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 12

By Melissa Good

The banging on the door brought Dar bolt upright, and nearly sent her clawing for the ceiling as her back seized up in dire protest. "Son of a bitch!" She yelped, nearly scaring Kerry to death as she was shocked awake as well.

"What…wh.." Kerry grabbed for her. "What's wr… Jesus, what time is it… "

The knocking repeated itself, and Dar's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Oh.. buddy.. whoever you are. You're gonna be six inches shorter when I get done with you." She yanked the covers back and slid out of the warm bed, stalking towards the door a little stiffly, but nonetheless impressively to her watching lover.

She didn't even bother looking out the peephole, grabbing the door handle and pushing down, then pulling back the door and facing off the noisy intruder, glowering at him with all the dark temper she could muster. "What?"

A tow haired man of middling height was standing there, a pad in his hand that he'd been looking at. He looked up and started speaking, then paused. "Sorry. I'm looking fer someone name of Dar Roberts?"

"Congratulations. You found me." Dar snarled. "You've got twenty seconds to explain why you're banging on my door at six am, or I'm gonna introduce you to the back of the elevator head first."

His jaw sagged a little. "I'm with the police, ma'am."

"I don't give a rats ass if you're the Attorney Goddamn General." Dar's voice rose. "I was answering questions until two goddamn am last night. Now you've got ten seconds."

"Look, lady… you don't seem to understand…"

"Five seconds." Dar took a step forward, and despite the fact that she was barefoot and dressed in only a tshirt, the man backed away.

"Okay..okay… look.. they just told me to come up here and ask you some questions.. it wasn't my idea." He held up a hand. "Don't get all hostile on me, lady."

Dar folded her arms, and lifted her eyebrows. "Well?"

"Well what?"

"What are the questions?"

He glanced up and down the hallway. "Look.. can we go inside?"


"Why not?"

"My girlfriend's asleep."

The policeman gazed at his pad, then up at her. "Maybe I better come back later."

"Good idea."

"Maybe I better send my lieutenant."

"Even better."

The man turned and walked to the elevator, looking back at her as the doors closed and shaking his head. Dar exhaled, then chuckled to herself, before she walked back inside the room and closed the door. She trudged back to the bed and climbed under the covers. "Jackass."

"Who was that?" Kerry asked curiously.

"The police." Dar yawned, snuggling back down in the comfortable bed.

"What did they want?" Kerry resumed her favorite spot.

"I don’t' know… more questions.. I told them to get the hell out of here."

Kerry considered this. "Dar.. honey… you really can't treat the police like that." She winced. "They get really mad."

"He didn't know that." Dar closed her eyes firmly. "They better not be back until after breakfast." She curled an arm around Kerry and relaxed. "Then they can be as mad as they want."


"The FBI reported today that they have given up hope of retrieving any further living victims of the hospital explosion, and are now concentrating on examining the rubble for evidence of what set it off."

"A bomb?" Kerry buttered another biscuit and drizzled some honey on it, then took a bite. "How much evidence does it take?"

"I think.. " Dar was munching on a thick Belgian waffle. "They want to know what kind." She cut another syrup doused slice and stuck it in her mouth.

A knock came at the door, sharp and commanding. Dar and Kerry glanced at each other. "Well, it's close." Kerry smiled, motioning her to stay seated. "We might as well get it over with." She got up and walked to the door, peering through the eyehole. A short, muscular woman with a no nonsense attitude was standing there, and she opened the door, peering out at her with an inquisitive look. "Yes?"

"Are you Dar Roberts?"

"No." Kerry shook her head. "I'm not."

"Is she in this room, ma'am?" The woman snapped.

"Yes, she is." Kerry stepped back. "Would you like to come in?" She pulled the door back with her, and the policewoman strode past, brushing her aside as she walked towards where Dar was sprawled, one bare foot propped up on the bed, as she continued her breakfast. "Guess you would." She muttered, closing the door and following.

"Are you Dar Roberts?" The woman asked.

"That'd be me." Dar drawled softly.

"Ma'am, I am Lieutenant Jacobs, and I don’t' appreciate how my officer was treated by you this morning."

Dar lifted her milk and took a swallow "We're even." She put the glass down. "I don’t' appreciate being woken up at six am."

"Do you understand we're investigating a crime here?" The policewoman was very intense, very obviously angry, and very obviously irritated at Dar's casual attitude.

"Having been one of the victims of it… yeah, I'd gathered." Dar answered. "Look.. we answered questions until two am last night… I wasn't about to start up again before dawn.. if you've got a problem with that… Lieutenant… too damn bad."

"Dar's right." Kerry resumed her seat and sipped her coffee. "They caught us at the hospital… we're both under medication, and I don't think it's fair you seem to expect us to keep that kind of schedule.. we're not the people who did this."

The woman paused, considering. "We didn't question anyone last night."

"The FBI did." Dar answered. "Don't you guys share notes?"

The officer sighed. "Not often. Look.. I'm sorry you were disturbed. But there's a huge pressure on to find out who did this… and we can't wait for people to finish brunch before we start asking questions."

"So.. what is it you want to know/" Kerry asked. "Would you like some coffee?"

The woman eyed her. "Um.. no thanks…Ms…. ??"

"Stuart." Kerry held a hand out. "Kerry Stuart."

The woman had taken her hand before the name registered. "K… wait a minute… are you related to the senator?"

"Mm… yes, he's my father." Kerry admitted, releasing her. "Sorry.. don’t' you people keep track of things like that?"

The officer looked at her, then at Dar, then back at her. "Ms. Stuart.. how long have you known this person?"

Kerry glanced at Dar, who lifted a brow at her. "Who.. her?" She pointed. "Um… almost a year?"

"May I speak to you outside?"

"Sure." Kerry got up and trudged after her, going outside and closing the door behind them. "Yes?"

The woman gazed at her. "Have you ever had any reason to suspect your friend in there of being a violent person?"

Kerry stared at her. "Excuse me?"

"Look.. Ms Stuart… whoever planted that bomb in that hospital was probably after you, and your family." The policewoman stated. "The Senator informed us that your friend in there had a good motive to want him hurt."

Kerry cleared her throat. "Actually.. I have a lot better motive."

It was the cop's turn to stare "Excuse me?"

"I have a lot better motive. My father is an asshole, Lieutenant… when he found out I was in a relationship with Ms. Roberts, he had me put into a mental hospital."

A breath. "Oh."

"And… this is a really stupid line of questioning.. because even if Dar did have a reason to want my father dead…she doesn’t have a reason to want me dead.. or her father.. or her mother… or herself… or my sister and brother, whom she kinda likes."

"So.. she was with you in the hospital.. is that what you're saying?"

"Of course… excuse me, but this is all on record… for the love of God, they've been showing film of us on CNN for two blasted days!"

"Ms. Stuart…"

"Well, they have!"

"We don't spend our time watching the news, Ms. Stuart." The woman stated, stiffly. "And as you can imagine, there's a lot of confusion right now… I had no idea you two were.. um.. "

"Well, we are." Kerry was annoyed. "Dar risked her life to get people out of that building… including my father, as a matter of fact, and it's getting me really pissed off.."

"Okay..okay.. Ms. Stuart.. please.." The policewoman sighed, "Please… understand, we have to ask, we have to follow up all the leads we get, no matter how ridiculous they seem to other people. We can't just ignore what someone tells us because someone else tells us to."

"My father's in no danger from Dar." Kerry replied, coldly. "But he better watch out the next time I see him." She looked at the other woman. "I thought you had someone who confessed to this?"

The policewoman shook her head. "It's a scam.. the FBI knows it.. they're just hanging onto her because they don’t' have anything else right now… she did it for attention." She sighed, and scratched her ear. "So.. the senator gave us a red herring, huh?"

"Yes." Kerry stated firmly.

"Damn.. that's too bad." The woman snorted a little. "I was looking forward to taking her down to the station and knocking some of that attitude off."

"Tch." Kerry shook her head. "That's not attitude… that's just Dar." She told her. "You would have ended up really frustrated."



"Hm." The woman crossed her arms. "Who do you think that bomber was after, Ms. Stuart?"

Kerry leaned against the door. "I wish I knew… I"d have to assume it was my father.. I'm not in the habit of collecting enemies.. in fact… "She let her voice trail off. "Except…"

"What?" The policewoman asked softly, her gaze sharpening.

"Well… " Kerry's brow creased, then she looked up as the door opened, and Dar stuck her head out curiously. "Dar… what was it you said Mark found out about Ankow… before you went into that meeting?"

"Ankow?" Dar murmured. "Damn.. I'd forgotten all about him.. what's he got to do with this?"

The lieutenant was glancing from one face to another. "Can we go back inside and talk about whoever this is?"

Dar opened the door and walked back to the desk, sitting down behind it and tapping a few keys on her laptop. "Well, not that much but… " She studied the information. "Just that his father was associated with that militia group… I used that to deflect his attack on us."

"Militia…" The policewoman sat down, and pulled out a pad. "Attack…wait.. who is this we're talking about?" She paused. "Did you tell the FBI about this?"

"No." Dar answered. "They didn't ask."

The woman grinned. "Okay.. so who is this?"

"Dar… tell her about you being poisoned!" Kerry suddenly blurted. "Doctor Steve said…"

"Poisoned?" Now Dar had the policewoman's total attention. "Wait. Let's start at the beginning… maybe we're looking at the wrong target here."


Andrew and Ceci sat quietly on a bench, just across from the Vietnam memorial, no different than dozens of other tourists, most his age or older, some alone, some with companions, gazing at the black granite stones.

"There were many times." Ceci commented softly. "When I thanked the goddess you were a sailor, and not a soldier."

"Huh." Andrew exhaled, stretching his legs out and crossing his ankles. "Never was a doubt." He replied, glancing at his diminutive wife. "Been some trip, ain't it?"

Ceci chuckled.

"Messed up your peace some."

"That it has." The silver blond woman agreed. "Thank goodness."

Blue eyes regarded her in mild surprise.

"You know… before you came back, if I had one painting idea a month, it wa a lot." Ceci murmured. "I"ve had more images jump in my head in the past week then in the past five years." She turned her head and looked at her husband. "I want to do a family portrait, Andy."

"Do you?" He smiled, hesitantly.

"I do." She assured him. "You know I don't like portraits.. not the traditional kind, but I really want to do one… I want you, and Dar, and Kerry.. and that silly little dog in there too."

Andrew blinked. "All right… if that's what you want to do."

Ceci leaned against his arm contentedly. "And I think I want to get a tattoo."

Andrew turned his whole head and tilted it down, peering at her with two very wide open blue eyes surmounted by hiked eyebrows. "Excuse me?"

"Mm… yeah."

"Now, hold on there, Ceci… I traveled every damn ocean across this whole damn world and didn't get a tattoo cause I promised you I wouldn't.. now you want one??"

She nodded. "You can get one with me. We'll get matching ones… how about it?"

"Ah am too old to be getting a tattoo.. and besides, we'll never hear the end of it from Dar." Andrew protested.

"Aw.. c'mon, Andy…" She wrinkled her nose mischievously. "Just two little ones… we'll put them someplace she won't see."


"Little teddy bears… "

"Good lord, woman… I…" Andrew broke off, and his eyes tracked across the open space, following a walking figure. "Now.. I wonder what that asshole is doing here."

"Who is it?" Ceci peered in the same direction, seeing a tall, good looking man with a muscular build seemingly strolling along without a care.

"Someone I do not like." Andy murmured. "Feller who was giving Dar a hell of a time… and maybe more than that."

"Do you know him?" Ceci glanced at the man uneasily.

"We met." Andy's jawline moved into a familiar line.

"Andy… it's not illegal to be walking around in Washington DC… maybe he's just here like everyone else is.. .to see what's going on." Cecilia reasoned. "It could be a coincidence."

"Could be." Andrew didn't look even slightly convinced. "Glad we're getting out of here though. This place gives me the crawls." He stood, and offered Ceci his hand. "Let's head on back."

They walked hand in hand down the path, edging around the small groups of tourists and through a set of hedges in one of the little parks between the memorial and the hotel. It was a sunny morning, with a cool breeze rustling the leaves, and they ambled along in silence, simply enjoying each other's company.

Then Ceci felt the fingers in hers tense, and she glanced over, to see a tiny wave of alertness travel over her husband's tall form, bringing him up on the balls of his feet, and arching his neck just slightly. "Andy? " She looked quickly around. 'What is it?"

"Just keep walking." Andrew told her quietly. "Stay close to me."

Ceci didn’t question that request. She tucked her hand inside her husband's elbow and stayed in his shadow, as a faint rocking motion came into his steps, and his scarred face went very still. They walked through the park and towards the other side, and as they entered the small passage way that led between two buildings, Ceci thought she heard soft footsteps behind them. A quick glance up ward revealed a little smile tugging at Andy's lips and she swallowed hard, closing her eyes briefly and whispering a few words to a guardian spirit.

Two more steps, and she felt Andy's arm tense, and he released her hand. She took another breath, then in a split second, he was no longer next to her. She hardly saw him turn, and take hold of the man who had come up behind them, slamming an elbow into the man's jaw and hooking his leg to send him to the ground.

Andy slid easily down with him and pinned him to the earth with a knee, shaking out a slim blade with his free hand and taking to the man's throat in a single, very smooth motion. "Now, sir." He told the man quietly. "Were you looking to get my attention?"

