Tropical High

Part 10

 Dar sat with Duks and Mariana in the lunchroom; the busy crowds lessened in the late afternoon leaving the big room mostly empty and pleasantly quiet.

"Sure you donít' want a bite of this, DR?" Duks nudged his plate of chocolate cake towards her. "You are getting me worried about you today."

Dar waved a hand at him, and settled back in her chair, nursing her glass of milk. "No thanks, Duks. Damn stuff Iím taking's making me queasy." She indicated her mostly uneaten lunch. "I'll take a rain check."

Mariana chewed a bite of her salad, and swallowed. "Dar, you said you were done with this rigamarole - why not go home? " She studied her friend's face. "Now that you saved the world again."

Home. Dar felt the strain of the long day, and longer night, and the thought of lying down and letting her wound up body relax was very, very tempting. Then she remembered how quiet the condo was without its other occupant, and scowled a little. "I will. Soon as Alastair calls and tells me his cojones are in one piece." She temporized. "Damn database was pretty much intact. Make a nice project for some legal grunt to unravel."

Duks snorted softly. "You know what it is, Dar? They are all separate. If this was one of our systems, it would not have happened."

"True." Dar agreed. Duks alert and aggressive internal auditors watched the computer systems like a hawk. One digit out of place brought them sniffing around, even in her area where the problems usually tended to misplaced receipts and forgotten cellular bill overages than anything more criminal. Their one line woven in the carpet was the one leading inside her office - if any of them had any questions, they tended to feed them to Duks directly, who could be depended on to pay Dar a visit and present them.

Or not. Dar had found out to her surprise once that her friend would sometimes merely sign off on things that were slightly out of line from Operations, and she'd cornered Duks on it once. The big VP of Finance had laughed, then seriously told her that just as her judgment was trusted without question in her realm; she should extend the same courtesy to him.

Good point, Dar had admitted, after a moment.

"Just don't try to get away with anything more than a stick of chewing gum." Duks had shaken a finger at her.

"Still gives me the squicks." Mari shook her head. "Iím glad it's over. You had me a little worried there the last few weeks, Dar. I know everything turned out all right, but my God."

"Mm." Dar shrugged. "Water under the bridge." She decided she'd had enough chitchat, and got up. "I've got problems in the Northeast. Later." She picked up her tray and deposited it, then left the café, tired but satisfied with herself.

Maria looked up as she entered her outer office. "Ah, Dar. Good. I have the General Easton on the phone for you. I was just going to page."

One of Dar's eyebrows lifted. "Gerry? I'll pick it up inside." She went into her office and crossed to her desk, a small smile playing over her face. One long finger pressed the blinking button on her console. "Gerry?"

The General's voice echoed slightly. "Dar! That you?"

"Sure is." Dar sat down in her chair and rested her elbows on her desk. "Alastair there?"

"Just left." Her old friend replied. "Nice fella." He fell silent, with an almost palpable awkwardness.

"Mostly. "Dar agreed slowly "What'd you think of the report?" She felt a touch of unease, sensing something. "Pretty hot stuff, huh?"

General Easton paused, then sighed audible. "Dar, I wanted to talk to you myself about this." He said. "Wasn't the thing we were looking for when we brought you in here, y'know."

"I know." Dar replied. "I wasn't glad to find it."

"Of course. Of course." Gerry said hastily. "You wouldn't, after all, would you? You grew up there, mostly."

"Mostly."

Another pause. "Damnable thing, Dar. If half of what's in here pans out, it's a disaster." General Easton said. "A big disaster, for the Navy, for the countryÖ damnable thing."

Dar drew in a breath, then released it. "Guess they should have thought of that before they did it." She murmured. "You sound like you're regretting the project."

General Easton cleared his throat a bit. "I have to shut it down, Dar. We can't use this." His voice took on a cooler tint. "The government doesn't accept your investigation." A pause. "Iím sorry."

For a moment, Dar wondered if she'd heard right. "What?"

"Look, we'll pay off the contract, no worry about that." Easton went on hurriedly. "You won't be the loser for it, Dar. But it has to stop. I will discard this package, and you will destroy any copies you have."

Dar blinked. A sense of shock made her skin prickle, and she stood up in pure reflex, animal energy suddenly surging. "Am I hearing you right?" She asked, pacing around the desk. "Are you saying you're not going to do anything?"

"Now, Dar." The General tried to sound offhand. "Iím sure a lot of this can be explained in any number of ways. Not everything's a plot, y'know."

Dar slammed both hands on her desk and leaned over the speakerphone. "Plot? God damn it, Gerry, its not some kind of damn plot. It's a criminal act of major proportions!" She barked. "Are you telling me you're just going to sit back up there and let those son of a bitches just get off scot free?"

"Dar."

"Donít' you 'Dar' me." Dar felt her temper build. "I risked my damn life going back in that hell hole because you asked me to, and now you tell me never mind?"

"You don't understand." General Easton responded forcefully. "There's more at stake here than one measly base, Dar. This could rock the entire Navy. Do you want that? Do you want everything your father fought for dragged through every inch of muck between Key Largo and DC?"

Dar stared at the phone. "The people in that report." She took a breath. "Deserve that."

"I donít give a damn about them." Easton shot back. "It's the Navy I care about. Iím not going to let something like this make us the laughingstock of the damn country. Of every other country. I'm just NOT going to do it, Dar!"

Slowly, Dar circled her desk and settled into her chair, folding her hands carefully on the desk before her, and leaning forward. "If you don't." She enunciated the words very, very carefully. "I will."

For a moment, dead silence reigned. Dar waited, anger pulsing through her veins and making her nostrils flare as her breathing deepened, and her heart slowed.

Her hands twitched, as though sensing an impending battle.

"You wouldn't do that." Easton stated quietly. "I know you, Paladar."

The very faintest hint of a wry smile appeared on Dar's face. "You only think you do." She growled softly, reveling in the tension. "I will do it, Gerald." She paused. "I have to."

A final parry. "Think of your father, Dar. Don't you care what he thinks? How he'll feel if you do this?" The General asked, quietly. "You know how he loves the Navy."

A sense of peace settled over Dar. "I am thinking of him." She replied. "He'd whup the tar out of me if I did any less, Gerry, and we both know that."

Another silence. "Damn you." Easton sighed. "Damn the both of you with your bloody stiff-necked righteousness." With a click, the line dropped, and Dar was alone in her office.

She took a deep breath, surprised to find herself shaking a little. "Damn." She lowered her head into her hands and closed her eyes, thinking about what she'd said.

Did Easton have a point? The story would, she knew, direly hurt the service.

Was it worth it? "Damn, I hope I know what the hell Iím doing." She muttered.

"Dar."

Dar jumped almost a foot in her chair, and whirled, shocked to see her father standing just inside the door that lead down the back hall to Kerry's office. She stared at him, then slowly relaxed back into her seat. "Dad."

Andrew Roberts removed his hands from the pockets of his pullover and headed in her direction, stopping as he reached her and looked down, his face quiet and very serious.

Dar knew a moment of self-doubt. Gerald Easton had been right in one thing, she knew her father's love and loyalty to the service ran very deep, and very strong. Was he right? Was this too big a sacrifice? She looked up into those pale blue eyes so like her own and wondered. "Guess you heard all that."

"Yeap." Andy lifted hand and cupped Dar's cheek in rare, gentle touch. "I ain't never whupped you, Paladar."

A faint, mildly embarrassed shrug. "Sounded good." Dar looked down, then back up. "Was I wrong?"

A grin remarkably like her own appeared. "You just made me one damn proud old sea rat, Dardar. Hell no, you weren't wrong." Andy eyed the phone. "But that there's gonna be a hell of a problem."

Dar nodded.

"Heard about Kerry's pop." Andy's expression sobered. "Don't rain but it pours, does it?"

Dar nodded again, tiredly. "Yeap." She thought about what Alastair would say, and winced.

Trouble.

Oh yeah. "I was about to head home." Dar admitted. "Been a long day."

"C'mon." Andy offered her a hand up. "Got me some dog hairs I need to give back over by your place." He put an arm around Dar's shoulders as they walked towards the door.

**********************************

It was almost like looking at a stranger. Kerry curled her fingers around the cold metal bars and gazed quietly at her father's face, half-hidden by the tubes and machinery keeping him alive. His eyes were taped closed and there was no expression there, as though he were more a mannequin used for training than a person.

He would hate this so much. Kerry thought to herself. Hate their pity, and the helplessness, and the indignity of it all. She lifted her eyes and studied the machines, then returned her gaze to that still, closed face.

It was hard to know what to feel.

Kerry tried to remember the last time she'd felt joy in her father's presence. When he'd been 'daddy', and she'd smiled just to see him. Her eyes moistened, as she acknowledged just how long ago that was, and how very young she'd been.

Too young to understand.

Maybe, five, six? Kerry's lips tightened, as s dimly remembered scene flickered before her, of a birthday party. She'd gotten a pair of skates she'd desperately wanted, blue ones with silver tassels, and she'd thrown her arms around her father in sheer delight because she knew he'd gotten them for her.

Five then, before she'd gone to school, when life had been as simple as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the long days of fall she could skate in. She had a picture, somewhere, of herself in those skates, with kneepads and a grubby T-shirt on.

Grinning.

He'd hugged her back. Patted her. Called her his little girl.

Kerry flexed her hands on the bars, and released a shaky breath. That had been a very long time ago, indeed. She reached through the bars and laid her hand on her father's arm, the skin feeling dry and papery beneath her touch. Then she slid her hand down until she could curl her fingers around his, a simple touch she hadn't felt since she'd been a child.

What she chiefly felt right now, Kerry acknowledged, was a deep sense of regret. "Iím sorry, daddy." She spoke quietly. "I wish it hadn't been like this." Her eyes watched the unresponsive face. "I never meant for us to hate each other."

She blinked, feeling a few tears spill down her face. "I hope you find peace with God." Kerry whispered.

For a few moments, she simply stood there, holding his hand. Then a sound made her look up, to see one of the nurses coming in. They exchanged awkward glances. "Sorry." Kerry released her hold and backed away. "I know I'm not supposed to be in here."

