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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tropical Storm - Part 14

By Melissa Good

Dar glanced outside at the gray sky as the plane taxied, seeing the lash of rain against the small, squared oval window and sighing. It had been a long flight, since the weather front had forced their plane to circle for thirty minutes before it finally landed at Dulles, and she felt an intense need to stretch, and move around inside the small, cramped cabin.

As the plane nudged up to the gate, she released her seatbelt, and stood, glad she was, at least, at the front of the plane and near the exit. She opened the overhead and tugged down her jacket, then pulled her laptop case from the bin and settled it over her shoulder.

The door opened, letting in a blast of wet, cold air, and she shivered in reflex, pulling the jacket closer and zipping it before she nodded pleasantly to the steward and exited the craft, heading up the walkway towards the terminal. She'd gotten three steps past the door when she spotted the waiting Jack, and had to smile in reflex as his face lit up on seeing her.

He was really a sweetie, she admitted, as he trotted over, and enveloped her in a hug, his six foot plus military frame making her feel a bit dwarfed. She returned the hug, feeling the solidness of him under her hands, and gave him a pat on the back. "Hey, Jack…"

"Dar.. " He gave her a last squeeze and released her. "Damn, it's good to see ya.. I’m so glad you decided to c'mon up for Turkey day."

She was glad, too. It had been so quiet, and so lonely in the condo last night she'd almost gone crazy, unable to believe her reaction after living alone so many years. At least a few days up at the Easton's would fill in for Kerry's missing presence, and she admitted privately that she could use the change of scenery. "Glad to see you too.. got your hair cut again I see." She ruffled his short, buzz cut affectionately. "You guys get paid by how short you can cut it?"

He laughed. "Better than how some guys think we pilots get paid.. by the length of something else." He wryly answered. "C'mon.. you got a bag checked?"

Dar nodded. "One. .yeah. .I was going to carry it on, but the flight was so full, they made everyone check everything." She followed his striding form towards the baggage claim, dodging the crowd headed in all directions. "How's Gerry doing?"

"Dad's great." He answered, with a sunny grin. "He can't wait to see you either… he was really rocked that you decided to take him up on the invite… so was mom, she was busy quizzing him on what stuff you liked.. he had no idea, so we called your secretary."

Dar burst out laughing. "Oh god.. I'm in trouble.. she probably told your mother I like broccoli and spinach greens.. she hates the way I eat."

He grinned. "Exactly… she did., and mom got kind of suspicious, remembering you like she does.. so she called around some more, and somehow got hold of an assistant of yours."

"She did, huh?" Dar bit back a grin. "Bet that was a different story."

"Heck yeah… and boy was I glad.. cause I hate broccoli." Jack replied. "Candied sweet potatoes are much more my speed." He parked himself next to the belt and crossed his muscular arms "Point it out."

Dar dutifully did so, allowing him to lift the leather duffel from the moving belt and shoulder it. Chivalry always amused her, and Jack's was the genuine kind.. he took her bag because he knew it was his privilege and right to do so.. not because he was showing off, or making a point, or any of the other reasons someone like, say, Jose would have. It was a guy thing, and like opening doors, saying ma'am, doffing his hat, holding a chair…it came utterly naturally to him, and he would be utterly bewildered if she'd accused him of chauvinistic behavior of any kind, or protested that she was capable of handling her own baggage.

It was an appealingly sweet innocence, and one of the things Dar most liked about the pilot. The fact that he was ruggedly good looking, and had a charming sense of humor didn’t hurt either. He had blond hair, and interestingly dark blue eyes, and when he was being particularly silly, he'd waggle his ears, which were prominent against his crew cut. "So.. what's been up with you?" Dar asked, as they walked towards the entrance. "I hear you got carrier duty?"

He rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah.. I sure did… USS Nimitz. I fly out there after Christmas, and join her at sea." He exhaled. "I had to do a nighttime qualification last month, and let me tell you, Dar…that's the scardiest I've been since I fell out of that treehouse when I was ten, and nearly busted my neck."

Dar laughed a little. "I can't even imagine that…landing on that tiny deck at all, but in the dark?"

"In high seas." Jack shook his head. "I almost lost my lunch through body orifices I didn't even know I had." He went out the door and held it open for her, grinning wryly seeing Dar wince at the cold wind that hit her. "Not used to this stuff, huh?"

Dar fastened her jacket and lifted her collar. "You got that right." She muttered. "I was sitting outside under the stars in my Jacuzzi last night."

"Well, you're just a delicate hot house flower there, ma'am." Jack drawled, his eyes twinkling. "If you want, I've got a heavy overcoat in the car…that jacket doesn’t cover much."

Dar tugged her sleeves down and gave him a crooked grin. "Thanks.. I'll live… I think I remembered to pack my gloves in there." She was glad she'd chosen to wear her heavier jeans, and a pair of boots, and made a mental note to add an extra layer of clothes when she changed.

They got into Jack's car, a maroon Ford Explorer with comfortable leather seats. He hit a switch on the dashboard as he closed Dar's door, then walked around and got in, settling his big body in the driver's seat and starting the engine. "Heated seats. " He indicated the switch, then he winked at her.

Dar felt the warmth begin to seep through her and she relaxed, stretching her long legs out and gazing at the now impotent weather. "They don't sell those in Miami." She commented with a sigh. "You looking forward to carrier duty?"

He nodded. "I am.. it means not seeing the folks for a while.. but it gives me a chance at some action." He glanced at her. "I mean… don't get me wrong.. I'm not looking to go drop bombs on someone, okay?"

Blue eyes flicked to his face, and Dar let a tiny, understanding smile cross her lips. "I know."

"But you train, and train.. it would be sort of nice to be able to use that, you know? It's like if all you could do is run test pattern all day.. that'd be kinda boring."

"That's true." Dar acknowledged quietly. "I guess it's just that we all hope all that training won't be put to use…even though it's looking more and more likely that we'll just end up being the world police force."

Jack looked at her, before returning his attention to the road. "You don't like that idea?" He asked, curiously. "I never thought you had a problem with the use of force, Dar."

She thought about the question. "You know.. I never thought I did either.. God knows I was anxious enough to go into the special forces… I know I wouldn't have been behind a desk there."

"You'd have been a rocking SEAL, Dar." Jack grinned. "Kicked their stuffed up blue butts, I bet." He glanced at her. "No offense to your daddy."

"Maybe." Dar smiled quietly. "It's an attractive thought.. to have that kind of power.. might makes right.. all that kind of thing.. I think I could have done it." She remembered wanting to… remembered the taste of blood on her tongue when she'd fairly bitten through it, when her father's last effort at getting her into the program had failed. She'd been so close… so close to being allowed to join that fraternity. She knew most of the guys.. she knew she'd even have had a chance to break down the walls of that male only thing, because they knew her.. they knew her father.. they knew her capabilities.

They knew she could stick it when the hard stuff came down, and put a knife where it needed to go.

Instead, stunned, and angry, she'd turned her back on the service, and gone a different route. A path no less dangerous, with enemies just as sneaky, but with one major difference. There, she would have been a killer.

Here, she was not.

She had no idea why, all of a sudden, that mattered.

Jack pulled into the driveway of the Easton family home a few minutes later, the tires crunching on dead branches that lined the pavement. He got out and retrieved Dar's duffel, then joined her on the walk up to the front door. "We've got a surprise inside." He murmured, his blue eyes lighting up. "I think you'll like it."

Dar eyed him suspiciously. "Jack, I hate surprises…you know that."

He grinned, and opened the door. "G'wan."

Warily, Dar entered, getting an overwhelming draft of warm cinnamon and baking bread that made her remember she hadn't eaten all day. The inside of the Easton home was large and spacious, a huge entryway leading off into a sunken living room, and directly ahead, the kitchen where all the nice smells were coming from. Mary Easton poked her head out as she heard the door open. "Dar! Lookit you! C'mere!" She hurried out, sticking a stirring spoon in her apron pocket and smiling. She was a short, round woman with a friendly, open face.

"Hello, mamma Mary." Dar had to smile back, getting her arms open in time to receive a fragrant hug.

"My gosh, did you get taller?" The tiny woman demanded, looking up at her. "Honey, you look wonderful… you been out on vacation or something?"

"Nope.. " Dar chuckled pushing her hair back a trifle self consciously. "Just had some time out in the sun recently.. we have that down there, you know."

