

She put the pen down and got up, walking around behind Dar and giving her a brief hug and a kiss on the top of her head before she retreated to the kitchen with a sleepy Chino ambling after her.

Dar had every right to be pissed. Kerry considered that, as she got out the required ingredients for a milkshake. In reality, she herself should be in the trenches, getting this sorted out but she knew getting in Dar's way and trying to get between her and the staff would just end up counterproductive for both of them.

She'd learned that the hard way. Four am was no time to be getting into an argument with Dar about their respective areas of responsibility seeing that her boss had spent the last four hours untangling the configuration Kerry's staff had implemented.

Just wasn't any point in it. Dar wasn't mad at her, and she really didn't want that to change.

She had assigned the comissioning of the center out to her infrastructure teams. Apparently, there had been a screw up, or – to be fair, a design choice that had been made that had really not worked out. Dar was in the middle of doing multiple alterations of the systems to fix that, but the changes were extensive, and they impacted already upset customers and she was reserving herself to handle those phone calls to keep them off both the operations and her lover's back.

Of course they could have called in the groups in question and forced them to do the work to make the systems right. From a business and learning perspective, that might have been a better choice. But at midnight, faced with a call from a customer facing director in trouble Dar had been in no mood for a coaching moment.

It was, what it was. She scooped out some chocolate malt and scattered it over the balls of chocolate ice cream, then added milk to the blender before she started it mixing. “Want a cookie, Chi?” She fished a treat from the doggy jar for the patiently waiting dog, and offered it to her. “It's weird, huh? All dark outside and us up and doing stuff.”

Chino crunched the treat, scattering tiny crumbs on the tile floor. She sniffed after them, and licked them up, as Kerry poured out two thick milkshakes and debated adding whipped cream.

Sometimes Dar liked whipped cream, sometimes she didn't, saying it blocked access to the ice cream.

What the hell.” She added the cream and headed back to Dar's office, coming in to find her partner studying her screen, pecking away at her keyboard in absorbed attention.

She set the shakes down and resumed her seat, picking up her pen again. “Okay, so now what did you do what that second core, Dar?”

Made it virtual across the two chassis.” Dar muttered. “Why in the hell woudln't they do that, Kerry? Not only is it our standard it's industry standard.”

Don't know, hon. I will ask at the staff meeting I called first thing Monday.” Kerry scribbled down a note. “Is it getting any better?”


Kerry tapped her pen on the pad. “Would it help for us to go there?”


Okay.” Kerry ticked off the items she had to do and wrote a few more notes. “Do you need to add equipment in there? So I can get that prepped?”

Dar scowled. “Let me get back to you on that.” She made another change and reviewed the results. “Holy shit what a hairball.”

Ms. Roberts?” Jack came back on the conference bridge. “Whatever you did about five minutes ago really helped Interbank. They're running normal metrics now.”

Oh good.” Kerry drew a small line, and made a note on one of the checklist items. “Good to hear, Jack.”

Thanks Ms. Stuart. Sorry you had to get into this too.” Jack said, mournfully. “Getting Ms. Roberts up was bad enough.”

Kerry studied the phone, then looked at her partner. “Does he not know?” She mouthed, inclining the pen towards her own chest, then at Dar.

Dar pressed the mute button. “He's new.” She said, apparently reading her partner's mind. “I don't think they go over our relationship in new employee orientation. Yet.”

Kerry chuckled, and shook her head. She reached over to release the mute. “No problem, Jack. Let's just get this squared away so our customers are happy.” She said. “We can worry about who and when and why later.”

Yes, ma'am.” Jack agreed instantly. “That's what my big problem was. I don't mind having arguments about doing it this way, or doing it that way, but when it starts to impact the people who depend on us we can't be sitting here arguing with each other.”

Yup.” Dar was busy typing. “That's the whole point all right.”

I was surprised.” Jack said, after a brief pause. “I had heard ILS wasn't like that. One reason I took the data center director job here.”

Dar stopped typing and she and Kerry exchanged glances again.

No offense.” Jack said, after an awkward pause.

None taken.” Dar said. “Okay, I just made another change, and reconverged everything. See what that does.”

Okay.” Jack walked away from the phone and they could hear a door open, and the airplane engine sound of a datacenter that was cut off as the door closed.

What he just said bothers me.” Kerry spoke up. “Because I believed that too, Dar. So what's going on? Are people that pissed off that we're leaving that they're doing this stuff on purpose?”

Or is it just that we've told them to think for themselves and this is the result?” Dar responed. “Not sure which I'd hate more.”

Mm.” Kerry shook her head back and forth. “Boy that's a tossup.”

