Tropical High

Part 8

 

Dar was chiefly aware of a lot of things aching, as she hauled herself out of a deep sleep and responded to her body's nagging crankiness.

Ow. She had a headache that would have felled a bison in it's tracks, and her arm and shoulder felt like they'd been forced into a bad position for several days. Grumpily, she opened one eye, blinking as the fuzzy surroundings very slowly came into focus.

Ah. Dar had to smile, despite the discomfort. Kerry was slumped against the bed, holding her hand, fast asleep. In the room, the first pale light of dawn was starting to show through the windows, but otherwise it was dark save the dim nightlight above them.

But there was enough light for Dar to distinguish the curve of Kerry's cheek, covered in fine, soft down. Light enough for her to see the delicate gold eyelashes. Light enough to catch the faintest hint of a smile tugging at one corner of her mouth.

What an amazing thing love was. Dar thought. It even drove you to do really dumb things like sleep leaning against a set of metal railings. Oh, she's gonna regret this when she wakes up "Ker?" Dar squeezed the fingers clasped in her own. "Hey, chipmunk."

"Uh?" Kerry murmured. "Dar?" She stirred, then shifted. "Ow." Her eyes opened in surprised displeasure. "What inÖ augh. I can't believe I did that." A hiss. "Jesus!"

"Easy, sweetie." Dar laughed softly. "Stand up slow." She released Kerry's hand and eased over onto her back, grabbing hold of her lover's shoulder as she tried to straighten up. "Easy."

"Son of aÖ" Kerry managed to get upright, her legs and back cramping like all get out. "Oh my god, how stupid was that." She leaned on the bed and groaned. "And wouldn't the nurses have just loved walking in here."

Dar ruffled her hair, and rubbed the parts of her within reach. "Ah, they'd live." She disagreed. "Now, if they found you in bed with meÖ" She grinned.

Kerry looked up, grinning back rakishly from between very disordered bangs. "OhhÖ I was tempted." She admitted. "That's how I ended up over here.. I just came over to.. um.. " She met Dar's eyes, and felt suddenly shy. "Anyway, I sat down for a minute, and whammo." She fell silent, and her gaze dropped to the mussed sheets.

Dar watched her. "Ker?"

"Mm?"

"Thanks for staying." Dar said. "It would have been such a nightmare for me if you hadn't." She waited for Kerry to look up. "Literally."

Kerry gazed at her. "Why?" She asked. "No one likes being in the hospital, Dar, but they're not that bad, really."

Dar shifted, and settled her arm in a less uncomfortable position. She found herself studying the ceiling, it's tiled surface bearing tiny pock marks barely visible to her. "I fell out of a tree when I was little." Her tone was quiet and casual. "They thought I'd cracked something.. so they took me up to Baptist, and had my head Xrayed."

Kerry put a hand on Dar's arm in silent comfort.

"They decided to keep me overnight, and put me in a room with a real nice guy, an older man." Dar went on. "He was funny. Decided to spend the night telling me storiesÖ had grandkids of his own I guess." She paused, and thought, then went on. "I woke up in the middle of the night, and looked over, and I.." Dar stopped, staring off into the distance.

Kerry waited.

"I knew something was wrong." The quiet voice went on finally. "I got out of bed and went over, and I realized he was dead."

It was like getting hit in the gut, hard. Kerry hadn't expected this, hadn't expected an answer to her question that even remotely resembled this. "Sweetheart." She barely whispered the word.

"I think I started screaming." Dar murmured.

Kerry didn't give a damn about the nurses. She hauled herself up onto the bed and put her arms around Dar, pulling her close and hugging her. "Lord."

Dar let her head lay against Kerry's chest, reliving the moment. Even all these years later, she could still feel the terror, the unreasoning fear that had haunted her dreams for a very long time after.

She remembered the nights she'd been afraid to go to sleep, terrified that she'd wake in the middle of the night and go in search of her parents, only to find them cold, and stiff, and staring. Dar drew in a shaky breath. It still shook her, even now. "Guess it made an impression."

Kerry stroked her hair gently. "How old were you?"

"Five or six." Dar replied, blinking. She was surprised to feel a tear roll down her face. "Silly, I guess, to even think about it now. "

"No." Kerry closed her eyes and held on, kissing Dar's head then laying her cheek against the spot. "Not silly." She felt her throat closing up, her entire body hurting for the child Dar had been, wanting to go back in time and be in that place, at that time to hold Dar just as she was now, and chase the fear away.

Dar allowed herself to accept the safety of that embrace. The ghost of that night lurking inside her loosened it's hold, and as she reached up and clasped Kerry's arm, she felt the terror unwind and drift away into the dawn's breaking.

Silence settled peacefully over them.

They did, in fact, surprise the nurses.

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

Andrew Roberts walked down the hallway, dodging sleepy interns pushing carts of equipment at a far slower pace than his rolling stride.

It was early, he reckoned, before the visiting hours of the hospital, but if it was one thing Andy had learned in all his years of service it was that if you acted like you knew what you were doing, folks tended to leave you be.

Since he knew where he was, and knew where he was going, sure nough, nobody did ask him what he was doing in the hospital so early. Exchanging gruff nods with a security guard, he went past the nurses station and down the next corridor towards one specific door set among many up and down the hall.

As to why he was there? Andy circled around a laundry cart. Well, it wasn't that he didn't trust Kerry to keep an eye on his daughter, he surely did, it was just that he knew how Dar felt about being inside these damn places and it never hurt to make sure.

Did it?

There were two nurses standing in the doorway he'd identified as Dar's, staring inside the room and Andy found his heart starting to go double time as he came up behind them. "Somethin' not right here?"

The women jumped, and one simply turned and left. The other looked up at Andy's towering height. "Oh, sir, visitors are not allowed nowÖ" She started to take his arm to lead him away, glancing over her shoulder into the room. "Excuse me now.."

"Ah ah." Andy simply stood still, knowing the petite, dark haired nurse wasn't going to be pulling his six foot four inch bulk anywhere. He glanced into the room anxiously, then let out a chuff of relief when he spotted the two figures snuggled together on the bed. "Would you just lookit that."

"Sir." The nurse pulled on his arm with complete ineffectiveness. "Please."

"Chill yer jets." Andy turned his head and regarded her. "You got something you need doing, g'wan. I can wake these here kids up."

The woman stopped tugging. "You can? " She asked. "Oh. Would you? This is a situation we're just not willing to get involved in."

One of Andy's grizzled eyebrows lifted. "Waking folks up?" He queried. "Damndest thing I ever heard. That malpractice stuff must be hitting you all pretty fierce."

"MÖ ah, no, no." The nurse gave up. "Excuse me." She turned and left, walking quickly away towards a door marked "Nurses Lounge".

Andy watched her go, then he scratched his jaw thoughtfully, before shrugging and returning his attention to the room. He stepped inside with utmost quiet and padded over to the bed, spending several moments just watching his children sleep.

Then, with a rakish grin, he pulled a camera out of the pocket of his pullover, and opened it, examining the controls carefully before he put it to his eye, and allowed the gizmo to focus. When he had the scene properly adjusted, he released the shutter, and heard the click and whirr of the camera operating. After a second, he pulled it down and reviewed the LCD screen on the back, examining the digital image. "Huh.."

He shook his head, then closed the camera up and tucked it away before moving closer to the bedside. His daughter was curled half onto her side, with her head pillowed against Kerry's chest, with both of Kerry's arms wrapped around her.

Andy felt a smile pull at the skin on his face, still stiff after all the scarring, and the surgery. Hospitals weren't his favorite place either, but, to be honest, he'd spent more time in them than Dar had. Even now, after all the work they'd done, he knew the scars were still damn ugly to look at, and he was conscious of that even with Ceci.

God bless her, she never so much as flinched, even at the worst of it, but it didn't stop Andy from remembering the averted eyes, or open stares of others.

Like them nurses had been staring, only they'd been looking inside this here room. Andy laid his big hands on the railing. Looking at something so beautiful, it made his heart ache, having seen so much hate in his lifetime that love could only be exquisitely beautiful to him.

Very gently, he put a hand on Dar's shoulder. "Paladar." He kept his voice low.

Dar's eyes quivered, then blinked open, the dark brows over them contracting as she tried to place where and when she was. She turned her head and peered up at him, then realized why it was so nice and warm and promptly turned the heat up by blushing a deep, vivid crimson. "D.."

Andrew had to chuckle. "Dardar, I ain't' seen you turn that color since I done caught you skinny dipping out at that waterhole when you were ten."

"Erk." Dar's throat issued an adolescent squeak.

It was enough to wake Kerry up, though, and she also gazed at Andrew with sleepy eyes for a few seconds before her brain booted and nearly caused her to fall off the bed. "UhÖ. Hi, Dad." She managed to cough out.

