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 9

By Melissa Good

Dar put her sunglasses on, as she pulled off the ferry and turned right on the causeway. Her father was sprawled in the seat next to her, wearing a pair of, for him, festive dark green shorts and a sweat shirt with it's sleeves pushed all the way up. "It was nice of mother to take Kerry to the airport."

Andrew turned from his review of the streets. "She likes the little kumquat."

"So I gathered." Dar smiled wryly. "The feeling's mutual." She turned onto the beach road that held Dr. Steve's practice, and headed south. She had a bag packed in the back of the Lexus, and had agreed to her father's offer to take the SUV back from the airport rather than leave it there overnight.

She had shared breakfast with Kerry, out on the patio as they'd watched the sun rise together, and she'd spent an extra few minutes just hugging her lover before she'd gotten dressed and started off, wishing she were going to Washington instead of Texas.

"You know, the two of them together could be dangerous." Dar remarked, darting a sidewise glance at her father, who grunted and gave her a half nod. She turned into the parking lot of the doctor's office and parked, then got out and waited for him to join her as they walked towards the entrance. "Maybe we should have called him first.. I'm not sure it's really fair to spring you on him this early in the morning."

"He'll live." Andrew pulled the door open and gestured for her to go inside. "B'sides, if he's gonna keel over, least it's in a doctor's office."

"Dad, he's the doctor."

"Got nurses, don't he?"

Dar chuckled and went to the sliding glass windows, ignoring the buzzer and tapping on them lightly. The panel slid aside, revealing a young girl in jeans and a T-shirt. "Morning, Aliene."

Dr. Steve's daughter waved. "Hi, Dar. He's in back. G'wan in, he's exp.." Aliene stopped speaking, her jaw sagging in shock as she looked up and over Dar's shoulder. Her eyes widened for a long moment as she leaned forward and started. "Uncle Andy?"

"Hey there, squirt."

"Holy shit! Hey, DAD!" The girl slid the panel all the way back and scrambled right through the window, hurling herself at Dar's father with heedless abandon. Dar got out of the way and just watched, a smile on her face as Aliene enveloped the older man in a hug.

"Aliene, what in the world are you yelling…. Hey, where are you?" Dr. Steve's voice came through the door. "Oh, hello Dar." Dr. Steve poked his head through the window, looking for his daughter. "What's going on.. out… here." His words just wound down as his eyes met the ice blue ones looking back at him from over his daughter's shoulder.
"Lo Steven." Andrew murmured, releasing Aliene with an awkward pat on the back.

Dr. Steve pulled his head in and shut the window, then came around the receptionists desk and out the door into the waiting room. He came right up to where Dar's father was standing and stopped. "My god, it is you."

"Pretty beat up, but yeah." Andy held out a hand, and it was slowly clasped and held. "Good t'see you."

The doctor shook his head in wonder. "I can't believe it." He breathed, then turned his eyes briefly to Dar, who was leaning against the wall with a quiet smile on her face. "I can't believe it."
"Believe it." Dar pushed off the surface she was resting on. "Listen, I've got a plane to catch - you two can spend the rest of the day swapping tales, but dad's got to take me to the airport first."

"Pushy little thing, aint she?" Andy drawled, sticking his hands in his pockets.

Steve just laughed softly. "My god. All right, c'mon back, the both of you. Aliene, call your mama and tell her who just walked in my door." He guided them back into an exam room and turned his back, visibly collecting himself before he turned around and came at Dar with a hypodermic needle the size of New Jersey.

Dar backed up, her eyes widening in alarm. "What the hell is that for?"

"I told you I needed to take blood." The doctor scolded.

"With a harpoon? What do I like, a fur seal?"

Andrew snickered. "Y'ere such a big baby."

"You don't like them either." Dar accused, pointing a finger at him. Then she took in the amused looks and sighed, backing up and hoisting herself up onto the exam table with a distinct glower. "Fine." She presented her forearm and watched nervously as the doctor swabbed her arm with alcohol and iodine. "So. What is it you found?"

"Hang on." Dr. Steve pulled off the cap of the needle in his teeth and probed her skin, putting pressure on a vein expertly before he very gently inserted the sharp point. "There." He looked up at Dar. "Not so bad, hmm?"

"Mm." Dar peered over at her father, who was studiously examining the tongue depressors. Then she looked back up into Dr. Steve's face, surprised to see a look of gentle compassion there. The doctor removed the needle, having gotten his blood sample, then patted her cheek and put the cap back on.

"Okay, Andy. You can turn around now." Steve chuckled. "All right. Let me tell you what the lab said." He put the needle down and opened a drawer, pulling out a file and opening it. "I can't say I've seen this before, because I haven't, Dar, but from what they tell me, it's pretty nasty stuff."

Andy circled him and peered at the paper.

"I asked the lab if it could have been on something like a chair." The doctor continued. "They didn't seem to think so, but they didn't have any really good ideas on how you came into contact with it." A pause. "Or where it came from, for that matter."

"I kin tell you that." Andrew spoke softly, but with utter seriousness. "That there came out of a United States Govment laboratory."

They stared at him. "What?" Dr. Steve murmured.

Andrew took the file out of his hands and walked to the window, tilting it to the light and studying it. The sun came in and splashed across his uneven, scarred features which had gone quite still and cold. Dar got up off the table and walked over, rubbing her arm. "What is it, Dad?"

Andrew cocked his head and regarded her with steady intent. "Someone." He spoke with unusual clarity. "Done meant you harm, Paladar."

She felt a definite chill. "Are you sure? Maybe it was just something I picked up at that alley."

"Finding this at a bowling alley is about as possible as you sprouting wings and flying to the moon." Her father stated flatly. He handed the folder back to Dr. Steve. "It is kept in a small packet, and held on yer fingers with a wax paper." He held up two fingers. "One hit will make you sick as a dog. Two will do worse."

Dar felt like she'd been hit with a baseball bat. "C'mon, Dad - that's too melodramatic. I'm not a character in a supermarket thriller." She tried to shrug it off. "Can't I just have had a damn bug? Or food poisoning? Granted I'm not the most liked person on earth, but I can't believe someone would try to slap poison on me."

"Dar." Dr. Steve put a hand on her shoulder. "This stuff was in you, like it or not. I don’t' know how it got there, but the fact is, it made you sick. If you don't think there's anything to worry about, that's great. I'm glad to hear it." He picked up the needle. "I'll make sure there's no scrap of it left, though if you've been feeling all right, I doubt it."He paused. "When we spoke, you said two people had touched you that day."

"Kerry and my father." Dar replied. "Except I was wrong. There was one other person."

"Well." Steve patted her cheek. "You think about it, okay? Watch yourself." He eyed Andrew. "And you, my old friend, better not move an inch until I get back here with a camera." He bustled out, leaving father and daughter alone.

Andrew glowered at her. "That man gonna be where you're going to?"

Dar hesitated, then grudgingly nodded. "I really don't think he'd… he's an asshole, Dad, but.. "

"He been in the military?"

Another grudging nod. "Two hitches as a Ranger."

"Wall, don't that just figure." Andrew made a face. "That'll settle it. Ah am gonna go with you."

"Dad." Dar snorted. "Now, come on. This is a business trip, not an undercover game."

"Ah do not like that man, and Ah am going with you." Her father repeated stolidly.

She put her hands on her hips. "I can take care of myself, you know." She objected. "I've been doing it for quite a while."

"This ain't your kind of fight, Paladar." He shot right back. "And besides, I have t'go." He straightened and put his hands on his hips, mimicking her stance. "I made me a promise."

"A promise? To who?" Dar replied in exasperation. "Dad, I can handle myself on a business trip for crying out loud. This is my job, and my life, damn it!"

A finger tapped her chest as he leaned closer and went eye to eye with her. "And you are mah only kid, and the apple of that green eyed gal's eye, and I swore to her I'd make sure you stayed outta trouble."

Dar glared at him.
Andy tweaked her nose. "C'mon, Dardar… I always wanted to get me one of them cowboy hats."


"Maybe I'll take you on one of them pony rides."

"I'm big enough to carry the pony." Dar gave up. "All right, fine. Waste your time and ride over there with me, if you have to. What are you going to tell mom?"

"Um." Andrew scratched his ear. "We kinda talked about all ready."

Dar sighed.

"Sides.. she's got her own little covert mission." Andrew patted her on the shoulder. "C'mon. That there plane's waiting."

"Ah ah." Dr. Steve came back in with a digital camera. "You just hold on one minute, Andrew B. Roberts." He pointed. "I want a shot of the both of you." He waved them closer. "G'wan."

Dar shook her head, but turned, and slid an arm around her father's waist, as he circled her shoulders, a pose that brought a wholly unconscious smile to her face.

Steve snapped the picture, then another for good measure. He lowered the instrument. "Two of a kind."

They eyed each other, then Dar finally laughed. "Yeah." She shook her head. "He still out stubborns me though."

"Damn straight." Andrew agreed instantly. "Had me lots more practice."

Impulsively, Dar leaned over and kissed him on the head, making him snort.

"You have been hanging around that green eyed gal some, tell you that."

Dr. Steve was busy snapping away, chortling with glee. "Want to come back and have dinner with us, Andy?"

"Can't." The ex seal stated shortly. "Got me a plane to catch too - rain check?"

Steve nodded.

"I know Ceci'd love t'see you."

Dr. Steve blinked. "She here?"


The doctor shook his head. "Unbelievable. " He sighed. "All right - give me a call when you get back. It's a great excuse for a party." He watched them leave together and then walked out, to find his daughter sitting on the counter. "How'd you like that?"

"Wow." Aliene replied. "That was like, way too cool."

"Mmhm." Her father agreed.

"Whew." Kerry glanced appreciatively around at the airport. "Boy, it's nice to go out of here instead of Miami." Her flight had been scheduled to leave from the much smaller Fort Lauderdale International airport, some twenty minutes north of it's larger, more hectic cousin. "Thank you very much, by the way, for dropping me off."

"Mm." Cecilia held back a smile. "Actually, I was dropping us both off."

Puzzled green eyes focused on her. "Excuse me?"

"Well, the Woman's Art Museum asked me to sign off on that collection, so I can have it shipped to the South Beach place we found." Dar's mother explained.

"Oh." Kerry was surprised, but not unhappy. "Wow, that's great. Are we on the same flight?"

"Mmhmm." The silver blond head nodded. "Hope you don't mind."

"Not at all." A warm smile. "I'd love the company. It's not exactly a fun trip for me." Kerry noted the bag slung casually over Cecilia's shoulder. "Is that all you're taking?"

"Yes, it is." Ceci nodded. "I see a coffee shop over there - we've got time before boarding, care to stop?"

Kerry felt a sense of relief, that she'd have someone to talk to for at least the trip. "Lead on." She followed the older woman across the concourse towards the small shop, spotting cinnamon rolls also being sold. "Mm. Cinnabons."

"My daughter's rubbing off on you, I see." Ceci smiled to remove any sting from the comment.

But Kerry laughed. "Oh no - I didn't need any help there." She set her bag down and went up to the counter, ordering two cups of coffee. "Want one?" She pointed at the rolls.

"Sure." Ceci took a seat and watched Kerry collect their snack and return. What a nice kid. She couldn't help but smile at the warm, open face. "Thanks." She found herself looking forward to spending a little time with this person who had chosen to live with her daughter, whose personality was so different from Dar's, and so much like the child she'd always wished for.

Smart, social, friendly. A poet brought up in the same general class as she had been.

And her parents had spurned her.

Life just didn't make sense sometimes.

"What got you interested in computers, Kerry?" She asked lightly, sipping her coffee.

Kerry thought about that for a bit, then propped her chin up on a fist. "I think… I think mostly it was because they represented something I could totally control."

Very unexpected answer. "Really?"

The younger woman nodded. "Yeah - they're like that. Garbage in, garbage out, you know how it is. They'll do whatever you tell them to do. I think - because my family was always so strict, and so confining, it maybe gave me an opportuntiy to have this one area of my life that I was totally in charge of." She paused. "And it was something so different - my major was in English, and I took all kinds of general stuff in college, but I was fascinated by the technology, and realized in my sophmore year that all my elective courses were turning out to be programming and electronics."

Definitely unexpected. "What were you going to do with an English degree?" Ceci asked.

"Teach." Kerry replied succinctly.

"Is that what you wanted to do?"

"No." A shake of the blond head. "It's what my father wanted me to do. Looks good for a politician, you know? One kid a lawyer, one kid a housewife, one kid a teacher. Very all American."

Cecilia blinked at her. "Well." She sipped her coffee and reflected. "My family had expectations, yes, but at least they let us pick our own poison." She sighed. "I wondered, for a while, what I'd have done in college."

"You didn't go, then?" Kerry was surprised.

"No. " Ceci replied briefly. "We moved around a lot, and I had a little girl to take care of." She was surprised at the lack of bitterness. "I just read everything I could get my hands on, and besides - I'm not sure exactly how much good college does for artists."

"Maybe if you had gone, you wouldn't have gone into the art thing." Kerry suggested quietly. "What would you have picked if you had?"

