Tropical High

Part 11

"Wait, Ms. Stuart! Can we get a statement!"

"Hold, on – look, that’s the brother, there. Go on!"

"Ms. Stuart!! Look this way!"

Kerry just kept her head down and kept walking, almost slipping as her boots came off the swept sidewalk and onto the snow covered parking lot. "Jesus." She kept her hands in her pockets, aware of her uncles herding everyone along, and her mother huddled between her and Michael. "Fucking ghouls."

Cynthia Stuart’s head jerked up. "Kerrison!" She whispered, shocked.

‘Well, they are." Kerry replied, as they dodged between two parked television news trucks and escaped the glare of spotlights. Behind them, she could hear a spokesman yelling almost vainly for attention, and she was glad when the noise faded back, leaving them to the labored sound of their own breathing and the crunch of snow underfoot.

The family limo and it’s driver were waiting for them, and doors opened quickly, allowing a gust of leather and wax tinged warm air out. Kerry helped her mother inside, then stepped back. "We’ll follow you."

"Kerry, there’s room." Angie protested. "Come on."

"You go." Kerry gave her a gentle shove, taking a backwards stride almost into Dar’s arms. "We’ll be right behind you, I promise." She closed the door behind her sister, then turned and let out a huge sigh, when she saw two reporters running their way, one with a camera balanced on his shoulder. "Oh… pud."

Dar turned, saw them coming, and made one of the instantaneous decisions that marked her long career. She stooped and grabbed a double handful of snow, then wadded it and let it go sidearm, nailing the man with the camera right in the face. He stumbled and slid, falling sidways on the ice and knocking his companion right over.

"Let’s go." Dar grabbed Kerry’s arm and plowed determinedly towards the rental car. "I’ll drive."

"Oh no." Kerry wrestled for the keys as they half walked, half slid together. "Now, c’mon Dar."

"Let me." Dar directed her. "For crying out loud, Kerry. I have an engineering degree. I can figure out how to drive on snow." She keyed the door lock and pulled the passenger side door open with a stern glare. "In."

Kerry was about to argue, but then she spotted more reporters heading her way, and decided she could always wrest control of the car from her lover after they got clear of the parking lot. She slid inside and closed the door, leaning over to open the opposite one. Dar dropped in next to her and slammed the door, sending a tiny puff of snow cascading down the front windshield.

The car started, after a cranky turn of the ignition, and Dar turned the lights on to combat the fast gathering twilight. Then she paused, looking uncertainly at the frosted windows. "What the hell are you supposed to do with that?" She pointed.

An exhausted Kerry stared at the window. "With what?"

"That." Dar pointed at the ice. "Wipers wont' take that off."

Kerry stared at her. "You use the defroster, Dar." She leaned over and turned the device on. "What on earth did you think it was there for?"

Dar frowned. "Clearing the humidity out when it rains." She peered through the clearing glass, glad to see the reporters were now chasing the limo as it made it's stately way out of the drive. It was cold out, and she was shivering, unused to the damp chill which ate through her sweater and made her already aching shoulder throb. Add that to the fact that she'd left her medication at the hotel room, and that they'd missed lunch, and it made for a truckload of misery.

And now they were headed for more of it. Dar put the car cautiously in drive, and pulled out of the parking space, following the tail light s of the limo. She tested the brakes, and felt the lack of control in the car, her muscles compensating for that automatically. All right. Dar decided. I can do this.

She didn't see Kerry half turned sideways in her seat, watching her with gentle, tired eyes, the faintest of smiles on her face.

"They going to want you to stay overnight?" Dar asked.

"Probably." Kerry admitted.

"We don't have a change of clothes."

"We can sleep naked." Came the reasonable answer. "We usually do."

Dar fought the desire to turn her head and stare at her lover. "Not in your family's house, we don't." She said.

"Mm." Kerry exhaled. "That's true." She blinked slowly. "I have clothes left there, but I bet none of them fit." The thought seemed to please her. "Maybe some old sweatshirts, if they didn't get tossed. But definitely nothing that'd fit you." She watched the progress along the street, and grudgingly admitted that Dar was doing pretty well with the ice. "Maybe we should detour past the hotel."

"Just what I was thinking." Dar agreed. She pulled carefully to a halt at a red light, as the limo went on before them. "You doing okay?" She glanced at her lover, whose drawn face was painfully evident to Dar even in the low light. Before Kerry could answer, Dar's cell phone rang, startling both of them.

"That's been quiet." Kerry murmured.

Dar took it out and opened it. "Yeah?"

"Dar." Alastair's voice sounded much, much calmer than it had earlier. That served to make Dar's stomach tie up in knots, and she wondered if she were on the verge of being fired.

Then she decided she really didn't care. "Evening, Alastair." She said, putting the car into motion as the light turned green. "Right up ahead?" She asked Kerry, who nodded. "What's up?" That was directed back at the phone.

"Just saw the news." Alastair said. "Tell Kerry I'm sorry, that's a tough thing."

Dar exhaled. "I will."

There was a slight pause. "Easton took the deal." Her boss told her next. "Didn't think he would, but he did."

"Good." Dar felt a sense of relief. "Thanks for telling me."

"Anytime, Dar." Now, at last, Alastair's voice gentled. "Take care, y'hear? Both of you."

"I will." Dar replied. "Talk to you tomorrow." She hung up and folded the phone, tucking it back into its cradle. "Alastair sends his condolences, and wants you to take it easy."

Kerry watched her closely. She'd lived with Dar for over a year now, and she'd learned through trial and error to be able to read almost every twitch of that very, very expressive face. "And?"

A glint of streetlamp off blue eyes as Dar glanced at her. "And?"

Kerry saw Dar's hands flex, and resettle on the steering wheel. "And, what else is going on?" She asked, waiting through the obvious hesitation. "C'mon, Dar. You can bluff an entire roomful of stock analysts, but not me. What's up?"

Dar inhaled, then squared her shoulders. "Things went south with the Navy." She stated, pulling into the hotel's parking lot. "Easton called Alastair on the carpet and demanded he produce the information we found and turn it over, or face sanctions."

"What happened?" Kerry sat up straighter, perversely glad to have something else to focus her mind on. "How'd he get out of it?"

Dar stopped the car in a parking spot, and rested her hands on the wheel, as she gazed thoughtfully out the window. "I agreed to a deal." She answered, turning to look at Kerry. "To turn over the data and not press forward with it."

Kerry blinked at her with a look of utter shock.

"He had a deadline. I had to be there. I wasn't going to be." Dar shrugged. "So that's what's going on." She shut the car off and opened the door. "Come on. I need to change into something warmer." She got out into the still falling snow and closed the door, then trudged around the back of the car and peered in the passenger side window.

Kerry was still sitting there, with a stunned look on her face. It almost made Dar smile. She opened Kerry's door and gave her an inquiring look. "Coming?"

Kerry finally moved, turning and reaching for the doorframe to pull herself up. "Dar…"

"No." Dar stopped her, touching two fingers to Kerry's lips. "There was no option, I don’t regret it, there was no choice to be made. Got it?" She stared seriously at her lover. "Being here for you was that important for me.

 The snow drifted slowly, flakes settling on Kerry's upturned face. "Was Alastair mad?"

"Livid." Dar pulled her the rest of the way out of the car and closed the door. "But he understands." She wrapped an arm around Kerry as they started towards the hotel. "He knows me."

Kerry thought about that as they walked. "Does he?" The shock of Dar's revelation was still ringing inside her, evoking an alternating mixture of dismay and awe.

A smile crossed Dar's face. "Yes, he does."


They had a surprise waiting in the hotel room. Dar entered first and switched the light on, then stopped in mid stride causing Kerry to crash into her back. "Whoa."

"Wh.. Dar, why did..oh." Kerry looked out from behind her lover's back to see the table in the room covered in baskets. "Good grief."

"Yeah." Dar walked over and examined the items. There were four in all, two sedate ones that had subdued flowers in them, one stocked with a variety of chocolates, and one with other snacks such as crackers and cheese. "Someone worried there weren't any restaurants all the way up here?" She picked up the cards and read them. "Ah."

Kerry peeked. The flowers were from Maria and Mariana, the snacks were from Colleen, and the chocolate… "Your folks certainly know you."

"Me?" Dar glanced at her wryly. "Oh, does that mean you don't want any?"

Kerry's nostrils twitched, as Dar unwrapped the chocolate basket, releasing a sweet, delicious scent into the air. "I didn't say that." She plucked at the snack basket. "But I’m going to have some crackers and cheese too, or I"ll be bouncing all over the place."

"Good." Dar took a truffle out and popped it into her mouth. "I'm going to put on my damn thermal underwear while you do that."

Kerry picked up the bottle of pills and handed it over. "And take this, right?"

"Mm." Dar accepted the container, but put it down for a moment as she pulled her sweater off over her head. Or tried to, at any rate, when she unthinkingly used her bad arm to do it with. "Shit. "She paused in mid motion, with a hiss.

"Hey!" Kerry dropped her crackers and jumped to her side, easing the fabric off over Dar's head and lowering her arm carefully. "Oh… damn, Dar!" She was shocked at the newly spread bruising that covered her lover's shoulder joint, and spread across the front of her chest. "Sit down."

"Why? Is that supposed to take strain off my arm?" Dar joked faintly, but did as she was told, sitting quietly as Kerry examined her. "Just a bruise, Ker."

"It wasn't like that when we left Florida yesterday." Kerry accused. "You did this last night."

"Yeah. So?" Dar shrugged.

Kerry studied her seriously, then she unclipped her cell phone and opened it, dialing a number, then listening until it was answered. "Hey, Ang."

"Kerry.. where did you disappear to? You were behind us, then you vanished." Her sister asked. "I thought you got lost."

"In my own hometown? Not likely." Kerry replied. "We stopped by the hotel for Dar's medication."

The phone juggled. "Hang on." There was a moment of silence, then Angie's voice came back, clearer, and with less noise in the background. "Maybe it's for the best. This place is a circus, Ker. The press is here, and all of dad's staff, and it's a madhouse."

"Ugh." Kerry murmured.

"And.. " Angie hesitated. "With everything that's going on, I think the general feeling is it might be better if you didn't come over here." She seemed almost embarrassed. "They don’t' want any controversy, with all the press here."

Kerry felt a burn of anger. "You mean, it'd be okay if I came, but not if I brought Dar with me." She stated flatly.

"Something like that, yeah." Angie sighed. "That's not from mom, but there's so many.."

"Fuck them." Kerry enunciated the words carefully.

Angie was prudently silent.

"But, you know what? I'm glad." Kerry went on. "Because I was just calling to tell you we weren't coming over anyway. Dar hurt her arm again last night, and I’m going to spend the evening relaxing, eating very good chocolate, and taking care of her."

Angie still remained silent. Dar's eyebrows crawled up into her hairline and lodged there

"So, if the press asks.. you can tell them that." Kerry smiled mirthlessly.

Finally, Angie answered. "Lucky stiff." She muttered. "Mom wants you to come by in the morning, is that okay?"

"I'll think about it." Kerry answered. "Bye." She closed the phone with a snap. "Son of a bitches."

Dar circled the back of her thigh with one hand and squeezed gently. "Easy." She could see the anger flaring along the lines of Kerry's body. "Everyone's under a lot of pressure."

"Bullshit." Kerry snapped back. "Most of those people couldn't give a damn about my father. They're just polishing up the old image, so their memoirs will…" She paused, visibly upset. "Can't have the family disgrace messing that up, can we?"

Dar pulled her a little closer, and nuzzled her side in wordless comfort. Kerry leaned forward and laced her fingers through Dar's hair, then touched her head to Dar's and exhaled. "Bastards." She whispered.

"Uh huh." Dar nodded.

They stayed like that for a few minutes, rocking gently back and forth, then Kerry released a held breath and straightened up a little. "On the other hand." She pushed Dar's hair out of her eyes. "I’m tired, I’m hungry, and spending the night alone with you is sounding more superfantastic by the second."

Dar issued her a rakish smile. "I was hoping you'd come around to that conclusion." She drawled. "I kinda liked the idea of being pampered and fed chocolate all night." She took Kerry's hand, and relaxed back onto the pillow, giving her an inviting little tug. "C'mere."

Kerry crawled over her and laid down at her side, never taking her eyes from Dar's. She released Dar's hand, though, and let her own fall lightly to the bare body next to her, stroking the soft skin with light, curious fingers. "This is that silver lining thing, isn't it?"

"Mmhm." Dar agreed, lifting a hand to brush Kerry's cheek, and watching her fair lashes flutter closed at the touch. "Don't let them get to you, Kerry." She advised gently. "When people are hurting, or confused, it's easy for them to lash out at thing they don't understand."

Kerry lowered her head to Dar's shoulder, and snuggled close, wrapping an arm around her stomach. "I know that." She said. "It just makes me so angry that all they think about is themselves." A sigh warmed Dar's skin. "It's so unfair."

"Life is, sometimes." Dar replied. "You just do the best you can with it." She regarded the ceiling thoughtfully. "Like now, for instance. We could be at your family's house."

"Mm." Kerry murmured.

"With half the crowd glaring at us, a third of the rest making veiled, but snarky comments, and the remaining third being sweet and sympathetic."


"Having… " Dar thought a moment. "Pate canapés and white wine?"

Kerry nodded. "Probably."

"So, instead, we're here in this nice hotel room, with a lot of chocolate, a big room service menu, and a heart shaped hot tub."

Kerry found she had to smile at that. "You've got a good point there." She relaxed a little, her fingers tracing absent patters over Dar's belly. "You gave up a lot today, Dar." She said. "Standing by me."

"Nah." Dar replied. "Besides, that's what friends do, isn't it? Stand by each other?"

Kerry hitched herself up on an elbow and gazed seriously at her lover. "I mean, it Dar." Her brow creased. "That meant a lot to me. Don't minimize it."

Dar met her eyes, and a smile appeared, tugging the edges of her lips upward. "It felt good." She admitted, twirling a lock of Kerry's hair between her fingers. "Now, what was that about feeding me chocolate?"

"Did anyone ever tell you that you have a one track mind?" Kerry gave in with a smile. "All right, you beautiful hedonist. Lay still, and I'll get the chocolate and a menu." She leaned over and kissed Dar on the lips, licking them lightly. "Mm.. speaking of chocolate…" She felt Dar's hands ease her sweater up and slide beneath it. Part of her knew her lover was trying to keep her mind off the terrors of the day, but the larger part of her decided it didn't care, and that maybe it wasn't such a bad idea.

She didn't really want to think about the hospital. She didn't really want to think about her family, and the raw hatred that had battered her all morning.

She didn't really want to see the slack, blank look on her father's face, or the monitor flattening to even.