"Hi there, kumquat." Andy responded amiably. "You look right comfortable."

Kerry looked at Dar, who was still doing her best macintosh apple imitation. "Sorry, honey." She apologized weakly. "Didn't mean to do that."

Dar sighed, and rubbed her heated face with her good hand. "S'allright." She said. "Could have been worse." She glanced at her father. "Morning."

"Morning, Dardar." Andy said. "I'd ask how y'all were feeling, cept I figure you look pretty good to me just now."

A weak laugh forced it's way out of Dar's throat, as she untangled herself from Kerry's embrace. She rolled over onto her back as her lover slid out of bed, and straightened her tshirt with as much dignity as she could muster.

Which, to be honest, wasn't much.

"What was your question again?" Dar finally asked, running her fingers through her mussed hair. "Oh, right. How do I feel." Slowly, she straightened out her body, and flexed her arm. The results mildly surprised her. "Better than yesterday." She said, lifting a hand to touch the lump on the back of her head. It seemed to have gone down some. "Yeah, headache's not so bad, and my arm hurts less."

"Good to hear." Andy gave her an approving look. Kerry had snuck into the restroom with her overnight bag, and was apparently utilizing the sink there with a good amount of vigor. "Had me a little worried yesterday."

Dar tensed her lips, then shrugged. "What a botched event that was." She exhaled. "A total screwup, and it was my fault."

Andy rolled his eyes. "Git yer head out of that there bucket of whup, Paladar." He scolded. "You ain't responsible for them folks and you know it."

"I should have found out more about what was going on." Dar shook her head. "One of our people could have really gotten hurt in there." She pulled herself up a little straighter. "I should have checked first."

Andrew looked around, then leaned over and smoothed the dark hair out of his daughter's eyes with a gentle hand. "Don't beat yourself up, Dar. Ya'll are gonna make me start beating up my mah own head, cause sure as the day is long, I should have figgured what was up when we got there, don't you think?"

Dar looked at him thoughtfully.

"Them people just knew how to use a diversion when they had one, all right?" Andy went on. "Now we got to get them pieces back together, so none of them dirty dogs gets off." He waited for Dar to nod, and she finally did. "Good girl. Iím going to take a ride down there, and see what I can figure out."

"You don't have to." Dar lodged what she knew was a futile protest. "Let me have Gerry handle it, dad."

"You saying I ain't up to this?" Andy asked.

"No." Dar felt very off center. "Iím not saying that."

"Good." Andy patted her arm. "You take it easy now, Dardar. Keep an eye on that kumquat of yours, make sure she gets some breakfast, all right?" He waved, and started out before Dar could say a word, disappearing around the corner of the door with stealthy speed.

Dar stared at her bare feet, sticking out from under the mussed covers, and wiggled her toes. It was not starting out to be a very organized day.

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

Kerry flexed her hands, and peered at her laptop screen. Her report was almost done, the data cataloged neatly into columns that laid out in black and white the discrepancies she'd found. It wasnít' a smoking gun, she realized. More a pattern of carelessness and lack of accountability in moving funds from one account to the other, but the pattern was there and if they got nothing else, would allow the government auditors a place to start.

If nothing else. Kerry rubbed her lower lip. Mark had taken the data storage cube back and secured it at the office, but the information they may or may not have gotten from there would have to wait for Dar's inspection. Only Dar had the algorithms to unlock the tracks they'd copied, and those were tucked inside her head and nowhere else.

Kerry hadn't asked her, yet, if she remembered what they were. It was a scary kind of question, and she knew concussions did strange things sometimes. She didn't think the injury was affecting Dar, but you never knew, and certainly her lover had been quieter and more withdrawn than usual since she'd been here.

She knew Dar was grateful for her presence. Kerry was grateful that she'd followed her instincts and did what she'd done, especially after Dar had told her what happened to her as a child this morning. "That poor little kid." She shook her head slowly. "I wish I'd been there for you, Dar. I swear I do."

The room, of course, was empty except for her and her laptop. Dar had been taken down for another scan of her head, and for a visit to the orthopedic surgeon. Kerry had offered to come with her, but it appeared her lapse into needing to be cuddled was getting to Dar, and her natural pride poked it's head up in outrage and reasserted itself.

There were two sides to that, Kerry admitted. One, she was a little disappointed in being gently rejected. But two, it meant Dar was feeling better, and that was a good thing. She put aside the laptop and stood up, stretching out her stiff, and somewhat cramped body. Sleeping sitting up hadn't been restful, and the couch was less so. She strolled over to the window and looked out, resting her hands on the sill and leaning on them.

"What I should to is take a break, and run the stairs a few times." She decided. "Loosen myself up a little and get some exercise." With a nod, she went back and closed her laptop down, turning it off and slipping it inside it's padded backpack. She looked around, then shrugged and shouldered the pack, shifting it until it was comfortably centered on her back. "A little extra effort wont' hurt me any either."

She walked out of the room and straight to the stairwell, opening the door and letting it close behind her. Since they were on the top floor, she really only had one way to go, and so she started down the steps at a rhythmic, even pace. It was quiet in the stairwell, and clean. Kerry decided it probably wasn't used much, since most of the movement between floors involved wheeled equipment or vehicles, which could get a little tricky going up or down stairs.

Halfway down, at the fifth floor, she met her first fellow walker, a young man carrying a thick bag who smiled at her as he dropped down the steps alongside. "Hi there."

"Hi." Kerry replied, with a friendly smile.

"You new here?" The man asked. "Haven't seen you around."

Hm. Kerry eyed him. He's a cutie. The man had curly reddish hair and a lithe, athletic build. "No, because I don't work here." She informed him. "Iím just visiting."

"Oh yeah?" He looked surprised. "I figured you were an intern or something, with that book bag. Sorry." A smile. "Well, that's too bad. My name's Curt." He stuck a hand out.

Kerry took it, as they kept walking. "Kerry." She produced her name. "It's a computer backpack, actually. I work with them."

"Yeah?" Curt released her hand. "You donít see many visitors taking the stairs either. " He looked down, and laughed a bit. "Or staff either, to be honest. I think you're the first person I've seen in here in weeks."

"You take them, though." Kerry turned the corner on the steps and started down the next set. "Good exercise, right?"

"You bet." Curt agreed. "I have to get all the leg work in I can. Iím training for the Olympics." He grinned at her surprised expression. "Iím a gymnast."

"Really?" Kerry turned her head to look at him. "That's wild."

"Yeah. It is." The man nodded. "I've been into it since I was a kid, but my folks could never afford me just going to school for it, so I've kept at it on the side. Iím going to the trials next year." He glanced over at Kerry. "You look like you're into sports."

It suddenly occurred to Kerry that she was being flirted with. Hm. And by a really cute guy, too. It feltÖ kinda cool, actually. "Oh, nothing official." She told Curt. "I just do some diving.. swimming.. climbing." She caught his very interested eye. "Martial arts, that sort of thing."

"I thought so. You've got great muscle tone." Curt grinned at her. "Ever try gymnastics?"

Kerry suffered a flash of memory of her childhood, the arduous hours spent trying desperately to balance on a four inch chunk of wood. "When I was younger, yes." She admitted. "My parents thought it would make me graceful." She adroitly dodged a pipe sticking out of one of the stairs.

"They were right." Curt laughed. "Hey, I just have to drop this bag off.. you interested in getting a pop?"

Fortunately, Kerry was from the Midwest, and realized he was talking about a soda not proposing something indecent. "Wish I could." She softened the words with an honest smile. "Thanks for asking."

They'd reached the bottom floor, and he shifted his bag to his other shoulder, and held a hand out again. "Maybe next time, okay?"

Kerry took it, and returned his firm handshake with one of her own. "Sure."

He turned, and pulled the door open, then ducked through and let it close behind him. Kerry regarded the door for a moment, then turned and leaned against the wall, folding her arms over her chest as she rested a moment before starting her climb back up. That had been interesting, she mused, examining the sensation. It was nice, once in a while, to have someone think you were attractive, wasn't it?

Other than your partner, of course. Kerry amended hastily. She'd never suspected Dar of thinking otherwise, had she? She thought about that, then blushed a vivid crimson remembering a certain night not that long ago when she'd looked up from working on a report in her home office, to find Dar watching her from the doorway, eyes half closed, her thoughts very evident by her expression. No, she was pretty confident that they were both very much attracted to each other. But it was nice to have a stranger give your ego a pat on the head once in a while.

Kerry pushed off the wall and started up the steps. Besides, she grinned, he sure was a cutie. In fact, she thought. He reminded her of someone. Now whoÖ ah. She nodded. That's right, Josh. She'd gotten an email from him that morning, saying he'd accepted her offer and was going to come to Miami.

Sorting through various other issues, Kerry kept jogging upward, catching her wind and falling into an easy rhythm as her body adjusted to the exertion.

