Disclaimers - Nope, none. My characters, my hometown, my pseudo company. Dar and Kerry are (amazingly) copyrighted people belonging to themselves, who are renting their lives to me for reasons beyond my understanding. This is the sequel to Hurricane Watch.


Eye of the Storm Part 8

By Melissa Good

Kerry trudged into the living room, her Tweety Bird shirt draped over one shoulder, and a bottle of aloe lotion in one hand, meeting Dar coming out of her office, followed by Chino. "Hey.. can I beg a favor?"

Dar observed the nearly naked woman with two hiked brows. "Beg?" She murmured, eyes going a little round.

"Tch." Kerry butted her head against one of her friend's shoulders. "Slather me, please?" She held out the bottle. "I feel like I'm being compressed in saran wrap."

Dar took the aloe and squeezed some out, then delicately turned her subject around and started spreading it. "So. Did you win the bet?" She asked casually, tracing a damp, green line over the pink area across the back of Kerry's neck.

"What bet?" Kerry murmured.

"The fish." A soft drawl that brushed against sensitive skin.

"What fi…oh." Kerry turned her head and peeked. "Um…."

"You…" Dar licked her ear. "Are such a little meddler."

The blond woman assumed a contrite look. "Are you mad at me?"

Dar let her stew for a few minutes, while she finished her spreading, feeling the shoulders under her fingers shift and straighten. "I should be.. you caught me so offguard with that." She finally commented. "Not a really pleasant feeling." She turned Kerry around to face her, and started on the sunburned skin there, aware of the grave eyes searching her face.

"You'd have been too self conscious otherwise." Kerry almost whispered. "I just wanted her to see you have part of her in you."

Dar didn't answer, her face shifting in thought.

"I… I haven't known either of you that long.. but, I sort of sat down and thought about it.. " Kerry's nervousness came out in a torrent of words. "And what it seems to me is that you… and your dad are so close.. you look so much alike, and all that stuff, I thought maybe you…I mean, I thought if your mother could see there is this bit…I.." Kerry had to stop because Dar kissed her, stopping her speech. When they parted, Kerry let out a tiny sigh. "I have this 'solve everyone else's problems' gene that just kicks in sometimes." A shrug. "Besides, I like your mom."

Dar leaned her forehead against her partner's. "I noticed you two seemed to get along." She murmured. "Listen, Kerry… my mother and I have thirty years of whitewater rapids behind us. " She kissed the sunburned skin lightly. "And there are some things that just can't be fixed."

Kerry looked at her sadly.

"At least not right away." Dar hastily amended. "Though… " Her brows knit. "There does seem to be a hell of a lot less we disagree on now." A sigh. "Either she's mellowed out a lot or.. "

"You've grown up." Kerry finished softly.

"Mm." The dark haired woman acknowledged. "Maybe a little of both." She took Kerry's t-shirt and bunched up the fabric, putting it over her head and settling it over her now aloed body carefully. "That was, by the way, an impressively sneaky move, though."

"It was, wasn't it?" Kerry essayed a tentative smile. "You're so hard to do that to. I was really kind of surprised it worked." She rubbed her fingers against Dar's bare skin, between her cutoff shirt and her soft cotton shorts. "Did you mom say anything after I left?"

"No." A thoughtful pause. "But she was thinking."

"Thought so." Kerry exhaled in satisfaction. "She snitched the sketch pad before she left." One green eye winked, and she patted Dar on the side, before she edged around her and headed for the kitchen.

Dar looked after her, and shook her head, acknowledging her partner's pugnatious stubborn streak. Then she followed along, retrieving a glass from the cupboard and squirting some chocolate syrup into it. "Want some?"

"Nu uh." Kerry was busy at the counter, filling a handled mug with some vanilla ice cream, then adding root beer to it. "To each their own poison." She poked at the ice cream with a spoon, making the soda fizzle up. "Whew… I gotta tell you, Dar - your parents wore me out though." She hooked her arm in the dark haired woman's, and tugged her along the living room, where they settled on the couch together, and put their socked feet up on the coffee table. "I hope I've got that kind of energy to spare when I get a little older."

"You and me both." Dar agreed. "They're something else." She observed the foamy moustache gracing Kerry's mouth, and decided to remove it. "Mm." She licked a surprised lower lip. "Maybe I should try one of those."

"Try one of what?" Kerry had set down her glass and half turned, squirming up Dar's body and attempting to retrieve some of her chocolate milk the hard way. "Hmm….oo, I like that… yeah… and I … Jesus! Dar!" Kerry yelped, almost levitating off her lover's lap. "Your hands are COLD."

"Nu uh." Dar moved her touch. "Your skin is hot… sorry, forgot the sunburn." She slid her fingers lower. "Better?"

"Oh.. yeah. Much better." She relaxed again, nuzzling the side of Dar's neck. "Thank goodness for bathing suits."

"Definitely." Dar chuckled, as she slid the cotton t-shirt up and found a tasty navel to nibble, feeling a nice shiver down her back as Kerry leaned over and tasted the top of her spine. . The scent of aloe, and warm skin, and a hint of coconut oil flowed around her, along with the faint rasp as Kerry's breathing deepened. Her teeth tugged playfully on the elastic of the clean cotton underwear she had on, and she felt the blond woman's body shift towards her, obeying the pull with subtle eagerness.

She felt the day's fatigue drop away as she circled the lean waist with her grip and guided Kerry backwards, easing her gently down onto the couch, starting her assault in earnest.

The cold of the leather against her sunburned back momentarily distracted her, but in bare moments, tickling touches and skillful nibbles made her lose track of insignificant details like stinging skin. Her fingers slipped through Dar's hair and caressed the edges of her ears, then wandered further, to the sloping muscles on either side of her neck that were shifting as she touched them. She felt short of breath, and tried to inhale more deeply, but the tension coiling up from her guts kept her body tensed, and shifting, and wanting more.

A low purring growl game from within Dar, sending a powerful jolt right to her groin, and she abandoned herself utterly to the pure, animal joy of it.


"Know something, Andy?"

"Mmm?" The blue eyes were closed.

"I've come to the sad realization that I'm an old fart."

One eyeball appeared. "Yeap." He yawned. "Them kids got too much spunk."

Ceci had discovered a swinging chaise in the screened in area on one side of the cottage, and they were nestled together on that, rocking slowly under the lazily moving wicker fan. "Felt good to get back under the water again, though."

Her husband didn't answer for a minute, then he sniffed, and cleared his throat. "Aches less under thar." He admitted. "Got a lot of hurt in these damn bones." Too many years, and too many injuries, and here, at last, was the one person in the world he'd ever admit that to. At least now, though, it was mostly only bodily hurt, a hell of a lot easier to live with.

Hardly no matter, really.

"I've got some herbal rub…." Ceci offered. "Can I treat you to a massage?"

"Five dollar word for back rub?" He offered a hesitant tease.

"Not really…cause I was going to go way past just your back." She responded wryly, feeling the silent movement as he laughed. "Hey, Andy?"


"You know…you're going to think I'm crazy, but I've been thinking all day about how nice it was on that boat."

"Rally." A low drawl.

"Really.. everything was handy, and it was just so cute in there."

"Uh huh."

"What do you think about getting one of those, instead of a house?"

Long, peaceful moments of dead silence followed.

"You mean to tell me, you want to live on a damn boat?" Andrew finally spluttered. "Thirty some years you aint' wanted nothin but fer me to get off the damn things, and now you wanna get on board one?"

Ceci bit her lip, acknowledging the paradox. "Well…. Yes, actually."

"Son of a biscuit."

"C'mon, Andy… you know you've always wanted one… we could even get you one of those little captain's hats."

"Like hell."

"A blue blazer?"

"Ah have no idea where I can even get me one of these things, woman.. not like you can pick one up in Kmart." The idea had velcroed itself to him, though.

"What.. a blazer? Sure you could, honey…" Ceci assured him, then laughed. "I bet someone on this island knows where to get them… c'mon, maybe they can make it special for us… you can tell them how you want it." A pause. "The boat, I mean. Not the jacket."

Fingers drummed on a cotton covered thigh. "Less you like gray bulkheads, Mrs. Roberts, you better be the decorator in this here crew."

"Does that mean yes?"

"You are serious?" He asked, honestly curious.

Ceci nestled against his shoulder and nodded. "Yes, I am." She answered quietly. "We can lease a slip over at South Beach Marina.. they've got a nice area there, and it's close by."

"Got it all figgered out, huh?"

"We can take off, and go out to the Bahamas if we want… dive the reefs there." His wife pointed out. "Or go down to Key West… watch a few sunsets." The colors appealed to her. "I've been thinking about doing a set of nature scapes… maybe I'll do an underwater."

