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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 11

By Melissa Good

It was an instinct bone deep, and Dar obeyed it, pulling Kerry behind her and putting her body between the threat and her companion. She was facing two men, and the darkness kept her from seeing them fully, but it was enough for her to react as the closer one swung a dark object at her. She dodged the blow, and let it carry her opponent around, then went for the tough stuff, as her father would have said, and nailed him in the crotch with a powerful knee. He squealed like a pig and dropped to his knees, then she took advantage of that by kicking him in the face.

His friend almost got her, though. He was faster, and had time to move in while she was fighting with the other man, and he got in a blow to her kidneys with a piece of steel pipe. Dar felt half her body go numb for a frightening moment, then she let loose with a clumsy, but effective right cross which got past his surprised defenses, and bloodied his nose with a crunch.

It gave her enough time to catch her breath, and her balance, then she set her body and whipped up a roundhouse kick that nailed her opponent in the jaw and sent him sprawling. "Any more, and I call the cops." Dar managed to get out. "And I guarantee you'll be courting girlfriends in the Dade County Jail in under a half hour."

"You got my ass fired, you bitch." The closer man groaned, holding his crotch.

"You got your ass fired, buddy." Dar responded, taking a step back and feeling Kerry's hands touch her. "Don't go blaming it on me."

The man climbed to his feet, and glared at her. "Not just me's got a problem with you.. better watch your back, cause someone's gonna put a knife in it." He stumbled off, pulling his companion with him.

Dar watched them go, then let her body lean slowly back against the wall, very aware of concerned green eyes that were studying her in the dim light. "Morons."

"Are you okay?" Kerry whispered. "Jesus, Dar... those people are crazy.. maybe you should have called the police."

The dark haired woman gingerly felt her ribs, then sighed. "No thanks... I'm not in the mood to be spending a couple of hours doing paperwork... I've got better things to do." She picked up her towel and bag, then nodded towards their cars. "C'mon...let's get out of here." She glanced around, spotting a shadowy figure watching them from under a tree nearby. Dar strained her eyes, but she couldn't make out the features, and she finally turned away with a grim look.

They quietly parted as they reached the car lot, and Kerry went to her car, unaware of the pale blue eyes that watched her until she was safely inside. Only then did Dar open the door and slide into the leather seat of the Lexus with a stifled groan. The ache in her side throbbed painfully and she sat a moment, leaning against the steering wheel before she straightened up and started the car, putting it in gear and following Kerry's taillights out fo the parking lot.

A grudge? Or something more... the man's words bothered Dar, and she wondered, briefly, if some co worker had taking the opportunity to get back at her. Someone like Jose, for instance. Would he be that stupid? That venal? The executive sighed. He was that stupid, yes. And hotheaded on top of it.. maybe the chance had just been too much for him to pass up. A couple bucks slipped to an already pissed off moron, and no dirt on his hands.

With a sigh, Dar tried to put it out of her mind, and concentrate on something more pleasant.

Who happened to be driving just in front of her, moving the Mustang through the relatively light traffic with casual skill. They would use the hot tub, that's for sure... then have a light dinner... and her strawberries were waiting...

************************************************

Kerry stretched out stiffened muscles as she got out of the car, and waited for Dar to lock the Lexus before she joined her companion for the short walk up the stairs. She had her overnight bag with her, and she slung it over her shoulder, following Dar inside and letting the smell of clean wax and wood fill her lungs as she stepped inside.

"Watch it.. had the floors waxed this morning." Dar warned her, with a smile.. ""You up for the hot tub?"

"Ooo.... You bet." Kerry laughed, and nodded. "I'll go put my suit on." She hesitated, then eased closer and put an arm around the taller woman, driven by a nameless need for Dar's touch. "You sure you're okay? I thought that creep hit you pretty hard."

Dar exhaled softly, closing her arms around Kerry. "Yeah.. I'm a little sore, but I've had worse."

Kerry muffled a giggle, not really sure why. It wasn't really funny, after all. "Okay." She released the taller woman, then she moved towards the kitchen. "I'm about dying of thirst.. can I get you something?" She waited a beat. "Let me guess... a glass of milk."

Dar ambled into her bedroom to change. "I think I'm being tweaked." She called back.

Kerry grinned, and opened the door to the refrigerator, standing there and blinking for a long moment at what she saw. "Hey, Dar?"

"Yeah?" The voice floated in.

"Dar.. there are things in your refrigerator." The blond woman yelled.

Her companion came in, adjusting a strap on her swimsuit. "There is?" She peeked. "Oh yeah... " She laughed sheepishly, giving Kerry wry look. "I didn't want to get teased... I thought you 'd appreciate something other than peanut butter and ice cream."

Kerry fell silent for a moment, then she turned, her face serious. "You know what I do appreciate?" She asked quietly. "I appreciate that what I think matters to you."

Blue eyes blinked at her. "Kerry, of course it does." Dar stated, a little taken aback. "Surely you realized that."

The blond woman smiled slightly. "I... in the office, sure.. but... " She shrugged. "It's just a different feeling, I guess."

Dar brushed a thumb across her jawline, and studied her, as the chill air of the refrigerator bathed both of them. "I very much care about what you think." She told her companion seriously, then indicated the open appliance. "I hope I at least guessed partly right."

Kerry peeked over her shoulder. "Oh, what cute bananas." She picked one up. "It's a bananalette."

"Junior Chiquita." Dar supplied, peering in as well. Clemente's staff had added to her list with typical flair. "You hungry?"

Kerry peeled the banana and bit off the end." Mmhmff." She nodded.

"Okay.. I'm going to order something up from the restaurant.. we can nibble while we're in the tub...sound okay?"

"Mfff... unless you order onion soup.. that could get messy." Kerry replied, with a grin.

"Wasn't what I had in mind." Dar drolly responded. "You... trust me to order for you?"

"Implicitly." Came the affectionate response, as Kerry wandered out, collecting her swimsuit while Dar picked up the phone.

She placed an order. "And Carlos... I'll leave the front door open.. we'll be on the porch." She informed the order taker.

"Will do, Ms. Roberts... you want to open the bottle, or shall I?" The cultured Hispanic voice answered.

"You can do it... just ice it down." She decided, then hung up, walking to the porch door and pushing it open, as the damp, salt air hit her. She took a deep breath of it, then winced, as her ribs pulled against the soreness. "Bastard." She cursed softly, as she tugged the padded top off the hot tub, and flipped the switch that started the water circulating. "Let's see... boil, steam, poach.. okay, that's better." She dipped a finger in, then paused, turning to look out over the ocean as the tide was coming in. It was a pretty night, with only a few high clouds chasing across the stars, and the moon was at half full, casting a dim, pale line across the ruffled waves. The air was full of the scent of the sea, and was a little less humid than it had been. Dar drew it in with pleasure, closing her eyes as the breeze brushed her hair back

A warm hand touched her skin, and she turned to see Kerry standing next to her, also gazing out at the water, her skin golden against the dark fabric of her suit.

Dar let her eyes travel down her companion's form and smiled. "You look nice in that suit." She complimented Kerry quietly.

Kerry glanced up, a touch surprised, and she looked down at her self with a wry smile, smoothing her hand down over the fabric. "Thanks.. I ... " She paused awkwardly. "Thanks." The taut fabric didn't hide much, and Dar's admiring eyes sent interesting prickles across her body. First a rose, then she has stuff for me here, now a compliment... must be my lucky day. Kerry sighed happily, taking her arm. "Shall we?"

They entered the hot tub, which was nice and warm, and swirled around them in a rush of steam and strong water smell. Kerry settled down next to Dar and leaned back. "Ooohhh... this feels great."

Dar allowed the warmth and the motion to relax her. "Yeah." She agreed. "Especially after the gym... I think I overdid it with those weights.." She shifted her shoulders a little and winced. "Ouch."

Kerry shifted onto her side and reached over, gently massaging the tense muscles. "I saw you... the little mini Arnolds over there were dropping barbells on themselves trying to keep an eye on you, y'know."

Dar chuckled wryly. "They were, huh?"

"Not that I blame them, because I was too." Kerry admitted, with a smile. "I was really glad to see you when that guy was being such an asshole, though." She traced a gentle line down Dar's upper arm. "I know you hate when I say this.. but... you know you really are quite the hero when you want to be."

"C'mon, Kerry.. don't hang that title on me." Dar protested gently. "All I did was get in some jerk's way... that doesn't take courage, just a bad attitude."