What indeed? "Oh, I don't know. Anthropology, probably."

"Really?" Kerry smiled in surprise. "I took a few classes in that as part of my social sciences requirement. I had a great professor, who was a practicing anthropologist in the summers. He'd come back in the fall with all kinds of stories and pictures." She paused. "Hey.. if you have a few extra minutes, maybe we could go to the Museum of Natural History in DC."

"Sounds like an idea." Ceci smiled and leaned back. She wondered if Kerry's parents had ever even bothered to talk to her about what she found interesting, this intelligent young woman who still somehow had a core of wonder inside her that Ceci could fully appreciate.

What a pair of total idiots.

She was looking forward to meeting them.


It turned out better than she expected. Dar adjusted the seat of the rental car she'd wrestled from the terminal and glanced over at the tall figure peering alertly out the passenger window. Flying with her father had shortened the trip consideribly, and she'd actually had a pretty good time playing a favorite word game with him that brought back memories of a far more innocent period in her life. "Pretty dusty, hm?"

"Huh." Andrew relaxed, folding his arms over his chest. "So what do you have to do at this meeting?"

Hm. Good question. "I don't know." Dar put the car into gear. "It depends on what they hit me with." A quick glance. "That's a figure of speech."

"Who's gonna be there?"

"The whole board, I guess.. except the international members. They'll teleconference in, probably." Dar ran the list through her mind. "The only one I really count on as a friend is Alastair. The rest are pretty recent acquaintences." She turned onto the freeway. "Won't be much sympathy there."

"What the hell they got against you?"

Dar drove in silence for a few minutes, evaluating the last fifteen years. "I'm not the nicest person to deal with." She admitted. "I tend to ram issues I think are important thorugh, without much regard for anyone's feelings or opinions."

Andrew watched her with quiet interest. "That what the job calls for?"


"Well then?"

"It's all right when you're on top, Dad. But if you slip, it's a hard fall with no allies to cushion it." Dar sighed. "I worked very hard to always be right, because I knew if I wasn't, there were a lot of teeth snapping at my heels." She watched the signs, and turned off the next exit. "What bothers me is the fact that I… " She hesitated. "That they got me on something I…"

"They caught you with yer britches down."

"Mm." Dar had to smile. "Not literally, but yeah."

"Posterior sphincters." Andrew shook his head. "Got no more sense than the good Lord gave a grasshopper's left…um… leg."

"Dad?" Dar gave him an affectionate look. "I know what assholes and balls are."

"Watch yer mouth, young lady, before I turn you over mah knee and make you sing Dixie."

Obligingly, Dar started to sing. "Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there, are not forgotten, gone away.. gone away… gone away to Dixieland…"

"Smart aleck." Her father laughed, then joined in. He had a low, growly singing voice that sounded a bit like Dar's, and wasn't unpleasant at all to listen to. They finished the song just as Dar pulled up to the gates and rolled the window down. She showed her ID to the guard, who gave her a quick, respectful nod and allowed them through.

Andrew peered around the huge complex as they drove in. "Holy Jesus."

Dar chuckled, and pulled into the parking area, selecting a spot and turning the car off, now feeling the butterflies start moving in her stomach. She picked up her security card and examined it, her eyes tracing the familiar features reflected back at her along with the sharp black letters of her name.

Her employee number. Her hire date.

She knew a moment of profound sadness. "Guess I'd better go get this over with." She exhaled. "C'mon. There's an area upstairs you can wait in."

"Ah could just go in there with you." Andrew suggested, as he got out of his side of the car

"Daddy." Dar leaned on the roof of the car as she removed her laptop and shouldered it. "Thank you, but I really can handle this." She hoped. "And whatever happens, there's one of the best steak places I've ever eaten in down the road - dinner's on me."

They walked together into building, and Dar angled her steps towards the security desk. The man behind the counter glanced up at her as she approached and straightened, responding more to her sleek, neatly pressed gray suit and black silk shirt than anything else. "Morning." Dar handed over her identification. "I need to sign in a guest."

"Yes, ma'am." The guard handed back her badge, and provided a temporary one, as Dar wrote in her name, then smiled a little as she wrote in her father's. She signed the book with a flourish, then handed him the clip on identification. "Here you go."

"Ain't this special." Andy amiably clipped the badge to his shirt and followed her across the huge, echoing lobby to the elevators. The building was built with cold granite walls, and the high atrium featured a spiralling architecture that had offices and corridors overlooking the large cavernous center. "Place looks tighter than Fort Knox." He muttered, as they entered the elevator car.

"Not quite." Dar found smile somewhere. "I caught a report the other day where they found bums sleeping inside unused offices in the upper floors." She chuckled. "Heads rolled in security." She drew a breath in as the car stopped and the doors opened, allowing them onto the executive floor. It was quiet here as usual, and Dar lead the way down the corridor and into the large antechamber outside Alastair's office.

Beatrice glanced up as she entered, and gave her a sympathetic smile. "Hello, Dar."

"Morning." Dar held the door open. "Bea, I'd like you to meet my father. " She paused. "Andrew Roberts. Dad, this is Bea. She's known me here since I was hired."

"Mr. Roberts, it's a pleasure." Bea came around her desk and offered her hand. "So nice to meet you."

"Ma'am.' Andy took her hand carefully and clasped it.

"He in?" Dar tilted her head to the right, and seeing Beatrice's nod. "C'mon, Dad. Alastair remembers meeting you but it's been a while." She walked over to the door and knocked lightly, hearing the grunt on th other side. She opened the door to see her boss seated behind his desk, his chin resting on his fists.

"Dar - come on in." The older man leaned back, then blinked in surprise as his ever troublesome employee was followed inside by a slightly taller, older, more muscular and male version of herself. One look at the lean, angular face and Alastair had no problem guessing his identity. "Ah." He stood. "Commander Roberts, I believe." A genuine smile edged into his face, and he came out from behind his desk. "It's a pleasure, sir. We met once before, though you probably don't remember me."

Andrew padded forward and took the outstretched hand, shaking it and allowing a half grin to emerge. "Ah surely do remember. Ah came by that company picnic you all were having and watched you darn near set a pair of sea grapes on fire."

Alastair laughed. "You do indeed remember correctly. " He admitted. "A little too enthusiastic with the starter fluid, unfortunately."

Dar's cell phone went off, and she unclipped it, stepping to one side. "Excuse me." She opened it. "Hello?"


"Hey, Mark. I just got to the compound. Anything I can do for you while I still have a chance?" Dar forced the macabre humor.

"Yeah. Got a pencil?" The MIS manager's voice was full of milky satisfaction. "Listen up."

Alastair had moved over and offered his unexpected guest a drink. "What brings you to Houston, Commander?" He poured glasses of honey colored ice tea and handed Andrew one.

"Mah kid." The ice blue eyes, so weirdly familiar, fastened on him. "Had to come out here and see what kind of place it was that would be thinking of kicking out someone as smart and talented as I know she is for some dumb fool reason."

Alastair blinked, and took a step back, a little startled at the directness. "Oh. I see, well.. " He looked over to where Dar was still busy with her phone. "You know, I agree with you on that. I've always been one of Dar's biggest supporters."

"Yeap.. she did say that." Andy allowed. "And I'd like to thank you for watching out for my little girl."

"Lit…" A stunned pause. "You me.. ah." Alastair cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Commander. I"ve known your daughter for fifteen years, and it would never in my wildest dreams occur to me to think of her as anyone's 'little girl'"

"Sir?" The voice from the intercom.

"Yes/" Alastair answered it gratefully.

"The board is waiting.. Is Ms. Roberts there?"

"Oh.. yes, yes, she's here." The CEO sighed. "We'll be right over." He straightened. "Dar? Are we ready?" He looked over to see a chilling, almost predatory smile on Dar's face.

"Oh yeah." His CIO agreed. "We are definitely ready." Her phone rang again, and she answered it. "Yes?"

"Dar.. it is Jose." The Sales VP's voice was excited. "Listen to me - that new thing of yours. How soon?"

"For what?" Dar asked, as she adjusted her briefcase and prepared to follow Alastair. "Jose, I'm about to go into a meeting - the network's up, if that's what you're asking."

"Bueno!! Bueno!!" Jose chortled. "It can hold up bandwidth for a T3, yes?"

Dar gave Alastair an exasperated look. "Of course it can - Jose, this has got to wait."

"Do not worry, Dar. I have all that I need to know. Goodbye." Jose hung up and Dar folded her phone and tucked it into her belt, only to have it go off again. "Jesus. " She flipped it open. "Hello?"


Dar felt like she'd just had warm marshmallow poured over her. "Hi. Your flight go okay?"

"Mm." Kerry's voice sounded curious. "Except I picked up a chaperone, it seems."


"Your mother."

"My mo… " Dar slowly turned and looked at her father, who had his hands tucked behind his back and his most innocent novice swabbie expression on his face. "Oh, I'm beginning to see a conspiracy here. Guess who's with me."

"You're kidding." Kerry laughed. "Dar, that's just out of control."

"Well, I've gotta go into my meeting. Glad you got there safely."

"You too. Good luck." Kerry's voice was serious now. "Go with your heart, Dar. Whatever happens, I'm there with you."

Dar swallowed. "Same to you." She hung up and folded the phone, then gave Alastair a nod. "Let's go."

"You sure you don’t' want to turn that phone off?" Alastair gave her a wry look. "Commander, feel free to wait here, or outside."

"All right." Andy settled himself in a comfortable leather chair very near the door. "I will tell you something, though, sir. I hear any hollerin going on directed at my kid, you are not gonna like the results." He folded his arms and glared at Alastair.

The CEO held the door to the conference room open. "Ah. Right. Well, actually, it's usually Dar doing the yelling." He escaped and let the door close, crossing the tiny space before opening the inner door and leading the way into a chill, mostly filled room, whose eyes fastened on him, then slipped past him to stare at the tall, dark haired woman who entered behind him.

Dar brushed by her boss and went to the conference table, setting her briefcase down and resting her fingers on it as she leaned and regarded them.

Ankow smiled smugly at her. The rest of them had expressions ranging from wary regard to outright disgust. Dar took a breath in, and let it go, and took off the gloves. "All right." She felt her voice pitch low. "You asked me to be here for your idiotic little kangaroo court, so here I am." She straightened and spread her hands out. "Talk fast."


The huge courtroom was filling, half with regular people, half with press, Kerry realized as she waited her turn to pass through the metal detector. Her stomach was in knots, and she felt alternately flushed, and chilled as she stood anonymously among the crowd. A quick glance around confirmed no one in the vicinity knew her, and she exhaled, holding her hands in front of her clasping her subpoena.

"Haven't seen this much press in a while." Cecilia commented, from her position standing next to Kerry.

"Must be a slow news day." Kerry joked wanly. "Listen - you know - I mean, it's really nice of you to offer, but you really don't have to put yourself through this. I'm sure it's going to be really boring."

The cool gray eyes scanned the crowd. "As an artist, I've learned even the most mundane situations can be inspiring." A smile briefly crossed her lips. "Who knows? Maybe I'll decide to do a series of character study portraits."

Kerry spotted a very familiar core of obstinance behind that mild expression, and she gave a little nod, as she moved forward and handed the court clerk her paper. She waited for him to examine it, then he put a little stamp on the surface and recorded something.

"Inside, to the left." He passed her through. "Hands away from your body, please."

Kerry unclipped her pager and cell phone and handed them over, then walked through the metal detector, which remained comfortingly silent. She turned and took back her electronics, then waited while Cecilia walked through the portal, easily clearing both sides with her diminutive stature. Dar's mother was dressed in casual pale khaki cotton pants and a blue green sweater with it's sleeves pushed halfway up her arms. The color contrasted nicely with her silver blond hair, and lent a touch of warmth to her eyes.

Kerry liked it, and wished she was dressed as comfortably. She'd decided on one of her suits she wore at work, the burgundy one Dar had picked out for her the last time they'd been shopping. She had a pale gray, silk shirt on, and kept ruffling her hair in back, getting used to the shorter length she'd had it cut to for summer. "There's some seats up there." She pointed, just before her eyes moved right and she spotted her family. "Ah."

Ceci followed her gaze and studied the crowd, easily recognizing Kerry's father from his television appearances. He was accompanied by an older woman, dressed in a high necked, very plain gray dress, and a young man and woman, whom she deduced were Kerry's brother and sister. As she watched, the older woman turned her head, and met Kerry's eyes, then very deliberately looked away.

Kerry's gazed dropped.

Ceci tucked her hand into her companion's elbow and tugged. "C'mon." She guided the very quiet Kerry over to a set of empty seats across the big aisle from where her family was gathered. She sat down and watched them from the corner of her eyes, seeing the younger woman and man spot Kerry and lean their heads together, whispering.

The woman, she realized, was very pregnant. Behind her sat a tall, distinguished looking man, and a younger man with blond hair and gentler eyes.

Kerry kept her gaze forward, still smarting from the coldness she could feel coming from her mother, and the refusal of her siblings to meet her glance.