For right now, she decided, she'd focus down hard on the beautiful body poised just under hers, and the touch that was making her guts burn, and the soft, enticing growls chasing the shadows far away.


"How's that?" Kerry adjusted the heating pad so that it covered more of Dar's shoulder, giving it a solicitous pat in the process.

Dar eyed her arm. "Kerry, you know it's.."

"Ah ah ah.!" Kerry put a fingertip over her lover's lips. "Do you have that other medicine with you?" She could see Dar debating on answering. "Don't make me go through your bag, Paladar K. Roberts."

"Heh." Dar chuckled sheepishly. "Yes, in the right pocket." She confessed. "Two bottles.. but.."

Kerry got up and rummaged in the specified pouch, coming up with the plastic containers. "Listen, tiger, I know you hate taking this stuff, but you'd make me feel better if you did."

Dar sighed. "It makes me spaced out." She complained. "Just the pain medication's bad enough, Kerry. I don't need that other stuff."

Kerry returned to perch on the bed, pushing a lock of pale hair back behind one ear. She was dressed in her Tweety Tshirt, but nothing else. "You sound like such a kid when you talk like that."

Dar pouted.

"Aw." Kerry grinned, biting her lower lip a little. "That is just so adorable, I wish I had a digital camera."

The pout disappeared, and an eyebrow lifted. "For what?" Dar asked, warily. "Where would you be putting that picture, Ms. Kerrison?"

"On my desktop." Kerry relaxed onto her side, crossing her ankles and wiggling her feet. "Right next to the little shot I have of you in your swimsuit."

Dar blinked. "In my….swim… oh, you don't really."

"Mmhm. I sure do." Green eyes peered innocently back at her. "The really nice one, that black semi see through number. " A grin. "The picture I took on vacation?"

Dar just stared at her. "That's on your desktop?" Her voice cracked on the last word, and she blushed. "Kerry, that's almost.."

"Oh yes, absolutely." Kerry agreed, enjoying her friend's discomfiture very much. "And let me tell you, looking at that when I come back from some of those afternoon marketing meetings…. Ahhh." She waggled her eyebrows at her lover, who looked mildly alarmed. "Dar, c'mon. You're an incredibly sexy looking woman, and you know it. So stop looking at me like I’m nuts!"

"W.. it's not that!" Dar protested. "I’m just.. it's…" She spluttered to a halt.

Kerry held back a smirk. "Do you have any pictures of me on your PC?" She asked curiously.

It was amazing how quickly a grown woman could manufacture the impression of a small child caught with it's fist in a nice, big cookie jar. "Um." Dar reached up and scratched her ear, tugging on it's lobe a bit. "Yeah."

"Oh yeah? Which ones?" Kerry squirmed a little closer. "The one on the boat?"

"No." Dar drawled. "Not that one."

Kerry considered for a moment. "Oh.. not that one you took when we were parasailing!"

"Nope." Dar studied the ceiling, aware of the ridiculous blush that was coloring her skin. "I don't think you've seen these."

Both of Kerry's eyebrows lifted. "I haven't?" She crawled even closer, until she was almost nose to breast with Dar. "Which pictures are they, then?"

Well, Dar evaluated her tactical situation, which wasn't pretty. At least she'd gotten Kerry's mind off those damn drugs. "Couple I took out at the island last time we were out there." She said. "After we went diving."

"Oh." Kerry frowned, trying to remember the outing. It hadn't been that long ago, after all, and they'd been diving for hours, then… Her mist green eyes opened wide, and she lifted her head to peer at her lover. "Dar, wait a minute."

Baby blues blinked at her with devastating wonder. "Hm?" She watched as it was Kerry's turn to blush, the color suddenly making her fair brows stand out vividly. "I got some gorgeous shots."

A hand covered Kerry's eyes. "You're not telling me you took pictures when I was sunbathing in the buff, are you?"

Dar ran a finger across Kerry's scarlet cheek. "All that beautiful orange sunset and you.. incredible."

"Oh my god." Kerry murmured weakly. "Please don’t tell me you have that on your desktop where Maria can see it."

"Why? She appreciates fine art when she sees it." Dar protested, almost bursting into laughter when Kerry removed her hand and gazed at her in total shock. "Relax." She reassured her lover. "They're not on my desktop." She patted Kerry's cheek gently. "I would never do that to you, honey."

Kerry exhaled, rubbing her face with one hand. "Guess that teaches me to start a teasing war with you, huh?" She gave Dar a rueful look. "Here I thought I was doing so well." She rolled over and got up, trudging over to the table and pouring herself a glass from the pitcher of ice tea. "Whoo."

Dar watched her fondly. The thin, almost threadbare cotton of Kerry's tshirt clung to her body, outlining it and emphasizing her athletic build. "Wanna see the pictures?" She offered.

Kerry almost spit a mouthful of ice tea across the room. "Pft." She managed to swallow. "You have them here?"

"Sure." Dar chuckled softly. "I said I didn't have them on my desktop." She pointed. "They're on the laptop."

Kerry looked at her, then at the computer, then back at her. She firmly turned her back on the machine and returned to the bed, leaping lightly over Dar and curling up at her side. "No thanks, sweetie." She rolled over onto her back and exahaled, letting her body go limp. "What do you want to do after dinner?" She asked idly. "It should be here soon."

Dar reached over and cupped a hand around one of Kerry's neatly outlined breasts. "Have dessert." She responded softly.

Kerry turned her head and met Dar's eyes. "Dar?"

"Mm?" A lazy smile appeared.

"If you're trying to distract me… " Kerry took in an unsteady breath, her body already reacting to the sensual touch. "It's working."

"Good." Dar rolled stiffly over onto her side, and continued her exploration. "My vote is for dinner, dessert, and a nice soak in that tub." She leaned closer "Cause that's gonna make me feel a LOT better than those damn drugs."

One green eye opened and regarded her suspiciously. "Is this a plot?"

Dar eased the thin cotton fabric up. "Oh yeah."

Kerry half sat up and captured Dar's jaw, then she kissed her with quiet passion. "If that room service guy knocks in the next few minutes, you're in so much trouble."

Dar chuckled deep in her throat.


Well. Kerry eyed the snow covered landscape going by. At least she felt a hell of a lot more relaxed than she had the day before. She flexed her hands inside her lined gloves, and tightened her grip on the steering wheel, sparing a glance to her right to where Dar was sitting. "Depressing, isn't it?"

Dar was examining the view out the front and side window. "Um…. " It was mostly flat land, with dead trees, though the occasional evergreen threw a splotch of color into the mix, dripping with heavy white snow. "It's definitely sort of… "She paused. "Bland."

Kerry had to agree. "Yeah. One of the things I noticed first when I moved down to Florida was how damn colorful it was." She pulled off the highway and turned onto the road that would eventually lead to her parent's house. "I forget sometimes how much it's not like that in the north, in winter."

Dar settled back in her seat, folding her arms across her chest. "Must be nice in summer, though." She offered. "And it's kinda pretty, with all that snow and all. Looks like something off a Currier and Ives print."

"I guess." Kerry allowed. "It can be fun around here. I used to have a good time in winter, sledding down hills, and ice skating." She said. "And in summer, on the lake." She noted the new buildings on the low horizon. "They're finally getting Starbucks out here. Good grief."

Dar chuckled. "I don't know, Ker. Doesn't seem like a bad place to grow up."

Kerry gave her a quick glance, then she turned into the opening in the long, brick wall they'd been driving next to. "It's a whole different world." She pulled up next to a gate and opened her window, allowing a cold, wet draft in. The gate guard bent down to look at her, then almost jerked back in surprised.

"Ms. Kerry!" The older man, dressed in a thick winter parka smiled. "Been a long time."

A year. Kerry nodded. "Yes, it has, John. How are you?"

"I’m doing great." He leaned closer. "I’m sorry about your father." His eyes flicked briefly to Dar, then back to Kerry. "Terrible thing."

"Thanks." Kerry gave him a small smile. She watched as he straightened up, and opened the gate, and she drove carefully through and continued up the driveway. At the end of it was a circular drive, and the imposing, classic outline of her family's home.

Kerry felt a tiny shiver pass over her as she remembered the last time she'd driven down this road, the night her father had thrown her into a mental institution. The night she'd revealed her relationship with Dar.

The night Dar had claimed her, flying from Miami and powering her way into the hospital with a ruse so incredible, she still didn't believe her lover had gotten away with it.

That night. When they'd driven back to pick up Kerry's things, and she'd had her one, last, furious confrontation with her father and left the house, crossing the line in no uncertain terms to go back home to her new life, her new job, and her new lover.

Kerry pulled up on one side of the circle, and put the car into park. Fortunately, there were only two others there, she suspected Angie and Michael's, and the press seemed to be completely absent. "Well." She looked over at Dar. "Here we are."

"Let's go then." Dar smiled at her. "Nice to see this place in the daylight this time."

Ah. Kerry got out of the car and shut the door, taking a deep breath of the cold air before she trudged around and joined Dar on the short walk up to the front door to the house. Halfway there, she felt her hand captured, as Dar's long fingers wrapped around hers.

It felt wonderful. Kerry's shoulders lifted, and she almost smiled as she lifted a hand and use the huge, brass doorknocker. She heard footsteps behind the door, then the lock turned, and it opened. Her brows lifted. "Hey."

Angie looked profoundly relieved. "Good grief, get in here before you freeze." She pulled Kerry, and by default since their hands were still linked, Dar - into the house and shut the door behind them. "I’m really glad you decided to come over, sis." Her eyes shifted. "Good morning, Dar."

"Morning." Dar replied.

"Seems quiet here today." Kerry ventured. "Where is everyone?"

"It's just us." Her sister answered. "Mom, Mike, and me. Everyone else is someplace else, and I for one am damn glad for it." She took Kerry's arm. "C'mon, we've just started breakfast."

Dar followed behind the two sisters, taking a moment to look around curiously at the interior of the house. She remembered it somewhat differently than it was now, probably due to the circumstances and the late hour. In the daylight, the house was a large, airy, well designed place with vaulted ceilings and a beautiful curved stairway going up to the second story.

They walked through the lobby and under an archway she vaguely remembered, then turned and entered a small dining room with a vaulted sky light the let in the wan winter sun. Seated at the table were Kerry's mother and brother, and both of them looked up as they entered.

Dar watched them carefully for a reaction, pleased when she saw welcome and relief. She'd figured that might be the case, but with Kerry's family, you never knew, and she had no intention of standing by if it were otherwise. She was rested, her arm was much better, they'd had a great night together last night, and she was feeling pretty fiesty at the moment.

"Ah. Kerrison." Kerry's mother stood and came over to them. "I’m so sorry about yesterday." Michael got up also and came over to hug his sister.

"It's okay." Kerry had decided to be gracious about it, for now. "I needed a break last night anyway." She returned Michael's hug and gave her mother a smile. "How are you?"

"As well as you could imagine." Cynthia replied. "Come sit and have something for breakfast." Her eyes drifted up and met Dar's. "And you as well, Dar."

It was peculiar experience, Dar mused. She followed them back to the table and sat down on a chair she recognized as antique, at a table covered in fine linen, china, and silver service. For breakfast. Dar shook her head a little, turning when she sensed a presence at her elbow.

A young woman stood there, with a tray. "May I put this down, ma'am?"

Dar nodded, and was presented with a plate of gently steaming eggs and fresh fruit, then the woman moved to put an identical plate in front of Kerry. Dar noticed that Kerry, though giving the woman a quiet thanks, otherwise treated this as a completely natural thing, and it struck her suddenly how different this was from their normal lives.

Breakfast at home, such as it was, generally consisted of a glass of something, milk for her, juice for Kerry, and something that would give them energy for running. Usually eaten standing in their kitchen, while the sky outside turned from inky black to the pearly pink of dawn in the window.

Hm. Dar had known Kerry's family was well off. She'd known, at an intellectual level that her lover had been brought up with a proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, and little things like her impeccable manners sometimes reminded her of that.

But it was strange to actually see her fitting in here. She listened to the talk, slightly strained and very general, everyone staying away from any controversy, and wondered if that was normal, or just put in place because of the uncomfortable things between them all.

"Excuse me, Dar?"

Dar looked up, shaken out of her musings, and met Cynthia Stuarts' eyes. "Yes?"

"Kerrison told Angela you weren't well last night? "

Huh? I was g… "Oh." Dar cleared her throat slightly. "It's not really anything. I managed to do a little damage to my shoulder last week, and it was giving me some trouble." She said. "Maybe the weather." She inhaled in surprise as Kerry poked her under the table, and shot her lover a look. One of Kerry's eyebrows was raised, and a half smile tugged at her lips. "What?"

Cynthia gazed at both of them with a little, puzzled look. "Well, I certainly hope you feel better today, after resting."

"Resting?" Dar inquired, with a slight drawl, seeing Kerry's eyes widen out of the corner of her own. "Oh.. right." She replied politely. "I feel much better today, thanks."

There was an awkward little silence, which Dar used to ingest a forkful of eggs in peace.

"So, what are you working on now, Ker?" Michael asked, changing the subject neatly.

"Well." Kerry took a sip of juice. "I just finished reorganizing one of our operational divisions, and we added on two brand new support groups in the Western US." She said. "My life's been a lot nicer since Dar put our new network online."

"Everyone's has." Dar agreed wryly. "Even mine."

"How does it help?" Angie inquired. "I remember reading in the paper about your company doing something that revolutionized something or other, and it was very fast."

Kerry took a biscuit, and sliced it open, neatly adding a pat of butter to it. It gave her a moment to try and come up with a way to explain what she did to her family. How do you describe high speed, high bandwidth WAN networking to someone who never even turned on a computer? "Well…"

"A network is like a highway." Dar stated. "If you have a few cars on it, everyone goes fast. Add more cars, everyone starts to go slower. Find a spot in the road where it narrows, and everyone bottlenecks and comes to a standstill."

"All right." Cynthia nodded. "That seems clear."

"We had mostly two and three lane highways. I made them forty lanes across." Dar said. "And took out the speed limit."

"And made everyone buy Ferraris." Kerry murmured.

"Ah!" Kerry's mother looked pleased. "Yes, that's very clear. I understand."

"Yeah, so do I." Michael added. "Outrageous. Can you explain what a chip is next?"

Dar looked him right in the eye. "You sure you can handle it?" She inquired, in a low drawl. "It involves a lot of silicon."

Michael gazed uncertainly at her, not sure if she were joking or not. "Does that hurt?" He hazarded a guess.

"Only if you get some up your wazoo." Kerry replied dryly. "So, what have you been up to, Mike?" She neatly cut off a square of biscuit and collected some eggs with it on her fork. It was stressful, and uncomfortable, and Kerry realized they were all putting a conspicuous gloss over a lot of things.