"Jack, set that bag up in the guest room… then c'mon down and show Darry your new friends." Mary's eyes twinkled. "I got some fresh apple bread.. you want a slice?"

"Sure… it smells great." The taller woman replied, setting her laptop down on the low table near the couch, and unfastening her jacket. "It's great to see you."

"C'mon with me." Mary latched onto her arm and tugged her towards the kitchen. "I've got a dozen things going.. I am so glad you let Gerry talk you into coming up here." She bustled into the large open room, mostly white with blue checkerboards around the edges, and went to the cooling rack near the stove. "Here.. put your teeth in this…I know you like it."

Dar chuckled. "Ah..yes.. I hear my staff's been snitching on me." She settled on one of the stools and glanced around, appreciating the workmanlike efficiency of the space.

"Now.. don't you be mad at them.. " Mary laughed, as she handed a slice of the warm, spicy bread to Dar, after spreading a bit of butter on the top. "And honey, I have to just tell you something.. that assistant of yours down in Miami is just the sweetest person I've ever talked to in my life."

Dar smiled around her mouthful of bread, and chewed a moment, swallowing before she answered. "Kerry?"

Mary nodded. "Yes.. what a nice woman… and you know, I mean I realize it's a business, and you people don’t' probably even talk to each other outside the building, not like we do here in the service, but I think she really likes you."

"Oh really?" Dar's eyes twinkled. "What makes you say that?"

Mary beamed at her. "Just her voice.. when she said your name, you could tell she was smiling all the time."

Dar grinned a little. "Well, yes, Kerry is a very, very nice person, and in fact, we're pretty close friends outside work too." Little fink.. she hadn't even mentioned Mary had called… I'll have to think up something suitably sneaky to do to her in revenge. "Glad you liked her."

Jack came back in and tugged Dar's jacket. "Hey.. let me take that for you… and c'mon with me."

The surprise. Dar amiably stood, and shrugged out of her jacket, letting Jack fold it over his arm, then followed him out the back door to the kitchen and down two steps to a utility room. "You ready?" He whispered mischievously.

Dar could hear some small, muffled noises behind the door she was in front of, but she couldn’t quite make out what they were. "Um… sure." She replied uncertainly, stepping a pace back as he opened the door, and moved aside.

A living tide of fur engulfed her legs, and her eyes widened. "Good grief!"

Nine squirming, stumbling, squeaking puppies were clustered around her boots, tugging at them, and sniffing her with wildly wagging taillets.

"Go on.. say hello." Jack grinned. "They're Alabaster's."

Dar looked up, before she allowed herself the indulgence of dropping to one knee, and sorting among the puppies. Alabaster was Gerald's staid, dignified Labrador Retriever, an animal so pale colored she was almost white, hence the name. "They're gorgeous."

The puppies scrambled up her leg, crying and she slid down into a seated position, letting them climb all over her. "Damn.. they're so cute.. " She picked up one, a tiny boy who wriggled frantically as she brought him close, then nibbled on her ear. "Yow."

Jack set her jacket aside and sat down next to her, attracting his own mini herd. "Aren't they?" He scratched a large female behind the ears. "They're five weeks old…we've got homes for some of them." He paused, watching the puppy snuggle down in Dar's arms, and gaze up at her adoringly. "Which one do you want?"

Dar looked up from where she was playing with a puppy paw. "No.. sorry, I… " She fell silent for a moment, thinking. "Are you serious?"

Jack cocked his head at her. "Sure… dad and I talked about it.. he worries about you, y'know.. he thinks a Lab would be perfect for you." He scratched a puppy's chest. "They're loyal, friendly…obedient.. you could take them on walks… it would be good for ya."

Dar didn't answer for a minute. She gazed down at the small head now nuzzling her chest, it's tiny black nose sniffing interestedly at her hair. Innocent brown eyes blinked up at her, and the small muzzle opened, to reveal a soft, u-shaped pink tongue. First fish, now a puppy? What in the hell's happening to you, Dar? "Let me think about it." She finally said, looking up with a wry smile. "I.. really appreciate the offer."

Jack grinned, then turned as Alabaster entered, sniffing after her puppies with a worried Labrador frown. She spotted Dar, and whuffed in amazement, then plowed her way through the herd and proceeded to lick the executive's face in a thorough, professional manner.

"Easy.. " Dar laughed, patting her side. "Yeah.. I'm glad to see you too, girl." She leaned back against the washing machine and sighed, letting puppies run all over her legs. Well, if she couldn't be with Kerry, this wasn't a bad second choice. Outside, the wind was howling, and branches thumped against the roof, but she just grinned over at Jack and inclined her head towards the living room. "You up for a fire?"

He grinned back and reached a hand over to help her up. "Can you still split a log like you used to?"

"Guess we'll find out." Dar replied, as she headed up the steps, carefully shedding puppies as she went.


Kerry yawned a little, as she woke up, letting her eyes scan the quiet room and taking in her sister's sleeping form with a tiny smile Dawn was just breaking outside, and the first tendrils of pinkish gray were barely visible between the trees in the backyard.

She lay there for a moment, then decided she wasn't going to get back to sleep, and slipped out from under the covers, padding across the carpeted floor and kneeling in front of her duffel bag. Her body felt a little antsy, and she decided a quick run around the lake wouldn't be a bad idea, so she pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt, over a thick T-shirt, and tugged on her sneakers.

Running hadn't been a favorite of hers, but lately, since she'd been joining Dar when she stayed over at the island, and Dar had coaxed her out on nighttime runs at her apartment, she'd developed a taste for it. Or so she told herself. At any rate, it didn't require any special equipment, right? She walked quietly down the stairs, and to the back door, hearing only the faint stirrings of someone working in the kitchen. She undid the latch and slipped out, sucking in a breath as the cold morning air hit her. "Whoa boy." She muttered, stretching quickly, before she broke in to light jog, and headed for the path. "Better warm up fast."

The path was a well kept gravel one, and she found it with no problem, her feet settling into a familiar easy rhythm as she allowed her body to wake up. The cold air made her blink a little at first, but she got used to it, and took in a lungful as she reached the turn that would take her around the perimeter of the small lake.

It was quiet. She was the only one out her at this hour, and her footsteps against the gravel seemed echoingly loud to her. No sounds but the wind itself reached her, and she realized she'd become so accustomed to Miami's verdant fauna, that the absence of birds, and crickets seemed odd and strange to her. She thought about Bob the Duck, as she let her strides move her down the lakeside. Bob was an old friend, who lived in the drainage canal near her apartment. On summer nights, she often ended up gazing over the black, rippling water, and often as not, Bob would come find her.

She'd taken to keeping bread crusts in her pockets for the old white duck, and on many nights, she'd actually sit down, letting the faint breeze cool her from the muggy heat for a while, until the familiar, waddling shape headed her way.

Kerry smiled as she thought of him, remembering the suspicious look he'd given Dar when she'd brought her new friend over to meet her old one. It had taken ten minutes or so before Bob had grudgingly come over, waggling his tail at the taller woman, and quacking a protest to her.

Her breath appeared as a steady, visible stream, and she glanced around, wishing her running companion was with her. She'd had to really push herself to keep up with Dar, since as much as she kidded the taller woman about her love of chocolate and other sinful indulgences, Dar really was in good shape, and it showed in the effortlessness of her running and her ability to add little interesting additions to her morning workout.

Like juggling. She'd hardly believed it when she'd first seen Dar scoop up three rocks, then while they were running around the island, juggle them neatly as she went. She said it developed balance, and coordination, and made your upper body work too, when running mostly just did things to your legs and lower body.

Juggling. Jesus.. Kerry was positive she'd fall right on her face if she even tried it. She continued on around the lake, going downhill, then rounding the back end and heading back up hill again. That part, she acknowledged, she missed in Miami, where the only hills were freeway overpasses. She could feel the strain in her thighs and calves, but she kept on, pushing through the tightness like Dar had taught her.

It was a two mile circuit, and she was glad to see the house at the end of it when she made it back up to the top of the hill, her breath coming hard, and the sweat standing out against her skin. The sun was up by now, and she slowed to a walk as she hit the path up towards the kitchen door, pacing herself, and trying to catch her breath. Dar had said stamina would come to her after a while, and she felt satisfied with the effort as she climbed up the steps and into the yard.

Stopping short at the tall, casual figure waiting there, silver hair outlined in the dawn light. Kerry sucked in a breath. "Morning, Kyle." She said, warily.

