Tropical High

By Melissa Good

Part 5

The dream was warm and sunny, and Dar stretched into it, reveling in the feel of the sun against her skin as the boat rocked beneath her. Her eyes were closed, but she could hear the strains of a popular tune from behind her, and smell the tang of the salt air as it brushed over her.

Her body was pleasantly tired, and she was content to rest in the sun, turning her head slightly as she heard a gull land on the boat. It's claws made soft, ticking sounds as it moved closer and she kept very still to see how close it would dare to come.

She could almost feel the warmth of its body as it pattered nearer and nearer, and she resisted the urge to open her eyes and look.

Then it blew in her ear.

Dar's eyes popped wide open as her dream world rapidly merged into her waking one, and the gentle waves and warm sun became the rocking of the waterbed under Kerry's laughing form, and the startling reality of true sunlight gilding both of them.

"Holy shit." Dar's eyes found the clock, which was displaying a cheerful 7:40 to her. "Jesus. Did we forget to set the alarm?"

"I think so." Kerry propped her head up on one hand and let her chuckles wind down.

"Damn." Dar sighed, her brain still a little fuzzy from sleep. "How could I have done that? I haven't forgotten to set that damn alarm in… in… "

"Honey." Kerry leaned over and rubbed Dar's bare belly. "You forgot because you fell asleep with your clothes half on. I had to pull them off. I was the one who forgot to check the clock, okay?"

"I did?" Dar tried to remember the previous night in the fog of exhaustion she'd been walking through. "Um… I think I remember a strawberry… and you kissing me."

Kerry smiled, her fingers tracing a light pattern over Dar's skin. They'd both been far too tired to eat when they'd gotten home, and had settled for a shared bowl of freshly washed strawberries and two large glasses of milk. She'd put her things upstairs, and come down to find Dar sprawled over the bed, already well on her way to sleep.

"I remember that too." She looked up, and almost laughed when she saw Dar's expression relaxed back into slumber. "Hey… Paladar." She gave her lover a tiny poke.

"Eh?" Dar's eyes opened again. "Oh. Damn. " She complained, rolling over and capturing Kerry in a tangle of warm arms and smooth skin. "Why can't it be Saturday? I don’t wanna get up."

That was okay. Kerry didn't want to either. She tried an experiment, making her little patterns again and was rewarded by hearing Dar's breathing even out almost immediately, and feeling her body go limp and relaxed. She closed her own eyes, and reviewed her schedule, thinking about what her morning was like.

Hm. It was Thursday. That meant her staff meeting at ten, nothing after that until lunch, then network strategy sessions from two to five. She liked those, actually, when her operations team would test different scenarios, to see how they could reshape the network to better suit their customer's needs.

So. She didn't need to be in until ten. Dar wasn't supposed to be in the office at all, since she was heading back down to the base. They could actually sleep in a little, if they skipped their morning run. Could they afford it?

One green eye appeared, and regarded their intertwined bodies critically. Then it closed in contentment. Yep, they could afford it. Kerry decided, squirming a little closer and settling down with a silent sigh. She let herself relax into a light doze for another half-hour, then nudged herself awake again.

For a few minutes, all she did was just look at Dar. The sun was spilling in the window through the blinds and painting gold stripes across the bed and one stripe had captured most of Dar's face. Kerry could see the tiny motes of dust in it, and watched the faint flickers as some dream stirred her lover's eyelids.

She is so beautiful. Kerry let out a breath, resisting the impulse to run a finger down one of Dar's planed cheekbones. She did move a lock of dark hair back, though, biting her lip when even this slight motion brought a flutter of eyelids and a pair of sleepy blue eyes into view. "Ooops. Sorry."

Dar blinked. "Did you let me go back to sleep?" She asked, incredulously. "Ker, we're going to be late as hell."

"Yes, I did." Kerry replied in an unperturbed tone. "My first thing's at ten, and you're OCB today, so take a chill gelcap and relax, okay?" She slid a hand over Dar's hip and lightly scratched her back. "How's this doing?"

The smooth surface under her hand tensed, then moved as Dar stretched, the muscles under her skin shifting under Kerry's fingers.

"A little stiff, but not bad." Dar admitted. "Maybe we can do some swimming this weekend… that should fix it up."

Kerry wriggled over and pinned her lover down, receiving a startled, widened eyed look in return. "Maybe we can take you over to Dr. Steve's, and have him look at it."

"Aw… Kerrryyy…." Dar whined.

"Pick one. Dr. Steve, or the ophthalmologist." Kerry replied kindly, ignoring the endearing pout that faced her. "Sweetheart, I'm not going to sit by and watch you either hurting, or hurting yourself, so you'd better just get used to it, okay?"

"I hate doctors." Dar said. "You know I hate doctors."

Kerry sighed. "Yes, I know you do… but I have to take very good care of you, Dar." She put a fingertip on Dar's nose. "Humor me? Please?"

Dar thought about it, her eyes moving slightly, regarding the eggshell colored ceiling. Then they focused on Kerry's face, and softened. "All right." She agreed quietly. "But you have to go with me."

"Of course I will." Kerry smiled in relief. "In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I haven't had my eyes checked in a few years either. We'll both go, okay?"

Dar nodded. "Okay." She rubbed a thumb over Kerry's ribs, which expanded under her touch. "I think it's time we got our lazy butts out of bed, don't you?"

"Do you really want to?" Kerry laid an arm down on Dar's chest, and rested her chin on it. "You know what I'd like?" She added suddenly.


"Someday. I'd like us to just… " Kerry nibbled her lower lip. "Get a camper, or something. and travel all over the place, just seeing new things." A half smile appeared. "Does that sound strange to you? There are so many places I haven't seen, and I'd like to - together."

Dar cocked her head slightly to one side. She took a breath to answer, then released it when her cell phone, dropped haphazardly on the bedside table buzzed. "Hold that thought." She told Kerry as she fumbled one-handedly with the instrument. "Because I really like it."

Kerry grinned wholeheartedly and gave Dar a pat on the side. "I'll get coffee started." She lowered her voice as Dar answered the phone, then took the opportunity to suckle Dar's navel gently, chuckling as she heard her lover's voice break slightly. "Tell Mark I said hi." She gave Dar a nip, then rolled out of bed and made her way out into the living room, where Chino was already waiting impatiently to be let out.

She opened the back door for the Lab, then clicked the coffee on before she trotted upstairs and into her own bedroom. "Two bathrooms, no waiting." She told her reflection, as she entered hers, splashing water on her face more to wake her up than anything else, and scrubbing her teeth industriously.

One of the nicer things about the condo was the amount of space they both had, she reflected. She'd grown up in such a big house, with a lot of people around, and Dar had grown up just the opposite, but they both needed and appreciated the room to get away a little, and be alone sometimes.

Which made her comment to Dar seem really odd, if you thought about it. But Dar had liked the idea of traveling around together, so maybe it wasn't so weird after all.

Of course, showers, now… Kerry grinned at the rumpled, rakish looking figure gazing back at her. Showers they liked to take together. "Hey, scruffy… time for a haircut." She pointed at her reflection, before she turned and went to her closet, bound on selecting her clothing for the day.


Dar settled her sunglasses more firmly as she headed from the parking lot into the staff building. She was dressed in her favorite pair of worn jeans, and a Navy sweatshirt, in deference to the cooler weather that had rolled in overnight.

The Marine at the door gave her a friendly nod, and opened the portal for her. "Good morning, ma'am."

"Morning." Dar replied politely. She took the stairs two at a time, and ducked around the upper hall doors, glancing around for any sign of her glowering nemesis. "Eh.. maybe I get lucky for a change."

She made it into the network hardware room, and put her case down, then glanced around at the walls full of telecommunications punch downs. With a sigh, she pulled out her Palm Pilot and opened it, checking the circuit ID Mark had given her, and comparing it to the rows of tags hanging from the blocks.

"Ah. There you are." Dar pulled a tool from her briefcase and studied the network bridges, consulting her pilot for the network node the base had assigned her to. Her brow creased, and she ran a finger lightly down the massive hub, curious about the design. An entire segment was bridged off to a completely different hub, for no reason she could readily identify.

One dark eyebrow lifted. "Hm." Dar followed the cables to the other hub, and peeked in back of it. "Ethernet..Ethernet.. Fast Ethernet… T3?" Dar looked closer. "Twelve network nodes sharing a T3? What the hell is running on them?"

Really curious now, Dar pulled the network schematic she'd been given out of her briefcase, and spread it out, running an experienced eye over the layout. After a few minutes, she folded the paper up and tucked it away, letting out a careful breath as she considered her options.

Then she walked over and copied down the circuit id on the mysterious hub and pulled out her cellphone.


Kerry took her seat in the operations meeting, setting down her cup of tea and glancing around the table. No one met her eyes, and she let a wry grin touch her lips as she settled back in the leather conference chair, extending her legs and crossing them, while she rested her folded hands on the table surface.

Mark was the last to arrive, and he closed the door behind him before he took his own seat, the one directly across from hers. There was none of the usual bantering, everyone just sat quietly, eyes on their agendas, and waited.

"So." Kerry broke the silence. "Heard any good rumors lately?" She waited for the embarrassed shuffling to quiet down. "That was pretty counterproductive, wasn't it? I’m used to people having nothing better to do than speculate about my private life, but tying up the resources of the entire department for an entire morning was going a little overboard, don't you think?"

Nobody knew what to say. They all just stared miserably at the table.

"I’m not sure what's more disappointing." Kerry went on quietly. "The fact that people who know me personally participated in it, and thought so little of my integrity that they'd think I'd do something like that to Dar in front of the entire company…" She paused. "Or the fact that in a department full of intelligent people, only Dar's admin had the sense to check the visitor's log."

Mark finally looked up, his jaw muscles visibly clenching as he met her gaze squarely. "I didn't bother checking." He stated. "I knew it was bullshit. The only thing I wanted to do is find out where it started, and stop it." He reflected. "I did. But that flew out so fast it went through my fingers."

Kerry nodded. "I know. Thank you, Mark." She saw some of the rigid tension in his shoulders relax a little. "Dar and I make a point of keeping our personal lives out of this building. I'd appreciate it if you all would do the same. Find something else to speculate about."

Nods and murmurs of agreement went around the table.

"Okay." Kerry was satisfied that she'd scared, embarrassed, and intimidated the entire room to the best of her capability. Dar, of course, would have done a much scarier job of it, but she felt she'd gotten her point across, and predicted her people would be having little meetings of their own in their areas as soon as the current session was over. "Next item on the agenda. Enid, what's the status on the new accounts in the Northwest?"

Never had there been so many people in one room so glad of a subject change. Enid eagerly sifted through her papers, and started into her report.


