Disclaimers - Nope, none. My characters, my hometown, my pseudo company. This is an Uber Fiction - featuring two characters from a previous story called Tropical Storm. Dar Roberts is the vice president of operations for an internationally known Information Services corporation. Kerry Stuart is her assistant and protégé.
They kinda like each other.
There is mild violence, mild bad language, mild sexual activity, and mild salsa, with chips.
Whoops. Never mind that…
Hurricane Watch - Part 2
Kerry reached over and flicked her computer on as she sat down at her desk, glancing at her inbox and taking sip of fragrant, steaming coffee. She leaned back in her comfortable leather chair and smiled a little, resting her head against the soft surface as she waited for her computer to finish booting up.
It did, and she was logging in when her phone rang. She punched the button. "Kerry Stuart."
"Hi, Kerry? It's John Brown in Charlotte." The man's voice sounded harried, but friendly. He was a supervisor in the networking office, she recalled.
"Good morning, John.. what can I do for you?" She answered cordially.
"Well… um. I got a request from your office, and I just wanted to check it out with someone.. I don't want to do something then get my ass nailed, if you know what I mean. I tried Ms. Robert's office first, but she's not there."
"She's just down the hall in MIS.. but what's the problem?" Kerry inquired curiously. "What did we ask for?"
"It's the fractional T1 we use for the insurance division's data transfer… we got a request to turn their link off, and reroute network traffic from your office to the London conference center." John replied. "They're gonna go bonkershits if we do that.. so… "
Kerry's brow creased. "We asked for that? Wait.. no, I mean, I know we've got a problem with the overseas links, but we found a way around that.. who made the request?"
Ruffle of papers. "Someone named Fab…Fabarini or something." He muttered. "I didn't get the spelling.. one of my guys took the call, and he gave it to me to check out." A pause. "You want me to go ahead?"
Kerry drummed her fingers on her desk. "No." She replied evenly. "In fact, don't do anything from this office unless you get it from Dar, Mark, or me."
A long pause. "Uh..okay." John replied, obviously confused. "I mean.. usually I wouldn't question stuff like that.. I mean you guys ask for shuffling all the time, but this seemed a little drastic, you know?"
That stupid piece of… "Yes, I know… but, as a favor to me, just clear everything through Operations here first, okay?"
A shrug she could hear even through the phone. "Sure." John agreed amiably. "Better for me… that way I don't get my ass nailed from Insurance and Banking when they find out their pipe got taken down." He rattled a few keys. "Thanks, Kerry."
"No problem." The blond woman responded, and hung up. She stewed for a moment, then she stood, about to head out the door for MIS to find Dar. The phone rang before she could move, though, and she punched the button again. "Kerry Stuart."
"This is Jose." The VP's voice sounded flustered. "We're having a meeting here.. come down. I can't find Dar."
Green eyes regarded the phone. "Sure." Kerry replied. "Be right there." She circled her desk and strode out of her office, heading for the large conference room at the end of the hall. She opened the door, seeing a group of six or seven people in side, and walked on in.
"We were heading right for disaster!" Steve Fabricini was insisting, thumping a fist on the table. "Can you imagine the egg on our face?" He turned and saw Kerry approaching. "And you people didn't do a god damned thing about it! This is disgraceful!" He threw his hands up. "If I hadn't been here, I can only imagine what would have happened!" A pause. "Nice of you to show up.. waltzing in here at nine o'clock."
Kerry paused, and regarded him, then walked around to an empty chair and sat down, folding her hands on the table. "Mind starting at the beginning? I'm not sure what you're talking about."
Jose threw a pencil on the table. "We have a big goddamn conference with the overseas office in London.. and the lines are down."
Kerry nodded slowly. "The intercontinental trunks.. yes… we were notified." She replied calmly, savoring what she knew was coming. "I was paged this morning. " Well, not quite, but…
"And you did nothing." Steve fumed. "Well, I took care of it.. I have the network office tying in some extra lines for us, so we'll be okay."
The blond woman cocked her head. "No you don't." She replied calmly. "Netops cleared it through us, and I told them not to do it."
"What?" Jose sat up. "Are you crazy woman?"
"That's it! I knew it.. you are trying to sabotage us." Fabricini accused, leaning on his hands.
Kerry exhaled. "Those extra circuits belong to a live account, which you were going to take down without any prior notification.. so yes, I told them not to do it." She stood and put her hands on her hips. "And it's not needed, because we already have an alternate link up."
Silence. "What?" Jose asked again, looking at Steve. "You said there was nothing." He looked back at Kerry. "No one was in your office… we called three times!"
The blond woman shrugged. "No one paged me." She replied simply. "Or called my cell phone, or left me voice mail… or contacted Maria. Seems to me someone didn't try very hard to find out if we were doing something." She brushed a fleck of dust off her sleeve, then she walked over to the presentation computer, and signed into it, hitting the key which would switch the output to the overhead screen. She waited, then accessed their intranetwork, and started a conferencing session. A list of remote offices popped up, the London one conspicuously in the center. "There you go." She glanced up. "Is there anything else I can do? I've got a pretty big inbox to clear before we leave this afternoon."
Steve wasn't finished. "Okay.. so who did you steal lines from?" He asked, sarcastically.
Kerry smiled at him, with no humor in her face. "No one. We bought sat time, and used an uplink." She replied briefly. "And it's been done before dawn, so I guess you can say I've been working for three hours longer than you have." She gave them all a look, then walked around the table, and headed for the door.
"You should have let us know." Jose interrupted her. "You can't blame us for thinking we were high and dry, Ms Stuart… I have a department and company to protect here."
Kerry turned at the door, and regarded him. "You're right." She told him, sincerely. "We should have paged you… but we were hoping to get the alternate route up before anyone even realized there was a problem. " She admitted "I apologize for that…I'll make sure you get notified the next time."
Jose fiddled with his tie. "Exactly.. exactly.. yes. Good." He nodded, then waved at his secretary. "Get this conference hooked up, will you?"
Kerry slipped out the door, glancing back in as she closed it and seeing the hostile eyes watching her. She sighed, and let the lock click behind her, leaning against the wall as she willed her body to stop shaking. She hated face to face conflict like that. All at once, her stomach rebelled, and she got to the ladies room just in time to lose her breakfast, her body violently reacting to the sudden, unexpected stress. She leaned against the wall afterward, closing her eyes and hoping her stomach would settle. "Okay, Kerry… just relax.. you've been in more tense situations that.. what's up with you?" She asked herself silently. And it was true, she had… with her father, with Dar, for heaven's sake.. so why did this bastard get to her like this? She sighed, and trudged to the sink, washing her mouth out and splashing water over her face, which felt overheated. She was just drying her face off with a paper towel when footsteps approached, and she glanced up as the door swung open, and a familiar dark head poked in. "Oh..hi.." She greeted Dar. "I was just coming to look for you."
Dar slipped inside and let the door close. "I was just coming to look for you… " She gazed at Kerry. "You okay?"
Embarrassed, Kerry nodded. "Yeah.. yeah.. I'm fine…" She decided Dar didn't need any more stress of her own. "I was just making sure the conference went off… I logged on and confirmed the London servers were accessible from the big presentation room."
The blue eyes studied her in puzzled concern for a moment. "Good… good… I'm glad you did that.. " Dar glanced behind her then came closer, very gently touching Kerry's cheek. "You look really pale.. you sure you're okay?"
Kerry also glanced around, conscious of how public a place they were in. "Yeah… I'm sure.. something disagreed with me.. maybe that meat pastalito I had.. " She put a hand over her stomach. "But I'm fine now."
Dar stepped back, giving her a relieved nod. "Oh… yeah, they were kinda greasy this morning." She commented. "Well, if that crisis is done, I've got another one for us to work on."
Kerry exhaled. "Lead on." She responded. "What's up now?" She followed Dar outside and down the hall hearing the faint sounds of the presentation going on in the conference room.
"We took over a manufacturing plant's IS and we've got two mainframes down." Dar responded.
"And?" Kerry inquired. "That doesn't sound too tough."
"It's in Hong Kong." Dar replied dryly. "Which now has a technology restriction and we can't get parts in to fix them."
"Oh." The blond chewed her lip. "That sucks."
"Smuggle the chips inside fortune cookies?"
Dar chuckled wryly as they headed down the corridor.
"Dar?" Maria's voice broke into her concentration, as she poured over circuiting diagrams. Dar glanced up with a start, aware suddenly of the time.
"Yes?" She asked, checking her watch. Shit.
