Tropical High

Part 9

Dar lay quietly in bed, soft New Age music providing a background as she drowsed, allowing the painkillers to ebb some of the throbbing from her arm and head. There were a dozen things she could be doing, she admitted, but it was much easier to do what she’d promised she’d do, which was rest and allow her body to heal.

It was hard to remember the last time she’d just slept in all day. She and Kerry kept pretty busy, even on weekends they were out on the boat, or driving down to the keys, or … Dar smiled sleepily. Or shopping.

She’d discovered she liked shopping with Kerry. Even when they were looking for something totally mundane, like plates, she’d found herself enjoying the process. Last time they’d gone to the mall, she’d even done a little clothes shopping, both she and Kerry having fun remembering the first time they’d done that, mere weeks after they’d first met.

And this time they shared a dressing room. Dar chuckled softly as she indulged herself in a memory of the two of them buttoning and zipping each other.

And unbuttoning and unzipping.

Dar idly hoped Saks Fifth Avenue didn’t videotape their patrons.

The phone rang, causing her to reluctantly open her eyes and peer at the table. With a groan, she rolled over and reached out to slap the speaker button. "Hello?"

"Good morning, Dar."

Dar let her eyes close again. "Morning." She returned her mother’s greeting cordially. "What’s up?"

"Your father’s temper."

That got one eye open. "Don’t tell me it’s the commercials again." She said.

Ceci chuckled wryly. "Actually, his new pet peeve is the erectile dysfunction mini movies that have been playing recently."

Dar’s brow wrinkled. "Ew."

"Mm." Her mother agreed. "At any rate, he took a ride down to the base yesterday, and didn’t come back very happy. Apparently they’re covering their tracks pretty thoroughly."

"Um." Dar tried to dredge up some interest. "Figures."

There was a moment’s silence. "You doing all right?" Ceci finally asked, warily.

"Pretty much." Dar answered. "Been laying in bed most of the morning."

"Ah. I see." Ceci seemed to consider this statement seriously for a little while. "Well, I went to the technological depths of iniquity and managed to produce a pan of something that might, if you don’t look too closely, pass as brownies to cheer your father up."

Dar chuckled in pure reflex.

"Mind if I drop some by?"

Dar lifted her head up and peered at the phone in honest surprise. For a second, she almost politely declined, then a sudden impulse took over. "S.. sure." A quick look around. "Place is a mess."

Her mother laughed audibly. "See you in a bit."

"Okay." Dar replied, then heard the line drop. She rested her chin on her wrist and stared at the phone, then shook her head. "Look out, Chino. We’re getting a visitor."

The Labrador lifted her head up and wagged her tail. She was curled up in her bed next to where Dar was lying.

"My mother’s coming over." She informed the dog. "And she’s bringing brownies." Dar rolled over cautiously and regarded the ceiling. "Bet if I look outside, it’ll be snowing."


"Mm. But if she offers to do the laundry, we’re outta here." Dar covered her eyes with one hand. "Scary. Very scary."


Kerry knelt beside the lockbox, and lifted the security tag, reading the number off it and recording it on a large manilla file clipped onto the clipboard she was carrying. "Okay." She stood and wrote the cataloging entry on the file folder. "Do we have point to point concurrence that this never left anyone’s view?"

"Yep." Mark said. "I made sure I kept three guys with me to sign off on it."

"Good." Kerry took a step back and dropped into the chair across from Mark’s desk, crossing one denim covered ankle over her knee. "Now we just have to find out if there’s anything useful in there."

"Yeah." Mark sighed. "Boss won’t be in till Wednesday, huh?"

"Nope." Kerry said. "And I’d feel better if we did all the analysis here, rather than have that brought to the house. It’s going to be touchy as it is."

"I’m with you." The MIS chief nodded. "They get that team into the base?"

Kerry chewed on the end of her pen. "Yeah. I got a call from that JAG officer. They’ve been there all day, and so far, it all looks clean."

Mark snorted.

"Not that we don’t already have some data on them." Kerry acknowledged his derision with a twitch of her lips. "But nothing major. Mostly bad, or shady bookkeeping on stuff like supplies."

"So, if there’s nothing in this thing.." Mark kicked the lockbox. "That’s it? They just get off?"

Kerry stood up and exhaled. "If we can’t prove anything, then yes." She agreed. "Or, to be more specific, if we can’t provide information to the authorities that will allow them to prove it. We’re just the analysts."

"Bet Dar doesn’t feel that way." Mark commented. "Man, I can’t believe she grew up there. My brain can’t process that." He glanced at Kerry. "Weird."

"Why?" Kerry asked, pausing in the doorway on her way out.

Mark shrugged, a little uncomfortably. "I don’t know. It was like when she took us out to that little island place, y’know? I just figured she went through the same kind of growing up around here that I did. Malls, football games, whatever."

Kerry studied him. "Didn’t figure her for a redneck?"

Mark scowled. "She’s not a friggen redneck. She’s just a… a… "

"Cracker." Kerry supplied gently.

"No way."

"Mark." Kerry came back over and sat down, resting her hands on her knees and putting her envelope down. "I love Dar. You know that right?"

He blushed.

"She’s my best friend, and my partner, and I wouldn’t trade her for anyone or anything in the world. " Kerry went on. "She’s not embarrassed by her origins, so why should you be?"

Another shrug. "It’s just weird."

Kerry sighed. "I think it makes her achievements all the more spectacular." She said. "Because she really did start from nothing, and everything she’s gained, has been on her own terms, and by her own brilliance."

Mark looked up. "Yeah."

A speculative look. "I envy her for that." Kerry admitted. "It must be an amazing feeling to know you’ve totally controlled your own destiny."

Mark played with the chip puller he used as a paperweight. "She has, hasn’t she. I never really thought about that." He told Kerry. "Hey, you had lunch yet?"

Kerry let the subject change pass. "Not yet. Want to go down? They’ve got lamb shanks today." She stood back up. "I think Mari said she was going down about now too."

Mark joined her and locked the door to his office behind them carefully. "Not like you could drag that box anywhere, but ya never know."

"Mm." Kerry agreed. "You never do know." She glanced around the office, and gave the staff there a brief smile. Most smiled back.

Brent just looked away from her.


Ceci set a glass on the counter and studiously filled it with milk. The condo was quiet, and despite Dar’s disclaimer seemed no untidier than it usually did. Which was not at all, save a collection of laundry awaiting attention in the utility room.

That didn’t really surprise her. Though Dar had maintained a nest of teenage clutter in her younger years, the room had never been dirty, per se, just full of stuff. Things that were holding Dar’s capricious interest, or things that Andy had given her, all jealously hoarded in neatly labeled boxes stacked everywhere.

She’d had time, when she and Andy had dog sat, to wander over the condo, and had found herself smiling at childhood vestiges she’d found tucked away in inconspicuous corners.

Those things had meant something to her daughter. Ceci studied the glass of milk, then picked it up and made her way through the living room and into the bedroom where Dar was resting. "Figured you’d need this." She held out the glass.

Dar got caught in mid chew. She hastily swallowed a mouthful of brownie and accepted the milk, taking a sip of it to wash down the rich treat. "Thanks." She indicated the tray. "Not bad for instant."

"Mm.. yes." Ceci sat down in the comfortable chair near the bed. "Shocked the hell out of me, I have to admit."

Dar grinned slightly. "I know the feeling. I made dinner the other week and was totally amazed at it being edible."

One of Ceci’s silver blond eyebrows rose. "What was the occasion?"

Dar hesitated, then shrugged. "Nothing special. I just felt like doing it." She was aware of the always perceptible discomfort between them, and felt suddenly very tired of it. Life was, she’d come to realized, just too damn short sometimes. "Hey, mom?"

Ceci detected the change in Dar’s tone, and she leaned forward a little. "Yes?"

Dar took a deep breath. "We’ve got a pretty lousy past with each other."

Uh oh. Ceci felt her heart move up into her throat. "Brownies weren’t that bad, were they?" She joked faintly.

That made Dar smile, and she realized her mother was a lot more nervous than she was. "No." She glanced down and collected her thoughts, then looked up. "Can we just forget it all, and start fresh from here?"

It came around a blind corner and smacked Cecilia right between the eyes, leaving a sting as though she’d been hit with a mackerel. She found herself gazing right into Dar’s intense face, the echo of the question reminding her strongly of the one she’d asked Andy the night they’d been reunited. "That what you really want?" She asked quietly.

Dar nodded.

Ceci felt absurdly like crying. "I’d really like that too." She said. "I know it sounds ridiculous but you don’t realize all the good things about being a mother until you aren’t one anymore."

Now it was Dar’s turn to be caught offguard. She blinked, and felt a surge of juvenile memory as she stared at her mother’s face. "That’s all right." She finally said, with a touch of hoarseness in her voice. "When you’re a kid, you never appreciate your parents until you don’t have them."

Ceci felt the sting of tears, and she reached out instinctively, laying a hand along Dar’s cheek. "I’m sorry." She whispered. "I’m sorry I abandoned you."

Dar sucked in a breath that was almost painful, so tight was the pressure against her chest. She was caught by her mother’s gaze, unable to look away. "I’m sorry I didn’t understand the pain you were in."

The tension lessened. Ceci rubbed a thumb against her daughter’s skin. "I’m glad we’re getting a second chance at this."

The surface under her fingers moved, as Dar smiled. "So am I." She answered softly, glancing away, then returning her eyes to her mother’s. "I think I like you."

Ceci bit her lip, a surge of improbable, ridiculous relief almost making her burst laughing. "Yeah, I think I like you, too."

It was turning out to be an interesting day after all. Dar decided happily.


Kerry sat behind her desk, one hand propping up her head as she scrolled through screens of data. She paused to make another sticky note, punching out the letters with one finger, then continued her task.

"Ms. Kerry?" Mayte’s voice broke into her concentration. "I have the Navy officer here to see you."

Ah. Kerry straightened and took a sip of her herbal tea. "Great. Send him in." She leaned back in her chair as the door opened, and Captain Taylor came in. He was dressed in his Navy uniform, and he tucked his hat under his arm as he crossed the carpeted floor to her desk. "Afternoon, Captain."

"Ms. Stuart." The officer inclined his head politely. "May I sit down?"

Kerry gestured towards the chair. "Of course. How’s it going down there?"

Captain Taylor shook his head gravely. "I’m afraid we’re going to come up empty handed, Ms. Stuart. My team’s been in there for hours, and they haven’t come up with anything other than the mess that was left of the computer center." He paused. "And we have six people who swear it was just a botched exercise. They even submitted the docs for the setup, and showed me the dummy rounds. Apparently some live ones got mixed in."

"Uh huh." Kerry took another sip of tea. "Do you believe them?"

The Captain gave her a direct look. "Ms. Stuart, it doesn’t matter a hill of beans what I believe. All that matters is what I can prove. I can’t prove anything beyond some colossal screw ups, and some of them involve your personnel."

Kerry’s eyebrows lifted. "My personnel?" She asked sharply. "We didn’t make any mistakes."

The Captain shifted uncomfortably. "The fact is, ma’am, you were there without permission of the base commander."

"Cut the bs." Kerry smiled kindly at him. "We were there because General Easton asked us to go there and cover his butt because you couldn’t get a team on the plane fast enough."

Captain Taylor made a face, seemingly unconscious of it. "The General asked that you protect the data. You didn’t. In fact, because of your presence, it’s destruction was pretty much guaranteed."

Kerry pointed a finger at him. "Captain, if you seriously think you’re going to shift blame to me, or to anyone else at ILS for your inability to maintain military and administrative control of your own base, think again." She stood up behind her desk and fixed him with a resolute stare. "We did the best we could, and you don’t know just what that best is yet."