Blood ran from the man's mouth, and he slowly lowered his hands to the earth palms up, not taking his eyess off Andy's face for a second. "There's a badge in the inside pocket of my jacket."

"Good for you." Andrew didn't budge. "That does not give you license to creep up on fellers, and doing that outside a memorial to the Vietnam war makes me question what sense you do got."

"I'm an FBI agent."

"That explains the sense part." Andrew still didn't move. "What do you want from me and mah wife?"

"Andy, he might be a little more talkative if you get off his chest." Cecilia commented. "I know I certainly couldn't manage a word if that were me."

Well. Andrew examined the man's face, which was turning beet red. Maybe she had a point there. "All right." He released the man and stood in one motion, closing the knife and putting it back in his pocket. "You cat get up now." He backed off and put an arm around Ceci, who leaned against him gratefully.

The FBI agent slowly got to his feet and straightened his clothing. "Mr. Roberts.. I'm not here to make trouble… we're just not sure what's going on, or who's responsible for what happened the other day, and my bosses told me just to keep an eye on things, and make sure you and your wife were safe."

Andrew scratched his jaw. "You were supposed to be guarding me?" A hint of amusement touched his voice.

"Yes.. I suppose you could look at it that way." The man replied.

"Son.. I can take care of myself… please go find yourself some criminals or something, all right?" Andrew told him. "In three hours, we will be on a plane for Miami, and out of this crazy place." He considered something. "Now.. on the other hand.. I just saw me a feller you might be interested in."

"Really?" The man came cautiously closer. "Edgar Bird, by the way." He held out a hand. "Sorry about this, Mr. Roberts."

"That's all right." Andy shook his hand graciously. "This is mah wife, Cecilia."

"Nice to meet you, ma'am." The FBI agent took a pad out. "Now.. about this guy?"


"You about packed?" Kerry came out to find Dar busy at her laptop. "Dar?"

"Mm?" Dar looked up. "Oh.. yeah, almost." She nodded. "I was just forwarding some minor details over to Lieutenant Jacobs." She grinned evilly. "She's all right, for a cop."

"Oh yeah? She wanted to take you back to the station and work you over." Kerry informed her dryly, as she folded the last of her things and packed them in her duffel.

"Me? Why?" Dar looked up at her, mystified.

"She wanted to take your attitude down a peg.. I told her it wasn't an attitude."

"What attitude?"

"See? That's what I told her." Kerry put two T-shirts she'd bought as souvenirs in her side pocket. "It's not an attitude.. that's just you. If you keep digging at it, you just get more and more Dar." She sighed. "My father told her you had a motive for wanting to see him hurt."

Dar grew very serious. She stood and walked over to Kerry, putting both hands on her shoulders. "He's right." She turned Kerry around and studied her face. "For what he did to you… I'd love to see him knocked around but.. " She put a finger on Kerry's nose. "I never would, because it would hurt you a lot more than it would him."

Kerry sighed. "Am I totally stupid to still love him, Dar? In spite of everything?"

"No." Dar leaned on her shoulders, and touched their foreheads together. "That's just Kerry, all the way through.. and if you keep digging, you just get more and more of you."

"Mm." The green eyes grew thoughtful. "I don't know, Dar… I think I have a mean streak."

"No way."

"Yeah… cause when you told that police officer how much Ankow despised strong women, I was giggling all over inside."

Dar grinned.

"She looked like a Rottweiler in front of a butcher shop." Kerry tried to look contrite, and totally failed. "That was really mean."

Dar straightened, and started packing up her laptop. "I was just telling the truth, Kerry." She informed her partner firmly.

"And what was that about him being a violent homophobe?"

"I saw the rainbow rings under her tshirt." Dar muttered. "Figured I'd take a chance."

"Tch tch."

A knock rattled on the door in a familiar rhythm. "That's dad." Dar chuckled, going over and opening the door, stepping back to allow her parents to enter. "Just about ready to leave?"

Andrew and Cecilia entered. Andy was carrying both their bags, and now he ambled over and took possession of Dar and Kerry's as well.

"Hey!" Dar put her hands on her hips. "I'm capable of carrying a couple of bags."

"Don't bother." Her mother waved her off. "I've tried that… he's just in a feisty mood today or something."

Dar shook her head and finished packing up her computer. "Fine… fine… let's just get the hell out of here. I hear a conch fritter calling my name."

'Wait." Kerry smiled, pulling out her camera. "I want a picture." She waved them together. "C'mon.. " She waited for Andrew to shed his burden, then join his wife and daughter in front of the window. Light poured in the other side of the room, and Kerry smiled as she focused her shot, shifting the lens slightly to frame her subjects. Andrew had taken the center, and put an arm around each of the two women on either side of him. Ceci, of course, was almost dwarfed by his height, but she leaned against him with a warm sense of familiarity. Dar had amiably wrapped her arm around her father's back, and was looking at the camera with her usual air of wry self deprecation. "Perfect." She snapped the shot, then lowered the camera. "Thanks." She grinned at Ceci.

"Just you wait until you see what I have I mind for revenge." The older woman warned her, smiling back. They gathered their things and slipped out the door, managing to achieve the freight elevator without much trouble. They got to the bottom floor and were about the leave, when Dar heard her name called. "Damn." She turned. "Yes, Hamilton?"

The tall, urbane lawyer caught them up, and ushered them into a small antechamber, out of sight of the press. "Where do you all think you are going?"

"Home." Dar replied. "Why?"

"Not yet you can't." Hamilton told her blithely. "This afternoon you have to be here so the mayor, bless his heart, can give you both a pair of shiny little old medals." He waggled two fingers at Dar and Andy. "Now Dar, don't give me a hard time with this, it's great PR for the company.. and Ah've got two choice interviews set up, not long ones, with some very top new personalities."

"Son of a bitch" Dar swore.

"Now now.. flattery will get you nowhere, Paladar." Hamilton informed her. "Just sit your butt down, and make us look good, and it'll be over sooner than you think." He patted her shoulder. "Ah've been working real hard to get us some very positive press, and have painted you as just below an archangel, so don't mess my garden up, hear?"

"Hamilton, I am going to kill you." Dar told him, seriously. "I have tickets on the one pm flight out of here."

"Phone call will take care of that for you, so just you relax." The lawyer chuckled. "C'mon now.. how often do you get to get up on TV and get a medal pinned on you?" He glanced at his watch. "Let's duck into the Batmobile… we've got an hour or two before the first tv spot.. wait here.I'll find a good way out." He ducked out the door, leaving them staring at each other.

"I am not going to stand her for.." Dar started in, her voice rising, as Kerry put a hand on her arm.

"Dar." Andrew spoke very quietly, making his daughter fall silent. "Ah have a box of medals for killing folks. Ah think I'd like just one for saving em."

You could have heard a pin drop easily in the silence that followed, Kerry mused, just like that old cliché.

"Okay." Dar replied in a subdubded voice. She walked over to a bench near the door and sat down to wait, letting her briefcase rest on the floor. Ceci walked over and sat down next to her, but didn't speak. Kerry just stood next to Andrew, cradling her arm, unable to come up with a thing to say.


Dar squinted, shading her eyes as the bright lights invaded what Hamilton had insisted on dubbing the Batmobile. Technicians were bustling around, moving cables and arranging cameras, and the interviewer was off to one side, going over some notes with two assistants. It was cramped inside the bus, but it was private, and the news people appreciated the closed environment and ready access to phones, power, and a fax machine.

Kerry was curled up in one of the leather chairs nearby just watching, and her parents had taken over the long couch, also reviewing the chaos with interested eyes as though it had been arranged for their benefit. Hamilton had wanted her to dress up, but Dar had put her foot down, refusing to force her still tired, and aching body into a wool skirt and blazer, not to mention heels. She stubbornly insisted on her faded jeans and sneakers, and had grudgingly agreed to wear her gunmetal gray jacket over her plain white T-shirt as her only concession.

A makeup person approached, carrying a case. Dar glared at them until they slowed down, pausing hesitantly outside her reach and giving her an overly bright smile. "Hi." The woman was of middling height, and athletic build, with wavy blonde hair not very different from Kerry's.

Dar strategically lifted an eyebrow. "Got a problem?"

"Well, I thought you might like some powder… or… something… eyeshadow?"

"No thanks." Dar replied. "I'm allergic."

"Oh.." The makeup woman smiled easily. "It's hypoallergenic… it's safe, really… I mean, you don't need any blush or anything, maybe just a little color… fluff your hair?"

Dar's nostrils twitched, and she rotated an eyeball over to where Kerry was biting her knuckle to keep from laughing. "Can you make my hair look like hers?" She indicated her lover's wavy locks.

"Um…. No.. I don't think so." The woman eyed Kerry apologetically.

"Then forget it." Dar settled back, sipping her root beer. "I'm just fine as is, thanks." She glanced up as the interviewer came over, settling down in the chair next to her. Cheryl Abramson was tall, almost as tall as Dar herself, and slender, with exotic, high cheekbones and rich chestnut hair. She had a tiny spattering of freckles, and intense hazel eyes, which she turned on Dar along with a dazzling smile. She was wearing a meticulously tailored navy blue suit, with a pale blue silk shirt, and the effect was clean and sophisticated, and quite attractive.

"Ms. Roberts? Let's go over a few things before we start." Abramson spoke in a low, melodious voice. "I have most of the details I need on you, but I want to just check a few things."

Dar leaned on the chair arm, and sucked at her straw. "Sure." She deliberately injected a touch of the South into her speech. "What would you like to know?" She watched the other woman glanced up at her, and unconsciously straighten, a hand going up to touch her hair in an instinctive gesture Dar well understood. Interesting.

"Well, we've got your professional details - ILS provided them to us. You've been with them for fifteen years?" Her voice lifted in question, and she peered over her papers at Dar's youthful appearance.

"That's right." Dar didn't see any reason to relieve her confusion.

"Okay." Abramson went back to her checklist. "You've been the CIO of the company for… six months? And before that you were the VP of Operations for three years, is that right?"

"Yep." Dar agreed readily.

"Right… you normally work in Miami, correct?"

Dar nodded.

"And you were in Washington for… ?" She looked up in question.

Why indeed? Kerry and Dar had discussed what they were going to tell the press, who had been sniffing interestedly around Kerry as well, and now Dar stretched her legs out, crossing them at the ankles before she answered. "My co worker, and friend Ms. Stuart was called to testify in her father's hearings.. I was just here for moral support." Strict, absolute truth.

Abramson glanced over at Kerry who had slumped in her chair, curling a leg over one arm of it and dozing off. "I see." She scribbled a note. " You're headed back to Miami now, I take it, after the ceremony?"

Dar nodded.

"Okay." Cheryl scribbled more notes. "Let me make sure I"ve got this down.. you arrived, you were involved in the ATM shutdown, you were interviewed by one of my collegues, you wen to the hospital to visit Ms. Stuart's sister, the explosion happened, you dug out some survivors, you directed the escape and rescue of the people you found, then you got out… are those the high points of your week?" Her tone was dryly humorous.

"Essentially." Dar chuckled, finding herself liking the woman. "We were hoping for a short investigation, a few days sightseeing, and maybe a tour of the White House, but you take what you can get." She let her face relax into an easy grin.

Cheryl looked up and met her eyes, then went back to her writing, the edges of her own lips twitching a little. "Do you have any idea who did it?"

"No." Dar answered. "I leave that to the police."

"Do you think the senator was the target?"

Dar shook her head. "Again, that's not something I want to speculate on."

"Okay." Abramson nodded at the cameraman. "We're ready… do you have a good angle?" She shifted in her chair, and motioned the makeup woman over, checking herself in the hastily provided hand held mirror. The makup woman took out a rotary brush and carefully fluffed the anchorwoman's bangs, then backed off to study her work. "You want highlighter?"

Cheryl peered at her reflection, then took a sideways glance at Dar, who ran her fingers through her dark locks, settling them in sort of an order, before she folded her hands over her stomach in a waiting attitude. "No.. I'll be fine." She nudged the makeup woman out of the way, and carefully arranged herself, posing with her pad in Interviewer Position A. "Ready?"

Dar cocked her head. "Whenever you are."


"Well, Dar… I have to admit, you do one hell of an interview." Hamilton complimented her. "You were made for the camera.. now, just one more little jaunt up on to that stage out there, and you can get on your little plane, and make tracks for the Sunshine State."

"Great." Dar exhaled, wishing she had half a bottle of aspirin at her fingertips. "Dad.. you ready?"

"Dar, do you think you could put on a collared shirt? You look like a beach bum." Hamilton complained.

"No." Blue eyes pierced him. "One more comment like that, and I'll pick up the damn thing in my sports bra."

The lawyer tapped a long finger against his teeth. "Hmm…. Be good, Hamilton.. be good."

Andrew walked over, and laid a hand on his daughter's shoulder. "Ah think she looks just fine." He informed Hamilton. "Leave her be."

"Or?" Hamilton inquired archly. "I have to know what the consequences are of giving up my favorite entertaiment."

Andrew blinked at him. "Or I will take hold of them parts that makes you a man and pull them up out your eardrums." He rasped seriously.

