Tropical High

Part 12

It was much later, and Dar found a moment to pause, and lean against the wall hoping the ordeal was almost over. It had been a very long night, with a lot of stress, and her shoulder had gotten so painful, it was hard for her to move her arm without screaming.

But now, people were leaving. That was good.

Good riddance. Dar felt very little or no empathy for the wool suited, hostile eyed people who surrounded her beloved partner with appraising stares and veiled comments. Family, yes, but almost all of them either resented her for what she'd done to her late father, or for her current lifestyle.

Fuck them. Dar mentally enunciated the words with a good deal of satisfaction, then glanced up as she felt someone approaching. Ah. "Hi dad."

Andrew Roberts found a spot on the wall next to her and claimed it. "Hey there, Dardar." He rumbled softly. "You don't look so hot."

Dar sighed inwardly. She'd never had much luck in fooling her father when she wasn't feeling well. "No, you're right." She admitted candidly. "I’m tired, and grumpy, and my shoulder's killing me." Her eyes suddenly caught Kerry moving across the room towards her, the blond woman's stride forceful and determined. "Uh oh."

Andrew chuckled. "Hey, Dar? " He eased closer, and motioned with his jaw to the reception room doorway, where Kyle was standing, just watching Kerry. "Who is that feller?"

"An asshole who deserves to be run over by a Mack truck." Dar replied without thinking. "A total bastard who made Ker's life a living hell for a long time."

"Yeah?" Andrew's voice was gentle.

"Yeah." Dar answered. "Hi." She greeted Kerry. "Bet you have a headache."

Kerry had opened her mouth to speak, and this statement derailed her a little. "Um.. yes, I do, as a matter of fact.. how did you know?"

"Same way you know it's time for me to go get more drugs." Dar replied, with a faint smile. "Unless you're ready to retire for the evening."

With her back turned to the room, Kerry looked up at Dar, and for a moment, her determinedly cordial mask slipped, revealing a rawly anguished expression. Her voice, however, remained quiet. "I think I've had about enough for the night, yeah." She said. "If I have to hear one more person create one more euphemism for you and I being lovers I may have to kill someone."

There was an awkward silence. Kerry glanced up to see Andrew scratching his jaw. "Sorry, dad." She murmured. "I figured you already knew." She peeked at Dar, almost smiling at the mild blush.

Andrew chuckled. "I surely did, kumquat." He drawled. "I just usually call you two sweethearts, is all."

That coaxed a smile from Kerry. "Did my mother invite you two to stay over?"

"Yes." Ceci appeared on Kerry's other side. "Now that I've spent the evening bludgeoning your relatives with highbrow art talk. Good goddess, Kerry - you have a more annoying family that I do, and Andy will tell you that's quite the radical statement."

Kerry sighed. "Thanks."

"Kerry, they want to get one more set of pictures." Angie stuck her head around the corner of the doorway. "Then we’re done."

Kerry sighed. "For what? This is supposed to be a solemn occasion, Angie. I feel like we’re performing s… " She glanced at Andrew, and half smiled. "Animals."

"The local paper." Angie gave her an apologetic look. "They’re doing an entire special section on him."

Kerry closed her eyes. "Great." She opened them and looked Dar’s way. "Why don’t you go upstairs? I’ll meet you up there in a few minutes." She requested. "I need to have a word with my mother anyway."

Dar considered for a moment, then nodded. "All right." She pushed away from the wall, giving Kerry a gentle rub on the arm before she circled around her and headed for the door. After a moment, Andrew caught up to her. Dar started to say something, then just decided to conserve energy and remained silent, ignoring the curious looks as they left the reception room and headed for the wide, open stairs. Cameras popped in the lobby as they crossed it, and Dar winced at the bright light. "What the hell’s that for?" She muttered.

Her father merely looked at her, and snorted, shaking his head.

They escaped upstairs though, and Dar was glad to get away from the noise and the crowd. She didn’t like them to begin with, and the pain was shortening her already ragged temper. "Damn, I wish I was home." She sighed, as she reached the door to the room they were staying in.

"Ah bet." Andrew opened it for her. "Let me take a look at that there arm of yours."

Dar’s brow edged up.

"Don’t you give me that look." Her father scowled at her. "Git."

"Yes, sir." Dar gave in and entered the room, moving forward to allow Andy to follow her and close the door. It was dark in the room, they’d left only one lamp on, and she let out a silent sigh as she absorbed the quiet, dim peace. She kicked her shoes off first, then went to pull her jacket off, and froze in mid motion, clenching her jaw against a gasp.

"Easy there, Dardar." Her father caught up to her and took the fabric, gently easing it off her shoulders. "Lemme see that…. Good lord."

Dar glanced at her arm. "Looks worse than it feels." She lied.

Andrew turned her slightly into the light, and touched the bruised skin with gentle fingers. "Looks a sight worse than it did back down south." He observed. "Thought you been taking it easy." His eyes lifted and studied her face. "That does not look good to me, young lady."

Dar managed a rakish grin. "Yeah, well… it’s your fault."

Andrew blinked at her in astonishment. "Mah fault?" He pointed a finger at his own, medal bedecked chest.

"Yep." Dar walked over to her bag and dug out her bottle of pills, opening it and spilling one out onto her palm. "I did something yesterday I shouldn’t have."

Her father snorted. "Are you telling me ah taught you to be a dumbass?"

Dar swallowed the pill, and washed it down with a little of the bottled water she kept in her overnight bag. "Nope." She put the bottle down and faced him. "You taught me chivalry. Kerry was sick as s dog and couldn’t stand up so I picked her up and carried her over to put her to bed."

Andrew covered his eyes. "Lord."

"Yeah, well." Dar trudged back over and turned. "Mind unzipping me?" She felt a light touch, then the fabric around her shoulders relaxed. "Thanks." She glanced back at him. "And you would have done the same damn thing, so there."


Dar picked up her nightshirt and ducked into the bathroom. She peered at her reflection, then grimaced as she saw the spreading extent of her injury. No wonder they freaked. Damn that looks almost as bad as it feels. With a sigh, she slid her dress off and got into her nightshirt carefully, trying not to lift her arm more than she had to. "I’ll be damn glad when this is over." She called out.

"You and me both, Dardar." Her father answered.

Dar came back out into the room, and sat down on the bed. Andrew sat down in the chair facing her. They regarded each other in silence for a moment, then Dar exhaled. "I hate what this is doing to Kerry." She hesitated. "And I hate that it’s because of us, because of our relationship that it’s so bad for her."

Andrew mulled this over for a bit. "Yeap." He finally exhaled. "It was like that for your ma and me too. " He said. "Her folks, my folks.. hurts like hell sometimes."

They both thought about that, in companionable quiet.

"Dar?" Andrew finally looked up at her, the dim light glinting off his pale eyes. "What’d that feller do to Kerry?"

Dar studied his face. "Kyle?"


"Just a lot of things. Why?"

Andy shifted. "Cause that young lady ain’t afraid of much, and she’s scared of him, and I want to know why that is." He replied. "And cause he makes mah eyeballs itch."

How to answer that? Dar wondered. So much Kerry had told her was so very private, and she knew her lover had kept it that way for a reason. Would she want anyone else to know? Would she want anyone else to hear the things she’d told Dar finally, getting past that one last block in the road before she committed herself to Dar totally?

Maybe not.

Dar peered down at her hands, clenched together and tensed as she considered. But. Her mind went over Kyle’s vaguely threatening manner. Would he try to hurt Kerry further? Her brow creased, then she nodded a tiny bit. He’d try to make her as miserable as he could, wouldn’t he?

She lifted her eyes and found her father watching her patiently. "I think… " Dar said. "I think the worst thing he did to her.. " She paused, trying to find the right way to phrase what she was thinking of. "I think the worst thing he did was he forced Kerry to see just how little she counted as a person with her own parents."

"Mm." Andrew considered that. Then he glanced sharply at her. "How?"

Her father sensed something, Dar realized suddenly. "He… did something to her, and when she told her parents… they didn’t believe her." She hesitated. "They believed him, and made her apologize to him and he laughed at her. "

Andrew got up and walked over, then sat down on the edge of the bed next to his daughter. He looked into her eyes with a serious expression. "Paladar, did that man hit her?"

"No." Dar felt herself suddenly back in adolescence, facing the one person she had never lied to, and had always trusted more completely than anything or anyone else in her life. "He raped her, daddy."

Andrew went very, very still, not even breathing for a long, long moment.

Dar blinked, and was surprised to feel the warmth of tears rolling down her cheeks. She wiped them away with an irritated swipe of the back of her hand. "How could they not believe her? Damn, I could never understand that."

Her father remained very quiet for a moment, then he exhaled, and reaching over, took Dar’s hand in his own, carefully folding his fingers around hers. "I thank the good Lord that you cannot understand that." His voice was low, and a touch hoarse.

Dar studied the scarred hands holding hers. "Dad?"

Andrew looked up at her. "Hm?"

"Sorry I gave you such a hard time when I was a kid." Dar said. "I didn’t realize how lucky I was."

Her father shifted, then circled her with one long arm and pulled her towards him, hugging her gently and brushing his lips over her hair as she tucked her head into his shoulder.


"Kerrison, a moment, if you please?"

For a long beat, Kerry almost said no. Then she exhaled, and walked over to where her mother was standing. The press had disassembled their equipment, and the hall was almost empty, and she wanted nothing more than to escape and find Dar and just get a hug. "Yes?"

Cynthia glanced around, then looked at her. "I know this evening was terribly upsetting for you."

Kerry shrugged. "It was more or less what I was expecting." She stated flatly. "I don’t think we’ll be staying for the service tomorrow."

Her mother’s lips compressed. "Oh dear." She sighed. "Perhaps if I speak with them…"

"No." Kerry lifted a hand. "Don’t bother. I’ve paid my respects and said my good-byes." She paused, considering her words. "Anything more is just a farce, and we all know it."


"Besides." Kerry went on, brushing aside the word. "I’ve had about enough of Kyle’s slimebag presence as I’m willing to take in this lifetime."

Her mother remained silent for a beat. "His return was unexpected." She finally said. "Your father did depend on him so." She went on, apologetically. "He placed great value on him."

"I know." Kerry looked her right in the eye. "More so than on me. I remember that very clearly."

Cynthia fell silent, visibly biting her lip.

"Excuse me." Kerry stepped around her and walked off towards the lobby. She met up with Angela and Michael as they came out of the library, almost as though they’d been lying in wait for her. "Hey." She greeted them briefly.

"What a bitch of a day, huh?" Michael fell in at her side as they walked towards the stairs. "Think tomorrow will be better?"

"I don’t give a damn." Kerry replied. "We’re out of here in the morning. "

"Oh." Her brother murmured.

Angie put a hand on Kerry’s back as they started up the steps. "If it’s any consolation to you, the snarky comments got nicer as the night went on. Even Marsha had to grudgingly admit you take grace under pressure to new heights."

"Fuck them." Kerry said. "They can all collectively kiss my ass."

Her siblings maintained a slightly shocked silence for a few steps. "Well." Michael finally said. "Okay, but I bet Dar would start throwing them out the windows if they tried."

"That might be fun to watch." Angie agreed.

Kerry gave them both looks, then she exhaled, her shoulders dropping and losing some of their tension. "Sorry." She muttered an apology.

"It’s okay, sis." Angie put her arm around Kerry’s waist, and Michael did the same from the other side as they walked up the steps together. "Did you know the governor knows Dar’s father?"

No, Kerry hadn’t known that. "Really? Small world, I guess."

"I like him." Angie stated. "And I like Dar’s mom. She’s so funny."

"Funny?" Michael snickered. "You didn’t hear her talking to Uncle Edgar. He had no idea who she was.. I mean, he knew she was a famous artist, but he had no clue.. I guess he didn’t make the connection because she doesn’t look anything like Dar… so he’s going on and on about how horrible everything is, and man.. she took him to pieces!" He moved his free arm in a slashing motion. "Whack..whack..whack… just ripped him to shreds… it was great." He laughed. "She told him having met him, it only confirmed her theory that you should have a license to enter the gene pool."

Kerry felt a tired laugh emerging, and she allowed it. "She’s really sharp… I know that’s where Dar gets it from.. but Dar isn’t wicked like that – she goes right for the jugular in small words she’s sure are going to be very clearly understood." She smiled briefly. "I’m sorry they decided to go back to the hotel tonight." She glanced up to the top of the stairs. "Maybe we should have too."

"Hey." Angie gave her a squeeze. "I know it sucks, Ker, but don’t begrudge us the few minutes we’ve spent with you, okay? We do miss you, regardless of what the rest of these jerks say."

They were at the top of the stairs. Kerry stopped, and regarded them both, then she pulled them closer and hugged them. "I miss you guys, too." She whispered. "I've hated losing this part of my life." She swallowed back tears.

They stood, blocking the landing in a clump for a long moment, then they all released each other and exchanged glances. Angie pursed her lips, and put a hand up on Kerry's cheek. "Get some rest, sis." She murmured.

Kerry nodded, then slipped past them and down the hallway to their room, reaching the door with a sense of definite, finely drawn relief. She turned the knob and poked her head inside, finding pale blue eyes watching her alertly from the bed. "Hey." She entered and closed the door, then leaned against it. Dar was sprawled over one side of the plush, canopied surface, her laptop resting on her thighs and her dark hair in appealing disarray.