"Mariana just called… the bus is here." The secretary said. "She asks, are you ready?"
Dar sat back, regarding the pile on her desk with a look of mild disgust. "No.. but that's not going to stop this thing from happening, is it?" She muttered in response "I've got a six inch stack of paper I need to go over.. and three reports that are due…. " She sighed, and rubbed her temples. "Tell her I'll change, and be down in the lobby in ten minutes… you might want to call Kerry, and see if she's headed down."
"Not quite." A soft voice answered, from the inner door.
Dar glanced up, to see Kerry's head poking into her office "Never mind on that last, Maria…she's right here. "
"Okay… I will wrap things up here, Dar… try to have a good weekend, okay?" Even Maria sounded doubtful, knowing what the situation was. "Good luck."
"Thanks." The dark haired woman sighed. "You have a good weekend too, Maria." She glanced at Kerry. "You ready?"
Kerry entered, already changed into jeans and a sweatshirt. "As I ever will be." She gave Dar a wry look. "I finished up everything I could Dar… but there's still a lot of stuff pending… next week's going to be a bitch."
"I know." Dar sighed, and stood up, stretching her six foot plus frame out and rolling her neck around to loosen it. "What a day… all right, let me go get out of this monkey suit, and we'll head down." She stepped around the desk and held her arms out. "One for the road?"
No argument from Kerry. She slid into Dar's embrace, feeling the cool silk under her fingers that warmed as she closed her arms around the taller woman's body. "Mmm…. " She sensed the pressure of lips against her head, and she let herself absorb the sweet feeling, wishing she could just stay like this and not have to get on that damned bus.
After a long moment, they parted, reluctantly, and Dar let her fingers brush across Kerry's cheek. "I resent having to spend an entire weekend pretending not to be desperately in love with you." She stated, seriously. "I think I resent that more than having to go in the first place."
Kerry blushed a little. "I just hope I don't slip up and forget you're just my boss." She admitted. "You'd better stay far away from me at night." She gave Dar a pat. "Go change… I'll get my bag."
Dar sighed, but complied, changing out of her dark blue suit and into a comfortable pair of jeans and a polo shirt. She ticked the ends of it in and buckled her belt, giving herself a cursory glance in the mirror as she did so, then running a comb through her hair before she put her suit on a hanger and headed back to her office.
"Dar, it's cold out." Kerry scolded. "You need a sweater or something.. you're going to catch a chill." She dug through her bosses bag, and retrieved a soft, fleece sweatshirt. "Put this on."
"Yes, mother." Dar chuckled, but did as she was told, slipping the fabric over her head and adjusting the waistband. "Better?"
Kerry reviewed the rich, crimson color against Dar's tanned skin and dark hair, and smiled. "Oh.. I like that… you look really good in red." She shouldered her bag and exhaled. "Okay.. let's go."
They went down the hall to the elevator and got in, riding it down in silence and exchanging one, last look before the door opened.
The rest of the group was there waiting, and they collected several annoyed looks as they joined them. "Sorry. "Dar addressed the woman sent to collect them briskly. "Just tying up loose ends."
The woman, a perky blond with an infectious smile, nodded. "Well, that's great…glad you could join us. " She checked her clipboard. "You would be Roberts and Stuart, right?"
Dar nodded. "Yep."
"Excellent. Well, okay… my name's Skippy, and I'll be your guide during the seminar." She checked her list. "What we're going to do is get on board the bus, and get started… the camps about three and a half hours north of here, and on the way we'll have you fill out some questionnaires, and pass out a little snack in case anyone gets hungry, okay?"
"A snack?" Jose objected. "Hey, come on now… most of us didn't get lunch." He glanced around, twitching his jacket closed. "It's almost six o'clock." Several other people nodded with him.
"All right." Skippy didn't miss a beat. "We also have some full dinners on board… so let's get going, and I'll explain more about the program when we're on the way." She checked them over as they boarded the huge, chartered bus. "Now, no one has anything nasty, like a computer, or anything like that, right?" She reminded them. "We're trying to get your minds into a different space this weekend."
"I wonder how many people have asked her if she has any peanut butter." Duks commented, in a low murmur. Causing Dar to chuckle. "I cannot believe I am doing this, my friend… or that you are, for that matter."
Dar shrugged. "Won't hurt us." She replied laconically, as she watched Kerry board, then stepped up after her, glad to leave the thick, diesel smell behind. The bus was plush, with two rows of seats going back on either side, spaced far enough apart to provide a decent amount of leg space. There was really no excuse to squeeze in, so Dar reluctantly went past the row Kerry had settled in, and slid into the row past her, pushing the arm between the two seats up and stretching out. If she leaned against the window, she could see Kerry's head doing the same and as she watched, the blond woman turned and peeked back through the opening at her.
Sticking her tongue out, and making Dar smile, which she quickly muffled as Steve settled in the seat across from her, his dark eyes regarding her coolly. Duks took the seat behind her, and Mariana took the one behind Steve, and she briefly kicked herself for not arranging to do the same with Kerry.
Great. Now she was stuck looking at Steve's obnoxious puss for three hours. With an aggrieved sigh, Dar propped one knee up, and rested her arm against it, as the bus pulled out of the parking lot, into the fading twilight.
"Here you go." Skippy smiled at Kerry, as she handed her a clipboard with a sheaf of papers on it. "Just fill everything out, and feel free to ask me if you have any questions."
Kerry took the papers. "Okay.. what's this all for?" She asked, glancing at the forms.
Skippy put a hand on the seat back next to her. "Well, it's so we know you better.. so we can tailor the seminar more closely to your needs."
"Ah… wouldn't it have been more efficient to give us these before hand?" The blond woman asked, curiously. "I mean… it's not like you'll have much time to do any tinkering."
Skippy's perky smile became a little fixed. "Why, we'll stay up all night if we have to.. don't you worry…if you'll just fill out that information."
Kerry pulled the cap off her pen and studied the papers. "If I didn't know better.. I'd say this was just to keep us busy on the trip." She murmured, with a shake of her head. "Because I don’t know how much tailoring you're going to get done with a list of my favorite library books."
"Now now.. you just let us do our jobs… that information tells our analysts a lot about you." Skippy informed her, as she escaped down the row, handing Dar her clipboard and leaning over to give Steve his. "There you go.. any .. um.. questions?"
"Yeah.. do you have an assigned seat, or can you help me fill mine out?" Steve asked her, giving the young blond a smile.
Skippy beamed at him "Well, let me pass out the rest of these, and I'll come back to give you a hand, okay?" She scuttled down the isle, making sure everyone had a clipboard. "Yes sir?" She leaned over where Duks was seated. "Did you need something? A pen?"
Duks held up one of his never-ending supply of mechanical pencils. "No, thank you."
"You must be an accountant." She smiled at him. "They always have those things."
Duks nodded gravely at her. "When you graduate from college with a financial degree, they give you a dozen cases of them." He assured her. "With your name on them." He held his up. "See?"
"Oh… yes" Skippy edged away from him, and turned a bright smile on Dar, who was neatly printing in her name. "And what are you?"
"Trouble." Dar replied, peering at her from under dark lashes, and leaving a faint smile on her lips.
"Ah." Skippy backed off. "Well, how about some pop, huh? We've got cola, orange, and lime."
"Milk." Dar replied, intent on sucking as much enjoyment out of the weekend as she could. That included tormenting little blond girls who were far too perky for their own good.
"Milk… okay..I think we have some of that.. let me go look." She escaped down the row towards the front of the bus, where Eleanor and her assistant were installed in regal splendor. The Marketing VP had a colorful, warm woven throw tucked around her knees, and her assistant, a tall, thin man with nervously blinking eyes and thick glasses was hunched over the forms. Just about everyone else had chosen to wear jeans, except for Jose, who was in a pair of neatly pressed chinos and a guyabera.
Dar tucked her knees up and rested her clipboard against them, chewing on her pen top as she studied the forms. They were a collection of questions meant to probe her innermost psyche, she reasoned, other wise why ask if she liked chicken instead of fish, or if she picked a aisle seat in an airplane or a window? She half believed Kerry was right, and this stuff was just to keep them occupied for a while, until they got there, or until the boredom of the trip set in, and they fell asleep.
Skippy came back and handed Dar a small carton of milk, then sat down next to Steve and started going over the questions with him.
"Psst." A soft whisper caught her attention, and she glanced over at the back of the next seat. Kerry's green eyes were peering at her.