"Well well." Kyle pushed away from the post he'd been leaning on and walked over to her. "Don't we look dewy." He chuckled. "Becoming the regular little athlete, aren't you?"

Kerry stared at him evenly. "I wouldn’t say that."

"Wouldn't you?" Kyle inquired lazily, wiping a finger through the sweat on her cheek. "I don't know… you join a gym, start taking karate lessons.. now this.. makes me wonder." His eyes raked her. "Not very ladylike."

"Ladies can be physically fit." The blond woman commented softly. "And I don't think it's any of your concern, Kyle."

He studied her. "You'd be surprised at what's my concern, girl." He replied easily. "Especially when it has to do with my future niece….got me?" 5088962338

Kerry's green eyes narrowed. "I think you're overstepping your bounds, Kyle."

"And I think there's something going on with you that I don't like.. and that your daddy won't like… and it's going to be wonderful when I find out what that is, cupcake." He chucked her under the chin. "Go take a shower. You stink." Then he turned and strolled off, trotting down the stairs and heading out towards the garage.

"Not nearly as badly as you do, asshole." Kerry enunciated sharply, under her breath. She turned and made her way up the stairs and into the back entrance, where she was spotted by Mary. "Oh.. morning, Mary."

"Ms. Kerry… g'morning." The middle aged black woman nodded at her. "Was you out running? My goodness.. it's too cold for that, you're gonna catch your death if you're not careful."

Kerry ran her fingers through her hair. "It's okay.. I got warmed up pretty fast." She smiled at the servant, who had been with their household since Kerry was a child. "Any chance of some muffins?"

Mary looked both ways, then leaned closer. "Well you know.. your mamma done told us not to be giving you stuff like that, on account of her thinking it's bad for you, but I gotta say, Ms. Kerry.. you're looking mighty healthy to me."

Kerry now looked both ways, then pulled off her sweatshirt and T-shirt, leaving her in her sports bra She held out her hands. "Do I look like a muffin's gonna hurt me?"

Mary looked her up and down. "Mm mm… no ma'am you don't.. I'll be getting you that muffin, but please, put those clothes back on before one of the gentlemen sees you."

"Thank you." Kerry smiled, and pulled her shirt back on, waiting patiently while Mary disappeared, then reappeared with a small basket.

"Here you go.. two hot blueberry muffins, and something to put on em.. you go and enjoy yourself." She handed Kerry the basket, and shooed her away.

The blond woman grinned in triumph, and ducked into the hallway, heading for the stairs and trotting up them, as Mary watched her.

Elizabeth walked over and nudged her cohort. "What you lookin at?"

"Mm mm.. that girl sure grew up nice." Mary clucked her tongue. "She is the spawn of the devil pulling off her clothes like that in front of me… that was one pretty little navel."

"You old whore." Liz chuckled deep in her throat.

"Child, please.. I'd like to know who finally talked some sense into her.. damn good job it was, too. " Mary shook her head. "Best thing she ever did was get out of this house."

"Hm.. best for her if she never came back into it." Liz stated softly, as she reached for the tablecloths to fold.


"Did you know we could get this stuff twenty four of twenty four a day?" Gerald Easton pointed at the screen. "They keep telling me they got a cable channel for everything, now I believe it.." They were watching the Military Channel, a station which showed earnest programs featuring the armed services. "Damnedest thing.. look at that, Dar.. they're selling fatigues like it was the Home Shopping Network."

Dar stretched her legs out and crossed them, letting her head rest against the couches soft back. "Makes money… lots of civs collect and use that stuff.. Jesus.. 88 bucks for a pair of reg boots?"

"Hmph." Easton sucked on his pipe and shook his head. "Modern crap… what in the hell is someone going to do with a case of MRE's? I wouldn't feed those things to Alabaster.. she'd bite me right in the.. ah… "

"Leg." Dar supplied, with a dry grin. "Well, we're between games, Gerry… it beats watching 'Pilgrims, Reevaluating the Conquest of America' again."

"Communists." The general snorted. "Fashionable nowadays to see history in the worst light possible."

Dar muffled a grin, and looked up as Jack appeared in the doorway, hefting a football.

"You up for some catch, Dar?" The tall blond man grinned. "Weather cleared…figure we could work up an appetite outside."

"You bet." Dar pushed herself to her feet and followed him willingly outside, laughing as Alabaster plowed past them, anxious to escape the tiny teeth of her nine voracious puppies for a little while. She moved across the still damp lawn as the sun filtered down, and took a breath of the cold wind the swept down, pushing aside the little unease in her guts she'd had since mid morning.

Baby.. give it a rest, Dar.. just because Kerry didn't call you twice probably means everything's fine..she's out with her family, and maybe even having a good time. "G'wan."

Jack tossed her the football, which she caught one handed, then examined. "Nice one." She complimented it's owner, noting the scuffing of long use before she wrapped her fingers around the laces and tossed it back.

"So.. how's things with the company?" Jack asked, throwing the ball back to her. "Still running the world behind the scenes?"

Dar caught it and whipped it back, putting a little more arm into the throw. "More or less.. you win some, you lose some.. it's been a pretty good year for us this year."

"Yow.." Jack shook his hand as he caught the football. "Jesus, Dar.. you can still put a sting on that thing, you know?"

"Sorry." The dark haired woman grinned.

"Yeah, right." Jack winged it back. "You ever regret doing that stuff?" He asked offhandedly. "I mean.. you know, someone with your skills could make good bucks in the service."

Dar stopped in mid throw, and put her hands on her hips, or rather, one hand and one football. "Are you trying to recruit me?"

He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked up through boyish eyebrows. "Who, me?" He laughed sheepishly. "I don't know, Dar… you always fit into the military world.. I was just wondering if you didn't sometimes think about coming back in."

Dar juggled the football then threw it back. "Too late for that." She told him. "I'm too used to giving orders.. I'd never last a minute." It was, she knew, an honest admission. "I"d be telling some five star to get his starched ass out of the way so I could get to a mainframe, and end up scrubbing heads with a brillo pad."

Jack caught the ball and threw it back. "Just a thought." He commented. "Can't blame me for trying, can you?"

They played for a while longer, then switched to a new game, where one of them would take the ball, and try to get past the other. "Tag or tackle?" Jack asked, playfully.

"Me and what bulldozer are going to tackle you?" Dar snorted.

"Chicken." He grinned.

Dar felt her competitive spirit surge. "All right.. but don't say I didn't warn you.. " She grabbed the ball and took off running, as he yelped and jumped after her.

"Shit.. Dar! Not fair!" He ran faster, skidding past her as she dodged, and jumped over a small hedge in the yard. He jumped the hedge after her, then there was only an open field in front of them. "Ah.. I gotcha now."

"Think so, huh?" Dar leaned forward and sped up, lengthening her strides until she was running full out, hearing his determined steps behind her. "Man, you pilots spend too much time sitting on your butts." She yelled back, as she powered between two tall trees at the end of the rolling field and slowed, letting him roar past her and skid to a halt in the wet grass. "Heh.. my score."

"You…you… " Jack shook a finger at her. "Damn, Dar.. for someone who spends all day behind a desk, you sure got a pair of legs on you."

She flipped him the ball. "Your turn."

He considered, then bolted away, tucking the ball under his arm with a professional air. Dar gave him a few steps grace, then she started after him, running at a slight angle to his path. She closed on him, and waited for him to dodge away, then changed her angle again and sped up, correctly predicting his next turn and hurling her body against his, wrapping her arms around him and letting her momentum and weight swing them both around.

They landed in the grass with a thump.

"Shit." Jack sighed.

Dar released him and sat up, dusting the knees of her jeans off as she broke into a laugh.

Jack scowled, then he laughed too. "I should have remembered not to challenge you." He admitted. "You always had a way of coming out on top."

She was about to answer, when the cell phone clipped to her belt chirped. She retrieved it and opened it up. "Yes?"

"Happy Thanksgiving." Kerry's voice sounded a touch strained, but otherwise warm.

"Same to you.. how are things?" Dar stretched her legs out before her, and plucked a grass stem, as Jack reclined on the grass, putting his hands behind his head and gazing up at the clouds.

"Okay." Kerry sighed. "Mom's been working on me all morning, trying to convince me of how much more appropriate it would be for me to come home now, so she has time to prepare for the wedding."

