Standard Disclaimers - I don't need any for this story. All the characters are mine. (laugh) I should probably disclaimer my use of my own company, but I won't, unless temptation gets too great, and I name the big boss "Les." Whoops.. I did that, but any resemblance to anyone real is coincidental. (the real one is one of the nicest people I've ever met, honestly)

What this is: This is an Uber story. (Oooo… that Uber stuff!) You get a general physical description likeness of the two gals in the story that will remind you of two old friends we all know well, but that's about it. The time period of this Uber is right now, and the place is Miami, Florida.

Why Miami? Well, I live here. Not only do I live here, but I've lived here for thirty years. That means I know all the stupid little quirks of the area, and since I'm going to give this Uber a stab, I might as well not overstress myself with doing research on an area I don't know. (Right? Right.)

The world my Uber darlings inhabit is my personal world - not that I'm a dungeon master or anything silly like that, but I do work for a company called EDS, and we do Information Technologies - we outsource IS to other companies, and absorb their own IS facilities and staff. In other words, we are the EDS Borg - you will be assimilated - Resistance is Futile. (I'm not making this up) The two characters will work and play in an area that I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole however - so they're not autobiographical. I do technical and network support - I stay away from the business end of EDS, because that's the end you get stuck with, and not in a friendly place, if you know what I mean.

This isn't specifically EDS, but I've tried to maintain the flavor of our hierarchy though…and the goofiness that sometimes goes on behind the running of a megalithic corporation. The descriptions of our mainframes, however, are fictitious, along with any names of persons involved, and the various office locations with the exception of Plano. EDS does have it's corporate hq there.

Fisher Island, the place where Dar Roberts lives, is a real place. I used to work there. The descriptions of it are circa 1990 though - it's been built up a lot since then with more condos and stuff. All the places, and restaurants, and streets, and causeways are real. I didn't see any need to make them up, when Miami is a colorful enough place in real life without me doing that. It's kind of a tribute to my hometown - because I happen to really like it here.

Dar and Kerry are not super spies, or undercover agents, or renegades of any kind. They're not running from the law, or taking over third world countries (EDS runs a few, though) or anything like that. You might find their lives boring… I can't help that.. there's not going to be a lot of car chases, or gun battles, though this is Miami, and we're a pretty tough city, so anything can happen.

It's just a story about two people, who meet under very usual circumstances, and happen to change each other's lives.

Tropical Storm - Part 4

By Melissa Good

The door closed behind her, and she was surprised at the silence in the room. The noise from outside was gone, and she let out a breath as she moved across the carpeted floor towards Dar's desk. The executive was sitting on the desk, her phone in the dead center of it, and her arms crossed over her chest. She was wearing a gray silk skirt and jacket, with a forest green shirt, and looked casually elegant.

Of course. Kerry could see the frustration in the lines of her body, but Dar managed a smile for her. "So, this is Hell, huh?" The blond woman made a show of looking around. "Nice décor."

Dar sighed, and lifted a hand to rub one temple. "It's been quite a morning." She ran her fingers through her hair and let her arm drop.

"So I see." Kerry replied, feeling a little awkward. "Is there.. um.. stupid question, but is there something I can do to help?"

The taller woman visibly tried to relax a little. "Lots of things. But first, I think I need to get you settled in a place to sit and all that." She stood. "C'mon."

Curious, Kerry followed her towards a small, nondescript door she hadn't even noticed the other night, and watched as Dar opened it, then gestured her to go forward. "Go on - believe me, it's faster this way. If I go out in that hallway, it'll take me eight hours to get from this office, to the one I picked out for you."

Kerry entered, finding herself in a narrow, bare hallway, with unmarked doors on one side, and blank walls on the other. She moved down it uncertainly, until she felt a warm hand on her back. Dar guided her forward about fifty feet, until she came to another unmarked door, which the executive motioned her to open. She pushed the handle down and emerged into a second office.

It was roughly square, with a worktable surrounded by chairs on one side, and a wide, woodgrain desk on the other. The carpet and wall coverings were in burgundy, and behind the desk was a floor to ceiling window sporting the same view as Dar's.

On the desk was a computer, a phone, and nothing else, and the office was bare of adornment, so much so that it was apparent that this office had never been used. "It's… um.. " Dar leaned back against the door, and gave Kerry an apologetic look. "Kinda empty, I know.. but it's got the essentials."

Kerry blinked at the desk, and at the furniture. "It's great." She turned and looked at the window. "With this view, you could have given me a cardboard box and a tin can on a string, and I'd be happy." She put her briefcase down on the desk. "Look.. I know you're up to your neck in problems in there.. I'll get settled, and logged in, and see if I can find my way around, okay?"

Dar smiled, and glanced down. "Actually, give me about an hour to clear this all up, then I'll be back to show you around, and we can talk. " She cleared her throat. "If I'm not back in an hour, assume the rest of the network blew up, and c'mon over and find me."

Kerry faced her, and smiled. "You bet I will."

The dark haired woman smiled back, then ducked back down the hallway.

"Whoo." Kerry sat down in the very comfortable leather desk chair, and looked around. "She apologizes. I can't believe this… I could hold an aerobics class in here, and she apologizes because it's a little empty… good grief." She examined the desk, which was well made, and opened the drawers. Inside there were pens and paper, clips and a stapler, the usual. The large drawer held hanging files, which were, of course, empty.

She flipped on the computer, impressed with the large screen which matched the one Dar used. Kerry wondered if it was standard, but was glad, because her eyes tended to hurt after a full day's staring at a smaller screen.

The computer booted to a network login, and she entered her id and password, a little startled when her usual menu didn't appear, replaced by one with approximately four times as many options. "Uh oh." She made a face at it." What is all this stuff?" CLIPC, PLIPC, CICS… it was an alphabet soup of choices along with the more familiar ones which gave her access to the payroll and personnel sections, and the customer database. Experimentally she chose one. "CLIPC.. that was what Dar was having problems with.. let's see what that is."

It connected and she peered at the results. "Oh.. Netview.. okay.. I know what this is." She logged into the IBM mainframe application and tried a display all command. "Uh oh… good grief… how huge… wow.. that's really huge."

The internal network was displayed, with lots of items marked as inactive. "Bet that's what Dar's fighting with, huh?" She commented, flicking the screen with a fingertip. "Well… back at home in Michigan, at the university, we used to do an ACT ALL…" She typed it in, then hesitated. "Ahh… probably not a good idea….oh, what the heck.. it can't hurt." She hit enter.

"That'll take forever, so… " She minimized the application and clicked on mail, startled when it opened and she had a mailbox full. "Well. I guess that'll keep me busy for while.. good grief… what are all these things… " A lot of forwarding from Dar… stuff she was involved in apparently that she wanted Kerry to review. "Okay.. let's see what we've got here." She started reading. "Jesus… designing Olympic racing bicycles and doing financial transfers for the Bank of New Zealand… do you think this company can get any more diversified?"

There were all kinds of problems. All kinds of operational issues, like which processors could be assigned to which projects, and whose project took precedence. Kerry found herself becoming fascinated by the patchwork of interrelationships and she suspected she certainly wasn't going to be bored.

She got up and pulled out her few personal items, arranging her desk the way she liked it, and prowling around the office to discover all the nooks and crannies. She opened the front door and peeked out, letting a tiny grin edge her lips when she spotted a neat kitchen just down the hall. "I bet there's coffee there." She decided, retrieving a cobalt blue mug from her briefcase and ambling over.

"Wow." She glanced around the kitchen and bit off a chuckle. "This is better equipped than the one in my apartment." There was a refrigerator, of course, with an obligatory sign on it. "Don't leave food for more than a week unlabeled or it will be glorped." Kerry read it. "I'm not gonna ask." Not only a regular coffee machine rested on the counter, but an expresso machine as well, and there were containers with various types of milk and cream, and real and fake sugar available. As she selected artificial sweetener and poured a cup of coffee, a young girl entered behind her, and said a cheerful hello.

"Hi." Kerry turned and leaned against the counter, stirring her coffee. The girl removed a small packet from the freezer and popped it in one of the three large, commercial microwaves in the rack near the door. "Breakfast?"

The girl turned, and smiled. "Snackies." She chuckled. "I work for Eduard Castillo.. he gets grumpy around this time if I don't feed him." She held out a hand. "Mary Evers."

Kerry took it. "Kerry Stuart."

The girl's eyes widened. "Omigosh…you're Dar Robert's new assistant!"

The blond woman forced a laugh. "Okay.. are you going to tell me I'm brave, or stupid?"

A smile snuck onto the dark haired girl's face, and she leaned closer. "I was going to say lucky." She winked at Kerry, then removed the gently steaming packet from the microwave and set it on a small plate she'd brought with her. "Not everyone thinks Dar's a bad thing, you know."

Kerry was pleasantly surprised. "Well.. that's nice to hear, because I happen to like her." She relaxed into a grin. "And it's been murder having everyone look at me like I was out of my mind."

"You do, huh?" Mary bit her lower lip, and chuckled softly. "That’s interesting…I thought you came from Associated… they were almost axed, you know."

Sea green eyes studied her. "Oh yeah, I know." Kerry replied quietly. "I was here when she figured out a way to get around that."