"Ms. Stuart, you don’t seem to re… " The Naval officer stopped, and regarded her warily. "What exactly do you mean by that?"

Kerry opened her mouth to explain, then slowly closed it again. Some instinct was telling her to keep the lock box under wraps, and she’d learned over the last year that this instinct of hers was usually right. "We have a lot of data. We’re not finished analyzing it yet." She temporized. "We may not have a smoking gun, but we may have enough to nail the people there most responsible."

The Captain relaxed a notch. "It’s just administrative stuff, though. The base is clean."

"For now." Kerry agreed quietly. "Doesn’t it bother you that stuff was going on?"

Taylor dusted a bit of lint off his shoulder. "Do we know it really was?" He countered. "That informant of yours could have been lying."

A shrug. "Why?"

"To get someone in trouble. Maybe they’re the ones involved in some funny business, and they thought bringing drugs in would shift the attention?" The JAG officer replied reasonably. "C"mon, Ms. Stuart – do you honestly think we’ve got an entire smuggling operation going on at a Navy base? Low grade black market, yeah, I can buy that. But drugs?"

Well. Kerry thought about it. It was possible, she guessed. They hadn’t seen any of the smuggling, just the evidence the Chief brought over. "What about that telecommunications gear that was ripped out?"

The Captain chuckled. "You know, I was thinking about that. You know what I bet happened? I bet someone in some office somewhere had a requisition to yank it out, or some wire got crossed, and an order was cut, and that’s why no one knew about it. Doesn’t that happen in your company sometimes?"

True. "Sometimes." Kerry agreed. "But not often."

"Well." Taylor stood up. "I’m going to file my preliminary report to the General. I think we overreacted a little bit here. Comes from putting civilians into a situation they don’t really understand, I think."

Kerry’s eyes took on a perceptible cold glint. "You do that." She told the Captain with deceptive pleasantness. "By the way, Captain?"

He had turned to leave, now he paused and glanced back. "Yes?"

"Where did you go hide yesterday?" Kerry inquired. "I had count of everyone who was with us, and I lost you after we went into the computer center." She held up a clipboard. "I need to know for my… report."

His face became a mask. "You must be mistaken, Ms. Stuart. I was there the whole time." He turned, and walked out, settling his hat squarely on the top of his head as he went through the door.

"Ooo." Kerry slowly let out a breath, and crossed her arms. "You little pinheaded starch butt."

"Ms. Kerry?" Mayte asked, uncertainly, as she stuck her head around the corner of the door. "Did you say something?"

"Not to you." Kerry sat down and sucked down a big mouthful of her tea. "Mayte, do you have a number for General Easton? If you don’t, I bet Maria does."

"I will get it." Her assistant promised, disappearing quickly.

Kerry chewed her lip, then she put her cup down and punched the speakerphone button, hitting the top speed dial on her console. It rang twice, then was answered. "Hey."

"Hey." Dar’s voice sounded alert and faintly amused. "I was just thinking of you."

Kerry felt her train of thought gently derail and move off onto a siding somewhere. "Were you? How come?"

"Underwear." Dar replied succinctly.

It wasn’t the response Kerry was expecting. "Excuse me?"

"I’m doing laundry."

"Oh." Kerry’s brow creased. "You didn’t have to, Dar. I’d have done it tonight." She knew her lover hated doing laundry, and avoided it whenever possible, sending everything she could get her hands on to the island’s cleaners.

Except things like underwear of course. Kerry smiled to herself as she took a sip of tea.

"Mom thinks yours are cute."

The mouthful of tea was expelled across the desk’s surface, narrowly missing her keyboard. "What!?" Kerry wiped her forearm across her mouth. "Paladar! Why are you showing your mother my underwear!!!?"

Dar chuckled softly. "You sound so cute when you’re flustered."

"I’m not flustered! I’m flabbergasted! Two very different emotions!" Kerry said. "And you didn’t answer me!"

"Relax." Her lover replied. "She’s just helping me do laundry. It’s tough with one arm."

Kerry covered her eyes with one hand. "Oh." She exhaled, then paused in thought. "So, mom came by, huh?"

"Mm." Dar answered.

"Everything okay?" Kerry asked, guardedly.

"Very much so." The surprising answer came back. "We had a talk." The pleasure was evident in Dar’s tone. "It’s great.’

"Oh yeah?" Kerry felt a smile cross her face. "Wow.. that’s really good to hear, Dar."

"Yeah." Dar let out a happy little sigh. "So, what’s up there?"

Plans suddenly got sidetracked, and Kerry concentrated on the job at hand. "Ah. I had a visit from Captain Butter wouldn’t melt between my butt cheeks."

Dar snorted in laughter.

"He’s already putting together his version of a story to make everything look like nothing" Kerry said, seriously. "If we don’t have something in that box, Dar – we really don’t’ have much."

"Mm." Dar sounded serious now too. "Open it up, then."

Kerry took a deep breath, and carefully asked the question she’d been avoiding. "I"ll need the algorithm codes. Do you have them?" She crossed her fingers and toes, and bit her lower lip as she waited for the answer.

"Sure." Dar replied easily. "My birthday, offset, your birthday." A pause. "In Hex."

Kerry’s eyes popped open and she stared across her office with a look of chagrin. "Oh, you’re kidding."

"No." Her lover replied. "Those are a bitch to memorize, Kerry, and it’s not like I had a pad and pencil handy. I picked something I knew I’d remember."

Duh. Kerry almost laughed. I should have known. She gazed up at her ceiling. "Okay – listen, I think I’d rather wait until you got back here to do it. We can hold them off that long."

"You sure?" Dar asked. "Yeah, on second thought, let’s give them a chance to think they’re home free. Then they’ll relax a little."

"Right." Kerry said. "Is mom staying for dinner?"

There was a muffled noise, then a low buzz of conversation. Then Dar’s voice came back. "If you pick up Captain Crab’s Takeway Seal."

"You got it." Kerry snickered. "One bucket, coming up." She hung up and leaned back, a dozen thoughts zooming through her head.

One remained. "Oh, crap." Kerry winced. "I hope it wasn’t the pink ones."


The boat was rocking gently in the tide as Kerry made her way along the dock. It was very quiet, and she didn’t see anyone around, even after she stepped up onto the gangway and crossed onto the boat’s white deck. "Hello?" She called out, looking around for Andrew. "Dad?"

Silence. Kerry ducked down and stuck her head inside the cabin. It was quiet down there as well, the worktable covered in painting supplies sitting mutely near the windows. "Dad?"

Still nothing. Kerry stood up and walked across the stern deck, which had comfortable looking bench seats on either side, and a storage locker in the center that doubled as a table.

"Huh." She walked over and leaned on the railing, peering down into the dark blue/green water. "Maybe he went to the dock shop." She watched a sea grape float by, lulled by it’s peaceful bobbing.

Then the water surged and a hand leaped up to grab the railing between hers, scaring the living daylights out of her.

"Yahhh!!!" Kerry squealed, jerking back and scrambling away from the railing. "Jesus!"

Andrew peered through the metal bars at her, a curious expression on her face. "Hold on t’yer shorts, kumquat. I sure ain’t the good Lord."

Kerry sat down on the center console, and put a hand on her chest. "Wow." She laughed weakly. "You got me."

The ex SEAL pulled himself up and climbed over the railing, the boat’s deck rocking a little under his weight. He was dressed in a half wetsuit and his minimal diving rig, which he shed as he ambled over to where Kerry was sitting. "Didn’t mean to scare you, Kerry." He apologized. "Just wasn’t sure what that shadow was looking over my rail." He knelt beside her and put a damp hand on her knee. "You all right?"

Kerry felt her heart rate start to subside, and she ran a hand through her hair. "Yeah." She said. "Boy, a dolphin’s got nothing on you."

Andrew chuckled. "Long as you don’t smack me in the snout with no mackerel." He cocked his head at you. "Didn’t spect visitors tday."

Kerry remembered her task abruptly. "Ah." She folded her arms, holding her news close and cherishing it. "Do you know where your wife is?"

Andrew’s grizzled brows creased in puzzlement, and he glanced around at the empty deck. "Figgured she went down to the shops." He hazarded. "Why? You know different?"

"Mmhm." Kerry nodded. "She’s at our place."

"Ah see." Andrew seemed to relax, as he stood up and walked over to the padded bench, picking up a towel and tousling his short cropped hair dry. "Dar need something?" He peeked at her from behind a corner of the terrycloth.

"No. They were just spending some time together." A gentle twinkle entered Kerry’s eyes.

A big grin spread across the ex SEAL’s face. "For real?"

Kerry nodded.

"Hot damn!" A chortle of joy escaped. "C’mere!"

He held out his arms and Kerry scrambled over and threw herself into them, not minding the wet one tiny bit. She felt the laughter as they hugged each other. "I couldn’t believe it." She said, as they released each other. "I called Dar, and she sounded.. so happy."

Andy shook his head in amazement. "Damn, that’s good to hear." He breathed. "I knew things were getting easier, but I never figured it would go this fast."

"Me either." Kerry admitted. "They’re both pretty stubborn."

"Ain’t that the truth." A chuckle. "You just stop by to tell me that? Y’coulda just used the land line, kumquat." He went back to drying himself off.

Kerry shook her head. "No." She said. "They asked me to stop and pick you up for a family dinner."

Andy stopped in mid motion, and let the towel fall, his eyes fastening on Kerry and his eyebrows lifting up. "Scuse me, young lady?" He asked in a very surprised tone.

Kerry reviewed her statement, then blushed. "Oh crap." She started laughing. "That’s not what I meant."

"Uh huh." Andy snorted. "Damn straight."

"Speak for yourself." A slim finger pointed at Andrew. "Actually, I was told to pick up a bucket of Captain Crab’s Takeaway Seal."

Andy put his hands on his hips. "Mah wife say that?" He watched Kerry nod. "Uh huh. All right then, we’ll just go get us exactly that." He draped his towel over the railing and headed for the cabin. "Y’all just stay put, kumquat. We’ll give em some crabs."

Uh oh. Kerry sat down on the center console. Was that good or bad?" She nibbled her lower lip as she thought about her father in law’s sometimes peculiar sense of humor. "Dad?" She called down the hatch.

"Yeap?" Andrew answered.

"You’re not talking about live crabs, are you?"


"Or .. the icky kind, right?"

"Scuse me?"

"The ones that require medication?"


Kerry sighed. "Never mind." She swung her feet back and forth idly. Guess I’ll just have to wait and see for myself.


Dar stretched her legs out along the couch, the cool leather warming to her bare skin. She settled her arm in it’s sling, and exhaled in satisfaction. It had ended up being a nice day after all. Laundry had gotten done, a set of cookies had been dubiously prepared, and she’d even managed to spend a lot of the day lying down as she’d promised she would.

"Don’t tell me you watch this." Ceci commented from the love seat.

Dar glanced at the television. "Sure. All the time." She replied. "We love the croc guy."

"Dar, he’s a lunatic." Her mother complained. "His brains have all dribbled out and he uses cat food stuffed through his ears as a replacement." She was curled up in the smaller couch’s confines, a visible smudge of chocolate present on the knee of her white cotton pants.

Dar had known better. She had put on a pair of ragged denim cutoffs and an old gym shirt, so of course she hadn’t gotten a drop of anything on her. "Nah.. he’s not that bad. I like the way he respects animals."

Ceci’s silver blond eyebrow lifted. "Dar, he doesn’t respect animals, he sleeps with them."

Dar pointed. "No, that’s his wife." She said mildly. "She’s not an animal."