"Hey." Dar replied. "I was about to come looking for you."

Kerry had to smile. "Like that?" She indicated her lover's state of undress.

"Mmhm." Dar nodded. "Barefoot and all. I figured I couldn't possibly attract any more attention than I already did today, so what the hell?" She lifted a hand and held it out. "C'mere."

Kerry shed her shoes on the way to the bed as Dar shifted the laptop, and they somehow ended up in a warm tangle of limbs and bedding in the middle of the comforter.

"Uhrg." Kerry groaned.

Dar pulled her closer, and rubbed her back with the tips of her fingers. "Kerry, Kerry, Kerry." She murmured, on a breath. "It's over, sweetheart. It's over, and done with."

Kerry kept her eyes closed, and went almost limp, just absorbing the feel and scent of her lover. "We're leaving in the morning." She uttered. "We're going back to the hotel, getting mom and dad, going to the airport and getting on the first plane larger than a crop duster headed south."

Dar smiled faintly. "You got it."

"And I am never coming back here again." Kerry whispered. "Ever."

Dar just hugged her closer.




"You want to take that dress off?"

"No. Do you?"

Dar studied the figure curled up in her arms, her face buried into the fabric of Dar's nightshirt. "Well." Dar smoothed Kerry's hair a bit. "Normally I'd jump at the chance but I’m kinda handicapped on that side."

Kerry slowly lifted her head, her eyebrows scrunching together as she blinked in the dim light. "Oh.. damn.. I’m sorry." She peered at Dar's chest. "Why didn't you say something? I must have been killing you."

"Nah." Dar shook her head. "It doesn't hurt when you press there.. " She patted the front of her shoulder. "Only when I lift my arm up."

"Mmph." Kerry raked her hair back out of her eyes, and rolled onto her side, gazing down at her now rumpled clothing with a look of sleepy displeasure. "Yeah, I guess I'd better… damn thing's uncomfortable as heck anyway." She squirmed off the bed and stood up, then unzipped the back of her dress and pulled it off haphazardly over her head.

Dar merely sat back, enjoying the view. Kerry had a gorgeous back, a cute little v shape that sloped cleanly down from her compact, but smoothly muscular shoulders, then flared lightly through her slim hips and powerful, but lean legs. She had a mild, golden tan, and the low lamplight caused shadows to form across her skin as the muscles moved visibly under it.

She could see tension there, too, though. "Aspirin's in the right front pocket of my bag, If you want." Dar remarked casually.

Kerry paused in the act of pulling on her Tweety T-shirt. "Did you take your drugs?" She asked.

"Oh yeah." Dar nodded.

Kerry finished pulling the soft cotton fabric down and fished the bottle of aspirin out of Dar's bag, along with her bottle of water. "Did I ever mention how much I love how prepared you always are?" She swallowed a few of the tablets and took a sip of the water. "How did everything work out in Chicago?"

Dar grimaced. "Maybe we should change planes there tomorrow instead of Detroit, so I can go and kick that bastard's ass in person."

Kerry smiled as she trudged back to the bed and climbed back into it. "No, sweetie. You're going back to Miami with me, and right to Dr. Steve's." She laid a finger on Dar's nose. "He's going to spank you."

Pale blue eyes regarded her mildly. "All right, but you're coming with me." Dar stated. "While he's taking pictures of my insides, he can run some tests on yours."

Kerry took a breath, obviously caught by surprise. "I don't think I…"

Dar's eyebrow lifted, and she smirked.

Kerry sighed, letting her gaze drop, then she returned the smile with a slight one of her own. "Okay." She crawled over Dar's body and nudged her to the left. "Move over.. I don't want to take chances." She waited for Dar to comply, then snuggled up against her lover's right side and put her head down on her shoulder.

Dar rubbed her back gently, massaging the tight muscles she could feel across her lover's body. A warm puff of air penetrated the fabric on her chest, and she glanced down to see a somber, bleak expression on Kerry's face. "Hey."

Kerry blinked, and a few tears made their way down her cheek to soak into Dar's shirt. "I’m so tired." She breathed. "My soul hurts, Dar. Those people trampled all over it."

At a loss for words, Dar relied on touch instead. She pulled Kerry closer, and cuddled with her, wincing as she brought her other arm over to stroke Kerry's face with light fingertips, catching the tears that continued to fall and brushing them aside. "Don't let them get to you, Ker." She finally said, very softly. "They're just assholes."

Kerry drew in a shaky breath, and sniffled. "I know." She replied. "I just feel like I spent the day as an archery target." She spread one hand out flat against Dar's stomach and absorbed the warmth of her skin, feeling the surface move under her touch with Dar's breathing. "I feel as bruised as you look."

"Well." Dar kissed her on the head tenderly. "We're both gonna head south to heal then." She felt Kerry relax against her as the tension started easing from her body. "You know I felt like taking out a fire hose and spraying that room tonight, doncha?"

Kerry remained very quiet for a moment, then she gave up a surprising giggle.

"Yeah… " Dar went on, her voice a low drawl. "I would have loved to just blast those suckers right down and watch them slip and slide and crack their asses on that parquet floor."

Another giggle. Kerry sniffled, and lifted her head, resting her chin on Dar's chest and gazing up at her through tear filled eyes. "Can I tell you something?"

"Sure." Dar wiped her face gently.

"I love you ."

Dar hugged her again. "I love you too."

Kerry exhaled, and put her head back down again. "You know what the worst thing was?" She asked, in a quiet voice.

"Kyle?" Dar offered a guess, and felt Kerry nod against her shoulder. "Yeah." She murmured. "The rest of them are just ignorant bastards. Him, I'd like to put a rifle bullet through." Her temper rose a little and her nostrils flared.

Kerry slid her hand under the cotton of Dar's shirt and stroked the skin on her thigh. The muscles there were tense, and she rubbed her thumb in a tiny circle over them as she considered Dar's words. Seeing Kyle had been a definite, unpleasant shock. It had brought back a lot of bad memories she'd consciously pushed out of her consideration after she'd broken most ties with her family, and thrown herself into her new life with Dar.

It had been easier that way. After all, she had in truth left that part of her past behind her, and the reassuring solidity of her relationship with Dar along with her ever expanding new job had filled her wants and needs quite nicely, thank you.

It hit her suddenly. Kerry went very still and almost stopped breathing.

He was gone. Her father was gone.

Her world reversed, and turned upside down as she felt an unseen weight come off her. She was aware of Dar's snug hold, but she floated in limbo for a long moment as she adjusted to a new reality.

He was gone.

Kerry let her eyes close, and all the tension drained out of her, leaving her limp as a dishrag draped comfortably over Dar's tall frame. Sleep overtook her gently, refusing to erase the smile that now shaped her lips.


The study was full of frazzled looking, frustrated men and women. Kyle entered and closed the door, stripping off his coat and tossing it over the tall back chair near the desk. "Anything?" He asked the two men behind the large, square working surface.

"No, sir." The younger of the two looked up. "Sir, is there any point to this anymore?"

Kyle gave him a look. "Of course there's a point." He said. "The governor's going to make his announcement tomorrow, and if we don’t' find a way to clean up little Mrs. Stuart's family act, we've got a lot of money that's going to pull out like gangbusters." He picked up a folder and studied it. "I've already gotten calls warning me."

"Well, sir, unless you can talk to Mrs. Stuart, I’m not sure we've got anything here." The man sighed, and dropped his pencil. "I've checked financial, legal, tax records, DMV, credit… I've never seen people so clean in my life."

"Oh, c'mon." Kyle put the folder down. "You can't tell me a bitch like that doesn't have some skeletons. I don't buy it."

"He's right, sir." The older man stated, a gruff, bearlike figure with a thick, grizzled beard and shrewd eyes. "Here's the file recap." He handed it over. "High school valedictorian, graduated mcl from Miami, worked for ILS for sixteen years, never late on her taxes, no tickets, no police record execept for.."

"Except?" Kyle glanced at him. "I knew there was something.. what is it?"

A shake of the head. "Incident several years back involving some fight at a bar, some kids got attacked."

"By her?" Kyle looked delighted.

"No." The man replied. "She defended them, put two of em in a hospital despite the fact they were armed with shotguns. The cops gave her a glowing recommendation."

Kyle frowned "That's not the answer I wanted."

The younger man shrugged. "Never even paid her electric bill late, sir. There's just nothing there." He shuffled some papers. "And forget the parents. The mother's Eastern money we don't want to mess with, and the father's got a military honor sheet longer than my leg."

"Mmm." Kyle's face went still, only his eyes darting back and forth over the documents. "Real hero, huh?"

The rest of the staff watched him uneasily.

"Well." Kyle finally said. "If they won't oblige us by handing us a scandal, I suppose we'll have to manufacture one."

The door opened. They all looked up to see Cynthia Stuart standing in the doorway, primly erect, her hands folded before her. She took a step inside and looked at all of them.

"Ah, Mrs. Stuart." Kyle put on a charming smile. "We were just discussing transition plans."

Cynthia closed the door and walked forward, scanning all their faces before she reached her late husband's desk, and stopped by it. "Please don't waste your time." She told them. "I've come here to inform you that you are all, as of this moment, fired." She paused, and took a pleased breath. "Please leave, or I will have security escort you out."

For a moment there was nothing but shocked silence. "That would be now." Cynthia stated firmly. "At once."

Stunned, they picked themselves up and edged out of the room, jostling each other at the door and waiting to clear it before uttering vicious whispers. Only Kyle remained, staring at Cynthia with hooded eyes. "I’m sure you don't.." He started to speak.

"Most especially I certainly do mean you as well, Mr. Evans." Cynthia cut him off sharply. "It's simply a pity all I can do is fire you."

Even Kyle was caught offguard by the icy tone. "You don't know what you're doing."

"I most certainly do." She enunciated the words very carefully. "Roger is no longer here to protect you, and you will leave this house immediately, or I'll have security drag you out of it and toss you over the wall." Her voice rose. "You will not stay in my home one more second or visit even one more second's abuse on my children. OUT!"

Kyle's eyes narrowed, and he circled the desk. "Think you can just order me around like that lady?" He snarled. "Better think again."

And then he was stopped in his tracks suddenly, the back of his collar and belt held firmly and yanked , jerking him back several paces. A low, Southern tinged drawl crawled over his shoulder.

"Ah do believe this lady asked you to leave."

"Let me go." Kyle struggled. He was jerked further back, and collided with a large body.

"G'head." Andrew lowered his voice. "Fight me, you bastard, cause I'm looking for one real small excuse to rip off yer body arm and beat you with it." The voice dropped further. "Cause I can."

Kyle stopped struggling, and turned his head, meeting Andrew's pale blue eyes.

"And ah will." The voice rumbled. "Now, you figger my kid kicked yer ass round bout a year ago, and she's a damn sight nicer than I am."

For a moment, it could have gone either way. Then Kyle glanced away. "If you put it that way, fine." He remarked, in a calm voice.

Andrew swung him around and shoved him towards the door, adding a boot to the butt to hurry the process. Kyle stumbled forward, but caught himself on the chair, and, grabbing his jacket, left the room without a single backward glance.

"Well." Cynthia exhaled. "Thank you, Commander Roberts." She glanced after Kyle. "I’m afraid he might try to turn this to his advantage, however. He has quite a legal mind."

"And ah have me a smart wife." Andrew ambled over and drew the heavy curtains back. Ceci slipped out, putting the cap on a small, nifty looking video camera. "Who don't like to take chances."

Ceci gave Cynthia a smile. "Well done." She complimented the older woman. "Couldn't have done it better myself, though I suspect my daughter could have."

Cynthia Stuart let out a long, relieved sigh. "I have so dreamed of doing that." She murmured. "For such a long time." She collected herself and straightened. "I believe I need a drink after that, however. Will you join me?"

"Absolutely." Ceci curled her arm around Andrew's and smiled. "We should talk."


Kerry half remembered her dream as she woke the next morning. It had been something about rabbits. She let her eyes drift open and regarded the colorful fabric she was lying on bemusedly, recalling that every time she dreamed of animals, it was always one of those really weird dreams that made no sense and usually involved her being naked.

She wondered briefly what a psychologist would make of them. Especially the one with the talking bears. A smile inched across her face, and she turned her head a little, taking in the room with a tiny sense of the unreal. It seemed brighter in here today, she thought, eyeing the window which now let in the pale winter light.

Wonder what time it is? Kerry closed her eyes and snuggled closer, reflecting on how much a good night's sleep could do for a person's outlook. She felt much more centered today, and she considered that perhaps it was because she'd faced the worst and endured it. She'd been eating herself up in knots imagining what her reception would be like, and now..

Well, now she knew. Kerry took in a deep breath filled with heated air and Dar's scent. It had been as bad, or worse than she'd figured, but knowing, she discovered, was far better than wondering. Knowing you could deal with, plan for, and defend against. Wondering just kept you unbalanced.

Mmph. Kerry exhaled, and wriggled a little in contentment, as she felt Dar's arm tighten around her. Dar had been her anchor through it all, she acknowledged quietly. Like a rock she'd stood there, being a windbreak, something to lean against, and a shelter when it all had gotten too much. Kerry opened her eyes again and looked up at her lover in deep affection, almost jumping when her eyes met amused blue ones looking back at her. "Yah."