"It's all right." The nurse replied, with quiet compassion. "Is that your father, honey?"

Kerry nodded.

"Iím sorry." The woman, who was probably twice Kerry's age, had a sweet face and a warm expression. "I know it must be tough for you." She walked around to Kerry's side, and fixed a tube next to the bed. "Take your time. Everything we can do for him, we're doing."

"I know you are." Kerry wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. "HowÖ um." She cleared her throat. "How long could he stay like this?"

The nurse turned and faced her, meeting her eyes honestly. "As long as you let him." She put a hand out at Kerry's look of pain. "Iím sorry, honey. I know that sounds harsh." She said. "But you know something? I've worked in this unit for a long time, and sometimes death isn't our enemy."

Kerry averted her gaze, finding a place on the tile floor to focus on.

The nurse took a step back. "Iím sorry." She fell silent. "I didn't meant to upset you. I thought the doctor had already spoken to the family about this."

"He did." Kerry murmured softly. "But I donít' think we're ready for that decision yet."

They were both silent for a few moments. Then Kerry shifted, and put her hands on the bars. She felt sick to her stomach, the tension creeping up her back and making her head pound. The nurse watched her then adjusted a wire and left quietly, her steps muffled by the overhead speakers making soft, urgent announcements.

****************************

Dar and Andy sat side by side on the couch, sharing a bowl of ice cream and a good deal of conversation. "If that's what you found there." Andrew portioned off a scoop of vanilla. "What else they got to look forward to? Can't blame em for sticking their heads back down underneath the manure, Dardar."

"Dad, it's not like this is Tailhook." Dar objected. "Or some half assed misuse of government funds crap."

Andrew grunted.

Dar removed a cherry and ate it, biting down on the stem as she considered all that had happened. "Hell if Iím going to let that jackass get away with this." She decided.

Her father glanced at her. "Jeff? Ah don't think he's the mover and shaker, Dardar." He spoke up unexpectedly. "Just the nitwit they done got to front it all."

"Maybe." Dar glanced towards the sliding glass doors, which showed a peaceful darkness outside. She was a little surprised she hadn't heard from Kerry, but maybe no news was good news. The television had reported several times that the Senator's condition was 'guarded', and Dar figured that sounded at least all right. "Thanks for keeping me company for dinner, by the way."

"Heh." Andrew chuckled. "Your momma's done gone to one of them art things tonight. I figured pot luck with you was gonna beat out that crackers and cheese mess they always do have."

"Ah. Yeah, I'm not much into the rubber chicken circuit myself." Dar smiled. "I used to leave business cocktail parties and stop at Burger King on the way home." She jumped a little as her cell phone rang. "Whoops." She dug it out and opened it, checking the caller id first. "Hey."

There was silence for a moment, then a sigh. "Hey."

Dar sat up immediately, reading the tension and grief in her lover's voice. "What's wrong?"

"What isn't?" Kerry whispered. "Oh, Dar."

Panic set in. Dar felt her pulse jump, and her mind start to race. "Are you okay?" Her voice took on a sharp edge, and Andy put the bowl on the table, and turned to watch her in evident concern. "Where are you?"

Kerry leaned against the car door and closed her eyes. "Outside the hotel." She replied. "In the car. I just wanted to talk to you before I went in." She wished her head didnít' feel like it was exploding. "They want us to pull the plug."

She could hear Dar's intake of breath. "God, I'm sorry, Ker."

"Me too." Kerry replied softly. "Everyone's a wreck. I donít know what the hell Iím going to do." She'd come back from the CCU unit and faced her mother in hysterics, and everyone else in pieces, and just dealing with the barrage had been difficult enough.

Getting out of the hospital had been worse. The press had rubbed them raw, and she'd finally torn herself free from their grasp and fled, outrunning two of the most persistent and jumping over a low wall that had led her to where her car was parked.

Her relatives had all gone to her family's house. They expected her to follow.

Kerry had huddled inside the car, knowing she couldn't. It was just too much. Now she was outside the hotel, and reaching for her lifeline. "Shit."

"Want me on a plane?" Dar offered bluntly. "Screw everything."

Kerry's defenses broke down unexpectedly. She felt her throat close, and her eyes filled with tears, suddenly wanting to be in Dar's arms so badly it hurt. She gasped in a breath and held the phone close, trying not to start sobbing.

"That's it. Iím on the way." Dar's voice went from concerned to decisive in quick order. "Just hang on, okay?"

She took several deep breaths. "No.. wait." Kerry managed to get out. "Dear God, I'd love you to be here." Another breath. "But they can't take it, Dar. It's too much."

"Fuck them." Dar replied. "I don't give a damn about them. I give a damn about you, and what you want, and that's all there is to it."

Kerry stared sightlessly out through the windshield, watching the couples walking by.

"So what do you want?" Dar asked, very quietly.

"I want you." Her lover replied.

"You got me."

"Give me a day with them, Dar." Kerry felt very, very tired. "I think we're going to make the decision tomorrow night. I could use a friend."

"I'll be there." Dar promised. "Are you all right?"

She could feel the tunneling starting. "No." The light outside was suddenly garish. "Let me go inside before this migraine hits."

"Call me later." Dar requested. "Please?"

"I will." Kerry replied. "I love you."

"Love you too."

Kerry closed the phone and gathered her strength, then opened the door and let the cold night air in.

*****************************

At least the lobby was quiet. Kerry brushed past the tastefully decorated Christmas tree, causing the ornaments to tinkle softly, and sidestepped a heavyset man intent on gaining the bar. The Marriot tended to attract business travelers, and the lounge seemed to be full of them, bending forward in intent conversation as a ball game played mutely in the background.

The front desk was empty, and Kerry gratefully set her bag down and fished for her wallet as the clerk looked up and gave her a friendly smile. "I have a reservation. "Kerry stated quietly. "Under Stuart."

The young clerk, a very well scrubbed boy with short blond hair obligingly tapped a few keys on his computer, then smiled. "Yes, ma'am, Ms. Stuart, we certainly do have it."

God bless you, Dar. Kerry leaned wearily on the counter, hoping she'd taken her painkillers in time She handed over her credit card.

"Do you need help with your luggage, ma'am?" The clerk asked, ignoring the card and presenting her with an envelope. "Your key's in there, it's the twelfth floor, turn right, first door."

Kerry took the envelope. "Thanks." She put her credit card back into her wallet, too tired and sick to argue about it. Dar's planning, she was sure, but there would be time enough to change it when she checked out. She shouldered her bag and trudged towards the elevator, wishing the perkily playing Holiday Muzak tape would break and leave her in peace.

But no. The music continued in the elevator, which climbed leisurely towards the twelfth floor, and finally released her into a cooler hallway. "Turn right, first door." Kerry muttered to herself, following the instructions and finding herself unsurprisingly in front of a hotel room door, set in an alcove by itself. She fished in the envelope and pulled out the electronic key, sliding it in and listening for the click, then pushing the handle down and shoving the door open.

It took her three steps before she noticed something unusual, letting the door slam shut behind her as she stood in the entrance to the room and simply stared.

"What on earth?" Kerry whispered to herself. The room was huge, roughly three times the size of a regular room, and laid out as though it was aÖ She stuck her head into the bathroom and saw the heart shaped tub. "I'm in the honeymoon suite. What in the hell am I doing in here?"

She walked over and sat down on a plush, leather chair, and took in the fully stocked bar, plates of pretty good-looking fruit, and the half-sized refrigerator.

And the bed, which was large and very comfortable looking.

Kerry felt exhaustion overtake her. She slumped forward and leaned her elbows on her knees, too tired even to care. She cradled her head in her hands, feeling the pain building, and decided if she was going to be sick and miserable, it might as well be here. She hadn't eaten anything all day, but the very though almost made her gag. With a groan, she pushed herself to her feet and dragged her bag over to the bed, lifting it up and unzipping it.

The soft smell of home wafted out. Kerry's fingers stilled, then she pulled her sleep shirt out and buried her face in it, detecting Dar's scent faintly around its edges. As the tears rose in her eyes, she dropped onto the bed and just let them out, the moisture soaking into the cotton fabric.

It only lasted a few moments. She sniffled, and dried her face, debating on whether to just stay where she was, fully dressed, instead of expending the effort it would take to get up and get undressed. Finally, she rolled over and got up, shrugging off her jacket and tossing it onto the chair, then pulling her shirt off and unfastening her jeans.

A chill made her shiver, and she pulled her sleep shirt on and sat down on the bed, unlacing her sneakers and pulling them off. She flexed her toes against the carpeted floor and sighed, then tossed the scuffed Reeboks over near the chair as well. "Brr." She muttered in complaint, rubbing her arms as she got up and wandered into the bathroom, pausing when she was confronted with her own reflection in the mirror.

Disordered blond hair framed a pale, haggard face with bloodshot eyes and lines of tension across its forehead. Kerry grimaced, then ran water in the sink and splashed some onto her cheeks, causing another chill to almost make her teeth chatter. She straightened and dried herself off with a towel, then walked back into the main room and headed for the bed. Just as she reached it, her stomach suddenly rebelled, and she sat down quickly, reaching for the garbage can as she half convulsed.

It was mostly dry heaves, save the bitter taste of the aspirin she'd taken. But it made her head pound all the more fiercely and she let out a soft oath as she leaned against the nightstand, breathing hard. The nausea increased, and she dropped the basket and stumbled into the bathroom, just making it to the toilet before her stomach heaved again.

She truly saw stars. Her vision blacked out from the pressure, and all she could see was sparkles as her body was gripped in a convulsive spasm. She felt her legs buckle, and she dropped to her knees painfully on the tile, holding on to the basin for dear life. At last it eased, and she slumped to one side against the tub, shivering and gasping.

It was the absolute worst she'd ever felt in her life. Even her dislocated shoulder hadn't been this bad. Kerry felt like her head was going to split right open, and she whimpered softly, holding her temples with both hands. Her whole body was shivering, and she grabbed for the bath towels, pulling their scant warmth around her as she crouched there in agony.

