Tropical High

By Melissa Good

Part 4

The operations meeting had been underway for ten minutes or so before Kerry entered, giving everyone a brief, distracted nod before she took her seat at the head of the table and ran her eyes over a freshly printed agenda. The staff started warbling at once.

"Kerry, that circuit you were escalating came in."

"We’ve got six mainframes stuck in customs in Mexico, Midwest OPS wants to know if you can help."

"The coffee machine just exploded."

Kerry’s head jerked up at the last statement, and she peered across the table at Enid Petrofax, the MIS coordinator. "What?"

Enid scratched her jaw nervously. "Didn’t you hear the bang? The machine just exploded. We’ve got espresso grinds from the main door to the bathroom."

Everyone was silent, exchanging startled glances. "Ah." Kerry sat back. "Well, have we called the company? How in the hell could that thing explode? I realize it’s steam powered, but good grief!"

"Well." Mark had entered, and was now approaching the table, his entire shirt front covered in dark brown liquid and grounds. "I gotta tell ya, that was the stupidest thing I ever saw." He held up a piece of round metal. "Damn hot chocolate top musta fallen in the espresso handle. It blocked the steam."

"Ew." Kerry winced.

"That wasn’t the stupid part." Mark glared dourly around the table. "We need to find out what technognorp kept pressing the brew button when nothing was coming out."

Kerry covered her eyes. "Oh, good grief." She peeked between her fingers at the muddy looking MIS Chief. "Mark, go change. Enid, call Laurenzo Brothers if you haven’t already, and put a note out to the building to remind them we’re a technology company and should act like it."

"Yes, ma’am." Enid made a note on her pad. "Maria already called Laurenzo Brothers. She’s got a cousin that works there."

"Unbelievable." Kerry shook her head. "Okay, now.. what was that about Mexico? Those aren’t the mainframes for the university project in Illinois, are they?"

John Byers, their Midwest operations manager, nodded glumly. "Yeah. You’re going to ask me next how they ended up in Mexico, right? I wish I knew. All I can get from IBM is that they were on one of our PO’s that had that as a freight address." He paused, and reviewed his notes. "I asked them to fax me a copy of it, but the bottom line is, they want a ton of money to release them out of customs and onto the plane to Chicago."

Kerry leaned back, wishing she didn’t have the headache she did. The weather, she suspected, was the root cause. "Okay." She steepled her fingers and rested her lips against the tips of them, trying to figure out what Dar would do.

Something tricky, she was sure, because handing over thousands of dollars into government fingers wasn’t something Dar would have liked. Hm. She was aware of everyone’s eyes on her, curious and intent, especially Clarice’s at the other end of the table.

What would Dar do?

"Okay. This is what you’re going to do." Kerry took a breath. "What’s the closest account we’ve got down there?"

"Tijuana International." Stacia Brennon supplied, her voice curious. "Why?"

Kerry got up and paced, something she knew her partner loved to do. "Call up the delivery executive for that account. Tell him to take delivery of those mainframes." She paused, and turned, leaning her hands on the back of Mark’s empty chair. "Then write up an inter divisional transfer between the South American SBU and the Educational, and have FedEx International pick them up on our inter-company account."

"Oo." Stacia smiled. "I like it."

John Byers chuckled. "Me too. Stace, you want to call Pedro? I’ll get FedEx on the line." His eyes twinkled as he glanced back at Kerry. "Very slick, chief."

Kerry smiled and walked back around to her seat, dropping into it and stretching her legs out under the table as she cradled her tea mug in both hands. She’d hoped the herbal stuff would settle her stomach, which had been in churning upset most of the morning, but so far it hadn’t, and Kerry hoped she wasn’t coming down with something. "I had a good teacher."

Chuckles traveled around the table. "That’s what we hear." Clarice smiled sweetly at her. "Looks like Dar picked a wonderful successor."

Yeesh. Kerry smiled back at her. "Thank you. I like to think so." She glanced up as Mark reentered the room, and reviewed the rest of the agenda. "Okay, what’s next? Mark, did we get all of the equipment requests in for first quarter?"

"Hey Ker.. you up for lunch?" Mark caught up to her in the hallway, on the way back to their offices. "They’ve got some decent looking fried chicken down there today."

Kerry winced, and laid a hand over her stomach. "Ergh… I don’t I’m up to that. I’ll go down and have a cup of soup with you, though." She punched the elevator button. "My guts have been in knots since before the meeting."

"Flu, maybe?" Mark hazarded. "Been going around, I hear. "

"Maybe." Kerry agreed, as they entered the elevator and let the doors close. A thought occurred to her, and she shifted her portfolio under her left arm and removed her cell phone from it’s clip with her other hand. She hit the auto dialer, and held the phone to her ear as they reached the bottom floor, and exited out of the elevator into the huge lobby.

 It rang an unusual number of rings, before it was answered, and she heard Dar's voice, a slightly hoarse note in it that immediately worried her. "Hi."

"Hey." The note modulated and deepened, sounding relieved even through the cellular connection. "What's up? Problems there?"

"Um." Kerry racked her brains for a reason to be calling. "Well… ah.. I just need to know.." She stopped and took a breath. "Would you believe I just wanted to hear your voice?" She lowered her own, and gave the two passing admins a smile. "Mark, can you grab a table?"

"Sure." The MIS Chief waved at her. "Say hi to the boss for me." He disappeared into the cafeteria, leaving Kerry in relative isolation.

"Sorry. "Kerry returned her attention to the phone, and moved towards the plate glass wall. "Anyway, it was silly. How are you?"

A sigh came down the line. "Tough morning." Dar said. "I think I went over the line for a few minutes."

Uh oh. Kerry found a bench, and sat on it, ignoring the passing crowds on the way to lunch. "What happened? The petty person get to you? I knew I should have come down there and booted her in the behind." Her guts started to ease up a little, and she took a deeper breath. "No wonder my insides are in knots."

There was a little silence. "Are they?" Dar asked. "Really?"

"Yeah." Kerry said. "Have been for a while. Between that and the headache I've got, I thought I was coming down with something. Are you all right?"

"Pretty much. I found a bottle of ice tea and a balcony. I've been standing out here just watching it rain for about ten minutes." Dar answered. "I think I've got your headache's twin sister.. damn, I haven't lost it like that in years, Ker."

"Did you yell at her?" Kerry returned the waved greeting from Duks.

"No." A sigh sounded. "She backed me into corner and started bawling me out. One poke too many, I guess. I took her down and nearly ripped her head off."

Kerry stared at the phone in shocked silence. Apparently Dar realized it, because her next words were rushed, and almost stammered.

"It just happened so fast.. I don't know what she thought she was trying to do, but I.."

"Wait a minute." Kerry interrupted. "Just hold it there."

Dar fell silent.

"She poked you?" The blond woman's voice rose. "She laid a finger on you? Who in the hell does she think she is? That's bullshit, Dar!"


"Jesus! You should call that general buddy of yours and get her butt transferred to the bottom of Hoover Dam!" Kerry went on. "Son of a bitch!"

"Ker, take it easy." Dar's voice had calmed. "I took care of it. I pretty much think she won't try that again."

"Damn straight she won't." Kerry snorted. "Boy, wait till I see her again."

Dar laughed softly. "Oh, sweetheart, you just made my day." She said. "Thank you."

"I haven't done anything yet." Kerry muttered in protest. "Dipwad."

"Why don't you get some warm milk, and go lay down on the couch in my office for a little while." Dar was still chuckling. "I'm figuring on taking off from here in couple hours; there isn't much I can do without the T1, and frankly, I think I'm going to find more when I get everything sucked down and into the analyzers."

Kerry imagined the plush comfort of the couch upstairs, and smiled. "Actually, I feel better now." She admitted. "But be careful, okay? I keep having nightmares of you being buried under the billowing clouds of testosterone out there."

"I will. Talk to you later, cute stuff."

"All right." Kerry replied. "Love you."

"Love you too."

Kerry folded the phone and juggled it in her hands as she leaned back, definitely feeling the knots unraveling in her stomach. Her headache was still there, but the tension she'd felt all morning was dissipating. She stood up and stowed her phone, then tugged her sleeves a bit straighter and made her way into the cafeteria.


Dar braced her boots against the lower railing on the small porch she'd rediscovered near the back end of the training area. There was a small, hard bench built against the wall, and just enough cover to avoid being soaked by the still heavy rain outside.

Ah, Kerrison. Dar sighed silently. What in the hell would I do without you? She'd been thumping herself over her reaction to Chief Daniel, but now she sat back and considered it more objectively. The woman had locked them into a closed place, and come at her in a threatening manner, aggressively shoving her back against a bulkhead.

What was the chief expecting to happen? Had she really expected Dar to break down and blubber, or something? Dar folded her arms across her chest. Maybe that's what Daniel had been looking for, to see how far she could push Dar before Dar pushed back.


Maybe she'd been hoping Dar would take a swing at her, and give her grounds to force the base commander to take action.

Hm. In that case, her response had been appropriate, with just enough force to prove her point, and not enough aggression to get her in trouble. Hey. Dar rubbed her jaw, and had to laugh. Only took thirty years for you to figure out how to balance that act, way to go, Dardar!

With a sigh, she stood up and grabbed her bottle of peach ice tea, draining it before she made her way back through the small door and into the corner cul de sac that opened up onto it. Once upon a time it had been a larger suite, and the porch a perk of some big shot's corner office, but time, and changing needs had forced the navy to throw up wood and plasterboard walls to divide up the space.

Dar put a hand on one of the worn, wooden doorways, and gazed down the hall, debating one what to do next. Her decision was made, however, when Chief Daniel swung out of operations center, and spotted her, turning on her heel and heading towards Dar with a determined look.

Dar chose to remain where she was, and she leaned against the door frame, folding her arms and watching the other woman approach. "Interested in round two?" She asked, as Daniel came within close earshot. A ghostly Kerry poked at her and she squirmed. "Or would you rather just go have lunch?"

Chief Daniel opened her mouth to answer, held it open for a moment, then closed it, and released her breath with a sigh.

"C'mon. I'll buy." Dar straightened up. "We're both grown ups. Let's act like it."

