Tropical High

Part 13

Kerry folded her hands on her desk, and regarded Brent with a sense of surreal disbelief. "You were working for my father?" She asked carefully. "Here?"

Brent nodded, his expressionless face still and reflective. "I was hired to come in here and keep watch on you, bust up your place here if I could." He said. "Paid me pretty good, always wanted more information than I could get, though."

Several options occurred to Kerry, most of which she regretfully dismissed in deference to personnel policies that frowned on employeecide. "Why tell me now?" She asked, keeping her voice even with an effort.

Brent shrugged. "I don't know." He admitted. "I just figured you should know about it, that's all." His hands twisted against each other. "I've been thinking about the whole thing for a few weeks, and I was fixing to tell you anyhow."

Kerry propped her chin on her fist. "Why?"

He looked up, his pale eyes meeting hers. "Wasn't right." Brent replied. "At first, I just thought he was just keeping an eye on you, y'know? But he started asking for real personal stuff, and started pushing me to do stuff I didn't like."

"Like what?" Kerry asked.

Another shrug. "Doesn't matter now."

"Like spreading rumors about me and some tall, dark haired guy here in the office?"

Brent studied his shoes.

"How much did you get paid for that one?" Kerry asked, her tone sharpening. "Do you know what I would have done to you if Andy had found out people were saying that?"

The pale eyes lifted uneasily. "Didn't know." Brent said. "I just figured you did what everyone else does, you know?"

Kerry exhaled. That was, she had to acknowledge, true enough. She had only to spend a few minutes in the lunchroom and listen to the gossip of the day to know that. "Well I don't." She told him. "But I don't know why I should be mad at you, either. You were just doing what some old bastard paid you to do."

Brent's head popped up and he looked at her, obviously startled.

"Why did you come with us to the Navy base?" Kerry asked, getting up and walking around her desk. Brent leaned back in his chair uneasily as she approached. "Another spy mission? Maybe you were the one who was responsible for those bastards coming after us. Maybe you were the one who put us all in danger."

"" Brent's eyes widened. "No, no way. Not me." He held his hands up, palms out. "I was scared out my ass out there, no fooling."

Kerry's eyes narrowed, and she moved closer, then realized Brent was actually cringing back from her.

From her. Kerry's sense of self almost whiplashed back onto itself. The little wiener was actually scared, physically scared, of her.

Her. Kerry Stuart. It was almost funny, and it distracted her enough to make her back off, and perch on the edge of her desk, arms folded over her chest as she regarded her victim. "Then why did you go?"

Brent stared down at his shoes. "I wanted to see what the hell she was going to do." He finally said, grudgingly.

"Who?" Kerry's brow creased. "You mean , Dar?"

He nodded.

Kerry rubbed her temples. "I don't understand you."

"S'allright. I don't understand you much, Ms. Stuart." Brent replied stolidly. "I don't understand how someone as normal looking as you could be doing what you do. It's not right."

Kerry looked down at the carpet, counting to ten silently under her breath. "Brent." She said, when she finished. "Get the fuck out of my office before I throw you out." The sentence came out in one long burst. "I'm not going to fire you only because I don't have any legal grounds to, but if you know what's good for you, you'll find a job somewhere else, quickly."

And he got up and left, never turning around to look at her, just going through the door and closing it behind him and leaving silence in his wake. Kerry felt like she was short of breath, so she slowly circled her desk and sat down, pressing the heels of her hands into her head as shivers made their way through her body.

She heard the inner door open, and knew without looking who entered, as the footsteps quickened towards her.


Dar's hand on her back felt very warm. She lifted her head off her hands and turned it, opening her eyes to see Dar's very concerned visage not far from her nose. "Hi."

"You okay?" Dar actually knelt at her side, somehow managing to remain balanced and graceful despite her skirt and heels and the sling on her arm. "Ker?"

Kerry studied Dar's face seriously. "Dar, you know something?"

"What?" Her lover touched an anxious hand to her forehead.

"Life really sucks sometimes." Kerry exhaled weightily. "That little puissant bastard Brent was spying for my father."

Both of Dar's eyebrows jerked straight up and her blue eyes opened very wide. "What??" Abruptly she jerked to her feet and reached for the phone. "That slimy piece of..."

"Buh buh buh..." Kerry grabbed the long fingers groping for her buttons. "Whoa... whoa... hang on.. hang on... "

"No I will not hang on. I'm going to call Mark and have him shoved into a mainframe multidisc packing box and tossed down the garbage chute." Dar growled fiercely, wrenching her hand free and scrabbling for the phone. "Hell, I'll do it myself..."

"Dar!" Kerry almost tackled her, wrapping her arms around Dar's restlessly moving body and physically holding her still. It was like trying to hold a racehorse in one place and she felt herself almost lifted off the ground as she hung on. "Honey, now stop, okay? I already told him to find employment elsewhere."

"I don't want him to find another job. I want him to find another plane of existence." Her boss snarled. "Spying for your father? Squealing on you on MY payroll? Like hell. I want him out of this damn building by the time I get.. "

"HEY!" Kerry hollered the word at the top of her voice. Surprisingly, that worked, bringing both the motion and the vocal ramblings to a halt. Now, only Dar's nostrils flared, in time with the restless twitching of the muscles in her face. "Easy." She gently rubbed Dar's stomach through the silk of her shirt, feeling the surface moving in quick, short jerks. "Easy, there tiger."

Dar let out a hissing breath. "Sorry." She bit off the word, as the red faded from her vision and the scarily savage temper tantrum eased, leaving her shaking a bit. "Wow. How was that for over the top, eh?"

"I think we're both a little overstressed." Kerry said, in a quiet voice. "Are you all right?" She knew the answer, though, as the body wrapped in her arms relaxed, and Dar's breathing slowed and steadied. "That's better... whew. This is not a good way to start the week, sweetheart."

"Mm." Dar grunted in agreement. "Okay, so you took care of him, right?"

"Right." Kerry kept up her slow stroking of Dar's body. "Now, why are you all charged up?"

"I just threw Jeff Ainsbright out of my office." Dar told her. "And I have a marketing meeting in twenty minutes with Eleanor and Jose." A paused. "And my arm hurts." She muttered, as almost an afterthought.

Kerry straightened Dar's sling with careful fingers. "Okay. So it's a sucky day. How about we go share some nice herbal tea before your meeting, and make a date for a candelight dinner under the stars in our swing later on?"

"Hmm." Dar hummed in approval. "All right. I like that plan. Let's implement it." She backed off and let Kerry move out from behind her desk, then followed her to the office door.


"Whew." Kerry took the small towel and wiped the sweat off her face as she ambled over to watch Dar peacefully doing sit ups. Her lover was using the roman chair, hooking her ankles under the padded bars and extending her body backwards over open air. Kerry only just resisted the urge to stroke the exposed, muscular thighs or give Dar's glistening abs a tickle.

"Finish your circuit?" Dar asked, not pausing her even motion. She was holding her injured arm in place with her good hand.

"Mmhm." Kerry nodded. "Can't you tell from the steam coming off me?" She held her arms out, glancing down at her drenched form with a wry grin. "Feels good, though. I worked off some of my frustration on the leg press."

Dar regarded her fondly, noting the more relaxed expression on Kerry's face. She pulled herself upright and unhooked her ankles, then stood up and stretched her body out, appreciating the minor ache of well used muscles. Not being able to use her arm was annoying, but she'd found enough things to do that didn't require the limb to allow her some satisfaction with the night's workout.

And god, she'd needed it. The two meetings she'd had that afternoon had left her tied in knots of frustration, and for the first time in a while she'd found herself really looking forward to burning off some of the twitchy energy in the clean confines of the island's gym.

Not that she really minded exercising - she didn't. But she did it out of a sense of personal responsibility, and the knowledge that somewhere down the line, she'd have to pay for it if she didn't. Kerry's presence had made the task enjoyable, in fact, but Dar had never been one of those people who eagerly joined the gym crowd and got carried along with the recent trend to fitness.

She liked being strong, though. She liked the sense of presence and power she knew she projected and the fact that she knew she could take care of herself, and Kerry too if she needed to. It felt good. Dar regarded the gym thoughtfully. Now if she could only get this damn shoulder fixed. "Feel like a swim?" She indicated the indoor, heated pool.

"Sure." Kerry agreed. She followed Dar towards the changing room, exchanging pleasant nods with the few other residents who chose to take advantage of the gym. Two of them she knew casually, from mutual trips to the island's market and other various meetings. One of the other men, a tall, red haired guy about her age had persistently tried to get her to go out until Kerry kindly sat him down one day and explained that her dark haired, good looking workout partner wasn't actually the sister he assumed her to be.

Then he'd asked both of them out.

Kinky. Kerry shook her head as she unlocked the cedar wood locker she and Dar shared, and removed her swimsuit from it's hook next to her lover's. "Want some help with that sling?"

"Yeah." Dar unwrapped the terrycloth weighted wrist wraps from her arms and tucked them inside the locker, then ducked her head as Kerry unfastened her sling and gently removed it. Slowly, she allowed her arm to straighten, lowering it to her side and flexing the muscles carefully. "Eh."

"How is it?" Kerry eased the cutoff sleeveless shirt over Dar's head and peered at the skin around her shoulder. The bruising had faded some, going from livid dark blue and purple to a more moderate dull ochre. "Hm.. you know, that looks better. Did Dr. Steve call you about the xrays?"

Dar nodded. "Yeah." She folded her shirt and put it in the bag they kept for laundry. "He said it was really hard to tell if there was more damage or not, that'd have to wait for the MRI." She shucked off her gym shorts and unhooked her suit. "Give me a hand?"

"Well." Kerry obligingly assisted in putting her lover's suit on. "I'd rather take off your clothing than put it on, but you look good in red, so I won't complain." She gave the shoulder strap of the simple but bold one piece a snap, then busied herself putting on her own swimsuit.

She felt Dar's fingers untangle her hair from her suit strap as she adjusted it, and she turned her head to see the fond gaze looking back at her. "What?"

"So, you going to tell me what Dr. Steve had to say to you?" Dar inquired, with a faint smile. She handed Kerry her towel as they closed the locker and made their way towards the glassed in pool, opening the door to a blast of chlorinated air.

Kerry sighed. "Nothing I didn't expect to hear." She evaded the question, mildly chagrined at the chastising she'd taken from the kindly Dr. Steve. "I told you my family's prone to low blood sugar."

"Uh huh." Dar hung her towel on the towel rack and plunged stolidly down the steps into the water, moving through it as though she fully expected it to part before her. "And?"

Kerry dove into the deep end, using the excuse of being eight feet under water to give her a chance to compose her answer before she surfaced and shook the wet hair out of her eyes. "And?" She swam over to where Dar was relaxing against the wall. "And I have to watch what I eat and when I eat it, and not let stress wear me out." She shrugged, glancing up to see Dar's steady, blue gaze resting evenly on her face.

One eye brow lifted, just slightly.

Fishturds. Kerry exhaled. "More than it already has." She leaned against the wall next to Dar. "I have a little problem with my blood pressure, too."

"Yeah, I know." Dar remarked mildly. "He called me first."

Kerry put her hands on her hips and turned, staring at her in mild outrage. "What?" She blurted. "What happened to patient confidentiality?"

Dar's lips twitched into a small grin. "He also asked me to see if I could get you to stop calling every hour to check on my xrays."

Kerry had taken an indignant breath to continue her mock tirade, and this just made her let it out, a blush covering her face. "Well. I was worried." She muttered, folding her arms across her chest and resuming her slump against the wall.

"Don't be mad at him." Dar bumped her with a shoulder. "He always treats his married patients like that. Figures they come as a package deal."

Sea green eyes flicked to Dar's face. "Well, we sort of agreed I had a reason to be so stressed this week. He wants me to come back next month for more tests. Then if things still look icky, we'll have to talk about drugs or whatever." Kerry splashed the water a little. "So I need to get back to my regular routine life, because damn it, Dar, I'm too young to start taking half a dozen pills a day."

"Right." Dar agreed. "Even if I have to fire you."

Kerry gave her a startled look. "What?"

"You heard me." Her lover replied. "If you think for one second I'm going to stand by and let ILS make you sick, you're crazy, Kerry. I'll fire you first, and then I'll quit, and we can go cruising in the Carribbean for six months together."