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

The machine buzzed softly. Dar kept her eyes firmly closed, and spent the moments roundly cursing herself for being a stubborn jerk for not taking Kerry up on her offer of company. This was the third round of scans, and her nerves were beginning to twitch badly, wanting out of the machine, and away from the cold, impersonal hands that invaded her personal space and moved her body.

Hands gripped her chin and she jerked, her eyes snapping open and pinning the doctor standing over her with an angry glare.

"Okay, Ms. Rob.." The tall, willowy woman stopped speaking and removed her hands. "Sorry, did I startle you?"

Dar took a breath, and forced her irritation down. "No. I thought this was about done."

The doctor folded her arms. "Just about." She agreed, wrinkling her well shaped nose in thought. "You don't much like being touched, do you?"

Dar scowled a little at being so easily read. "Not much." She admitted. "No." At least this doctor, Alison, was her name? Wasn't the usual condescending iceberg type. "Sorry."

"That's all right, Ms. Roberts." Dr. Alison reassured her. "Some people aren't - we're so used to just grabbing what we want and pulling, we forget that sometimes. Could you tilt your head up and to the right?"

Dar complied, watching the woman make adjustments to the machine. The doctor was taller than Kerry, but couldn't have weighed more than a hundred pounds, so thin Dar was sure she'd blow away if the air conditioning cycled too strongly. Her white lab coat hung loosely on her, and the wrists that extended from it seemed barely wider than two of Dar's fingers. The machine whirred again.

"Okay." Dr. Alison looked down at Dar. "We're done." She pushed the machine arm back and leaned on the padded table Dar was lying on. She had a high forehead, made all the more so by a hairstyle tightly pulled back into a knot, and hazel eyes. "Why don't you sit up, and let me take a look at your shoulder, okay?"

Dar obliged, tensing her abdominals and pulling herself upright then swinging her legs over the edge of the table. She hopped off and stood upright, startling the doctor who took a step back.

"Oh." Dr. Alison made a face, then smiled. "Somehow, patients always look shorter lying down. I didn't expect you to be that tall." She gestured towards a side room. "Why don't we go in there so you can sit "

Dar followed her in silence, taking a seat on a lower, but also padded bench in the examination room. She was still wearing her sling, but they'd allowed her Tylenol for the nagging headache, and she felt pretty good at the moment. "Well?"

Dr. Alison had been reviewing something on a computer terminal, and now she looked up over the screen at Dar. "Well, you want the bad news first or the good news?"

"Bad." Dar replied instantly.

"You know, Ms. Roberts, I'd thought you were going to say that." The doctor laughed. "Okay, well, the bad news is that you've got a lot of swelling in that shoulder. Aside from the bone bruise, you also strained some of the tendons and muscles around there, and everything's pretty tense."

Dar ran that over in her head and decided it didn't sound life threatening. "Okay. "

"You're going to need to do a lot of physical therapy, to get the blood moving in there and get the damaged bits out." Dr. Alison told her. "It's going to hurt."

"And?" Pain was something Dar could live with. She'd worked through enough injuries in her years of martial arts, after all, and while she never enjoyed the process, she knew ways of getting past it. She watched as the doctor left her console and came over, carefully unsnapping the sling to release Dar's arm.

"I need to see what kind of range of motion you have, okay?" Dr. Alison waited for Dar to nod, then she took hold of Dar's wrist, and slowly lifted her arm. "Let me know when it starts to hurt." She first flexed the arm at the elbow, then gently pulled upward, getting no reaction from her wary patient. "Okay, that's what I thought. Now Iím going to move out to the side, and I think that's where the problem is going to be."

Dar nodded and shifted a little, straightening up as the other woman carefully extended her injured arm out to the side, then started to lift it. About halfway, Dar let out a sound somewhere between a cough and a hiss, and the motion stopped.

"Okay." The doctor examined the angle. "Well, that's not too bad, actually." She sounded surprised. "Given what I saw in the pictures, that's pretty darn good." She put Dar's arm back down and started poking at her shoulder, touching and prodding the skin with absorbed interest. "You have a very well developed deltoid here."

Dar's brow lifted. "Thanks." She eyed the woman warily.

"I don't think I've seen a structure like this on a female in a while." Dr. Alison added. "You're not doing steroids or other anabolics, are you?"

Dar glared at her. "Absolutely not."

"Just asking." The doctor replied mildly. "No offense intended, Ms. Roberts. A lot of people do, you know. In my line of work, I deal with an enormous number of athletes. It's a standard question." She walked over and checked her screen. "You have an incredible bone density, did you know that?"

How was she supposed to know that? "No." Dar replied.

"Well, you do." The doctor typed something. "That's a good thing. It's what kept you from getting hurt worse. You take calcium supplements?"

Dar's brow creased. Supplements? "No, I just drink milk."

"Can't stand the stuff myself." Dr. Alison shook her head. "Well, good for you, Ms. Roberts. You weight train, correct?"

"Yes."

The doctor nodded. "Okay, I just need to get some stats on you so I can send them to the therapist. Could you take your shirt off please?"

It suddenly occurred to Dar why she'd always been more comfortable with male doctors, an interesting moment of self revelation that almost made her start laughing. "What stats does a therapist need?" She asked, standing up and pulling her t-shirt off over her head one handedly. It left her in a pair of gym shorts and nothing else.

"Oh, height, weight, limb len.." Dr. Alison stopped speaking for a second as she looked up. "Wow."

Dar's eyebrow went right up.

"You have great body structure." The doctor continued enthusiastically. "You have almost perfect symmetry, did you know that?" She picked up a tape measure and trotted over. "Outstanding."

Dar didn't know whether to feel like a show horse on parade, or what. She held her arms out when told, and felt the tickle of the tape measure as it was run across her back.

"I thought so. Seventy four inches. " The doctor towed Dar over to a scale. "Let me get your height and weight." She pushed the height bar up, and stood on her tip toes to let the top of it rest on Dar's head. "Seventy two and three quarters. Yep, I knew it." Next, she ran the weights across and nudged the smaller one back and forth until the arm balanced in the center. "One fifty six." She nodded and scribbled. "That about normal for you?"

"Give or take a few, yes." Dar replied. "Why?"

"Just curious." Dr. Alison finished her writing, after measuring Dar's upper and lower arms. "Okay, we're done." She looked up, reviewing Dar with an air of scientific satisfaction. "Very nice bones, Ms. Roberts. Congratulations."

Dar picked up her shirt and slipped it on. "Thanks." She muttered. "But I think it's my father's fault."

"Really?" Dr. Alison smiled. "Are you a daddy's girl? Everyone tells me I am." She straightened her papers and slid them into an envelope. "I hate that. Don't you?"

Dar picked up her sling, and looked at it, then glanced up at the doctor. "No." She said. "I've always considered it a compliment."

"Well, you're just a lucky woman, then." The doctor held a hand out and gripped Dar's. "Good luck, Ms. Roberts. Keep up what your'e doing, and I guarantee you'll be rock climbing into your seventies." She nodded briskly. "Any questions for me?"

Dar cocked her head. "Yeah. One." She drawled. "If you think what Iím doing is so great, why don't you do it?"

Dr. Alison blinked. She glanced at herself, then at Dar. Then she laughed, a touch sheepishly. "Iím a doctor." She grinned, and shrugged. "We never listen to our own advice." With a wave, she left the room.

Dar straightened up and looked around at the now empty room. Okay. She'd gotten her head examined several times, and apparently her arm wasn't going to require amputation. A smile appeared. That meant she could get her ass out of here, and go home. She went to the door and peeked out, seeing no sign of her solicitous orderly with his ready wheelchair. "Heh." Dar planned her route, and slipped past the nurses station towards the doors.

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

"Damn." Kerry felt the strain as she hit the seventh floor, her breath coming short and her legs starting to really burn. "That's what you get for slacking off at the gym for the last month, Kerrison. You're one lazy son of a biscuit when you want to be." She sucked in a deep breath, and pushed through the discomfort.

It annoyed her. She'd kept her running up, hadn't she? Every morning, without fail, there she was at Dar's side in the early morning cool air. So, okay, she'd cut back on the climbing wall to let her shoulder heal, and they were between martial arts classes, but still. Kerry scowled. She'd even kept up with Dar latelyÖ hey. A thought occurred to her. Was Dar slowing down on purpose, and letting her do that? Dar wouldnít do that, would she?

Not to make Kerry feel better, right? White teeth chewed on a lower lip. Okay, but maybe she did it just to have company, how about that? Dar would do that, right? Slow down so they could talk to each other, like they'd started to, using that time to go over problems at the office and plan their day.