But hadn't they always? Why should this be any different than any other time?

"We've made some plans." Cynthia murmured, into a small silence that had fallen. "The service is scheduled for three pm tomorrow." She paused, and took a breath. "I realize it's quite short notice, but the staff seems to feel…"

"Mother." Kerry put her fork down. "Who cares what the staff thinks? Is that what you want to do?"

Her mother shifted uncomfortably. "Well, dear, it's really not…" She stopped. "There's quite good reasons for it, you see…"

"Bullshit." Kerry found herself getting really angry. She stood up. "First they have the balls to tell me to stay away, then they tell you when you should bury daddy? Where are these assholes? I want to talk to them, right now!"

Dar blinked in mild alarm, putting out a hand and laying it carefully on Kerry's back. She could feel the tension vibrating through her lover. "Hey." She murmured. "Easy."

"Kerrison!" Cynthia protested. "Come now, your language! They're doing what they think is best for all of us, surely you understand?"

"No." It became too much all of a sudden. "I don't understand." Kerry shot back. "It's never what's best for us, only what's best for them. Always." She ducked out from behind her chair and just started walking, needing space, and air, an overwhelming fury buzzing around her head like a swarm of bees. She got through the dining room door and kept moving, one hand grabbing the door edge and slamming the portal shut behind her.

The solid crash of wood against wood gave her primal satisfaction.


There was a definite silence after she left. Dar felt all eyes turn to her and she took a breath before she looked back from the now closed door to her lover's family.

"Well." Cynthia Stuart put her napkin down. "I must go speak with her."

Dar stood. "I'll take care of this." She stated with quiet firmness, before putting her own napkin down and following Kerry without waiting for them to respond.

The door closed again behind her. "This is outrageous." Cynthia stated.

"What did you think was going to happen? Angela asked. "I told you she's still really ticked off, mother. Did you really think she'd just waltz back in here and everything would be peaches and cream again?"

"She could make an effort. We are her family." Cynthia replied.

"Maybe it would help if she hadn't been tossed in the looney bin last time she was here." Mike replied bluntly. "That would put me in a bad mood too."

"We've discussed that." His mother looked annoyed. "You know your father was just doing what he considered best for Kerry."

"Bull." Angie slapped her cup down. "I'm so tired of hearing that. He had no interest in what was best for Kerry, and you know it. All he cared about was not letting the press find out he had a gay daughter."

"Angie." Cynthia gave her an exasperated look. "Please."

"It's true!" Now Angela was upset. "I've had to listen to two days of everyone saying what a freaking saint he was, and I’m sick of it." She took a breath. "No one here's grieving, mother, we all know that. He never cared about any of us, just himself."

Her mother sighed. "He was a very forceful man."

"And Kerry was the only one of us who had the guts to stand up to him." Mike said. "Now she's paying big time for that, when all these freaking people should be patting her on the back and saying good job." He sided firmly with his sisters. "I'm going to kick their asses out of the house if they do that again this afternoon."

"Michael!" Cynthia stared at him.

"I don't care!" Mike stood up. "I don’t' give a shit about any of them. Kerry's the person I care about, she's my sister, and I'll be god damned if those two faced lying bastard uncles are going to give her grief!" He stated angrily. "And if I can't do it by myself, I'll get Dar to help me. I bet she could kick their asses sound asleep!" He pushed his plate back, and moved away from the table. "I'm outta here."

"Me too." Angie decided. "And if any of those weasel aides say a word, I’m going to slap them." She followed Michael out the door, leaving her mother in pristine silence.

Cynthia released a breath, and sat back. The door opened, and a tall, slim man entered, with an appointment book and a pen. He took a seat next to her.

"We've got everything scheduled, Mrs. Stuart. Here's the details." He offered her a sheet. "Now, the press will be by later as the more important guests arrive. We need to discuss how you want to present the family." He gave her a little, sympathetic smile. "I know we've got some work to do on that."

Cynthia looked at the paper, then looked at him. She placed a fingertip on the page and moved it back towards him. "I’m afraid you've got it a bit wrong. My family's perfectly capable of presenting itself, and you would do well to remain uninvolved."

He looked a little surprised, but regrouped quickly. "There are certain things…"

"No, there are not." Cynthia stated with calm finality. "If the press wishes to come and make a spectacle of itself, it may do so. My children are free to speak to them, or not, as they please. I will not tolerate any interference with any of them."


"Henderson, have I not made myself clear?"

He tried again. "Mrs. Stuart, you know we're only working to present a united and positive image of your late husband in these trying times…"

"Nonsense." Cynthia cut him off. "Please let us stop using euphemisms. You are anxious about the press asking after Kerrison, is that right?"

He hesitated briefly. "The more sensational papers, yes." He admitted. "It really doesn’t add to the image we're trying to build, you see, and.."

"Mr. Henderson." Cynthia tapped him on the arm sharply. "My husband is dead. He no longer cares about his image. It is difficult for Kerrison to be here, and I simply will not allow you to make it more difficult for her. Is that clear?"

"Mrs. Stuart…"

"If you were even slightly intelligent." Cynthia finally lost her patience. "You would realize that antagonizing my eldest daughter is an extremely stupid idea." She paused. "Her father learned that lesson far too late." She stood up. "If we're finished, I must go change. Goodbye."

Henderson was left alone in the large dining room, it's walls still ringing with Cynthia's last words.


Dar prowled through the uneasily still house, following a logical guess as to where Kerry had run off to. Her lover's unusual explosion of temper had surprised Dar, but she could tell the tension was ratcheting Kerry up to a point where almost anything could happen.

Ahead of her, she spotted daylight, and she turned through a small corridor and found herself inside a solarium. It's thick, insulated glass panes hazed the scene outside, but it provided natural light and she had a feeling if she poked around inside, she'd find what she was looking for.

A soft creak alerted her, and Dar walked quietly between two rows of precisely trimmed flowers. Near the back of the solarium was a two person padded swing, only half occupied. Ah. Kerry's back was towards her, but as Dar approached, the blond head turned in her direction.

They regarded each other for a moment, then Dar slipped into the seat next to Kerry, and simply took her hand, lacing their fingers together in silent sympathy. They sat quietly, rocking a little on the bench as they watched the snow come down outside.

Finally, Kerry took a deep breath, pulling Dar's hand up and tucking it against her heart before she spoke. "If I ask you something, will you promise not to think I’m a coward?"

"Sure." Dar answered, already knowing what it was Kerry was going to ask. "When do you want to leave?"

Kerry leaned against Dar's shoulder. "I don't want to." She answered sadly. "But I think I have to, Dar. If I stay through this, it's only going to get worse." She felt Dar's fingers tighten around hers. "I can't deal with it, and I don't want you to have to."

Dar understood, possibly far more than Kerry imagined. "I remember being at daddy's funeral service." She replied in a low voice. "A service, not a burial, because they told us there wasn't anything left to bury."

Kerry remained very quiet.

"And I hated everyone." Dar had to stop for a minute, as a vivid memory of that cold day sharpened in her mind's eye. "All these people getting up and talking about him.. they had no clue who he was, or how he'd lived his life…" She slowly shook her head. "They wouldn't let me talk."

Kerry just closed her eyes.

"So I ran." Dar said. "I ran out of there, and kept running. All the way home."

"From Connecticut?" Kerry asked, very softly.

"Yeah." Dar replied, just as quietly. "I hitched back… walked… took a bus once in a while. Gave me time to get it out of my system."

"The anger?"

Dar shook her head. "The grief."

Kerry regarded the frosted glass in front of her. "You know something, Dar?"

"Mm?" Dar slipped her arm behind Kerry's back.

"I wish I'd had a father worth that kind of feeling." Kerry let her eyes close as she was pulled closer by Dar's encircling arm.

Dar rested her cheek against Kerry's hair. "You do." She reminded her.

That was true, Kerry acknowledged. She was closer to Andrew and Ceci after knowing them less than a year than she had ever been to her own parents after most of a lifetime. She loved Dar's parents deeply, just as she did their daughter, and she was grateful beyond words that she had them in her life.

Was it even worth staying for the service tonight? "Let's go home." She whispered. "I can't change how they feel about me, Dar. I'm going to leave them to their hatred and stupidity."

"All right." Dar hugged her. "Home sounds good to me too."


Dar followed Kerry out of the solarium, and across the quiet, spacious parlor. "It’s a nice place." She commented, glancing around. "Plenty of room."

Kerry also looked, slowing her steps and turning around as she did so. "I guess it is." She replied. "I never really thought of it that way though, because so much of the house was pretty much off limits for us as kids." She paused, then walked over to a painting on the wall and looked at it, then reached up and touched the canvas with a curious finger. "We used to get punished for grabbing anything."

Dar had wandered over as well. "Punished?"

"Yelled at." Kerry clarified. ‘Sent to our rooms, mostly." She eyed the painting. "I only got hit once that I remember, and all because of this damn stupid thing."

"Really?" Dar examined the object. "What’s there to this that’s worth being hit for?"

"It’s a Renoir." Kerry indicated the signature. "And I always though it was way too dull and ugly, so one day I took my box of one hundred and twenty eight Crayola crayons and changed that."

Dar bit the inside of her lip, but a tiny snort of laughter escaped anyway. "Oh boy."

"Mm. Yeah, it wasn’t pretty." Kerry smiled faintly. "I had to drag one of those antique chairs over here and climb all over it to get all the squares filled in. Did I mention it had been raining outside, and I was covered in mud?"

"Oh, Kerry." Dar covered her face with one hand. "You want to know something really funny?"

"What? Did you do the same thing when you were a kid?" Kerry turned and grinned at her. "Don’t tell me that."

"No." Dar shook her head. "If I’d shown the least bit of interest in drawing my mother would have thrown a party." She admitted. "But I was thinking, on the way up here, of how much I wish we’d met sooner." She let a hand rest on Kerry’s shoulder. "I would have liked a friend like you."

Kerry spared a moment to remember the increasingly lonely years after her childhood, a life full of acquaintances and parties, activity and publicity, but very few real friends. She would have loved to have known Dar then, but she also knew the sad reality of the fact that her parents would have prevented their friendship. "I’m glad we didn’t." She replied softly, reaching up to cover Dar’s hand with her own to soften the words. "I wasn’t ready to know you back then." She watched Dar cock her head in mild consternation. "I still believed in my parents, and they… " Kerry glanced away, then back up at her lover’s face. "I’m glad I met you when I did."

Dar’s lips twitched up into a smile. "Do you really think I’d have let your parents stand between me, and a friend, even at that age?" She asked, in a low drawl. "We would have been tabloid city. ‘Wild child corrupts Senator’s daughter - film at eleven.’"

Kerry had to smile back, both at the sentiment, and the mental picture.

"Besides… " Dar pointed behind her at the picture. "Anyone with the will to color by number a Renoir would have been right up my alley anyway." She leaned forward and surprised Kerry with a gentle kiss. "My mother would have adopted you in the vain hope you’d rub off on me."

Kerry drew in a breath, then released it as a certain tension eased out of her. She put her arms around Dar and simply hugged her as hard as she could. Then she released her partner. "C'mon. Let me give you the ten cent tour, then. I don't know if I'll have another chance." She held out a hand, which Dar took, then led the way through the labyrinth of rooms.

The first place they went was the library. Kerry pushed the door open, and was hit with the inimitable smell of a critical mass of books. The room had traditionally dark paneling, and a thick wool rug, with heavy leather and brass bound furniture and floor to ceiling shelves of books on all four sides of the space.

"This was a favorite spot." Kerry reflected, as Dar roamed around the room and studied the books. "Not so much for the subject matters.. I brought my own books in here, but it was always a nice, quiet place to hide in." She walked over to a chair near the corner, and settled into it. "Seems a lot smaller now."

Dar walked over and leaned on the chair. "I had a spot I used to disappear with a book into also." She said. "Wasn't as cushy as this, but I know what you mean."

Kerry nodded. "Your dad's a big reader." She noted. "Was that really Wuthering Heights on his workbench the other day?"

"Mmhm." Dar murmured.

"Incredible." Kerry got up and tugged Dar after her. "One of the good things about all the doors is that you could always escape out one way if anyone official or anything was coming the other way." They walked down one hallway, and turned into another. "Here's another favorite spot." She pushed open a swinging door, and peeked into the kitchen. "For a while."

Dar poked her head in also, to see a large, well laid out room with commercial quality cooking equipment. A tall black woman entered from the other side, then stopped in surprise at seeing two heads looking back at her.

"Ms, Kerry? Is that you?"

Kerry eased the door open and entered. "Hello, Betsy. Yes, it is." She walked over and gave the woman a hug. "Been a while, huh?" A year, to be exact. "You look great."

Betsy smiled. "Honey, so do you." She looked curiously at Dar. "This your friend?"

It didn't even feel strange, which, in and of itself, was very odd. "This is my partner, Dar." Kerry replied, with a smile. "Dar Roberts. Dar, this is Betsy Stonewright. She's been a part of the staff here since before I was born."

"Now, don't you be revealing how old I am, Ms. Kerry." Betsy shook a finger at her, then extended a hand to Dar. "You take your horns off before you come in here, Ms. Dar?" She asked Dar, with a mischevious twinkle in her eyes. "Cause I heard you had a nice pair of them."

Dar chuckled, and took her hand, returning the strong grip with one of her own. "Yeah, I left them with the tail and the pitchfork in the hotel." She reached over and ruffled Kerry's hair. "She's got a little baby pair too."

Betsy snorted. "Honey, I've seen hers, and they ain't little. I could tell you some stories about how this little angel used to turn this place upside down."

Kerry blinked innocently. "Who, me?" She pointed at her own chest, then smiled. "I was just telling Dar about my artistic assault on Renoir."

"Lordy, that was some day." Betsy shook her head, then sobered, as she took Kerry's hand. "Kerry, I’m sorry about your daddy. I know you and him didn't get on, but still and all."

"Thanks." Kerry accepted the words with quiet grace. "Well, listen, we don't want to disrupt anything. I was just showing Dar around. Is Mary here?"

"She'll be back shortly." Betsy told her. "Hold on now." She ducked into the large walk in refrigerator on one side of the kitchen, the reappeared with two small cups. "Here you go." She handed one to Kerry, and offered one to Dar. "Unless you done decided you don't like chocolate no more."

"Not hardly." Kerry accepted the treat with a smile. "I still have dreams about your mousse cups, Betsy. Thank you." She slipped her other arm around Dar and leaned against her. "Dar likes chocolate too."

"A little." Dar agreed. "Thanks." She draped an arm over Kerry's shoulders. "Where to next?"

"Wanna see my nursery?" Kerry asked. "I think there might still be chuck up stains somewhere."