Did they know? Kerry suspected they did know, that she'd been the one who released the information to the press, proving herself a traitor on a level nothing she could ever do or say could relieve her from. At the time, she'd been angry, and had felt justified. Maybe she still did, but there was a part of her that wished she hadn't done it, even though the chances of her reconciling with her parents were slim even then.

It hurt. She studied her hands, folded in her lap, her thumb playing idly with the pretty ring the circled her finger.

"That's a beautiful piece. " Ceci commented softly. "May I see it?"

With a pensive smile, Kerry tugged it off and handed it over, turning her head a little to watch Dar's mother examine her gift, admiring the intricate, lacy design. "Dar surprised me with it." She saw Ceci's eyes widen a little, and she turned the ring to one side, peering at the inside band.

Then the gray eyes were lifting to meet hers, with a look of intense understanding in them. It was, Ceci sucked in a breath, like coming out of a dark room into the light.

She had wondered for thirty years what drove her daughter, and it had been right in front of her eyes the entire time.

Dar had only wanted what she and Andrew had.


"What's wrong?" Kerry asked leaning closer. "Mrs. Roberts, are you all right?"

She sighed and handed the ring back. "Oh yes." She gave Kerry a wry smile. "Just having a personal revelation."

"Really." Kerry slid the ring back on, the cool metal warming to her skin immediately. "Do you have those often?"

"Not nearly often enough." Cecilia admitted quietly.
Kerry was about to pursue that line of questioning further, when the buzz around her lowered, and chairs scraped. Then they were all rising as the examining council walked in, and seating themselves again after the six people behind the elevated table got to their places.

"All right." The man in charge shuffled some papers, and put a pair of half glasses on his nose. "Let's get going." He looked over at the special prosecutor. "Mr. Dileko?"

"Thank you." The lawyer, a dapper Democratic political appointee stood and studied his legal pad. "I'd like to call Kerrison Stuart to the stand, please." He glanced up into the crowd expectantly. "The bailiff tells me she's here?"

Oh boy. Kerry found herself completely not ready to face the crowd. She gathered her shredded confidence and stood, then looked down as a hand patted hers. "Wish me luck."

"Hang in there, Kerry." Cecilia smiled. "Anyone who could tame my daughter shoudn't have any trouble with this bunch."

Kerry returned the smile gratefully, then straightened her shoulders and edged out o the row they were sitting in, making her way towards the front of the room. She clenched her hand and felt her ring bite into her palm, lending her a measure of strength as she passed her family's seats, and sensed their eyes on her.

Then she was on the stand, and had to turn, and face the room, a myriad of expressions looking back at her. She lifted her hand, and repeated the words the clerk was muttering, then sat down, and turned her face towards the lawyer and waited.

Trying to pretend the most hostile of the looks directed at her weren't related to her by blood.


"We have some serious issues to discuss with you, Ms. Roberts." Dick Beresen folded his arms. He was a deep pockets, mostly in the backroom kind of boardmember, with a deep scar running half across his face and thin, mostly missing gray black hair.

Dar waited, her hands resting lightly on the chair back. One dark eyebrow lifted, and invited him to go on.

"We're about to close the quarter, and these reports are frankly not only disappointing, they're unacceptable." Dick stood up. "Four accounts were total losses, and three others are just barely making their numbers."

Dar remained silent, lifting the other brow.

"And then there's Allison Consulting." A murmur rose. "Care to explain that?"

"Should I have to?" Dar asked mildly. "The operations team report was very extensive." She folded her arms across her chest and moved away from the table. "Their management falsified information, and is facing criminal charges."

"Why wasn't it caught before we laid out two million dollars for them?" This was Alan Evens, a CPA whose family represented twenty percent of the outstanding stock in ILS."

"Ask the auditors." Dar replied. "I have no explanation for that - I can just tell you what my team reported during the integration." She shook her head. "They were uncooperative."

"That’s not what we found." Evans pulled a folder over and opened it. "According to the interviews I had commissioned, their staff reported that your representative was inexperienced, and didn't understand their systems, and they were unfairly dismissed by yourself."

For an answer, Dar removed her laptop from it's case and booted it. It brought up her desktop and she opened a database program, then selected a record. "The last six bids they won were forced through blackmail on the individuals making the decision, according to the police report, two of their senior management had over five hundred thousand dollars in unexplained funds in their bank accounts, searches of the property of twenty employees turned up company equipment still in boxes piled up in their garages, and one of their clients has turned over telephone records and tapes of their chief accountant giving instructions on where to leave a cash payoff of over twenty thousand dollars or face embarrassing personal pictures being released to the local press."

She clicked the box to close it. "The integrator in question was our operations director, who had successfully integrated twenty accounts prior to theirs, so that leaves their last statement." She paused. "Which is half true. I fired them." A shake of her head. "I don't consider it to be unfairly."

"How do you explain this then?" Evans tossed a picture towards her, an unpleasant smirk on his face. Dar glanced at it, expecting it to be the doctored one of Kerry in the bar. Instead, she found herself looking at an excellently focused shot of herself and Kerry in bed together, completely naked.

Fifteen years of troubleshooting came thankfully to her rescue. She gave her breathing several beats to relax, then glanced up at him, with the most amused, deprecating smile she could muster on her face. "Are you asking for an artistic opinion, or would you like a graphic demonstration of my technique?" She tried not to look at Alastair's shocked face, though, and she knew this was going to be uglier than she'd forecasted.

"Are you admitting that is you in that picture?" Evans leaned forward.

Dar looked at the shot, then plucked her shirt out and glanced down the opening. "Yep, that's me all right." She agreed amiably. "A perfect example of what I was talking about with Allison Consulting."

"Ms. Roberts, is that not your assistant in that picture with you?"

Grab the gonads time. Dar folded her arms. "Yes, it is."

Evans picked up the shot, then let it fall, and dropped his glasses on the table as well. "That's enough for me." He glanced across the table at a smiling David Ankow. "I don't think that suit's near enough to cover this."

"Oh, there's more." Ankow stood and stretched, very obviously enjoying himself. "Let me just read it out, shall I?" He picked up his pad and walked to the head of the table, opening the leather cover and setting it on the wood surface. "Then if you gentlemen agree, we can proceed accordingly. I have security already standing by."

Dar stole a glance at Alastair, who briefly met her eyes, then let his own drop, letting her know she was really on her own for this one. She felt a sinking sensation, then her head lifted, and she put regrets behind her, focusing on the here and now and gathering her thoughts and resources, ready for Ankow to start in. "I think security is a very good idea." She remarked, giving him an unexpected smile. "But - you go first."

She saw the momentary doubt in his eyes and widened her grin.

No Daddy. You didn't raise me to be no quitter.

"All right. " Ankow cleared his throat. "What we're establishing with this suit is a systematic, and deliberate use of company property, resources, and funds to further your personal ends, and those of your live in lover, the operations director of this company, Kerrison Stuart."

"Partner." Dar interrupted him.


"Partner. Kerry is my partner." She cracked her knuckles. "You might as well get the terminology of that right, since I know you wont' get the technical parts anything close to accurate."

Ankow stared at her. "Point one. " He glanced at his pad. "During the integration of Associated Synergenics, the accused caused a position to be created in the Operations ORGID, which she filled with Ms. Stuart, disregarding all company policy, and ignoring over thirty qualified candidates for the job."

Eyes shifted to Dar.

"Absolutely correct."

"How could you justify that!" Evans stood and pointed.

"Simply." Dar gave him a direct look. "She was the best choice." A pause. "As her subsequent job performance proves."

Evans pulled out a set of papers and read through them, with several people looking over his shoulder. He put them down and folded his arms, but didn't make any further comment.

"Next?" Dar cocked her head.

"Do we have to go through with this?" Beresen threw up his hands. "Frankly, I don’t' want to spend an hour listening to this crap." He stood up and pointed at Dar. "This is what you're going to do. You're going to resign, and get your ass out of this building, and go back to the banana farm."

Nodding heads.

"You're going to sign a paper admitting to all this, and we're going to figure out just how much it's cost us, and then you're going to cut the company a check for that, and hope we don’t' file criminal charges."

Dar turned her back and went to the window, peering out at the parched landscape and ignoring the rising speech between the men, letting the hateful comments bounce off her back and knowing not even Alastair's face would be friendly if she turned around.

She caught her reflection in the glass, and stared into her own eyes for a very long moment. It would be easy just to sign the paper, and go home.

It really would be. Then she could take off with Kerry, and they could go someplace nice and quiet, and feed each other lobster in the sunset with nothing but surf and sun and sand to worry about.


She imagined calling the office and telling them.

Having Maria pack up her office.

Having Mark shut down her access, and disable her passwords so no one got any bright ideas.

Telling Kerry.

Facing her father.

A quirk appeared at the corner of her mouth. So much for that.

She turned around. "Hey!" Her sudden shout brought shocked silence. "Sit your asses down." Dar stalked back over and put her hands on the chair back. "Number one, I'm not resigning."


"Now, hold on.."

"Shut up!" Dar snarled. "If you want me out of here, you're gonna have to fire me."

"No problem." Ankow yelled.

"And then it's my turn for a lawsuit." Dar barked back. "A nice, big fat one for wrongful dismissal." She leaned forward. "And one for discrimination."

There was a moment of silence. "Your perversion isn't covered under the law." Ankow finally spat. "Thank god we kept that out of the books."

"No." Dar smiled darkly. "My sexual orientation isn't covered under the anti discrimination laws, though it is covered by the corporate bylaws, but … " She started a circle around the table. "Gentlemen" An emphasis on the word. "My sex is."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Evens blurted.

"Check your shorts." Dar paced around the corner of the table. "Largest.. public…. IS company in the world….with a ton of US government contracts - and I am the only, single, solitary minority representative in the entire board."

"None of this has anything to do with the facts." Ankow pointed at her.

"That lawsuit has nothing to do with the facts." Dar shot back. She whirled and pointed to several members. "Since when does this slut festival care who the hell I'm sleeping with? Give me one example of one single time at any single moment that the fact that Kerry Stuart and I are lovers hurt the company." She raised her voice. "GIVE ME ONE!"

Total silence. "You big bunch of sanctimonious, useless pig farts!" Dar roared. "Between the two of us we run the fucking company! So drop the god damn bullshit and put the cards on the table!" She slammed her hand on the surface, and it made a sound like a shot. "Fire me, and so help me god, I will take this company down." She glared at all of them "You want trouble? You've got no idea what kind of trouble I can make. I know skeletons in closets so deep even the fucking Anthropological Society couldn't find them." A pace around the chair. "I know all the hiring for tit size, the payoffs to the Feds, the deliberate exclusion of minorities - you name it, I know it, I've lived it in for fifteen years and there is no.. " She pointed at Ankow. "No single god damned corner of this company that I haven't been in."

"Dar." Alastair stood, and held a hand out, palm down. "Let's just back it down a little."

Dar gave him a murderous glare.

"Please." The CEO took a breath. "Bottom line, Dar is right."

"Figures you support her. You're probably screwing her." Ankow muttered.

"I should be so lucky." Alastair responded shortly. "The facts of the matter are, gentlemen, that none of us are saints, and operationally speaking, we are in better shape with the present management than we have been in a number of years."

"Bet the shareholders wont' think so when you announce the loss this quarter." Evens snapped. "I hope they tar and feather your ass." He stood. "When that lawsuit goes public, with the quarter results we'll lose the company."

"Not this quarter." Alastair replied quietly. "Jose just signed a four hundred million dollar contract to provide backbone services to a consortium of ISP's."

Absolute, dead, shocked silence, even from Dar.

"Running, of course, on Dar's new network, which is the only one in the country capable of it." He paused. "Gentlemen, we are the Internet." He drew a breath. "Congratulations, Dar. That was the shortest cost of doing business assessment in the history if ILS."

Son of a bitch. Dar found herself speechless, the anger in her guts still boiling, but having no where to go. "Thanks." She finally muttered. She'd known she was making the right decision on the network, but being vindicated so quickly hadn't been a thought of hers. She felt mostly disgusted, and tired, not even a little bit triumphant. "Can we dump the bullshit now?"

"Oh no." Ankow met her gaze. "I'm not nearly through with you." He shook his head. "I don't care what they put on that network. I'm not going to back off exposing you for the poison you are."

"Funny you should put it like that." Dar dropped her amused attitude and went very serious. She started around the table towards him. "Speaking of poison." Her eyes found his, and held, for a very long moment. "Makes me wonder what your game is here." She circled him, like a shark would, lazily testing the waters. "Why would a jockstrap lawyer from Oregon latch on to an IS company and try to take control of it?"

"None of your fucking business." He snarled back. "Maybe I just want to give the stockholders some value for their money."

"Maybe you just remembered that old maxim. Knowledge is power. Only… " Dar circled him again. "In the IS world we say, data is power." She paused. "Now, why would a turnip like you be interested in us?"

Everyone was watching her now.