Hmm. Kerry reached the eighth floor and turned the corner, feeling her heart rate starting to climb. So here she thought she was cruising along, doing so well. "Looks like Iím going to just have to try harder, that' s all," She panted, forcing herself to leap up the next set of stairs two at a time. She rounded the corner and swung a little wide, a little out of control towards the door that led to the ninth floor entrance. She put out a hand to steady herself, then suddenly blinked as the solid surface started to move towards.

Kerry tried to stop, but her momentum was too much and she ended up crashing into the opening door, knocking herself senseless as she reeled backwards dangerously close to the steps behind her. "Oh!" She fought for balance, reaching out for the handrail but the sweat on her hands betrayed her and she started to fall.

And then, just as suddenly, she wasn't falling. She was caught and held in a powerful grip, and her senses scrambled to reconcile the abrupt presence of Dar's distinctive aura surrounding her. "Ow."

"Hey." Dar's voice confirmed her dizzy revelation. "Kerry? Kerrison!"

Oh boy. Did I do something wrong? Kerry felt her knees buckle, and the next thing she knew, she was on the ground, it's cold hardness pressing against her legs, with her upper body cradled in a nice, warm, very Dar smelling nest. She blinked a few times. "Didn't know seeing stars wasn't just an old saying." She stuttered the words out. "Ow."

"Easy." Dar's voice sounded worried. "Take it easy.. why are you breathing so hard? Honey? Look at me, okay?"

Kerry obeyed, tipping her head back and opening both eyes, very glad she did so when she was rewarded with Dar's concerned face inches from her. "Wow." She finally felt her heart rate start to calm. "Are you ever a sight for sore eyes." She lifted a hand and gingerly felt her forehead. "Or a sore head."

Dar stroked her face gently. "What in the hell were you doing?" She asked. "You're all wet."

"You have that effect on me." Kerry joked faintly, getting a halfhearted smile from her lover. "Iím all right. It's just sweat. I was running the stairs."

Dar tugged her shirt sleeve over, and wiped the droplets of sweat out of Kerry's eyes. It was warm in the stairwell, and the smaller woman was still breathing hard. "Can I ask why?"

Kerry took a long, shaky breath, then released it. "Seemed like a good idea at the time?" She gave Dar a wan smile. "I was just working the kinks out - getting a little exercise." She settled her back against the wall, and untangled her feet from Dar's.

"AndÖ?" Dar shifted to a more comfortable position. "You decided to make it a decathlon event instead?"

"No." Kerry dredged her self disgust back up. "I was getting tired after seven measly flights, and it pissed me off." She admitted. "I"ve been telling myself what good shape I'm in. Hah." She forced a laugh out, and rolled her head to one side, gazing at Dar. "Iím a wuss."

"Sweetheart." Dar laid her good arm over Kerry's shoulders. "Our floors at work are eight feet high." She said. "The ones here are twelve. You just ran up the equivalent of about fourteen flights of steps at full speed."

Kerry gazed at the steps, then tipped her head back and looked up. "Oh." She felt like an idiot. "Really."

"Mmhmm." Dar gazed fondly at her. "So you're entitled to be out of breath. I would have been." She leaned forward and stuck two fingers into the collar of Kerry's shirt, pulling it outward and peeking inside. "Besides, I really like the shape you're in."

Kerry looked down, then up at her. "Really?"

"Really." Dar released the fabric, transferring her touch to Kerry's face. She traced the rounded cheekbones and snub nose delicately, examining the crystal clear green depths of her lover's eyes. "You are the most beautiful person I've ever known."

It was amazing. Kerry felt a little fuzzy happy ball settle inside her stomach, it's tickling presence causing a smile to spread across her face, gaining an immediate echo on Dar's. How could a sterile scented stairwell be this romantic? "Thank you for telling me that." Kerry leaned forward slightly and brushed Dar's lips with her own, then made a more solid contact. "Especially since I feel like a slimy, skanky old pair of gym socks right now so I know you're just saying that to make me feel good." She gave Dar a wry smile.

Dar studied her in silence, a tiny furrow appearing in her brow. "I most certainly wasn't."

"Dar, c'mon." Kerry nudged her. "Donít sit there and pretend Iím attractive sitting here all sweaty and covered in hallway dirt." She held up a hand, which was almost black, then blew her disheveled hair out of her eyes. "Iím a mess."

"I think you missed my point." Dar replied. "Ker, youíll always be beautiful to me, no matter what you look like."

Kerry gazed back at her seriously. "Do you really mean that?" She asked. "No matter what? Even if I.. shaved my head, and put on fifty pounds and got a tattoo across my neck that said Budwieser?" Her kept her tone light, but she felt the anxiety as she watched Dar's face, twenty five years of her mother's voice hammering into her conscience.

"Hm." Dar cocked her head, giving the vision itís due, and sober consideration. "Nope. I think Iíd have to draw the line at the Bud tattoo." She said gravely. "Maybe Corona, I could live with."

Kerry smiled, and dropped her gaze, more relieved than she was willing to admit.

"But as for the rest, yes, I do mean that." Dar tipped Kerryís chin up and forced eye contact. "Weíre not going to look like this forever, Ker. I donítí know how you feel about it, but I want you to know I donít give a damn."

It was ridiculous, Kerry decided, that they were having this absurdly critical discussion sitting in a hospital stairwell. But Darís speech deserved an answer. "All my life Iíve had it hammered into me that appearance is what matters." She said. "And Iíd always hoped thatÖ " A light shrug. "Being in love would mean more than just being physically attracted to someone." She met Darís eyes. "For me it is. Thereís something about you that has captured me completely, and I hope it never lets go."

Dar nodded slightly.

"So, I donít give a damn either." Kerry went on. "I know I joke about it a lot.. maybe it was just that I bumped into a cute little gymnastic boy and he stroked my ego for me."

Dar eyed her. "When was this?"

"On the way down the stairs." The blond woman admitted. "He admired my muscle tone."

"Ah." Dar settled back against the wall. "Well, I just had a good looking young woman tell me to take all my clothes off." She eyed Kerryís profile, which went suspiciously, suddenly still save the flaring of her nostrils.

"And?" Kerry asked.

"And I spent the next ten minutes being told what a lovely specimen I was."

Kerryís eyebrow lifted.

"Did you know I have dense bones and perfect symmetry?" Dar asked, arching a brow of her own.

"Who is this person?" Kerry half turned.

A puckish grin appeared. "The orthopedic surgeon."

"Tch." Kerry started laughing. "A lovely specimen, huh?"

Dar chuckled. "Nice muscle tone, huh?"

They both simply laughed for a minute. "Oh my god, Dar. Iím sweaty, and Iím tired, and I want to go home. Are they letting you out yet?" Kerry finally said.

"Theyíd better be." Her partner replied. "Címon. Letís go share a sponge and call Dr. Steve." Dar stood carefully, and held onto Kerryís arm as she joined her. "Thought I saw a tube of that bath soap in your bag."

"The mango one?" Kerry put an arm around Darís waist as they climbed up the steps towards the tenth floor.

"Mm."

"You thought right, my little subtropical perfect specimen."

Dar snorted, then reached down and pinched Kerryís butt. "Oh yeah, thatís nice tone all right."

"Ouch! You wench!" Kerry felt her spirits rise into the bubbly range. "Wait till we get to that sponge. Youíll be sorry."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah."

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

"Send her in." Commander Ainsbright twitched his jacket sleeves straight and folded his hands on his desk. Aside from the bandage taped over a gash on his left temple, and a bruise the size of a mango on his jaw, he appeared the very picture of composed, military dignity. He watched as the door opened, and Chief Daniel walked in. "Chief."

The Chief walked to the edge of the desk and saluted, then stood at ease.

"Report." The commander requested.

"It seems the training exercise caused a great deal of damage in three areas, sir." The Chief replied. "Primarily in the computer center, the telecom room, and the programming center."

The commander nodded. "And?"

"I expect the systems will be down until we can replace about twenty percent of the hardware." Chief Daniel said. "Apparently the backup systems were damaged as well, and we lost a good portion of our data storage."

The base commander leaned back, and propped a knee up against his desk. "All right." He said. "Write up the damages, and I'll charge the SEAL program for them. They had their instructions. They failed to follow them."

"Yes sir." Chief Daniel kept her gaze firmly fixed on the desk.

"Anything else you want to report, Chief?"

"No sir." Cam the quiet reply.

"Anyone asks you for anything, we donít' have it."

"No, sir."

"Dismissed."

The Chief turned and left the room, closing the door quietly behind her. Jeff Ainsbright sighed and shook his head. The phone rang, and he picked it up. "Yes?"

"Clean up's almost done." A terse voice answered him. "We got lucky. Damn lucky."

"Tell me." The base commander snorted. "You get rid of everything? We'll have a security team down on us at oh seven hundred tomorrow morning."

"Everything." The voice answered. "Scrubbed to the bare steel. I brought a dog in just to be sure."