"Dar, that’s not his wife. That’s a chimpanzee."

Dar looked closer. "Oh. Sorry." She tilted her head. "I saw the hat and thought it was Terry. It’s hard to tell up in that tree." She leaned back against the soft cushion and let her eyes close, more tired than she’d expected to be. For while, she’d tried to do a little work in her office, but after a few minutes her head was pounding, and using only one hand was driving her nuts.

Oh well. Dr. Steve had warned her about that, right? She’d gotten off pretty lucky, he’d told her, showing her the scans of her head. The swelling inside her skull hadn’t really put much pressure on her brain, but still, it was there.

Expect some blurred vision, he’d said. And the headaches. Maybe a little dizziness. Dar sighed silently. At least he promised it would be temporary, which was a damn good thing because the analysis everyone and their uncle was waiting for was going to take a lot of concentration and long hours in front of a keyboard.

Dar felt her breathing slow, and the sounds of the condo faded a little. She could feel Chino’s warmth pressed against her legs, and if she concentrated, hear the faint sounds of movement from her mother.

Her mother. Dar freed herself for a moment of thought about that. She felt a little unbalanced thinking about the talk they’d had, and the hours they’d spent together afterward. It had been an almost weird, curious feeling as they’d both let down barriers and simply gotten along as two people who had more in common than either of them had ever realized.

Dar took a deep breath, and released it.

Then she frowned, as her brain analyzed the intake of air and detected something unusual on it.

Garlic. Lots of it, and spices too. Dar opened one eye and peered around in startlement, almost jumping when the expected empty air was suddenly filled with a very solid looking Kerry. "Hey. Where did you come from?"

"Saugatuck." Kerry replied, with a grin. "Glad to see you’re behaving, and taking a nap."

Dar frowned. "I wasn’t napping." She glanced over at her mother, who muffled a smile. "Was I?" She didn’t wait for an answer. "What the heck is that smell?"

"Ah." Kerry turned and pointed towards the dining room table, which had sprouted some mysterious looking buckets and assorted bags. "Crabs."

"Crabs?" Dar looked over at them, then up at her father. "Crabs?"

"Oh no." Ceci groaned. "Not those damn things."

Andy chuckled. "Yes, ma’am. You did send this here young lady out for take away, and we done did that." He looked quite pleased with himself. "Got us three kinds, too, and them taters you like, Dardar."

"Heh." Dar eased upright. "All right."

Kerry winced. "Honey, you’re not going to tell me you actually eat those things, are you?"

Ceci sighed. "Hope you got some corn at least." She covered her eyes. "Kerry and I can at least share that." She got up and walked around to the couch to the table to investigate the packages. "Oh, goddess, Andrew. Did you have to get the hot pepper ones?"

"Heh." Andrew chuckled, moving across the tile floor to join his wife at the table. "Yeap, I surely did."

Dar swung her legs off the couch and sat up. "You have to try them, Ker. They’re great."

Her lover crouched down between her knees, resting a hand on either one and grimaced. "Dar, they look like big old bugs." She whispered. "I can’t eat those."

"Sure you can." Dar whispered back, leaning forward. "C’mon, I’ll show ya."

"Daaaarrrr….." Kerry bit her lip. "Eeeeewwww….."

"Don’t be a chicken." Dar chided her. "Trust me."

Easy for her to say. Kerry sighed, and gave her partner a hand up, keeping hold of it as she joined Dar and they walked over to where Andy and Ceci were unpacking the bags and buckets.

"Oo." Dar pried the cover off one and peered inside. "Yum."

Kerry peeked over her shoulder, at the pile of red hued, spice speckled marine insects complete with beady little eyes looking back at her. "Oh." She moaned softly, and leaned against Dar’s arm. "I’m going to have nightmares."

Dar picked a crab up and examined it. "Sure you are." She deftly removed a claw, exposing some white flesh. "Here. Suck on this."

Big, round, pale green eyes looked up past the curve of her breast. A tiny squeak issued from Kerry’s throat.

"Go on." Dar laughed.

Kerry glanced over at her in laws, who were almost bent double with silent laughter. "Dar… I can’t suck on that leg. It looks like a grasshopper leg. I’m going to throw up."

Dar sighed, and removed a bit of the crabmeat and held it out. "There. Can you suck on my fingers?"

A sigh. "Oh god." Kerry closed her eyes and leaned forward, opening her mouth and closing her teeth gingerly on the bit of white substance. She closed her lips and carefully tasted it, then opened her eyes. "Hm." It wasn’t at all like lobster or shrimp. It was much more tender, and… Kerry licked her lips. "Mm." The spices stung her tongue pleasantly. "Okay. That’s not bad."

"See?" Dar sounded triumphant. "Told you." She sat down and pulled out a chair for Kerry next to her. "Now, c’mon. Grab a hammer."

Her lover, who had been heading for the kitchen for a pitcher of something cold, stopped dead in her tracks. "Hammer?"


Andrew relaxed, stretching his long frame as he settled more comfortably in the large leather chair. "So, that’s what that old bag of wind told me." He drawled. "All bout how he’d been gotten to some years back, and he just didn’t want to say no."

The television played softly in the background, as the two couples shared coffee and each other’s company.

Dar shook her head sadly. She was lying on the couch, with Kerry curled up against her, and she had her injured arm draped over her lover’s body. "Hard to believe."

Ceci snorted from her perch on the loveseat. "No it isn’t. He was always a pompous asshole." She ignored her husband’s round eyed look. "You know it’s true, Andy. He was always wanting to be in charge, remember that bowling team he hornswaggled you onto? He had to be the captain."

Andrew grunted.

"Bowling?" Kerry opened one eye lazily, so completely stuffed she wouldn’t have moved even for a fire drill. "I didn’t know you bowled, dad?"

"Ah most certainly do not." Andy replied. "Damn fool just would not listen."

"Andy is so good at everything, Jeff just assumed he’d be a good bowler." Ceci told, blithely ignoring another outraged look. "Unfortunately, he loved to stand behind his team and make comments."

"Ah." Kerry replied, sagely.

"That lasted all of one time." Ceci gave her husband a look. "When he threw the ball backwards."

"Heh." Andrew produced a rakish grin amazingly like his daughters. "Never did hear a man make a sound like that one before."

"Ow." Kerry winced. "So you guys were rivals?" She asked curiously.

Andrew shrugged. "Naw."

"Yes." Ceci corrected him. "Don’t look at me like that, Andrew. You know you were." She picked up her cup of coffee and sipped it. "Jeff always had to be first. His family had to be first. His kid had to be first." She said. "I think that’s what busted his chops so bad. He tried so hard, and pushed Chuck so hard, and neither one of you ever had to try hardly at all."

Andrew and Dar exchanged glances. "Now, Cec." Andy rumbled. "Wasn’t really like that."

Ceci rolled her eyes. "Yes it was. The two of you just never noticed." She informed her husband and child. "Andy, you made your grades before he did, got the jobs he wanted, and copped the medals he coveted, and you never gave two whoops about it."

Andrew folded his arms across his chest and gave her a sober look.

"And you." Ceci gazed over at Dar, with a half smile. "I’ll never forget the night Jeff and Sue were over, talking about how Chuck was going to enlist so he could save some cash for vocational school, remember?"

Dar nodded. "I remember."

Kerry turned her head and looked at her. "What happened?"

Dark lashes fluttered as Dar blinked. "It was just a coincidence." She murmured. "I’d gotten my acceptance letters that day."

Kerry studied her profile. "For college?"

Dar nodded silently.

"How many?"

A shrug. "A couple."

"Seven." Ceci corrected her.

Dar rolled her eyes.

Kerry returned her attention to Dar’s mother. "Seven?"

"Mmhm." Ceci agreed. "All full scholarship." She folded her hands across her stomach and gazed at her child.

"That was a damn proud day for me." Andy said suddenly.

Everyone now looked at Dar, who looked pensively back. "I didn’t even think about it." She admitted honestly. "That’s why I dropped them on the dinner table while they were there and told you." Her thumb rubbed idly against Kerry’s side. "I thought it was pretty cool."

"So did we." Ceci smiled. "But you didn’t see Jeff’s face." She sighed. "They were so jealous. I’m not surprised, Andy, if he went along with whatever those crooks wanted, if it finally got him the good life he’s always craved."

Andrew shook his head a little. "Don’t make sense. He never did that poorly, Cec." He protested. "Collected him plenty of rank, and pretty good jobs, I figure. He just never wanted to have to work hard for it." It was a long sentence for him. "Dardar, you figure you got something on them people? Jeff thinks there ain’t much chance you do."

Dar shifted a little, her eyes unfocused in thought. She felt Kerry twine her fingers around the hand she had draped over her partners body, and she breathed in Kerry’s distinctive scent as the thoughts tumbled over in her head. "I don’t know." She replied truthfully. "If we got everything, and I can reconstruct it, yes." Her eyes flicked up and met her father’s. "I’ll have it."

Ceci leaned forward. "Have what, Dar? What the heck were they doing?"

An almost introspective look crossed Dar’s face. "Laundering money." She answered simply. "Millions and millions of dollars, funneled from the sale of contraband and government property."

Jaws dropped.

"You mean to tell me.. " Kerry finally said. "They used the government’s own computer systems to do that?"

Dar nodded. "Feel better about your tax refund?"

Kerry covered her eyes with one hand and groaned.

"Jesus P. Fish." Andrew blurted.

"Well." Ceci murmured. "And here I thought maybe you’d found the truth about Roswell."

Dar shrugged modestly. "Want me to audit there next?"


Kerry put the piece of paper down on her desk, and dropped into her chair, leaning forward and resting her head in her hands.

What a day. She scrubbed her face wearily. It was Thursday, Dar's first day back, and her lover had spent the entire time since seven am that morning holed up in the MIS command center, sequestered in a quiet, plain office around the corner from Mark's.

Refusing to take a break, even though Kerry could plainly see she badly needed one. She'd taken off her arm sling and by the very messiness of the dark locks framing her face, it was obvious she'd been running her fingers through her hair.

Always a sign of frustration, Kerry knew.

So here she was, about to order in a pile of Thai food in hopes that, at least, would get her boss to kick back for a few minutes and relax. Kerry reread the order, and quickly typed it into a fax form, which she sent on it's way after making sure she'd gotten everything down.

To be fair, Dar had been exceedingly good for three days. She'd kept her promise, and remained resting at home, though by halfway through Wednesday she was already prowling around the island and spending a couple of hours swimming in the heated pool.

Her headaches had disappeared, and she'd started to use her arm, careful not to over stress the shoulder joint. They'd gone out on the boat last night and had dinner under the stars, and Dar had remained alert the entire time, in fact she'd ended up driving the boat back after Kerry had fallen asleep on the bow.

The pressure from Washington was getting critical, though. General Easton had called twice, each time reporting the minor issues the security team had found, and the fact that he was under a lot of pressure to back off the project entirely.

Someone had gotten annoyed, it seemed, that a private company was prying into military affairs. If they didn't come up with something more significant than fouled up accounting and some black market supplies, the entire contract was in jeopardy.

So despite the fact that Kerry thought the enforced rest was doing her partner a lot of good, she had to admit she'd been glad to have that tall form pacing at her side when she'd entered the building that morning.

The phone rang. Kerry glared at it for a moment, then hit the answer button. "Operations. Kerry Stuart speaking."

"Good evening, Ms. Stuart." Alastair's voice was cordial.

"Evening, sir." Kerry replied. "How's Texas doing?"

"About the same as it usually is, this time of year." Alastair replied. "Getting on to Christmas."