"Ah." Dar exhaled. "So you haven't broken the news to them yet, huh?" She kept her tone sympathetic. Alabaster trotted over and nuzzled her, and she petted the Labrador absently. "Sounds like it's going to cause a big bang."

"Yeah." The blond woman muttered into the phone. "What are you doing?"

Dar wiggled her sneakers. "Sitting in the grass, actually… I was just playing some catch with Jack." She admitted. "Getting some exercise in before we go inside and have Mamma Easton stuff us until we explode."

"Boom!" Jack mouthed, spreading his hands out in pantomime. Alabaster ambled over and nosed him .

"Wish I was there." Kerry admitted. "Sounds like a lot more fun than it is here.. I'm going to run into town for a while with Angela, just to get away from all the nonsense. I took a look at the mail, by the way.. and answered that one you sent, and a few others."

"Good girl." Dar smiled. "Getting away sounds like a good idea… maybe after today they'll settle down a little."

"Maybe." Kerry replied, reluctantly. "Well, anyway…let me get going.. just wanted to say hi, and I hope you enjoy your dinner."

"You too." Dar answered.

"Not likely." Came the uncharacteristically pessimistic retort. "But I'll give it the old college try… talk to you later, Dar."

Dar closed the phone thoughtfully, and clipped it back onto her belt. Damn she sounds depressed. "Families can be such hell." She commented audibly.

"Hmm?" Jack turned his head. "Oh.. yeah, I guess… was that your office?"

"No.. my assistant.. she's home and having a tough time with her folks."

Slowly, Jack rolled over, and propped his head up on one hand. "Dar… I… " He fell silent, then plucked a stem of grass, not looking at her. "I need some advice."

Dar drew up one knee and circled it with an arm. "Sure."

He hesitated. "Have you… ever had to tell someone.. I mean, someone you really cared about, something you knew was going to hurt them.. and make them feel… disappointed in you?"

Uh oh. Dar considered carefully before she answered. "Yes… I have… why?"

He looked up, his blue eyes meeting Dar's. "Was it hard?"

She nodded. "Very."

He looked back at the ground. "Do you think, sometimes.. it's better not to tell?"

"Well.. " Dar sighed. "It depends on what it is, and who the other person is…an elderly grandmother, for instance, you don't want to go telling that her long dead husband was actually a swindler… it serves no purpose."

He nodded.

"But important things… Jack, they have a way of coming out anyway." The hypocrisy of what she was saying hit her, and she winced in reflex.

"Funny you should put it that way." He replied softly.

Her eyes fastened on his bent head, an eyebrow edging up. "You wanna tell me what's going on? You know I can keep my mouth shut."

He swallowed, and nervously fingered the grass. "Dar, you've known me since I was in short pants." He exhaled. "We grew up together.. did I ever seem.. not normal to you?"

Dar let out a snort of laughter. "Jack, you're the most normal person I know.. you're a stereotype for a navy brat, and you know it."

Jack nodded. "That's what I thought… that's what I always thought.. until last May." He fell silent for a long moment. "I got a new back seat."

It took Dar a minute to realize he was talking about his flying partner, and not a car part. "Yeah?" She prodded, cautiously.

"Robbie.. yeah… Robin Hood, we call him." Jack seemed intently interested in examining the grass stalks. "We.. um… we hit it off real good, you know? Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don't… I've had some back seats I couldn't hardly stand to talk to, and some that are my buddies even now."

"Uh huh." Dar murmured. "Nice guy, huh?"

"Yeah." Jack sighed. "We started hanging around together, and I.. um… I.. I .. it's never happened to me before, but I.. I kept wanting to.. to touch him."

Dar's eyes closed briefly, and she shifted, biting her lip. "Yeah.. and?" She kept her voice interested, but unalarmed.

"And.. at first I thought I was just… I thought I was sick, okay? I hadn't had a girlfriend in a while, and … well, you know." He looked miserable. "And I… I… I just told myself that I should go into a corner.. and… and.. "

"I know." Dar replied softly. "So what happened?"

He ripped a few blades of grass up. "I was coming back from the shower.. and.. and he came into my quarters.. and he.. um… he.. " He fell silent again.

"He touched you?" Dar guessed, and got a tiny nod. "And you liked that." Another tiny nod. "All right."

Finally, Jack looked up, fearfully peeking into her blue eyes. "You don't think that's sick?"

Dar reached out and put a hand over his. "That would be incredibly hypocritical of me."

Dead silence. Jack blinked at her. "Bu… " His brows knit. "You…?"

Blue eyes met his evenly. "Do you think that's sick?"

"Dar.. that's insane.. you could have any guy you wanted… I don't… I mean.. you're gorgeous.. I.." He spluttered, winding down.

Dar waited. Finally she sighed. "No, I don't think it's sick.. and you shouldn't either. "

He thought about that. "We were both kind of… we were pretty weirded out." He sighed. "But after a while.. it just seemed okay." He paused. "Until I thought about telling my father."

Dar exhaled. "Yeah."

"Dar, it would kill him." Jack looked up at her. "I'm his only son… he wants grandkids… Jesus, he's given me everything.. done everything in his power for me… I.." His blond head shook back and forth. "I can't do that to him… I love him too much."

What a problem. Dar felt for both her friend, and for Gerald Easton, who, certainly, would be devastated at the news. She didn't really blame Gerald.. he was a prisoner to his generation, his upbringing, and his lifelong devotion to the service. "Tell you what… just put it aside for a few days… let me think about it. Maybe I can come up with an idea." She told him sympathetically.

He looked up at her pathetically. "If you can find a way out of this for me with honor, I'll owe you for the rest of my life, Dar."

She ruffled his hair gently. "That's what friends are for, Jack.. and I don't have many, so I take care of the ones I do have." She gazed at him. "You know, I told your father if I was going to marry anyone, it'd be you."

He blushed a deep, fierce red.

"You know.. " She kidded him gently. "Worse comes to worse, I'll bear you a grandkid for your dad."

He turned a color so dark, his eyebrows stood out in stark whiteness.

She ruffled his hair and chuckled again.


 Kerry closed the phone and went to find Angela. "You ready?" She asked her sister, finding her in the living room.

"Mmhm… let me just get my bag.. hang on." Angela nodded, leaving the room and returning a moment later. "Let's go..they're having a choir recital at the downtown church.. I thought maybe you'd like to hear it."

Anything. "Sure." Kerry agreed readily, following her out the door. They got in Angela's car and drove onto the parkway, passing endless rows of tall, thin bare trees. "This place is depressing, Angie." The blond woman stated softly.

Her sister eyed her. "You're just now noticing that?"

"Guess I never had a contrast before…you have to come visit me sometimes in Miami." Kerry responded. "It's so different.. I could take you out to Bayside… or the Grove.. maybe down into the Keys… I think you'd like it."

Angela sighed. "Maybe if Brian and I end up running away from home, we'll end up down by you." She told her sister wryly. "Is there a market for earnest lawyers down there?"

Kerry gazed at her a long time. "Have you talked about that, or are you just razzing me?" She asked. "Of course there's a market for lawyers.. are you kidding? He could make a living alone just representing one of our politicians on voter fraud charges."

Her sister exhaled. "We talked about it." She admitted. "A lot had to do with how you… I mean, you know."

"Reacted to the news?" Kerry smiled.

"Mmm… more or less, yeah…I don't know.. it's such a huge step, but if I try to separate or divorce Richard legally, you know I'll never get out of here." She navigated an interchange. "You know he'll demand custody, and you know father will just go crazy."

"Yeah." Kerry acknowledged softly. "I don't know.. that seems really drastic, Angie.. but I won't lie to you and tell you I wouldn't be glad to have you down there." She smiled at her sister. "In fact, I know a nice apartment in Kendall that might be available sometime soon."

Angela darted a look at her. "Oh really?" She signalled, and turned off the expressway, heading into town. Low, brown brick buildings began to travel by on either side of the road. "That's moving kind of fast, isn't it?"

Kerry leaned back and braced a knee against the dashboard. "It was just something Dar said.. before I left. She said next year we'd have Thanksgiving on the Island. It surprised me, because she's someone who really values her privacy, you know?" She exhaled. "But when we're together.. it's like there's no.. personal space.. if that makes sense. She doesn't get on my nerves, or make me uncomfortable to be around, and I don't make her that way.. I don’t think." She paused reflectively. "I know that when I woke up this past Sunday, I realized I wanted to wake up with her next to me for a long time to come."