Clearly, the chief had been caught by surprise. She hesitated for a long beat, then lifted both hands a little and let them fall. "What the hell. All right, Ms. Roberts. You're giving me a pain the size of an aircraft carrier, so I might as well get a meal out of it. Lead on."


They found a table in the back of the mess and sat down with trays of open faced turkey sandwiches. Dar opened her carton of milk and drank directly from it, watching her reluctant lunch partner mess with a pile of lettuce and tomatoes.

"So." Chief Daniel neatly sliced her salad into manageable chunks. "You're Big Andy's kid."

Dar cocked her head to one side. "Yes, I am."

The shorter woman looked up, meeting her eyes. "You could have said that right off."

"Why?" Dar shot back. "Shouldn't make a damn bit of a difference."

Daniel snorted, and shook her head. "Can the bullshit, lady. It matters, and you know it does. Did you think you'd have an advantage by acting like a clueless outsider?" She picked up her glass of ice tea and took a sip. "Here I think I've got some dumb civ making my life miserable, and it turns out I've been hauling around some damn smartass navy brat."

"Oh. You mean I could have skipped the howitzer up the ass attitude if I'd told you up front I grew up here?" Dar inquired. "Maybe you should have done your homework, Chief. I have a file on you an inch thick."

The chief stopped eating, and put her silverware down, staring at Dar with a look completely devoid now of humor. "What in the hell do you mean by that?"

Dar merely watched her, sucking on her milk idly. She waited for the veins to start emerging on the ginger haired woman's temples, then she finally replied. "Relax. There's nothing outstandingly scary in it." She actually didn't have that much, but the reaction she got from the comment made her itch to have Mark search further.

Daniel sat there, breathing hard for a moment. "You're a real son of a bitch, aren't you?"

A charming smile appeared on Dar's face. "I can be." She paused. "If I'm forced into it." One finger pointed at the sailor. "So be smart, and don't." She set the milk down and picked up her fork, spearing a bit of mashed potatoes and tasting them.

"Sure you weren't adopted?" The chief shot back.

The corner of Dar's lips quirked. "I've looked in a mirror enough times to know I wasn't." She took a bite of turkey. "But feel free to ask my dad if you want."

Hazel eyes narrowed, and the chief bit down on her fork with a vicious scrape of teeth on metal. Then her face relaxed, and she snorted softly. "No thanks. I don't want my fingers pulled off if he hears I laid one of them on his precious offspring." Her eyes searched the angular, intense features across the table, strange and familiar at the same time. She felt like kicking herself for not realizing who this bitch was before, then she felt like kicking the damn commander for not telling her. Bastard. She bet he and Perkins were laughing their asses off at her.

And what was in that file? The chief was uncomfortably aware of the sharp intelligence behind those blue tinted ice chips that was watching her. Evaluating her. Daniel swallowed, and reviewed her options. She knew Andrew Roberts, and had a healthy respect for him, but she now realized his often spoken of only child was a danger of a much higher degree.

What the hell was she going to do?

The loudspeaker's crackle almost made her jump, and she looked up at the speaker just as Dar did, the younger woman's head tilting to one side as she listened.

"Attention, attention all personnel. We have just received notification that flooding has closed both Card Sound Road, and US 1. Be advised that all deliveries to and from the mainland have been canceled until further notice. If you were scheduled to be transported north today, please see your unit commander immediately."

Groans rose around them. Daniel snorted, and recovered a bit of her balance at the perceptible annoyance in Dar's expression. "Guess you're stuck here. Just our luck." Possibilities, though, started occurring to her.

Dar sighed, ignoring her sarcasm. "I knew I should have stayed in bed this morning." She removed her cell phone from it's clip, and dialed a number, holding the phone to her ear, and turning away slightly.

Yeah. Chief Daniel mused. Maybe you should have.


"Ugh." Kerry dropped into her chair and leaned back, releasing a huge sigh and closing her eyes briefly. Very briefly, since her intercom buzzed a second later. "Yes?"

"Ms. Kerry, my mother says to tell you that they have closed the roads that are going to the Keys." Mayte's voice held a hint of anxiety. 'She is worried about Ms. Roberts."

Oh, crap. Kerry cursed to herself. "She said she was trying to get out of there early, Mayte - I'll call her. I hope she'ss almost back here by now." She reached for her phone, and almost dropped it as it rang at the same moment. "Gah… whoops. Hello?"

"Hi." Dar's voice sounded resigned. "Guess where I'm stuck."

Kerry winced in pure reflex. "I just heard about the roads. That totally sucks large rocks, Dar."

"I know." Dar said. "I took care of getting you a ride home, though."

Jesus. I forgot I needed one. Kerry mentally slapped herself. "Honey, you didn't have to do that. I'm sure I could beg a ride from someone here." It was, however, a typically Dar thing for her to do, given her partner's meticulous attention to details. "But thank you."

"Well." Dar chuckled softly. "Don't thank me just yet. It's my dad who's coming to get you."

Eeerup. Kerry winced. "Ah. Did you think my life was lacking some excitement today or something?" She replied. "Maybe he'll let me drive. You think?"

"You can ask. He generally caves in to whatever you want." Dar answered. "Just like I do." She added, with a verbal twinkle in her tone. "Hey, I think I’m making some progress with the chief. I tried to do what you'd have done."

Still distracted by the prospect of being picked up by Andy, Kerry almost didn't respond. "Uh… oh, did you? What did you do?"

"Took her to lunch."

Kerry smiled. "Good girl."

"Then I told her if she didn't behave, I'd have to really get nasty."

"Oh." Kerry covered her eyes, and laughed silently. "Gotta work on that part, huh?"

"Eh." Dar sighed. "Maybe it won't be so bad down here. A couple of the guys I grew up with just tracked me down.. they wanna take me out to the local bar and trade no shit stories for a while. They found me a bed just in case the roads don't open back up."

"You have your kit, right? I know I repacked it after the trip to the Keys." Kerry drummed her fingers on her desk. "Don't take a chance, okay? If the weather's bad, just stick around down there. I'd kinda be worried if I knew you were driving up Card Sound at night." She paused. "I'll miss you, though. I was looking forward to a hug tonight."

A few beats of silence followed, then Dar cleared her throat. "I'll make it up to you tomorrow, I promise. Okay?"

"Okay." Kerry agreed. "Call me later and let me know what's up. I think I'm done with all my meetings today, now I just have a mailbox to wade through." She glanced at her monitor. "Dar, how did you deal with all this crap everyone sends?"

"Simple. Take everything that isn't immediate operations and reply with "could you please clarify why you're asking me this?'" Dar told her. "I guarantee ninety percent of them won't come back."



Kerry grinned, and examined the ceiling over her head. "Thanks, boss. I'll do that."

"Any time." Dar said. "Talk to you later."

Kerry closed the phone and put it down, indulging in a few moments of daydreaming as she folded her hands over her stomach and swiveled her chair a little. "What a character." She finally murmured, with a helpless chuckle. Her intercom buzzed again, and she regarded it balefully for a moment, before she answered. "Yes?"

"Ms. Kerry?"

"I just talked to Dar, Mayte. I'll call your mom. She's okay, she's just stuck down at the base for now." Kerry responded.

"Si, gracias, but there is a phone call for you, from the car place?"

Car place? Kerry's brow furrowed, then cleared. "Oh. Right. I'll take it. Thanks, Mayte." She released the intercom and hit the phone line. "Kerry Stuart speaking."

"Ms. Stuart? This is Ellen Margoles from Beach Lexus. You sent in a vehicle request from the Internet this morning?"

"That's right. " Kerry agreed.

"Great." The woman's voice was cheerful and friendly. "We had what you wanted right in stock. I've got your paperwork done.. when would you like to pick the car up?"

"Really? Just like that?" Kerry was surprised. "Leather and everything?"

"Absolutely!" Ellen stated. "They're detailing the car now, in fact. Shining it up, and making sure everything's in perfect condition for you."

Kerry turned in her chair and reviewed the rain lashing at her window. "They're washing the car? Have you looked outside?"

"Has to be nice and clean before we turn it over." Ellen's enthusiasm didn't miss a beat. "Would you like to stop by after work? We're open until seven."

"All right." Kerry grinned, finding herself anticipating the new acquisition. "See you before then."

"Excellent! Looking forward to it, Ms. Stuart. Have a great day!" Ellen warbled happily.

"Sure. You too." Kerry bemusedly hung up. She regarded her quiet office for a moment, then idly spun herself around in her chair a few times. "Vroom vroom."


A quiet had settled over the building by the time Kerry finished up her inbox, having sent Mayte home earlier with Maria. She clicked on the last message to send it, then sat back and cupped her hands around her tea mug, sucking down the strawberry scented liquid as she watched her mail program transfer all her finished mail to storage folders.

A relaxed strain of music was coming from her pc speakers, tuned into an Internet radio station that mostly played new age celtic music. She flexed her bare feet under her desk, and sighed, glad the long day was over.

A soft knock sounded. "C'mon in." Kerry looked up, a smile already crossing her face as the door opened and Andy Robert's familiar head poked inside. "Hey dad." She got up and trotted across the carpeted floor as Andy entered. Her father in law was wearing a dark blue rain jacket, with it's hood up, and he pushed the hood back and unzipped the jacket as she threw her arms around him in an unhesitating hug. "Ooo.. it's good to see you."

A smile crossed the ex Navy SEAL's scarred face, unseen by Kerry as Andrew returned the embrace. "Well there, kumquat. It's good t'see you too."

Topping Dar's slightly over six foot height by almost five inches, Andy seriously towered over Kerry by almost a foot, and his large, broad shouldered and still muscular body had the same solid feel. She loosened her grasp and gazed up at him, catching the grin before he could muffle it. Eyes the same shade as her lover's twinkled back at her, set in a face that despite it's very masculine ruggedness, still brought Dar to mind in it's planed cheekbones and angular shape. "Thanks for coming to rescue me."

Andy snorted softly. "Since Dar saw fit to go and abandon you, I figured it'd be a good idea."

"She didn't abandon me." Kerry gave him a friendly poke. "She's stuck down on that base. I don't envy her, but on the bright side, it gives me a chance to spend some time with one of my favorite people."

"You are just a sweet talking young lady." Dar's father drawled. "C'mon. Fore we have to paddle on out of this here office."