"Really?" Mary tucked a napkin under the plate. "That's good to hear.. nice to meet you, Kerry.. I've got to get this tamale back to the boss before he breaks all his pencils."

Kerry regarded the packet, which was wrapped in what looked like corn husks. "Nice to meet you too… see you later." She paused. "Oh.. what does your boss do?"

Mary turned, as she was leaving. "Marketing for the Caribbean…be seeing you." She disappeared down the hall, and Kerry regarded the wall thoughtfully before she took her coffee back into her office.

Her office. She grinned, as she just stood with her back against the wall and looked out the window. "Ah well…back to work." She set down her cup and resumed her reading. She was so absorbed in it, she didn't hear the back door open or someone approach until a hand touched her arm, and she jumped. "Whoa!"

Dar seated herself on the edge of the blond woman's desk, and gazed at her, with an enigmatic expression. "Hi."

"Oh.. hi.. sorry.. I didn't hear you coming.. I was.." Kerry gestured at the screen. "Trying to catch up on all this stuff you forwarded to me…I kind of sorted them into info and action.. what?" She noticed Dar was smiling at her. "That wasn't the right thing to do?"

"You know, Kerry.. they say it's your first impression that sticks with you in this company." Dar stated. "Mine.. well, I told Lester Roesanthal he could kiss my ass, and that's kind of followed me up all these years."

"Really?" Kerry was intrigued.

"Mmhm… so.. do you know what you're first impression's going to be here?" Dar inquired, her blue eyes pinning Kerry down into her seat.

"Uh…no." Kerry replied nervously. "But you're going to tell me, right?"

"Oh.. yeah… you're going to be known as the new kid who walked in on their first day, sat down, logged in, and brought an entire crashed system up."

Kerry froze, and stared at her. "Uh… I didn't do that."

Dar pursed her lips and nodded soberly. "You are KSTUART01, right?"

"Um.. yes." A hesitant reply. "Oh.. Christ… that Netview command.. oh, Dar.. don't tell me no one else thought of that, it's ridiculous." Kerry protested. "That's basic!"

A gentle sparkle entered Dar's very blue eyes. "Mmhmm… problem with us nerds is, sometimes when things go wrong, you forget to look for the simple things first. You go for the complex, involved crap instead." She patted Kerry's cheek. "They did a master load last night, and forgot that puts the system in console mode - it inactivates all the logical units so the new programs can get into place without being used."

"You're not a nerd." Kerry objected, aware that she was blushing badly. "Are you?"

"Sure I am, and so are you." Dar cheerfully informed her. "Good work, Kerry.. you single-handedly validated my choice of assistants, started your own little legend in the making, and I didn't even have to do a thing."

Kerry basked in the warm approval, soaking it in with a shy pleasure. "Thanks.. but I didn't mean to." Her face scrunched up in a wry grin. "What a way to start off, huh? "

Dar rubbed the back of her neck and chuckled. "There are worse ways… listen, it's almost noon. Let's go down and get some lunch, then I'll give you the tour." She peered at Kerry's cup. "I see you found the kitchen all right."

Kerry nodded. "Yeah.. nice setup… I like the microwaves, because I usually bring in little frozen tray things for lunch."

A dark brow rose. "We have a cafeteria." Dar remarked, dryly. "But if you prefer cardboard food, sure… go right ahead. They do ask that you don't overcook fish sticks, though.. it takes us weeks to get the smell out of here."

"Do… is the cafeteria your eating place of choice?" Kerry inquired. "I mean… god, that sounded funny.. what I mean is, it is any good? A lot of them aren't." She grimaced. "When I think of cafeterias, I think of the one in college… ugh."

Dar nodded. "Mine too." She admitted. "I ended up eating mostly ice cream and cheeseburgers for four years."

Kerry chuckled ruefully as she stood up. "Pizza and sub sandwiches.. I still can't stand the sight of delivery pizza." She followed Dar out of the office, and over to the elevator. "Guess that's different now, huh?" She commented, as the doors slid open and they entered, having the elevator to themselves.

"Nope." Dar confessed a touch sheepishly. "Cheeseburger, fries, and a milkshake is still one of my regular favorites."

Kerry eyed her trim figure, and blinked. "You sure don’t look it.. you must work out like crazy, then."

The taller woman exhaled softly. "Takes up a good bit of my spare time, yes." She stated. "It's a way to work off the frustration, too." She waited for the doors to open, and stepped through them onto the second floor, then led Kerry to an open set of double doors with enticing smells exiting them.

The blond woman watched in bemusement as her new boss quietly requested the day's special, which was meatloaf and mashed potatoes, then proceeded to add a large glass of milk to her tray, along with a piece of cake. She sighed, and selected a chef's salad, and got a glass of grapefruit juice, and followed Dar over to a corner table. "I feel like everyone's watching me." She murmured, as they unwrapped silverware.

"They are." Dar replied blithely. "You're the new kid… something this exciting hasn't happened here since an L1011 flying over dropped a wheel bay door on top of us and it crashed through the atrium."

"Tch.. Dar!" Kerry protested, as she nibbled a bit of ham. "I'm serious."

Blue eyes glanced up at her over a forkful of potatoes. "So am I." She replied honestly. "I'm high profile, everyone knows who I am, so when I take on an assistant, which hasn't happened before.. it's big news around here." A pause. "I did warn you about that, right?"

Kerry sighed. "Yes.. you did." She glanced up, privately amazed how comfortable they both were with each other . "Have you figured out yet where we know each other from?"

Dar bit down on her fork, thinking. "Nope." She shook her head. "I know it's not school.. I moved around too much growing up and never near Michigan… and I went to the University of Miami, so that's out." She shrugged. "Anyway, how are you settling in? I see you got to some of the mail… I have a short list of projects I want you to take over."

They spent the rest of lunch talking about business, and Kerry got a little better idea of what she'd be doing. It sounded half exciting, half terrifying, and she hoped she got a chance to do a few trial things before she started making the kind of decisions Dar seemed to expect of her. The executive stated, plainly, that she was incredibly busy, and couldn’t take the time to baby-sit, so Kerry would be on her own a lot, and have to depend on her judgement.

"That could get kind of scary." She mentioned, as they picked up their trays and deposited them in the washing area. A tall man half turned and watched them as they passed, and Kerry couldn’t help but notice the hate in his eyes when he looked at Dar. She waited for the elevator doors to close before she asked, though. "Who was that tall, kind of balding guy?"

"Peter Weyrhousen." Dar replied. "He's the government contracts account manager."

"I don't think he likes you." Kerry stated, regretfully.

"Mm.. actually, he hates me." Dar corrected her. "Those two contracts I gave to Associated came from his area."

"I hate to think it's my fault if he got in trouble." Kerry muttered.

Dar surprised her by laughing. "Don't worry about that.. those two contracts were a gift to me, personally, from General Easton.. he wouldn't have had them anyway."

She had, Kerry decided, a nice laugh. It was low, and more a kind of chuckle deep in her chest than anything else, but it usually pushed a tiny wicked look into her eyes, and that was kind of interesting to see.

Dar gave her the promised tour, introducing her to various department managers, all of whom produced that nice, sickly sweet, "hello, it's lovely to meet you" kind of smile that you knew would dissapear as soon as you turned your back. That was all right, because Dar provided cutting commentary on each of them after they moved on.

A more through tour of the fourteenth floor followed. It was a roughly square floor, with large offices like Dar's on each corner. Dar's office was on the northeast corner, and the other three were parceled out to executives of the same level as she was. On the southeast corner was Lou Draefus's office, the VP of Finance, whom Dar called Duks, then on the southwest corner sat John Dierhdohl, who was the Vice President for new accounts. The northwest corner held the showy space of Eleanor Anastasia, who was head of Marketing and Business Solutions.

Since Dar was in charge of operations, her little wing included the MIS group, where Mark Polenti made a home, the security group, the network support and analysis division, and the small army of infrastructure personnel who worked on providing resources both inside and outside the company. Dar was in charge of everything ranging from setting up new circuits for the building, to the facilities (including the air conditioning, it seemed) , to overseeing the huge private intranetwork which provided all their customers with connectivity and computing power. If new sales sold an account and promised them seventeen T1 lines with instant fallback, Dar's group handled the purchasing and designing of the circuits, and the installation and maintenance of them. If the contract also provided a half dozen AS400 computers, Dar's group purchased, programmed, installed, and maintained them.

It was, Kerry realized very quickly, the heart of the company, and now she had a good idea why Dar sat in the privileged position she did. Nobody wanted to piss her off, because everyone depended on her to get their job done.

She told Dar that, as they ended up back in the executive's office, and got a wry smile of acknowledgment in return. "I knew I made the right decision." Dar said, quietly. "There are people who've been working here for years and haven't' yet figured that out."

Kerry felt rather proud of herself, on her first day here.

She realized something else. What Dar's title was, and what she did were two different things. She was in charge of operations, yes, but what she really functioned as was the company top troubleshooter. If there was a fire, Dar got sent, because on the bottom line, she simply knew what to do, and just did it, without regards to anyone's feelings, or protocol, or anything else.