Kerry gazed quietly at her. "Maybe.. but it's been a long time since I've had someone stand up for me... it felt good." She lowered her eyes to the water, thoughtfully.

Dar studied her. "You have a really independent mind... you stand up for yourself pretty well." She offered, cautiously.

The blond woman smiled faintly, and played with the water. "Survivial mechanism."

Dar sensed her companion was edging slowly towards opening up to her, and revealing whatever it was that caused the vield sadness behind those sea green eyes. And she wanted to know.. she wanted to understand what had hurt the blond woman so.

She wanted to beat the living daylights out of whoever had done it. "It's not a bad trait. " She replied, gently. "I guess I have.. I donít' know....my father used to call it my 'in yer damn face' instinct." She chuckled self deprecatingly. "I'm pretty sure I got it from him... I go into things without thinking sometimes...I just react, and then worry about the consequences later."

"Mm." Kerry nodded. "It was like you saw those people tonight before they even came at us... one minute I was waaking along, the next you had me all covered up and protected... so fast."

Dar exhaled, stretching her legs out into the water. "I didn't really think about it." She confessed, with a shrug, then turned as the door opened, and a server in a blue slacks and a white starched shirt entered, with a laden tray. "Ah... dinner."

They set the plates on the small ledge of the hot tub, and let the server go, after Dar signed the check and added a tip to it.

"Wow." Kerry nibbled on a coconut shrimp. "I should have known you'd order everything I like...Dar, what am I going to do with you?"

"Anything you like." The dark haired woman answered absently, as she poured a glass of cold, sweet wine and set it down beside Kerry's plate. "Here you go."

Kerry took the glass and sipped it slowly, enjoying the tasty chill as it traveled down her throat. Dar had settled back, and was chewing on a mini shish kebab, her pale eyes hooded as she kept silent for a bit. She searched the planed, angular face intently, then made up her mind.

It would be hard. She knew that. But she trusted Dar, and.. well, she just trusted her, that was all. Not here, though, and not right this moment. "Thanks..." She snuggled closer to the taller woman, and touched her glass to Dar's. "It's so pretty out here... I love the smell of the water so close."

The dark head nodded. "It took me a while to get used to it... but now, god.. it's such a relief to get out here after battling all day.. I think it's all that's kept me sane this year." She admitted, sliding a casual arm around Kerry's shoulders, and pulling her closer without really thinking about it. "Until you got here, that is." That, with a playful smile at her companion.

Kerry smiled back and gladly surrendered to her intense craving as she settled against Dar, nuzzling her shoulder gently and kissing the soft skin there, tasting the chemical tang of the water they were floating in. "Glad I could contribute to the cause.. " She tilted her head up and gazed at Dar, admiring the clean, smooth planes of her face, and feeling a deep surge of the strong emotion she'd been feeling lately around the dark haired woman. "Thanks for inviting me out here."

Dar's eyes bathed her in a quiet, gentle affection that went straight through to her heart. "Kerry, you're always welcome... I very much enjoy your company, and I l...I really like having you here..." She felt awkward, and she cleared her throat a little, taking a breath to steady herself.

Kerry reached over and put a finger on her lips. "Let's get out of the water... " She requested. "I think we need to talk."

******************************************

Kerry toweled her hair dry, leaning against the bathroom doorframe, watching Dar standing at the kitchen counter getting them both some hot chocolate. The taller woman had gotten out of the water, and changed, with a quietly pensive attitude that Kerry found a little strange, given her moderately cheerful attitude earlier.

She really liked Dar. And that was the problem, unfortunately. As long as she could consider this just a crush, or at worst, a playful experiment, things were okay. She didn't have to worry about what her family would say, or what consequences there were, because, after all, it was just a little fling, right?

But it wasn't just that anymore. Dar was getting more serious. She was getting more serious. This was already way past a crush, and had gone further than an experiment , wandering in to realms that made her stop, and take stock of where she was, and where she wanted to go. Above all, she didn't want Dar getting hurt... and she could sense that both of them were moving towards a point where it would be easy to do that.

If they weren't already past that point, that is. The blond woman sighed, eyeing her companion. Dar leaned over the counter waiting for the microwave, and as Kerry watched, reached a hand up to push her damp hair back behind one ear. Kerry squinted a little. Her hands were shaking, she realized, and that made her sling her towel around her shoulders and walk over. "Hey."

Dar smiled briefly. "Hey..almost done."

Kerry reached out and touched her arm, feeling the skin chilled under her fingers. "You're cold."

A nod, as the taller woman tucked her hands under her arms as she folded them across her chest. "A little.. it's chilly in here." She acknowledged, keeping her eyes on the microwave.

Kerry rubbed her skin gently, sensing her friend was upset. Dar's jaw muscles were tensed, and she seemed withdrawn. Kerry hesitated, then took a breath. "Why don't you go in and sit down...I"ll bring these in... do you want a long sleeved shirt or something?"

Dar looked at her, the blue eyes dim and shadowed. "No.. it's all right.. I'll be fine."

She decided on directness. "Dar, what's wrong? You got so quiet." The microwave beeped, and she forestalled the taller woman, opening the door and removing the cups, an idea occurring to her suddenly. . "Is your side hurting?"

Dar shrugged. "A little." She confessed, taking her cup and following Kerry into the living room. "So.. what is it we need to talk about?"

Kerry could hear the uncertainty in her voice, masked though it was. Oh. She took a sip of her chocolate, as she sat down on one end of the couch, tucking her legs up under her and taking a deep breath. Where in the hell do I start? Maybe I should just lay it out for her, and she'll understand. She was silent for a moment, collecting her thoughts. "You know..." Dar's eyes went to her face, and she almost flinched at the wary look. "It occurred to me that earlier tonight.. when those guys came at us, you got between them and me."

Dar shifted a little, and cleared her throat. "I guess I did. " She admitted. "I.. um... I didn't think about it, I just.. wanted to make sure you didn't get hurt, that's all."

"That's a nice feeling." Kerry said, softly. "When you do it, anyway." She reflected soberly. "I... when I was a kid, Dar, I had a lot of people who said they were just looking out for me.. you know?" She paused. "Making sure I had the right friends, the right clothes... My father had aides.. bodyguards, really, who would go around and report back to him about things they thought weren't good for us."

Pale blue eyes watched her intently. "Mm." Dar murmured.

"And, um...I had... there were a few kids I really liked, but they weren't... well, they were pretty poor, or one was... not our religion, or... and the funny thing was, when I found one I really liked, but my folks didn't, after a little while they'd just go away." Kerry kept her eyes on her hands. "I'd just go to school one day, and they'd be gone.. moved away, sent to another school.. whatever."

"Happens sometimes." Dar stated softly.

"I thought that too... until I heard one of their mothers saying they'd been forced to move." Kerry replied quietly. "But it was like that with everything... toys.. I had a stuffed rag doll I used to sleep with. They thought that was a bad thing, so I got home from school one day, and it was gone."

"Kerry... " Dar's voice had gentled and deepened.

"I..um.. I even had a puppy." Kerry went on, remotely. "A little golden cocker spaniel.. her name was Susie." She took a sip of her chocolate and managed to swallow it. "I loved her...she was so cute... I played with her all the time.. we would run around outside, sometimes with my sister, sometimes just us.. she knew how to bring a ball back, and I would sit and comb her hair, you know they have that long, silky hair?"

Dar's eyes lowered. "Yes, I know." Her heart went out to the blond woman sitting huddled on the couch next to her. She could see it was hard for Kerry to get this out.

"I was playing with her one day, and Kyle.. "Kerry's voice twisted. "Came to get me, and told me my father wanted me and my sister to pose for some pictures.. some magazine people were there. I told him I didn't want to.. that I wanted to stay and play with Susie." She nodded a little. "And the next day, I came home from school and went to find Susie... but she was gone." Her eyes filled with tears, even now. Even all these years later. There was complete silence from Dar, and she didn't dare look at her.

"I searched and searched... until finally, three days later they told me she'd been taken to the shelter. They wouldn't take me down there, so I ran.. I ran... but I got there too late." She felt the misery all over again, of going down the long, ill lit hall, with the smell of alcohol and hopelessness around her.. and all those sad faces behind the grills. "They told me she'd been sick.. and that they'd put her down that morning." She paused, and waited, for the lump to go down. "I think the worst part for me was knowing she'd gone alone.... No one to pet her..."