Oo. Kerry could almost taste the pina colada. "But I like work." She said. "So do you."

Dar eased in front of her and gave her a serious look. "I like the idea of cutting loose and living life with you more." She replied honestly. "I mean it, Ker. We've been talking about running our own business from a laptop on the bow of the boat, I'm ready for it, if that's what you want to do."

Wow. Kerry slowly let her breath out, ruffling the surface of the water as she thought about the idea. "I'm going to have to take a while and think about this, Dar." She said quietly. "That's a big decision."

"Uh huh." Privately, Dar didn't really consider it to be a very big decision at all, but she did understand that Kerry, newly promoted and newly minted in her career, might feel very differently than Dar, who'd spent the better part of fifteen years in the whirlwind they worked inside. "Just an option." She added lightly, leaning over and kissing Kerry on the nose. "Did you say we had a surprise for dinner?"

Kerry set the new thoughts aside for later reflection, and concentrated on the here and now. "Yes." She grinned at Dar. "Something very simple, yet very, very decadent."

"Oh really?" Dar grinned back. "Color me intrigued."

The stars twinkled overhead in a crisp black sky, as a night breeze cooled by a touch of winter blew over the porch. The promised candles were certainly there, hooded from the breeze but letting off the warm smell of scented wax.

Dar and Kerry were seated in their swing chair together, a large bowl between them and a bottle on the table nearby. "You're right." Dar sighed in utter contentment, selecting another piece of their dinner and dipping it into melted butter. "Very simple." She sucked the meat off the bit of stone crab claw. "And very, very decadent."

"Mm." Kerry agreed, taking a sip from her glass of champagne, and offering Dar some. "Two pounds of stone crabs, and a bottle of bubbly. Can't get any simpler than that." She worried a piece of crab off for herself, and dipped it first into the butter, then into the spicy cocktail sauce before she popped it into her mouth and chewed appreciatively.

"You forgot to mention the flan over there for dessert." Dar sipped the champagne, feeling the pleasant bite of the drink slide down her throat and clear the rich taste of the crab from it. She held out the glass and Kerry obligingly refilled it, emptying the bottle in the process. "Oh oh.. did we finish the whole damn thing?"

"Yes." Kerry put the bottle down and went back to her shell cracker, feeling a definite buzz. "Got another bottle on ice too." Being just a little drunk felt much better than she'd expected, diffusing the lingering anxiety and allowing her to relax fully against Dar's warm body.

She found a piece of stone crab brushing her lips, covered in butter and she accepted it, sucking the messy sauce off her lips and Dar's fingers, as a low chuckle rumbled through her. The next piece was presented between Dar's teeth, and she shared it willingly, tasting the spices and lingering as Dar showed no desire to move.

Kerry circled Dar's neck with one arm and pulled her closer, deepening her kiss as she felt Dar's touch lightly against the skin of her face. They spent a few moments indulging in each other, then parted, trading knowing, darkened gazes. "You know something?" Kerry finally murmured, hearing the husky note in her voice that made her blush slightly.

"I know a few things." Dar purred. "One of which is that I intend on dipping every square inch of your body into that butter sauce and licking it off."

Kerry turned an appealing shade of crimson. "Oh lord, that wasn't what I expected you to say." She covered her face with one hand.

They both started laughing. "That's what you get for pouring a half bottle of champagne down my throat." Dar admitted, leaning her head against Kerry's and snickering. "You should try that at office parties... boy, would I ever be the life of them then."

Kerry burst into a helpless giggling.

"Picture me saying that to Jose." Dar rambled on. "He'd probably keel over and end up with his head in the punch bowl."

Kerry almost snorted the sip of champagne she'd taken out her nose. She put the glass down and just laughed and laughed, finally winding down to a trickle of chuckles. "You know, I needed that."

"Mm." Dar had her eyes closed, and she was nuzzling Kerry's neck. "Me too. C'mere."

"Gladly." Kerry set their shared bowl down on the table and moved fully into Dar's embrace, letting the swing wind them closer together and abandoning herself to the surge of sensual passion that fairly swamped her senses.


A gray stripe of dawn crept it's way across the boldly colored comforter draped over the two intertwined bodies in the center of the bed. It peeked over the edge of a long, tanned arm and skittered across a bare, paler shoulder, slinking through rich golden blond hair before it came up short in a deep blue reflection that greeted it.

Dar blinked sleepily at the intruder laying it's impudent finger across Kerry's cheek. Damn blinds. She peered resentfully at the window, identifying the twisted bit of aluminum that was not doing it's job and permitting the stripe access. It was, she fully recognized, time for them to get up, but that thought didn't prod her to stir an inch from her comfortable nest there in the middle of the waterbed, with Kerry's deeply asleep body draped over her. She decided it was much nicer to simply lay still and watch her lover doze, her face and form completely relaxed. Kerry's arm was lying over Dar's stomach, and Dar lifted her hand and folded her fingers over Kerry's, smiling a little as the blond woman's grip tightened instinctively even in sleep.

Kerry could use a few more minutes, Dar decided, studying the still visible lines of strain that creased her lover's expressive face and shadowed her eyes. Hell. She decided, remembering Dr. Steve's concern the day before, to remain snuggled in bed until Kerry woke naturally, regardless of the busy schedule the both had planned for the day.

Dar, the doctor had told her, if I had the pressure readings she did today, they'd have put me in Jackson. The voice echoed in her subconscious, making Dar's brow furrow. Could she just force Kerry to take time off? Sure, she could, but Dar wasn't sure it was a good idea, much less something she could get away with.

Ironic. All those arguments with her mother about allowing her father to make his own choices in life, when it came to his health, and life. Dar had to grimace a little in self acknowledgement. Boy, does love change things, or what? She felt Kerry take a slightly deeper breath and stir, nestling closer with a soft murmur of contentment. An intense, fierce urge to protect her lover fought viciously against the knowledge she had that Kerry was an adult woman, intelligent, competent, and fully capable of making her own decisions about herself, her life, and her future.

Rats. Dar scowled at the ceiling. Rats, rats, cats and fruit bats.

"Honey?" Kerry's sleepy drawl interrupted her.

"Mm?" Dar cocked her head and regarded her adorable blanket.

"Why are you growling?" Kerry inquired.

Dar sighed. "Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you up." She forced herself to relax. "Go on back to sleep."

A green iris appeared, peeking up at her over the curve of her breast. "And be late for work?" Kerry inquired. "What will I tell my boss?" She squeezed Dar's fingers lightly. "I could get in a lot of trouble for this."

Dar's face creased into a grin, making her eyes twinkle. "Tell your boss to kiss your ass."

Kerry started laughing softly. "She'd enjoy it."

"Shall we test that theory?" Dar started to sit up, carrying Kerry with her, and started laughing as the blond woman scrambled to pin her back down, carefully handling her injured shoulder.

"Ah ah ah!!!" Kerry managed to gain the upper hand, mostly by simply sitting on Dar's abdomen and pinning her upper arms down.

"Mm." Dar enjoyed the view of her lover's naked body. "On second thought, I can think of other places to kiss."

"Oh, you can, can you?" Kerry glanced down. "Well, so can I, now that you mention it." She licked her lips, then almost jumped as a cold nose touched her arm "Yahh!"

"Growf." Chino wagged her tail gently.

Kerry ruffled the dog's fur and sighed. "Guess it is time to get up, huh?"

Dar studied her face for a moment. "Nope." She tensed her muscles and heaved, rolling onto her side and tossing a shocked Kerry off her and back into the mess of covers. Then she pounced on top of her, rolling her up in a tangle of arms and legs and comforter. "Gotcha."

Kerry reviewed her prison, and decided she very much liked it. She snuggled deeper into Dar's embrace with a little grunt of pleasure, and exhaled, allowing the scent of clean laundry and Dar's skin surround her. It felt so nice and safe here. She knew nothing could get at her, and no one could hurt her, here in this place that was hers, and hers alone. She felt Dar start to gently rub the back of her neck and her eyes fluttered closed as she responded to the familiar touch. "You got me, all right." She mumbled into Dar's skin. "How'd I get so lucky?"

The touch stroked her cheek, then, unexpectedly, a low, vibrant voice surrounded her in gentle melody, singing the song Dar had sung at their wedding ceremony. Kerry held her breath in delight, listening to every note with a sense of wonder until the voice faded out on the last one, the faintest echo trailing after it.

"Oh." Kerry laid her head on Dar's belly, and gazed up at her in total adoration. "That's so beautiful."

Dar blushed slightly, and shrugged a bit. "It was supposed to make you go back to sleep." She scowled engagingly.

"Hm." Kerry obediently closed her eyes. "Maybe if you sing it again?"

And sure enough, Kerry felt the sweet music lift her up and take her away, coaxing her back into slumber with very little effort.

Dar felt Kerry's body slump against hers and she finished her song, idly playing with a lock of pale hair as she bemusedly considered her decent into utter mushdom. She turned her head and glanced at Chino, who was resting her muzzle on the waterbed's bolster, giving her a soulful look. "What do you think, have I turned into a softie?"

Chino's tail wagged, and she licked Dar's arm affectionately.

"Yeah? I sure have, huh?" Dar stroked the dog's head with one hand, and returned Kerry's clasp with the other. "Is that because I love my family, Chino? You and Kerry? Are you my family?"

Chino hopped up onto the bed and settled down next to Dar, rocking the surface of the water bed as she snuggled up against Dar's left side.

"I guess that's a yes." Dar reviewed her adorable blond clan, with a feeling of quiet satisfaction. "My family." She repeated. "Y'know, I think I like that."

Peace settled over the room, as the dawn light spread into the rosy glow of sunrise. Chino sighed. Kerry mumbled something in her sleep.

"Maybe I'll take up knitting." Dar addressed the air seriously. Then she yelped as a very sensitive part of her anatomy was gently, but firmly gripped in neat, white teeth and nibbled. "Yow!"

Chino's head popped up in alarm. Kerry chuckled, and settled back down to nap. "Knit that, granny." She burred. "Your family loves you too."

"Hey Ker." Colleen stuck her head inside Kerry's office, spotting her target entrenched behind her desk and monitor.

"Hey." Kerry looked up in surprise. "What brings you here?"

Colleen took this as permission to enter, and she did, crossing the floor and seating herself opposite Kerry. She was dressed in a well tailored business suit, and looked somewhat more formal than Kerry was used to seeing her. "A job interview."

Kerry's jaw almost dropped. "What?"

Her friend grinned. "You heard me. You guys were advertising for a payables manager, so.." She lifted both hands. "Here I am to apply."

"B... when's your interview? Who are you interviewing with, Lou Draefus?" Kerry spluttered. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I just had it." Colleen advised her, with a smile. "And I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to put a fix in for me, which I figured you could."

Kerry just looked at her. "I wouldn't have had to. You're more than qualified, Col."

Colleen nodded. "I know - so were you." She exchanged wry looks with Kerry. "Don't be mad. I really just decided to do it at the last minute a few days ago, when you were out of town. Call me impulsive."

"I didn't think you wanted to work for us." Kerry leaned back, trying to absorb the news. "But I'm glad you did it go?"

Colleen's eyes twinkled. "I start two weeks from yesterday."

Kerry laughed. "You wench! Get out of here!" She was glad, though. Life had been so hectic the last few months, she'd lost touch with Colleen, and found herself missing her friend's cheerful Irish good nature. "That's great, Col. At least we'll get to see each other now."

"I was thinking the same thing." Colleen agreed. "Matter of fact, you up for lunch, or do they feed you under the door in this mausoleum?" She teased.

Lunch. Kerry glanced at her PC's clock. "Ah.. it is that time of the day, isn't it? I was waiting for Dar to get back from her client briefing. Hang on." Kerry popped a message box up and typed into it, then hit send. Moments later an answer came back. "Ouch. Dar's stuck on an overseas conference call." A few more keystrokes, then Kerry stood up and pulled her jacket from it's perch on her chair and slipped it on. "C'mon, let's go down. She'll join us if she finishes up."

They left Kerry's office and walked down the hallway to the elevators. Mark joined them a moment later, pulling the sleeves down on his coat. "Hey, Kerry."

"Hey. We're headed down to lunch.. you going?" Kerry greeted him cordially. "What's up?"