Ainsbright nodded. "Good." His eyes narrowed. "I"ve got those guards on court martial for letting that damn bastard Roberts in here offhours. You know how close that was? They were in the god damned computer center. I just hope we got everything."

"We did." The voice held infinite assurance. "She thought she was so smart. That data stream she has won't tell her anything. We made sure of that." A chuckle. "Don't worry, Jeff. All they'll find is some ruined equipment. I already reconstructed the database. It's clean."

"All right." Ainsbright nodded. "It was too damn close, I tell you. We should have shut down the minute that bitch came on the base."

"You were supposed to take care of that." The answer came back sharply. "You and that kid of yours, remember? He was supposed to distract her. Hell, I thought he'd end up screwing her.."

"That's enough." Ainsbright snapped. "Forget about it. We found another solution." He checked his watch. "I've got to go. Chuck's ship's leaving and I want to make sure he's on it."

"Right. Out of sightÖ"

"Out of my hair." The commander snorted. "Bye." He hung up the phone and took a deep breath. It had been close. Far too close, and the problems weren't over yet. He wasn't stupid enough to think he was rid of Dar Roberts, for one thing. She'd dug enough into the base to report back to Washington, and now it was up to his team to do damage control.

Negligence? Sure. Someone would be court martialed for it. Shoddy records keeping, Sloppy processes. Every base had them, and all it would generate was a damn study and recommendations as long as Roberts hadn't found anything worse.

And she hadn't. He was sure of it. All he had to do was get Chucky out of here, then wait for the rep from DC. Thank god the damn JAG had called to warn him. With a sigh, he put his hands against his desk and pushed himself to his feet, wincing at the ache in his bones.

Too dark, he'd been told, to see who hit him. "Sorry sir. It was just too dark." The SEAL captain had maintained stiffly. Yeah? Too dark my ass. Jeff Ainsbright scowled, as he circled his desk and headed for the door.

Only to find it blocked.

He stopped in complete shock, and stared at the dark blue clad figure standing silently inside the door. There hadn't been a sound. How in the hellÖ. He took a cautious breath. "Andy."

Ice blue eyes watched him steadily. "Lo, Jeff." Andrew drawled very softly.

Ainsbright took a step back. "Didn't hear you come in."

Frighteningly, that caused a smile to appear on the scarred face. "Folks never do." The ex SEAL allowed. "That's how come I stuck around this long." Andrew moved forward, towards the commander, with a curiously smooth amble It combined an economy of motion with an impression of prowling energy that caused the commander to take another step back, then turn and retreat behind his desk.

"What can I do for you, Andy?" Ainsbright forced a tense smile. "I've got a meeting Iím due atÖ"

"On Sunday? You ain't visiting the preacher now, are you?" Andy asked.

The commander hesitated. "No.. no, just a lunch date with my wife." He was very conscious of the cold menace radiating from his old friend, who though retired, and with all that gray in his crewcut still posed a very potent threat he knew he had no hope of countering.

Andy had always been like that. A big man, made bigger by weight training and a SEAL's fitness regimen with lightning reflexes and lethal combat skills. Cool in action, level headed, steady, reliableÖ but with a blind spot a mile wide all centered around his family, and that damn, stubborn, pigheaded, bitch of a daughter of his.

Dar was dangerous because she was so god damned smart. Andy was dangerous just because he was dangerous, and anything that touched or threatened his kid sent him past reason.

"We need to chat." Andy told him. "So sit yer ass down."

Ainsbright slowly sat down and folded his hands.  "Andrew, this ain't a threat, but I can call the guards and have you taken out of here. You're not in the Navy anymore."

"That's all right." Andrew told him. "When I'm done with you, you ain't gonna be either." He sat down on Ainsbright's desk. "So if you have half a brain left, you will sit in that chair, and start talking about what you all are doing here."

Ainsbright looked steadily at him. "Andrew, I have no idea what you're talking about. I think you need to leave."

Andy leaned closer. "Listen, you jackass. How'n the hell you think you got that crack on the side of your haid?"

Unconsicously, Ainsbright lifted a hand and touched it.

"Ah took that damn gun you had out of your hands and smacked you cross the face with it." Andy continued, standing up and circling the desk, his temper rising. "So you will, sir, you will tell me what is goin on here that makes a career jack like you point a damn gun at mah kid!" The ex SEAL's voice rose into a low roar. "NOW!!"

Ainsbright froze, staring at the dark form looming over him, seeing the fire in those pale blue eyes surging towards the edges, ready to consume him. Andrew's hands were tensed, and his body coiled, center of balance up on the balls of his feet, full of a stillness that bore it's own warning.

"Andy, take it easy." Ainsbright kept his voice low. "I"ll talk."

"Yes." A low, fierce growl. "You surely will."

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

"Dr. SteveÖ" Dar inhaled, visibly holding her patience. "Theyíve taken enough pictures to star me in the next Sears Roebuck catalog. Iím fine. Let me the hell out of here."

Dr. Steve patted her arm as he reviewed a chart. "Just hold on to your britches, rugrat. Youíve still got a ton of swelling up in that rock head of yours." He made a mark on the chart. "Weíre not taking any chances with you."

Dar peered over the doctorís arm to where Kerry was curled up on the daybed, watching. Her brow creased as she scowled. "Iím not spending another night in this place." She decided. "I can sleep just as well at home."

"Ainít got nurses there." Dr. Steve didnít even look up. "Though you gave the ones here a story to spread over the water cooler over."

Dar glared at him. "I donít give a damn." She growled. "They can kiss my ass."

Dr. Steve looked up to see a pair of very truculent blue eyes looking at him. "Lord, you must be feeling better. "He teased her, reaching over and chucking her on the chin. "Thatís the Dar I know."

Kerry watched in bemusement, resting her chin on her forearm. She could see Dar getting more and more annoyed, and wondered briefly if her sometimes mercurial lover wasnít better off going home. "Hey, Dr. Steve?" She called out.

The doctor turned and put the chart down, walking over to her and looking down. "Howíd you get that bump, Squeeky?" His fingers touched the side of her head cautiously. "That hurt?"

"A little." Kerry admitted. "I had a close encounter with a door. Nothing major." She took advantage of his proximity. "Dr. Steve?"

"Hmm?" The doctor crouched down and continued to examine her bump. "You feeling all right, Kerrison? You look a little pasty." Behind him, Dar sat up and peered over, her brow creasing.

"Iím fine, really." Kerry assured him "Just a little headache, and I havenít had my lunch yet."

"Mmhm." Dr. Steve turned her face a little towards the light from the window. "Feel a little shaky?"

Kerry sighed. "A little."

"Uh huh. When was the last time you had your blood sugar levels checked?"

That caught her by surprise. "UmÖ" She took a breath "I usually donít have a problem."

"Thatís not true." Dar spoke up.

"Dar." Kerry peered around the doctorís arm, annoyed.

"Itís not." The dark haired woman gave a little shrug of her uninjured shoulder. "You get dizzy when you donít eat, and you know it."

"That true?" Dr. Steve asked.

Kerry sighed again. "Sometimes." She said. "I try to make sure it doesnít." She met his gaze. "I ran out of granola bars today."

Dr. Steve fished in his pocket, and came out with a package of cheese and peanut butter crackers. He handed it over to her. "Here."

She accepted them, then changed the subject. "Does she really need to stay here?" Kerry asked quietly. "I think sheíd rest better at home."

The doctor rested his hand on her knee and gave her a direct look. "Would you go home if I said no?"

Kerry shook her head, opening her crackers and removing one. She put it between her teeth and bit down, chewing the salty snack slowly. "Where she goes, I go."

Dr. Steve let out a chuckle, then pushed himself to his feet and returned to Darís bedside. "Found you a good match, Paladar." He shook his head. "Two of a kind, I can see that."

Dar tore her eyes from Kerryís face, and looked at him. "What?"

The doctor picked up her chart and made a comment on it. Then he looked up as footsteps sounded outside, and a young man carrying an envelope entered. "Ah, that the last of them?"

"Yes, sir." The man agreed, handing over the envelope. He gave Dar a professional smile, then turned and left. Dr. Steve removed some papers from the envelope and read them, scanning over the first page and concentrating on the second. Finally, he grunted and folded them over.

"All right, rugrat." He turned and put his hands on the bedrails. "Iíll let you go on one condition."

Darís eyebrows hiked up in pleased surprise. "What?" She glanced over at the watching Kerry. "Name it." The doctorís attention to her lover had caused a twinge of unease, even though she knew Kerry was conscious of her body chemistry and usually had little problem with it. She had seemed a little wrung out when theyíd gotten back, but Dar had put that down to her stair climbing.

"You." Dr. Steve took hold of her chin and force her to look at him. "Will get your ass in bed, and stay there for at least three days."

Dar took a breath to answer.