"Lead on." Dar winked at Betsy. They made their way out of the kitchen, leaving the cook behind, shaking her head and chuckling.

"Lord." Betsy turned, as the back door opened. "That you, Mary?"

"Yes, ma'am, and who else would it be?" Mary took her coat off. "Did I miss something?"

Betsy gave her a smug grin. "You most certainly did, woman." She crossed her arms. "You just missed meeting that infamous Dar Roberts."

"No!" Mary looked devastated. "You're having me on."

"I am not. She was just standing right here in this kitchen." Betsy told her. "And child, let me tell you, there was a lot to see. I always did say that girl had a good eye, and sister, oh, did she pick a nice one."

Mary chuckled. "Only one in this whole damn family with a lick of sense and a passel of taste."


They ended up their tour in the large foyer, standing at the foot of the large, curved stairway that lead up to the bedrooms on the second floor. Dar had gotten the impression that the place was a beautiful, certainly impressive home with absolutely no sense of it's occupants personality.

Now, Dar was honest with herself. She could really say the same about the condo, right? Her brows creased, as she considered that, letting Kerry ramble on about the architecture. Her thoughts ran over the changes in her own home over the last year, and she had to sheepishly admit that her supposition was no longer valid.

How had she let Kerry convince her to have those damn doodlings framed?

Anyway. Dar dismissed the thought. This place had even less personality. Kerry's old apartment had held far more.

"Excuse me." A male voice caught both of their attention, and they turned, to see a tall, slim man standing nearby, his hands folded primly in front of him.

"Yes?" Kerry replied, warily. "Can I do something for you?"

The man approached. "I’m Tak Henderson. I'm part of the senatorial staff."

Dar bit her tongue to prevent ill thought out words from emerging. The man's smug attitude was making her nape hairs stand up, and she found herself moving closer to Kerry instinctively.

"Yes?" Kerry repeated.

"Ms. Stuart, I can appreciate this is a difficult time. It's hard for all of us." The man stated. "I’m sure you don't want to make it harder than it has to be."

Kerry's green eyes narrowed. "Excuse me?"

"Listen." He lowered his voice. "I know this hasn't been very pleasant. I’m sorry you've had such a rough time of it, but is there any real reason to keep it going?"

Kerry's features settled into a cool mask. "You suggesting I leave?" She asked, having made that decision on her own not that long ago.

"Wouldn’t it be better?" Henderson asked, evenly. "C'mon, Ms. Stuart, no one needs the trouble you've had to go through."

Exactly what Kerry had been thinking. She was aware of Dar's silent presence at her side, lending a solid, tangible support just an extended hand away from her. Dar would be glad to go home. She would be glad. She wanted so badly to smell the salt tang in the air on their porch, and feel Chino's warm welcome. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine herself there, her and Dar snuggled up on the couch, a bowl of thai chicken between them and glasses of chilled plum wine just within reach.

Kerry sighed. There was so much good about her life. She had a nice place to live, a good job, loving friends, a pretty dog, and a drop dead gorgeous partner who was inexplicably crazy about her. Maybe this dweeb was right, and her choice had been the right one. "That's true." She exhaled. "It's been a bitch."

Henderson seemed to sense his advantage, and he smiled. "I think you'd feel a lot better being out of it."

Kerry studied him. "You're right, I would." She replied candidly, making a decision and hoping her beloved partner wasn't going to wring her neck for it. "But unfortunately for both of us, I’m not going anywhere, so you might as well take your clipboard out of your ass and find something useful to do."

Henderson got caught completely flat footed. He stared at Kerry with a slightly hanging jaw for a few seconds, then collected himself. "Now just wait a…"

Dar finally made her move. She slipped in front of Kerry and closed in on Henderson, who backed up a step in reflex. "Henderson, you said your name was?" Dar asked, in her silky, dangerous boardroom voice.


"All right, Mr. Henderson. " Dar said. "Let me tell you something. I've had it about up to here.." Dar lifted a hand to her forehead. "With bullshit attitudes. If you don't leave, right now, and keep clear of Kerry until she decides to go elsewhere, I’m going to call up every major news agency and spend a half hour telling them just what a bunch of skunks live up here in the woods of Saugatuck." She paused. "Got me?"

His whole face twitched. "I don't know that they.."

"Oh yes they would." Dar cut him off. "And if that's not enough, I"ll call the tabloids and give em good shots of me and Kerry kissing on the doorstep out there. How bout that?"

That shut him up.

"I thought so." Dar pointed to the door. "Move it."

Surprisingly, Henderson did just that. He walked right past them, into the Senator's former study, and closed the door, leaving them once again alone in the lobby. Dar considered the door, then released a satisfied little grunt. "So, we're sticking around, huh?"

Kerry sighed. "Are you going to kill me?"

Dar ruffled her hair affectionately. "Nah. You can make it up to me by finding me more two bit half witted stuffed socks I can practice my intimidation skills on." She chuckled softly. "I almost forgot how much I enjoy doing that."

"All right." Kerry took her hand and pulled. "C"mon. Let me show you one last place."

"Your bedroom? I've seen it." Dar teased.

"No, the attic." Kerry smiled privately.


"You think the governor’s really going to do it?" Mike asked, as they reached the room Angie had been staying in, and sat down on the bed. "Name mom to take dad’s spot?"

His sister shook her head. "It seems ridiculous." She had to admit. "Why should our mother be a senator, just because she was married to our father? She doesn’t know the first thing about politics. You know she always made a point of steering clear of all that."

"Yeah, I know." Mike agreed. "But you have all those scumbuckets who worked for him desperate to keep their jobs." He noted. "And, how else will they do it? Not like they can just dig an election up this time of year."

"Mm." Angie nodded. "That’s true. Hope she tells them to go stuff it."

Mike’s lips quirked into a smile. "You’re in a feisty mood today."

Angie sighed. "I’m just sick of it. That stuff with Kerry pissed me off."

"Me too." Mike nodded. "I mean, it’s not like it’s this deep dark secret anymore, so what’s the big deal?" He wondered. "If the lawyers hadn’t be stupid enough to make Kerry just blurt it out on national television, that’d been one thing, but Jesus, like, who cares anymore?"

His sister shrugged. "That’s what I was thinking too. It’s just old news, and besides, it’s not like she’s done anything really radical, like buying a motorcycle or getting a tattoo."

Mike cleared his throat self consciously.

Angie looked at him. "Oh, you didn’t."

He batted long, dark lashes back at her with devastating innocence. "Don’t worry. No one’ll see it unless they get me really mad, and I show them where they can kiss my ass." He admitted sheepishly. "Tony and Brad and I went out last week and got pretty plastered. They bet me I didn’t have the guts to go through with it, so…"

Angie sighed. "Michael."

"I know, I know." Her brother grinned. "I’m a jerk."

"You’re hopeless. When are you going to grow up?"

Michael shrugged.

They were both quiet for a moment, then Angie spoke again. "You going to keep working for the publicity firm?"

Michael stared at the floor past his clasped hands. "I dunno. I haven’t really thought about it." He murmured. "I don’t have to now, do I?"

"No." Angie shook her head. "But he’s not around to get your butt out of trouble anymore, either."

"I could run away and join the circus."


"You going to tell mamma about Brian?"

Angie fell back onto the bed and gazed up at the ceiling. "Maybe." She admitted. "I might have to. I slipped the other day and left Andy’s medical papers out where Richard could see them."

Michael looked at her. "So? He doesn’t have Brian’s name branded on his ass, does he?"

"No, but my blood type is O. Richard’s is A. Andrew’s is B, just like Brian’s." Angie stated, with a grimace. "I told Richard they must have made a mistake on the papers."

"Ah." Her brother murmured. "Well, if things get real bad, you can reveal that, I’ll pull down my pants, and Kerry’ll come out looking like the Republican in the family."

Angie paused a moment, then burst out laughing. Mike joined in, relieving some of the stress of the situation.

"What’s so funny?" Kerry asked, as she paused in the doorway.

"Don’t ask." Her sister advised her, propping herself up on her elbows. "We were just comparing scandals. What are you two up to?"

Kerry and Dar entered the room. Kerry took a seat on the wooden side chair, and Dar merely lowered herself to the carpet, extending her long legs out and crossing her ankles. "I was giving Dar the tour." Kerry explained. "She didn’t get to see much last time. What scandal did you get into now, Michael?"

"I got a tattoo." Her brother admitted.

Dar snorted, and folded her arms over her chest. Kerry just rolled her eyes. "Oh god, it figures. How drunk were you?"

"Maybe I wasn’t!" Mike retorted, in an injured tone. "Maybe I just decided it was something I wanted to do for personal growth."

Kerry studied him, her fair head cocked to one side. Then she smiled. "No way, Mikey. You’re the biggest chickenshit I know when it comes to pain. You were either drunk off your butt, or unconscious."

Mike scowled, then stuck his tongue out at her. "You’re just jealous because you don’t have one."

Kerry’s green eyes twinkled. "How do you know I don’t?" She asked. "You haven’t seen all of me in a very long time."

Mike looked at Angie, who looked back at him, then they both looked at their older sister uncertainly.

"I have." Dar came to their rescue. "Every square inch, and she doesn’t." She told them dryly, as Kerry blushed a deep crimson, making her fair eyebrows stand out vividly. Everyone laughed, and even Dar chuckled at her lover’s loss of composure.

"Stop that." Kerry covered her face with one hand, rubbing her skin. "Dar, you’re so bad."

"Well, you don’t." Dar replied matter of factly.

"Wanna see mine?" Mike offered, to distract everyone.

"No." Dar replied immediately. "Based on what I know about you, I can make a guess where it is, and that window’s got a clear shot to the street."

Angie burst out laughing, holding her stomach as she rolled over. Kerry joined in, pointing at her brother’s injured expression. "She’s right isn’t she?"
Michael stuck his tongue out again. "You guys are such girls!"

Dar pulled her collar out and glanced inside her shirt, then nodded. "Guilty."

Now the laughter turned a little giddy, mixing amusement with relief and not a small touch of bittersweetness. It finally petered out, and Kerry wiped her eyes with her sleeve and regarded her siblings.

"Sorry I lost it before." She apologized. "I know you guys were trying to keep things under control."

"That’s okay." Angie rolled over onto her side, and exhaled. "We both did after you left too. I’m just so over it. Mike’s just so over it. We’ve had enough of all the political garbage and we just want our sister back."

It caught Kerry by surprise, and she returned a stunned look at them, her face going very still for a long moment. Finally she released a breath, and rested her elbows on her knees. "I’d like that too." She murmured. "I never meant to hurt either of you."

Angie got up and went to her sister’s side. Dar remained very still, just watching. "Kerry, you never did. If you did anything, you helped us both realize there was another way to live." She put a hand on Kerry’s arm. "You always were our ringleader."

"Yeah." Mike scrambled over to them, stepping carefully over Dar’s legs. "We love you."

Dar smiled, from her spot on the carpet. Kerry’s siblings were surpassing her expectations for them, and she was silently delighted at the look of surprised pleasure on her lover’s face. She was glad, now, that Kerry had changed her mind, though Dar would have supported her either way.

This was better. Kerry needed this.

Now, if she could just figure a way to prevent the rest of her family from ruining it.


They trooped up to the attic together. Mike opened an unobtrusive door set in a small alcove, and they walked up the heavy wooden stairs.

Dar listened to the door close behind her, and she exhaled, shifting her shoulders a little before she followed Kerry. The stairwell was very narrow, and her shoulders only just fit in the space. The closeness made her uncomfortable, and she suspected Kerry realized that, because halfway up, and hand reached back and she took it, feeling the comfort of Kerry's fingers curling around her own.

That was good, because the ceiling came down rather close to her head, and by the time they climbed up and out into the vaulted attic space, Dar was beginning to twitch. It was far more open up here, though, and she relaxed a little. It was warm - the heat from the house clustered up here despite the chill outdoors, but the eclectic nature of the place drew her interest quickly.

There were steamer trunks pushed against three of the four walls, and stacks of neatly bagged bedding and clothing. Two old rocking chairs sat peacefully in the corner, and there were containers of unknown items scattered around here and there. Dar had no idea why Kerry wanted to come up here, especially after their footsteps stirred up a mild cloud of dust and they all sneezed, but she was willing to go along with it for a while.

"We stuck them here." Mike dragged one of the larger trunks over and knelt, dialing the combination lock and throwing the top open. "All of Kerry's stuff, that Angie and I could find around the house before the thought police came through."

Ah. Dar's ears perked up, and she slipped around Kerry to investigate the trunk. "What have we here?"

"Hm. Good question. " Kerry scuttled over and knelt beside the open lid. "Think I can just have this whole trunk shipped?"

Dar pulled out a pair of very old, yellow, obviously well worn footy pajamas that featured an almost threadbare cotton tail on the back. She grinned at Kerry, who was making a face at them, and pulled out her cell phone, flipping open the top and keying in the memory. "Fedex? I'd like to schedule a pickup."

"Oh, my god." Kerry covered her eyes. "Of all the things for you to save."

Angie snickered. "You know something? It's worth it just to see your face right now."

"Dar, give me that." Kerry reached for the rags, but found them lifted up outside her reach. "Dar!"

"Shh." Dar finished giving the address to the operator, then folded her phone shut. "These are.. um.. " She held up the pyjamas. "Cute." She examined the fluffy tail in the back. "Wanna model them?"

"Augh." Kerry lunged across the trunk and snatched the old things out of her partner's hands. "I haven't worn those since I was six, thanks." She tucked the fabric under her arm for safekeeping, then warily explored the top layer of the trunk. "Oh god, Angie.. " She lifted out a photo album. "I was wondering if you snagged this."

Dar slid over next to her and peered at the book with interest. It was leather bound, and age creased, and she settled at Kerry's side as her lover opened the cover. Angie and Mike also inched closer, sitting cross legged on the floor at her side.

"Oo." Dar laid a long finger on the page. "I like that one."

"Dar." Kerry had to smother a chuckle. "That hoary old baby on the bearskin picture?" She eyed her naked infant self, sprawled over some fuzzy fabric, staring up at the camera with a look best described as astonished. "Can you believe that's me?"

Dar examined the picture. "Sure." She replied candidly. "Parts of you haven't change a bfwh." Dar found a hand covering her mouth, as Kerry's brother and sister started cackling.

"You are so dead." Kerry admonished her. "You just wait, Paladar. I’m going to…to….to….yow!" Kerry pulled her hand hastily away from the nibbling teeth and exploring tongue. "Stop that!" She reached over and grabbed Dar's tongue and pulled.

Angie almost hurt herself as she rolled over onto the floor, narrowly missing the edge of the trunk. "Oh my god." She gasped. "You guys are too much."