The small office was very quiet. Only the faint sound of the laptop's hard drive, and the occasionally soft click broke the silence. Dar had her head propped up on one fist as she reviewed the data flicking across the display.

"What in the hell are they doing?" The CIO asked her computer, which morosely refused to answer. She scanned the datastream for the nth time, trying to figure out the pattern in the weird anomalies she'd been seeing for the last couple of hours.

The cell phone resting on the desk buzzed, and Dar answered it. "Yeah?"

"Hey, Dar." Mark's voice sounded unusually quiet. "I tracked down that T3 ID for you. It's a private subscriber circuit. Not Bellsouth."

"Huh." Dar's brow creased. "That's even stranger. I could understand having a… "A thought occurred to her. "Hang on.. I'll call you back." She hung up and retrieved a number from the cellphone memory, then dialed it.

It rang twice, then was answered. "Gerry?"

"Ah.. Dar!" Gerald Easton's voice sounded cheerful. "I was just thinking of you."

"Someone send you a memo?" Dar hazarded a guess.

The military man chuckled. "Eh.. heard from old Jeff, as a matter of fact. He's thrilled to have you down there, Dar."

Dar felt a half grin forming. "He's the only one, Gerry. I’m not a popular person down here. Listen.. is there anything black here?"

There was a momentary silence. "Eh." Easton grunted. "Odd question."

"Odd because it's yes, or because it's no?" Dar was conscious of the cellular connection, which could be monitored. "I don't want details, Gerry, just if there is or isn't."

"Hold on a minute." Easton's voice had become crisp. It was replaced with hold music, which Dar suffered through, having an innate dislike for the song Sleigh Ride. It cut off thankfully on the third go round, replaced by a rustle, and a clearing of Gerry's throat. "Ah Dar?"

"Mm.. still here." Dar sketched a squirrel on her pad.

"I just checked, and no, we've got nothing dark there." Gerry paused. "Nothing even remotely gray, as a matter of fact."

Dar scowled, and put fangs on the squirrel. "Damn." She exhaled. "Okay, thanks Gerry. I've got to hunt somewhere else for answers."

"Problems?" The cautious question came back.

"Things that aren't making sense." Dar replied. "I hate that."

A chuckle. " As well I remember. If you need any more information, Dar, get in touch, eh?"

"I will." Dar hung up the cellphone, and reviewed the data she had on her screen. "Okay." She called up an new email, clipped and pasted from the analyzer program into it, added notes, and sent it on it's way. "Let's see what Mark can dig up about who bought that nice, big hub that mysteriously connects to someone else's network from inside a supposedly secure building."

Then she set up her transfer program, and tapped into the base's network, parsing all of it's traffic and sending a running dump to her ops center in Miami. The big boxes there would digest the information, and run her custom designed systems analysis programs on it. That code would tell her if her gut instinct was right, and there was something weird going on, or if she was just seeing spiders in the shadows.

Dar leaned back in her wooden chair, and folded her arms as the data transfer kicked in. She looked up as a light knock came at the door. "Yes?"

Chuckie stuck his head inside the room. "Hey there, old buddy. Can I interest you in some lunch?"

Dar smiled easily. "Sure." She set her passwords and locked the laptop down, then stood up and joined Chuckie at the door. "You want to go downstairs, or offbase?" She asked. "I kind of have an itch for conch fritters."

"You're on." Chuckie agreed happily. "I've been buried up to my butt in status reports all day. I've got ten new recruits coming from this class, and boy howdy, I hope those little suckers don't sink the boat before we clear international waters." He put a hand on Dar's back and guided her down the hall. "Dad says you plan on doing a checkout on the training process here, that right?"

"Right." Dar answered. "That's what Gerry was griping about from here mostly - results on the folks they kick out of here being substandard." She dropped down the stairs with Chuckie at her side. "He wants to know why, and frankly, so do I."

"For real?" Chuckie held the door at the bottom of the hall open for her, then followed her out and into the cool, somewhat damp air.

"Yeah." Dar pulled her keys out of her pocket and headed for the Lexus. "From a management perspective, bad performance usually only has one of a couple sources." She opened the doors and they got in, then she continued her lecture, which Chuckie listened to with interest. "Either your talent pool is empty, your processes are defective, or there's a motivation structure in place that doesn't match what your performance objectives are."

Chuckie folded his arms over his chest and eyed her. "Can we talk about football or something? I didn't get three words out of five in that last paragraph."

Dar chuckled, as she pulled out of the base parking lot and sent the Lexus in search of a scrungy crab shack. "Sorry." She recomposed her thoughts. "Your recruits suck, the instructors don't know what the hell they're doing, or someone's being paid to just churn out bodies regardless if they know what end of a broom to grab hold of."

"Ah." Chuckie considered this thoughtfully. "How are you going to figure out which one it is?"

How indeed? Dar pulled into an unpaved parking lot and stopped the Lexus. "I’m not sure yet." She admitted. "I've got a program sucking everything down into one of our big processors, and it's going to sort the data out for me. I'll review it, and make a plan based on what I find."

"Okay." Chuckie opened the door to the crab shack and they entered, going from the bright light outside into a somewhat dim, weathered, wooden interior graced with trestle tables, benches, and several neon bar signs on the wall. "Howdy, Red."

The burly, bearded man with more tattoos than it seemed safe waved at him. "Hey Chuck.. whoa, you moved up in the world, didncha?" His eyes flicked over Dar with genial approval. "C'mon in, sweet thing."

Chuckie, to give him credit, winced.

Dar dropped her jacket onto the nearest trestle table and sauntered over to the man, leaning on the counter across from him and tipping her sunglasses down to give him a better look. After a moment, she sighed. "You are still as butt ugly as you were in high school, you know that, August?"

The man's eyes widened. "Whothefuckareyou?"

"Someone you ain't seen in fifteen years." Dar drawled back. "You want to put us up two baskets of fritters and burgers, so at least we'll get something out of this conversation?"

The man scratched his jaw and tilted his head, then reach over and pulled Dar's sunglasses all the way off. He leaned closer. "Oh shit." He started laughing. "It's Dar." He let the glasses drop to the counter. "I'll be a son of a bitch."

Dar scooped up her shades. "You're damn lucky I'm not nearly as much of a hardass as I used to be, Augie… that crack would have gotten you a broken nose once upon a time." She relaxed into a smile, as Chuckie decided it was safe to approach and came up next to her.

"Yeah.. you're so mellow now." Chuckie commented. "Remind me of that again when I bitch about how sore I am from that little stunt we pulled the other night."

"Mary!" August hollered behind him. "Two burgers, two fritters, okay?" He faced forward again. "Dar, man, its such a trip to see you. It has been forever and gone, ain't it?" He pointed to the table. "Siddown.. I was just gonna have some lunch myself. We were busier than all get out before, but it slowed down some."

Dar took a seat on the worn wooden bench as her two friends did the same. She rested her elbows on the surface and exhaled, allowing a bittersweet sense of familiarity to wash over her. August's father had owned the shack during her younger years, and she'd spent many hours hunched over the uneven tables, talking crap and swallowing enough fried fish and greasy burgers to have easily killed off anyone with a more sensitive digestive system.

Her nose twitched as she detected the scent of the spicy fritter batter cooking, and she smiled, glad for the moment to know that not everything had changed.

"Still workin with that computer shit, huh Dar?" Augie asked.

Oh yeah. "Yep. " Dar admitted. "Same shit."


"Ms Kerry?" Mayte’s voice crackled through the intercom. "Senor Mark is here."

Kerry finished typing her last sentence, and flexed her hands, making the joints crack slightly. "Great. Send him this way, Mayte." She sat back and waited, as her door opened and Mark entered. "Hi."

"Hi." Mark closed the door and crossed the carpeted floor, taking a seat in one of Kerry's visitor's chairs. "Listen, I.. um.. "

"Mark -it's okay." Kerry interrupted him gently. "I'm over it."

The MIS chief blinked. "Oh." He sat back and let his hands rest on his thighs "You know the whole staff's been walking around in a blue funk since the meeting, right?"

"I heard." Kerry ran her fingers through her hair and riffled it, stifling a yawn as she did so. "Jesus, its not like I was that wacko, was I? I've heard Dar go off.. I know I'm not in her league."

"Nah." Mark agreed. "It's worse with you, though, because you're always so nice, when you get postal, it makes everyone's hair stand on end." He gave Kerry an apologetic look. "No offense."

"None taken." Kerry smiled. "I talked to Mariana." She shifted the topic neatly. "She's agreed to let me handle whatever we decide to do with Brent."

"Urm." Mark rubbed his jaw, darkened with stubble now that the day was almost ended. "I talked to him a little - he's way out there, Kerry." He shook his head. "I can't figure out if it's just that he had a…uh, I mean, if.."

Kerry leaned forward. "I didn't think he was serious, until Dar told me after I met you both in the ops center that time that he'd just finished asking her if I was seeing anyone." She propped her head up on one fist. "I thought that was pretty darn oblivious of him, you know?"

Mark waggled his hand. "He's pretty focused."

"So, is his problem that I'm not interested, or is his problem why I’m not interested?"

"Why." Mark said bluntly. "His dad's a Southern Baptist minister who was tossed out of the local group for advocating the castration of gay guys, and the incarceration of anyone who didn't think we should swap the bill of rights for the bible."

Kerry sighed.

"It sucks, you know? He's a good tech, and not half bad a guy if you don't mind the freaking nerdiness." Mark shook his head. "I talked to him just before I came in here, and he just can't see why everyone doesn't feel the same way he does."

"Okay." Kerry scrubbed her face. "I'd like to talk to him." She said. "Can you set up a time tomorrow morning? Make it early, preferably before I have to sit in on the marketing projection session."

"Sure you want to do that?" Mark queried.


"Okay." Mark stood up. "Did you hear from the boss? Her data dump finally finished.. the processors are chewing on it."

Kerry leaned back. "Yep. She's home, actually." She propped a knee up against the desk and folded her hands around it. Hearing from Dar had been a surprise, especially when her lover had told her she was comfortably seated on their leather couch watching a special on China. "She's .. um.. cooking dinner."

Mark stopped in mid motion and stared at her, his jaw dropping in mild shock. "Uh?"

"Yeah." Kerry scratched her nose. "My curiosity is starting to give me wedgies." She admitted, with a grin. "I mean, it could be that we'll end up eating ice cream sundaes for dinner, those are well inside Dar's ability, or maybe she'll do eggs, which I know are safe."

"Now you've got me curious." Mark chuckled. "She once told me flipping the power switch in the coffee machine was the limit of her cooking skills." He folded his arms. "You gotta let me know what happens."

Kerry stood up and stretched, wincing as her back popped from the long hours she'd been seated at her desk trying to clear her inbox. She'd even had Mayte bring her up lunch so she could spend the extra time catching up. "Okay." She viewed the outbox with a sense of satisfaction. "I think I’m going to pack it in."