"Promise me." Dr. Steve stated, flatly. "I mean it, Dar. This is no joke. You want to go home? Well, I"ve known you since you were born, and I know youíll get more rest there then here with all them nurses poking at you. But you must, Iím saying must, Dar Ė stay in bed and let your body heal." His manner was unusually no nonsense. "Yes or no?"

The blue eyes flickered, then narrowed slightly. "Just stay in bed?" She countered. "Not asleep?"

Dr. Steve warily eyed her. "Flat on your back." He qualified. "No gymnastics or anything like that."

Well. Dar sighed inwardly. That meant three days of using her laptop, but there was probably enough data and crap she had to sort through to keep her busy for at least that. "All right." She nodded. "I promise."

Dr. Steve looked relieved. He reached over and ruffled her hair lightly. "Okay. Iíll go process your paperwork."

Dar watched him leave, then looked over at Kerry. "Hot damn."

Kerry finished up her crackers and dusted her fingers off, feeling much better. She got up off the daybed and went over to Dar, curling her fingers around the bedrails and leaning against them. "Three days, huh?"

"Three days." Dar agreed. "You should get plenty done at the office with me stuck at home."

"Mm." Kerry made a noncommittal noise. "Well, letís get you packed up." She slid her hand through the bars and circled Darís wrist with her fingers, rubbing her thumb against the soft skin. "And get you into that waterbed."

Dar smiled. "Keep me company there?" She waggled an eyebrow.

Kerry grinned back.

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

Kerry chewed on a carrot as she watched the large pot of soup cook. Discharge had taken less time than sheíd thought it would, and theyíd gotten home before lunch was served at the hospital.

Which was, she reflected wryly, a good thing, because it was fish. Now, normally Dar liked fish, and so did Kerry, but as Dar put it, she liked her fish to be of some identifiable species, and not pasteurized processed cod-like fishcakes.

Ugh. Even the boiled smell coming down the hallway had made Kerry wince. So sheíd been glad when the orderly showed up with a wheelchair, to take Dar downstairs. Of course, itíd taken her ten minutes of arguing with her lover to get the stubborn woman to sit in the wheelchair, but they were out at last, and tucked in the Lexus headed home.

Dar had been quiet. Kerry suspected she was in some pain, but she didnít press her on the subject, theorizing that Dar had been poked and prodded and messed with almost past her tolerance the last twenty four hours and would only resent the mothering.

She wouldnít resent the soup, though. Kerry poked a wooden spoon in and gave the mixture a stir. The spicy, rich scent of seafood gumbo wafted up, and she felt her mouth water in response. "Mm." She lifted the spoon and took a taste. "Glad I had a container of this in the freezer, Chino."

"Yawp." Chino agreed, peering up hopefully at her.

"No soup for you." Kerry took a biscuit from the dog jar and tossed it to her. "This will make you chuck up your Labrador guts all night."

Chino crunched on her biscuit contentedly. "Growf."

Kerry smiled, then turned and pulled two good sized bowls down from the cupboard. They were sturdy, a nice shade of bone inside and a pretty cobalt on the outside. She and Dar had purchased them at the Mikasa outlet just a few weeks prior, on a rare afternoonís shopping together. That had been fun, Kerry mused, as she ladled portions into each bowl. Just a long Saturday, that had started with breakfast at, of all places, MacDonalds, and ended with dinner at the Cheesecake Factory.

"And you didnít get any of that doggie bag, didja, Chin?" Kerry put the bowls on a small wicker tray and added silverware, then popped the door on the convection oven and removed a few buttermilk biscuits. "Okay, letís go bring mommy Dar lunch." She picked up the tray and walked into the living room, where Dar had resumed her nest on the couch.

"Hey." Kerry put the tray down on the coffee table. "Hungry?"

Dar lifted her head and sniffed at the bowls. "Is that gumbo?"

"Mmhm."

"Mm." Dar smiled and settled back against the soft leather. She was dressed in her pajamas, with a fleece blanket tucked around her and her laptop resting on her knees. Now she watched as Kerry picked up one of the bowls and brought it over, settling it into her lap. "Where did this come from?"

"Fedex delivered it." Kerry answered without a beat. "Didnít you hear them?"

"On Sunday?" Dar asked.

"New service." Kerry offered her a spoonful, pleased when Dar opened her mouth and accepted it. "Howís it going?"

"Eh." Dar chewed a bit of conch and swallowed it. "I donít know. ItísÖ" She reached up and rubbed her eyes a little. "Hard to concentrate. My head hurts."

Kerry checked her watch. "You can take a couple more Tylenol." She offered. "Or you could justÖ ohÖ I donít know, lie down and get some rest."

Dar considered. "Let me try the pills first." She decided. "Iím really not tired." She accepted the spoon Kerry held out and settled the bowl on her stomach. "Thanks for the soup."

"Any time." Kerry ruffled her hair. "You know, youíre not nearly as bad a patient as I thought youíd be."

Dar sucked on the spoon, and regarded her lover thoughtfully. "Would you like me to become an unruly curmudgeon? I could." She asked, with a faint smile. "But I figured it made no sense to have both of us be miserable."

"I appreciate that." Kerry reached over and gave Darís thigh a squeeze. "I just wanted you to know that I donít mind taking care of you, Dar."

Dark lashes fluttered. "I donít mind letting you." Dar said.

Kerry picked up her bowl and sat down on the couch, picking up Darís legs and sliding underneath them. She wriggled into a comfortable spot, then crossed her ankles and took a spoonful of soup. "What are we watching?"

"Mpf?" Dar hastily swallowed, then glanced to her left. "OhÖ I donít know, I was just browsing and IÖ"

"Good grief, Dar, that woman is almost naked." Kerry stared at the screen in fascination. "What in the hell is she doing with that stick?"

"Um." Dar bit her lip. "Iím not sure. Itís one of those action things. You know I never watch that stuff." She watched anyway. "Hey.. sheís pretty cute."

Kerry glanced at her. "I guess."

"Looks a little like you." Dar went on.

"No she doesnít." Kerry laughed. "Not unless I spent twenty four hours a day for six months in a gym, and got a serious hair cut." She watched the image on the screen. "Oo. Nice kick."

"Mm." Dar agreed. "Nice outfit."

Kerryís eyebrows lifted, and she gave her lover a sideways look. "Are you hinting at something?"

"Me?" Blue eyes opened a little wider. "Are you insinuating that I might want to see you in two strips of leather and a pair of floppy boots?"

A grin tugged at Kerryís lips. "Would you?"

"Bet your ass I would." Dar laughed.

Kerry reviewed the screen. "Iíd look ridiculous."

"Youíd look mouth watering." Dar bit into a chunk of spicy fish. "Can I have that for a birthday present?"

"Dar!" Kerry blushed, pleased at the compliment but embarrassed at the same time. "You sound so carnal."

Dar chuckled, then jumped a little as her cell phone rang. "Crap." She balanced her bowl on her lap and put the spoon down, then picked up the buzzing instrument. "Yeah?"

"Dar!" Alastairís voice boomed down the line. "Good gravy! What in the hell happened? Why didnít you call me? Where are you?!"

Dar held the phone away from her ear and grimaced. "When youíre done yelling, lemme know." She waited, then moved the phone closer when no other sounds issued from it. "Good afternoon, Alastair."

"Dar." He sounded exasperated. "For Christís sake, they said you were in the hospital!"

"I was." Dar stretched a little. "We ran into a little trouble on the base." She said. "I got a knock on the head, they wanted to take some pictures. No big deal, Alastair."

"Thatís not what I heard." Her boss retorted. "I heard you were already hurt when you went down there, and got knocked out by some jackass with a gun."

Dar took a breath, then released it. "You told me to find a solution." She said. "I found one."

Alastair let out a gust of air. "What makes you think any solution or any problem is worth risking you? Why didnít you tell me you were hurt, Dar? You think I give two shits about some half ass piece of crap government contract?"

Dar was quiet for a moment. "Alastair?"

"What???" Her boss bellowed.

"Thanks for caring."

There was silence for a few heartbeats, then Alastair sighed. "Well, damn it all to hell, Dar."

Time to take control back of this conversation, Darís more logical half asserted. "All right. Now that youíve called, let me get this over with." She composed her thoughts. "We went down there trying to retain the data evidence. I told you that was the governmentís concern, right?"

"Right." Alastair exhaled.

"Well, I fucked up." Dar had a pause slightly after saying that, so unusual was it for her to have to pronounce those words applied to herself. "I didnít find out what was going on first, and we walked right into both a military exercise, and a setup."

Alastair didnít even say a word.

"Thank god my father was with us." Dar went on in a quiet, unemotional voice. "They knew we were coming, and they were using the exercise to cover their tracks. With real bullets. If it hadnít been for dad, things would have been a lot worse."