Dar watched Hamilton's face with interest, knowing the level of unflappability the corporate legal chief possessed. Certainly, she'd never been able to put a dent in it. Hamilton eyed the taller, burlier Andrew, then shifted his eyes to Dar.

"You know, Dar… I always knew I"d find something to redeem you in my eyes.. I just never expected it to be that you had a proper Southern daddy." He inclined his head towards Andy. "My pardon, sir. I'll leave her be." He wandered over to the bar and poured himself a drink, chuckling under his breath.

Dar paced across to the window of the bus, leaning her arms on the wall and trying to stretch her tense back out. The long interview with charming Cheryl had made her stiffen up, and she just wanted to get the ceremony over, and leave. Kerry was curled up in a corner of the couch, the painkillers she'd been taking for her shoulder making her very sleepy, and Ceci had settled her coat over the blond woman's shoulders, and was seated next to her, sketching.

Dar stared out at the gathering crowd, watching the various technicians preparing the platform, putting cameras in place, and setting up microphones. She felt a warm hand on her back and turned, to see her father peering over her shoulder.

"You all right, Dardar?"

Dar rubbed her eyes and exhaled. "Got any aspirin?"

"Yeap." Andrew fished in the small pouch he was wearing around his waist and removed a bottle. "Gave me this stuff at the hospital, after I got back. Take care of any kind of headache you can come up with, I'll tell you that."

Dar accepted the tablets gratefully, walking over to the bar and pouring herself a glass of water, then swallowing the small pills. "Thanks." She glanced enviously over at Kerry's dozing form. "How much longer?"

"An hour, Dar." Hamilton shrugged into his impeccably cut jacket. "I'm going to go romance the press. I'll send a runner over when they're ready." He ducked out the door and closed it behind him, leaving them in relative peace and quiet. Ceci got up and moved to a different seat, tucking one leg under her as she resettled her pad. She caught Dar's eye, then motioned towards the couch, smiling when her daughter didn't argue, taking the place she'd been sitting in and trying to relax.

Kerry must have sensed her presence, Dar mused, because the blond woman stirred, reaching out a hand and touching Dar, then reversing her position and curling up with her head in Dar's lap, and one arm tucked around her lover's thigh.

"Aww." Andrew chuckled.

Dar draped an arm over Kerry's body and stretched her legs out, then let her head rest on the back of the couch. The pills seemed to be working, she idly mused, as she felt the cramping in her back ease, and the throbbing ache in her head start to subside. She let her eyes close, and breathed a sigh of relief.

The bus was silent for a few minutes, then Dar's mother peeked over her sketch pad and shook her head. "Out like a light." Ceci laughed softly. "What did you give her?"

Andrew juggled the small bottle, then tossed it to her. "Don't know, but they put me out, so I figgured they'd work on her too."

Cecilia reviewed the label. "Muscle relaxant, and painkiller." She looked up at her husband. "Hope they wear off before the ceremony, or you'll be up there by yourself, sailor boy."

Andrew ambled over and sat down next to her, lacing his fingers together and cocking his head at her drawing. "Kid was stiffer than a board.. I figured a catnap was a good idea… what is that?"

Ceci tilted the pad. "It's that platform outside."

Andy grunted. "It's empty."

His wife smiled. "It wont' be for long."


The wind had died down, and the late afternoon sun had come out in full force, warmly lighting the platform now decorated with red, white and blue bunting. Staff had set chairs in place as well, and dignitaries were gathered, networking together and sharing cups of distilled water while the television crews warmed up their equipment.

At last, it was time, and everyone took their seats. Kerry tucked her feet under her in the somewhat uncomfortable chair in the front row of the audience, and fastened her eyes on the two figures at one end of the platform's plusher chairs.

Andrew was seated with military erectness, even though he was dressed in dark blue denims, and one of his hooded sweatshirts instead of a uniform. His hands were folded in his lap, and his head was facing forward, but his eyes flicked everywhere, watching the crowd, the dignitaries, and the security officers.

Dar looked… Kerry sighed. Her beloved friend looked like she'd just woken up, a fair statement since she practically had, and her eyes had a faintly dazed look about them as she peered around idly. "I think Dar's toast."

"Mm." Ceci agreed wryly. "I told Andy he shouldn't have given her two of those pills. He takes them, but he forgets he's twice her size." She sighed. "Poor kid."

"Well." Kerry analyzed. "At least she's not nervous." She casually turned her head and reviewed the crowd, unsurprised, but disappointed not to see her family there.

The television crew gave a signal, and the mayor stepped up to the mic, clearing his throat self importantly. "Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for joining me, here on the Mall for a celebration of gratitude, to people, ordinary people who risked their lives to save the lives of their fellow men.

The crowd applauded wildly.

He thanked the police next, and the firefighters, and gave out a plaque to the fire company who had rescued them from the building. Kerry smiled at that, glad to see they'd gotten some recognition. Then the mayor made a long, somewhat boring speech about how terrorists only succeeded when they inspired terror..

"Duh." Ceci and Kerry managed to say at the same time.

And that the city would never bow to that kind of pressure, being the capital of the land of the brave, and all that patriotic stuff. Kerry, having heard political speeches all her life, tuned most of it out. She knew the mayor was up for reelection this year, and most of the speech was directed more towards raising his polls than celebrating heroes.

At last, it was over, and he was clearing his throat, carefully arranging two velvet cases resting on the podium.

Ceci nudged Kerry, spotting a familiar figure making his way forward towards the mayor. "Hey."

Kerry looked, very surprised to see her father there. "What on earth is he doing?"

Roger Stuart arrived next to the mayor, and straightened his jacket with a smooth motion. The mayor turned, and gave him a welcoming smile.

"Senator Stuart has asked, since his was one of the lives affected by the rescue, that he be allowed to present the medals. I am honored to turn the podium over to him."

"What??" Kerry blurted, almost falling off her chair.

"Shh… take it easy." Ceci whispered, watching as her husband and daughter exchanged identical, startled looks.

Roger Stuart placed both hands on either side of the podium, and acknowledged the applause. "Thank you." He had a low, powerful voice. "It has been a hard, anxious week for us all."


"But through it, strangers and friends, family and adversaries, have come together to save lives, and push past the normal, everyday disagreements to work together in what was, without doubt, a horrible tragedy."

"I can't believe he's doing this." Kerry muttered.

"When my wife and I were trapped inside that building, we thought our lives were at an end. Instead, through the courage of the two people we're here to honor today, our lives were saved, along with those of seven helpless children, and many others."

"I think Dar's going to lose her lunch." Ceci commented. "I seem to remember that particular look on her face."

"Oh. Yeah." Kerry agreed. "Hope she waits till she's up there to do that." Her voice took on an edge of anger. "I can't believe he's cheapening this just for his own publicity."

"Kerry…" Cecilia watched, as her husband and daughter stood, as Stuart called their names. "Maybe this is the only way he has of saying thank you, without having to say it."

Andrew and Dar walked quietly across the platform, their steps slightly hollow on the wooden boards. Dar was a half step behind her father, and she stood, her hands braced behind her back in a very military, but very unconscious pose as the gleaming, golden medal was lifted up and settled over Andrew's close cropped head.

"Good job." Roger Stuart held a hand out, his eyes meeting Andy's. "Thank you, Commander."

"You're welcome, Senator." Andrew replied in a quiet voice. Then he stepped back, and glanced to his right, where Dar was waiting.

Stuart was very lucky, Dar considered, that the drugs still in her system were putting a slightly hazy barrier between herself, and her instinct to kick him in the groin. Right there on national TV.

"Ms. Roberts?" Stuart opened the second case, and removed the medal. Dar forced herself forward, aware of the camera eyes leering at her greedily, and stood absolutely still as his hands came close to her, lifting above either side of her face to settle the ribbon over her neck.

For a bare instant, their eyes met.

"Good job." The senator stated flatly. Then his gaze wavered. "Thank you, Dar."

She was too shocked to even raise an eyebrow.

"And thank you for being such a good friend to my daughter, as well." The senator finished, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, there on television, and in front of a thousand watchers, as his words echoed softly over the grass.

Into the tense silence, Dar spoke. "You're welcome."

The crowd applauded, and stood, and cheered. Roger Stuart nodded briskly, lifting a hand and waving it as he turned and made his way off the platform.

Andrew retreated in the other direction, holding Dar by the elbow as they headed towards the steps leading down, to a crowd already clustering and press calling questions. "Son of a biscuit." He uttered under his breath.

Dar merely exhaled.

Then a sudden motion to her right caught her eye, and a scream was heard.

And a shot.


Dar leaped, operating on an instinct she hardly recognized. Her lunge carried her over the first rank of scrambling people, and she crashed into the row of chairs, hurling aside panicked watchers with total disregard for either her safety or theirs. "Kerry!"

"Easy! Easy.. Dar!!" Kerry scrambled over to her and hung on, one armed. "Hey!"

Dar dragged them both through the screaming crowd, single mindedly powering her way through people and chairs like a runaway dump truck. They ended up behind one of the clusters of potted plants, on the grass, with Kerry cradled in Dar's arms, still trying to calm her down.

"Would. You. Please. Relax." Kerry spoke patiently, reaching up and grabbing Dar's chin. "Dar, I'm flattered beyond speaking that you'd move heaven and earth for me, but in this case.. .it's not neceesary."

"What do you mean?" Dar retorted. "Didn't you hear that gun go off?"

"Sweetheart." Kerry moved her grip into a gentle caress. "Honey, the security officer was backing up, and he tripped on one of those tv cords, and fell down, and his gun fired."

The blue eyes blinked dazedly. "He did?"

"Yes." Kerry glanced around her quickly, then pulled Dar's head down and kissed her. "But thank you for being my hero." She rubbed a thumb on Dar's golden medal. "Now everyone knows what I always have."

"Oh." Dar winced. "Ow." She reached around to her back. "Can we go home now?"

Kerry regarded her human hammock, and smiled. "I am home."

That was a funny thing for her to say, Dar thought. But it was cute. She helped Kerry stand then got up herself, and they snuck around the edge of the plants, coming into the open and stopping short when they saw the milling crowd. "I thought you said nothing happened." Dar accused, pointing at the cluster of police surrounding a prone figure.

"But.. I tho…" Kerry stared.

"There you two are." Cecilia came up behind them. "Good grief.. you scared the wits out of us dissapearing like that… what on earth were you thinking?"

"What happened?" Dar asked. "Who is that down there?"

"Darned if I know." Her father appeared on her other side suddenly. "Bout went nuts when you took off like a bat out of hell there, Dardar… I tried to chase you down, but good lord."

Dar gathered the tattered shreds of her dignity. "I was making sure Kerry was all right." She muttered. "Got a problem with that?"

Andy and Ceci exchanged amused looks, and Kerry unobtrusively patted Dar's leg. "Who is that?" Kerry asked curiously, unable to see anything in the crowd of police. They edged closer along with the rest of the bystanders, who had now calmed down since there was apparently no danger. Even Andrew's height didn't help, though, since the police had their target still on the ground.

"Hell." Andrew snorted "C'mere, Cec."

"Wh.." His wife turned, as she was grasped firmly around the waist. "Andy what…oh.. yowp… hey!" She grabbed for balance as she was lifted up. "Andrew Roberts, stop that.. I'm too old for… Andy!"

"Jest hang on." Andrew lifted her all the way up and onto his broad shoulders. "There… quit hollering and look."

Well. Cecilia forced herself not to grab onto his ears in revenge, and instead allowed the strong hold on her legs to reassure her. She straightened, and peered over the cluster of police, able now to see over most of them. "It's a man." She announced. "At least, I think it is… it has short hair, a flannel shirt, and jeans..though what that means these days is anyone's guess."

Kerry started laughing, buring her face in Dar's shoulder for a minute.

"Wait… looks like whatever it is shaves.. though what that m.."

"We get the idea, Cec." Andrew patted her knee.

"You know, Andy… I can't really be sure, but I think it looks like that guy you were talking about in the park."

Andrew exhaled slowly. "Ah."

"What guy?" Dar asked.

The crowd surged, as the police pulled their catch to his feet, and two larger officers started to clear a path for them. Coincidentally, the path went right by Dar and Kerry, who found themselves in a front row position as the knot of police started to move.

"God damn it, let me go. I didn't do anything!"

Dar's eyebrows both lifted up to her hairline at the familiar voice. "Son of a bitch.. that's Ankow!"

"What?" Kerry clung to her shouder and rose up on her toes to see better. "Ooo.ooo… it is!" She squealed softly. "But I thought.. oh..look, it's Lieutenant Jacobs."

Dar smiled. Not one of her nicer ones. The group came towards them, with Ankow struggling in their midst, covered in good, Washington dirt.

"I'll have you all in court!" Ankow was snarling. "I didn't do a god damned thing.. I was just sitting there!"

"Yeah.. tell it to the judge." The lead sergeant drawled. "Evyrebody says that…. "

"You stupi.." Ankow looked up suddenly, and his eyes fell on Dar. "YOU!" He screamed in rage. "You motherfuckingsonofabitch!"

Ceci, sitting on her perch spoke up. 'Wrong gender, not my type, but I'll take credit for the last one."

Ankow ignored her. "You did this.. you made them do this! IT's all your fault!" He struggled, and lunged at Dar, clawing at her with handcuffed hands. "I'll kill you!!!"