"Yeah." Kerry perked up a little. "And close to Dar's birthday." She leaned forward. "You're going to send her a card, right?"

A little chuckle came down the line. "Oh, I'm sure she'll get a few of those. So, how are things there?"

Kerry sighed. "Slow going." She admitted. "Dar's been at it all day, and to be honest, what she's doing looks like so much hex gibberish to me."

Alastair sighed as well. "Kerrison, Dar's been hex gibberish to 90 percent of this company for fifteen years, so don't feel bad." He paused. "I'm getting a lot of pressure on this."


"It's not that anyone doubts what we did, but I got a call from the JAG's office today. They're considering filing a reckless endangerment lawsuit against us."

Kerry glared at the phone. "Those pissants."

The CEO chuckled dryly.

"I mean it." Kerry replied. "They know something's wrong there, and they're just covering their friend's starched olive very drab butts."

"Y'know, I think some of your shyness is disappearing." Alastair commented. "Must be Dar rubbing off on you."

"I'm not shy." Kerry reminded him. "I told Dar to kiss my ass, remember?"

"And she certainly did tak… " Alastair stopped abruptly. "Good heavens. I beg your pardon, Ms. Stuart."

Kerry blinked, also a little startled at the retort. "Uh.. that's okay." She told him. "I kind of opened myself up for that, didn't I?"

Alastair chuckled. "I try to be good." He said. "Anyway, as I said, I'm under a lot of pressure, here, Kerry." He turned serious again. "They want a meeting tomorrow, in Washington. I’m going to have Hamilton get hold of that JAG officer and shake him up a little, but I"d really rather not go into the meeting…ah… "

"In nothing but your boxers?" Kerry asked.

"He wears briefs." Dar's voice burred. "White cotton ones." She closed the door to Kerry's office and walked over to the desk, hitching up the leg on her khaki cargo pants before she sat down on the edge. "Hello, Alastair."

"Ah. Hello, Dar." The CEO replied. "Good to hear your voice."

One of Dar's dark brows lifted. "Why, you been listening to Eleanor again?"

"The Navy wants to sue us for reckless endangerment." Kerry told her.

A chuckle. "Oh, really?" Dar leaned on her good arm and addressed the phone. "Who did a bunch of unarmed IS workers endanger, Alastair?"

"I don't know. I'm having Ham handle it." Her boss said. "Listen, Dar. I know you've been on this all day, but what's the word? Do we have something, or not?"

"Alastair, this isn't an Internet search." Dar answered, a touch testily. "It's a fifty gigabyte drive array that I’m having to reconstruct in hex sector by sector."

There was a reverent silence following this, as everyone gave the information it's due respect.

"And?" Alastair asked briskly.

Dar sighed, and rubbed her eyes. "I'm not done." She said. "But so far, so good."

Kerry got up and walked around the desk. She put her arms around Dar and gave her a gentle hug, and a kiss on the cheek. "You are so my hero." She whispered in her lover's ear. "Can I be you when I grow up?"

Dar blushed, her tanned skin darkening appreciably. "I can't promise anything." She muttered.

Alastair chortled. "Will you let me know tomorrow? They want me on the carpet at four in DC."

"I said, I can't promise anything." Dar repeated.

Alastair remained prudently silent. Kerry gazed confidently at her. Dar sighed. "I"ll call you tomorrow after lunch."

"Right. Have a great night, Dar." The CEO agreed. "Night, Kerrison - nice talking to you."

Dar released the line and gave Kerry a look. "One of these days, I'm not going to be able to deliver him the River Nile in a coffee cup and we're going to be totally screwed."

Kerry smiled, and reached up to straighten the unruly, dark locks. "You look bushed, sweetie."

A nod. "I am." Dar admitted. She blinked, then rubbed her eyes again. "Ow."

Kerry gently took hold of her jaw and tilted her head towards the office light. "Your eyes are all bloodshot." She informed her lover. "Hang on." She went to her desk drawer and retrieved a bottle of eye drops, then came back. "Hold still."

Dar patiently did as she was asked, watching the ceiling as Kerry administered the treatment. She blinked as the liquid hit her eyes, stinging momentarily as her lover wiped the excess off with a fingertip. "Thanks."

"No problem." Kerry capped the bottle. "These are designed for us, you know." She examined the label. "Imagine, an entire product line based around the IS industry."

Dar peeked at it. "Wonder if it's any different from garden variety Visine?" She rested her chin on Kerry's shoulder.

"Probably not." A smile. "But I felt so virtuous buying it in Office Depot, along with that gel wrist pad I got you, and my new trackball."

"Mm." Dar straightened and stretched her back out. "You order dinner?"

"Yep." Kerry looked up as her intercom buzzed. She reached around Dar's body and hit the key. "Yes?"

"Ms. Stuart, this is security at the front door. Did you order something?"

"Oo. Nice timing." Dar purred into Kerry's conveniently close ear.

"Yes, thank you. I'll be right down." Kerry managed not to laugh. She released the button and turned, not moving away from Dar so that they ended up nose to nose. It was too easy not to just lean forward the addition inch so Kerry did, and they kissed.

It was a very pleasant, sensual jolt that followed, and Kerry found herself enjoying it a lot. It chased away the stress and exhaustion of the long day, and made her smile, especially when she felt Dar doing the same . "You know." She backed off a few inches. "I really like that."

Dar merely smirked.

"Stay here. I'm going to get dinner." Kerry said.

"No." Dar patted her cheek gently. "Let me. I need to stretch my legs out. That chair in Mark's dungeon was made for a dwarf." She got up off the desk and headed for the door, before Kerry could disagree.

Kerry exhaled. "That crumb." She commented to the empty room. "She just conned me out of paying for dinner, didn't she?"


Ceci put the finishing touches on her canvas, as the light outside faded to darkness. She twirled her brush between two fingers and regarded her work, pleased with the results.

It was one of her new Island series paintings, done on the various trips she and Andy had taken in the boat, and she really liked this one because it showed just how wild it could get out there on the ocean.

One half of the picture was bright, and sunny, a little island perching in the green, lightly ruffled water with it’s beach nice and white, and several children playing on it. A catamaran bobbed just offshore.

The other half was an incoming tropical storm, the sky pitch black and roiling, the sea dark gray beneath it, charging down on the island with an unthinking fury.

Nice. Ceci had taken a picture of it, before Andy had turned the boat and headed away from the storm, towards the small port in the Bahamas they’d been staying at.

This was the last in the series, and she’d gotten a call twice this week from the gallery trying to coax out of her when they’d be ready. It was bizarre, really. When she’d been poor as a sidewalk cockroach, no one would look twice at her stuff. Now that she didn’t need to sell a painting everyone wanted them.

Go figure. Ceci wasn’t unhappy about that, after all, every artist wanted people to like their work, but it just seemed so unreal sometimes. With a sigh, she sat back on her painter’s stool and glanced across the cabin to where Andy was sprawled across the couch reading a book. "Hey, sailor boy."

Sharp blue eyes lifted and met hers. "Yeap?"

Ceci got up and wandered over to him. "What are you reading now?"

Andrew turned the book over so she could see the cover. "Trying to figure out that stuff Dar does."

Ceci peered at the book. "Troubleshooting Internetworking with multiple Topologies?" She repeated.

"Yeap." Her husband agreed.

Ceci sat down on the edge of the couch, and leaned on Andy’s broad chest. "Sweetheart, do me a favor okay? Don’t read anything in that out loud, because my head will explode." She peeked at a page. "Andy, this isn’t even in English."

"Sure it is." But he put the book down and slid an arm around her waist instead. "Ah just picture Dar saying them words."

Ceci traced a little circle on the fleece fabric covering his chest. "Andy, you know what I was just thinking?" She looked up and studied his face, weathered and scarred, and so full of character he was almost a painting himself.

"No ma’am, but I figure I will shortly." Andy drawled.

She smiled. "I was thinking about how lucky we’ve been, you and I."

Her husband nodded thoughtfully. "We surely have been." He answered softly. "I was thinking on that t’other day when we were by Dar’s, looking around at that nice place she got, and how happy she and Kerry are."

"Mm." Ceci made a sound of agreement. "It’s so nice to see her happy." She looked up as her hand was suddenly folded inside a much larger one. "It’s so nice to be happy." She leaned forward and put her head down on Andy’s chest, and he enfolded her in his arms. "Dar was right. You never know what you have until you lose it."

Andrew took a deep breath, and let it out. "Yeap." He closed his eyes and hugged her to him. "That is so true."

They lay quietly together for a moment. "Y’know." Andy finally said, in a quiet voice. "When I was stuck over there in that damn place, I’d save up bits and scraps and such, and hold em all till your birthday."

Ceci felt the tears start.

"Lord, I missed you." He stated very simply. "Can’t tell you how many times I wished I’d just damned died."

She took a shaky breath. "Thank the goddess you didn’t." She stroked the skin on the inside of his forearm, and traced the long, thin scar there. "We don’t have to worry about dying now, Andy." She said. "We’ve both already been to Hell."

A soft snort. "Ain’t that the truth." He rumbled. "Now we got Heaven to go through." He tweaked her ear, and when she looked up, he wiped the tears away. "And ah suspected we landed us a chunk of heaven right here."

Ceci smiled. "I suspect you’re right, Andrew." She slid up and kissed him, then looked straight down into the pools of his eyes. "I love you."

For a moment, a look of quiet openness peered back at her, and she saw a distinct echo of their daughter in it. She leaned down and kissed him again.

And again.

He curled a hand around the back of her neck and pulled her forward easily. "Love you too." A low rasp tickled her ear.

Heaven? Ceci grinned giddily. Yeah, maybe.


Dar leaned against the elevator wall, watching the numbers count down. As it was after hours, the annoying music that usually played in the contraption was turned off, and she could hear the hum and shush of the mechanism as it worked.

"You're not going to think about getting stuck in this thing, Roberts." She told her reflection sternly.

The elevator seemed to hesitate, as though it was considering stopping. Dar glared at the panel, and narrowed her eyes. "Don't you even think about it." She rumbled, in a low growl. "I'll take you apart and make you into a toaster."

The chastened device obediently kept moving.

Dar smirked at her reflection, her upper body encased in a crimson short sleeved shirt tucked into her cargo pants. They reached the bottom floor and the doors opened, allowing her to exit into the large, empty lobby. She walked across the marble floor and past the fountain, towards the security station where she could see a guard talking to a man in casual clothing.

At her approach, the guard turned. "Oh. Ms. Roberts." He blinked. "I thought Ms. Stuart was picking this up."

"Nope." Dar gave the delivery man a brief smile, and handed him her credit card. He swiped it efficently in a handheld device, and offered it to her for signature. She reviewed the bill, then added a tip and signed it. "Thanks."

She accepted the box of food, it's spices already sneaking out and tickling her nose. "Back to the mines."

The guard chuckled. "Good to have you back, Ms. Roberts. We missed you."

Dar swiveled, and regarded the man, whom she might have seen all of twice. "Why?"

The man blinked at her. "Pardon me, ma'am?"

"Why the hell would anyone down here miss me?" Dar asked curiously. "Is there a rumor going around that I bring in doughnuts or something?"

The guard looked around, then took a few steps closer to her. "No, ma'am, but everyone knows when you're here, no matter what happens, we're okay."

Dar studied him in mild surprise. "Everyone knows that, huh?"

He nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

"Interesting." Dar turned and made her way back to the elevator, supporting her tasty smelling box with her good arm, and balancing it with the other. She punched the button for the tenth floor and watched the doors close.