"Walk you downstairs?" Mark offered. "I was just on my way out myself."

They joined a group of fellow employees who were also leaving, including Jose and Eleanor, and the elevator was fairly crowded. Kerry pressed back against the mirrored wall, not really uncomfortable but conscious of the air's stuffiness and the clashing scents of Eleanor's aggressive rose perfume and Jose's vaguely coconutty smelling after-shave.

Ick. Kerry eyed the ceiling; it was also unfortunate that some people seemed to have a curious absentmindedness when it came to things like deodorant and reasonably frequent showering. She considered holding her breath, wondering if the elevator was being perversely slow just to piss her off.

Oh. Kerry almost hopped up and down to force the car to move faster. What if it gets stuck? Her eyes widened a little. How would it look for the VP Ops to chuck up all over half the executive staff in an elevator?


She jerked, and sucked in a breath, then glanced at Mark. "What?"

Mark leaned closer. "You looked like you were freaking out."

She sighed, and leaned back. "Overactive imagination." The car reached the bottom and bounced a little, then, finally, blissfully, the doors slid open and allowed the people to exit and the cold air to enter. "Jesus." She pushed off from the mirrored wall and left the elevator, glancing up into the vast vault of the atrium lobby.

A faint smile crossed her face as she remembered the first time she'd seen this place, a very late, rainy night that had started in despair and ended…ended up being a crossroads in her life she wasn't even aware of until long after she'd passed through it.

She followed Mark out the front doors into the daylight and headed for her car, her mind making the mental jog when it first tried to find her Mustang, then shifted and searched for the new profile.

"Hey.. did you get a new set of wheels?" Mark asked, as he ambled alongside her. "Ain't that cute.. a baby Darcar."

"A wh… oh." Kerry laughed. "Yeah, I guess you could call it that." She patted her new blue Lexus on the side. "I like it… I can actually see things now. See you tomorrow, Mark."

"Yeah." Mark unstrapped his motorcycle helmet and put his briefcase in the saddlebag of the big Harley. "Drop me a mail when you figure out what Big D is feeding you, huh? I’m dying to know."

"Hm." Kerry got into the SUV and rolled the window down. "Dying.. not a good word there, Mark." She gave him a wave and started the car, then pulled out of the parking lot and headed home.


It was relatively quiet outside the condo when she pulled into her spot, and she got out, cautiously examining the front door before she approached it. "Well." She leaned back against the car and crossed her arms. "No smoke, no fire engines outside the place, and it looks like the electricity is still on, so she didn't blow a circuit."

A nod. "Looking good so far. Now, Kerrison." She addressed herself seriously. "Whatever this turns out to be, Dar will have spent a lot of time, and a lot of effort on it, so no matter what, you're going to like it. Got me?" She squared her shoulders, and took a deep breath. "Besides, you've eaten at the Republican National Convention. Nothing should scare you after that."

She trotted up the stairs and paused, cocking her head and listening before she keyed in her lock code. Nothing but soft music came faintly to her ears, certainly not the strident cursing she'd have expected from Dar if things weren't going well. Another good sign. Kerry unlocked the door and opened it, slipping inside and closing it behind her.

And then she just stood there, only her eyes moving as she absorbed the scene in front of her. The lights were dimmed in both the living room and dining room, and there were candles on the table. Really tall, pretty candles set in holders that complimented the china and crystal place settings patiently awaiting use.

She also realized two other things. There was no sign of Dar, and something smelled great. "Heh." Kerry chortled softly to herself. "I'm liking this already."

"Good." Dar's voice purred from nearby.

Kerry almost jumped, and then she turned to see Dar leaning against the doorjamb of her bedroom, her hair pulled loosely back, and her body covered in something very silky and brief. The pale blue eyes held a lazily sensual note as they traveled over Kerry's form, eliciting a small, almost sub vocal noise from Kerry's throat. "Hi there." She managed to get out.

"Hi there." Dar replied. "Wanna come in and make yourself comfortable?" She eased away from the door and moved towards Kerry, bare feet soundless against the tile. "Hello? Earth to Kerry?" Dar waved a hand in front of her lover's eyes, which seemed to be firmly focused on her.

Kerry let her laptop case slide to the floor, and found better uses for her hands, letting them slide over the soft, cool fabric covering Dar's body to feel the warm flesh beneath. She stepped closer, and took a deep breath, then tilted her head back to look up at her lover. "So..what did I do to rate this?"

Dar smiled. "Nothing." She brushed a wisp of pale hair out of Kerry's eyes. "I just felt like trying this romantic thing out. Complaining?"

"Nu uh." Kerry shook her head firmly. "Where'd you get this? It's gorgeous." She fingered the crimson silk. It barely covered Dar's body, and Kerry found herself loosing interest in dinner, or asking questions, or… "Damn, you smell good."

"Glad you think so." Dar nuzzled her hair, then slipped her arms around Kerry and gave her a big hug. "Mom and Dad took Chino for the night."

Kerry gave her a weird look. "Why? She never bothers us."

"No, but she kept jumping up and stealing my mixing thing, and it was driving me nuts." Dar admitted, with a faint chuckle. "C'mon.. let's get you undressed, so you can properly appreciate my creation."

Kerry stepped back, and grinned frankly at her. "Sweetie, I don't need to be undressed to appreciate that. I think your creation is spectacular."

Dar put her hands on her hips, hiking up the fabric and only enhancing Kerry's visceral experience. "I meant dinner."

"That too." Kerry's smile grew wider. "Oh.. " The words finally penetrated, and she laughed helplessly. "Sorry..sorry.. you mean the food."

Dar snorted softly, but looked pleased with the appraisal nonetheless. "G'wan." She nudged Kerry towards the stairs. "I'll put the salad on the table."

Kerry had turned and had one foot on the steps. Now she stopped dead and swiveled her head to face Dar. "You.." She pointed. "made salad?"

Dar nodded.

"Ah… hah." Kerry slowly turned back around and started up the steps, sneaking disbelieving peeks at Dar as she did, until she disappeared onto the second floor. 'Salad." She shook her head, as she entered her bedroom and kicked her shoes off. "I feel like I’m in a dream world."

Her closet beckoned, and she went inside, shucking out of her jacket and hanging it neatly on a hanger. Then she unbuttoned and slid out of her skirt and hung that up as well. Then she stopped and considered, as she removed her shirt. Normally, she'd just slip into an old T-shirt, but since Dar had made an effort… her eyes roved speculatively over her wardrobe. "Hm. It's all business or dressy. I don't have any causally sexy numbers, Dar."

She flipped through the hangers, until she finally stopped at one, removing it. "Hm." It was a sleeveless satin sheath, designed to go under a lacy dress she had. "That'll work." She slipped it over her head and settled the edges, which just barely came to her upper thighs. "Yeah… " She consulted the mirror, which reflected back to her a surprisingly racy looking image. Thoughts of Dar in her silk strapless number came to mind, and Kerry found herself wondering just how relevant dinner was going to be.

A shiver of anticipation made her grin.


Dar studied the plate, then nodded in satisfaction, cocking her head as she heard Kerry's footsteps coming down the stairs. She put both hands on the back of the dining room chair and smiled in welcome as Kerry appeared, the smile broadening as the warm candlelight exposed the brief clothing, and knowing look. "Nice." Dar drew the chair back and Kerry seated herself, with a faint chuckle.

"Thank you." Kerry waited for Dar to take the seat right next to her, and move the chair slightly so their bare legs touched. "Are you actually going to eat some of this here salad, Dardar?"

White teeth reflected the candlelight as Dar smiled. "Only if you feed it to me."

So she did. They exchanged forkfuls, and Kerry found herself enjoying the freshly cut greens very much. Of course, there was enough dressing on them that Dar probably couldn't tell a lettuce leaf from a carrot, but that was okay. That's how she liked her salad. They finished, and she carefully removed some extra dressing off Dar's lips before she let her lover stand and remove the plates. "That was great."

Dar paused at the entrance to the kitchen. "Just you wait."

"Mm." Kerry sat back and folded her hands over her stomach, craning her neck to watch Dar busy at work by the stove. With serious precision, her lover was arranging something on plates, and adding scoops of something else from a dish on the warmer. When she was satisfied that both plates had equal amounts, and were symmetrical, Dar picked them up and walked back into the dining room.

"Here you go." Dar set the plates down, and seated herself, then eyed Kerry for a reaction.

Kerry's eyebrows lifted. 'That's a lobster tail." She commented.


Kerry poked the top. "It's stuffed."

"Sure is."

"Those are au grain potatoes."

"With cheese." Dar agreed.

"And peas."

"Leseur Very Early baby peas."

Kerry nibbled a bit of stuffing. "Dar, this is fantastic."

A very satisfied Dar settled back in her chair. "Thanks."

They ate in silence for a moment. "When did you learn to cook?" Kerry finally asked, unable to keep her curiosity under wraps.

Dar looked up, and bit the end of her fork in thought. "Four…no, four thirty today." She reached over and poured chilled white wine into their glasses, then lifted one, and toasted her lover. "Incredible, what you can find out on the Internet, isn't it?"

With a helpless laugh, Kerry lifted her glass and clinked it, then took a sip of the sweet wine. "So, what's for dessert?"

For an answer, Dar looked her up and down, and raised an eyebrow, her lips twitching into a rakish grin.

"Ah." Kerry wrinkled her nose into an appreciative grin. "Got any fudge with that?"

Dar merely chuckled.


"Mm." Kerry stretched her legs out in the Jacuzzi and leaned her head back, regarding the stars happily. "What a great night."

Dar stepped into the tub and sat down, setting two glasses down on the rim and stretching an arm out to include Kerry's shoulders. "Glad you liked it." She wiggled her toes in contentment. "I sure did, except that fudge got damn messy."

One green eye rotated in her direction. "Which is why we're here in the hot tub." Kerry reminded her wryly. "Or we would have ended up stuck together, which could have made work a little interesting tomorrow." She reached over and scratched the back of Dar's neck. "How'd it go down by the base today?"

Dar handed her a glass of cold, sweet peach tea. "Relatively pointless. I got the circuit hooked up, and got the download started, then…" Dar paused. "There was one weird thing. They've got a private T3 dropped in there that's on an isolated segment."

Kerry tipped her head to one side. "Really?" She mused. "That is weird."

"Yeah." Dar nibbled her inner lip. "I've got Mark tracking down the private line, but… I don't know, Ker. It's really odd." She leaned back and sighed. "I wish I knew what was going on."

Kerry caught the mood change, and she slid closer. "Maybe it's nothing."

Dar regarded the stars. "Maybe."