"No more rock scenes?" Andy asked, stroking the silvered gold hair gently, thinking of the last one he'd seen, up in that little gallery that everyone'd like so much.

Waiting on the edge of the Sea, she'd called it. A seabreak of gray slate, surrounded by sullen gray and foam seas, against a stormy sky, with a lone figure standing in the wind.


"No… my ships in port." A faint smile. "If I painted that today, there would be a break in the clouds, and the sun would be lighting up everything in sight." Ceci exhaled in wonder. "What a difference a week makes."

Yeah. "Wonder how big they make the engines for them things?"

Ceci looked up at him. Uh oh.

Forgot about the boy and his toys."Um… honey?"

"Heh..heh… yeah?"

"Don't forget the seatbelts in the head."


The phone buzzed. "Dar?"

The voice almost made her jump, so intently had she been concentrating on the network layout on her screen. "Yes?"

"I have Mr. Alastair on line uno."

Shit. Dar glanced at her watch. Bastard works fast. "Go ahead." She listened for the click. "Morning, Alastair."

"Morning, Dar." Her bosses voice sounded upset. "I'd catch you on the vid phone, but I'm on the way into the office."

"Really? How's the weather there in Houston." Dar morbidly tried to delay the inevitable. "It's raining here."

"Nice." Alastair sighed. "I guess you know why I'm calling."

She toyed with the notion of denying it. "I've got a good idea, sure." She put a bit of disgust into her tone. "Steve Asshole got home and decided to go ahead with his lawsuit."

Alastair was silent for a moment. "I got a voice mail from him. You're about right, Dar. He's filing suit against you, personally, today for a list of things, most of which I"d just laugh at, but the last thing on the list is the fact that you made decisions intended to bring you personal profit."

"Yeah? Like what? " Dar clicked on a router and checked it's configuration. "Point of fact, Alastair, since I'm a stockholder just about every decision I make is calculated to make me, and all the other stockholders personal profit."

"Meaning, you hired Kerry because you two are lovers."

"I hired Kerry before we were lovers." Dar replied. "I hired Kerry before we were even friends."

"You broke company rules."

"Not then, I didn't."

"Sure you did, Dar. You hired her without benefit of the interview process, and bypassed twenty other more qualified candidates."

Dar was quiet for a few heartbeats. "She was qualified."

"I'm not disputing that, I didn't then, and I don't now, Dar, especially since she's turned in a sterling performance the last six months. Kerry is a good employee, a great manager, and a very good choice for the position she's in."


A sigh. "But the point is, you did break the rules then."


"And the board came down on my ass like a ton of bricks after they had a session with your personnel file."

"When was this?" Dar felt her whole body tense, but she kept her tone light. "Don’t' tell me they worked over the weekend."


"What's their beef? Since when do they care who sleeps with who, Alastair? You know Harby is having a public affair with that country western singer, and Allan Jacobs got busted last month for soliciting underage sex on the Internet."

Alastair sighed audibly. "Their beef is, Ankow wants to make this a very public trial, exposing what happens when you let 'one of those people' be in the kind of position you are."

"He'll lose the suit."

"It doesn't matter. The exposure will be there, regardless, and it's not like we can sweep you under the carpet, Dar."

Dar folded her hands on her desk blotter, her screen forgotten. "What does he want?"

Another long sigh. "You, out. Me, resigning in a reasonable time period. The chairmanship up for a vote of the general stockholders."

She leaned forward. "And?"

"And what?"

"And, what are you going to do?" A sick feeling settled in the pit of her stomach. "You firing me?"

"I'd rather cut my own left nut off." Alastair replied crisply, dropping into an unusual earthiness. "The board is meeting Thursday night. You need to be there. What'll happen after that, I don’t' know, Dar." He went awkwardly silent then drew breath. "This doesn't help you, I know, but my personal position has been, and will be on Thursday that before, during, and now I trust your judgement implicitly, and of all the decisions I've seen you make, there aren't any I regret."

Dar's eyes closed. "It does help, Alastair. He's as much after you, as me… he tried to force me into trying to oust you. I said no. That's where the lawsuit comes in."

There was a long silence, enough for her to clearly hear the sound of the ac unit in her office cycling off and on. "Alastair?"

"You turned him down, hm?" His voice held equal measures of wryness and wistful curiosity. "Let me guess… you told him.."

"To kiss my ass, yes." Dar smiled a bit. "And regardless of what happens, I don't regret that. The man makes me sick, Alastair," She paused. "The board's spooked, huh?"

"Yes." Her boss replied. "But what worries me, Dar, is that he says he has proof your relationship has subverted your judgement.. and that both of you have taken advantage of the company, and your positions to circumvent company rules." He sounded troubled. "What's that all about?"

Dar stood, and went to her window, leaning against the glass and peering out. "Stupidity." She murmured. "I stayed home sick one day last week. Kerry rearranged her schedule and took a half day off. " A head shake. "He followed her to the ferry."

"Well, that's not a big deal."

"No." It was embarrassing, now that she remembered it. "But we went to my high school reunion last Saturday, and he got pictures of us both there."


"With our arms around each other."

"Again, so?"

"Dressed like a pair of biker chicks."

Dead silence. "OH my fucking god." Alastair cursed. "Tell me you're pulling my leg, Dar. I can't believe that."

"Wish I could." Dar crossed back to her desk and resumed her seat. "It was a come as you are, and I don't remember if you remember how I was, but…"

"I remember."

"Well, it made quite a picture." Dar rested her chin on one hand. "I..um… screwed up there, Alastair. I'm sorry."

"Dar, you're the chief information officer of the largest IS company in the world. How could you do something that stupid?"

It had been a very long time since she'd had to accept that kind of rebuke. And she really had no good answer for it, either. "It was a damn party, Alastair." She finally muttered. "I didn't really think about it."

"Jesus." Alastair sounded disgusted.

Dar sighed. "Well, now that you know the worst, I've got to go, Alastair. We're about to start bringing up the new network." She paused. "Guess I'll see you on Thursday." She felt the silence. "Unless you'd just like me to resign now, and save us all the trouble, and me a plane ticket."

Her boss hesitated, then made a sound halfway between a sigh and a grunt. "Are you doing anything in this picture?"


"It was a theme party?"


"Please tell me neither of you is naked."

"We aren't."

"Or drunk."


"Just walking?"

"That's it. We were in the parking lot… he was hanging out there waiting for us, which, now that I think about it, Alastair, is pretty damned strange, since the number of people who knew where I was that night was pretty damned limited."

"Okay. " He replied, with more assurance. "At least I've got a heads up…so when he pulls the damn thing out, I can laugh at it, or find some way to defuse that part of the issue." He sighed. "Least I can do for you putting yourself into the line of fire for me.. but for god's sake, Dar… try to remember you're not some spike haired punk anymore?"

"All right." She answered, with admirable contriteness.

"I tried to call you last night.. you didn't answer your pager."

Dar let out a held breath, but knew the reprieve only very temporary. "We were out on the boat.. with some very special guests." So strange to think of, much less say. "My parents."

"B.." Alastair started, then stopped. "Wait.. b… I tho…" He stopped again. "Didn't..um…I thought I remem…we sent…ah…"

"They made a mistake. He was MIA, and he came home." Dar smiled at the fighting fish, who blew bubbles at her.

"Why the hell didn't you tell me? Do we always have to talk only about disasters?" Alastair blurted, indignantly. "Dar, that's wonderful. I only had the pleasure of meeting your father the once, but I thought he was a wonderful guy, and I was really sorry to hear something had happened to him." A pause. "That's great news."

"Thanks." An alert went off on her monitor, and she switched screens. "Whoops… backbones are coming up.. I've gotta run, Alastair…if I've only got a few days left, I want to make sure this damn network falls into place first."

A soft sigh. "I'll talk to you later, Dar." The line went dead, and Dar looked at the phone for a long moment, before she stood, and picked up her jacket, then headed for the door.


"Hey, Ker!" Colleen's voice rang across Bayside, and Kerry swerved around a clown blowing up balloons to find her. It was girl's night out, and she was more than ready for it after a long, aggravating day, and Dar's grim news on top of it.

"Hey!" She greeted her friend with a hug. "We the first one's here?"

"Yep… c'mon, let's sit down and grab a drink before the crowd arrives." Colleen took her elbow and steered her over towards a table by the bay, taking a seat and waving at a roller skating waiter. "Your usual?"

"Make it a double." Kerry slid down and groaned. "What a bitch of a day."

The waiter took down their order and skated off. "So.. like, what's happening? Last time I saw you was at the bowling alley.. everything work out okay? I didn't want to just call and ask."

Kerry stifled a yawn. "Everything worked out great." She rolled her head to one side and smiled. "Really great… better than I could have imagined, in fact. Dar's father went up there, they got together, and they came back here! We spent all day yesterday with them."

