Disclaimers - Nope, none. My characters, my hometown, my pseudo company. Dar and Kerry are (amazingly) copyrighted people belonging to themselves, who are renting their lives to me for reasons beyond my understanding. This is the sequel to Hurricane Watch.


Eye of the Storm Part 10

By Melissa Good

Cecilia toweled her short, silvered blond hair dry and stepped back into the room, aware of a stupid smile on her face caused by the site of the man standing in only a pair of silk boxers at the window, evaluating the surrounding terrain.

Despite his violent protests to the contrary, she'd discovered her husband had developed a fondness for the soft underwear, and she'd had an enormously good time visiting Macy's and buying him several different kinds.

No wild colors, though. Some things never changed. She walked over and slid an arm around him, leaning against his bulk and reviewing the scene outside. It was a misty day, gray and overcast, and a soft rain was falling. "Nice."

"Lil rain never hurt nobody." Andrew answered absently. "Guess I better go get me some coffee - see that stand down there?" He pointed.

"Honey - I ordered some." Ceci objected. "You're not going to go romping outside in your skivvies, are you?" She looked up and saw the expected scowl. "Let me go wake the girls up." She patted him on the butt and walked to the connecting door, easing it open and knocking lightly on the inside surface. She heard voices inside, so she pushed the door open and poked her head around it. "Good mo…." She stopped, startled by the appearance of the two women crouched over a laptop computer on the desk, with a large coffee pot nearby. Dar was on the phone with someone, speaking sharply, and Kerry was pecking at the keyboard, her head propped on one hand, and a harried, exhausted look on her face. "Did you two get to sleep at all?"

Green eyes glanced over. "No."

"What on earth are you doing?" Ceci kept her voice down, in deference to Dar's hoarse tantrum.

"Saving the Western world." Kerry tapped in a few other things, then shook her head. "Dar, we can't route this that way. It's not going to work."

Dar covered the receiver and glared at the laptop. "Fine. Then we'll pull it." She snapped in exasperation, going back to the phone. "All right, that's it, I"ve had it." Her voice rose to a savage growl. " I'm gonna have someone walk into CLIPC and take a wire cutter to the whole damn patch panel."

A desperate voice murmured through the receiver. "Look. We're outta time." Dar broke in. "It's not my fault you guys decided to try an Y2K upgrade on a running system with no back up." She picked up her cell phone with the other hand, ignoring both Kerry, and Ceci, who had edged into the room and seated herself on the bed, watching her daughter in wary fascination.

"What happened?" Ceci whispered to Kerry, who was cradling her head in both hands.

Kerry turned around in her chair and rested her elbows on her knees. "Our national carrier decided to put a patch into place last night, and it trashed a major switching office." She sighed. "Affecting most of the Eastern Seaboard, and, for some bizarre reason, Dallas, Texas."

"Mm." Ceci nodded. "What exactly does that mean in English?"

Kerry pointed towards the television, which was on CNN. A reporter was mumbling in the mostly muted newscast, showing pictures of angry people surrounding banks.

Ceci peered at them, then shook her head. "I don't get it."

"Well, most people nowadays when they go to get money, don't get it from a bank." Kerry sighed. "They get it from an ATM machine, and they have their paychecks automatically deposited, right?"

"Okay, yes, I see."

"Well, what happens when money can't move into the bank, and people can't get it out of the ATM machines?"

Ceci stared at the screen, then at Kerry. "Is that what happened?"

"Yes." A nod. "From Boston to Miami, no one's getting paid electronically, or getting cash from a machine."

"Good grief!" The older woman blurted. "And that's what you two are sitting here trying to fix?"

"Yep." Kerry looked exhausted. "And I've got that breakfast to go to, then more grilling. It's not going to be a good day."

"All right. Mark, get to the punch down room." Dar was saying into the phone. "Tell everyone to get the hell out of your way, or I'm going to be flying down there to personally kick their asses."

Kerry winced.

"You there? Good. Take the following circuits, and hot patch them." Dar read off a list of numbers and letters. "Put them in the high speed ports H1, H2, H3 and H4 on one big pipe, and H3 and H4 on the other." She reached over and took the keyboard, rapidly switching to a configuration program. "All right, hang on."

Dar typed furiously, slamming the enter key in frustration as she got to the end of each line. "This better work or… "

"Easy." Kerry rubbed her knee under the desk. "Look there, wait, Dar, that's the wrong.."

"I see it." Dar closed her eyes briefly, then reopened them and corrected her error. She reset the port she'd just finished, then flipped over to Kerry's monitoring program. "C'mon…c'mon, you little b….son of a bitch."

"Dar, that's the wrong speed." Kerry took the keyboard from her and started typing, brushing the taller woman's hands away. "Yell at Mark some more while I do this."

Ceci watched as Dar's face twitched in annoyance, but was unable to react as angrily as she obviously wanted to. "Mark, are you done yet?" She growled into the phone. "Now?" A pause. "Now?" Another pause. "Kerry, go."

"Okay." Kerry finished, and wrote the configuration changes, then reset the device. She counted silently under her breath up to twenty, then reconnected to it. "Done… done… wahoo." She exhaled in utter relief. "Passing packets on those ports, Dar."

"I see it." Dar had been watching the monitoring tool in the background, and now she flipped it to the foreground and watched the shifting charts, which pumped in comforting shades of green and blue. "Jesus." She leaned against the phone. "Good work, Mark. Thanks for flying up so early." The MIS chief had spent the evening scouring their local resources, and trying to help Dar find a way to resolve the problem without breeching their extensive contracts with the companies involved in the crisis.

No luck. So Dar had asked him to go personally to the switching center, where he'd been consulting with the switch programmers since six am.

No luck. The Y2K patch had made such a mess of the firmware, even Mark's and Dar's combined programming talents had been unable to make head or tail of it, leaving the executive with a sparse list of options.

Stay down, or breach their contract, and remove the services from their vendor. "I'd better call Hamilton Baierd and let him know to expect some screaming." She sighed, referring to ILS's legal chief. "And he loves me so much as it is."

"Dar, you had no choice." Kerry yawned, putting her head down on one arm. "Doesn't he live in Boston?"

"Mm." Dar tipped her head back and closed her eyes. "Yeah, he only sounds like he lives in Louisiana."

Ceci kept quiet, assuming the green things, and Dar's obvious relief were a good thing. She glanced up at the television, where talking heads were analyzing the problem, one that looked vaguely familiar. "Isn't that your boss?"

Dar looked up. Sure enough, a very serious looking Alastair was front and center, looking freshly scrubbed and very concerned. "They dug him out of bed early. She increased the volume.

"Mr. McLain, can you give us some idea of what is going on?"

Alastair cleared his throat. "Simply speaking? There was an attempt made to make a piece of equipment year 2000 compatible, and that attempt resulted in the equipment failing."

"Your equipment, sir? Are you saying this is something ILS did?" The reporter leaned forward.

"No." Alastair shook his head gravely. "This was done at the national carrier level, although we were made aware of the fact that it was in process." He shifted. "They've been working throughout the night to correct the problem, but it's very complex."

"Mr. McLain, I don't think I need to tell you what kind of impact this is having. Is this what we can expect, is this an early example of what the Year 2000 is going to be like?" The reporter stated. "We have several representatives on the line with us who would like to discuss this with you - people who have some very serious concerns."

"Well, certainly, we can discuss the issues. "Alastair looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I can't say I can answer for an entire industry, however, and an isolated incident like this shouldn’t be taken as.."

"But you are the largest provider of interbanking services, are you not?"

"Yes, that's true, but.."

"Then, Mr. McLain, effectively you can speak for the industry, because you're being paid to make sure Americans aren't impacted by the changes, aren't you?"

"I can speak for ILS, yes." Alastair sighed. "And review what we are doing towards that end, while we work on getting further status on the problem at hand."

Dar smiled, and flipped her phone open, dialing her bosses cell number by memory.

Alastair looked down, then interrupted the reporter in mid word. "Excuse me a minute, David. This might be the information I requested for you."

Then she heard the phone answer. "Good morning." Dar drawled softly into the phone. "Nice tie."

"Dar, I'm on the air, and this guy's about to nail me." Her boss whispered.

"I know. We're up. I moved them over to the new network. "

Silence. She watched the smile spread across the face on the screen, which was half turned to hear her conversation. Alastair closed the phone without a further word, then straightened, and tightened his tie a bit, the twinkle back in his eyes. Dar turned the sound up, wondering what he was going to say.

"As I was asking, Mr. McLain, what exactly does ILS intend to do about this crisis?" The reporter asked, importantly. "Hundreds of thousands of paychecks are on the line, and citizens up and down the East Coast are unable to access their own money."

"Well, David." Alastair responded. "Fortunately, we are lucky to have one of the most talented minds in the business as our CIO, and that phone call was just informing me ILS has rerouted around the problem, and brought everything up on our own, brand new, internal network." If he'd had suspenders, Dar was sure, he'd have stuck his thumbs in them, and smirked. As it was, he gave a good impression of doing that anyway.

The reporter was definitely taken aback. He shuffled a few papers. "That's great news." He temporized, then read something off a nearby prompter. "Yes, as a matter of fact, we just got word from Interbank that they've started restoring service." He looked down at a slip of paper handed to him. "And that would be your CIO Dar Roberts, is that right?"

"Hey. He's talking about you?" Andrew was leaning against the wall, watching in fascination.

"He's talking about me." Dar slumped in her chair, and exchanged a high five with Kerry. "We tried a dozen things with the company that ran that switch, but nothing worked. We had to end up rewiring everything and putting it on our network. We must have breached ten contracts in the process."

Cheering was heard from the screen, as people were shown clustering eagerly around the cash machines.

"Sad commentary on society." Ceci murmured. "Almost Pavlovian, really."

"You know." Kerry got up and collapsed on the couch. "I don't get to see the results of my labors quite so graphically most of the time."

"No." Dar agreed, standing up and stretching her body out, wincing at a painful knot on her back. "Want me to get more coffee?"

Kerry stuck her tongue out. "Any more of that and it's going to come out my ears." She peered at the screen as she heard the senate hearings mentioned. "Oh… hot dog! Yes!" She wriggled on her back and kicked her feet out.

"Postponed?" Ceci smiled at the blond woman's unrestrained joy.

"Only until this afternoon." Dar grumbled.

"I don’t care. I get to take a nap." Kerry stifled a yawn. "I'm so tired I'd take an hour if I could get it." The phone rang, and she moaned. "No…no… go away."

Dar reached over and picked it up. "Hello?"

"Looking for Kerry Stuart." The voice came back, brisk and businesslike.

"She's sleeping." Dar replied.

"Well, we've got a breakfast date."

"Not today."

"Okay, look here Ms…"

"Roberts. Dar Roberts. I'm Kerry's boss, and I'm telling you she's not available to meet this morning. " Dar told him crisply, then hung up. "Who the hell was that?"

"A member of the press." Her mother told her. "Kerry fascinated them, for some reason."

Dar walked to the window and peered out. "She makes good press." She leaned against the glass. "She's bright, good looking, and articulate - of course she fascinated them."

"Hey. " Kerry felt the blood heat her face. "Can we not talk about me like I'm not here?"

Dar chuckled, then looked down as her cell phone rang. "Hello?"

"I love you."

Another chuckle. "Well, thank you Alastair, but it was a group effort."

"No, really, Dar. That was the most exquisite timing, and it was much appreciated." Alastair sounded profoundly relieved. "I don’t' care how many contracts you busted, it was worth it to see the smug look slide right off that pig bastard's face." A throat clearing. "Ah.. I've had a request to get you on for an interview."


"Well, timing is everything, Dar."

A sigh. "Between the press wanting to talk to me, and the press wanting to talk to Kerry, we're liable to get more publicity this week than we can handle."

There was a moment's quiet. "Ah…hm." The CEO murmured. "I forgot she was testifying this week - her father's no friend of ours. "

And if they tie it all together, it'll be tabloid heaven. "Yeah." Dar exhaled. "This could get tricky."

A drumming of fingers. "All right. Let me get Andrea in on it I'll have her give you a call to coordinate, Dar. I don't think we can avoid the interview, and it's a good moment for it, but we have to be aware of what might fall out if the press starts sniffing around." His voice became brisk. "And if it does, it does - our public policy is written clearly enough. Andrea can spin it positive, us being so progressive and all that."

Dar snorted.

"Yes, well… you can't turn a pig into silk lingerie overnight my friend."

"You better warn the board." Dar responded quietly. "The very issue we talked about yesterday might be moot."

Alastair sighed. "Think positive, willya, Dar? At least we can see this coming."

"Yeah." Dar acknowledged. "Well, have Andi call me, all right?" She hung up, and let the phone drop to her thigh, turning to face the three pairs of curious eyes on her. "Ker, I think we need to talk."

Green eyes peered at her over the couch back in apprehension. "We’re about to become poster children, aren't we?"

Thunder rolled for an answer.


Dar glanced at herself in the mirror, adjusting the collar of her silk shirt and brushing a speck of dust from the shoulder of her jacket. The interview had been set up faster than she'd expected, and she'd just had time to take a quick nap and get a shower before she had to get ready for it.

Kerry was on her way to the Senate chambers already, with Andrew as an escort. Dar hoped her father would behave himself, and not do something irreversible.

Like slug Senator Stuart, for instance, something Dar herself dearly wished she could do. She wished the hearings were over, or at least Kerry's part in them, so they could go home, and regroup, and get things back into a more normal order.

Maybe they could take a few days off. Dar regarded the tired blue eyes looking back at her. Long weekend? Maybe take a Friday, and a Monday, and drive down to the Keys, stay at one of the little places out near the beach… hey. Dar blinked. Yeah, maybe for Kerry's birthday, which was coming up. Which reminded her… presents were in order, if she could shake Kerry off long enough to go shopping on her own.

Or figure out what to get. With a sigh, she looked at her reflection one more time, then turned as she caught her mother's image in the glass watching her. They looked at each other for a moment in awkward silence. "Thought you went with dad." Dar finally said, turning and folding her arms over her chest self consciously.

Cecilia looked like she wished that were the case. "He thought I should stay here, and um.. help out if you needed anything."

Dar's brow arched. "He did, did he?" She sensed an ulterior motive.

"Mm." Her mother folded her arms. "So. What do you do in a news interview?"

"I have no idea." Dar replied honestly. "I generally work behind the scenes - this'll be a first." She glanced around the room, which had been tidied by the housekeeping staff. "Guess they'll have to make do with the space in here." She straightened her sleeve cuff nervously.

Ceci regarded her, approving of the creamy silk shirt against Dar's tan, and the trim cut of the suit that outlined her athletic body. "You look very nice." She offered, with hesitant sincerity, catching Dar by surprise. The blue eyes lifted and met hers uncertainly. "That must sound pretty strange coming from me, huh?"

Dar nodded. She let the silence go for a minute, then scratched her eyebrow. "I think the best you could have managed before was 'gee, that's a nice new spiked collar." She admitted. "Looking nice wasn't a priority of mine."

Hey, she's talking. Encouraged, Ceci perched on the arm of the couch, and leaned on it's back. "Oh, I don't know. Some of those vests and things were sort of cute." She smiled a little. " And I wasn't a very good example." Sweatpants and painter's overalls, to be exact. "I always did sort of want to borrow that leather jacket of yours, though."

Dar relaxed slightly. "Sleeves would have been a little long." She took a seat opposite her mother and extended her legs, crossing them at the ankles. "Thanks for sticking by Kerry yesterday, incidentally."

"It was no problem."

"I know she really appreciated it." Dar went on. "Being there with her family is tough on her."

"Mm. I know…almost as hard as you and I being here." Ceci managed a wry smile, which her daughter mirrored. Now, I guess we start the tough stuff. She took a breath and continued. "For some of the same reasons."