Ker I wrote our design standards.” Her partner said in a serious tone. “It's not like I just kept it all in my head. It's on the process server.”

Going to be a long Monday.” Kerry sighed and made a few more notes, listening to Dar slurp her milkshake as they waited for Jack to come back. “As if it wasn't going to be long enough already.”

No kidding.” Dar groused.

No kidding.” She sipped her own drink for a few minutes, then jerked slightly as her own phone rang. “Kerry Stuart.” She answered it without bothering to check the caller ID.

Hey Kerry.”

Hey Mark.” Kerry responded. “What's up?”

I guess I need to ask you that.” Mark sounded glum. “Night ops finally called me and told me the new datacenter's having problems.”

Wow.” Kerry said. “Dar's been working on it for about four hours or so. I think she's almost done.” She looked up to see Dar watching her over the rim of her glass, a thick white whipped cream moustache on her upper lip. “I scheduled an all hands meeting on Monday to talk about it.”

They said they were having some issues, but it didn't sound serious yesterday.” Mark said. “I figured it could wait for us to come in next week.”

Well.” Kerry exhaled. “By my count Dar's made about... forty changes to the configuration in there. So apparently it was more serious than that.” She took a swallow of her milkshake. “It's been getting better though.”



She pissed?”

Yeah.” Kerry said. “I am too, actually. I wasn't looking to stay up all night fixing someone else's mistakes tonight.”

Mark was silent for a long moment. “Shit.” He finally said. “Okay, let me start the research.” He added. “See how we can make sure it doesn't happen again.”

Kerry felt a sense of relief on hearing that. “It can wait for the morning, Mark. I think Dar's got it now. We can pick up the details afterward so long as they're good until after the weekend.” She paused, as she heard the sound of the datacenter pick up on the call and then cease with the bang of the door. “Hang on. “

Okay.” Jack got back on the bridge. “That looks a lot better! The graphs have settled down, and my phone's stopped ringing.” He sounded tired, but elated. “The ops center said the metrics are coming back into normal range.”

Good.” Dar licked her lips. “So let's hold it here for now, and we can do a complete review in a couple days to see if anything else needs adjusting. Call me if anything else wiggles loose.”

Ma'am... ah, I mean, Dar, thanks a billion.” Jack said. “I really really apreciate the help.”

Anytime.” Dar smiled. “Good night.” She released the speakerphone button and regarded Kerry, shaking her head when Kerry pointed at her phone.

Okay, looks like we're all right for now, Mark.” Kerry concluded.

Sure. Big D touched it.” Mark sighed. “I have no fucking idea what we're going to do without her.”

Dar's ears twitched, hearing the words in soft echo. She sat back in her chair with her glass cradled between both hands, and sucked at the contents in silence.

Hopefully we can make it a learning moment.” Kerry said. “You know, Dar had to learn it some way, right?”

No.” Mark responded. “She was born knowing that stuff. It's organic. We were talking about that in the shop the other day. But we'll have to come up with something. Maybe we'll get her to code a virtual Dar in the ops console.”

Kerry watched her partnet's eyebrows shoot right up to her hairline. “Hmm... that's an idea.” She said. “Talk to you later Mark. Have a good night.” She closed the phone and returned her partner's somber gaze. “Yuk.”

Yuk.” Dar repeated. “Lets go to bed.” She got up and stretched, grimacing as her shoulders popped. “Did we have plans tomorrow?”

Nope.” Kerry drained her glass and stood up to join her. “I vote we sleep in.”

Unless someone else calls for help.” Dar took both glasses and headed for the kitchen with them. “The one bright spot of the whole night was that guy Jack. They found a good one there.”

Let's hope we don't lose him.” Kerry muttered. “We've got to get this under control, Dar. All those times your folks and my family would ask why the hell the two of us were involved in every damn thing is coming back to bite us in the ass.”



Regardless of the late night, they only managed to stay in bed until 8. Kerry found herself a little after that on the porch in her bathrobe and slippers, enjoying the crisp air and bright sunlight of a calm Saturday morning. She stifled a yawn and watched a seagull soar overhead, trying to decide if there was anything in specific she wanted to accomplish.

She had several small projects going. Some planting in their small garden, sorting out her newly digitized photos into collections, and a barbeque briskey receipe she wanted to try. But right now, none of that seemed urgent, and she was content to listen to the rustle of palm trees in the winter wind and watch saiboaters heading out of the cut in the choppy waters.

Dar wandered out dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and sat down on the swing next to her. “I was thinking about what you said the other day.” She announced once the swing stopped moving.

Kerry regarded her. “That covers a lot of ground, hon.”

About me getting a new car.” Her partner supplied. “I think I want to.”