"Really!" Colleen laughed. "That's fabulous!!!" She leaned closer. "So… when do I get to meet this mystery lady? I think Dar's father's a hoot, I can't imagine what someone he'd marry would be like."

Kerry sighed. "Well, we might be having more free time in the near future, so I'm sure we can arrange something." Dar had tried to make light of the whole thing, but even in their brief hallway encounter, she'd picked up how upset her lover was. "Looks like that guy who was causing all that trouble may have really done it."

Colleen gave her a shocked look. "Wait… he's after both of you?"

"Me by association." Kerry accepted her large, festive looking pina colada, selecting the huge chunk of pineapple and taking a bite of it. "Dar says he's not really after her, either - he's really after the company, but he knows he has to either have her on his side, or get rid of her to do that, and she told him to kiss her ass, so…"

"Ugh." Colleen winced. "But where do you come in for all this?"

"Well." Kerry sipped at the frozen drink, blinking at the kick of the rum. "Mm… when they say a double, they mean it. Anyway… " She took another sip. "He's got this trumped up lawsuit about Dar making money off the company, and taking advantage of her position.. one of the things he points out is me."


"Me." Kerry knew she should feel worse about the whole matter, but she didn't. "Me, because I got my job the way I did, and the fact that we live together, and the fact that he's got a picture of us half naked practically crawling all over each other."

Colleen just stared at her.

"It was that party on Saturday.. I told you about it."

"The reunion?"

"Yeah… Dar dressed up like a punk… and part of the deal was, I'd do the same, so I did… it was late, it wasn't really any big deal, we were just walking out to the Harley together, and he took a picture of it. Slimebag must have been hanging out in the parking lot half the night."

"The Harley?"

"Mmhm. Part of the costume, so to speak."

"So… you're not worried about all this?" Her friend leaned forward. "Kerry, you guys could both get fired!"

"We know." Kerry replied. "We were thinking of starting up our own company… you want a job?"

Russet eyelashes just blinked and blinked at her. "You're joking, right?"

"No… why should I be? Dar's got a few bucks set aside… she knows her stuff, I know my stuff.. we've both got a lot of good networking contacts.. it's not like systems design and support is rocket science, Col." Kerry sucked on her straw. "We've been talking about that for a while, as a matter of fact. Too much bs around ISL lately."

"Huh." Colleen sipped her own drink. "Wow.. that's so wild."

"I know." Kerry held up her glass and nodded at the waiter. "I mean… I'm not happy about it, Col.. don't get the wrong idea. Neither is Dar… she's worked for them for fifteen years, for Christ's sake." She paused. "And I won't lie and say it doesn't hurt, I mean, I've done a good job for them, and I know it."

"Kick ass, if you ask me."

Kerry smiled. "And to make it worse, that new network Dar's been busting her ass over for the last couple month's about ready… the new servers came on line today, and she couldn't even enjoy it. It made me really mad.. that system is killer, Col… Dar did such a fantastic job on the design and implementation… it's got everything."

"I heard my bosses talking about it." The redhead nodded. "Clyde was saying he can't wait to get switched over.. it's supposed to improve our processing speed by over forty percent… he was practically drooling right there in the elevator." She exhaled. "That whole thing must sting like hell, then."

"Yeah." Kerry murmured sadly. "I feel so bad… she was so excited about the project, and now she said today it'd at least be nice to see real production data running on it before they lock her out of the systems."

"Damn." Colleen bit her lip. "So.. it's a done deal, or??"

"She's got to go to Houston on Thursday. They've got a big meeting of the board there… she figures they'll do it then." Kerry played with her straw. "And I can't even be there, because I'll be on a plane for stupid Washington. "


'She said she'd just finish up with everything there, then meet me in DC. I guess we'll figure out what to do after that." Kerry murmured. "Maybe take a few weeks off… spend some time hiking, or do Key West, or whatever."

"Live a little?"

"Yeah." A smile. "Depends on how they are though… they might not bother with me at all."

"Would you stay?"

"Are you nuts?" Kerry snorted. "No way… they'd make that asshole Ankow my boss, probably… and I'd have to kill him."

Colleen regarded her. "Oo. Aren't we butch."

"Oh, please." She glanced at the table tent as their server returned. "Can I get a big basket of chips and salsa while we're waiting?"

The waiter smiled as he set down her second drink. "Sure hon.. be right back."

"So. Tell me about this punk outfit?" Colleen sipped her own drink and leaned back. "Punk as in you had safety pins in your nose, or what?"

"Punk as in… a leather bikini." Kerry blushed even as she said it. "Thank GOD I convinced Dar to let me wear jeans with it.. I'd have died if he'd gotten me with the little leather mini skirt it came with."

"A leather bikini!!!" Colleen squealed. "What's this guy's name? I want that picture!!! What was Dar wearing.. the same thing!!!" Her eyes widened nearly to golf ball size. "Oh my god!!"

"Col, calm down before your brains start seeping out your ears." Kerry covered her eyes with one hand. "No.. no.. though.. now that you mention it, I should have had her… well, anyway, no. I picked out a nice, lacy leather vest for her, and she wore that, with jeans and some silver chains and things I scraped up from around the house."

"Leather vest? That doesn't sound like fun."

"Well, it had a lot of openings in it.. in fact, it was mostly a few scraps of leather laced together."

"Still." The redhead shrugged. "Sounds kinda boring, after what you had on."

"Um.. she didn't wear anything under it." Kerry lowered her voice.

"Oh." The red eyebrows knit. "Oh!" Her eyes widened. "Whoooaaa…. Now I'm gonna go find that guy and pry that picture out of his hands with a set of needlenose pliers!" They both laughed, and relaxed. "So, you spend the day out on the water yesterday? You're pink again."

Kerry nodded lazily. "Yeah… went out in the morning, did two long, long reef dives, then went fishing, then did a couple more dives, then had a cookout on the beach at Dar's island." She dug something out of her pocket and handed it over. "Look what I found!"

"Oo." Colleen took the item and examined it. "It's a coin.. wow… is this like, pirate treasure or something?" She watched Kerry smiled, and hitch one denim covered knee over the arm of her chair, consciously acknowledging just how much more self confident and comfortable with herself her friend was now. "So, how is it having in laws?"

Kerry wrinkled up her nose. "It's so weird…I mean, I've always been so cool with Dar's father.. he's a really nifty guy, and I love him to death, and Dar's nuts about him. I thought her mother was going to be such a problem.. but.. in a way, she's not, because there are bits of her that are just like Dar, and I can see that." A tiny head shake. "I don't think they realize it, but they've got a lot of the same reactions, and just little stuff, like the way Dar folds her arms and crosses her ankles, you know, like this.. " She demonstrated. "Her mom does the same thing."

"Huh." Colleen nodded. "Our family's like that… my brothers were doing their Da imitation the other day, and you know, you can just see when those huge lunks are twenty years older, it's gonna be like having six of him around." She stopped. "Oh, Sweet Mary.. what am I saying!" She covered her eyes.

Kerry laughed, then waved as more of their friends appeared. "Here comes the gang… what's the plan, we just going to do dinner, or.."

"Thought maybe some dancing over at the club.." Colleen nodded towards the distant sound of music. "Dar joining us?"

"She can't… she's going to be up in her eyebrows with that network tonight.. I was going to stay, but she chased me out, and told me to have a good time." Kerry nibbled her lower lip.

"Like she hasn't clued in yet that you'd be just as happy sitting with her and punching buttons, or whatever it is she's doing?" Colleen chuckled. "C'mon, let's get wild and crazy… I'm in a macarena mood tonight!"

A chorus of groans.

"We could always do Karaoki!" The redhead warned. "Remember, we had a bet on last time to see what it would take to get Kerry up there and singing."

"There is not that much alcohol in Miami." Kerry muttered under her breath, then stuffed a salsa laden chip in Colleen's reopening mouth. "Okay.. .let's go.. the Hard Rock first, right? I'm itching for a nice big cheeseburger."


"Wow. This place has changed." Ceci remarked, as she edged past a roller skating half naked person coming down the sidewalk.

"Yeap." Andy agreed, as he took a breath of the salty air. "Best cheap entertainment I found yet, though." He eyed a blading woman who skimmed by, then made a small face. "Structural engineer'd have a ball with that one,"

Ceci laughed. They'd spent the morning doing some research on boats, and the marina, then decided to have lunch out on South Beach and take a stroll up the old boardwalk, taking in the new sights and the older ones. "I remember when this was nothing but a sleepy, weatherworn part of the beach, full of retirement hostels." She glanced over Andy's shoulder "Is that a roller skating dog?"