She heard a soft, incoherent sound from Dar, but kept her eyes on her cup. This was the important part. She wanted Dar to understand. "So I learned, Dar.. I learned not to want anything. Not to care for anything.. because as soon as I did that, it would be gone." She took a shaky breath. "If it didn't meet expectations." She paused, and seemed to gather her thoughts. "I've been thinking about that a lot...and about us...and...Dar?" She glanced up at a strangled choke.

She met eyes so dark with rage, they almost seemed purple in the amber light. Dar's entire face was still, and her body tense and motionless, save her right hand, which was slowly clenching and unclenching.

Kerry put her cup down and stood up, walking over and crouching down beside Dar, and putting her hands on the taller woman's knees. "Dar?" It was like touching a vibrating engine, the tension fairly sang out of her body. "Are you... " She let her words trail off, amazed at the pure anger generated in her behalf.

"How... " Dar managed to get out in a half growl, half groan. "Could they do that to you?"

Kerry wiped the moisture from her eyes, and shrugged. "They thought they were doing the right thing, I guess...in their eyes, they were bringing me up properly." It was a defense she'd used for comfort for a very long time. Easier to believe that, then the alternative.

"In my eyes, that was criminal child abuse, and they should be shot." Dar answered. "And then beaten, and then stabbed, and then dragged behind a tractor down US 1."

Kerry was surprised at how strange it felt to hear that.. "Dar, they're my parents." She objected softly. "I'm sure they thought they were doing what was right.

"I wouldn't care if they were Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Theresa." Dar replied. "Jesus, Kerry.... " She reached out and caressed the blond woman's face, her eyes sickened. "How could they think taking away things you loved was right?"

The warm affection felt so good it almost hurt. Kerry tried to resist it, but she found herself moving forward, and being pulled into a warm hug that threatened to become her whole world. And she so much wanted to let it.

She wanted to let her fears go, and fall into the strength she found herself cradled in, and never leave it.. It hurt to tear herself away, and move back, and peer up at blue eyes that ached with misery for her.

For her.

"Dar... " Kerry said softly. "I donít... I thought I could keep this nice and simple... but I can't, and the more I want to care for you, the more I think about what he'd do if he found out.. Dar...I can't watch you get hurt on my behalf.. I can't." She put a hand out and touched the dark haired woman's arm. "Please understand."

There... that was the worst of it. Now it only remained to see what Dar's response would be.

"Shh.. " Dar stroked her hair. "He can't hurt me."

Kerry took a shuddering breath, and pulled back again. "He can... he will... Dar, Iím telling you. He has people who do nothing but hunt around all day, looking for dirt and finding ways to screw people over...." She felt exhausted, having struggled with the worry for so long. "It's like a game to him."

Dar felt an unnerving combination of relief and sorrow fill her. "Kerry.. there's only one thing he can do that would hurt me." She told the blond woman gently. "And that would be to drive you away...to take away from me a friend I've come to value very much. "

"But... " Kerry started to protest, then subsided "Oh."

"Unless what you're really saying is that you just... " Dar's jaw worked a moment. "That you just aren't interested.. in which case, I understand." She couldnít hold Kerry's eyes any longer, and let her own drop, to study the tile floor. "And even then, I.. still donít want to lose you as a friend."

Kerry stared at the dark bent head in shocked silence for a long moment, then she let a small sound of dismay escape her throat. Her hands curled around Dar's and she squeezed hard. "Oh god no.. that is so not the case.. Dar, I'm sorry.. I didn't mean for you to... no.. no no... no.. no no.. "

Blue eyes peeked up at her quietly. "Okay. Okay... I was just.. " Being criminally insecure. She admitted to herself as she folded the blond woman into her arms again, and they both exhaled simultaneously. "Iím so sorry that happened to you."

Kerry sighed. It felt so good to tell someone...even Colleen only knew bits and pieces. "Kyle is the worst part... he's father's bodyguard. Brian is his nephew." Her mind pictured his tall, silver haired sleekness, and her stomach turned.. "He does most of the dirty work...sometimes I'm not even sure my father knows half of what he does..." She let her head rest against Dar's collarbone, and paused a moment. "When I got out of college, I was going out with a guy I'd known for a few years...I really liked him, and he was a nice guy, good family, very religious... you'd think I'd finally found something my father would approve of."

Dar waited, glancing down to see the lost, aching expression in Kerry's eyes. "What happened?" She had a feeling she didn't really want to hear it, but now that Kerry was talking...

"He.. Kyle said they didn't really think this guy was right for me.. but.. he said he knew how stubborn I was, so he had to make sure I did.. .the right thing." Kerry's voice went flat and remote. "So he took me into the back laundry room and um... " She went silent, then shook her head. "And he told me he'd tell John all about it if I ever saw him again."

Dar exhaled very slowly, feeling the rage start to build again.

"I was stupid.. I went to my father, and told him what happened.. and you know what he did, Dar?" The blond woman smiled bitterly. "He talked to Kyle and decided I was lying. He brought him in, and made me apologize to him.... And all the while Kyle just smiled at me." She laughed humorlessly. "And then, of course, my mother got to me, chewing me out for 'upsetting my father' with my 'shameful tales.' " A pause. "I think.. that night was the most alone I'd ever felt." She spent a moment in quiet memory. "Saying goodbye to John was hard.. he didn't understand." Kerry looked up at the pale, quiet face above her. "I can imagine what you're thinking." She concluded wistfully, knowing Dar would never have let someone control her like that. "Disappointing, huh?"

"No." Dar managed to get out. "And you most certainly can not imagine what I am thinking, which is a damn good thing, too." Where had that image of drawing and quartering come from?

Kerry just looked at her, prickles running down her neck at the fierce tone in Dar's voice. "I guess it sounds so incredible...I just learned to live with it." She concluded, softly. "I didn't even realize life could be different until I came down here... being on my own was..." She stopped. "Oh god, I can't describe it.. to make friends with whoever I wanted, do what I wanted, when I wanted to do it..." She reached out a hand and touched Dar's face. "And now you... I'm so scared, Dar... whenever I've really wanted something...I've had to watch it drift away.. and I..." An awkward pause. "I really want this." She whsipered. "You." Another, longer pause. "Us." She concluded very softly.

Dar felt herself calm. Her questions had been answered, and a problem put forth. She set aside both the rage, and the shy joy and considered the problem first. "Does your father have any hold on you other than paternal?"

Kerry looked at her, puzzled. "I don't understand the question."

"Do you owe him money.. does he have legal strings holding you?" Dar asked, her brows creased.

"No." The blond woman shook her head. "I support myself here, if that's what your asking...you've made that more than comfortably possible, you realize."

A tiny, tiny smile. "So he couldnít actually force you to come back."

"He'd find some way of getting me fired." Kerry replied, darkly. "Find some friend if his high enough up..."

A low, soft chuckle. "Not in this company... it's up to your supervising manager.. and that's me. There is nobody that's going to go head to head with me over this."

"Then he'll go after you." The blond woman stated, seriously. "He'll find someone to dig and dig...until they uncover something he can use against you.. and Dar... the most obvious thing that pops to mind is us." Kerry reminded her. "I know we said we'd keep it low profile.. but you know people talk.. I'm sure at least a few of them are already."

The dark haired woman didn't look dismayed. On the contrary. She looked intrigued. "Then I'll have to go after him first." She answered quietly.

"What do you mean??" Kerry asked, hesitantly.

"You said he digs things up?" Dar asked.

She nodded. "He has investigators... that kind of thing."

A slow nod of Dar's head. "So do I... only they're not the kind that wear twelve dollar fedoras and smell of cigar smoke.. and I donít' have to pay them overtime." She gazed at Kerry. "This is the Information Age, Kerry...and the truth is out there. You just gotta go find it."

"I don't understand."

Dar smiled, and took her hand, running her fingers over the skin lightly. "Just leave it to me." She told the blond woman. "And, Kerry?"

"Hmm?" The reddened eyes blinked. "I'm sorry I got like this.. I don't usually." She apologized.

"Don't be sorry... I'm glad you said it so we could talk about it." Dar replied quietly. "Rather than you just... " A shrug. "Walking out, or whatever."

Kerry closed her fingers around Dar's. "Is that what happened to you before?"

Dar stared off into the darkness beyond the patio doors. "Something like that, yeah."

A sigh. "I wonít ever do that to you, Dar, I swear."