Yeah? Cool! What kind?”

Dar shrugged, and grinned. “I don't know. Let's go out and look at some. See if we can find one that fits me.” She suggested . “Maybe I'll get a souped up sports car.”

Kerry's brows twitched. “Hon, you're way too young for a mid life crisis.” She said. “Aren't you?”

Hey you were the one with the Mustang, babe.” Dar chuckled. “I don't really have anything in specific in mind. Let's go see what's out there.”

All right by me.” Kerry toasted her with her coffee cup. “Maybe we can look around for a place to put our new office while we're driving.” She wiggled her feet in contentment. “I got an email from Jack. Everything's quiet at the dataenter this morning.”

He get any sleep?” Dar wondered. “Glad things are better. Doens't make it any less aggravating though.”

We really need to turn this into a learning experience.” Kerry mused. “Not a good precedent.”

Well.” Dar twiddled her thumbs. “Could be the sign of an independent, though wrong headed, mind.”

Kerry chuckled wryly.

Maybe I should have woken up everyone else and had them fix it.” Her partner sighed. “Honestly, I just don't know what to do about this, Ker.”

We can talk about it at the office.” Kerry got up and stretched. “Let's go find you a car, Dardar.” She ruffled Dar's hair as she came past her and headed for the door. “And we can stop and look at cameras for me.”

That's my kind of shopping.” Dar agreed. “Maybe I'll get a new laptop.”

Oh I can see this is going to be an expensive day.” Kerry laughed. “Meet you in the shower?”

Let's do it.”


An hour later they were dressed, and pulling off the ferry onto the causeway heading west. It was a beautiful day, cool and crisp and cloudless and Kerry almost felt like humming as she leaned back in the passenger seat of Dar's car, enjoying the splash of sunlight through the windows.

Chino was relaxing in the back seat, tail perpetualy wagging, delighted to have been added to the excursion. “Growf!” She barked at a palm tree whizzing by.

You tell em, Chi.” Kerry reached back and tickled the dog's paw. “We're going to take you to get ice cream when we're done today. What do you think about that?”

Growf!” Chino was listening attentively, recognizing the name of a favorite treat.

Dar had her sunglasses on, and she was tapping the steering wheel with her thumbs, waiting for a light to turn green so they could proceed. “So where do we start?”

'Well.” Kerry hitched one knee up. “Foreign or domestic?”

Dar thought about that for a minute. “Does it matter?” She wondered. “I”ve had pretty good luck with both in terms of maintenance.”

It matters in terms of narrowing down our traveling, hon.” Kerry said. “Otherwise, just go find some random major street and start driving and we'll stop at the first dealership we find.”

Hm.” Her partner made a little face. “Okay let's do that.” She decided. “Let's let a little random fate into it.”

Fate, as it turned out, led them to an auto mall stretch with six different manufacturers stretched across both sides of the street as far as the eye could see. Dar pulled into the first one and parked. “Here we all.”

Boy.” Kerry was peering out the window. “Got enough choices here for you, hon?”

Mm.” Dar got out and opened the back door, attaching Chino's leash to her collar and standing back to let the dog hop out. They walked along the pavement to the first line of new cars, strolling between them and joining a number of other people doing the same. “Now, what in the hell do I want?”

Kerry peered at the cars they were passing. “The biggest thing I liked when I got my buggy was sititng up higher. Do you like that?”

Yes.” Dar responded positively. “I like that, and a big engine.” She said. “And leather seats.”

Well that narrows it down a little.” Kerry chuckled. “And honestly, I can't see you in a sedan, Dar. It's too boring.”

I”l take that as a compliment.”

It is.” Kerry agreed. “So let's get past this Acura dealer and head for where the Jeeps are.” She pointed. “Those are cute.”

They went from one lot to the other, and now were roaming among taller, boxier looking vehicles. “Hm.” Dar reviewed them. “Too squarish. They look too much like the one I have now.”


They kept walking. Chino trotted alongside, head swinging from one side to the other, nose twitching.

Ford. There's my Mustang.” Kerry observed. “It was a cute car.”

Totally fit you.” Dar smiled. “I remember thinking that when I saw it that night.”

It was fun to drive.” Kerry agreed. “But not enough leg room for you.”

No.” Dar spotted a profile. “But hm... “ She diverted her steps. “What do we have here?”

Kerry regarded her partner's target. “Ah.” She mused. “An SUV married a pickup truck.” She followed Dar over to the Ford Sport Trac row, where her companion started nosing around a dark red specimen.

What do you think of this, Chi?” Kerry peered in a window. “Nice big crew cab back seat for you to ride in.”