"Yeap." Her husband nodded. "Usta sit over there.." He pointed to a small balcony near a motel being rebuilt. "Watch that damn dog come up and down.. finally figgured out what his deal was."


"Guy owned him, worked down at Penrods." Andy poked a thumb over his shoulder. "Had him a little girlfriend up twenty blocks or so.. at one of them little snack shops. He was taken notes."

"How do you know?" Ceci asked curiously.

"Stopped him and read one." Unrepentant blue eyes twinkled briefly. "Boy needed a dictionary and a bucket more imagination, tell ya that."

"Andy! How could you!" She scolded.

He hummed a bit.

"What did it say?"

"Heh." Andy smiled, then paused and glanced at a strip of beach visible through the buildings. He walked up the grassy slope and onto the boardwalk, leaning on the railings and gazing at the wide, green blue expanse past the sandy shore. "That's a spot Dar likes."

Ceci regarded the wild bit of beach, near an abandoned old hotel, and full of sea grapes. It was mostly hidden from the walk, and if you were down there, probably had a nice view. "Is that where she was, that first time you saw her?"

"Yeah." Andy rested his chin on one hand. "Thought my eyes were playing damn tricks on me…but there weren't no mistaking that profile."

Ceci turned her head slightly and peered at him. "No." She admitted, with a tiny smile. "That's very true."

"Came back a few times, usually at night, always by herself… she always seemed sad, somehow." He exhaled. "Then one night, it was real late. I'd been down off the waterfront helping out an old bud of mine, and came back up here… thar she was."

Ceci just listened, understanding how hard it must have been for him to stay away.

"That night, I was scared for her." Andy went on. "She looked t'me like she was at the end of something.. her rope, the road… I was halfway across the sand.. couldn’t help myself, when she just up and left." A breath. "Didn't come back."

"Is that why you finally contacted her?"

"Had to know if she was okay." He replied simply. "Found out later that was the night she and Kerry hooked up ."

His wife nodded thougthfully. 'What did you think when you finally met Kerry?"

He cocked his head to one side, in a manner very like Dar's. "Wasn't gonna have to put up with being called granpa, fer one thing." He chuckled at her laughter. "Naw, I was glad… damn glad to see my kid finally find someone down the road and gone for her."

"She is." Ceci agreed. "And she's a real character sometimes, too.. which reminds me, sailor boy, how much did you have to do with that very neatly staged little drawing exhibition last night?" She poked Andy in the ribs.

"Ow." He put on an innocent expression. "Ah do not know what you are referring to, ma'am. Ah was just upstairs steering the boat." Andy pushed away from the railing. "And speaking of that.. don't we got a meeting with some guy about one of them damn things?"

"Mm." Ceci relented, and took his hand as they turned and started down the boardwalk towards the marina. "She's got an interesting style, you know." She remarked casually. "Talk about a pleasant surprise."

Andy just grinned into the late sunlight.

"Hey.. how about sushi after we pick out our new home?"

Wide, very round, blue eyes. "Scuse me?"

"C'mon, Andy… there's a great place just down the beach from here.. or at least there used to be… let's go!"

"You are asking me to put raw fish into my body?"

"Everyone does it… you know it won't hurt you."

"Mrs. Roberts, if you knew as much about where them fish had been as ah do, you would not be consuming a square inch of them without it's being boiled for half an hour, then deep fried and served with potato chips." Andy warned her, glancing up as a man in nothing but a pale blue Speedo went by on a unicycle. "Good lord."

"See? I bet he eats sushi." Ceci teased.

"Yeap.. and it made his parts fall off, so's he kin ride that thing like that." The ex-seal stated. "Whoa.. hold on a minute. " He steered Cecilia up a short flight of stairs into a nondescript building. "Lemme get one little thing here out the way."

"Sure." Ceci looked around at the plain walls. "What is it?"

"Gotta sign my divorce papers from Uncle Sam." Andy glanced at her. "Make me a private citizen fer the first time since I was sixteen years old." His eyes dropped for a moment. "Thought maybe you'd want to be there fer that."

That plain, drab office with faded bulletins on the walls, and cracked folding chairs around the edges suddenly took on a patina of wonder for her. "You thought right." She took a breath as the uniformed attendant behind a small, scarred wooden desk looked up and smiled, evidently recognizing Andy.

"Evening sir… I've got some mail for you."

Andy walked over, pulling Ceci with him and took the rubber band wrapped package. "Thanks." He glanced at a small door behind her. "He in?"

She nodded. "We've got the papers all ready… I think you just have to sign them." Her eyes moved to Ceci curiously. "Ma'am."

"C'mon." Andrew lead the way to the door and knocked on it, then pushed it open at a grunt from inside.

The office turned out to be an oddly adapted space, evidently converted from it's original use as part of an old hotel kitchen. There was a screened back door, and a high ceiling, and shuttered windows all painted in a dull blue. A desk was seated squarely near the rear of the room, and seated behind it was a huge man, with a bull neck and a sparse crew cut. He looked up from under lowered, pale eyebrows as they entered.

"'Lo, Andy."


"Who's your pretty lady friend?" The low voice was almost a growl.

Andy let half a grin flicker on and off his face. "You never did meet mah wife, Cecilia, did you?" He glanced to one side. "Ceci, this is Keith Hawkins, he sorta took care of things here for me."

The man behind the desk stood, towering over even Andy's tall height and stuck a hand the size of a loaf of bread out at her. "No, ma'am.. I never did have the pleasure.. but I'm damn sure glad I have had it now." A grin shaped his craggy face. "This damn barnacle didn't mention he'd met back up with you… just sent me a note asking for mustering out rags."

Ceci took his hand gingerly and pressed it, since shaking something that big didn't seem to be a good idea. "Nice to meet you.. and thanks, for helping Andy out."

The giant took a folder from a tray on his desk and opened it, then reversed it's direction and pushed it across the desk surface. "Sign."

Andy pulled a pen out of his back pocket and sat down on the corner of the desk, blue eyes flicking over the document quickly. Then he looked up at Hawkins in surprise. "Ah didn't ask fer this."

The bigger man chuckled softly. "Andy, shut the fuck up and sign it, willya? " A look. "Sorry for the language, ma'am."

"I've been married to a sailor for over thirty years" Ceci replied dryly. "I've heard the term before."

"I never talked like that in front of you." Andy protested indignantly.

"No, honey.. but all your friends did." His wife patted him on the knee. "It's okay." She leaned over and studied the papers. "What is it?"

"You make it long enough to get retirement benefits, you need to take em." Hawkins replied quietly. "Specially if you done it the way Andy did… not spent the time behind some damn desk." He watched Andrew sign his name to the bottom carefully. "And while you're at it, gimme a god damned address for you so I can have the Department of the Navy, which is crawling up my butt, send you all those frigging decorations you refused to go pick up."

"Ah don't want them." Fiercely.

"Too damn bad." Keith shot back. "Give em to your kid, if you don't like the colors."

Andrew scowled. "Whatin the hell would she do with the damn things?"

Ceci put a hand on his arm. "Treasure them." Their eyes locked. "This is the child who bought and made a scale model of every ship you sailed on, Andy."

"Aww." Keith grinned. "He never told me that… ain't that cute."

"Son of a biscuit." Andy sighed exaggeratedly. "Fine.. fine.. here." He scribbled down Dar's address on the paper. "Send the damn things there if you have to." Long, scarred fingers pushed the papers back across the desk. "Lemme go get my kit." He got up and ambled out the back door, leaving them in silence.

Keith sat back down, and regarded her. "So. You're the missus, huh?"

"Yes." Cecilia looked around, then glanced back at him. "Bet you didn't know he had one."

"Bet you're wrong." The man snorted. "Bet I know more about you and that damn kid of his than I do my own mother." A crooked smile. "Andy's private'r then hell about himself, but damn, did he mouth off about the two of you."

Ceci smiled, and nodded, and they both regarded each other in silence for a bit.

"He's been through Hell." Keith finally said quietly. "He lived through something woulda killed just about anybody else I ever knew."

"I know."

"Take care of him, ma'am. He's a special guy."

"I will." Cecilia answered softly.

They turned as Andy came back in, with a simple, dark blue duffel bag. "That's bout it.' He stated, holding a hand out to Keith. "Ain't going far.. be seeing you guys round the docks."

Keith took his hand, and shook it with a quiet respect. "Keep in touch, Andy… you know where to find us."

"Yeap." With a brisk nod, Andrew turned and captured Ceci's hand, then headed for the door., walking calmly out of a chapter of his life, and closing it firmly behind him. They emerged onto the sidewalk, into a wash of colorful sunlight and a blast of salsa music and started off down the street.

Ceci allowed the silence for go on for a while, as they passed trendy hotels, and those in the process of becoming trendy. "How does it feel?" She finally asked, as the marina came into view. "I know they were like a family to you."