No wonder everyone hated her. If you had Dar Roberts descend into your territory, it meant you really screwed something up, and she was there to bail you out. Not a nice feeling, the blond realized, as she sat at her desk, reviewing the rest of her new projects. It also meant Dar was impossibly overworked, and Kerry suspected that caused her reputation too.. she simply didn't have time to be nice. She had to get in, make a decision, and get out so she could move on to the next crisis.

Dar had said she'd given Kerry about ten percent of the current projects she, herself, was working on. There were twenty two projects on Kerry's worklist now.

Ten percent. How in the hell did that woman even have time to sleep?

She guessed she'd find out.


Dar watched the stars come out over the ocean through her window, and leaned back, glad of a few moments peace at the end of a very long, and very aggravating day.

Which would have been longer, and more aggravating if Kerry hadn't worked her magic that morning, and resolved Dar's biggest problem, rendering everything else just bad, and not disastrous

Maria came in, her purse slung over her shoulder, to bid her good night. "You're late, Maria." Dar said, quietly.

"Aie.. and what should I say for you?" The secretary answered, walking over and standing on the other side of her bosses desk. "The secretaritas at your doctor's office had only one slot open, that's Thursday at 2pm, I made that time, okay?"

Dar ignored the pounding in her head and smiled. "That's fine… I think I have a meeting in the morning on Thursday, then a lunch with John D and his team, so that leaves the afternoon free. " She paused. "Pretty bad day, huh?"

Maria perched on a corner of the desk. "That poor little new chiquita…she seems very nice, Dar." Her face looked troubled. "I worry these people will eat her up."

"Nah." The dark haired woman behind the desk shook her head. "She's tough.. did you see Jack's face when he barged in here and said the network mysteriously came back up? I had to check the logs to see what happened… telling my brand new, wet behind the ears, inexperienced assistant solved the problem his nettechs had been working on for twelve hours… god.. " Dar laughed. "That made my day."

Maria gazed at her, the lined face creasing into a faint, puzzled smile. "You like her, this little chiquita?"

"I think she's got a lot of talent and potential, yes." Dar answered.

"Ah ah ah.. " Maria wagged a finger. "No no.. you like her."

A moment of silence, as the light outside faded, and left Dar mostly in shadows. The executive seemed to be asking herself that very question. "On a personal level…" She hesitated. "Yes.. yes, I do like her. Why?"

The older woman sighed. "I been working for you five years, and I've never seen anyone else who makes you smile so much." She paused. "Is good."

Dar was mildly stunned by the observation, more so when she realized it was true. "I.. .I guess it's just nice to have someone who's bright enough to figure things out.. not like the last bunch I tried in that position."

"Aie..right." Maria agreed quietly, still watching her. "Is good… I hope she works out." She waved. "Good night, Dar."

The dark haired woman nodded absently. "Good night, Maria.. I'll see you in the morning." She waited for the click as the door shut, then she turned around in her chair and leaned back, steepling her fingers and regarding the rising moon. It was huge, and hung over the horizon like a summer lantern, sending a rippling river of light across the almost calm ocean. "I hope so, too, Maria… I really do."


"Okay, I think that will work… but can we use that processor for something else in slack hours?" Kerry asked, as she played with a pencil, pushing it against the surface of her desk and turning it over. "I know the banking group is looking for extra timeslices during their mids… can we use it there?" She listened to the answer, then smiled, and made a note on her pad. "Good..okay, then I'm going to call them and let them know they can count on you for that." A pause. "Sure… the chargeback will go towards your budget."

A pleased sound from the phone. "Nice working with you, too… yes, that's right, Stuart, from Operations… well, thanks.. I do try… good night."

Kerry sat back and let out a pleased breath. "That worked." She scribbled down a few words in her notebook then adjusted several items on the spreadsheet up on her screen, recalculating it, then sending a copy to Dar, and to the two departments she'd just reconciled. It was a good feeling.. she actually was starting to get things done, after two days of settling in, and she finally felt like she was earning the salaray increase her new position had come with.

That had been a surprise.. she hadn't bothered to check in CAS for it when Dar had hired her, figuring her new boss would simply keep her salary at the level it had been with Associated. The benefits package she'd gotten had been a lot better, after all, and she'd been contented with that.

Then she'd gotten paid for the first time last night, and had actually called the bank thinking it was a mistake. No, no mistake, she'd been assured, it was the correct transfer. She'd then, belatedly, gone in and checked her employee file, spending several minutes just staring at the screen in blank disbelief. Not that she'd been hurting before, but the addition enabled her to just go out, and spend a very satisfying amount in upgrading both her home computer, and the laptop she carried with her. "Vroom Vroom.." She'd watched the new box boot happily. "I guess I am a nerd." She then chuckled, listening to herself.

She'd also gone out, and selected a nice mug, constructed in unbreakable, coated wood and brought it back for Dar, who had smashed her own against the wall just the day prior. Breaking mugs wasn't a new thing for the taller woman, she'd learned from Maria, and the secretary kept a supply of royal blue, plain ones to replace those that were shattered. Dar had peered at her offering, then given her 'that look', and chuckled a little, her rolling eyes acknowledging the gentle tease at her temper.

Kerry had decided she really liked Dar, despite the executive's mercurial moods, and the constant state of conflict which seemed to exist around her office. They'd spent quite a bit of time with each other, easing into a fairly good working relationship as Dar turned more and more responsibility over to her. She'd made a few mistakes, true, but Dar had reassured her that they were intelligent mistakes, and she only yelled a little bit.

It had been surprising, however, just how much that yelling hurt. She'd started feeling like she'd let Dar down, and had gone out onto the small balcony whch ringed the fourteenth floor, gazing out at the ocean for while to settle her guts. Then she'd squared her shoulders, and gone back inside, throwing herself at her next project, but not before she found a chocolate chip muffin seated squarely on her desk, a peace offering Dar knew she wouldn't refuse.

The dark haired woman certainly had her number where that was concerned…she was constantly tempting Kerry with all kinds of goodies, and she'd found that she had very little will power where Dar Roberts was involved.. she was contemplating using the stairs instead of the elevator in the morning to compensate for her bosses' edible sabotage.

This afternoon was quiet, though, since Dar had left the office for an appointment of some kind, and she decided she'd try to finish off the two projects she had pending, then see if Maria had anything Dar was too busy to do that she could take care of.


Dar had decided, long ago, that everyone just naturally hated going to the doctor's office. She knew she wasn't alone in that, and she suspected it had more to do with the loss of personal dignity than anything else. She closed her eyes, and tried to call up some patience, while she sat in the examining room in a gown half the size of a cocktail napkin.

The door pushed open, fortunately, and Dr. Steve came in. He was an older man in his sixties, with a kindly, sweet face. "Well, well… look who we have here."

Dar sighed. "Hi, Dr. Steve." She managed to keep a wry grin off her face. The older man had been her family doctor for years, and still treated her as though she were a gawky adolescent.

He assumed his stethoscope and laid it on her back, then moved around to her chest, listening with that annoyingly omniscient manner developed by most doctors. "Breathe."

She obediently did so, flexing her arm a little against the pain from three bouts of blood drawing.

"Okay, lie down." Dr Steve proceeded to gently examine her, his fingers steady and professional as they poked and prodded. "You've got a bruise here."

"Just from the gym." Dar said, untruthfully. One of Kerry's attackers had gotten in a lucky punch.

"Mm." The older man felt up along her neck carefully, rolling her head to one side, and then to the other. "Pretty stiff."

"Part of the problem, I think." The dark haired woman acknowledged ruefully. "That's where the pain usually starts."

"Uh huh.. how've you been sleeping?"

A shrug. "All right.. about the same as always."

"Oh.. so still doing the four or five a night, huh?" Dr Steve remarked dryly. "You'd do yourself a favor if you'd sneak in an extra hour or two."

Dar exhaled. "I tried… I just can't fall asleep…and if I do, I wake up early."

The older man leaned on his hands and studied her. "No.. you never could… your daddy was the same way." He sighed. "How are you feeling otherwise?" He put his stethoscope against her chest, and listened. "Any flutters? You feeling out of breath, anytime?"

Dar thought about that. "No.. not that I noticed." She replied slowly. "When the pain's really bad, I'm more conscious of my heartbeat.. feels like it's causing the throbbing."

"Mm.. that's natural." Dr. Steve told her. "Sit up."

Dar did so, reaching up and running a hand through her hair. "So..what's the story.. am I dying?" The comment about her heart made her a touch nervous, and it showed. Her mouth went dry, and she swallowed uncomfortably as she waited for him to answer.

The doctor rolled his eyes. "If you are, you're the healthiest dying person I've ever examined." He leaned back against the wall in the small room. "Your blood work's a mess, Dar…your white cell count is down, every stress indicator we know of is up, and I'm a little worried about some of the things I see with your pressure. I scheduled you over to Miami Heart for a stress test.. no.. don't argue with me, all right? Humor me.. I'm an old man, Dar… I really think you need it."

Dar let her head drop, and exhaled. "I don't have time for that, Steve…"

He gently reached over and tipped her chin up to face him. "You don't have time not to do it, sweetheart.. come on, they're not busy today, it'll take an hour, and then you can tell me you told me so, okay?"

"An hour, huh?" She hesitated, then surrendered. "All right… but I think you're barking up the wrong tree."