The television crews, not ones to miss any good sound bite opportunity were crouched on the platform, filming their hearts out, and two of the local reporters were in transports of ecstasy as they described the scene.

The Lieutenant was happily writing everything down in her notebook. "Take him away, boys… we've got a nice cell waiting for him. " She leered at Ankow. "With some of the motorcycle fellas we picked up yesterday."

The big, muscular man wrenched himself to the left and right, and scrambled, trying to get at Dar. "I'll have your head.. I'll own you.." His eyes were wild. "You sick, perverted, piece of… wofff." He jerked his head free and bit his handler, then lunged forward, hurling himself towards Dar.

She could have done a number of things. However, she made a quick, executive decision, and merely stepped out of the way, letting him stumble past her and fall face down into the churned mud underfoot with a sodden splat.

The police pounced on him again, and hauled him up, now covered with mud.

"Likely looking pig you pulled up out of that there wallow." Andrew drawled.

"Cmon." The lieutenant grabbed his arm and pulled briskly.

"Is he connected with the bombing, Lieutenant?" One of the reporters shouted from the platform, aiming a light at the muscular woman.

"We're not in a position to discuss that right now." The woman answered, with a tiny, but visible smirk. "Our investigation isn't complete." She glanced at her prize. "Yet."

A buzz went up, and the crowd clustered after them as they dragged the kicking and struggling Ankow towards a police wagon just outside the park. As they got to the sidewalk, two men in suits rushed up, and spoke to the Lieutenant, who waved them off.

"You think he had anything to do with it?" Kerry asked, curiously.

Dar shrugged. "I have no idea… but by the time they finish with him, it won't matter." She replied contentedly. She glanced up as Jacobs pushed her way back through the crowd towards them. "Nice catch."

"Yeah.. listen, we'll need to interview you again.. don't go anywhere." The woman warned.

"Sorry. We're leaving on the next flight out."

"Ms. Roberts.." Jacobs barked.

"If you want us, come down to Key West." Dar told her mildly.

"If you think I'm….. " The police officer paused, her intelligent eyes flickering in thought.

"Expense account, right?" Dar drawled.

"You know something, Roberts… " A slim finger pointed right at Dar's chest. "You're too slick for your own good." The Lieutenant shook her head, and fought her way back through the crowd, muttering unintelligibly.

Dar chuckled softly. "That's what they all say."


Kerry allowed her eyes to drift open, taking in the clear, blue sky she could see beyond the edge of the porch roof. It was a beautifully warm, sunny day, with a nice cool breeze coming off the ocean, brushing over the two somnolent figures cuddled together in the rope hammock.

She was perfectly content to remain right where she was, curled up with Dar in the late afternoon light, with a belly full of lobster salad and garlic rolls and a banana milkshake comfortably digesting. It was Wednesday, and they were halfway through their vacation, having had five days so far of diving and sunning, and long walks on the beach. Chino had been having a blast as well, and was now sprawled near the hammock, her nose covered in sand.

Kerry sighed happily, as she snuggled a little more closely to the soundly sleeping Dar. The taller woman’s arms were wrapped around her, and she could smell the nutty scent of sun tan lotion with it’s hint of coconut still clinging to Dar’s skin. They were both wearing soft, loose fitting cotton shorts and tshirts, having gotten back just before lunch from a long morning’s dive off a catamaran diving boat. They had a bike ride planned for just before dinner, then Dar had suggested they merely meander down the main street in Key West, and pick out someplace to eat that they hadn’t tried yet.

Sounded good to her. Kerry wiggled her toes. She had never, ever, in her life felt this relaxed, and she mentally thanked Dar yet again for suggesting the time off. Her shoulder was much better too, along with Dar’s back, which they’d been careful not to stress by taking their dives easy, and having the dive master’s hand them their tanks while they were already in the water.

She’d gotten some killer pictures, including one of Dar sitting on the bottom of the clear, green tinted ocean, nose to nose with a curious dolphin. That one, she was going to have enlarged, and framed… it would look fantastic on the wall next to the dining room table, and she had two smaller ones of colorful fish she could put on either side. Dar was dubious about the one of her, but Kerry knew it was going to turn out great, especially since she was wearing just a light tank kit, and you could see most of her body, including those real, long legs stretched out on the white sand, with her flippers crossed at the ankles.

Mmm. Kerry could picture it, the sleek form in it's black swimsuit, with the sheer fabric that just… barely… let her see the skin underneath.

Gorgeous. She only hoped Dar let her get the thing framed and hung before she realized just how sexy she looked in it. Kerry chortled softly to herself.

The place they were staying in was a small, sort of exclusive resort which had little cottages, and she found she liked that better than the tiered hotels a little further down the shore. They had privacy, for one thing. – the cottage was surrounded by sea grapes and palms, and had two doors, one opening to a path leading towards the resorts tiny restaurant and shop, the other leading directly out onto a smooth white beach and the sea.

Inside, the cottage was comfortable, more weathered than fancy, with wooden walls and furniture, and colorful, roughly textured fabrics. There was a small refrigerator, and a two burner gas stove, and best of all, a gorgeous back porch with a two person swing, a chair, and the huge rope hammock they were both currently nestled in.

Heaven. Kerry stretched, feeling the tingle of a faint bit of sunburn on her skin.

Of course, the office was in chaos. She and Dar had decided on a compromise, and every night, after dinner they both sat down and picked up mail, trading the more frantic bits with each other as their respective staffs scrambled to try and handle things while they were gone. And to be fair, they both carried their pagers, carefully reviewing the various text messages and deciding which ones were really urgent, and which would be good to let junior people handle.

Everyone was learning, and that wasn’t a bad thing at all. Kerry briefly wondered if they couldn’t just make this arrangement permanent, what with teleconferencing and all, then admitted to herself that their positions really did need a little more hands on than this, at least to be done right.

On the other hand.. . Kerry eyed a bit of color moving past. She hadn’t been able to try parasailing yet, in deference to her healing shoulder, and she really, really wanted to. Maybe she could ask Dar to continue their exile just a little while longer….

"No." A low, sexy rumble tickled her ear.

Kerry peeked upward and grinned. "If we stay here long enough, I’ll be able to." She waggled her fingers. "It feels a lot better.. honest."

Dar’s half open eyes regarded her. "Hmm… maybe." She replied thoughtfully. "If we went double……I could sorta hang onto you…"

"Oooooooo." Kerry’s eyes lit up. "Yeah!!!" She squirmed around and ended up half sprawled over Dar’s body. "I like that idea!"

"Really?" Dar tickled her sides and watched her squirm some more. "Okay… let’s give it a try tomorrow…. Worst they can say is no." She yawned, and closed her eyes again, taking a breath of the salty air with a sense of decadent pleasure. "Mm… I could get used to this."

Kerry stifled her own yawn. "Me too." She gave Dar’s shirt an idle nibble. "How about we chuck ILS, and open up an E-commerce consulting firm down here… something we can run from a pair of cellphones and a laptop."


Kerry paused, then lifted her head, peering at her half dozing partner. "You’re not serious."

Dar nodded.


A blue eye appeared. "In a frigging heartbeat." It closed again.

"Hm." Kerry put her head back down. Dar had visibly unwound in the past couple of days, erasing, to Kerry’s eyes years off her age, and restoring a wicked sense of fun she’d half suspected was buried down there somewhere. Even her speech had slowed down a little, taking on just a touch of her father’s distinctive drawl, and Kerry suspected her lover was going to have a tougher time that she was getting back into work mode come next Monday morning. "You like being a beach bum, don’t you?"

Dar opened her eyes again, and studied the wood ceiling as it swayed over head. "I guess." She replied. "Yeah… maybe I do… I mean.. " She shifted a little. "I don’t mind working hard, but yeah.. I’d like to do it in cutoffs and sneakers sometimes."

"Well… you are the CIO and top honcho in Miami… change the dress code." Kerry replied practically.

Then she paused, and winced. "Oh.. wait.. no.. Jose in shorts.. " She buried her face in Dar’s shirt. "Nevermind."

Dar laughed. "I know… I know.. " Her lips pursed slightly. "Besides… I’m pretty sure you don’t’ feel the same way.. I think you like the snazzy office… and it fits your style."

Kerry glanced up, startled.

"That was a compliment." Dar assured her.

"Mm.. you make me seem so preppy." Kerry’s nose wrinkled. "But yeah… you’re right. I like dressing up… it makes dressing down on the weekends so much nicer."

"Well." Dar considered the issue. "How about I let you take over ILS… and I can run a consulting firm out of the condo in my jammies… and we can get a place like this to bum around in on the weekend?"

Kerry’s brow contracted, as she tried to figure out if Dar was joking, or serious, or halfway between both of those things. Maybe it was just the general chaos they'd been through, which wasn't over, either

Maybe Dar was only joking.

Kerry watched the pale eyes open, and gaze dreamily up at a blackbird perching on the edge of the roof. "Is that what you really want to do?" She asked quietly. "Leave the company?"

Dar took a long time to answer, as though she were looking at the question from a number of different angles. "I've done a lot there." She commented.

"Yes, you have… but there's a lot more to do." Kerry replied. "You're changing the way the entire company does business, Dar… and you're doing a hell of a job at it."

"Thank you." A pause. "Part of me wants to finish that." She looked at Kerry. "Part of me wants to stay right here… the part of me that got the shit scared out of it in the building."

Kerry stayed quiet.

"I don’t' want to put so much energy into my job anymore, Kerry." Dar admitted. "I want to spend more time doing things like this… enjoying the act of living… enjoying being with you." A shake of her head. "It can go so fast."

Kerry let out a little breath. "Well.. if that's what you want to do.. do it."

"But that's not what you want to do." Dar touched her nose. "I don't know.. maybe we can compromise or something."

"Maybe." A smile. "We'll work it out, Dar… but you know, a weekend place down here isn't a bad start."

Dar smiled back. "No? Hmm.. well, it's further north, but I know of a little spot you might be interested in… it'd take a lot of work though. The place is pretty run down."

Kerry lifted her head right up. "I get to see you use power tools?" She watched the grin form. "Ooo… I'm not gonna pass that up… it'll be fun. I'd like to kinda start from scratch.. see what we could make of a place."

"We'll go take a look, then." Dar promised, then glanced at the sun. "Hmm… I think we've got a date with a couple of bikes, don't we?" She stretched her body out, yawning again. "And something spicy for dinner?"

"Sounds good to me." Kerry agreed, sitting up and carefully getting out of the hammock, the wood floor warm under her bare feet. She walked over to the railing and leaned on it, then turned as Dar joined her, and walked hand in hand with her partner inside the cottage.


They watched the sunset from the beach, the sky painted in so many shades of color Kerry lost count of them. She lifted her camera and took another shot, then lowered her hands, to wait a few minutes before her next exposure. Chino had tired herself out racing up and down the sand, and was now curled at Kerry's feet in a damp ball.

"That's going to be a nice series." Dar commented, leaning back against a piece of driftwood.

"Sure is." Kerry lifted her longneck beer bottle, and took a swallow. She was seated between Dar's legs, and now she leaned back against her, as Dar wound an arm around her waist. They were both barefoot, and half covered in the grainy sand of the beach, and Kerry sighed as she finished off her beer.

Her third, as a matter of fact, since today was the first day she'd been able to drink, having stopped taking the pain medication for her shoulder. Her head was buzzing gently, and she could feel the faint displacement as the alcohol hit her system. "Think I better stop."

Dar peered over her shoulder, then nibbled her ear. "Getting lightheaded?"

"Mm." Kerry closed her eyes. "Yeah… and I don't feel like staggering back to the cottage." Dar's arms tightened around her. "It's so beautiful here."

"You're not looking at anything." Dar chuckled.

"Here." Kerry put her hand over Dar's and squeezed. "Right here, where I am." "Oh." "I'm really glad you thought of this, Dar… I'm having such a good time. Are you?" Kerry murmured. Dar gazed out at the sunset, which was washing them in golds and reds. "Oh yeah." She agreed, with a smile. "Best vacation I've ever had." "Like that's saying much." Kerry laughed. She opened her eyes and lazily lifted her camera, focusing on the newly painted sky and snapping a frame. Then she shifted, and turned around, rolling onto her back and aiming the lens at her companions. Oh. Kerry found that sharp profile softened, and gilded in the crimson light, it's dark frame of hair wind whipped, leaving a lock half obscuring one glistening eye. She closed her finger over the shutter, squeezing it with infinite care to protect the image gazing back at her with a gentle, loving expression. It was Dar's soul showing, and Kerry captured it, knowing she had in her hands something very special. She lowered the camera and put the lens cap on. "Needed to waste the last exposure?" Dar inquired, with an arched eyebrow. Kerry moved the hair out of her eyes. "No." She traced a lighter streak. "Stay here long enough, you'll be as blond as I am." Dar snorted. "I'll have solid gray hair before that." She fingered the sunstreaked mahogony bit. "Speaking of which.. see any in there yet?" With a feeling of vague familiarity, Kerry patted her lap, then bent over Dar's head as she settled in it, running her fingers through the dark strands "There better be… I found two in mine the other day." She riffled a thick patch over Dar's ear, near her temples, then checked the other side. "Damn it, Dar… did you use hair color?" The blue eyes looked up with a hurt expression. "It's not my fault!" She protested. "And no.. I most certainly did not use anything of the kind." "Lucky genes." Kerry leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. "You ready for cajun shrimp?" Chino heard her voice and got up, shaking herself vigorously and scattering sand all over them. "Oh.. thanks, Chino.""Rowf." Chino came over and licked her face. They got up and shook out the large towel they'd been sitting on, then made their way up the beach towards the town, with Chino trotting at their heels. ***************************************************

"I don’t' think that's going to work." Dar spoke into her cellphone, her eyes on her laptop screen as she leaned back and propped her feet up on the small table. "We're going to have to route around that section. It doesn't have the bandwidth to keep up with the new net."