They ate in the ops center, with Dar leaning back in her uncomfortable chair, her feet propped up on the desk and her container of spicy chicken and rice nestled in her lap. Kerry was perched on a box of computer paper next to the desk, and Mark was sitting on an old mounting rack.

They were alone, and it was quiet, the only activity around them in the operations control room itself just around the corner behind it’s secured door. At 8 pm, the office building was emptied of it’s staff, and only the computer support group was left to tend the servers and provide support for the other offices around the world.

Mark selected a pea pod, turned it around so the small end faced him, and took a bite. "This reminds me of the old days, boss."

Dar chuckled. "The bad old days, you mean." She deftly used her chopsticks to transfer some chicken to her lips. "I spent so many damn hours in this room."

Kerry looked around. "This room?"

"This used to be Dar’s office." Mark supplied, with a grin. "I remember whatshisface… that John whatever his name was, that used to be the CIO? Remember when he came in here and saw this place the first time?"

Dar snorted. "Oh yeah. Took one look at the posters on the wall and nearly laid a load in his pinstripes." She looked around fondly at the small space, it’s walls at an odd angle due to the room’s position in the corner space. "Took one look at me and hauled ass right back to Houston to sign my termination papers."

"Didn’t help you had your favorite uniform on." Mark grinned.

"It was after hours." Dar demurred. "I was going clubbing after work."

Kerry had been watching them, her eyes moving from one to the other like she was at a particularily interesting volleyball match. "Was this during your rebellious phase?"

Dar waggled an eyebrow at her. "Definitely." She took a sip of Thai coffee. "I had on biker boots with more chains dangling from them than you’d see in two days at the Westminster Kennel Club."

Kerry covered her eyes as her shoulders shook.

"Mmhm… those were nice." Mark agreed. "I have a pair." He chewed thoughtfully. "Without the chains. They get stuck in my gears. But I think it was the muscle t that spooked him worse."

Dar chuckled, and shook her head. "It’s a mystery why the hell I wasn’t fired that week. What was it, the mainframes in Troy that time? That whole processing center went down, and they dragged me into it right before I was leaving. Damn, I was pissed." She sighed ruefully. "The bad old days. Things sure have changed."

Mark looked up at his boss, who had removed her light jacket and was slouched in her chair in a tank top and cargo pants, with hiking boots parked on the desk’s surface. "Uh.. yeah." He tilted his head and studied her. "You make a lot less noise when you move now."

Kerry almost snorted soup out of her nostrils as she burst into laughter. Mark started chuckling too, at the expression on Dar’s face.

"Hey!" Dar gave them an injured look. "I did grow up, remember?"

"Sorry, Dar." Mark apologized. "I know it’s a different world now, but I miss those days sometimes." He looked contrite. "I didn’t really mean you look like a teenage punker anymore."

"Mmph." Dar appeared mollified. "Yeah, I do too sometimes." She admitted. "Long days, but we had some good parties, didn’t we?"

Mark nodded, sucking on the end of his chopstick. "The night you guys were stuck in that hospital, we had the television in here. Sixteen of us crammed in here most of the night watching."

Dar fell silent, concentrating on her container. Kerry watched her face for a moment, then picked up the conversational ball where it had fallen, and rolled between her feet. "That was a pretty scary night." She said. "I don’t remember a lot of it, the details are really blurry."

"You had a concussion." Dar stated quietly. "It’s probably best you don’t remember most of it." She picked out more chicken bits and ate them. "Just a lot of smoke, and loud noises, and heat."

They ate in silence for a moment. "Were you scared, boss?" Mark asked, suddenly.

"You bet your ass I was." Dar replied without hesitation. "Anyone with half a brain cell would have been." She glanced up at him. "Why?"

A shrug. "Just curious. I know I was scared pissless just watching the coverage." He replied. "You guys pretty much just got to that room, then busted out though, right?"



Dar looked at Kerry, who had replied negatively. One eyebrow lifted. "No?"

"Well." Kerry leaned her head back against the wall. "I remember the explosion." She looked off into the distance. "I remember waking up, and hurting."

"Dislocated shoulder, right?" Mark commented.

"Yeah." Kerry nodded. "Dar put that back right, then we had to crawl out of where we were, and thorugh this little tunnel." She looked at Dar, who was studiously avoiding everyone’s gaze, and busy decimating her chicken. "It collapsed on us and we almost died."

Mark stared at her. "No shit?"

Dar looked up. "Thought you didn’t remember details." She remarked wryly.

"I just remembered that." Kerry murmured. "Jesus Christ, Dar. You saved us." She stared at her lover in bemusement. "How in the hell could I have forgotten that?"

The pause was awkward this time. Mark cleared his throat. "Shit like that happens with concussions, I guess. That’s what I’ve always heard."

Kerry felt her arm hairs lift as the memory cleared, and she pictured the image of that tiny space, with it’s smell of concrete dust and their sweat and blood as the wall pressed in on them. She could almost feel the labored heaving of Dar’s back under her weight as her lover struggled to breathe, and the sudden, distinct surge as her body had arched, ready to break them out of their prison.

And in that moment, Kerry remembered with eerie clarity now, she’d had no shred of doubt that Dar would do just that. "Yeah." She agreed with Mark’s comment. "I guess it does. Glad I finally shook that memory loose, though." A conscious lightening of her tone, on seeing the tenseness in Dar’s shoulders. "Anyway, it was an experience I never want to repeat. I was never so glad of anything as I was to put my feet on the ground after they rescued us."

"I bet." Mark chuckled, getting up from his seat. "Hey, I’m going to grab a coke, want one?"

"Sure." Kerry agreed. "Dar?"

"Sure." Dar nodded.

Mark slipped out the door, leaving so quickly it almost seemed like an escape.

Kerry waited a moment, then stood up and walked over to where Dar was seated. "Hey."

Dar looked up at her from under dark brows, and slightly shaggy bangs.

Kerry knelt. "He’s not very subtle, is he?"

It was the right approach. Dar’s lips tensed, then curled into a wry smile. "No." She drawled softly. "He’s not." She put her food container on the desk and rested her chopsticks on top of it. Then she leaned on her chair arm and gave her lover her undivided attention. "So."

"You didn’t tell me about that." Kerry put a hand on Dar’s arm, and rubbed her thumb against the skin of it. "You told me about the wall, and the window, and the children, but not that. Why?"

Dark eyelashes fluttered closed over Dar’s eyes. "Maybe I didn’t want to remember it." She said.

Kerry thought about that, as she watched Dar’s face. "Okay." She leaned forward and brushed her lips against her lover’s "I can buy that." She readily agreed, saving her thoughts for a later time. "But, thanks."

"Anytime." Dar replied, with a smile. "Now go back and finish your dinner, so Mark can skulk back in here safely."

Kerry stuck the tip of her tongue out, but got up and resumed her perch. "What’s the next step?" She consciously raised her voice a little. "On the data restoral."

Dar laughed silently. "Once I finish the structural rebuilding, we have to run data patterns, to make sure the damn thing actually works, and I didn’t put a piece back in wrong."

Like a genie, Mark appeared in the doorway, carrying three cans of soda. "Hi." He gave them a cheerful look. "I’m back." He handed around the cans. "Damn ac’s going goofy again, Ker. I think they need to change those filters."

Kerry sniffed. The air held a distinctly musty scent. "Son of a…" She sighed. "What is that, the fourth time this year? Where did they get the ac plant for this building, Dar, Sam’s Club?"

Dar sighed. "You can’t lay that one on my doorstep." She resumed eating her chicken. "One of Alastair’s fishing buddies long lost fourth cousins twice removed got the contract on this building, and I’ve had nothing but trouble from it since we moved in."

Mark shifted. "You thinking of going somewhere else when the lease is up? I heard rumors."

"Maybe." Dar admitted. "I’ve got a couple of proposals on my desk. West Broward’s got the best one, and they’re promising me everything including a private elevator and my own alligator."

"With a view of the Everglades?" Kerry teased. "I thought you liked the one you have."

"Gotta be a down side." Dar admitted. "And yeah, I do, but I’d be willing to give it up for someplace I don’t have to have maintenance on three days a week."

"West Broward? I like it." Mark approved.

"You live there." Kerry pointed a chopstick at him.

"Gotta catch a break sometime."

"Maybe the rest of us don’t like dodging possums on the way to work."

Dar rolled her eyes. "Can we wait to start this debate until I pick a spot?"


Dar peered at the screen, and studied the algorithm. "Okay." She typed in a command, and viewed the results. "I think that does it."

Kerry leaned on the back of her bosses chair and looked. "It’s done?"

"Yeah." The dark haired woman rubbed her eyes wearily. "What time is it?"

"Two." Kerry supplied, shifting as she reached around and started a gentle massage of Dar’s shoulders. She’d tried to get her lover to quit for the night some four or five hours ago, but had no luck. "Dar, your neck feels like a suspension bridge."

"I bet." Everything ached. Dar wished she could sneak in another round of painkillers, but it had only been two hours since the last set, and her stomach was already queasy from the medication. The throbbing in her arm was so bad, she almost couldn’t feel the pressure from Kerry’s hands, though the warmth was definitely noticable through the fabric of her shirt. "Mark!"

"Yeah?" Mark stuck his head around the corner. "I got the links set up here. Hang on… you done?" He came into the room dragging several large cables behind him. "You wanted a patch directly into the big box, right?"

The IBM mainframe, which ran a custom program designed by Dar herself, and was isolated from the rest of ILS’s giant network. It could analyze the structure of a database design and take it to pieces, and she’d used it on many occasions to locate not only holes in a newly acquired company’s databases, but hidden defects that could cause problems during integration.

"Right." Dar murmured. "I think I got it back together."

Mark cocked his head. "You think?"

A shrug. "Far as I can tell." In truth, her eyes would no longer focus on the screen, and she’d been going by instinct for the last little while. "Let’s find out."

Mark and Kerry exchanged glances. "Now?" The MIS Manager queried. "It can wait till the morning, boss."

Dar merely shook her head, eyes closed. "Not with Alastair booked on a flight at one." She disagreed. "If we don’t have anything, we need time to get our asses covered."

Another exchange of glances. "Well, it’ll take me a little while to get all the connections secure, and the ports configured." Mark temporized. "You wanna to take a break for a few minutes?"

"Sounds good." Kerry agreed quickly. "How about a cup of hot chocolate?" She tweaked Dar’s ear. "I’ve got a tin of dark Godiva upstairs."

Hm. Dar didn’t feel like resisting the offer. "Okay." She slowly got up and stretched, wincing at the audible pops. "Jesus, I’m getting too old for this."

Kerry rolled her eyes out of Dar’s range of vision. "C’mon, Grandma. I’ll race you up the stairs." She put a hand on Dar’s back and gave her a gentle shove towards the door. They ended up, however, at the elevator which was obediently standing open awaiting them. "Ah. Our chariot." Kerry remarked. "Unless you’d really rather walk."

"Nah." Dar ambled inside, and pressed the button for the fourteenth floor. She leaned against the wall while the elevator rose, then followed Kerry out as the doors reopened. "Wish it was this quiet all the time." She glanced around at the dim corridor, empty of even the cleaning staff by this time. "I think they vaccumed up here tonight."

Kerry wrinkled her nose at the scent of carpet dust mites clawing through the air. "Yum. Remind me to talk to the cleaners about using HEPA filters in those damn machines, will you?" As though in retalitation, her body expressed it’s displeasure in a sudden sneeze. "Yeesh. Listen, go on over to your place. I’ll make up the hot chocolate and bring it over, okay?"

"Okay." Dar agreed quietly, turning to her left and heading towards her office, while Kerry turned to the right. She swiped her keycard in the outside lock and pushed the door open, then continued on through her outer office and into her inner one.