The dark haired woman slowly focused her attention on Kerry's face, searching it for a long moment. "And I'll always be there for you, Kerry... no matter what."

It was a strange moment, Kerry thought. She could feel a faint shiver go down her back, and as she looked at Dar, some pale, almost translucent barrier between them seemed to drop. "That's what friends do.. they stand by each other, right?"

"Right." Dar smiled. "Friend."

Kerry slid gladly into the waiting arms, and let the warmth wash over her. She was still afraid, and no amount of words could change that, but...

But. They'd find a way through it.

Together.

****************************************************

Dar leaned back against the couch, content to simply sit and hang on to Kerry, who was peacefully resting in her arms. They'd been sitting like that for a while, in relative silence, only the soft hiss of the waves audible through the half open balcony door. "Hey.. ." Dar finally murmured. "You like strawberries?"

Kerry seemed to come back from very far away. "What human being doesn't like strawberries, Dar? " She inquired reasonably, smoothing her fingers over the soft cotton of her friend's shirt. She could feel the gentle motion of Dar's breathing, which seemed almost hypnotic to her. "Why?"

Dar felt Kerry's touch idly roaming her body, and she had to swallow before she answered. "You want some?"

"Means I have to move." Kerry complained, finding interesting things to trace with her fingers. "And I really like where I am." She concluded softly. Meaning it.

"That's true." Dar acknowledged, with a smile. "But they're nice, big, juicy ones... and I have melted chocolate to dip them in. " She coaxed teasingly.

"Mmmm... " Kerry smiled. "Do you always make it a habit of spoiling people you like rotten?" She peeked up at Dar's face, which had creased into a smirk. The expression faded after a moment, though.

"I don't know.. haven't had much practice. ' Dar admitted quietly, with a faint shrug. "I just do what comes naturally."

Kerry's brow furrowed. "Dar, do me a favor okay?"

A nod. "Okay."

"You haven't heard what it is yet." The blond woman objected. "If we ever bump into any of these people you were involved with, let me know."

Dar looked taken aback. "That's not really likely, but... why?"

"So I can kick them in the shins." Kerry told her. "And if you're really nice, you'll tell me ahead of time so I can put on the pair of steel toed cowboy boots I bought in Austin last year." She felt Dar's body jerk as a laugh was forced out. "I mean it."

Dar hugged her. "Thanks.. I"d actually enjoy watching that." She muttered wryly. Oh yes.. especially... Her lips twisted into an ironic grin. Especially Elana, who had so enjoyed telling her they only way she'd ever find love was to purchase it. Kerry was so different from anyone she'd been involved with before... certainly worlds different than the tall, aristocratic Elana. Maybe I've been barking up the wrong tree all these years, she concluded with a sigh. Even in the best times with anyone else, it hadn't felt anywhere near as wonderful as it did right this moment.

Kerry smiled, and wriggled closer, continuing her idle tracing. A button worked itself free somehow, and she traded cotton for skin, feeling Dar's hands begin a gentle massage on her back. "Ooo.... That feels great... I am going to be soo sore tomorrow." She commented wryly. "After that climbing wall.. I'll be limping around all over the place. People are going to think I'm the worlds biggest klutz."

Her fingers moved lower, and she felt a temperature change under them, the skin growing very warm. Puzzled, she probed a little further, and heard the soft sound as Dar stifled a gasp. "Hey...." Her brows creased and she unbuttoned a few more buttons, pulling aside the taller woman's shirt and peering at her. "Oh my god, Dar!"

Guiltily, Dar glanced down. "It looks worse than it is. Really." A mottled bruise covered a space the size of a soccer ball just under her ribs. "It's just a little sore."

"Dar, that bullshit!" Kerry objected. "You need to get that checked out... Jesus! You could have ruptured something!"

Dar had to smile at Kerry's worriedly indignant speech. "I'm sure I'd have keeled over by now if that was the case." She reminded her friend. "It's really nothing."

Blond brows knit. "Oh yeah?" Kerry eyed her. "Sit up." She paused. "Without using your hands."

The taller woman hesitated, and saw a triumphant smirk appear. "I said it was sore." She grumbled. "Talk about klutzes.. I should have gotten out of the way."

Kerry exhaled. "Dar, Dar, Dar... would a cold pack help?" She asked, sympathetically. "You came over and helped me out... I guess it's my turn." She paused, wincing at the bruise. "You sure you don't want to get that checked out? This time of night on a weekday.. it probably won't be busy at the hospital."

"I hate hospitals." Dar replied stubbornly. "Look.. if it still hurts tomorrow, I'll stop by Dr. Steve's on the way in to work and have him look at it, okay?" She paused, and cleared her throat a little awkwardly. "But.. um... an ice pack is probably a good idea."

Kerry patted her shoulder. "You stay here.. I'll get it." She rose up off the couch and headed towards the kitchen. "And bring back some of your strawberries, too."

Dar settled back, with a smile. "If you pull the plastic container on the bottom shelf out and put it in the microwave for about three minutes, that'll about do it."

Kerry just shook her head as she moved towards the refrigerator, and retrieved a good amount of ice, which she put in the blender on the counter. Then she pulled the requested container out, and put it in the microwave, popping the top off a little to vent it before she turned the machine on. "What is that?" She wondered briefly, as she turned on the blender and watched it make snow. After a minute or two, she sniffed at the air. "Mmmm..... "

The blender stopped, and she put the ice in a heavy plastic bag she dug out of the closet, then she set that aside and peeked in the microwave, as a blast of warm, rich chocolate scent hit her. "Oh my god." She gingerly pulled the container out, and opened it, revealing a warm pool of the stuff. "Ho boy... " She put the dish on a small tray, then, glancing around, she poked her finger in it and tasted. "Jesus... that is wonderful."

Being around Dar, she realized, was an extremely sensual experience and her senses seemed to be on hyperdrive lately. She left the tray and went back to the refrigerator, opening it and kneeling down, blinking when she spotted the strawberries. "Good grief, Dar!" She yelled into the living room. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Strawberries? Where did you get these... fields outside Turkey Point?" She heard the soft laugh as she pulled the box out, a long plastic container with approximately two dozen of the fruits, laid out like roses on long stems with the leaves still attached. The berries themselves were all larger than an average peach, and the scent was almost intoxicating. With a laugh, she took them out, washing them off before adding them to the tray, then carrying the entire thing out to where Dar was peacefully waiting.

"Here... " She put the tray down and settled into the leather next to Dar, feeling the sudden impact of those blue eyes on her. She picked the ice up and gently put it in place, tucking the edges of the terrycloth towel she'd wrapped it in around the ends. "How's that?"

"Nice." Dar regarded her quietly. "You have very gentle hands." She captured one of Kerry's, and studied it, turning it over and stroking the palm.

It was like getting an adrenaline shot right to the groin. Kerry had to swallow before she could make an attempt at regaining her composure. "Thanks." She whispered, finding herself wanting to continue the contact. 'They seem to get that way around you, for some reason."

Dar gazed at her, then lifted a hand and traced her cheekbone with a feather light touch. "Yeah." She murmured, feeling Kerry lean into the pressure as her eyes fluttered closed. "Strange... " The touch circled around the blond woman's neck, pulling her down willingly as their lips met. Kerry's hands found a place on either side of Dar's head, and they slid together, the ice forgotten. The berries forgotten.

Even the chocolate was forgotten.

Dar leaned back, and stretched her legs out, as Kerry fit herself into the space next to the back of the couch, feeling the cool touch of the leather warm against her skin. She was careful not to jar the taller woman's side as she nibbled the soft skin of her neck, inhaling the smell of cotton mixed with the chlorine that still clung to Dar's body.

A hand touched her side and she drew a sharp breath in as she slid a return touch down Dar's thigh, feeling the muscles move under her hand as the taller woman shifted, pressing her back against the leather into a very safe space. Lips found her earlobe, then her throat, sucking gently at her pulse point which jumped under the attention.

Then she had an idea. She reached over Dar, and stuck a finger in the warm chocolate, then bringing it back and painting a line down Dar's face. She nibbled it. "Oh.. that's nice." She licked it off, then spread a line lower, hearing a soft chuckle sound deep in Dar's throat.

"This is gonna get mes- sy... " The taller woman rumbled softly, reaching over and getting a blob of chocolate, applying it neatly along Kerry's collarbone. "Glad the couch is leather." She pulled the T-shirt down off one of Kerry's shoulders and cleaned off her handiwork, as she felt a warm stripe traveling down her breastbone, followed by a tongue and lips.