Kerry let him go, and went back to her desk to retrieve her shoes. "I have to make a stop before home, if that's okay." She shut down her pc, as Andrew wandered around her office peering at the décor curiously. "My new car's ready."

"That so?" Andy asked curiously. "Dar told me you got yourself into a pickle last night and banged up that little bitty thing of yours."

"Some crazy person driving down the wrong side of the road on the causeway, thanks." Kerry zipped up her briefcase and shouldered it. "Did Dar tell you she got herself and that brute of an SUV of hers between the nutcase and me?" She fastened her jacket, and turned her desk lamp off.

"No, she did not." Andrew tried hard to hide a dazzlingly proud smile, and completely failed.

"Figures." Kerry took him by the arm and led him out of the office. "C'mon.. we'll get my new buggy, then I'll treat you to dinner… how's that?"

Andy allowed himself to be escorted to the elevator, shrugging his hood up into place as Kerry hit the button to call it. "I do believe I can do any of that there treating that's required, young lady." He replied, following her into the elevator.

"We’ll see about that." Kerry teased, as the doors closed.

Interested eyes watched the empty space for a few seconds, then footsteps retreated back down the hallway, disappearing behind the solid sound of a wooden door closing.


The bar was old, and mostly wood, and featured an honest to goodness jukebox that was currently droning out something from the country western side of the record catalog. Dar tipped back in her chair and took a sip of her beer, gazing across the table's surface at the five men gathered around it.

Damn, it's been a long time. Dar let her eyes linger on her old friends. They were all the same age, more or less, as she was, and some things hadn't changed much. Mike and Ricardo still looked like GI Joe dolls, complete with buzz cuts and bodybuilder physiques. Duds and John were still inseparable, two lanky, spare men with straight, blond brown hair and southern drawls.

And Chuckie, of course. Dar let a faint smile cross her face. Chuckie had actually gotten better looking over the years. He'd left the gawkiness of his late teens behind, and grown into a six foot plus body with nice, broad shoulders and an athletic waistline. Tucked into his naval captain's uniform, he cut a very impressive figure and Dar had no problem cheerfully acknowledging that to herself.

"So, now what is it you're doing, Dar?" Chuckie turned, and leaned on his chair arm, gazing into her eyes with his twinkling gray ones. "I hear you're turning the base up side it's head down."

"Making trouble. Like usual." Dar replied, with a chuckle. "The Pentagon hired me to go tell the Navy how to do it's job better."

"Ooooo.." The five men chorused a groan. "No shit?" Chuckie laughed. "They didn't, did they?"

"They did." Dar lifted her beer, and took a sip. "Mother of ironies, huh?"

"Son of a bitch." Mike rocked back and forth on uneven chair legs. "The brass on base must be ready to have a heart attack." He poked a finger at Dar. "I still remember the day you redone the base telecom and sent all them private notes of the CO's to the staff fax machine."

Heh. Dar snickered. "I remember that too. Guy was an idiot to be using base mail to send love notes to that girl he picked up in Chicago."

"Yeap.. you were a hell raiser, for sure." Mike chuckled. "Bet you still are."

"That’s what they say." Dar demurred. "Only now they pay me for it." She added.

Chuckie cocked his head curiously. "You still working for ILS, right?" He waited for Dar to nod. "So what kind of money do they pay for what you do?" He noticed Dar’s lifted eyebrow. "Round numbers, I mean. We always figgured you do all right, because you got more brains than half the earth, but for real, Dar.. did you end up kicking ass?"

Dar glanced around the weather-beaten bar, and caught the interested looks from her old pals. They’d all done well in the Navy, and all of them, even Mike had grudgingly admitted to being career sailors. "Well." She took a swig of beer and rolled the beverage around in her mouth before swallowing. "I’m the chief information office of the largest IS company in the world…my base is seven figures, if that’s what you’re asking."

They all looked at each other, then back at her. There was a moment of stunned silence.

"Well." Chuckie rubbed his jaw. "God damn."

Dar smiled. "So I guess I’m buying then, huh?" She remarked dryly. "See? You shoulda dragged me out to someplace nicer."

"Son of a bitch." Mike started laughing. "Son of a bitch.. you’re actually one of them corporate big shots?"

"Fraid so." Dar agreed solemnly. "Got me a big office, floor to ceiling glass windows, teak wood desk, the whole nine yards." She told them. "Everyone running around scared to death of me, you name it."

"Wow." Chuckie shook his head. "I can believe the last part, cause you can be a scary individual when you wanna be, old buddy, but thinking of you in an ivory tower’s givin me a headache." He slapped Dar’s knee lightly, then poked the spot. "You don’t spend all your time behind that desk though, d’you? You don’t look much like a cream puff."

"No more than you do." Dar let a mildly evil grin touch her lips, as she curled a foot around the leg of his chair and jerked hard, nearly sending him sprawling backwards. "Spending your time sitting in that nice comfy chair on the bridge."

"Uh oh.. here we go." Mike burst into laughter. "I knew it was just a matter of time…the two of you ain’t changed for shit."

"You.." Chuckie grabbed for the edge of the table to keep from tipping over, and the surface moved, sending the two mugs of beer on it flying. "Yow.. sonofa.."

"Hey!" Mike yelped, and leaped to his feet, only barely avoiding being soaked. "Cut that out, bilgebrain." He pointed a finger at Chuckie. "Don’t you start, either. You never have gotten over getting your ass kicked in that obstacle course the night we all graduated."

Chuckie snorted. "Get out of here, I don’t even remember that."

"I do." Dar drawled, with an even more evil grin. "But since I was the one doing the kicking, I guess that’s natural." Oh, she certainly did remember that night. They’d had a beer or two way too many, and she’d been just at the very top edge of her best physical conditioning, seriously intent on getting herself into BUDS training and only too happy to prove that to any other navy brat who questioned her. Twenty of them had straggled out of their graduation party, and bets had started flying.

"That was then." Chuckie reminded her pointedly.

The words came out before she had a chance to think about them. "C"mon, Chuckie.. I could still kick your ass on that course."

Now he grinned. "Oh yeah? How much you wanna bet?"

Mike groaned. "Oh no… not again. For pete’s sake you two! You’re furking adults now!"

"Hundred bucks!" Chuckie leaned forward eagerly. "C’mon."

She was out of her mind. Dar dimly realized, as she watched herself rise to the challenge, almost as though seeing someone else do it. "How about a thousand?" She drawled softly. "C’mon, tough guy. See if you can lift anything but binoculars now." A tiny voice cleared it’s throat internally. Hope you know what you’re doing, big shot, or you’re gonna be picking splinters out of your ass for a week. "How about it, Chuckie?"

His eyes glinted, and his well shaped nostrils flared. "You got it. Let’s go. I got a lot of things I could do with a thousand bucks."

Dar set her bottle down, and stood. "After you?" She held a hand up and pointed to the door. She gave the rest of the group, who were muttering and shaking their heads a smile. "C’mon, guys… after this I’ll treat for dinner.. how bout it?"

"You ain’t gonna be in any condition to treat anyone." Chuckie warned, with a big grin.

"Save your breath." Dar booted him in the butt before he could move, then booted him again when he tried to evade her. "You’re gonna need it."

"Hey!" Chuckie slapped at her leg with his uniform hat. "Cut that out, or I’ll.. I’ll.."

"What, tell my daddy?" Dar was enjoying herself thoroughly. "Last time you did that I got a banana split out of it.""

"Wench." Chuckie started laughing. "God damn you, you’re such a wild weasel.. ow!" He slapped at Dar’s boot again, which had just impacted his butt. "I am gonna push your ass so far down in that mud you’ll have to call a deep sea diver to go find you."

"Careful, hairball.." Duds rumbled softly. "If’n that deep sea diver’s her daddy, you’re ass is gonna flying over the mess hall by morning."

They all laughed, and jostled out the door into a still drizzling evening. "How is yer old man doin, Dar?" Mike asked, lowering his voice a little, and getting serious. "Man, I was glad they got him back."

Dar exhaled. "He’s fine." She replied. "He and mom got this fifty some foot Bertram and they’re having a blast on it. They’ve been out to Bermuda twice, and I can’t remember ever seeing him so happy."

"Wow." Mike smiled. "That’s way cool."

"He got a boat?" Duds asked curiously. "Man, that musta been some pension… or did you get that for him?"

Dar smiled, and ran a hand through her now damp hair. "What do you think?"

Duds laughed. "Daddy’s girl all the way, that’s for damn sure… c’mon, let’s get this damn thing over with..I’m hungry!"

"You’re always hungry, mouth on wheels." Chuckie chided him, giving him a backslap in the belly. "That’s why you’re outgrowing your uniform.. lookit that.."

"Cut that out!" Duds nudged him. "Leave my buttons alone, y’pervert."


Dar sucked in a wet breath, overcome with a wash of giddy enjoyment, looking ahead to the dark, mud spattered challenge in front of her. So it was crazy.

That was all right.

Everyone had to have a crazy night now and then, right?

Kerry leaned back in the seat of the stolid, gray pickup truck Andy was navigating through the flooded streets. She had her seatbelt securely fastened around her body, and her feet were braced solidly against the floor, steadying her as the truck moved.

Andy wasn’t really a bad driver, she’d decided, just an impatient one, and little things such as sidewalks and divider islands proved little or no impediment to his progress in getting from point a to point b in the quickest possible manner. "Nice truck, dad." She patted the fabric seat. "I like it. Dar was telling me about the one she had when she was younger."

Forced by convention to stop at a red light, Andy sat back and folded his arms. "Ceci tried for some days to get me to agree to drive in one of them Beetle cars."

Kerry raised an eyebrow.

"Well, young lady, that is exactly how I felt about it too." The ex SEAL drawled. "Them are the ugliest things I ever did see, and there was no how, no way I was going to be sitting inside one of them, much less drive it."

"I couldn’t picture that." Kerry shook her head. "It would be like you having a moped, or Dar drinking skim milk."

"She hates that." Andy agreed. "Even when she was a tot, Cec used to try and get her to drink it, and she’d toss her bottle cross the kitchen."

"I know." Kerry closed her eyes, as the light changed and Andy used the opportunity to cross three lanes between four other cars. "I suggested it once." She paused. "Only because I worry about her cholesterol, and mine.. . but I got a lecture about cows, and water, and the fact that if she wanted to drink white, chlorinated liquid, she’d just add food coloring to the tap."