Andy walked along a few paces, visibly thinking. "Yeap." He mused, as they mounted the steps. "They were that.. but I'll tell you, Cec.. having to choose all the time tween going and staying… that about killed me." He paused, giving her an honest look. "I know you didn't think so sometimes… but climbing that gangplank again was so hard."

Ceci studied him. "Watching you walk up it just as hard for me." She held a hand out. "C'mon.. let's go buy our own this time… we can run up and down it all day long together."

A slow smile. "All right." He took her hand. "But, Cec?"


"No pink."

She pointed a finger at him, and shook it. "Just for that, pink curtains."

"C"mon now." He pulled the door open.

"Pink seats on the head."

"Cecilia Roberts."

"A pink pennant on the masthead."

"Oh mah god."

Ceci chuckled. "So, what are we going to name it?"

"Pepto Bismol, at this rate."


"Damn it." Dar thumped the side of the monitor in annoyance, for about the twentieth time. "C'mon, you piece of…"

"Hey, boss…. Talking nice gets you more than beating up the stuff." Mark commented, from his safe spot across the floor. They were in the operations center, surrounded by mildly humming equipment and the hiss of high powered air conditioning units. "Honey, vinegar, you know the story."

"What?" Dar grumbled, as she initiated a command again. "What story?"

"That you can get more bees with honey than vinegar?"

"Why the hell would I want bees?" His boss muttered, engrossed in a startup script. "Ah, there you are, you bastard." She typed in a set of commands, reviewing the results, then restarted the unit again. "Boot or die."

Mark worked at his own project, keeping an eye on the tall figure hunched over the console. His mind drifted back a few years, remembering long hours spent in this very room in the company of the younger, much less polished Dar Roberts, a task made easier by the fact that the tall executive had changed into a pair of jeans and an untucked polo before she attacked the stubborn startup issues.

The pose was the same, too. Feet locked around the chair legs, one elbow propped on the desk with her head resting on it, the other hand skimming the mouse over the desktop with quick, precise motions. He could see Dar's sharp profile, too, very still except for the eyes racing over the screen, small muscles alongside them twitching in response.

A twinge of nostalgia nudged him sharply. "Y'know, Dar.. I kinda miss having you in the trenches here with us." Mark had been a novice system administrator when they'd worked together, when Dar had just been made a local operations manager, and took control of the data center. It had been a shock, to say the least, but since he'd been new, he'd adapted to her style faster than the rest of the staff. "I really do."

Pale blue irises, dilated almost to black turned his way as Dar cocked her head to one side. "Why?" She asked curiously. "I was no picnic to work for."

No, that was true. But one thing about working for Dar - you always knew where you stood. If you did something right, you heard about it. If you screwed up and she was pissed off, you sure as hell knew about it. You never wondered, unlike some of the people he'd worked for prior to ILS. Now, he regarded the serious, intense face across from him and shook his head. "I dunno… it was always just so comforting to have you come in an take over a problem. I knew it would go away then."

Dar smiled. "Thanks. I think."

"I've worked for supes who didn't know jack about what I did - you don't know how much it rocked to know I had someone there who not only knew what I did, but could do it better than I could." He added. "Very cool, boss… very cool."

Dar's face twitched into a reluctant smile. "Now, that - that's a compliment coming for you." She reviewed her console. "Ah… good." The main routers had finally booted up, and she could see them sitting, ten green, lonely islands floating in a mess of dark lines that represented the network. "Now… let's see what we got here." She accessed the master system and started browsing. "Shit."

Mark winced. "Now what?"

"Who configured these?"


"They didn't follow the EWO, for one thing, and they configured the ports ass backwards for another. So who did it?"

"Um.. me."

Dar looked at him and drummed her fingers on her console keyboard.

"I just thought this configuration was better."

More drumming.

Mark grinned. "Just like old times, huh?"

A grudging smile returned. "Oh yeah…. Just like." Dar typed in a command, and hit enter. "Startup dialog….here we go."

"Dar! You just dumped that whole router!" Mark protested. "It took me hours to get that thing done!"

"It's not done the way I want it." Dar replied, with a scowl. "So I guess I've gotta do it myself." She busied herself typing, glancing at a network configuration to refresh her memory on the different ports and addresses.

It felt guiltily good, she realized, to be doing the hands on again. So much of her job was subjective. Decision making, planning, arguing, pushing… so very little was simple, cut and dried work that having the opportunity to dive back into something as basic as this was struck her as almost therapeutic. She checked her watch, then continued typing, glad she'd sent Kerry out to have fun.

More typing.

She was glad, right? No need for both of them to be stuck here in the cold room, doing basic routine stuff that was sure to bore anyone. Kerry deserved time on her own, with her friends, doing the stuff she liked to do.

Dar didn't mind doing that either, in fact, she enjoyed the odd night out with the girls, though she usually felt a little uncomfortable mostly due to the fact that they were by and large all employees of ILS, except for Colleen.

You'd think, since she lived with Kerry, that wouldn't bother her, but it did - she believed in keeping a professional distance, and that extended to social occasions with people who were levels lower than her in the company hierarchy. That was admittedly hypocritical, and Dar readily acknowledged that, but she also knew Kerry's friends were a little uncomfortable with her for the same reason.

And of course, she wouldn't be selfish enough to ask Kerry to give up her night to keep her company. That'd be selfish, and self centered, and mean, and…..

Dar sighed. Damn, I wish she was here. She finished reconfiguring a port and wrote the configuration to memory, watching the port come up and wink friendly green lights at her. How juvenile, Dar. Why don't you ask her to get a teddy bear and spray it with her perfume, so you can carry it around and hug it when you get lonely. Her conscience prodded her sarcastically.

"Sorry, Dar… did you say something?" Mark inquired, as he started his own task running.

"Um." She looked up. "No… why, what did you think I said?"

"Something about bears?"

"No.. no, I was just thinking about ordering..um.. pizza or something." She looked up. "Interested?"

"Sure." Mark agreed amiably. "I'll order… let's see… " He closed his eyes and concentrated. "Sausage, Pepperoni, beef and pork with extra cheese…." One eye opened and peered hopefully at her. "Am I right?"

Dar chuckled. "Yeah."

"Wooo… you mean Kerry hasn't converted you to a veggie pizza yet?" Mark laughed. "I know she's not scarfing down that prescription for a heart attack."

"We get a half and half." Dar admitted. "I make sure to flick any errant growths over on her side of the pie." She concentrated on another part of the configuration. "Ah.. there." She cut and pasted, then recycled the screen and reset the equipment. "That's better."

"Damn." Mark peered at the monitor with wry admiration. "Can I be like you when I grow up?" He picked up the phone and dialed. "Want some cheese breadsticks sticks too?"



"Root beer."

"They have floats."


"Right." Mark placed the order and put the phone down, then got up and manually reset a large machine. "We're going to have to replace this switch, Dar..it's been giving me fits, and they can't work the kinks out of that Y2K patch."

Dar grunted, and set up a test pattern. "That's the international DS3's - figures."

The door opened, revealing Brent's stocky figure as he rolled an AV cart into the room. "Hey Mark.. what's up? I hear we…." His blue eyes went a little rounder. "Oh.. sorry, ma'am. Hello." He paused. "Is your machine not working? Want me to take a look at it?" Blue eyes went a little round as he saw Dar manipulating the big console. "Or set you up a new one?"

"Hi Brent." Mark chuckled. "Don’t get freaked out… Dar's router qualified." He smiled at the look on Brent's face. "She's reconfiguring the new network."

"Got a problem with that?" Dar growled softly.

"No..no… ma'am of course not. I just.." Brent looked a little perplexed.

"Just what? C'mon, spit it out."

"Um.. well, sure.. I.. " The tech peered at the seated executive. "I mean, I didn't think….um…"

Dar looked right up at him, pinning him with an intense gaze. "Think what?"

He swallowed. "Well, I didn't think you… what I mean is - well, see… you're the boss."

"And?" A dark eyebrow lifted.

"And bosses do bossy things." He blurted. "Not um… techie things." A pause. " You know?"

Mark wisely kept quiet, burying his head into his monitor and typing away furiously. He knew his boss was just playing with the sometimes overly serious Brent, but hoped she didn't take it too far. Dar could be a little too intense sometimes, especially for the younger crowd who didn't know her like Mark did.

Dar finished what she was doing and folded her hands on the console. "Are you insinuating that I'm not a nerd?" Her voice took on a dangerous note.

He blinked at her.

"You think that just because they gave me a title, that I don't know what end of a cable to plug in like the rest of the people on 14?"

"B.." He squeaked, then stared at Mark in desperate appeal.