"Maybe it's for your daddy, hm?" Dar stopped in front of him, so they were nose to nose. "Daddy the leader of the white power militia in Oregon?"

His expression changed, becoming dark and dangerous. "I have nothing to do with my father."

"Don’t' you?" Dar smiled, then walked around to her laptop and clicked on her mail, opening a file. She turned her laptop around to face them. "Funny. You sure look alike."

The board members leaned over to peer at the shot, one of Ankow and an older man in fatigues, with racist banners wrapped around them. Both men had fists upraised in salute. "You should read some of his manifestos - interesting stuff." She straightened. "Especially that plan of his to target specific companies and do industrial sabotage."

Ankow gave her a deadly look.

"Wonder what the stockholders would think of that." Now, finally, Dar's smile returned. "What do you figure would piss them off more… a dyke or a Nazi?"

"You bitch."

Dar keyed in another file. "Especially a Nazi who was being paid off on the side by Roger Stuart to get his daughter fired." Now the murderous glare was hers, directed at him. "And who was stupid enough to put the details of it into a computer tied to my network."

The looks of shock were echoing across the huge table. Dar felt exhausted, and she rubbed the back of her neck. "Tell you what. I'm going to get a glass of milk, you think about it." She turned and walked to the front door of the chamber, and let herself out, heading directly down the corridor towards the kitchen without a backwards glance.

Not hearing the door open and close softly behind her.


"Ms. Stuart, this hearing is intended to bring to light any and all information regarding the allegations against your father." The prosecutor regarded her with neutral interest. "I’ll be asking you questions, but any of these gentlemen can do so as well. Do you understand?"

"Yes." Kerry folded her hands on the table and waited. The senate committee were to one side of her, making notes and whispering amongst themselves, then the prosecutor, or more properly, the investigator had his little table, then her father and his lawyers were seated at another little table at an angle to her.

"Fine. All right." The man looked at his notes. "You are currently living in Miami, Florida, is that correct?"


"How much support do you get from your father, in dollars, on a monthly basis?"


The man looked up at her. "Are you sure, Ms. Stuart?"

"Yes, quite sure, thanks." Kerry replied.

"No presents, then? No cars, boats, mink stoles?" The sarcasm was biting.

"No. I buy my own cars and boats, and I have no idea what I would I do with a mink stole in Miami." Kerry returned the volley.

"So you’re saying you live on your own?"

"I live with a roommate." She corrected.

"But you pay all your own bills?"

I try to. "Yes."

Shuffling of papers. "When did you last live with your parents, Ms. Stuart?"

"Four and a half years ago."

"That was while you were attending college?"


"Which, I take it, your parents paid for?"

"Actually." Kerry cleared her throat. "I went on scholarship." True, though her parents had paid for everything else, including her clothes, and books. Spending money, on the other hand had come from her part time job in the campus bookstore.

"Lucky you." The man leafed through a few sheets. "While you were living with your parents, did you have any reason to suspect your father was involved in illegal activities?"

Kerry considered that question seriously. "No." She finally answered, meeting his eyes. "I didn’t."

"Really? You seem like an intelligent young woman. Are you saying you never once saw anything you thought was out of the ordinary?"

Kerry’s pale eyebrow lifted slightly. "Define ordinary?" She replied. "Ordinary for you is probably not ordinary for me, given who my father is, and the media spotlight our lives were generally held in." She went on before he could comment. "It never crossed my mind, no, that my father was involved in any breech of the law."

"Why not?"

"Excuse me?"

"Why not, Ms. Stuart? Isn’t that what politicians do, nowadays?" The investigator circled her and leaned on the table. "Almost to be expected, don’t’ you think?"

Kerry studied his face, which was not unpleasant to look at. Given the last few years in politics, with what had gone on and the circus the leadership of the nation had become, he was probably more right than wrong. But she shrugged. "Honestly, it’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about."

He stood up and lifted a hand towards her. "Or you weren’t encouraged to think about it."

Maybe. Kerry thought back to her younger years. Politics were something her father had never, ever discussed with her, or her sister, or – even Michael. On the other hand, since she’d left home, the subject had never interested her either. She shrugged. "I think I just have drastically lowered expectations." Oo. The guys on the council didn’t like that.

"So, you’re saying it is something you’d expect someone like your father to do?"

"That’s not what I said."

"You said you had drastically lowered expectations, did you not?"

"Well, yes, but.."

"That is what you said, wasn’t it?"

"I said I don’t expect politicians to have a higher standard of contact than anyone else." Kerry clarified.

"Ah, but shouldn’t they, Ms. Stuart? After all, we elect them to be our representatives, to act in our best interests, after all. Don’t we?"

"Yes, but as far as I know, sir, they aren’t a different species." This guy was starting to annoy her. "Most of the time people act in their best interests, not someone else’s, so the fact that elected officials act like the rest of us does not, sir, surprise me."

"Interesting. And yet, you stated that you had no inkling of an idea that your father was… allegedly… accepting bribes, maintaining an entirely different family, and consorting with racists." A pause. "Were you, then, not surprised to hear the allegations when they came out?"

"Yes, I was surprised."

"Why? If politicians are like the rest of us, then why be surprised? Since you stated you don’t hold them to any high standard, is that right?"

"I don’t." Kerry paused. "But I do hold my father to higher standards, because he is my father, not because he is a politician, so yes, sir, I was surprised."

"Interesting double standard, Ms. Stuart." The lawyer asked shrewdly. "You don’t find that a contradiction?’

"Life is full of contradictions, sir." Kerry answered quietly.

His eyes studied her, a faint smile playing across his lips. "Yes, isn’t it?"

They were definitely different. Ceci watched Kerry under questioning, her body language indicating wary alertness, and her answers guarded but straightforward. Had it been Dar up there – she found a smile touching her lips. Dar would have been all over the lawyer, challenging his questions, and dominating the table with her restless energy.

Just like Ceci herself would have been, she admitted privately. Kerry, on the other hand, preferred a more low key, more reasonable attitude that still used her intelligence to make her points with accuracy. I bet she and Dar make quite a team in the office. The ultimate good cop, bad cop routine, with the natural friction that should have been caused by their radically different styles gentled and diffused by the fact that they loved each other.

A motion beside her made her look up, to see the short, brown haired man sitting with Kerry’s family taking the seat next to her.

"Hi." He murmured.

Ceci’s eyebrow lifted. "Hi." Was this, yes. Kerry had said this was her brother Michael. She glanced quickly over at the other side of the aisle, but everyone was paying close attention to Kerry, and Michael’s absence hadn’t been noted. "Something you want?"

"Um." He glanced furtively around and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "You’re here with Kerry Stuart, right?"

"Who’s asking?" Ceci decided to play hardball with him.

His eyes lifted and met hers for a brief minute. "I’m her brother, Michael."

"Really? I understood she was told she had no family here."

He winced, and looked down. "It’s complicated."

"No it’s not. You just need to go find a taxidermist and rent a spine." Ceci replied. "If you’ve decided not to talk to her, that’s one thing. But if you’re letting someone else make that choice for you, it’s damn sad."

They were both keeping their voices down, but her last comment caused Michael’s ears to redden, and he swallowed audibly. "I just wanted to find out if she’s okay." He mumbled.

"Ask her." Ceci folded her arms implacably.

They listened to the questions of the lawyer, and Kerry’s even answers for a minute. Then Michael peeked up at her, his long, dark lashes blinking slightly. "Are you related to Dar, by any chance?"

Ceci’s eyebrows lifted. "What makes you ask?"

He didn’t answer, but the corners of his mouth twitched.

"I’m her mother, yes."

Michael nodded to himself.

"Is there a problem with that?"

A tiny smile. "No, ma’am."

The lawyer finished his questions, and released Kerry from the table, and they watched as she circled it and headed down the aisle back towards them.

"You going to stay here, or run back over there?" Ceci asked.

He stayed. Kerry spotted him as she was almost back to her seat and her eyes widened, a look of wary surprise on her face. "Hi." She murmured softly as he stood up and faced her, then pulled her into a hug. "How are you?"

Ceci watched a smile cross her face as she returned the embrace. She winked at Kerry, and got an even broader grin, complete with a wrinkled nose and the appearance of the very tip of her tongue. Her eyes slipped past the two siblings to see a hostile gaze on them from across the aisle, and she took the opportunity to lock eyes with the burly, gray haired man seated at the defendants table. He jerked, as though startled, then looked away, and pointedly turned his back on them.

Kerry and her brother sat down, and she laced her fingers with his as they listened to the prosecutor call up Angie. "Thanks for coming over." She whispered. "I know you’re in trouble for it."

"Got a spare room down there in Miami? I’ll bring a sleeping bag." Michael whispered back, giving her a forlorn look. "Maybe I can get a job washing the beach sand over there?"

"Absolutely." Kerry squeezed his hand. "Oh.. sorry. Michael, this is Cecilia Roberts… she’s Dar’s mom."

"We’ve.. uh.. met." Michael produced a hesitant smile. "Hi."

"Pleasure to meet you, Michael." Cecilia responded cordially. " Nice work up there, Kerry."

"Thanks." Kerry sighed and leaned back, tucked as she was between her brother, and her new friend, she almost could make herself believe this wasn’t going to be so horrible after all. She noticed several latecomers entering, and turned her head to watch them, then heard Michael make a hissing noise right next to her. "What?"

"I can’t believe they showed up."

"Who?" Kerry peered at the new watchers, a woman in her mid forties with well coiffed blond hair accompanied by two children.

"That’s them." Her brother whispered. "The people dad’s supporting."

Oh Lord. "Jesus." Kerry closed her eyes.

Cecilia leaned over curiously. "What’s wrong?"

Kerry sighed. "My father’s other woman just came in with her kids." She gave Ceci a wry look. "Sorry – this is going to be a circus."

"Mm." Dar’s mother rubbed her earlobe. "I can’t wait to see the lion act in that case."


Dar slumped in the padded chair, alone in the small efficiency kitchen tucked away down the hall. Beside her, a fresh pot of coffee was burbling, filling the room with it’s rich fragrance, and a cup sat waiting, already loaded with cream and sugar.

She should feel great, she knew. After all, she’d taken a losing situation, and turned it around in her favor, winning down and dirty in a convincing way that even Ankow had no defense against.

Maybe she would feel good about it, after her head stopped aching, and she was out of this damn marble shithouse. Awry smile made it’s way onto her face. Damn, Jose. I owe you the biggest Argentinean barbecued steak south of the Mason Dixon when I get home, you little Cuban super salesman.

Her head tilted back against the wall and she focused her eyes on the doorway, then blinked when it was filled unexpectedly with a tall, burly figure. "Hey."

Her father padded inside, and turned a chair around, sitting on it backwards and resting his arms on the back. "Hey, Dardar. You all right?"

"Yeah." Dar rubbed her eyes. "Just unwinding a little."

Andrew regarded the tall form sprawled across from him. "Headache?"

Dar nodded.

"Used to get me them too. Base doctor always told me t’cut down on stress."

Dar smiled. "Yeah." She rested her head against her fist. "I was getting them every day there for a while." She found herself reluctant to talk about the board meeting. "One more session, and we’re outta here, I think."

"Mm." Her father grunted. "You done hollerin, then?"

Dar felt a moment of surprise, and she hesitated, taking in a careful breath. "You heard me?"

"Sure." Andy didn’t look distressed. "Had the pictures shaking in that damn office, matter of fact."

The coffee finished, and Dar reached over to pour some in her cup, then used the distraction of stirring it to give herself some time to answer. "Yeah, well." She muttered. "I wasn’t really sure I wanted you to see that side of me." She sipped the hot beverage, as her father waited patiently for her to continue. "It’s not very pleasant most of the time."

"Paladar, it’s a damn proud thing for a father to listen to his kid stand up for herself, and everyone else like that." Andrew told her seriously. "Specially when folks were saying some of the stuff them bastards were saying."

Dar smiled grimly. "That son of a bitch." She shook her head. "I think what made me maddest was the fact that he was going after Kerry. " Her nostrils flared. "I don’t know, Dad – maybe that idea of starting my own business was the right one after all. I don’t know how much more of this crap I want to put up with."

"Wall, everything that lives, takes a dump, Dardar – you’re always gonna hafta deal with some of it."

Yeah. Dar stood up and handed him the coffee cup. "Here – let me go get this over with, then we can get out of here. I hear a stuffed sweet potato calling my name." She put a hand on her father’s shoulder and walked past him. "Hope Kerry’s having a better day than I am."

Andrew turned around and propped a foot up on the chair next to him, sipping the coffee thoughtfully. "I think you’re doing all right." He murmured to the empty room. "That was some of the best verbal ball kicking I heard since boot camp."

Footsteps coming down the hall made him look up, but he remained where he was as a tall, good looking man entered. The newcomer gave him a surprised look, then brushed by and grabbed a paper cup from the stack near the water cooler.

He attempted to fill it, but the spigot wasn’t cooperating, and after a few tries, he cursed and kicked the machine viciously, making the water slosh in it’s glass bottle.