Dar retrieved her apendage and returned it to it's normal spot. Then she grinned, looking right up into Kerry's eyes, getting the hoped for tiny crinkle above the bridge of her nose and the faint smirk that meant her lover really wasn't as annoyed as she sounded.

"What's gotten in to her today?" Kerry wondered silently. Being this demonstrative in public was definitely not normal for her usually far more reserved partner. Dar would, on occasion, put a hand on her back, or ruffle her hair, but never did she indulge in the kind of extremely personal horseplay she was displaying this morning.

So. If she was, there was a reason. Kerry knew Dar well enough to know that - very very seldom did Dar ever change well ingrained patterns without a solid, logical thought path behind it. Kerry glanced at her siblings, who were both much more relaxed, and joking with Dar about the rest of the pictures on the page, daring her to guess which of them each one represented.

Acceptance. The realization clicked for Kerry suddenly. That's why Dar was acting the way she was, because she knew it would make Kerry feel better if her family liked Dar.

So Angie and Mike were getting the cute, mischevious side of her lover that very few people ever saw. Kerry was touched, and she reached over to scratch the back of Dar's neck lightly, smiling into the inquiring pale blue eyes that turned her way. "Thanks." She mouthed silently.

Dar winked at her, then went back to studying the photographs. "Hey, there you are on a pony."

"Oh, yes." Kerry nodded, leaning over the book. "Tympani." She put a fingertip on the picture. "What a little bastard he was."

"Remember the time he bit Mike?" Angie said. "Nastiest temper I ever did see on a horse."

"Pony." Dar said. "Maybe he had a short horse complex." She added, with a straight face, hearing the snickers, and feeling Kerry poke her in outrage. "Friends of ours had some horses down south when I was younger." She added. "It was always the little ones that were hell on four hooves."

"Did you ride, Dar?" Angie relaxed onto her side.

"Sure." Dar nodded. "We used to take three or four of them and just go on campouts in the glades in the winter. Catch our own food, make our own shelter, that kind of thing."

Mike goggled at her. "Really?"


"Like, hunting, and all that?" Angie inquired curiously.

"Yep." Dar agreed. "Of course, now that I've learned where the supermarket is, you won't catch me doing that again." She told them gravely.

They all laughed. "Yeah." Kerry combed through Dar's hair with her fingers. "Dar and I both agree the only camping we'll do is from the inside of an airconditioned RV."

"With a satellite hookup." Dar amended. "Which reminds me, the sat company called before we left. The system for the cabin's in stock."

"Cabin?" Angie asked.

Kerry told them about the cabin. "It's a little place down in the Keys." She explained. "Pretty run down, but Dar and I have been doing it all over on the odd weekend. It's cute." She said. "And very peaceful. We can pull the boat right up to a dock nearby, and it's getting to be pretty cozy."

"Wow." Angie sighed. "That sounds nice. Richard was talking about us getting a place up by the lake to take the kids, but.. " She shook her head. "I don't know."

"The tough part was getting a dedicated pipe in there." Dar related. "The phone company was scratching their heads for weeks over that one. But we got it done." A pause. "You guys'll have to come down and help us christen it."

The stairs creaked, and they looked over at the door as it opened, revealing Cynthia Stuart framed in the doorway. "My goodness, it's dusty up here." The older woman stated disapprovingly. "I must have a word with the staff." She continued on up into the attic, walking carefully on the wooden floor. "What's going on up here?"

Kerry indicated the album. "I was just showing Dar some of my baby pictures." She replied quietly.

"Gracious, how did they end up here?" Kerry's mother asked in astonishment.

"I put them up here." Angie answered. "When father was looking to burn them."

There was an awkward silence. "I see." Cynthia sighed. "I had thought he'd gotten to them before I had and they were gone." She murmured. "We had a horrible fight about that." A slight shake of her head followed. "At any rate, I came up to find you, Kerrison, because I asked John to bring your and Dar's things upstairs. " Here, her mother paused perceptibly, then took a breath. "I thought you might like the corner green room, perhaps."

Kerry opened her mouth to decline the offer, then stopped, as her memory of the house kicked in. She peered up at her mother in honest surprise. "Um.. that would be fine, sure." She answered. "Hang on." Kerry slid a hand down Dar's side and into her front pocket, retrieving the car keys and pulling them out. "Here." She offered them to her mother. "Our bags are in the trunk."

"Excellent." Cynthia had regained her composure, and she took the keys. "Well, perhaps you'll all come down for lunch. The reverend will be here, and several others of the family who asked to come over early."

"Sure." Angie nodded. "Sounds great."

"Okay." Mike agreed.

Cynthia gave them all a slight nod, and left, closing the door behind her.

All three siblings stared at each other. "Son of a bitch." Kerry snorted. "Can you believe that?"

"No." Angie shook her head. "No way, nu uh, not on this earth, what drugs are they giving our mother?"

"Wowza." Mike breathed. "Did you score, or what?"

Dar cleared her throat gently. "I think I’m missing something here." She stated. "Someone want to fill me in?"

Mike crawled closer. "She put you guys in the green room." He said.

"I have uncles and aunts who never got in there." Angie added. "For years."

Dar looked at Kerry. "And?" Her eyebrows rose.

Kerry actually smirked. "It only has one bed." She explained. "It's where they put the honored, very married members of our family when they visit." She still felt a sense of shock and amazement. "You have no idea what a big deal that is here."

Dar absorbed this unexpected, but gratifying news. "Does that mean we have to go out and get her a toaster?"

Kerry laughed, then let herself get lost in wonder for a moment, her world suddenly becoming a topsy turvy place where anything could, and apparently might, happen. "Yeah." She agreed. "I think it does."


The weather, however, intervened. The snow came down harder, almost a blizzard, and Dar found herself in the infamous 'green room' staring out the window at a white fog so strange looking she found it hard to comprehend. Rain she was used to - Miami's thundershowers were legendary for both their volume of water and speed of descent. But this white facsimile that made no sound was almost…


Dar turned, as Kerry entered and closed the door behind her, then smiled as the blond woman walked over to join her at the window. "Hi."

Kerry didn't answer. She just wound her arms around Dar's body and snuggled close, putting her head down on Dar's shoulder with a contented little grunt. "Can we sit down for a minute, because I'd really like to talk to you. I've got something I want to say, and I don't want to wait."

Dar blinked in mild alarm. "Sure." She glanced around. "How about over there?" She pointed towards a padded bench, which Kerry lead her over to and they sat down. "What's up?"

Kerry put a hand up and cupped Dar's cheek, staring very seriously into her eyes. The blue orbs widened slightly in reaction. "I expected the worst today." Kerry stated very softly.

"I kind of thought so." Dar answered, staying still, only the flexing of one hand against the bench betraying her unease. "I’m glad it turned out better.. I know how much your family means to you, Kerry." Dar's eyes dropped a little. "And I know how it feels not to have one."

Kerry lifted her other hand and tilted Dar's chin up, so their eyes met again. "Do you know what the most wonderful part of today was?"

"Me singing the praises of your butt?" Dar joked faintly.

"No." Kerry did smile, though. "It was watching you lay yourself open to my family because you knew it would make me happy."

Dar blushed a little. "Ah. You caught on." She drawled. "I thought I was being subtle."

"Um hm." Kerry leaned up and kissed her. "Like your usual freight train at full speed bad self." She exhaled. "God, I love you."

Dar relaxed, the tension running out of her shoulders and torso, and she tilted her head to return the kiss. She felt Kerry's hand slip off her cheek, and curl around her neck, pulling her closer for a long, sensual moment. Then they separated slightly and gazed into each other's eyes.

"I thought maybe you'd be a little upset with me teasing you like that." Dar admitted. "I kind of crossed the line a few times." She touched noses with Kerry, and watched her lover struggle to focus on her and not cross her eyes. "Though those pictures were adorable."

"Thanks." Kerry gave up and closed one eye, then just closed the other one and decided to kiss Dar instead. That didn't require vision. "I personally think I was a goofy, chubby little kid, but if you want to think that's cute.. " She explored further with her lips. "Who am I to argue?"

"You were gorgeous then." Dar brushed a bit of loose hair off Kerry's forehead, and traced an eyebrow. "And you certainly are now."

Kerry smiled, obviously charmed. Then she chuckled softly. "I'm sorry… I’m finding this so ironic."

"What?" Dar continued her stroking, tracing Kerry's other eyebrow, and outlining her eye.

"Where I am, why I'm here, who I'm with." Kerry captured Dar's finger in her teeth, and explored the faintly ridged surface with a sensitive tongue. "Hey." She released the digit and gazed at her partner. "How's your arm?"

Dar flexed her shoulder very carefully. "Stiff." She admitted. "Aches, a little." It was actually killing her. Even the drugs weren't helping much today, and Dar was beginning to worry that she'd actually done some serious additional damage to herself.

"From the weather, probably." Kerry stood, and held a hand out. "We're snowed in right now. C"mon and lay down, and I'll put some of that analgesic cream the doctor gave you on it." A faint warning bell went off when Dar acquiesced without argument, and she led her lover over to the bed and gently pushed her down onto it.

It was a nice bed, all things considered, a four poster with a stately canopy, fitting the room's vaulted ceiling and wide expanse of mint green carpet to good proportion. The drapes on the window were also green, a slightly darker shade, and the furniture was whitewashed oak, providing a feeling of pleasant lightness to the room.

Kerry went to the divan their bags were on and rooted around in Dar's until she found the cream. "That's pretty heavy snow out there, huh?" She commented, more to break the silence than anything.

"Yeah." Dar agreed. "I don't think I've ever seen anything like this before." She paused. "How long does it go on?"

Ah. Good question. Kerry brought the cream back over and sat down next to Dar's reclining form. "Well, I heard the staff saying it should stop before dinner, so that's good." She reached over and unbuttoned Dar's shirt, continuing down and tugging it's ends out of her corduroys.

"Didn't think the bruises went down that far." Dar commented.

"They don't." Kerry replied seriously, as she peeled back the fabric. "I just like looking at you with your clothes off." She watched the muscles just under Dar's skin contract as she laughed in silence. "Hey, I'm not lying." She jumped a little when Dar's cell phone went off, but then unclipped it from her waistband and handed it to her. "Here."

Dar answered it. "Yeah?"

"Ms. Roberts? It's central ops." The voice answered.

Uh oh. "Yeah?" Dar repeated, mouthing the word 'ops' to Kerry, who winced in reflex, then looked around for her own cell phone.

"I’m sorry to bother you, ma'am, but we have a big problem, and we can't reach Ms. Stuart."

Dar glanced at Kerry, who had found her cell, and opened it, a puzzled look on her face. Then she rolled her eyes and slapped her forehead in eloquent mime, keying the switch that turned it on. The device immediately began beeping as stored messages sounded alerts.

Dar surpressed a smile. "She's taking care of some emergency family business. I told her to turn off her pager. What's the problem?" She put a crisp note into her voice.

"Oh. Sorry." The operator apologized. "There's a huge storm system going over the Midwest.."

Dar peered at the window. "Really?"

"Yes, ma'am. They're having massive power outages in Chicago."

"Again?" Dar murmured. "Hm. So how does that affect us? " A thought occurred to her. "Oh Jesus.. don't tell me the processing center' down again."

A sigh. "Yes, ma'am."

"Shit." Dar cursed. "Get me a contact list."

Kerry had eased down next to Dar, and was gently spreading some of the cream across her shoulder, listening to the conversation as she did so. The Midway Center had been a bone of contention for them for some months, because, as Dar pointed out, it had no back up facilities and the giant UPS systems in the building had failed twice already.

This close to Christmas, having a major center that cleared credit card purchases down was a bad, bad thing. "Powers down again?" She asked softly, smoothing the thick ointment over the point of Dar's shoulder and massaging the muscles just under the skin.

"Yeah." Dar said. "Stupid bastards. I’m going to have that damn Dick Stark's nuts for lunch."

"Ew." Kerry made a face, then held it, for a different reason. "Dar, this is really bruised." She very gently touched the soft skin just above Dar's left breast.

"I know. It hurts like hell." Dar admitted. "Yeah, okay, you got a pen?" She spoke into the phone, focusing her attention away from the very concerned green eyes studying her. "All right. Have you started getting screaming phone calls from the banks yet?"

Kerry pulled Dar's shirt back over her and covered her injured arm, then she stood and walked to the small desk, picking up her laptop case along the way. She could, she knew, legitimately take the phone from Dar and do what Dar was doing - it was her job, after all, and if she hadn't been so dumb as to turn off her phone, she'd have gotten the call, not her boss.

But she also knew that this one was going to come down to a screamfest, because if the weather in Chicago was half as bad as it was here outside, getting a repair crew out to fix the UPS wasn't going to take her kind of finesse.

It was going to take raw, brute, sheer bitch, and when it came to that, Kerry would be the first to admit she was a rank amateur compared to her lover. She'd let Dar get rolling, and spend her time getting hooked up to the system to see what she could do about shifting processing remotely.

"Don't give me that." Dar's voice rose into a familiar bark. "Get his ass on the phone right now or he'll be paying penalties on this for the next twenty years!"

Hm. Kerry regarded the figure in the bed Then she picked up the laptop and went around the other side of the four poster, squirming into place next to Dar and letting her machine rest on her knees. A soft knock on the door made her look up, however. 'Yes?"

The door opened, and Angie poked her head in. "Hey."

"Cmon in." Kerry motioned with her head.

Her sister did so, walking quietly across the floor and taking a seat next to the bed. "What are you guys doing? She whispered, as Dar's voice lifted again.

"Tell that son of a bitch I’m going to send Fedex to pick up his testicles if he doesn’t get on this phone!"

Angie's eyes widened.

"Easy, DR." Kerry replied, achieving her cellular connection and logging into the network. Alerts started popping up on her screen like rabid weasels. "All right.. all right.. I get the picture.. shut UP already…" She slapped a few keys and looked up at her sister. "We're running the world. "

Angie's brow creased. "Right here from the green bedroom?" She watched her sister type on the laptop's keyboard, her eyes flicking over the screen with a startling intensity. This was new. She'd never really seen Kerry do whatever it was that she did, and she listened in shocked consternation as Dar said things to people in terms Angie hadn't even heard in gangster movies.

It was sort of interesting, even though she hadn't any idea of what either of them were talking about.

"Look." Dar shifted in aggravation, sitting up and reaching over to move the phone from one ear to the other. It was a bad mistake, however, and she froze in midmotion, stifling a yelp and biting her tongue as something that felt like a hot coal pressed against the nerves in her shoulder.

"Dar!" Kerry shoved the laptop off her legs and swiveled, grabbing Dar and easing her back down onto the pillows. Dar's face had gone pale, and she watched the blue eyes blink rapidly, faint twitches of pain making their way across her face. "Easy."