Dar's eyebrows lifted.

"Didn't think you were awake." Kerry confessed, with a sheepish grin. "I was just lying here thinking about how wonderful you are."

The dark brows lifted even further, giving Dar an almost comical look. She let out a soft laugh and stretched in Kerry's embrace, arching her back and tensing her muscles before relaxing back on the bed's surface.

"Mm.. that was like a carnival ride. Can we go again? " Kerry joked.

Dar eyed her with a faint smile. "You're in a good mood." She observed. "Feeling better today?"

Kerry nodded. "Yeah." She admitted. "How about you?" She touched Dar's shoulder carefully, feeling it move under her fingers as Dar experimentally flexed it.

"Eh." Dar replied. "Stiff, but not as bad as yesterday." She sounded mildly surprised. "It's not throbbing anymore." Another experiment. "Cool."

Kerry smiled, and gave her a hug. "Glad to hear that." She regarded the window. "Looks like the weather got better too." She observed. "Hey… wanna get dressed and go for a walk? I could show you my favorite sledding hill before we take off."

Dar remembered her last walk in the cold. "All right." She eyed her lover. "But you better keep me warm. It looks like the arctic tundra out there." She warned. "And how about we find some breakfast first… I noticed you didn't get much off that table last night."

"I don't like pate." Kerry confessed. "And neither do you. There's just so many crackers topped with bits of roast beef and horseradish I can handle." Her nose crinkled in distaste. "Besides, I wasn't really hungry." A low rumble made her chuckle a little. "I am now."

"So I hear." Dar remarked mildly. "C'mon. I may need some help in the shower."

Kerry grinned. "Now that's an offer I'll never refuse."


"What do you think?" Kerry spread her arms, and indicated her body. She watched Dar's face cascade from quizzical to thoughtful, to outright lecherous. "I mean the clothes, honey." She sighed, blushing at the compliment nevertheless.

"Oh." Dar laughed. "Hm." She reviewed her lover's choices thoughtfully. "Are you deliberately going for the non WASP look?" Kerry had put on a long sleeve flannel shirt that she'd tucked into her nicely worn jeans, and added a cute touch of suspenders to. She also had on her hiking boots. Dar thought she looked adorable.

"Well, yeah." Kerry admitted, putting her hands on her hips. "Did it work?"

"I think so." Dar told her, gravely. "Should I put on my fringe leather vest?"

"Did you bring that?" Kerry's eyebrows jerked up in pleased surprise.

Dar chuckled. "No. I was joking." She drawled. "Would you settle for leather pants?"

Kerry looked suspiciously at her, then went to her bag and rummaged in it. "Oh." She lifted something out. "You really have some? I never saw these before, Dar.. where did you get them?" She shook out the soft, burnt caramel colored hide. "Oo.. I like."

"Thank you." Dar replied. "And you've never seen them before because I won't wear them at home."

Kerry eyed her. "Too trendy for Miami?" She teased.

"No." Dar took the hide trousers from her. "Too hot. I figured I might get a chance to actually put them on up here so I brought them along. Give me a hand getting into them?"

Kerry happily obliged, tugging the leather up and over her lover's hips. They fit comfortably, not too snug, and she neatly fastened the buttons and buckled the two criss-crossing leather beltlets that lent a somewhat offbeat touch to them. The leather was broken and butter soft, and she knelt to fasten the straps near Dar's ankles. "Meant for boots, I see."

"Mmhm." Dar agreed. "I used to have some that went with them." She was buttoning the sleeve on a tightly woven wool shirt in a creamy butter color. "Back in my wilder days."

Kerry ran her fingers over the smooth leather, then sniffed it. "I like them." She commented. "You're a natural for this stuff."

Dar's lips twitched. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"You should." Kerry placed a kiss on the inside of her leg, just above the knee. Then she got to her feet and offered Dar a hand. "Breakfast?"

Dar curled her fingers around Kerry's and accompanied her to the door.


Michael hid a smile behind an English muffin as they entered the breakfast room, still holding hands. "Morning, sis."

"Hi." Kerry replied, releasing Dar to walk over to a seat. "Morning."

"Oh, Kerrison.. " Her mother looked up from her plate and stopped in mid speech, blinking at her eldest daughter. "Goodness." She hesitated. "That's very colorful, dear."

"Thanks." Kerry snapped a suspender at her and sat down.

Dar continued around the table and approached the serving board with pointed determination. She evaded the uniformed server and captured two plates, then proceeded to dump what she considered proper amounts of edible items on them appropriate to both her taste and Kerry's.

"Ma'am" The server murmured at her anxiously. "I'll do that for you. The family prefers service in this household."

"In my families household.." Dar answered in a normal voice. "They tossed the food down on the floor in bins, and we had to fight for it. Old habits die hard. Excuse me." She ducked around the woman and headed back towards the table.

Kerry covered her face with one hand, her shoulders shaking.

"Why, Dar. I didn't know you had siblings." Cynthia rose to the challenge.

"I don't." Dar set Kerry's plate down, then took the chair next to her.

"Ah." Cynthia's brow contracted, then she gave a little shake of her head. "At any rate, I'm very glad you chose to join us for breakfast. Did you have further plans for today, Kerrison?"

"I was going to treat Dar to a walk in the snow." Kerry finished buttering her muffin and took a bite. "And show her around the property, then we figured we'd head back to the hotel and pick up m..Dar's folks." There was really no sense, she conceded, in stinging her mother with her usual address of Andy and Ceci. Not now that things seemed to be improving as far as familial acceptance went, though Kerry privately admitted to herself that she was probably pushing things a little today. Just to make sure she wasn't backsliding, she picked up a piece of bacon and bit it in half, then glanced over and offered the other half to Dar.

"Ah. Saved the crispy part for me." Dar accepted the treat with a snap of white teeth. She crunched the bacon with a slight wink in Kerry's direction. "Thanks."

Kerry grinned back, then turned her head and met the bemused looks of her family. Take it or leave it, guys. She projected at them. This is who I am.

"You guys must be fun to watch in restaurants." Mike commented, with a snort. "Do you slurp spaghetti together too?"

"No." Dar stated mildly. "We save that for home. It gets too messy."

Angie nearly snorted a piece of melon out of her nose.

"Hey, I bet Richard never did that with you, did he?" Mike asked his younger sister pointedly.

Angie cleared her throat and swallowed. "Definitely not." She confirmed. "It took me three dates just to get him to loosen his tie." She took a sip of juice. "He's not a romantic, like Dar is."

Round blue eyes pinned her from across the table in outraged shock.

"Yeah, she gets that from her father." Kerry confirmed blithely.

Cynthia had assumed a noble, serene air, apparently content to let the conversation flow over her head unimpeded. "Commander Roberts is a terribly nice man." She did comment. "He has quite a lovely sense of humor." She had finished her breakfast, and now she stood and folded her napkin, leaving it neatly in place. "I must attend to some business matters. If you wish, Kerrison, after your plans are finished, perhaps you might stay for lunch."

Kerry considered the somewhat late time of the morning, and nodded. "Sure." The funeral service was scheduled for four that afternoon, and the focal point would be at the cemetery, not here at the house. They would be left in peace, at least for a little while.

Her mother nodded, then left the room. Angie propped her head up on her fist and just looked at Kerry. "You are such a brat."

"Me?" Kerry inquired innocently. "Why? I’m not acting out. I'm just acting normal." She crunched another strip of bacon. "I’m not going to sit here dressed in lace and pretend this is how I live. I don't." She stated firmly.

"I think you look really cute." Mike interjected. "Angie's just jealous cause she'd never be able to pull off that outfit."

"Neither would you." Angie gave him a withering look. "Hippo butt."

"Look who's talking." Mike retorted. "You're the one who gets their clothing at.."

"Michael." Kerry interrupted him.

He stuck his tongue out at her.

"Remind me again why I wanted siblings?" Dar asked Kerry, with a look of wry amusement. "You know I.." She fell silent by necessity as Kerry stuffed a piece of muffin in her mouth.

"Hush." Kerry put a fingertip on her nose. "You don't have siblings because you're one of a kind." She smiled at Dar's charmed expression. "Now, chew, so we can go explore."

Dar obliged, chewing and swallowing the bit of muffin while she watched her lover and her family trade bantering dialog. Things were definitely looking up this morning, she decided. Between her arm feeling much better, and Kerry's very evident heightened spirits, they might even make the day more than tolerable. At least, Dar sighed, if they were here dealing with this disaster, they weren't back home having to deal with the Naval one waiting for her on her desk.

Telling her father had been the worst part of it, but Andrew had, to her mild surprise, been more understanding and compassionate than she'd figured. "Dardar.." He'd said "Yer family's a ton more worth fussing over than yer job, or that pissant Navy. Don't you worry." He'd patted her on the arm. "I put that there stuff where none of them bilge fer brains'll find it, so let it lie till this things all done with."

Dar nibbled another piece of bacon thoughtfully. She was more than content to do that, but would those who were looking to put an end to the investigation feel the same way?



They walked through the grounds surrounding the house, with Kerry pointing out favored spots from her childhood. Then they turned out of the gates and walked along the road, it's surface sloping up towards the crest of a nearby hill.

"It's such a different environment." Dar commented, crunching a bit of snow under her boots. "It's like you have two worlds in the North, a winter one and a summer one."

Kerry tucked her gloved hands inside her pockets, and watched her breath plume as she exhaled. "That's true." She admitted. "You're more aware of the passage of time up here, I think." She said. "I always liked spring and summer better. We were out of school in the summer, and at least for a while, that was fun because I got to go to summer camp."


"Winter was always full of social stuff." Kerry went on. "Dress ups, and press events, dinners… for a while I tried to get interested in current events, so I'd have something intelligent to say when they pointed the camera at me, but after a few times of that, I got told to just shut up and look good."

Dar looked at her.

Kerry shrugged. "What can I tell you, Dar? They didn't want to hear what I had to say, or maybe they were afraid I'd develop an embarrassing view on something." She chuckled softly. "If they'd only known."

"Did you?" Dar asked. "Develop a view different from your father's?"

Kerry considered the question. "I liked some of his positions on things." She admitted. "I thought his view on keeping families together was good, though now after knowing what was going on with that other woman, the hypocrisy kind of stinks." She added. "He knew a lot more about international politics than I did, and I didn't have the maturity to understand the mechanations he was doing here locally to control funding, and maintain a conservative majority."

Dar grunted thoughtfully.

"I didn't really start disagreeing with him until I was in college." Kerry went on. "When I got exposed to the wider world and the many kinds of people in it."

"Ever talk to him about that?"

"No." Kerry shook her head, and leaned forward a little as they started up a steeper part of the hill. "I tried, once. But he told me if that's what college was doing to me, he'd put a stop to it."

Dar simply stopped walking,. Kerry moved on a few steps, then turned and regarded her. "I want to know something." Dar asked. "How in the hell did you become the hellion on wheels that told me to go to hell in Miami? "

Ah. Good question. Kerry walked back over to where Dar was and took her hand, leading her upward toward the crest of the hill. "It wasn't something that happened overnight." She explained. "It was something that was building a little at a time, until I got home after I graduated college with my degree, and was told I was being put to work as a spokeswoman/receptionist in one of my father's cronies companies."

They got to the top of the hill, and Kerry paused, regarding the view. "I knew I had a choice. Either put my money where my mouth was and get the hell out of here, or stay here and accept the inevitable." She walked over to a tall, almost bare tree, and patted it's bark. "So I came up here that night, and just spent hours looking up at the stars, and just made my decision."

Dar joined her. "Not a popular one."

"No." Kerry exhaled. "I called Brian and told him, after I accepted Associated's job offer that next morning, then I just packed, told my parents I was taking the job, and left." She leaned on the tree. "But they didn't make it easy. He kept after me constantly. They hoped they'd wear me down and I'd just give up and come home."

Dar gazed at her quietly. "And I almost made that happen."

Kerry turned and looked at her. "Almost." She agreed, very softly. "But you also were what made me choose my life over their plans for it and that more than makes up for what might have been, Dar." She decided to lighten up the conversation. "So, here we have my very first decision tree."

Dar studied Kerry's face for a few moments, then she relaxed into a smile. "Nice view up here." She indicated the opposite slope. "That where you used to slide down?" The hill was fairly steep, and featured a long stretch of even whiteness, ending in a fairly clear area at the bottom with only a few trees that might provide a dangerous impediment.

"Yep." Kerry sighed. "Wish we had a sled… I'd love to take you for a ride."

"Well." Dar removed her small penknife from her pocket. "First thing's first."

Kerry walked over and eyed the knife. "Honey, I love you, but you can't cut down the tree with that to make a sleigh for me. I just won't let you." She warned, with a serious look. "I'd rather get the car and drive to Walmart. "

Dar started laughing.

"No, really, sweetie." Kerry took the knife from her fingers.

"Give me that." Dar swiped the tool back. "I wasn't going to cut the damn tree down. " She circled the bark and found a good spot. "Just do a little carving." She set to work, with Kerry peering over her shoulder.