Dar focused inward for a bit, then laced her fingers together. "Not really." She hadn't been ready for this talk, but…here they were. She collected herself and sorted her thoughts. "I know you like Kerry. Everyone does. She's sweet, honest, smart, loyal…. A dozen other things besides that."

"That's true." Ceci murmured. "She's a remarkable person."

"Most of the things I'm not." Dar continued. "I didn't give you any reason to like me." She gazed evenly at her mother. "Her parents turned their backs on her because of something she did.. not who she was."

Ceci exhaled. "That's not entirely true." She considered her words carefully. "There were times I didn't much like you, Dar."

Even knowing, even after all this time, it stung. Dar glanced away, refusing to even swallow. "No news there." She enunciated preciscely.

Ceci felt like crying, wanting to take the conversation back, and go down another path, but knowing it was too late. She took a careful breath. "But there never was a time I didn't love you." Dar went very still, her eyes widening, suddenly vulnerable. Ceci felt her way carefully. "When… I lost Andrew, all that I could feel was pain, Dar. I couldn't take it. I wasn't strong enough." She met the quiet gaze across from her. "I'm sorry."

A slow shake of the dark haired woman's head. "I wish…. " Dar closed her eyes. "You'd have told me that before now."

Ceci felt the pain, all the way down to the bottom of her soul. "Me too." She whispered.

Dar remained still, and Ceci rose slowly and moved the short distance over the thick rug, kneeling in front of her daughter and putting a hesitant hand on her leg. "What I did to you was wrong, Dar." She could feel the muscles under her fingers move slightly, then go still. "If I could take it back, I would."

"I wanted to help you." It was hard to talk. "I wanted to do the right thing."

"I know." Ceci acknowledged. "I drove you away." Her eyes dropped. "And you repaid that by giving me my life back."

"I did it for daddy." Dar uttered. "Not for you."

"I know." Ceci felt a bittersweet twinge. "But you also did it because it was the right thing to do." She paused. "I felt, when I saw you, there was something you wanted to say to me, but you didn't. Now I know what that was."

Her daughter closed her eyes again, Dar's way of gaining space to think in. Finally she sighed. "I had to make sure it would be all right for him. I didn't want him to get hurt any more."

"Did you think it wouldn't be?"

A head shake. "No. But he did, and I had to be sure." The blue eyes appeared, a sparkle of anger in them. "How could you tell him you wouldn't be there?" Now there was true pain in Dar's voice, but not on her behalf.

So typical. Ceci's jaw tensed, and she took a breath. "I made a mistake." She replied honestly. "And I paid for it, believe me, Dar." Her lips trembled a little. "For every minute of those seven years, knowing we parted with… angry words between us, and I'd never had a chance to…" She had to stop, and take several deep breaths. "I was just so desperate not to lose him."

The anger eased, and gentled. "I told him that." Dar murmured. "Because if there was one thing I believed in, it was the two of you."

Ceci had no idea what to say to that. After a moment’s reflection, she let out a held breath. "I wish you’d told me that before." She breathed. "I thought you just resented our being so close."

"I envied you." Dar replied, in a low, but precise voice. "I tried to find that for myself, and I failed so miserably, I just finally gave up on it."

Incredible. She’d learned more about her child in the past thirty seconds than in the past thirty years. "Until it found you." She watched Dar consider that, then nod slightly. Ceci sighed. "I’m sorry, Dar. I didn’t know. I don’t think I ever really understood where you were coming from."

Dar felt the truth of that, as she looked over into the eyes of someone she hardly knew.

Someone, if she was honest with herself, that she had never had much desire to know, who had mainly been viewed as either an obstacle, or an annoyance to her for a very long time.

Now it was different. She wasn’t sure she wanted or needed a mother back, but another friend was something she could consider having, especially one who was willing to accept Kerry, and who Kerry liked. So. They’d both made a lifetime’s worth of mistakes, and she could either let that poison their relationship now, or put that behind her, and just go forward.

Who knew? Maybe they’d even end up liking each other, after a while. Stranger things had happened. Dar gave her nerves a moment to settle, and forced herself to reach out, covering her mother’s hand with her own. "I don’t think I much understood you either." She kept her voice low. "But I’m glad we’re getting a second chance at this."

It was far and away more than she expected. Ceci found herself smiling in surprise and relief, and seeing a twinkle of that reflected in the blue eyes watching her. Dar’s fingers were warm, and strong and she felt the gentle pressure as her daughter squeezed, then released her hand. It made her feel twenty pounds lighter, almost dizzy, and she was glad she was still holding on to Dar to steady herself. "I am too. " She finally answered.

Dar exhaled in relief. She’d been half anticipating, and half dreading this conversation, and now that it was over, she felt little giddy. Her father would be pleased, though – he’d nudged her again gently this morning to try and spend a few minutes talking with mom.

Hey. Dar’s brows knitted. Wait a minute. She looked up at her mother, who cocked her head in puzzled inquiry. "Did Kerry say anything to you this morning?"

Ceci was taken aback at the question. She eased up off her knees and sat down on the couch next to Dar, lacing her fingers together. "Well…sort of, I suppose. " She murmured. "She did happen to mention… why, did she say something to you?"

"No. Daddy did." Dar folded her arms and gave her mother a wry look.

"Ah." Ceci almost laughed. "Sneaky little schemers, aren’t they?"

"Mm" Dar smiled, then glanced up as a knock came at the door. "Guess it’s showtime." And if nothing else, talking to her mother had taken her mind right off the impending interview, though scenes of frying pans and hot flames seemed to circle that notion.

"Right. I’ll duck on out of here." Ceci rose.

"No. Stay." Dar got up and went for the door, not giving her a chance to answer.

Ceci selected a corner of the couch and curled up in it, tucking her feet up and resting her arm along the back. She watched Dar pause just before she opened the door and straighten her shoulders, pulling the jacket taut over bone and muscle and adjusting the drape over her trimly muscular form.

Dar stood and adjusted her jacket before she walked over to the door and opened it. A stocky man of middling height was standing there, with a crowd of people and equipment behind him. "Hi." Dar drawled, glad if nothing else for the fact that her mother had neatly taken her mind completely off the interview.

"Oh.. hello. Sorry, I was looking for Dar Roberts?" The man responded briskly. "I'm John McAdams, from CNN Business News?"

Dar extended a hand to him. "You've found me."

He returned her grip reflexively as he stared at her." You're kidding, right?"


"But… you're not a middle aged Anglo conservative guy."

Dar glanced down at herself. "Not the last time I checked, no." She stepped back. "Would you like to come in, or would you rather I find you a middle aged Anglo conservative guy to interview? I'm sure there are a few around here somewhere."

"No way." The man held up a hand, and grinned broadly. "Lead on, Lady McByte.. I'm all yours."


It was odd, Kerry mused, as she stood in line to get in the door to the chambers, to hear everyone else talking about the disaster she’d spent all night trying to fix. The change in time and the general chaos had thrown off the crowds of supporters, and there were only a few there so far, waving signs and getting organized.

They were probably still mobbing the ATM machines. She allowed herself an uncharitable thought. Or raiding the discount beer stores.

Now now, Kerry. A quiet scold. You know better than to make those generalizations. Not all white supremacists drink beer. She peered over at the milling crowd. Some of them probably like Boones Farm. She sighed. Bad Kerry. Obnoxious stuck up WASP Kerry. Cut it out.

"Likely lookin bunch of pansy ass rednecks, ain’t they?" Andrew drawled from behind her, his arms crossed over his chest. "They give my Southern Baptist butt a hive and a half."

Kerry bit her lip to keep from laughing, then exhaled, trying to relieve a little of the tension building up inside her. No sign of her family, of course, since they were probably inside already, but she was getting sideways looks from the people standing around her which made her realize she was being recognized from the previous day.

People were giving Andrew little glances too, and she half turned, giving her companion a little smile. He really was a distinctive looking person, she realized, with his height, and muscular body, and the sense of presence he carried himself with. And of course, the patchwork of scars across his face, which she didn’t really even see anymore. At least the two worst were gone, replaced by the slightly rough covering of synthetic skin that restored his face to something approaching normality. She’d understood his need to remain hidden before, but she had a feeling that now, since the one opinion that really mattered to him was secured, he’d have discarded the hood even with out the surgery.

And the eyes. Dar’s pale, electric blue, set off by the tan skin creased in wrinkles on either side of them. Right now they were roaming everywhere, drinking in the crowd, the guards, the protestors – alive with interest and curiosity.

She was glad he was here – it made her feel utterly safe to be standing next to him. "Hope this doesn’t last long." Kerry sighed. "I think I’d rather be getting dental work." She walked forward at the guard’s request and edged through the detector, then turned and waited for Andrew to follow.

"Ahm gonna set that off." The tall man drawled to the guard as he ambled through, sure enough making the machine react. He stopped on the other side of it, watching the nervous reactions. "Don’t get yer britches in a square knot. I got me two plates here.. " He tapped his upper thigh. "And a couple odd shells tucked up inside me somewhere."

The guard approached cautiously, and ran a hand held device over him, getting readings near his leg, and stomach. "Um…. "

"Ain’t nothing up mah sleeve." Andy lifted his shirt and displayed a scarred, but still muscular abdomen. "Here." He pulled his identification wallet from the back pocket of his jeans and flipped out a card. The guard took it and examined it, then handed it back respectfully.

"Go ahead, sir." He lifted his wand in a little salute as Andrew moved past him and joined Kerry at the door to the chambers.

"Jest goes to show you, stay in the damn Navy long enough, something’ll salute you." He muttered, half under his breath.

Kerry grinned, and tucked her hand inside his elbow as they walked inside. "You didn’t make the airport one go off." She commented curiously. "And those catch my car keys, for heaven’s sake."

"Looking fer different things." Andy replied cryptically. He paused as they reached the threshold of the inner chamber and looked around, since the people in front of them were deciding where to sit. A cluster of people were around the defense area, and heads turned as they entered.

"C’mon." Kerry wanted to sit down, and be out of the spotlight.

"That yer folks?"

She nodded, as they walked down the center aisle, and chose seats, watching the room fill up around them. Michael, she noted, wasn’t there and neither was Angie this time. Just her mother, and father and the lawyers. She felt a little nervous at that, since it appeared she was being singled out. Kerry folded her hands in her lap and regarded them, her fingers twisting her joining ring idly.

I wish this was over. She silently sounded the words. I wish it were over, and I was out of here, and we were home. Her stomach was tied up in knots, having rejected breakfast, and her head hurt from not sleeping.

A hand touched her arm and she looked up. "Kinda loud in here."

Andy gazed at her. "You all right, kumquat?"

Kerry sighed. "I’m tired, and I’m cranky, and I don’t’ want to be here." She hesitated. "And I’m a little scared of why they want me back to testify."

The room quieted then, as the session got under way. First, there were some meetings, then they talked about procedure.

Then they called her up. Kerry stood and took a deep breath, then carefully made her way out of their row and towards the table, getting a comforting pat on the leg from Andy as she went past him. She took her seat, and folded her hands as her father’s lawyer came over to face her.

It was a very lonely feeling. She knew the man, and had for years, but it was as though he considered her nothing but some trash off the street, given his expression. Not to mention her parent’s faces. Cameras flashed, and her peripheral vision caught the round, black single eyes of the television crews.

"Ms. Stuart." The man hardly looked up from his papers. "You work for a company called ILS, is that correct?"


"For how long?"

"Almost a year."

He scribbled a note. "When was the last time you spoke with your parents, Ms. Stuart?"

Kerry felt the heightened interest almost beating against her skin. "Thanksgiving of last year." She answered quietly, and hearing a faint murmur rise.

"Why is that?" The man looked up.

"Why do you want to know?"

"Excuse me?"

Kerry shifted. "I asked, why do you want to know? What does something personal between my parents and myself have to do with anything here?"

He tapped his pen on his pad. "Because, Ms. Stuart, there was some very damaging, and potentially libelous material released to the press last year, coincidentally… " He put a sting on it. "A day after the last time you spoke to your parents." He paused. "So I ask you again, Ms. Stuart. Why?"

Oh shit. Kerry caught Andrew sitting forward, gazing at her in concern. I am in such deep trouble. She sucked in a breath though, and collected her thoughts. Don’t’ let them rattle you. Dar’s voice intoned iner mind. "Think."

"We had a disagreement about the direction my life was taking." Kerry answered carefully. "It happens all the time, in families." A pause. "Or so I’m told."

He nodded. "A disagreement so severe, it caused you to break off contact with your family entirely?"

"No." She shook her head. "I speak with my brother and sister, and our extended family."

He made another mark. "Several years back, your uncle was fired by ILS."

"That’s true." Kerry agreed.

"And yet, you chose to go work for them." He paused, and looked at her. "Why?"

That, at least, was an easy question. "I’m an information services professional, they’re one of the largest IS companies in the world, and they offered me a promotion, with a thirty percent pay hike." Kerry cocked her head. "It wasn’t exactly rocket science." Several of the senators behind her laughed.

"Even though your father was actively campaigning against them, and was working to have them thrown out of government contracts in Michigan?"

"Because he held a grudge due to Uncle Al. Yes." Kerry answered back, a trifle sharply. "I investigated the files regarding that when I became an employee of ILS, and I was satisfied that the company acted fairly." She folded her hands.

"As a matter of fact, your current…. Supervisor…. Fired him. Is that right, Ms. Stuart?"

Uh oh, take two. "Given the information we had on him, sir, I would have fired him." Kerry answered quietly. "But yes, in answer to your question, it was Ms. Roberts who did it."

A nod. "Exactly." The man leafed through a few sheets of paper. "It was the first step, in fact, in a plan to discredit your father. " He looked up. "And you played right into it."

Kerry blinked. "What?"

He leaned on the table. "We know where that libelous information came from, Ms. Stuart."

She didn't answer him, her pulse racing against her skin.

"It's been a careful, underhanded campaign to discredit your father, and turn you against him, and it's resulted in this hearing, where these gentlemen are forced to question your father's very morals." The man turned, making sure the cameras had a good shot at him. "I put it to you, gentlemen. The company who stood to lose by the senator's investigations, who duped his daughter into working for them, who had the ability, and the resources to manufacture this information … it's so obvious."

Kerry could hear the murmurs of agreement. "You have no idea what you're talking about." She pronounced carefully. "ILS didn't manufacture anything."

"They could have, though.. what about that problem this morning.?" One of the senators behind her leaned back. "Damn computers are too powerful nowadays."

The lawyer circled her. "Don't you see, Ms. Stuart? You've been tricked by your boss. It's obvious that she made this stuff.. " He slapped the dossiers sitting on the desk. "Up, and sent it out, to stop Senator Stuart from canceling those contracts. "

Kerry took a deep breath. "No, she didn't." She disagreed. "And ILS had nothing to do with this."

"You can't be sure of that, Ms. Stuart." The man now gave her a pitying look. "Or should I say, you've got a vested interest in denying it, since she seduced you in the process."

A shocked silence occurred, then low whispers. Kerry felt her nervousness fade, replaced by anger. "Oh, I most certainly can be sure of that."

"You're not denying the seduction then? We know you two live together."

The whispers were getting ugly, and Kerry could feel the hostile eyes now on her. "That information was not manufactured by anyone, and Dar Roberts did not release it."

The man crossed to her, and leaned on the table. "Oh really? And how do you know that?"

Kerry met his eyes. "Because I did."

Dead silence.

"I validated the source, I confirmed the contents, and I released that information to the press, and to the FBI." Kerry spoke into all that frozen quiet. "And, sir, it's the bribes, and the malfeasance, and the buying of votes, and the moral decrepitude that's at issue here. Not me, or my relationship with my family, or who in the hell I sleep with!:" Her last sentence was spoken in a rapid crescendo.