Andy snorted. "She’s particular bout a few things, that’s one of em." He admitted. "Got that one from me, I do believe."

"Gee, what a surprise." Kerry peeked at him, and grinned tolerantly. "Anyway, I got her to stop having chocolate chip cookies for breakfast, so I figure I’m ahead of the game."

Andrew peered through the rain drops, and spotted his target. He aimed the truck towards the entrance, and proceeded accordingly. "She’s a healthy kid." He stated. "Always was…worst thing she ever did get was them chicken pox. Lord, that was a mess."

"I heard you got them too." Kerry smiled at him, pretending she didn’t see the trucks bearing down on them as Andy crossed the intersection. The pickup darted into the parking lot of the Lexus dealership just in time, though she imagined she could feel the draft of the eighteen wheeler crossing behind them. They pulled into an empty spot, and she released her safety belt with a sense of relief.

Andy leaned on his steering wheel and peered out the window, observing the rows of shiny, if rain spattered, new cars. "You getting one of these damn things too?" His voice was surprised.

"Sort of." Kerry pointed. "See? That’s the one Dar has."

"Uh huh." Andy nodded.

"That’s the one I’m getting." She indicated a row to the left.

"Sonofabiscuit.. ain’t that cute." Her father in law chuckled softly. "All bitty and spunky looking. Figures."

Kerry gave his arm a poke. "Hey.. at least it’s not a Beetle." She opened the door. "C’mon… this won’t take long, and I’m hungry." She got out and grabbed for the doorframe as a wave of dizziness passed over her. "Whoa."

Andy circled the front of the truck and put a hand on her shoulder. "You all right?"

Kerry leaned against the metal frame and took a deep breath, waiting for the world to stop spinning. "Yeah… like a doof I skipped lunch, and I know better." Her vision cleared and she shook her head. "Low blood sugar runs in my family… I usually keep granola bars around but I ran out, and I meant to stop this morning."

"That ain’t a good thing." Andrew stuck his head inside the truck, and rummaged in a bag behind the seat. "Here…" He handed Kerry a banana. "Forgot I had those damn things."

Kerry peeled the fruit and took a bite, a little disturbed by the shaking of her hands. "Maybe I was just overstressed today." She joked faintly, aware of Andy’s concerned expression. "I had some really confrontational meetings, and I was a little worried about Dar driving down there in this weather." She swallowed a few mouthfuls, and was relieved when the shakiness faded.

"I do believe we might need to be worrying about you." Andy stated. "You’re white as Caesar’s ghost, Kerry. Sit down here."

"No, it’s okay." Kerry reassured him. "I feel a lot better, honestly." She finished her banana, and neatly folded the skin, then leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks, dad."

Andrew blushed, faintly visible in the lamplight bathing them. "That was a lotta fuss for a little old banana." He muttered. "You sure you don't want something else? Maybe an orange, or whatever the hell else Ceci stuck in the back of this here truck?"

Kerry smiled. "Does Dar know how lucky she is?"


"I don't think she does." Kerry pushed away from the truck and straightened her sleeves, then tossed the banana peel into a nearby garbage can. "Let's go get my new wheels." She slid her hand around Andy's arm, and walked with him towards the showroom, where she could see dim forms of hopeful salesmen lurking in wait.

The door opened as they reached it, and she stepped inside the cool, well lit showroom to be greeted by a very nice looking young man in a neatly fitted suit and tie. "Hi." Kerry smiled at him. "I've got an appointment.. I'm supposed to pick up a car?"

Staccatto heels made their heads turn, to see a woman with dark, frosted hair walking towards them, a warm smile on her face. "Ms. Stuart?"

"That's right." Kerry replied.

"Excellent.. if you'd step over here to my desk and sign these papers, I'll have your car brought round. "She glanced at Andrew. "Can I get your husband some coffee?"

Kerry thought her father in law's grizzled eyebrows were going to pop right off his head and stick in the drop ceiling. "Sure." She cheerfully agreed. "C'mon, honey.. sit down here."

"Excuse me." Andrew barked. "This here young lady is not mah wife." He pinned the saleswoman with a fierce glare. "What do ah look like to you.. some kinda candy assed cradle robber?"

The woman's jaw dropped, and she looked from Kerry to Andrew in bewilderment. "I'm very sorry sir." She stammered. "I know I shouldn't assume… I just thought..well, excuse me. I'm very sorry." She put the papers down. "Ma'am, if you could just sign these?"

"Sure." Kerry sat down and slid the stack over, picking up a pen. The saleswoman scurried quickly away.

Andrew snorted, and sat down next to her. "Mah god."

Kerry giggled. "You're really funny."

"That was most certainly not funny, young lady."

She turned her head. "How old are you?" Kerry watched the blue eyes blink a few times. "Well?"

Andrew sat up straighter. "Ah am forty eight years old." He paused. "Why?"

Kerry leaned closer to him. "Cause I'm almost thirty… " She whispered. "It’s not that farfetched, Dad." She went back to signing her papers, getting through half of them before she heard Andy sigh.

"You're right, kumquat." He said. "Mah kid has not one clue as to how lucky she is."

Kerry felt her face ease into a smile as she finished, putting the pen down and glancing up as the saleswoman came back. "All done."

"Here you go." The woman handed her a set of keys, and pointed, to where the shadowy form of her new card was just pulling up outside the door. "And again, I’m really sorry, sir."

Andy sighed, and stood. "That's all right."

They walked to the door, and pushed it open. "You going to kick the tires for me, dad?" Kerry teased. "Dar wanted me to get a.. what are those called? A Hummer."

Andrew snorted. "Fer what?" He circled the new car curiously. "Damn things steer like a Greyhound bus, and you can't park them for nothin." He opened a door and peeked inside. "Leather, would you look at that? Mah kid is definitely rubbing off on you."

Kerry opened the driver side door and sniffed appreciatively. "Oh yes." She chortled. "C'mon.. let's take it for a test ride.. there's a good restaurant right down the block."

Andy slid into the passenger seat, which he adjusted to make room for his long legs. "Ain't one of them raw fish stores, is it?"


A dark brow cocked. "Tell you what. I'll go eat them raw fishies, if you let me drive on the way back."

"Oh boy."



Dar heard the gasping croak behind her as she reached the last wooden wall, and lunged forward, crouching down and releasing her body upward to stretch out and grab the top rail, pulling upward before she could crash against the hard surface. Her boots scraped, then caught a purchase, and she powered up and over the top, releasing her hold and letting herself fall downward towards a murky mud covered surface.

Behind her, she could hear Chuckie grunt as he hit the top of the wall, but then her boots were hitting the ground, and she almost sprawled forward, barely catching her balance before she hopped forward and starting running towards the ropes.

Climbing ropes, one of the toughest things for anyone, especially a woman to do. Dar wiped her palms on her thighs just before she reached them, and took a breath, ruefully acknowledging that she certainly wasn't a teenager anymore before she leaped and caught the rope, feeling the wet, scratchy hemp bite into her hands. Her legs responded in old memory, curling around the rope beneath her and tightening, supporting her weight as she reached up for a second handhold.

Well. Dar felt the spatters of rain hit her, and heard the clank of the rope next to her as Chuckie tried to catch up. It wasn't as hard as she had feared. She powered up the rope and released one hand to slap the bell on top, then slid neatly down, wincing a little as the rough hemp stung her hands. She hit the ground and ducked around the edge of the climbing pit, bolting across the uneven ground and leaping over the water that separated the obstacles from the last, long hundred yards every tired, sore recruit had to run at top speed over. Dar heard Chuckie finally hit the bell and slither down after her, but she knew she was home free now.

Running was something she was very used to, something her body, stressed by this unusual tasking long forgotten was accustomed to doing on a daily basis. She tucked her fingers into a half fist and leaned forward into a powerful, even stride, and just ran.

"Shit." She heard Chuckie groan behind her, and it made her laugh, and the hoots of the other men suddenly rolled around her as they spotted her clearing the end of the pits and heading towards the finish. She tucked her head down and bolted, feeling a crazy surge of energy as the wind brushed her hair back, and the rain stung her face.

The trees that marked the end flashed by, and she slowed, bouncing to a halt and into the welcoming arms of the four waiting sailors, who caught her and slapped her back, laughing and razzing Chuckie who finally made it past with a curse.

Dar could feel her heart pounding from the exertion, and it certainly hadn't been nearly as good performance as the last time she'd done it, but… she chuckled as she watched Chuckie lean over, holding his belly, his face a visible crimson even in the low light. "Gotta lay off the damn beer, Chuck." She put her hands on her hips, glad beyond measure she'd kept up the sessions in the gym, and the running, and the martial arts, if for no other reason than to be able to stand here in this mud covered patch of ground with a bunch of her old friends, and look better than they did.

Erf. Dar winced. That was damned egotistical, wasn't it?

"Hot damn, Dar." Mike clapped a long arm over her shoulders. "You are still one hot mother, y'know that? How about marrying me?"

Dar laughed. "I thought you had a girlfriend?" She poked him. "Or at least that's what you were bragging about in that bar…"

"Well, I didn't hear you say you was married." He joked back. "So I figured I got a chance."

It was a strange feeling. Dar took a breath, and released it. She'd been straightforward and out regarding her sexuality for so long, she'd forgotten what it felt like to be around people who had no idea, and to whom it would matter.

To who it would matter to her if they knew. Dar felt her euphoric mood evaporate and she took a mental step back, and tried to figure out what to do. Her nature disliked unneeded lies, but a part of her was enjoying this unexpected reacceptance into an old world, and resisted the estrangement she knew acknowledging her lifestyle would cause.

"Asshole. You ain't got no chance." Duds snorted. "Dar's got way better taste than you."

Dar managed a smile, then she walked over to where Chuckie was still recovering. "Hey." She bumped him lightly. "You all right?"

Her old boyfriend straightened, then blew out a breath. "Other than having my god damned ego dragged over a bed of nails, and my bank account emptied? I’m great." His lips twisted. "Will you take a check?"

"Don’t worry about it." Dar shook her head slightly. "It was worth the kick just to see if I could still do it."