Mark gave her a wry look. "Brent resigned."

"Ah." Kerry felt a vindictively sharp sense of satisfaction. She had no intention of letting anyone else know of Brent's second job, though she figured Mark suspected something had gone on between them, but she couldn't keep a grim smile from crossing her face.

They entered the elevator and let the doors close. "So." Mark cleared his throat. "How are ya, Colleen? Long time no see."

Colleen glanced at Kerry, then nodded. "That's about to change. They just hired me on here, in accounting." She told Mark. "I finally succumbed and was assmiliated."

Mark chuckled. "Yeah? Cool. Wait, we can stop on ten and get you your implants." He glanced down at the carpet, then looked furtively at Kerry. "How's the boss doing? Arm any better?"

"A little, yeah." Kerry was glad to shift the subject. "I have to take her over to get an MRI after work, and she was griping about that, which in a way is good because it means she's feeling better." She told them, as the doors opened on the bottom floor.

They joined a crowd moving towards the café, and Kerry found herself relaxing and looking forward to the lunchtime talk with her companions. It had been a good morning, and she'd been very pleased with the status reports at her operations meeting. Her projects were on schedule, and the two tough issues she'd been struggling over before she'd left for Michigan had cleared, almost like magic.

Things were good. Kerry paused, waiting for her food to be handed over the counter to her, and glanced around the large room, exchanging smiles with several people and returning a wave from Mariana.

Yeah. Kerry thanked the server for her arroz con pollo and tostones and put it on her tray, then selected a bottle of cranberry juice and joined Mark at the register. "We need to have a side meeting about the resources for Dar's project X." She reminded the MIS Director. "I want to have those budget projections ready by next week."

"You got it." Mark grinned at her. "Hey. Glad you're back." He picked up his tray and went in search of a table for them.

"This place isn't half bad." Colleen complimented her, setting down her tray of pepper steak over rice. "One heck of a lot better than the bank, I"ll say that."

"Sure." Kerry paid for both of their lunches in one smooth swipe of her credit card. "Dar eats here. One thing she will not put up with is bad food." She lead Colleen over to the table Mark had staked out and set her tray down, then slid into a seat.

"Hey, did you hear about that hacker attack on Microsoft's website?" Mark asked, taking up a forkful of rice.

"Another one?" Kerry had to chuckle. "No, tell me about it."

Dar listened to the argument coming through her speaker phone, idly surfing as she sifted through the various viewpoints of the international operations group. Unlike her domestic division, the international entities were used to local self control, and generally resisted attempts to change their ways coming from her office.

Or, Dar clicked over to and browsed the banner ads, at least they did initially. Her first couple of meetings with them as CIO hadn't been pretty, and two international managers had resigned in a huff, only to recind their resignation several days later when Dar didn't immediately fly overseas to plead with them not to.

Oo. Dar clicked on a link to Godiva chocolate. Holiday specials. I like holiday specials. "No." She glanced at the phone and interjected for the first time in several minutes. "We're not investing in that much infrastructure if we have to bring it in from here. Find local suppliers."

"But Dar, I tell you it's not possible." The expected protest replied. "Everything's in very short supply here! It will cost us a fortune!"

"Shipping and customs from here will cost me a fortune." Dar retorted. "We've got contracts that stipulate we provision locally, and you know it, so get off your ass and go find the stuff."

There was a moment's silence on the line, and she returned her attention and clicked through the website. "Mm." She spotted a box of truffles she suspected Kerry would die for, and put them in her electronic shopping cart. Then she clicked over to a site which featured high tech desk toys, and browsed the stress relief section. "Well?" She barked at the phone.

"I'll see what I can do." The resigned answer came back.

"Dar." Another voice interjected. "We've been told we're subject to power outages for the next month."

Click, click. Dar ordered two more items. "Yeah?" She threw the word out. "And?"

A pause. "We'll have to shut down."

Dar glanced at the phone. "No you don't." She scowled. "Crank your generators up, David. What the hell do you think they're there for?"

"Well, we can't." David Elsmere admitted. "The big one's out of commission, and we're on a waiting list for the replacement parts."

Dar leaned forward, getting closer to the phone and deepening her voice. "And you waited until now to tell me this why, exactly?"

David paused awkwardly. "I thought the parts would get here."

A silent curse. "Send me a list." Dar growled.

"I thought we could not import things!" The first voice interrupted. "Is that not what you said, Dar?"

Dar felt her lip twitch into a snarl and she opened her mouth to answer, then closed it, pinched the bridge of her nose and counted to ten, picturing Kerry's face as she did so. Then she exhaled and opened her eyes. "You can send me a list too, Pierre." She replied in a pleasant tone. "As long as you don't mind me taking the handling fees out of your salary to send you what you need."

A grumpy silence followed. "Now, if you all are done whining, I've got another meeting to go to." Dar concluded. She listened to the grumbling assents, then released the line. "Yeah, yeah yeah." She sighed, and shook her head, finalizing her order online and sending it on it's way. Chocolates and a little Catbert and Ratbert stress beanbags, with a wall Velcro target would make a nice surprise present for Kerry, she decided, pleased with her choices.

"Okay. That's done." Dar reviewed her inbox, searching for a few more sticky issues Kerry was involved in that she could clear for her behind the scenes, and found none. "Guess that means lunch." She closed her mail program out and stood up, stretching her body out and flexing her hands. Her shoulder twinged a little, but not nearly as badly as it had a few days prior, and she found herself hoping she'd get away with little more than another prescription for therapy after her test later on.

Maybe she'd get really lucky, and something huge would break, making it necessary for her to cancel the appointment without getting scolded by Kerry.

Dar nibbled the inside of her lip as she headed for her office door.


"Lie down, please."

Dar exhaled in resignation, and did as she was asked, wincing as the cold table impacted the bare skin on her back. She watched unhappily as the technician arranged machinery over her and wished fervently she was elsewhere.

"Hey." Kerry appeared and leaned on the table, taking her hand and squeezing it. "This won't take long."

"It's already taking too long." Dar griped.

"Hm." Kerry leaned closer. "Okay, suppose I take your mind off it by asking you what the hell you thought you were doing getting involved in my projects?"

The distraction worked quite thoroughly. Dar turned her head away from the tech, and focused her attention completely on Kerry. "I was exercising my perogative as CIO of ILS to expedite technical issues I feel need expediting." She replied, quietly and precisely. "Do you have an issue with that?"

Kerry blinked, caught a little offguard by the response. "I could have handled those myself." She countered, with a touch more caution.

"Are you questioning my judgement?" Dar snapped right back, pinning her with a stare.

Kerry released her hand and straightened, stepping back a pace in reflex. "Hey. Sorry I brought it up." She replied quietly. "Never mind. Thanks for the help."

Dar glanced away, then back at her, with shadowed blue eyes. "I know you could have handled it, Kerry. I was just trying to take some of the stress off you, that's all." She said, shifting a little as the technician prepared to start the machine up.

Kerry backed out of the way, as the machine started it's work, swallowing a sick churning in her guts from pure emotional reaction. She was caught between indignation at Dar's intervention, and the intellectual knowledge that Dar was, in fact, absolutely correct about her right to do what she did.

She watched Dar's hands curl into fists as the machine made noise. She could see the tension making the tendons stand out along her lover's arms. Jesus, Kerry. She quietly chastised herself. She did you a favor, okay? Chill the hell out and just be grateful she cares so damn much about you.

The machine stopped, and the tech swung it away, then repositioned something. "Be right back." He patted Dar on the shoulder before he walked over to the console.

Kerry edged back over to the table. She waited for Dar to turn her head and look at her, the blue eyes wary and somewhat cool. "Sorry." She murmured. "That was over the line and disrespectful, and I apologize." She paused for a breath. "Boss."

Dar's nostrils twitched, and she blinked, a tiny shiver of motion going down her mostly bare body as she relaxed. One brow lifted slightly. "Yeah, well.. it's not like professional motives were behind it anyway." She admitted, peeking up at Kerry's face. "But I'm not apologizing for doing it, and don't ask me to promise not to do it again."

Kerry gazed at her, admiring Dar's complete self confidence and utter sense of presence despite being half naked on a hospital bench with little bits of tape sticking to her. "Okay." She replied softly, as the tech started back over to them. She lifted Dar's hand up and kissed the back of her hands, maintaining eye contact with her. "Thank you for caring, Dar."

This time, the blue eyes watched her as she backed off, never leaving her face as the machine whirred and clanked and buzzed. Kerry smiled a little, and watched a twinkle enter Dar's gaze and her knotted insides relaxed from their unexpected conflict. Okay. She exhaled in relief. We're okay. The thought of being estranged from Dar right now...

Terrified her. Kerry acknowledged soberly, folding her arms over her chest and feeling the tremor in her hands as she tucked them against her body.

"Hey." Dar's voice broke the mechanical whisperings. Kerry looked up at her in question. "C'mere." The dark haired woman requested.

Seeing that the test was over, Kerry complied, leaning up against the padded table again as the technician pulled away the MRI machinery. "Yes, ma'am?"

Dar lifted her good arm and touched Kerry's cheek. "There is nothing I would not do to protect you, Kerry. Even if that means you get mad at me." She said, very gently. "So, please. Just trust me, okay? I do know what I'm doing."

Trust you. Kerry gazed down at her thoughtfully. "The last person I trusted to know what was best for me was my father." She replied. "That was a hard lesson to learn."

There was quiet compassion in Dar's eyes. "I'm not your father."

Kerry nodded. "I know. " She paused in silence, searching her heart. "And I do trust you. I always have." She helped Dar sit up and hop off the table, adjusting to the change in their orientation as Dar suddenly towered over her. "Dar?"

"Mm?" Dar looked up from her task of easing her shirt back on.

"Why is it we choose weird places in hospitals to have these little heart to heart chats?" Kerry asked wryly, taking over the task of buttoning, aware of the covert glances from the staff on the other side of the room.

"You started it." Dar answered, with a tiny chuckle. "Hey, at least it kept me from thinking about that stupid machine." She left her shirt untucked from her jeans, which Kerry helpfully fastened for her. "But we could go someplace quiet and continue the discussion, if you want - there's a little outdoor café near here that I used to hang out at."

"Sure." Kerry readily agreed. "That sounds great, but we don't have to continue the subject." She tucked a hand around Dar's arm. "Do you need to stay and talk to the doctor?"

"No." Dar shook her head. "She's not here. She said she'd review the results and call me tomorrow." Gravely, she accepted a slip of paper from the technician, and they left, making their way out of the labyrinth of corridors and out into the cool, clear South Florida night.

Kerry fit her hand into Dar's as they walked along the sidewalk, content to follow where Dar led her, as the strains of latin music echoed through the night air.

Kerry sat back and took a sip of her beer, as they waited for their dinner to be delivered. She found herself liking the little café, which was more a burger joint than pasta fagoli type of place. But then, knowing Dar, and knowing how she'd grown up, that should not have surprised Kerry. Here, the menu featured double cheeseburgers and onion rings, milk shakes and chili dogs, and the healthiest thing she could find was the lettuce and tomato as a promised burger garnish.

Ah well. But the beer was good, cold, and on tap, and she slid down a little in her chair, crossing her ankles and resting her elbows on the scarred wooden arms. "This place has been around a long time." She noted, eyeing the sign on the wall. "Established 1965."

"Yeap." Dar hooked a leg over her chair arm and rested her head against it's back, with a relaxed smile on her face. "Dad and I used to come down here sometimes, after he picked me up from martial arts practice." She reflected idly on that sweeter, simpler time. "They used to have a punching bag machine up at the front of the place, and the guys that hung out here would take turns trying to get the highest score on it, placing bets and stuff - you know."

Kerry exhaled, and shook her head a little. "No, I don't." She told Dar. "I was never even in a bar until I went to college." She turned her glass in her hand and viewed the deep golden liquid. "My father wouldn't have stepped foot in a place like this."

Dar watched her quietly. "Well." She availed herself of the basket of salsa and warm chips the server had put down. "Y'know, maybe it was the age difference that mattered too, Ker. Dad and I are a lot closer in years than you were with your father."