"Yeah?" She asked softly.
"Do we get points if we can answer more than ten percent of the questions with 'none of the above'?" The blond woman inquired. "I hate all those animals in question six."
"Hey.. " Jose's voice rose. "What you mean here, relations with animals? What kind of people do you think we are?"
"Sir.. that means pets." Skippy smiled perkily at him. "You know, like doggies and kitties.. do you have any loved pets?" Her smiled faded. "Not do you..uh..love… pets.. not in that way.. um… we really don't… care to know about that."
"What about my python?" Duks commented dryly from his dark corner. "Do you consider the rats I feed her pets too?"
Dar covered her eyes and bit back a laugh.
"Um…. Well, no.. because they're kind of.. um.. transient, right? We mean permanent pets." Skippy replied. "Like that are there all the time."
"Like my Sweetiepie." Mariana mused, from her seat across from Dar. "She's the prettiest parrot:"
Skippy smiled at her. "See? Yes.. that's what I meant.."
"Mm… I loved her so much, I had her stuffed when she died." The Personnel VP added. "Now she's the most permanent thing in the house."
Dar clamped her jaw muscles tightly.
"You people are so disrespectful." Steve suddenly said, sharply. "This woman is here to do a job, and you all think it's a joke." He glared at them, and Skippy beamed gratefully at him. "The company takes this seriously, and you should to." He sat down, smiling at the guide as she eased into the seat next to him.
Dar sighed. It was going to be a long weekend.
The droning of the bus's tires finally changed, and Dar shifted, blinking her eyes and glancing out the window. It was pitch dark outside, only the very occasional lamp flicking by, along with the rare, desultory billboard. She glanced to her left, between the seats, and spotted the gentle curve of Kerry's cheek, as the blond woman dozed, her head resting against the chill window.
Across from her, Steve and Skippy were conversing in low tones, and everyone else seemed to have fallen asleep. Dar straightened, and checked her watch, then stood and stretched the kink out of her back from the semi comfortable seat. "Almost there?" She inquired quietly.
Skippy turned her head. "Yes.. we just turned off the expressway.. we've got a little bit to go yet." She replied cheerfully. "It's way, way out there… we wanted to get to where you couldn't even hear the traffic at all."
Dar leaned against her seat back and peered out the window. A billboard went by. "Aardvark Bail Bonds." She commented. "Next right." Her head turned. "Guess you're not the only ones who wanted some privacy."
Skipping blinked at her. "What do you mean?"
Dar peered out again. "Bill's Bail Haven." She enunciated. "No waiting, six lines." Her blue eyes regarded her wryly. "We're out near Stark."
"Stark?" Steve asked, obviously disgruntled at having his discussion interrupted. "What are you talking about, Dar?"
"The Federal Penitentiary." Came the droll response. "There's also a state jail out near here.. if I'm not mistaken.. no wonder it's empty."
"Oh.. well.. we're not going there." Skippy assured her. "It's a camp just west of here, really.. we wouldn't take you to a prison."
"Oh, I don't know." Steve sniped. "I'd like to see that, myself."
Dar gazed at him. "Steve.. you'd have a lot more to worry about than I would." She replied silkily.
He leaned back. "Oh.. I don't think so… I think those women would knock that tough attitude of yours right off."
The dark haired woman put her hands on her hips, and smiled at him. "At least my attitude has something to back it up." She replied meaningfully.
Skippy had been watching them, her head bobbing between them like an errant, blond ping-pong ball. "Oh… do you two know each other well?" She asked brightly.
Steve studied Dar's tall form speculatively. "C'mon, Dar… those days are long behind you.. cut the crap." He laughed. "When was the last time you even hit the mat?"
"Mat?" Skippy seemed to sense a fight, and dove into an attempt to divert it. "What kind of mats are those? Are you into aerobics? I am."
Dar decided to ignore them, and instead strolled off down the aisle, ending up in the back of the bus where there was a toilet, and a small refrigerator. Dar explored that, finding a can of Yoohoo to her muted delight. She also picked up a bag of pretzels and held on, as the bus took a right turn, and slowed drastically.
"Oh.. we're almost there." Skippy stood up and went to her seat at the front, gathering up her stack of paper and peering out the front window. "Okay, folks.. you'd better wake up, because the road gets a little bumpy up here, and I don’t want anyone to get scared." Her perky voice stirred the rest of the group, who struggled awake, peering around.
Dar made her way back to her seat, and dropped into it, opening her soda and sucking at it in silence. A blond head appeared over the seat in front of her, and she glanced up, only just barely keeping herself from giving Kerry a friendly smile. The green eyes, amber in the buses low light, twinkled a little in acknowledgment, and instead, she offered the blond woman some pretzels.
"Thanks." Kerry replied politely, selecting one and munching on it.
The bus turned to the right again, and now it felt like they were going over a thousand bumps, the vibration rattling through them unpleasantly.
"Jesu Christo." Jose blurted. "What kind of place is this we're going to?" They all peered out the windows, but could only see darkness, and trees, whose leaves slapped against the bus's tall sides. After ten minutes of rattling, the bus slowed, and pulled in under some kind of portal, now rocking unevenly as the road turned to soft dirt.
Finally, the bus stopped, and the interior lights came on. "Okay." Skippy faced them. "We're in front of the main hall.. we're going to get off the bus, and I'll walk you over to your cabin." She checked a list. "We have some hot coffee in the hall, and some sandwiches if you're hungry, but this camp is not a luxury hotel, okay?"
"Does that mean we have only mustard or catsup but not both?" Duks commented dryly, as he hefted his bag to his shoulder.
Skippy smiled. "You'll see.. we try to make it so you don't concentrate on your surroundings.. but on each other instead." She led the way. "Well, let's get started!"
They got off the bus, and were assaulted by cold air full of the smell of pine and sand. In front of them was a wooden building, with a porch that circled most of it, and they followed Skippy up the stairs and through the swinging door.
It was a drab place, and Dar was forcibly reminded of a few navy camps she'd been in during her younger years. There were trestle tables arranged in neat rows, with long, narrow benches next to them, and faded banners on the walls. The place had been swept, but it was chilled inside, and only three lights were on, lending a dank, almost dingy quality to it. "Nice." She stated with a shake of her head. "What is this place?"
Skippy looked up from her papers. "It's a YMCA camp." She replied, with a slightly smug smile.
Eleanor had been looking around, and now she stared at the woman, aghast. "You can't expect us to stay in this disgusting place." She tugged her jacket around her. "This is ludicrous."
Jose stepped up next to her. "I must agree.. this is not a place for people like us." He waved a hand at her. "There must be a hotel around here."
Duks perched on the edge of a table. "I could protest this on religious grounds." He stated, mildly, glancing at Mariana. "Do I have a case?"
The Personnel VP blew out a breath. "I have to admit, this is not what I expected from your company. " She addressed Skippy. "I know this is not the kind of facility they used in Plano."
Steve had been roaming around, studying the walls. "Oh.. I don't know.. it's not so bad." He turned a smile on them. "Kinda reminds me of when I was a Boy Scout." He spread his arms out. "C'mon… it's only for two nights…lots of fresh air.. probably do us all some good." He took in a deep breath.
As though by common accord, they all turned to Dar, who was leaning against the wall. The tall Operations VP shrugged. "I've been in worse." She commented. "My guess is.. there's no other place around here, right?" Her eyes went to Skippy.
"No.. " The perky blond looked disturbed. "They assured us you wouldn't have any problem with this place.. I have to call my office…we were very explicit in describing it"
Jose snorted. "They must be laughing their asses off at us." He spat disgustedly. "Big joke.. big joke..wait until I get back there, I'm going to call up those bastards and give them a piece of my mind." He pointed at Dar. "See what you got us into?"
"Yes.. I hold you responsible for this, Dar." Eleanor agreed. "What were you thinking of?"
Mariana got between them. "Wait a minute… this has nothing to do with Dar."
"Of course it does." Steve interrupted smoothly. "Her lack of cooperation is what landed us here, Mariana… but now that we're here, we might as well make the best of it." He smiled at Skippy, who still appeared very upset. "I'm sure we'll carry on, despite what old Dar's gotten us into."
"That's a very good attitude St.. I mean, Mr. Fabricini." The blond woman asserted.
Dar gave them all a dour look, realizing Steve had won a point. "Arguing about this right now is pointless." She stated evenly. "We can discuss it when we get back to Miami, or better yet, we can all take a flight over to Plano and talk about it with Les directly."