She didn't know what else to do. She moaned softly as she felt her stomach twist again.

****************************

It was almost midnight as Dar got off the elevator and emerged into the hallway, pausing as she collected her thoughts and tried to figure out what she could say to Kerry that would excuse her disregarding her lover's honest request to stay away.

Then she simply shrugged, and faced the door, hesitating before she knocked. There was no sound coming from the room, and Dar suddenly realized she'd be waking her partner up on top of everything else. Well. She glanced at the key she'd been given. Might as well get this over with.

Gingerly, she slid the key into the door lock and opened it, slipping inside and closing the door behind her. At once, she realized something was wrong. The lights were on, and the room was empty, Kerry's clothing strewn about with uncharacteristic sloppiness.

Dar felt her heart start to pound. She glanced around the room, then pushed the door to the bathroom open, and froze for a shocked instant, before she jumped across the tile and dropped to her knees beside the pathetic figure curled up on the corner.

"K.." Dar could barely speak as she carefully lifted the disordered towels off her lover, and turned her over. Kerry had been throwing up, she could tell, and crying, and Dar was a split second from calling 911 when the blond woman's eyes fluttered open and tracked to her in dire confusion. "Hey.. easy."

"DÖ dar?" Kerry whispered hoarsely. "OhÖ dear god.. I was.. praying you'd come." She reached out a shaking hand to her lover. "I hurt so much."

"Easy." Dar fought down the panic with difficulty. She sat down on the cold tile floor and gathered Kerry clumsily into her arms, unsure of what to do to help her. "Where does it hurt, sweetheart?"

"M.. my head." Kerry moaned. "How long.. have I been here? It's tomorrow?"

"No. Shh." Dar cradled her gently, rubbing her neck with one hand. "They told me I'd get a fifty percent discount if I flew up tonight. I couldn't resist."

"Uhngh." Kerry curled an arm around Dar's leg and pressed her lips against the denim covering her thigh. "Tried.. to take something.. kept coming back up."

Dar reached over her head and turned the water on, grabbing a washcloth and letting it dampen under the warming water. She pulled her arm back down and gently cleaned Kerry's face. "So I see."

The green eyes flickered open to peer at her, so bloodshot they seemed almost ochre in the bland light. "I've nev.. never felt like this before." Kerry stammered softly. "I thÖ it got really b..bad there I wasn'tÖ I think I blacked out."

Dar finished her task. "How's your head now?" She pushed the damp hair out of Kerry's eyes.

"Hurts." Kerry let her eyes close. "Everything hurts." She plucked at Dar's sleeve with shaking fingers and tried to get closer. "It's so cold."

Dar took a deep breath, and braced herself. "C'mon.. let's get you into bed." She got an arm under Kerry's knees, and one around her shoulders, and prayed as she stood up, biting the inside of her lip as a bolt of pure agony ripped through her shoulder.

Later for that. With a grunt of sheer will, Dar turned and made her way into the bedroom, walking stolidly over to the bed and letting Kerry down onto it. She pulled the blankets down and tucked them around her lover's shivering body, both hearing and feeling the sigh of relief as Kerry relaxed on the soft surface. "That's my girl."

Kerry peeked at her from half closed eyes. "Am I?" She murmured, licking her dry lips.

"Oh yeah." Dar managed a smile. "Still cold?"

"Yes."

Dar stood up and took her jacket off, then removed her sweatshirt from underneath it. "Hang on, and I'll do something about that." She glanced around the room, then retrieved a bottle of water from the small bar and brought it back with her. "Sweetie, you need to drink some of this."

Kerry grimaced. "Only if you want it back in your lap."

"Just a little." Dar knelt and removed the bottle top, then spotted a neatly wrapped stack of straws and grabbed one. "HereÖ just sip it." She guided the edge of the straw to Kerry's lips.

"Don't say I didn't warn ya." The blond woman mumbled, but complied, sucking weakly at the liquid. She swallowed the mouthful then waited, apparently very surprised when it stayed put. She drank some more, then stopped. "Nough."

Dar watched her quietly for a moment, then put the bottle down and kicked her shoes off, slipping out of her jeans and lying them across the chair neatly before getting under the covers with her partner. "Easy."

Kerry kept her eyes closed, but turned over and burrowed into her, letting out a piteous little sound as Dar folded long arms and legs around her. "Iím here, Kerry. It's going to be okay. I promise." She could feel the shivers slowly abate, and she stroked Kerry's hair gently until the rigid muscles relaxed under her touch. "Easy. I've got you."

"Mm." Kerry murmured. "Thank you, Lord, for hearing me begging for my Dar."

Dar smiled. "And here I thought you were going to be mad at me for showing up early." She admitted wryly. "Should have listened to Dad. He said not to worry."

Finally, and even though it hurt, Kerry also smiled. She tangled her hands in Dar's shirt and exhaled. "He was right." She said. "I needed you."

Dar rubbed Kerry's back very gently. "You got me." Everything else happening faded out, becoming unimportant as she focused on this one thing that did matter. "So I'm forgiven?"

Kerry nodded weakly. "Even for putting me in the honeymoon suite." The agony faded enough for sleep to make inroads. "I love you."

Dar kissed her head. "I love you too."

*********************************

It was very quiet in the hotel, even after dawn had burnished the window in pale light and thrown a slender stripe of it across the large bed. Dar let her eyes drift open to take in her surroundings, a trifle confused until memory kicked in and she remembered where she was.

And why.

She was lying on her back, with Kerry sprawled half over her, a snug hold pinning her firmly in place, and her lover's head pillowed on her shoulder.

Dar watched Kerry sleep, noting the shadows under her eyes, and the drawn look that still characterized her face, even now. Yesterday had been such a trial for her, she mused, and today would be worse, but at least Dar was here now and could give moral support if not much else.

She couldnít take charge of the situation, couldnít shield her lover from the events or their consequences. Dar grimaced a little, unused to being in such a passive role and not liking it much. All she could do, really, was just be there for Kerry.

Like she had been last night. Dar shuddered, imagining how many hours Kerry might have crouched on the tile in misery if she hadn't decided to just chuck everything and jump on the next plane heading north.

To hell with everything else. Dar closed her eyes, and reveled in the warmth of her human blanket. She could feel Kerry's breath through the cotton of her shirt and she let herself float for a few minutes, while she decided what to do next.

First things first. Dar reached out a hand and secured the phone, lifting it off its cradle and bringing it to her ear. She stabbed at the keypad and was rewarded by a pleasant midwestern voice that sounded a little like her lover. "Room Service, please."

A click, some canned Sleigh Ride, and then the phone was picked up. "Good morning! Will this be breakfast, or late night snack?" The operator chuckled.

Dar's brow creased, and she glanced at the window. "Breakfast." She muttered.

"Okay, well. " The woman answered. "Our special for you this morning is Lovebird muffins, with sweetheart jelly."

Dar turned her head and stared at the phone. "What?"

"We also have splits of champagne, and berries with whipped cream."

"How about oatmeal." Dar replied. "And a large pot of coffee, and.. " She considered. "A stack of pancakes."

There was a momentary pause. "All righty then. Anything else?" The voice chirped. "Thatís for two, right?"

"Um.. right." Darís brow creased. "How did you know?"

"Just a lucky guessÖ itíll be right up, okay?" Now the voice sounded vaguely patronizing.

"Okay, thanks." Dar hung up, puzzled by the odd responses. Then she remembered what suite they were in, and started chuckling silently.

"Whatís so funny?" Kerry inquired softly, not stirring an inch.

"If I spread sweetheart jelly all over you, would you be my lovebird muffin?" Dar asked.

Very slowly, Kerryís head lifted and she peered up at Dar with a look of mild disbelief. "Excuse me?" Her voice cracked a little, and she cleared her throat. "Bah. Dry air."

Dar handed her the bottle of water sheíd left by the bedside. "Here." She guided the straw to Kerryís lips, and watched as she sucked down half its contents. "Does that mean you wonít be?"

Kerry finished, and put her head down, seemingly exhausted. "Right now I feel more like a meadow muffin." She muttered into Darís chest. " A really flat one that was out in the sun a long, long time."

Dar stroked her back comfortingly, scratching lightly on its surface with her fingertips. "I ordered breakfast."

"Ugh." Kerry shook her head. "Not for me."

Dar hesitated. "Did you eat anything yesterday?"

Had she? Kerryís brow creased. "Just breakfast, with you." She admitted. "I was way too stressed to eat after I got here."

Dar drummed her fingers on Kerryís back. "Iím no expert, but that might be why you feel so lousy." She suggested casually. "You know how you get."

"Whatís that supposed to mean?" Kerry asked crossly.

Dar gently cleared her throat.

The blond woman sighed and burrowed back into Darís body. "I donít think I can handle eggs and bacon."

"Damn good thing, because thatís not what I ordered." Her partner informed her. She smoothed Kerryís hair down and peered at the dimly seen profile tucked against her chest. "Okay?"

It was so nice and warm where she was. Kerry let her eyes close, wishing with all her heart they were both home with nothing more to look forward to than a Saturdayís cartoons and a diving trip. "Can I just stay right here today?" She asked softly, as Darís arm closed around her in a hug. "I donít want to go over there, Dar." She said. "Call it cowardice if you want, but I donít want to face those people.. or that place." A pause. "Or him dying." Her chest tightened, and she blinked sudden tears from her eyes.

Dar felt very much at a loss. "I know itís tough." She kissed the top of Kerryís head. "Iím sorry."

Kerry sniffled. "Me too." She whispered. "Thank you for being here." She ran a finger along Darís ribcage. "This feels really selfish, but thank you."

Dar kept up her gentle stroking, not sure of what else to do. "Itís not selfish." She finally said. "Iím glad you want me here. I know how easy it is to shut everyone out when you're hurting."

Kerry shifted, and looked up at her. "Thinking of your mom?"

A shrug. "And myself." Dar admitted. "I had friends who tried to talk to me after dadÖ died." It seemed so strange to say that now. "I pushed them all away. Had to put up that tough front, like I thought he'd want me to."

Kerry's lips tensed in wry compassion. "That big mushball? Nah."