Angela slowed to turn into the church. "Well, don't take things too quickly.. I know you guys really like each other, but that's a big step, Ker."

Kerry laughed gently. "I have to wait for her to ask…you know? It could take months.. and I was trying to figure out how she'd do it.. probably really matter of fact.. 'You know, Kerry, it would be more cost efficient to use one car to go to work, and my place is closer. What about it?'"

Angela laughed. "Really?"

"Oh yeah.. that's Dar.. no flowery speech or anything.. she's very practical and straightforward." Kerry assured her, then paused. "Though I did come back from lunch to find a rose on my desk once." She amended thoughtfully.

Angela parked the car and sighed. "Sounds pretty darn romantic to me, sis." She commented wistfully. They got out and walked across the parking lot, joining several groups of other people heading for the church's entrance.

It was a tall, brick building with inset stained glass windows, and mahogany pews burnished to a rich glow. Kerry joined Angela in greeting several long time neighbors, and took some good natured kidding about her suntan, before they seated themselves to listen to the choir.

The room featured a huge organ, and a triple semi circle of singers, who delivered a more than creditable performance of some old, and well known hymns. Kerry felt the familiar sounds relaxing her, and she was able, for a few minutes, to forget her surroundings and simply enjoy the music.

"Nice recital." Kerry murmured, as it ended, the last booming tones of the organ echoing off softly against the building's interior. "I liked that last piece a lot."

Her sister smiled. "Me too.. c'mon.. let's go talk to Pastor Robert." She edged out of the row, and headed back towards the administrative part of the church, waving a little at several friends who waved back, and called out greetings to both her and Kerry. She led Kerry to a small door and knocked on it.

"Come in." A soft, vibrant voice answered.

Angela pushed the door open and poked her head in. "Pastor Robert?"

"Angela.. what a nice surprise. Come in." The pastor waved at her.

She opened the door fully and pulled Kerry in with her. "Look who I brought."

The pastor stood. "Kerrison!" He smiled at her.

Kerry moved forward, smiling back. Pastor Robert was a huge bear of a man, easily six and a half feet tall, and perhaps two hundred and fifty pounds. His bearded face took on a look of delight as she came closer. "Hello, Pastor Robert."

"Kerrison… goodness, let me look at you." He took her by the shoulders and beamed at her. "You look wonderful.. I can hardly belive it. "

Kerry smiled. "Thanks.. you look great, too." She patted his arm.

"Um.. I'm going to get some recipes Mrs. Van Ardyn owes me. .I'll be right back, Ker." Angela was gone before she could even turn around, and she spared her sister a wry roll of the eyes.

"Sit down.. sit down." The pastor was saying, motioning her to a bench next to the one he'd been sitting on, arranging sheets of music. "Are you home then for good?"

"Just for a visit." Kerry shook her head. "I'm.. very happy down in Miami."

"Oh." He seemed surprised. "But I thought your mother… well, nevermind." He sat down and patted her knee. "How are you doing?"

"I'm doing fine… I got a new job, that I really like, and a whole group of really good friends… it's been great." Kerry answered quietly. "How about you?"

He lifted a large hand and let it drop. "As always.. the seasons turn, it gets colder gets warmer.. but's my favorite time of the year, so I can't complain." He sighed, and leaned back. "Things are good in the congregation.. prices are steady… we're not at war…all in all, not bad."

Kerry regarded him. "That's good to hear." She hesitated, then searched his eyes. "Pastor, can I ask you something?"

He nodded. "Yes, of course…are you having trouble finding a community down there? Can I help? You know you've always been one of my favorite people, Kerry.."

She settled her elbows on her knees, and interlaced her fingers. "I remember.. when you used to preach on Sundays, every once in a while you'd talk about.. um.. something you called soulmates." The word rolled around her tongue in utter familiarity.

"Yes… in fact, I discussed it at pulpit just last week." He agreed. "The old fable of each person being born with two heads, and four arms and legs, then being split in two.. to roam the world ever after looking for the other half."

"Mm. . yeah." Kerry rubbed her thumbs together. "Do you believe in that story?"

He paused a moment before answering. "Yes, I do… if what you mean is, do I believe in that special kind of love in which two people seemed to be destined to be a part of each other, yes.. not that I'm rewriting the creation history, you understand."

Kerry smiled wryly. "I understand." She patted his arm. "But.. how do you know if you've been lucky enough to find someone like that?" She asked.

He reached over and tipped her chin up, gazing into her eyes somberly. "Because when you look at them, you see everything you need in this world to complete yourself."

Kerry closed her eyes. "Oh." She uttered softly.

"Have you found someone like that, Kerrison?" His voice was very gentle.

She opened her eyes. "Yes.. I think I have." She exhaled. "It's someone I met not too long ago, but who I've become very close to.. and it's like you said, when I look at them, it's like I feel their hands closing very gently over my heart." She paused. "Holding it safely."

"I never knew you for a poet, child." A slow, sweet smile crossed his face. "But it's not my friend Brian, is it?"

"No." Kerry replied softly. "He's one of my best friends, and I love him, but… no."

Pastor Robert blew a long breath out. "And you haven't told your parents, I take it? No, of course you haven't…your mother still thinks… ah.. what a web of tangles we have here." He pondered. "Well, perhaps you should consider explaining as you have to me.. I'm sure your parents, once they get to know this person, will be happy for you."

Kerry shook her head sadly. "No, Pastor Robert, they won't.. they won't accept this person." She looked down again. "Except for my sister, I'm not close with my family… but this will put something between us I don't think any amount of time will heal."

He sighed. "God has a way of healing even the worst of wounds, my friend…how bad can this person be, that they would give up a daughter?"

Kerry hesitated, then took a deep breath. "She's not a bad person at all." She stated simply, and let the comment fall between them.

He went quite still for a few breaths, then reached up and tugged on his beard. "Ah." His voice was quietly reflective. "That's a toughie."

Kerry found herself smiling in reaction. "You have any advice? I'm willing to listen.. half of me wants to just get it over with, and the other half is scared to death to even start."

"Hm." He cocked his head. "Well, it's the cowards way out, I suppose.. but what I'd do is wait until you're ready to leave to go…home." He smiled at her. "And just tell them then.. just a flat statement, and then leave. Get someone else to take you to the airport, and just go." He clasped her hand. "The holidays are a very emotional time…it's hard for people to cope with situations while they're under that kind of stress, especially on Thanksgiving, which is so family oriented."

She considered that. "You know, that's good advice." She admitted. "Just play along until then.. it'll make the weekend a lot more pleasant."

He nodded. "That's what I did." He told her softly, then put a finger up to his lips.

How had Angela known? Kerry blinked at him in mild shock. "Oh." She got a pat on the cheek. "I see." Her eyes darted around the room. "But…you…"

"Yes, and if they knew, I"d be out of a job." Robert stated quietly. "So I know what it is to live with a secret, Kerry… but there are things in life worth risking that for." He paused. "A soulmate is one of them."

Kerry slowly nodded. "It's worth risking everything for. " She let out a breath. "Thank you, Pastor Robert."

He gazed at her fondly. "I wish you all the joy in the world, my friend…I'll pray for you, and for your parents understanding." He stood and waited for her to stand as well, then hugged her. "Be well."

She smiled and patted his side. "You too." A knock at the door made her look up, and it pushed open to reveal Angela's face. "C'mon in."

"Silvia Cessnes wants to know if we want to sit down and have coffee with them… you up for it?" Angela asked.

"Yeah.. that would be nice." Kerry agreed. Silvia Cessnes was one of her favorite high school teachers. "Happy Thanksgiving, Pastor Robert."

"Same to you, Kerry… and you too, Angela… thanks for stopping by." He led her to the door and waved at them, before closing it at Kerry's back.

"Everything okay?" Angela asked in a whisper.

Kerry smiled. "Everything's great.. come on, I bet they have fresh Linzer tortes at the coffee shop." She tugged on Angela's sleeve, and led her down the corridor.

Never seeing the tall, dark form that watched her go, then walked off in the opposite direction.


"Wasn't she a trip?" Kerry laughed, as she and Angela climbed up the stairs to the room they'd shared the previous night. "She hasn't changed a bit." She pushed the door open, and walked inside, then stopped.

It wasn't obviously messy, but someone had been going through her things. Angela stopped too, seeing the papers strewn around her laptop case. "What's going on?"