He stared at her in total disgust. "Stinking faggot." The words were a bare utterance as he turned and walked away, not looking back.

Kerry just sat there, breathing hard.

"That will be all for now, Ms. Stuart." One of the senator's said, carefully adjusting a pile of papers in his hands. "I motion for a brief adjournment."

Somewhere, she found the strength to stand up with quiet dignity and face the explosion of flashbulbs, staring through them to find her way back through the muttering crowd to a safe haven outlined by a tall, angry looking form who put an arm around her and visited the surrounding crowd with a lethal glare.

She sat down, shaking.

Andrew sat next to her and hissed out a long, aggravated breath. "That boy is going to have his pecker pulled out his damn nostrils fore I'm done with him."

Kerry swallowed, not daring to look up, knowing everyone was looking at her. Then a warm hand dropped onto her other shoulder, and a graceful body lifted itself over the row of chairs and settled into the one next to her, feeling and smelling and sounding like Dar. She peeked over, and saw a wry, compassionate gaze looking back. "Can I go home now?" She managed to whisper.

Dar pulled her closer, ignoring the press, having gotten to the chambers just in time to hear Kerry's admission. "Don't worry about it, Ker. You did what you had to - whatever happens, you and I will deal with it." She exchanged looks with her father. "Take it easy. I've got you."

Kerry closed her eyes, momentarily safe in her warm haven. Surely, it couldn't get any worse, right?

She sighed.


They pushed their way out of the hastily recessed chambers, surrounded by people who were grabbing and shoving and plucking at Kerry's sleeve. "Ms. Stuart… Ms. Stuart, a moment with you please!"

Kerry kept her head down, and kept walking, relying on Dar's guidance to keep her from slamming into the press crews, and other impediments. A hand grabbed her arm, and she looked over, to see her microphone shoved in her face. "I'm sorry." She took a breath. "I think I've said enough for now."


"Ms. Stuart!"

"Is it true…"

"Excuse us." Dar put an arm around Kerry and put a hand out, shoving hard and making some space in the crush of bodies. Andrew came up on the other side and tucked Ceci between them, slipping an arm behind Dar's and clasping her above the elbow.

"You all right?" Ceci murmured, patting Kerry's arm.

"No." Kerry whispered.

"Take it easy. We'll get out of here." Ceci glanced up at the two determined, serious faces above her head. She and Dar had made their way down to the crowded building after Dar had finished her interview, doing a more than creditible job so far as Ceci could tell, and fending off the repeated passes from the reporter with a wry good grace. They'd gotten to the stairs just as Kerry was speaking, and stopped in the very doorway just as she'd admitted to releasing the information.

Gutsy kid. Ceci had followed Dar closely through the chaos, finding herself almost swallowed up by Andy's welcoming grip as she reached the seats.

She'd been out of life for so long, Ceci suspected this was the Goddess' little revenge.

They forced their way out the door and finally felt fresh air against them, and Kerry sucked in a huge lungful of it, trying to ignore the shouting of the protestors not far away. The cameras had followed, and reporters were yammering, but her senses were on overload, and she shut them down in self defense, covering her ears with her hands and shivering.

"Down there. "Dar directed. "We'll get a cab, and get the hell out of here."

"I'm not going back there." Kerry muttered. "I don’t' care what they say. That's it."

They headed down the stairs, past the crowd, and Dar flicked her eyes over them, seeing the angry faces, and surging motion. "Look! There they are! That's the one!"

"Shit." Dar turned her shoulders just in time to deflect a large rock. "Let's move."

"Son of a biscuit." Andrew growled. "Dardar, switch spots with me."

Another rock pelted the dark haired woman, and she gritted her teeth. "Just keep moving."

Epithets rolled over them. Nasty, dark words full of hate, and anger, and more rocks with them. The police struggled to keep the crowd back, but several men broke through and grabbed a barricade, moving towards them with wild intent.

Andrew cursed, and ducked around Dar. "Stay with yer momma." He growled, giving them all a shove towards the cab as he jumped to intercept the two men. "And where d'you think ye're goin, dog face?" He grabbed the baracade coming towards him and wrenched it from the man's hands, tossing it away and towards an empty spot on the stairs. The man closest to him, a tall, thin youngster with cropped hair and ugly ears reached for him, but a policeman caught him up from behind, and started hauling him towards the line of barracades. "You stupid bastard!" The boy yelled at Andrew. "I'll kick your ass!"

His companion jumped on Andrew, and rapidly realized what a bad mistake that was when the ex SEAL got a grab on his neck and his crotch and flipped him over his head, landing him on the hard marble stairs. Three more men broke through the ranks and started running towards them, with sticks.

Andy grinned and bounced on the balls of his feet, feeling a rush of blood through him that left a pleasant tingle behind, prickling a lust for fighting that had never quite faded. "C'mon, y'little pollywogs." He yelled at them, flexing his hands.

A cab pulled cautiously to the curb as Dar signaled, and yanked the door open, hustling her mother and Kerry inside.

"Where ya goin?" The cabbie yelled.

"Anywhere but here." Dar replied, looking around quickly and spotting several reporters heading their way. "Jesus. I shoulda left that damn system down this morning." She turned to see her father holding his ground, then she sighed. "Be right back!"

She bolted up the stairs and grabbed Andrew's arm. "C'mon, Dad."

"Aw." Andrew threw a last punch, then ducked an outstretched arm and followed Dar back to the cab. They beat the reporters by a few steps, and got the doors closed just in time, the cab pulling quickly away from the curb as a stumbling cameraman slammed against it's bumper.

For a moment, there was silence. Then Kerry slowly released a long held breath and leaned against Dar, who wrapped her up tightly and pulled her close.

"Hope there's a back entrance to that there hotel." Andrew remarked. "Haven't seen this much hoohaa since that Pamela Lee Anderson showed up at a damn liberty near Mexico." He half turned and regarded his wife, who was rubbing her ear. "You all right, Cec?"

Cecilia mentally caught her breath. "I think so." She looked over at Dar, who was pressed against the cab door with Kerry huddled against her. "You?"

Dar nodded, feeling her lover burrow further into her sweater. "I'm fine." She put a hand against Kerry's head as she heard her take a shaky breath. "All right. Let's just get back to the hotel, and regroup, then I'll figure out what to do." She half expected a protest from Kerry, but the blond woman didn't say a word. Okay. Dar mentally sorted things out. What Kerry had just done had derailed two possible problems that had been niggling at her.

One, the fact that she and Dar lived together, which had been rolled right over.

Two, the fact that the information on her father had come from within ILS, which had also been rolled right over, obscured by the blond woman's startling confession.

ILS's position, then was simple, that it's employee's personal lives was none of their concern. One problem out of the way.

As for Kerry coming bursting out of the closet with a howitzer… well, from the company's standpoint they were on the high ground, able to placidly say their employee's sexuality was also none of their concern, and the equal treatment of such was assured under the corporate bylaws. Made them look damn progressive, which ILS in most cases certainly wasn't.

Okay. So she didn't have to worry about the company. On the other hand, she did have to worry about the desperately upset woman in her arms, who was emotionally devastated and rapidly unraveling before Dar's eyes. With a sigh, she pulled her cell phone out and dialed a number. Alastair answered on the second ring.

"Well, hello there Dar." Her boss's voice was wry. "Just saw your interview.. fantastic job. I got a call from ABC and CBS right afterward, asking for in depth stuff."


"And, I just saw the hearings."

Dar was silent, wondering what he'd say.

A pause. "She's a damn brave kid." Alastair's voice was warm. "Give her my regards, willya?"

Dar smiled quietly. "I will."

"Think they'll call you up there? Just so I know the worst?" Alastair sounded peacefully resigned. "I've called a teleconference for tomorrow morning."

"Not if they're smart." Dar replied.

"All right. Keep me advised, Dar. I want to know what's happening."

A wry chuckle. "I'll keep the company's nose as clean as I can, Alastair."

"Couldn't give a damn about the company, Dar."

She stared at the phone for a moment.

"Ah… surprised you, huh?" The CEO laughted. "That's a first… later, Dar." He hung up, leaving her to close her phone bemusedly and tuck it away. Kerry finally loosened her grip and tilted her head, gazing up at her with sad eyes.

"Hey." Dar leaned forward a little to touch her forehead against her lovers. "Bet you could use some ice cream." She got a very tiny tired, hurting smile back, then Kerry exhaled, and put her head back down. Dar stroked the pale hair comfortingly, glancing up to see her mother watching her. For an awkward moment they stared at each other, then Ceci tightened her lips into a brief smile, and turned her attention to her husband, who was scowling at the surrounding, busy streets.

They got to the hotel, and the cabbie drove into the parking garage, going down a level and arriving at a lower entrance that was pretty well deserted. Gratefully, they paid him and got out, slipping inside and grabbing an elevator. "Hold on." Andrew held a hand up. "Let's take that one there." He pointed. "S'got a fireman's control."

"We don’t' have a key." Dar remarked, her arm still around the very quiet and withdrawn Kerry.

"Pshaw." Her father pushed her inside and waited for them to enter, pulling a small gadget from his pocket and using it to jimmy the fireman's lock as the doors closed.

The elevator made a soft, whooshing noise as it climbed the floors. Kerry's eyes went from face to face as they waited. "I'm sorry you all had to go through that." She finally said. "I wish… " She fell silent.

"S'allright, kumquat." Andrew drawled.

"What did you call her?" Ceci consciously tried to lighten the atmosphere. "Good grief, Andy… how could you compare poor Kerry to a small, bitter orange?"

The doors opened, and they peeked out, then edged into the empty corridor and made their way quickly to the Dar and Kerry's room. They got inside just as they heard the elevators open, and voices come their way, and Andy closed the door hastily, then held a finger to his lips.

Kerry couldn't have cared less if the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir was outside. She trudged over and landed on the bed, spreading her arms out and closing her eyes in weary relief.

Sweet Jesus, what had she done?

After they'd named her a hostile witness, she'd felt sure her parents knew she'd been the one to release that information. What other reason would there be to estrange her? Surely… it couldn't just be Dar.

But no. They hadn't known. One look at her father's face had told her that. Utter shock. Utter betrayal. He'd though that revealing Dar as the source of the information would have driven a wedge between them, never realizing what he'd force her to say.

No daddy. It wasn't Dar. She'd have deleted the entire file, left up to her.

I did it.


Your little girl.

Kerry heard Andy and Ceci move into their own room, mentioning something about ordering room service over there, then it got quiet, and the bed next to her dipped and moved, bringing a warm body to settle against her. She opened her eyes to see Dar propped up on her side, a tired look on her face. "I fucked up." She watched the use of the epithet raise Dar's eyebrow. She never said that, unless it was the worst of the worst of things and her partner knew it.

"No you didn't" Her lover disagreed. "They did."

Kerry exhaled. "He didn't know." Her eyes went to Dar's. "He didn't know it was me, Dar. "

"I know."

"Now they have a good reason to hate me."

Dar leaned forward, and took her hand. "Listen to me a minute." Her voice was very serious. "Stop blaming yourself, Kerry. I mean it. "

Kerry looked at her.

"You're not the one who did the wrong thing."

"I released that information."

"YOU are not the one who did the wrong thing." Dar repeated. "You are not the one who accepted those bribes, and you are not the one who let industry pay you off to look the other way while wildlife was slaughtered, and you are NOT the one who used government funds to maintain a mistress and two illegitimate children."

"I could have just kept quiet like everyone else does." Kerry murmured. "If I had, maybe someday I could have eventually sat down and talked to them about us."

Dar sighed, and rubbed her fingers. "Kerry, even if nothing had happened, do you really think they'd have accepted me? Accepted us?"

Kerry shook her head slightly. "I don't know. I'll never know." She sighed, seeing Dar's perplexed look. "I can't help it, Dar. They're my parents and I love them." She regarded the ceiling. "How could I have done that to them?"

Dar nibbled her thumbnail, trying to figure out what to say. She was tired, her stomach was in knots, she'd had a very, very rough day, and it was only the afternoon. Sensitive discussions were never her forte at any time, and frankly, there was no good answer to Kerry's question, was there? "Well… " She finally responded. "I can only tell you what I would have done." She paused. "I think if I'd have gone through what you'd just gone through, with the hospital and all. I"d have been furious." Another pause. "Hell, I was furious."

Kerry turned her head and studied her friend's face.

"Sometimes you do things when you're really angry, that seem right at the time." Dar went on. "I know I have… and then when you look back, later on, you second guess yourself and think about all the other things you could have done or said."

"Mm." Kerry agreed glumly. "Hindsight."

"Yeah." A nod. "But the other thing I've realized over the years is, that there's no point in beating yourself up over what you've done. " Dar said. "It's done. "

"Move on." Kerry extended the thought. "Recover and deal with it."


"So.. how, exactly, do I deal with knowing I ruined my parent's lives, and am going to be on every tabloid cover in America next week??"

Dar squirmed a little closer. "First, just like you have to accept responsibility for what you did… you've gotta realize that they have to do the same thing." Dar put a hand on Kerry's shoulder. "Your father did those things, Ker. He knew if anyone found out, this could happen. He accepted the risk."

A sigh. "It hurts."

"I know."

But her brain was starting to work again, Kerry realized. She could feel it, the shock was fading, and her mental processes were settling back down into a more normal pattern. "So what about the tabloids? She joked faintly.

"Well….I was figuring." Dar laid an arm over Kerry's stomach, and smiled as the blond woman let a hand rest on her shoulder. "When you and I are ancient, those things'll make one hell of scrapbook to pull out and show people."

Kerry felt her face pull into a real smile at the image. "My fifteen minutes of fame, you mean?"

"Something like that, yeah." Dar returned the smile. "I'll throw in a tape of my interview, and we got it locked down."

Kerry moved a bit of dark hair out of Dar's eyes. "Oh… how did that go? Is it on? Let's turn CNN on. I want to see you." Then she stopped. "Hm. Maybe not.. I think I know what the lead story's going to be." She rubbed her temples. "You don't have any aspirin, do you? My head's killing me."

"Sure." Dar rolled off the bed and stood up, going to her briefcase and tugging a bottle out. "Feel like eating something?"

Kerry shook her head.

Dar came back with the pills and some water and sat back down on the bed. "That can't be helping your headache." She commented, as the blond woman curled onto her side and took the glass, swallowing several of the tablets and washing them down.

"Probably not, but I think I'd lose whatever I tried to get down." Kerry put the glass on the bedside table and put her head down on her arm. "Maybe later."

Dar stretched out next to her, letting her body relax against the bed's mattress. She studied the tense back next to her and reached over, giving it a tentative scratch. Kerry's shoulderblades moved, and she heard a soft grunt as she expanded the motion, making little circles with her fingertips.

I'm a big girl. Kerry closed her eyes as the touch continued. I don't need to be coddled like a little kid. One eye opened and peered around the empty room. "Hey, Dar?"


Kerry rolled over onto her back and turned her head. "Think we have time for a nap?"

A nap Boy, that sounded good. Dar spread an arm out, smiling in invitation. "Sure… c'mere." She gathered Kerry in and fitted her body around the smaller woman's, until they were a warm tangle in the center of the bed. It was quiet for a bit, then Kerry sighed.


The dark haired woman had her eyes closed, and kept them that way. "Mm?"

"Would you have done it?"

Dar considered that seriously. "I don't know. I can be pretty vindictive, Kerry. " A shrug. "Maybe it would depend on whether or not I was PMS'ing."

"Dar….you don't PMS. I had to listen to an hour long discussion on that in the lunchroom last week."

"Sure I do, Kerry."