"But that is where they are located, Dar.. what are we supposed to tell them.. to move?" Jose asked testily.

"No." Dar replied in a mild tone. "Build a new drop point into the contract, and tell them we'll foot the front end cost of the installation, with the understanding that they'll have to pay it out over the course of the five year pact."

A momentary quiet. "All right.. I can do that." Jose answered slowly. "That's a workable idea."

"Great." Dar replied. "Anything else for me?"

"Uh." Jose shuffled some papers on his end. "No.. there is nothing else… Eleanor?"

"I have something." Eleanor's cultured, but New York accented voice came over the line.

"Yes?" Dar stroked Chino's head, and ruffled her soft ears.

"What are they drugging you with?" The Marketing VP asked. "I really wanna know."

Dar started laughing, drawing Kerry's attention. The blond woman had been outside on the porch, and now she came indoors, wandering over and cocking her head in question. "Eleanor wants to know what you're drugging me with." Dar informed her.

Kerry leaned close to the phone. "Watermelon wine coolers." She called through the receiver, having discovered Dar's fondness for the odd drink. "And barbecued shrimp."

"You guys should try it sometime." Dar added, stifling a yawn. "Maybe we can have the next executive strategic retreat down here."

"Maybe you should stay there." Jose groused, but with a note of humor in his voice. "We get more things done this way, when we're not screaming at each other."

Dar pursed her lips, and acknowledged privately that the sentiment wasn't wholly unjustified. "Maybe I'll bring some back with me." She bantered back. "We can replace the bottled water with this watermelon juice."

Both VP's chuckled. Dar chuckled.

"I tell you, we could make several millions of dollars here, Dar.. taking payments from the television people to tell them where you are." Jose commented. "Did you hear the latest news from Washington?"

Dar and Kerry exchanged glances. "Haven't had the tv on all day." Dar admitted. "What's up?" She'd reasoned that if anything critical were going on, her parents would have called on the cell - her father knew the number, and he and Ceci had gotten phones of their own upon returning to Miami.

Kerry had found that adorable, especially since Ceci had insisted on getting cute colored ones that played a little tune when the ringer went off. Dar thought it was pretty funny too, as was the odd sensation of watching her parents walk warily into her largely 21st century world.

Maybe they'd even get a computer.

"They let that woman go." Eleanor supplied, her voice interested. "Said she's a case, and needs help, but had nothing to do with the explosion. They kept Ankow though - my god, Dar - what a sixty minute wonder that was. I knew you two didn't get along, but Jesus H. Christ.. did you see that footage?"

"Yeah." Dar smirked. "Poor guy."

"The FBI is doing an investigation - Dar, did you know he was a what do you call it - skinface?" Jose added, with mild excitement. "I knew there something was wrong with him - Marta was saying he did not like the accents in the building."

"Skinhead..no, I knew his father was part of some kind of militia movement, in Oregon, but.. " Dar glanced at Kerry. "He's ex-military."

"Si.. si.. they said that." Jose agreed. "Alastair sent a mail just out saying they were suspending his participation in the board until the investigation is over."

"I know." Dar smirked again. "I was part of that decision." Actually, she'd wanted them to boot the stupid bastard back to his underground bunker in the hills, but as Alastair had said, the system provided innocence until guilt was proven, and they had to respect that.

"They are saying now that he is part of some kind of wacko plot." Eleanor told her. "To gain control of the banking system before the end of the millenium."

"What?" Dar stared at the phone. "Oh, c'mon… this isn't a spy novel."

"No.. no, really, Dar." Eleanor insisted. "CBS news dug up some websites and things, stuff they thought was behind a firewall, that laid out this whole wild plan to infiltrate the government - and it worked! They got people inside.. only then they found out the government has nothing to do with the actual nuts and bolts of the banking industry - the actual monetary transfers and all that."

Dar exhaled slowly. "But we do."

"We are the single largest provider of networking services for that industry." Jose stated impressively. "So.. we became, how you say, the target." He paused. "We are famous, Dar, they are going to make the movie out of us."

Kerry was kneeling at her side, staring at the cellphone in it's speaker cradle in amazement. "Are they serious? You mean there really was a plot??"

"That's what they say." Eleanor chuckled. "But who knows? You know the cops… they see plots in how you wrap your hotdogs up on the streets of Brooklyn. I guess we'll find out eventually." She paused. "It would be funny if you turned out to have saved the free world, though.. I"d have to laugh my ass off."

Dar snickered, then covered her mouth. "Me too, especially since it would have been totally unintentionally." She sighed. "On the other hand, it could be good for business.. you should start having an easier time getting your foot in some doors, Jose."

"You are not kidding." Jose preened. "I have gotten six calls in the last two days, from people who would not even return my calls before now." He cleared his throat. "Of course, there are those who say too, that it is dangerous to have private companies being so involved, but…"

"Right." Dar leaned back and stretched her healing muscles out. "Well, I gotta go."

"To have more watermelons?" Jose snorted. "Don't work too hard, eh?"

Dar accepted a tortilla chip loaded with spicy salsa and munched it noisly. "Okay." She managed around the mouthful. "Later." She hung up and finished chewing, then swallowed the mouthful. "Mm." She circled Kerry's leg with one arm. "So.. what do you think of that?"

"The salsa? Not spicy enough." Kerry licked her thumb. "Or do you mean Ankow?" She shook her head. "I'm going to wait to see what they find out, Dar.. it's not fair to prejudge him. I know how that feels… it's very possible that he had nothing to do with it." She ate a chip, crunching thoughfully. "In a way, I hope it's not true."


The blond woman shook her head. "No.. because if it is… Dar, those people he's involved with are dangerous, and the idea of a group like that knowing who I am scares the pants off me." She leaned on the edge of the desk. "It may be cowardly, but I'm not looking to become a public crusader, who has to watch over her shoulder every minute."

Dar studied her soberly. "I hadn't considered that side of it." She admitted. "But you know, Kerry.. sometimes you don't have a choice. You're just the person in the place at the time, and you have to accept that." She got up and put both hands on Kerry's shoulders. "I'm no crusader either, but if it turns out that something that ugly was prevented because I am who I am, and did what I did.. I can't regret that."

"No… I woudn't expect you to." Kerry told her. "And I don't either… but I'm not looking for trouble, and I hope it turns out that it's all a big media circus with not much substance to it." She poked Dar in the stomach with both index fingers. "Bedtime for CIO's… we've got a six am appointment with the dive shop, remember?"

Ah yes. Their all day long excursion. "Did you make sure we can take Chino?" Dar asked. "Some dive boats allow dogs, some don't."

"Yes, we can.. they asked what breed she was, and when I told them a Labrador, they asked me if I wanted to reserve a dive kit for her." Kerry smugly informed her. "I thought they were joking, but they're not - they've got these bubble helmets for dogs, so I said sure."

Dar's jaw dropped a little. "We're taking the dog diving?" She glanced at Chino, who wagged her tail. "Cool." A hand scratched the animal's ears. "You gonna like that, girl? Play with the fishies?"

"Growf." Chino stood up on her hind legs and licked Dar's arm.

Kerry smiled, and tangled her fingers in Dar's shirt, tugging her gently towards the large, comfortable bed.

The taller woman came willingly, grasping the zipper on Kerry's fleece, sleeveless shirt and pulling it down slowly to expose sun tinted skin. She ran a finger down the center of Kerry's breastbone, and felt the motion as her lover inhaled sharply in reaction.

Kerry moved closer and nuzzled a button open, exploring with the tip of her tongue and tasting Dar's skin, the soft, fine hairs tickling her senses. "I like the new oil you're using…" A tang of banana and coconut filled her nose as she breathed in, and she nudged another button open.

"Mm… if you're going to do that.. I'll skip the oil, and just smear bananas all over me." Dar teased, as she undid the zipper at the bottom of Kerry's shirt, and peeled it back over her shoulders, sliding her hands down her lover's back and down under the waistband of her cotton shorts.

"Sticky." Kerry nibbled playfully around the curve of one breast. "But definitely nicer than coconut bits." She undid the other two buttons impatiently, running her hands over Dar's body. "That could get…"

"Gritty." Dar agreed, sliding slowly out of Kerry's reach as she knelt, pulling the smaller woman's shorts down with her, allowing Kerry to step out of them, then easing upright again as she ran her fingers along the backs of Kerry's thighs.

"Umpf." Kerry uttered a small sound, as she loosed the brass button holding Dar's faded denim shorts closed. Her body pressed forward in simple reaction, rubbing skin on skin, as Dar brushed her hair aside, and nipped lightly at the skin just under her ear, then suckled her earlobe, warming the side of Kerry's face with her heightened breathing.

She moved the shorts down Dar's hips, and felt her lover step out of them, then settle both hands snugly around Kerry's waist. "Ah ah.." She scolded softly. "No lifting."

A soft growl appeared in her right ear, almost a purring sound, and she chuckled in response, as Dar shifted her hold lower and half turned, simply falling backwards onto the bed and pulling Kerry along with her. "All right…gravity works." She rumbled, as Kerry slid up the length of her body and settled above her, pinning her arms down with a seductive smile.

"I gotcha."

"Yep." Dar agreed, thoroughly enjoying the view. "Now what'cha gonna do with me?"

Kerry kissed her. "Well.. I'm gonna start here… " She bit the skin over Dar's jugular playfully, then continued down her throat to her collarbone. "And see where I end up."

"Oo.. I'm in trouble." Dar teased, moving her lower arms and running her fingers up and down Kerry's sides.

"You bet you are." Kerry agreed, as she threw herself into her task.


 "Morning, Maria." Dar poked her head in the office door, feeling a little strange after being gone for over a week.

The secretary looked up, then beamed at her. "Buenos Dias, Dar… it is so good to see you again." She stood up and came around her desk as Dar entered, then paused, obviously stopping herself in some action and folding her hands in front of her. "I am glad you are back."

Dar came over to her and managed to feel only slightly awkward as she gave Maria a hug. "Thanks." She received an enthusiastic response, as the smaller woman hugged her back, then she released her, and ran her fingers through noticeably sun lightened hair. "It’s good to be back… but I had a great time."

"I can see that you did." Maria smiled warmly. "You are so tan.. you had nice weather, I know."

Dar stuck her hands in her pockets and nodded. "We sure did… so what’s going on here this morning?" She asked casually. "I think I processed through most of the things in my inbox over the weekend.. wasn’t anything major in there."

"It is quiet, yes." Maria agreed. "Mark is saying that with the new network, there is much less problems." She looked proudly at Dar. "This is your fault, yes?"

Dar chuckled. "My fault… eyah.. I guess you could say that."

"There is many calls from the newspapers, and twice they came here, but the security would not let them come in." Maria advised her. "You are famous, I think… my husband taped all the times you were on the television – we showed them to my family when they were over for dinner this weekend."

"My parents did too." Dar admitted, with a smile. "I finally saw it last night… thought the first one went pretty well, but I wasn’t fond of the second." She glanced around. "I’d better get to work… I think I’ve got three conference calls scheduled this morning."

"Si.. you do." Maria nodded. "Is Kerrisita here?" She leaned closer. "You know what day tomorrow is, yes?"

Blue eyes twinkled. "Of course." Dar grinned. "Kerry’s living in fear… she thinks I’m going to have a male stripper delivered to her office."

"Tch." Maria looked shocked. "You are not, surely?"

"No." Dar reassured her. "She’s trying to play down her birthday, though… how did she put it? She’s gotten enough bad press in the last few weeks?"

Maria grinned at her. Dar grinned back., then she ambled into her office, pausing as she cleared the door to appreciate the sunlit view of the ocean. "Nice." She circled her desk and said hello to her fish, who blew bubbles at her, then swam in expectant circles as she got the food jar out and gave them a sprinkle. "Hey guys… didja miss me?"

The fish waved feathery fins at her as she sat down in her comfortable leather chair, and leaned back., glad of the tall chair’s sturdy support. The diving had been great, but she’d overdone it the last two days, and her back was feeling very cranky with her.

Maybe the tandem parasailing wasn’t the best idea she’d ever come up with. Dar leaned her chin on her hand as she waited for her pc to boot. But damn, Kerry’d had such a blast. The phone buzzed, and she slapped lazily at it. "Yes?"

"Dar, I have Mr. Alastair on numero uno." Maria told her.

"Sure." Dar hit the other button. "Morning, Alastair."

"Morning Dar… you up for a teleconference?" Alastair’s voice was cheerful. "Didn’t see you logged on, so.."

"Yeah, hang on." Dar logged into the system, and started up the network meeting software. "Go ahead."

A moment later, the black window cleared, and she was looking back at Alastair’s round, freshly scrubbed face. He was wearing his usual starched white shirt, and soberly navy blue tie, with it’s company tie clasp. His eyes shifted to his monitor, slightly off to one side. "Boy.. you got some sun, huh?"