Kerry considered that thoughtfully. "Maybe." She shrugged. "But to be honest, I don't think it would have made one bit of difference, Dar. We had nothing in common, and he never viewed me as anything other than a pawn in his big old game." She gave the server a smile as he put down a platter in front of her with a pair of chili cheese dogs and a pile of French fries. "Thanks."

"My pleasure, little lady." The man cheerfully told her, his grizzled beard creasing into a smile. "Want a refill on the suds?"

"Sure." Kerry handed her empty glass back, then turned to watch Dar carefully centering her cheeseburger platter, pushing the fries to one side and edging the pile of toppings out of the way. "In fact, you know I never even had fast food until I left home for college?"

Dar looked up. "You're kidding?"

"Nope." Kerry shook her head and picked up a chili dog, biting into it's end with relish. She put it down and wiped her fingers and mouth with a paper napkin as she chewed the messy treat.

"What you didn't miss." Dar munched a french fry. "We could live that way, though - if you really want to. "

Kerry gave her a look.

"Just making the offer." Dar smiled. "It took me such a long time to get used to having money. We were always just scraping by when I was growing up - I remember just looking at my pay stub when they promoted me to VP and totally not believing what the damn thing said."

"Did you celebrate?" Kerry took another bite of her hot dog.

Dar's gaze unfocused, and she stared off into the distance for a few seconds. "No." She finally said, bringing her eyes back to Kerry's face. "At that point in my life, I had no friends, really, to celebrate with. I think I opened a bottle of champagne and just went down to the beach by myself." A thoughtful pause. "It was so meaningless, at the time. Just one of my goals achieved by whatever means I felt necessary."

The server came back with Kerry's beer, and put it down, then put down a basket of onion rings. He gave them both a grin, then left.

Kerry picked up a hot ring and put it on Dar's plate. "You know what I think?"

"What?" Dar accepted the offering and picked it up, twirling it around her index finger.

"I think our present, and our future are one hell of a lot better than either of our pasts." Kerry lifted her glass, and held it up. "And for that, I'm grateful to God, and to you."

Dar went very still for an instant, then she exhaled and put the ring down, lifting her root beer up and touching her glass to Kerry's. "Likewise."

They both smiled, and took sips.

"Now." Kerry put her glass down and nibbled on a fry. "I think we were planning an island beach party, weren't we? Like, for this weekend? Because let me tell you, I could sure use a good party."

Dar grinned. "I think that could be arranged." She took a bite out of her onion ring. "And after going down to the base on Friday when Gerry announces the outsourcing, I bet I'll be in need of a party myself." She took another bite, enjoying the crisp, spicy batter. "Won't be pretty."

"No." Kerry studied her lover intently. "There's really no going back after that, is there?"

Dar shook her head. No going back. She would cross the line from the kid that grew up on the base to the bitch who ripped it apart, all in the space of the time it took for Gerald Easton to make the announcement. Part of her honestly mourned the knowledge. A more perverse part of her was looking forward to the moment, when she'd neatly select a vicious victory out of what must seem to Ainsbright and his group total failure.

"Can I come down there with you?" Kerry's soft voice interrupted her musing. "I'd like to be there."

Dar blinked. "Of course." She replied. "I wanted you to be there." A faint smile. "After all, I committed your entire operation to expanding by thirty five percent. "

Your operation. Kerry nodded a tiny bit in confirmation. "So you did." She agreed gravely. "And wait till you see the budget you're going to have to sign off on for me to pull this off for you." A grin.

Dar winced. "I'm in trouble, aren't I?"

"Oh yes, you most certainly are." Kerry wagged a finger at her.

Dar placed an onion ring on the finger, and lifted her glass. They clinked edges again, and smiled.

Dar glanced over her shoulder at the gathering twilight, and let out a sigh of satisfaction, flexing her hands and looking over the paper she'd been scribbling on. It was Wednesday, halfway to the party, she was almost done with work, and she had a pleasant night at the gym planned and waiting.

With some strawberries and cream to follow.

Now, if she could just get her damn shoulder to cooperate and heal, she'd be all right. Dar shifted, and experimentally lifted her arm, wincing as she reached halfway, and quickly putting it down again. Damn.

She fiddled with her pen, then sighed and went back to work, filling out a network plan with small notated symbols whose meaning was really only clear to Dar. The intercom buzzed, however, interrupting her. "Yes?"

"Dar, I have your doctor on line dos." Maria's voice filtered through.

Dar's lip curled up into a grimace, and she briefly considered pleading absence to avoid the call. "Put him through, Maria." She finally said, reluctantly. There was a click, then Dr. Steve's voice boomed into her office.

"Hey there, Dar!"

"Hi." Dar replied warily. "What's up?"

"Got your test results back." Dr. Steve said. "Thought maybe you'd be interested in hearing about them."

"Not really." Dar mumbled.

A soft laugh. "C'mon, now, Dar. When are you going to grow up and stop being so scared of us little old harmless MD's?"

"When you stop poking me with pins and putting me in machines to look at my insides." Dar answered, getting up and pacing a few steps to relieve a suddenly pent up tension. "Well?"

"Well what?" Dr. Steve replied innocently.

Dar glared at the phone in silence.

"Oh, so you do want to hear about it?" Her doctor teased. "Okay, okay, rugrat. It doesn't have to come off, so just sit your rump down and relax."

"Mmph." Dar took a seat on the edge of her desk. "But?"

"But nothing. Get your butt in for therapy, you little scaredy kitty, so you can get that arm fixed before it freezes like that."

Dar dropped her head back and gazed up at the vaulted ceiling of her office in utter relief. She'd been so damn sure she was headed for arthroscopic surgery, and had been steeling herself for that. "Thanks."

A chuckle. "Feel better now?"

"Yeah." Dar admitted. "My life didn't need any more complications at the moment."

"Mm. How's Kerry doing?" Dr. Steve asked.

How was Kerry doing? Dar considered the question. Kerry had gotten a good night's sleep the night before, and had woken Dar up that morning by tickling her half to death, her spirits apparently edging back towards their normal buoyancy. "I think she's doing all right." She told the doctor.

"You giving her plenty of TLC?" Dr. Steve asked.

Dar took a breath to answer, then looked up to see Kerry leaning against the doorsill, arms crossed, green eyes twinkling in amusement.

"I like to think so." Dar finally muttered, realizing she was blushing at being caught red handed, so to speak. She was saved by Kerry walking over and giving her a kiss on the cheek.

"Yes, she certainly is, Dr. Steve." Kerry announced. "Thanks for asking, but I feel better already, just getting back to work and my usual routine." She added firmly. "And spending time taking care of little partner here."

"Little?" Dar stood up and towered over her. "Listen, shrimp boat...."

"Hey.. that reminds me. Gumbo this weekend?" Kerry neatly circumvented the teasing. "Hey, Dr. Steve.. we're having a party this weekend, you interested?"

"Well, now, Kerry..." Dr. Steve demurred.

"My folks'll be there." Dar spoke up. "I know they'd love to have you by." She considered. "Are we going to have room on that island for all these people?"

"All right.. we'd love to come by, Dar." Dr. Steve said. "I"ll give your daddy a call, see what he's got up his sleeve for this here party. Now you go call that therapist, rugrat, right now!"

"I will." Dar promised, as he hung up. She looked up to see Kerry studying her with hopeful curiosity. "What?"

A look of uncertainty crossed Kerry's face. "I.. um.." Her eyes dropped, and she took a step back. "Nothing. I just came to see if you finished reviewing those budget requests."

Dar reached out and caught her arm, then she tugged Kerry back closer. "Damn." She murmured. "And here I was thinking you just wanted to find out if I was going to have my arm amputated."

Pale lashes fluttered, as Kerry blinked, then fastened her eyes on Dar's face. "I don't want you think I'm prying." She finally said quietly. "I think I went a little overboard there, right?"

Dar swiveled around and faced her, taking her other hand in her own. "No. What makes you say that?" She asked curiously. "I told you Dr Steve treats us like any other married couple. You think my mom wouldn't call up to ask about my dad?"

Kerry exhaled, and moved closer, bumping her thighs against Dar's knees. "I know. I just felt like I crossed a line yesterday, and I don't want to do that again."

Ah. Dar nibbled the inside of her lip. "That was work." She tried a faint shrug. "This isn't."

Kerry nodded, accepting that. "I know. It's hard to keep those parts of us separate sometimes." She admitted. "It used to be a lot easier, but lately... I have to keep reminding myself of how I'm supposed to act around you when we're here."

Dar had actually noticed that, in meetings especially. Kerry had started to interact with her during them as she normally would at home, and it had caused quite a few startled looks from the rest of the staff at the very least. The first few times it had thrown her for a loop a little, but she'd gotten used to it, just like the rest of them had, and now she found herself feeling uncomfortable with Kerry's awkward formality instead.

"Relax." Dar reassured her lover, with a smile. "I like it when you act like we're home."

Kerry blinked. "You do?" She hesitated. "But yesterday..."

"But yesterday, you caught me naked on a hospital table and I guarantee I'd have snapped at you if all you asked me was for an extra allocation of toilet paper for the staff bathroom." Dar reminded her. "Listen, we don't usually have a problem."

Kerry relaxed a little. "I know." She squeezed Dar's hands. "It was just a reality check." She glanced around the office. "I think we lose track of things sometimes. Like what if someone walked in right now?"

Dar glanced at the door, then back at her. "Anyone who walked in here without knocking first would have a lot more to worry about than seeing you and I holding hands." She stated flatly.

"Dar." Kerry had to laugh a bit.

"I'm very serious." Her boss insisted.

"I know." Kerry gave in and leaned against her. "It's been a long day, and I've been a very good nerd since early this morning. Can we go play now?"

Dar kissed her head. "We sure can."

They were both silent for a moment, then Kerry sighed. "I'm sorry. I think I'm still a little out of it." She murmured, resting her head against Dar's shoulder. "Can I have a hug?"

Easiest request she'd had all day. Dar stood up and put her arms around Kerry, hugging her close and rubbing her back through the soft silk of her blouse. "I don't know about you, but I can't wait for the weekend to be here."

"Mm." Kerry nodded against her chest. "For your birthday party."

"Christmas party." Dar corrected instantly.

One green eye appeared. "Christmas doesn't rate double fudge mousse cheesecake." She stated. "I guess we'll have to settle for fruitcake, huh?"

Dar gave her a pathetically wounded look. "Fruitcake!" She stuck her tongue out. "Might as well serve bran muffins." She groaned. "Keeerryyy..."

"Oh, stop that." Kerry started laughing as she lifted a hand to cover her lover's mouth. "Of course I'm going to make your BIRTHDAY CAKE." She pronounced loudly. "And get you a BIRTHDAY CARD, and make sure everyone here sings you HAPPY BIRTHDAY."

Dar smiled against the palm covering her lips. She waited for Kerry to remove her hand, then she leaned over and kissed her lover gently on the lips. "I know." She rested her forehead against Kerry's. "You know, I think I'm looking forward to that. Have you heard my father sing?"

Kerry shook her head. "No, no I haven't Does he sing like you?" She found herself fascinated with Dar's thick eyelashes, watching them contrast against her tanned skin and pale, icy eyes.

"Mmhm. Just don't get him started on tavern songs." Dar kissed her again, just for the sheer pleasure of it. "You know, like 'Sixteen pirates on a dead man's chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.." She broke into song, her strong voice dropping into an eardrum vibrating note on the last word.

"Oo." Kerry wriggled against her. "I love when you do that."

Dar's eyebrow lifted. "I love when you do that." She stole another kiss, then had to reluctantly remind herself she was sitting in her office, and all her proclamations to the contrary, anyone really could walk in.

Not fair. "All right, let's pack it in, and get going." Dar gave her a pat on the arm. "Before something else breaks and we get stuck here."

Kerry licked her lips thoughtfully. "I could bring down Plano's front end processors." She offered, as she wandered back towards the inner door. "If you promise to keep kissing me like that while we're trapped fixing it."

Dar just threw her a look and laughed.


Kerry hopped down from the driver's seat of Dar's Lexus, and closed the door behind her, taking a moment to check her reflection in the side mirror and tug her linen jacket straight. A no nonsense, stern expression looked back at her, appropriate to the occasion that brought them back to the Navy base.