"Wench." Chuckie's face relaxed a little, as he realized Dar was serious. "Just for that, you're gonna take us out to the steakhouse." He pointed towards the parking lot. "Now that I proved ship captains do spend too much time sitting on their butts, let's go."

The four others strolled ahead, leaving Chuckie and Dar to walk together towards the parked cars. "Wench." The Naval officer gave her a look. "I'm gonna have to explain to half the base why I got bandaids all over my hands from that damn course tomorrow." He held up his hands, visibly scuffed and scraped in the streetlamplight.

"Me too." Dar admitted, holding up her own hands in evidence. "I don't get much in the way of calluses pounding a keyboard."

"Ah." Chuckie sighed. "We're getting too old for this."

Dar chuckled. "Yeah." She flexed her hands, wincing a little.

They were both quiet for a few strides. "Ass kicking or not, it's good to see you, Dar." Chuckie finally said softly. "Got some good memories of us."

"So do I." Dar replied. "Your letters used to crack me up in college." She reflected on those long past times. "I'm sorry we lost touch."

Chuckie shrugged one shoulder. "We knew we would.. that was two real different worlds we were going off into. " He glanced at Dar. "I knew I didn't end up doing too bad.. always wondered where you ended up. Might have figured you to be some top brass somewhere."

"I used to wonder if I'd made the right choice." Dar inhaled, and looked around. "Now I know I did, but.. " She shook her head. "Definitely had second thoughts." She raised her voice. "Hey.. head over to the third row.. I'll drive."

"Don't trust Mike?" Chuckie laughed. "He's not half as bad a driver as your daddy ever was."

"No. I figure I'm the only one who's likely to have room for all of us." She said dryly. "Unless you ended up getting a Suburban.. did you?"

"Hell no." Chuckie snorted.

'That's what I thought." Dar angled her steps towards the Lexus. "C'mon… I figure it's going to take my shock absorbers to handle you herd of steers anyway."

"Oo… " Her old friend laughed. "I think you hang out with us just so you can feel petite, in that case." He bumped Dar's shoulder with his own. "Hey… "His voice dropped a little. "You going with someone right now, Dar?"

The approach came around a blind corner and surprised her. "Yeah." She managed to answer, on an uneven breath. "Yeah, I am.. why?"

A shrug. "Just asking." Chuckie said. "I'm between ships, if you catch my drift, and I thought if you were too.. maybe we could hook up, for old time's sake."

Dar realized she had about ten seconds before they caught up with the waiting four others. She lifted a hand and unlocked her doors. "Not a chance. " She softened the words with a smile. "I'm very taken…and very happy about it."

"Ah well. "Chuckie returned the smile. "Just the way my luck's been running… what've we got here?" He turned his attention to the car. "Good lord, do you mean to tell me you drive a damn Lexus?"

"Yep." Dar opened the driver's side door and watched them pile in. "Hey.. one of you guys has to get in the back.. you can't fit in there."

"Heh." Mike chuckled. "Wanna bet? You forget what service we're in, Dardar." The back seat was filled to the brim with squished sailors. "More room in here than in a Polaris.. get driving."

Dar rolled her eyes, but slid behind the wheel and started the engine. "Why do I get the feeling I’m gonna regret this?" She felt the car rock as the men in back started singing and moving back and forth.

"C'mon, Dar… sing with us. I know you can." Duds chortled. "What do you do with some drunken sailors…."

Dar sighed as she pulled out of the parking slot, but joined in anyway, filled with a very mixed set of emotions. It had been a day far too full of conflict and she found herself sure of only one single thing.

Five sailors and fifteen beers equaled the tonal quality of six dozen sets of dog's toenails on a chalkboard.

Jesus. Dar hoped she survived the short drive to the steakhouse.


Kerry yawned, as she collected her steaming mug of hot chocolate and wandered back into the living room. Chino butted the back of her knees and almost made her trip, the animal very glad to see at least one half if her family after the long day. "Hey.. cut that out." Kerry chided the dog. "You aren't the one who's going to have to clean this tile if I spill chocolate all over it."

"Gruff." Chino pounced on her hippo and brought it over, crouching down and shaking it, begging for some playtime.

"Okay.. let me put this down." Kerry laughed, setting aside her cup and grabbing the toy. "Go get it.. g'wan.." She tossed the stuffed animal to the other side of the apartment and watched Chino scramble after it, her toenails sliding on the hard surface.

"Bring it here." Kerry sat down on the couch and tugged the toy free of Chino's very white teeth, throwing it over past the dining room table as the retriever acted true to her breed and fetched it. "Good girl." She played with the dog for a while, taking a moment in between tosses to turn on the television and stretch her body out along the couch with a sense of relief.

It had been a very long day, with a surprisingly nice ending. Kerry smiled, remembering the hour spent patiently coaxing Andrew into sharing her sushi, in the little sushi dive on the beach she and Dar loved to go to.

Mental note, Kerry. She reminded herself. Don't take SEALS to sushi bars unless you want to know things about the fish you're eating that would make the plots of excellent scifi movies. He'd finally settled on the cooked variety of sashimi and some stir fry chicken, leaving Kerry to her more adventurous raw tidbits. They'd shared some saki, though, and she'd enjoyed the evening very much, listening to stories of Dar's harum scarum youth and hearing the note of unconscious pride in Andy's voice even when telling the goriest details.

Kerry leaned back against the leather surface, tensing and relaxing her muscles as she idly watched Steve Irwin cavort across the screen, hugging a crocodile to him and enthusing over it's toothy good looks. "What a whack job." She commented. "Did you know he has his own toy set now, Chino? Should I get you some? You want to chew Steve's head off?"

"Gruff." Chino tossed the slightly soggy hippo up to land on Kerry's side.

"I'll take that as a no." Kerry tossed the toy again, then slid down and put her head on the couch arm, allowing her eyes to close briefly as she considered the tasks she had left to do that evening. A wash was due, and she had those reports to go over, and there was that project Dar had left her.

Kerry let one eye open and regard the room, then she closed it again. Or she could just take a nap here on the couch, which was nice and warm and comfortable. Maybe she could compromise, she reasoned, snoozing until Dar called, which would definitely wake her up.

Yeah. That was a good idea. She reached over and picked up her cell phone which was lying on the coffee table and brought it closer, resting her hand on it as she allowed the sleepy feeling to take over and relax her, easing away the last of the lingering headache she'd been aggravated by all day long.


It was very quiet as Dar pulled into her parking spot, sliding in next to a shiny, new, smaller version of the car she was driving. She got out and closed the door gently, then ran a hand over the dark blue paint of Kerry's new car. "Nice." She approved, peering inside before making her way up the small flight of stairs to the door.

It had been a nice dinner, if loud, and they'd made it back to the base just after midnight. She'd let her friends out, then sat there for over ten minutes, wondering why she didn't just get out herself and go to the bunk they'd assigned her.

Finally, she'd gotten out of the Lexus, and instead of going toward the building, she'd walked back over to the guardhouse and asked them if the roads had opened.

They had.

Dar had walked back to the car, gotten inside, and left, choosing the drive back to Miami in the early hours over staying on the base, hardly knowing why she'd take the long trek when the Navy bed could hardly be that uncomfortable.

The feeling of relief as she keyed in the lock convinced her it had been a good decision, though, not that she'd really doubted it. She opened the door and slid inside, stopping in surprise as she spotted the lights still on, and heard the television's low mutter.

Chino jumped off the couch and ran over, shaking her head sleepily, clearly startled to see Dar but glad. Dar rubbed her ears, but kept her eyes on the dozing form curled up in the corner of the couch.

Quietly, Dar walked over and knelt beside where Kerry was sleeping, allowing herself a long moment just to study her lover. Okay. She smiled silently. So this is why you came home. Asleep, Kerry's face held a relaxed innocence that always touched Dar's heart, and she found herself looking forward to the surprised delight she knew would be there when she woke the blond woman up.

"Ker." Dar stroked Kerry's cheek gently, and after a second, the pale lashes stirred, and lifted, revealing slightly dazed green eyes that fastened on her face, then brightened in welcome as a smile appeared at the same time. "Sorry I didn't call."

"No problem." Kerry replied, her voice slightly husky from sleep. "I like this mode of contact much better anyway." Her smile widened. "I guess the road opened, huh?"

Dar nodded. "Yeah.. I had dinner with guys, and when I got back.. they said it had, so I decided to come on home instead of staying down there."

"Good." Kerry caught Dar's hand and pressed it against her cheek, then kissed it. "Crudpuppies.. I had so much I wanted to do tonight.. I fell asleep figuring your call would wake me up." Her fingers felt something odd, and she turned Dar's hand over. "Holy crap.. what did you do to your hands?"

Dar cleared her throat gently. "Ah.. well… " She laughed with a touch of embarrassment. "You're not going to believe this, but I um.."

Kerry hitched herself up on an elbow and examined Dar's palm. The surface was scuffed and bruised, and several long cuts were visible. "Is that a splinter? What happened?"

"Probably." Dar sighed. "It involved a bet, some obstacles, and a lot of ego."

"With your ego coming out on top, right?" Kerry guessed, giving her a tolerant grin, seeing the half hidden look of smirking triumph cross Dar's face. "I thought so. Let me go get the tweezers." She planted a kiss on the base of Dar's thumb, then stretched out, pulling her T-shirt tight against her body and squeaking a little as Dar took that opportunity to lean over and nibble her in a very sensitive spot. "Oo… hold that thought."

She squirmed up out of the couch and stood, facing Dar as she straightened. "Dar… you do realize you're covered in mud.. right?" Kerry inquired, plucking at her lover's shirt. "Did you spend the whole night like this?"

Dar looked down. "Uh." She blinked at the gray stains which covered her liberally. "Well, we all did.. and it was raining.. and I was wet… I don't think I.."

"Noticed." Kerry nodded. "No, I guess you wouldn't if the fabric was wet. C'mon." She inserted her fingers into Dar's waistband and tugged. "Into the shower with you, my little mudpuppy."

"You just want me to get naked and wet with you." Dar observed, as she obediently allowed herself to be hauled along. Now that Kerry mentioned it, though, the jeans she was wearing were getting kind of itchy.

"And you have an issue with this?" Kerry stopped, and faced her, lifting a brow.