That threat got a wide-eyed response. "Right now, let's just get through this. " She looked over at Skippy. "You were going to take us over to a cabin? I think some sleep would be a good idea."
"Um.. right..okay… let's go." The guide knew when to beat a retreat. "Right this way… now, we put sheets and blankets on the bunks.. it's a little nippy tonight, so I have someone out checking for space heaters, but we don't have that right now." She led the way across the dark ground, towards a smaller, wooden structure. "Here we are." She opened the door and stood back to let them enter." "Watch your step."
It was, Kerry decided, pretty horrifying. She'd been to camps, sure, but the ones her parents had sent her to had carpet on the floors, and private bunks for each camper. This was not like that. It was basically two rooms, with a shared bathroom in the middle, featuring wooden framed bunks against the walls and shuttered windows between them. Six bunks in one room, six in the other, and the bathroom was split in two also, with two toilet stalls, and two showers, lacking curtains.
Oh boy. Kerry glanced at Dar, who looked like she was caught between wild amusement, and true irritation. "Men on one side, women on the other." The Operations VP stated flatly. "Just don't think about it… pick a bunk, and let's just get some sleep."
Dar stalked across the wooden floor, selecting the bunk in the back corner and tossing her bag down on it. Kerry ambled over and chose the next one, sitting down on it and folding her hands in her lap. Mariana followed suit, silently picking the bunk to the other side of Dar, then smiling as Duk's assistant sat down next to her, leaving the far bunk for Eleanor.
"Right." Duks grunted, and headed towards the other room, which connected via a door. He opened it and passed through. "C'mon boys… "
Steve laughed gently, giving Dar a smile before he followed the finance VP into the next room, and Jose trailed after him, with a disgusted look. Eleanor's assistant meekly went along, leaving the women all looking at each other.
"I'm going to be ill." Eleanor stated firmly, holding her bag. "This is unacceptable."
Kerry stood and circled the small room. "Well.. it's not really that bad." She stated. "I mean, it could be worse, and the linens are fresh.. it's clean in here, they obviously keep it up." She glanced up and decided not to mention the huge spider web. "It's only for a night or two." She glanced at Eleanor. "Look.. we're sort of stuck here.. it doesn't make sense to fight it now.. let's wait until we get home, then we can talk about it."
Eleanor pursed her lips, unable to find a way to argue with Kerry's logic, and she tentatively approached the bunk, touching the fabric with one finger. "Well… it is clean." She pushed the pillow experimentally. "I suppose I could make a sacrifice… " She looked up at Dar. "But you're going to pay for this, Roberts."
Dar was seated on her bunk, leaning against the wall and staring at her impassively. "Threats are pointless." She stated, point blank. "So shut up.. I didn't ask for this.. I wasn't the one who sent the damn email to Les.. and I don't want to hear that crap for the next two days."
"Well.. he wouldn't have had to send it if you'd cooperated with him, now would he?" Eleanor shot back.
"I don't cooperate with unreasonable requests.. you should damn will know that by now." Dar responded irritatedly. "I don't care who makes them.. not you, not Les.. and especially not your little hatchet boy."
"Ladies." Mariana held a hand up. "Can we can it for the evening, please?" She requested. "We've got plenty of time to assign blame and fight with each other when we get back to Miami.. let's just get this over with."
Dar sighed. Mariana was right, and besides, she was letting Eleanor get to her. "Right… " She sat up and unbuckled her overnight bag, tugging out a flannel nightshirt. An awkward silence fell, and she glanced up, to see everyone just sort of looking at each other. "C'mon now folks… we're all girls here." The dark haired woman reminded them drolly, as she pulled off her sweatshirt, and tugged her polo from its neat tuck into her jeans.
"Oh no." Eleanor took her bag, and retreated to the bathroom, leaving the rest of them in still uncomfortable silence.
Dar sighed. "Just shut the light." She directed Mary Ann. "Nobody can see each other in the dark."
The tall ash blond nodded appreciatively, and did so, plunging the room in to inky blackness, broken by conspicuous rustlings and the sounds of bare feet moving on the wood. Next door, ribald male voices were heard, and they could see the light under the door.
"See? The boys don't care." Dar remarked, tucking her clothes away and seating herself on her bunk, which was raised slightly off the floor.
Mariana snorted. "Care? They compete.. they're probably measuring themselves right as we speak."
A round of chuckles.
"Not in this weather." Dar drawled wryly. "They'd need a caliper."
Another round of chuckles, this time louder.
A wild scream erupted from the closed door to the bathroom, and after a stunned moment, the door was thrown open, disgorging a half clad Eleanor, who screamed and bolted for the door to the cabin.
Unfortunately, she forgot to open it, and slammed face first into the planks. "Oh my god.. oh my god… help!!!"
Dar hopped out of bed and headed over, hearing heavy footsteps from next door. She reached Eleanor just as Jose flung the door open, resplendent in his white silk boxers with red hearts. "Jesu! What is going on here!"
"I have no idea." Dar snarled. "Eleanor..what in the hell happened?"
The Marketing executive turned, and waved her hands wildly. "It attacked me! My god.. I have to get away!" She pointed at the bathroom. "In there!"
Kerry had followed Dar across the floor, and now she ducked her head into the bathroom, glancing around cautiously. She saw the toilet, one small sink that had Eleanor's makeup all over it, the shower stall, and a snake. She started to pull her head back out, then froze. "Oh… Jesus.. " Her eyes widened. "Anyone know the local fauna?" She jumped back as the snake slithered out. "Look out!"
"Dios Mio!" Jose yelped, spotting it. He jumped back inside the boy's room, and slammed the door.
The snake, a three foot long green specimen headed towards Dar. "Where's Steve Irwin when you need him?" Dar muttered, as she peered at it in the low light. "I think it's harmless."
"You think?" Mariana was standing on her bed. "Dar, don't 'you think' me, okay? I am not going to spend all day Monday filling out paperwork because you got bit by a 'you think'"
"No.. it is." Dar waited for the snake to crawl up on her foot, then she captured its neck, and lifted it up. "Probably looking for a warm place." She examined it. "Yeah.. it's just a garden snake… it's not dangerous."
The door to the men's side cracked open and three sets of eyes peered out. "Goodness." Eleanor's assistant squeaked.
Dar sighed, and motioned Eleanor away from the door. "Move… I'll put it outside."
"What?" Steve now stuck his head through the door. "And let it attack someone else? No way.. kill it!"
"We can't always kill things that have the potential to annoy us." Dar stated looking at him steadily. "Now, get outta my way, Eleanor." She moved towards the door, and the woman screamed, backing away from her and tripping over the broom left in the cabin for sweeping. She tumbled over it, landing on her butt on the floor and scrambling back, looking like a huge, white skinned spider.
Dar removed the snake from the premises, then dusted her hands off, and went back inside.
The boys were behind their door. The girls were clustered back against the wall, behind Kerry's Tweety clad form.
Everyone was looking at her. "We voted you Snake Hunter." Kerry informed her, with a faint grin. "As in, could you check for more?"
Dar put her hands on her hips. "I didn't get a vote." She protested. "Besides, in this weather, it's easy..look where it's warm."
As one, five sets of eyes turned towards their bunks. "Oh my god." Eleanor slumped to the floor, in a faint.
"Uh.. I think we'd better leave the light on." Mariana stated nervously, as she and Mary Lou struggled to get Eleanor into her bunk.
Dar sighed, and shook her head, going over to her bunk and sitting down on it. "I'm sure it was just an isolated thing." She reassured them. "C'mon… we've got to get some sleep… God only knows what Mary Sunshine has in store for us tomorrow." She stretched herself out on her cot on one side, crossing her ankle and propping her head up on one hand.
Kerry slowly did the same, crawling into her bed after she peered around it nervously, then lying down so her head was close to Dar's. "I hate snakes." She muttered.
"Hmm? How do you feel about lizards?" Dar inquired seriously.
"Um… I don't know.. why?" Kerry asked, hesitantly.
"There's one on your leg." The dark haired woman pointed.
Kerry yelled, and jumped, leaping across the space between their two bunks and landing practically in Dar's arms. "Shit!" She watched the tiny lizard scamper away, then exhaled raggedly. "Damn."
Then she realized where she was, and peeked at Dar's face. "Uh… sorry." She eased away from the taller woman, whose eyes twinkled. "Dar, this isn't funny.. I hate these things."
Dar almost told her to stay where she was.. that Dar would protect her. But Mariana and Mary Lou were watching them. "Look.. just relax. Lizards are good.. they eat bugs."