Dar got up, needing a stretch anyway, and stalked over, putting her hands on her denim covered hips. "Are you accusing me of techno turniphood, Brent?" She towered over him, eyeing the tech like a hungry panther.

He stuck his tongue out trying to speak then bit down on it, making his nostrils flare. A blush colored his face brick red, and he looked like he was going to faint. "N..n…no, ma'am… no… I'd never do that."

She leaned forward and lowered her voice to a purr. "Good."

"Dar?" Mark peeked out from behind his console, realizing his tech was about to burst into spontaneous human combustion.

"Yes?" The same, low, sexy voice answered, rolling the word playfully.

"Unless you want to clean up the piddle, stop scaring the piss out of Brent, willya?" He glanced at the hapless tech. "Relax. Her bark is way, way worse than her bite."

Slowly, Dar turned and faced him, lowering her head a little and pinning him with an icy, merciless gaze. One eyebrow edged way up. "You have never been bitten." She reminded him. "So how would you know?"

"Uh." Mark rubbed his jaw. "I heard stories?" He ventured. "Really, really good ones?"

Dar paused, then laughed. "Yeah, right." She crossed back over and sat down again, resuming her task. "For the record, Brent… I count as a geek."

"Yes. Ma'am." He replied instantly. "Maybe we can talk some EPROMS sometimes."

Mark chuckled. "Dar can talk EPROMS. Heck, Dar can burn EPROMS. Matter of fact, Dar designed this ops room." He commented. "And about fifty percent of the systems we run on, for that matter."

"Really?" Brent sounded interested. He rolled his cart in and put it away, then edged around the console desk and settled in a chair near Dar. "Hey… wait a minute… back in the cross-patch room, there's a bunch of DR's stenciled on the punch downs.. is that you?" He was obviously viewing her in a whole new light.

"Yup." Dar set up another test pattern. "This looks decent.. I'm going to try and bring the rest of the subnets online."

"Wow." Brent murmured. "Hey..that means you wrote the inventory program too, huh?" His eyes brightened. "Your initials are in the code."

A nod.

"You put in that subroutine that catches the boxes serial number, and cross-references it against the original invoice, to make sure it's billed to the right department?"


"Wicked." Brent sighed. "I love that subroutine." His gaze took in Dar's profile with new, intense interest. "It's my favorite one."

Dar looked up at him for a moment, then over at Mark, who snickered. "Thanks." She leaned back, and propped a knee up against the wood of the console, watching her program run. The phone buzzed, and Mark picked it up, then stood.

"Pizza's here.. that was fast." He remarked. "Be right back." The MIS chief slipped out of the door and let it close behind him, leaving the two of them alone.

There was a bit of silence. Dar remained deep in thought, memories cascading gently over her as she sat, remembering the hours spent administering this small cog in the company. She'd been happy doing that, she realized, probably it had been the last time she'd been able to simply go home at night and forget about her job.

Gone home, and escaped to the clubs, spending her time drinking and trading bullshit stories with a group of like minded friends, dabbling in shallow attractions and losing herself in long weekends of bumming around on the beach.

Going nowhere in particular, and finding herself satisfied with that as the pleasures of the moment absorbed her interest, and she let a lot of things slide - ambition chief among them.

Then there'd been Shari.

And everything had changed.

Nothing was fun anymore. She'd learned to judge herself by a different set of rules, and left behind the comfort zone of the ops center to push herself into the stark challenge of project management. Proving she was everything Shari said she wasn't, driving herself to higher and higher levels until she'd broken through the glass ceiling, and landed her butt in a plush office with a business card that said Vice President on it, and everyone who ever said she was a loser could just chew that and swallow.

And you know what? No one had cared. No one had been left close enough to pat her on the back and say.. 'Good job, Dar. You did it. We're proud of you.'

No one. The night she'd gotten her promotion she'd taken a bottle of champagne down to the beach, and shared it with the night crabs and the hiss of the waves, feeling nothing but a sense of empty relief. So she'd decided to just allow the achievement to become it's own end, and convinced herself that it made her happy.

Until one damn fall day when she'd taken over a consolidation gone bad, and walked into a small, boxy office to deliver a pile of bad news to some ordinary company manager she never expected to see again.

And lost her heart, her soul, and her carefully constructed self deception all in less time than it took to think about it.


Dar jumped a little. "Oh.. sorry. Yes?"

Brent moved a little closer, the flush visible on his pale skin. "Do you mind if I ask you something?"

She shook herself, dispelling the memories and turned in her chair. "No.. go ahead, Brent." She issued him a brief smile. "I wasn't upset before - I was just tweaking you a little."

"Yeah, I figured…Um… " His nostrils flared. "You and Ms. Kerry are pretty good friends, right?" He looked around, and lowered his voice.

Wild, ringing alarms went off in Dar's head, so loud she was surprised Brent couldn't hear them. "Yes." She answered cautiously. "Why?" What now? A thousand situations ran through her head, and Ankow was at the bottom of most of them. Did he have different information.? Had Brent heard him hunting down facts? What was he up to? What trouble…

"Uh…" The man rubbed his jaw. "Well it's just.."

"What is it, Brent?" Dar asked, her interest sharpening.

"Do you.. um…I know this is a weird question.. but d'you know..um.."

Uh oh. "Yes?"

"Is she seeeing anyone?"

Total silence. Dar sucked in a breath and clamped her jaw shut, to keep the nervous giggle from emerging. She waited a beat. "Yes." A grave, considered reply. "She is." God damn it. Is he the last person in the whole bloody company to get the bleeping memo?

"Oh." He looked crestfallen. "Okay…well, I kinda thought so.. I mean, she's so nice, and so pretty.. but I figured it was worth asking. Thanks, Ma'am… I know it's a real personal question, and I do appreciate you answering it. He was still brick red.

"No problem."

"She's probably not my type anyway…. Huh?" A wistful question.

Dar stared at him. "Um…. Brent…."

"It's okay." He dropped his eyes. "It's probably some real smart guy with a nice car." He exhaled and shrugged. "Kind of a stupid question."

"Um." The executive rummaged around, trying to come up with something intelligent to say. "I'm sure you're… ah.. there's nothing wrong with you, Brent, she's just..um.."

"Hey, Ma'am.. it's okay, really. I understand - you don't have to go any further." Brent sighed. "Must be some lucky guy."

"B…" Dar was sure her brains were leaking out her ear by now. "N…"

The door opened, and Mark walked in with two boxes full of pizza. "Hey…. Look what I found!" He opened the door further and a familiar blond figure came in behind her.

"Hi." Dar croaked, gratefully.

Kerry trudged in and circled the console, putting her arms around Dar's neck and kissing her head. "My transmission gave up just outside office… and I got roped into Country line dancing Karaoke charades. I'm trashed - can we go home?" She let her cheek rest against her lover's dark hair. "Hey, Brent." Gentle green eyes regarded him wearily.

There was a tiny little silence, until Brent shuffled his feet. "Guess I had the smart and the car right." He muttered, flushing an even deeper red as he stood up and scurried out of sight behind a couple of mainframes.

"Huh?" Kerry cocked her head. "What's up with Brent?" She looked at Dar, and her brows creased, then she glanced up at Mark, who shrugged in honest puzzlement.

Dar sighed. "A clue just bit him in the ass."

"Ow." Kerry peered into the gloom behind the consoles. "About what?"

One hand lifted as the executive scratched her jaw. "Tell ya later." She patted Kerry's calf, absorbing the warmth pressing against her back as the smaller woman leaned against her. "Siddown… I've just got to finish this setup." She turned and pulled the keyboard closer as Kerry settled in the chair next to her, watching with interest.

Dar glanced at the monitor, bemused to see her reflection faintly echoing back at her from the glare, a smile shaping her lips completely without her permission. Kerry's hand casually rested on her knee under the desk, and the smile widened.

A thought suddenly crossed her mind. Would Kerry care if she was just a mid level ops manager? She turned her head slightly and studied the intelligent profile next to her. She liked the perks of their respective positions, Dar was sure, but…hadn't she said she'd be content to wander around selling poetry for food if she had to?

Was she serious?

Am I serious, thinking about this? Didn't I work my tail off for years getting to where I am? Would I really want to go back to where I was then, and just settle for being good at something, content with a steady job with decent pay and benefits?

Dar regarded the diagram on the screen, it's spiderweb of tracings indicating the elegantly designed network's far flung reach. Finished, it would change the way the company did business, and toss them into the 21st Century as one of the few corporations capable of projecting the last few year's explosion of data services into the future.

The smile in the monitor grew, and became a trifle ironic. With a flourish, Dar brought the rest of the system on line, and watched as dark gray webbing came alive with the colors of the test patterns she was running. "What do you think?" She asked the avidly watching Kerry.