"No, you don't."

"Yes, I do…. It's just that no one can tell the difference." The placid response came back. "Think about it… what's typical dropping eggs behavior? It turns you into a raving, overbearing alpha bitch with a thing for chocolate."

Kerry had to laugh. She buried her face into Dar's shoulder and muffled her snickering.

"This differs from my normal state exactly how?"

More snickering.

Dar smiled at the popcorn ceiling, glad she'd succeeded in making Kerry laugh a little. The chuckles wound down, and a warm hand slipped under her shirt, rubbing the skin gently.

"Thanks." Kerry murmured. "I needed that." She exhaled, and closed her eyes, hearing Dar's jaw crack as she yawned. Everything else would just have to wait for a while.


"Those poor kids." Ceci sat down in the chair near the window, and rested her head on one hand.

Andy carefully closed the connecting door, after checking on the soundly sleeping pair. "This is a pile of trouble, all right." He took the chair next to her, and they gazed at each other. "Specially for Kerry."

Ceci flicked on the room's television set, and turned it to the news channel, turning the sound way down. Scenes of the investigation flashed by, from the riots of the morning, to a stark image of Kerry as she testified. "She's got a lot of guts, Andy. I don't think she had any intention of admitting that."

"Naw." Her husband picked up a half a grilled cheese sandwich on his plate and took a precise bite off the end of it. "Damn lawyer's dumber than a shotgun cartridge, pushing her like that." He took another bite. "Figured they were trying t'make it look like Dardar'd rigged the whole thing." A sip of coffee washed the sandwich down. "Made me damn mad."

"Why would Dar bother?" Ceci pulled over her bowl of salad and selected a leaf, popping it into her mouth and chewing. "She had what she wanted. There wasn't any point in going further. "

"They don't know that." Andrew glanced up, and promptly forgot his lunch on seeing a familiar face looking back at him. "Hey. "

Ceci obligingly turned the sound up and the room was filled with Dar's low, even tones. It had been a fairly short interview, mostly concentrating on exactly what had gone wrong, and what ILS had done to correct it. Dar had given a brief, educated layman's explanation of the situation, and then had responded to the reporters questions about the likelihood of it happening again, and what she thought would happen as the end of the year approached. Dry and boring, surely, for anyone who really didn't give a damn about high technology, but Dar had, as she finished speaking, changed her focus and looked directly at the camera, treating the audience to a startling image of attractive intelligence that definitely left an impact. "Bet that kicked the stock up. " Ceci had to chuckle. "She certainly has presence."

Andrew reluctantly moved his gaze from the television. "Never figured that kid livin in torn fatigues would end up looking like that, huh?"

"No." Ceci agreed ruefully. "All the nights I wanted to bang my head against the wall.. I should have just told myself to wait a couple of years."

"You two get to talk any?"

"Yes. " A pause. "Yes, we did. It wasn't. "Ceci recalled the warm feeling she'd gotten. "It went a lot better than I'd expected." She looked up. "It's hard, Andy. There's just so much between us."

"She's got a good heart, Cec."

"I know. She got it from you." They twined fingers. "We'll keep working on it, Andy." The phone rang, and she glanced at it in surprise, then lifted the reciever. "Yes?"

"Ceci, Richard Edgerton here."

She winced. "Hello, Richard. What can I do for you?"

"Other way round, I think. They won't let me talk to Dar's room, so can I come up and chat? I figured maybe a lawyer's input's not a bad idea." He had a point. "Sure.. c'mon up. It's 890." She hung up the phone. "Rich Edgerton."

"Huh." Andy looked thoughtful. "He's not a bad feller."

"No.. he always had a soft spot for you. He was the one. I won't say friend, because we weren't that close, but he was the one person I felt I could talk to the past few years." Her lips quirked a bit. "He kept trying to get me and Dar back in contact."

Andrew got up and went to the door as he heard the elevator open. His hand was already on the knob as the knock came, and he pulled it open to reveal the lawyer's tall form. "'Lo, Richard."

Edgerton rocked back a little, gazing at him. "Andrew." He collected himself, and held a hand out. "I knew, of course, but somehow it didn't seem real until now."

Andrew clasped his hand and motioned him forward into the room. He followed the lawyer inside. "Glad y'stopped by. Hell of a situation, ain't it?"

"Hello, Ceci." Edgerton grinned. "Stopped being mad at me yet?" He regarded the slight, fair haired woman who rose from the chair and came towards him. The silent, withdrawn artist he'd seen become more and more distant over the course of seven years was gone, replaced by an old friend whose wry smile and gently sparkling eyes made the distinguished lawyer beam.

"You.. .are a meddling troublemaker, and always were." Ceci poked him in the ribs. "And keep your voice down. The girls are asleep next door."

Edgerton glanced at the door, then took a seat on the small couch while they resumed their own chairs. "You two been playing on the beach, I see?"

"On the beach, in the water, rolling around in the sand. you bet." Ceci allowed herself a moment of intense joy. "How's Charlie? Has he unlatched

his fingers from the drop ceiling and come down yet?" She found her fingers reclaimed by her husband, and smiled.

"Eeeyah, well, Cec, he's not a happy man, and he's certainly not happy with me." The lawyer rubbed his square, handsome jaw. "Especially after he found out I knew about Andrew, and didn't tell him, and that I happily processed May's trust fund over to Paladar's stated beneficiary without saying boo either."

"Ah. so he knows?" Ceci hid a grin.

"Oh yes." Richard winced. "Definitely wasn't popular." He turned to Andrew. "Did Dar get everything set up for you all right? I gave her all the papers. " He smiled a little. " You should have seen my face when she told me - I swear, I thought I was going to fall right out of my chair."

Andrew nodded. "Yeap. got me an account, put a bunch of them dollars into different things, impressed the hell out of this bitty old woman at the bank." He glanced at his wife. "Me and Cec are fixing to pick us up a place to live, settle down a little." 

Richard chuckled. "Little apartment downtown, maybe?" 

The two exchanged glances. "Not exactly." Ceci murmured, as her husband chuckled. 


The soft burr of her cell phone nudged Dar out of a really good dream, one that involved fudge, and cherries, and a very messy boat deck. She pried an eye open and glared at the instrument, then reluctantly disengated one arm and answered it. "Yeah?" 

A breath. "Um.. is that. is.. Dar?" 

"You had a fifty percent chance, and you won. What can I do for you?" Dar closed her eye. 

"Dar, it's Angie. can I speak to my sister, please?" 

Dar jolted awake. "Sorry. I didn't. you don't sound like I. " She gently shook Kerry. "Are you okay?" 

"I'm in the hospital. please, can I talk to her?" 

"Ker.. " Dar shook harder, feeling the gathering resistance as Kerry dragged herself out of a very deep sleep. "Kerry, c'mon. It's your sister on the phone." 

"Mmm?" Kerry sucked in a breath, and rubbed her eyes. "Wh." She lifted her head and peered upward. "Who. Angie?" 

"Yeah.. here." Dar handed her the phone. "She said she's in the hospital."

"Oh. " Kerry pressed the phone to her ear. "Angie?" 

"Hey." Her sister's voice sounded exhausted. "Listen. the baby's coming, and I'm. having a really tough time." 

"My god. what's going on? Are you okay?" Kerry pulled herself up, her pounding heart sending blood to her head in a painful wave. "Where are you?" 

"I saw you on tv." Angie replied. "I. they took me here yesterday, Kerry. it's been hell all night. It just hurts.. and hurts. I don't know what's going to happen, and I wanted.. I wanted to talk to you, so you. so I could tell you. I ddin't want anything to happen, and then I. "

 "Angie, it's okay." Kerry murmured. "Don't' worry about anything. what's important is how you're doing." 

There was a brief silence. "Ow." Angie finally sighed. "I'm so tired of hurting." A rustle of linen. "I saw you.on tv, sis." 

"You did, huh?" 

"Yeah." Angela took a breath. "I'm sorry I didn't come over when Mike did yesterday."

 "It's okay."

"No, it's not okay. " Angie replied. "You have to stand up and be counted sometime, Kerry. " 

"Angie, don't' worry about being counted. Just worry about yourself, and your baby." Kerry told her. "Where are you? Can I come over and see you? Is Richard there?" 

"No." Angie whispered. "He's out of town."

 "What about Brian?" 

There was a long silence, then her sister sighed. "He's chosen not to be involved." 

Kerry's eyes closed. "Oh, Angie." 

"Yeah, well. Better this way for the kids." Angela replied. "Maybe I'll at least get points for a cute baby, right?" 

"I'm sorry, sis." Arms closed around Kerry in a secure hold. "Listen, hang in there. I'm going to come over and see you."

"Be careful." Angie whispered. "I will. take it easy, sis. I love you." 

A hiss of pain. "I love you too." 

Kerry hung up, then scrubbed her face with a hand. "I feel like I've been run over by a bus, Dar." She sighed. "Can we find a way over to the hospital without dragging half the DC press corps with us?" 

Dar kissed her head. "We'll find a way." She looked up as the room's phone rang, then answered it. "Yes?" "I'm sorry, ma'am, but this is the hotel operator, and I have a Mr. James Herkins who is very insistent on wanting to talk to Ms. Stuart." 

"It's the prosecutor." Dar held her hand over the receiver. "You want to talk to him?" 

"Now he wants to talk to me?" Kerry answered with a touch of sarcasm. "Not really.. but I guess I'd better." She took the phone. "Thank you. put him through. Sorry if this is being such a pain for you." 

"Oh.. " The operator seemed surprised. "Well, thanks for saying that. Most people don't." She clicked off, then a male voice came through. "Ms. Stuart?" 

"Yes." Kerry answered. 

"I'd like to set up a meeting. We need to talk." 

"Now that I have something to say that you want to hear?" Kerry shot back, getting a mildly raised eyebrow from her listening partner. 

There was a pause. "Ms. Stuart, I had no reason to think you were the cornerstone of the situation. My information on you was that you were just another one of Roger's kids." Herkins hesitated. "It's not like you came forward and said otherwise." 

Well, that was true. Kerry had to admit. 

"And I don't think you want to go through another day like today. Am I wrong?" 

Also true. "All right. But it can't be today. I have something I have to take care of." Kerry told him. "Besides, I've pretty much said all I have to say." 

"Except why."

 "Excuse me?" 

"Why, Ms. Stuart. You solved a big problem for me today by saying how - there was always a question as to how that information got released. The question that's coming to everyone's mind right now is why. Why would one of Roger Stuart's kids, seemingly a nice, intelligent, successful young woman, deliberately release information so damaging?"

Kerry was silent for a moment. "I was just asking myself that same question." She responded. "I guess I just felt it was the right thing to do at the time." 

"Still think that?" Herkins asked, shrewdly. 

Kerry let a breath out. "Morally? Yes. He did things that were not right, and not legal." 

"Well.. " The prosecutor's voice sounded satisfied. "I'd agree with you there, Ms. Stuart, and you sent a very powerful message today, whether you realized it or not. How about you and I meet for breakfast, and we can talk? Maybe I can work things out so you can finish up here, and go home." 

Home. "I'd like that." She admitted. "Honestly, I really don't have anything else to add to the case one way or the other. I didn't know, or even suspect until I was looking at it in black and white on my screen." 

"I believe you, Ms. Stuart." He replied. "He fooled a lot of people." He paused. "Tomorrow morning then? I'll pick you up in the back, we'll go over to a little place near the hearing chambers. Okay?" 

"All right." Kerry agreed. "Are the hearings over for today?" 

A soft snort. "They requested a delay. Apparently you rocked their apple cart pretty thoroughly." 


"Ms. Stuart, don't' be surprised if they contact you. It's up to you if you want to talk to them, but I think you realize they're not your friends." 

"I understand." Kerry answered. "I'll see you tomorrow. eight all right?" 

"Perfect. Have a good night, Ms. Stuart."

Kerry hung up the phone and stared at it. "He's supposed to be the good guy." She looked up at Dar. "So why do I feel like such a traitor?" 

"Because you have a conscience." Dar responded promptly. "And a good heart." 

Kerry sighed. "I want this to be over, Dar." She rubbed her neck tiredly. "I want to be back in my office, listening to Jose complain, and having something stupid and disastrous to work on waiting for me." Her shoulders slumped. "I want to have a cup of café con leche, and one of those cheese pastalitos, and know when the sun sets that there's a climbing wall waiting for me." 

Dar rested her head on her arm. "Are you telling me you're happy with your life?" The question slipped out really without her realizing it, and was more serious than she'd intended. 

"Yes." Kerry's eyes were unfocused, as she stared across the nondescript hotel room. "Maybe I didn't realize until this moment just how happy I am." She blinked. "True hearts are such a rare gift, Dar." 

Dar wasn't sure where this was coming from. "Yes, they are." She answered cautiously. 

Kerry turned, and put a hand on Dar's chest, right over hers. "How in the hell did I rate one?" 

Dar had no idea of what to answer to that, and was saved from having to improvise by a light knock on the connecting door. "Yeah?" She kept her eyes locked with Kerry's, searching the shadowed green depths as the door opened inward and her father's head emerged. 

"Thought I heard voices." Andrew cocked his head at the two of them. "You two all right?" 

Kerry exhaled, then turned her head. "We're fine, dad. but my sister's in the hospital, having trouble with the baby. I need to go see her." 

"All right, kumquat. We'll put on the hip waders and slog through all the pony paddies wherever you want to." Andrew pulled his head back inside to relay the request. 

"Dar?" Kerry turned back to regard her lover seriously. "You need to have children." 

"Wh. " Dar's eyes went round and huge. 

"You just do." Kerry got up and went to the sink, rinsing her face with the cold, metallic water.    


Having a father who spent the balance of his life in clandestine operations was, Dar was discovering, a damn useful thing when you were in the public spotlight. Andrew guided them out of the hotel and around the corner into a small alley, then out onto the street where they captured a taxi with little trouble. Richard promised to return the next morning, and was pleased that Kerry took him up on his offer to attend her meeting with her.

They'd been surprised to find a crowd outside the hospital, but it wasn't anything having to do with the hearings. The hospital was home to a family planning facility that performed abortions, and the group was protesting outside, picketing the entrance and chanting.

Dar found herself ambivalent about the subject. The slightly frantic, almost overdone aggressiveness of the protesters set her on edge, but on the other hand she firmly believed a person had to take responsibility for their actions, and that included having sex, and the potential result of it. You play, Dar reasoned, you pay, and once the child was started, you owed it the right to come into the world.

Now they were sitting in a small waiting room outside the hospital's obstetrics wing, while Kerry approached the nurses station in search of her sister. Dar paced quietly in one corner, reading the meaningless notices on the cork board while her mother claimed a chair, and her father poked around the few vending machines nearby.

"Dar?" Ceci cocked her head, after she watched her daughter for a few minutes. "Is that list of pregnancy symptoms so fascinating?"

Dar nearly jumped out of her skin. She turned, and gave her mother a dire look. "No." A pause. "Why?"

Ceci's brow knit. "Just asking. You've been reading it for a couple of minutes, and I know your read faster than that."

Dar paced over and sat down. "I wasn't reading it." She tucked her hands under her arms.

"Okay." Ceci murmured. "I..um… don't think it's anything you have to worry about." She ventured. "Unless you two are um…" She found herself the recipient of an outraged, blue eyed gaze. "Guess not. Hm?"

"Oh yeah, I'd make a wonderful parent." Dar muttered. "No, Chino's family enough for us."

Ceci cleared her throat, and pulled a small sketch pad from her shoulder bag, setting it on her knee and removing a pencil. "Well, her college costs should be minimal." She flipped the pad open to an empty sheet and paused, then started to work.


"My sister is here, I think she's in labor?" Kerry asked the nurse, who was busy writing something behind the desk.