Dar smiled a little.

"You don't have to worry." Kerry murmured. "I won't ever lock you out, Dar. I need you too much." She gave her partner a painfully open look, then sighed and rolled over, releasing Dar's body reluctantly. "I guess we'd better start this day, huh?" She didn't feel like it, though She wanted to curl back up with Dar in the surprisingly comfortable bed, and just..

C'mon, Kerrison. Her conscience prodded her sternly. You're a big girl. Life sucks sometimes, so get your ass up and deal with it. She girded her philosophical loins and lifted her head - then was pulled back into Dar's arms and back into her safe, warm nest.

Well, I tried. She greedily absorbed the hug. Sort of. "You know something?"

"Mm?" Dar was now rubbing her all over, easing tiny tensions she'd hardly been aware of.

"Love rocks." Kerry sighed. She felt Dar chuckle, and the knot in her guts abruptly released, making her almost dizzy with relief. She knew the day wasn't promising to be any better than it had looked last night, but from this she could pull the strength she'd need to live through it.

********************

Dar watched her mail download as she stood near the small table, attending to the preparation of two bowls of gray, glutinous matter. She kept glancing over at the bed, where Kerry was tucked, the covers pulled around her and a quiet, almost remote look on her face.

She was too pale, Dar realized, as she continued her work. "Kerry?"

"Mm?" Green eyes turned her way, abandoning CNN.

"I know how your family feels." Dar kept her gaze on her oatmeal. "But do you want me to come with you today?"

Kerry had to literally bite her tongue to keep the instant yelp of agreement from emerging. She took a breath, and watched Dar's face for a moment, seeing the look of careful unconcern plastered on it. Her family would hate it, yes.

But would it get her more resentment than there already was? And if it did, would the personal support be worth that?

"Yes, I would." Kerry heard herself say.

Dar looked up, after a moment's silence. "But?" She hazarded.

Kerry simply shrugged. "But nothing."

The pale blue eyes widened a trifle, then Dar smiled. "Okay." She picked up a bowl and brought it over, setting it down on the covers and handing Kerry a spoon. "Go on. You should be able to keep that down."

Ah. Kerry took the spoon and examined her bowl. "You know, Dar.. I don't think I ever mentioned this butÖumÖ"

"Just try it." Dar cut her off. "Trust me."

Kerry, she flew two thousand miles in the middle of the night to be here for you. Kerry managed to get a spoonful of the sticky stuff balanced, and lifted it. She loves you. Remember that. She loves you. "Mmph." Kerry mouthed the oatmeal, a substance she hated with a passion for a moment.

Hm. She swallowed. "Dar?"

"Yeess." The low drawl answered her.

"How did you get oatmeal to taste like tapioca pudding?"

Dar sat down with her own bowl, and smirked, just a little. "I have many skills."

"Mm." Kerry swallowed another spoonful. "So I see."

********************************

The clock flipped over to eight-o clock. Kerry glanced at it, then sighed. "Hospital opens at nine. Guess we'd better get started." She pulled the covers back and sat up, stifling a yawn. "Can't believe I'm still tired."

Dar gave her a sympathetic look. "Stress."

"Mm." Kerry scrubbed her fingers through her hair. The room phone rang, and she glanced at it, then at Dar. "Probably for me, huh?"

Dar held up her cell phone, then shrugged. Kerry picked up the receiver. "Hello?"

"Ker?" Angle's voice was low. "I know it's early."

The pressure of the situation came down on her again. "It's okay, I was up."

"We missed you last night." Her sister said. "Thought you were right behind us, then you disappeared."

Kerry's brow creased in displeasure. "I didn't disappear. I was being chased by those damn newspeople." She said. "I just barely got out ahead of them, and got across the parking lot." She waited for Angie to comment, but there was only silence. "Then I got a migraine, and it was all I could do to get back to the hotel."

A sigh. "You okay?"

"Now." Kerry said. "Yes. But it was a very miserable night. I wouldn't have been much use."

Angie cleared her throat. "It was pretty rough here, too." She admitted. "Mom's in pieces."

"I know." Kerry replied softly. "And with what Uncle Harold was saying, maybe it's better I wasn't there."

Now the silence was definitely awkward. "He didn't mean that." Angie said. "Everyone's just so stressed. You say stuff."

A lie. "Sure."

"You'll come back with us tonight, right?"

Kerry gazed across the room at the compassionate blue eyes watching her. "I don't know." She said evenly. "Probably not a good idea."

"C'mon, Kerry. We're your family, and thisÖ of course it's a good idea. Why not?" Angie sounded distressed.

Kerry took a breath. "Dar's here." She replied briefly. "She flew in last night, and I thank God she did, because I was so sick I passed out in the bathroom."

"Oh." Her sister let out a heartfelt sigh. "Well, it can't make things any worse. Iím glad she's there for you."

That brought a faint smile to Kerry's face. "Me too." She admitted. "Listen, I'll meet you guys at the hospital.. then we'll see from there, okay?" She knew Angie wasn't happy with that. "Angie, you know how the rest of the family feels about me. Let's not make things harder than they already are."

"All right." Angie replied very quietly. "See you soon."

She hung up, and Kerry replaced the receiver in the cradle, then stood up. "I won't be long." She murmured. "Don't go anywhere."

"I won't." Dar waited for Kerry to duck into the bathroom before she rummaged into her bag and pulled out her bottle of painkillers. No sense in advertising stupidity, she reasoned, as she removed the top and shook one of the large pills out, then recapped it and tucked the bottle back inside her bag. She washed it down with a swallow of orange juice, then sat down and began to review her mail.

Today wasn't going to be fun, she mused. But we'll get through it. With quiet determination, she put the thought out of her mind, and concentrated on the work in front of her.

Jesus. Dar's brow creased. What the hell's going on back there? She scrolled down the long list, then remembered she had not only her own mail, but Kerry's being forwarded to her as well. She scanned the headers, then sorted them by priority and started clicking.

"Everyone's getting short answers today." She muttered, pecking out a reply as she kept her injured arm still, resting its elbow on her thigh. "Don't like it? Too bad." She typed. "No." Click. Type. "No." Click. Type. "OK." Click. Type "Bite me."

Backspace. Dar sighed. Alastair had asked her to at least try to be a little more dignified in her responses, given her current position. She studied the request, a whine from Jose about getting the sales staff new laptops. "Why? Did the run out of sand on their etch a sketches?"

"What's that, hon?" Kerry poked her head out of the bathroom. "Were you talking to me?"

Dar peeked over her screen. "No, I was making fun of Jose." She explained. "He wants new toys for the sales department."

Kerry scrubbed her teeth while she thought. "Figureth ouf there'r Fisher Prith, eh?"

Dar snickered. "Yeah." She did the mental math. "He's got them in his budget.. should I be nice?"

"Eh."

Dar forwarded the mail to Mark. "OK." She typed in, and clicked send. "You got lucky, Jose. Those pancakes mellowed me out."

Kerry disappeared into the bathroom, then emerged, wiping her mouth with a small towel. "Dar?"

"Mm?" The dark haired woman looked up in question.

"You're typing one handed." Kerry walked over. "Does your arm hurt?"

Uh oh. "Yeah." Dar shrugged. "Slept wrong, I guess."

Kerry cocked her head, then leaned on the desk and caught Dar's eye. "No, you didn't." She accused gently. "You picked my ass up last night."

Dar grinned rakishly. "And the rest of you, too." She chuckled, leaning back in her chair. "Yeah, I had to brush the dust off my butch card, what can I tell you?" She made light of the charge, not wanting Kerry to feel guilty about it. "Relax, Iím fine."

Kerry stepped closer and circled Dar's neck with her arms, pulling her close and kissing the top of her head. "I'll make it up to you, Dar." She murmured. "When we get home, Iím going to pamper you, and make sure you don't do anything until that shoulder heals."

Dar found herself in a very advantageous position. She gently nibbled Kerry's skin through her shirt. "Anything?"

Kerry cleared her throat. "Well.." She kissed Dar's head again then released her, and turned back towards the her shower. A thought halted her, and she paused. "You know, if that shoulder's really stiff, it might be a lot easier if I scrubbed you."

"Oh reaallly." Dar was glad to see a touch of spirit coming back into Kerry's demeanor. "Are you propositioning me?"

Kerry smiled, and held out a hand. Dar rose and crossed to her, taking it and wrapping an arm around her partner as they made their way together into the steamy bathroom. Once inside, Kerry turned and helped Dar pull her shirt off over her head, then stood as Dar peeled her out of her own.

She still felt shaky, but the breakfast and the nights sleep had helped, and Dar's presence had helped even more, but she wanted a good dose of the comfort only her lover could provide to buffer her against the day.

They stepped into the shower, and she took the tube of soap she'd packed and squeezed a handful out. The steam put little wisps between her and her target, so she moved closer and studied the body before her. Dar's chest moved as she took a breath, then moved again as Kerry spread her fingers and slipped them over the tanned skin leaving lather behind her.

She loved how Dar felt. She had such smooth, soft skin, but it was stretched over an incredible supple and strong form that moved under her touch in a flow of muscle. There were a few tiny scars across her ribcage, and Kerry carefully cleaned all of them, aware of Dar's feather light touch on her side.

She cleaned Dar's breasts, her lips twitching a little as the touches tickling her own ribs became more insistent, then her hands moved down Dar's muscular belly and past her indented navel.

The pressure of the water was starting to feel good against her sensitized skin. Kerry deliberately let the memories of the previous day dissolve as she moved even closer, rubbing her skin against Dar's as they slid together. She lifted her head and Dar's lips found hers immediately, then started a slow, teasing journey down her neck.

"Oo." She whispered into Dar's ear, just before she started suckling the lobe. "I like that."

"That?" Dar rumbled, closing her teeth gently on a very sensitive part of Kerry's anatomy.

The answer was a low groan.

"Or that?" Dar shifted her attentions slightly.

The groan became a squeak. Dar chuckled softly.

***************************

 Kerry fluffed her hair out and stared pensively at her reflection, tugging a little on the snug teal turtleneck she hadn't had occasion to wear in over a year. "Iím going to sweat in this, aren't I?"