Mark got up and leaned over her shoulder, peering at the screen. "Jesus. Complete redundancy.." He deliberately deactivated one of the big ports, and they watched as the test traffic smoothly rerouted itself. "Holy shit."

"Wow." Kerry was running an analyzer on another console. "Would you look at that bandwidth…I couldn’t bottleneck this if I tried."

They both looked up at Dar with something close to nerd awe.

Dar smiled, enjoying the moment completely. It was almost better than chocolate ice cream.



Dar tucked the edge of the towel more firmly under her arm as she poured two tall glasses of peach ice tea. Chino waited patiently at her heels, giving her leg an occasional lick. "Watch your tail, Chino." The tall woman warned, as she returned the carafe to the refrigerator and picked up the glasses. "C'mon.. let's go get mommy Kerry."

"Gruff." Chino trotted out the open glass doors and stood up on the lower step of the hot tub, looking up expectantly.

"Hey - don't fall asleep in there." Dar warned as she shed her towel and entered the tub. Kerry was sprawled out in the warm water, her damp head resting against the tub back and her arms outstretched on the sides.

"Uh?" She opened one eye to regard Dar. "Oh.. it's you."

"You were expecting…?"

Kerry lifted her head and scooted up a little, reaching for her glass. "Sorry… I am so wiped - you ran my butt ragged tonight, Dar." She gave her lover a pathetic look. "Can I get Colleen to come over when we do that so we can double team you?"

"Mm." Dar wasn't displeased at the compliment, though. They'd left the gym and Kerry's class earlier, then taken up the routines in the workout room on the island. She felt a little sore, a little tired, but in a good way. "You did great, though. I think we're going to have to move you up a belt."

"Yeah?" Kerry perked up visibly. "And here I thought I was really bombing out - thanks, Dar." She felt happier about the bouts, and pretty satisfied with herself in general after sitting through a surprisingly candid and objective review administered by her boss just that afternoon.

Criticism, she'd found, was much easier to take from someone you knew liked you, than from someone you knew didn't. Dar's variety was calm, and impersonal and very direct - addressing specific, fixable items and staying away from the broad generalities that were intimidating to hear, and almost impossible to change. Your attitude is an issue, for instance. She'd heard one of the girls in the break room repeating that bit of feedback from a superior. What exactly were you supposed to do about it?

Besides, she'd found that Dar had a delightful habit of doing all the bad stuff first, to sort of get it out of the way, then she'd list off all the good stuff, so by the time you finished the review, you felt pretty good even if the start was kind of painful. Her's hadn't been that painful either, since she knew her own faults, and was able to discuss them with her supervisor in fairly frank honesty. "Did I thank you for my review?"

"Three times now." Dar remarked dryly, sipping her tea. "No one's ever done that before." She stretched her legs out in the swirling water and sighed, tipping her head back and regarding the stars.

Kerry felt the mood change and slid a little closer, where she could feel Dar's warmth. "Are you worried about tomorrow?"

A nod.

"Me too."

Dar studied the sky, then turned her head. "Listen.. I've been thinking about this." Her face was very serious. "Whatever happens tomorrow - don't feel like you have to do anything about it, okay?"

Kerry looked puzzled. "Huh?"

"You're really good at what you do, Ker - I think you should keep doing it, no matter what happens with me."

"Oh." Kerry exhaled, ruffling the surface of the water. "I don’t want to stay there without you, Dar. I"d feel really bad about that, and besides, who'd say they'd let me?"

"They need you." A truth.

"They need you too." The blond woman shot back. "It's so unfair - look at the job you do for them, Dar! How could they even think about removing you just for something as.. "She stopped speaking and shook her head. "It's just not fair."

Dar shrugged. "Can't say it's their fault - I made the decision, Kerry. I knew what I was doing."

Kerry stared at her. "You said you hired me for my skills. Are you saying now that's not true?"


"That is what you just said."

"No, it's not." Dar replied fiercely. "I knew I was hiring the best candidate for the job, then or now, and that, Kerrison, was never an issue."

"Then what did you mean by that?"

Dar slid down in the water. "I meant that… I knew, when I brought you on that I was attracted to you." A pause. "And I knew that wasn't going to stop after you were hired."

The turmoil subsided next to her. "Oh." Kerry's face eased into a sheepish smile. "Well, I'm guilty of that too, so there." She reflected a bit, then looked up. "Dar, I want you to know how lousy I feel about the fact that its' us that's causing this."

"It's not. It's just the excuse."

"It's a lousy excuse." Kerry scowled. "I mean, Jesus, Dar - I understand why they have the rule, okay? Because it would be easy for someone to use their position to take advantage of someone, or to insinuate that promotions, or pay raises were contingent on you making that person happy in some way." She shook her head. "But that isn't the case here, and we both know it."

"I know."

"I should go talk to them." Determination squared the slightly rounded jawline.

Dar pictured Kerry storming the boardroom, facing off against the rest of her peers, and smiled in frank reflex. "Tell you what.. let's trade. You come talk to the board, and I'll go testify against your father… deal?"

"In a frigging heartbeat." Kerry blurted. "I am so there." Then her shoulders slumped and she went very quiet. "I don't want to go there tomorrow, Dar."

"Maybe they won't ask too many questions."

"It's not the questions. It's not the panel."

Dar looked at her. "Your family?"

A nod.

"I'll be there as soon as I can, I promise." Tell the board to shove their job, and fly back out on the next flight.. yeah. To hell with it. Maybe she could just call Alastair and tell him to… Dar sighed. No, she really did have to be there and speak for herself, that much had been made clear regardless of what the outcome was. "I don't think it'll take long."

"Are they going to fire you?"

"I think so, yes." Strange, after all the nonsense, how much that hurt. "Actually, what they'll do is ask me to resign - at this level, you don't usually get outright fired. It looks bad, and does strange things to the stock. They'll make it seem like it was a voluntary thing."


"I know, it sucks. I agree, but what they're looking at is perception. Perception has nothing to do with reality, Kerry - and if Ankow goes public with his trial, then they have all that perception out there that I've gotten involved with a subordinate, and maybe made decisions that were influenced by doing so."

Kerry sighed.

"It's the perception they're worried about - I know not one of them, on a personal level, gives two craps about my love life, understand?"


Now it was Dar's turn to sigh. "It's a matter of trust, Kerry. When you're in a position like I am, solely in charge of billions of stockholder dollars, and making decisions for the company on a daily basis, the inference that I might not make the right decisions scares the hell out of them, and also out of the stockholders."

"That's stupid, Dar. You've been making decisions for them for years."

"Yes." A tiny smile. "But they never suspected I have a personal side that might possibly interfere with that before." A pause. "And they'd be right - in all the years I've worked for them, I've never had something in my life I'd put before my job."

"Until now."

"Until now." Wry agreement. "But it's not your fault, Kerry."

"Yes, it is."

"No, it's not."

"Dar, it most certainly is my fault." Pale brows knit. "Saying it isn't is like pretending I'm this witless child who just toddled along after you when you called me." Kerry put her glass down. "An equal case could be made that I manipulated you strictly to achieve my position, and that I'm milking you along, hoping I'll get your job when you leave." She folded her arms. "Maybe you're an innocent victim."

Dar simply stared at her.

"It's all just so.." Kerry turned and saw the look in her lover's eyes and reacted, reaching out and cupping her cheek. "That was a facetious statement." She stated. "Or I would have taken that VP position you dangled out a couple of months back, remember?"

"I remember." The skin shifted as Dar smiled. "And even if you had, I trust you, Kerry."

It was like holding a piece of precious crystal. "Thank you." It came out in a whisper. "That means everything to me." She smiled back. "I still think you should let me go talk to them."

The phone rang, and Dar forced herself to look away from Kerry's intense gaze to answer it. She lifted the portable receiver up. "Hello?"

"Hello, Dar."

An eyebrow quirked. "Hi, Dr. Steve… what's up?"

The physician cleared his throat. "Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner, Dar, but I made the lab run all the tests three or four times, because I didn't want to give you the wrong information."

A chill went down Dar's spine that even the warm water of the jacuzzi couldn’t dispell. "Information about what?" Her alarm must have shown, because Kerry sat up and put a hand on her shoulder. "What's going on?" She felt her heart speed up.

"Remember that blood I took from you, when you were sick?"


"We found some toxins in there, Dar. I sent them out to a bigger lab to have them check what they were." Steve hesitated. "The results came back positive for some seriously poisonous chemicals that I won't bore you with the names of."

Dar's brows creased as she considered the information. "Steve, are you saying I was poisoned?" A pause. "Accidentally?"

There was a long silence. "Dar.. the type of stuff this is, you absorbed through your skin. You didn't swallow it, or nothing like that." An awkward pause. "Had to be touching you."