Nearby, Alastair was getting out of a Range Rover that also contained General Easton, and the mood that settled over everyone was decidedly cool and businesslike. Even General Easton's aide was looking pretty grim as she emerged, tucking a slim briefcase under her arm.

Dar came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder, and Kerry turned, reviewing her lover's iron gray over black silk business suit with a nod of approval. "You look slick."

"Thanks." Dar ran her hand through her hair, and pulled the edges of it out from under the collar of the jacket she'd just settled over her shoulders.

Kerry lifted a hand without thinking and arranged the necklace Dar was wearing, pulling it out from under her shirt into the light. She paused as she saw the flicker of bemusement cross her lover's face, and realized they were probably being watched. "Whoops."

Dar just chuckled. The necklace was an early birthday present, which Kerry had surprised her with last night. It was a thin, serpentine gold chain with a gorgeous charm on it, a microchip rendered in platinum, gold and diamond chips, with tracings of ruby and jade. It had an inscription on the back, her name and a short verse she suspected Kerry had written, and she loved the piece dearly. It was just so classy, and so incredibly nerdish, like wearing one of the new wristwatch cell phones.

Which they really didn't have in her favorite color yet.


"We ready?" Dar left off this pleasant contemplation, and glanced over Kerry's slate blue clad shoulder at her boss. Alastair was wearing one of his standard issue dark gray double breasted business suits, complete with company tie tack He was wearing a black tie, though - making Dar wonder if he was color coordinating with her on purpose.

"Yes, ma'am." Alastair nodded briskly. He'd arrived in Miami early that morning, and after a quick meeting in Dar's office they'd started on the drive down south. Now he cocked his head and looked up at Dar. "You ready for this, DR? I know these are old stomping grounds of yours."

Dar let her eyes run over the monochrome buildings, and the familiar contours for a moment. "Yeah." She responded briefly, as she watched a small cluster of children running in the field beyond the fence that marked the base's active boundary. "I'm not the bad guy here."

They walked together towards the administration building, watched warily by sentries who saluted the General but didn't impede their progress for even a second. General Easton lead the way upstairs, followed by his civilian brigade. Heads turned as they came down the administrative hallway, eyes going first to the military man in the lead, then slipping uneasily past to glance off Dar's frosty glare.

Easton went straight to the base's large briefing room and opened the door, gesturing them inside. "Let me go grab the brass." He stated, meeting Dar's eyes over Alastair's head. "We'll make this short and sweet."

Dar waited for the door to close behind him, then she walked over to the window and looked out, as the rest of the group gathered around the large wooden table. It was strange, really. She'd expected to feel like such a traitor coming in here, knowing the changes that were going to happen because of her.

But she didn't.

The little scum sucking bastards had messed with her childhood home. Dar watched the quadrangle below, allowing herself to be lost in a brief memory of a long ago summer afternoon, when she'd run across that very strip of grass as fast as she could, to meet the figure in fatigues coming down the steps fresh off a mission she still had no idea of the subject of.

The door opened, and Dar waited a moment, then turned around to see Jeff Ainsbright and Commander Albert entering. Jeff was already in full diatribe, which cut off as he looked up to meet her gaze.

Fargo would have been warmer. But that was okay, because Dar knew her own expression must be glacial, just from the reaction she glimpsed on Kerry's face. She took a few steps forward, and let her hands drop to rest on the back of the chair at the head of the table. "Have a seat." She took the lead effortlessly. "This won't take long."

Gerald Easton gave her a wry look as he closed the door and entered, circling the table to join Dar and Alastair at the head end, while Kerry stood quietly with the General's aide off to one side. "As Dar said.." Easton stated, putting a hand on Dar's shoulder. 'This wont' take long."

That one little motion should have warned them. Kerry watched Ainsbright's face go from angry to wary, to downright frightened in the space of a few breaths.

"This is Alastair McLean, the CEO of ILS, who joined us at my request." General Easton went on.

To his credit, Jeff tried to rally. "Then I've got some serious complaints to level at you, sir." He started to get up. "I want you to know..."

"Siddown, Jeff." General Easton interrupted him.

Ainsbright paused, then subsided.

"Let's cut to the chase here." Gerry stated. "We all know the facts. The facts wont' be laid out here, or anywhere else, for that matter."

Utter relief on Ainsbright's face, along with the Captains. "Damn straight, General. I knew this whole project was a mistake from the start. I told you it was, and now I'm glad to see common sense is taking over and putting things right."

"Agreed, Sir." Albert nodded briskly. "Though I'm sure our... guests here have some recommendations, which we'll take under advisement." He gave Dar a pleasant, completely triumphant smile.

Dar smiled back. "Oh yeah." She rumbled softly. "That we do."

"Yes." General Easton smoothly interrupted, and took the meeting back over. "One of the goals of this project was to identify areas where improvements could be made, and ILS has done an admirable job of laying out in specific this information."

Kerry accepted her cue, and walked over to the table, placing a neatly bound report on it, then taking a step back and clasping her hands in front of her. "Our operations group has performed a detailed analysis of the total infrastructure of the facility, and the programming and network specific applications being used." She stated. "We also ran an intelligent scanner over the base code, and provided a fully structured report on where we found deficiencies."

"Now, hold on." Commander Albert stood up. "Those programs work just fine."

"Those programs are older than I am." Kerry replied calmly. "And my grandmother could have broken into your network layer given a screwdriver and an Altair."

Dar had to really, really concentrate hard to keep the laugh that was rumbling inside her chest from emerging.

The Commander just stared at Kerry, open mouthed.

"Precisely why the Joint Chiefs have decided, based on the available information, that it's time for the Navy to truly update all it's systems. " General Easton said. "Pursuant to that, we've awarded a complete outsourcing contract to ILS for the entire data system structure, network wide for the service."

Dead silence.

"So." General Easton went on. "You gentlemen will be seeing some changes coming down the pike. I expect everyone here to cooperate with Mr. McLean's team, and provide all assistance in effecting a very... " He stared at them. "Smooth transition. Am I clear on that?"

It was interesting, Kerry decided, watching just how clearly the words "oh shit' could form above two people's heads without them saying a single syllable. "I'll need a contact name." She said quietly. "When my operations teams start coming in next week."

"I'm sure you'll get one, Ms. Stuart." General Easton gave her a grim smile. "Now, if you ladies and gentlemen will excuse us, I've got some matters I need to discuss with Commander Ainsbright." He held out a hand to Alastiar. " Alastair, a pleasure as always. "

"We'll get things squared away for you in short order, Gerry." Alastair shook his hand firmly. "You know I've got the best in the business on this project." He gave Ainsbright and the Commander one of his cheerful, business smiles. "Gentlemen. Looking forward to working with you. Dar? After you."

Dar lead the way out, so she was the first to get to the door just as Albert did. He stared at her with a look of complete and total loathing.

"You... " His voice was low.

"Won." Dar held the door for him. He met her eyes for a long moment, then turned and walked out. Dar let out a contented sigh and followed him, with Alastair and Kerry behind her. They paused in the hallway and regrouped, as the base traffic meandered by them. "So."

Alastair put his hands behind him and rocked back and forth. "That didn't take nearly as long as I expected. I forgot how easy it all is when you're in the military. The General gives an order, and that's that. Imagine what it would be like if our company was like that, hmm?"

Kerry and Dar looked at him. Kerry scratched her jaw, while Dar found something vaguely interesting on a nearby pin up board.

"Or does that explain why our operations group is so efficient?" Alastair asked, wryly. "Well, it would be a novel experience for ME at any rate."

Dar smiled at him. "You flying back today?"

"I planned to, yes." Her boss replied. "Unless you can give me a reason not to."

Dar glanced around, then back at him. "Want to come to my birthday party?" She offered, mildly. "It's tomorrow."

Alastair's jaw was hanging open. He closed it with a slight click of molars. "Well, I... " He spluttered, as they turned and started walking down the hall. "Sure, Dar." He finally rallied. "I'd love to."

Kerry walked a pace behind them, smiling to herself.


The city lights flickered in the background as the Bertram bobbed lightly up and down in it's berth. Ceci paused as she made her way out onto the stern, where Andy and Gerry Eason were seated, and reflected on just how unlikely this scenario would have ever seemed to her before.

Oh, get togethers with the Eastons were one thing. That had always been fun, and a highlight of an otherwise stagnant social agenda. But hosting Gerry on the back of a luxury yacht, one which actually belonged to her and Andrew?

No way. Ceci set the tray down with it's burden of beer bottles and took hers while her husband and the General did the same. She sat down in the third deck chair and propped her feet up on the diving locker nearby, letting out a long breath of amazed contentment. No way.

She'd known going in with Andy that she'd never be kept in the way she'd been accustomed to. That was something she'd dealt with long years back, and it never really had been an issue for her. Sure, she'd wished sometimes they'd had more money, for little things, and larger ones like perhaps a private school for Dar.

But even that had turned out all right, with Dar making it to college easily on her own, her SAT scores guaranteeing her the academic scholorship program of her choice. They'd gotten by, they had, saving for the things they had to have and not really missing the things they couldn't get around to.

Her paintings had given them the ability to splurge once in a while, though - she'd never been really mainstream popular, but since she never put out a lot of work, there was a segement of the trade that coveted her stuff, liking what they called the touch of humanity she put in them. There was always a market when she produced a canvas, and they'd used that to go on short trips out the islands, or up to Disney World, or out to Sanibel when Andy was in port for a shore stint.

Now she just shook her head, and chuckled, returning her attention to the conversation.

"Ah do not like them people getting off like that." Andrew was stating, his brow creased. "Regardless of if it stops or not."

Easton took a swig of his beer, and leaned back. He was in a pair of cotton Dockers and a short sleeved shirt, having left his uniform behind at his hotel. "Andy, damn it, no one's getting off. They're just not getting charged with anything." He said. "I told Jeff today he's being transferred to the Northwestern command area, and to just pack his kit and keep his mouth shut."

Ceci almost snorted her own beer. "You're sending him to Alaska?"

"Hell yes." Easton stated. "And he's lucky for that. There was a slot open in the Antarctic research station, but I happen to like his wife and you can at least get to Sears in Alaska."

"Huh." Andrew subsided. "Ah still don't like it. What about them folks they were whoring for? Ah don't want them types coming back here and maybe getting a mind to be bothering mah kid."

Easton sighed. "Problem with that is, they did a pretty damn good job of covering their tracks, Andy, data or no data. Those people weren't stupid - they kept out of sight and just did business via blind accounts and drops. They drifted off into the mist the minute Albert knew something was up. He warned them."

"He the big cheese?" Andy asked.

"Apparently so." Eason confirmed. "They had Jeff boxed into a corner, and once he agreed to turn a blind eye, they had him by the short hairs."

"He should have come to see you." Ceci stated. "Hell, he should have just leveled with Dar when she showed up there. What the he think was going to happen? Did he really think they wouldn't be found out?"

"They really did." Gerry told her. "Silly bastards spent a fortune on bringing in some hotshot punk to alter the base computers so they could run everything through there. Figured the damn thing was so old, no one'd notice or if they did, be able to get in there and figure out what was going on."

Andy folded his arms across his chest. "Wall, it woulda worked, seems like." He cocked his head to one side. "Stuff ain't changed in that place for a dog's age."

Easton nodded. "Yes, it would have." He said. "It did - until they were faced with the hotshot punk who originally rigged the damn thing. What'r the odds, Andy? Damn, I feel like an exhibit in Ripley's Believe it or Not."


"Coulda been a thousand other people, coulda been a dozen other companies I picked to help me spend my budget." Easton sighed. "Figured I was doing the smart thing though, picking someone who knew the service, who I trusted..."

"She done what you asked." Andrew stated mildly. "Not Dar's fault them jackasses didn't figger on having to deal with her." He went on. "Just weren't prepared."

"How do you prepare for Dar?" Ceci asked, rhetorically. "One, they'd have to have realized that some fifteen year old kid had designed their main computer system, and two, they'd have to acknowledge the fact that no one they brought in was smart enough to be able to cover their track from her. Not a very likely scenario, if you ask me."

They all reflected on that. "You know, that's quite frightening." Easton murmured. "If you think about it." He glanced at Andrew. "It's a damn good thing she's your kid, Andy."