Dar leaned back in her chair and rested her elbows on the arms of it. "Sun, sand, water… I didn’t go to Key West to snow ski, Alastair."

The CEO chuckled. "No, I suppose not.. well, you look great.. really relaxed." He watched Dar nod. "Good."

"Uh oh." Dar drawled.

"Now, Dar… what makes you think I’ve got bad news?" The blue gray eyes twinkled. "C’mon.. you’ve had a nice, relaxing week, no stress, no frantic phone calls.. no urgent emails.."

A dark brow lifted.

"All right. We’re planning a recap and strategy session tomorrow for the stockholder’s meeting – remember you’re our main presenter this quarter." Her boss relented. "I had a very interesting pow wow with several of the senior board members on Friday – seems they’re now finding you sort of intriguing."

Dar rolled her eyes.

"You didn’t tell me your father was so highly decorated either, Dar… or that your mother was a critically well known artist… Erlich was sniffing around, saying how it was great timing to put your bio in this year’s company yearbook, so he dug out the files on you, and your parents… quite the family you are."

Dar sighed.

"Nothing to be ashamed of." Alastair told her mildly. "It’s just great press."

Dar leaned forward. "So what about the part where I’m gay?"

Her boss shrugged. "Do you want to make it an issue? I never pictured you as a crusader for gay rights, Dar." He studied her. "In fact, I don’t think you ever personally mentioned it to me.. I mean sure, we heard rumors, and there was that whole mess with Elena Nechovia, but…"

A shrug.

"Of course, you never mentioned anything personal about yourself.. I mean, you could have actually had three heads, and sixteen children by a Tibetan yak, and I’d never have known." Alastair now sounded a bit peeved.

"I have an ‘if you ask, I’ll tell’ policy." Dar remarked dryly. "You never asked." She glanced up as Maria entered with a small tray, and brought it over , setting a gently steaming cup on the desk along with a plate of pastries. She winked at Maria, and gave her a tiny wave, as the secretary waggled her fingers back and left. Dar picked up the cup and sipped from it. "I’ll pencil in the meeting.. what time is it?"

"Four thirty our time." Her boss stated. "Good… I'm looking forward to it.. Mariana has been giving the press what details they wanted about you, by the way."

Dar looked distinctly alarmed.

Alastair grinned, and waggled his fingers. "Bye."

"Hold it.. hold it.." Dar held a hand up. "Listen.. I'm going to go ahead with that project of mine today… is that still fine with you?"

Alastair considered thoughtfully. "Well, we discussed it at the board meeting… I don't see any problem with it, no." He paused. "Is it on my worklist?"

Dar nodded.

"Hang on." Alastair pecked at his keyboard for a minute. "Wh.. oh, that. No, no no..no..no… what, are you kidding? No no.. ah." He rested his chin in his hand and read the screen intently, then flicked a gaze towards the camera. "Did you write this?"


"Nice job." Her boss complimented her. "All right, go ahead with it - but let's not make a press announcement until the stockholder's meeting… it would be a little on the sensational side right at the moment."

Dar nodded. "Will do."


"Ms. Kerry.. here are the reports you asked for. Is there anything else I can get you?" Mayte put the folders down, and gazed at her boss.

Kerry tugged one over and opened it. "No… that'll do for now.. I've got to make the decisions on who's going to migrate to the new network first, and every single account manager is giving me a sob story over why they should be put on the top of the list. " She glanced over her shoulder towards the window, with it's late afternoon shading. "Thank goodness it's been quiet here today.. haven't heard a peep out of anyone in an hour."

Mayte scratched her ear. "Um.. yeah… I was going to get some hot tea.. you want some?"


Mayte eased out of the office, leaving her in the quiet of the big room. Kerry leaned back and stifled a yawn, reflecting on the fact that though she had a fantastic time on vacation, it was nice to be back here too. She slid down in her leather chair and carefully turned the cuffs on her silk shirt up another fold, gazing down at her stockinged feet under her desk. She looked over as a little gopher popped up on her screen, and chitttered at her. "Hey!" She chased after it with her mouse pointer, but it scuttled behind a window, and peeked out at her, poking it's tongue out. "How in the hell does she do that?"

The little gopher program was one of Dar's, and she frequently amused herself by changing it around and sending it over to pester Kerry. The animal was cute, with a snub face, and little black button nose, and the neatest thing was - every time, he was different.

Today, GopherDar was wearing a tiny surfer outfit, complete with flip flops and wraparound sunglasses, and he proceeded to dance a hula across the bottom of her screen while she giggled in pure reaction. "You are soooo twisted." She popped up a netmessage screen and typed exactly that in, and sent it over to her bosses computer.

Her phone rang, and she hit the button, half expecting it to be Dar, but saw it was an outside line. "Operations, Kerry Stuart speaking."

"Hey girl!" Colleen's voice rang through the speaker. "How is it, being back there after a week in paradise?"

"After four days in Hell?" Kerry inquired wryly. "It's nice… I'm tired as heck, since I've been busting my butt all day trying to catch up to everything, but I'm starting to make a dent in the piles..what's up with you?"

"Busy making copies of videotapes for everybody you know." Colleen answered smugly. "You rocked in those hearings, Ker - we were all so proud of you."

Kerry blinked in surprise. "Really?" The office had been conspicuously quiet on the subject, in fact, she'd gotten the idea all day she was being slightly avoided. People had stopped talking when she came into view, and she suspected she'd been the topic of some very juicy gossip for the whole week. "I just answered what he asked… they were pissing me off though."

"No kidding." Colleen said. "So… listen. What are your plans for tomorrow? You up for a little party?"

Kerry sighed. "Not really, Col, no." She answered honestly. "It's… just been such a weird few weeks.. I'd kinda like to keep a low profile for a while on a personal level.. Dar and I were just going to go out to dinner or something like that."

"Awwwww… " Colleen drew the word out. "Keeerrrryyyyy….. c'mon… that's not fair! We haven't seen you for weeks and weeks… we weren't going to cater the Queen Mary, just a few of us."

True. Kerry rubbed her eyes. "Yeah… um.. I know, Col…I know." Would it hurt? "How about Wednesday? I have to take it really easy at the gym because of my shoulder - maybe we could all go out afterward?"

"Mmmph." Colleen sounded mildly mollified. "Yeah, that'd be okay.. how about Dave and Busters? We can have dinner, and play some pool."

Hmm. Kerry perked up. "Yeah, you know.. that sounds like fun." Mindless electronic entertainment, good food, a few beers… "Good plan… hey, you feel like coming over tonight? I've got a ton of pictures to show you."

"You bet." Now Colleen sounded pleased. "Y'know, Ker.. we were really, really worried about you."

Kerry smiled a little. "Thanks… it was an awful time up there." She shifted and leaned against the desk. "If Dar hadn't been there with me, I don’t' know what I would have done. She was so there for me." A chuckle. "Not to mention my in laws… you know Mrs. Roberts introduced herself to my parents as my mother in law?"


"Yeah… she's such a trip." Kerry agreed.

"What was that all about with your father giving Dar and her dad those medals?" Came the curious question. "Was that like, for real?"

Kerry shook her head, even though Colleen couldn’t see it. "I wish I could say yeah.. that was his way of getting as close to an apology as he's capable of.. but honestly? I think he just did it for the good press."


"It was great for him - here he is, national spotlight, handing out medals… that's why they had to postpone those hearings. His public approval rating went through the roof.. they saw him in that window, and they think he's wonderful." Kerry's voice held a bitter tone, and she knew it. "If they only knew.. Andy had to practically kick him in the ass to get him to help out."

"Wow." Colleen murmured. "Hey.. tell me all about it tonight. I'll pick up a six pack of Corona.. okay?"

"You're on." Kerry smiled as she hung up, swiveling as her inner door opened. "Hey…look.. it's GopherMom." She snapped a rubber band at her boss. "You are so out there sometimes."

Dar sauntered over, hitched up her skirt, and perched on the edge of Kerry's desk. "Just proving I can still put out a little code if I have to." She drawled. "How was your day? I haven't seen you since nine.. I've been pretty buried myself."

Kerry lifted a hand and indicated her full outbox. "I'm about half caught up. I was digging through all the facilities requests today, sorting them, trying to find an equitable way to move people to your new net… fielding questions from every single account manager we've got practically." She patted Dar's nearby knee. "You caused me so much work, boss."

The outer office door opened, and Mayte came in with a steaming cup. "Oh. " She paused, when she saw Dar. "I'm sorry.. I can.."

"Nah.." Dar waved her in. "I was just getting a status report."

The slim girl smiled, then deposited the cup on Kerry's desk. It was a dark, fragrant brew, and Kerry sniffed it appreciatively before she took a sip. "Oh wow.. this is nice. Blackberry?"

"Si." Mayte blushed a little. "I saw you liked that." She lifted her eyes and met Dar's, then cleared her throat. "I am going to drop off the mail, then go home.. unless you need something else?"

"Nope.. go on." Kerry leaned back, both hands cradled around the mug. "I'm going to finish up here, then head home myself." Her assistant left, closing the door softly behind her, and she sighed

"Tired?" Dar asked.

"A little." Kerry flexed her arm. "My shoulder's aching… I don't want to take those muscle relaxants until I get home though.. they put me out like a light." Her eyes studied Dar. "And it's been a little weird here today… I kinda get a creepy feeling people are avoiding me."

"I think you're imagining things."

"No.. I'm not… when I walk through the halls, people used to say hi, make small talk.." Kerry gazed at her desktop. "I don't know.. maybe they're wondering what kind of person would do what I did." Then she shrugged it off. "Anyway… or maybe I'm just overly sensitive." She glanced up at Dar. "Col's coming over… I wanted to show her my pictures.. and the stuff we brought back, and give her the present I got her." She watched Dar nod. "She and the gang coerced me into going to D and B's on Wednesday.. you up for that?"

Dar straightened her back a little, and winced. "Not skeeball, but yeah… that sounds okay." She cupped both hands around one knee. "I had a visit from Gerry Easton today."


"Mm. Yeah.. he had a very interesting proposal. " Dar said. "He's gotten approval to contract us to provide high level consulting services to the Navy." She shifted. "To review all their processes, systems, and procedures, and recommend, procure, and implement technological improvements."

Kerry's eyes widened. "Wow… that must be huge!"

Dar slowly nodded. "His one condition was… " She chuckled. "I head it up."

"Big surprise there." Her lover remarked. "Wow.. what do you think about that?"

"I think.. " Dar got up and walked over to the window, pressing her fingertips against it and looking out. "I think I'm very, very intrigued." She turned. "Means I'll have to travel a bit… but most of the analysis can be done from here." A bright, interested look came into her eyes.

"Do you get to go out to the ships and stuff?" Kerry asked, folding her arms. "Like to the aircraft carriers, and those things?"

Dar nodded.

"Oo… that does sound interesting.. can I help?"

Another nod. "You bet… I wrote up the prospectus and sent it up to Alastair.. he approved it in nothing flat."

"Wow. " Kerry exhaled. "I'm glad.. I know you were looking for another project to do… this sounds right up your alley." Her speaker buzzed, and she answered it. "Operations, Stuart."

"Kerry? This is Eleanor." The Marketing VP announced crisply. "I have a conference call on with all the regional managers regarding the new network, and I can't find Dar. Can you please come down and join us, so I can get a coherent explanation of the new system?"

Kerry rubbed her neck and sighed, giving Dar a plaintive look.

Her boss shrugged, and held up both hands. "You'd do it better than I would anyway." She whispered.

"Yeah yeah.." She shifted a little. "Okay, Eleanor.. I'll be right there.. where are you, anyway?"

"The big presentation room. Can you come down now?" The VP sounded impatient.

The big presentation room? Kerry's brows knit together. What on earth was the woman doing in that huge place all be herself? "Uh.. sure.." She looked Dar in confusion. "Was the conferencing bridge broken in the executive center?"

"It was booked." Eleanor drummed her fingers impatiently. "Anything else?"

"No..I'll be right down." Kerry released the call. "I can just picture it.. that cavernous room.. she probably just likes to hear her voice in there."

"Probably." Dar agreed amiably. "Well.. I better let you go.. I'm going to finish up some stuff in my office… catch you when you're done?" She patted Kerry's arm.

"Sure." Kerry stood, and shrugged into her jacket, lifting the collar of her silk shirt above the lapel. "This shouldn't take long… 'more pipes, bigger pipes, faster service, better network' , right?"

"Right." Dar agreed, clapping her on the back. "Go get em, tiger."

Kerry gave her a bemused look, then turned and made her way to the door, opening it and slipping out into a quiet hallway.


 Kerry leaned back against the back wall of the elevator, watching the floors change slowly. That new project of Dar’s really sounds neat. Her mind mused. I’m glad. A smile crept over her face, as she realized just how glad something had come along to keep her bosses interest, since she really had no desire to see Dar leave the company any time soon.

Part of that was very selfish, she acknowledged. She liked having the security of Dar’s presence down the hall, and the benefit of her experience and knowledge. Not that Dar would refuse to answer her questions even if she weren’t part of the company, but still.

Yeah. She was glad.