"So." Her bosses voice sounded grim "Whatís your analysis?"

Dar watched Kerryís profile, as she sat moving her spoon around in her soup with her eyes on the television screen. "I was too close to the problem." She said, watching Kerryís movements still. "I should have backed out of it. "

"Ah."

"We should have just dropped the results into the governmentís lap, and submitted our bill." Dar went on. "Now weíre going to be involved in lawsuits at the very least."

A sigh. "Anyone else get hurt?"

Dar remembered Jeff Ainsbrightís slumped form. "Not any of our people." She replied. "I take full responsibility for this, Alastair."

"Mm." Her boss murmured. "You always do, Dar. Iíve never seen you do less." He considered a moment.. "Still and all, we did fufill the contract, didnít we? As far as that request for service?"

"Yes."

"All right." Alastair said. "Letís keep things in perspective, Dar."

"From a man who was yelling at the top of their lungs when I picked up the phone, thatís quite a statement." Dar remarked dryly.

"Well, I was more concerned about you." Alastair replied. "The fact is, we achieved our goal, and we were just going above and beyond for the customer when things went badly."

"Alastair." Dar sighed.

"Iím not making excuses." Her boss snapped. "Easton took advantage of you when he asked you to intervene, and you know it, Dar. He was counting on your being personally involved, and he used that."

Dar opened her mouth to refute the charge, then closed it again as her mind ran over what her boss had said. Had he? She looked up to see Kerry regarding her, with a sympathetic look on her face.

"I donít blame him for that." Alastair continued hurriedly. "He was in a tight spot, and saw a way out of it. Iíd have done the same thing."

Dar sighed. "Maybe."

"So, take it easy, all right?"

"Alastair." Dar replied. "You can tell me all day long I was within spec, but we both know I wasnít."

"Eh." A verbal shrug came over the line. "We can talk about it later, Dar. How are you, anyway?"

Dar recognized a deliberate change of subject when she heard one, but didnít have the energy to protest. "Iím all right." She replied. "I had a concussion, and I messed up my shoulder a couple days ago. Itís really no big deal." Something occurred to her. "I do have to stay home for a few days, though. Iíll call in for the board meeting on Tuesday."

"Great." Alastair said. "Looks like the budgetís right on for the fourth quarter, and projections are up for next year thanks to your network."

Dar smiled. "Trying to cheer me up?"

A chuckle. "Is it working?"

Dar felt better for having told her boss what was going on. "Yeah."

"Good."

Dar held the phone against her ear and took a spoonful of soup. "Howíd you find out about me in the first place?" She asked, around a mouthful of shrimp.

"Your mother called me." Alastair told her, with a touch of smugness in his tone.

Dar stopped in mid chew and almost snorted bisque out her nose. "My mother?"

Kerry snickered. "Oh oh."

"I had to do it." Jeff Ainsbright stated, for the tenth time. He was seated behind his desk, watching Andrew Robertís tall, burly form pace back and forth. "Andy, you donít understand."

"Hell I donít." Andy snapped, turning to face him. "You had to sell your damn soul out? That what youíre saying?"

Ainsbright sighed, and shook his head. "God damn it, Andy." He said. "Spare me your moralistic hogwash, will you? Maybe you never wanted to work your way out of that three bedroom shack down the row, but I did."

Andy glowered at him. "Least what I had, I got honestly."

"And what was that?" Jeff replied. "You couldnít even afford to get your damn wife a new dress most of the time. You never had nothing, you never left her nothing.. you couldnít even send your kid to college." He stood up and poked a thumb at his own chest. "I wasnít about to live like that. So yeah, when they offered me some good money to look the other way, you bet your ass I did."

"Ah would not have, not for all the damn money in the US." Andy stated flatly. "And whatíd it get you?"

"A nice house." Ainsbright answered. "A nice car, my wifeís a member of the country club and she loves it. My kidís a ship captain."

"You buy him that too?" Andy asked, sarcastically.

"Whatíd you ever give your kid?" Jeff taunted. "A used tennis ball?"

"Care." The ex SEAL replied. "And knowin what was right and wrong." He folded his arms. "I didnít have to do nothing else. She made her own future without beggin me for handouts."

Ainsbright rolled his eyes. "Youíre a fool, Andrew. You always were." He stood up. "All right, look." A hand lifted. "Yeah, I knew about everything here. I knew about the shipments, and I knew they were covering them. But I never had anything directly to do with any of it, hear?"

Andy studied him.

"I did what I did for my family." Jeff stated. "To give them a better life."

"Now they ainít gonna have nothing." Andy said. "With your ass in jail."

Ainsbright snorted. "Not for bad recordkeeping, Andy." He managed a thin lipped smile. "Thatís all your brilliant little wunderkind is going to find now."

Thoughtful blue eyes regarded him. "Think so?"

"I know it. I made sure of that personally." Ainsbright snapped. "Despite you getting your ass in the way, that is. I wasnít after your damn kid."

"You had a damn M16 with a scope." Andy closed on him again. "Who were you after?"

"No one." Ainsbright answered coolly. "It was all part of the exercise." He pointed at Andy. "Which your daughter interrupted with an unauthorized breach of the base. If anything happen to her here, itís her fault. Not mine." A pause. "For that matter, you better just hope I donít bring you up on assault charges."

Andrew blinked. "You do that, and ah will make direly sure youíll have been assaulted for it."

"That a threat?" Jeff snorted. "Get out of here, Andy. Youíre out of your league, and you donít belong here anymore."

Andy turned, and walked to the window, gazing out at the grassy space before the building. "Ainít that the truest thing you done said here today." He rumbled. "If you aint the one whoís running this show, Jeff. Who is?" He turned and eyed the commander, who remained silent. "They pay you to take the fall for them?"

The base commander shook his head. "Iím not taking a fall, Andy. I told you that."

"Cause you think you outthunk my kid, is that it?" A smile twisted Andrewís face. "Better hope youíre right. I sure never could."

Jeff snorted. "Iím smarter than you are, Andy. We both know that."

A slow nod. "That may be true, Jeff. But you aintí smarter than she is. So you better be damn sure youíve got all your tracks covered, or itís your ass whatís going to be run up that there flagpole outside." He turned and pointed, then turned back and walked over to the base commander, stopping within a pace of him. "Because she will nail you."

Their eyes locked. "Iím sure." Jeff finally said. "Iíve got good people who made very, very sure of that." He turned and straightened his jacket. "Now, if youíll excuse me, Andrew Ė Iíve got a lunch date with my wife." He gestured towards the door. "Iíll have you escorted to the gate." He turned back towards his desk, then stopped dead.

The office was empty.

"Son of a bitch." The commander raced to the window and looked out, leaning out to look up and down. Then he pulled his head back in and searched the room with anxious eyes. "Where in the fÖ" Cursing, he reached for the phone and lifted it, dialing a number quickly. "Security? This is the commander. Weíve got an unauthorized entry. Send a security team to my office and put the base on alert."

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

The alarm went off before dawn, and Kerry reached over quickly to silence it. It stopped itís low buzz, and she let her hand drop back down onto the pillow as she glanced over at Darís sleeping form.

Her lover didnít stir, her body relaxed in slumber and her breathing slow and even. Good. Kerry sighed in relief. Dar had worked obsessively over what data she had in her laptop until after midnight, only surrendering when Kerry coaxed her off the couch and into the waterbed, where sheíd fallen asleep almost in the middle of a protest.

Kerry spent a moment just watching Darís profile, outlined by the pale blue nightlight in the bathroom. Then she rolled over and eased out of bed on the opposite side, twitching the down comforter back into place. She stifled a yawn with one hand as she made her way into the bathroom, and closed the door quietly behind her before she flipped the light on.

"Ugh." Kerry winced and closed her eyes, waiting for a moment before she reopened them and blinked at her reflection. A very disheveled looking, grumpy woman looked back at her and she stuck her tongue out at the image.

She had such a damn busy day planned at work. First, sheíd have to coordinate the recovery of whatever Mark retained in that black box. Assuming Dar remembered how to reassemble the puzzle pieces, then sheíd have to assign a high security team to work with the database, reconstructing it meticulously and recording their steps line by line.

Then, since it was a Monday, she knew there would be at least five or six major disasters for her to handle, along with the usual running operations issues. Thank god, Kerry mused, as she splashed water on her face and lathered up some soap. Darís new network had reduced her crisis calls by eighty percent, itís flexibility and reliability making her life much more pleasant.

So, sheíd get some liquid breakfast, throw on her running gear, do her laps, then shower, then head for the office. Kerry dried her face and nodded at her now still scruffy, but more alert looking reflection. "Right?" She watched her lower lip poke out, as though by itís own volition.

Her brow creased. "Okay, whatís wrong?" The lip poked out further in a pout. "Kerrison Stuart, you are not going to pout because Dar gets to stay home and you donít, yíhere me?"