"Mmmm..... " Kerry painted a set of circles.

"Good chocolate, huh?" Dar managed to whisper, finding a nice well in the blond woman's belly button to hide some in.

"What chocolate?" Kerry exhaled, sliding a hand down Dar's stomach. "Oh.. right.. yeah.. " She was careful not to press against the bruise, but she wanted to touch every other square inch of her, her lips roaming over the soft skin and tasting and breathing and touching...

The pressure was building again, as Dar's hands moved, and her dark hair brushed against Kerry's sensitized skin. She cried out, softly.

"You all right?" Dar's voice, almost inside of her, vibrating down her ears.

"Yeah... just... " Kerry could hardly stand the intensity, and she pulled the taller woman closer, letting the sensation build until they both were helpless in it's grasp.

The release left them gasping, bodies intertwined in the soft nest of damp leather. Kerry managed to stir, shifting up and nestling her head against Dar's shoulder as she wrapped her arms around her, and just hugged her mindlessly.

Dar let her eyes slide shut, feeling her heart begin to slow it's hammering as she stroked Kerry's hair gently. A sweet peace filled her, and she smiled a bit. "Feels so good." She murmured. "Different."

A faint nod against her chest. "Beautiful." Kerry sighed, thinking about being surrounded by a security and a warmth like none she'd ever known. And something else. She looked up at Dar's face. "I've never felt like this before." She admitted quietly.

Long silence. "Me either." Dar's eyes were open now, and gazing into hers.

Those blue eyes. Kerry had never known anyone else's quite like hers. And yet, they were as familiar to her as her own reflection... she knew the tiny crinkle at their edges, and the way a smile could creep into them, and how they narrowed and darkened when deep in thought as though she'd known them all her life. And so, now, when they opened and gentled, warm on her face as a soft hint of sunlight, she had no doubt of the emotion behind them. "Dar?"

"Mmm...?"

"Would you think it was really tacky of me if I told you I'm in love with you?" She bit her lip and waited, crossing her toes and the fingers of the one hand she had out of sight.

Dar actually stopped breathing. Her chest stilled, and she paused a beat, before a startled, but delighted smile shaped her lips. "You are?"

Like a child given a surprise toy on their birthday, Kerry decided, having seen that on TV once. "Yeah." She replied softly.

"Um.... " Dar's face had an expression that was a cross between embarrassment and happiness. "At least you had the sense to figure it out yourself.. I had to have the god damned doctor tell me."

Kerry gazed at her in cautious hope. "Tell you what?" She means.. no she doesn't.. yes she does... oh Jesus... yes... yes... yes!

Dar gave into it, and let it take her over. "Tell me the reason I've been feeling so damn strange." She traced Kerry's eyebrow. "I didn't have the sense to know what love was when I fell into it." She sighed softly. "So no.. I don't think it's tacky...I think it's the most amazing thing I've ever heard."

Yes!!!!!!. Kerry felt a little giddy. Wheeee!!!!! Her eyes lit and she felt a big grin take over her face.

No, she felt a lot giddy. It wasn't at all like the romance novels said it would be, but she'd take it. She sighed happily.

Wait. "Been feeling?"

Dar smiled sheepishly. "I think I should have realized something was going on with me after I found myself getting you a pin that time we went shopping."

Kerry blinked. "Pin.... Oh my god... that dolphin pin?" She stared at Dar in amazemnt. "The one on that suit??? I... Jesus.. I found that after I got home.. I thought I was just going crazy and didn't see it." She laughed in delight. "Dar.. that's so sweet."

The taller woman tried a scowl, then she finally just laughed. Kerry laughed too, and they ended up just hugging each other, squeezing tighter until Dar finally sucked in a breath, and gasped.

Kerry released her immediately. "Oh god... sorry... " Her hand went to cradle Dar's face, tensed in pain. "Dar... are you all right?"

The pain subsided, and the taller woman sighed softly. "Whoa." She muttered. "That stung."

Kerry hitched herself up on an elbow and scratched her nose, then prodded Dar's shoulder with a forefinger. "Remember you said you were going to stop by the doctor's tomrrow if it still hurt?"

Penitent blue eyes glanced warily at her. "Yeaaa.. I said that."

"Well, you're not getting a choice. " Kerry informed her. "Because I'm going to take you there."

A dark brow rose.

Kerry leaned over and kissed it. Then backed off, and waited.

Dar chewed her lip, then let a wry grin take over her face. "All right." She sighed. "You win."

Yeah. Kerry retrieved the ice pack, now sadly the worse for wear, and settled it back over Dar's ribs. We both win. She squirmed back down against the leather, watching as Dar retrieved a strawberry and scooped up a bit of the cooled chocolate. She brought it over and offered it. Kerry took a bite and chewed. "Mm."

Dar took her own bite, and stretched her legs out a little, feeling Kerry settle against her with a warm familiarity. Everything was changing. Her life was now in a wonderful, frightening chaos.

It felt absolutely fantastic.

**********************************************

Another dream. This time, the water was cold, but it felt good on her overheated skin as she pulled off the thick padded garment she was wearing and flung herself into the spring. Her arms ached, but it was the good kind and she stretched them out, pulling against the water with an energy she hadn't remembered having much of, lately.

She flipped over in the water and stroked backwards, feeling the rush of cold over her body contrasting with the heat of the sun overhead and she sighed in pure animal contentment. The air was sweet with summer, and the buzz of crickets nearby resumed as she slowed her motion, and closed her eyes, drinking in the peace of late afternoon, and the knowledge that she had nothing else to do that day save finish her swim, and join....

The sound of running footsteps made her turn, to see a laughing smile and bright, fair hair as a familiar form dove off the rocks and into the water next to her, drenching her with a wave of cold liquid. She waited, a smile on her lips, until the other woman surfaced, then swept and armful of water towards her, making her splutter in outrage.

There was sparkling mischief in those green eyes, and a teasing look, and she dove after her, plunging under the cold, clear water and catching an ankle as she tried to escape. She could hear the squeal of protest even through the water as she pulled back and found herself suddenly overwhelmed as a lithe, muscular form reversed directions and hurled itself on top of her.

Instinct brought her arms up in a catching motion and she set her body, recoiling a little but handling the armful as though it were little more than a sack of potatoes. Arms wrapped around her neck, and she felt herself smile as she looked down into that impish face. A smile came back at her, warm and loving and she half stood out of the water, letting it sheet off them and feeling the sun warm the chill.

They kissed, warm lips against the icy touch of the water as the soft cry of a hawk echoed overhead, and she was concious of an overwhelming feeling of happiness that seemed to spiral up from her towards the very blue sky and the circling bird. It cried again, as it soared.

It almost matched the whine of the alarm, which brought Dar out of her dream, and into the waking reality of pre dawn with a gasp. She reached out and slapped the clock, hushing it, then laid her head back onto the pillow, and let her heart start to calm. Jesus. She blinked a few times, then glanced down at the blond limpet attached snugly to her.

It took a moment of getting used to. She'd been alone for so long, waking up in this warm tangle was a shock, albeit a pleasant one, she had to admit. She was on her back, and Kerry was tucked up against her right side, her head pillowed on Dar's shoulder and a firm grip wound around her stomach. It seemed to be a favorite position of hers, the taller woman noted, as she watched the smaller woman's breathing rise and fall with a steady rhythm.

Dar found a smile inching across her face, as she softly fingered the bright hair cascading across her chest, tangling it idly in facination. She loves me. The thought swirled around her mind, rinsing it clean of the fogginess of sleep. She actually said it. The others never had.. oh, they'd talked about sex, and commitment... but never looked right up at her and just told her...

Do you think it's tacky of me? Dar savored the question with a little sigh. No, I don't think it was tacky. What would I have said.. how would I have expressed that, if it had been up to me? She snorted in silent laughter. Like I could have. I was so scared she was gonna walk away from this. Dar cursed her own insecurity softly. Iím glad she had more guts than I have... and Jesus, what she's been through. Now her anger stirred again, thinking of what her friend had gone through.

Bastards... how could they do that to a kid? She shook her head a tiny bit. And that piece of shit bodyguard.. She wondered if he'd just roughed Kerry up or... Her hands touched the soft skin on the blond woman's arm. Had he raped her? God help him if he did and I ever meet him.