"Well, if she's here, she sure ain't got a broken leg." The woman answered. "Hang on a minute." The nurse was struggling with a terminal keyboard. "Stupid thing…. Jesus, I hate these stupid computers."

Kerry scratched her jaw. "Make a deal with you."

The nurse looked up. "Excuse me?"

"Tell me where my sister is, and I'll fix your computer."

Long, dark lashes flickered. "You're one of those nerdy people?"

Kerry nodded.

"Sure.. Have at it. What's your sister's name?" The nurse moved out of the way and let Kerry get at the terminal.

"Angela." Kerry unplugged the terminal and gave it a whack, then turned the keyboard over and rapped it smartly on the desk. Crumbs the size of a postage stamp were dislodged and she brushed them away as she flipped the keyboard back over and restarted the machine. "She's been in labor a while, she said."

"She's in that third bay down there." The nurse was watching Kerry in fascination. "She's having a bit of a rough time.. hey, that worked!" She took the keyboard back and typed in something. "Wow. That was really cool… is that what you do? Are you one of those field services people?"

"Mm.. I don't usually do hands on, but yeah, something like that." Kerry leaned on the counter. "Is it okay for me to go see Angie?"

"Sure..sure… um, we're kinda outside visiting hours, so if anyone says anything…"

"Don't worry." Kerry smiled. "I just want to see her for a minute."

The nurse paused, then looked at Kerry for the first time. "Stay a while.. it really helps the mothers sometimes, and she hasn't had anyone in with her at all… I felt kind of bad for her." She held a hand out. "Call me if she needs anything.. my name is Stacy."

"Kerry." She took the hand and grasped it. "Thanks… no one else has been here to visit?"

"No." Stacy shook her head. "The doctor said he's going to give her a little while longer, then he might have to look at other options after that."

Kerry nodded. "Okay… thanks." She left the desk and walked quietly down the hall, passing two darkened bays before she reached the third. The room was partially lit, lamps making a friendlier atmosphere than harsh fluorescent would. "Angie?"

Her sister turned her head, sweat dampened hair plastered across her forehead. "Oh…hey." A tremulous smile crossed her face. "Nice to see someone I know." She held a hand out and Kerry walked over, taking it. "God, it's so good to have you here, Kerry."

"Hey." Kerry put her arms around her and pulled her into an awkward hug. "Wish you'd called me sooner…it's not right for you to be here by yourself, Angie."

Angie curled half onto her side and kept hold of Kerry's hands. "You were busy."

"I'd have rather been here." Kerry admitted.

"I bet." Angela blinked wearily, and put her head down on the pillow. "You looked great on tv, though. The cameras kept showing you in the gallery before they called you up there." She inhaled, and winced, her face tensing in pain for several very long seconds. Then she relaxed "Who was that guy you were with? He's scary looking."

Kerry leaned on the bedrails. "That's Andy…. Andrew Roberts, Dar's father." She adjusted the sheets. "He's the sweetest, most wonderful man I know."


"Yeah." Kerry smiled quietly to herself.

"He knows about you guys, I guess."

"Absolutely." Kerry told her. "He's so cool about it, and you wouldn’t think he would be, because he's from the military and all - but it's like… Dar's his daughter, and it wouldn't matter what she was or what she did. He just loves her."

Angie shifted uncomfortably and sighed. "That's different."


"Um… I saw Dar on tv today too." Angie changed the subject. "She looks great… I didn't understand one word in six of what she was talking about, but boy, she impressed that reporter."

Kerry smiled. "I haven't seen the interview yet… it was happening the same time as I was in that hellhole." She exhaled. "But after last night, I guess they wanted to talk to her." She caught Angie's puzzled look. "The ATM thing yesterday?"

"Ew… that was you guys?"

"Sort of… it was the guys we used for the network, but Dar fixed it." Kerry rubbed her eyes. "We were up all night though.. I'm so wiped."

"You look as tired as I feel." Angie admitted, grimacing as a contraction took hold again. "Augh… god, I'm getting tired of this."

Kerry took hold of her hand. "Anything I can get you? Water or something?"

Angela shook her head. "It's just nice to have someone to talk to." Her lips curled into a smile. "Are you here alone?"

"No.. you up to a few more visitors? I'd like you to meet Dar's mother and father… I don't know when I'll have the chance to introduce you again. "

Angela shifted, and pulled herself up a little, pushing her hair back. "I must look like a mess… was that who was with you yesterday? Her mom?"

Kerry nodded. "Don't worry… they're not really formal people." She ducked out.

"Yeah, sure." Angie whispered to herself, listening to the footsteps come back down the hall. A moment later her room door was filled, and a slight, silver blond woman entered followed by the tall, scarred man she'd seen on television. Then Kerry came back in with Dar right behind her, the dark haired woman glancing nervously around the room like something was going to bite. "Um… hi."

Kerry slipped in front. "Okay… Angie, this is Andy and Cecilia Roberts.. Dar's mom and dad, and of course, you already know Dar."

Ceci came over and smiled at her. "Nice to meet you, Angela." She laid her hands on the railing. "Having a rough time of it?"

"Ungh." Angie glanced shyly at her. "The doctor thinks it's a nice, big baby, and that's what's causing the problems."

"Ah… yes." Ceci nodded seriously. "Been there, done that." She smiled at Angie's puzzled look, then turned and glanced first at Dar, then back at the woman in the bed. "Eight pounds, thirteen ounces." Then she indicated her slight form, and raised an eyebrow.

"Ooooo." Angie made a face. "I think you just made my toe hairs curl up."

"Hey!" Dar affected an insulted look. "I wasn't that big."

Angela and Ceci looked at her, then snorted. Andy chuckled and patted his offspring on the back.

"You were bouncing baby girl, all right, squirt." He told her.

"Emphasis on the bouncing." Ceci remarked dryly. They all chuckled and the tension relaxed.

"So… do you have any tricks I should know?" Angie asked. "My first wasn't this bad… but she was a preemie." She held her hands apart a little. "All of five pounds… this one's gone full term and more."

"Well, there's a famous eastern technique that involves transcendental meditation and the out of body thing, but I found drugs to be the best trick." Ceci replied. "Have they tried to dilate you?"

Kerry leaned against the foot of the bed content to listen to the conversation, and watch Dar and Andy edge curiously around the room, investigating the machinery. They both had a way of cocking their heads a little when they were figuring out something, and seeing them do it together was pretty funny.

Seeing Angie smiling was pretty nice too. Her sister was animatedly trading baby stories with Ceci, which Kerry was keeping tabs on to tease her partner with later. Dar had been, unsurprisingly, a very active baby who had gotten into some wild situations.

"And there she was, sitting on top of the car hood with the garden hose." Ceci was saying. "Terrorizing the squirrels."

Dar sighed, then returned her attention to a blinking readout.

"Did you really?" Kerry murmured, bumping her with a hip.

"I don't remember a thing." Dar muttered back. "She could say I picked my butt up and flew across the front yard and I'd never know if it was true."

"Sure you would." Kerry disagreed. "There'd be a National Enquirer article archived somewhere."

Dar rolled her eyes. "I'm sure I wasn't half as homicidally destructive as my mother describes." She picked up a device. "What's this?"

"It's to suck fluid out of the baby's nose." Kerry advised her, watching the taller woman drop the instrument as though it was hot. "Dar… relax, would you?"

"I hate hospitals."

"You're just visiting, so calm down."

"Yeah? So what was that about me having kids?" Dar whispered.

"Shh… " Kerry had to muffle a grin. "I just meant that… I think you've got really good genes, and they deserve to stay in the pool." A pause. "If you know what I mean.. besides, your dad would make a great grandpa."

"Oh" Dar peeked at her father. "Well, maybe you have a point there." She smiled quietly to herself.

Kerry blinked. "I do?"

Angie laughed. "Oh my god… if my kid ever did that.. I think I'd just die on the spot."

"Wall.. "Andrew stuck his hands in his pockets. "Ah seem to remember a morning where I had to be standing in the co's office, having to explain to him how an M1 tank happened to get cross the repair yard and take out half the mess hall."

"Oh no." Dar winced. "Not that story."

"Is it true?" Kerry whispered. "Never mind.. it must be. You're blushing."

"Well, given the food in there, I can't say I blamed her." Ceci remarked, drawing a laugh even from Dar. "If I remember correctly, we had to have Marriott cater the base for two weeks, and everyone came over and gave Dar candy."

"Heh heh…. " Andrew nodded. "Fergot about that part."

"Mm… I didn't." Dar licked her lips.

Angie laughed again, relaxing back against her pillows. Then she gasped suddenly, and her hands went to her belly. "Oh my gosh."

"Water break?" Ceci asked immediately.

"Yes… " Angie hissed, grabbing for the railing as a contraction hit. "Whoa…. I think I just jump started something." All the unproductive pushing of the previous hours faded, as her body seized up. "Oh… my…. God…."

Kerry swallowed, her hands tensing on the rails. "Um… is there…what can we do?"

Cecilia glanced up. "First off, get those two out of here before they end up on the floor. Second, stop and tell the nurse."

"Wh.. "Kerry turned her head, and saw the widened, rounded pairs of blue eyes. "Oh boy.. right… okay. " She grabbed Dar's and Andy's arms, and started tugging them towards the door. "C'mon, guys…let's go boil water."

They emerged into the hallway, and headed towards the desk, their footsteps echoing in the quiet space. "I wonder if it'll be a boy or a girl?" Kerry mused, as they turned the corner.

And came face to face with her parents.


There was a deadly silence. "That young lady in there needs some help." Andy deliberately turned his head towards the nurse.

The woman took one look at the tableau in front of her and immediately vanished, trotting towards Angie's room purposefully.

"You have no place here." Roger Stuart spoke in a low voice. "So take yourself, and whoever you have with you, and get out."

Kerry let out a breath, hoping she wouldn't throw up. "My sister asked me to come. It's her choice. Not yours." She forced herself to meet her father's eyes, and felt the disgust there hit her with almost physical force.

"You're not part of this family. I thought I made that clear."

Kerry sensed Dar and Andy moving closer. "You're not a part of my family." She responded bravely. "But Angie and Michael are. Excuse me." She turned her head and walked deliberately around them, towards the waiting room.

"Not if they know what's good for them." Roger spoke after her, not turning around. "Don't be here when we come out." He took his wife's arm and walked forward, leaving them behind.

Kerry stopped just inside the waiting room door, her knees shaking so badly she almost fell. Dar seemed to realize it, and got an arm around her, as Andrew came round front of where she was and patted her cheek.


She swallowed a few times, then looked up at him. "I'm okay." She whispered. "I just wasn't expecting that." She tucked her trembling hands under her arms. "I can't even blame him for feeling like he does." Kerry dropped her eyes to the highly polished tile floor, the reality of what she'd done hitting solidly home.

Andrew scowled, then looked up to see his daughter gazing at him over Kerry's shoulder, with a helpless, beseeching expression.

He knew that please fix it look, all right. "C'mere, kumquat." He put his arms around the blond woman. "Don't you be chewing on yourself, hear? If I'd done what that man did, I'd hope mah kid would have the guts, and the honor you had in letting everyone know about it."

Kerry absorbed the words, and the emotion behind them, in this little pocket of grace she found herself in. Andy's fingers scratched the back of her head lightly as she slipped her arms around his large, and solid form. She wasn't sure he was right, but it helped. "Thanks." She released him and hoisted herself up on her toes, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

Andy blushed. "That's enough a'that." He pointed to the chairs. "Sit yer butt down. I'm gonna go find me some coffee." He escaped out the door, leaving Dar and Kerry to link hands and cross the room, sitting down and exhaling in perfect unison.

They looked at each other.

"You'll be okay." Dar told her reassuringly.

Kerry nodded. "Yeah, I think I will." She glanced towards the empty doorway and smiled, just a little.


"Oooo." Angie winced, biting down on her lip. "Now you're in a hurry?" She held her breath until the spasm was over, then panted. "Kids."

"Tell me about it." Cecilia straightened the covers and helped the younger woman into a more comfortable position. "I was in labor for twenty two hours."

"Oh my god." Angela breathed. "I can't imagine anything enjoyable I'd like to do for twenty two hours."

"Well." Cecilia mused, then chuckled to herself.

Angie blinked at her, blushing as she caught the reference. "Um… thanks for distracting me, by the way… I know I hardly know you.. but I… " She glanced up as the nurse hurried in, giving her a tense, professional smile.

"I see things are moving… let me get the doctor." The nurse moved into an alcove, and picked up a phone.

"Don't worry about it. I was glad to help." Ceci turned her head at the footsteps, seeing the two older figures fill the doorway.

Interesting. Chinese version. "Hello." She greeted Kerry's parents, noting the angry, flustered glare she got in return.

They ignored her. "I thought I told you no contact." Roger Stuart addressed the woman in the bed.

Angie curled up in a ball, her face tensing with pain. "I just…"

"Easy." Ceci patted her arm.

"How could you, Angela." Kerry's mother spoke up, visibly upset. "After all she's done to us."

"I just wanted someone to talk to." Angie got out, as her contraction relaxed. "She's my sister…"

"No, she isn't." Roger responded sharply. "And if you need someone to talk to, I'll hire you a secretary. You can talk all you want." His eyes went to Ceci. "Do you work here?"

"Unfortunately no." Cecilia felt the anger settle into the pit of her stomach. "If I did, I could call security and have you throw out." She plastered a searingly polite look on her face and held a hand out. "I don't believe we've met… I'm Cecilia Roberts."

They stared at her.

"Kerry's mother in law?" Her eyebrows lifted in sarcastic empasis.


Ceci entered the room and ran her slim fingers through her silvered hair. "Well. That was certainly a treat." She glanced at Kerry. "Your sister's settling down to some real pushing."

"Sorry." Kerry apologized. "I should have warned you my parents were here."

"How?" Ceci asked, reasonably. "Send up a flare?" She turned her head, then gave Dar an inquiring look.


"Ah." The older woman took a seat and laced her fingers around one knee. "I hope there's a second waiting room, or this could be a very long evening." She gave Kerry a wry look. "My telling your parents I was your mother in law was not popular choice."

Dar swiftly stifled a laugh.

"I'm really, really sorry." Kerry told Ceci.

"I'm not." Dar's mother smiled. "No offense, Kerry, but I've never liked your father's views, and meeting him in person doesn't do anything to enhance them.. it was a pleasure making him attempt to swallow his tongue."

She was still mad.

Not that she was a perfect parent. Oh no. In a group of a hundred of those, she'd come in last. But for the sake of the goddess, even she'd have the sense not to come in an yell at a woman trying very hard to give blessed birth.

Well, all right then, if the Stuarts were included, she'd come in 98th out of a hundred.

Moving up in the parental world. Who'd have thought it?

"Poor Angie." Kerry murmured. "That looked like really hard work."

"Oh yes." Ceci muttered. "Ranks right up there with your retail jobs like expelling a watermelon out of your urethra." She got up and went to the door, in search of her husband.

"Dar?" Kerry whispered.


"I think you should hire your mother."

Blink blink. "Wh… for what?"

"The marketing department."

Dar thought about that. "They'd all jump out the windows of the fourteenth floor, Kerry."

"Mm… " Kerry scratched her nose and nodded. "Yeah, but can't you picture her and Eleanor in a meeting together?"

Dar nibbled her lower lip. "Hm."

They heard Roger Stuart's angry voice approaching, and Dar let her hands drop to her lap. "That's it." She stood up, ready to meet him as he entered. "I've had about enough of his.."

"You!" Stuart had reached the doorway, and pointed at her. "This is all your fault, you disgusting piece of filth… I want you and the rest of your rabble out of here before I call my security and have you thrown out!"