Ceci didn't even feel insulted by that, because it was bedrock truth and she knew it. Dar's sense of what was right and what wasn't did come from Andy, certainly not from her. She'd cursed that stubborn honor and pride more than often enough to understand it very thoroughly.

"Fact is, I was very surprised when McLean showed up with that offer." Easton went on. "I'd girded my loins for the battle of the century."

"Yeap, well." Andrew studied his beer bottle. "Lucky thing is Dardar got her sense of priorities from her mamma, and not from me."

Everyone was silent for a moment, only the soft clanking of the yacht's rigging being heard.

Ceci almost felt like crying, at a vindication she'd never expected to hear.

Easton cleared his throat in mild embarrassment. "Well, she didn't do badly out of what happened." He remarked. "I had one hell of a time finding a way to push that contract through - used up a decades worth of favors getting it past the oversight committee. But I think all in all, it'll end up being a good thing for everyone."

"Dar'll see you right." Andy agreed softly. "Them boys are safe in her hands."

The silence was longer this time, as they watched a long freighter move slowly through the cut, heading for the huge unloading docks at the port. Ceci lifted an arm and draped it over Andy's shoulder, playing with the short, bristly hairs at his temple.

"Moo." Dar opened one eye to find that a cow had taken up residence on her chest. She picked up the animal and examined it, then tossed it from her and closed her eye, listening to the scrabbling of Labrador toenails as Chino chased the stuffed animal across the tile floor.

It was otherwise pretty quiet in the condo. From the base they'd gone to lunch, then driven Alastair to his hotel. They could have gone back to the office, but a call to Maria confirmed that there was nothing earthshattering going on and they'd decided to just go on home instead.

Hence, here she was, in shorts and a tshirt, sprawled across her living room couch at six pm, instead of sitting at her desk in the office. Just as well, Dar reasoned, since they had a lot of preparing they'd had to do for the party tomorrow, and in fact, Kerry was at the Island Market now making sure everything was ready to be picked up tomorrow morning and taken to the boat.

"Moo." Dar felt around for the cow and tossed it without looking.

Kerry caught the cow with one hand and held it up out of the frustrated Chino's grasp as she studied the tall form lying on the couch. "You know something, Dar?"

Blue eyes popped wide open in surprise. "Hey. " Dar blinked at her. "Didn't even hear you come in."

"I know." Kerry tossed the Chino, who leaped up and grabbed it between her front paws. "Good catch, honey!" She praised the dog, as she walked over to the couch and sat down on the edge of it. Dar rolled over and curled her body around Kerry's giving her a nice backrest. "Everything's set."

"Good." Dar stifled a yawn. "Mark called. He's going to carpool with Duks and Mari - they'll be here around ten."

"Mm." Kerry leaned back and extended her arms along Dar's body. "It's going to be fun. Weather's supposed to be sunny and mid seventies tomorrow, just perfect."

"Perfect for a Christmas party, yep." Dar agreed, with a grin. "You going to wear your new purple suit?"

Kerry returned the grin. "Maybe." She said. "Did you get all the boxes loaded on the boat? We'll have to make a run out to the island real early tomorrow."

"All done, ma'am." Dar assured her. "I personally made sure they were all tucked in the hold." She shifted, carefully lifting her arm and moving it a bit. "Wanna join me in the pool for some more therapy after dinner?" She'd suffered through one session at the hospital, and that, said Dar, was that. Period. She'd gotten the idea of what they were trying to do, and decided she could handle that on her own without snotty little boys mauling her and giving her condescending pats on the head.

Kerry tangled her fingers in Dar's hair, tugging out a snarl as she considered the request. "Sure." She agreed, having really enjoyed the session the previous night. The warm pool water had been very soothing, and she'd found herself very happy to be helping Dar with the gentle motion exercises, which seemed to be really doing some good for her partner's injured shoulder. "How about we get into our suits, and go have a light bite down at the beach club, then go to the pool from there?"

So they did. Hand in hand, they strolled down the path from the condo, with Chino frisking along beside them. It was a nice night out, clear and breezy, and they gladly accepted a table on the outside patio facing the sea. Kerry ordered a crabmeat salad and a bowl of soup, and Dar settled for a dish of blackened chicken alfredo with garlic bread.

"I'm glad it's the weekend." Kerry sighed, sliding down and extending her legs under the table. "It's been such a long week."

Dar was pouring herself a glass of ice tea. She finished, and took a sip. "That it has." She said. "It's been a pretty long month, now that you mention it. I'm glad we've got the holidays coming up next week."

Kerry nodded. "I'm looking forward to a few days off." She admitted.

"A week." Dar reminded her, with a smile. "Starting next Friday, until the following year." She rested her elbows on the table and played with a fork. "I was thinking maybe we could take the boat out for a couple days, stay out, just bum around. What do you think?"

"You mean, sleep out on the water and everything?" Kerry asked, with interest. They'd taken many day trips out of the harbor, but they'd never spent several days living on the boat, and she found herself very intrigued at the thought.

"Yeap." Dar nodded. "We could head out across the Caribbean, maybe drop in to Bimini, or Cat's Cay."

Kerry felt a grin tug at her lips. "Yeah." She agreed enthusiastically. "Heck, let's leave Monday, and stay out until New Years... I would so completely, totally love to spend all that q time with you, and maybe a couple of gulls if they're lucky."

Dar was very pleased with the response, and it showed. "Great." Her eyes twinkled. "The laptops and pagers stay here."

Kerry laughed. "Absofurginglutely." She grinned at the server who appeared silently, to put two gently steaming plates down for her, and one for Dar. "Thanks."

"Anytime, Ms. Stuart." The server smiled back at her. "Beautiful night, isn't it?"

"Getting more so every second." Kerry replied.

Dar propped her chin up on one fist and observed her lover's now almost radiant face contentedly. The idea of the boat trip had only just occurred to her on the drive home, and the more she'd thought about it, the better the idea had seemed.

A sort of.. mini honeymoon they'd never had time to take.

Just the two of them. Dar almost had to bite her lip to stop from suggesting that they leave on Sunday, and make it two weeks, and to hell with work. Even on their week's vacation after the hospital bombing, they'd been on call, and attending to work.

Not this time.

"Hey." Kerry's voice caught her attention, and she looked up to see her lover smiling broadly at her.

"Yes?" Dar replied.

"This is going to be so cool." Kerry burbled. "Dar, what a fantastic idea. You're brilliant."

Dar smirked, just a little, and bit off a piece of her spicy chicken, enjoying the sting of the pepper against her lips. "We could get into a lot of trouble out there. Lots of little islands, and lots of very good rum."

Kerry looked up from where she was mixing her salad dressing. "Do you know how much rum it would take to get me to do the samba?"

"No." Dar chuckled. "How much?"

"I don't know, but I bet we find out." Kerry laughed with delight. "Whooohooo!" She did a little dance in her seat, causing Dar to burst out laughing as well. Their voices lifted up to the benignly watching stars, which twinkled back at them in silent, amused, approval.

Kerry took a slow sip of her coffee, as she leaned on the railing and absorbed the early morning sun with a feeling of complete and total pleasure. It was just after dawn, and she was already dressed in her swimsuit, with a pair of cotton shorts and a tank top thrown over it, her bare toes curling against the stone balcony as she sniffed the clean, salt air.

"What a gorgeous day." She spoke quietly, then glanced to her right as she heard the whine and hiss of the condo's golf cart approaching. "Hey."

Dar got out of the cart and headed for the garden gate. "Hey, yourself, cute stuff." She opened the door and disappeared, to reappear moments later as she entered the kitchen and padded out onto the balcony next to Kerry. "All loaded up and ready to go."

"Cool." Kerry offered her a sip of coffee. "I made some breakfast... want to bring it out here and share?" She waited while Dar obligingly ducked inside, returning with a small tray of eggs, toast, and fresh fruit. They sat down together at the metal and glass table and traded forkfuls as the sunlight poured across the space.

"You know." Dar leaned back and propped her feet up against the railing. "I'm really looking forward to today."

Kerry looked at her. "I can tell. You've been smiling all morning." She teased gently. "I am too."

The dark head rolled towards her as Dar returned her gaze. "Was that a map of the Carribbean I saw in the study?"

Kerry grinned, her nose wrinkling up appealingly.

Dar chuckled and reached over the table to clasp Kerry's hand, rubbing her thumb against the knuckles. "My little pirate... I can't wait to sail the high seas with you."

The green eyes were fairly ablaze with an intense joy as Kerry looked back at her.

"If I'd have known you'd react like this, I'd have suggested a cruise a lot sooner." Dar remarked mildly.

"It's not just the trip." Kerry told her, with a tiny, wry smile. "It's being out, alone with you, for a whole week. You have no idea how much I want that right now." She said. "It could have been a cruise, or a remote cabin in the woods, or a hike in the wilderness... I wouldn't have cared."

"I would." Dar told her, kindly. "Mosquitos and leaves for TP do not put me in a romantic mood nearly as much as salt air, and you in that swimsuit."

Kerry blushed a little. "You must think I'm weirding out." She replied. "It's just that so much has happened in the last little while, I really just want some time to just... " Her jaw shook a little, and Dar squeezed her hand in concern. "Live." She finished softly.

"You got it." Dar whispered, watching Kerry's profile intently. The green eyes turned to hers with a look of almost painful vulnerability. "I think we've earned that."

A nod. "Me too." Kerry got up and walked around to where Dar was sitting, putting her arms around her and giving her a hug. "Dar, will you do me a very big favor?"

"Sure. Name it." Dar enjoyed her hug, almost getting lost in the faint coconut and butter scent of the lotion Kerry was wearing. A hand touched her cheek, and she looked up into Kerry's face, surprised to see utter seriousness there.

"Please." Kerry murmured. "Please be careful and take care of yourself, Dar. If I ever lose you, I'll die."

Dar's jaw dropped a little in alarm, and she half turned, taking hold of Kerry's body with both hands. "Kerry... "

Slowly, Kerry's forehead dropped to touch hers. "I had this nightmare the other night." She whispered. "The one you woke me up from?"

"Yeah?" Dar nodded anxiously.

Kerry fell silent for a moment. Then she sighed. "I was... in that hospital again. In the CCU. Only.. "

"Easy." Dar could feel her shaking.

"Only it was you in that bed, and I couldn't... I couldn't stop... you... I.." Kerry's knees buckled, and she would have fallen, but Dar caught her, pulling her down on her lap and holding in for dear life.

"Easy, sweetheart." Dar whispered. "It was just a dream." She could feel the jerks as Kerry sobbed. "It's okay... "

Chino poked her nose under Kerry's arm and snuffled worriedly, licking the skin within her reach.

"Ohh." Kerry finally took a deep breath, and sniffled. "God, I'm sorry."

"It's okay." Dar stroked her back gently. "Take it easy, honey. I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere. I won't ever leave you, Kerry. Never."

Kerry sniffled again. "I.. don't know where that all came from. I was just... sitting here thinking about what a great day it was and..." She sighed. "Jesus. What the hell's wrong with me." One hand lifted and wiped the tears off her face impatiently.

Dar hugged her more tightly. "" She paused to collect her thoughts. "I think you're just stressed out, Ker. It's been a bitch of a week, and you're on overload."

Kerry remained silent for a bit, stroking Dar's hair with an almost hypnotic regularity. "Yeah." She finally said. "I think you're right." She exhaled. "Boss, can I take next week off? I need to decompress before I go on a wild vacation with someone I love more than life itself."

Dar smiled. "Sure." She felt a distinct sense of relief, at not having to order Kerry to do exactly what she'd just requested. "I'll see what I can do about scaring you up some company."

Kerry exhaled. "Only if the company is tall, dark and daunting and has blue eyes."

A beat. "You want to hang out with my dad?" Dar asked ingeniously.

It worked. Kerry started snickering through her remaining tears, her body shaking with laughter.

"I could arrange for that, I guess." Dar went on, with a sigh. "I was hoping you'd rather spend time with me.. but... " She was stopped by a gentle kiss on the lips. Then Kerry rubbed her cheek against Dar's and smiled.

"Thanks." She murmured. "I needed a laugh."

"Mm." Dar tilted her head and stole another kiss. "I needed that."

They snuggled for a moment longer, then Kerry regretfully got up, and ruffled Dar's hair. "Okay. My head's on straight now - let's get ready to party." She held a hand out to Dar, then lead her into the condo, with Chino frisking at their heels and occasionally between their legs.