"Oh." Kerry smiled. "Okay." She turned away and began to explore the hilltop, kicking bits of half buried wood around with the toe of her hiking boot. The wind was stiffer up here, and it blew her hair back as she gazed down the slope, stinging her eyes with it's chill.

"That night seems so long ago." She spoke to the air. "I was so scared. I didn't know what I was getting myself into, or where I might end up being." The branches overhead chuckled together. "But I looked up at those stars, and they told me to follow my heart." She turned and watched Dar, her brow creased in concentration as she carved careful letters. "And that's what I ended up doing, isn't it?"

"You say something to me?" Dar poked her head around the tree trunk. "Almost done."

Kerry strolled back over and kissed Dar on the nose. "Take your time, Geppetto." She admired the neat heart shaped cut, and the curved letters taking form under Dar's skilled hands. "I bet you could carve wood, if you wanted to."

"Isn't that what I’m doing?" Dar finished a K and started on the S. "Or do you mean like sitting on the porch in a rocking chair whittling kind of thing." She flicked a piece of bark out of her way. "I think I'll wait for retirement for that, when I'm too old and creaky to do anything else."

Kerry rested her chin on Dar's shoulder, and exhaled. "We can be old and creaky together." She said. "Can you imagine what great memories we'll have by then?" She asked, with a touch of wonder in her voice. "What an amazing thought."

Dar finished her work, and turned her head. "You like?"

A simple heart, with four initials, and a plus sign. Kerry sighed in deep satisfaction. "I love." She leaned forward and kissed Dar on the lips. "Thank you."

They walked back down the hill holding hands. Kerry knew they were watched from behind kitchen curtains, knew the whispers, knew the scandalous looks they were collecting, and the only thing that knowledge evoked in her was an intense desire to laugh.

There were cars in the driveway when they got back to the house. One, Kerry realized, was Andy and Ceci's rental car, and she nudged Dar and pointed to it. "Hey!" The other was Richard and Angies, and she guessed her brother in law had come over. The third she didn't recognize.

"Huh. Thought they were going to wait at the hotel for us." Dar commented, as they strolled up the walk. "Hope everything's okay." The front door opened as they approached, and the doorman gave them a brief smile as they entered the house.

It was quiet, but they could hear voices from the solarium, and one of those voices was easily identifiable in it's low drawling tones. Kerry lead the way into the garden and waved at the group seated near the end of the glassed in area. "Hey, folks."

"Goodness!" A clear voice erupted, and a small, silver haired form popped up like an albino meerkat from the bench. "Kerrison! There you are!"

Kerry stopped, and blinked, then smiled. "Aunt Penny!"

Her aunt hurried around the bench and rushed over to her, giving her an enthusiastic hug. "Hello, my dear! You look wonderful!" Aunt Penny stated. "Hello to you too, Dar. It's good to see you again."

"Same here." Dar responded cordially, having developed a liking for Kerry's perky elder relative.

Aunt Penny clasped both of their arms and led them over to the benches, where Dar's parents, and Cynthia Stuart were seated. "And I've just met your lovely parents, Dar. Wonderful!"

Dar felt her face reacting, saw her father do likewise, and heard her mother snicker as she realized they both probably had the same expression on. She walked over and took a seat next to her father and exhaled, extended her leather covered legs out a little and regarding her boots as she listened to Kerry and Aunt Penny exchange pleasantries with Cynthia.

"You ready to go home?" Andrew asked, in a low voice.

Dar glanced at him. "Does it show?"

Her father patted her knee, then poked it. "Whacha got here, Dardar? Alligator pants?"

"Leather." Dar chuckled, smoothing the hide. "Stuck in the back of my closet."

Andrew studied the garment. "Ah do believe I remember when you got them there pants." He mused, then glanced around and lowered his voice again. "D'jyou hear what happened last night?"

"No." Dar leaned on the arm of the chair she was sitting in. "What?"

Kerry was glad to see Aunt Penny. At least one of her relatives, she reflected, actually liked her and didn't mind saying so. "We just took a walk up to the hill." She said, in answer to her mother's query. "I wanted to show Dar my old sledding spot."

"Goodness, do you still have that Flyer around here, Cyndi?" Aunt Penny asked. "I quite remember young Kerrison here doing battle with a tree on it years ago."

"Ouch." Kerry rubbed her nose in memory. "No, that one's been gone a long time." She spared a sad thought for it's passing. "Dar was going to chop a tree down and make one, but I convinced her we didn't have time."

Everyone looked over at Dar, who looked back with devastating innocence. "Tell you what." She replied. "We'll go up to Aspen and I'll make it up to you." She was in a much better mood after hearing about Kyle's firing, and only wished she'd been there to see it.

Kerry grinned. "You're on." She said. "After your shoulder heals, that is."

"Oh yeah. Get that cleared up just in time fer her to break a laig." Andrew chuckled.

Everyone chuckled along with him, even Dar, who folded her arms over her chest. "I wasn't the one who took out six ski instructors and a sled dog." She remarked to her father. "Or that tent."

"Mm… I remember that." Ceci grimaced. "That dog was really mad."

Cynthia leaned forward, placing her hands precisely into her lap. "That sounds very interesting. Do you ski, Commander?"

"Not very well." Ceci told her, ignoring the snort from her husband. "Between him and Dar, they cleared the slopes."

Another chuckle made it's way around the small circle. "Well. Isn't that fun." Aunt Penny patted Kerry on the knee. "Sounds like you have your work cut out for you, dear."

"Yes." Cynthia agreed quickly. "Do stay for lunch, will you? It's almost served."

Kerry glanced at Dar, who faintly lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Sure." She said. "Our flights not for a few hours anyway."

They all got up to move into the dining room. Kerry brought up the rear and was surprised when her mother held a hand out, slowing them both down. "What's up?" She asked quietly.

"Kerrison, could I speak with you, briefly?" Her mother asked. "Alone?"

Ah. Kerry ran over the list of possible subjects, and decided it was probably safe unless her mother was going to give her 'that speech' - and it was a little too late for that. "Sure." She waved at Dar, who was waiting in the doorway. "G'wan. I'll catch up."

Dar studied her for a moment, then nodded and slipped out of the room, leaving them alone together. "So." Kerry turned and leaned against one of the large planters. "What's on your mind?"


Kerry waited for the voice to stop, keeping her eyes fastened on the shifting sun outside the glass panes. Then she turned. "I can't believe you're asking me that."

"Kerrison." Her mother held up a hand. "Please, at least consider it. You would be excellent in this role."

"Mother." Kerry took a breath and held her temper. "I''m very happy with the life I have. I’m not changing it."

"I’m not saying you aren't, dear." Cynthia said. "And certainly, I realize you're very attached to your friend Dar, and she would be welcome here as well."

Kerry regarded her for a moment. "You really don't get it, do you?" She sighed. "No, mother. I won't accept a position here." She paused, then went on. "For one thing, you can't afford me. Dar pays me a hell of a lot better than father ever paid anyone."

"But.." Cynthia stopped. "Well, I'm sure… " She stopped again. "It's not just the money, Kerrison. We want you to come back here, and be part of your family. Surely you can understand that."

"For another thing." Kerry went on as though she hadn't heard. "I don't like Michigan." She absorbed her mother's slightly shocked look. "I love living in Florida."


"Dar and I have a wonderful life together, mother. Why would I want to change that?" Kerry asked in frustration. "Don't you understand yet this isn't some passing phase I might grow out of?"

Cynthia took a seat on a nearby bench, and folded her hands. "I do understand that you and Dar are very fond of each other, dear."

Kerry walked over and sat down next to her. "No, you don't.." She stated gently. "We love each other."

Cynthia was silent.

"I love Dar with all my heart." Kerry said. "She is my life. We're partners in every sense of the word. She's everything I could have ever wished for in someone to share the rest of my life with." She waited for comment, and got none. "So, though I’m really glad you fired that bastard Kyle, and the rest of those useless dog poops, I’m not going to come here and take their place."

Her mother sighed.

"I’m going to go home, and take my jacket off, and play with my dog, and soak in the hottub with Dar under the stars tonight just because we can." Kerry told her. "Catch up on my business email and get ready to go back to work."

They were both silent for a few moments. Kerry exhaled, and rubbed her temples. "Look, I know that's not what you wanted to hear, and honestly, I do appreciate the welcome you've given both me and Dar."

"Actually." Cynthia murmured. "I do quite like Dar." She admitted. "I find her intelligence refreshing."

The way to my heart, Kerry realized with a weak, internal laugh, is through praising my partner. Imagine that. "It's one of the things I like most about her." She smiled at her mother. "She's smarter than I am. "

"Surely not." Her mother frowned. "You've quite a good brain, Kerrison. You always have had."

"Funny. You and father were always so ready for me to end up a receptionist." Kerry felt the words slip out. "I never thought my brain ever entered the plans."

"That's not so. He was very proud of your skills, especially when you were in high school." Her mother disagreed. "He was simply anxious to channel them into something practical."

"I think I found something more practical to channel them into." Kerry remarked dryly.

Cynthia got up and walked over to the frosted windows, gazing out in silence. "I thought perhaps you would at least think about this, Kerrison." She exhaled. "Yes, I realize you do have your own life, and all that, but this is not such a terrible thing I’m asking, is it? We just want you to be a part of our lives, as well."

Kerry searched the ceiling, looking for patience and finding precious little. "Why?" She finally asked.

Her mother turned. "Pardon?"

"Why?" Kerry repeated. "Why is it so important that I come back here?"

Cynthia frowned. "Is that a serious question? You are my daughter, and a member of our family."

"No, I’m not." Kerry replied quietly. "Did you forget? I got thrown out of this family a year ago."

Her mother exhaled. "That wasn’t… your father was very upset at the time, Kerrison. He was simply frustrated and angry. As were you."

Kerry looked at her. "I’m sorry." She stated. "You all stood there and let him do that, then you let him bully my brother and my sister into shunning me at the hearings, you stood by while they threw me into an insane asylum.." Her voice had gotten louder and louder. "And now you think I want to come back?" She stood. "Are you nuts?"

Cynthia stared at her in shock.

":Why in the hell would you think I wanted, or even more, needed you?"

"Kerrison!" Her mother gasped. "Think of what you’re saying! No one meant any harm to you.."

"BULLSHIT." Kerry was really angry now. "You never cared a rats ass about me. All that mattered was what I looked like, how many eliglble boys I could bring over the house for daddy to wind around his finger, and how soon I could get married to become a family brood cow."


"Don’t call me that." Kerry spat out., her breath coming fast. "I don’t know who the hell you people think you are, or what gave you the right to bastardize my life for all these years, but…"

The door opened and Dar entered, pale blue eyes flashing, her hands flexing lightly as she bolted to Kerry’s side and glared at her mother. "What the hell is going on in here?"

Kerry drew in a breath, and released it, lifting a hand up and touching Dar’s side. She could feel Dar’s ribs expanding and contracting, the muscles under her fingertips tense and almost vibrating with tension. "My mother wants me to give up my job, and my life, and come home to be her office manager." She stated flatly.

Dar looked at her, then at Cynthia, who turned her head in discomfort. "Nice." She finally said. "I think I can outbid her, though."

Kerry laughed humorlessly.

"What the hell is your problem?" Dar asked Cynthia.

Kerry’s mother looked very upset. "I am trying to bring my family back together. There is no crime in that." She patted her coiffed hair. "I can see it was a mistake to ask, however."

Kerry closed her eyes and felt sick to her stomach. She leaned against Dar, and felt Dar’s arm curl around her in a reassuring hug. "Why can’t you just let me be happy?" She asked in a very quiet voice. "Is that too much to ask?"

"I.." Cynthia paused, then sighed. "I have no idea what that is, so perhaps I simply can’t understand your viewpoint, Kerrison." She sat down. "I’m just trying to do what I feel is right."

Dar glanced down and caught the reflection of light off the tears she could see rolling down Kerry’s cheeks. "What’s right is for you to accept Kerry for what and who she is." Dar said. "And stop trying to remake her into an image that was never her to begin with."

"I have known my daughter far longer than you have." Cynthia reminded her stiffly.

"You never knew her at all." Dar answered right back. "And no, you can’t have her back. She was never yours to begin with."

Kerry sniffled, and glanced up, peeking at Dar from under damp lashes. "My, aren’t we possessive." She murmured, with a wan smile.

Dar looked at her.

"Nice feeling." Kerry whispered. "Thanks."

"Hmph." Dar kissed her gently on the head. "C’mon. Let’s go home."

"Wait." Cynthia held a hand up, then crossed over to them. "Please, let us not leave in anger, again." She touched Kerry’s arm. "I am sorry, Kerrison. You are right. I don’t understand what it is you want. Please believe that I was only trying to help you."

Kerry looked at her. "I know." She murmured. "I’m sorry I lost my temper. There's just so many things I get so angry about when I think of them."

Her mother glanced down at the marble floor.

"Maybe seeing Kyle brought a lot of that bad." Kerry went on. "He was always the worst."

A soft throat clearing made them glance over at the now open solarium door. It was one of the butlers. "Mrs. Stuart? The man asked, hesitantly. "There's a policeman here to see you."

Cynthia blinked in honest astonishment. "To see me? What on earth for?"