It was very quiet inside. Her pc was turned off, and just the wall rim lighting was on, leaving the office in mostly starlight. Dar stood inside the door, then glanced to her right and decided the couch looked pretty good. She dropped onto it, then swung her legs up and laid down, stretching her body out fully with a sense of weary relief.

It was a good choice. The cool leather warmed to skin quickly, and she let out a soft groan, now that she was alone and didn’t have to put on a good front for the troops. It wasn’t as comfortable as her couch at home, but it was a damn sight better than that office chair, and the cool quiet of her surroundings soothed the ragged edges of her temper.

After three days of lazing around at home, you’d think I’d have more energy than this. Dar scowled up at the ceiling. She hadn’t slept that much since the last time she’d broken her leg and they’d given her percodan for the pain. All right, so it was two in the morning, and they’d been here since seven, but so what? Used to be she could do thirty six, or forty eight hours running and not feel this worn out.

Yeah. Dar had to laugh at herself. Back in the days when you used to live on Jolt and Hershey bars and you never went home because there was nothing there to go home to. She gazed out the window at the stars. Isn’t it nicer now that you’re a grown up with a life?

And someone to share it with?

She never even heard Kerry come in. The touch on her arm startled her, and her eyes popped open, to see her lover crouched next to her, holding a steaming cup in one hand. "Oh. Sorry."

"Don’t be." Kerry put the cup down on the end table, and smiled. "I almost didn’t wake you up."

Dar gave her a puzzled look. "I wasn’t sleeping." She protested. "Was I?" She rolled up onto one elbow and captured the mug, taking a sip of the sweet chocolate. "Mm."

Kerry patted her arm. "Well, you were giving a pretty good impression that you were. Maybe you were just resting your eyes, hm?" Her lips quirked.

Dar’s quirked back. "No, I was sleeping." She admitted. "My head’s killing me. I should just pack it in and go home, but I really want to see what we’ve got in this thing." She took another sip then set the mug down, licking her lips appreciatively.

"I know." Kerry said. "Tell you what.. why not just sack out here, while Mark does his thing? A nap couldn’t hurt you, could it?." She suggested.

Dar studied her, as a slow smile edged it’s way across her face. "You know something, Stuart?"

Kerry blinked at the address. "Uh.. what?"

"You’re a pretty damn good Ops VP."

Confusion colored Kerry’s expression. "Um.. thanks." She replied hesitantly. "What got me that compliment?"

"Your engineering of a very slick maneuver that ended up with my ass on this couch."

Kerry pointed a finger at her own chest. "Me?" Her green eyes widened innocently.

Dar smiled. "Don’t give me that sweet Midwestern routine, short stuff." She extended a hand lazily and gave her lover a poke in the belly. "Yes, you."

Kerry’s smile went from innocent to seductively triumphant. "Yeah, that was pretty slick, huh?" She chortled softly. "But I wasn’t lying.. there’s the chocolate to prove it." She pointed. "I just know you."

"Mm." Dar wriggled into a more comfortable position and sighed. "Yes, you do." She closed her eyes. "Don’t try to lengthen this by running a redundant loopback test on those ports, okay? Just wake me up when we’re ready."

Kerry’s eyes twinkled gently. "You got it boss." She got up and took a seat in the chair next to the couch, cradling her own mug in her hands. Mark would take, she knew, about an hour to get things ready, regardless of how long it actually took to connect the systems together. By then, maybe the nap would help, and Dar would be able to take a few more aspirin. Kerry sighed. She didn’t like it. She wished they were home, but she knew how important this was to Dar, and pushing her to slack off wouldn’t be either appreciated or heeded at this point.

She just hoped the results were worth it.


"Is that it?" Kerry watched the monitor. "It’s all ready?"

Mark pulled his head out from under the console, and grunted. "Yeah." He agreed tiredly. "You know what, Ker? I think I’m the one who’s getting too old for this crap. I used to be able to do all nighters. Not anymore."

The blond woman chuckled wryly. "Yeah, me too." She leaned against the machine. "I hope this is worth it. Or it’s going to be one very long day tomorrow."

A nod. "Yeah, but you know we won’t really know for a few hours, right? The first run will just tell us if Dar managed to pull something out of that mess intact. It’ll take the program about five.. six hours to parse through everything and spit out a report."

Kerry stared at the screen. "What do you think?"

Mark fiddled with his pen, then shrugged. "Hard to say. If anyone could, it’d be Dar, but I think she was fighting this one." He glanced at Kerry. "That knock on the head still bugging her?"

"A little." Kerry admitted. "I think it’s a little of everything. She’s stuck between everything hurting, and not wanting to take the pills for it because they knock her out." She said. "Just being in pain exhausts you."

"Well, the first stage’ll just take a little while." Mark said. "Ten minutes, maybe."

"Ah." Kerry hadn’t known that. "Good." She nodded. "Then we can all go home after we start the run, right?" Nap or no nap, Dar needed to go home and rest. Hell, Kerry rubbed the back of her neck. I need to go home and rest. I’m bushed.

Mark sat down on the desk. "Well, theoretically, yeah." He agreed. "But I dunno, Ker. This whole project’s got my jeebie meter spiking to max. I don’t want to leave this thing running by itself. I’ll stay here and watch it." He glanced around. "I keep expecting some dude dressed in black camo to come out of the walls and zap me."

The darkened building was a little spooky, Kerry had to agree. What if the people who they suspected figured out they might have kept some information? Would they try to get at them? All sorts of wild scenarios started to play out in Kerry’s mind. What if they really were smugglers? What if they were connected with someone really bad, like the Columbians?

"Kerry?" Mark leaned forward and waved his hand in front of her eyes. "Yoohoo?"

"Huh?" She blinked. "No, I was just thinking. What if you’re right? What if these people do try something? It’s not like we’re set up for airtight security around here."

"You think they will?" Mark asked nervously. "For real?"

"They were shooting for real back there." Kerry stated. "I don’t know. " They stared at each other uneasily.

The floor creaked outside, making them both jump. "Shit." Mark squeaked. "Shut the door!"
Kerry felt her heartrate double, and she turned, realizing that the door opened outward, and she’d have to go out into the corridor to pull it shut. "I think we’re letting our imagination get out of hand." She stated. "But maybe that’s not a bad idea." She edged towards the door, peering out into the darkened area beyond. "No one could get in the com center, right?"

"Uh." Mark’s nostrils flared. "Not like your average Joe Delivery Boy, no, but I’m sure the military has all kinds of crap to get around our security."

Kerry paused in the doorway, looking out. It was silent, desks and chairs crouching dumbly in the gloom. Nothing moved. Kerry suddenly became aware of a dark, silent object near the ops center door she didn’t remember being there earlier. She stared at it.

Was that breathing she heard, or was it just the AC? She took a step out, and her eyes seemed to detect a motion from the still object. "Mark." Kerry tried hard to keep her voice steady. "Come here." She reached for the doorknob, and heard a creak. A hand touched her back and she yelped, then scrambled for the door.

Suddenly, the entire ops center came alive in a a shocking blast of flourescent light. Kerry slammed herself backwards, knocking Mark flat on his ass behind her and swung the door shut with startling violence.

She threw the deadbolt on the door and got back away from it, not trusting even the reinforced steel. "Shit."

Mark had crawled out of her way and ducked behind the desk. "You know, they never mentioned this in MIS 101." He muttered. "Let’s call the cops."

"Good idea." Kerry joined him behind the desk and pulled her cell phone out.

They heard a sound on the other side of the door and froze, staring in horror at the lock.

It started to turn, a low rasping sound that ended in a distinct, harsh click as the bolt retracted.

The door opened. They ducked behind the desk. A voice split the silence.

"What in the hell are you two doing?"

Kerry lifted her head and peeked over the desk, her body almost dissolving in relief as she recognized the powerful tones. "Oh." She managed a wan smile at her lover. "Hi, Dar."

Mark started laughing in nervous relief. "Shit."

Dar entered the room and pushed the door open, crossing over to them and taking a seat on the desk. "Do I want to know what just happened?"

Kerry got up and dusted herself off. "Overactive imaginations." She admitted, with a sheepish grin. "We started wondering if… well, anyway. There was a noise outside, and I looked, and I saw something I didn’t recognize.. " She walked to the doorway and peeked out catiously. "Ah." Her eyes found her threatening intruder, now masquerading as an innocent, if covered, overhead projector nestled in the corner. "Sorry. I was about to come wake you up."

"Mm." Dar was amused. She watched Mark stand up and brush himself off. "If we’re done playing Miami Vice, can we run the test now?" She’d woken a short time earlier, and spent a few moments splashing water on her face in the bathroom, resulting in a state of reasonable alertness.

Mark blushed, then started up the interface. "All yours, boss." He rubbed his butt cautiously. "Damn, you got a hearty forward block on you there, Kerry. Ever think of trying rugby?"

"Sorry." Kerry just laughed. "I just wanted to get the door closed."

Dar stepped around the desk and sat down, flexing her hands a little before she accessed the program files and started the analysis running. She reviewed her command line, then hit enter, and folded her hands together calmly, watching the screen.

Not much was going on. A little asterisk in the corner spun. Lights on the black box indicated it was being accessed by the mainframe.

"How long should this take?" Kerry asked quietly.

"Depends." Dar said. "It’s a fairly complicated structure." She watched the screen tensely. "A lot of things could have gone wrong. One glitch in the line during transfer, and the entire matrix can get thrown off. Without every key in place, the whole thing…" Dar stopped and stared at the console, which was now blinking a result at her. "Damn."

Structure Valid.

Mark let out a whoop. "Hot damn is right." He slapped the desk, making both of them jump a little. "Boss, you rock!"

Dar was frankly very surprised. She cocked her head at the screen, as though not quite believing what it said. Given the complexity, and her own state of scattered concentration, she’d had her doubts as to whether she’d gotten all the sequencing right. It had seemed more and more likely, as the night wore on and she’d had to redo her actions more frequently, that she’d made a mistake and would have to start all over again. In fact, she’d been pretty damn sure of it.

Well, apparently she wasn’t as decrepit as she’d imagined.. "That’s good news." She remarked calmly. "Now the hard part starts." She rapped her head with her knuckles, then assembled what she wanted to do and typed in a second command to her system. "Go."

The asterisk returned, but this time Dar slumped back in her chair and relaxed.

"Now we wait, right?" Kerry perched on the corner of the desk. "To see if we have anything."

"Right." Dar agreed. "We wait." She paused, and looked around the office. "Listen, no sense in all of us sticking around."

"No." Kerry agreed. "Mark said he’d stay and watch."

Dar had opened her mouth to continue, and now she closed it, giving them both a dour look, realizing she’d been outflanked. "If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect I’m being coddled."

"Nope.’ Mark jumped in. "I figured once this sucker runs, and barfs up the results, you’re the one who gets to figure out what it means." He said. "So least I could do is watching the pretty lights flash for ya."

Dar looked at him, then at Kerry, who looked back at her with a gentle smile. "Okay." She dropped her hands onto the chair arms and pushed herself to her feet. "C’mon, Kerry. Let’s get a couple hours sleep." She turned towards Mark. "Want me to double lock the doors?" She teased Mark, with a rakish grin. "I think I heard some phantom chicken men outside."

Mark cleared his throat,. "Nah.. I’m fine. G’wan."

Dar nodded. "Thanks." She lifted a hand in a half wave. "Call me if anything doesn’t look like it’s going right."

"Will do." Mark settled in the chair Dar had just vacated, and leaned back. The door closed behind them, leaving him in peaceful silence.