The phone rang. Dar picked up the cordless unit and answered it. "Hello?"

There was silence, then a gasp. "Um… um.. can I talk to Kerry?"

Dar's brows creased. "Sure." She handed the phone over, with a widening of the eyes and a shrug. The voice had sounded very young.

Kerry took the instrument and put it to her damp ear. "Hello?"

"Oh.. Kerry. Hi." A breath. "I'm really sorry to like, bother you this late and all that, but .. "

"Lena?" Kerry's mental recognition kicked in. "Is that you?"

A breath. "Yeah."

"Hey.. folks have been looking for you." Kerry told her. "Where are you?"

Lena hesitated. "Um… not in a good place."

Dar nestled closer and listened.

"What's not a good place.. are you in the hospital?"

"No." Lena muttered. "I’m in jail."

Dar's eyes widened in surprise. She and Kerry exchanged startled looks.

"In jail? What are you doing there?" Kerry sputtered. "What did you… " She half turned and pushed the wet hair out of her eyes. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah." Lena sounded tired. "It's just really stupid, you know? My folks clued into like, me being gay, and they grounded me."

"Grounded you?" Kerry's voice dropped a note. "Did they think that would fix it?"

"Fuck if I know." Lena replied glumly. "I busted out the windows in my room and took off, and they called the cops on me."

"Ah." Kerry's eyes narrowed slightly. "You need help getting out?"

Lena was very quiet for a few seconds. "You're the only person I know that doesn't make minimum wage." She finally admitted meekly. "My folks told me to rot in here."

Blue eyes and green met. "We'll be right down there. You at the main jail?" Kerry asked. "The one off Flagler?"

"Yeah." Lena whispered. "Thanks, Kerry."

"No problem. Take it easy until we get there." Kerry hung up and put the phone down. "Stupid son of a b…" She was stopped with a kiss. "Damn it, Dar. What the hell is wrong with people?"

"I don't know." Dar wiped a bit of water off Kerry's cheek. "But we'd better get dressed and go bail your little buddy out. Then we can worry about her dimwitted genetic contributors."

"Pah." Kerry sloshed out of the tub and grabbed a towel, handing Dar hers as her lover followed her. "Poor kid… how could they let her be taken down there? She's probably scared half to death."

"She the one with the tatoos?" Dar asked.


"Mm.. and the nose ring?"


"She'll be fine."

They both walked into the condo, and were halfway across the living room before Kerry stopped, and turned, putting her hands on her hips. "Do you know this from personal experience?"

Dar rubbed her face, and just kept walking, a faint chuckle escaping her.


The Dade County primary jail was, as most jails are, a supremely depressing place. The walls were institutional beige, and the floors were many times shined heavy tile. Kerry was very aware of the glances thrown her way as she entered, and glad of Dar's light touch on her back as they moved across the starkly lit lobby towards a processing desk.

Thick, bulletproof glass protected the woman seated behind it, and it took a moment before she realized someone was there and looked up. "Yes?"

Ew. Kerry exhaled. "A friend of ours is in here. I'd like to see about getting her out."

The woman looked at her then pushed a pad across the desk and through the small hole in the glass. "Name?"

Kerry glanced at the pad, then started to fish in her purse for a pen. She realized she didn't know Lena's last name at the same time as Dar handed over her favorite heavy, silver chased ballpoint. "Thanks." Kerry scribed the first name, then hesitated. "I'm sorry." She directed her words to the woman behind the desk. "I only know her first name."

"Real good friend of yours, huh?" The officer took the pad back and studied it. "Could be worse. Could be Maria. Lemme go look." She ripped the top sheet off the pad and got up, disappearing back into a cluttered area behind her full of files and tall cabinets.

"Hm." Kerry rocked on her heels. "I feel pretty stupid about that."

Dar shrugged, lacing her fingers together behind her back and glancing around the lobby. "Hasn't changed much." She allowed, accepting the curious look from her lover. "After I.. " Dar paused, and inclined her head. "That little incident at the club I think you mentioned once."

"Ah." Kerry did, indeed, remember. "They brought you here?"

"I was pretty young." Dar acknowledged. "They wanted to make sure one of the jackasses' friends didn't come after me. They called Dad, and he came down to pick me up."

Two officers pushed by them, with a very inebriated young woman slung between them. Kerry moved out of the way, ducking as the woman started to swing an arm wildly. "Whoa." She felt herself pulled to one side, and stepped away from the now struggling prisoner, with Dar hovering protectively over her. "So. Dad picked you up, huh?" Kerry decided a distraction was appropriate.

Dar's nose wrinkled, at the sudden stench of vomit. "Yeah." She took another step backwards, and tugged Kerry with her. "He was, um… "

"Proud." Kerry tried to breathe through her mouth.


"Paladar Katherine Roberts, I can just sit here and picture your father coming in here to get you. I bet he made every cop who was there tell him what you did."

Two men brushed by, arguing in loud, strident Spanish. They had badges on chains around their necks. Another man approached, yelling, and pointing a finger at one of the detectives. The detective slapped his hand, and yelled back.

"Hey!" The clerk had returned to her desk, and now she used the microphone sitting to one side. "Take it inside!"

The three men gave her a look, then shoved through a worn, wood paneled door to one side, which opened into a large room filled with desks and papers. The clerk watched them, then looked up and made eye contact with Kerry, lifting one hand and curling her finger inward.

"Officious little.."

"Dar." Kerry patted her lover's leg. "C'mon - let's get this over with." She led Dar over to the counter and rested her elbows on it's chipped Formica surface. "Find her?"

"Yeah." The woman shuffled some papers. "You a relative?"

"No. Just a friend." Kerry moved a little closer, and tilted her head to see the officer's nametag. Funk. Hm. "She had a little trouble with her folks."

"No kidding." Officer Funk agreed. "All right. The bail's a thousand dollars."

Kerry saw the woman's eyes lift to her, and she suspected she was waiting for a reaction. Kerry smiled pleasantly. "Okay. Do you take checks.. credit cards? " A beat, and no reaction from the officer. "Animal pelts?"

"Cash." Officer Funk replied. "Ten percent."

Dar removed her wallet from her hip pocket and sorted through its contents, removing a hundred-dollar bill and tossing it onto the counter. "There."

Kerry opened her mouth, then realized she didn't have that much cash on her, and subsided. She pushed the bill closer to the woman. "There."

They stood there while the paperwork was completed, what looked like an eight or nine part form along with a sheaf of other documents. "I didn't have to sign that many things for my new car." Kerry commented idly.

"You weren't buying it from Dade County." The officer muttered. "All right, Jack, c'mere. Get me this one from the holding area." She thrust a piece of paper behind her, and it was taken by a shorter man in uniform, with a thick, dark mustache. "This is your receipt." She pushed a form over to Kerry. "She comes up for a hearing in ten days. Make sure she's there, or you're in the hole for the other nine hundred."

Dar leaned forward. "What is she charged with?"

The deeper tones caught the officer's attention, and she looked up, to find Dar's piercing eyes pinning her. "Destruction of property."

"What did she break?" Kerry asked.

"Car window."

Dar's brow creased. "Wouldn't it be cheaper to just pay for the damn window?"

Officer Funk shrugged. "Her parents pressed charges. Guess they figured the kid couldn't pay."


In the act of standing up to put away her papers, the policewoman stopped and peered through the glass at Dar. "I don't know. If my kid told me they were queer, I might do the same thing." She shrugged, and walked away.

Kerry turned, and met Dar's eyes, and they looked at each other in silence. After a moment, an inner door opened and the short, male officer appeared one hand grasping Lena's arm. The girl seemed very quiet, her face showing signs of rough handling, and her clothes were ripped and stained. She looked up and saw the two of them standing there, and a pathetic look of utter gratitude lit her face.

"Hey, Lena." Kerry smiled at her. "C'mon…I bet you want out of here."

"Oh. " Lena closed her eyes, then opened them. "You bet your ass I do." She paused awkwardly. "Um.. I mean.."

"I think you said exactly what you mean." Dar drawled. "Let's get out of this place." She let her eyes drift over and meet Officer Funks. "It stinks."

They made their way out of the large double doors and into the cool night air. Lena stopped on the stone steps and took a breath, tilting her head back to look up at the night sky. "Thank you." She hugged herself. "I'll pay you guys back. I've got some money in my savings account." She looked around, with a lost expression. "I'll have to take it all out anyway.. I'll need clothes before I can go back to work tomorrow." A pause. "If they haven't fired me."

Kerry and Dar exchanged glances. "C'mon." Kerry put a hand on her arm and steered her towards the Lexus. "The first thing you need is a shower, and some clean stuff to wear. We've got both back at our place."

"I can't ask you to do that." But Lena looked pathetically grateful.

"You're not. Let's go." Dar keyed the doors open, and motioned to her. The poor kid looked so ragged, and so at a loss, Dar felt like… Like what, Dar? Her conscience pricked her. Like you want to go punch her mother? She closed the door after Lena climbed up inside the car, then walked around and started to get in, pausing and resting her arm on the edge of the windowsill as she gazed down the sidewalk.

She remembered walking down it, dressed in her scary, punky best with parts of her aching from the fight but happy, because her daddy was there next to her. They'd stopped on the corner and leaned back against the coral wall, across from the parking lot she could spot her dad's truck in. Andrew had looked her over, and shook his head. "Lord. You are mah kid, ain't you."

Dar ha stuck her hands into her ripped pockets, and just nodded.

"Y'know, they don't give folks who do what I do medals much." Andrew had said, looking off into the distance a little. "And I sure ain't got none to give up, but here." He'd taken off his dogtags, and put them around Dar's neck.

Dar remembered looking up at him, and she knew her face must have shown how she felt because he'd smiled, and cupped her cheek with one callused hand.

They'd just gone on home after that

"Dar?" Kerry leaned over and tugged on her lover's shirt. "You okay?"

"Yeah." Dar slid behind the wheel and closed the door. "I was just thinking of something."

Kerry studied the angular profile for a moment, then patted Dar's thigh, and half turned in her seat to address Lena. "You're doing data entry, aren't you?"

Lena was running her fingers over the soft leather of the seat. She glanced up guiltily. "Um.. oh, yeah, yeah, I do. It's a telemarketing thingie. I put in the orders." Her eyes dropped. "Or I did.. my boss hates when people are late, I can just imagine what his reaction was when I didn't show for work for two days."

"Don't worry about it." Kerry smiled at her. "So, what exactly happened?"

The young girl pushed some very dirty hair back off her forehead. "Oh my god, it was like.. it was so incredibly stupid." She exhaled, but her spirit was rebounding a little. "I can't believe it. It's like some dumb weird ass dream thing, you know?"

"No. But if you'd tell me, I would." Kerry replied patiently.