"I don't know, ma'am. He mentioned something about an accident." The man replied. "Shall I show him in here?"

Dar and Kerry exchanged looks, then looked at Cynthia. Cynthia lifted her hands in a tiny gesture of puzzlement, then nodded. "Certainly. Please do so."


The officer entered, taking off his hat and giving Mrs. Stuart a respectful nod. "Ma'am."

"Come in, officer." Kerry's mother offered. "What can we do for you? This is my daughter Kerrison, and her friend Dar."

The policeman gave them both brief nods as well, then turned back to Cynthia. "Ma'am, I'm sorry to bother you. I know this is a bad time, but we're investigating an accident that happened near here, and we just need to ask you some questions."

Cynthia looked properly and politely bewildered. "Me? Well, certainly, please sit down." She took a seat and waited for the man to join her. Kerry and Dar took advantage of a nearby bench. "I'm sorry, but I haven't been out of the house for quite some time. I'm not sure what I can hope to tell you. " She glanced at Dar and Kerry. "My daughter was out for a walk earlier. Perhaps it's she you wish to speak with? Kerrison, did you see anything while you were out?"

"No." Kerry shook her head. "Nothing except trees, snow, and a couple of buried cars."

"No, ma'am, it's not something you saw." The policeman flipped open a pad, and checked something. "Do you know a man by the name of Kyle Evans?"

It was the last thing any of them expected. "Why, yes." Cynthia replied slowly. "He… well, at least until yesterday, he worked on my.. late husband's staff." She fell silent. "Has something happened to him?"

"I’m afraid so, ma'am. He was driving down the highway last night and apparently he passed out at the wheel. His car drove off the road and hit a tree." The officer hesitated. "He's dead, ma'am."

Kerry blinked, absorbing the news with a wild mixture of emotions. She took a deep breath, and released it, knowing that as a human, and a Christian, she should feel some sort of sorrow for the passing of another mortal.

She didn't.

Oh well. Kerry looked up at Dar, who had an interested, speculative look on her face. "What are you thinking?" She whispered.

"Poetic justice." Dar answered succinctly. "And, gee. Now your father will have someone to talk to down there."

Kerry winced.

"Sorry. You asked." Dar murmured. "I’m not going to even pretend to be slightly sorry that bastard's dead. I only hope he didn't ruin the tree."

"My goodness." Cynthia had been saying. "I can't.. I hardly know what to say." She shook her head. "What time was it? He left here just about midnight, I believe."

The officer nodded. "About an hour or so after that, ma'am. Do you have any idea what he'd been doing between the time he left and then? Only takes about ten minutes drive to get where he was."

"I haven't a mortal clue." The older woman answered, stunned. "He left in quite a hurry. I’m afraid he was quite upset. I had just released him, and the rest of my late husband's staff from employ."

"Ah." The officer grunted, writing that down. "Was he a drinker?"

"I have no idea. Certainly, in social situations. I never had any reason to believe it was more frequent than that." Cynthia looked over at Kerry, a touch helplessly. "Did you think so, Kerrison?"

Kyle? A drunk? "No." Kerry shook her head as the policeman looked over at her. "I haven't lived her for over a year, but Kyle was employed by my father for many years prior to that. I never thought he drank, or in fact, did drugs or anything like that." She paused thoughtfully. "In fact, he was a health freak."

The officer nodded again. "That seems right, ma'am. His car had a lot of equipment in it, and gym clothes." He closed his book. "Well, I’m sorry to have to pass that information to you, Mrs. Stuart. I realize it's lousy timing." He settled his hat back onto his head. "You confirmed when he left here, that's all I really needed. We'll try to backtrack now and see where he went first."

"Officer." Dar spoke up for the first time. "Seems like a lot of investigating over a car accident."

The man eyed her shrewdly. "We like to be sure, ma'am, especially when it's a former employee of a government family." He stated carefully. "We just want to make sure everything's what it seems to be." He touched the hat brim. "Mrs. Stuart, Ms. Stuart, ma'am."

His footsteps sounded loud on the parquet floor, and the door opening and closing echoed softly in the silence that he left behind him.

"Well." Cynthia Stuart said. "What a shock."

"Mm.." Kerry agreed. "Yeah.. oh my god, I wonder if Brian knows?"

Her mother gasped softly. "Oh! We should call him, at once!" She got up and hurried from the room, leaving them behind with out so much as another single word.

Kerry sighed, and leaned against Dar. "Wow."

"Yeah." Dar's voice was quiet. "You okay now?"

Kerry considered that. "Yeah." She said. "I feel better, kinda. I think I was wanting to get that out of my system for a while."


"Let's go."

"You mean it this time?" Dar gave her an affectionate look. "You're not teasing me?"

"Let's go." Kerry stood up and offered Dar her hand. "Let's get mom and dad, and get the hell out of here." She replied positively. "But we have to make one stop before the airport."

Dar followed her out of the room, their hands still clasped. "Where's that?" She asked, as they walked across to the dining room.

"Dairy Queen." Kerry replied firmly.


Kerry had never been so glad to get on a damn airplane. She settled into her seat with a long, relieved sigh, and put her head back against the leather headrest, closing her eyes and willing the plane up and gone. Dar had taken the seat next to her and she found herself mildly resenting the fact that they were in first class.

There were these stupid console arms between the seats. Kerry wanted to get rid of hers, and curl up in Dar's arms for a nap. She regarded the lighting controls with a feeling of mild embarrassment at the thought, reminding herself that she was a grown up who'd left the need for a teddy bear and security blanket behind long ago.

Hadn't she? Kerry kept her eyes closed as the flight attendant came by and listened as Dar's low burr ordered them both drinks. Maybe it was just the whole situation, just finally getting to be too much. She sighed, wishing they were already home, wanting the normality of that back around her.

Even going back to work would be very welcome. Kerry opened one eye and peered at Dar. "What ever happened with that UPS?" She hadn't gotten paged again on it, so she figured Dar had done something or other to clear the issue.

Dar looked up from her Skymall magazine. "I threatened to cut off the cable feed in the city, and they got the replacement unit out in six hours." She replied. "Hey, look. New toys. Want one?" One long finger pointed at a page.

Kerry goggled at her. "Could you really do that?"

"Buy you a new toy? Sure." Dar replied, then grinned. "Cut off their cable? We manage their head end facility, so yeah, if I wanted to get down and dirty enough I could." She dug into her pocket and removed her cellphone. "Now, do you like red or onyx?"

Kerry peered at the magazine. "Oo." She pulled it closer. "A Swiss army knife for nerds? Does it have a… oh, good grief, it does. How cool." She glanced up at Dar. "We should get these as Christmas gifts for Mark's staff."

Dar considered that. "Mm.. something they can actually use instead of a box of chocolates and a gift certificate to Walmart?" She said. "Though, those are both useful. Sort of." She waited for the cellphone to be answered, then crisply ordered a case of the knives in each color, sending the order taker into a mini ecstasy of delight. "We should brand them and use them as pitch gimmicks, too." Dar mused. "Maybe if Jose's really good, I'll let him look at mine."

"Why don’t you just get him one?" Kerry asked, flipping through the magazine with interest.

"It has sharp implements on it. I don't want to be liable if he cuts his fingers off. Mariana would kill me." Dar muttered, as she completed her purchase and closed the phone. "See anything else you like?"

"Mm." Kerry let her eyes wander off the page and up across Dar's profile. "Yeah." Then she chuckled and wet one fingertip with her tongue, reaching over and rubbing a spot on Dar's cheek. "Can't take you anywhere, Paladar. Look at you with chocolate all over your face."

"Shh." Dar glanced behind them, where her parents were settled. "Not so loud.. you'll get treated to an hour of stories about what I used to do with my food."

"Oh really?" Kerry asked, in a much louder voice.

Blue eyes narrowed. "Kerrison."

Kerry chuckled. "Ah… why does that sound so different when you say it?" She exhaled and let her head rest on the leather again, but half turned to keep Dar in view. "Boy, I’m glad we're going home."

"Yeah?" Dar gazed quietly at her. "Me too."

"You look tired." Kerry could see the strain around the edges of her lover's eyes.

Dar sighed. "Those damn drugs." She rubbed her eyes wearily. "Between that and what I’m taking them for, I just want to crawl into my damn waterbed and stay there for a day or so."

"I can arrange for that." Kerry reassured her. "In fact, I can arrange for a nice hot water bottle for you to wrap around too." She was looking forward to seeing their home, and Chino, and settling down on the couch next to Dar with a cup of hot tea.

Leaving her family, and Michigan and all that stood for behind her.

Kerry curled her fingers around Dar's as their arms rested together on the center console. The touch was warm, and it felt good around her chilled hands. Dar rubbed her skin gently with her thumb, and Kerry felt a quiet lethargy steal over her.

Maybe she could doze off until they left…


Kerry opened her eyes, blinking them in confusion as she tried to reconcile her memories of the last few moments with what she was seeing. "Uh?"

"We're about to land, hon." Dar smiled, tucking the soft, blue blanket around her.

"Land?" Kerry asked, bewildered. "Did I.." She glanced outside, seeing the distinctive pattern of Miami through the window. "Son of a… I slept the whole time?"

"Mmhm." Dar confirmed, stretching her body out then relaxing again. She stifled a yawn of her own, glad beyond reason to feel the tightening in her eardrums as the large plane descended. After a few moments, the tires hit, the engines reversed, and they were rolling to a halt on the long expanse of runway.

Home. Dar felt her entire body relax, and she unbuckled her seat belt quite against the repeated pleas of the cabin crew. Yes, she realized they were on an active taxiway. Yes, she realized the captain would turn off the seat belt sign when they were safely parked at the gate. Yes, she knew enough to open the overheads carefully because the stuff in them sure enough did tend to shift in flight.

Which was why flying in coach was so scary sometimes. Dar had watched in bemusement on more than one occasion while passengers shoved items no sane person would consider bringing onto an airplane into those aformentioned bins.

She smiled as she remembered a flight where an entire floral arrangement, taking from a birthday party with large blown glass ornaments had imploded in flight due to the pressure change. They'd almost had to turn around and land before the rattled flight attendants had identified the sounds.

And then the woman had threatened to sue the airline for destroying her centerpiece. Dar shook her head. People were weird. She glanced out the window as flashing lights caught her attention, and saw another plane surrounded by emergency vehicles. "Wonder what that's all about?" She nudged Kerry, who was obediently gathering her personal belongings.

Kerry turned and leaned on the armrest, peering out of the small window. "Hm. Mostly police, no fire rescue, could be anything. Maybe a hijack attempt?"

"Drugs." Dar disagreed, watching over her shoulder. "See the dogs?"

"Ah.. well, no, could be explosives."

"Mm." Dar acknowledged. "Guess we'll read about it in tomorrow's Herald."

"Okay." Kerry settled back in her seat as the plane turned to enter it's assigned gate area. "But you have to read me the comics first." She grinned as her lover gave her a look. They'd developed what was, to Kerry, a charming habit of diving through the morning paper for the cartoons, finding Dilbert first, of course, then sharing the others, and their respective horoscopes. That was after their run and mutual shower, while the coffee was brewing for the drive to work.

Kerry sighed happily. She was so looking forward to that. She fairly ached for the normality of it. The plane bumped to a halt and she released her seat belt, standing up alongside Dar who ducked to clear the overhead. "Sometimes it pays to be short." She teased.

"I agree." Ceci chuckled from behind her, as they watched Andrew move out into the aisle to avoid cracking his head. "No offense to your home state, Kerry, but I’m glad I’m no longer in it."

Kerry snorted. "Like I wasn't counting the minutes?" She took a deep breath as the cabin door opened and a gust of moderately warm, moderately moist air blew in, tinged with aviation fuel but welcome nonetheless. She shouldered her laptop and edged out in front of Dar, giving the flight attendant a smile as she exited the plane onto the jetway.

"Ah. Air conditioning in December. I must be home." Dar remarked as they walked up the sloping path. Already, they could hear the clamor of the airport loudspeaker, in a combination of English and Spanish that matched the conversations going on around them.

"Oh yeah." Kerry agreed, as they moved out of the gate and into the flow of terminal traffic "I remember my very first experience getting off a plane here. I walked ten feet, put my bag down, stared, and wondered what in the world I'd gotten myself into." It had been more than culture shock, that was for sure. It had been an exotic, intimidating new world.

Now, it was just home, and she welcomed the bustling activity and the riot of color that surrounded them. "You up for a café con leche?" She asked Dar. "It'll take them twenty minutes to bring the car up anyway. You did valet it, right?"

"You bet your…" Dar's eyes wandered. "Yes, I did." She grinned, mindful of her father's inquisitive presence. "You parked or what, dad?"

"Ah am about to go get me that truck." Andrew told her. "Figgered we'd talk to you two later on. " He gave Dar a pat on the back, and accepted a hug from Kerry, then ambled off, with a waving Ceci in tow.

"Bye." Kerry waggled her fingers back. "They're so cute."

Dar arched a brow at her. "I'll go turn my valet ticket in. Did you say something about coffee a minute ago?" She bumped Kerry with her hip towards the coffee bar. “Get me a cheese pastalito too.”

Mm. Kerry obediently trotted over to the coffee bar, leaning against it’s polished surface as the attendant came over. “Dos café con leche, dos queso pastilitos, por favor.”