"Who are you calling filth, you adulterous swindling asshole." Dar bristled, moving towards him. "Take your judgemental bullshit and shove it right up your… "



A deep rumble suddenly slammed through the room, stopping the shouting and motion for a frozen moment.

Then the shock wave hit, and the lights went out, and the world started to crumble around them.


It was very dark. Dar forced her eyes open anyway, coughing sharply as a lungful of concrete dust invaded her chest. All around her, creaks and groans, crashing, and the sound of screaming could be heard dimly around her.

She was on the ground, half covered in chunks of plaster and wall, shocked and dazed, and momentarily unable to think past rubbing the dirt out of her eyes in an attempt to use the tiny gleam of emergency lighting edging through a gap in the collapsed room.

Shit. Her scattered mind tried to focus as she rolled over and pushed herself up, blinking her stinging eyes. Kerry.
It was too quiet.

"K…" She ended up coughing, as she felt around anxiously, the shadows very slowly resolving into gray, dim shapes in an eerie silence that set her heart pounding erratically. "Hey…. Hey… " She pawed through the debris with shaking hands, pulling down chunks of wall tangled in strips of wallpaper until she spotted a very still, dusty form half buried under some carpet and what was left of a chair.

Her world stopped.

She scrambled over the rubble and stared at the silent figure, a sudden fear clamping a hold on her chest as she faced the possibility that the worst had happened.

"K.. kerry?" She barely heard her own whisper. "H..hey?"

There wasn’t a twitch of response, and in the dimness she couldn’t see any movement at all.

Dar closed her eyes for a long moment, too scared to even breathe. This couldn’t be happening, could it? Maybe it was all a dream, and she’d wake up in her bedroom, with Kerry poking her in the ribs.



You can't take her from me. Dar let her eyelids drift open, blinking them a few times to let the tears wash the dust out. Then she gathered her courage and leaned forward to put a hand on the still shoulder, her heart beating so fast it was making her shake. Not yet. No…

A soft groan responded to her touch, and Dar almost collapsed in sheer relief. "Hey.. .Kerry?" She clawed the debris aside and very gently brushed the crumbled plaster off her lover. "Sweetheart?" Her voice was shaky.

Kerry drew a rasping breath. "Ow." She answered weakly. "Dar?"

It was too dark for Kerry to see the tears, and she was glad for that. "Yeah… what’s wrong.. what hurts?"

Kerry started to turn over, then gasped, curling into a more fetal position. "My shoulder…oh god… "

Dar examined her anxiously, noting the odd angle under the cotton shirt Kerry was wearing. "Um… I think it’s…." She bent closer, straining her eyes. "Maybe it’s dislocated… I can’t tell." She put a careful hand on the blond woman’s hip. "How’s everything else?"

Kerry was silent for a moment. "Okay, I think." A ragged breath. ‘What happened?"

"I don’t know." Dar looked around her for the first time. The waiting room had mostly collapsed, leaving them in a small, irregularly shaped pocket near one side. There was no sign of anyone else, and the doorway Kerry’s parents had been standing in was a large mass of silent rubble. "Something exploded, I think."

Kerry was facing away from the door. "Wh… " She stopped. "What happened to everyone else?" She kept looking at a twisted piece of metal in front of her face, so close she could smell the rust on it. Dar hesitated, the light touch on her leg moving a bit, and becoming warmer as her lover spread her fingers out over the denim material. "Dar?"

"I don’t’ know that either." Came the careful response. "It’s just the two of us here.. I don’t’ see anything…. Anyone else."

There was a moment of utter quiet. "Dear god, I’m glad you’re alright." Kerry whispered. "I don’t’ know what I’d do if I were here… alone." She eased slowly over onto her back, so she could see Dar, then halted as the faint light reflected off a tear streaked face.

"Careful." Dar swallowed, putting a supporting hand under her back, as Kerry’s face tensed in pain.

"Augh." It was like a red hot spike was driving into her shoulder, and Kerry almost screamed. She bit down on her lip instead, until she could taste blood. "Ow."

"Okay… listen.." Dar told her hesitantly. "If you want… I could try putting it back, then.."

"No!" Another jolt. "Don’t’ touch it… ow… gods.." Kerry didn’t know what to do. Every movement hurt, and the pain was getting very intense.

"Kerry, listen.."

"Nooo.." She tried to roll away from where Dar was, scrabbling in the debris as hands tried to hold her still.

"Kerry… Kerry.. please. Just stop moving." Dar’s voice sounded a touch frantic.

"I can’t." She was taking short, shallow breaths. "I can’t stand it, Dar."

"Okay…." Dar carefully slid her calf in behind Kerry’s back to support her. "Easy….just try to relax… if you get tense, it’s worse."

Kerry just moaned, but she listened, and tried to do what her lover asked. "Okay." She finally whispered, her cheek pressing against the shattered rock.

"Okay. Now listen." Dar shifted, and braced one foot on the other side of Kerry’s body. "Honey, we have to get out of here, because it’s raining rocks, okay?"


"Okay. You can’t do that hurting the way you are."

"Dar, I can’t.. please don’t touch my arm."


The concrete around them shifted ominously, sending a shower of small chunks down on top of them. Dar huddled over her injured friend, letting them hit her instead. "We don’t’ have much time."

Kerry drew in a shaky breath, and curled her fingers around Dar’s ankle. "Okay." She whispered, the pain almost choking her.

Dar stroked her hair in helpless attempt at comforting. "Hold on tight." She warned, hoping she knew what the hell she was doing. The grip on her leg tightened. "Okay, I'm doing it." She wiped the back of her hand over her forehead, then very carefully touched Kerry's arm, trying not to hear the stifled whimper. "Easy, baby….easy."

Dar managed to get her left hand under Kerry's bicep, and laid her right hand on top of the grossly misplaced shoulder. She made a picture in her mind of what she was going to do, then took a deep breath. "Scream if you need to."

Kerry knew that meant it was coming, and she held her breath, biting the inside of her lip as she felt Dar shift, and the pain exploded through her, wrenching a gutteral cry from deep inside her. It grew and grew as Dar pulled the injured arm towards her, a feeling so intense she reeled on the edge of unconsciousness for a long agonizing moment.

Then it was over.

Dar felt the bones slip into place with a sodden click, as Kerry's entire body relaxed , and she started to cry. "I'm sorry." She sat down in the rubble and Kerry crawled into her lap, and she cuddled her in careful arms. "I'm sorry, Kerry." She stroked her shaking partner with small, helpless motions.

The pain was slowly subsiding, changing from a raging agony to a tense throbbing, but she could breathe now, at least, and move her fingers without screaming. "It's…okay." She mumbled softly. "Oh my god."

Dar just sat there, with her eyes closed, absorbing the living, breathing body cradled in her arms. The shattered room around her meant nothing. The creaking walls, the sound of falling plaster, the stink, the far of yelling….none of that mattered to her at all.

Not when she'd faced losing Kerry.

That had touched something very deep, and she was still shaking inside from it.

Finally, Kerry was able to ease herself back, and look around in the dim wreckage. "Thanks." She rubbed her aching eyes. "That really helped… I'm sorry I gave you such a hard time."

Dar gazed at her, and touched the dirty, tear streaked skin of Kerry's cheek. "It's okay."

Kerry tensed her lips into a faint smile, then she slowly turned her head and surveyed the wreckage. Her eyes fell on the rubble filled doorway and she stared at it. Then she looked up at Dar in dawning horror. "D.." A long finger fell against her lips, silencing her.

"We don't know." Dar whispered. "Let's get out of here, and we'll see what happened."

Kerry's bewildered gaze moved back to the door. "They were just there, Dar." Her voice cracked. "And.. what about… I have to find Angie…and… your mother, and… "

"Shh." Dar helped her stand up. "One thing at a time." She stumbled over to where one collapsed wall revealed a storage closet, it's contents spilling out. "There's… some sheets here.. if I can find a knife.. or… maybe I can rip them.. I can make a sling for you." She plucked at the linen. "Or maybe I can use a pillowcase… that's smaller…"

"Dar." Kerry supported her injured arm with her good one and made her way slowly over the debris. "Why don't you just use one of those." She indicated a canvas item dangling from a box, it's straps hanging limply.

"Oh." Dar retrieved the sling and climbed down. "Sorry." She helped Kerry get it over her head and adjusted the buckles. "I'm not really thinking straight."

Relieved by the support, Kerry tucked her fingers into Dar's and led her back over to the one possible exit, a plate glass window now half crushed, it's panes darkened. They both jerked as the ceiling settled, and chunks of plaster rained down. "Okay.. " Kerry's voice wavered. "Now what?"

Dar faced the thick glass. "Guess we find out if all those years of martial arts were worth a damn."

"Dar, you can't.." Too late. Kerry felt the air move as her lover took a step back, then launched herself forward, turning and slamming the glass with a picture perfect kick. The surface buckled, and with a surprising groan toppled outward, sending debris raining everywhere. "Wow." Outside the skewed sill the corridor wall had collapsed, leaving a tiny, triangular space near the floor, full of plaster chunks, that led into a further darkness. "Guess we crawl." She sighed. "C'mon… "

She sensed no motion behind her, so she turned. "Dar?"

Her lover was very still, one hand resting on the now empty frame, her eyes fixed on the tiny space left open to them.

"You okay?" Kerry came closer, peering up at her in the very dim light. "C'mon.. let's get this over with. I want to see where everyone is."

Dar's jaw muscles twitched. "I can't." Her voice was hoarse.

"Wh.. " Kerry turned and looked at the opening, then back at her partner, seeing the sweat rolling down Dar's face. "Oh my god…. You're claustrophobic?" The confirmation was clear by the expression. "Dar, it's the only way out."

A visible shiver shook the taller woman.

Kerry fought the panic that was nibbling at her. "Dar… " She took her lover's hand, which was icy cold. "I'll go first… okay? And you just come with me. "

"You go." Dar's voice cracked. "Get out of here."

Kerry lifted a hand and touched her cheek, gaining eye contact. "No." She shook her head. "I'm not going without you. We both get out of here, or neither of us does."

She had no choice. "I'll try." Dar allowed Kerry to very gently guide her to the window, and paused. "Wait."

The dimly seen pale eyes turned her way in question.

"Let me go first."

She stepped over the sill, and into a personal little hell.

It would be belly crawling. Dar slowly got down on her knees, and peered into the dark tunnel. I can't do this. Already her hands were shaking, and her stomach was in knots. Just the thought of going forward made her want to get up and run in the other direction.

She felt Kerry's hand close on her calf. "Ready when you are." The blond woman's steady voice prodded her, and she reluctantly dropped down onto her hands, somehow forcing herself to move closer to that tiny, narrowing tunnel.

She couldn't.

But she had to, for Kerry's sake.

Just think about that, Dar. That's what matters. Close your damn eyes, and just do it for her.

Kerry tensed her lips and watched Dar lower herself to the ground, and start to crawl forward. She edged along after her, using an elbow and both knees, keeping her injured hand resting on Dar's leg. She had no idea what it felt like to be claustrophobic, but she did know she'd never seen her lover so obviously coming apart. "Take it slow, okay? I'm short a paw."

Dar had to smile a tiny bit at that. She kept her eyes firmly shut, and kept moving, the first bit of the tunnel wide enough to admit her shoulders without touching. Okay. She could hear the rumble as the building settled again, and a bit of rock fell on her back. It also felt warmer. She move a hand forward, and sensed something close to her head, but opening her eyes only found shadows. She moved aside anyway. "Watch your head up here."

"Okay." Kerry's muffled voice came back at her. "You doing all right?"


Her voice didn't sound all right. Kerry inched forward, then yelped, as she put her hand on a nail.

"What?" Dar tried to turn around, and realized she couldn't. Her whole body shivered.

"It's okay.. just a nail." Kerry winced. "Go on." The dust was getting in her nose, and she stifled a sneeze.

Now the walls were getting closer. Dar could feel the brushing against her arms and the top of her head and she ducked in reflex, becoming more and more uncomfortable.

A few more feet, and she banged her head against a piece of debris and halted, now really feeling the tunnel pressing in on her. Cautiously, she felt ahead of her position, finding the space moving to the left, and getting lower, and tighter. She also couldn't feel any air coming down the tunnel, and she hesitated, considering telling Kerry to just back up, that they couldn't go any further.

Then she let her head drop, and laid down on her belly, drawing in a breath full of concrete dust and fear. "Gets close up here." She muttered hoarsely, preparing to crawl. Kerry's presence suddenly came closer, and she felt a hug around her leg, then a gentle pressure that sounded suspiciously like a kiss. "What was that?"

"Me saying thank you."

"Uh huh."

"C'mon, Dar… you're always inviting people to kiss your ass… who else but me would have the guts to actually do it?"

Dar bit her lip as her frame shook with an unexpected laugh. Then she faced the tunnel, and crept forward, squirming through the tiny space, trying not to think of anything but the moment she'd be out of the damn place.

It got tighter and tighter, and Dar had to force herself forward each small bit, battling her own mind as much as the uncomfortable space. She crawled determindly around a crooked bend then halted, as her head banged into a piece of collapsed wallboard, and the collision caused a heavy board to drop down over her shoulders and pin her in place.

She couldn't move. Her hands pushed against the ground ineffectively, and the board settled lower, shoving her face into the sharp rocks.

"Dar?" Kerry's concerned tone floated forward.

Dar felt panic rising, and she was almost helpless to stop it. She started to struggle, her breathing coming in short, sharp gasps as she tried to dislodge the board.

"Hey… hey… take it easy.. let me…" Kerry's hands moved up her. "Oh… god.. okay, I can… damn it, this piece of …Dar, stop fighting it. Let me try to help."

It was almost impossible to do. All her instincts were urging her to move. Twitching, she managed to hold herself still as Kerry worked at the obstacle, hampered by her injured arm.

"I think I can.. " Kerry's voice was strained. "Ow…oh, wait, I think I've got it." She tensed her muscles and pulled backwards, feeling the wooden plank shift. "Ah… hold on a minute there, Dar… I've almost… " The motion surprised her, and she jerked, then felt the walls around her start to move. "Oh…. Sh.. " She managed to throw her body forward over Dar's just as the tunnel collapsed around them, pinning them together and blocking any chance at retreat.

It was her worst nightmare come true, and Dar found herself frozen, unable to move as her mind recognized what had just happened. They were trapped, with only a tiny bit of air.

They were going to die.

She could feel Kerry's warm breath on her back, where the blond woman was pinned as they lay in a momentary, numb silence.

Dar swallowed, already aware of the stuffiness of the air around her. She felt her panic surprisingly recede, and she turned her head to one side. "Ker?"


"Doesn't look good."

"I know. I'm sorry, Dar. I thought I was helping." Kerry pressed her face against Dar's back, breathing in her familiar scent. "Are we out of options?"

"I think so."

They were both quiet for a few breaths. "I'm glad we're together." Kerry finally whispered.

Dar blinked in the darkness. "Me too."

"I always thought I'd be scared…" Kerry fell silent, as they listened to a soft rattle of debris falling, and shifting, far away. "I guess this is where we're supposed to say all sorts of profound things to each other."

"I guess." Dar replied. Thirty years. She reviewed them in silence. And only the last one meant a damn thing. "I'm sorry we never got to go to Key West."

Kerry felt sleepy. "Maybe in our next life." She murmured. "We've had such a short time in this one."

It's always too short. Dar felt a tide of frustration well up inside her. "Yeah."

"I love you, Dar." Kerry pressed her lips against the warm back she was resting on.

She couldn't answer for a minute, around the lump in her throat. "I love you too." She finally rasped. "You know you've been the best thing in my life, right?"

A sniffle. "Ditto."