Dar came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. "Probably." She brushed a speck of dust off Kerry's sleeve. "You look nice, though." The sweater outlined her lover's athletic build nicely, and contrasted against her pale hair.

Kerry turned and regarded her. Dar was wearing a red pullover, beautifully knitted with an embroidered pattern on it and a pair of black corduroys. The pullover had a rolled collar, and it looked casually elegant. "So do you." She complimented her partner. "I like that on you."

"You should. You bought it." Dar smiled, having found the surprise laid out on her dresser after the first cool morning they'd had this fall. She didn't like sweaters, as a rule, never having to have worn them much, but she did like this one. It was incredibly soft, for one thing, a very fine, silky weave that felt nice against her skin.

For another thing, she looked good in it, and she was self aware enough to know that. "Where did you get it? " Dar asked. "I should get you a blue one, and we can wear them on the same day at work." She straightened Kerry's shoulder seams out. "You ready?"

 Kerry's eyes dropped. "As I'll ever be." She replied. "Dar, I want to apologize to you in advance for all the crap you're going to have to witness and be subjected to today."

Dar tipped her chin up so their eyes met. "I'll live." She replied seriously. "Don't worry about me, okay?"

A thin lipped smile. "Okay." Kerry agreed somberly. "Let's go." She slipped into her leather jacket and zipped it, then headed for the door with Dar following behind her. "Good God." She stopped in mid stride, almost making her lover crash into her. "Dar, what happened with the Navy investigation?"

Dar put a hand on her back and pushed her gently forward. "C'mon." She pushed the elevator button, debating on whether or not to go into the subject. She'd gotten a very upset email from Alastair just that morning.

"Dar?" Kerry didn't budge, resisting the effort to move her.

Pale blue eyes regarded her seriously. "The database was intact. Alastair present the information to General Easton."

Kerry waited. "And?"

Dar sighed. "He rejected it."

Kerry's jaw dropped. "What?"

Her partner fiddled with the catches on her heavy jacket. "I can see where he's coming from, Kerry." Dar glanced up and down the empty corridor. "The scandal could destroy a lot of people."

Kerry just stared at her. "And you accepted that?" Her voice was flat with disbelief.

Dar studied the carpet, then looked up. "No." She admitted. "I told him I'd go public with it if he didn't." The doors opened and she put a hand out to keep them that way. "Alastair's frothing at me for that."

Kerry walked into the elevator, her mind churning. She knew Dar would keep her word, but at what cost? "Is it worth it?" She asked quietly. "Maybe Easton's right." Dar's silence made her look up, and she found her lover studying her seriously. "Maybe the damage outweighs the benefits."

Dar seemed to understand where she was coming from. "I thought about that." She replied. "After I did the analysis, I sat at my desk for a few hours, debating with myself over whether or not to release it."

The doors opened at the bottom floor and they exited. Kerry thought about what Dar had said as they crossed the warm, gaily decorated lobby and through the revolving door into the bitter cold wind. "Did you think you might be doing it just because you were mad at Ainsbright?"

Dar stuck her hands in her pockets. "No." She answered. "I thought I might be doing it to stroke my own ego."

Kerry looked at her in surprise. "What?"

A nod. "I figured there's a part of me that hates losing, and hates letting someone get one over on me, and that's what was driving me to force the issue."

Kerry stopped at her rental car, and opened the doors. She waited for Dar to slip inside and joined her, closing the door on the icy air. "And you decided you weren't?"

Dar smiled at the bleak scene outside the car. "No." She replied softly. "That very much was part of why I did it." She turned her head and gave Kerry an honest, open look. "But the other part of it was that people are getting hurt by this, and it has to stop." Her jaw tensed. "And it will stop, one way or the other, no matter what that takes."

Sometimes, Kerry mused, as she started the car, and let the engine warm up. Sometimes life's lessons came at you from the strangest directions, and at the weirdest times. "Does your father know about this?"

Dar nodded silently.

Kerry didn't have to ask how Andrew felt about it. She knew, simply by the set of Dar's shoulders, and the almost unconsciously proud lift of her chin.

It definitely gave her something to think about. Kerry exhaled, and put the car into gear, backing out of the parking spot and heading towards the main road. The landscape was bleak and gray, trees dressed in winter brown with their coating of snow and ice.

It made Kerry feel cold, despite the heater in the car. This had once been home. She'd grown up here, played in some of the fields they were passing, skated on those frozen lakes. They drove past a group of young people walking along the sidewalk, laughing and joking with each other, obviously headed for the church youth center not far away.

Kerry remembered being one of them, pampered and privileged, wanting for absolutely nothing. Sure of her place in the world, and secure in her family's solid circle. Lacking only the one thing that Dar, raised without any of her advantages, had been given freely.

Life was so strange, sometimes.

Kerry felt almost lightheaded. She abruptly pulled over to the side of the road and stopped, leaning on the steering wheel as she stared out at the trees.

"Ker?" Dar spoke, hesitantly.

"It.. umÖ " Kerry started, then paused. "I think part of the reason why I leaked that dirt on my father was because I was so angry at him." Her voice was shaking a little, and she appreciated the sudden warmth as Dar laid a hand on her thigh. "I don't think it had anything to do with wanting to do the right thing." She admitted softly. "Knowing that, and seeing him in that bedÖ it's killing me."

"Hey." Dar leaned over the shift console and put an arm across Kerry's shoulders. "It's not your fault, Kerry."

"Isn't it?" She gazed sadly at her lover.

"Don't be an idiot." Dar's voice was warm, taking the sting out of the words. "Yeah, that was stressful, but your father spent his whole life in politics, Kerry. You think that was the only stress in his life? C'mon. You know better."

Kerry remained silent.

"Don't do that to yourself." Dar said. "He made the choice to do what he did, knowing it might get out. You think keeping that secret wasn't tough?" One dark brow lifted. "Lying is harder than truth in the long run." She stroked Kerry's cheek. "We found that out, didn't we?"

A memory of the tense months early in their relationship surfaced, when even bringing Dar lunch was looked at with suspicion. "Yeah." Kerry had to admit. "It was a lot easier once we came out." She said. "But this isn't the same thing, Dar."

"Isn't it?" Dar echoed her earlier statement. "Think about it."

Kerry exhaled. "I will." She promised. "Guess we'd better get moving."

Dar rubbed her neck a little. "Want me to drive?" She offered. "That should keep you distracted until we get there."

A smile appeared unexpectedly, as Kerry put the car back into gear. "I'm okay." She put the blinker on and watched for passing cards. "But I'll keep the offer in mind."

**********************************

They met Angie and her husband on the way into the hospital. Some of the press interest had waned, it seemed, or maybe the weather had distracted them. Snow had begun falling, and Kerry shivered a little as she joined her sister on the back entrance walk "Hi."

"Hi." Angie rubbed her arm. "Hi, Dar. Thanks for coming up."

Kerry didn't have to look behind her to see the raised eyebrow. She gave Angie a heartfelt smile and a hug. "Sorry about last night."

"Richard, this is Dar Roberts, Kerry's partner." Angie went on, in a determined midwestern tone. "Dar, this is my husband, Richard."

Dar mentally gave Angie several more points, as she extended her hand. "Nice to meet you." She met Richard's wary eyes, on a level with her own, as they shook hands. "Sorry it has to be on this kind of occasion."

"Ms. Roberts." Richard acknowledged her quietly, as he released her hand. "Good to finally meet someone I've heard so much about."

Oo. Talk about your loaded statements. Dar returned his brief smile with one of her own. "Likewise." She turned her eyes towards Angie. "How's Andrew?"

Everyone relaxed just a little, as Richard turned to open the door to the hospital. "Growing like a weed" Angie stated. "He's made up for having such an exciting birthday by being just the sweetest, calmest child." She waited for her husband and Kerry to enter the hospital, then she turned and lowered her voice. "Dar, Iím really glad you're here."

Dar managed a brief smile. "I know it's not a popular thing, but I couldn't let her go through this alone." She held the door open for Angie to pass. "Besides, unfriendly family isn't exactly foreign to me."

Angie sighed, as she walked inside and Dar followed. "I know. I just wish it wasn't so damned hard." She said. "The whole situation's so lousy, and then on top of itÖ oh, crap."

Dar glanced ahead of them, to where Kerry was standing, bracketed by two older men. Her body posture was so defensive it brought out an immediate response from Dar, who brushed past two other vaguely familiar looking women and bore down on her lover with determined strides.

"Uncle Albert, you don't have a right to ask me to leave." Kerry stated firmly. "This is my father.."

"You sure didn't think of that when you turned against him, did you." Her uncle snapped, his face flushed. "Look, I'm not going to stand here and argue. I'm not going to put up with my brother being mocked by the likes of you, you little traitor. Get your ass out of this hospital before I throw you out."

Kerry felt a wild rush of anger that was so unexpected, it almost made her lightheaded. "You just try it." She felt her fists balling. "You stupid useless windbag. I haven't even seen you since I was twelve. Now you show up here like you own the place? Like you matter?"

She took a breath to continue her yell, then felt a presence so powerful bearing down on her that she stopped, and turned, finding Dar several paces away, bristling with anger and ready for battle.

"Might of figured it was you giving someone bullshit." Dar stated.

Kerry's uncle turned, and stared in utter shock.

A cold smile. "Aren't you going to say hello, Al? Or did you forget what I looked like after I fired your ass for the rankest incompetence in the history of business?"

"You son of a.."

"Oh no." Dar slipped between him and Kerry, very aware of the watching crowd. "I didn't have a dick then, and I don't now, but let me tell you, Al, you say one more nasty word to Kerrison and you won't have one either, because I'll pull it off and beat you to death with it."

The elevator doors opened, into a frozen silence. Dar put a long arm out and blocked them from closing. "Ladies first. "She motioned Kerry and Angie to go on, then joined them in the car, letting the doors close before anyone else could get on.

The sound of Angie pushing the elevator button was loud, as they all took a breath at the same time. "Wow." Angie wiped her brow. "This isn't a good way to start the day, is it."