Wrong thing to say. In a split second, everyone was in the middle of the room, staring at the beds.
Dar sighed, and pulled the covers up over her face. It was going to be a very long night.
They'd finally gotten to sleep. Dar had convinced them, by sheer force of will, that if they'd turn the lights off and pull the covers up over their heads, no bugs would get to them, even if they were here.
So they had, and now she was snuggled down in her own bunk, waiting for her body to relax in this strange environment, and listening to the soft breathing around her.
A low, rumbling sound came from next door, and the dark haired woman smirked quietly, then exhaled, hoping none of her sleeping companions was prone to snoring.
Kerry wasn't, she knew, unless she was flat on her back and exhausted. Dar suspected she'd be guilty of that in the same state as well, but usually the blond woman preferred to curl up on her side, or against Dar's shoulder, her breath gently warming the taller woman's neck.
It was incredible, Dar mused just how good that felt. She turned her head and gazed into the darkness, barely able to distinguish the huddled figure in the bed next to her. Hmm. Dar inched forward, getting as close to the head of her bunk as she could, then she slipped a hand between the rough two by fours that lined the beds and closed her fingers over the hand she could just see curled over Kerry's head.
A soft gasp, then the blond head lifted, and the faint light reflected off a glint of pale pupils. "Oh." She barely whispered. "You scared the bejezus out of me."
Dar smiled, and chafed her hand. "Cold?" She murmured in response.
"Mm." Kerry squirmed closer, until her face was within inches of her lovers. "Even with the extra padding, I'm still shivering…pretty embarrassing for a northerner." She admitted.
Her taller partner grinned, then looked around carefully. "Can't have that." She slipped out of her bunk and into Kerry's, the darkness shrouding them in safety.
"Dar" The blond woman mouthed. "What are you doing?"
"Protecting corporate assets." The executive purred, right into her ear as she curled her body around Kerry's and tucked the cover around both of them. "Got a problem with that?"
"I don't.. but everyone else is going to, Dar." Kerry breathed. "I thought we were trying to keep this quiet… I think them waking up with us in bed together is going to be just a litttttllee conspicuous, don't you?"
"Shh… I'll get out of here before it's light… just relax." Dar reassured her. "Unless you don't want to be warm, that is.. I can leave."
Kerry snuggled closer. "Mmph." She grumbled, burying her face into a very welcome, very warm neck. "Well… at least I'll be safe from snakes." A pause. "legless ones, anyway."
Dar chuckled softly, and felt her body easing into sleep, comfortably tucked around Kerry's, her hands moving in slow, gentle circles against the smaller woman's skin.
Kerry's breathing evened out, and slowed, and she dozed off, her hands flexing gently against Dar's chest, and somehow that made the aggravations of the day ease, and float off, clearing her mind and allowing her to drift off as well.
She was seated on a grassy slope, overlooking a river valley. The open, rolling land stretched out before her, split by the deep blue and gray line of water whose rush and rustle came to her faintly. The wind blew against her face, pushing the hair back, and ruffling the soft fabric that covered the body of the blond woman lying curled up, with a pale head pillowed on her outstretched legs.
A hand she recognized as her own gently stroked the soft hair spilling over her skin, and she was lazily aware of the soft buzz of a bee nearby, and a songbird trilling overhead.
Her eyes traveled down her companion's body, and she felt the strange blur of surprise and familiarity as she realized the woman nestled against her was with child, her belly swollen under the soft fabric. Her other hand was interlaced with the woman's, and both were tucked against the surface, and as she sat, caught between her dream and the faint memories resting against her consciousness, she felt the soft flutter of a tiny life against her fingers.
A little smile moved the lips of the blond woman, and her eyes slid half open, meeting the blue ones watching her and taking on a quiet, warm sparkle.
She felt the muscles of her face move, and knew she was smiling back.
The blond woman nestled her head back down and closed her eyes, and she tilted her own head back to rest against a tree's rough bark, as the sweet, cool wind lulled her into a dreamy, wonderful haze.
She just barely beat the dawn. Dar's eyes fluttered open as the first gray outlines were beginning to be seen beyond the trees, and she reluctantly untangled herself from Kerry, and slipped out of the blond woman's bed, and into her own, tugging the covers up against the early morning chill.
She remembered her dream, and her brows knit, as she tried to figure out where in the hell she'd imagined a pregnant Kerry from… could it be a premonition? Kerry hadn't said anything like that had happened during her visit home, but… Dar sucked in a breath, remembering finding her lover in the bathroom the day before, white as a sheet, and she wondered. Surely Kerry would have told her if she'd been assaulted at home, right?
Unless it wasn't an assault, of course.. unless… Dar mentally slapped herself. Don't be stupid, Dar… that kind of speculation does you no good, and gives her no credit… not fair. You're overreacting… it was just a stupid dream… I know she's had her period since then.. though that's not always a definite sign…. C'mon, it was just a dream.
And if it wasn't? Well… Dar put her chin down on her forearm, and thought about that. She'd never wanted children… she knew herself to lack the patience she thought a parent needed, and that complication was something she had never considered to be something she wanted as part of her life.
She still didn't. Her eyes traveled over Kerry's peaceful face. Right? Or could she accept that, if it meant keeping what was becoming something essential to her?
She closed her eyes and remembered the look of utter love that had been in the eyes looking up at her, and she knew the answer. For that, she would accept anything. Everything. The sense of panic receded, and she relaxed, speculating that her own subconscious had maybe just prodded her into a moment of self awareness, one that brought a wry, wistful smile to her face.
The bunk felt cold, and lonely , and it took a lot for her not to just say the hell with it, and crawl back into the warm spot next to Kerry's side. .
Dar argued with herself for about five minutes, then sighed, and decided she'd better get up, and go do something before she caused havoc for both of them.
And Kerry had been worried about herself? Dar gave the growing dawn an evil look, then she sat up, and grabbed her bag, pulling out a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and trudging off to the bathroom.
It was a relatively nice morning, she decided, as she exited the cabin and stood on the porch, breathing in air thick with the trees around her, and with a faint hint of hickory smoke. Fog was rolling across the grounds, rising from the lake the ground sloped towards, and she could barely see the outline of the main hall, or of the scattered cabins that peeked out from between the trees. .,
Dar stepped off the porch, her sneakers crunching gently over the fallen pine needles, and the tiny pine cones, and the fog fluttered out from her steps like a water's ghost. She headed down towards the lake, taking deep breaths to wake her body up, then spotted a small path that was well tended, and apparently went around the water's edge. She broke into a light jog as she reached it, then headed on down the path, enjoying the brisk morning air.
The sun was rising over the water, and it's rays filtered through the trees, throwing pale salmon stripes across the path and her, as she ran in silence, only the sound of her steps against the loose gravel and the soft lapping of the water against the shore breaking it. She was about three quarters of the way around before she heard steps behind her, and she cocked an ear, frowning as she didn't recognize the sound of them. A glance back made her curse roundly, and she took a breath, composing her temper before Steve Fabricini caught her up. "Morning."
He fell into step next to her, running easily in his black and silver running suit. "I'm surprised, Dar…didn't think you kept this up." He peered around in mock cheerfulness. "I do marathons, so… it's part of every morning for me."
Dar debated not answering, then she twitched her lips. "Great way to start a morning." She commented.
"Oh yeah." He agreed. "I do between five and eight miles a day… twice that on weekends.. I placed top ten my last three races."
The dark haired woman glanced at him. "Congratulations."
"Not your speed, huh?" Steve laughed. "No.. I can see you've lost that edge."
A subtle, dangerous glint appeared in ice blue eyes. "Bunch of guys running around New York in their underwear is not my idea of fun." She commented mildly, however.
"Oh.. you're wrong… " Steve shook his head in amusement. "It's the competition that I like… pitting yourself against a hundred.. against a thousand other people who all want what you want.. and you beat them." He eyed Dar. "I like that." He purred. "I like leaving people in my dust, just like I'm going to leave you in my dust, Dar. "
"Think so?" The dark haired woman remarked.
"I know so… you've made too many enemies." Steve told her confidently. "Even this.. I thought this was a mistake, but now…. " He laughed. "I'm going to enjoy watching your decline, Dar… I really am." He surged ahead, lengthening his stride and pulling ahead of her. "Time to think about retiring." He yelled back, heading around a bend in the path and disappearing from view.