Dar stretched out her legs in the warm sand and wriggled her toes contentedly, as she watched the crowd milling around the island. It was late afternoon and the party was in full swing, with buckets of assorted seafood on one side of the neatly made campfire, and a standing bar with plenty of ice, beer, wine coolers, and champagne for the guests.

She herself had downed four or five Bacardi breezers, and was in a pretty darn good mood, sitting there in the shade with a plate of lobster, shrimp and rice balanced neatly on one thigh. Kerry was on the other side of the fire, talking with Maria, Duks, and Ceci, and another knot of guests were clustered around where Alastair and her father were trading tall tales.


Dar bit into a spicy shrimp and chewed it. The island looked great, nothing like she'd ever imagined it could ever been like in her childhood. There were comfortable beanbag chairs scattered around, and neatly dug in Lucite tables for drinks and dinner, and to one side the most incongruous looking Christmas tree she'd ever seen.

It was purple, for one thing, and had bright pink flamingo and bright green palm tree lights. And it was surrounded by piles and piles of presents. Some were theirs, some were their guests - all of whom seemed to be having a great time.

Dar rocked her head a little from side to side and hummed along with the music emerging from the strategically placed speakers. It was one of Kerry's favorite songs, and as she watched her lover across the sands, Kerry started to dance a little to it.

Oo. Dar grinned. That was so cute. She took a swig from her bottle and leaned against the tree, glad of the cool breeze and the gorgeous day, and another successful party.

"Hey there, Dardar." Andrew appeared suddenly and plopped down beside her. "Penny fer your thoughts."

Dar glanced at Kerry, then glanced at him, then blushed.

"Heh." Her father chuckled. "You having a good birthday?"

"Yeah." Dar nodded. 'It's great... the best part is having you and mom here, though." She gave him a quiet, serious look. " Means a lot."

"Mmph." Andy grunted. "Well, it means a lot to us too, honey." He folded his hands and propped them up against an upraised knee. "Sometimes ah just have to slap the side of mah head cause I can't believe having all this back, after going and losing it."

Dar reflected on this very long speech thoughtfully. "Does it ever feel like a dream to you?" She asked.

"Yeap." Andy nodded. "It does."

For me too." Dar found herself adopting the same pose, resting her hands on her knee. "I look back to where I was a year ago, and it's like remembering a whole other lifetime." She gazed off across the ocean, it's surface lightly ruffled with the odd wave. "It's so hard to believe, sometimes I just have to think it's a dream." A pause. "A dream I just hope I never wake up from."

They watched the revelers in silence for a while. "Well." Andrew eventually commented. "Better a dream than a nightmare, that' s for sure."

"Mm." His daughter agreed.

Andy drew in a breath. "Dardar, when you were a kid, you wanted something real bad." Dar looked at him. "Was a time you made a choice, but the Navy didn't like that choice much." Andrew stated. "So they told you no."

"Yeah." Dar agreed. "That they did."

A small silence. Andy seemed to be deep in thought. "Wasn't the Navy that said no to that, Paladar." He finally went on. "I made that choice for you." He looked at her. "Ah told them to tell you no."

And Dar met his eyes with only the faintest of smiles. "I know." She replied softly. "I've always known."

Her father's eyes just stayed on her, a stunned look on his face.

"It.. um.. " Another half smile. "Was in the computer files." Dar looked away now, out at the horizon. "For a while, I thought maybe you figured I'd embarrass you by not measuring up, and this was just your way of making sure I didn't have to go through all that."

"Ah did not think that." Andrew finally muttered huskily.

Dar just nodded. "Then I figured maybe you knew me well enough to know I'd never have fit in with the Navy." She exhaled. "Then I finally just settled on knowing you made decisions the same way I did - you trusted your guts and let the chips fall where they fell."

Andrew blinked. "You are the damndest thing."

Dar turned her head towards him and smiled, this time more broadly. "Did you really think I'd be mad at you?"

Her father blew out a breath. "Lord, Ah had not the first idea what you were going to think about this." He admitted. "Been wanting to tell you for the longest time, and here you just up and trip me right down into a big old mud hole."

A chuckle. "I was mad." Dar said. "Then." She looked up and around, and shook her head. "But sitting where I am now, having what I have - it was the right choice, dad. We both know that."

Time to lighten up a little, Dar realized. "Besides, with my usual luck I'd have ended up in charge of something, and you'd have had to salute me. Then what?"

Andrew thought about that, then he laid a long arm over Dar's shoulders, and looked at her. "Ah woulda followed you straight into hell, that's what." He said. "And been proud to do that."

Dar didn't say a word, but her jaw muscles clenched visibly, and she swallowed. Andy nodded in understanding, and just pulled her a little closer, both of them accepting the moment in all it's richness, with a very similar desire for wordless peace.


Ceci wandered over to where Kerry was sprawled and took a seat on a conveniently placed rock right next to her. "Hi."

One lazy eye opened and regarded her benignly. "Hi." Kerry replied, with a smile. "Having fun?"

It was nearing sunset, and the fire had been lit, pots of seafood and vegetables already sending hints of spices across the island. "Yes, I am." Ceci replied. "You got sunburned."

"Mm. I know." Kerry stretched her tired body out and rubbed the bridge of her nose. They'd managed to string a volleyball net between two half submerged trees and played a vicious several rounds in the water, all the more tough for Kerry because of her relatively short height.

So she was pretty tired out, and was glad to retire to her towel spread neatly over the sand and busy herself checking the inside of her eyelids out for leaks. Now she rolled onto her side and propped her head up on her hand. "What a gorgeous day."

Kerry heard Ceci's acknowledgement, but fortuitously, her eyes happened to have fallen right on Dar as she'd made the comment, and now her thoughts wandered pleasantly off as she gazed at her lover's sunset lit form. Mmm. Dar was wearing her black swimsuit and she'd just come out of the water, droplets glistening on her skin as she shook herself dry.

Between the golden light, Dar's natural tan, the faintly see through fabric and the strong body easily visible beneath it…



"Do you go off into these lustful hazes all the time?"

Wide, startled green eyes blinked, then immediately turned Ceci's way.

"Uh." Kerry felt a powerful blush warm her skin. "Bu……"

Her mother in law snickered unkindly. "Boy, do you ever show your thoughts on your face."

Kerry covered her eyes with her free hand. "Jesus." She sighed. "Sorry about that."

"Why?" Ceci asked. "Despite the Republicans claim to the contrary, there's really nothing wrong with being sexually attracted to the person you're married to."

The comment, as usual, came from around the corner and struck Kerry's funny bone unexpectedly. She burst into startled laughter, attracting Chino's attention. The Labrador rushed over and started kissing her, which only made her laugh all the harder.

"Hey, hey.. what's going on here?" Dar's voice floated over. "What's so funny?"

Kerry absolutely could not look up at her. She almost inhaled half the beach as she put her head down and held her stomach, laughing so hard she was finding it tough to breathe.

Dar took a seat next to her and waited, watching Ceci snicker quietly to herself. "Someone." Dar stated, in a low, no nonsense voice. "Is gonna let me in on this joke, right?"

Kerry rolled over and looked up, to see cool blue eyes regarding her over the edge of Dar's sunglasses. She immediately dissolved into giggles again, and hid her face. Dar looked at her mother, and raised an eyebrow.

Ceci cleared her throat and stood up, having a firm belief in discretion being far the better part of valor. "Your father's calling me. Gotta go."

Uh huh. Dar slid down onto the sand and stretched out, waiting for Kerry to finish laughing. Eventually, she did, and rolled back over onto her back.

"Oh god." Kerry exhaled, rubbing her face. "Your mother."

"My mother." Dar repeated obediently. "Was telling knock knock jokes?"

Kerry peeked at her from between her fingers, then smiled ruefully. "No.. it's my own fault. She came over here to talk to me, and I was dozing off I guess, so I woke up and rolled over and.. um.." She paused, and scratched her nose. "You were in my line of sight."

Dar waited to hear a further explanation, then cocked her head when none was forthcoming. "So I was what you were laughing at?" She asked, in a tone of mild bemusement. "Didn't think this suit looked that bad.. " Dar frowned, and started plucking at it. "You should have told me that before, Kerry…. I mean.."

"Shhhhh." Kerry covered Dar's mouth with one hand. "No, sweetheart, you look totally awesome." A pause. "That was the problem." She removed her hand. "Apparently my opinion on the subject was um…. Obvious and your mother made a joke about THAT."

"Oooohhhh." Dar grinned. "I get it now. She caught you looking."

A tiny smirk tugged at Kerry's lips. "Yeah."

Dar's eyes twinkled. "I’m flattered."

Kerry briefly wondered what would happen if she just reached up and pulled Dar's head down for the kiss she really wanted to give her. Later, Romeo. She chastised herself, with an inward sigh. "Having a nice time?"

Dar had uncapped a small bottle of Noxema and taken some on her fingers, and now she started spreading it over Kerry's skin. Got the nostrils flaring almost at once. Dar bit her lip to keep from smiling and kept up her task, running her hands across Kerry's shoulders and feeling her lean into the touch, the warm skin under her fingers growing perceptibly warmer. "I’m having a great time. What about you?"

"Getting better every second." Kerry replied, her voice husky. She cleared her throat a bit self consciously, and glanced around, then up at Dar, a plaintively beseeching look on her face.

Dar chuckled, and wiped a bit of the cream across Kerry's pink nose. "I'm going to grab a dry shirt from the boat, you want one?" She handed Kerry the jar and accepted her partner's nod. "Be right back."

Kerry tucked the cream into her bag and sat up, wrapping her arms around her upraised knees. The crowd was milling around closer now, and she spotted Andrew and Ceci heading her way.

Andy had a large album tucked under one arm and as he reached her, he sat down on the rock and laid it on his knees. "Hi." Kerry greeted him, as Ceci circled around to the other side and sat down. Duks and Mari drifted over, and Mark sat down next to her as well. "Whatcha got there?"

"What ah have here." Andrew stated. "Is pitchers." He glanced at the now interested crowd. "Seeing as it's Dardar's birthday, me and Cec figgured you all'd like to see what that kid looked like as a tot."

"Ooohhhh…." Mark let a eager rumble escape as he scrambled over to get a better spot. Everyone crowded around close, including Alastair who put his hands behind his back and peered over Andrew's broad shoulder.

Andrew opened the album to the first page, and smoothed the time yellowed plastic down. "This here's about at five minutes. "He pointed. "Yelling already." Alastair quipped. "Shoulda known."


Dar took a moment to rinse herself off in the shower before she removed her suit and pulled on a pair of shorts, along with a tank top she tucked into them. Then she regarded her reflection in the mirror. "Hey, Beach rat. Haven't seen you in a while." She greeted her scruffy mirror image, wind and salt sodden hair and all.

"Ah You don't look so bad for an ancient almost 31 year old." Dar raked her fingers through her hair to give it some kind of order, then she fished in the small chest of drawers and pulled out a pair of shorts and a soft cotton shirt for Kerry. Then she wandered through the boat's compact cabin, stopping in the galley to retrieve the quart of chocolate milk she'd tucked into the refrigerator.

It had been a great day. Dar reflected, as she walked out onto the stern and uncapped her milk. She took a sip as she watched the crowd out on the island, all gathered together near the fire. She could hear the laughter from where she was standing, and she took a moment to try and expel the wonder at what she was looking at.

It was hard to fathom. Here she was, standing on the deck of her boat, looking at her little island, and it was full of her friends, and her family, and her lifelong soulmate and partner.

Mine. Dar took another swallow of milk. Wow. Then she smiled, and shook her head, as she leaned against the pilothouse's support poles. Life was good. Complex, but good. She knew she had some tough decisions coming up in the near future, but somehow, those hovered out beyond the holidays, past the golden week she had planned with Kerry.

A whole week, just the two of them out there together. It would give her time to think. It would give Kerry time to heal. They'd both just been through a month of hell together, and damn it…

Dar paused and thought about that for a moment. They had been through hell for a month, hadn't they? And the last week had been tough, and bitchy.. they'd both been off balance and out of temper…

And it had only brought them closer together.