Kerry grabbed the cellphone out of her hand and held it up. "Hello? Who is this?" She waited for an answer. "That's nice. Listen to me. My name is Kerrison Stuart. I know more people in Congress than you have brain cells. If you don’t' want six government agencies coming down on your doorstep on Monday morning, you'll do whatever it is Ms Roberts was asking you to do and not say one word. " She paused. "Do you understand me?" The sound of panic came through clearly. "Good. If you need me to get the snow removal people to clear your path, just say so." A pause. "No? Good. We'll be waiting for that repairman. Good bye." She slammed the phone shut and threw it across the room, where it bounced off the wall. "Jesus!"

She turned, to see her sister staring at her, both hands covering her mouth. "What?" Then she shifted her eyes to where Dar was peacefully lying, her hands now folded over her stomach, regarding her with a look of mixed amusement and pride. "What??" Her frustration surfaced. "You need a doctor!"

"Kerry." Dar laid a hand on her thigh. "Would you take it easy?"

"No." Kerry scowled. "Dar, I’m really worried about your arm and I…" She lifted a hand and winced, rubbing her temples. "Shit."

Angie leaned forward. "Ker, are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. " Her sister said. "Just aggravated." A pause. "And overreacting, I think." She gave Dar a wry look. "Sorry."

"Sokay." Dar squeezed her leg gently. "You've got a point, and I do need to get this looked at. But we're not going anywhere in this weather, and unless an orthopedic surgeon is on your guest list, it's going to have to wait until we get home."

Kerry frowned.

Angie cleared her throat. "If you don't mind me asking, what happened?"

Dar and Kerry exchanged glances. "It's complicated." Kerry finally replied, as the tension that had gripped her slowly relaxed. She pulled her laptop back over and stared at it. "What was I doing?"

"Finding altroutes for the western and southern datastreams." Dar replied. "Try Atlanta and Kansas City. They should be able to handle the additional traffic - I think I put in big enough pipes there."

"Yeah." Kerry murmured, taking a deep breath and releasing it.


Dar let her eyes close, as she lay quietly waiting for a call back on her cell phone. It was dim and silent in the room, the snow was still falling outside, and Kerry was curled up on her side with her head pillowed on Dar's stomach, fast asleep.

Dar let her fingers curl around a lock of Kerry's hair, and wondered if Kerry was half as worried about her, as she was about her partner. She could almost sense the fractures in Kerry's usually sturdy psyche, and she only hoped the growing and renewed warmth of her nuclear family would help to heal them.

Or else, she'd take her home and surround her with as much love and support as it took to do the job herself.

They'd gotten some of the problem resolved, as much as they could without fixing the broken equipment, and Dar had finally coaxed Kerry into taking one of the pills she carried around for stress headaches. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the dosage that merely relaxed Dar had knocked her shorter and lighter partner out like a light.

Dar's cell vibrated softly, and she lifted it up. "Yeah? " She murmured into the receiver.

"Dar, it's Mark." The MIS Manager sounded upset. "Listen, we've got a real problem."

One of Dar's eyebrows lifted wryly. "Another one?"

"That guy from JAG is here. He's got a military court order that says I have to give him the core dump."

Dar's other eyebrow lifted. "Really? Let me talk to him."

She could almost see the smug look on the man's face, and the carefully not smug look on Mark's when he handed the phone over. "Hello, Captain. " She drawled softly.

"Ms. Roberts, there is no debating here. I have a court order to retrieve this piece of equipment, and you will tell your staff to hand it over right now." The Captain spoke quickly, and forcefully. "No delays."

"They don't have it." Dar told him, enjoying the moment of stunned silence. "So they can't turn it over to you, Captain. Get your ass out of my office building."

"Ms. Roberts, this is not a joke. I have a court order."

"I’m not joking, you little worm." Dar told him. "The core dump's not there, and all the court orders you could pull out of your butt isn't going to put it there, so get your ass out of my office building and leave my staff alone."


"We can search."

"Go ahead." Dar laughed softly. "But be ready for the lawsuit, and be very, very ready when I take this as a breach of my agreement with the General, and call the Herald."

"This request comes from the General."

Ouch. "Then he's stupider than I thought he was." Dar replied. "Tell him the data's in my father's hands. If he wants it that badly, let him ask for it. He knows the number."

Much longer silence.

"Your father."

"Yeah." Dar wiggled her toes. "Before you pull a legal motion out of your butt, he's on my payroll as a data analyst. So take your shiny black shoes and your bullshit attitude, and your criminal motives and get your ASS OUT OF MY OFFICE." Dar kept her voice very low, but the intensity built, vibrating her chest in almost a growl.

There was a click. Dar sighed. "This so sucks." She murmured in the direction of the canopy. For a few minutes, she just lay there, listening to Kerry's slow, even breathing, then she picked up her phone, and scrolled through her address book, selecting a number, and pressing it.

It rang three times. "Joint Chief's." The young, female voice answered.

"I need to speak with General Easton, please." Dar spoke very quietly. "This is Dar Roberts."

She waited patiently, one hand tangling itself in Kerry's hair, while canned Christmas music played in her ear. Finally, after a few minutes, the line clicked and she heard the faint sound of someone clearing their throat before speaking. "Gerry?"

The voice paused, and she could hear the exhaled. "Well, hello there, Dar."

Easton's tone sounded wary, but also slightly surprised and hopeful. Dar had used his first name for a reason. "Alastair told me we had a deal."

Easton cleared his throat again. "Why, yes, we do.. listen, Dar.. " He sighed. "I know what a bloody bastard this is, and I know it put your shorts in square knots."

A faint smile crossed Dar's face. "And I know how you feel about the service."

Another sigh. "It's so damn hard, Dar." Easton replied quietly. "You know how fond I am of you."

"We've known each other a long time." Dar agreed. "I didn't want to find what I did."

"Don't you think I know that?" The General said. "Damn it all, Dar."

Dar was silent for a moment. "If we have a deal, then why did I get a visit from the goon squad today?" She asked. "I didn't think you mistrusted me that badly."

Dead silence. "What?" Easton finally spluttered. "Visit from who?"

"The JAG was in my office, with a court order, getting that data dump you asked them to." Dar replied calmly. "Why, Gerry?"

"Eur.." The General almost sneezed. "I didn't send a damn blessed soul anywhere near Miami today!" A chair scraped against wood. "What the devil are you talking about?"

Dar stared blankly at the phone, a dozen thoughts running through her head. "You didn't?" She asked cautiously.

"Certainly not." Easton replied. "The JAG, you say?"

"I talked to him myself." Dar murmured. "It was him, that Captain you sent in from DC. He said he had a court order.. and that he was there at your request." Her mind flicked over the conversation. "He wanted the cor.. wait a minute. How in the hell did he know I had that?"

A beat. "Gave it to them, did you?"

"No." Dar replied. "It's not there… Gerry, are you sure you didn't ask them to do this? Don't .. " Dar felt her heart rate pick up. "Forget the company. I need to know."

"Paladar, I swear to you I did not." The General stated seriously. "No point to it, you see? Not with that bargain you drove, sticky thing that was to push through, I will say."

If not Gerald, then who? Dar bit the inside of her lip. "Gerry, I don’t' like this." She said. "And I think I did something very, very stupid." Giving that bastard the notion of where they might find that data. "He demanded to know where the core was, and I told him."

"What?" Easton's voice rose an octave.

"My dad has it." Dar admitted. "I thought he was from your office.. I told him to tell you that because I thought… Gerry, I have to go."

"Good lord."

"I'll call you later." Dar hung up, and immediately dialed her parent's cell phone number. It rang four times, then went to the voice mail. "Damn." Now she was really worried. She waited for the message to end, then left her name and cell number. Then she closed the phone, and considered her next plan of action.

"Dar?" Kerry's voice burred sleepily. "What's wrong?"

Dar gazed down at the half open green eyes peering up at her. "Hm?" She made a questioning noise, to buy herself some time. "How's your head?"

"Woozy." Kerry remained where she was, one hand stroking idly across the surface of Dar's belly. "That stuff's strong.. you shoulda warned me." Her eyes closed for a moment, then reopened. "You didn't answer my question."

Should she? Dar didn't want to add to the stress already piled on her lover's shoulders. But she also found herself very reluctant to lie to her. "Navy caused some trouble at the office." She admitted finally. "That damn captain was there, ruffling Mark's feathers and looking for that data core."

Kerry absorbed this. "Asshole." She commented. "I thought you took the core out of the building."

"I did." Dar said. "Dad has it."

A shrug. "Then it's okay, right?"

Dar met her eyes with a troubled look. "I told the asshole that." She confessed. "I got mad.. I thought he was there on Gerry's behalf.. I.."

Kerry's eyes opened the whole way. "You told him your dad had the stuff?" She asked. "B… Dar, why?"

She rubbed her head. "If it was Gerry, then I.. " She stopped and collected herself. "I figured once they heard that, they'd back off." Dar said. "And they did.. but.. Gerry said he didn't send them."

Kerry stared at her. "What if.."

"I know." Dar replied, her voice sharp. "And I can't get them on the cell."

"Oh my god, Dar." Kerry rolled up onto her side and rubbed her eyes. "Oh my god.. can you call.. who can you call?" She could hear her own heartbeat, echoing a little in the fuzziness from the drugs. "Where are they?"

"I don't know." Dar had to admit. "Maybe they took the boat out." She opened the phone and dialed. "Hello? Yes, this is Dar Roberts, can I talk to the Dockmaster please?" She waited. "Slip 1452, is it berthed?" A short wait. "Yes? Thanks." She hung up. "Boats in the dock."

Kerry was now more or less awake. "Want me to call Colleen and have her run down there? I think she's the closest."

Dar nodded silently, and handed her the phone. She listened to Kerry dial, and watched as her lover pushed the dishevelled hair back off her forehead as she leaned on one elbow.

"Hey, Col." Kerry spoke softly. "Yeah… no, thanks.. thanks - I loved the basket." She listened. "No, what I.. what? Where are you? Our place?" She looked at Dar. "Mom and Dad asked Col to puppysit.. said they were going out of town for a few days."

Dar blinked. "When was this?"

Kerry asked. "About two hours ago." She told Dar. "Did they say where they were going? No? I don't get it."

Dar had no idea what was going on, but she felt a little better, knowing her parents at least weren't where anyone expected them to be.

Even Dar.

She didn't hear Kerry finish her conversation, she only felt a sudden, warm touch on her wrist that made her look right up into Kerry's eyes. "I didn't expect this."

Kerry crawled forward until she was next to Dar, and put an arm around her shoulders. "I’m sure they're fine."

Were they? Dar felt shaken. "How could I have been that stupid? " She wondered. "I should have realized that bastard was lying." She exhaled. "Damn it."

Kerry just sat there thinking for a minute. "I don't get it." She finally decided, yawning and leaning against Dar. "They won. Why are they still coming after you?"

Dar tapped the cell phone against her chin, and smiled a little. "Maybe they didn't have backups." She remarked dryly. "Or maybe they heard the terms of my bargain."

"Hm?" Kerry cocked her head in question. "What terms?"

Suddenly they heard the distinct slamming of a door somewhere relatively nearby. They looked at each other, then at the door as footsteps, heavy and determined, headed in their direction.


Cynthia Stuart saw the broad back go past her and she hurried after it. "Edgar?"

The man stopped, then turned and looked at her. "Cyndi, I heard you had that whore under this roof." He stared accusingly at her. "We had a bargain."

"Edgar." Cynthia frowned. "This really is none of your business. If I choose to.."

"Cynthia, it is my business." Edgar stated flatly. "Roger was my brother, and you know how he felt about that woman and the godforsaken way she chooses to live."

"Yes." The older woman sighed. "I am well aware of how he felt."

"Then how could you?" Edgar hissed. "How could you invite her in here, push her in all our faces, when we all know how he felt.. how that ate at him… Good Lord, Cynthia - what the hell's wrong with you?"

"Edgar, listen to me." Cynthia was upset. "I know you have strong feelings, but.."

"Strong!" Edgar's voice rose. "No, you don't understand! I hate her. I hate her, and everything she stands for, and I hate what she did to this family, and to my brother!"

"Don't be ridiculous." Cynthia snapped back. "You don't nearly know the truth of that." She stepped closer. "Do you think Kerrison simply decided to turn against Roger for no reason?"

"There is NO reason that can explain what she did."

"Yes, there is." A quiet voice interrupted them. Both turned to see Kerry standing there, watching them with wary green eyes. "But you know what? I don't owe you any explanations."

"Kerrison." Cynthia put a pacifying hand up. "Please, let me handle this. I’m sure…"

"Mother." Kerry interrupted her. "This has to stop somewhere." She turned and looked her uncle in the eye. "What is it you want from me, Uncle Edgar? "

The older man stared at her, his nostrils flaring. "I want you to go to hell." He spoke softly and bitterly.


"It's all right, mother." Kerry replied softly. "Uncle, tell me something. Do you want me to burn in hell for exposing my father's illegal activities to the press, or because I’m gay?" She held his eyes, her body shaking inside and her guts churning. Part of her regretted asking Dar to stay behind, but she knew she had to face this, one way or the other.

But he didn't know what to say to that. A flicker of indecision crossed his face, then his jaw suddenly firmed. "You're a disgrace to this family." He stated, then turned and walked down the stairs, crossing the lobby and exiting into the study.

Kerry released the breath she'd been holding, and let her shoulders relax.

"Kerrison.." Her mother lifted a hand, then let it fall.

"There's nothing you can say." Kerry said. "I’m sure there'll be a lot more people here tonight that feel that way. " She looked at her mother. "But you know what? I don't care. " She drew a breath in. "I can't change what I did, and I can't change who I am."

Cynthia hesitated, then reached out and twitched Kerry's sleeve straight. "This is so difficult." She admitted. "I wish I had a simple answer to this quite horrible situation, Kerrison. But I will tell you that despite how hard it has been, I am very glad you decided to come here." Her eyes searched Kerry's face intently.

Kerry blinked, then gazed at the railing her hand was resting on. "It.. wasn't an easy choice." She replied, her voice a little husky. "I didn't really want to face this." Now she looked up. "But you're my family. " Kerry added sadly. "I can't change that either."

Her mother pursed her lips, and shook her head a little. "We should sit down and talk. I think that's been sadly lacking in this entire situation."

But the doorbell rang, interrupting them. "Guess that's the start of it." Kerry said.

Cynthia sighed. "I suppose it is. I was hoping…" She let the thought die off. "Perhaps after the reception we can speak further."