"Touching me." Dar murmured, then cocked her head at Kerry. "Dr. Steve says it was some kind of poison that got me sick the other day." She watched Kerry's eyes widen in shock. "Something I got by touching the stuff… god, it could have been anything." The phone shifted. "Steve, other than the office, and the house - I was in a couple of odd places that day - what are the odds it was on something there? Like the airport, for instance?"

"Dar, this stuff…" Steve hesitated. "It's not very common." He seemed uncomfortable. "I'd like you to come in tomorrow, let me take more blood and make sure you got rid of it all - you haven't been sick since then, have you?"

"No.. not at all, in fact, I feel great. We just got back from the gym and Kerry was giving me grief about running her ragged." She replied. "I was a little queasy the day after that, but even the morning after you came I was able to get some breakfast down fine."

"Good." Steve sounded relieved. "It's probably all right then, but I'd like to run some blood anyway." He insisted. "Stop by in the morning.. won't take but a minute."

"Okay." Dar exhaled. "I've got a plane to catch, but I'll swing by the office first."

"Great. See you then, Dar." Steve hung up, leaving an echoing click behind him.

Dar set the phone down and regarded her friend. "Damn." She wasn't sure how to react. "I wasn't expecting that.. I thought it was just a damn bug."

"What was it?' Kerry asked. "Does he know how it got in you? I heard you say by touch.. you mean it's absorbed through the skin?"

Dar nodded thoughtfully. "Well, only two people touched me that day, so that blows that theory out." She tugged on a lock of wet blond hair. "You and dad." She looked up as a soft knock clearly sounded through the open door. Leaning over, she pressed the intercom button. "Yes?"

"Hey, Dardar."

"Hey Dad..c'mon in."

"Dar!" Kerry gave her a look. "In case you forgot, we're naked."

"He's seen me naked." Dar protested mildly, as the door opened and ambling footsteps crossed the tile. She glanced down. "Course, I was a little smaller then." She looked up. "Hi, Dad."

"Lo there… Jesus H. Christ!" Andrew turned his head. "Paladar Roberts! Get yer clothes on!"

"Does that mean I can stay naked?" Kerry inquired innocently. "Cool."

"No, young lady, you most certainly can not."

"C'mon, Dad… they'd get all wet in here." Dar chuckled. "We're under the bubbles, look."


"Really, we are. You can only see our heads."

Andrew peeked, spotting two sets of sparkling eyes very close to the water. Dar had turned the jets up and the whirlpool provided a frothy, but effective screen otherwise. "You two little barnacles are gonna get scraped one of these fine days." He growled.

"We love you too, dad." Kerry grinned cheekily, splashing him a little. His face was visibly sunburned, the color obscuring the worst of the scars and heightening the contrast of his pale eyes, and the tense lines had relaxed considerably in the past week. A corner of his mouth quirked, uncannily like his daughter's often did and he stuck a hand in to splash her back. "Have you been having fun?"

The quirk edged into a smile. "We've been busy, if that's what you mean." He remarked. "Found us a new home."

"Oh yeah?" Dar forgot her concerns for a moment. "Where?"

"South Beach Marina."

Twin puzzled looks peered back at him. "South B…" Dar started to say. "Where?" Kerry added simultaneously.

"Yer mother liked that damn boat so much, we figgered maybe we'd get us one, and live on that." Andrew answered placidly, rocking back and forth on his heels. "So we did.. went down and ordered me one the other day. Be ready in about a week or two."

"You ordered a boat?" Dar blinked. "Like..as in one like ours?"

"Bigger." Her father smirked. "Some sixty damn feet long… and ah had em put a pair of the biggest damn engines I could find in the back end of it."

Dar just gaped, totally stunned by the news. "I.." She tried to come up with something to respond with. "But…"

"Wow." Kerry leaned her chin on Dar's shoulder. "I can't wait to see it.. I bet Mrs. Roberts is going to make the inside so cool." She smiled. "Can we have a boatwarming?" She managed to push the knowledge of her trip tomorrow out of her mind, replacing it with the excitement of seeing her friend's new home. "I wish it were next week already."

Dar sighed. "Me too."

Andrew cocked his head and regarded them from under grizzled eyebrows. "What's yer troubles?" He glanced at Kerry. "I know you got to go north tomorrow."

Kerry nodded, then looked up at Dar. "Dar has to go to Houston."

Dar found herself under a very familiar scrutiny, and she felt years younger all of a sudden. "That guy I told you was causing me trouble?"


"He did." She admitted. "I don’t think I'll be working for ILS after tomorrow."

Andrew looked truly stunned. "Why?"

Dar glanced at Kerry, then shrugged. "Scandal… they've got a bs lawsuit pending, and I think they're going to ask me to resign, to keep all that from going public." She couldn’t meet his eyes anymore and looked at the roiling water instead. "I…um… broke the rules with Kerry."

Her father snorted. "After all this damn time, they're gonna ask you to bail out fer that? C'mon now.. gimme a Christly break.. they need t'get their heads out of their keisters." He paused. "Ye're not seriously gonna do it, are you?"

A tiny shake of her head. "I don't know."

Andrew leaned over and took her chin, forcing her eyes up. "You listen to me, Paladar - you've been given them people two hundred percent since you was fifteen years old. Don't you walk away from them with your tail tucked."

Kerry could, in that moment, have easily kissed him. It was exactly what she'd wanted to tell Dar, but had been reluctant to, since she was so close, and so involved in the whole situation. Besides, that kind of thing sounded better coming from her daddy. Her instinct was to fight what she saw was an intolerably unfair situation and she was glad to see Andy was on her side. She slipped an arm across Dar's stomach under the water, running her fingers over the toned surface.

"I don't know if they're worth the fight." Dar objected quietly.

"Maybe they ain't - but your pride is." Her father responded. "Losing's one thing… we all gotta do that sometimes.. but quittin's something else." His jaw bunched. "You're my kid, and I didn't raise you to run from nothin."

Her lips tensed into a grim smile. "No, you didn't." Dar allowed. "And I never have." She closed her eyes and tilted her head in tacit agreement, and felt her jaw released and patted gently.

"That's my girl."

Yeah. Dar exhaled, accepting it. So she'd go out swinging - it would make a good story anyway, right? "Wish I had something to throw in his face, though." She shifted a little. "Mark couldn’t find a damn thing on him."

"You'll think of something, Dardar." Her father predicted. "This that same guy that came after you that night?"

That night. "Yes."

"Lucky he turned you loose, munchkin - he bout had mah boot up his hinder quarters there."

Turned her loose… Dar straightened up and stared out at the horizon. Her hand reached over and touched a spot on her upper arm, as she stirred her memories of that night. "He did grab me, didn't he?"

Kerry's eyes widened. "Ankow?" She sat up as well. "He touched you? That night? That little piece of slimy… "

Andy blinked. "Possessive little thing, ain't you?" He remarked.

"No.. no, Dr. Steve just called. He found out some poison stuff was what got Dar sick last week - he said she got it through her skin." Kerry blurted. "I bet that son of a bitch did it. I bet he did.. that slime bag.. boy, if I get my hands on him I'll.." She started to stand up.

Dar grabbed her and pulled her down as Andrew yelped and covered his eyes. "Calm down." She found herself tangled with her friend, eyes meeting at a distance of inches. "Let's not jump to conclusions." She felt the angrily coiled body in her arms slowly relax as Kerry slid back under the water.

"What's she talking about?" Andy asked, still with his hands over his eyes. "What'd Steve find?"

"It's safe, you can turn around." Dar told him. "He found some kind of toxin - didn't say what it was - just that it was something you absorbed through your skin, and it was nasty. He wants me to drop by tomorrow so he can make sure it's all gone."

Blue eyes peeked out, then the ex seal blinked. "T'morrow huh? Mind if I tag along?" His gaze had sharpened, and his whole attitude shifted subtly. "I'd like to hear about this." He cleared his throat. "Might as well say hello to the old dog too."

Dar nodded absently. "Sure." Her brows creased. "You don't really think he…" She forced a laugh. "C'mon.. this isn't some trashy thriller novel."

"Ah don't know." Andrew touched the skin on her arm, where Ankow's hand had clutched. "But ah aim to find out." His voice had lowered, and deepened, and throaty rumble more purr than speech.

For a moment, there was danger there. Then Andy straightened and thumped the edge of the jacuzzi. "Came t'see if you two'd like to join us for a cup of something down yonder."

"We have to get dressed then, huh?" Kerry murmured, from her warm spot nestled against Dar.

Andy raised one brow.

"Sure." Dar agreed. "We'll join you in a few minutes." She watched him leave, hearing the faint clang of the gate as he exited the garden and headed towards the beach.