The boy grinned at her. “Si, Senorita.” He replied, turning towards the espresso machine. Kerry slid onto the stool and watched him idly, enjoying the sharp, distinctive scent of the brewing coffee as she listened to the conversations around her. Football and soccer mostly, with a spattering of stock market, and one very excited discussion about deep sea fishing.  She turned around as her coffee and pastries were delivered , paying for them and receiving another smile from the server as she left a tip.

She picked up her goodies and shouldered her bag, heading for the automatic doors leading outside.  Dar was leaning against a support pole, her sunglasses now firmly settled on the bridge of her nose. “Rats. I forgot.” Kerry handed Dar the bag and dug inside her briefcase pocket for her own glasses, a nifty wraparound pair Dar had gotten her not long before.  She let her bag sit between her feet as she straightened, and accepted the cup of steaming liquid Dar held out to her. “Thank you, ma’am.” 

“Ma’am?” Dar laughed, as she took a sip.

Kerry leaned against her and sucked happily at her drink, enjoying the rich, sweet flavor. The air was cool and equally sweet, and she felt a sense of pure, animal well being as she watched the confusion of traffic trying to get to the curbside. Soon enough, she spotted Dar’s Lexus making it’s way toward them, and she actually almost felt like hugging it. “Want me to drive?” She asked her lover. “Give your arm a break?”

Dar’s face went still for a moment, then she exhaled. “Okay.”  She accepted her keys from the valet and put her bag in the back seat as Kerry took them from her fingers and circled the car.  They settled into the leather seats and Kerry took a moment to adjust the driver’s seat forward. “I should keep a booster seat in here for you.”  Dar remarked dryly.

“Hah hah.” Kerry put the big SUV in gear and edged cautiously out into the traffic stream. “How about next time you just put me in your lap.”

“Mm..” Dar chuckled softly, sparing a moment to imagine driving with her arms wrapped around Kerry . “Yeah, okay… hey, pull over.”


“It was your idea!”

Kerry dodged a speeding Mercedes and settled down to the relatively short drive home. “Hey, Dar?”

“Yeeess?” Dar had her head tipped back and her eyes closed.

“I keep forgetting to ask you, and you did mention it twice, so it’s not your fault.” Kerry said. “What was the deal you set up with the Navy, for that information?”

Dar’s eyes opened, and she regarded the fawn header on the Lexus. “Ah.”  She drew in a breath and released it. “That’s right. I guess I have to lay that out for you, don’t I?”

Kerry glanced at her, then back at the road. “Well.. Imean, it doesn’t have to be right now, but I was curious… “

“No, now’s as good a time as any.” Dar remarked. “I should have just told you earlier.” Her expression turned pensive. “I agreed to destroy the information, and forget what I’d seen in return for the Navy outsourcing all of there IS to us.”

Kerry almost hit the car in front of her. She hastily applied her brakes, then turned her head and stared at Dar in utter disbelief. “You what?” A horn honked, and she hastily pulled the Lexus over onto the curb and parked it. “What?”

Pale blue eyes regarded her warily. “That was my price. If they wanted me to shut up.” She said. “So they did. Gerry got them to agree to the outsourcing deal.” She watched Kerry’s face carefully, wondering what she was thinking.

Kerry covered her eyes with one hand “You blackmailed the US Government?”

Had she? Dar rubbed her chin with one hand. “Yeah, I guess I did.”  She admitted.

Slim fingers slid aside, revealing green eyes that peeked out from between them. “Paladar Katherine Roberts, what am I going to do with you?”

Dar smiled wistfully. “I don’t’ know. It was nicer having you think I just chucked it all because I wouldn’t leave you.” She reflected in a quiet voice. “Just a moment of altruistic heroism I didn’t actually have.”

Kerry studied her lover for a moment, then reached over and cupped her cheek with one hand, but didn’t say anything. They looked at each other for a moment, then Kerry put the Lexus in gear and resumed driving.  Concentrating on the traffic gave her a chance to think about what Dar had told her, and how she felt about it.

Was she mad at Dar for not telling her?  Kerry nibbled the inside of her lip. Yeah, a little. It meant a huge workload for her, and dozens of things she now had to take into account. But, on the other hand – given what had been going on at the time, had she really wanted to deal with that too?

No. Kerry admitted to herself. She’d had no desire whatsoever to add to the stress level she’d been suffering under. So, Dar had probably done her a favor in keeping that quiet until now.  She did wonder, though, about what Dar had said about how she felt. A quick glance showed her a somber profile.

Dar thought she was disappointed, Kerry realized. Was she? It had been flattering, of course – for her to realize Dar had just chucked everything to be at her side.


But it had also hurt to know she’d been the thing that had caused Dar to relinquish something she knew was so important to her.

Honor. Her integrity. Regardless of what ILS had gotten out of the deal, it didn’t change the fact that Dar had traded off doing what she knew was the right thing, just to be the rock Kerry had so desperately needed right then.  “Dar?”


“Does that mean we integrate all the people working in IS for the Navy?”

“The ones we want, just like usual.” Dar replied cautiously.

“So, you get to fire the rest of them?”

“Reject them for integration. The Navy will have to place them in another job code, yes.”

Kerry smiled humorlessly. “Paybacks are a bitch, aren’t they?”

Dar stifled a yawn, and allowed her body to relax on the leather sofa in their living room.  They’d gotten in the house, suffered Chino’s greeting, and now Kerry was in the kitchen filling Colleen in on what had gone on the past few days.

It was, aside from the low buzz of voices in the kitchen, blessedly quiet in the condo, and Dar let her head drop against the plushly stuffed arm of the sofa, welcoming the rich scent of the leather and the warmth of the long stripe of sunlight that was coming in the front window and painting a golden swath across her body.

She could, she acknowledged, go into her study and find out what was waiting to pounce on her in her mailbox.

She could. Dar wriggled into a more comfortable position and closed her eyes. But she wasn’t going to.  Tomorrow would come soon enough, and if there was anything of a truly disastrous nature, she’d have been paged before now, right?  Hm. She pulled her cell phone out and checked it, making sure it was on. Nope, no pages, no calls. Good.

A cold nose investigated her arm, and she opened her eyes again. “Hey, Chino. Did you give up on getting cookies from mommy Kerry?”

Sad brown eyes regarded her, then Chino climbed up on to the wide couch and settled down with a grunt, licking all of Dar’s exposed skin within her reach.

“Aw.” Dar stroked the Labrador’s soft, thick fur. “I missed you too, baby.” She quickly looked around to make sure no one had heard her, then ruffled the dog’s ears. “You’re such a sweetie, aren’t you.”

Chino put her muzzle down on Dar’s chest, and exhaled happily.

Dar exhaled too. It was over. Damn, she was glad it was over. Now they could settle down and get on with their life together, and concentrate on happier things. Like Christmas, for instance. Dar wiggled her toes in mild glee and considered the boxes she had hidden in the crawl space. Presents for Kerry, of course, and Chino, but also for her parents, something she hadn’t done for many years, and for the assorted friends Kerry had invited over for the Christmas party.

Christmas party, Dar had firmly insisted. Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, not birthday.

But Kerry had snickered, which meant she’d at least have to suffer through a cake and a chorus. Hm. Dar mentally made a note to ask, in a circumspect way of course, if the cake was to be Kerry’s double chocolate mousse killer cake. That was worth a round of Happy Birthday to you, if nothing else was.

Yeah. Dar grinned, licking her lips at the thought.

“Holy cow, Kerry.” Colleen rubbed her friend’s arm sympathetically. “What a nightmare.”

“Yeah.” Kerry was sprawled on one of the two stools in the kitchen. “You can say that again. Thanks a bunch for staying by here.”

“No problem.” The redhead assured her. “I was glad to do it. Chinie’s a sweetie, and Dar’s folks are great people.”

“They sure are.” Kerry smiled. “You have no idea how glad I was to see them when they showed up. Oh, my god, Col.. I was literally standing in a pit full of vipers, with that bastard Kyle coming right at me when bam, talk about the cavalry coming over the hill.”

Colleen grinned. “Dar’s father is so hooked on you. It’s so sweet.” She told Kerry  “You should have heard them when they showed the television report and we spotted you, just before they left. Man.. the two of them went off!”

Kerry sighed. “That so sucked.” She rested her head on her hand, leaning an elbow on the counter. “I don’t think I”ve ever had a lousier couple of days, I can tell you that. After we got back to the hotel, Angie called and told me the staff thought it would be better if I didn’t come down there, because of Dar.”

“To hell with them!” Colleen snorted.

“Well, I didn’t go.” Kerry said. “And it was because of Dar, but not for their benefit. She was hurting.” A pause. “God knows, I was hurting. We needed some space.” She thought about that night. “I don’t know what I would have done if Dar hadn’t been there, Col. I just don’t.” Kerry could hear a faint tremor in her own voice. “That first night… Jesus. I was so sick. I got a migraine, and I passed out in the bathroom… “

“Wow.” Colleen gave her a concerned look. “What happened?”

Kerry felt irrational tears rising. “Dar happened.” She murmured. “She wasn’t supposed to come up until the next day, but she just dropped everything and came that night. She took care of me.”

Collen just put a hand on her arm, and squeezed.

“I think that was the worst I’ve ever felt.” Kerry whispered. “But Dar held me, and made that all go away. It was incredible.” She let out a long, shaky breath. “She saved my sanity.”

“Hey.” Colleen gently put both arms around her and gave her a hug. “You poor kid.” She patted Kerry’s back, then rubbed it. “I’m glad tall, dark and daunting was there to make things right, Ker. I know I ddin’t start off being a fan of hers, but I’m glad this time I was so damn, dead wrong.”

“Mm.” Kerry returned the hug. “Tall, dark and doofy sometimes. That’s how she hurt her arm again. The dork picked me up and carried me into bed in the hotel.” She admitted. “I was too sick to realize what she was doing.”

“Oh, really?” Colleen laughed a bit.

“Yeah.” Kerry got up off her stool and went to the refrigerator, taking out a pitcher of juice and swirling it. “Want some?”


“Hey, Dar?” Kerry called into the living room. ‘Want some juice?”

“Does it have chocolate in it?” The droll answer came back.

“Ew. Orange juice and chocolate?” Kerry made a face. “No, honey. I’ll get you some milk.”

“Mmmmmilk.” Dar drawled in response as she appeared in the doorway, looking appealingly tousled in her t-shirt, cutoff shorts and white socks. Chino came trotting in behind her, yawning.  “Chino wants some milk too.”

Colleen chuckled. “Like puppy, like owner.”

Dar paused, and put a hand on her hip. “You saying I look like that dog?” She lifted one eyebrow in mock menace.

“No.” Kerry handed her a glass and leaned up to give her a kiss. “You just act like her. Adorably loyal and cute to a fault.” She watched Dar’s eyes go round in startlement, then glance over at Colleen and back to her. “Oh, don’t go all formal on me now, Dar. You were the one who was just mooing for milk.”

Dar scowled, then her face relaxed into a sheepish grin as she chuckled and accepted the glass.

Colleen put her own glass down, and stood up. “Well, I’ll be getting meself back to the southern reaches of Kendall. You two take it easy, eh? See you Wednesday?”

“Me, absolutely.” Kerry said. “Dar… well, let’s see what the doctor says.” She glanced up at her lover, who merely lifted a brow at her. “Right? You’re not going to try teaching us flips until your shoulder gets better, are you?”

“No.” Dar replied, speaking of the martial arts class they were supposed to resume that week. “I’ll just make you all do the work, and I’ll watch.”  She chuckled at their wry faces. “Besides, I can use the pool a little.”

“Ah, sure” Colleen shouldered her bag. “She floats while we sweat. Nice.” She waved a goodbye. “Later, folks.”

Kerry walked her to the door and closed it behind her, then turned and regarded Dar.  She walked across the living room to join her lover as they both reached the couch, and sat down with her, putting her feet up on the coffee table almost at the same time Dar did. Then she rested her head against Dar’s shoulder and sighed.

“Nice to be here, huh?” Dar obligingly draped an arm over her shoulders and pulled her closer.

Kerry wrapped her arms around Dar’s body and snuggled up as close as she could without actually crawling into Dar’s lap. She craved the warmth of her lover’s body, and the feeling of utter security that her embrace would provide. Dar didn’t disappoint her. She felt her body shifted a little, and she squirmed into a cradle made from long arms and legs that wrapped around her and brought her home in a way that touched her battered soul in just the right spot she needed it to.

“Tell you what.” Dar murmured, as she stroked Kerry’s hair. “I vote for a night of shameless hedonism and indulgence. You up for that?”

“Uh huh.” Kerry murmured. “But I’d be happy just to have you near me all night.”

Dar gave her a worried look. “Well, sure. Where else would I be?” She kissed the top of Kerry’s head. “Ker?”

The blond head lifted, revealing a tear streaked face as Kerry wiped the back of her hand across her eyes and sniffled. “Sorry.”  She muttered. “I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with me.”

Dar didn’t know either. It left her at somewhat of a loss, presented with a problem she had no experience or knowledge to deal with. So she did what she could do, which was wipe the tears from Kerry’s face, and kiss her gently.  “Go ahead and cry if it makes you feel better.”  She told her. “Talk to me about it if you want to.”  She added. “But if all you need from me is love, you’ve got all of that I have and it’s yours for the taking.”