"Uh huh.. and you got your medical degree.. where?" The older man inquired pointedly. "Of course, we could dispense with all this if you'd just take my advice, and take a week off, go bum around in the keys or out on the boat somewhere."

A crafty look entered the pale blue eyes. "Oh.. so all I have to do is agree to go on vacation, and I don't have to go over to the Institute?"

Dr Steve wagged a finger at her. "Oh no… you tricky little girl you… I know you, you'll agree, then you won't go for two years." His voice gentled. "Dar…please… I hate to see you doing this to yourself." He cocked his head. "It's not going to get better, honey… it's just going to get worse, unless you start taking it easier."

Dar was silent for a bit, then she finally nodded. "All right.. I get the message. I'll arrange.. somehow.. to take a few days off." She paused. "Meantime, can you give me something for the damn headaches? I've been taking over the counter, but… "

The older man nodded. "You go to the Institute, I'll give you a scrip for a combination painkiller and muscle relaxant.. that should help. Deal?"

Dar hesitated, then capitulated. "Deal… look, I know I feel lousy… I even got myself an assistant. How do you like that?"

"Did you?" Dr Steve glanced up, with a surprised smile. "You found someone who could put up with you? Virgin Mary.. it's a miracle." He laughed at the look on her face. "He must be a saint."

A dark brow lifted. "She." Dar felt her face creasing into an unexpected smile.

His own grizzled eyebrow edged up. "Ah… I see." He patted her knee gently. "You'll have to introduce me to this modern day Job-ette sometime."

Dar snorted. "C'mon.. I'm not that bad… Kerry deals with me just fine.. she's a nice kid." Another smile.

Dr Steve leaned back and regarded her wisely. "If she makes you smile like that, she must be nice." He teased, watching a faint blush color her skin. "Now I really want to meet her."

"Well, I'd better get dressed and get outta here, if I have to go cross town. " Dar ignored the prodding. "I've still got stuff to do back at the office." She hopped off the table, and grabbed her clothes, and the prescription the doctor held out. "Thanks, Dr. Steve."

He stood and patted her arm. "Good seeing you, my friend.. I'll call you when I get the results of the stress test, okay?"

"Right." Dar sighed resignedly. "On my way."


"Hello, Maria." Kerry slipped in the door, and gave the older woman a smile.

The secretary looked up from her task. "Aie.. chica.. come in here." She waved Kerry in, and patted the chair next to her desk. "What have you been doing? I heard two people in the lunchroom saying very lovely things about you."

Kerry obligingly dropped into the chair. It had taken a day or two, of them gingerly feeling each other out, but she felt that Maria and her had decided to like each other. Apparently Maria had felt Dar needed some help for quite some time, but she resented the usual parade of applicants, who tended to treat the secretary as...well, like a secretary. Kerry had taken her cue from Dar, and accorded the older woman a high degree of respect, deferring to her whenever possible. "Oh.. this and that.. trying to get some of my worklist done.. you know." She smiled. "Anything hot you need taking care of with the boss out of the office?"

Maria rolled her eyes. "When is there never hot things?" She handed Kerry a folder. "You might could take a look at this.. Customer Service sent over and put it right on my desk."

"Okay." Kerry took it, then she glanced around. "Is Dar coming back today?"

Maria looked around as well, though they were both quite alone. "Si.. she's supposed to.. but she's at the doctors."

Green eyes widened a little. "Just a check up, or… "

The secretary hesitated, torn between her knowledge of Dar's intensely private nature, and her need to share her concerns. "It's the headaches… she gets them so bad, she went to have them check her out." She finally said. "But, shhh… she doesn't like to talk about it."

"Mm.." Kerry nodded slowly. "Yeah.. I noticed she takes a lot of aspirin.. but her job's enough to give a rock a headache."

"Aie." Maria sighed. "Is good you help her out…it's terrible the way they expect so much of her."

They both jumped a little as the door opened, and Dar slid inside, giving them both a look of mild surprise. "Afternoon." She muttered, as she walked through the outer office, and pushed her own door open. "Anything going on?"

Kerry and Maria exhchanged apprehensive glances. Dar's demeanor was quiet and grim, and her blue eyes lacked their customary sparkle. "Um… " Kerry stood up and held up the file. "Just some stuff from customer service.. I was going to take care of it."

Dar regarded her for a moment, wrestling with her conscience, then gave the blond woman a nod. "Good." She turned and went into her office, putting her briefcase down and dropping into her chair. Instead of glancing at her monitor, though, she turned her seat and gazed out of the window, watching the slow drift of clouds across horizon in the east. The stress test had shaken her up. Not because she'd felt bad while she was doing it.. she hadn't. But the attendants had clustered over the monitor displays, and had given her worried looks the entire time she'd been on the treadmill. And the results had disappeared moments after she'd finished, to be 'looked at by a specialist', according to the pleasant young nurse who had patiently taken off the instrument leads stuck to her.

Dar felt unnerved, and a gentle anxiety gripped her chest, hating the uncertainty most of all. What would they find? And if they did find something.. what would she do?

A soft knock made her look around. "Yeah?" The door edged open, and Kerry poked her blond head in. Dar exhaled, and lifted a hand, motioning her in. No sense in taking out her nerves on the kid, right? "C'mere."

Kerry obeyed, moving across the carpet and settling in the chair across from Dar's desk, the folder clasped in both hands. She looked uncharacteristically nervous. "Um… "She took a breath. "Everything okay?"

Dar spared her a wry smile. "Does everyone in the building know where I went?"

"No.. just us, I guess." Kerry obviously meant herself and Maria. "Don't be mad at Maria for telling me… she's just worried about you."

Caught between annoyance and embarrassment, Dar compromised by rolling her eyes.

"Um.. forget I asked." Kerry stated, hastily. "Next topic… I think the whole Tucson thing is going to work out.. infrastructure was able to complete the T3 circuit on time, now they're just waiting for the installers to get here."

"That's good… I was afraid they'd screwed that one up past redemption… did you sit on them until they finished it?"

"Well, not exactly.. I just kind of talked to the client, and got some concessions from his building management to make it easier for them to finish." Kerry explained quietly.

"Good work." Dar said, then she hesitated. "Kerry?" Green eyes lifted and met hers. "I'm fine.. thank you for asking."

Kerry blinked. "I know you don't like people getting into your personal business." She stated softly. "I didn't mean to intrude, or anything… I'm glad everything's all right."

Dar felt a quiet regret at the blond woman's apology. "I.. um.. I don't mind, not if it's Maria.. or if it's you… I just don't like the entire company involved." She gave Kerry a little rueful smile. "You'd be surprised at what passes for juicy gossip around here."

"Ah." Kerry nodded in relieved understanding. "I got you… so, if anyone suspected you were sick, they'd try take advantage of that."

"Dar, that sucks."

That got her another rueful grin. "Well… I can't say I don't agree, and I'm not one for idle chatter myself, but it's a fact of life here."

Kerry pressed her lips together, and nodded. "I understand." She paused, then looked up, studying Dar's half shadowed face. "Anyway, I'm glad things are okay."

A faintest hint of a question in her tone. Dar leaned forward, and rested her arms on her desk. "Mostly." She admitted. "I basically got told I should take a vacation, and not work so hard." She shrugged. "Like always." She tucked the memory of the stress test away, deciding her young assistant didn't need to know that bit of information, at least not until something was confirmed to be wrong. After that….

Dar didn't want to think about after that. "I got some drugs for the headaches, and that was it."

Kerry absorbed that. "So.. when was the last time you took a vacation?" She asked, curiously. "I know mine was a while ago.. so much stuff was going on.. I went over to Marco Island for a few days." It had been a fun excursion, her and a few of the folks from Associated; they'd rented a small cabin on the west coast of Florida, and spent some time looking for shells, and bumming around on the beach.

Dar concentrated. "Um… I think mine was…skiing in Colorado." She recalled. "About a week.. I ended up meeting most of the trees in Aspen up close and personal." She chuckled softly. "I finally got the hang of it on the last day.. but I haven't been back since."

"That sounds like fun… I've been skiing a bunch of times… I'm not that good at it, though." Kerry confessed with a smile. "I ran into a rabbit my last time, and went head over heels.. ended up with a broken wrist."

"Ouch." Dar laughed.

"So… are you going to take the doctor's advice?" Kerry inquired. "Take a vacation, I mean?"

Dar looked up. "You trying to get rid of me?" Her tone was light, but wary.

"No." Kerry answered very seriously. "I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to get a machine gun mounted on my desk in time." She held up her hands. "Rattataataa."

She couldn’t help it. Dar burst into laughter, leaning back and feeling her whole body relax from the day's tension. "Oh… god, thank you.. I needed that." She complimented the blond woman, as she rested her elbows on her chair arms, then leaned her chin against her interlaced fingers. An idea burst into her mind, and she started talking before she really thought about what she was doing. "Listen.. I've got to go to the South Miami office for a quick meeting.. I think you should come along, so I can introduce you to the guys down there."

"Okay." Kerry agreed amiably, somewhat tickled at being able to make Dar laugh. "Sounds too to me.. and it's on my way home, practically, anyway."