"Y’know." Andrew drawled softly. "Y’d have better luck with that there thing if’n you’d turn it on."

A pair of narrow, angry eyes looked around at him ."Shut the fuck up."

"Jest trying to help." The ex seal took a swallow of coffee and waggled his foot.

"Are you cleaning staff? Don’t you have something you need to be doing?"

"Ahm on a coffee break." Andy held up his cup. "That there power switch is behind that white doo dad, by the by." He studied the man carefully, a quiet, almost playful smile shaping his lips, which didn't reach the cold blue eyes above them.

Ankow switched the device on, and it hummed obediently. "Thanks." He tossed over his shoulder, visibly still annoyed at the scruffy, older man sprawled comfortably on the chairs.

"Mah pleasure."

"Jerk." Ankow muttered softly under his breath, as he grabbed his cup and put it under the spigot, turning it on sharply. The top popped off and a fountain of ice cold water hit him in the face, and he yelled, releasing it and slamming a fist against the device in fury.

It toppled over, sending the glass water tank crashing to the ground, and a spray of glass and liquid out, dousing him thoroughly. "Son of a bitch!"

Andy chuckled.

The drenched man turned. "It's not fucking funny, so shut your mouth, old man."

"Wall, sonny… I ain't the one standing there all wet then, am I?" Andy sipped his coffee, completely at his ease. "You oughta watch that temper now - it'll get you in trouble one of these fine days."

Ankow brushed the front of his jacket off and walked over to the seated man, standing over him with an aggressive posture. "You think so?" He asked softly.


"I think it's you who's asking for trouble, old man." Ankow's eyes glinted dangerously. "Your break's over. Get lost."

Andrew put his cup down on the table, and folded his arms. "Testy little feller, ain't ya?" He chuckled. "What's the matter…some girl tweak yer shorts?"

"Oh.. I am just in the mood for someone like you." Ankow snarled, lunging forward and reaching for the very welcome outlet for his temper.

Andy hooked the younger man behind the knee with his propped foot and yanked him forward and off balance. Then he coiled his other leg up and lashed out, catching Ankow in the gut with a vicious kick that sent him sprawling back onto the ground. "See thar? You just got to watch that temper, boy." He drawled, resuming his comfortable posture.

Ankow rolled with the motion and got to his feet, then grabbed a chair and lifted it over his head.

"Ya'll don’t' want to do that." Andrew warned him.

The chair descended, hitting wood and steel as the older man slipped out of the way, ducking gracefully around his antagonist and waiting for him to go past, then whirling and executing a perfectly timed roundhouse kick that nailed Ankow in the side of the head and threw him against the wall.

He stumbled back and turned, to see Andrew waiting for him, balanced over slightly bent knees. "I think I need to call security."

"Ah think you need to change yer diapers." Andy came at him, grabbing him before he could move and taking him down with a powerful twist of his body. He landed on top of the younger man, pinning him down and landing a knee firmly on his genitals.

Ankow's mouth opened, but no sound came out, and his eyes bugged as his adversary leaned forward and rested his weight on his chest, so that they were eye to eye.

"Now." Andrew spoke softly. "You are going to listen to me, Mr. David Ankow, former Army Ranger, who is a sorry pissant example of a soldier."

Ankow stared at him. "Who the fuck are you?" He managed to squeak out.

Andy reached out and put a hold on his neck, making his face redden as the blood pooled. "Ah'm Dar's daddy." He saw the eyes widen, and smiled. "And ah do not take kindly to you messing with her." He leaned closer. "So you are gonna cease and desist bothering my little girl, or I will surely turn you into Julianne human being. Do you understand me, boy?"

"I'll sue you for this."

"Only if'n you want me tellin the police about that little patch you stuck on my kid down south." Andrew drawled. "Which I will tell you is more than enough for me to want to toss you out that there window."

Ankow was silent.

Andrew released him and stood, stepping out of any possible range with a smooth, even motion, and waiting. He would either run, or fight, the ex seal knew, and he was stupid enough to do the latter. "Ah think it's time for you to leave, boy."

Ankow got up in a crouch, then slowly straightened, obviously in pain. He edged out of the room without further comment, and slunk down the hallway. Andy heard the door to the bathroom open and close, and only then did he relax, and brush his shirt off, mentally reviewing the incident.

Well. Coulda been worse. He picked up the scattered chairs and set them right, then ambled over and studied the mess of the water cooler, turning when a low throat clearing sounded behind him.

Alastair was in the doorway. "What happened here?"

Andy tugged at an earlobe. "Feller came in, didn't like the water, I suppose." He remarked. "Picky folks you got around here."

Alastair walked gingerly into the room and surveyed the damage, then eyed Andy dubiously. "I don't suppose it was a tall guy, in a light gray suit was it?"

"Ah do believe it was." Andy allowed.

"Uh huh." The CEO sighed, and gave the taller man a wry look. Very innocent blue eyes were looking back at him in a very familiar way. "Commander Roberts, why is it that I get the feeling the apple on my payroll didn't fall very far from the tree?"

"Beats me." Andy rasped. "Y'all about done in there?"

"Yes." Alastair murmured. "I just what to have a little private meeting with Dar before we all leave." He turned and put a hand on the open doorjamb. "I'll call the cleaning crew up to take care of this." With a shake of his head, he left, and Andy wandered over to resecure his cup of coffee.

Old man, huh?

A salt and pepper eyebrow quirked.

You can jest kiss mah ass.


Kerry shifted in her seat for the hundredth time, listening to the repetitive questions being put to her siblings. Michael had been called up and had to answer honestly to how much their parents had supported him, including the six years he’d muddled through college, and the fact that they’d bought him a townhouse in Michigan and paid for his car.

It had been a little embarrassing. At least Angie was married, and had her own home, bought by her well off husband Richard. Angie looked terrible though, Kerry realized, pale and drawn even taking her pregnancy into account. She felt bad for her sister, but Angie wouldn’t even meet her eyes in the audience.

Michael had gone back to sit next to her after his testimony, though, and the two dark heads were bent together in obvious collaboration.

"This has got to be killing you." Ceci murmured sympathetically.

"You have no idea." Kerry sighed, sliding her fingers through her hair and rubbing the back of her neck. "It’s not like we haven’t always had the press sniffing around, but to have to sit up there like that… Jesus."

Ceci patted her arm. "Hang in there, Kerry. It won’t last forever. Maybe the worst is over for you – I’d think they’d move on to more fertile ground."

"Mmph." Kerry looked around, then turned to face Ceci. "Thank you again, by the way, for hanging around here with me." She managed a smile. "I only wish I knew what was going on with – YOW!" Kerry jumped, as her cell phone vibrated, since she’d turned off the audible tones in deference to the crowd. "Jesus.. I hate that."

Ceci eyed her in mild alarm, but refrained from commenting.

"Hello?" Kerry murmured into the instrument.


"Hey! I was just thinking about you." Kerry replied, hearing a tired, but not horrible tone in Dar’s voice. "How’s it going?"

"I was just going to ask you the same question." Her lover chuckled. "We’ve about finished here. I worked out a deal- things are status quo."

Kerry blinked at the casual statement, as though Dar had arranged to have her car waxed or something. "Oh. Hey, great. We’re almost done here, too, I think. At least for today. It’s been… " A sigh. "Interesting."

"In the Chinese sense?


"Ah." Dar replied. "Well, I’m just waiting for Alastair to come back so we can wrap things up. Dad and I are going to grab dinner near hear, then see if we can catch a flight up there."

"Good Lord, Dar – you guys don’t’ have to all come up here, you know." Kerry protested mildly. "Why don’t you go home, and relax? I think I’ll only be another day or so, at the most."

There was a distinct pause, and a little silence at the other end, "All right. If that’s what you want." Dar finally answered, in a subdbuded tone.

Be honest, or ..? Kerry sensed the hurt on the other end of the phone. "No, it’s not what I want." She sighed. "I was just trying to be nice, and self sacrificing, and unselfish, and all that good stuff.’

"Ah." Dar laughed softly.

"We’ve just got so much work to do, and I really didn’t want you thinking that I considered you my personal walking and talking security blanket." Kerry kept her voice very low, but was aware of the tiny smirk on Ceci’s face. "I think I’m amusing the hell out of your mother."

"I bet." A chuckle. "Well, I gotta go." Dar replied. "We’ll see you all later tonight, okay?"

"More than okay." Kerry balanced the situation here, with the one she knew Dar was in, and decided she’d love the ability to crawl through the phone and come out the other side. Even Houston beat this. "Be safe." She closed the phone and tucked it away, then folded her arms as the lawyers all gathered up near the council table, muttering to each other. She felt a hot light on her face and only just kept from looking, as she realized she was being filmed by the reporters present.

God. Her jaw moved. I’d almost forgotten what that felt like. "We’re on Candid Camera." She murmured to Ceci, who had her arms resting on the chair backs in front of them, and was watching things with mild interest.

"Is this where Allen Funt comes out in a clown suit?" She remarked. "You’re also the subject of attention across the aisle."


"Who’s the young, blond guy?"

Kerry hesitated. "Brian. He’s a family friend."

"He keeps looking at you."

"I’m supposed to be married to him and have a kid by now." Kerry managed a wry smile, then glanced down. "Or at least have one on the way." She patted her stomach.

Cecilia’s pale gray eyes fixed on her, then shifted across the aisle, then moved back. "Really?"

Kerry nodded. "Actually, it’s kind of a secret, but Angie’s baby’s his."

Dar’s mother rubbed the bridge of her small, finely shaped nose. "I thought she was married to that tall man over there?"

"She is."

Ceci regarded her with a curious expression. "You ever consider contacting Jerry Springer?"

Kerry giggled unexpectedly at that, covering her mouth to keep from bursting out laughing. The light lingered on her for a minute then she felt it go off, as the cameras attention was turned elsewhere. "Oh god.. that was funny."

"I was serious." Ceci muttered. "You could get a novel out of this at the least."

"Ladies and Gentlemen, that will be all for today. All those who were under subpoena today please return here tomorrow morning, to continue the investigation. Opposing council has requested time to question some of the depositions taken today."

"Yippee." Kerry murmured. "Well, they’re attacking over there – let’s see if we can get out of here while we can." She got up and brushed her jacket off, then edged down the aisle, with Ceci behind her. A loud voice drew their eyes, and Kerry looked over to see one of her father’s lawyers arguing with ‘the other woman."

"I’ve got a right to be here!" The woman yelled. "So get your hands off me you pig!"

"Oh boy." Kerry turned right, and plowed determinedly for the door as the cameras scuttled eagerly for the new distraction. She ignored the calls behind her, pretending it was some other Ms. Stuart people were yelling for. "How hard is it to change your name?"

"Not very." Ceci replied, ducking under a reporters arm "Half of humanity does it on a regular basis."

"Hm. Good point." Kerry almost made it to the door, but a tall, burly man with a beard, a microphone, and a cameraman planted himself firmly in her way and she didn’t have room to go around him. She stopped and regarded him warily.

"Ms. Stuart – that was a very interesting deposition you gave."

"Glad you thought so." Kerry replied. "I just answered what they asked."

"Our sources tell us you’re estranged from your family – is that true?" The microphone came closer, and she was suddenly very aware of the round, black eye of the camera.

"Why do you want to know?" Kerry asked directly.

The reported hesitated a beat at the unexpected answer, then rallied. "This is a public hearing, Ms. Stuart, the people have a right to know the facts."

"It’s not my hearing." Kerry objected. "I doubt the public much cares about my facts." She stated firmly. "Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think the juicy action you want is going on over there." She pointed, where her father’s mistress was struggling with her father’s lawyer, and hitting him over the head with her purse. Distracted, the reporter looked, then grabbed his cameraman and started wading over towards the fight.

Kerry sighed. "I said it would be a circus." They edged past a crowd of excited people, most of which pointed at her and managed to get outside the room, where even more cameras were waiting. A blast of flashbulbs went off, and Kerry was almost blinded, stopping short so she wouldn’t crash into anything or anyone. "Whoa." She threw up a hand in front of her eyes in sheer defense, then felt a tugging at her elbow and followed Ceci’s lead, as they dodged around two local reporters who were on the air, and got a little breathing space near the top of the long, marble steps.

She could still hear the yelling inside, and briefly, part of her wondered if she shouldn’t go back inside, and stand by her family, despite the fact that she knew she wasn’t wanted there.

She thought about that for a very long moment.

Then she turned and started down the steps. "C’mon – if we wait for them to start to come out, we’ll never get out of here."

Cecilia murmured an agreement as she followed, and they made their way down the steps and out through the huge wooden doors. Outside, barricades had been set up, and a small crowd was milling around, seemingly trying to organize themselves.

Banners were being raised, and Ceci squinted to try and read them. "I believe those are your father’s supporters."

Kerry stopped and looked. "America for Americans." She breathed, seeing the T-shirts, and the cropped hair. The group was white, of mixed ages, and definitely growing. A bus pulled up and started unloading, with men dragging out signs and women carrying baskets. "Oh my god."