Dar put her milk down on the edge of the deck and shivered in the light breeze, as the truth of the realization seeped through her. Even with the tension between them, she'd never felt even a hint of fragility in their relationship, no touch of doubt, no sense of fear that perhaps they were headed down a sad and familiar road to distancing themselves from each other.

It was as though they'd laid down a foundation so strong, the worst storm could only dampen the surface.

Dar wrapped that thought around her as she made her way down the ladder and back across the pontoons, a gentle smile on her face.


Ceci intercepted her halfway down. "Hi." Her mother had her hands stuck in her pockets.

"Hi." Dar said, stopping and peering down. "Need something?"

Hm. Ceci considered the question. "No, I've got everything I need right at the moment." She stated. "But I'd like to give you something, and I'd rather it be in private."

Uh oh. Dar blinked a little. Now what? "Um.. okay." She agreed slowly.

A faint grin flashed off and on her mother's face. "C"mon." She lead the way back down the pontoons, past Dar's boat to the one behind it, which belonged to her and Andrew. She was aware of her daughter's intense curiosity as she followed her, the long strides making the wooden bridge rock from side to side. "You don't have to worry, it's not anything that would embarrass you in front of your friends."

"I wasn't, really." Dar replied. "I just thought we had all the boxes under the tree."

"Mm." Ceci climbed aboard their vessel and felt the boat move as Dar followed her. She entered the cabin, but stopped just inside, forcing Dar to stop as well. "One thing." She turned and faced her daughter. "I want you to promise me something."

Dar felt very offbalance. She was a little buzzed, and she'd been in the sun all day, and her brain wasn't working nearly as well as it usually did. "Huh?"

"Promise me something." Ceci repeated patiently. "It's not that hard, honest."

"Okay. What?"

"Promise me you wont ask me how, or where I got this from." Ceci asked, feeling more than a bit nervous. "Okay?"

Dar leaned against the doorway, feeling the warm teak wood against the skin of her shoulder. "Okay." She agreed, completely at sea. "I won't.. why would I anyway? You don't usually ask people where they…"

Ceci had opened a trunk just inside the door as Dar was speaking, and now she lifted something out and held it out.

Dar's voice trailed off as she stared at the object, then slowly she reached out and took it. Her eyes absorbed the contrast of slate gray against still vivid color, details meticulously etched by a careful and very patient hand.

Her careful, and very a patient hands, which had first built, then painted the model air craft carrier many years before.

Ceci just watched her. There was so very much about their joint past she could not change, but this one little thing she'd been bound and determined to. It had taken a while, but she'd persisted in gaining back one of the largest bones of contention there had ever been between them.

Even Andy had been shocked and angered at her when she'd gotten rid of Dar's models.

Dar finally drew a deep breath in and looked up and away from the ship, her gaze open and wondering. "Wh.."

"Ah ah ah.." Ceci shook her head. "You promised." She covered the intense emotion she felt by indicating the chest. "The rest of them are in here.. I don't know if you even have room for them but I…" She heard a slight scraping sound as Dar put the model on the table then felt the warmth as she approached. "Thought you might.. " A hand gripped her shoulder, and she felt herself being turned.

Having little choice, she went along with it and found herself facing her daughter, and in the moment their eyes met Ceci felt like a mother again. But she didn't really get a chance to absorb that before Dar did something very unexpected.

She stepped forward and put her arms around Ceci, and hugged her.

Good goddess. Ceci managed to respond in kind, wrapping her arms around Dar's strong body and giving her a healthy squeeze. The last time I did this… She let out a small breath. The last time I did this she was ten years old. "Dar… I'm sorry. I wish it'd been different for us."

"I don't care." Dar closed her eyes, and just hugged harder. "It's different now. That's all that matters."

Ceci felt herself lifted up a little, and she gained a new perspective on why Kerry took such care to remain strong and fit. You could get a little bent otherwise. But it felt good. She hugged her daughter and smiled, enjoying the moment thoroughly.


Dar stuck her hands in her pockets and smiled, feeling a tiny cloud of wonder following her around as she made her way off the bridge. It lasted just long enough for her to get across the sand, and realize what everyone was looking at. Dar could feel a slow burn of embarrassment start to heat her skin as she slowed her steps and heard the laughter.

Kerry was kneeling beside her father, one arm draped over his shoulders, pointing out something on the page with one finger. As the laughter rose again, she glanced up and their eyes met. In a twinkling instant, the amusement vanished from her face, and she stood up, giving Andrew a pat on the shoulder as she pushed through the crowd towards Dar.

It took all of Dar's considerable self discipline to not simply turn and leave.

"Hey." Kerry sounded like she was walking on verbal eggshells.

"I didn't realize I was the party entertainment." Dar replied, in a clipped tone. Another spurt of laughter, and her whole body jerked, stilling when Kerry reached out and touched her stomach in a reflex action. It was hard to believe just how angry she was.

"Dar." Kerry frantically sorted through her thoughts for a way to prevent the impending explosion she could feel about to take place. "Honey, please listen to me, okay? Before you go off the deep end?"

Dar remained completely silent.

"We're your friends and family, and we love you." Kerry whispered. "Your mom and dad are so proud of you, and they want to share their memories of you with your friends. Don't be upset, please?"

Dar stared over her shoulder at the crowd, who hadn't noticed her presence in the twilight shadows. Her face was still and closed, the pale blue eyes remote and very cold. Then, as though a switch had been flipped, Kerry felt the body next to her relax and she heard Dar sigh.

"I hate those pictures." Dar muttered. "I look like such an idiot."

She shoots, she scores. Kerry wrapped an arm around her lover. "You do not." She protested. "You were such an adorable baby, Dar. I wanted to just squeeze you." She did so, getting a soft grunt out of her partner. "Especially that one picture with you in the bunny suit."

"Eemph." Dar grimaced. "I'm gonna go wait on the boat."

"No.. no no.." Kerry kept hold of her as she started to move, digging her heels into the sand with a remarkable lack of success in stopping the motion. "C'mon.. c'mon… Dar, please?" Her voice broke on the last word, and it actually made Dar stop, and turn, and put her arms around Kerry.

Oo. Have to remember that. "Come over and look at them" Kerry pleaded gently. "Please?"

The very last thing in the world she wanted to do was go look at ugly old baby pictures of herself. Dar exhaled unhappily.

But, on the other hand, it would make Kerry happy. Was she willing to do something she really, really didn't want to do to gain that result? Dar tilted her head and regarded the serious mist green eyes looking back at her. "I'm not comfortable with people getting this close to me." She admitted very quietly. "It's crossing a line I'm not sure I want crossed."

Kerry absorbed that, her lips pursing as she considered the statement. "My life was lived so much in the public light, I didn't even think of that with you." She said. "I apologize, Dar. I should have stopped your father." She looked up into Dar's eyes squarely. "Forgive me?"

Like I have a choice? Dar felt a smile pull at her lips, as she surrendered her dignity and simply wrapped her arms around Kerry and started towards the group circling her father. What the hell. Dar endured the sudden glances, and grins with wry stoicism. "All right, which one of the seven thousand bad baby shots is he showing you now?"

"Ah, Dar… you were such a sweet baby." Maria smiled at her boss. "So cute."

"Mm." Ceci agreed, with a nod, catching up to them as they reached the rock. "I was going to pitch her as a baby model, but she bit the photographer."

Everyone looked at Dar, who grinned, then they made room as Kerry and Dar settled at Andy's side. Kerry put an arm around Dar's waist and rested her chin on her lover's shoulder. "What on earth were you doing there?" She pointed at a small, square Polaroid of a perhaps five or six year old Paladar in denim overalls on a very fuzzy, very unhappy looking animal.

"Riding a llama." Dar sighed, remembering the Pirate World adventure during one of Andy's infrequent leaves. "Neither of us enjoyed the experience, if I recall."

"Ya'll were pulling on his ears, Dardar. What'd ya expect?" Andy drawled.

"Ah, is that where you got the experience to do that?" Alastair kidded her.

"Yeah.' Dar reached up and grabbed her bosses ear, giving it a healthy tug as he yelped. "So you better watch it."

The laughter rose again, but Dar felt a bit more comfortable with it this time. She released Alastair's ear, then bent her head to regard the next page.


"Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you… happy birthday dear Dar… "

Dar listened to the chorus of voices, the cacophony evoking only a relaxed grin from her. They were in a circle around the fire, plates full of food balanced on laps, and mugs of alcohol being freely passed around.

Dar was mildly drunk and she knew it. Kerry was even more so, sitting next to her, with her sturdy legs sprawled out and an arm draped over Dar's thigh. She let her head lean back against Dar's hip as she related a funny story, her warm tones echoing out over the water.

It suddenly seemed oddly familiar. Dar felt a flash of almost memory as she set her plate aside and let her arm rest across Kerry's shoulders, nursing her mug with her other hand. Was it the fire? Some sliver of memory from her much younger years, some time spent out camping?

Laughter. Dar smiled, as Kerry's voice rose a bit, taking on a subtle, yet deep timbre. The sound echoed slightly, and Dar suddenly felt if she closed her eyes, and opened them again…

But no, there they still were at the fire, with their friends around them, the Miami night sky twinkling overhead.


"Well, I tell you Kerry, that's a heck of a way to spend a birthday." Alastair said, as Kerry finished her tale. "I think I'd have given them up after that."

"Well." Kerry ran her thumb lightly along Dar's inner thigh. "I did… for a long time, until I moved down here." She paused. "And took my life back." Her face settled into a quiet reflection, and the tenor of the crowd changed a little, as people took the moment to dig into the excellent stew and munch on crusty garlic bread.

Kerry took a sip of her beer, and gazed out over the water, glad of the solid, warm presence she was leaning against. Ceci and Andrew were on the other side of Dar, and Mark was seated next to her, and she found herself very glad to be in this firelit circle surrounded by her friends, and family.

Her family. Kerry took another swallow of beer, knowing sitting in the sand covered in salt and sun tan lotion wasn't anything her other family would ever have caught themselves dead doing. Not even Angie or Mike, who loved her, but who loved their privileged lives just as much. "Y'know, Dar?"

"Mm?" Dar selected a bit of carrot sticking out of her stew and offered it to Kerry.

A smile crossed Kerry's face as she accepted the offering, licking Dar's fingers as she munched on the carrot. "I don't think I ever fit in at home."


"Nope." Kerry wondered, briefly, what would have become of her if she'd stayed there. Not taken the chance and jumped at the impulsive move to a state as far away from her home as she could get. "Glad I decided to come find you."

Dar chuckled softly. "Me too." She agreed. "Otherwise I'd have had to come to Michigan and terrorize the area until I found you."

"Think you would have?" Kerry imagined coming around the corner in Meijers and finding Dar. "Maybe you'd have… " She thought a moment. "Found me at some job fair and hired me."

"Nah." Dar mumbled around a mouthful of stew beef. "Something more dramatic.. how about… oh… I rescued you from being captured by white slavers and took you away for a life of vagabond excitement and crusading traveling around the world."

They were both silent for a moment, deep in thought.

Kerry rolled her head back and looked at Dar. "Honey, I love you but you've been watching too much of that late night television again."

"Hey.. I could have said we'd go off and become crocodile wrestlers."

Kerry laughed, and Dar joined her, pulling her closer and sliding down off her log onto the ground so they were side by side. Duks started a story of his own, and Kerry listened, as she tilted her head back and regarded the canopy of stars.

Were they twinkling at her? Watching her?

Was her father up there somewhere, finally in a place where lies didn't work, and the truth was like a harsh light that could blind if you weren't prepared for it?

Did he know the truth about her now? And if he did, would he ever accept it, or would he go through eternity damning her for being something outside his personal box of understanding?

Kerry found the Big Dipper and traced it's outlines. Goodbye, Daddy. She let out a small breath. In spite of everything, I really did love you.

A soft voice tickled her ear. "Whatcha looking at?" Dar murmured., gazing upward with her.

"Just the stars." Kerry replied. "Look at that patch, Dar." She pointed. "You think that looks like a bear?"

Dar pressed her cheek against Kerry's and studied the pattern. "Nah." She shook her head. "A pig."

"A pig?" One of Kerry's eyebrows lifted. "How about a pig riding a bike?"

Dar didn't answer. She just smiled.


That is, for now, the end. Yes, there'll be a sequel.