"Hey… we could…try that Thai restaurant after the meeting.. it's right by there.. I didn't get any lunch, so.. " Dar felt a little awkward but relaxed when she saw Kerry's eyes light up. "Haven't had that in a long time."

"Sure." The younger woman agreed enthusiastically. "I've been waiting for a chance.. none of my friends like Thai, so.. it was wait around for someone who does, or go by myself." She made a face. "I hate doing that."

Dar glanced at her hands. "I've gotten used to it over the years." She commented lightly. "But I know what you mean." She stood up. "Okay.. well, then let's get going.. that meeting's set for five o'clock."

"I'll get my things, and meet you at the elevator." Kerry agreed, and trotted out.

The room seemed so much more empty without her in it, Dar mused. She hardly knew why she'd brought up the restaurant, other than the fact that she was hungry now.. and…


Dar chewed her lip. "And you like spending time with the kid." She told herself wryly. "Come on, just admit it.. she's got a fresh perspective… a whole lot different from yours, and for some crazy reason, she likes you." A soft sigh. "Damned if I know why, either."

She sat pondering that for a moment more, then gathered her things, and headed out.


"So…her secretary goes in, and gets the cup, then washes it out with vinegar!" Kerry picked up a stuffed shrimp, and took a bite. "Wow.. that's great.. where was I… oh.. I'm standing there, getting coffee, and I just looked at her.."

"Mm." Dar nibbled on her own shrimp and listened, getting a kick out of the stories of things she certainly never saw. "Vinegar, huh? That explains a lot about Vi."

"Shh…right.. so I see she doesn't even rinse the cup, then she pours decaf into it…my curiosity finally got the better of me.. I asked her what she was doing, and she just kinda laughed." Kerry cautiously took a sip of the amber fluid in the wine glass that had just been set before her. "Oh… that is good."

"I don't drink much, but I can take a glass or two of this." Dar admitted. "I keep a bottle of it around the house…nice to sip out on the balcony sometimes."

"I try not to go over my limit a lot." Kerry sighed. "They get me out at a club once in a while though, and I usually regret it in the morning." She took another sip of the plum wine. "Anyway.. so I ask her, and she tells me that she, and a few of the other secreta…excuse me, administrative assistants… " They exchanged rolled eyes. "A few of them really want this other coffee vendor to do the building.. or at least the floor. But this one is the building manager's cousin, or brother in law, or whatever.. so they won't change even though they think the coffee's lousy."

Dar bit through another appetizer, which was shrimp stuffed with crabmeat and deep fried until it was crunchy. It had an orange/honey/ginger dipping sauce she particularly liked. "Well.. it's not the best, but it's not the worst either… " She commented of the coffee.

"That's what I thought, too… I mean, it's office coffee.. not Starbucks, for Christ's sake." Kerry shook her head. "But they've got this scheme.. they put the vinegar in her boss's coffee, because they know she's got a big mouth, and she'll complain all the time… then if she does that long enough, they'll change."

Dar laughed. "Oh, hell… Vi does complain about that constantly, too… I'm in trouble now.. next time we have an executive committee meeting, and she starts going on about the coffee, I'm going to lose it." She relaxed in her chair. "Why don't they just buy whatever damn coffee they like, and bring it in?"

Kerry eyed the large plate of white rice, and the container of chicken curry that had just been set down in front of her. "Uh oh.. looks like I'll have lunch tomorrow out of this."

"Bet you don't." A quick grin edged the dark haired woman's face. "It's got a way of disappearing.

"Yeah.. into me." Kerry patted her stomach wryly. "Oh.. about the coffee.. well, that's what I suggested to her, I mean.. they've been doing this for three months, Dar… in that time, they could have hired Juan Valdez as consultant, you know?"

Dar snickered.

"They looked at me like I was a three headed dog." The blond woman lifted her hands in a shrug. "They made a snarky comment about how not everyone worked for you and got paid megabucks."

A dark brow lifted. "You're not my secretary." Dar stated flatly. "I pay people what they're worth."

Kerry blushed slightly, and fiddled with her plate a little, mixing her rice with the fragrant curried chicken. "I just told them I guess I picked the right boss, then." She lifted her eyes shyly and met Dar's. "And I think that's true, regardless of what I was getting paid."

Dar was silent for a moment, absorbing the unexpected compliment. "So.. does that mean I haven't scared you off yet?" Her tone was joking, but there was a serious undercurrent to it.

"I guess that's what it means." Kerry replied. "I really like what I'm doing… I'm learning so much." She exhaled and gave Dar a smile.

"That's a relief." Her boss answered quietly. "As of tonight, you've officially lasted the longest ever of my assistants… congratulations." Dar lifted her glass, and held it up, letting a quiet, almost wistful smile touch twist her lips as Kerry touched her glass to it "Wasn't quite what you expected two weeks ago, hmm?"

A small laugh. "No… it sure wasn't, but… I've learned that sometimes things happen for a reason.. I think this is one of those things." Kerry reflected that toasting her new boss with plum wine over very good chicken curry wasn't what she expected either, but she'd take that, too. "No complaints."

Dar was contented. She'd made the right choice, and events were proving that out to the point where even Duks had made a comment, nudging her in the ribs and complimenting her on Kerry's handling of some account or other. "Thought you were picking for looks there, my friend… guess I was wrong." She'd smirked in response. "You're so superficial, Dukky… you gotta learn to look beneath the surface." She'd gotten a good employee, and a smart manager, and..


Their eyes met casually, and Dar felt a gentle warmth in her gut. Good god, I might have even found a friend, scary as that thought is. At least someone she could have dinner with once in a while without worrying about being bored. "Glad to hear it."

Kerry sighed happily, and chewed her curry. "So.. " She swallowed. "In this 'us and them' thing, who, exactly, is us, Dar??" She wiped her lips. "Because you need so many score cards in that office, I'm considering putting it in an Access database."

Dar almost inhaled a bit of rice. "Don't make me laugh like that.. I'll choke." She protested. "Okay… well, who is us…. That's a hard question, because everyone has their own agenda, you realize that, right?"

Kerry nodded, but didn't speak as she munched.

"Duks…that's Lou Draefus, and Mariana and I usually team up in senior level meetings. That frustrates Sales and Marketing, because between Finance, Personnel, and Ops… well, they call us Cerebus behind our backs, speaking of the three headed dog." Dar explained between bites. "Duks and I go way back… he was an account level comptroller when I started, and we found out we worked well together, so they teamed us up on a lot of things… it worked for both of us."

"Why do you call him Duks?" The blond woman asked, curiously.

A smirk edged Dar's face. "It's a long, embarrassing story involving a gym bag, the artificial lake outside, a duck, and me having to have the carpets on the tenth floor dry cleaned…I won't go into it."

"Please don’t." Kerry spluttered, holding her napkin to her mouth. "I don’t think I could take it… my head may explode." She cleared her throat. "Okay.. so, Lou, Mariana, and you are a clique."

Dar considered that. "Well.. I guess." She shrugged. "We know we can depend on each other - at least in the context of running our divisions." She swallowed. "S and M are natural adversaries.. they try to push the boundaries and sell things that sometimes overreach our capacity.. it's my job to not let them do that." She took a sip of wine, draining her glass, then motioned for the waiter to refill it. "Duk's number crunchers have to approve all the contracts.. so between us, we have a pretty big stick."

"Mm." Kerry mulled this over, smiling as the waiter offered to fill her glass and nodding. "You have the most clout though, don't you?"

Dar put a bit of chicken in her mouth and bit down, slicing through it neatly. "I make things happen." She stated bluntly. "Or not.. so I guess I do." She considered. "It's a double edged sword though.. because I have to deliver one hundred percent of the time."

"That's a lot of pressure." Kerry acknowledged. "They say Lou and Mariana are lovers.. is that true?"

A little silence fell, as Dar considered how to answer that. "I've never been invited into their bedrooms."

Kerry flushed. "Sorry.. that was an inappropriate question."

"No… gossip is a fact of life in a place that size." Dar sighed. "Any time you have two people who spend a lot of time together, you get that kind of thing spreading around… I've heard the rumors, and they are very good friends, but beyond that… who knows?"

"People spend a lot of time wondering." Kerry shrugged. "Seems kind of counterproductive to me."

Dar chuckled. "You'd be surprised what's fair game for speculation.. for instance, I heard yesterday that there was something going on between Maria and the night security chief."

"What?" Kerry's head jerked up. "Maria's married!"

A faint smirk. "And you point is…?" Dar archly inquired. "Seems she was seen talking to him in one of the supply rooms in a very low voice."

Kerry snorted. "Bullshit.. I was there!" She protested. "She was telling him one of the junior clerks was taking reams of paper out of the building."

"See?" Dar chuckled. "It's insidious."

The blond woman's face sobered. "Maria would be very hurt to find out people were talking about her that way." She stated quietly. "She's a very devout woman.. and the way she talks about her husband, I think she really loves him."

Dar smiled. "I think you're right, which is why I told the person telling me that if I heard it ever again, I was going to root out who was saying it, and fire them on the spot."

Kerry stared at her. "Can you really do that?"

A quietly impish grin transformed Dar's usually sober face. "No.. but everyone thinks I can.. so it works out great."

The green eyes across from her gentled into something very like awe. "I guess that's why I don't hear much gossip about you, huh?" She murmured.