"No." Dar stepped closer. "It sounds better and better every second."

Kerry smiled, and resumed her tugging.

They left their clothes in one corner of the bathroom and went under the warm water, with Kerry making little tsking noises as she took their scrub sponge and attempted to clean the mud off Dar's skin. "Do I dare ask what you were doing?"

Dar had been standing with her eyes closed, thoroughly enjoying the attention. The slightly rough texture of the sponge was leaving a nice tingle behind it, and now she lifted one eyelid to see Kerry looking up at her through wisps of steam and water. "Huh? Oh.. we had a bet on between me and Chuck.. which one of us could make it through the torture pit first."

"Ah." Kerry scrubbed a stubborn spot, keeping her head down and swallowing a jolt of irrational jealousy. "You won, I take it?" She asked. "It's going to be interesting meeting him on Friday.. unless you've changed your mind and would rather I didn't go." She forced herself to look up. "I know these are old friends of yours, Dar.. and they probably don't know you're gay, do they?"

Dar's eyes widened a little in visible surprise. "No, they don't." She answered honestly. "In fact, Chuckie asked if I was available tonight.. " A smile tugged at her lips. "I told him I was very taken." She thought a moment, feeling the water beat down on her back. "It's a hard question, Kerry… I’m not going to say I haven't been thinking about it."

Kerry kept still, watching her face, seeing only intent thought behind her expression. "I know. It's hard." She agreed softly. "Telling my family was hard… I've never felt embarrassed by it, but I knew they'd be."


"I think it will make them uncomfortable."

Dar nodded. "I think you're right."

Kerry inhaled, surprised at how difficult it was to get the words out. "So I think it's better if you go without me, this time."

"It'd make them more comfortable if that's what I did." Dar agreed softly. "They're a very traditional family."

A breath. "So that's what you'll do, right?"

"No." Dar's voice was quite calm, and almost amused. "If I was in the business of making people comfortable I'd be an airline flight attendant. I'm not. I'm an individualist nonconformist with a lot more attitude than sense, so if they can't accept the fact that I'm gay, and I'm married to you, they can just kiss my ass." She leaned over and brushed Kerry's lips with her own, feeling the small gust of surprise as her lover reacted and exhaled in surprise. "But thanks for offering.. and by the way, I think you missed a spot."

Hm. Kerry resumed scrubbing, a dumb grin on her face. "Did I?" She worked her way up Dar's belly to her breasts, making very sure there were no lurking patches of mud. "I'll just have to go over everything twice." Her hands slid over Dar's collarbone and across her shoulders as she licked the warm droplets of water off the skin in front of her nose. "Mm."

A light touch behind her neck moved her hair back, then Dar's teeth were taking tiny nibbles out of her throat as their bodies slid together and she felt Dar's thigh between her own. She forgot the sponge, letting it drop.

Dar felt like her body was on fire, not from the water coursing over both of them, but from Kerry's touch, dancing over her skin in gentle motions that teased her senses, running down her sides.

She had a feeling getting up in the morning was going to be a problem.

Of course… they could just solve that by not going to sleep.


Kerry let out a sigh, and burrowed into her fluffy robe, as they watched dawn start to color the sky across the water. "We’re going to be so toasted by tonight, you do realize that, right?"

Dar sipped slowly on a cup of fresh coffee, closing her eyes as a gust of cool salt air brushed across her face. "Oh yeah.. I'm glad I decided to go into the office today.. I'd have probably driven off Card Sound road into the Florida straits on the way back from the base otherwise." She offered the cup to Kerry, who took it. "Besides, I've got a pile of stuff to take care of here."

"Me too."

They swung quietly in the rope chair for a few minutes. "Guess we'd better get started, huh?" Kerry finally sighed. "I know I need a run to wake me up." She turned her head to look up at Dar. "Unless you want to maybe go over to the gym this morning…I could do circuit, too."

Dar nodded. "Yeah.. " She winced a little and exhaled. "I think I pulled a little bit of something in my back doing that crazy stunt last night. Running isn't the best idea… I think stretching everything out makes more sense."

Kerry squirmed around and slid a hand behind Dar's back, probing gently. "Where you got hurt?" She saw Dar nod a tiny bit. "Goofball." She scolded. "I've been telling you to have Dr. Steve check that out, Dar.. you never did go back for another scan."

Dar scowled. "It hasn't bothered me in weeks." She protested. "Must have been crawling through that tunnel that did it."

"Tunnel?" Kerry queried. "Oh… Jesus. That explains why you had bruises on your knees." She sighed. "Well, come on - let's go get dressed, and see if we can work your kinks out." Neither of them moved, however, and Dar managed to get a snuggly hold on her that turned into cuddle, which turned into some kissing, which…

"This is not getting us anywhere." Kerry murmured.

"Sure it is." Dar replied. "It's just not getting us dressed and headed to the gym." She resumed suckling on Kerry's earlobe, earning a soft grunt of pleasure from her lover. Her hands were already inside the loosened wrap of Kerry's bathrobe, and she ran a light, tickling touch over the ribs she could feel as Kerry inhaled.

"Hey." Kerry laughed softly.

Dar kissed her, then relented, and backed off to rub noses. "Tell you what. I'm going to invent an afternoon meeting we both have to attend, and we're gonna leave early."

"Yes, ma'am." Kerry agreed. "So let's get moving. The sooner this day starts, the sooner it ends."


"Mama." Mayte slipped inside the outer office of Senora Dar, where her mother was sorting mail. "I just heard something very bad."

"Si?" Maria looked up. "What is it now? Is Jose flirting with the new senorita in Accounting, once again?"

"No." The slim girl looked upset. She walked over and sat down next to her mother's desk. "It's about Ms. Kerry."

Maria was very surprised. Rumors about her boss, yes, that she was used to, and just after Kerrisita had joined them, she had heard the things they had said about the two of them when they were together.

They had made such a cute couple, it was true. "What have you heard?" She asked her daughter, realizing that Mayte looked very anxious.

Mayte fiddled with her hands. "They are saying that Ms. Kerry, she was with a man here, at night last night, after we all left."

Maria's jaw dropped. "Comemerda." She snorted.

Mayte's eyes opened wide. "Mama!" She was shocked. "Someone was here, and they said they heard them, that she was, with her hands all over this man, and everything!"

"Who is saying that?" The older woman asked agitatedly. "Who is passing these lies? I want to know this, Mayte, right now!"

"B.. b.." Mayte stammered. "Mama.. I heard it in the break room. Everyone is saying it."

Maria drummed her perfectly painted nails on her desk. "Why would they say this? Why would anyone want to hurt Kerrisita?" She thought a minute, then dialed a number on her phone. "Si, Ricardo? Can you check for me the log, please? Was there someone to visit Ms. Stuart last night?"

Ruffling papers. "Looks like.. " Ricardo paused, then ruffled some more. "Oh yeah, here it is.. yeah.. she had a guy come up last night.. round six thirty, I guess."

Mayte and Maria looked at each other in stunned shock. "May I have his name, por favor?" Maria asked quietly. "I need to send him something."

"Sure.. Roberts." Ricardo answered genially. "Andrew Roberts."

Maria covered her eyes with one hand. "Gracias, Ricardo. I will speak with you later." She released the phone. "Jesu."

Mayte blinked. "Who is that, mama? Do you know him?"

"Si." Maria looked troubled. "He is Dar's papa…he is a very nice, a very sweet man. He is very much accepting of Kerrisita, she is like another daughter to him."

"Ay." The younger woman exhaled. "I have heard her speak of him.. there is a picture in the office, I think."

"Si. That is Dar's mama, and papa. It was very hard, I have told you when Kerrisita had such troubles with her family." Maria was thinking hard as she spoke. "Mayte, we must fix this problem." She told her daughter firmly. "I cannot let this be said about Kerrisita. Dar will be so upset."

Mayte blinked. "Oh."

"We must find who is saying this." Maria got up. "Come. We will go to someplace where I know that all the talk gets to be heard." She lead the way out of the office, and down the hall. As they passed the breakroom, she could hear the chatter, and Kerry's name, and she grew very angry. "Do they not have better things to be doing?" She stopped, and peered inside. "Go to work!" She told the startled occupants. "Vamanos!"

Mayte just looked at her, as the assorted administrative assistants and junior clerks bolted from the room, streaming down the hallway like an assortment of colorful birds.

"I am getting very bold, no?" Maria asked. "I am learning from Dar."

"Yes, mama." Mayte murmured, as they continued off down the hall.

At the end of the long walk, Maria lifted a hand and knocked on the thick, metal door before them, waiting a few seconds, then knocking again.

"Hang on.. hold your chupacabras." The door swung open. "Oh.." Josh, one of Mark's assistants blinked. "Hi, Maria.. what's up?"

"Shoo shoo.." Maria waved him backwards. "I am here to speak with Mark. He is here?"

"Uh….uh… sure.. um.. he's in his office… but I… "

"Tch tch.. " Maria brushed by him and circled the equipment packed console, where three techs were busy monitoring different screens. Marks' office was in the back, and she made for it, reaching out to tap on the half closed door.

"Look." Mark's voice floated out. "I don’t give a crap what you think.. if you can't deal with other people having private lives that are not your business, find another place to work, dude."

Maria hesitated, listening.

"From what I hear, it ain't that private." A softer, less distinct voice answered.

"Don’t' start that shit." Mark warned. "I’m telling you right now, Brent. Don't talk about them, don't repeat bullshit you hear at the urinal, and keep your redneck attitudes out of the office or I'll bounce you right on out of here."

"For what?" The response was outraged. "For having an opinion?"

"For insubordination and fucking with the anti discrimination regs." Mark stated.

"What about everyone else? They're.."

"Everyone else ain't in Dar's chain of command." The MIS Chief interrupted him. "You are."

There was a moment of silence. "Fine." Brent finally said. "Can I go now? I got stuff to do."

"Sure." Mark replied. "Take off."

The door swung open a moment later, and Brent emerged, his face crimson. He almost crashed headlong into Maria and Mayte, and he paused to stare at them for a few seconds, before he brushed by and left. Maria eyed him, then she shook her head and walked into Mark's office.

"Hey." Mark looked up, pausing in the act of listening to his voice mail. "Guess you heard." He chewed his lower lip. "About last night, I mean."