The doors opened on the tenth floor, and she walked out, turning right and going down the long hallway. "Boy, it’s quiet." She commented, hearing the faintest of echoes. The late afternoon sunlight painted the occasional stripe from the offices she past, but only a muted buzz of the phone system broke the silence as she continued through the marketing area towards the big presentation room.

She was pretty sure the company’d be glad Dar was sticking around too. After what she’d achieved so far this year, the moaning and whining had subsided to less than nothing, and even Jose and Eleanor seemed a lot happier. Sales were up, the new network was the talk of the industry.. heck, they should throw Dar a freaking party.

Kerry paused before the conference room door, and straightened her jacket, then ran her fingers through her hair. Eleanor tended to have teleconferenceing running, and who the hell knew who she had on there on the big screen. She put her hand on the door latch and pushed down, then pulled the door open and walked inside.

"SURPRISE!!!" A roar greeted her.

Kerry stopped dead in her tracks, shocked beyond speech. The entire of the huge room was filled with colorful banners, balloons, confetti, and lots, and lots of people.

Hundreds of them, it seemed.

Cheering, and coming towards her, with flashbulbs going off and laughter. To one side, a huge table was set up, with a cake, and bowls of chips, on the other side were chafing dishes of something hot or other. Kerry managed to get her jaw closed and she blinked, as Mariana reached her and patted her arm. "Oh my god."

"You all right?" The Personnel VP laughed. "Happy Birthday!"

On cue, everyone started singing, with the usual success of a group of non related non singers had.

At least it gave her a minute to start breathing again, Kerry realized, as she felt a belated flush darken her skin, and her mind finally acknowledged exactly what had happened.

They’d given her a surprise party.

Wow. Kerry sucked in air, and looked around in amazement, finally finding a pair of twinkling blue eyes near the back of the room, just watching her. "Wow." She managed to say. "I’m.. uh… "

"Freaked." Mark supplied helpfully. "Man, what a facial expression!" He held up his digital camera. "Happy birthday, Kerry."

Kerry rubbed her face. "Oh my god." She laughed helplessly, as they closed in on her, and hands touched her arm, and patted her back. "Wow… I have no idea what to say here." Laughter. "I’ve never had a surprise party before… thank you guys.. this is amazing." She felt a smile spread across her face. "Totally amazing."

Then she spotted Colleen lurking in the back and she put her hands on her hips. "Hey.. waitaminute…" She pointed at her friend. "Didn’t I just talk to you?"

Colleen held up her cell phone, and grinned, then pointed. "I brought the Corona." She came over. "Sorry, Ker.. I know you wanted to be low key but…" She chuckled.

A buzz of voices surrounded her, and Kerry just shook her head, moving further into the room and murmuring thank yous to people who came up to wish her a happy birthday. She wandered over near the cake and glanced at it, then started laughing uncontrollably. "Oh my god.. who did that?"

The frosting was ocean blue and green, and someone had, somehow, crafted an entire darn tropical reef, complete with little fish and what looked like a lobster. It was gorgeous. "I can’t eat this!" She yelped. "Look at that angel fish… it’s almost real."

A soft throat clearing caught her ear, and she turned, to see Dar standing behind her, reviewing the cake diffidently. "My mother is gonna be really ticked off if you don’t at least try it."

"Your…" Kerry glanced at the cake, then back at Dar. "Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it."

Dar chuckled.

"Can’t believe what.. that she has a mother?" Eleanor gave Dar a sweet smile. "We couldn’t either."

"No no.. I’ve met her mother.. but… " Kerry laughed, and just shook her head. "Thanks guys… this is incredible." She stole a tortilla and scooped up some salsa, munching on it as everyone started to mingle, and grab food and drinks. "And you.. " She muttered in a very low voice to Dar. "Are so busted."

"Ah ah.. not me." Dar shook her head solemnly. "I found out about it when I got back to Miami…I had nothing to do with this."

Kerry pointed mutely at the cake, and lifted her brows.

Dar shrugged. "Apparently they found out this was going on, and mom offered."

"Ahem. Excuse me folks." Mariana had taken control of the mike at the nearby podium. She tapped the mic for effect, making a squeal as her nails hit the screen grid. "Whoops."

"Hey Mari… maybe we can find a geek somewhere around here to help you with that."

The Personnel VP shaded her eyes with one hand, and made a production of scanning the audience intently. "Don’t see any here."

A round of laughter echoed.

"Anyway.’ Mariana cleared her throat. "As a representative of company management I just wanted to wish Kerry a happy birthday.." Cheers "And to welcome her back after her vacation."

"Thanks." Kerry spoke up from where she’d just cornered a Corona and taken a sip of it. "This is really nice, and I’m amazed at the effort you guys put into it."


"Ahem." Mari regained control of the audience. "As long as we’re all hanging around here, I might as well take the opportunity to give Kerry her official birthday present from ILS." She held up a small, thin item wrapped in gold paper, with a blue bow, and tiny, embossed company logos all over it.

Everyone quieted, and turned to watch as Kerry put her drink down and walked forward, visibly blushing again to take it gingerly from Mari’s hands. "Um.. thanks…. I didn’t expect anything from the company."

"Well.. sometimes we just have these things lying around.. so.. " Mari shrugged, and leaned on the podium. "Go on and open it." She glanced up as Dar moved silently up behind Kerry and stood there watching, her hands folded in front of her.

"Well.. " Kerry peered around, obviously embarrassed. "I mean.. okay, sure." She cleared her throat and carefully removed the ribbon. "Oh. Isn’t that cute." She admired the embossed logos, then tucked the ribbon under her arm and continued opening the wrapping.

It was a very flat, heavy something, whatever it was, and she found her curiosity peaked, trying to imagine what it was. A base for her pc? A paperweight for her desk? A bookend? She peeled the tape off and eased the wrapping back, very aware of the expectant silence around her. A hint of brassy metal appeared, and she opened the other side of the paper, then flipped it over and exposed the front.

She blinked three times.

Vice President of Operations, Kerrison Stuart.

"Urk." Kerry uttered a tiny noise, then her knees unlocked and she almost went crashing to the ground in pure surprise. A powerful hand gripped her arm and held her up, and she just swayed, glad of Dar’s close presence. "Oh boy." She whispered.

Jose cleared his throat and stepped forward, sticking a hand out to her. "Congratulations, Kerry. I am glad you will be on the team with us."

Kerry returned his grip, feeling a rush of blood as it returned to her head after her heart seemingly stopping for a minute. "Thank you." Holy… bleep. She and Dar had discussed the possibility, sure… when Dar had given her that damn evaluation, and she’d agreed that it looked like she felt comfortable with that but…

After what she’d gone through in Washington, she’d figured that was on indefinite hold.

"Yes, congratulations, Kerry… for a purely selfish reason , of course." Eleanor also shook her hand. "You have no idea how much more pleasant you’ve made my work here." She gave Dar a smile over Kerry’s shoulder. "Not to mention you freed up the uber-nerd here to finish our new network."

"Um.. thanks, I think." Kerry murmured.

Duks was next, studiously patting her shoulder. "Do not worry that you have big shoes to fill, Kerry."

"I wasn't." Kerry chuckled. "Thanks… I'm glad I'll get a chance to work more with you guys."

"Congratulations." Mariana now smiled at her. "It was well deserved."

"Hey Kerry.." Mark snapped yet another picture. "This is gonna look great on the front page of the department newsletter."

Kerry winced. "C"mon.. I must be red as a lobster…"

"We’ll just tell em it's sunburn." The MIS Chief replied cheerfully. "Hold the plaque up.. huh?"

Dar settled back against the wall, enjoying her partner's position in the very center of the spotlight. Kerry's smile just kept getting bigger and bigger, and Dar felt a distinct sense of pleasure as she listened to the crowd's comments, and watched them cluster around the new VP, chattering and congratulating.

Yeah. It was a pretty damn good day after all. She snagged a Frito and scooped up some chili dip.

And it wasn't even over yet.


Kerry was curled up in the passenger seat of the Lexus, watching both Dar’s profile, and the city lights flash by as they headed over the causeway towards home. Dar kept smirking to herself, a little tensing motion of her lips, and Kerry suspected she was remembering the high points of her party.

That was okay. Kerry was too. It had lasted longer than she’d thought it would. "Hey, Dar?"

"Hm?" Dar glanced at her, then returned her eyes to the road.

"Did you really not know anything about the party?"

A twitch. "Well…" Dar chuckled softly. "I got this phone call two weeks back asking me what your favorite foods were. Figuring there wasn’t a Kerrison Stuart Cooks! Videotape in the works, I pinned the caller to the wall and tortured the details out of them."

Kerry muffled a laugh. "That explains the Snowballs. I was wondering about that, because I’m damn sure I never told anyone but you that I liked them." There had also been chafing dishes full of Thai foods, and a conspicuous presence of chocolate scattered around. "God, I’m stuffed."

"Did you have fun?"

"Yeah.. it was really nice. I was surprised at how many people were there." Kerry mused. "I can’t believe they brought gifts and stuff."

Dar turned into the ferry terminal, and pulled onto the boat. "Why? Kerry, people really like you, for one thing, and for another, they’re damn grateful they have you to deal with and not me."

"Dar, that’s not true. You saw how concerned everyone was last week." Kerry protested, but her partner didn’t look distressed at her statement.

"Would they hate to lose me? Sure." Dar agreed readily. "Everybody knows the company is better off with me doing what I do. But they’d rather work with you. Which is fine, Kerry.. that’s exactly what I intended when I made you my assistant.. in fact, I commented to Mari at the time that it might reduce her personnel complaints."

"Okay. But my point is.. " Kerry argued back. "Whatever they feel about you on a professional level, on a personal level a lot of people really like you."

"They do not." Dar snorted.

"Yes they do!" Kerry slapped her arm lightly. "For Christ’s sake, Dar.. half the frigging company’s in love with you. Hello? Hello? Wake up? Earth to Dar?? Hello??"

Dar stared at her. "You’ve had too much to drink."

"I had one beer!" Kerry retorted. "The problem is, there’s a bunch of people who are so jealous of you, that’s all they can do is run around and say nasty things, and that’s all people hear. The rest of the company, the silent majority, don’t’ feel that way. I know, because they’ve come up and told me so."

Dar was silent for a bit, her eyes studying the leather trimmed dashboard

"Did you know you’re the only person on the executive committee who’s ever spoken to the janitor?" Kerry asked. "Not to tell him to do something, I mean. Just to say hello?"

The sound of the ferry’s engines changed, as the boat slowed to dock. "No… I didn’t." Dar replied thoughtfully.

"Did you know the midnight staff still talks about you bringing in eggnog and sharing with them two Christmas Eves ago?"

"No, I…"

"Did you know that staff positions in OPS generate more internal resumes than any other department in the building?"

Dar looked meekly at her. "They do?" She started the Lexus and drove slowly up the ramp. "Mari never mentioned that."

Kerry settled back in her seat, satisfied. She was quiet for a minute, then looked over. "I don’t have any other surprises waiting for me, do I?"

"At home?" Dar smiled. "No.. well… " She chuckled. "I don’t know… maybe a box or two." She reached over and squeezed Kerry’s knee. "I saved mine for tomorrow, but I think my folks might have dropped by something."

Kerry wrinkled up her nose in a smile. "This is so cool." She admitted. "At home, after about… age eight or so, I guess, we got gift certificates to various department stores, which my mother took and used to get things she thought we needed."

"That’s no fun."

"No." Kerry agreed. "I used to save up my allowance, and go out and get myself one thing, a toy or whatever, that I wanted." She considered. "I remember the year I got myself an Erector Set. My mother was so pissed off at me. She took it away, and gave it to Mike, who turned around and gave it back to me, of course. I kept it under my bed and played with it when she was out shopping."

"An Erector Set? What problem did she have with that?" Dar asked, in a puzzled tone.

"It was a boy toy."

"Your mother needs an injection of the late 20th Century." Dar snorted. "I don’t want to tell you how many expansion sets I had for mine."

Kerry smiled. "Did you make anything significant?"

Dar pulled into her parking spot and turned the Lexus off. "A mechanical system to turn off and on the lights, the stereo, and adjust the sound in my room." She got out and popped the back hatch, to retrieve Kerry’s gifts. "And a car that got my sneakers from my closet."

Kerry was giggling so hard she had to lean against the car.

"I did one that unloaded my mother’s acrylic paint tubes and moved them into the garage, but that didn’t last long."

Kerry slid down to the ground, holding her sides.

"Then there was the dog." Dar went on. "I gave up trying to get it’s tail to wag, though. The little motors just wouldn’t start and stop when I wanted them to." She lifted the box out of the back, then paused, as her abused muscles protested. "Ow."

"God.. sorry." Kerry hauled herself up off the floor and hurried over to help. "Sorry.. sorry.. I keep forgetting your back."

"Me too." Dar admitted, wincing.

"Well, the most extensive thing I made with mine was an amusement park." Kerry told her, as they edged up the stairs with their burden. "A Ferris wheel, and a merry go round.. I even found little plastic horses for the carousel." She keyed in her code, then grabbed the knob and pulled the door open. "Whoa.. whoa.. easy, Chino…"

"Rooo!!! " The Labrador hurtled out, nearly knocking her owners over.

"Easy.. easy.." Dar laughed, as she maneuvered past the excited dog and got into the condo. They put the presents down on the dining room table, and Dar continued on into the kitchen. "I’m going to put some coffee up… turn the TV on, willya?"