Kerry blinked, scattering a few sparkles of moisture, and a tiny, charmed smile appeared on her face.

“What?” Dar smiled back. “Do I have chocolate on my chin again?”

“Milk.” Kerry rubbed the residue off her upper lip, gazing at her with a look of utter love. “A night of shameless hedonism, huh?”

“Yeah.” Dar found the sea green eyes in front of her irresistibly fascinating. “I figured we could start off by ordering something really bad for us from the Italian place, then sort of go from there.”

“Will this night of hedonism include hot fudge?”


“Hot tub?”


“Hot..mmfp.” Kerry took the kiss as an answer to that question and surrendered willingly to the plan.

“Morning, Maria.” Kerry caught up with her lover’s secretary as they both entered the elevator. Maria was carrying a white bag, which Kerry suspected had coffee and pastries for a certain person they both knew and loved.

“Aie! Kerrisita!” Maria immediately gave her a one armed hug. “I am so glad you are back.”

“Me too.” Kerry returned the hug with warm enthusiasm. “Thank you so much for the basket.”

The doors opened onto their floor, and they walked into the hallway. “That was such a sad event.” Maria said, diplomatically. “We saw Dar and her papa on the television yesterday, and I was so glad that you had such nice people around to help you.”

Kerry’s ears perked up. “You saw Dar and Andy on TV? When? “

“Si.” Maria answered. “Did you see them also on the newspaper? I have one at my desk.” She lead Kerry into Dar’s outer office and removed a folded paper from the top of it, unfolding it and handing it over. “There, is it not a good picture?”

Kerry examined the shot, a quarter page full color photo taken in her family’s main lobby.  It was a very striking photo of both of them, Dar slightly in the lead as they headed directly towards the camera, with almost the same, exact expression on their faces. “Wow.” She had to smile. “What a pair.”

Maria looked over her shoulder. “Si.” She agreed. “I like Dar’s papa very much. He is such a gentleman.”

“What’s so interesting?” Dar’s voice interrupted them, as she entered the office and closed the door behind her.

“You.” Kerry turned the paper around and displayed it.

“Ah.” Dar reached out and took the paper one handedly, and examined it. Her arm was tucked conspicuously in a new sling, and she had her jacket draped over that arm. The visit to Doctor Steve’s had been humbling, but not as bad as she’d expected, and resulted in mostly a severe scolding and two new prescriptions.

And an order to report to the hospital for a second scan of her shoulder.  Dar had promised to schedule that as soon as possible, and escaped into the reception area to wait for Kerry to emerge, rolling her sleeves down after having vials of blood taken for testing.

“What is this, USA Today?” Dar turned to the front page, where the funeral of Kerry’s father was prominently pictured. Though she knew a number of the people in the photo,  they seemed strange, as though her mind could not, or would not reconcile the people she’d spoken to, and in some cases laughed with as the same somber, grieving figures before her eyes.

All she knew was that she was very glad she and Kerry were not in that picture. Dar folded the paper back to the photo of her and her father and handed it back. “Can you have someone pick up a copy of this for my mother? She’ll love it.”

"Morning, Maria." Kerry caught up with her lover’s secretary as they both entered the elevator. Maria was carrying a white bag, which Kerry suspected had coffee and pastries for a certain person they both knew and loved.

"Aie! Kerrisita!" Maria immediately gave her a one armed hug. "I am so glad you are back."

"Me too." Kerry returned the hug with warm enthusiasm. "Thank you so much for the basket."

The doors opened onto their floor, and they walked into the hallway. "That was such a sad event." Maria said, diplomatically. "We saw Dar and her papa on the television yesterday, and I was so glad that you had such nice people around to help you."

Kerry’s ears perked up. "You saw Dar and Andy on TV? When? "

"Si." Maria answered. "Did you see them also on the newspaper? I have one at my desk." She lead Kerry into Dar’s outer office and removed a folded paper from the top of it, unfolding it and handing it over. "There, is it not a good picture?"

Kerry examined the shot, a quarter page full color photo taken in her family’s main lobby. It was a very striking photo of both of them, Dar slightly in the lead as they headed directly towards the camera, with almost the same, exact expression on their faces. "Wow." She had to smile. "What a pair."

Maria looked over her shoulder. "Si." She agreed. "I like Dar’s papa very much. He is such a gentleman."

"What’s so interesting?" Dar’s voice interrupted them, as she entered the office and closed the door behind her.

"You." Kerry turned the paper around and displayed it.

"Ah." Dar reached out and took the paper one handedly, and examined it. Her arm was tucked conspicuously in a new sling, and she had her jacket draped over that arm. The visit to Doctor Steve’s had been humbling, but not as bad as she’d expected, and resulted in mostly a severe scolding and two new prescriptions.

And an order to report to the hospital for a second scan of her shoulder. Dar had promised to schedule that as soon as possible, and escaped into the reception area to wait for Kerry to emerge, rolling her sleeves down after having vials of blood taken for testing.

"What is this, USA Today?" Dar turned to the front page, where the funeral of Kerry’s father was prominently pictured. Though she knew a number of the people in the photo, they seemed strange, as though her mind could not, or would not reconcile the people she’d spoken to, and in some cases laughed with as the same somber, grieving figures before her eyes.

All she knew was that she was very glad she and Kerry were not in that picture. Dar folded the paper back to the photo of her and her father and handed it back. "Can you have someone pick up a copy of this for my mother? She’ll love it."

"Surely, I will do that right now." Maria assured her. "Let me put this cafacita on your desk." The secretary disappeared into Dar’s office, leaving Dar and Kerry regarding each other quietly.

"Glad to be back?" Dar smiled, as she indicated the flashing lights already winking on Maria’s phone.

Kerry picked up the paper and regarded the front page, then put it down and gave Dar a pat on the side as she headed out towards her own office. "Yes, I am."

Dar gazed pensively at the hole in the air so recently full of her lover, then she turned and made her way into her office. It was lit with warm sunlight from the outside, and she found herself actually glad to be back as well. "Thanks, Maria." She circled her desk and settled into her comfortable leather chair, reaching down to start up her PC. "Did I miss anything really critical?"

"Aie." Maria sat down in one of her visitor’s chairs. "To tell you the true thing, Jefe, I was too worried about you and Kerrisita to pay much attention to these little terrors." She exhaled. "My husband thought I had gone crazy, I was throwing such things at the television at those people who were yelling at you."

Dar smiled. "Thanks, Maria." She glanced at her email inbox, which was rapidly filling with line after line of exclamation marks. "Ahh.. a light week. Only a hundred criticals."

"Dar, may I ask you something?"

Dar looked up. "Sure." She replied.

"Was it very terrible there, for Kerrisita with her familias?"

Dar wondered at the question, but she nodded slowly in response. "Yes it was." She said. "For a lot of reasons, but mostly because a lot of what they hated her for she had no control over."


"Made me appreciate my folks." Dar responded, wryly. "I used to fight tooth and nail with them, but never about that."

"Dar, your mamma and pappa, they are so crazy about you." Maria said. "And about Kerrisita, too."

Dar regarded her Siamese fighting fish, who were swimming lazily in their tank. "Yes, they are." She agreed quietly. "I was glad they showed up there, so Kerry’s family could see their way isn’t the only way to deal with something that doesn’t fit your idea of what’s good and normal."

"Si." Maria murmured. "Dar, I think I would like to talk with your mamma. Do you think that would be all right?"

Dar cocked her head in puzzlement. "Sure." She replied, before a clue finally wandered up and whacked her in the back of the head. "Uh…about anything in particular? I mean.. " She paused, taking in Maria’s uncomfortable look. "Maria?"

The older woman folded her hands in her lap. "I did not wish to trouble you with this so soon when you got back, Jefe. I am sorry." She looked up. "My daughter Mayte has told her papa and I this weekend that she is gay."

Dar blinked, wishing she’d already downed her coffee. "Um."

"It was not such a shock, jefe. But I had thought I was prepared to be understanding and I find that I am not." Maria said apologetically. "So if it is all right with you, I would like to call your mamma, and speak with her."

"Um… sure." Dar pulled out her cell phone and flipped it open, then laid it on the desk and fished a pen from her drawer to write her parent’s number down. "Listen, Maria, I hope you don’t think.. ah.. that either Kerry or I…"

"Jefe." Maria had gotten up, and she reached over to put a hand over Dar’s. "I wanted for her to work here, because I wanted her to have the best examples, yes?" She waited for Dar to look up. "It is just a little hard for me to understand where she is coming from."

Dar handed over the paper. "It’s all right." She said. "My mother didn’t have a clue where I was coming from either, and my father spent a month in the library reading before he’d talk to me about it."

Maria nodded in understanding. "Thank you, Dar. I want Mayte’s papa and I to be good to Mayte like your mama and papa are to you, and to Kerrisita. But it will take us a little time." She took the piece of paper. "Now that I have started off this morning so nicely, I will go and get you more coffee."

Dar sat back as Maria left, feeling very off kilter. It was the last thing in the world she’d expected to have to deal with first thing, and she wondered if the rest of the day was going to be equally as unsettled. Then a thought occurred to her, and she pulled her keyboard over, pecking a message out laboriously with one hand. She clicked send, then slapped at her speaker phone, dialing it impatiently.

"MIS Ops."

"Morning, Mark." Dar watched the screen for a response. "I need a favor."

"Hi, boss." Mark’s voice was quiet. "Glad you’re back. How’s Kerry?"

Good question. "She’s doing okay. Listen, I need a damn vocal adapter for this thing. I’m down to one hand again."

"Ouch. I’ll be right down." Mark said briskly, cutting off the line before Dar could object.

A window popped up, and she studied it. Under her own message "Maria just gave me a toaster for Xmas" was Kerry’s wry response. "I’m dealing with the Pop Tart that generated the request."

Ah. Dar picked up her coffee and took a large swallow. Grand way to start a Monday. She looked up as the door opened, and Mark entered with an armful of equipment and a very sympathetic look.

Then her private line rang. "Yeah?" She answered it.

"Ms. Roberts, it's security." The low, musical female voice answered. "There's a gentleman here from the Navy insisting on seeing you."

"Oh really. What's his name?"


Dar took another swallow of coffee, and shook her head. "Bring him up." She gave Mark a look. "That got voice recognition software with it?"

"Preprogrammed, yeah." Mark agreed, laying the microphone and card on the desk. "Nice vocabulary."

"Hope it's got Anglo Saxon down pat."

Mark just looked at her.


“I was scared, sure.” Mayte said. “I mean, mama I figured was going to be fine, because she knows you, and Dar, and it’s not something that’s so way out there for her, you know?”

“Mm.” Kerry nodded sympathetically. “I do know. With my family it was very, very different. You’re lucky, Mayte. It may be hard for your parents to adjust to what you told them, but you’ve already got a foot inside the door to understanding with them.”

“Yes.”  The pretty Cuban American agreed. “I was still pretty nervous, though. Lena and I have been talking over lunch since she started, and she told me some horrible stories.” Mayte paused a moment. “She’s nice. I’m glad you helped her out.”

Kerry smiled. “I’m glad too. I understood what she was going through, and anything I can do to help someone in that kind of situation out, I’ll do.”  She fiddled with a pencil. “It’s funny, because I spent days trying to think of exactly how I’d tell my parents about Dar, and I never did come up with a good way to do it. There was nothing I could tell them that would make what I said acceptable.”  A pause. “I finally took some advice and decided not to tell them then, during the holidays. It was bad enough I was telling them I wasn’t coming home, and Brian and I weren’t getting married.”

Mayte gazed at her, wide eyed. “You were engaged?”

Kerry nodded. “It’s okay. Brian’s a good friend of mine. We’ve been close since we were kids, but he’s much more of a brother to me than he ever was a boyfriend.” She said. “So I thought that was more than enough shock for one Thanksgiving.”

“Wow.” Mayte seemed overwhelmed by this radical decent into rebellion. “Here I thought I was so brave just to put a copy of the Advocate on my mother’s sewing table and wait to see what she would do.”

Kerry had to laugh. “You know, I never thought of that trick. I should have ordered them both a subscription.”  She shook her head wistfully. “No, they would have had a little reprieve, but they pushed it, not me. They went looking for trouble, and they found it inside my briefcase.”  She gave Mayte a wry look. “Pictures of me and Dar I’d brought to show my sister. “

“Dios Mio.”

“Mm. I was so proud of her, I had to show someone, and Angie and I are very close.” Kerry rested her chin on her fist. “I had no idea what I was going to get into with that.”

“Kerry, can I ask you something?” Mayte inquired shyly.


“If you could go back, and if you knew everything that you know what happened, right now, would you still tell them?”

Kerry was silent for a long moment, thinking seriously about that question. “You mean, if I had it to do all over again, would I trade my family for Dar?” She asked, glancing at Mayte. “If I had it to do all over again, I would not have made the same decision.”

Mayte’s eyes widened.

“I would have slapped my father in the face with those pictures the second I walked into that house.” Kerry went on, softly. “My problem was, Mayte, I wanted it both ways. I wanted my family to be there just the way I remembered them, and I wanted them to accept me with all the changes I’d made in my life. You can’t do that. You have to understand that when you make choices, you have to accept the consequences.”