"Of course." Maria agreed. "And we are going to fix it."

"Fix it?"

"Si. You have the little program there, that goes to all the pc's?" Maria folded her hands. "That makes the funny noise, no?"

"Our messenger service, yeah." Mark replied, puzzled. "What about it?"

"I want you to send a message, please, from me, to all the people, yes?"

"O….Kay… "Mark sat down slowly. "What kind of message?"

"I will write it." Maria took a piece of paper, and one of Mark's cushion grip roller balls, and got to work. Mark watched her, twisting his head to one side to read the upside-down letters.

His eyes widened. "Oh boy."


Dar had taken a breath to say good morning to Maria, when she opened the outer door and realized the office was empty. She closed her mouth with a faint click of teeth meeting, and entered, shouldering her laptop as she made her way across the quiet space and into her inner office.

The sun was pouring across the floor and she stepped into it, feeling the faint warmth through the fabric of her skirt as she circled her desk and put her briefcase down, pulling the leather chair out and settling into it with a tiny sigh.

"Morning, guys." She greeted her Siamese fighting fish, removing their jar of food from her desk drawer and sprinkling a little bit into the small tank. She watched the fish gobble their breakfasts, her chin resting on one fist, before she sighed again, and turned her attention to her monitor.

"Wonder what disasters we have to deal with this morning?" Dar asked the empty office, spinning her trackball to douse her screensaver and reveal her running programs. Her eyebrows contracted slightly when she saw the blinking Dogbert head in the lower corner, and clicked on it to bring up the corporate messaging alert the symbol represented.

Slowly, Dar's head tilted to one side, then the other, then she leaned forward and blinked as she read the message. "What in the hell???"

"To All Corporate HQ Miami Employees - You are please to read your handbooks in the section twelve, page 23. This page is saying that you may not say to everyone bad things about the officers of the company that are not true, or we can make you the termination. There is someone who is doing this, and when this is found out, this person I will myself see the termination if these bad things do not stop. Gracias. Maria."

Dar's intercom buzzed. "Yeah?" She slapped at it absently.

"Did you see that message?" Kerry' s voice floated into the office. "What the heck is she talking about?"

"I haven't a quarter clue." Dar murmured, shaking her head. "Whatever it was, sure pissed her off though. I'd better find her and figure out what's going on." She shook her head. "I'll call you back."

"Okay." Kerry released the intercom button, and opened her mail. "Weird… very weird way to start the day, that's for sure." There was a knock on her door, and she realized Mayte must have stepped away from her desk. "C'mon in."

Clarice entered, giving Kerry a very sweet smile before she closed the door behind her and crossed the floor to settle in one of Kerry's visitor chairs. "Good morning."

"Good morning." Kerry folded her hands on her desk. "What can I do for you?"


Mark leaned back in his chair, unconsciously putting distance between himself and the dangerously glaring ice blue eyes boring into his. "Hey, boss.. um.."

Dar rested her hands on Mark's desk and leaned forward, lowering her voice to a mere raspy growl. "I want to know who it was that started that story."

Mark took a breath. "Dar, you know how hard it is to track shit like that down." He tried to keep his tone even, and calm, his mind casting for the last time he'd seen Dar this mad. Ah. That would be never. "I bet Maria's message stopped it."

Dar could feel her body shaking with rage. She knew that lack of sleep was making her hold on her temper very tenuous, and that she should go back to her office and calm down before she did something extremely stupid. "I want to know who it was." She repeated softly. "Don't you tell me you can't track it down, Mark. There was X number of people in this building, X number of people on this floor, and X number of people in the operations suite between the hours of X, and X, which you know from the security log."

Mark took his courage in both hands, and leaned towards his boss, reaching out one hand and covering the fist Dar had planted on his desk. "Okay, boss. I'll find that out for you, if you sit down and take it easy for a minute." There was no response in the stern mask looking at him.

He tried again, lowering his voice. "Dar, please.. go get a drink of water, huh? You're scaring the shit out of me and I just dry cleaned these pants."

Nothing, for a few seconds, then Dar's eyelashes fluttered closed briefly, and her body relaxed some of it's tension. "Sorry." She murmured. "But god damn it, Mark… of all the people in the company to be targetted by that crap, why her?"

Mark winced at the pain in his bosses voice.

"Me, I'm used to it." Dar went on softly. "I've given so many people so many reasons to hate me, I don't even think about it anymore." She took a breath. 'But what has Kerry done to deserve that? "

Picked you? Mark wisely decided on not voicing the obvious response. "You know how people are, boss. They get jealous and all that crap. And you've got to admit, there's a hell of a lot for people to be jealous of Kerry for."

Dar sighed. "Find out who it was." She replied. "I'll be in my office."

Mark watched her leave, the heavy door swinging shut behind her tall form. "Sonofabitch." He cradled his head in his hands. "Why the fuck do I always get this shit to deal with?"

"Cause you, like, can?" His assistant, Shaun inquired. "You gonna tell her who it was?"

Good question. Mark leaned back and considered. "I’m gonna let her chill for a little while first." He decided. "Because otherwise she's gonna haul back and take the jerk's head off."


"Excuse me?" Kerry felt her voice sharpen.

"I said," Clarice drawled. "You lasted longer than any of the rest of them, honey… was it a getting bored thing?"

Kerry wondered if she looked as bewildered as she felt. "Clarice, I have no idea what you're talking about. Maybe you should just cut to the chase, and be specific. "

Clarice leaned closer. "Look, in this place, you can't keep anything secret."

"Right." Kerry nodded faintly. "And?"

"And everyone's talking about last night."

She felt like she was in a dinghy, floating further and further away from the shore. "Last night?" Her mind went to her unexpected waking up, and she felt a blush color her skin. "What about last night?"

Clarice chuckled. "You obviously know… look, they saw you meet that guy here in the office."

The shoreline receded further. "Yeah… so?" Kerry's brow knit in perplexity. "What about it?"

"What about it?" Clarice repeated. "Honey, do you two have, like, an open relationship? I had no idea."

"Huh?" Kerry felt like grabbing her own head and shaking it. "Excuse me.. what in the hell does me getting picked up here last night have to do with my relationship.. which, by the way, is personal and my business, and not any of yours?"

Now it was Clarice's turn to look a little uncertain. "Are you saying that wasn't your lover?"

"What wasn't?" Kerry asked.

"The man who picked you up here last night? Who you had your hands all over? Who you told Dar abandoned you?" Clarice almost shouted. "What the hell did you think we were talking about here?"

It was like being trapped inside a cartoon. Kerry fully expected a clown to pop out of her desk and start laughing at the absurdity of it all. "My lover?" She enunciated the word carefully. "That guy who picked me up here last night?"

"Yes." Clarice nodded, relieved they were finally communicating. "Then he was."

"No." Kerry covered her eyes with one hand. "He was not." She got up and went to the small bookshelf in her office, selecting a framed photo and bringing it back with her. "I think this is who you mean."

Clarice took the picture, and studied it. Kerry was standing near a wooden pylon, apparently at some dock, dressed in a pair of water shorts and a bathing suit. She had one arm wrapped around a very tall, powerfully built man, who had an arm draped over her shoulders, and she was pointing to a dangerous looking lobster clutched in the man's other hand.

"That's my father in law." Kerry supplied. "Andrew Roberts."

Clarice peered at the picture, then up at her. "Honey, that's kinky."

Oh no… she was at sea again. "What's kinky? The lobster? We ate it." She told Clarice in exasperation. "He's not my lover, okay? Would you get that idea out of your head? Yes, he picked me up, yes I hugged him, like I usually do.. and why the hell am I standing here explaining this to you?" Kerry's voice rose. "As a matter of fact, get the hell out of my office before I throw your ass out!"

Clarice jumped up, and laid the picture on the desk, before ducking behind the chair. "Hey look.. I was just trying to warn you…"

"Out!!!" Kerry yelled at the top of her voice. "Tell all the jerks who want to know we pay you people to provide information services, not come up with internal freaking company SOAP OPERAS!"

Clarice fled. She turned, and scuttled across the floor as fast as her heels would allow, getting around the door and it shut securely behind her before Kerry could find something else to verbally pound her with.

For a second, all Kerry could hear was her own labored breathing. Then she sat down in her chair with a thump. "JESUS." She expelled her breath explosively. "What in the hell is wrong with these people?"

A soft creak alerted her, and she swiveled in her chair to face her inside door as it opened, and a disheveled, aggravated, stormy head poked itself inside her office. "Have you heard the total idiocy going around here?"

Dar slid inside and walked over, taking a seat on Kerry's desk. "Yes."

"Is that not the stupidest thing you've ever heard?" Kerry went on. "What a bunch of total bonehead losers we have around here sometimes." She stood up and started ordering Dar's unruly locks with her fingers. "Honey, what did you do here, stick your head out your window or something?"

"I was outside on the balcony down the hall." Dar admitted. "Drinking half a gallon of milk and trying to calm down enough not to fire the entire fourteenth floor just to get rid of the jackass who started the whole thing. "

Kerry rubbed a bit of white off her partner's lip. "Ah.. so that's what that is." She let her hands rest on Dar's shoulders. "Are you okay?"

"Am I okay?" Dar managed a smile. "I think so… I was more worried about you."

"Me?" Kerry chuckled. "Dar, you forget I grew up in a very public household. I've had stories told about me since I was seven, and got bitten by a duck while I tried to steal her chicks." She patted her lover's side. "Your poor father… that's twice in one night. The lady at the car dealership mistook us for husband and wife when he dropped me by there."

Dar blinked. "So you're okay with this?"

"Well.. I don't like it.. but I'll live.. why, you weren't really going to fire the entire floor, were you?" Kerry asked. "Dar?" She traced the flutter of nervous motion under the skin of her lover's cheek. "Hey?"

A sigh. "No, I wasn't."

"You okay?"

Dar gave her an unhappy look. "I have a stomachache from drinking too much cold milk, I’m tired, and I'm cranky, and I want to take a baseball bat to the person who thought you were making out with my dad."


"Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, I enjoyed the play."

Kerry touched her forehead to Dar's. "With a start like this, the day can only get better."

As if on some evil signal, both of their pagers went off, and Kerry's main line lit up.