Dar blushed a little under her gaze, and dropped her eyes, fiddling with her fork. "The reputation comes in handy sometimes, yes." She admitted. "I tend to be very protective of my staff… those that stay on, anyway.. and most people know that."

Kerry laughed softly. "Well. I certainly feel safe." She looked up and met pale blue eyes gazing back at her, and a faint, not unpleasant shiver went down her back. "But I'll try not to do anything that gets me talked about."

"Fair enough." Dar replied quietly, glancing up as the waiter removed their plates, and set down a warm platter with tiny Thai doughnuts and sweet dipping sauce in the center of the table. "We didn't…"

"No.. is come with your dinner." The man hastened to explain, with a little bow.

They exchanged wry glances, and Dar shrugged. "Thanks." She chuckled a little, and picked one up, dipping it in the sauce and tasting it. "Mm.. these are good." She informed the watching Kerry.

Who sighed. "I was afraid you were going to say that." She sampled one. "The one downside to working for you.. it's dangerous for my waistline.. you and all your cookies and things."

Dar stopped, and licked her fingers. "I want to make sure you're not going to blow away if they open the doors up there." She stated, with a little chuckle. "A justifiable concern, I think…if you don't mind me saying so."

Kerry stared at her, puzzled. "What do you mean?"

Uh oh. Dar realized she'd just stepped into dangerous waters. She almost slapped herself, realizing she knew better than to assume her view of someone and their view matched. "Um…just…ah.. nevermind." She waved a hand, refusing to voice her opinion that the blond woman was what she considered almost dangerously thin, since Kerry herself obviously didn't share it.

Blond brows furrowed. "I don't 'nevermind' well." She stated, apologetically. "Now you've got me curious." She leaned forward a little. "What?"

Dar mentally cursed herself out, disgusted that she'd gotten herself into this particular corner. "Um… " She took a breath. "It's just my opinion, and doesn't count, but I think you should maybe consider not starving yourself quite so much." She reached over and took Kerry's hand, turning it over and putting a thumb against the prominent bones in her wrist. "It's probably why you're so cold all the time."

It took Kerry several seconds before she could sort through the little speech, mostly because she was focusing on the incredible warmth of the fingers curled around her arm. Dar was referring to her habit of swaddling up in a down jacket, to ward off the chill of the fourteenth floor. She studied the tanned skin intently, before she looked up and met Dar's pale eyes. "Your opinion counts." She sighed a little. "And you're probably right… I just get a lot of flak from my folks otherwise, and it's easier not to have to put up with that."

Dar released her, instinct telling her there was more to the story, but realizing it crossed personal boundaries she had no right to intrude on. "Well.. just a thought." She smiled, to ease the tension that had formed. "Maybe I can come up with some healthier snacks upstairs.. broccoli brownies or something."

Kerry let out a surprised chuckle. "I bet you hate broccoli." Her eyes twinkled.

A hint of a mischevious look danced across Dar's face. "Someone once told me it stunted your growth.. " She indicated herself with a hand. "I never touched the stuff."

The blond woman relaxed, glad the conversation had led to different areas. "How tall are you, anyway? I didn’t realize just how much taller you were than I am until the other day, when we were in the elevator together with all those mirrors."

"A little over six feet." Dar acknowledged, with a rueful grin. "Without heels." She was glad she'd successfully turned Kerry's attention away from herself, but noticed her smaller companion was cheerfully finishing off the tiny doughnuts and smiled inwardly. My opinion counts, eh? And your folks are in Michigan, kid.. what's up with that? "Hey, thanks for indulging in my whims, here…this place is pretty good."

Kerry sat back with her wine glass, and finished it off thoughtfully. "Yeah.. it really is.. I think I can mark it down as a new favorite."

Dar considered a moment, then interlaced her fingers, and rested her chin on them. "Well, anytime you can't find anybody else to come over here with, gimme a call."

A quiet smile crossed the blond woman's face. "That's a deal."


Kerry mused quietly about her evening as she changed out of her work clothes, and into a T-shirt and shorts. She glanced up as a soft knock sounded, and sighed. "C'mon in."

Colleen bounded in, and put her hands on her hips. "And where have you been, young lady? Don't tell me the gorgon has you working late already.. I'm telling you, Ker… you can't let her rope you into those kinda hours."

"Not exactly.." Kerry chuckled, pulling out her roller blades. "I mean.. yes, we had a late meeting, but it was down here, and we… I found someone to go eat Thai with me, so I tried out that new restaurant I was telling you about."

"They sauté cats, y'know." Colleen advised her, plopping down on the couch and removing her own skates from around her neck. They'd planned to go out skating, and she'd been watching for Kerry's car. "Not that you can tell what the hell's in there in any case."

The blond woman rolled her eyes. "It was chicken, Col… just chicken, rice, some stuffed shrimp, and these really nice little doughnuts for dessert." She pulled on a skate, and tightened the laces. "And it's Vietnamese that uses cats, not Thai."

"Mmhmm.. so.. should I be jealous? You've got a new friend at work, eh? What's his name?" Colleen coaxed mischievously. "How'd you con him into trying roast dog?"

Kerry stopped, and rested her hands on her knee before looking up. "Um.. it's a her, and it's Dar, and she didn't need any conning. She likes Thai."

Colleen's jaw dropped. "No shit? You were out having dinner with your boss, again?" She clucked under her breath. "If I didn't know you better, I'd be thinking you were doing some first class butt kissing here."

"Tch… you're just pissed because I finally found someone who'll eat that stuff with me." A soft laugh. "Besides… she's kinda fun."

The redhead slapped her hand to her temple. "I didn't hear that." She plugged both ears. "I'm not listening to you tell me that fire breathing dragon is 'fun'… Kerry, this is the bitch who was going to fire you and everyone at Associated two weeks ago, remember?"

"Don't call her that." Kerry bristled unexpectedly. "She was just doing her job."

"That's what the Nazi's said." Colleen replied unrepentantly. "I can't believe you're sitting here defending her."

Kerry finished tying her laces, then stood, balancing easily. "It's different now, Colleen.. I understand a lot more about what was going on behind all the decisions she was making… she's not a bad person."

"So.. it's okay for her to just fire everyone now?" The redhead stared at her. "Is that what you're saying?"

"No." The blond head shook negatively. "Understanding is not the same as agreeing with… it's just that I can take what she does separate from who she is."

Colleen grabbed her head with both hands. "You're confusing the shit out of me."

"Well, put on your skates and let's get going." Kerry sighed. "Look.. it's simple - I don't like what she does.. it's why I decided to try and join her department, maybe I can get her to change her mind on things. But I do like who she is.. I like her, as a person - regardless of what she does at work… you understand?"

Her friend finished tying off her skates and stood, wobbling a little. "I understand she's charmed the hell out of you, that's for sure." She shook her head. "Just… Kerry, be careful, okay? I don't want to see you throw yourself into this job, only to have it backfire on you, and have her screw you over."

She wouldn't do that. The words came naturally to her lips, without thought, but Kerry clamped her jaw shut on them, realizing it wasn't something she could easily explain knowing. "I'll be careful.. I know sometimes things can get ugly, especially at the level she's at.. thanks for being concerned about me."

"Mmph." Colleen grumbled. "Someone's got to be… " She followed Kerry out the door and down the sidewalk. "So.. how's she treating you up there, anyway?"

The blond woman swung into an easy rhythm, heading down the paved street. "Pretty good, really… she keeps sabotaging me with cookies.. she thinks I don’t' weigh enough. " She gave Colleen a wry look. "We share a lot of the same tastes in goodies."

"Ah." Her friend nodded. "Okay.. she gets a point then." She paused. "But only one, mind you." She tugged at Kerry's shirt. "I've been telling you that for months."

"Yeah, yeah." The blond woman rolled her eyes. "Come on.. I'll race you to the corner."


Kerry entered the conference room, and gave a smiling nod to the assembled group as she slipped into a chair halfway down the table. It was the first meeting she was going to attend without Dar's comforting presence by her side, and she was a little nervous. She put her PDA down on the table, and glanced around, folding her hands together.

The meeting was to coordinate a project to replace the current technology they were using for their huge intranetwork with a more advanced type, and that affected virtually everyone in the company. Dar had meant to attend, but she was in the middle of straightening out a huge problem affecting the entire west coast, and had told Kerry to just go on, take notes, and not to agree to anything.

Easy enough.

She was a little worried about Dar, though.. the morning had started out fine, but after she'd taken care of the day's urgent morning email, she'd stopped by to check on something, and found her boss standing by her window, staring out at the water with a grim expression. Her questions had been answered with a dismissive absence, and she had to fight the desire to prod the tall woman for what was bothering her.

So she sat here, instead, worrying about someone she barely knew, and sitting in a meeting she was barely prepared for. Kerry sighed. Good thing it was Friday. She glanced up as a tall, bearded man stepped to the head of the table, and sat down, riffling some papers in front of him, then looking at her with an unpleasant frown.

"Do I understand we're not deemed important enough for Ms. Roberts to be here?"

Kerry bit her tongue for a minute, then cleared her throat. "Actually.. she's cleaning up a mess out in the western region.. she asked me to sit in for her."