"Sure." Kerry agreed quietly, knowing it would never happen. "I'll go change." She turned, and made her way back up the stairs, so deeply immersed in sober thoughts as she rounded the last bend before the landing that she didn't see the figure standing in her way, and therefore crashed right into it. "Oh!"

Mild blue eyes regarded her, as Dar steadied her with a quick grip.

"Thought I told you to stay behind." Kerry murmured.

"I did." Dar replied. "You just didn't specify how far behind I had to stay." She indicated the stairwell, giving Kerry an unrepentant look. "That jackass was lucky he decided to give up and leave."

"Dar, don't you think I can handle my own family?" Kerry asked, with a touch of annoyance.

"No." Dar replied calmly. "I couldn't handle mine, and needed your help" She laid a finger on the tip of Kerry's nose. "Don't think I didn't hear you at my grandmother's funeral making sure they all knew how their poor ragamuffin relative from down south had made good."

Kerry smiled faintly at the memory. "That's true." She admitted, relaxing a bit. "C'mon… we'd better get dressed for this thing.. people are starting to show up."

Dar circled her shoulders with one long arm as they made their way back to the green room. "You were the main reason my father decided to ask me to help him recontact mom, you know that, right?" She asked. "And if I recall a certain drawing exhibition…"

"Okay." Kerry held a hand up. "I get the point, Dar." She gave her lover a quiet look. "I guess I am quite the little meddler, aren't I?"

"Yep." Dar pushed the door open and stood aside for Kerry to enter. "So don't you dare give me a hard time for doing the same thing." She followed Kerry inside and closed the door. "Speaking of which, let's talk strategy."

Kerry paused with her hand on her bag, and turned. "Strategy?" She unzipped the bag and removed her dark suit. "For what?"

The room was darkened by the weather outside, only two lamps shed butter colored light across the room, and it splashed over Dar as she walked to where Kerry was standing. "What's your goal here, Kerry?" She asked quietly. "What outcome do you want this evening to have, when it's all over? Is this where you tell your family to kiss your ass, or do you want to try to mend fences?"

Kerry blinked at her in total bewilderment. "Dar, what are you talking about?"

"Think." Dar replied, reaching up to lay a hand on Kerry's cheek. "Everyone has their opinion of who you are. Do you want to change that?"

Silence. Dar watched thoughts chase themselves across her lover's expressive face. "Are you proud of who you are?"

Blond lashes flickered. "I don't know." Kerry inhaled. "I should be, shouldn't I?"

Dar gazed intently into her eyes, allowing her own powerful personality to surge to the surface. "You have to believe in yourself before you can get anyone else to buy into that." She said. "And yes, you should be very proud of who you are." A faint smile. "I know I am."

Kerry's eyes filled with tears, and they spilled down her cheek as she blinked. For a moment, she felt very alone, as though she were standing on a bridge high out over chill waters. There was no safe place around her, only harsh, buffeting winds, and if she closed her eyes, she could almost feel the surface swaying.

It was frightening. She knew Dar was waiting for her on the other side of the bridge, but this was something she could only do by herself, a decision she had had to make alone.

But there really wasn't a choice, was there? Kerry realized. She considered her accomplishments, both personal and professional over the past year, and felt a sense of wondering satisfaction settle over her. With steady confidence, she traveled the bridge and crossed over it, leaving her childhood behind her to enter a newly burnished realization of her own reality.

Dar watched intently as Kerry's eyes opened, a misty green still watery with tears that nevertheless met hers with startling clarity.

"What I want." Kerry said. "Is for my family to understand that my life is exactly how I want it to be." She reached up and took Dar's hand, running her fingers over the strong bones and tensing muscles in it. "And I am very proud of who we are."

Dar leaned forward and kissed her, but remained silent, savoring the sweetness of the moment.


She could hear the murmur of voices, a low wash of sound that mixed soft clinks, and footsteps. It sent a wash of familiarity over her, bringing up memories of growing up in this house and hearing those sounds so very often.

Kerry regarded her reflection in the mirror soberly. Her charcoal gray wool suit jacket fitted precisely across her shoulders, and draped over the only slightly lighter silk dress she wore underneath. She had her hair clipped back into a knot, and only a sober dusting of makeup on. "You doing okay?" Her eyes lifted to the mirror, watching Dar's reflection in it as her lover walked over.

"I'm fine." Dar eased her collarless black silk jacket on, over a simple, yet elegant dark bronze sheath. The jacket covered the ugly bruising, and provided a somber draping to Dar's tall form. "Got plenty of drugs in me." She glanced at Kerry's profile. "You doing all right?"

Kerry nodded. "I’m fine." She removed two jade studs from her small kit and inserted one in her right ear. "Sounds like a crowd's finally gotten here downstairs."

"So I hear." Dar put her own jewelry case down on the dresser. "When you have a chance, it's tough for me to reach up - could you.."

Kerry smiled a little. "Sure." She finished putting in her earrings and opened Dar's case, taking out the beautiful blue diamonds that were her favorites. "Sit." She indicated the low, padded bench. "Make my life easier."

Dar did as she was asked, stifling a small yawn with her good hand as Kerry moved her hair aside and tilted her head a little. She felt the warm touch of fingers against her earlobe, then the faint pressure as the posts went through her skin. "I like that dress on you." She touched the soft fabric that covered her partner's hip.

"Thanks." Kerry murmured, attending to the other ear. "I got it to wear to that executive convention next month in New York." She straightened up and observed her work. "Those are so pretty."

"Should be, for what they cost." Dar joked. "Mind getting that necklace too?"

Kerry fished in the bag, then drew out the glittering crystal on it's golden chain, opening the catch and fastening it around Dar's neck. It matched the one already around her own neck, and she settled it into it's spot above the hollow in Dar's throat with a tiny grin. "Are we ready?"

Dar tilted her head and peered up at her. Kerry's face was grave, but composed, and there was a peace about her that had been sorely missing now for several days. "I think we are." Dar stood up and twitched her jacket straight. "Let's go."

They met Angie and Richard on the stairs, and walked down together. Richard had on a dark suit, and Angie had chosen a simple, dark gray dress. Dar was the last on the stairs, and therefore had the best view below. There was a small crowd in the lobby, men mostly, with a few women, and a local television reporter. As they continued down, they were spotted, and Dar watched the reactions.

Interesting. She felt eyes fasten on her, and she returned the stares coolly. The television reporter broke off his speech with an older man and turned, then hurried in their direction. "Here we go." Dar murmured, giving Kerry's back a tiny scratch.

Kerry's shoulderblades shifted, and she straightened up as they reached the foot of the stairs and were met with both the reporter, and the stares of the gathered crowd. As she expected, the reporter made a beeline for her and she met his eyes steadily as he advanced.

"Ms. Stuart?" The man seemed a little more excited than the situation warranted. "Can I get a word with you?"

Kerry sighed inwardly. "Sure." She stepped to one side and allowed everyone else to move on. Dar, naturally, didn't. Angie gave her a sympathetic look, and edged past. "What can I help you with?'

The man glanced at a piece of paper, then obviously organized his thoughts. He lifted his eyes and started to speak, then paused, his gaze drifting up and to the left a little. He blinked, then cleared his throat. "Ah… I know this is a very sad occasion, Ms. Stuart, but there are many people who are surprised to see you here."

"Really?" Kerry interrupted his train of thought. "Why? My father died yesterday. Did you really think politics could interfere with my being here for my mother, and my family ?"

The camerawoman edged around, getting a better shot. It gave the reporter a moment to regroup. "Ms. Stuart, we're aware that there have been some strained relations with your family, and.."

"And?" Kerry cut him off again, with genteel politeness.

Another shift of his gaze up and to the left. "And… ah… I'm.. I mean, it's good to see the family giving each other support during this horrible tragedy."

"Thank you." Kerry rewarded him with a warm smile. "It's been a very difficult few days. Now, if you'll excuse us?"

"Uh.. sure." The reporter backed off, with a nervous glance behind Kerry. "Thanks for speaking with us."

Kerry smiled, and ducked around the camera, waiting until they were halfway across the lobby and almost to the large reception room before she paused, and lowered her voice as Dar drew even with her. "What were you doing to him?"

"Me?" Dar's low, musical voice answered. "Nothing. Why?"

Kerry just gave her a look. "I can't wait to see this on the eleven o clock news." She murmured back.. A glance ahead of her showed several of her extended family near the door to the reception room, and the coldness of their stares was almost a physical thing. She squared her shoulders. "C'mon."

Angie spotted them as they cleared the door, and she hurried over. "Hey.. that didn't take long." She latched on to Kerry's right arm and steered her away from the hostile crowd. "Mom's over there." She pointed to where their mother was standing, flanked by two aides, with a short, stocky older man opposite her. "Chatting with the governor - I think she could use some support."

"Sure." Kerry replied. "Aunt Mary looks like she wants to spit nails at me anyway." She gave her aunt, a chubby woman dressed in unflattering black crepe, a smile, which wasn't returned. " You'd think she hadn't spent the last twenty years telling everyone what a bastard our father was."

"Mm." Angie snorted softly. "Or that she'd been a flower child who burned her bra and voted Democrat just to spite the family."

"Hm." Kerry considered. "I wonder if that look's for my lifestyle, or the company I work for, then. Maybe I've got her staring daggers all wrong." She speculated. "She's been fighting big business since the stone age."

Dar chuckled softly.

"Don't laugh." Kerry murmured. "She thinks the high techs are the worst things that ever happened to the earth." They arrived at her mother's side, however, before Dar could answer, and met the glares of the aides.

"Ah, Kerrison." Cynthia welcomed her warmly, ignoring the frosty expressions of the two men on either side of her. "Splendid. I was just discussing you with the Governor." She turned. "James, this is Kerrison, my eldest daughter." Then she paused, almost inifenitisimally. "And her… partner… Dar Roberts."

"Kerrison." The governor stuck out a hand to her with surprising good nature. They shook, then he turned and met Dar's eyes, a tiny smile crinkling the corners of his own. "Ms. Roberts."

There was, Dar realized, something faintly familiar about the man. She returned his strong grip with one of her own, and tried to figure out where she'd met him before. "Governor."

"And you know Angela." Cynthia continued. "The Governor and I were just discussing …"

"Mrs. Stuart, a word with you." One of the aides tugged at her sleeve. "There's a phone call.."

Cynthia looked very annoyed, but she gave the governor a graceful nod. "Excuse me a moment." She allowed herself to be drawn off to one side, where two other aides were standing, one holding a portable phone.

"Kerrison." A male voice chimed in from behind them. "Hadn't expected to see you here."

Kerry turned, to see one of her younger uncles, on her mother's side standing there. "Hello, Brad." She exchanged wry looks with him. "I didn't expect to see you either.. guess I took your place as the black sheep, hm?" Brad still had his earrings, though he'd taken out the one he usually sported in his nose for the occasion. Kerry found herself glad to see him, though they'd never been close.

"Made my life a little easier, yeah." Brad laughed. "Specially after my band got busted for possession last year."

Dar watched the interchange, satisifed that Kerry wasn't going to get bushwhacked. Then she turned her attention to the governor, who was standing quietly, watching everything.

Their eyes met. "Political minefield, eh?" Dar drawled.

He shrugged lightly. "Aren't they all?" His head cocked to one side. "Roger was a bastard, but he knew his job, and he was damn good at it. " He stated bluntly. "Lot worse could have been in that seat, though I’m betting you'd disagree."

Dar glanced around, surprised at the man's candor to a relative stranger. "He wasn't my favorite human being, no." She stated dryly. "People who wish me and those I love dead and in hell rarely are." She met his eyes evenly. "It's a common attitude, though."

The faint smile returned. "That's damn true, Ms. Roberts. Damn true." The governor agreed softly. "Some of my closest friends feel that very way, matter of fact, and I’m not known as a liberal in many circles." He admitted. "Makes an already dicey decision even tougher now that Cyndi's publicly stated her support for young Kerrison, there."

"I bet." Dar smiled humorlessly. "Does she even want the job?"

"Not particularily." The governor shrugged. "S'why she's probably going to get it." He rocked back and forth on his heels a bit. "Hasn't got much time left on this term anyway, and anyone else I choose would just cause me other problems."

Dar's eyebrows rose. "Despite the… " She paused deliberately, and put a sting on the word. "Complications?"

Now, for no apparent reason, the governor chuckled, and glanced at his laced leather shoes. "Y'know, Ms. Roberts, I gotta tell you something." He looked up at her. "I made the mistake of assuming things about gay people once, and I got my ass dragged into a torpedo locker and the bs kicked right out of me for it." He grinned at her visibly started reaction. "I surely don't intend to make the same mistake twice, and have Andy Roberts coming after my ass again. I’m too old for that now."

Dar blinked, then chuckled a little, in pure surprise. "You know, I thought I knew you from somewhere." She replied. "You captained that hunter sub he went out on for two tours."

"That I did." The governor allowed. "Besides, I'd be a half brained old sea salt to piss of a prospective bringer of private sector jobs into my state now, wouldn't I?" He gave her a rakish grin. "Got any plans for expanding in Troy?"

Cynthia Stuart returned at that moment, having shed the two aides. "My apologies, Governor. But I see you were well accompanied." She gave Dar a nod. "Is Kerrison.. ah, there she is.. Kerrison, perhaps we can speak with your uncles now.. are you free?"

Kerry and Dar exchanged glances. "Sure." Kerry replied. "I don't honestly know what good it'll do, but I’m willing to try." Maybe, she considered, in this very public venue they'd at least be civil. She put a hand on Dar's arm. "You'd better…"

"Stay here?" Dar completed the statement, with a faint smile. "All right, but if voices start to get louder, I won't." She watched Kerry move away, towards a knot of her family, relaxing a little when she saw Michael slide in and join them, putting an arm around his sister's shoulders.

The governor cleared his throat gently. "Chip off the old block, aren't you?"

Dar kept her eyes on her lover, but smiled. "That's what they tell me."


"That there man is not worth this here suit." Andrew folded his arms over his broad chest and reviewed the passing countryside. "Ah will tell you that."

Ceci glanced at him, then returned her attention to the icy road ahead of her. "No." She agreed. "He's not worth a potato sack, but Kerry's worth that suit, and besides, I like you in it." She caught a pair of pale blue eyes reflected against the windshield and smiled. "Not as much as the white one, but still."

Andrew merely grunted, shifting his shoulders inside his dark blue uniform jacket. "Spent enough time decorating it, now didn't you?" He rasped, giving her a wry look.

Ceci chuckled smugly. "Wasn't it a coincidence that box of medals from the Navy showed up yesterday? Amazing, I tell you. Just amazing." She turned carefully onto a smaller road, grimacing as she felt the wheels slide under her touch. "Lovely.

"You want me to drive?" Andy asked.