The phone beeped twice, softly, before Dar lifted her head from her hands and touched the response key. "Yes?"

"Dar, it is Mark here to see you." Maria stated quietly. "Do you have a minute for him?"

"Sure." Dar returned her chin to it's resting spot on her fists and exhaled. "Send him in." She'd given up trying to focus her overtired vision on her monitor a short time before, and had merely been sitting there, waiting for time to pass and bring her to the end of a very long day.

The door opened, and Mark entered, moving quickly across the floor and taking a seat across from her.

For a moment they studied each other, then Mark shifted. "You look like shit, boss."

For some reason, that brought a smile to Dar's face. "Thanks. It's been a suck filled day."

"Yeah." Mark nodded. "I know.. listen, that T1 you ordered for the base is in. I had them terminate it, and did a loopback to make sure it's solid. The telco tech confirmed your hub's onsite, and everything looks okay."

"Good." One thing off her mind, at least. "I'll connect everything tomorrow morning, then I'll need you to give me space on the big boxes to suck everything up."

"No problem." Mark assured her. "We've got the slots already allocated for you - just let me know when you're ready, and we'll open the pipe."

Dar nodded. "I will. Did Houston get their data center back up? If the payroll computer doesn't come back online before tonight, we're all in deep shit, you know that, right?"

Mark felt a prickle of surprise at the unusual use of an expletive, which Dar tended to avoid in her normal workplace speech. "I can't believe the power block blew up in there." He said. "American UPS sent a team in, and they're working on it, but so far it looks like they're going to have to run an emergency three phase panel in just to fire the main CPU's up. ETA is midnight, but I've got my fingers crossed for sooner."

"Will going there and yelling help?" Dar asked.

"No." Mark answered, not even caring if it was the right answer for the company or not. "They're doing their stuff, Dar. It's all moving, it just takes time to split the power off the main transformer, and run the big cables."

"Okay." Dar accepted that with a feeling of relief. Flying to Houston was something she so didn't want to do at the moment. "Can we find out the liability limits of AUPS, and what's going to happen if they can't get the power restored?"

"Kerry took care of that already." The MIS Director reassured her. "She's been on it since this afternoon.. I think we're covered."

"All right."

Mark cleared his throat slightly, and crossed his fingers, held below the level of the desk where Dar couldn't see them. "I also gave Kerry the information on who it was that was hanging around here last night and peeking into offices."

One dark eyebrow lifted sharply. "I thought I told you to bring that here."

"You did." Mark said. "But Kerry asked me to let her handle it, and since she's my direct report, I respected her directive."

Dar observed him for a few seconds. "I don't think I like having my direct orders countermanded." She stated flatly. "Especially by my subordinates."

"I know you don't." Mark responded bravely. "But Kerry said she'd take the responsibility for the decision." It felt cowardly to hide behind Kerry's skirt like that, but one look at the expression on Dar's face made him grateful for the shield. He only hoped it would be a big enough shield to keep him from getting his butt burnt off, that's all.

Dar remained silent, watching him from under half lowered eyelids until Mark started to fidget nervously. Then she drew in a breath. "Fair enough." She remarked. "I'll take it up with her."

Looking profoundly relieved, Mark stood up, and circled his chair, resting his hands on the back of it. "Hope you have a better day tomorrow, Dar."

That got a faint grin back. "Me too." Dar watched Mark leave, then sat back, and pondered. Was she mad at Mark?

No. He just did what he was told. Was she mad at Kerry? Dar regarded the wood panel walls bemusedly. She was too damn tired to be mad at Kerry, and besides, she didn't want to be mad at her. But should she be?

Dar considered the question seriously. Kerry had been the person involved, had been the one with rumors spread about her, and was, in fact, Mark's direct supervisor. On the other hand, Dar had given a direct order, which had been ignored, and countermanded, something she couldn't recall ever happening before.

No one else would have dared, she decided. Was Kerry using their relationship to take an unfair advantage of her? Dar scowled. Or was Kerry simply making a good business decision, using her admittedly unfair knowledge of Dar to realize having the CIO beat an employee over the head with a paper shredder was not only bad employee relations, it was also just plain stupid? Especially since the CIO in question would be doing it because the employee in question had insulted her strictly against company rules lover and partner?

Hm. Dar idly watched her fish swim around. She looked up as the inner door opened, and watched as Kerry visibly squared her shoulders before she entered and proceeded across the room, arriving at Dar's side with a look of sober determination.

"Listen." Kerry's hands flexed slightly, the fingers curling into a partial fist in unconscious reaction to confrontation. "I just talked to Mark. I want you to back off, and let me handle this situation, because it's my department, my issue, and my staff."

"Mm." Dar responded.

One of Kerry's pale eyebrows rose. "What does that mean?"

"That color looks really cute on you." Dar evaluated the coral silk blouse Kerry was wearing. "Very tropical."

The blond woman put her hands on her hips. "Dar, I was being serious."

"I know… you're right. Go ahead and handle it." Dar nodded in agreement. "I'll be down at the base all day tomorrow anyway, so have at it."

Kerry sighed. "Do you know how long I've been standing in the corridor, screwing my guts up and trying to figure out exactly what approach to use with you on this?"

Dar allowed her face to relax into a smile for the first time that day. "Sorry about that.. I was just thinking it over when you came in. I know my first reaction was to appease my ego and yell, but you know what? I’m just too tired to." A shrug. "Besides, you are right.. it's your issue to handle, and the only reason I wanted to do it is because I go into a crazed overprotective mode when it comes to you."

Kerry's lips twitched, then eased into grin. "Yes, you do." She relaxed and moved a little closer, perching on the edge of Dar's desk. "Very self aware of you to notice."

Dar smiled, and propped her head up against one hand. "They finally got the T1 in place. Now I can get that entire data set transferred, and we can really take a look at it."

"Think you'll find anything?"

"Maybe." Dar shook her head. "There's something there.. it's just really hard to pinpoint. Little discrepancies in the programs, things that just don't feel right.. I can't really be specific. Just that I know there's something not one hundred percent clicking."

"I've got an idea." Kerry reached out and pushed a few strands of dark hair off Dar's forehead. "I just finished my last conference call for the day… want to take off? Are you covered here or do you have something else you need to handle?"

"Nothing I can't handle with my cell phone." Dar said. "Pushing to get the payroll systems back online.. I don't need to be here to do that." She straightened. "Sounds like a plan…go get your stuff, and I'll meet you at the elevator."

Kerry got up and twitched her skirt straight. "You're on." She turned and made her way back to the inner door, pausing with her hand on the sill before she exited. "Dar?"

The pale blue eyes flickered as Dar's eyelashes fluttered. "Hm?"

"It was Brent." Kerry's expression was regretful. "Mark feels pretty scummy about that." She ducked through the doorway and closed the door behind her, traveling quickly down the back corridor and past the cleaning closets to her own office.

Her phone was ringing as she entered, and she contemplated letting it go to voice mail, then sighed and answered it. "Operations, Kerry Stuart."

"Hey Kerry.. this is Ilene, from the church?" The voice hesitantly asked. "I do the youth group counseling with you?"

"Oh. .sure." Kerry felt her mental train jerk onto a new set of tracks. "Sorry.. what's up?"

"Have you heard from Lena? The kid in the group.. you know the one I mean?" Ilene asked. "She was supposed to meet me for lunch yesterday, and she never showed."

Kerry started shutting down her computer. "Well, maybe something came up. You know how it is… she didn't call or anything?"

"No.. and yeah, I know stuff happens, but two of her friends were here just now looking for her.. they said she hasn't been around for a couple days, and they're a little worried.. I thought maybe she might have contacted you."

"Me?" Kerry's brow creased. "No…I don't think I gave my number out to the group.. and I'm not listed in the phone book. If she does contact me somehow, though, I'll definitely get in touch with you. Do they think something happened to her or..?"

"No one's sure… it's just weird for her not to be around for that long. She didn't say she was going anywhere." Ilene sighed. "Well, it was a long shot, but Casey said Lena really liked you, so I thought maybe you'd given her your number or something. Thanks anyway, Kerry."

"No problem." Kerry replied. "I'll keep an eye out for her, okay?"

"Much appreciated… talk to you later." The unexpected call ended, leaving Kerry a bit unsettled. She finished closing down her system and shouldered her briefcase, then checked her caller ID and copied Ilene's number into her Palm Pilot. She'd met the other councilor a few times at church functions, and rather liked her, but they hadn't spent much time talking to each other since then.

Pity, really, since Ilene shared her general background and upbringing, having been born in Detroit, into a family of old car money whose reaction to her coming out had been, if not as spectacular as Kerry's parents, at least as vicious. They'd thrown her out of the house and taken just about everything she owned, forcing her to move somewhere, anywhere, and support herself.

She had, just as Kerry had, but for Ilene it had been much harder since the only job she'd had prior to moving was as a movie usher. She'd mixed in with a tough crowd down here in Miami and gotten into a little trouble, but had ended up taking vocational courses and scraping herself together a career as a mechanic.

Put things into perspective, sometimes, when you looked at other people, and realized how lucky you were, Kerry admitted, as she closed the door to her outer office and walked down the hallway to where Dar was leaning against the wall, waiting for her.


They took a detour past the church, and it's surrounding area on the way home, after Kerry told Dar about the missing girl. Despite the fact that they were both tired, and she knew that Dar was in worse shape than she was due to her own nap the night before, making several passes around the general neighborhood was definitely in order.

"You think something actually happened to her, or did she run off?" Dar asked, as she scanned the twilight shadowed streets. "Wasn't that the kid whose mother was spouting off ?"

"Yeah." Kerry leaned on her steering wheel, enjoying the feeling of height her new car gave her. "I don't know, Dar. I don't think this is getting us anywhere." She sighed, and turned the SUV around, heading back across the causeway towards the ferry terminal. "Maybe she just hitched up to Lauderdale for a few days… I know she's got a few friends up that way."

"Grmph." Dar slumped against the doorframe, and relaxed, idly watching the street lamps flash by. "Seemed like a nice kid."

"Mm." Kerry agreed, making the turn onto the ferry dock. "They all are, really." She listened to the engines of the boat roar as they parked, and sat back, regarding the sky overhead thoughtfully. "Hope she's okay."


Continued in Part 5