Chino hopped up on her back legs and Kerry just caught her in time to keep her claws off the paint job. “Ah ah ah.” She cradled the dog as she sniffed at the open window “No claws.”

Dar had gone around to the driver's side door and opened it, getting inside and looking around. “Leather seats.” She remarked, with a grin.

And a decent size engine.” Kerry was looking at the window sticker. She let Chino down and leaned on the door jamb, watching Dar adjust the seat to her long frame.

It wasn't anything she would have picked for herself. Kerry looked back at the bed of the truck. “We can put the bike in there.” She said. “Not to mention, camping stuff. Hey.” She poked her head inside. “Could we pull this behind the RV?”

Dar had gotten things sorted out to her satisfaction, and reached forward to grip the steering wheel. Her motion attracted the attention of one of the roaming salesmen, and he came over to them.

Good morning ladies.” The man greeted them with an amiable grin.

Hi.” Dar responded. “Can we take a ride?”

Kerry had enough experience with her lover's mentality to know when it was on a track and chugging. She opened the back door and slid into the crew cab, moving over so Chino could jump up and join her.

The seats smelled rich and pungent even above the new car smell, and she stretched out as the salesman hurried back with the keys and got into the front passenger seat. “Uh.” He looked at Kerry. “We don't usually allow dogs in the cars... I mean, you know, for a test.”

Won't matter.” Kerry told him with a kind smile. “Just give her the keys.” She patted Chino, who had curled up on the seat and put her head down on her lap. “Hi, I'm Kerry.”

Tom.” The man handed over the keys. “Ah, you gals from around here?”

Dar started the engine and peered at the instruments. “Nice.” She said. “Uncluttered.”

Ah, yeah. It's a nice truck.” Tom wrestled his priorities into place. “Got a six cylinder engine, yeah? This one's got the automatic package, but you can get manual too if you want.”

I don't.” Dar said. “I usually need to use one hand for the wheel and one for a piece of technology.” She put the truck in drive and pulled out. “I have an SUV now.”

Oh, yeah?” Tom looked at a page in his little book. “This truck's got a bunch of extras. The seats, the moonroof..” He pointed up. “Wheels, rims, but we got base models too if you're interested.”

Four wheel drive?”

Yeah.” The salesman agreed. “Some people like the 2 wheel better. I got a blue one in that.”

Dar turned onto the main drag and gave the truck some gas. The engine made a low, growly noise and responded, putting a grin on it's driver's face. She spotted a vacant lot on the next block and turned into it, going over the rocks and grass at a respectable speed.

Uh hey.” Tom held on to the grab handle. “Take it a little easy, it's only got two miles on it.”

Dar felt the suspension beneath her handling the uneven ground, and turned the truck in a tight circle. “Hang on, Ker.”

Hanging.” Kerry had one arm around Chino and one on the handle.” She glanced back through the window and saw gusts of dust churning up behind the truck, rocks bouncing out of the tire's path. “Got nice pickup, hon.”

It does.” Dar got around to the entrance again and without hesitation she gunned the engine and bolted out across the six lane main street, turning left ahead of oncoming traffic and pulling into the flow going the other direction with smooth skill. The road was clear ahead of her and she accellerated, pleased with the power of the engine and the feel of the steering.

It wasn't a sports car. It wasn't an SUV. She'd always liked pickups. Dar glanced at the salesman who had his eyes closed, and his lips pursed and clenched. With a chuckle she aimed her direction back to the lot and turned into it, bumping over the retainer blocks and pulling into a spot in the front of the dealership. “We're back.”

Tom opened his eyes and regarded her. “Okay. So.. you want to see something else?”

Dar pulled her wallet out and removed a card from it. “I'll take it. Give us a minute and we'll bring the other one over to trade in.”

Tom blinked. “You want to put a deposit with that?” He hazarded, taking the card.

Nope. Put the whole thing on it.” Dar exhaled in satisfaction. “Whatever extras come with it, get them on, and have them shine it up. Okay?”

Tom eyed her with shocked respect. “Yes ma'am!” He got out of the car and carefully put the card into his little folder. “I'll be right back!” He trotted off towards the low, beige building nearby.

Dar turned around and looked at her partner. “This okay?”

Kerry chuckled. “Honey it's very you.” She said. “And I like it. Actually, I like it better than the Lexus.” She patted the seat. “It'll be great to travel with, and we can put all our camping stuff in the back of it.” She said “Let's go get your trade in and make this a done deal.”

Dar got out of the front seat and closed it, bouncing a little on her heels. “My dad's gonna love it.”

Kerry got out and waited for Chino to join her, and they started back to where they parked. “So far, so good today.”


Hope we get as lucky with my new camera.”


Continued in Part 4