Kerry's heart hammered in her chest, and she walked over, looking inside the zippered compartment with shaking fingers. "Oh shit."

"What?" Her sister peered over her shoulder anxiously.

"The pictures." She breathed. "How could I have been so stupid." In pure reflex, she reached for her cellphone then stopped. What am I going to call and tell her, how dumb I was? "Shit."

Angela blew out a breath. "Man… I can't believe they came in here and rifled through your stuff.. Kerry, that's disgusting."

"I should have remembered.. it was standard operating procedure when we were in high school, remember? Looking for god knows what." Kerry pushed her hair back and tried to think. Were the pictures that incriminating? A few of the island.. pretty innocuous.. the boat.. also could be anywhere… the two of Dar in her suit.. well… then she sighed. And the last one, which she'd had Colleen take of them together in her apartment on the couch, Dar's arm draped over her shoulders and Kerry's left leg slung over the taller woman's knees. Both of them smiling, Dar's eyes on her in unmistakable affection that even the camera had caught. Oh shit.

"What are you going to do?" Angela murmured. "He's going to go insane, you know that."

"I know." Kerry murmured. "I guess I'll just have to be honest… but Angie, I might need to get out of here… "

"I'll take you.. don't worry." Her sister replied instantly. "And Brian will be here in a little while too." She rubbed Kerry's back gently. "I'm sorry… I didn't think about them doing this."

Kerry closed her eyes. "Me either.. and I should have.. I know better.. especially after what happened the other day." She turned around and leaned on the desk. "My place got broken into.. turned upside down and searched, and someone poisoned my fish."

Angela stared at her in shock. "You don't think.. "

"Kyle visted, coincidentally, the next day." Kerry replied shortly. "Dar was there…she was going to keep out of sight, but he started… pawing at me, and she…' A pause. "She stopped him."

Angela digested this. "Kyle can be really scary.. Brian thinks he's half nuts or something.. ever since that military thing."

"Dar can be scary too." Kerry responded. "She's as tall as he is, and she doesn't look like someone you want to mess around with too much." She considered. "She probably kicked him right in the ego."

"He'd try to get back at her for that." Angela said, softly. "He's really smart, Ker.. and he's got a lot of tricks up his sleeve… I bet he's the one who went through your stuff."

Kerry stood there breathing a moment, then she flipped her cellphone open and punched a button. "Hey." She spoke quietly when Dar answered.

"Hey…" Dar sounded surprised. "Didn't expect to hear from you again so soon.. not that I mind.. what's up?"

"I'm an idiot." Kerry admitted softly. "I did something very stupid, Dar… I left those pictures I'd taken in my laptop case, and someone went through my stuff here and found them."

"Ah." The executive's voice sounded thoughtful. "So the cat's out, eh? Well, I hope they like my suit."

Kerry paused, feeling a calming wave pass over her. "You don't think I'm a total fool?"

Dar hesitated. "Why'd you bring the pictures?" She asked quietly.

"Um… " Kerry blushed. "To show you off to my sister."

A soft chuckle warmed her. "And I'm supposed to think that's foolish? Nah.. bad luck, but…keep your head together, and if they've got questions, just answer them. Don't let them rattle you."

"All right." The blond woman squared her shoulders a little. "Thanks, Dar."

"Let me know what happens, okay?" Her boss urged gently.

"Yeah.. I will." Kerry reassured her. "Bye." She closed the phone and tucked in into her belt. "Dar says, just stay cool, and see what happens."

Angela put an arm around her. "She sounds like a good friend, on top of everything else."

Kerry nodded absently. "She is.. I know I can count on her." She carefully put her things away. "Okay.. let's change, and go downstairs… the rest of the family should be arriving, that should give me a grace period over dinner, at least." She unbuttoned the soft flannel green shirt she'd worn to town and tugged it from her jeans, pulling off the shirt and folding it neatly before she tucked it inside her bag. "I could just make them explode by wearing jeans to dinner, I guess."

Angela removed a beige, pleated skirt and a long sleeve shirt from her own bag, along with a pearl embroidered pink wool sweater. "Kerry… "

She smiled. "Just kidding." Her jeans followed the shirt into the bag, and she removed the blue green skirt and jacket outfit Dar had picked out for her in Macy's. The silk blouse followed, and she pulled out her good shoes. "There.. they can't complain about that."

"Wow." Angela commented, as she changed into it. "That's very nice, Ker."

Her sister tucked the silk blouse into her skirt neatly, and zipped it, then settled her jacket over her shoulders. "Thanks… it's one of the new ones I got for work when I changed jobs… I really like it."

Angela finished changing and walked over, brushing a speck of dust from Kerry's lapel and straightening the sleeves a little. "Nice pin."

Green eyes glanced down, then back up. "A gift.. though I didn't know it at the time.. Dar picked this one out as a favor.. she was along so I'd know what kind of stuff to wear to the office." She grabbed her brush, and set to work on her wind blown hair, arranging it to her satisfaction, then removing a small bottle from her bag and putting on a touch of perfume.

"Mm.. what is that?" Arlene sniffed.

"Polo.. " Kerry answered absently. "I don't usually wear a lot of it.. but.. "

"I like it." Her sister approved. "C'mon.. let's go downstairs."

Kerry gazed at herself in the mirror, the soft lamplight in the room highlighting her pale hair and making her green eyes glitter. "All right. " She responded. "Let's go."

They walked down the stairs together, hearing a low murmur of voices in the hall, and stepped out onto the landing, heading for the dining room. Eyes turned as they approached, and Kerry felt her back stiffen, as she spotted her father's face, set and angry, where he was standing next to Kyle. She lifted her chin and turned her attention instead to her other relatives, as her aunts and uncles bore down on her. Across the room, she spotted a very nervous looking Brian, and she managed to catch his eye, and smile at him, winking lightly. He visibly relaxed.

"Why, Kerrison.. don't you look lovely." Her Aunt Agatha tottered over. "What a charming color on you, my dear… you look so grown up!"

"I'm twenty seven." Kerry told her kindly. "I thought it was about time."

"Oh.. aren't you clever." The old woman patted her arm. "Eustace, look at how wonderful our niece looks." She peered over Kerry's shoulder. "Honey, your daughter looks just great."

Kerry turned to see her mother bearing down on them. She paused, and eyed Kerry, then gave a grudging nod of approval at her daughter's appearance. "Well, she knows how to make an appearance, of course." The older woman stated loftily. "Dear, your Uncle Milton desperately wants to say hello to you."

"Sure." Kerry replied. "Where is.. oh, right. I see him." Her uncle towered above the rest of the crowd by a good six inches. "Okay.. I'll go over." She started towards him but stopped when her mother pulled her aside a little, and looked her over.

"You do look very nice, Kerrison." She finally admitted, pulling at a tendril of Kerry's pale hair.

Kerry let her smile touch her eyes. "Thanks… mom, I really like the way I look.. and everyone else does too.. can you lay off on the criticism?"

Her mother stiffened "I wasn't…"

"It hurts." Kerry said, very softly.

Her mother stared at her, totally at a loss. "Well, I never." She shook her head and turned, moving a way from Kerry with a bewildered look.

"Jesus.. I'd have to apply for a credit card just to order her a clue." Kerry sighed, as she resumed her walk towards her uncle.

She was intercepted by Brian, who approached her tentatively, then more confidently as she waved him forward. He was a tall man with sandy hair and a loosely knit way of walking, large, powerful hands and a handsome, boyish face. "Hello, Bri." She pulled him into a hug, hearing him suck in a breath. "It's okay." She whispered. "Really okay."

He relaxed, and allowed his arms to circle her, giving her back a hug "Kerriboo, I'm sorry… " His voice was very soft. "I should have called you.. I.. "

"Shh.. " Kerry patted his back. "It's okay.. don't worry about it…I'm fine. .it worked out better this way, honest." They broke apart, arms still loosely linked about each other. "You're still one of my best friends, okay?"

He smiled, and touched his forehead to hers, while aunts and uncles cooed around them. "Aren't they cute?"

Green eyes and gray ones met and rolled together. "C'mon.. if I have to run the gauntlet, you should at least be with me." The blond woman whispered, taking him by the arm and starting across the floor.

It was a long dinner, around the huge table in the formal dining room. Kerry found herself seated between a gaggle of her older relatives, with Brian down the table somewhat, and her sister at the other end. Her father and Kyle, fortunately, were also at the other end. She kept her table mates entertained with stories about Miami, and the customs there, until the dinner was over, and they were all standing up, ready to move into the living room for drinks and conversation.