"Honey." Ceci struggled with the wheel a moment more, then got the car straight. "I'm sure Kerry and Dar would like to see us in one piece, sometime this evening." She accelerated cautiously. "Ah. That's better. " It was hard to believe they were actually here, really. Certainly it was only marginally their business, and their presence would not, she suspected strongly, be a welcome one.

Seeing that one shot of Dar and Kerry coming out of the hospital last night, though, both faces strained to an almost scary extent, and their decision for better or worse had been made. Ceci exhaled, and nodded to herself. They had the means, they had the method, and by the goddess, here they were about to turn into the driveway of the Stuart family manse.

"Think we should have warned them?" She asked, waiting in line behind a maroon Jaguar.

An unexpected smile crossed Andy's scarred face. "Nope." He drawled. "Better to just do it, and fill in the paperwork later."

"Mm." Cecilia pulled up to the guard and opened the window. The man leaned over and peered inside as she marshalled several well thought out arguments to gain admittance, and prepared to bombard the man with inescapable logic and plain intimidation if she had to.

"Go right ahead sir." He murmured courteously. "Ma'am."

The gate opened. Ceci glanced at her husband who looked back at her, equally puzzled. "Well" She pulled the car through the opening gates. "I’m not looking that gift donkey in the ass."

"Musta been taken by your pretty face." Andy told her.

"More likely by the glare off your chest, sailor boy." His wife demurred, patting the front of his uniform, which was very liberally covered in medals and ribbons. "He probably figured you run the Navy. C'mon."

They got out and Ceci pulled the lapels of her coat closer as the cold wind chilled her skin. After a second, Andy was next to her, and he put a hand on her back to steady her steps as they headed up the icy walk towards the house. "Stuffy looking, isn't it?" She commented, as they rang the bell.

"Bout what I expected." Andrew grumbled, as the door opened. The staff member immediately retreated and allowed them to enter, offering to take their coats with a quiet word. They accepted the offer, and continued on towards a large, crowded room off to the left.

Ceci checked the house out with a knowledgeable, patrician eye. The Stuarts occupied roughly the same social class as her own family did, but there were differences. This was conservative, stolid, Midwestern money, concerned with presence and stability and tradition.

Ick. Ceci had a sudden, almost irresistible urge to throw a bucket of paint over the stately white walls. With an effort, she controlled herself and concentrated on studying the room full of dignitaries, searching for familiar faces. It was tough, being the height she was, but she managed to find Dar's tall, elegant form almost immediately. "There's one." She had her back to the door and was speaking to a tall, silver haired man.

"Yeap." Andrew agreed. "Easy to spot. Prettiest girl in the room." He noted with complete seriousness.

Ceci chuckled softly. Then she stopped laughing when she saw Kerry off to one side, ringed by a number of older men and women.

"That don't look so good." Andrew observed. "Think I'll go scout."

"I'll go clue in our daughter." Ceci replied, and they moved off in opposite directions.



Dar turned her head, and found a very unwelcome sight. Kyle Evans was standing there looking back at her, a slightly mocking expression on his face. "Ah. What rock did you crawl out from under?" She replied.

One silver eyebrow lifted. "Not even a pretense of civility?"

"Not for you." Dar stared back evenly at him. Of all the members of the late senator's staff, this was the one she had most reason to hate. And she did, with a completeness that allowed for no mitigation. Kyle had been Kerry's persecutor, the man who had carried out her father's rigid policies, and a nightmarish tormentor who had left scars on her gentle lover's psyche it horrified Dar to think about.

"Well." Kyle repeated, examining the room with cool eyes. "Finally got what you wanted, didn't you?" He commented.

"No." Dar said. "I've always had what I wanted." She met his sudden look with an icy smile. "He finally got what he deserved."

Kyle didn't answer her. Instead, he continued o study the room. "Pity I was out of the country." He purred. "I'd have made sure you didn't join this little family reunion." He turned and smiled back at her with no humor at all. "But look, there's the little prodigal. Let me go pay my… " His lip twitched. "Respects."

"I don't think she wants them." Dar said.

"I’m sure she doesn't." Kyle smiled again. "Maybe we can talk over.. old times."

He turned and glided away, leaving Dar with an icy facade over a wild inner turmoil. She felt her blood pressure rise, sending a surge of warmth to her skin and muscles as her body interpreted the emotion she felt with uncanny accuracy. Her hands twitched, and she held herself back from going after him by only the barest of margins.


Her head snapped to one side and she glared in the seconds it took for her rational mind to recognize the voice and register the sudden, completely unexpected appearance at her side of her mother. She took a breath, and blinked "Mom? What are you doing here?"

"Well." Cecilia eased closer, now that the impending eruption seemed to be under control. "Up till now I'd say we were here just to piss everyone off and give you two some friendly faces." She studied her child in concern. "But after that little scene, I’m not so sure. Who the hell was that?"

Dar's eyes darted over the crowd. "Dad's here?"

"Yees." Her mother confirmed. "He was heading over to thump Kerry's relatives a moment ago, why?" She put a hand on Dar's arm. "Dar, are you all right?"

Dar closed her eyes and got control of herself. "Yes." She enunciated precisely. At least one worry was done away with, now that she had a second to take it's place. "I’m glad you're here." She finally turned and regarded her mother. ""Thanks." A breath. "And that was Kyle Evans. He's.. he was Stuart's chief bastard."

"Uh huh." Ceci relaxed a little. "Sorry about the surprise. We saw you two on television last night, and we figured you could use a little support."

"I tried to call you earlier." Dar felt her pulse start to slow down. "Colleen said you'd gone out of town, but she didn't know where." She scanned the crowd again , and now found her father's tall form immediately as he slid into place beside the unsuspecting Kerry.

Just as Kyle approached from the other side of her.

Dar felt an unexpected smile cross her face, which vanished almost immediately. "It's a been a rough couple of days." She admitted. "Most of her relatives are giving her hell."

"So I gathered." Ceci murmured. "Shall we go rescue her?"

Dar glanced around the room. It was full of dignitaries, most of whom were watching the cluster of people around Kerry with thinly disguised interest. She watched a camera flash, and saw the reporter angle for a better shot of Kerry's face, as she stood holding her ground against her various aunts and uncles. She was tense, Dar could see that in the way she was carrying her body, and in the careful, controlled hand motions as she fought to remain civil.

"Yeah." Dar decided. "Let's go do that."


Viciously polite. Kerry returned the thin smile from her youngest aunt. That was the term she was looking for. So far, though, she’d done all right. Even her uncles, aware of the cameras and the outsiders stares, were behaving themselves. "Sorry, what was the question?" She asked.

"What is the social life down there like for you?" Marcia repeated. "I’m sure you participate, don’t you?"

"Not really." Kerry replied quietly. "I do on a corporate level, naturally, but we have other interests besides parties."

"Oh, really?" Her aunt was a slim, hawk faced woman with silvered dark hair. "Like what? Cooking?" She asked with a touch of sweet sarcasm.

Keep cool, Kerry. She reminded herself. "I dabble in it, sure. But mostly outdoor sports, really. Diving, underwater photography, that kind of thing." She smiled. "And a little distance running and martial arts."

"Funny." Aunt Marcia sniped. " You were never interested in those things before."

"Well, you know, there’s a limited amount of scuba diving available in Lake Michigan." Kerry replied. "Miami’s a little more climactically friendly to outdoor sports. It’s been great for me. I’m having the time of my life."

"Well you certainly look different." Her aunt noticed. "You definitely … filled out."

Kerry refused to view that as the insult the woman evidently intended it to be. "Thanks." She replied graciously. "You look good yourself."

"Yes, she certainly has changed." A voice came form her left, sending a definite chill down Kerry’s back. She turned to find her worst nightmare looking back at her with cold, gray eyes.

"Hello, Kyle." Her stomach lurched, remembering the last time they’d met. She felt someone brush lightly against her on the right hand side, but she remained in place, warily watching her old adversary. She hadn't expected this, honestly. Her mother had told her Kyle had been sent overseas months ago, and she'd figured… Damn.

"Yes, didn’t expect me did you?" Kyle laughed. "I’ve just arrived. I’m so glad to see you."

Kerry felt like throwing up. "Feeling’s mutual." She said, resisting the urge to look around for the comfort of Dar’s presence. A thousand childhood fears reared their heads, a hundred memories of that smiling face echoed in places she’d thought well cleared. "Excuse me."

"Oh, but we’ve only started to talk." Kyle moved closer, very aware of the watching eyes. "Do tell me what you’ve been up to, Kerrison. I want to hear every detail."

It was a very trapped feeling. Kerry waited a beat, studying him to give herself a moment to think. "Nothing you’d be interested in, Kyle." She finally replied. "I don’ think there’s much for us to discuss."

Kyle put a proprietary hand on her shoulder. "Come now, is that any way to talk? Let’s…"

A hand covered his, and removed it from Kerry’s arm with a power evident even in that brief contact.

"Ah do believe this here young lady has other things she’d be liking to do." A low, easy drawl rumbled from behind Kerry’s right shoulder, making Kerry whirl in startled, unbelieving shock. Her head tipped back to take in the tall, grizzled haired man in a naval uniform standing right behind her, his scarred face set in watchful stillness. "Ya’ll might want to just let her get on with them."

Kyle’s eyes narrowed. "Excuse me, but I don’t think this is quite your affair.. ah.. " He glanced at Andrew’s chest. "Commander, is it?"

Andy put a long arm around Kerry’s shoulders. "Ah’d say you were wrong." He remarked mildly. "This here young lady is very much mah business."

Kerry exhaled, and threw her arms around him in a hug. Kyle had truly rattled her, and to have Andrew show up at just the right moment… "Wow." She whispered, squeezing him hard, before she released him and turned back around. Kyle was watching Andrew with wary dislike, and the rest of her relatives were frankly staring at him. "Sorry. This was kind of unexpected. This is my father in law, Andrew Roberts." Kerry said, almost enjoying the flinches. "A very welcome surprise."

"I’m sure." Kyle murmured.

Andrew eyed him steadily for a moment, then looked around at the gathered relatives. "Hi there." His Southern accent dripped out like molassas. "Good t’meet y’all. This here’s mah wife Ceci." He added, as Cecilia joined him.

"Hi." Kerry was hard pressed to restrain her glee at seeing Dar’s mother. It was seriously like having the cavalry come riding up over the hill. "When did you guys get here? Did you see.. ah." She felt Dar’s presence at her elbow, and a warm hand touched her back.

"Kerrison…oh." Cynthia Stuart stopped a little short, blinking at her unexpected guests. "Why, Commander.. it’s good to see you. " She stated sincerely. "And Mrs. Roberts, how nice it is to have you here."

Ceci's eyebrows lifted almost imperceptibly. It wasn't quite the reception she'd expected, given their last meeting. However. One took what one could get, and if you got caviar instead of fish turds, more the better.

Dar was having an absolute ball watching the expressions on the faces of Kerry’s family. Their reactions ran the gamut from puzzlement to outrage. Dar made sure she smiled at all of them. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kyle slip away, as a cameraman approached curiously, drawn mostly likely by Andrew’s tall, uniform clad form.

Ceci took Cynthia’s proffered hands. "We knew it was a rough time for everyone. Glad we could be here to give you our sympathies in person." She said. "You have a beautiful home."

A camera flashed.

"Why, thank you." Cynthia replied warmly. "Oh, do come and let me introduce you to my brother Anthony. I believe he collects your work."

Ceci smiled politely, and held a hand out to Andrew. "We'd love to meet him."

"One less thing for you to have to worry about." Kerry murmured softly, turning her head so that only Dar could hear her. "What a gorgeous surprise, and what perfect timing."

"Mm." Dar grunted, giving the press a polite smile. "I could use a drink of water, how about you?"

Amazing how dry that made her throat suddenly. "You bet." Kerry agreed, edging back out of the presses view, now that they seemed intrigued by this new target. "Dad looks great."

"Yeah." Dar whispered back. "I've never seen all those decorations before.. I can't believe mom got him to wear them." She eyed them, giving her father a look, before she gently steered Kerry through a nearby doorway and into a small alcove just off the reception room. Here there was a linen draped table, with glasses and a pitcher on it. She poured two glasses, and handed one to her lover.

For a moment, they sipped their drinks, and regarded each other. Then Kerry sighed. "Night of surprises."

Dar nodded. "Some not so good."

Kerry stared into the depths of her glass, and swirled it’s contents. "Yeah." She agreed softly. "Damn, I forgot how much I hated him." She was surprised to see her hands shaking, then realized the rest of her was also. "Wow."

Dar took the glass out of her hands and put it down. She took Kerry’s cold hands in her own and warmed them. "It’s a little chilly in here."

"Yeah, it is." Kerry felt a little lightheaded. She took some deep breaths, and the shakiness subsided, as her racing pulse slowed and steadied.

"You all right?" Dar noted the pale tinge to her lover’s normally golden complexion.

"Yeah." Kerry nodded, relaxing a bit. "It was so good to see mom and dad." She smiled up at Dar. "I should have guessed they’d be coming here, when we heard they left Miami." Her head turned, and she spotted a nearby bench. "Sit for a minute?"

Dar took a seat next to her, and they both let out simultaneous sighs. "Here." Dar handed Kerry back her water and watched her take a swallow. "Tough crowd."

Kerry rolled her eyes.

"They make my family look like the Waltons." Dar continued. "on Thanksgiving."

Kerry started snickering, almost spitting some of her water out.

"If one more of them had made one more snippy comment about your weight, I was getting ready to spill a glass of that dry champagne down their backs." The dark haired woman went on. "Especially since the last time most of them saw a gym was high school."

Another snicker.

"And even then, they probably just danced in it."

Kerry cleared her throat. "Very true." She admitted. "They’re not much into the physical fitness scene. That was one subject that never really came up – it was fine and accepted to starve yourself into rapier thinness, but to actually consider.. ugh.. sweating… forget it."

"I think you’re very cute when you sweat." Dar crossed her ankles and swallowed some water.

"Let's not go overboard." Kerry replied, giving her lover a wry look. Then she sighed. "Okay, I've had my Dar break. I'd better get back out there. I think my other cousins just got here." She stood up and twitched her dress straight. "Want to come meet them?"

Dar put her glass down and joined her partner near the doorway. They paused and looked out, spotting Andy and Ceci near a cluster of older guests. As they were about to step forward, Dar felt Kerry hesitate, and she glanced over to see what the problem was. Kyle was watching them from near the elegant bar, his arms crossed as he spoke in a low voice to two men in dark suits standing next to him. "I don't like that."

"Me either." Kerry replied. "C'mon." She deliberately turned and walked in the other direction, towards two younger women in black lace, looking self conscious and trying to be casual.


Concluded in Part 12