Dar continued on at a steady pace, smiling a little when she heard a muted scream. "Watch out, Steve.. " She commented to the empty air. "Lake bends in there, must be a big mud wash." A loud, outraged yell shook the hair. "The sticky, stinking kind." She trotted around the bend, and slowed to a halt, putting her hands on her hips and observing the black, odorous, thrashing form. "Last steps a bitch, Steve." She remarked cheerfully, hopping up on a long, sturdy log which went over the muddy pit, balancing neatly as she crossed over his head and landed on the other side. "Guess I don't have to worry about your dust right now, huh?" She waved, and broke into a jog again, contentedly increasing her pace and heading back towards the camp.
She was on the back of a horse, the easy, rocking rhythm familiar to her from childhood. So comforting was the motion that she was half asleep, her head nodding against the tall back of the person in front of her. Her arms circled a lean waist, loosely clasped against a surface that had the feel of sun warmed leather, and she could feel the cool hardness of metal under her cheek.
She was too sleepy to open her eyes. Too sleepy to look around her. All she wanted was for the hot sun to finally fall behind the mountains she knew were at their back, and give her some relief from it's relentless force.
A warm pressure surrounded her fingers, and she cast a lazy half of an eye up, to gaze a the long, dark hair that gently covered the dark leather surface, and the dully gleaming bronze of the metal she was leaning against.
"Almost there." The low, vibrant voice was as familiar to her as her own, and she gave the tall figure a gentle squeeze to let her know she'd heard. She was aware of being hot, and tired, and hungry, but there was a distinct sense of contentment, which warred agaisnt that, and made her wish the ride would never end.
Kerry was chiefly aware, first, of being cold. She opened one eye grumpily, and confirmed that she was where she was afraid she was, stuck in this damned backwater camp full of snakes and spiders, and who knew what else. She rolled over, then smiled a bit, as she detected Dar's scent on the sheets, and pillow next to her.
Her dream drifted back into her consciousness, and she reflected on it's weird quality, sure that the person she'd been seated against had been Dar. But Dar in armor and leather?
Kerry's brow wrinkled, and she smiled a little, at the ceiling. Was that how her subconscious saw her tall lover? As some warrior?
Yeah, maybe…or maybe it was her mind's way of rationalizing the reason she suffered all the discomforts of being Dar's right hand, in order to stay at the tall woman's side. Woo… that was profound. She almost a had to giggle, imagining herself telling Dar about it.
She could hear her voice. "I was dressed in what?" Kerry smiled at the vision.
A glance to her right told her Dar was missing, and as she viewed the dawn light, she suspected her sometimes solitary lover was out and about, soothing her ruffled feathers from the day before. Kerry stretched and yawned, then sat up, debating on whether or not to get out of bed.
Mary Lou pushed herself up at that point, and ruffled her short, ash blond hair. "Oh my god." She peered around the cabin, then gazed at Kerry. "This is a nightmare, right?"
Kerry sighed, sitting up cross legged on the bed, and tucking the blanket around her. "It sure feels like it, doesn't it?"
Eleanor groaned, lifting her head from her pillow and peering at them in the dawn's quiet. The Marketing VP's hair looked like a curious ferret had been nesting in it, and her eyes had blue and black rings around them from her smeared mascara.
She looked, Kerry realized, like a grumpy, blond raccoon.
Mariana kept her eyes straight up, folding her hands on her stomach. "All right… we've got one day here, and then tomorrow we'll be going home. " She paused. "We're all adults." She paused again. "We can do this."
Mary Lou yawned. "You're right, Mari… I'm sure we'll survive.. look, we made it through the night, didn't we?" She glanced over towards Kerry. "Hey.. where's Dar?"
Everyone sat up to look. "Maybe the spiders ate her." Kerry remarked innocently. "Just kidding.. I don't know.. she was gone when I woke up. She's probably checking things out."
Dar chose that moment to reenter the cabin, her dark hair damp with sweat. "Morning." She greeted them briskly, as she headed over to where her bunk was. "Our hostess has provided something resembling breakfast up at that main hall.. they want to start things up at nine."
Kerry checked her watch. Seven thirty. "Okay… you said something resembling… what are we talking about here, peanut butter and jelly?"
"Yes." Eleanor edged to a more dignified sitting posture. "I usually have Mueslix."
Dar sat down and started taking off her sneakers. "Well, there's coffee and hot water… and couple of baskets of bagels, and some boxes of individual cereal." She paused, exhaling. "And bananas."
"Great." Mariana sat up, then gazed at Dar. "What on earth have you been doing?"
The dark haired woman gave her a look. "Running" She answered briefly. "You all want to pick who takes a shower first?"
They all looked at the bathroom, with it's tiny, bare shower stall, then back at her in mute horror.
"Fine." Dar stood, and stripped off her sweatshirt, leaving her in her sports bra, then picked up the towel she'd rolled into her bag and her small kit of soaps. "Be right back." She padded barefoot to the bathroom and kicked the door shut.
"Rude." Eleanor spat, with a disgusted look.
"Efficient." Mariana disagreed. "She's right… we're going to feel awful if we don’t' shower."
"Practical." Kerry nodded. "That's Dar."
"Buff." Mary Lou noted, approvingly. "Very nice."
They all looked at her in surprise.
"Hey, I call em like I see em." The finance assistant stated, lifting her shoulders in a little shrug. They all got up and twitched their beds into some kind of order, Mariana and Mary Lou going to the window and peering out at the new day. "Dear god, what is that?" Mariana suddenly said, with a start.
They clustered behind her, and peered out. "Oh… my…. Gosh… " Mary Lou exhaled. "It's a bog monster." The sun was behind the approaching apparition, which was moving towards them with stiff, unnatural motions, a solid black form with little white flecks here and there.
"God in the heavens." Eleanor snapped. "What is that?"
The figure lurched up onto the steps, and opened the door, and the women all clustered in the back. "Where in the hell is that bitch!" The figure screamed, eyes and teeth white against the black stained skin. A pungent, unpleasant odor floated in with it. "Dar, I'm going to kick your ass!"
"Steven?" Eleanor asked, cautiously. "What happened to you?"
He ignored her. "Bitch! Get out here!" He yelled louder.
The bathroom door opened, and Dar stepped out, her towel wrapped around her otherwise bare body, and her dark hair slicked wetly back. "Yes?" She asked, taking in the apparition with a stifled grin. "Looks like you're next up for the shower, Steve." She drawled, leaning one hand against the wooden wall, and crossing her ankles.
He seethed, and for a moment Dar thought he was going to attack her. Muscles along her arms and thighs visibly tensed, but he thought better of it, and instead, he threw open the door to the men's part of the cabin, and stormed through. A chorus of loud complains echoed back, then Jose came to the door, rubbing his eyes. "What in the hell is going on…oh Dios Mio, Dar, put your clothing on!"
He was almost run over from behind, as the doorway filled with bug eyed, wild haired men.
Dar smiled, perversely flattered.
"All right." Skippy had donned a perky pink sweatshirt, with her company's name on it, over neatly pressed white slacks. "Well, did we all have a good night?" Silence greeted her words. "Well, that's great.. I'm glad to hear it….okay…"
They were seated around a circular table in the smaller hall near the lake, it's screened in walls giving a good view of the water. Breakfast had been a round or six of complaints, as the food was found uniformly lacking, and now it was a group of mildly disgruntled people seated around, waiting for the torture to begin.
"Okay.. let's with this little exercise…"Skippy plugged bravely on. "I'd like everyone to tell us about a favorite hobby of yours." She looked encouragingly at Duks, bypassing the still seething Steve. "How about you start?"
Duks inhaled, then exhaled, folding his arms across his chest. "A hobby is it? All right… I collect pencils."
Skippy sighed. "Mr. Draefus…"
"No no.. I mean it.. " Duks held up a hand. "My oldest one is from 1833… truthfully."
Everyone looked at Duks suspiciously. "Who's next?" The accountant went on, blithely.
Mariana was next to him. "I grow herb gardens."
'Ohh…that's so nice!" Their guide burbled. "For cooking?"
The personnel VP smiled. "For Santeria… my uncle's a priest."
Skippy's eyes jiggled. "Oh.. um… next?"
"I..um… " Charles swallowed nervously. "I raise fish." He mumbled. "salt water tropical fish….I have a tank."
"Really?" Dar asked interestedly. "How big?"
He looked up at her, and pushed his glasses up onto his nose. "seven hundred gallons." He nodded a little. "I converted my garage."