Being home felt good. Kerry scrubbed her teeth industriously, turning as she felt a warm body nearby. "Hfero Chirf." She greeted her pet, who was standing up on her hind legs peering into the mirror with Kerry.

"Argorf." Chino barked, very glad to have her family home.

"What are you guys doing?" Dar wandered into the bathroom behind her and snuggled up, putting her arms around Kerry’s stomach. "Giving her pointers, Chino?"

Kerry spit out her mouthful of toothpaste. "No, she’s showing me you didn’t quite get all the blackberry sauce off her face" She pointed at the mirror. "How on earth did she get into the refrigerator, Dar?"

"Opposable paws." Dar picked up one of the Labrador’s feet and examined it, getting a kiss for her pains. "Glad you didn’t leave that container of pasta sauce on the bottom shelf." They’d come home to find purplish blobs everywhere, and a suspiciously meek looking dog trying very hard to look innocent with a face covered in jam.

"Bad girl." Kerry scolded their pet. Chino cupped her ears and folded them downward, in an expression only a Labrador could come up with, looking soulfully at Kerry all the while. "Oo.. you think you have me so fooled, don’cha?" She had to laugh at the hopeful tail wag. "Spoiled brat."

Dar chuckled, and rested her chin on the top of Kerry’s head, hugging her and swaying a little. "Mm… bedtime for nerds?"

Kerry spent a moment just absorbing how wonderful it felt to have Dar hugging her. Then she turned round in her lover’s arms and the sensation trebled as she slid closer and returned the hug. "Mm." She took a breath filled with the scent of clean cotton and Dar’s distinctive smell. "Definitely bedtime for nerds." She took a step forward, and guided Dar towards the waterbed, tumbling into it with a sense of exquisite relief.

Dar immediately curled around her, capturing her in a net of long arms and longer legs, creating a warm nest she snuggled into, letting out a pleased murmur of contentment.

Dar reached over and turned the light off, ignoring the clock which reminded her it was after four. Then she resettled her arm over Kerry, who squiggled closer and sighed, warming Dar’s chest with a minty scented breath. The still nagging aches faded, and she closed her eyes as her body relaxed at last.

What would the analysis come up with? She wondered drowsily. She’d thrown the dice on capturing the data she had, hoping it would deliver to her the mechanism they’d been using to move the funds around that she’d seen in the accounts. But what if it didn’t? Dar felt Kerry’s breathing even out and slow as her partner fell asleep, becoming deep and regular. Curiously, she found herself unconsciously trying to match it.

She thought about that for a moment, then returned her attention to their problem. Or at least, that’s what she’d intended to do, but sleep snuck up on her, ambushing her best intentions and taking her out before she could form another thought.


The phone pulled Kerry out of a very deep sleep, making her stare at the ringing object for several long seconds before she got her brain in gear and reached out to grab it. It was still dark, and a glance at the clock showed barely six am. She felt Dar stir against her as she got the receiver to her ear. "Hello?"

"Kerry?" The voice was familiar, if strained. "It’s Angie."

A surge of adrenaline cleared Kerry’s mind as she put together her sister’s voice and the time. "Ang? What’s wrong?" She hadn’t spoken to her family in over a month, and a pang of guilt made her grimace.

A sigh. "It’s dad." Angie said. "He’s had a stroke."

Kerry drew in a shocked breath. "Oh my god." She felt the sudden pressure of Dar’s arm around her and she turned her head, to see the dim outside light reflecting off her lover’s pale eyes. "My father had a stroke." She told Dar. "How is he?" She directed that to her sister.

"Not good." Angie replied quietly. "If you…" She hesitated. "Maybe you should think about coming up."

Very bad, then. Kerry’s thoughts were whirling and scattered. "How’s mom?" She murmured.

Angie was silent for a moment, then she sighed. "She’s not dealing with things really well. No one is. It’s kind of a real mess right now." A pause. "It happened last night. He was at a meeting with some other people, over some bill or something, and he got mad, like he does, and the next thing we knew, they were all yelling, and calling out and…" She stopped. "Anyway, it’s been a really long night."

The speech had given Kerry time to sort out her thoughts. "Yeah, for us too. I just got to bed two hours ago." She said. "All right, let me get my wits together, and I’ll book a flight up." She paused. "Did you say you were calling me?"

"I told mom, yeah." Angie said. "I’m not sure she understood what I meant, but I think it’s okay."

Great. Kerry scrubbed her face with her free hand. "Okay, thanks for calling me, Ang. I’ll see you soon." She listened to her sister’s quiet goodbye, and set the receiver down in the cradle. Then she turned around and faced Dar.

"Bad?" Dar’s voice was burred and husky with her recent sleep.

"Sounds like it." Kerry replied. "Not good timing, I know."

A shrug. "No way to help it." Dar considered. "I’d offer to go with you, but I’m thinking my presence wouldn’t do a thing for his condition, or make it any easier with your family."

"No." Kerry had to regretfully agree. "But I wish that wasn’t true, Dar."

Dar smiled, barely visible in the gloom. "I know." She drew in a breath and rubbed her neck to ease the headache brought on by her sudden awakening. "All right. Let’s get this show on the road."

"Hey, sweetie." Kerry gently pushed her back down onto the pillows. "There is absolutely no sense in you getting up just because I have to. Let me go book my flight, and you go back to sleep, okay?"

Dar gazed at her. "Too late." She smiled wryly. "Phone calls at six am tend to wake me up pretty thoroughly." She tugged on Kerry’s Tweety Bird t-shirt. "How about you go start coffee, and I’ll book your flight?"

Kerry sighed. "Sorry about that." She said. "All right. Feel like anything for breakfast?"

Dar considered. "Steak." She replied, as Kerry was rolling out of bed, causing her partner to pause in mid motion and look back over a shoulder at her. She shrugged sheepishly. "You asked."

"Really?" Kerry said, getting a nod in response. Dar generally was a very light eater for breakfast, usually contenting herself with her coffee, and either a bowl of cereal, or a banana. Kerry herself preferred a simple muffin, but had learned recently to suppliment that with a protein shake to fuel her early morning exercise. "Guess I’ll call the beach club.. I don’t think we have any sirloins lying around."


Dar poked her head into Kerry’s upstairs bedroom, where her lover was busy packing a small overnight bag. "You’re set." She entered the room and crossed over to the bed. "You’ve got a plane change in Detroit."

"Always." Kerry murmured, tucking a sweatshirt neatly into the bag. "Thanks for taking care of that for me. What time is the flight?"

"Nine thirty." Dar slipped the folded piece of paper with the details into the side pocket of the carry on. She was dressed in a pair of worn cutoffs and a sweatshirt, with her hair pulled back into a neat tail. "I’ll drop you off at the airport, then just go into work."

Kerry turned her head. "Like that? Damn. No fair. I don’t want to miss Jose’s expression."

Dar chuckled softly. "I’ll bring a change of clothes. I don’t want to scandalize the entire building by walking in like a beach bum."

"A very cute beach bum." Kerry said. "But I see your point. Nothing would get done all day." She sighed, and pulled the zipper closed on her bag. "That’s that. " Enough clothing for a couple days, and her traveling kit.

And her black suit. Just in case.

"Got everything you need?" Dar sensed her change in mood.

Kerry nodded somberly. "I guess I’d better.."

"I booked you into the Marriot."

A faint smile appeared. "Thanks. This is going to be tough enough without sharing space." Kerry took a deep breath. "Hopefully it won’t be long."

Dar put her hands on Kerry’s shoulders, and turned her around, facing her with a serious expression. "Take as long as you need." She told her lover. "Don’t worry about what’s going on here."

Kerry kept her eyes locked on Dar’s shirt. "Thanks." She murmured. "But to be honest, I’d rather you tell me you desperately need me here, and not to take a minute more than necessary." She felt shaky, and knew her voice showed it. She wished she knew why.

Dar tipped her chin up and gazed into her eyes. "I desperately need you." She said. "Every minute you’re gone is going to seem like a lifetime to me." The look on Kerry’s face brought a smile to Dar’s. "And we’ll miss you at work, too." She added, casually.

It didn’t untwist her guts, but it did make her feel a lot better. Kerry put her arms around her partner and hugged her. "Please take care of yourself while I’m gone."

"You mean I can’t start that skydiving class I’d planned?" Dar teased gently. "Or the I-95 rugby league?" She kissed the top of Kerry’s head. "You be careful, too. Okay? I want you back in one piece, safe and sound."

"I will be." Kerry promised.

"I hope your father’s okay." Dar went on, in a very quiet voice. "For what it’s worth."

Kerry didn’t answer, not entirely sure of how she felt about that herself.


Dar got to work before eight, and figured she was safe enough entering the building dressed as she was, with her change of clothes tucked into the gym bag she was carrying. "Morning." She met the door guard's eyes, daring him to look down as she strode past.

"M… ah, morning, Ms..Roberts." The man stammered.

Dar stopped and looked back over one shoulder at him. "Problem?"

He shook his head vigorously.

"Good." Dar resumed her progress towards the elevator. She entered the car and let the doors close, then turned and regarded her reflection in the mirrored surface. Hm. She crossed her legs at the ankles, and watched the powerful muscles in them tense and move under her tanned skin. Maybe wearing shorts that short wasn't the smartest thing she'd ever done, even this early.

The elevator perversely slowed to a halt on the 10th floor, and the doors opened.

Crap. Dar exhaled silently. She would pick today to come in early. "Morning, Clarice." She was glad she was wearing sunglasses, which hid what she was sure was a mildly sheepish expression.

The black woman entered the elevator and chose a spot on the side wall to lean against. "Good morning, Dar." She smiled. "You're a little casual today, aren't you?"

Dar shrugged. "Had some things to do before work." She kept her voice neutral. "What brings you here this early?" The elevator floors seemed to crawl by, taunting her as she resisted the urge to fidget under Clarice's appraising eyes.

"We've got a new integration today." Clarice told her. "I came in early to check the paperwork."

Finally. Dar straightened as the doors opened on fourteen. "Well, good luck on it." She escaped from the elevator, only to pull up as she almost crashed into Mark and three other MIS techs. "Morning."

And Maria. "Buenos Dias, Dar." Her secretary managed to mask a smile. "I was going to get café, may I get you some as well?"

"Love some." Dar replied. "You blocking my hallway for some reason, Mark?"

Eyes up, face front. "Uh.. no, actually, boss, I was just taking the guys down to pick up the box for you. We'll just get going now." Mark gave the nearest tech a shove towards the elevator. "Be right back."

Dar eyed them as they marched purposefully away. She couldn't quite avoid hearing their hissed conversation though.

"Holy shit, did you see those legs?"


Dar sighed. "Okay, so I've made my bad management decision for the morning. What's next?" She exchanged a wry look with Maria.

"I think you look very cute, jefe." Maria laughed. "What is the occasion?"

A sober look appeared on Dar's face, and she removed her sunglasses. "Kerry got some bad news this morning." She opened the outer door and allowed Maria to precede her. "Her father's had a stroke."

"Dios Mio." Maria stopped in shock, and her eyes widened. "I am so sorry to hear that, Dar."

"Me too." Dar nodded. "I dropped her at the airport before I headed here."

Her secretary frowned. "Should you not have gone with her? That is terrible, to have someone so sick."

Dar glanced at her. "Her family's not fond of me." She felt herself blushing a little, at discussing something so personal. "They're already stressed - I don’t think my being there would help matters."

"Ah." Maria folded her hands. "Si, that is right. I remember now." She seemed at a loss for words. "I feel for Kerrisita though. She has always felt such trouble with her family." She murmured. "Is there something we can do? Send something to them?"