A sign went up. "Framed by the Left, Supported by the Moral Right"

"How can they stand behind him, after what he did?" Kerry turned, and asked her older companion. "I don’t get it."

Ceci took her arm, and urged her towards the street. "Kerry, you live in a country where black men get beaten to death in the streets, and sex except in the missionary position is illegal in many places. Don’t try to make sense of this, all right? I’ve learned better." She hailed a cab, which pulled obligingly to the curb for them.

Kerry settled into the seat and moved across, allowing Cecilia room to enter. "You mean, he supports their cause, so they don’t care what he does?"

"Something like that." Ceci leaned forward and gave the cab driver their hotel address. "Well, I don’t know about you, Kerry, but I certainly could use a drink, and some dinner."

"Yeah." A nod. "I would love a couple of beers." Kerry closed her eyes and let her head drop back against the seat. "And dinner sounds great. Dar said they’re going to pick up something there, then catch the late flight out here."

"You’re a beer fan?" Ceci chuckled. "And here I go, right after I say not to assume things, I do. I figured you for margaritas."

"Nu uh." Kerry shook her head. "I developed a taste for beer in college, and it stuck with me." She considered. "We had a little microbrew near the campus. I spent a lot of time there, studying and tasting." Living on campus there had given her the first real opportunity to see a life other than the one her parents had planned for her, and when she looked back on it, those long afternoons in the pub curled up on a nice padded bench mapping out circuits and sipping her choice of beverage were one of the nicest memories she had of school.

Mostly because she knew it would shock them, as much as demonstrating her finely honed and well developed talent of belching would. Kerry chuckled to herself, remembering Michael’s face the first time he’d heard her do it.

"Well, from what I read in the lobby, the hotel’s got a nice looking eat in bar they seem pretty proud of – we could give it a try." Cecilia commented, sorting through the possible menus and deciding that, at worst, they’d have a stuffed baked potato she could order.

Or maybe some stuffed mushrooms.

"Sounds good to me." Kerry agreed. "But I gotta get out of this monkey suit. It’s driving me nuts." She rolled her head to one side, idly watching the buildings go past in all their marble monstrosity. On the corner just before the hotel she spotted what looked like three of her father’s supporters, with cropped heads sporting shaved, colored sigils in the back, and black leather jackets and boots. They appeared to be just standing around talking, and she almost dismissed them, before she saw one of them turn, and watch the entrance to the hotel intently for a minute, then return to his conversation.

She thought about that as they pulled up.


Just because you’re paranoid, Ker, doesn’t’ mean someone’s not out to get you.

She glanced at her watch and wondered.


Dar leaned against the plate glass of the window, watching the sun go down over the flat landscape. The meeting was over, and now.. now all she had to do was wait for Alastair to come back in, and wrap things up.

It could have been worse.

It could, of course, have also been better.

Despite what she thought of Ankow, the board could no more remove him for being a bigoted, sneaky asshole than they could remove her for being gay. It was almost annoyingly fair, but she had to admit they had nothing really significant to use to dismiss him with – certainly, given that she’d admitted to her living with Kerry, they had less on him than what they had on Dar.


An uneasy truce was the best they could manage. Ankow very reluctantly agreed to drop his stupid lawsuit, and Dar agreed to keep her revelations quiet as well. It came down to consumer confidence, as always – revealing either scandal would hurt the company, and since Ankow’s background had been revealed, there was no chance of him getting what he wanted to out of the bargain, so he decided to back off and find another way.

Which meant they’d still have to deal with each other.

Dar sighed, and pressed her aching forehead against the cool glass. The board was uneasy about her and Kerry. She could sense that, in their words and speech, but most of them were too polite to say so to her face. It wasn’t surprising, really – most of them were older, and conservative, and had enough trouble with her being a woman in the first place, don’t even go into the fact that she was gay.

It shouldn’t god damn matter. She’d said so, and Alastair had agreed, noting that it hadn’t mattered to him for fifteen years, and here he was a family man, a grandfather, as conservative as you could get right down to his black socks and patent leather shoes.

The door opened, and footsteps approached, scuffing across the tightly woven carpet. Dar heard a faint creak as Alastair perched on the edge of his desk and she turned, regarding him with quiet, serious blue eyes. "Not a good day, Alastair."

He tilted his head a little. "Coulda been worse, Dar. Could have been worse."


"I know you think I abandoned you in there."

Dar shrugged, and regarded the pale stripes of sunlight coming in the window. "No sense in both of us going down."

"That’s not true, Dar." Alastair got up and walked over, putting his hands in his gray flannel pockets and tipping his head back just a little to meet her eyes. "The truth is, I was out of my league. I had no idea what to say, or what to do when he pulled that picture out. I was just hoping you did." He paused. "And, as usual, you handled the worst possible situation with ease, and grace, and you reminded me all over again why you are where you are, and why I put you there."

"I doubt the board agrees with you."

The CEO shrugged. "They don’t know you." Alastair replied. "I’ve had fifteen years to get used to you, Dar – give them a chance - eventually…"

"Eventually they’ll forget I’m an evil gay woman with an agenda?"

"Well." Her boss chuckled a bit. "They’ll forget you’re gay. I think it’s going to be a really long time before they forget you’re a woman." He watched the dark, well shaped eyebrows lift. "C’mon, Dar – we’re a bunch of horny old goats in there, you don’t think half the resentment floating around that room isn’t because not one of us has a chance with you?"

Dar had to laugh. "Alastair, you’re such a bastard sometimes."

"Sometimes." He agreed. "Listen, Dar – the fact is that you are very low profile in the company, and that’s hurting you, because some of these guys don’t’ hear anything but the bad stuff about you. I’d really like you to be at the quarterly stockholder’s meeting, and I’d love you to do the presentation this time."


Alastair nodded. "I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and it just seems like a good idea to me. Get you out there, and get you exposed to all these people who have no idea who you are, but have heard stories." He smiled. "Besides, it’s a great quarter for it, Dar – the new network’s up, and it’s paid for already. I can’t think of a better scenario for you to have to present."

"Hm." Dar felt very off balance. She hadn’t expected the conversation to go this way, and after the session they’d just been in, her brain was still wandering off track somewhere. "All right. I’ll see what I can work up."

"Good." Her boss smiled. "Have you got plans for tonight?"

"Dinner with dad." Dar replied. "You’re welcome to join us if you want – we’re heading down the road to the steakhouse."

Alastair sighed. "Dar, I’m gonna have to kill you. I have to go to my nephew’s restaurant opening tonight."

"What’s wrong with that?"

"It’s call Tofu Gardens."

Dar cleared her throat. "I have a chocolate bar in my briefcase if that’ll help." She held a hand out. "Have fun. I’ll be in touch later, Alastair – we’ve got a lot to work out for that new contract."

"Will do." The CEO watched her leave, then sat down slowly on his leather chair, lacing his fingers around one gray clad knee, letting the sunset color the room around him.

"I think ah’m gonna like this." Andrew nodded approvingly, as they mounted the two wooden steps onto the porch outside the large steakhouse. He opened the door and gestured for Dar to go in, then followed her into an atmosphere rich with protein, alcohol, and the inimitable dust from peanut shells. "Yep. Slab of beef, and a beer, and a pretty lady with me. I do like this."

"Two." Dar told the hostess, as she shook her head. They followed the young girl down a wide aisle and slid into a booth, it’s table complete with bowls of packet sugar and bottles of hot sauce. Dar examined one. "Nice." She put it back and rested her arm on the table, then slid sideways and leaned against the booth wall. "Glad that’s over with."

"Ah bet." Andrew investigated the peanuts, cracking open the shells with powerful fingers, then offering exactly one half of the contents to his daughter. Dar had changed from her business suit into a pair of jeans and a crisply ironed cotton shirt, and tied her hair back to keep it out of her eyes in the windy weather. "Things go all right up in DC?"

"Hard to say." Dar paused, as the waitress arrived, a very perky young woman with tiny sparkles in her blue eyeshadow. "Irish coffee, please. " She glanced across to her father. "Beer?"

"Yeap – one of them dark things, if you got it." Andrew confirmed. "And I’d like a rare steak and a tater, and some ice cream."

The girl blinked. "All at once sir?"

Dar chuckled. "Make it two, and no, the ice cream can come later." She nibbled on a peanut as the girl finished writing, and took their unused menus back. "Mmph." She stifled a yawn, and tilted her head back, idly watching the silent television above the bar. "Hey." She nudged her father’s arm and pointed. "That’s the hearing."

Andrew turned around to watch. "That her pa?"

"Yes." Dar nodded. "That’s her mother, and her sister Angie, and her brother Michael in back of them." They watched as the camera showed the investigators, and then a shot of Kerry’s brother on the stand, looking very ill at ease and embarased.

Then came a shot of a very familiar face. "Hey!" Dar smiled in reflex. "Look – it’s Kerry and mom."

"Darn if it ain’t." Andrew chuckled.

Dar pulled her cell phone out and speed dialed a number. "Hey."

"Hey." Kerry’s voice sounded muffled against a fair amount of noise.

"I just saw you on television."


"No, you look great." Dar reassured her. "You and mom both – though the look you were giving the cameraman could have killed a peacock at twenty paces."

"I forgot how much I hated that." Kerry grumbled. "I have no idea how they recognized me. I certainly don’t’ look like I did five years ago." She muffled the receiver then returned. "It’s getting sort of weird here, Dar. I guess those people who’ve been paying off my father decided to come out and support him. They’re giving me the creeps."

Dar frowned. "Are they bothering you?" She noticed her father had caught her tone, and was listening alertly.

"No." Kerry reassured her. "I’m sure it’s just my conscience, you know what I mean?"

"Well, try to stay out of trouble until we get there."

"Does that mean we can get into trouble then?" Kerry lightened her tone. "Seriously, it’s fine, Dar. I have to go back to the chambers tomorrow, but after that, I think they’re going to let us go and concentrate on the clerks and police who investigated and all that."

Dar relaxed, and leaned back. "Okay. Well, we’re having dinner, then heading to the airport. I think the flight’s due in around ten." She took a sip of her coffee, and let the Irish Whiskey burn it’s way down. "Where are you?"

"In the hotel bar." Kerry replied. "Trying to figure out what a fuzzy navel is."

Dar grinned. "I’ll show you when I get there." She offered, with a low chuckle. "Cause you have one."

Momentary silence. "Oh, for pe… Dar!" A groan came through the line. "I’m gonna hurt you."

"Heh. It’s peach schnapps and orange juice, I think." Dar supplied helpfully. "Get it? Peach… fuzzy… navel.. oranges?"

"I got it. Thanks." Kerry’s voice sounded mildly exasperated. "I’m going to eat my cheeseburger.. no, excuse me, my ‘cheddar topped grilled chopped sirloin steak over delicately sliced and toasted potatoes’ now. I’ll see you in a few hours."

"Eat a French fry for me." Dar grinned. "See you soon." She hung up and tucked the phone away, suddenly wishing the flight was done and over with, and she was there explaining fuzzy navels up close and personal.



She'd been standing there, resting her elbows on the balcony railing and looking out at the brightly lit city, and she turned at the sound of her name. "It's pretty, with all the monuments and stuff and the lights."

Ceci came out to join her, entering through the connecting door between their two rooms. "Yes, it is." She agreed. "Would you like to take a walk down to some of them? It's a nice night out."

"Anything to walk off that collection of animal protein floating in solid grease." Kerry told her, making a face. "I could have used the excess to lube my car."

Ceci laughed. "Well, I'd suggest vegetarianism, except that my mushrooms were just as greasy, and I think those artichokes were older than I am."

Kerry chuckled, and they exchanged looks. She noticed they both were getting more comfortable with each other, and she found herself liking Dar's mother very much. She had a dry, wicked sense of humor that came out around blind corners, much like her daughter's did, but was based in a totally different mindset from her vastly different experiences. "Sure." She agreed amiably. "You can explain paganism to me while we walk. I've been wondering about that since Dar mentioned it."

"Dar mentioned it." Ceci scratched her jaw at that, as she lead the way out of the hotel room and headed for the elevator. "Dare I ask in what context?"

Kerry thought about the question. "Oh.. right. We were in this Thai restaurant.."

"And that spawned a discussion of paganism." Ceci mused. "Was it those little Budda statues?"

They exited the hotel and walked down the steps, turning to the right and heading down the street towards a well lit monument. "No.." Kerry continued the conversation. "Duks and I were discussing believing in God."

"Food that bad?"

Kerry laughed. "No!" She shook her head. "He's an atheist - so we were comparing belief systems - Mariana told us what her religion was, then Duks asked Dar for her viewpoint."


"She said that her father was a Southern Baptist, and that you were a pagan, and that she always knew you both belived in something .. " Kerry scrunched her brow. "Let me see.. she said, you both believed in something, not necessarily the same something, but something, and she sort of patterned herself after that."

Ceci thought about that as they walked. "And what did you think about that?"

"What did I think? I thought holidays at your house must have been interesting." Kerry replied, with a chuckle. "But what really impressed me was that Dar was free to make her own choice."

"That's very true."