A sigh. "Okay. Like, I told you I was really into this Internet thing, right?"

Dar and Kerry exchanged looks. "We can relate to that." Kerry said.

Lena was momentarily distracted. "Are you guys on the Internet?"

"We run the Internet." Dar stated, as she pulled carefully onto the highway. "So yeah, you could say we're on it.. under it, inside it, crawling all over it… "

"Wow. For real?" Lena watched Dar's profile with interest. "That's so cool. Are you like, hackers?"



Kerry gave Dar a look. "We are not." She scolded her partner.

"You've never seen what I can do with a data analyzer, have you?"

Lena started laughing. "You guys are funny." She relaxed into the leather seat. "So anyway.. I’m like really into this Internet stuff, and I found some really cool places, with people… um.. " She hesitated.

"Like us?" Kerry hazarded a guess.

"Yeah." Lena agreed. "Anyway, we all get together and we chat, and do stuff, and a lot of them write these story things." She rubbed her fingers together. "Some of them are okay, and some are pretty good, and some… ew." Lena made a face. "So I figured I could try doing it, too, and just see how it went."

"Stories?" Kerry leaned against the seat and considered that. "What.. stories about.. school and things like that?"

"Uh. No." Lena blushed. "Not about school.. well, one of them was, this girl wrote this one about her and two other girls and some gym equipment, but…"

Kerry cocked her head to one side. "Gym equipment?" She looked over as Dar started laughing. "What?" Her brow knit, then abruptly eased as she realized what sort of stories Lena was talking about. "Oh. Kind of… romantic stories, huh?"

Lena chewed her lip. "Well, I guess some of them might be called that."

"So. Did your parents catch you reading this lesbian erotica?" Dar asked, in a low, amused tone.

"No way." Lena shook her head. "I’m way too careful for that, and my parents wouldn’t know what they were looking at in my computer anyway." She folded her arms. "I wrote my first one, and I posted it, and you know? Everyone liked it. It was so cool.."

"Hey, that's great." Kerry complimented her.

"Yeah, except I printed out a copy to take to school, to show Casey and them, and it was on my printer, and my mother came in and took it." Lena looked out the window. "Wow.. we're driving onto a boat?? Where do you guys live, Cuba?"

"That'd be a commute." Dar muttered. "I'd say your mother got what she deserved if she walked in and just took what wasn't hers."

Kerry sighed. "Some parents are of the opinion that they own whatever's in the house because they pay the mortgage." She said.

"Yeah.. you're absolutely right!" Lena blurted. "That's exactly what my parents think. My mom took it while I was in the shower, and by the time I got out she was…" The girl fell silent for second. "She started throwing things at me."

Kerry reached over and took her hand.

"I tried to stay out of the way, you know? Because she does that sometimes, just goes off and shit. But she just kept coming at me… " Lena took a shaky breath. "She chased me into the garage, and… oh my god, everything was falling, and she threw a baseball bat at me… then I don't know what happened, something, and a sled we had up in the overhead fell down right on my dad's car."

"So that's what broke the window." Kerry murmured.

"It broke everything.. and that sports car is his, like, best child." Lena said. "She locked me in there, and the next thing I knew, the cops were there, and they took me off."

The ferry docked, and the conversation ended as Dar piloted the Lexus onto the island, and turned down the road leading to the condo. Lena slid over to one side, and peered out of the window, looking around curiously until they pulled up next to the condo and parked. "Wow." She murmured. "Holy shit, Toto.. we're not in Hialeah anymore."

They got out of the car, and headed up the stairs.


 Kerry lead the way upstairs, leaving Dar to putter around and put up some coffee. Lena was creeping along behind her, trying not to touch anything as she walked in the very center of the stairs. "Let me get you something to change into.. you can use the shower in there." She gestured to the guest bathroom, tucked in neatly next to its attendant bedroom.

"Wow." Lena peeked inside, then followed Kerry hurriedly into her own bedroom. "This is a way amazing place."

Kerry pulled open a drawer and rooted around inside it. "It's pretty big, yeah." She removed a shirt and a pair of shorts. "Here.. these'll be big on you, but not too bad. They're old ones of mine when I was a lot smaller."

Lena took them gingerly, and eyed Kerry. "You're not fat."

Kerry smiled. "No, but I used to be a lot lighter, before I started all this wall climbing and weight lifting." She turned the girl around and pointed her towards the guest bathroom. "There's lots of soap, and everything you need in there. Help yourself."

"Okay." Lena carefully folded the clothes over her arm. "Um… thanks, Kerry." She said. "I thought I'd be all tough and that, and just stay in there. You know, like, wow, so this is jail."

One of Kerry's pale eyebrows cocked. "Why? You're not stupid."

Lena fingered the clothes. "There were some really fucked up people in there." She murmured. "I figured I'd better find a way to get out before something stupid happened." Her eyes lifted. "So, thanks."

"No problem.. but one thing is puzzling me." Kerry turned, and they walked together down the hall. "I don't remember giving out our phone number here."

"Oh." Now Lena managed a wan, but cheeky grin. "Casey got that out of the church Rolodex. We were all, like curious, to see if we could figure out where you lived and stuff."

"Ah." Kerry replied. "I thought that was locked up in the office."

Another grin. "And?"

Kerry sighed. "You could have just asked. That's supposed to be private information." She folded her arms.

Lena looked nonplused for a moment. "I didn't.. I mean, we didn't think of that." She admitted. "It's just that, like, no one tells you anything when you're my age, you know? It's like the everything's such a big secret, and if you want to know stuff, you have to go find it out yourself."

"Mm." Kerry understood that, having grown up in a very political household.

"What is up with adults? " Lena asked. "It's like, even in school, they say they don't teach things so we don't get 'idea's. I thought the whole thing school was for was to, like, encourage us to get ideas. So they don't tell us about important shit, like what sex is all about. How brainless is that?"

Kerry exhaled. "Go take a shower." She said. "We can discuss the philosophical motives behind education after you're done. I don't think most parents want their kids to get ideas, they just want them to be taught to be just like they are."

"Huh." Lena turned to go towards the bathroom. "That's lame."

Kerry watched her disappear. "Yeah." She agreed under her breath. "You can say that again." She shook her head and trotted down the stairs, towards the enticing scent of coffee coming from the kitchen.


Lena waited until she heard Kerry's steps fade, then she let out a breath, and leaned against the wall. Her eyes roamed over the hallway, taking in the neat appearance and the interesting pictures on the wall. "Wow."

Curious, she tiptoed along the hall and peeked inside the middle room. It was an office, she realized, as she slipped inside and peered around, aware of the tiny, guilty thrill of doing something she knew was probably severely not cool.

But how many chances would she get, right? And the rest of the gang would be sitting on her ass pulling nitty details out of her, so..

Lena roamed around the room, moving closer to the walls to read the plaques and diplomas there. Kerry's office, apparently, since it was her college and professional certifications displayed.

The desk was a light, golden oak, and the chair a very comfortable leather one. On the shelves were pictures of people Lena didn't know, so she guessed maybe they were Kerry's family. There was also a weird little collection of rocks, no two of the same size or shape, that were arranged in circles, and two or three little stuffed animals, including a beanie baby cocker spaniel.

She leaned closer to look at the pictures. One was a family shot, and she blinked as she recognized the last figure on the right. "Man. She was right." Lena whispered. "She was a freaking stick." A very thin, very serious looking Kerry was standing, dressed in a formal looking suit with her hands tucked in front of her. Her hair was put up around her face, accentuating it's drawn lines, and Lena was having a really hard time reconciling this picture with the woman who had just handed her the clothing and towels.

Lena straightened reluctantly, and eased out of the room, entering the blue and white guest bathroom again and this time closing the door. She started the shower running, deciding to just forget about how weird everything was, and get clean.

That brought up another interesting subject. What kind of soap did they use? Lena explored, and found a bar nestling in the coral shaped soap dish. She lifted it and sniffed. "Coconut. Very cool. " That got a nod of approval. She hadn't pegged them for lilac or anything weird like that.

Lena opened the medicine cabinet, but that yielded nothing but a box of Band-Aids, a tube of antiseptic cream, and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Along with a stack of long, single ended q-tips. Curiously, she picked one up and examined it, trying to figure out it's probably use.

She put the long handled q-tip, the peroxide, and the antiseptic together and quickly dropped the stick. "Ew." Her face scrunched. "Gross." She closed the cabinet and grabbed the soap, hopping in the tub and pulling the curtain closed.

After a moment, she poked her head out and stared at the cabinet. "Ew." She repeated, then ducked back inside.


"So." Dar took possession of one corner of the couch, setting her coffee cup down on the end table and stretching her legs out over the leather surface. "Madam G. Samaritan.. now what?"

Kerry put her hands on her hips. "Are you saying we shouldn't have gotten involved?" She asked sharply.

"No." Dar shook her head. "I just have no damn clue what to do now, so I'm hoping like hell you do."

"Oh." Kerry felt the building irritation wander off somewhere, and she took a seat neat to Dar's neatly socked feet. "Hm." She took a sip of her coffee, then set it down and inched over; picking up Dar's legs and letting them rest in her lap. She tweaked a toe experimentally.


"One little piggy…" Kerry teased, then relented and merely started rubbing her partner's foot under it's cotton covering. "I don’t know really what the next step is, Dar. It's not like I've ever done this before, y'know. "

Dar grunted, and wiggled her toes.

"I figure I'll call the church office tomorrow morning. Someone there should at least know where to start." Kerry went on. "I know I can get Mari to hire her on as a data entry clerk, god knows we're so hard up for help down there we're taking high school diplomas as acceptable prior experience."


"The church has apartments it leases out to people who can't pay much. She'd qualify."

Dar nodded, sliding down a little and exhaling happily. "Sounds like you've got it all planned out. Good job." She closed her eyes and concentrated on enjoying the slow massage that was working its way up her insole. It wasn’t' the way she'd hoped the evening would end, but…

Sometimes, you just had to cope.


Dar opened a blue eye and lifted its eyebrow.

Kerry gave her ankle a little scratch. "I’m sorry I brought her home without talking to you first."

Dar considered that for a moment then shrugged one shoulder. "It's just as much your home as it is mine." She allowed.

"I know. That's why I’m apologizing." The blond woman murmured. "It was a snap judgment."

Dar folded her hands over her stomach and closed her eye. "I've learned to implicitly trust your judgment." She told Kerry. "Besides, what else could you have done? Not leave her there, or let her wander off down the street. It's almost midnight."

It sounded so reasonable when Dar said it. Kerry reflected on the evening, deciding her lover was probably right. "Okay. I can go with that." She mentally planned the next day. "Are you going down to the base tomorrow?"

Dar nodded. "They've got a new class of recruits starting. I’m going to go through their first day with them, just to map the process."