Dar shivered a little, at the dark pulse of energy that ran through her. It was a wild, violent streak she didn't often let herself feel, but she knew it was there, and what her temper would lead her to if she wasn't careful.

And looking down at the pale, innocent face nestled against her skin, she knew being careful wasn't something she was really interested in.

Kerry chose that moment to stir, mumbling a bit into Dar's chest before she lifted her head, and peered up in the gloom, her eyes finding her friend's "It's dark." She pointed out, stifling a yawn. "Did you realize that?"

"Uh huh." Her bedmate agreed. "It sure is... best time for running." Even in the dim light she could see the pale eyebrows lift in disapproval. "I usually get up at this time."

Kerry gave her an incredulous look. "Dar, you're not seriously considering running around out there in the dark, are you? You're hurt." She protested.

"No I'm not." Dar disagreed. "I'm fine.. it doesn't hurt a bit this morning." She took a deep breath to demonstrate. "See?" It was a little tender, but the nights sleep had helped a lot, and she really did feel much better. "I generally run about... um... ten miles in the morning." Okay, so it was an exaggeration. But not that much of one.

Kerry propped her head up on her hand and regarded the taller woman thoughtfully. "That's disgusting." She commented, then she slipped a hand between the buttons on Dar's shirt, and let her fingers run over the smooth skin. The heat from the previous night had subsided and the bruise didn't seem to be causing it's victim much pain after all. "Hmm... doesn't feel a swollen.. I guess you're right."

Dar blinked a few times, enjoying the friendly touch of Kerry's fingers, now moving in idle circles against her skin. It relaxed her, she realized, and she found herself stifling a yawn in reaction. "Mmm... stop that.. you're putting me to sleep." She complained wryly.

"Oh, really?" Kerry mused, with a tiny smirk. "Well, well well... look at you. .this is better than a hypnotist with that swinging thing." She made her circles wider, and bit her lip in amusement as the blue eyes dimly visible in the pre dawn light slid shut. "C'mon, Dar... let it go... even if you feel fine, you took quite a jolt last night." Kerry told her reasonably.

"Yeah.. it's not every night I get painted in chocolate." Dar murmured, the corners of her mouth twitching.

"That was NOT what I meant, and you know it." Kerry chuckled. "Give yourself a break, Dar.. we've got a .long day today. That delegation from Pittsburgh is in at ten." She coaxed, grinning impishly when there wasn't an immediate argument. "Besides, I'm really comfortable... " She eased closer, feeling the light pressure of Dar's hand against her back.

"Arrrggg... only for a little while." Dar grumbled, surrendering.

"How about daylight, hmm? That sound good?" Kerry countered, not stopping her petting for a moment.

No answer, and Kerry smiled at the deep, even breathing. "Nobody on earth would believe this, you know." She wihispered softly to the dozing executive. "But don't worry.. I won't tell." She settled back down contentedly and exhaled. So this is what being in love feels like. She looked out the window, at the stars still vivid in the southern sky. I like it. She decided, as she closed her eyes.

Last night had been a big surprise. She knew she hadn't had any intention of bring up what Colleen referred to as the big "L" word, not last night, not until she had some clue as to how Dar felt, but...

But... she'd gotten an inkling, even without any words on the taller woman's part. It hadn't taken a telephone psychic to pick up Dar's nervousness, or the intensity of her feelings. Kerry opened her eyes and gazed up at the taller woman's face. For someone so in control, you sure don't have a handle on the mushy stuff, do you? She let her lids slide shut again, glad she'd told Dar about .. things. The executive's reaction had been gratifying, to say the least. Kerry let the sleepiness start to take her back over, closing her eyes more tightly and sucking in a breath full of clean linen and her bedmate.

Then opened them again. Jesus, Kerry.. you have a lover... can you imagine that???? Green orbs glanced around the room, then fell on Dar's face, peacefully asleep. Nice to know you have better taste than the President.. She stifled a faint laugh. And if I didn't have a reason to stay here before, I certainly do now.

Leaving this... wasn't in question. And she was ready to face down her family for just that reason.

*********************************************************************

The phone buzzed." Yeah?" Dar punched the speaker button, and kept on typing, her eyes flicking across the spreadsheet intently. "What is it?"

"Dar... security at the desk just called up, someone to see you." Maria's voice informed her. "Is.. Michelle Graver?"

Oh crap. Dar mentally reviewed her options. Major client, probably in town for a short visit, probably wanted to finally corner her into that dinner. Oh crap. "Sure.. have her escorted up." She sighed aggrievedly. Just what she needed after a day like today. Two presentation sessions, a half dozen arguments, one really nasty situation solved by mostly sheer cussedness on her part... Damn, she'd been looking forward to leaving.

She keyed a popup message. "I'm in trouble... Michelle's here." She clicked send, then went back to her spreadsheet for a moment.

"You could take her to Shorty's for dinner. (smile)" Kerry responded promptly. "Bet she'd look good in ketchup."

Dar chuckled to herself. Shorty's was the local barbeque hangout, off US 1 near Dadeland. It served great ribs, and she actually was partial to their food, but rustic as a term didn't quite do it justice. At least they'd put air conditioning in a few years back, and didn't depend on only screening to keep the bugs out. "Might as well just take her to McDonalds." She keyed back, then glanced up as the door opened, to reveal Maria's round form. "Oh.. thought you were her."

"No no.. " Maria walked over and handed her a file folder. "Is the contract for the new utilities account in New York."

"Thanks." Dar smiled at her, and took the folder, putting it on her desk and leaning back, as she saved the spreadsheet. "Well.. that's done.. the first quarter projections for infrastructure growth... we're going to get slaughtered if we donít buy up more facilities." She strectched and cracked her neck, then put her hands behind her head and let out a satisified sigh.

Maria watched her. "You feel good, no?" She asked, mildly amazed at the visible difference in her boss.

Dar paused, then finally nodded. "Yeah.. must be all this extra rest I 'm getting." She deadpanned. "Haven't had a damn headache in weeks."

"Tcha... is good." Maria smiled at her, as the dark haired woman's eyes fell on the dolphin sculptures, and rested there.

Dar had surprised everyone by being in a consistently good mood all day, despite several disasters and one nasty fight with Jose. Now she rocked back and forth a little as she heard the elevator door open. "Here comes trouble, if I'm not mistaken." The executive sighed, ordering her options and taking a breath.

Sharp, stacatto heels on the tile, then the security guard opened the door, and Michelle Graver stepped around him and in, gazing around the office appreciatively. She finally ended up letting her eyes rest on Dar, who was still leaning back in her chair, her hands folded in front of her. "Hello. Dar."

"Afternoon, Michelle.. what brings you to these parts?" Dar inquired civilly. "Please.. sit down." She motioned to one of the padded seats before her desk. "What can I do for you?" The red haired woman was dressed in a neat silk suit, which clung to her frame leaving little to the imagination.

"Well..the state tourism board's meeting this week... you know we're a big part of that." Michelle stated, seating herself gracefully. "I had a few hours free tonight, I though I'd stop by and see if I could claim that raincheck." Her eyes found Dar's and a faint, fleeting smile crossed her lips. "If you're not... busy."

A faint warning bell sounded in Dar's head. "I had nothing planned." She replied cautiously. "Did you have someplace in mind you wanted to try?" Idly, she toyed with the idea of telling the woman she had previous plans. Oh.. sorry Michelle.. I promised Kerry I'd go miniature golfing with her.. I hate missing that huge pink elephant hole...you understand, right?

"Well, this is your end of the pond, Dar... why don't you suggest something?" Michelle crossed her legs and leaned aginst the arm of the chair, a predatory smile on her face. "Surely you know all the nice spots around here."

The taller woman considered. "Where are you staying?"

The smile widened perceptibly. "The Hyatt, downtown." She purred.

"Do you like seafood?" Dar asked, politely.

"I love it." Michelle replied.

Pale blue eyes regarded her warily. "All right.. Monty's down in the Grove is a good spot for that.. I could pick you up.. say at seven?"

A nod. "That would be perfect... I can fill you in on the implementation plan.. and we can... talk a little." She stood up, having got what she wanted, and straightened her jacket neatly. "Room 1243." She let her eyes linger on Dar's body, then turned, moving across the carpet and pausing at the door. "Till then."