Maybe she'd get lucky, Kerry mused, and they'd leave it for tomorrow.. in front of all the family would be a bad move. She allowed herself to be dragged into several conversations, and before she knew it, the clock was ringing the midnight chimes, and the guests were starting to leave. She stood and got Angela's attention, then made her goodnights, and headed for the stairs.


Her father's voice. Kerry exhaled., taking a moment to compose herself before she turned around. "Yes?"

He was standing in the doorway, face very grim. "I need to see you in my study, now."

Oh well.. wishful thinking. Kerry ran a hand through her hair, and gathered up her courage. "All right." She replied, and walked towards the study door.

She opened it and passed through. Kyle was in there, perched on her father's broad desk with a smirk on his face. She heard the door close firmly behind her, and Kerry knew, as a shudder passed through her guts, that she was in trouble.

Her father walked past her, and went behind his desk, then pushed a very familiar file folder across it towards her. "I'd like you to explain this."

Kerry remained silent, while she pondered her options. Well, conciliation wasn't going to do any good, so.. "Only if you can explain why you feel it necessary to search my personal belongings." She responded quietly, putting her hands on the back of the chair before the desk and gazing evenly at him.

"Don’t smart mouth me, girl." Her father warned.

"I'm not.. but I am an adult.. and I have the right to carry around whatever things I want to in my briefcase, dad." She kept her voice reasonable. "And not have to worry that people inside my own parent's house are ransacking them." Her temper was building, though, she could feel it.

He thumbed through the pictures, then looked up. "You know what I think? I think I know the reason you all of a sudden decided you wanted to stay down in that hell hole."

Kerry remained silent.

"I think it has nothing to do with your damn little job, and everything to do with that bitch you work for." He slammed his fist down on the table. "What did she do to you, Kerry?"

Minute movements of her eyes as she studied him. "Nothing."

"Nothing? You call this nothing?" He picked up the folder and threw it at her, scattering colorful photographs over the carpet. "I'll have the law on her! It's obvious to me what's going on Kerry, in fact, I can't believe you didn’t' tell me!" He paced back and forth. "Didn't you think I could help you?"

Kerry's brows knit. "Just.. what is it.. you think she did?" She asked, honestly puzzled.

"Forced you into that job, of course! Her reputation… well, I can't say that in front of you, but it's obvious what she's after… my god, girl!" He threw up his hands. "First thing we have to do is get you out of there.. then I'll file a formal protest.. don't you worry, girl… she won't be able to come after you."

"Whoa!" Kerry held up a hand. "Let me get this straight.. you think Dar's trying to seduce me?"

Her father reddened. "Watch your language, young lady." He cleared his throat. "Isn't it obvious?"

Kerry exhaled. "No…dad.. she's not trying to seduce me.. and she didn't force me into that position, either.. it was my choice."

"Stop trying to protect her!" Senator Stuart barked. "It's no good, Kerry… unless you can give me another reasonable explanation of those pictures!"

Long silence. "All right." Kerry finally said, very quietly. "It's a lot simpler than you think… we're in love with each other."

She could hear the carpet fibers unraveling in the deathly stillness that followed her words. The building creaked around them, and she became very aware of her own breathing. She had not, in the furthest stretches of her imagination, considered this conversation going in quite this way.

"What?" Her father finally said, stepping around his desk and facing her.

Kerry felt curiously calm. "Dar's a very special person, and we're in love with each other." She repeated. "And she didn't force me into.."

The impact slammed her against the filing cabinet next to the desk, as her father slapped her hard across the cheek.

"Don't you dare say that." His voice was a hiss. "No daughter of mine is one of those."

Kerry straightened up, and put a hand to her cheek, staring at him.

"You are going to resign from that godless company, and I'll have your apartment packed up and brought home." He enunciated softly. "And we're not going to hear you say anything like that ever again, are we?"

Kerry could hear her own heartbeat thundering in her ears as she came to a personal crossroads. She stared at him for a long moment, breathing hard, then took a final deeper breath. "Go to hell." She spat the words in his face. "I'd rather live homeless than come back here."

He started forward, but she backed up, and put the chair between them, so intent on his progress that she forgot there was another person in the room.

Until a hand slipped over her neck, and something foul and sharp smelling was pressed to her nose and mouth. She struggled wildly, but the grip was too strong, and her body made her breath through the stink.

A numb feeling came over her, and a growing darkness, and with her last thoughts, a silent, beseeching plea went out to the only hero she knew.


Dar woke in a sweat, half rolling out of bed in total disorientation as her senses tried to force the unfamiliar surroundings into some semblance of order. Her heart was pounding, and she was breathing hard, and she gripped the edge of the bed with shaking fingers. "Jesus." She looked around in confusion, seeing only the peaceful moonlight streaming in the double hung window of the Easton's guest room. "What in the hell was that?" She murmured, running her fingers through her hair, and swallowing against the upset in her stomach. "Too much stuffing, I think." She ruefully concluded, realizing it must have been a bad dream brought on by shameless overindulgence in just about everything that night.

Slowly, she straightened up and let out a breath, now wide awake, and knowing she'd be unlikely to drop back off to sleep anytime soon. "Guess I could read a book." She muttered. "Except I don’t have any, and the only thing I saw downstairs was Jane's Military Hardware.. and I've read that."

Sighing, she stood and walked to the small antique writing desk that was settled against the window, and sat down, unzipping her briefcase and pulling out her laptop as she gazed out across the silver and sable landscape. She booted the machine, and sat drumming her fingers until it came up, then she plugged in the modem line and requested a network connection. "Might as well check the mail.. see if there are any crises going on… " She murmured to herself, glancing at the time on the laptop. Only just past midnight.. she'd only been sleeping for about a half an hour, since the Easton's held to the early to bed, early to rise military tradition, and she hadn't minded since she'd been up since very early to catch her 6am flight.

The machine connected, and started to download her mail, and she watched it idly, scanning the headers. Then she noticed the blinking box in the corner, and her brows creased. One of her running bots? Puzzled, she clicked on it, and watched the box expand.

Database Access Request - Scan Match - String "Stuart, Kerry"

Medical Benefits Card usage 00:23 112798

Admitted Bryan's Counseling Center Ident 999823

Dar's heart started pounding again, and she suddenly felt lightheaded. With shaking fingers, she did a search for Bryan's, and found them in the client database. She pulled up their profile.

Bryan's Counseling Center. Account A0022323

A psychiatric research and treatment center designed to evaluate short and long term mental illnesses, and provide strategies for adjustment of deviant behaviors to assist patients in rejoining the societal norm.

"Oh my god." Dar breathed. "Those sons of bitches." Slowly, she put her hands down on the writing table, and closed her eyes, forcing herself to be calm. "Okay.. let's think our way out of this."

First thing. She needed to get to Michigan. With that decided, she shut the computer down, and put it away, then quietly changed into her clothes, and packed her bag up. Then she went down the hall and into Jack's room, where her friend was sprawled across his bed in an orgy of slumber.

"Jack." She knelt and touched his shoulder, getting an almost instant fluttering of pale eyelashes. "Wake up."

"Wh… uh… " Jack rolled onto one side, and peered at her. "Dar? What's going on?"

"Listen.. I have a friend in a lot of trouble.. I need to get out to Michigan… can you drive me to the airport?"

He blinked at her. "There aren't any planes this late, Dar."

"I'll rent one." The executive told him, in utter seriousness. "But it's gotta be quick.. speed counts."

Jack nibbled his lip. "Speed counts, huh?" He rubbed his face. "How does Mach 2 strike you?"

Dar's turn to blink." What?"

"C'mon.. the base is closer than the damn airport, and my cat's just sitting there collecting dust… I'll take you."

"Jack, you can't just do that." Dar said softly. "Not that I don't appreciate the offer, but it's not worth risking your ass."

He laughed. "Dar, you're worth risking my ass for, but it's not in any danger." He stood up and tugged his flannel pajama bottoms up . "I'll just get Dad to approve it.. gimme a minute." He trotted off down the hall, leaving slightly stunned eyes following him.

"Got troubles then, do we?" General Easton's rumble traveled down the hall, followed by the General himself. "Problems, Dar?"

"Friend in trouble." Dar replied quietly.