"Literally?" Kerry's voice rose in surprise.

"Nah.. just as an observer. You won't get me in those damn boots again." Dar snorted. "I used to think they were the hottest thing - wore them for years, before I had the sense to figure out they're about as comfortable in Miami as wearing thermal underwear in the summer."

"Rats." Kerry grinned. "I think you'd look really cute in those fatigue things."

"I look like a stereotyped package fresh from Dykes R Us." Dar stated. "All I need is wrap around glasses, and a pair of dog tags with your name on them."

"Hm." Kerry thought about that. "You know, there's this Army surplus outlet at Sawgrass Mills… they make dog tags."

Dar opened both eyes. Kerry smiled at her charmingly.


"Wow." Lena commented, as Kerry entered the back door and wiped her face. "You sweat a lot."

"Thanks." Kerry mustered a smile, as she attempted to catch her breath. That last lap with Dar had turned into a race, and she'd gone all out, managing to keep even right up until the very end, when her lover's natural competitiveness had slipped out of control and sent Dar ahead of her. "Running does that to you."

Lena stepped back to let her pass and pretended not to be staring at Kerry's mostly bare body. "You guys do this, like, all the time?"

"Yep." Kerry went to the refrigerator and removed her juice bottle, taking the top off and drinking down a good part of its contents. She heard Dar approaching through the small garden, accompanied by the scramble of dog paws. "Incoming.."

"Groof!" Chino charged through the door and slammed into her legs, bucking like a miniature cream bronco in sheer happiness.

"Hey, sweetie." Kerry put her bottle down and greeted her pet. "Did you have fun sleeping over grandma and grandpas?"

"A blast." Dar entered and shut the door. "Dad's trying to talk Mom into getting one just like her." The taller woman picked her towel off the counter and wiped her face with it. She was dressed much like Kerry was in running shorts and a cutoff, sleeveless shirt. "It's a tough battle."

"I thought your mom was allergic to dogs?" Kerry commented, as she gave Chino a final pat, and stood up. "Wasn't that why you never had one?" She gave Lena a brief grin. "You all ready?"

Lena nodded.

"She claimed to be." Dar dried off the sweat on her stomach. "It was actually just a good excuse not to have them around the house, and now that I think about it, with all her painting stuff and chemicals, it probably wasn't a bad idea." She exhaled. "I’m going to shower off, and get moving. Talk to you later on?"

Kerry nodded. "Yeah.. call me at lunchtime. I’m going to get Lena settled, then drop by the office. I've arranged to pick up your folks around five, then we'll drive down to meet you for dinner." She watched Dar leave, after receiving a wink from one blue eye. Then she turned to Lena. "Okay. I’m going to go shower myself, then we'll head over to the church."

Lena folded an arm over her chest, and sucked at the glass of orange juice she'd finished her breakfast with. "Sure. I probably should, like, tell the guys I’m okay, and where I am and all that stuff. Can I use your phone?"

"Right there." Kerry pointed, then made her way out of the kitchen and towards the stairs, taking them two at a time as she headed up to her bedroom. Normally, of course, she and Dar would have showered together, but with their young guest around…

Kerry sighed as she trudged into her bathroom and turned on the shower. Her body was pouting a little, missing it's usual morning snuggle, and now this too. But they'd both felt a little squeamish, not knowing when Lena would get up, or be lurking, so they'd decided to be good for a day. Rats. Kerry scowled at her reflection, which was getting fuzzy around the edges from the steam. "Being good sucks."

She pulled off her running clothes and tucked them into the laundry hamper, then stepped into the walk in shower and let the warm water blast against her skin.


Dar leaned back in the leather seat, and rested her knee against the wheel as the Lexus made it's way down the long stretch of road. She had a soothing New Age CD playing, a new one Kerry had bought her on a recent trip to the mall. Dar pulled out the cover, and glanced at it. "Huh." It was an all instrumental healing CD, with natural background noises worked into it, and she liked it very much.

It was very calm, and soothing. Dar felt very calm. She took a sip of the milk she'd put in her travel mug and felt its cool thickness slide down her throat. Funny. Her eyes dropped briefly to the cup, then lifted. She'd been staying away from coffee lately, and she was starting to notice a real difference. Instead of her usual five or six cups, she'd been having maybe two, and even her breathing seemed to have slowed down a little.

On the seat next to her, the laptop rested, full of data and reports she'd downloaded from Mark's mainframe just before she'd left. Time enough when she got there, Dar reasoned, to take a quick look at them, before she headed off to see the new recruits.

Part of her was looking forward to that, in an odd way. "There but for having a brain cell.. go I." She murmured to herself, with a smile. 'Seaman Roberts, the second." A sigh. "Oh, Dar. Was that ever so not for you."

But then, it had hurt. That one last day, when she'd waited in the driveway, for her father to come home, waited, and knew, the moment she saw his face, what the answer was.


Andrew had indulged in a rare bit of physical affection, putting his arms around her and hugging her. "Sweetheart, you ain't got to do this. There's lots of damn things you can do in there."

Dar had leaned against him, utterly miserable. "Why couldn't I have been a boy?" She'd whispered. A hand had come and gripped her chin, lifting her head up.

"Cause God didn't want you that way." Her father had told her. "You ain't' gonna argue with God, Paladar. What he made you, is what he made you."

Dar smiled faintly. Yeah, I guess he did. She took another long swallow of milk, then set the cup down as she prepared to turn into the base. The guard opened the gate without even pausing, and she entered, finding a spot under a large tree to park under.

Shouldering her laptop, she got out and walked across the lot, pausing as a group of children dashed in front of her, heading for the bus stop. A harried looking woman chased after them, dressed in a pair of cotton pants, and a haphazardly buttoned shirt.

"Cora! Wait! Slow down!" The woman yelled.

One of the smaller girls, a cute tyke with soft, dark brown hair and a mischievous grin turned and made a face at her. "Go now, mom!" She scolded, then turned and dashed after her friends.

"Oh my god." The woman sighed, pushing her hair back as she ran past Dar. "Kids. Cora!!"

Dar chuckled softly, and continued on her way, trying to recall ever being that small. Could she? Being here helped, she acknowledged, as she walked through the lower corridor and up the curved stairway. As her hand touched the banister, she had a sudden flash of memory that almost made her stop short.

She did remember, just a little. It had been a very rainy day, so bad that they'd gotten all the kids and the parents from the housing area and put them up in the admin building. Here, in fact. Dar stopped at the landing, and turned, to look down. Yes. She remembered the blankets spread out.

Maybe it had even been a hurricane. Her dad had been gone, away at sea, and she and Ceci had joined about ten other kids, and fifteen or so adults in taking shelter here in the hall. She remembered sliding down the banister, thrilled at the access to the normally closed and guarded building.

"Paladar!" Her mother had looked up, to see a small form hurtling towards her at frightening speed.

"Whheee!" Dar had leaped off the end of the wood and crashed into her mother, knocking the diminutive Ceci right down on her behind. "Wow! I liked that!" She'd gotten up, intending on racing back up the stairs.

But her mother had grabbed her, and spanked her, right there in the middle of the hall, and all the other kids had laughed.

Dar hadn't laughed. She didn't now, as she felt again that hot sting of shame.

"Hey, Roberts."

Dar turned at the voice, and gave Chief Daniel a cool look. "Yes?"

The stocky Chief came down the rest of the stairs, but stayed one up from the landing, to bring her eyes level with Dar's. "Got something you might want to see."

"Like what?"

A faint smile edged the Chief's lips. "C'mon. I'll show you." She turned and walked back up the stairs. After a moment of watching her, Dar followed.


"You what?" The small woman behind the desk looked up at Kerry sharply. " You brought her to your house? Are you nuts?"

Nonplused, but generally unlegumed, Kerry's brow creased. "What do you mean? What was I supposed to do?"

"Oh my god." Darlene covered her eyes. "Kerry, we never take these kids into our homes, or let them know where we live.. for a reason." She gave Kerry a severe look. "They get attached."

Kerry folded her arms. "I ask again. It was midnight. It was raining. What was I supposed to do, leave her at the bus stop to sleep under the bench?" Her voice sharpened. "Of course I took her home with me." Pause. "Us."


"My partner, Dar Roberts and I.. we picked her up from Dade jail."

Darlene chewed on her pen. "Well, that's not that bad, then. At least you're not single." She sighed. "Okay.. so, where is she now, still there?"

Kerry turned and pointed towards the wall. "Outside. I figured maybe we could get her into one of the little apartments."

The social administrator of the church leaned back and thought. "Jesus. I don't know. She's pretty young, what, sixteen?"

"Just seventeen, I think." Kerry amended.

"Great. I guess she has no cash, huh? Or stuff to live with?" Darlene exhaled. "Figures." She studied the paper Kerry had given her. "Oh, man, her parents did this because she came out?" Her eyes lifted to Kerry's face. "That's a different story."

"It is?"

"Hell, yeah." Darlene started pulling papers out of her drawer. "Siddown."

Kerry sat down.

"If that's the case, she qualifies for all kinds of stuff. GLADD grants, Rainbow service grants, you name it." Darlene found what she was looking for. "Yeah, here we go. Okay, listen. You can leave her with me, I'll get her all fixed up, okay?"

Puzzled by this change in attitude, Kerry hesitated.

"Go on.. didn't you say you had to get to work?" Darlene shooed her away. "We can take care of this."

"Well, yes." Kerry stood back up. "Are you sure? Do you need, or anything, to get her settled? I can put stuff on my card…"

"Nah. Don’t worry about a thing." Darlene assured her.

Still doubtful, Kerry left the office and walked down the hall, to where she'd left Lena waiting. The girl looked up at her as she approached, frightened and vulnerable, dressed in one of Kerry's shirts, and a pair of her oldest jeans.

"You okay?" Kerry asked, as she sat down next to her.

"A little freaked." Lena admitted. "The guys said they'd meet up with me after work and stuff, but.. " Her eyes roved around the hall, then settled on Kerry's face. "I really am alone, aren't I?"

The statement touched Kerry's heart. "For now." She told Lena softly. "For a little while, but don't worry." She thought a minute, then took a breath, and made a decision. She got up. "Be right back."

Darlene looked up in surprise when Kerry stuck her head in the office. "Oh.. thought you were gone. It'll take me a few hours with this paperwork, she need a drink or something?"

"I’m going to take her with me." Kerry stated. "I'll pick her up some clothes, and necessities, then drop her back by here."


"Thanks. See you later." Kerry gave the woman a brisk smile. "Pick someplace nice for her, Darlene. I’m going to take her on a job interview tomorrow." She closed the door, and headed back down the hall.


Dar stared at the empty space. "What happened?"