Even Dar's eyes popped. "That's not a tank.. that's the Seaquarium." The tall, dark haired woman murmured. "That must take a lot of time to take care of."
"It does… but my wife, and the kids… they help." Charles stated, happy at the reaction. "I have a baby nurse shark." He stated proudly. "I had to segment him, though.. he was eating all the flounder, and he was getting fat."
"My god." Eleanor blinked at her assistant in amazement. "That's incredible."
Everyone looked at her. "What?" The Marketing VP snapped. "Oh… a hobby.. how silly.. I have no hobby."
"Nothing? What do you do in your spare time?" Skippy inquired, encouraged by her last success.
Eleanor remained silent for a moment. "Well, I… go to dinner, of course, and go out shopping, and play cards with friends of ours… "
"Oh.. well, that's nice." The blond guide smiled perkily. "What about you?" She turned her gaze to Steve.
He glared at Dar. "I run." He answered grumpily. "I enter marathons."
Big smile from Skippy. "Oh.. that's wonderful… I always wanted to do that.. I participate in all our corporate walks and runs… isn't it great exercise?"
"Yeah." He tried to clean the black muck from under his nails with little success. "Great."
Mary Lou leaned back, and grasped her knee with both hands. "I fly ultra lights." She stated, grinning at the reaction. "Yeah.. that's me out there in South Dade on the weekends, buzzing around…" Her eyes slid to Dar, who was seated next to her. "What bout you?"
The blue eyes blinked innocently. "I collect heads." She answered with a straight face. "You know… shrunken ones.. with the laces through the lips."
Everyone stared at her, with reactions ranging from horror to wry amusement. "Well, it's what you all expected to hear." The executive drawled. "Isn't it?" She caught the swiftly hidden grin on Kerry's face. "Actually, I scuba dive."
Skippy nodded her head like a back car seat Chihuahua and turned to Kerry hopefully. "Hi there."
Kerry drew in a breath. "I write poetry." She answered very quietly, her peripheral vision catching the warm twinkle in Dar's eyes.
"That's wonderful." Skippy looked like she could have kissed her. "So creative!"
Jose had propped his chin up on his hand with a bored look. "I collect baseball cards." He told them. "For investments, you know?"
Another pathetically grateful look from the guide. "Oh.. that's so fantastic… I always wanted to do that…" She made a mark on her clipboard. "Well, we certainly are a varied group, aren't we?" She went through her papers. "Okay… well, I hope you all learned something about each other… um… let's try a trust exercise now." She stood up. "Everybody stand up, and we'll take turns catching each other."
They all looked at her.
"It'll be fun." She assured them. "Really."
"This is a bad idea." Dar stood in the back of the circle of people.
Kerry turned and glanced at her. "It's okay… we used to do this during practice for gymnastics… it's just a game, Dar." She just kept herself from giving the taller woman a comforting pat on the arm, but leaned closer and dropped her voice. " Don't worry.. whatever happens, I won't let you fall."
Dar gazed at her, a smile playing about the edges of her lips. "I knew that…." She murmured back. "I just…" She chewed her lip. "I don't like people touching me."
The blond woman rubbed her jaw. "Well.. you could tell everyone not to catch you." She commented softly. "But that's gonna hurt."
Dar sighed, and watched, as Skippy joined them with her ever-present clipboard, her hair tucked up under a delightfully pink hat, with a prancing, coy pony on it. The executive had an almost irresistible desire to snatch it, and bury it deep in the earth.
"Okay…this is how this works…" The guide explained. "One person stands in the middle, and the rest of you get behind. Then that person just lets themselves fall back, and everyone else catches them. Okay?"
"What if they don't?" Duks asked, in his deep rumble.
"Excuse me?" Skippy peered at him.
"What if they don't catch the person." The Financial VP inquired.
"Oh…well.. um..I guess… they just.. well, they fall, I guess.. " The woman's brow knit. "I don't know, really.. it's never happened."
"That's very reassuring." Duks put his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels. He was wearing a pair of cotton painter's pants, and comfortable looking hiking boots, along with a crimson flannel shirt. Then he turned to Mariana, who was wearing a crisp tan shirt over blue jeans. "You did bring workman's comp packets just in case, right?"
Mariana cleared her throat. "Of course."
Skippy blinked at her, disconcerted. "You did..oh.. well, I'm sure you won't need them." She hastened to reassure her. "This is a very safe course… we never have accidents, never."
"Don't worry, my dear.. the ship is absolutely unsinkable." Mary Lou muttered, sotto voce.
"Shh." Kerry scolded her. "Or we'll be at this all day.. let's get it over with."
"Um…who wants to start?" Skippy gave Steve a little smile.
With a little shrug, he came forward. "Might as well… can't be worse than being dumped ON MY ASS in the MUD this morning." He glared at Dar. " You could have warned me!"
Everyone looked at Dar, who shrugged. "How was I supposed to know that mud was there?" She asked reasonably. "You decided to run ahead of me… not my fault you didn't stop in time."
"Oh, will you two shut up?" Eleanor snapped, in a foul mood. "Let's get this idiocy over with already."
Sullen glares all around. Steve turned his back on them, and let his arms hang down straight, his bright blue sweatshirt over a white polo shirt contrasting with his khaki chinos. "Ready?"
Jose sidled forward, and nudged them all along. "Come on.. come on.. " They clustered in a group. "All right."
Steve very obviously squared his shoulders, then let himself tip back.
A loud explosion behind them sounded. Everyone jumped, and whirled, even Skippy, who threw her clipboard up as a defense. "Oh my!"
Steve dropped forgotten into the pine needle filled ground with a thump. "Son of a bitch!" He screamed.
The sound was repeated, and they realized it was a backfire from some vehicle. Skippy dashed over to where Steve was lying, rubbing his head, and knelt down. "Oh my gosh.. oh my gosh… are you all right?"
They were all torn between giving him guilty looks, and watching the camp entrance, where a low growling sound indicated someone was approaching. "Listen… Sorry about that, kid.. " Jose offered him a hand up. "That noise.. you know, it just startled us… sounded like a damn gun."
The sound got louder, then a flash of sun on metal almost blinded them as a Harley roared in, thumping across the uneven ground and heading in their direction, after slowing to check the scene out. It pulled to a stop and the rider pulled his helmet off. "Hey."
It took all Dar's considerable concentration to keep a devilish grin off her face. "Hey, Mark… didn't think you'd make it."
The MIS chief got off his bike, and glanced down at his body, which was covered in tiny, blood specked forms. "Neither did I.. god damned love bugs… the company owes me big time for this one..it's gonna take me a week to get all their guts off my bike." He glanced over. "What's he doing on the ground?"
Skippy decided to give up on that activity, and she let them take a break for a few minutes while she got Mark settled, and his Harley put in a safe spot. The MIS chief had been stuck in Miami resolving the Hong Kong issue and had promised to try and join them, but had left his assistant there to finish mopping up. "That was a bitch, Dar." He shook his head, as he joined them, having changed out of his leather and love bug carcass outfit into something less gruesome. "I had to end up having the Erding office bring the equipment in for them…you're gonna owe a few folks out there one."
Dar nodded. "Good going…" She retucked her long sleeved, heavy cotton shirt into her jeans. "Glad you could join us." She glanced over where Steve, Jose and Eleanor were clustered.
"Yeah.. you look like you're having a great time." Mark commented dryly. "This place is a dump." He glanced over as Skippy returned, with a bunch of little sacks slung over her shoulder. "Uh oh… now what?"
"Okay!" Skippy looked perkily grim. "Here's what we're going to do now… we've got a course set up- you can see the entrance to it over there. " She pointed, and they all looked over to where a trail was clearly marked. "It's a ten mile path, and along the way there are different stations and obstacles you have to get through." She handed each one of them a bag. "The object of this is for all of you to get through." She gave them a look. "All of you, not just some of you, okay? You all have to get back. All of you. Everyone get my point?"
Kerry muffled a chuckle.
"Okay.. in this sack is your lunch…and a snack." She held up a sample. "The directions are on the top."
Dar laughed, on seeing them. "You guys shop on the Military channel, by any chance?"
Skippy scowled, in a nice way, at her. "Anyway, at each station is a check point.. you have to get this card stamped at each checkpoint. About halfway, there's a cabin with water, and juice, and things like that." She exhaled. "It's not a race, okay? The purpose is to make you work together, to get through the obstacles." "We got that point." Duks informed her.
"Right.. okay.. .well, go on… we'll have dinner waiting for you guys when you get back." Skippy made shooing motions with her hands.