Kerry turned and looked at her partner. "Uh."

Dar had been staring at the doors, now she turned, and exhaled. "Sorry." She said. "Temper got the better of me."

"It's okay." Kerry lifted a slightly shaking hand. "Better yours than mine, Dar. I was about to start swinging on him." She felt Dar's arm slip around her shoulders, and leaned against her partner's tall form gratefully. "Sorry we left Richard down there with them, Ang."

"He'll live." Angie shrugged. "Iím sorry, after the past few days, and listening to all the righteous bullshit I've had to listen to, with daddy in here helpless, I'm justÖ damn it to hell.. over it."

Kerry peeked at her. "Angela, that's the most curse words I've ever heard you use."

"Yeah, well." Angie drew in a long breath, and let it out. "I've been spending time on the Internet, what can I tell you?" The doors opened, and she walked out, followed by Dar and Kerry. They turned to the right , and made their way to the critical care unit waiting room.

Cynthia Stuart was already there, alone. She was sitting in one of the chairs, her hands folded in her lap, her body in an attitude of pained patience. She looked up as they entered. "Oh, Angela.. Kerrison.. I'm.." Her eyes slipped past them and rested on Dar. "Oh."

Kerry heard the elevator doors opening behind them, and she figured the entire situation was either going to resolve itself, or turn into an undignified free for all more suited to the soccer field than a hospital. "MotherÖ "

Cynthia stood, and brushed past her, stopping in front of Dar with a serious expression. She abruptly held out both hands. "Iím so glad you came."

It was one of the last things Dar had expected to hear. She clasped the older woman's hands in sheer reflex, her battle ready mind scrambling to reassess the startling attitude. "I'm sorry." She managed to get out. "I really am." She added, in a softer tone.

"As am I." Kerry's mother replied. "For many things."

Loud voices at the doorway made them both turn, to see Kerry's uncles enter with Richard, and one or two others. They all stopped and stared at Dar, who stared impassively back, her hands still clasped in Cynthia's.

The tension in the room was abruptly shattered when the inner door opened, and a tall, good looking man entered, wearing a white lab coat over a set of green surgical scrubs. Everyone's attention went to him, and he paused, collecting his thoughts before he continued forward.

Dar released Cynthia's hands and stepped quietly back to join Kerry, who slipped a hand around her arm as they waited for the doctor to speak.

"Hello, Doctor Bridges." Cynthia spoke quietly. "How are things this morning?"

The doctor's lips tensed a bit in compassion, before he put a hand on her shoulder, and walked her back to a seat. He sat down next to her and rested his elbows on his knees as everyone else sat across from them.

"There's been no change, Mrs. Stuart." The doctor told her, gently. "You know, we didnít' expect there to be any, and we talked about that yesterday."

Cynthia Stuart looked very small, and very alone sitting there. "Yes, I know." She answered carefully. "But you live your whole life thinking prayer can change things, so you do what you can." Her eyes searched the doctor's face. "It seems so odd, with everything we can do these days, that nothing can be done for my husband."

Dr. Bridges nodded, seeming to accept the gentle rebuke. "Sometimes, we can achieve what appear to be miracles, that's true." He said. "But some things are still beyond us, and restoring energy in a brain where they're none left is one of those things."

Dar put an arm around Kerry, not caring who was watching. She could feel her lover's whole body shivering, and she wished there were some way, any way to change the words the doctor was forcing them to hear about her father.

Even if she hated the man's guts.

"There really is no hope, is there?" Kerry asked softly. "Not even one in a million?"

Dr. Bridges hesitated, studying his hands carefully before he looked up and met her eyes. "Ms. Stuart, in my business, I've learned never to quote odds." He said. "Because human beings have the damnedest way of finding a way around them."

Kerry blinked. "But?"

The doctor sighed. "But, Ms. Stuart, I know our limits. Your father is beyond them." He reached out and patted Cynthia's hand. "I'm sorry."

Kerry's mother nodded numbly.

"I'll be in my office, if you want to see me." The doctor spoke directly to Kerry, before he stood up and walked past them, heading out the way he'd come in.

For a few moments, they were all silent.

Then all hell broke loose.

************************************

"Silence!" Finally, Cynthia Stuart simply stood up and screamed, at the top of her voice. It shocked everyone so badly it achieved its purpose, and silence did, indeed, fall over the waiting room.

Kerry's uncles were squared off on one side, facing Kerry, Angie and Dar, with Angie's husband sort of hovering off to one side.

"Cynthia, I won't have it." Edgar Stuart stated flatly. "My brother is lying in there dying, and I won't have that little bitch here." He pointed directly at Kerry. "She put him here."

Kerry opened her mouth to respond, but her mother forestalled her.

"NO." Cynthia almost spat the word out. "Now, that's enough." She was shaking, but clearly in control.. "Is it not bad enough we're here for this, without this nonsense? Kerry did not put Roger anywhere."

"What are you talking about?" Edgar yelled. "You know.."

"ENOUGH!" Cynthia out yelled him. "Hatred put him there! I won't have it! I won't! Now you stop this at once, or I will have you thrown out!"

"Mother." Kerry put a hesitant hand on her shoulder. "It's not worth what this is costing. I'll leave."

"Please." Her mother turned, and whispered. "Hasn't there been enough anger?"

Kerry's eyes dropped, and she let her hand fall. Dar stepped up behind her and laid a hand on her back in silent support, gazing over her shoulder at both her mother, and her uncles with quiet impassivity.

"Now, let's all sit down." Cynthia stated shakily. "And have a moment's peace."

Someone had to sit first, and Kerry decided it would be her. She took a seat against the wall as Dar settled next to her, and reluctantly, everyone else did as well. God. Kerry was shaking inside, and her head ached, again. She was very conscious of Dar's presence, almost feeling the tension radiating from her silent lover.

"What I want." Cynthia Stuart had seated herself, and was now speaking firmly, staring off at the opposite wall. "What I want is for all of us to come together, and support each other during this horrible trial."

"Cyndi." Edgar broke in.

"Edgar." She stopped him. "That's enough."

Kerry just kept quiet, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. She felt chilled, and welcomed the sudden warmth as Dar put an arm across her shoulders, despite the fact that she knew if she looked up, she'd see disgust and loathing in the eyes of her family.

It was so hard. She let out a breath, and felt like crying.

"Mom's right.' Angela's voice broke the silence. "This is hard enough for all of us. Let's not make it worse." Angie reached past Dar and rubbed Kerry's back. "Fighting gains us nothing."

The two older men stared at her. "It gains me the satisfaction of knowing I didn't sit by and let my brother's memory be filthied by the likes of her." Edgar spat. "He'd hate her being her, with that.. thatÖ"

Dar simply stood up. "Let's cut to the facts." She stated, very calmly. "Kerry's father's in there dying. Kerry wants to be here." She let the sink in. "Iím not leaving her here to face that alone, so unless you think you can physically remove either one of us, why don't you just shut up, and use your energy for something other than moving the hot air around."

"You.."

"Heathen? Dyke? Sinner?" Dar refused to either lose her temper or an acidic humor. "Save it. I've heard it all, and Iím not the one here making everyone sick to their stomachs." She stared Edgar down.

He got up, and left, and Albert followed him.

Kerry lifted her head and gazed at Dar, then she slowly straightened up and slumped back into the chair, with a sigh, as Dar resumed her seat. "Iím sorry." Kerry told her mother quietly.

"Kerrison, this was God's will, not yours." The older woman said. "We've spent too much time railing against that. It's time we stop, and bow our heads to it, and listen to his word." She folded her hands and gazed at them.

Kerry propped her head up against one hand and rubbed her temples. Her stomach was starting to ache again, and a flash of the torment she'd gone through the night before made her shiver in pure reaction.

"Ker?" Dar leaned close, a concerned tone in her voice. "You all right?"

Kerry glanced to her right, meeting Dar's eyes. "Not really." She murmured. "Got any ibuprofen?"

"Yeah." Dar nodded. "Let me go grab you a drink." She got up and squeezed Kerry's shoulder before she made her way to the door and disappeared.

Kerry exhaled heavily, and closed her eyes, leaving them that way when Angie slid from her seat into the one next to her sister, and pressed her shoulder up against Kerry's.

"Hey, sis."

One green eye appeared. "Hey."

"Iím glad you're here." Angie told her, straightforwardly. "Even though I know you're not."

Kerry managed a faint smile. "Thanks." She glanced towards her mother, who was now whispering to her Aunt Helen. "I'm glad Dar's here, even though I know she's not."

Angie smiled. "Yeah, I bet you are." She sighed. "I've missed talking to you." She patted Kerry's shoulder. "I've just been so busy with Andrew." She lowered her voice. "Brian's coming over later, with Mike. That'll tip the scales."

"Mmm." Kerry let her eyes close against the throbbing. "I'll be glad to see them." She peeked passed her sister's shoulder cautiously. "Bet you will too, huh?"

Angie sighed. "I was seriously considering spilling my little secret the other day before this happened." She confided. "I figured, what the hell, right?"

Kerry leaned her head against her sister's. "What a family of rebels we turned out to be." She remarked wryly, then her momentary humor faded. "What are we going to do, Angie?" She asked. "How can we ask mom to make that choice?"

Angie's eyes went to their mother's face, then flicked back. "I don't know." She whispered. "I just don't know."

*****************************

Dar found the cafeteria and lost Kerry's relatives with equal success. She'd spotted Al and Edgar near a bank of pay phones, busy and speaking in low, angry tones. Avoiding them meant dodging into the stair well, but that was okay too, since it was much, much cooler in there, and she appreciated the chill as she made her way downstairs.

She was worried about Kerry, though, and as she exited the stairs and spotted the cafeteria, she set her mind to figuring out a way to get her lover through what was turning into Hell's own sideshow.

Dar studied the contents of the cooler case, then smiled and reached in to retrieve two cartons of chocolate milk. She knew the sweet beverage would serve two purposes - give Kerry something to wash the aspirin down with, and provide an almost food like substance to keep her metabolism on an even keel. With the emotional overload her lover was currently experiencing, Dar didn't want to take any chances.