Daniel shrugged. "Beats the heck out of me. Came in here to adjust some packet sizing, and found the damn thing gone. I called security, but I got told to keep my mouth shut, and take off." She rocked on her heels. "Y'know? I don't like your ass, Roberts, but I don't like being told to shut up worse."

Dar felt a grin tugging at her lips. "Yeah." She put her hands on her hips and took a breath, eyeing the area that had held the mysterious T3 and it's router. "I know the feeling." One finger rubbed the strap on her laptop idly, then she pulled her cell phone out and dialed. "Mark?"

"Uh?" The MIS chief's voice sounded distant. "Hang on.. I’m under my desk."

Dar's eyebrows rose. "We having bad weather again?"

The voice came much closer. "No." Mark exhaled audibly. "My god damned friggin NIC cable came loose again. I gotta replace it. What's up, boss?"

"Remember that T3 I was having you chase down?"

Mark paused for an instant. "Yeah.. I was getting install data for you. It's almost all here."

"Good. Now get the disco order for it, because someone pulled it out of here yesterday." Dar told him. "Did we get anything back on the serial number of that router?"

A long, long beat. "Not that we wanna talk about over the cell." Mark stated firmly. "Can I email the info to you?"

A soft warning bell rang in Dar's head. "Sure." She murmured. "Send me what you have. I'll go pull it down." She closed the phone and looked at the Chief. "Something doesn't smell right."

Daniel sniffed. "Must be that weird ass soap you civvies are always using." She shook her head and turned towards the door to the small telecommunications closet. "But yeah, I figured. I don't like my stuff going AWOL, then being told it ain't my business."

They walked down the hall to the small office that had been assigned to Dar, and entered. It was empty, as always, since Dar brought everything with her she needed, and took it home with her at the end of the day. A pencil, left behind on her prior visit, rolled idly in the breeze from the open windows.

Dar put her briefcase down on the desk and unzipped it. "Let me get that mail, and maybe it'll make some sense." She glanced out the window. "Too early for the recruits?"

Daniel snorted. "Bus broke down up near the split to Card Sound." She perched on a corner of the worn, wooden desk and watched Dar unpack her laptop. "Nice box."

A quick grin. "Thanks. It's a new generation chip we're testing for Intel." She flipped the screen open and pressed the rapid on, watching the fifteen-inch display light crisply.

"Yeah?" Daniel sounded interested. She edged closer. "Shit, that's fast."

"Mm." Dar reached down and picked up the Ethernet cable lying limply on the floor, and started to plug it in to the jack on the computer. An odd sensation under her thumb made her stop, however, and bring the end of the cable up for a better look.

No, it seemed fine. Dar rubbed her thumb over the plastic again, while the chief watched her in fascination. Hm. Unable to figure out why she didn't like the damn thing, she shrugged and put the cable down, unzipping the top part of her laptop case and retrieving a second cable, which she replaced the first with. "Here." She tossed the discarded coil to the chief. "I don’t like that one."

"Picky." Daniel caught the cable and examined it. "Looks fine to me."

Dar sat down and watched her desktop come up, her mind mulling over the last few minutes. Then she hit the pause key suddenly, and stopped the machine's progress. She pulled out her cellphone and dialed Mark's number again. "Hey."

"Yeah? Didn't come through?" Mark asked.

"Put a filter on that T1 from here." Dar's voice became clipped. "One way. Everything. Fast."

"What are you doing?" Chief Daniel eased around the desk and peered at the computer.

"Wh.. okay." Mark's keyboard rattled hard for a long moment. "Okay, got it. What's up?"

Dar released the pause button and watched the computer continue to boot. "Read me the talk back."

There was a pause. "Nego." Mark said.

"Go on."

"Protocol's up."


"IP request to the DHCP. You were issued"

"Got it."

"RAS coming up… you should get your validation in a second."

The computer beeped softly, requesting input. Dar typed her network login and password, and hit enter. "Okay, it's got it."

"You're validated. Services starting." Long pause. "Looks okay, boss wh…. Holy shit!"

Dar smiled grimly. "Invasion barrage?"

"Son of a bitch! Jesus, what the hell is in that hub?" Mark squeaked. "Shit, let me get a more macho filter on that before it sends my security program running for the hills… Brent! Get me box ten online, wouldja!"

Long fingers drummed on the wood surface. "Let me know when you get something in place to trap it. Then disable it so I can get my goddamn mail." Dar gave Chief Daniel a look. "I don't mind the bullshit, but if this was you trying to bust into my network, I’m gonna hang you out that damn window."

Chief Daniel was staring at the laptop. She looked at Dar with an astonished expression. "Me? Shit, if I could do that, you think I'd be working in a half-assed sun baked sand pit down at the ass end of the Navy?"

No. Dar's eyes narrowed. But someone else here was.


Lena glanced around as they got out of the SUV and approached the mall. "You don't have to do this. I mean, thank you, and it's way cool and shit, but aren't you going to get into trouble?"

Kerry tucked her wallet into her purse, and closed the door. "No, not really. I have a lot of time off built up, and they don't kill you for one day." True. She'd only called in sick one day in the last four or five months, and even the most picky of what she called the Kerry watchers really had no complaints about that. "Besides. I know what it feels like to be on my own. It's a little scary."


They walked towards the stores. "When I first moved down here, I didn't know anyone." Kerry said. "My family was very upset with me for leaving Michigan, and they told me before I left not to ask them for any help." She opened the door to Sears, and a waft of cool, but petroleum scented air hit them. "Always smells like tires in here, doesn't it?"

"Yeah. Ugh." Lena agreed. "So what did you do? About money and stuff, not your tires."

Kerry exhaled. "Well, I had a little bit of savings, so I was able to rent a place, and get necessities. But it was pretty scary until I got my first paycheck, I'll tell you. I'd never been poor, and with the salary I was getting I still wasn't, but it was a big learning curve for me."

They walked through the store, towards the mall entrance inside. A Christmas display was chirping prominently, and the interior of the long, arched ceiling was strewn with holiday decorations and hanging ornaments. The air was full of the scents of pine and cinnamon, and Kerry found herself being drawn towards the food court. "Pit stop first. I need some coffee."

Lena followed her obediently, watching the shoppers go by with a bemused expression. "I've never been to this mall. We usually go to the International thing, or down to Kendall." Something caught her eye. "Whoa.. cool rings." She stopped and admired a collection of body piercing. "Wow.. look at that kinda translucent one. Check that out. Wicked."

Kerry leaned on the counter and peered at them. "Oookay" She agreed amiably. "If you say so." She glanced at Lena's rings, the two she had in her nose, and four each on her ears. "Are those comfortable?"

"Oh, yeah!" Lena's eyes lit up. "And they're so cool looking.. you should get one, Kerry. You'd look outrageous."

"Ah..heh. No thanks." Kerry smiled. "I'll stick to my natural allotment of body orifices plus two pierced ears." She touched an ear.

Lena glanced around. "Hey, c'mon.. I bet your girlfriend would love it."

"Bet she wouldn't." Kerry said. "Dar's very conservative."

"What is she, a Republican, or something?" Lena snorted.

"No. I’m a Republican. She's just conservative. They don't always go hand in hand." Kerry steered her new young friend away from the piercing pagoda.

"You're a REPUBLICAN?" Lena stopped short and stared. "Ew. Gross!"

"Shh." Kerry gave two passing men a polite smile. "It's not gross, now come on. There are nice Republicans."

"Not in this town." Lena muttered. "Yuck."

After Kerry got her cup of coffee, and they both divested Cinnabons of two extra glorpy rolls, they continued on. They stopped at the bedding store, and got a couple of pillows, and some sheets, towels and other basic needs. Kerry was doubtful of Lena's selection of black, but she kept her mouth closed, reasoning that she was the one who had to look at it.

Lena seemed very uneasy with the fact that Kerry was paying for all the stuff though. "Relax." Kerry told her. "I'll just expense it as relocation for a new employee."

Lena's face crinkled into a frown. "You can do that?"

Kerry nodded. "Sure. It's really a tiny amount if you judge it against what we usually have to pay for someone to move cross country, get a place, and get settled." She put a stack of washcloths on the pile Lena was carrying. "C'mon. Let's stop and get you soap and all that."

"Okay." Lena smiled shyly. "Are you, like, really going to hire me?"

Kerry looked her over. "Can you type?"


"Do you have at least six brain cells?"

Lena blinked. "I think so."

"You're in. C'mon." Kerry started walking. "What did you take in school, Lena? What did you want to after you graduated last year?"

There was a long silence. "I don't know." The girl finally answered. "I guess I didn't think a lot about it. I figured I'd just…" She paused. "You know. Did you know what you wanted back then?"

Back then? One of Kerry's eyebrows arched. Hmph. "Well, I knew I wanted to go to college." She stated slowly. "I knew what my parents wanted wasn't really what I wanted."

"My folks can't afford college." Lena shrugged. "And my grades sucked. I bet yours didn't."

"They were all right." Kerry acknowledged. "I wasn't a superstar, but I did well enough. "

They reached the soap isle, and Kerry raised her eyebrows. "Well? What's your poison?"

Lena made a show of searching the shelves carefully. "Don’t see the stuff I use..hey, what kind was it you had? I liked that, it was cool."

Kerry hid a smile and located the brand for her. "Here. Dar likes it too." She mentioned. "Especially with these little mitts." One hand reached over and plucked two scrubby mitts from a pile. "She likes having her back scrubbed."

"Uh." Lena took them gingerly. "Thanks." She put the mitts in her basket. "Your girlfriend's kinda scary."

Kerry had been rooting around for some body wash. "Who, Dar? Nah." She shook her head. "She's not scary.. she's a sweetie." She put more things in the basket. "It's just that she's so tall. I remember the first time I realized that, when we were standing together in an elevator and I saw us in the mirror."

Lena picked up a loofah and examined it. "You really like her, huh?"

"No." Kerry said absently. "I really love her." She found what she was looking for and stood up. "Okay, that'll do it."

The slim girl's eyes surveyed the pile. "Hey, you forgot the q-tips." She remarked, in an offhand tone. "Can't leave those out, can I? And that steptic stuff."

Blond eyebrows knit. "Stepti…Antiseptic?"

"Yeah, you know." Lena glanced around. "To like, clean things out with, right? With the long handles, that's my favorite kind."

What the heck? Kerry stared at the counter in puzzlement, then her face cleared. Maybe it was something for the piercing. "I'd think you could just use a washcloth, do you need swabs?"

Lena blinked. "A w…" Her eyes dropped then lifted. "How do you… a washcloth, in there?"

Kerry's brows came together again. "In where? "

The girl's eyes went round. "There! You know, like.. there?"

One hand came up to cover Kerry's green eyes, and she exhaled. "I’m confused." She admitted. "No, I don't know where. What are you talking about? I thought you needed it for your pierced stuff."