"Sure." Kerry trotted over and did just that, then sat down on the loveseat to pet Chino. "Hey, honey.. how are you?"

"Agurff." Chino mouthed Kerry’s hand enthusiastically.

"Here." Dar returned from the kitchen, with a handful of mail. "Looks like you got some cards." She handed over five or six envelopes, then dropped down onto the couch to leaf through the remainder. Idly, she reached a hand out to scratch Kerry’s back, and the blond woman leaned back, settling into the curve of her arm.


"Yes?" Dar opened a letter one handed, scanning it’s contents. "Oh.. more stock options. Great."


"For what?" Blue eyes gazed puzzledly at her. "Getting you your mail?"

"Just thanks." Kerry gave her a one armed hug, then stayed curled up where she was to open her cards. "Oh look.. baby pictures." She showed one of Angie and the new baby. "He’s a lot less wrinkled now, huh?" She turned the picture over, and drew in a surprised breath. "Oh, Dar.. look."

"Hm?" Dar inclined her head to read the black penned inscription. "She named him Andrew?" Her voice rose.

"Yeah." Kerry laughed delightedly. "Wow.. that is so cool." She put the picture down and opened the next one, a funny card from Michael. "He’s so strange sometimes." She lifted out a golden red leaf. "He sent this because we don’t have season changes."

Dar snickered.

"What else.. oh, this must be from Aunt Penny." Kerry smiled, seeing the creamy white, heavy paper. She opened the top and pulled out a card. "I sent her a picture of us, by the way." She opened the card. "Oh… hey, she’s going to be here in Miami and she wants to come see us!"

"Huh." Dar cocked her head. "Interesting handwriting."

"She wants to meet you." Kerry gave her a gentle elbow.

"Uh oh." Dar stifled a yawn.

"Nah.. she’s really nice. You’ll like her." Kerry tucked the card away, then opened the last envelope, pulling the sedate, gold foil card out and opening it.

"I’m sure she is." Dar answered absently. "You want to take her out on the boat?"

There was no answer.

"Ker?" Dar peered at her partner.

Kerry swallowed, and tilted the card in shaking fingers so that Dar could see it. "It’s… it’s from my parents."

Dar blinked. It was a simple card, with only "Happy Birthday’ in ornate script in the center, and ‘mom and dad’ written in. "Huh… how d’you like that." She smiled, and gave Kerry a hug. "Does that make you feel better?"

Kerry just stared at the card, turning it over in her fingers and shaking her head. "I don’t know what I feel." She answered softly. "Bewildered.. amazed…" She paused. "Relieved, maybe." Kerry thought about that. "Yeah, relieved."

Dar felt her partner’s body relax, and she did as well. "I’m glad." She nuzzled Kerry’s hair.

"Me too." Kerry replied, feeling a weight lift off her shoulders. She tipped her head back and caught Dar’s lips. "Now I can start to leave that behind… who knows? Maybe one day we can all sit down and talk." She regarded Dar’s face thoughtfully. "Maybe meeting your folks, and seeing how accepting they were helped."

Dar’s eyebrow lifted. "Could be." She glanced at the television screen as she caught a familiar scene. "Hey.." She nudged Kerry, who turned the volume up.

"And this late breaking news bulletin. The FBI announced, just a few moments ago, that it had concluded it’s investigation into the explosion at District Memorial Hospital. Here’s the announcment as it happened"

"Oh.. that’s the FBI guy dad spoke to in the back there." Kerry whispered, pointing.

"Hmm." Dar nodded.

An older FBI agent stepped up to the podium, and cleared his throat. Behind him, an easel was set up with a diagram of the hospital on it. "Our investigators have searched thoroughly, and what they have determined was this." He picked up a pointer. "The explosion started at this point, in the hospital kitchen. We’ve determined that the natural gas storage tanks ignited, and sent a firestorm through the pipes up the utility stack here."

"Huh." Dar blinked.

"Then, because these pipes run concurrently with the oxygen pipes, when the gas pipes overheated and blew, the oxygen lines went also. That sent off multiple explosions here." He pointed. "Here, and here." Another tap. "Ending up igniting the gas storage areas right around the operating theatres."

"Wow." Kerry drew in a breath. "So it wasn’t a bomb."

"The FBI is satisfied that, pending further investigation into what ignited the gas tank in the kitchen, that it appears to us that no criminal act has taken place here, beside the design flaw that allows the two types of gas pipes to exist in the same space."

"How do you like that." Dar murmured.

"Yeah." Kerry exhaled. "I'm glad."


They both looked at each other. "Oh.. Ankow's gonna be sooo pissed." Kerry made a face.

Dar studied the screen pensively, unable to disagree.



Dar opened a sleep fogged blue eye and peered at the clock in outrage. "Who in the hell is calling here at 3am?"


Slap. "Hello?" Dar growled sleepily.

"Hey, there Dardar."

The other eye opened, then both blinked. "Daddy… it's a damn lucky thing this is you."

Her father chuckled. "Wake yer butt up and c'mon down here to the docks. We just got our new quarters."

Dar closed both eyes. "Wouldn't it be better to see them in daylight?" She inquired hopefully, as Kerry stirred, then crawled up and rested her chin on Dar's breastbone.

"Aw… c'mon now. First time we got something brand spanking new." Andrew rasped. "Get your butt down here."

"Can we come as we are, or do we have to get dressed?" Kerry warbled.

There was a momentary pause. "Speriance tells me I should tell you to put yer clothes on." Andrew finally decided. "Sides, it's a little chilly down here."

"Okay. We'll be right there." Dar yawned, and rubbed her eyes as the line disconnected. "Wait a minute… how could they have JUST gotten that at 3am?"

Kerry had rolled over and carefully levered herself out of the waterbed, padding naked across the floor towards the bathroom. "Light."

Dar closed her eyes.

"They had to pick it up in Palm Beach, remember?" Kerry reminded her, as she splashed water over her face. "Probably took their time coming down the coast."

"Mm.. wonder if they had a waterbed put in." Dar joked faintly. "They loved ours."

Kerry jerked upright, green eyes popping wide open as she stared at herself in the mirror. Slowly she turned, leaning in the doorway and glaring at the light splashed naked form tangled in the sheets. "What?"

"Well." Dar crossed her ankles. "It was either down here, or up in your room - that single in the guest room's a little too short for daddy."

Kerry covered her eyes with one hand. "Ohh…back back back.." She groaned, trudging towards the dresser. "I tell you what, honey.. I'm going to flush that image right out of my cache., okay?"

"Okay." Dar agreed amiably.

"Don’t you dare hit reload."

"Okay." The taller woman rolled up out of bed and stretched, producing a satisfying pop as her shoulders seated themselves. She pulled a shirt and a pair of shorts from her drawer and tugged them on as Kerry settled for one of her longer shirts. "C'mon Chino… let's go see grandpa's new toy."

They made their way down the front stairs, and moments later, Dar was steering the golf cart down the completely empty, moonlit road towards the marina. "Pretty night." She commented.

"Mm." Kerry ducked to one side and peered up at the cloudless sky, speckled with stars faded from the city lights nearby. "Yeah, it is." The tires crunched on the gravel, sounding loud in the darkness, and she pulled her head back in and settled back in her padded seat. Chino was sitting in the back, and had her head resting on the brace between them, sniffing with interest.

They rounded the turn, and proceeded into the marina, the sound of the waves merging with the soft clinking of ships riggings. "Good grief." Kerry murmured. "That thing is huge!'

"Yeah. Don’t' all guys love to hear that?" Dar muttered back, as she muffled a chuckle. "Well, it is their house now, so.."

The Bertram was tucked up in a guest slip on the edge of the Marina, shiny fiberglass glistening in the moonlight. All of sixty feet long, it featured a flying bridge like Dar's, and a long foredeck she gauged would be excellent for her mother to set up an easel on. "Nice."

She parked the cart and they got out, walking up to the back of the vessel as her parents came out to meet them. "Morning." Dar lifted a hand towards them.

"Hello, you two." Cecilia gave her husband an exasperated look. "I tried to make him wait. Honestly."

Kerry chuckled as she hopped on board. "That's okay… wow.. this is nice." She peeked up at the bridge console, which glowed with green led's.

"Mm.. yeah, it is." Ceci agreed cheerfully. "Happy birthday, by the way." She hesitantly offered Kerry a hug, which was accepted with enthusiasm. "Were you surprised at your party?"

"Was she." Dar laughed, as Kerry received another hug from her father. "She was shocked speechless."

"Now that, ah would have paid to see." Andrew drawled. "Ah ah.. none of that, young lady, or I'll be grabbing that tongue and keeping it."

"That cake was gorgeous.. thank you so much." Kerry turned sea green eyes on Ceci. "I was very, very surprised at everything… did you know what Dar pulled on me?"

"About your promotion? Yes, we knew." The silver blond woman answered. "I wish we could have been there, but Andy was very anxious to take possession of this little boat.."

The ex sailor in question was bouncing on the balls of his feet. "Y'all want a nickel tour?" He asked, hopefully. "And ah got to tell you, I have spent a good bit more on the gov'ments behalf than what this here boat costs, hell, my naval training cost more. But sitting down in that man's office and writing him out a check for this thing was about the weirdest thing I have ever done."

"He was impressed." Ceci commented. "And May would have definitely approved." She smiled. "C'mon.. I put some coffee up to inaugerate the machine."

They moved into the cabin, which was laid out not too differently from Dar's. There was a living room area in front, with a comfortable looking couch and a table with clamp downs, and a set of built in bookshelves. Across from that was an area with cabinets, and a drafting table, custom made for her mother, Dar suspected.

Behind the living area was a compact galley, with a built in microwave and stove, and a fair sized refrigerator, and next to it a cozy table and wraparound booth to eat in.

Stairs descended behind that, to bedroom, with it's built in drawers and recessed lighting, it's bed larger than the one in their boat, and longer by several inches. Next to it was the head, which had a nice sized shower in it. There were storage areas built into all the bulkheads, and the living space was all lined in warm, rich honey toned wood with recessed brass hardware. "This is so nice." Kerry breathed. The colors were blue and maroons, with the odd exception of the toilet seat, which was an interesting shade of pink.

Dar decided not to ask about that. "Definitely comfortable." She clapped her father on the back. "Better than an eighteen inch wide bunk, huh?"

"Lord." Andrew laughed. "I hate to see some of my buddy's faces when they see this thing.. they're gonna keel right over." But he looked very pleased with his new home. "I do like this, though. I really do."

Ceci leaned against him, and exhaled. "Me too." She gave his arm a squeeze, then moved over to the galley and poured cups of steaming, nutty smelling coffee. "Oh.. I almost forgot." She set the tray on the table, and nudged them towards it. "I have something for the two of you… just al little picture I finished a few days ago."

"Heh." Andrew doctored his coffee and sucked down a mouthful from the navy blue mug. Dar and Kerry joined him, while Dar peered past his shoulder curiously as her mother pulled something out of a verneered closet nearby.

"Kerry got a birthday card from her folks." She informed her parents.

"Yeah?" Andrew was surprised. "Hell, I guess he does have a conscience after all that."

"I'm glad to hear it." Ceci said quietly, as she brought forward a canvas, then turned it for them to see, propping it up against the table. "I thought your living room could use a little color."

Dar and Kerry gazed at the painting, then at each other, then back at the painting. "Wow." Kerry murmured. "It's gorgeous."

Dar blinked. "It's… " She leaned closer. "How did you do that?"

"I'm an artist." Ceci remarked dryly. "It's what I do." But she seemed pleased with the reaction.

The painting was a jungle scene, deep greens and blues of the grass surrounding it's two subjects, a large black panther, reclining regally on the mossy ground, it's paws outstretched. Between them sat a russet and gold fox, peering coyly out at the watchers, it's fluffy tail neatly tucked around it's small feet. A cheerful red apple rested nearby.

It was the eyes that got them. Ceci had somehow captured, in the panther's clear blue gaze, her daughter's wild spirit, and the foxes pale green eyes reflected Kerry's sweet intelligence.

A chord rang, deep and somewhat wistful in Dar's memory as she studied the images, a whisper of a past she didn't remember, the ghost of a gentle clasp on her shoulder that almost made her turn around.

"It's amazing." Kerry's laugh bubbled up. "Thank you so much."

Dar smiled. "Thanks, mom."

"You're welcome." Ceci remarked briskly. "Now.. since I have the three of you together.. and where is that dog?"

Chino, curled up near the door where Dar had ordered her to stay, looked.up. "Gruff."

"Excellent. I need a picture of you all." Ceci shooed them all together. "C'mon now.. it'll take a second."

"Dressed like this?" Dar questioned, plucking her shirt. "For what?'

"Shh." Her mother waited for Chino to get into the picture, then snapped it. "You think only you computer people can manipulate images? I can dress you however I want once I paint the picture."


"Paint?" Kerry chimed in. "You're doing one of us?"


Andrew chuckled. "You wanna go for a ride? I had them tuck a few extra ponies in this here thing… and we got enough chow on board for a sunrise gig."

Oh boy. Work would be hell after that. "Sure." Dar grinned. "Let her rip, Dad."





The End (for now)

Dar and Kerry will return in their next adventure shortly…