"It gave me a different slant on religion. I went to Christian school right up until the time I went to college, and even then - it was in the same area, pretty much, so I didn't get exposed to..um…" Kerry hesitated.

"Heathens?" Ceci arched a brow.

"People with different value structures." She corrected gently. "I mean, we studied different cultures in school, but it's not the same thing as seeing it face to face."

"Mm. That's true." Ceci nodded. "It was like that for me, after I married Andy and went to live on a navy base."

Kerry glanced at her, the smaller woman's profile outlined in the moonlight. "That must have been a tough transition."

A slow nod. "It was." Ceci murmured. "Andy was gone so much, and we were so young."

They walked in silence for a little while. "Miami must have been a shock for you." The older woman said, as they turned into a well manicured park, and started down a path covered in cedar chips, which crunched lightly under their feet.

"Oh yeah." Kerry agreed. "I had the.. opportunity to get a management position at Associated Synergenics, and I'd said yes, before I'd really thought about what I was doing. My parents were livid." She sighed. "But off I went - I found an apartment in Kendall, got all settled in.. found some friends… " She paused, with a faint smile.

"And?" Ceci heard the unsaid words.

"Went to South Beach and figured out I was gay… " A light laugh. "You know.. the usual stuff. I remember the night it all became clear to me - I went out onto the beach, and sat there looking at the stars, convinced I was going to hell."

Ceci made a light hissing noise. "That's something I never understood about the Christian religion. It's founder is one of the few, genuine icons of love the world has ever known, yet more violence and hatred has been done in his name than just about anything else ever." She lifted her hands. "I don't understand it - I never have, and that's why I could never accept it's teachings."

Kerry fell silent, and let those words penetrate. "I guess…" She exhaled softly. "I guess my real problem with it came when I tried to reconcile the words that called me a sinner, with the joy love brought me."

"Mm." Ceci nodded as she walked, reaching out an idle hand to brush the thick marble walls they were moving past. "When Dar first told us she was gay, I swear, both Andy and I really believed she was doing it just to add one more bit of rebelliousness to what was already a very shook up adolescence." She laughed softly. "I think I remember saying. 'Well, honey - it could have been worse. She could have joined a cult."

Kerry laughed as well. "Was it hard for d… for Mr. Roberts?"

"Andy would have loved Dar no matter what she'd decided to be or do." Ceci told her. "He did what he always did when he was faced with something he didn't really undestand. He went to the library, and read everything he could get his hands on homosexuality."


"Mm… and the conversation he and Dar had when he finished doing that, and he was determined to make sure she wasn't going to get herself into trouble, was one of the most hilarious things I've ever had to listen to."

Kerry covered her mouth, muffling a giggle. "Oh my god.. I can picture.it." She cleared her throat and pitched her voice lower. "Now you listen here, Dardar, I ain't gonna have you getting your butt into trouble mind, so here's some of them condoms they say you should be wearing."

Ceci almost double over. "Oh!" She laughed. "That's very good!" She had to stop and lean against the wall. "And very, very close."

Kerry joined her in laughter. "Well, I wanted to be in the local gay shop in Fort Lauderdale when he went in there to by a rainbow sticker."

Cecilia laughed harder. "He didn't!"

"Oh yeah.. and he had one of those rainbow keychains, too." Kerry cheerfully told her. "It was such a.. " She paused, becoming more serious. "It was such a wonderful relief to just have him accept us… accept me, the way he did. You have no idea how much that means to me."

Ceci took her arm, and they started walking again. "I think I do." She murmured. "He's such an unsophisticated person, really. But he's good at everything he does. He was a good soldier, he's a good husband, and he's a very good father." She turned to look at Kerry's profile. "I'm glad he's become a father to you, Kerry."

Kerry didn't answer, waiting for the lump to go down in her throat. She bit her lip and swallowed, fighting down the tears that stung her eyes. She kept walking, with Ceci strolling along next to her accepting the silence with quiet sympathy.

They crossed out into an open area, lit by halogen lights that turned the grassy shadows to sharp slivers of black and silver. Kerry heard a soft crunching behind her, and she glanced back, surprised to see three tall forms walking slowly behind them.

Coincidence? The three had leather vests over their white tshirts, and she could just barely see the mottled darkness of tattoes across their arms. All three had shaven heads, and were talking in loud… overly loud voices.

Ceci followed her gaze, then returned her eyes forward. "Into every life a few assholes must fall." She sighed., drawing a startled look from Kerry. "C'mon, Kerry - you're not one of those people who believe parents don’t curse or have sex, are you?"

"Uh." She bit her lower lip and steered Ceci a little more towards the lit areas. "Well…"

The voices behind them got louder, and more coarse, and the subject matter switched from fighting to something far less savory.

"See all them niggers over there?"

"Must be giving something out for free, lookit them gathering around for handouts."

"City's too full of fucking niggers and fags."

"They aughta nuke it." Ribald laughter. "Send fag and nigger bits up like confetti."

"Excuse me." Cecilia took three steps to her right and faced them, forcing them to stop walking. "About the only nukable thing I see here are a couple of pieces of very white trash who need to shut their ignorant mouths."

They stared at the diminutive, silver blond woman in shock for a long instant, one shared by Kerry who never expected her older companion to turn into an activist so suddenly.

"Hey. You talkin to me, bitch?" The first one pointed at his chest, puffing it out.

"No." Ceci replied. "I'm talking at you. Talking to you would require some intelligence on your part, and we're just not going to go there." She put her hands on her hips. "Scram. You're polluting the ozone." She gestured with a thumb over her shoulder. "Move it!"

They edged around her and ambled down the path, looking behind them as thought expecting her to grow a second head. "Bitch!" One shook his head. "Fucking crazy ass bitch!"

Ceci watched them go. "Morons." She sighed in disgust. "What in the hell are their parents thinking? What are they teaching kids these days, anyway?"

Kerry blinked at her, then smiled. "Um… "

Ceci brushed her sleeve off then started walking again. They turned a corner in the large park, then paused, watching a larger group of people just ahead of them. One man was wrapped in a Confederate Flag, and they could see flasks being passed around. "I don't think that little trick's going to work twice."

"No." Kerry agreed, turning around. "C'mon - let's start back. This is giving me the creeps."

They headed back the way they came, turning the corner again and almost running into a half dozen men going the other direction. "Excuse me." Kerry tried to edge around them, but found her sleeve grabbed.

"Hey, cute stuff. Where are ya going? Come party with us." '
"No thank you." Kerry gently tried to pull away. "I'm not much of a partyer."

The man who had her arm was a tall, handsome blond, with a mostly cropped head and a necklace of silver barbed wire. "We could change that.. right guys?" His companions laughed. "Get lost, mama - we're going to show little blondie here a good time." He pulled Kerry towards him, grinning when she stopped resisting. "That's a gi…."

Kerry went with the motion and stepped in, then threw her weight up wards and slammed a knee squarely into his groin. He coughed, and she whirled, grasping his arm and pulling him over her head to land on the ground with a thump.

She backed off and stood in a balanced stance, her hands at shoulder level lightly curled into fists, and waited.

"Hey - you can't do that you little..' One of the others reached for her, and she nailed him with a roundhouse kick to the jaw, sending him sprawling.

"Yes, I can." She warned. "Now, just leave us alone."

"Like hell." A shorter man in the back stuck his head around the building. "Hey! Hey you guys! We got some boot bait over here!"

"Shit." Ceci cursed. "I think it's time to leave."

"Yep." Kerry turned and pushed her forward. "Run!" She evaded the outstretched hand of the closed of them, then ducked in and kicked him in the ribs, shoving him hard against his companions as he went off balance and using the distraction to bolt after Ceci, tucking her fists in against her side and dashing over the grass with even, powerful strides.

A yell told her they were being followed. "Move it!" She hollered at Ceci, who was holding her own. Ahead of them, the entrance to the park loomed huge, and remote, promising safely in the sparse crowds traveling across it's opening. Kerry caught up to Dar's mother and put a hand on her back, pushing her forward and glancing behind her to see a crowd chasing them. A rock flew by her head and she ran faster, sensing the bodies just behind her by the sounds of breathing and footsteps.

They broke into the open, startling the wits out of several bystanders and attracting the immediate attention of a policeman on horseback trotting by. He pulled up and backed his mount, and they made for him, almost colliding with the huge animal. "Whoa there."

Kerry turned to see a crowd of men come out of the park, skidding to a halt when they spotted the policeman. She caught her breath and put a hand on Ceci's shoulder, gazing at the older woman leaning against the horse in concern. "You okay?"

A nod.

"What' going on here, ladies?" The policeman asked, his broad, bearded face wrinkled in concern. He lifted his eyes to watch the collection of sullen men fade back into the park, and scowled. "Were those people giving you some trouble?"

"You could say that." Kerry sighed. "They invited us to party. We declined. They took exception."

The man shook his head and dismounted. "Damn it. I knew there was going to be trouble from those people." He dug out a book from his saddlebag and made some notes, then picked up his walkie talkie. "Simmonds to base. Looks like we've got some trouble at the FDR Memorial." He clicked off. "I'll need some information from you ladies."

"Um." Kerry backed off a step. "You know, they really didn't do anything to us, and I'd kinda rather not get involved." That earned her a very dour glare from the policeman. "I know, I know. I'm supposed to be a good citizen, but trust me, officer, you don’t' want to deal with the paperwork I'm going to cause."

"Listen, Ms… " He looked at her in question.

Kerry sighed. "Stuart." She paused. "Kerrison Stuart."

"Stuart, right. Listen Ms. St…." He stopped. "Not… that… Stuart?"
She nodded. "Unfortunately."

He rubbed his face. "Where are you staying?"

Kerry pointed.

"Go there, stay there, okay?"

"You got it."

"Did they know who you were?"

"I don't think so." Kerry shook her head. "And I'd rather they didn't."

He wrote something down, then nodded. "All right, Ms. Stuart, go on. Please - it's a little crazy out here tonight. Stay inside."

"I will." Kerry agreed, then took Cecilia's arm to move her towards the crossing light. "Jesus… I didn't think those classes would come in so handy."

Ceci was rattled. She took in several breaths, waiting for her heart to settle. "No kidding." She murmured. "Did Dar teach you that?"

"Yes." Kerry suddenly felt extremely grateful for the long hours spent in the gym being tossed on her butt. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah." Ceci straightened her shirt out as they crossed the street and headed towards the hotel entrance. "But I don’t' want to have to repeat that any time soon."

"Me either." Kerry agreed, unaware of the eyes on their back. "What time is it?" She checked her watch. "Almost ten… good." She pulled the hotel front door opened and allowed Ceci to move in ahead of her. "Let's find a movie to watch. Maybe room… yes?" She'd felt a brush against her back. "Can I help you?"

"Sorry." The cheerful looking young man apologized. "Excuse me." He pushed ahead of her and marched towards the front desk.

"No problem." Kerry murmured, twitching her shoulders, unable to escape a feeling of vague familiarity in his face, or his movements, she wasn't sure which.

Definitely, though, things were getting creepier. She checked her watch again, then shook her head and followed Ceci towards the elevator.


Her message light was blinking when she entered her room, and Kerry stared at it for a minute, before she walked over and picked up the reciever. She dialed the front desk and listened for an answer. "Yes, I have a….oh. Yes." She listened to the message. A Mr. Selver, from the Washington Post. Call me, it's very important. "Ah, thanks." Kerry murmured politely.

But there were more. Six notes, from six different representatives of the media, all wanting to talk to her, or to set up a time to talk to her. "Wow. Um… I don’t' really want to answer any of these."

The operator replied in a friendly manner, obviously used to people who didn't want to talk to the press. "Would you like us to screen your calls, Ms. Stuart?"

"Yes - I have a cell phone, and anyone who really wants me who I want to talk to knows the number." Kerry replied. "Oh.. but if either Dar, or Andrew Roberts calls, that's fine."

The sound of scribbling came clearly through the phone. "Will do, ma'am. Have a good night."

"Thanks.. oh, can you transfer me to room service?" Kerry asked, receiving an affirmative, then waiting as the call was transferred. "Hello?"

She ordered a coffee milkshake and some chips, then set the phone down and walked over to the comfortable looking couch in the corner and flopped down on it. "Jesus." She closed her eyes and rubbed them with one hand. That had been… disgusting. Both the attitudes of the unruly crowd, and the attack on them made Kerry feel sick to her stomach.

Oh well. She looked up as a light knock came at the door. "Hey."

Ceci walked in, carrying a box of chocolates. "Want one?"

Kerry's brow creased. "Sure… where did those come from?"

"Godiva, by way of my husband." Came the wry response. "He has this very surprising indulgent streak in him that peeks out sometimes."

Kerry munched on the treat thoughtfully. "Mm… Dar does too." She nodded. "I find stuff on my desk sometimes. A cookie, a rose.. I never know what's going to be there."

Ceci sat down on the chair next to her and propped her feet up on the coffee table. "Do you reciprocate?"