"Growf." Chino hopped up and put her paws on the sink, peering up at Kerry as if wondering who her mom was talking to.

"Sure, thatís easy for you to say." Kerry turned and tapped the end of her toothbrush on Chinoís nose. "You get to stay here with her."

Chinoís tail wagged.

"Yeah, yeah. Rufh min fin." Kerry spoke through a mouthful of toothpaste.

It was a beautiful morning. Kerry took a deep breath of the cool, salt tinged air as she walked down the path to the beach, enjoying the lack of humidity that made their running uncomfortable, bordering on brutal during the summer months. As she reached the winding path that lead around the island, she paused to stretch her muscles out, as a few seagulls drifted by to watch.

It was quiet at this hour, the soft clanks from the marina and the birdís curious squawks the only sounds that broke the dawn hush. Kerry finished her warmup and started down the path at a slow jog, waiting for her body to wake up and get into synch before she picked her pace up and settled into her run.

Sheíd finally gotten used to this. Kerry watched a small tug move past the south side of the island as she headed around the marina. In fact, sheíd come to look forward to the time she and Dar set aside for their joint morning exercise, because it was a great way to start the day with some peace and quiet.

Okay. Kerry smiled, as she rounded the islandís northern side for the first time. And some companionable togetherness. Theyíd started debating current events the past few weeks, and she found herself missing the company.

How had Dar stood it all those years alone? The thought intruded itself. The another thought made her almost stop in her tracks. How did you stand it all those years alone, Kerry?

Wow. Kerry tried to remember what her life had been like before sheíd met Dar. It had beenÖ well, all right, she guessed. Sheíd had fun, with her friends at work, and with Colleen. She hadnít been lonely, had she?

Second lap already? Kerry sighed, and nibbled her lower lip. No, she really hadnít been lonely. Sheíd been more likeÖ waiting. That was it. She nodded to herself. Sheíd always had the feeling that just around the bend, just around that next corner sheíd find someone special.

Okay, so it wasnít around a corner, and the person barged into her office intent on firing her butÖ sheíd found it. Kerry smiled, and leaned forward a little, picking up her pace. Faster I go, faster I get back.

**********

Dar kept her eyes closed, aware of the fact that she was alone in bed. This didnít make her very happy. The waterbed was comfortable, but it was a lot warmer and more comfortable if it was full of a certain blond woman she knew, who tended to drape nice smelling and cutely shaped parts her herself all over Dar.

On the other hand, Dar reasoned, she could also smell cinnamon and the scent of fresh coffee, which meant she was trading off waking up chilly and grumpy for sticky buns and a cup of Santaís White Christmas in her big blue mug.

Hm.

She heard soft clinks from the kitchen, then the light scuff of bare feet against tile heading in her direction. It was strange, but she could actually feel Kerryís presence as her lover entered the room, bringing the nice smells closer, and combining them with apricot skin scrub and the clean cotton tshirt that covered Kerryís freshly showered body.

Mm. Dar briefly wondered if she could just suck on Kerry, and forgo the sticky bun. She opened one eye. "Morning."

"Hi there, cute stuff." Kerry set the small tray down on their bedside table. On it was a plate with two buns, and the anticipated blue mug. "How do you feel?"

Dar closed her fingers on the knee conveniently close by and squeezed. "Mm.. not bad."

She joked wryly. "Like crap, honestly." She then admitted. "I feel like I"ll never get rid of this headache and my armís killing me. I think I slept wrong."

Kerry rattled the small bottle on the tray. "I came prepared." She removed a small glass from next to the mug. "Here.. " She handed Dar some juice, and three tablets. "You might want to spend some time outside later Ė itís gorgeous."

Dar finished the juice and handed the glass back. "Thanks. Iíll take the laptop out there." She said. "You better get dressed."

"Oh." Kerry plucked at her shirt, which had an almost life size Dilbert sprawled across itís surface. "You mean I canít go to work like this? Címon, Dar."

Dar cocked her head slightly. "Well, okay, hon, but donít stand with your back to the light, okay? Itís a little translucent."

Kerry looked down. "It is?" She asked in surprise. "Where?"

A finger reached out and tickled a very sensitive spot.

"Yeak!" A snorting laugh escaped Kerry. "Okay, okay. I see your point." She gazed fondly at Dar. "Let me go get into my monkey suit."

Dar tangled her fingers in the soft cotton and tugged. "Thanks for breakfast." She said. "And you can go to work dressed casual today if you want. It wonít kill anyone."

Kerry considered that, then nodded. "Okay, I will." She decided. "Iím in the mood for jeans." She turned and made her way into the living room, then took the stairs two at a time.

*****

"Wheníre we gonna see what we got?" Brent asked, sticking his hands in his pockets and regarding the locked, steel box in the corner of Markís office.

"When Dar says we do." Mark didnít look up from the folder he was writing on. "Go do something, willya, Brent? Itís not going to levitate out of that box."

Brent stayed put. "We risked our necks to get that thing."

Now, Mark looked up. "You volunteered."

"So?" The tech squared a pugnacious jaw. "We still did."

"And you point is what?" The MIS Chief asked. "Look, you wouldnít know what the hell was in there even if I did open and link it. Itís not readable."

Brentís brow creased. "Huh? Then whatíd we do it for? You mean we canít use it?"

"I didnít say that." Mark took an impatient breath. "I said you canít read it. I canít read it. Yoda the Jedi Master canít read it." He pointed at the box. "But Dar can. She knows what formula she used to structure the sector copy. Sheís the one who has to reconstruct it, okay?"

"Oh." Brent looked interested.

Mark leaned back. "Hey. Why the fuck did you go with us?" He asked bluntly. "You spent the last two weeks blowing shit all over this office about how you felt about the boss."

Brent studied him sullenly. "Itís not right."

"Yeah, yeah, yeahÖ you, my Aunt Matilda and Dr. Laura with your homophobic bullshit." Mark snapped. "All of you can kiss my ass. So why offer to help out someone you hate so much?"

Brent shrugged. "The Navy sucks." He commented, then turned and walked out, leaving a bewildered Mark to stare after him.

"What the hell was that?" Mark asked the empty air. "Why the fuck do I get all the warped SIMMS in Miami working for me?" He shook his head and glanced at his screen. "Ah." A alert showed him that Kerry had logged into the office systems. He checked a second alarm, scowling a little on seeing it dark. "Shit. Címon, Dar. I want to know if we got those bastards too."

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

The bow of the boat rocked up and down in the very light chop, making an almost soothing motion as Ceci walked along the edge of the deck. Good thing, she mused thoughtfully. That Iím not prone to seasickness. That would have been a hell of a thing to find out, after I talked Andy into this thing, wouldnít it?

She spotted her husband seated on the very front of the bow, resting his arms on the railing as he watched the sun rise over the sea. He was dressed in his shortie wet suit, which glistened with the seawater that also dampened his grizzled hair and scattered sparkles over his tanned skin.

"Hey, sailor boy." Ceci took a seat next to him.

"Yíknow, Cec." Andy turned his head, and looked thoughtfully at her. "I do believe I do not consider that a compliment anymore."

Ceci looked at him. "Andy." She put a hand on his leg. "Donít say that. A bunch of jackasses shouldnít take a lifetime of pride away from you. Címon now." She found herself in the weird position of defending a service sheíd never really liked or understood. "You know the vast majority arenít like that. Theyíre like you." She gazed into the pale blue eyes "Well, not just like you."

Andy sighed. "Ah remember doing bartering myself back on that there base."

"Everyone did." Ceci laughed. "Címon, Andy. Thatís how we managed to trade enough for that Christmas party that one year, remember? When you won that stuffed tiger from Brad at the carnival, and gave it to Dar?"

Andy brooded. "How was that different than what this was? Jeff said he done it for his family. Well, I done that for my family."

"Hon." Ceci managed not to smile. "I donít think even the Attorney General, bless her good, cracker heart, would see tins of peanut butter and a case of beer in the same light as selling black market M16ís and cocaine."

"Mph."

"Besides, how could we possibly deny Dar her peanut butter?" Ceci asked. "She ate so much of that Iím surprised she doesnít carry a top hat and cane and wear spats."

Andy laughed wryly, in pure reflex. "She surely did like that stuff." He agreed, then sighed. "Maybe thatís how it starts, though. Folks think thatís all right, then it just goes a little further, and furtherÖ"

"No." Ceci shook her head. "Thereís a line there, Andy. You and I both know that. Someone made the decision to cross that line." She put a hand on his arm "It just so happens that person was a friend of ours."

Andrew scowled. "Jackass."

"Mm."

"Hope Dar nails his ass títhe ground with a sharpend flagpole."

Now it was Ceciís turn to laugh.

Continued in Part 9