She paid for the milk, a banana, and two cookies, then opted for the stairs to gain access back to the CCU floor. Halfway up, her cell phone rang.

"Shit." Dar stopped on the stairs and tucked the banana under an arm, before she dug out her phone and opened it. "Hello?"

"Dar." Alastair's voice was very serious. "I have a real problem."

Dar glanced up at the stairwell ceiling, dully lit with bland incandescence. "Yeah?"

"They've called me to the Pentagon." Her boss stated. "It's no joke, Dar. Easton wants that data, and he wants it today, or we're looking at sanctions."

Dar leaned against the railing. "Is he nuts?"

"He's a very angry man. You need to come here, and talk to him." Alastair stated. "I had Bea book you a flight."

"Alastair.."

"No excuses, Dar." Alastair interrupted. "I need you here, I need you now. This is critical."

Dar blinked at the wall opposite her, tracing the bricks it was made of with her eyes as her mind worked. "I can't." She finally said. "Iím not in Miami."

"What do you mean yoÖ not in Miami? Where are you?" Alastair demanded. "You didn't say you were going out of town."

"Iím in Michigan." Dar told him.

"What? What problem do we have there?"

Dar felt the press of the cold metal against her back. "We don't." She exhaled slowly. "It's personal."

There was a momentary silence. "Dar, what in the hell's going on?" Her boss snapped. "Have you lost your mind? I told you I need you here or there'll be hell to pay!"

"I can't." Dar repeated.

"The hell you can't!" Alastair spluttered. "What the hell's going on that you can't get on a damn plane?"

A pause. "Kerry's father's dying." Dar told him flatly. "I'm not leaving her here to face that alone." The funny thing was, she realized much, much later, it had actually been one of the easier decisions she'd ever had to make. "He's going to have to wait."

Alastair seemed to be at a loss. "I can't tell him that." He finally said. "Jesus, DarÖ"

"The answer's no, Alastair." Dar said.

Her boss sighed. "Dar." The phone crackled, as he apparently shifted position. "Now, you listen to me, all right?" He didn't wait for an answer. "You've scared the crap out of this man, and he's ready to do something stupid. He's going to do that stupid thing if you aren't here to talk about it, and a lot of people could get hurt."

Dar felt unusually calm. "I know." She replied. "But I'm not leaving here."

"Dar." Now Alastair sounded a touch desperate. "He's not going to let me postpone this. He needs an answer, and he needs it this afternoon. Either you deal with him, orÖ " He left the thought unfinished.

Dar could hear her own heartbeat, and she closed her eyes. "All right." She paused, then surrendered. "'I'll deal."

The shock was evident in Alastair's voice. "You will?"

She drew in a long, long breath. "I'll give him what he wants."

*********************************

Kerry looked up as she felt a light touch on her wrist. Her mother leaned closer and spoke softly.

"We'll wait for your brother to get here." She paused, as though debating whether or not to continue. "I want you all together."

Kerry nodded in understanding. "Okay."

"In a way.. " Cynthia went on softly. "It's easier to come back today, and think of these things. The shock, you know. It's over." She drew in a breath, and released it. "But it was very difficult, last night."

"I'm sorry I wasn't there." Kerry murmured.

"Angela said you were sick?"

Kerry glanced up at her. "I got a migraine." She watched her mother wince slightly, knowing she was prone to the debilitating headaches herself. "It wasÖ " Her voice faltered. "Anyway, I'm sorry I didn't come to the house, to be with all of you."

"Kerrison." Her mother put a hand on her arm. "This anger between us must cease." She stated firmly. "It has done far too much damage to us all, and I will not have it any longer."

What answer could she have to that? Kerry wondered. That it hadn't been her anger to begin with? Or that it had, but they'd caused it? This was no time to start that up, she reminded herself. "All right."

Her mother was about to continue, when a stir at the door made them both look up. Dar entered, her tall body filling the doorway with it's vibrant presence Her pale eyes flicked around the room, then settled on Kerry's face, a faint smile twitching at her lips as their gazes met.

Kerry smiled back, and heard her mother sigh. Angie moved over as Dar neared, and the dark haired woman dropped into the seat next to her, offering up a brown and white carton and a banana.

"Thanks." Kerry accepted both, sticking the banana between her knees as she opened her milk and took a sip. It was thick and sweet, and she let a few mouthfuls go down before she took the tablets Dar handed her and swallowed them.

Dar leaned back in her seat and draped an arm over Kerry's shoulders, letting her other arm rest against her stomach. She could tell she walked in on some kind of discussion, the furtive glances and general air of discomfort was boringly familiar to her, usually duplicated whenever she entered the restroom at the office when it was already occupied.

Though, that hadn't happened that much lately, Dar admitted privately. Apparently settling down and gaining a steady partner had removed her from most of the racier personal gossip, and everyone still seemed a little embarrassed over the last false rumor about Kerry and Andrew. She didn't think she'd be getting any invitations to Tupperware parties any time soon, though.

That is, if Alastair forgave her for this one. Dar reflected quietly. For putting her personal life before the company's well being, for the first time. He'd been very angry, and Dar knew that even through the slightly raspy connection and the distance between them. Angry, and disappointed, and more than a little frustrated at her refusal to do what he wanted.

Well, she was here. Dar firmly put work, and the conversation with Alastair out of her mind as something she could no longer do anything about, and concentrated on the situation at hand. She shifted her hand a little, and gently rubbed the back of Kerry's neck, which had a knot the size of a plum in it.

"Mmm." Kerry murmured appreciatively, rocking her head forward to loosen the muscles Dar was working on. The warmth of her touch was almost as effective as the strong massage, and she found the tension easing out of her body after a few minutes. It was a very odd sensation, because part of her knew that doing what she was doing, where she was doing it, was making everyone else uncomfortable.

Was it selfish? Kerry lifted her head and stretched, then eased back and felt Dar's long arm curl back around her shoulders. Her mother was staring off into the distance, and her aunts were pointedly looking elsewhere. Only Angie seemed unaffected, and as her eyes met her sister's, Angie gave her a tiny, rueful shake of her head, and the barest of winks.

Yes, Kerry decided. It was selfish of her. Everyone was hurting. She was making it worse. She'd always been taught to deny herself for the comfort of others, and this was a prime example of the opportunity to do just that.

Right. Now she just had to clue in her other half. Kerry glanced at Dar, who was gazing down at the chocolate milk in her other hand. Her lover's profile was tense, and she could see the shift of the muscles along Dar's jawline as she clenched and relaxed them.

Dar was as uncomfortable as her family was, being her in a place where almost everyone hated her, and involved in a highly emotional situation she had little experience and less skill in dealing with.

Hm. Her lifelong flowchart, Kerry realized, had gained a branch. Sacrificing her own comfort for others was fine - unless it hurt Dar. The solicitous attention was Dar's way of dealing with the situation, focusing her concentration on something she could do something about and gaining some measure of balance from that.

Push Dar away, and it would please her family. Kerry swallowed, as Dar looked up suddenly, and their eyes met. She saw the tiny furrow form over the bridge of Dar's nose and in pure reflex, reached out and smoothed it away.

Dar relaxed, and sat back, holding up her milk with a wry grin. "Open this for me?"

"Sure." Kerry glanced casually around as she pulled the carton's top open, then handed it back. Then she peeled her banana and took a bite, chewing it thoughtfully.

**************************

Michael and Brian arrived just after noon. Kerry had been standing near the window in the waiting room, and she turned as she heard the footsteps, meeting her brother's eyes as he entered followed by her old friend.

Mike crossed over as he spotted her, and she pulled him into a hug, giving Brian a pensive smile over her brotherís shoulder. "Hey, Mikey."

"Hey." Michael sighed, releasing her. "Sucky day."

"Yeah." Kerry agreed. "Big time." She gave him a final squeeze, then ducked past him and found herself being hugged by Brian, as Michael walked over to join Angie and her mother on the other side of the room. "Hey, Bri." She greeted her onetime boyfriend.

"Hi, Kerry." Brian replied shyly. "Sorry about all this."

"Me too."

They parted. Kerry tipped her head back and they regarded each other for a moment. If things had been different, she realized, theyíd have been married by now. She tried to imagine that, and found she really just couldnít Ė it was too remote from who she was now and though she felt an echo of warm affection when she looked at Brian, she knew sheíd never loved him enough to spend her life with him.

She wondered briefly if he felt the same way. "How are you?" She took his hands and clasped them in her own. "Angie said you got promoted?"

A brief smile flickered over his face. "They made me a junior partner, yeah." Brian agreed. "Not too bad for less than a year, but nothing like your careerís been."

"Mm." Kerry smiled back. "Thanks for coming down here. I know itís a zoo downstairs." She exhaled, glancing behind him to see her uncles reenter the room. "Not that itís been much better here, though."

"Yeah, Mike was telling me." Brian rubbed her hands gently. "Itís good to see you, though. You look great." His eyes twinkled slightly. "Iíll have to come down to Miami sometime to see where you get that tan from."

"Anytime." Kerry told him. "Plenty of sun to go around, I promise you."

"Kerrison."

Kerry glanced over at where her mother was now standing, with Angie and Mike next to her.

It was time. Kerry gave Brianís hands one last squeeze, then released them and straightened her shoulders before she started towards her family. Her eyes flicked to the far corner of the room, where Dar was leaning against the window, gazing out at the snow.

After a brief instant, Dar turned and met her gaze, her lips tensing in sympathy. Kerry returned the look, then continued over to where her mother was standing. "Iím here."

"Let us go into that area there." Cynthia pointed to a small office. "We must talk."

They filed into the room, and closed the door behind them, leaving the rest of the assembled family and friends in a somber, chilly silence.

*************************

It was gray outside. Dar could feel the chill through the thick glass of the window she was standing near, and she watched in idle bemusement as snow began to fall more heavily onto the parking lot below.

The weather seemed appropriate to the situation, though. Dar glanced down, to see the television news trucks gathered near the back entrance to the hospital, their lights glowing dimly in the winter gloom. It also met the atmosphere inside the room, she acknowledged wryly, glancing up to catch the reflection of what was behind her in the window.