The younger man sitting next to him winced. "Ouch.. the Pacific deal?"

Kerry nodded. "She forced Unisys to ship those mainframes a week early, and she was pushing some of the folks out there to get a team out for install."

The bearded man didn't look any happier, but he grunted, and focused his attention on his papers. "Well, all right.. let's get started with this." He glanced at his neighbor. "You have a technology presentation?"

Kerry settled in, opening her PDA and scribbling a few notes as the lights dimmed, and circuit diagram flashed on the screen.

Dar took a sip of the water on her desk, and focused her attention on the woman sitting in front of her desk. The Marketing VP was busy outlining a new scheme, and wanted Dar's input on whether or not their current infrastructure would be able to handle it.

She took a breath, and swallowed, forcing down the nausea that had added itself to her daily headache, today's being worse than usual, so bad that she suspected what she was suffering was actually a migraine. It had started with a spell of tunnel vision, the edges of her sight blurring with a whirling, sparkling blurriness. Then the pain had started, at the base of her skull and working upward, the throbbing so bad it was making her stomach upset. The Marketing VP's voice wasn't helping. Evaliine had an unfortunate New York accent, and Dar felt herself losing her concentration, wanting nothing more than to curl up in a dark place and tune the world out.

But she couldn't. There was too much to do, so she grimly sucked down more water, calculating whether she could risk downing another four or five ibuprofan. "Looks good, Evaline…we can work out the bandwidth, but I'd write in the overhead for additional T3's into those contracts."

The woman scribbled a note, nodding. "Yes.. yeah… we can do that."

The phone rang, and Dar punched the speakerphone button. "Yes?"

"Dar, we've got a problem." Mark's voice was irritated. "T and T requested internet access for some of their senior techs, and they've got an open TCP/IP stack on their boxes. I can proxy them, but there's a chance someone can get into them from that damn intranet they support and hit us from the inside."

"Fine. No." Dar uttered, resting her head on her hand. "Tell T and T nothing doing."

"I did. "Mark replied. "But Uthai's complaining up and down the place and chewing my ass."

Dar took a breath and released it. "Tell him I said no." She answered evenly. "Tell him if he has a problem with that, he can call me directly and I'll tell his little, punky, unintelligble ass no."

Momentary silence. "Okay." Mark answered, slowly, drawing out the word.

"And you can tell him from me, if he's so stupid he can't understand a simple concept like network security, we can find him a new position painting stripes outside in the parking lot of the Bank of New Zealand." Dar continued, her voice deepening into a growl.

Longer silence. "I think I'll let you tell him that." The MIS chief finally replied, with a hesitant chuckle. "I don't want to deprive you of the pleasure."

The thobbing got worse, and Dar suspected she was near throwing up, the very thought of which made her head hurt even more. "Thanks." She hung up, then looked at Evaline. "Are we done?"

The petite, blond woman blinked at her. "You all right, Dar?" She politely inquired. "Not that you usually aren't in a foul mood, but this seems a bit much even for you."

Blue eyes pinned her mercilessly. "Are we done?" Dar repeated, testily.

The woman stood, and shook her head. "Yes… have a nice…weekend, Dar." She paused. "Or whatever." She walked out, closing the door behind her with an unnecessary force, and gave Maria a look. "She's got a bug up her ass today, doesn't she?" Her eyes fell on Kerry, who had just entered the office, and was now standing near the secretary's desk.. "Oh.. sorry, honey…you're still kinda new, aren't you? Haven't gotten sick of her yet? My god.. you've lasted six times as long as the others.. you must be a very patient person."

Kerry gazed at her. "I try to be." She replied mildly, as the woman just shook her head, and walked out. The blond woman turned her attention back to Maria. "She has been pretty upset all day… is something up?"

Maria shrugged. "I tell you.. something is wrong, but she won't say." The secretary lowered her voice. "I worry…she got a call from the doctor today.. early this morning, she's been so quiet since." She nudged Kerry. "You better go in.. she was asking where you were."

"Okay… " Kerry sighed, then picked up her offering of coffee, and gently tapped on the door, pushing it open as she heard the low response. She entered to find Dar seated behind her desk, her arms resting on it's surface. "Hey.. you looking for me?" As she moved closer, she noticed the pale tinge to her boss's normally tanned skin and she set the coffee down, peering at the taller woman in concern.

"Yeah. " Dar exhaled. "Um… those contracts, the ones Duks wanted reviewed.. did you take them? I can't seem to .. "

"Dar?" Kerry had come all the way around the desk, and knelt at her side, putting a hand on her arm. "Hey… are you okay?"

Dar's brows creased. "Yeah… I've just got a lousy headache."

"You look terrible." Kerry forged ahead with typical tactlessness, something she seemed to suffer only with Dar. "God.. you're sweating… "

"Just.. " The older woman drew herself up, taking a long breath. "I'm all right… I need to find those contracts… I told Duks I'd get them back to him this afternoon."

Kerry studied her for a moment. "All right.. I'll see if I can find them…I was reviewing them, but I thought I brought them back. Let me check my office."

Dar nodded in agreement, and let her head rest on one hand. "Good enough."

She started to leave, walking towards the small door which lead to the back corridor between their offices, then stopped, and turned, taking her courage in both hands and returning to the desk. "Dar?"

Blue eyes glanced up at her in minor annoyance. "What?"

Kerry perched on the edge of the polished wood. "Um… why don't you go home? "

"Don’t be ridiculous, Kerry." Dar said, testily. "There's noth.. " She clamped her jaw down tight, as her stomach threatened to rebel and closed her eyes. "Damn."

"Dar?" The blond woman's voice took on a gentle softness. "Come on.. let me take you home, okay? You can lie down.. I know you'll feel better."

"There's too much to do." Dar protested wearily. "I can't."

"I'll do it… come on.. I'll drop you off, then I'll come back here and finish stuff up." Kerry coaxed. "Hey.. it's Friday afternoon.. you can take a few hours."

Dar stared at her. Kerry was good at persuasion, and she knew it, but since when did she let that work on her? The sea green eyes warmed and gentled as the blond woman regarded her, and suddenly Dar just wanted to give in. It hurt too much to do anything else. "All right." She surrendered, leaning back in her chair and letting her head rest against the cool leather. She kept her eyes closed, listening to Kerry shutting down her computer, and the faint jingle as she captured Dar's car keys from the top drawer.

"Come on." Kerry urged quietly.

"Yeah.. all right." Dar pushed herself to her feet, then shouldered her laptop and followed as Kerry lead the way across the room and opened the door. She gave Maria a look as the secretary glanced up, startled. "Maria… I'm um… "

Kerry held up the car keys behind Dar's back and exchanged worried looks with Maria.

"You're.. offsite at a meeting." Maria said, quietly. "Emergency calls only, aie?"

Dar nodded. "That'll do."

The walk outside was quiet, Kerry was amazed they managed to escape the building without Dar being stopped a half dozen times, but it seemed they picked the right time, when everyone else was either in afternoon meetings or still at lunch. She was a little nervous, unsure of herself in taking such a forceful attitude with Dar, but a look at her pale, drawn face quickly squashed any misgivings.

She got the executive settled in the passenger seat, then walked around and prudently adjusted the driver's side to accommodate her lesser inches. "Where do you live, anyway?" She inquired , hesitantly.

Dar smiled wearily. "Get on McArthur Causeway, and go east. It's the last light before you go over the final bridge over to the beach."

Kerry stared at her in confusion. "Dar, that's the Coast Guard terminal."

A faint chuckle. "Not quite.. it's a ferry base just to the west of that." She exhaled. "Place called Fisher Island.. you gotta take a boat to go there."

Kerry slowly put the Lexus into gear, and eased out of the parking lot, turning right and heading for the causeway. "Oh." She mused. "I've heard of that." She shot her companion a worried look. ""Do you have something you can take for that? I mean… you look like it hurts pretty bad."

"The island pharmacy is filling a prescription I got yesterday." Dar answered quietly. "I think this is a migraine.. I've never had one before, but it's really lousy."

"Ouch." Kerry turned onto the causeway and proceeded east. "I've had those a few times… did it start off with your vision going weird?"

A faint nod.

"Stomach ache?" Kerry inquired sympathetically.

Another nod.

"It's a migraine." The blond woman made a face. "I usually find a dark place somewhere to sleep it off."

There was silence for a bit. "How'd the meeting go?" Dar finally asked, as she was turning right into the ferry terminal, and proceding cautiously through the cone marked lanes. The ferry was just pulling up, so Kerry put the car in park, and considered the question.

"All right, I guess.. the guy who chaired it, Michael something.. he was really nasty - he had a bad attitude, but the presenter for technology was good."

"Districa." Dar nodded. "Hates my guts." She opened an eye and waved at the security guard, who lifted a hand in response. "Just drive onto the ferry. They'll tell you when to stop."

Kerry obeyed, edging the Lexus onto the ramp, then into it's assigned lane, where a white shirted deckhand motioned her. She braked when he held up a hand, then she watched as he chocked the wheels carefully. Once all the cars were loaded, the ramp was raised, and the ferry chugged away from the dock. Now she had some time to shift her eyes to the right, and study her companion. "How'd Pacific go?"