Kerry sighed. "I wasn't ready for this to happen." She murmured softly. "I just found what I wanted, Dar… I don't want to give it up yet."

"Me either." Dar felt a deep sense of anger rising. She tensed her muscles, and tried to straighten her body out, feeling her feet gain a purchase on the fallen debris behind them. She could feel the heavy pressure of the wood over her shoulders, and her spirit rebelled against it's captivity. "I know it's pointless, but.. " She coiled her legs up and set her back against the wood.

"Wh… what are you doing, Dar?"

"Trying." There wasn't any reason or thought behind it. She took a breath, then started to push, straining her muscles against the obstruction. It didn't budge even slightly, but she tried harder, reaching inside and calling up slumbering reserves of strength she rarely ever had tapped.

She closed her eyes, and an echo of memory flowed through her, and she felt the stale air making her head buzz, and smelled a sharp, harsh scent, and just decided she needed to be out of where she was.

Kerry needed to be out of where she was. No way was she going to let Kerry die. No way.



A hot surge of energy hit her in the gut, and she uncoiled, letting a yell of rage erupt from her chest as her body straightened, to the sound of crashing, and a roar, and a blast of hot, stinking air. Dar reeled on the edge of unconsciousness, dimly aware of hands grabbing her and voices hammering at her ears that were curiously familiar.

Kerry felt things move around her, and she tried to keep hold of Dar as plaster and drywall collapsed on top of them both. She knew a moment of total panic, then the debris behind her gave way and she was tumbling out of the tunnel and into a clear space. Ceiling tiles dropped on top of her head and she rolled, trying to get into the clear. Then her motion was stopped by something solid, and she flailed an arm out, making contact with unexpected fabric and warmth.

"Kerry!" Never had a voice been more welcome. Kerry blinked her eyes open through the plaster dust and made them focus on Andrew's dusty, scarred face. The tall man knelt at her side and started pulling the drywall off her, and she clutched at his arm, pulling him over awkwardly and hugging him. "Easy there." He pulled her gently free of the plaster and ended up on the floor with Kerry in his lap. "Lord, ah am glad to all hell to see the two of you."

"Same here." Kerry managed a smile, as she carefully sat up, cradling her arm and looking around. Dar was sprawled full length in the dirt, with her mother kneeling over her, and she could smell smoke nearby. "I'm glad you're both all right." Her eyes went to the far corridor, blocked by the collapsed ceiling.

Dar lay on the floor, trying to catch her breath The voices came much closer, and she felt fingers touch her forehead, for a moment throwing her back into childhood, when a fall from the tree outside their base quarters had dazed her. It had been the same touch, and she opened her eyes to see her mother crouched over her, an anxious look on her face.

"Dar?" Ceci spoke again.

"Hi mom." Dar murmured. "Watch that last step. It sucks."

Ceci went still for a second, then her face creased into a wry smile, as she shared the memory. "What luck… you're already at a hospital." She looked over to where Andrew was tugging Kerry free of the last of the debris. "I'm glad we found you… there's a fire in the next section. We have to get out of here."

That explained the heat. Dar caught her breath and looked around. What had been the nurses station was now just a mass of rubble, and the ceiling had fallen down in the corridor, blocking the way forward. Kerry was scrambling to her feet, and as Dar watched, she walked over and laid a hand on the blockage. The emergency lighting was a little stronger here, and displayed the liberal bloodstains on Kerry's cotton shirt, from the scratches and scrapes covering her skin. Dar looked down, finding herself in the same condition.

"Dar?" Her mother prompted her gently. "Are you okay?"

Dar didn't think so. Too much was happening too fast. But she gathered her wits and nodded. "We had kind of a tough time getting through that mess."

Ceci patted her shoulder. "C'mon…let's see if we can find a way out of here."

They both stood, and walked over to where Kerry and Andy were just climbing to their feet. Dar suffered a hair ruffling from her father, as Kerry thumped against her in a heartfelt embrace. She put her arms around the smaller woman and exhaled, trying to put the very recent past behind her for the moment.

"Thank you." Kerry uttered. "I don’t' know how you did that, but thank you."

Did what? Dar deferred the question until later. "We have to get moving." She indicated a half passable exit to the right.

Kerry lifted her head, then moved away from Dar to the piles of debris blocking the way towards where Angie's room was. "How can we get through here?"

They gathered behind her. Dar put a hand on the fractured wall. "Kerry… it.." She fell silent. The heat was increasing. "I don't think…. "

"Dar." Kerry picked up a chunk of concrete, and tossed it aside. "My family's behind here."

"Kerry." Andrew went to her side. "Ah think whatever it was… that blew up, was right up under that wing there."

Kerry looked at him. "I have to know for sure." She pulled another bit off and threw it behind her. "I'm not going to live my life….now that I have one again, thank you Dar….wondering if there was something I could have done to help them."

A thin haze of smoke had started to drift in, and the heat was getting uncomfortable, but Dar merely sighed, and set to work, tugging on the stubborn concrete in an attempt to clear the wreckage. She glanced at her parents. "Why don't you guys go on."

"Why don't you grow wings and fly." Ceci retorted. "We'd better hurry.. it's going to get nasty in here."

They started to work as an eerie roar became subliminally audible, along with the echo of far off screams.


What are you doing, Kerry? She pushed the sweat dampened hair off her forehead and stifled a cough. Do you really think you can get through all this? Then what? She glanced to her right, where Dar and Andrew were working together to move a huge piece of wall. Father and daughter took opposite sides of the section and lifted, noses wrinkling up in effort in almost mirror image. They got the piece off and went back for more, while Ceci helped her move the smaller chunks. You're risking their lives, and they probably don’t' even understand why you're doing it.

Her hand touched something that wasn't rock, and she gasped, drawing back from what was identifiably a human arm.

It had been cold.

"Dardar, g'wan over there by Kerry. I'll check this out." Andrew ordered, in a quiet, businesslike voice. He knelt in front of Kerry, blocking her view of the body with his own as he gently moved aside the plaster, exposing the features. For a moment he was silent, his head bowed as though saying a prayer. Then he turned his head. "It's that nurse.

Kerry closed her eyes and let out a breath, then released her grip on Dar's arm.

"Dar, gimme a hand here."

It was the last thing she wanted to do. Dar swallowed, but forced her body to move, kneeling down at her father's side as he cleared the rest of the debris away. The nurse had been running, apparently. She was face down, and there was a lot of blood where a sharp edge had punctured her back just below her skull. Andrew took hold of one arm. "Take er there." He motioned to the other arm. "Pull when I tell ya."

Dar flexed her hands, then reached out hesitatantly and did as he asked, unpleasantly shocked at how cold and rubbery the flesh felt.


She looked quickly up at her father.

"First time I had t'do this, I chucked up so bad I nearly coughed up my kneecaps out my nostrils."

Dar nodded, and took a breath. "Thanks." She took a firmer hold, and helped him drag the body clear, and over to one side. Andrew gave her a pat on the back as they walked back over.

"Gonna be okay?"


They went back to working their way through, glancing over their shoulders as the smoke started to thicken. Kerry pulled up one large chunk, then a second, then stifled a cough. She watched Andy and Dar wrestled a large half girder out of the way, then reached out as they came back, catching Dar on her sleeve. "Listen… it's getting pretty bad in here.. maybe we'd…better get going that other way."

Andrew glanced over his shoulder, then shook his grizzled head. "Don't think that's an option, kumquat… let's just keep diggin."

Kerry gave him a confused look, then she turned and peered down the other corridor, only then seeing the flames through the small glass window in the door. They were trapped, and it was her fault. Oh my god.

Oh. My. God.

Oh, god please… if I am being punished for something, don't bring them into it. Kerry suddenly felt a warmth against her cheek and she looked up, right into Dar's eyes.

"Hey." Dar had a smudge of soot over her eye, and it gave her a rakish look. "No time for second guessing. C'mon….let's get this done."

"Dar… I."

"Don’t' think about it." A warning shake of her head. "C'mon."

Kerry exhaled, and nodded, then followed Dar over to the dent they'd made in the debris.

They worked in silence, broken only by coughing as the air grew thicker with smoke, and an eerie, roaring sound coming from the other side of the dividing wall. Andrew paused for a moment, then tugged his shirt off, and removed a pocketknife from his back pocket that he flipped open with a negligent flick of his wrist. Then he sliced off the sleeves, handing one each to Ceci and Kerry, in a curious chivalry that made Dar smile. She pulled up the collar of her own knit shirt and covered her mouth and nose, then kept working. They made good progress for a several minutes, then Andy cursed, as a bit of wall he was pulling on refused to budge. "Damn it all to hell… this thing's one big piece.
A blast of heat hit them, and they ducked, as the wall opposite them collapsed into flame, spitting chunks of burning debris near where they were standing. The smoke rolled upward, and they stared at it, all of them frozen for a long moment.

Dar felt the adrenaline hit her in the gut, and she blinked, deliberately turning her back on the fire and studying the wall. There was a large, tilting section they'd ignored, because it was leaning in their direction and not in their way.

"All right." Andrew sounded grimly resigned. "You two get in that there space, hear? Maybe we can pull some of this stuff up on over us, and it'll pass by."

"No." Dar felt her brain kick in, as she remembered what it was she did for a living.

Just another problem to solve. "Help me get those cables hanging there… we'll tie it around this section here… " Dar scrambled up and grabbed the cables and wrapped them around the leaning section. The rest of them helped her, tying the huge metal ropes together. "Now… "

The fire jumped across to the nurses station, it's heat blanching them. Dar tugged at the edge of the leaning section. "If we can just get this to fall over…. "

"Lord." Andrew leaped up and caught the edge, lending his weight to the effort, but the section didn't budge. Kerry and Ceci pulled also, straining against the stubborn concrete.

"The one damn thing in this place that stayed put." Ceci muttered.

"Hang on." Dar leaped up and pulled her body up and over the edge of the wall, getting between the section and the one blocking them. She placed her feet against one surface, and her back against the other, and pushed, using her powerful legs and hands braced against her knees. "Get out of the way." She gasped, as she felt the rock shift under her back.

Andrew pulled himself up and over the edge of the concrete, and added his strength to his daughters. "This thing lets go, we're gonna have to jump."

"Yep." Dar grimaced, as the heat made her close her eyes. "Ready? One.. two.."

"Six." They both pushed at once, and the wall creaked, then started to fall, sending them both tumbling off as it tipped over, hesitating at it's apex, before surrendering to gravity and falling, pulling the huge section blocking their way with it.

"There's a way through. " Kerry yelled, in utter relief. "C'mon!" She had Dar by the sleeve, and pulled, as Andy dove into the gap opened up, with Ceci clinging to his back. A burning piece of insulation fell, and Kerry yelped as it hit her shoulders. Dar pulled her forward, though, and it fell off as the flames started licking at the ceiling they were just standing under. She squeezed through the narrow opening, scraping her arms and legs on the shattered bits of internal wall structure that poked through the debris. It was darker where they were going, and she blinked, trying to see ahead of her.

Then a roar sounded behind her, and a hot wave slammed against her body, burning the hair on her arms as she yelled a warning.

Then she felt a tremendous lurch, and something fell on top of her, and it got a lot darker.


Things were moving. Kerry jolted back into awareness to the sounds of things falling, and a dull roaring sound. She heard yells, and realized she was being carried in a cradle of strong arms that gripped her around the shoulders and under her knees.

It was still very dark, but it was cooler, and she tried to collect her scattered senses as the pace quickened, and a puff of cooler, fresher air washed over her.

She heard a rapid pounding noise, and puzzled over that until she realized it was a heartbeat against her ear. She forced her eyes open, to see a familiar profile outlined in the low, reddish light. Of course. It was Dar's heartbeat she hearing, sounding rapid and strained.

Well, you know, Kerry… you aren't the lightweight you used to be, and it probably would speed things up if she wasn't carrying your butt. "Dar?"

The blue eyes looked down at her. "Hey… ." Dar was clearly out of breath, but she kept moving, following a dimly seen back just in front of them.

"I can walk… let me down." Kerry hoped that was true. She had no real recollection of what happened after they'd started going through the wall.

"You sure?" Dar ducked under a piece of protruding wall framing, and almost tripped, keeping her balance with her load by some miracle of luck.

"Yes.. c'mon, before you pass out." Kerry insisted.


She was let down onto her feet, and she straightened tentatively, finding everything relatively in one piece, save her still aching shoulder, and now a tender, burning forearm. Dar put a hand on her back and guided her after her father and mother.

"What happened?"

Dar didn't answer for a moment. "That blowout knocked you against a piece of the wall… just had to get you out of there, that's all.

"You okay/"

A nod. "Yeah, c'mon… dad thinks he sees an open area up there."

Kerry looked around. They were in the corridor that lead towards Angie's room, but it was almost unrecognizably full of debris. "Any sign of my parents?"

"No." Dar pulled up short as Andy stopped ahead of her and turned towards them. "Problem, dad?"

"Shh." Andrew put a finger up to his lips. "You hear something?"

Lots of things. Dar was exhausted from the emotional and sensory overload of the past few hours. "Like what?"

Kerry put her uninjured arm around her partner and listened. "I don't hear anything but the fire."

Andrew cocked his head to one side, and closed his eyes.

They were all silent for a moment. Faintly, there was a scream, then a sodden crash off to the left. Then… "Wait… is that… " Kerry could hear something vaguely rhythmic. "Is someone pounding?"

Andrew nodded. "S'what I thougth I heard… " They walked along the shattered wall and slowly, the sound got louder, then stopped.

Then started again, this time with an unmistakable frustration and urgency behind it.

"Lord." Andrew sighed, hefting a sledge hammer that seemed to have magically appeared in his hand. "Stand out the way, let's see if we kin make a dent in this."

"Where did you get that?" Ceci murmured, putting a hand on his arm. "Andy.. "

"Damnfool construction guys musta sealed it up behind the drywall." The ex seal lifted the hammer and let it swing against the surface before them, a section of wall that had fallen down and covered a corner of the corridor. "Must be a damn room back there."

Dar exhaled, then started pulling chunks of fallen concrete away again, clearing a path for her father to edge down. There was only room for two, though so Kerry stayed back out of the way with Ceci, who had tied her husband's shirt sleeve over her eyes to keep her hair back. "Are you okay?" She asked the older woman.

"I've had better days." Ceci admitted, leaning against a bent wall support. She looked exhausted. "Most strenuous thing I've had to do in a couple years is walk down to the drugstore."

Kerry gave her a wan look. "Don't feel bad. I spend four to five nights a week in the gym, and I feel like I've been run over by an rhino."

"Well, seeing as how you got blown ten feet through a plaster wall back there, you're entitled." Ceci patted her good arm. "I'm glad you 're okay."

Ten feet? Plaster wall? Kerry blinked. "I guess that's why I have such a headache." She murmured, watching Dar's back tense as her lover lifted a huge chunk of something or other out of the way. "I'm sorry about all this."

"Why… did you plant a bomb?" Ceci inquired.

"No… " Kerry smiled. "Of course not, but… "

"Then… why apologize?" The smaller woman gazed at her with surprising compassion. "Kerry, we all do enough things in our lives to feel sorry for.. don’t' take on someone else's karma on top of that."

Kerry could barely see Ceci's face in the dim light, but she could feel the sad smile directed at her. She was about to answer, when a crash drew her eyes towards the wall. "Oh… looks like they've about… " She edged forward, helping Dar to move a last two by four. " Only a wooden door was now between them, and the hammering, and Andy took a swing at it, the heavy sledge shattering the surface just over the warped knob. Splinters flew, and she ducked, then the frame sprung free from the wall and it tilted towards them. Kerry took hold of it's edge one handed and tugged, wrenching the wood back, then stumbling as the panel burst outwards, and two figures half fell out, almost on top of them.