She slipped out, and Dar made a face. "Is that going to ever be a waste of good crabs." She sighed. "On the other hand, maybe I can get one to bite her. "

****************************************************************

 Kerry pushed her door open, and ducked inside, putting down the bags of groceries and kicking the wooden panel shut behind her. A glance at the clock told her it was well past ten, and she exhaled, having spent the night doing all the errands she could possibly think of.

Or make up, for that matter, anything to keep her mind off where Dar was, and who she was with.

"Jealousy is not a fun emotion." She informed her fish. "Don't let anyone fool you, Scully... it sucks." Trudging into the kitchen, she put the bags down, setting the cold stuff down by the refrigerator. "Not that I'm worried mind you.. I know Dar doesn't like her."

Scully and Mulder blew bubbles.

"No, really.. she doesn't.. she was making the funniest jokes about her on the way out... though I think that was mostly to make me feel better." She gave the fish a wry look. "I was trying really hard to not come off as a green eyed monster, but of course.. that's really tough for me, given the fact that I already have green eyes, you know what I mean?"

Mulder blew a bubble. Scully inched up and smacked him on the lips.

"Ooo.. I can think of about seven million internet fans that would kill for that sight."

The Lone Gunmen darted around, as she crossed over and sprinkled a little food in the tank. She leaned against the edge, peering down at them. "It's business, guys. Nothing personal." She sighed. "But I can't help wanting to pull her little red eyebrows out and feed them to her with a plunger." She half wished Dar had simply turned the meeting down, even though she knew her boss had a responsibility to maintain good relations with their newest account.

Did it have to be that kind of relations, though? Kerry felt a little sick every time she thought of Michelle, and her fancy hotel, and her exotic figure. It was a horrible, helpless feeling.. and she briefly considered just putting everything away, and going to sleep.

It would be over in the morning.

Right?

"Shit.. come on, Kerry... get a grip... she turned down a dinner with her for a romp in the park with you just a few weeks ago... she couldn't avoid this.. the woman pranced into her office and practically forced her into it. " She told herself.

Right? With sigh, she went back into the kitchen and put everything away, including the milk and chocolate syrup she'd found herself getting wholly without conscious thought. Then she changed, and sat down on the couch, letting her fingers drift over the fabric and remembering Monday.

Was is only three days ago? It felt longer.

The clock ticked in the silence, and she could hear the soft hum of the aquarium's tank motor. The phone's ringing startled her, and she jumped, then got up and went over to it. "Hello?"

"Kerry... I'm glad I caught you." Her mother's voice sounded from the receiver. "You're hardly ever home these days, dear... I've been trying for two days."

Uh... hmm...better see about call forwarding. Kerry winced. "Sorry... I um... I was working late yesterday, then I went to the gym... and we went out after that."

"Oh? You joined a gym?" Her mother's voice sounded wary.

"It's a special deal through our company. " Kerry told her. "A whole bunch of us did it... I'm taking some aerobics.. and wall climbing.. and... a little self defense class." She laughed faintly. "It's a lot of fun."

A moment's silence. "Well, I'm very surprised you got involved in something like that when you're leaving, Kerry." Her mother stated disapprovingly. "That's not like you."

A deep, deep breath. "Mother, let's be sensible, all right? I can't just give up this job and come home just because of an accident... it's silly." Briefly, she wished Dar was there, needing the taller woman's comforting presence. "I'm doing great here.. it's such a good opportunity."

"Don't be foolish." Her mother snapped. "Your father told you... you're coming home, and let's not hear any talk about that, Kerrison...it's all arranged."

It was alsmost as thought she could feel warm hands resting on her shoulders, and a close presence behind her as she stood a little straighter. "No I'm not, and if you don't want to talk about it, that's fine, mother... but I have every intention of staying here." Kerry told her steadily. "I have friends here, and a great job... I'm not ready to give that up."

Frozen silence. "We'll see what your father has to say about that." The voice replied, angrily. "I can't believe I'm hearing this from you.. of all the ungrateful things... living there has given you horrible ideas, and it's the best reason I can see for bringing you home."

It hurt. "I'm sorry you feel that way, mother... I don't mean any disrespect to you, or to daddy, but you have to understand that..." The line went dead. Kerry sighed, and hung it up, letting it drop on the table with a dull thud. "Great. .. just freaking, one hundred percent doesn't that bite the big one piece of crap great."

******************************************************

The restaurant was about three quarters full, and the soft clink of silverware warred with low, buzzing conversation as Dar cocked her head, absorbing the story Michelle was telling her about some problem they'd had with their mainframes. It was sad. Dar had figured out what the problem was ten minutes prior, but she saw no percentage in giving Michelle a freebie, considering her network people had been frustrated over it for a week. "You could contract us to send an analyst out there." She offered with a frank smile.

Michelle toyed with her fork, and peered at her over lashes dusted lightly with a faint golden tinge. "You mean you can't solve it off the top of your head? Why Dar.. I'm disappointed."

Dar briefly considered responding with a smart remark about services and paying for them, then she merely smiled. "Oh.. I can't solve everyone's problems... but I'm sure one of our engineers could fix you right up." She took a sip of the champagne Michelle had insisted on, and swallowed it, then speared a piece of salmon and glanced outside. The marina the restaurant bordered was full of winking lights, boats traveling in and out and docked. There was a party in full swing on one, with bearded men in denim shorts and women in halter tops trading beers. She fought the urge to loosen her own buttoned collar, and sighed inwardly. "I heard from infrastructure... your circuits are in."

"Well.. that's good news." Michelle apparently decided to give up on her prodding. "Took them long enough." A snipe.

Two weeks for a major T3 circuit wasn't long, but Dar refused to dispute that. "Problem was your demarc, actually.. the telco people tell me it took them six days to get access to the switchroom." She gave Michelle a pleasant look. "Makes it a little tough to complete the circuit if you can't get into the facilities."

A tight lipped smile in response. "We're very serious about security." She responded. "Just like you are... we don't let people wander about our buildings anonymously."

Dar laughed. "Come on, Michelle... two Southern Bell technicians in uniform with their famous truck.. how anonymous is that?" She nibbled another piece of salmon as she gazed innocently at the shorter woman, who was neatly decimating a plateful of stuffed shrimp.

Graver didn't answer for a moment as she swallowed. "Anyone can pick up one of those stupid looking white helmets, and a shirt.. we don't take chances." She informed Dar. "So.. tell me, Dar... I'm curious... what makes someone as experienced as you pick a rank novice as an assistant?"

It came from around the corner, and hit unexpectedly. But Dar hadn't spent years in the boardroom refining her reactions for nothing. She took a forkful of baked potato and considered the question seriously. Why, Michelle...because she's a babe, and I fell head over heels in love with her at pretty much first sight, of course.

No no.. Dar... can't tell the weeble that. "Well.. she was part of an account we consolidated not long ago.. and I thought she had some good potential, so I took a chance on her." She answered evenly. "It paid off... she sent your intranet people some mail telling them how to do a better job securing your network... considering she was able to tap right into your master routers past your firewall." Another forkful of potatoes followed, and she chewed innocently, as Michelle apparently swallowed something the wrong way and hastily took a sip of water. "She's good, and a fast learner... why?"

"Just asking." Michelle cleared her throat. "Actually, she was quite impressive.. she's Kevin Stuart's daughter?"

Dar nodded. "Mmhmm.."

Michelle smirked. "That was clever of you.. he's not a friend of your company's." She purred. "I sense an ulterior motive here."

Sure you do.. it's just not the one your thinking of, Michelle. "Not really... though that might turn out to be an asset..." Dar answered dismissively.

"I'm sure she has many... assets." Michelle smiled at her. "But enough about her... tell me more about yourself, Dar."

It felt like the dinner lasted at least three weeks, Dar reflected, as the finally left the restaurant into the cool night air. She took in a breath of it, then stepped forward as the valet brought the Lexus around. She waited for Michelle to settle herself, then she slid into the driver's side, moving the seat back a little to accommodate her inches.

"Nice." Michelle ran a finger over the leather surface. "Not quite what I pictured you driving, but nice."

Dar bit back an answer and started the car. "Thanks.. I like it." She put the Lexus in gear, and turned right out onto Bayshore Drive, heading back to pick up the highway and return Michelle to her hotel.

She knew what Michelle was gunning for. That much had been obvious from the moment she'd picked the shorter woman up, when she'd made a point of fingering Dar's jacket and complimenting her perfume. And she obviously felt that Dar was going to be a willing particiipant.

God knows, she had before, and with less attractive people than Michelle Graver, who was good looking, experienced, very sensual, and certainly more worldly than the sweetly uncertain Kerry.