Easton's eyes studied her intently. "Good enough." He picked up the phone in Jack's room. "Get dressed, son.. you can't be driving that damn plane in your jammies." He motioned Dar to turn towards him. "Look this way, Dar.. mister prude there is afraid to go to half staff in front of you."

If Dar hadn't been so worried, she would have laughed, but she faced towards him, and heard Jack curse as he got tangled up in his shorts.

"Who's this? Right.. this is General Easton, from the Joint Chief's." Easton waited a few seconds. "No time for all that nonsense.. just listen.. I have a pilot coming down to file a flight plan from here to…" He thought a minute. "No…Wurtsmith is too far, Kent County would probably be your best bet."

"That's civ." Jack muttered, pulling a shirt over his head.

"It's after midnight up there.. won't matter." His father covered the receiver and whispered back. "Kent County, and I'll need a liaison up there with a car for him." He paused, listening. "That's right.. good man." He hung up. "Right.. all set."

Dar regarded him quietly. "I owe you one, Gerry… I owe you both."

A faint smile crossed the older man's face. "Consider it payment for a long gone debt, my friend." He shook his head a bit. "Someday we'll have to have a beer and I'll tell you about it."

Dar nodded. "All right." She turned, to see Jack slipping into his leather jacket. "Ready?"

He ran a hand through his stubble. "My hair look okay?" His eyes twinkled gently.

"Like a short carpet." Dar exhaled. "Let's go."


Kerry was chiefly aware, first, of a pounding headache. She kept her eyes closed, and let the throbbing, in time with her heartbeat, subside a little, before she let her lids drift up.

She was lying down, in a railed hospital bed, in a stark, forbidding white room. "Oh my god." She breathed faintly, letting her eyes roam around. It was small, with one door on the outside wall, and another on the inside, bare concrete walls and polished tile floors. The one small window to her right had bars on it, and was curtained.

The bed she was on was utilitarian, but she noticed a full set of restraint straps, which were, as yet, unfastened, their mute threat sending a pulse of fear through her. Slowly, she got up, and slid her feet over the edge of the bed, letting herself down on the cold tile that stung her bare feet.

Her clothes had been taken, and she'd been left in a thin, cotton hospital gown, which she tugged around her as she padded over to the door and tried the handle.


She wandered over to the window and peered out, pushing the curtain aside, to see a bleak landscape of dead trees which surrounded the building. "Oh my god… I can't believe he did this."

She had no idea where she was. She had no way of contacting anyone. Her eyes glanced down, and noted they'd taken her watch as well, making her unable to distinguish what time it was. It could have been minutes she was lying there, it could have been hours… She walked over and leaned her elbows on the bed. "You're in a lot of trouble, Kerry." She murmured. "You should have just stayed in Miami, and had turkey roll."

How long would they keep her here? Long enough to make the company think she'd abandoned her job? Sure. Long enough to where Dar, not hearing from her, would start to question whether she'd just.. changed her mind?

No. Surely Dar would know there was something wrong. Even if she had changed her mind, she wouldn't do it without at the very least, telling her boss in person. Dar knew that.

Didn't she?

It was Dar's one weak spot, and she knew it… that one vulnerability only fleetingly alluded to, but which had struck her hard, and which haunted her even at their parting, when the taller woman had given her a hug, and said "See you Monday… right?"

She would never abandon Dar. She knew that. But she realized that at some deep level, it was hard for Dar herself to believe it, and that made this one facet of her lover very, very fragile. "I have to get out of here." Kerry drummed her fingers on the bed.

The tiny shutter in the door shot open, and eyes peered through, then the door opened and admitted what appeared to be a nurse, in white scrubs. The woman carried a clipboard and several small cups. "Well, good.. I'm glad you're awake."

Kerry decided on the calm approach. "Where am I?"

The nurse made several marks on the clipboard before she answered. "You're in a hospital, dear…but don't worry, you're going to be fine."

She digested this. "Well, I sort of figured, given the wardrobe.. but which hospital is it?"

A slight pause. "Bryan's."

Kerry nodded, her heart sinking. "Hm… that explains the bars." She paused. "What time is it?"

"Now, don't you worry about that, honey…we just have some people in here sometimes who aren't very happy, and we have to protect them, that's all." The woman reassured her. "And it's three thirty am."

Three hours. "So.. why am I here?" Kerry asked, in a reasonable tone. "The last time I considered killing myself is when I forgot to tape Xfiles."

The nurse looked at her uncertainly, then she laughed. "Oh. .I see.. yes, that's very funny… well, your family brought you in because of the problems you've been having, and we're just going to work with you to make you all better."

Kerry leaned on her elbows. "What problems am I supposed to be having?" She inquired.

"I'm sure you know that better than I do, dear." The nurse smiled at her. "But the doctor will be in to see you in the morning, and in the meantime, I'd like you to take these pills for me, okay?"

"What are they?"

The nurse sighed, obviously getting impatient. "They're just a little sedative, to let you rest until the morning."

"A sedative… well, you know, I'm really pretty calm here.. I don't think I'll be needing that." Kerry objected. "I usually sleep just fine."

The nurse walked over and faced her. "Look.. I know you think you're being very clever, but you just listen to me, all right? Your father gave us some pretty strict instructions, and we are going to follow them.. now, you can do what I ask, or I can have to of the orderlies come in her, tie you down, and give it to you intravenously." She paused, her eyes cool. "Your choice."

Kerry gazed at her. "What you're doing is against the law, you do realize that, right?" She commented. "I did not agree to this, and there is nothing wrong with me."

"Do yourself a favor, honey." The nurses voice was now sharp. "Cooperate.. you don't know what you're getting into here."

Kerry smiled. "Actually, it's you who doesn't know what you're getting into here. My boss is the vice president of a company that hired mercenaries to rescue a few employees being held hostage in Iran."

The nurses eyes narrowed. "Well, they'll have to find you first, won't they." She snapped. "I can see what your father's point was."

"Did you enter my information into a computer?" The blond woman inquired.

Taken aback, the nurse blinked. "Well.. yes.. "

Kerry smiled. "They'll find me." She hopped up into the bed, and took the pills from the nurses hand, dumping them into her palm and tossing them into her mouth. Then she took a drink of the water the woman held out. "Thank you… Ms… " She peered at the badge. "Archer." She put her head back down on the pillow and closed her eyes.

The woman stayed there a moment longer, then stormed out, keying the door open and letting it slam behind her. Kerry listened, hearing the soft click of the shutter being drawn back, and remained still. Then she heard the solid snick of it closing, and opened an eye. "Bitch." She leaned forward and spat the two pills out, grimacing. "Ugh.. god.. what did they coat that with.. lemon pepper?" Disgusted, she got out of bed and retrieved the capsules, separating them and emptying the powder inside them into the radiator. It hissed. Then she fit the two ends back together, and put them in her mouth, swallowing them down with the rest of the water the woman had left.

Three thirty. That meant she had.. probably four and a half hours left before they'd start working on her in earnest.. and if they gave her drugs through a needle… Kerry chewed her lip. They could keep her drugged up enough for anything to happen.

Her eyes wandered over the room, stopping on the small stool placed in the corner, ready for the doctor to warm it with his butt. She glanced at the stool, then at the door. "I never was a person who advocated violence, but you know.. sometimes, you just gotta do what you gotta do." Purposefully, she set to work, fluffing the covers up and using the pillows to make it appear that she was curled up in bed. Then she walked over to the door and stood behind it, satisfied that whoever looked in the grating couldn’t see her. She walked over and got the stool, bringing it back with her to her post and sitting down on it. "Convenient, huh?" She murmured.

And she waited. She suspected her friend Ms. Archer would be back to check up on her, what with her being so important and all, and she'd been alone. Kerry just hoped she didn't screw this up, because she had only one chance, and the nurse's scrubs looked about the right size to fit her, too.

She waited. Fifteen minutes went by, then thirty. At last, she heard a faint sound of footsteps coming down the hall, pausing periodically. She guessed the nurse was checking each room. They came closer, and closer, and at last they were outside her door.

Kerry silently got up, and lifted the stool in her hands, hefting it. The shutter slid back, then closed, and a series of short beeps were sounded as the woman keyed the door.

She felt her heart pounding, and she licked her lips, getting ready. The doorknob turned, and pushed inward. She waited for the figure to clear the edge, then slammed the stool down as hard as she could..

Continued in Part 15