They halted, and stared at each other.

Kerry felt a roiling uneasiness almost mitigated by a sense of profound relief as she recognized her father's face, covered in plaster and soot though it was. A tremendous weight came off her shoulders, and she reached out and took hold of the crumbled wall, as her knees threatened to collapse on her. "I'm .. glad we found you."

"Get out of my way." Those pale eyes just looked through her, as her father walked right past, brushing by them and stumbling down the hallway without another word. Kerry's mother glanced uncomfortably at them, the front of her shirt covered in blood spots.

"Thank you." She addressed herself to Andrew, though her gaze slipped briefly to Kerry's face, then she dropped her eyes to the ground, and followed her husband.

Kerry felt her shoulders slump, as she studied the concrete chunks at her feet.

Dar brushed her hands off and went over to her, circling her with both arms and patting the back of her head gently as she gave her a hug. "C'mon." She motioned with her head.

"Ah do believe.' Andrew spat carefully, and precisely at the floor. "That there fella just ran out of his allotment of being nice to from this old seadog." He shouldered his hammer and put an arm around Ceci. "Ah am gonna go find him and shove this damn hammer right up his.."

"Andy." She patted him on the belly. "Let's just get out of here, okay?"

They headed down the hallway, dodging the obstacles in their path, and climbing over the buckled floor that seemed to bisect the building, tilting the outer section at a dangerous angle, as though the entire corner was in the process off falling off.

Kerry scrambled over the last barrier and went to the doorway of her sister's room and stopped in the doorway, stunned.

There was nothing left of the room. It was just a jumble of plaster and iron, so dense and tangled, it was obvious that nothing could have remained alive inside it.

"No." She whispered, as Dar and her parents came up beside her, and peered in. "She must have gotten out, right Dar?"

In the midst of labor? Dar rested her hands on Kerry's shoulders. "We'll find her." She reassured her lover.

Kerry nodded once, then stared at the wreckage. A silent knowledge came over her, and she turned, putting her head against Dar's chest in silent appeal. "But she didn't get out, did she?" She uttered softly.

"Dear God." An angry voice spoke from behind them. They turned to see Roger Stuart there, one hand resting on the shattered doorway. "One more thing for you to carry on your conscience, you little… I hope you rot in Hell!" He advanced towards Kerry, oblivious of the others. "I should.."

"Stop." Dar's voice was sharp, and sudden, as she stiffened to her full height.

"You shut up you.."

"One.. more … step." Amazing, how forceful that low voice could get. "One.. more.. word… and I'll wrap that girder around your head." Dar felt a rage running through her, bringing welcome energy, and she let it. "Leave her alone."

"You ruined her." The man snarled. "You twisted her mind, you perverted little.."

"Hey." Andrew stepped between them, putting his hands on his hips." You watch yer mouth with my daughter."

"Your…" The senator shook his head. "You must be real proud of her, mister."

Dar stirred.

"Damn straight." Andy replied mildly.

Roger Stuart stared at them, then at the room. He pointed at Kerry. "If something happened to your sister, it's your fault. You'd better hope it didn't." Then he turned and left, his hand firmly around his wife's arm.

Kerry leaned against the door frame and lifted a shaking hand to her face. "He's right." She whispered. "They'd have been home in Michigan."

Andrew came over, and tugged on a bit of Kerry's hair. "Kumquat, ye're wrong about that. We don’t' got the time to be stewing in ourselfs here.. takes energy we're gonna need for better things."

It was just too much. Kerry gazed at the wreckage of her sister's room, then gave in, and just buried herself in Dar's arms, too tired to even cry.

"I think we all need to sit down and rest a minute." Ceci spoke firmly. "The fire's not in this area yet, and we're all about to drop. Let's go over there and just regroup." Tired nods agreed, and they settled in the corner of the wreckage, Dar with Kerry cradled in her arms, listening to the chaos in the darkness around them.


Andrew looked around as they rested, reviewing the battered hallway. A few minutes was all they could take – he could already see smoke clustering at the ceiling a little ways back.

What a damn mess. He glanced at Ceci, who was seated at his side resting her head on his shoulder. "How you holding up, pretty lady?"

"Well." She replied thoughtfully. "On the one hand, here I am, in a burning building, covered in the goddess only knows what, scraped and dented like a 1960 Ford truck, and wishing like anything for a big bottle of mineral water."

"Huh." Andy examined a nasty looking scrape on his arm, then brushed a bit of ceiling tile off his wife's shoulder.

"On the other hand, you’re here with me." Ceci went on, exhaling lightly. "So I think I’m doing just fine. How about you?"

Andrew cleared his throat. "That’s a damn frilly thing to say in front of these kids, ain’t it?"

Ceci glanced over to where Dar was seated, with Kerry curled up in her arms . "They’ll survive." She watched her daughter in bemusement, remembering all too clearly a teen’s angry insistence on pristine person space. When was the last time she’d hugged Dar? Grade school, probably… those last few years of innocence… well, relatively… before puberty had kicked in and ended any shreds of closeness they’d clung on to.

Kerry seemed the touchy feely kind though, and apparently Dar had adjusted to that, not grudging the fair haired woman the comfort her physical presence provided. Certainly, Kerry was soaking up the affection, as Dar kept up a light rubbing on her back, collecting herself visibly with a few deep breaths.

Adjusted? Ceci covertly noted the look of weary content on Dar's face as she rested her cheek against Kerry's pale head. Maybe she should have tried a few more hugs to start with. Kerry definitely was showing her an unexpected side to her daughter, that was for sure. A warm, gently affectionate, playful facet she frankly hadn't thought Dar possessed.

Ah well. Hindsight was a very frustrating thing, especially for a parent. You just really never knew if you were doing the right thing, the wrong thing, or whatever, and by the time you figured it all out, it was too late. "Guess we'd better get going." She murmured, with an apologetic look in Kerry's direction. "You doing any better?"

Kerry nodded. "Just needed to catch my breath, I think." She murmured, then she tilted her head up and gazed at her quiet protector. "Thank you."

Dar's head cocked to one side. "For being a backrest? No problem."

"That too." Kerry folded her fingers around Dar's longer ones, and brushed her lips over their knuckles. "I always seem to be getting you into trouble."

"Keeps life interesting." Dar assured her, with a faint smile, as she hauled herself to her feet, and tugged Kerry up with her. "C'mon." She kept an arm around her lover's shoulders as they made their way down the hall, climbing over obstacles together in silence.

They'd gotten most of the way down towards the end of the building, when Andrew paused, and put his hand against the wall, looking around carefully. "Damn."

"What is it?" Ceci asked.

"Ain't no way down from here." He told them. "Stairs were up behind that part." He pointed at a piled of wreckage. "Looks like that whole damn section fell in on top of itself."

Dar watched the smoke fill the end of the corridor back the way they came from. "Well… let's get to an outside room then… must be people trying to get folks out of this damn place." She took the lead, scrambling over an overturned mobile bed and turning the last corner, then stopping short.

The end of the hallway was full of huddled, frightened people, who stared at them with wild eyes. Kerry's parents were there, against one wall, the senator caught in mid word.

"A disgrace." His eyes fell on them, and he paused. "No one to help, no one who knows anything… you can bet something will be done about it after this."

"If we get out of here." A woman sitting on the floor, with a young boy cradled in her arms responded. "No one even knows what happened… it was like a bomb went off."

"Don't be ridiculous." The senator snapped. "Probably some inferior imported gas heater blew up.. this place is known for cutting corners."

"With this amount of damage?" Dar snorted. "It'd have to be a water heater the size of the Titanic." She started around the area, examining any possible way out. "It probably was a bomb." She gave the senator a dark look. "Someone probably got tired of your hate policies."

"Shut up."

"Kiss my ass."

"Dar." Kerry looked from face to face, closing her eyes when she didn't see the one face she was looking for. The end of the building was open, and had large windows, and there were perhaps a dozen people there, some injured, some patients, and some, about a half dozen, children.

Then she realized the room was full of colorful furniture and toys, and guessed they were in the pediatrics area. Two of the children were in wheelchairs, and they looked scared. Kerry smiled at the closest one, and tried not to think of her sister.

Surely, Angie had gotten out. Maybe she'd been on her way to the delivery room… maybe she was on the other side of the damage, and already outside.

Maybe Kerry was already an aunt again.

Maybe it was a little boy. She stopped, and fought the tears down. I am not going to give up on you, Angie… I know you made it.

"Does anyone actually know what happened?" Dar finally asked, as Andrew went to the window and peered out.

"Hell if I know." One man answered, holding a dirty piece of cloth to a cut on his face. A little girl was clinging to him, evidently his daughter. The child was pale, and wearing a hospital jumper, and she looked frightened and uncomfortable. "One minute we were watching the television, the next… the whole place blew apart."

Dar glanced behind her. "We should block off that hallway."

"Are you crazy?" A woman seated against the wall objected. "That's the only way they have of getting to us.. we're in a cul de sac."

"It's also the only way the fire has to get to us." Dar replied. "And it's gonna get here before help does."

A murmur of fear greeted her words. Against the far wall, Kerry's parents simply turned their heads, and ignored her existence. Over near the entrance, a small kitchenette had been mostly spared, and readily plundered. There was a five gallon bottle of water sitting on the counter half empty, and Kerry went for it, aware of being desperately thirsty all of a sudden.

A dull explosion threw her against the wall, and she grabbed on, as debris fell all around her. After a few tense moments, though, the creaking stopped, and they all were coughing in the film of plaster dust fogging the room. Part of the drop ceiling collapsed, throwing broken tiles everywhere, and the already stuffy air seemed to thicken around them.

Then with a halfhearted flicker, the faint emergency lighting went out, and they were in darkness, broken only by the city lights coming in from the windows that ringed them.

Kerry stopped, with her hand on the counter. Meager though it had been, the light had served to at least give them some idea of what was happening. Now… anything could be coming out of the dark. She jumped as she felt a touch on her back and gasped.

"Easy." Dar's voice tickled her ears. "Let me get that for you." The dark haired woman rummaged in the scattering of debris near the lopsided refrigerator and retrieved a cup, then lifted the bottle carefully and poured some water into it.

Kerry gulped the liquid gratefully, draining the cup, then staring at it in the gloomy half light. "Could you… "

"Sure." Dar poured her another cupful, then she took a deep breath. "I don't think blocking the hall is gonna help."

"Probly not." Andrew, standing next to her invisibly agreed. "Think we need to get that there winder open." He glanced over at the dimly seen profiles against the glass. "Dar, let's you an me go check that out. Cec… keep by here, all right?"

"All right." Cecilia leaned against the counter next to Kerry and exhaled, as she turned her head. "Mind if I steal a sip of that?"

Kerry offered her the cup. "Least I could do after getting you into this."

"Kerry?" Ceci gave her a sideways look, taking a sip of the water. "If you don't cut out the blame game, I'm going to be forced to get maternal on you, and that could get ugly."

Kerry blinked at her, then smiled against her will. "Sorry. I babble when I'm nervous." She rubbed her eyes tiredly. "My brain's running on empty right now." She was achingly aware of her parents, watching from across the room.

"I can tell. You know what Dar does when she's antsy?"

"Pulls things apart." Kerry responded, with a wan grin. "Paper clips especially.. she shapes them into little figurines."

Ceci chuckled. "I'm glad some things didn't change…I used to keep a collection of the damn things."

Kerry studied her for a moment. "I bet you still have them." She stated unexpectedly. "Don't you?"

The older woman pursed her lips, then glanced down at the counter they were leaning on. "You caught me. Yes, I do." She agreed softly. "Along with a couple pairs of tiny shoes, and a first grader's efforts at spelling."

Kerry absorbed that, her gaze drifting over to where her parents were unconsciously. "I had to do all of my own saving." Her voice was low, and quiet. After a moment of pensive silence, she turned her head towards Ceci. "Mrs. Roberts… you can get maternal on me any time you want."

Incredible. Cecilia drew a breath in. Someone who thinks I'm parenting material. I must be getting ancient as the hills for that to happen. "Well then." She answered reflectively. "You'd better stop calling me Mrs. Roberts." In the gloom, she could just barely see Kerry smile.


The children were starting to cry, frightened to an even higher state by the darkness. Dar and Andy made their way across the crowded floor, pressing up against the glass windows as they reached them and looked down.

"Jesus." Dar's eyes widened, at the huge collection of lights, emergency equipment, and people swarming about below. "Guess they are working on getting people out… " She watched as a fireman tugged a wrapped form out a window two stories beneath them. They were on the seventh floor, almost near the top of the building, and form what she could see whatever had happened had ripped out almost half of the side of the structure.

Andy pushed his hands against the glass. "Ain't gonna be easy." He shook his head. "Thing's made not to break.. but them folks down there ain't gonna know we're here less we tell em." He lifted his sledge hammer and paused, looking for a place to start. "Damn lousy time fer you to lose that cell phone of yours."

"Mmph." Dar muttered, annoyed at herself for that very fact. "Came off my belt." Kerry had left hers charging in the room, and she wasn't really sure what kind of reception she could expect inside the chaotic wreckage anyway. She cleared a space for her father to work, then realized there were some living obstacles there in the half light. "You'd better move back" Dar told the watching Stuarts coldly.

"Go to hell." Roger Stuart answered, then jerked as he was suddenly face to face with a sledge hammer head and a pair of icy cold eyes behind it.

"You will move your carcass out of mah way, sir." Andrew rasped at him. "Because I have about run out of my patience with you." He poked the senator with the hammer handle. "Now that this little lady of yours and go back of there fore I throw you head over buttocks."

"Do you know who the hell I am?" The senator growled, unintimidated.

"A right jackass. Now move." Andrew poked him again.

"Listen here, you stupid hick… " Stuart stood up, then stopped speaking as he was lifted, and pushed against the wall, the hammer handle cutting off his wind. "Jesus." He rasped.

"That would be Commander Hick to you, useless excuse fer a gov'ment paycheck." Andy released him, then gave him a shove, sending him sprawling into a pile of roof tiling. "Waste of mah good tax dollars, that's for damn sure."

"Just wait until we get out of here." Kerry's father threatened. "I'll slap lawsuits on the lot of you."

Andrew turned his attention back to the window. "Jackass." Kerry's mother hurried to her husband's side, and knelt by him, brushing the pieces of plaster off his stained and burned jacket. "Those who can, do, those who can't become lawyers. Those who ain't got no use at all, run fer govement."

Dar almost laughed at the look on the senator's face, but she was too tired. Instead, she forced her attention on the glass. "Dad… " She ran a hand over the surface. "Try here, near the frame."

"Not in the middle?" Andrew drawled, cocking his head at her in question.

"No… I think it's designed to flex there.. it'll be more rigid, and have a higher tendency to shatter here, at the edge."

Andy gave her a look. "All right." He lifted the hammer, and faced the glass, concentrating on it carefully. "Make sure everybody's staying back… this stuff's gonna fly."

Dar took a quick look around, ignoring the glares. "Everyone cover up… we're going to break this window." People scrambled to get out of the way, and the frightened children were gathered into the corner. "Okay… go ahead." She held her arm over her own eyes, and stepped back, stifling a cough as the air seemed to thicken again with smoke.

It would be such a relief to breathe fresh air. Just the thought of it made her dizzy.

Andrew took aim, then swung the hammer back, and launched it forward, getting his entire body into the swing as it hit the edge of the window. With a spectacular crash, it shattered into millions of tiny bits, exploding in both directions.

Andy threw himself back wards to avoid the flying glass, then felt himself picked up and slammed against the frame as the air pressure sucked the heated air out of the building, bringing a hot, roaring explosion down the hall and heading right for them.


Continued in Part 11