The blond woman nodded. "Sure." A grin. "I'll go out and get her a new shirt, or something for her computer, like a cute mousepad, that kind of thing." She paused. "Sometimes I'll leave a little poem or something around, if I'm really in a goopy mood."

Ceci chuckled. "I used to tuck little goodies into his kit bags." She admitted. "His favorite was a little sack of Hershey's kisses."

Kerry smiled, then jumped as her cell phone buzzed. "God, I hate that." She tugged it out then opened it. "Hello?"

"Hey Kerry. It's Mark."

"Hi." Kerry felt her mental track derail. "What's up?"

"Well, nothing good. They just blew a major node up in Virginia, and half the Eastern Seaboard's ATM and interbank transfers are down."

"Ouch." Kerry winced. "That's big trouble." She reached over and unzipped her laptop case, then pulled the computer out and put it on the desk. "I'll dial in and monitor it - do we have an ETA yet?"

A snort. "ETA? They don't even know what the problem is, much less how to fix it. CLIPC's escalating, but I think the carrier's just chasing their tail around in a circle."

"Great." Kerry got up and slid into the desk chair, booting up her laptop and plugging the modem cable into the convenient wall jack. "And tomorrow's not only Friday, it's the end of the month."

"Government payday." Mark agreed. "That's why I'm a-callin - I was noodling around in the system when I saw the links go down - I'd guess they're about to start notifying you guys."

Kerry sighed. "Thanks, Mark."

"How's it going?"


"Well, at least there was good news on the contract front today. I bet Dar almost died when she heard about it."

Kerry was busy logging in. "Heard about what?"

A knock came at the door, and Ceci stood, waving Kerry back as she walked over and peeked through the eyehole. "Room service." She unlocked the door and opened it, allowing the uniformed server to enter. She was about to close the door when a large, burly man stopped her, putting a hand on the surface of the door and pushing it back. "Excuse me?"

"Hi… I'm looking for Kerry Stuart?"

Ceci put her body squarely in the doorway. "Why?"

"Just wanted to talk to her." The man smiled in a friendly manner. "My name's Al… Al Bainbridge. I work for the local paper."

Ceci gave him a direct look. "It's late, and I don't think she's in the mood to talk right now."

"Suppose you let me ask her?"

"Suppose you move your hand before I slam the door on it?"

"It's to her advantage if she talks to me, lady." Now the man's voice took on a harder edge. "Either I get some facts from her, or we'll get them some other way, and wont' it be nicer if she gets to have her say first?"

"What is it, Mrs. Roberts?" Kerry came up behind her and glanced over her shoulder. "Ah. My pushy reporter friend." She put a hand on Ceci's shoulder. "I really don't have anything to say to you."

The man held a hand up. "Now, c'mon, Ms. Stuart - it's just a few questions. You're gonna have to answer them sooner or later." He advised her. "You made yourself too interesting a subject up there, and there's lots of people digging around for info on you."

Kerry scratched her jaw. "Okay." She glanced shrewdly at him. "I'll give you a choice. Would you rather talk to me, or get paid?"


"I'm working on fixing a problem that affects all of the interbank transfers and ATM machines from New York to Virginia. I'll ask you again. Do you want to talk, or do you want me to get on with my job?"

The reporter stared at her for a long moment. "You're kidding."

"Nope." Kerry held up her corporate ID. "You choose, but make it fast, because my milkshake's melting."

He exhaled. "Tell you what. I'll beat feet tonight, but willya please agree to have breakfast with me? I'm not out to hurt you, Ms. Stuart - honest I'm not."

Kerry thought about it. Talking to the press wasn't something she really wanted to do, but after those messages, she'd started to realize the scope of the interest in her. Maybe Al was right. Maybe it was better for her to at least have a chance at controlling what was released. "All right." She agreed quietly. "But I don’t think it's much of a story for you."

He hid a swift smile of triumph. "Guess we'll find out tomorrow. Good night, Ms. Stuart." He gave Ceci a brief look, then turned and made his way back down the hallway.

"You sure you want to do that?" Ceci inquired, glancing behind her. "Where'd the waiter go?"

"I sent him out through your room." Kerry sighed, as she closed the door, and checked her watch. "This is a mess. I wish…"

Another knock at the door. "Son of a bitch." Kerry was losing her patience. She turned and grabbed the door handle, yanking it back and taking a breath to blast whoever it was.

It came back out in an utterly relieved trickle "Thank you." Kerry reached out and grabbed a handful of cotton and pulled, reeling in a tall, dark haired woman who came willingly and enveloped her in a powerful hug. "Ungh…. I am so glad you're here."

Dar moved a little forward, very pleased at the greeting, as she let her father come in behind her. "Mother." She greeted Cecilia with wry cordiality, as Kerry burrowed into her chest, warming the skin under her shirt with a long exhale.

"Close the door." Ceci advised, as she fit herself into Andrew's arms and gave him a quick kiss. "We've had enough excitement for tonight."

Dar kicked the door shut. "What happened?"

"What didn't?" Kerry muttered, refusing to release her hold. It was nice and warm and dark where she was, it smelled great, and Dar had found just the exact right spot on her back to be rubbing. Maybe if she stayed here long enough, everything else would just sort of go away, and she'd wake up back home to nothing more out of the ordinary than a Halloween party to go to.

Ceci's lips quirked, and she tugged her husband towards the interconnecting door. "I'll fill you in." She promised him. "Besides, there's chocolates in there. C'mon, sailor boy."

Dar watched them leave, then turned her attention to the blond woman cradled in her arms. "Hey."

Reluctantly, Kerry opened her eyes and looked up. "Hi." She sighed, then yelped as her cell phone went off, at the same time as Dar's did. "Oh yeah. Everyfrigginggoddamned monetary transfer system in the Northeast is down."

"You've got to be kidding." Dar groaned, answering hers. "Yes?" A pause. "Thank you." She closed the phone, then tossed it on the chair. Kerry's followed. She laced her fingers behind the smaller woman's head and just looked at her, thinking about all the things she had to say, seeing her thoughtfulness reflected in Kerry's eyes as she did the same.

Then she deliberately put that all out of her mind as she inclined her head and brushed her lips against Kerry's, then deepened the contact, allowing herself to get lost in the surge of passion that lifted the nape hairs off her neck and made her knees shake, just a little. They explored each other leisurely, then finally parted, and Dar nibbled Kerry's nose as they gazed into each other's eyes. "What were we talking about?" She murmured.

"I have no clue." Kerry leaned forward and just breathed in Dar's distinctive scent. "I don't want to have a clue right now. I want to take all my clues, and put them in a Fedex letter pak and mail them to Queensland, Australia."

Dar wrapped her arms around Kerry and hugged her, lifting her up a bit and hearing a soft crackle as her spine realigned itself.

"Uhh." A blissful sigh. "You rock." A chuckle more felt then heard vibrated against her, and Kerry smiled. They stayed like that for quite a while, then Kerry rested her chin on Dar's breastbone, peering up. "It woudn't take much for me to kick the plug out of that laptop,and turned off the cellphone."

"I know." Dar rubbed her back. "But we'd hate ourselves in the morning."

Kerry stuck her tongue out, and found it captured in neat white teeth. "Heth!"

Dar grinned and released her. "Teach you to sass me, young lady." She imitated her father's low growl. "C'mon - let's get this worked out, and trade tales." She circled Kerry with an arm and led her over to the desk, stopping to select a chip and scoop up some salsa. "You and mom get along all right?"

"Um… I think we've bonded, yes." Kerry admitted. "After you've been on a long plane flight, sat through senate investigation and been chased by neo nazis with someone…"

Dar stopped in mid motion and looked up, peering at her through a set of dark bangs that almost obscured her eyes. "What?"

Kerry came around the desk and perched on one end, folding her hands in her lap. "We went for a walk after dinner, and ran into some real creeps. "

"I thought I told you to stay out of trouble?" Dar straightened, and put her hands on her hips.

"Walking in the FDR memorial isn't getting into trouble, Dar." The blond woman shot back. "Besides, we're both grown ups, last time I checked." She paused. "In fact, I seem to recall one of us is your mother, as a matter of fact."

Dar sat down and rested her hands on the flat surface, staring at Kerry's laptop screen without really seeing it. "Funny." She commented quietly, adjusting the computer with a small, precise motion. "She and my father were always 'us.' " A breath. "Something I was never a part of." She blinked at the screen and moved the mouse pointer, letting a silence fall.

Kerry opened her mouth, then shut it again. Then she held both hands up. "Whoa." She realized she'd just tripped and fallen into a huge bowlful of hard feelings, and didn't much like the sensation. "Can we just rewind sixty seconds and redo that last minute?"

Dar looked up at her, with a painfully vulnerable expression. "Okay." She agreed. "Sorry. I was just worried about you. "

Kerry slid off the desk and knelt, resting a hand on Dar's knee to steady herself. "And I did promise to stay out of trouble, you're right. I just didn't think twice about talking a walk in a strange city at night, and I should have."

Dar merely nodded, tiny tensions moving through her face.

"Dar, does it bother you that I like your mother?" Kerry asked gently, holding a finger up at the startled reacion. "No..no, level with me, okay? No bs between us. Does it bother you?"

Her lover lowered her head into her hands, and stared at the tabletop. Her eyes closed.

Kerry waited uneasily.

"I thought I had a handle on this." Dar finally murmured. "And then it comes around the corner and kicks me in the ass."

"Dar." Kerry moved a little closer. "Just because there are things I like about your mother, doesn't mean I think what she did to you was right, or that she doesn't owe you some understanding, and explanations, and apologies. "

"I don’t' think she owes me anything." Dar interrupted her.

"Bullshit, Dar. Of course she does." Kerry put a hand on her arm, using touch to reinforce her words. "You are her child, and she abandoned you at a horrible time in your life. A parent can't just throw.. " Her words slowed. "Throw a child away." She took a breath. "Look at me talking, the expert here."

That got through to Dar, and she turned her head, her eyes warming and gentling. "Families are hell sometimes, aren't they?" She covered Kerry's hand with her own.

The green eyes searched hers. "You are my family." She whispered, blinking back the tears.

Just because you're dysfunctional, don't let that ruin something she needs. Dar. A warning voice spoke softly in her mind. "My parents are your family too, Kerry." She lifted the hand on her arm and kissed the fingers. "And I'm very, very happy about that."

Kerry rested her forehead against Dar's shoulder. "Thank you for understanding me needing that right now." She breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, I wasn't ready for this."

Me either. "Tell you what." Dar nudged her. "Let's take this thing over to the couch and put our heads together over it."

So they did. Dar carried the laptop, and Kerry brought over the snacks, and they settled on the couch in a tangle of arms and legs and cables, with chips and coffee milkshakes and enough combined brain cells to jump start a supertanker.

Kerry lay back against Dar's chest, pecking at the keyboard as the arms curled around her shifted, and a long finger moved the mouse button. "Okay." She crunched on a chip. "Who are we going to yell at first?"

Dar rested her chin on Kerry's shoulder, letting her tension dissolve as she felt the shift of Kerry's breathing under her arms. "Mm… " She clipped the cell phone to the adapter that routed it through the laptop's speakers and dialed. A harried voice answered. "This is Dar Roberts."

Hesitation. "Oh, good evening, ma'am - what can I do for you? It's been a long time."

Dar smiled. "I'm in Washington." She burred, in a low, dangerous voice.


"And I'm out of cash."


Dar mentally filled in the expletive after that, and felt Kerry giggle silently under her hands.

"Uh.. ma'am.. they're working on that."

"Define they."


"Define working."

"Um…. Wouldn't you like to talk to my supervisor?"

"Does he want to talk to me."

"Um… probably not, no ma'am."

Dar laughed silently. "Nice to know I haven't lost my touch." She whispered into Kerry's ear. "All right. Have they found the problem, yet?"

"Um.. no."

"Okay. What company is it?"

"That's the problem, ma'am - it's a big, shared facility, and they can't figure out whose master switch it is. Everyone's blaming everyone else."

Kerry was busy typing, and she reviewed the network. "Can we…oh, damn. That's one of your new sites, never mind." She tapped on. "Damn, we don't have a reroute around that."

"Okay. " Dar flipped open her palm pilot and found a number. "I'll start at the top. One ATT CEO coming right up. Call you back, Netops."

"Oo." Kerry scooped up some salsa. "He's gonna be pissed."

"Nah." Dar disagreed, dialing a number. "He lives in Maryland, and they get paid twice monthly just like we do."

Kerry stopped in mid crunch. "Oh boy." She picked up the television remote and clicked it on, muting the sound, switching to a news station. "Uh oh. "

"Hello, Alan? Dar Roberts." Dar glanced over at the screen. The news anchor was gazing seriously at the camera, as a violent scene rolled behind him. Fuzzily focused bodies were clustered around a building wall, kicking and throwing things at it. The caption "ATM Terror" was splashed across the screen. "We've got a problem, Alan. Either you solve it, or I'm gonna start calling people until we've got the most expensive conference call in the history of internetworking going."

Kerry watched the screen, her eyes wide.