Dar paused in the doorway to her office, considering the question. "For them? No." She gave Maria a direct look. "But call the Marriot in Saugatuck and make sure Kerry gets treated to the best service they have there." She said. "I booked her a suite, but upgrade her to whatever the best they have is, and have them stock it with the works."

"Si." Maria smiled at her. "I will do that, Dar." She glanced at the door, where voices were growing louder. "Now, I think you maybe will change, yes?"

"Yeah." Dar grimaced, and swung the door closed after her. "Before they start snapping pictures."


Kerry took a deep breath as she walked down the airline ramp from the plane. It had been two uneventful flights, and now that she was finally here, she wished they'd been longer. The white of the ramp gave way to dull brown brick, and the familiar sights of the airport near her home.

A quick glance around told her she wasn't being met, not that she expected to be since she hadn't informed Angie of her flight plans, but part of her felt a tiny bit disappointed all the same. On second thought, however, maybe that was for the best, Kerry decided, as she shouldered her bag and headed off towards the rental car counter.

Best for her to do this on her terms, right? Wasn't that what she told Dar?

She thought about that as she walked. Keeping a little distance from everyone seemed like a good plan, especially since tensions would be high, the press would probably be present, and the last thing anyone needed was a family spat right in the middle of a crisis.

Not going at all had crossed her mind several times on the way up, in fact. It was only Angie's quiet finality that had pushed her forward, knowing in her heart that staying away and letting her father die without at least saying goodbye to him was something she just wasn't capable of.

Or was she?

Kerry sighed unhappily, and stepped up to the counter. "I'd like a car, please." She'd picked the chain ILS usually used from habit.

"For how many days ma'am?" The young man behind the counter asked politely.

Good question. "A week." Kerry supplied her credit card and Florida driver's license.

"Thanks." The man took them, and keyed in something, then paused, evidently surprised at something. "Oh, Ms. Stuart. We already have a reservation here for you." He handed back her card. "ILS is taking care of it."

One of Kerry's eyebrows lifted. "They are, huh?" She found herself unable to be upset with Dar. "Okay." She took the proffered keys and made her way outside, wincing as the cold wind hit her face. "Ugh. Forgot about that."

She tugged her jacket closed and zipped it, then searched out her assigned car and opened the trunk to toss her bag in. Hospital first, she decided. Let's find out the bad news. Kerry got in the car and started it, then drove carefully out of the parking lot and onto the icy streets.

It wasn't that big a town, and the drive to the hospital was fairly short. At midday, the place didn't seem that busy, and she parked in the visitor's lot half empty of cars. She spotted a news truck parked near the back entrance, though, and several cars pulled up near it haphazardly, and her suspicions were confirmed when she entered the main doors and saw the cluster of men and women complete with cameras standing nearby.

Would the recognize her? She wondered about that. The national news people had pegged her in DC, but it had taken a while, and these locals hadn't seen her in a few years, if at all given the turnover rate.

Certainly, if they were old timers, they wouldn't expect the girl they'd known in lace blouses and knee length skirts, with carefully style hair and a model slim build to have morphed into the muscular figure in jeans and a leather jacket she knew she presented today.

Her attitude had changed as well. Kerry had studied Dar's use of her considerable charisma and personal energy when she interacted with others, and she'd tried to inject a little of that dynamic into her own personality. Part of it was self confidence, which success at her job had given her, and part of it was an awareness of herself and her effect on other people. "Excuse me." She moved past the reporters with a polite nod.

They didn't even give her a second glance. Kerry repressed a smile, and went to the reception desk. She waited for the woman behind the desk to look up, then leaned forward a little. "Could you tell me where in CCU Roger Stuart is?"

The woman gave her an immediate, guarded look, glancing behind her at the reporters. "Are you family, ma'am?"

Kerry removed her driver's license, and showed it to the woman. "Yes."

A quick look at the license, then at Kerry's face. "Hold on a moment. " The receptionist told her, a she got up and motioned for a guard. "George will take you up." She told Kerry. "George, CCU 4, okay?"

"Yes'm." The tall, red haired guard nodded. "Come this way, please."

Kerry followed the man through a restricted door, and down a long hallway to where a small elevator was located. Very few people were in the hall, just a few orderlies pushing beds, and one man with an X-ray machine. She followed the guard into the elevator, and waited while he inserted a key and pressed a floor.

"You part of the senator's family?" The man asked curiously.

Kerry nodded. "Yes." She admitted. "He's my father."

"Hm." The elevator reached it's destination, and he held the door for her. "Second alcove on your right, ma'am."

Kerry stepped out and walked quietly across the tile floor. Her heart was pounding hard, and she felt shivers going up and down her spine. She could hear, faintly, the sounds of machinery around her, beeps, and the gurgling of oxygen, and it reminded her unpleasantly of Dar's stay int the hospital down South.

Outside the room she paused, hearing voices. One was her mother's. It didn't sound good.

Oh boy. Kerry steeled herself, then she took a deep breath and forced her legs to move forward, bringing her into the room where a circle of strange, familiar faces ringed a bed full of lines, and machines, and the almost hidden form she realized was her father.

Eyes shifted and looked at her, some in surprise, some in distress, as the doctor who'd been speaking broke off his speech and turned. "Are you part of the family here?"

It was a very awkward moment. Kerry had no idea what the real answer to that question was.

"That's my daughter." Cynthia Stuart murmured. "Please, go on, doctor. Kerrison, come here."

There wasn't much else she could do. Kerry walked across the silent room to her mother's side, shocked when her hand was grabbed and held in desperation. She felt Angie move closer to her as they turned and faced the somber looking man in the white coat.

"Ms. Stuart." The doctor said, gently. "We were just going over what we mean when we talk about a coma."


Dar almost had to laugh when she looked up to see Mark peeking cautiously around the door to her office. "Yes?" She growled.

"You.. um.. ready to review those files?"

She picked up her cup of steaming coffee and sipped it. "Sure." Now soberly dressed in her iron gray suit and silk shirt, she leaned back and watched as he entered, carrying a clipboard. "So. How'd we do?"

Mark took a seat across from her. "I have no clue." He grinned briefly. "Here's the network paths to the results - I figured you'd know what to do with them." He handed the clipboard over. "There you go."

"Thanks." Dar accepted it, and reviewed the page, then glanced up suddenly, to catch Mark studying her intently. One of her eyebrows lifted. "Something wrong?"

He hesitated, then gave her a slight shrug. "Didn't expect to see you here so early."

"Earlier I start, earlier Alastair has his answer." Dar replied. "Why don't you take off?"

"I got some sleep in the center." Mark said. "What about you?"

Dar sighed. "Kerry had to fly up to see her family." She replied. "Wasn't much time to sleep."

Mark nodded. "I saw on the newscast he was sick. Stroke, they said, right?"


"That sucks." The MIS Manager mused. "I know stuff is all screwed up between her and her family, but it still sucks." He glanced around. "Listen, Dar… if you want to head up there, I can try and.."

It was almost funny. Dar rubbed her temples with the tips of her fingers, and wondered how she managed to get her entire staff to morph overnight into solicitous nannies. "Mark, get your ass out of here and go home." She looked up and pinned him with a glance. "Now!"

He jumped. "Okay." One hand lifted. "Okay, I get the message, boss… no problem!" He slid out of the chair and beat a hasty retreat, ducking around the door and leaving Dar in peace.

She let the silence settle for a moment before she pulled her keyboard over and called up the files, glad of the large, flat screen with it's crisp display. However, tired as she was, there was no way she could avoid acknowledging the fuzziness of the characters unless she squinted at them, and Dar admitted privately to herself that her long put off trip to the optometrists now had to be well, and truly scheduled.

Damn. Her lips quirked in annoyance. The hell if I want to wear glasses. A scowl appeared, as she started up her analysis program. Or contact lenses.

Hey. She studied the screen for a moment, then tapped it with one long finger. If she only needed the blasted things when she looked at the monitor… Slowly, a sly grin crossed Dar's face. Why not just have whatever adjustment she needed built into a screen shield?

"Yeah." Dar felt a lot more cheerful. She settled back and began to review the files. As the screen filled with data, she started searching for patterns, and drew in a quiet breath as she found them. "Son of a bitch." A slow smile appeared, that had very little humor about it. "Gotcha."


The waiting room for the critical care unit was small, and discrete, tucked away behind the medical area and reserved for the families of the patients who were sequestered there. Kerry cradled her cup in her hands, using the coffee's mottled surface as a concentration point while she thought.

Her father was dying.

Kerry felt the styrofoam surface under her fingers dent slightly as she flexed her hands. The stroke had hit him in the worst place imaginable, the parts of his brain that kept him alive and breathing without assistance from the noisy machines that dominated the space he was in.

The machines that were the only thing keeping him alive.

Around her, the family was seated in grim silence. Her mother sat between Kerry and Angie, breathing in short, sobbing gasps. Her brother was on the other side of her, nervously twisting a tri fold napkin into a thin, tight line.

Angie's husband was pacing back and forth on the far side of the room, where one of her aunts was also sitting, with an uncle. Nobody wanted to talk.

Kerry knew she was the focus of uneasy attention. She'd heard the ugly whispers as they'd left the CCU unit and walked down the hall. How she didn't belong there. How her father had hated her.

How it was her fault, causing the strain he'd been under that finally got to him.

Kerry couldn’t even lie to herself and say it wasn't true, because she knew at some level, it was. She'd come to terms with that in her heart, during that week they'd spent in Key West after the hearings. Come to terms with the fact that she'd done what she'd done, for the reasons she'd done it, and reluctantly accepted that if she'd had to make the decision all over again, she probably wouldn't have done it.

But she had, and she had to live with that decision for the rest of her life, good or bad. She'd always held out a faint hope that someday, somehow, she'd have a chance to go home and after enough time had passed, maybe she could have sat down with her father and just…


Kerry drew in a breath, feeling the finality of the moment. There would be no chance of talking, now. The doctor had been gentle, and kind, but he'd held out no false hope them. He'd just given them some time to sit down and absorb the truth, and told them of their limited options.

The machines could keep him alive.

Did they want them to?

They could not give him a life again.

Kerry was very surprised to feel tears gathering behind her eyes. Surprised that after all that had happened, and everything that had come between them - he was still her father, and losing him hurt as much as it did.

"Mama." Angie's voice was shaky. "Can I get you a drink?"

Kerry looked up, to see her mother jerk her head up and down, one hand pressed to her mouth in evident agony. Their eyes met, and Kerry slowly extended her cup. "Here, mom. Take mine." She said quietly. "I haven't touched it."

For a moment, she thought her mother would refuse, but then her hand lowered and took the cup, spilling it a little as Kerry released it.

"Thank you." Her mother whispered, as she brought it to her lips and took a sip.

Kerry exhaled, slowly looking around the room. The tension was almost a visible fog, and suddenly she wanted nothing more than to be out of there. She stood up. "I’m going to … " She could almost feel the stares on her. "Stretch my legs. I'll be right back."

Before anyone could think of joining her, she made it to the door and slipped out into the hallway, a puff of cooler air from the vent overhead feeling very welcome in the warmth indoors. She'd consciously forgotten what needing heat was like, and had shed her jacket when she'd found herself sweating after a few moments inside the building.

Or at least, she thought that was because of the heat.

Kerry stuck her hands in her pockets and paced slowly across the tiled floor, threading through a maze of conflicting emotions. When she looked up, she found herself outside the CCU unit, looking through the multiple glass windows to the alcove her father lay in.

For a moment, she simply stared. Then with a quiet breath, she continued forward, towards the quiet corner full of hissing noise and soft beeps and lost chances.


Continued in Part 10