Center of attention. Dar resisted the urge to straighten up. She could see Kerry's aunts and uncles glaring at her back, and the half furtive, half curious looks she was getting from the tall, blond Brian. HerÖ rival? Dar almost smiled. Kerry had called Brian a good friend, but she hadn't gotten a chance to talk to the man at their last meeting, a brief few minutes at Angie's bedside after the birth of her infant son.

Brian's son as well, in fact. Dar wondered if Angela had ever told anyone else about that. Even having only exchanged a nod with the man, Dar thought he'd be a better match for Angie than her husband Richard. She glanced at her own reflection, seeing the pale light glint off her eyes. Would that change now?

Dar felt bad about the whole reason they were here for Kerry's sake. She was honest enough with herself, however, to admit she wasn't sorry to see the end of Senator Stuart. The man was a bastard who'd made his kids miserable most of their lives, in Dar's view, and while she wasn't glad, exactly, that he'd been stricken the way he had been, she also didn't feel any reason to pity him either.

Dar sighed, and watched the snow covering the cars. She was surprised at just how depressing it appeared.

"Excuse me."

Dar's eyes jerked up at the sound, and she turned, to find Brian standing right behind her. He met her surprised gaze warily, then pursed his lips, and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Yeah?" Dar answered quietly.

"I.. um." Brian peered at her from under sandy eyebrows. "We didn't get a chance really to meet last time." He stuck a hand out. "Iím Brian Evans."

"I know." Dar allowed a half smile to appear, as she took his hand and gripped it firmly. "Dar Roberts."

"Yeah, I know." Brian replied, returning his hand to his pocket. "Well, I just wanted to say hello." He seemed at a loss for further conversation.

Dar leaned back against the glass and crossed one ankle over the other. He was fairly good looking, she decided, with an angular face and a gentle demeanor that reminded her just a little of Kerry's. "Iím glad you came." She drawled.

He peered at her uncertainly. "You are?"

Dar nodded. "Kerry needs all the friends she can get." She glanced pointedly around him at the rest of her lover's family, who were glaring at her with venomous intent.

"Ah." Brian followed her eyes, then exhaled. "YeahÖ it's been tough, or so Angie told me." He stated. "I guess it's more important for some people to nurture their hatred."

"Yeah." Dar exhaled. "More I see of it, the more I appreciate my parents." She shook her head a tiny bit. "What a waste of energy."

Brian gave her a wry smile. Then a motion at the door caught his eye, and he turned. "Ah."

Dar looked over his shoulder. In the doorway, a tall, very distinguished man was standing, with steel gray hair and a clean- face. She glanced at Brian. "Someone you know?"

The young man exhaled. "Charles Durham." He kept his voice low, as the rest of the occupants of the room went to greet the newcomer. "He's been a friend of the family for many years."

"Lawyer?" Dar hazarded a guess.

"Worse." Brian hesitated, then apparently made his decision, moving closer to Dar and folding his arms. "Their very, very conservative pastor."

"Oh." Dar sighed, wishing she, and Kerry, and the unexpectedly nice Brian were three hundred miles away. "Great."

**************************************

The inner door opened and the family filed out. As Dar watched in concern, Kerry straightened her shoulders with an obvious effort, then turned to meet her eyes. The look in them was quiet, but resigned as Kerry held out a hand in obvious invitation.

"Excuse me." Dar murmured, as she left her spot by the window and crossed the tile floor to Kerry's side, taking her hand and clasping it. They waited for the rest of the family to join them, everyone blessedly silent for a change, before they continued on.

The pastor joined Cynthia, and they spoke quietly, heads bent together.

The hallway was quiet, save the scuffs and squeaks of their shoes as they walked down the hallway towards the critical care unit. As they entered, a nurse looked up and pressed her lips together in sympathy before she moved to intercept them.

"We've just taken off the machines. You can stay as long as you want to." She told them with professional gentleness, waiting for them to move past her before she pulled the privacy curtain around them, and left.

Kerry was surprised at how quiet it was. They'd turned off all the alarms, and all the pumps - machines stood mutely dark in the corner save one single monitor that showed an already irregular heartbeat.

She found herself focusing on the still figure in the bed, watching the hesitant breaths with a surreal sense of distance. It was almost like this was happening to someone else. In a way, her mother had been right, she realized. Yesterday she'd said her goodbye, an inner part of her knowing there would be no recovery from this. Now, it was just a matter of waiting for the end.

Kerry felt a warm touch on her back, and she looked up at Dar, then glanced around the room. Everyone was solemn, leaving their differences outside for a brief time while they gave death it's due dignity. Even Dar's presence was accepted, however grudgingly.

Pastor Charles held her mother's hand, his head bowed in prayer. Kerry studied his profile pensively, remembering long hours spent in bible study and his uncompromising view of the world and all their places in it.

"Go with God, Roger." The pastor stated softly, as he finished his prayer. "Knowing the lord will watch over your family, and keep them safe until you meet again."

Kerry felt a shiver pass over her, and she grasped the railings of the bed. The reality of the situation suddenly came clear as she watched her father's chest move more slowly.

More erratically.

She glanced up at the slack face, it's half open, glazed eyes staring off into a strange realm none of them could yet see. There was no expression there, no familiarity.

The green line on the monitor rippled, it's bumps jerking and hesitating.

Kerry found it hard to breathe herself, and she focused on the railing between her hands, it's faintly reflective surface showing a flash of blue green from her sweater. Dar's hand settled on her shoulder, feeling warm and incredibly real in all that cold silence and she only just resisted turning and hiding her face in her lover's chest.

No. She forced her eyes up, forced herself to watch that damn green line as it pulsed, the ridges and valleys growing more and more indistinct.

If she turned her head, she wondered if she would sense Death's presence, yet another silent, patient watcher in the room. It was a creepy feeling, and suddenly Kerry felt afraid. As if sensing that, Dar moved closer, her body a wall of solid warmth behind Kerry, so close she could almost hear the taller woman's heartbeat.

Kerry drew in a breath and released it, steadying her nerves. Then she firmly fixed her eyes on her father, only blinking a few times when the chest jerked, moved, then finally, gently, fell for the last time. It was accompanied by a soft, almost inaudible gasp.

The green line rippled, and went still.

There was no alarm, no rush of nurses, just a very eerie silence as everyone in the room seemed to hold their breaths.

And then, it was over. Cynthia drew in a shuddering breath, and started to cry.

*************************

"Ms. Stuart?"

Kerry looked up at the speech, surprised to find the doctor standing next to her. She was outside the CCU waiting room, taking a moment to settle herself before she went back inside. "Yes?"

"Iím very sorry." Dr. Bridges put a hand on her shoulder comfortingly. "If it's any comfort to you at all, he had no awareness of what was going on."

Kerry studied his face. "I know. Thank you." She replied. "Iím glad. He'd have hated being like that."

The doctor nodded. "So you mother said." He paused. "Do you have.. ah..plans yet, as to.."

Dar returned from her walk down to the water fountain at that moment, and joined them. She glanced questioningly at the doctor, then at Kerry, who reached a hand out for her in reflex.

"There's something being planned, yes." Kerry said. "The family counsel is arranging things, and taking care of the press."

"Good." Dr. Bridges exhaled. "Well, you take care, Ms. Stuart. Iím sorry I couldn't have done more."

"Thank you." Kerry replied, watching him walk away. She turned and looked at Dar, feeling suddenly exhausted. "Ugh."

Dar put an arm around her and pulled her into hug. "C'mere."

Kerry went willingly, and abandoned herself into a dark, warm haven that smelled of wool and Dar, and blocked out the reality of the coldly lit hospital corridor they were standing in. She suspected she was still in shock, because it hadn't even occurred to her to cry, or feel sad, a mixture of regret and relief filling her instead. "You know something?"

"Mm?" Dar murmured very close to her ear.

"Now the hard part starts."

Dar sighed. "Yeah." She glanced into the waiting room, where she could see the pastor with his arm around a distraught Mrs. Stuart, next to Angie and Michael. Dealing with all the family now that the immediate crisis was over was shaping up to be a tough ride. "Sorry."

Kerry exhaled, warming Dar's skin right through her pullover. "Thank god you're here." She whispered. "But Iím sorry Iím putting you through this."

Dar rested her cheek against Kerry's hair. "Iím not sorry at all." She answered. "So donít' you be either, Kerrison."

Kerry tipped her head back and gazed up at Dar. "Do you know, you're the only person who has ever said that name in a way that makes me want to hear it more often?"

A tiny smirk appeared, as Dar inclined her head gracefully. "You do the same to me with mine." She admitted. "But don't tell anyone, all right? It'll wreck a lifetime of conditioning people not to use it."

"No problem, Paladar." Kerry found reason to smile, which felt strange after the past two days. "We're going to have to go back to my parent's house, you realize."

Dar nodded. "I know."

Kerry sighed, and put her head back down on Dar's shoulder. "I don't even know what to feel, Dar." She said. "Should I be crying?"

Dar was silent for a moment. "When they came and told us that dad had died." Her voice was soft, and reflective. "I didn't cry at all."

Kerry's brows contracted. "Really?"

"No." Her lover replied. "Not for days. Then, I was at work, and I was at my desk, andÖ ' A flash of that memory surfaced, twisting her guts. "It just hit me." She paused. "That I was never going to see him again, and I lost it."

"Mm."

Even now, Dar felt the tears all over again. "I went into the Xerox room and locked the door, and went to pieces for hours."

Kerry thought about that. "Knowing how you feel about him, Iím not surprised." She stated sadly. "I don't think that's going to happen to me, though."

Dar hugged her. "Maybe not." She conceded. "But give yourself a little time, okay?"

"Okay." Kerry closed her eyes, and wished it was over. "Dar?"

"Let me guess." Dar scratched the back of Kerry's neck gently, and got a contented murmur. "You love me, right?"

"No." Kerry said. "I love that you love me." She gave Dar a big hug, then slipped an arm around her waist. "Let's go get this started."

***************************************

Continued in Part 11