"Pierce.. down there? Oh, grody." Lena made a face. "Oh man, that would like fucking hurt!"

Kerry stared at her. "Am I getting old?" She asked no one in particular. "Or do I need to learn whatever language this is better? I am so lost."

Lena had turned red. "Look, just show me where that stuff is like what you have in the bathroom upstairs is, okay?"

Okay. Bathroom. Upstairs. Kerry mentally cataloged. I have soap, deodorant, body wash, shaving cream, towels, toilet paper… "Wait, in the cabinet, you mean?"

Lena looked nothing but relieved. "Yeah."

"The cotton swabs, peroxide, and antibiotic?"


"Ah hah. That's for the dog." Kerry said.

Lena's eyes widened. "The DOG?"

Puzzled, Kerry rubbed her temples. "The dog. Her ears get infected, we have to clean them out. It's a Labrador Retriever thing."

"Oh." Lena turned brick red, startling against her pale skin. "Shit. Never mind."

Kerry slowly nodded. "Can I ask you what you thought that was for?"

"Do you have to?" Lena answered in a small voice. "I thought it was one of those, like, girl things." She admitted. "To clean the spot and all that stuff."

"The spot?"

"Yeah.. you know." Lena put the basket down, and held up both hands, making and exaggerated quote sign. "The Spot."

Kerry thought about that, then firmly grasped Lena's elbow and started for the cashier. "We need to talk."


"Did you get that last packet?" Mark’s voice emerged tinnily from the cell phone. "I think that’s it." There was a pause. "Dar?"

Pale blue eyes were fastened intently on the laptop’s screen, flicking over the data it displayed. "What?"

"Did you hear what I just said?"
"No." Dar looked up and glared at the phone. "What was it?"

Mark sighed. "I’m done here."

Yeah, yeah. Dar braced her chin on her fists. "All right." Her eyes didn’t stop scanning the lines of code, though, as she attempted to find the pattern that was just – barely – eluding her. "Did you suck out the attack program?"


"Decompile it and dump it down to me, willya?"

Mark was silent for a little bit. "Wouldn’t it be easier if you just did the analysis back here?" His voice sounded a touch odd.

"No." Dar’s brow creased. "Why would it?"

"We’ve got more cycles here."

"Bullshit, Mark. Just send it down." Dar called up another file, and split the screen, displaying both files and scrolling them at the same time. After a moment, she stopped scrolling, and put her chin back onto her fists, studying the results. What the hell was going on?

The door to the office opened, and Chief Daniel entered. "Figures. The damn bastard’s on some lame ass trip up to Baltimore."

"Mm." Dar traced a single line with one long finger. "What about Ms. Pit Bull?"

"Says she doesn’t know anything about it." The Chief perched on the edge of the desk. "No body knows anything, nobody saw anything, no vendor was cleared on base, no guards saw anyone carrying a thirty five pound hub out the building."

Dar looked up. "Either someone’s covering up, or you’ve got the worst security outside the White House." She rubbed her eyes. "Damn it Mark, facilities don’t materialize out of nowhere, don’t tell me you can’t locate who installed that pipe."

Mark sighed audibly.

"Where the hell is Kerry?" Dar was aware she sounded like a cranky child, but didn’t care. "Have her start calling up the chain at Bellsouth, it’s their POP."


"Well?" The CIO snapped. "Get on it, Mark!"

"Hey, honey." The warm voice suddenly emerged, an octave higher than the MIS Chief’s.

An awkward silence happened, then Dar cleared her throat. "Hi." She said. "You’re on speakerphone."

"Uh oh." Kerry replied. "Don’t tell me you’re in a room full of macho sailors, are you?"

"Two hundred of them." Dar felt her annoyance fading. "They all want your phone number." She exhaled. "Listen, I need you to.."

"Shake Bellsouth’s cage. I heard." Kerry’s tone turned crisper. "What’s going on down there?"

Dar wished she knew. She was aware of the Chief’s now somewhat chilly demeanor and guessed the prickly woman was smart enough to figure out that subordinates didn’t usually greet their bosses in quite that manner at ILS. "Something." She admitted. "I just cant’ figure out if it’s someone who’s just curious as to what we’ve found, or someone… " Dar stopped speaking, as her eyes finally found something in the pattern of code on her screen. Her brow contracted and she leaned closer, blinking as her vision blurred slightly, then cleared.

"Dar?" Mark asked, hesitantly.

"Hang on." Dar typed in a command, then studied the result. "They’re using a stepped algorithym."


"What?" Chief Daniel walked around behind Dar, but conspicuously not too close.

"Right there." Dar pointed. "It’s a programming trick you can use to shift data from one field to another in database design." She folded her hands together. "Question is, why?"

Everyone held their tongues. "You still want that dump?" Mark finally asked.

Dar rested her lips against her clasped hands, and allowed her eyes to close. The nagging headache she’d picked up after the attack on the network was making her a little sick to her stomach, and she just spent a moment breathing to settle it. "No." She said at last. "Put it on my drive at home, Mark. I’ll look at it this weekend."

"Do you want me to get after Bellsouth?" Kerry murmured. "I’ve got some contacts that will probably open up for me."


"Okay." Kerry’s voice strengthened. "I got things squared away this morning. Lena’s filling out paperwork in Mari’s office."

Even distracted as she was, that got a tiny smile out of Dar. "Tell me she didn’t say, ‘oh no, not another one.’"

Kerry chuckled softly. "Matter of fact, she did. Why? Did you have a nose ring when you were hired?"

"Eh." Dar kept reviewing the damning bit of data. "Not really, but I did bring someone in once upon a time that I lived to regret. Lena reminds me of her, a little." She carefully saved the data and leaned back, as the Chief scurried out of range. "Mark, take that entire database and run it through the C1F program."

"For real?" Mark sounded a touch puzzled. "I didn’t think… "

"Just do it." Dar answered crisply. "If Duks is in there, tell him I need the CPU cycles."

"All right." The MIS chief agreed. "I’ll do it. You coming back here?"

Should she go? Dar considered the question. There was something very wrong, that much her experience was telling her. But what it if was just something like what she knew went on during her adolescent years? When the petty officers and lower ranking crew found ways in and out of the system to hid a few barrels of this here, and a box of that there, just to make life a little easier.

For her, it’d been peanut butter. She’d traded blocks of her nascent programming talents for number 10 cans of the stuff, in the informal black market that had also produced her navy shirts, and boots.

She’d never seen anything wrong in that, really. Even her father had taken advantage of it, getting little luxuries for her mother, and using the trading system to save up a few bucks for a toy for her birthday.

No way was she going to blow the whistle on that.

Was she?

Dar sighed. "Kerry, let me know if you get any answers from Bellsouth. I’m going to put this to bed for a while, and go review the recruit program."

"Will do." Kerry replied. "Talk to you later."

Dar folded her cell phone up and slid it into it’s clip at her belt. Then she sat back and turned her head, regarding Chief Daniel in silence.

The naval officer’s lip was curled into an almost unconscious snarl of distaste. "I knew there was something wrong with you." Daniel said. "No wonder you didn’t make it into the Navy."

Asshole. Dar felt her temper stir. She hitched a knee up and circled it with both arms. "The Navy?" She laughed. "You’ve gotta be kidding. I’m married to a gorgeous woman, I live in a five million dollar condo, I make a seven figure salary and I don’t have to wear ugly clothing that doesn’t fit right. Why the hell would I want to be in the Navy?"

Chief Daniel stepped back. "You’re sick."

Dar got up and closed the laptop, after setting it’s security. "Save your ignorance for someone who gives a crap about what you think." She turned her back on the Chief and walked out of the office.

Kerry looked up at the light knock on the door. "Come in." She put her pencil down as the door opened and Lena slipped inside. "Hey.. how’d it go??"

The young girl trudged across the carpet and dropped into a chair. She looked around. "Cool office." She said. "I think I signed like, a half a ton of papers and stuff."

"Yeah, there’s a lot." Kerry remembered her own transition packet. "We’re a pretty big company."

"No shit." Lena agreed. "So, like they hired me for twice what I was getting at the other place, and I get to do a pretty cool shift."

"Great." Kerry smiled. "That okay with you?"

"That’s way cool." Lena finally smiled. "That personnel lady was funny… she knows about you guys, right?"

Kerry fingered her pencil, and remembered a certain dinner in a certain Thai restaurant. "Oh yeah." She nodded. "She certainly does. She was one of the first people here who knew." Mari had actually called her after Lena’s initial interview, and gently given her a hard time, but admitted that the girl was sharp, and capable of doing the somewhat simple work. I’m warning you though, Kerry. First time this kid gets into one of those teenage things, I’m transferring her to your orgid, and sending her right up to your office.

Yeah. "So, you start Monday? I heard from the church, they’ve got a place ready for you."

Lena took a deep breath. "The gang already knew about it." She admitted. "They conned the office out of the keys, and they’ve been decorating."

"Uh oh." Kerry had to muffle a laugh. "That could be scary."

Lena smiled shyly. "It’s going to be sort of cool, I think. I’ve never… I didn’t think I’d have my own place for like, forever. Casey said she’d sleep over so I wouldn’t be weirded out or anything."

So she could pump her for every detail concerning us. Kerry mentally added. "That’s great. I tell you what, I’ll drop you off, because I’ve got to pick up Dar’s parents in forty five minutes and head down south."

Her phone rang. Kerry hit the button. "Operations, Kerry Stuart."

"Howdy there, Kerry!" Bob Terisanch’s booming voice entered the room, making her desk ornament rattle. "Sorry it took so long, but hot damn lady, that circuit was buried so deep under a pile of rat poop, it took me the whole day and a jackhammer to pull it on out."

Colorful, Dar had often called Bob. "Great, Bob. Thanks for the effort. What do you have?" Kerry pulled her pad over and poised her pencil over the white, ruled paper.

There was a rustle of shuffled paper. "Well, ma’am, the private company that installed that sucker’s called Fibertalk Associates, and they’re based right down by you in Miami, matter of fact."

"Great. Do you have a billing address for them.?"

"Sure do. 1723 NW 72nd Avenue." Bob provided cheerfully. "They’ve done a bunch of little, high priced jobs round town, mostly fiber optics, a little sat."

"Thanks, Bob. I owe you one." Kerry told him. "Lunch, next week?"

"Heh. I’ll never say no to lunch with such a pretty lady You’re on, Kerry. See ya!" Bob hung up, leaving Kerry to nibbled thoughtfully at her pencil. The office was one of those little mini warehouses out behind the airport. Odd. Curiously, she brought up her database search, and entered the company name in it. Then she sent the little bot on it’s way, and set her pencil down. "Well, that’s that. Let’s get outta here, okay?"