“Like people making hating you?”

Kerry nodded sadly. “Yes.”

Mayte exhaled. “That’s scary.”

“It is.” Kerry said. “But what’s scarier to me, is the thought of what the consequences would have been to me if I’d decided to pass up getting involved with Dar because of what my family thought.” She regarded the cup in her hands thoughtfully. “It’s hard to think of it this way, but finding her was worth losing them.” Her eyes met the girl’s. “You won’t have to face that, Mayte.”

“I think mama’s a little shook up, but you’re right.” Mayte agreed. “She hugged me, and papa did, and they told me it would just take them some time to think about all of it.”

Kerry remembered her own parents reaction. Then she smiled at her assistant. “I know. She’s over talking to Dar about it. I can just imagine Dar’s face.” She grinned.

They both laughed. “Okay.” Mayte stood up. “Thank you for listening, Ms. Kerry…”

“Ah ah ah.” Kerry wagged a finger at her.

Mayte smiled. “Sorry, I forgot, Kerry.” She turned and walked back towards the door. “I am going downstairs, can I bring you back some cafecita?”

“Oh, you bet.” Kerry  sighed. “I still feel like I’ve been run over by a truck, even after a good night’s sleep.”  Well. She amended silently. Not entirely sleep. There had been a lot of hugging, snuggling, kissing and cuddling in there too. She waited for the door to close, then leaned back in her chair and exhaled, absorbing the warm, sunlit silence of her office. Slowly, she swiveled her seat around and gazed out through the plate glass windows at the ocean, a ruffled blue green blanket that stretched before her out to the horizon. There were several large ships chugging their stately way out of the cut, and she watched one idly. Then she turned back around and opened up her email program, propping her head against one fist as the screen filled with new messages. 

It was good to be back, she decided, as she clicked on the first urgent one. It involved several accounts she’d been working on scheduling for consolidation last week. Her scheduling conflicted with half of Duks’s staff being out of the office for a training class on the new accounting package. Compromise or reschedule? Kerry checked the contracts, stapled inside folders in her active tray. Ah. Time limits on the consolidation. No reschedule.  She dialed a number.

“Accounting.” A low, gruff voice answered.

“Hi, Duks.” Kerry said. “I’m calling to ruffle your feathers.”

There was a moment’s silence. “Ah, Kerry.” Duks replied. “Good to have you back. Sorry to hear about your father.”

In that order, Kerry smiled to herself. “Thanks. I’m glad to be back.”

“Now, what was this about my feathers?”

Kerry pulled the contracts over. “Smathers and Pine, consolidations.”

“No no… everyone’s in class that week.”

“Can we do a partial?”

“With only half the staff here?”

“Contract’s got a time limit.”

“People have a work limit.”

“I’ll offer time and a half.”

There was a short silence. “Hm. Perhaps we could work out something.”

“Let me know, Duks. I’ll need five people at least.” Kerry pushed the folder back into it’s pile, knowing she’d get her way. “I’ll spring for dinner for them, too.”

“Are you cooking, then? I might be tempted if that is the case.” Duks chuckled.

“Flattery will only get you invitations, Duks. How about you and Mariana coming over next weekend for a barbeque?” Kerry offered. “I’ve got a new receipe for marinade I’ve been dying to try out.”

“Dar won’t eat barbeque?” Duk’s voice rose in utter astonishment.

“Oh, no, she will.” Kerry laughed. “But you have to use it on something like half a cow, and I don’t want her eating the whole thing herself.”

“Well, then, count us in.” Duks said. “And I will get you your martyrs to the accounting cause.”

“Later.” Kerry hung up and answered the urgent email, sending it on it’s way with the new amendements. “One down, eighty six to go. Next?”

Mayte entered, carrying a cup of coffee. “Kerry,  that creepy guy from IS is outside. He wants to speak to you.”

Creepy guy from IS. “That could be half the staff.” She mused. “You mean Brent?”  Mayte nodded. Kerry accepted the cup and took a sip of the sweet liquid, reminded abruptly that she hadn’t eaten anything yet due to her blood test.   With her other hand, she rummaged in her desk drawer and pulled out a granola bar, biting the end of the paper with her teeth and ripping the end off. “What does Brent want?”

“He didn’t say, just that he wanted to speak to you, and that he’d wait.” Mayte said. “Do you want me to tell him you’re busy?”

Yes. Kerry sighed inwardly, chewing on her snack. “No, I’ll see him.” She decided. “Might as well get it over with. Give me five minutes to get this down, then send him in.”

Mayte left, leaving Kerry to ingest her granola in peace. She thought about the blood test, and resigned herself to the phone call she knew she was going to get from Dr. Steve about the results. Hypoglycemia. She knew she had it, it was common in her family, and she was familiar enough with the symptoms to know them when she’d started feeling them herself. 

And most of the time, they weren’t bad, she reasoned. If she kept the stress down, and remembered to get her snacks in, she usually didn’t have any problem at all. The past week, though, had knocked things a little out of kilter. The overwhelming stress of the situation with her family had kept her guts in knots, and she’d barely eaten anything other than what Dar had coaxed into her for the past few days. Not a good combination, she acknowledged wryly.

Oh well. She was home now, and she could get back to her regular routine, and that should take care of it in short order. She hadn’t had any symptoms at all for months before now, and she was convinced they’d soon fade as things got back to normal.


She finished her granola bar, and as if to prove her point, felt much better. She pressed her intercom button. “Mayte? I’m free now.”

The door opened a few moments later, and Brent entered, closing it behind him. He crossed the floor and sat down in one of her extra chairs. They regarded each other.

Finally, Kerry spoke. “What can I do for you, Brent?” She asked very quietly.

He shifted, then eyed her furtively. “Got something you should know.” Brent answered. “Now I can finally tell you about it.”

Oh boy. Kerry braced herself. This should be a good one.


Dar remained seated, leaning back in her chair as she fingered the smooth woodgrain pen Kerry had given her in her uninjured hand. The door opened, and first the security guard, a young girl with ash blond hair and a very no nonsense attitude entered, holding the door open and watching as Jeff Ainsbright walked past her.

“Thanks, Julie.” Dar met the guard’s eyes, and allowed her lips to twitch into a wry grin.

“If you need anything, ma’am, you let me know.” Julie replied, giving Ainsbright a dour look.

“I will.” Dar promised gravely, as the door closed and she was left alone with Jeff.  She waited for him to walk closer, studying him in silence before she spoke. “What can I do for you?”  

He sat down without a word and rested his elbows on his knees, gazing at her from beneath thick, grizzled eyebrows. “Know what my problem was?” He asked, almost conversationally. “I figured I could treat you like some gangly young kid who used to be a friend of mine.”

Dar’s face didn’t even twitch. She merely raised an eyebrow.

“But that’s not what you are.”

‘That’s never who I was.” Dar replied. “And don’t kid yourself. You got cut slack because you are who you are, Jeff. I didn’t want to take down an old friend of my fathers. He doesn’t have that many.”

Ainsbright regarded her thoughtfully.

“Did you really think Gerry sent me there because he heard rumors of the crap that was going on?” Dar leaned forward, leaning her own arms on the desk carefully. “He hadn’t a clue. He wanted me to clean up his fitness stats, and get him an appropriations for a billion in new computer hardware for the Navy.”  She shook her head. “Not uncover another damn scandal.”

Jeff sighed, and shook his head. “I should have just sat you down and leveled with you. That was a major class fuck up and it’s right in my lap.” He looked down at his clasped hands, then up at Dar. “So now what, Dar? You know they’re not going to let you release that data.”

Dar smiled, which seemed to scare Jeff. “Of course I know that.” She answered. “But that’s between Gerry and I.”

Ainsbright exhaled. “Figured you would say that.”

Dar shrugged her good shoulder. “What else did you expect? You’re right, Jeff.  You should have leveled with me, instead of throwing your son at a problem way out of his depth and dumping staff in front of me the likes of which I usually have for lunch on a good day here.”

Jeff just looked at her.  “Chuck wasn’t a part of this.” He finally said. “Yeah, I used him cause he was a convenient roadblock, but he didn’t know what the hell was up. He was just after you.”

Dar lifted an eyebrow again.

“No bullshit.” Jeff shook his head. “You can take it or leave it, Dar, but that kid was stuck on you for the longest time, and I don’t mind admitting I used that to my advantage. But don’t blame the kid.”

Dar wondered if Jeff was telling the truth, or merely attempting to protect his son. Did it even really matter? “What’s your point, Jeff? I wasn’t the one who decided to go postal, remember? He made his choice, and now he’s gotta live with it, just like the rest of us do.” She cocked her head. “If I was half the bitch you think I am, I’d have filed charges against his ass for that baseball bat, and watched Metro cart him off to Dade Correctional.”

Jeff’s eyes flicked to the sling Dar’s arm rested in. “He got hurt too.”

Dar had to laugh. “Yeah, but I doubt they’d have booked me with assault with a deadly hiking boot.”  She shook her head.  “I’m sorry he couldn’t accept the truth.” A pause. “I’m sorry you couldn’t accept it, and I’m sorry I had to be the one to find out what a bunch of scum bags you people are.”

Ainsbright stiffened.

“Scum bags.” Dar repeated, holding his eyes. “Petty larceny.. I could deal with that. I see it all the time. Money I could care less about, but drugs suck.” Her voice dropped. “Helping people to poison kids sucks. You suck, Jeff.”

“You always had that bug up your ass.” Ainsbright replied. “I shoulda remembered that.” He stood up. “Goodbye, Dar.”

He turned and walked out, closing the door behind him. Dar watched the empty space with hooded eyes. Then she got up and walked over to the window, staring out over the waves as she let her heartbeat settle, and the memories Jeff stirred up to dissipate again.

“Jackass.” Dar turned and went to her desk, punching a number into her speakerphone. “Julie?”

“Yes, ma’am.” The security guard answered instantly. “Is everything all right?”

“Commander Ainsbright just left my office. Make sure he leaves the building.” Dar stated. “I’m not picky which floor he leaves off of.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Julie replied crisply, and ended the call.  

Dar barely had a chance to take a deep breath before Maria called in on the intercom. “Yes?”

“Dar, I have Mr. Alastair on line uno.”

“Okay.” Dar sat down and hit the button. “Yes, Alastair?”

“Dar!” Her bosses voice vibrated the intercom. “How are you?”

Dar scrubbed her face with her good hand. “I’ve been better, Alastair. How are you?” She rested her chin on her fist. “Thank you for the basket you sent up for the funeral.”

“Pshaw. Least I could do, Dar. I almost made it out there for the service, except the damn airport got shut down here for weather. I heard you didn’t make it yourselves.”

Dar blinked. “It was a nice thought. Thanks. No, we didn’t go to the service itself. We’d had enough by then.”  She said. “Not a good week.”

“Eh.” Alastair verbally waggled his hand back and forth. “Companywise, it wasn’t too darn bad. I announced the new government contract at the board meeting yesterday while you were flying back to Miami. Let’s just say my tenure, and yours, is pretty much a sure thing at this point.”

“Mmph.”  Surprisingly, Dar found herself not really caring. “Glad they got their shorts wet over it.” She remarked. “We’re going to need to realign the budgets for this, you realize.”

Alastair chuckled. “I knew that was coming  Sure, I realized it. Looks good for us, though. After the big contract last quarter, now this one… though, to be sure, Paladar, I’d have given this up not to have had you go through the crap you did to get it.”

“Really?” Dar experienced a warm and fuzzy moment. “Alastair, you’re going to ruin your hard as nails business reputation if you let that kind of stuff get around.”  But she couldn’t deny the fact that she appreciated the sentiment, because it said more about how her boss felt about her as a person than anything else. “Fact is, I’d have given it up myself. Nailing the Navy wasn’t on my agenda this year.”

“Who are you going to put on that project?” Alastair asked curiously. “I’d hate to see you tie yourself down to it, though you’d have the best knowledge set to do it with.”

A quirk of Dar’s lips. “I haven’t decided yet, but I’ll be sending a special analyst down with them. Don’t worry, Alastair. It’ll end up being ship shape when we’re done.” She paused a moment. “Did you need something, or was this just a social call?”

“Social call.” The CEO told her cheerfully. “Glad to have you back in the office, and I wanted to find out how you were feeling… how’s the arm?”

Dar sighed audibly. “Hurts like hell.” She admitted. “I may have to take a few days off if they decide they have to do something to it.”

“Mm.” Alastair murmured. “How’s Kerry doing? That reception looked like hell.” He commented. “Saw you and your daddy, though, so I figured she had quite the cavalry nearby.”

How was Kerry doing? Dar’s brow creased, as she remembered the almost desperate hold Kerry had kept on her the entire night, and how little she knew her lover had slept.  “It was tough.” She admitted. “She’ll be okay, though.”   

“Right, well, give her my regards, willya? I just tried to call through to her office, but she’s in  a meeting.” Alastair said. “Talk to you later, Dar.”

Dar gazed quietly at her desktop for a few moments, absorbing the silence of her office. Then she got up and paced back and forth in front of the window, before she finally gave in and headed for the small door that lead down the hall to Kerry’s office.