"Wait.. you want us to walk, for ten miles?" Eleanor objected. "You must be joking." She glanced around for support. "That's ridiculous."
"It's not that bad." Kerry told her, kindly, as she moved closer to the Marketing VP. "Really."
"Oh no… no… no way." Eleanor backed away from her. "I'm sorry.. I've had enough."
"Look…" Skippy clasped her clipboard to her chest. "This is the important part of the seminar, okay? I have to write a report on your group for your leadership team, and it's based mostly on this exercise."
Mariana exhaled. "Come on, Eleanor… god knows I'm not up to walking ten miles, but we'll get through it." She glanced over at Dar. "Let's get going…sooner we start, the sooner we finish." She shouldered her pack. "We can rest along the way… right?" This she directed at Skippy.
The guide smiled in relief. "Right.. there are benches and things for you to rest on…it's not an endurance race or anything." She assured them. "And there are water fountains."
The group moved reluctantly off, and approached the path, passing the sign and entering a tree lined, fairly well marked lane covered in sand and pine needles. A grumpy silence held over them, and they strung out a little on the path, with Jose and Steve deciding to set the pace, and Dar choosing to bring up the rear. Kerry casually dropped back next to her, while Mark amiably engaged Duks in talk of the upcoming football playoffs. Mary Lou and Mariana started off after Jose and Steve, and Eleanor, complaining loudly. Chose to walk next to her assistant. The wind picked up a little, and blew the leaves against each other, whistling lightly around them and isolating their conversation.
"Having fun?" Dar inquired.
"Mm.. not really.. but did it seem to you like Mary Sunshine back there was awfully glad to get rid of us?" Kerry asked, adjusting her canvas pack to settle around her slim waist, instead of over her shoulder. "Here… let me get yours.. it's easier to carry this way." She adjusted her companion's, slipping her arms around Dar for the moment needed to fasten the straps.
Well, slightly more than them moment, but not long enough to attract attention from their grousing coworkers.
"Yeah.. " Dar glanced around. "I don't think we're going to rate a good report from her… we've been sort of uncooperative." She took a breath of the cool air, and felt her temper settle a little. "This is kind of nice, though."
"Wait until we get to the obstacles." Kerry chuckled, rolling her eyes. "Hey, you know, I had the weirdest dream last night." She missed the sudden, startled glance in her direction from Dar. "We were riding a horse… and you were wearing armor."
"What?" Dar started laughing. "You're joking."
"No.. no, really.. " Kerry chuckled too. "I know.. it was really strange.. but it was really vivid, too… I could smell the horse.. and the leather stuff you were wearing… and the armor was some kind of brass."
Dar didn't reply. She went silent for a moment, and paced along, thinking. "Well… " She finally said. "I guess it was the atmosphere then.. I had a pretty strange dream too." Then she fell silent.
Kerry waited for a long minute. "What was it about? Was I in it?" She coaxed, interested.
"Yeah… " The taller woman responded. "We were on a hill… someplace I didn't recognize, really… over some river… it was warm out, and we were just out there, watching the clouds go by." She paused. "You were sleeping…you had your head resting on my leg." She tapped her thigh.
Kerry waited. "And.. that's strange?" She queried, puzzled. "I don't get it."
"You were pregnant." Dar said, very softly. "That was the strange part." She walked on a few more paces, before she realized she was walking alone. With a start, she stopped, and looked behind her. Kerry was standing on the path, staring at her. "Hey.. it was just a dream." But she felt the question in her own voice, and knew Kerry had heard it.
The blond woman took a breath, then started forward, breaking into a trot and catching up with Dar. They continued walking in silence for a little stretch.
"That is strange." Kerry finally said. "I mean.. it's kind o f a shock to hear that… it's something I.." She hesitated. "I know I don't have to worry about that anymore, unless I want to.. um… you know." She looked up at Dar's face, seeing the odd hints of tension around her eyes. "Uh…have you… I mean, do you want… um… "
"No.. no.. " Dar lifted her hands and let them fall. "Kids and me… they don't mix well." She stated firmly, then hesitated. "I mean.. well, I um… I mean, if you wanted… someday.. I think… um…" She fell silent, then peered at Kerry. "You know?"
The blond woman's face wrinkled up into a confused grin. "I think so…but it's not in my plans anytime soon, if that's what you're worried about."
"I wasn't worried." Dar replied instantly. "Not at all. I was just saying that.. um… it's possible to get used to anything, if you know what I mean."
Now, Kerry smiled. "I know what you mean." She reassured her boss. "But that's a strange image, for a dream"
"Well, what about me in armor?" Dar asked, glad to change the subject. "Maybe it was those sandwiches we had…. I'm still not sure of what they were." The pasty substance had tasted like a cross between chicken and tuna salad, mixed with a little Tabasco, or pimento, and Dar had resolutely swallowed it, and turned her mind from examining it too closely.
"Maybe." Kerry agreed softly. "Jesus.. I haven't thought about being pregnant for…" A pause. "A while."
A gust of wind blew past them, lifting up dark and pale hair and whipping it around both their faces. They'd let the group get a short distance in front of them, and the winding path had isolated the two of them briefly. Dar glanced over and saw the look of quiet, grim introspection on her lover's face and she debated with herself, whether or not to push Kerry on the subject. Finally she sighed, and flexed her shoulders. "You.. um… " A light shrug. "Want to talk about it?"
Kerry regarded the passing trees thoughtfully. "Not really much to talk about….it was just mostly stupidity on my part… when I was home last year." She related, in a quiet tone. "They were giving me a hard time…I felt lousy… " A slight pause. "I felt ugly." Kerry wryly corrected herself. "And I went to a party with some old friends from college… got drunk until I didn't know half of what I was doing, and ended up in bed with some guy I hadn't seen for five years." She studied her boots, remembering just how disgusted she'd felt when she woke up. "I wasn't on the pill, of course.. " She snorted softly. "I got lucky…nothing happened."
Dar snuck a look ahead of them, then settled an arm around her companion's shoulders, pulling her close. "That's lousy….sorry you had to go through it." The dark haired woman stated gently. "I can't tell you how mad that makes me."
"That I'd do something that stupid?" Kerry asked bitterly. "Yeah, well.. I was pretty mad at myself too."
"No." Dar kissed her head. "That your parents made you feel that bad about yourself."
"Don't put the blame on them, Dar… " Her lover shook her head. "They didn't make me go to that party, or get plastered, or jump in bed with that guy."
"I know." The executive agreed, with a sigh. "But I think you did that as a reaction to how you were feeling… when that guy came on to you, it made you feel better about yourself, didn't it?" She felt Kerry's shoulders move a little in a shrug. "Didn't it? I bet he was good looking."
A hazy memory surfaced, and Kerry's nostrils flared. "Yeah… " She admitted wryly. "He looked like that guy from Dune." She admitted. "He was really cute.. and he told me he thought I was cute… and I…" A long sigh. "I guess I really needed to hear that." She glanced up at Dar, who was still walking along with her arm around the smaller woman's shoulders. "He was a nice guy, too.. he called me the next day, all panicking… because he hadn't had protection on.. and telling me he was healthy, and saying… he'd 'do the right thing' if it turned out I was… " She had to laugh. "It was surreal."
Dar laughed gently. "Well, you'll never have to get me drunk to make me tell you how cute you are, okay?" She hugged Kerry.
The blond woman rested her head against Dar's arm. "You make me feel so wonderful, did you know that?" She replied simply. "It's such a pleasure to be in love with you."
Dar blinked, speechless for a few heartbeats. "Likewise." She finally managed to say, faintly.
A yell up ahead distracted them. "Oh hell. " Dar's face took on an annoyed look. "Damn, for ten cents I'd just lose this place."
Kerry patted her companion's belly. "All of us have to get through, remember? C'mon… let's see what they found." She disentangled herself from the taller woman's grip lengthened her stride, climbing up the tiny, root encrusted rise and peeking down the path.
The rest of the group was standing on the edge of a slice across the path, into which a creek had carved itself deeply, causing a chasm about fifty feet across.
A single, braced rope bridge went over it, consisting of a simple strand, with two others running alongside The entire thing was suspended over the water about twenty feet, providing an annoying, but not lethal drop if one got dumped off the bridge.
The object, obviously, was to get to the other side. If one walked carefully, it seemed achievable enough.
The problem was the fifteen foot python wrapped around the rope, sunning itself. "Oh boy." Dar muttered, coming up behind her. "This could get ugly."