Dar kept her eyes closed, and leaned her head against the doorframe, which was cool from the air conditioning. "Done." She murmured. "I had to threaten to close a division, but the bastards finally made it out there."

"Chalk another one up for DR, then." Kerry smiled, watching as the ferry closed with the island terminal. "They were really worried about that one.. I heard Mr. Draeyfus talking about it on the elevator with that person from Marketing."

"Mm." Dar winced, and swallowed hard, as her stomach twisted. She was pathetically grateful for Kerry's driving her home, the way she felt, she'd probably have ended up in Biscayne Bay. No. Her mind wearily objected. She wouldn't have left at all, and that would have been just stupid. "Thanks for making me see reason, by the way."

Green eyes regarded her warmly, as Kerry just kept herself from reaching out and squeezing her boss's arm. "You looked so miserable…I couldn't stand it."

A pale blue orb appeared and regarded her curiously. "You couldn’t stand it?"

Kerry took a breath, then released it, unsure of how exactly to explain her comment. She was saved the trouble by the ferry docking, which required her to concentrate on what she was doing. She pulled the Lexus up the ramp, into a welcoming spray of water which rinsed the salt off the car. Then she proceeded down the only road she could see, coming to a T intersection, and looking at Dar in question. "Right or left?"

"Right." Dar replied. "Go to the second inset left turn, the sign says "Seaside"… drive in, then go into the bay on the end."

Kerry glanced around curiously. The island featured a small golf course in it's center, and the apartments surrounded the perimeter. There wasn't much car traffic, but she spotted several golf carts whirring along the road, and the trees which surrounded the course isolated the apartments from it. She turned where Dar indicated, and pulled into a condo complex, which held several clusters of homes, each set at right angles to each other. "Down there?" She indicated the underground parking.

Dar nodded. "Yeah… first or second spot on the left.. doesn't matter which one you pick."

"All right." Kerry pulled the car into a spot, then set the parking break. "Here we are."

"So it seems." The dark haired woman replied wryly. "We didn't think this out really well, Kerry… if you give me a chance to swallow a few pills, and let this die down, I'll take you back for your car."

"Don’t' be ridiculous." The blond woman firmly disagreed. "I can take a cab, thanks… you're here because you don't feel well, remember?" She opened the door and hopped, literally, out. "Damn, this is a high car.. listen, I'll just get you settled, then get out of here and out of your way."

Dar dragged herself upright, and got out, leaning against the car as she closed the door, and breathing in the fresh ocean breeze with a sense of mild relief. She lead the way up to her door, plucking the package hanging from her mailbox off and glancing at it. "Ah.. the drugs.. Good."

"They deliver it here?" Kerry was looking around, her fingers trailing against the thick stonework. She followed at Dar's back as the taller woman unlocked the door and pushed it open, a waft of cleanly scented air hitting her in the face.

She walked into a spacious room, with a vaulted ceiling. The immediate impression she got was of cool, clean openness, with eggshell colored walls, two dark leather sofas, and marble floors. Her attention was immediately captured by the huge framed print over the couch, a planetscape in dark, vivid, vibrant colors which seemed to jump out a her in the low light. "Wow."

Dar turned, with a puzzled expression, then managed a smile. "You really didn't expect wooden crate furniture, did you? I thought I gave a better impression than that."

Kerry walked over to the picture and stared at it. "That's amazing."

The taller woman continued on towards the kitchen. "Thanks…there's an artist who does those.. he makes that spidery tracework with live electricity."

"What?" Kerry caught up with her as she reached the doorway and entered the huge kitchen. "Whoa… " She yelped, turning in a circle and taking in the square room, with it's neatly kept applicances. "You could fit my car in here." She laughed. "I thought my mother's kitchen was big."

Dar took a glass from the cabinet and opened the refrigerator door, pouring milk into it from the dispenser, then ripping open her medication bag impatiently. "If you wait for this stuff to work… I'll give you the nickel tour." She got the bottle open, and checked the dosage, taking two pills out and popping them in her mouth, followed by a swallow of milk. "Hope I can keep those down." She grimaced, leaning against the counter as a wave of pain tightened around her skull.

Unable to keep her hands to herself any longer, Kerry gently took hold of her companion's elbow. "Come on… which way is your bedroom?"

Dar took a steadying breath, and straightened up. "I can make it… thanks." The warmth around her arm disappeared, and she pulled her jacket off as she made her way into the bedroom. The cool blue tones immediately soothed her, and she managed to get out of her work clothes and into her shirt and boxers without throwing up. "Hey… " She called out to Kerry, who poked her head in the room. "Listen.. I.. I think I'd better lie down until this stuff kicks in… " She sensed Kerry moving closer, but the woman didn't touch her again. "There's a terminal in the study.. if you wanted to finish up that stuff."

Kerry studied the perceptibly swaying woman, and sighed. She stepped forward again, and put a hand on her arm. "Come on.. don’t worry about me."

Dar didn't resist the touch this time. She let herself sink down onto the bed, and curled onto her side, clamping her jaw down on another wave of nausea. The pain tightened again and she wrapped an arm over her head, finding it hard to breathe, it hurt so much.

"Here… roll over." The voice was quiet and familiar and she obeyed, feeling hands gently probing at the ache in her neck. She was dimly aware that it was Kerry, and that she shouldn't be letting the woman do what she was doing, but her body was past caring, and relaxed into the touch with a sense of blissful relief.

"Easy… wow..that's really tight… hold on." Kerry worked at the tense shoulders, feeling uncertain, and very awkward. Dar's skin felt nice and warm through the soft cotton of her shirt, and she was uncomfortably aware of just how inappropriate this all was.

She was also uncomfortably aware of how much she was enjoying doing it.

It took a while, until she could feel the knots release under her fingers, and by that time Dar was edging towards sleep. Kerry stopped her work, and removed one hand, but kept the other there, making gentle circles with just her fingertips, which only stopped when she realized the dark haired woman was deeply asleep, her breathing steady and even.

She withdrew her touch, then stood, and backed out of the room quietly, not stopping until she was in the center of the living room, where she let out a long, held breath. "Whew." She ran a slightly shaking hand through her hair. "Okay.. okay.. just settle down, Kerry.. it's over now… she's all right… just relax."

It worked. Curiously, now, she looked around, taking in the apartment with an appreciative eye. "So this is where you live, huh?" She wandered around the large room, examining the soft leather of the couch. "Ooo.. bet that's comfortable to sit on." She stepped up into the dining room and went to the windows, which were covered with slatted blinds. She lifted a blind up to expose the ocean view, and sighed. "Man, that's nice."

From there, she wandered into the kitchen, peering at the cobalt blue appliances, which showed little use, and the center food prep island, which showed even less. "You don’t' spend much time in here, do you?" She peeked inside the refrigerator, and shook her head. "Good grief, Dar…. Do you expect me to believe you live on milk, chocolate chip cookies, and.. " She opened the freezer. "Frozen pizza?" She slapped her head in disbelief. "I'm not seeing this." She looked again. "Oh.. excuse me.. and ice cream."

She left the sadly ill stocked kitchen and made another circuit around the living room. A door led off to the right, and she poked her head in, seeing a large desk complete with computer. "Ah.. the study." She glanced up the stairs curiously, then trotted up the carpeted steps, finding three rooms and two bathrooms there, one bedroom apparently meant to be the master bedroom from it's size, and wraparound balcony open to the sea. She wondered why Dar chose to sleep downstairs, then figured it was probably just easier for her to deal with one level, since she..

Kerry looked around again, then went downstairs and took in the quiet living room. Since she lived here alone. Her eyes flicked to the entertainment center, then to the living room table, and she realized that other than the large picture above the couch, there was nothing personal in the room.

No pictures. No clothes scattered around. No diplomas.. or quirky, knick knack items…

Nothing. It was as though the enigmatic woman who lived here was just visiting.. afraid to put a personal stamp on the place.

Kerry thought about that, as she wandered into the study and sat down at the large, polished desk.

And found a small, framed photograph, which she picked up and brought closer. In it was a younger Dar, dressed in a white karate style outfit, one hand resting on a tall trophy, the other arm wrapped around an older man, who was grinning proudly at the camera, and pointing to her. His bearded face was strongly reminiscent of Dar's, and his eyes were the same pale blue. She turned the picture over, and read the words penciled on the back. "Two of a kind. 1990"

"Hm." Kerry carefully put the photo back down, then considered what to do. She could just leave - Dar was sleeping, there was no longer a need for her to hang around here. The phone was there, she could call a cab.

On the other hand, Dar had sort of said it was okay for her to stay.. by telling her where the desk was, and kind of assuming she'd do something with it.

On a third hand, the prescription had said to take one, and Dar had taken two, and wasn't it dangerous to leave someone sleeping like that?

Two hands to one. Kerry gave a brisk nod, and flipped the computer on. "I can finish up everything from here.. in fact.. " Her eyes found the HP Laserjet 4Si tucked against one side of the desk. "Heck.. I can even reprint those dumb reports."

Satisfied, she waited for the machine to boot, then logged in with her own logon. The system hesitated for quite a while, then obediently gave up her personal menu. She signed into a terminal session, then got to work.

Continued In Part 5 (okay.. so I said it was going to be short. I lied - it's writing faster than I imagined it would)