Kerry had said, with a warm hand on her arm as they parted in the parking lot. "Dar, have fun... don't hold back if you don't want to." She'd even smiled. So that was all right, right? Kerry understood it was just business... that she really dind't like Michelle, it was just....part of the job.

Kerry understood. It wasn't like it meant anything, and it would be a quick, relatively enjoyable time. Michelle would leave happy, and no harm would be done.

She pulled up in front of the Hyatt, and put the Lexus in park, half turning towards Michelle as the shorter woman eyed her with warm speculation. "Here we are."

A smile started on Michelle's face. "You coming up?" Her voice was low, and sure. "I'd love to continue our conversation."

Dar drew breath to answer, then jumped as her cell phone rang. She pulled it out and flipped it open, giving Michelle an apologetic look. "Yeah?"

"Dar.. it's Mark.. we've got a big problem." The MIS chief's voice burred in her ear.

It was the perfect excuse. It got her off the hook, and didn't leave the interestedly watching Michelle feeling rejected. "Hang on, Mark." She muted the phone, and turned to the shorter woman. "Much as I appreciate the offer, Michelle... and I do... I'm afraid I have to decline."

A perfectly shaped red eyebrow curved up. "Problems?" She indicated the phone.

Dar met her eyes. "No... but I'm involved with someone, and it's just not my style." Damn, that felt good to say. She sighed inwardly, as Michelle's face stiffened into a hidden fury.

The door slammed behind her, and Dar leaned back, knowing she'd just caused herself a whole pile of trouble.

Amazing how incredibly good that felt. "Okay, Mark.. what do we have?" She put the Lexus in gear, and pulled away from the towering brown building.

****************************************************************

Kerry barely made it in the door as the phone rang for the fourth time, her skates slipping on the entryway tile, and sending her lunging across the room. "Jesus!" She yelped, as her sweat drenched body hit the side of the couch, and she grabbed the ringing instrument. "Yow!" She landed on her butt and lost the phone, then scrambled after it, capturing it finally. "Hello?" She growled into it, trying to catch her breath.

A pause. "Hi." A low, vibrant voice answered her, a touch quizzically.

Every ounce of tension suddenly drained out of Kerry, leaving her limp as a damp, warm dishrag on the floor. "Hey... sorry." In the background, she could hear music faintly playing, other than that, it was very quiet where Dar was. She glanced at her watch. Eleven. Hmm. Her spirits rose, having been in the dumpster all night. Guess things didn't work out. She felt a smile pull at her lips. What a shame.

"You all right?" Dar inquired gently.

"I'm drenched, exhausted, pissed off, and now I have a sore butt." Kerry replied. "Other than that, Iím great. How about you? How did dinner go?"

A soft chuckle. "Lousy... I think I may have blown a very important client relationship right to hell." The executive sighed. "Why are you pissed off, not to mention drenched and exhausted?"

Kerry crossed her weighted down ankles and regarded the white popcorn ceiling. "Oh... well, I was skating." She explained. "My mother called... I kind of broke the news to her that I wasn't moving back there.. she hung up on me."

"Ah." Dar murmured. "Sorry."

"I'm not." Kerry replied. "But it really pissed me off.. and I... " She hesitated. Was already tied in knots... no, she doesn't need to know that. "I decided to work off some energy out skating."

"Mm.. I see. You sound tired." Dar commented. "I should.. um...let you get some sleep."

A momentary silence fell. Kerry rolled over and cradled the phone against her ear. "Where are you?"

A soft clucking noise then Dar let out a chuckle. "Outside in your parking lot." She admitted.

"Dar!" Kerry felt a laugh bubble up, and her bad mood vanished. "Get in here... Jesus.. don't be goofy.. you can help me up. I think I broke my butt." Through the half open door she heard the solid sound of the car door closing, then the soft, rhythmic footsteps she recognized as Dar's. She turned and watched as the door pushed open, and the dark head poked inquisitively in. "Hi." She waggled a skate covered foot at the taller woman.

Dar put her hands on her hips and gazed down at her, a faint, playful smile pulling at her lips. "You always go roller skating half naked?" She inquired, blinking appreciatively at the brief shorts and cutoff shirt. "You might coax me into trying it in that case."

"Hah hah hah." Kerry stuck her tongue out. "No.. I donít.. but everything else is in the laundry.. for some reason I hadn't gotten around to doing it this week." A pause. "Yet."

The dark haired woman tossed her jacket down and joined Kerry on the floor, stretching out on her side and propping her head up on one hand. She'd traded her suit for a pair of jeans and a cotton shirt and she looked relaxed and faintly disheveled.

Just how Kerry liked her. She smiled. "So...is Michelle going to send Uncle Scrooge after you or something?"

Dar shrugged. "She might... I'll have to see.. I'd better send a note down to the account team for them and warn them she's probably going to be a bitch on wheels to them... " She fell silent, and regarded the keys in her hand. "It's too bad, but... "

Kerry rolled over and faced her. "But what? Dar, forgive me for saying this, but she's a pig." The blond woman's brows knit. "She was chasing after you like some...some.... "

"Horny guy?" Dar inquired, with a wry twist of her lips. "Maybe it's the short woman syndrome I keep hearing about."

"Hey!" Kerry gave her a look. "Short people donít' have syndromes!" She protested. "We're just always pissed off because we can't reach kitchen cabinets."

Dar laughed easily. "Well.. you're taller than she is."

Kerry considered. "Yeah, I am.. come to think about it.. I knew there was something I liked about her."

"You're a lot prettier than she is, too." The taller woman continued, her voice gentling. "On the outside, and certainly on the inside."

Her companion blushed, and glanced down. "Thanks." She replied softly. "I'm glad you think that."

Dar studied her for a moment. "Your mom was kind of rough, huh?" She reached out and covered Kerry's hand with her own. "Sorry you had to go through that... I know it's tough."

Kerry looked at the hand over hers, and let her fingers explore it's surface a bit. "Dar... I wasn't going to say this but... you know, one of the things that is so bad between me and my parents is that we never communicate.. and I donít' want to start off that way with you." She looked up. "I'm really glad you didn't go with her tonight. It was really bothering me."

The blue eyes blinked. "It was?" The words were soft. "I'm glad you told me that." Dar lifted their joined hands and brushed her lips against them. "I was kind of... surprised.. when you told me to go ahead.. it made me feel... " She stopped, and shook her head. "Almost disappointed." She admitted.

"Oh." Kerry thought about that. "Really?"

Dar nodded. "Really."

"Hmm... I ... " Kerry bit her lip. "I didn't think I should get all... um.. like 'donít you touch her!' ... I mean, we could end up on Jerry Springer or something."

A sly grin edged Dar's lips. "Kerry, lemme tell you something.. I would have paid good, hard cash to see you smack her hands... next time someone forces me to go out, you're coming with me." A beat. "So.. what happened with your mother?" She me the startled green eyes. "You hate talking about them, don't you?"

Kerry sighed. "Yeah, I do... " She gave Dar a wry look. "I wish I could just forget I had them sometimes."

The phone rang, and Kerry almost jumped out of her skin since it was resting on her stomach. "Jesus... " She picked it up and pressed the answer button. "Hello?"

"Hi, sis." Her sister Angela's voice sounded halfway between nervous and amused.

"Oh.. hi Angela." She mouthed 'my sister' at Dar. "Let me guess...I'm the topic of conversation tonight."

Dar rolled over and pillowed her head on Kerry's belly, her eyes on the smaller woman's face.

"Oh my god, Ker... what in the name of the Lord did you do to them? Mom's about having a litter of kittens in the middle of the kitchen... you're not pregnant are you?"

Dar lifted her head, and poked the surface she was resting on, making Kerry giggle softly. "Nope." She whispered.

"No.. " Kerry reached down and tickled Dar's nose. "I'm just happy where I am and don't want to come back to Michigan.. is that a crime?" She exhaled. "Good grief, Angie... I've got this great job, and all my friends... the stupid airplane was an accident for crying out loud."

A sigh. "Ker, itís not funny, okay - Dad's already talking about things... be careful, okay? You know how he gets."

Kerry felt a familiar jolt of fear grab her chest. "Yeah, I know." She answered softly. "How are things? "

"All right." Her sister answered quietly. "Same old, same old.. Richard's out with his friends... I'm here... you know how it goes." She paused. "I miss having you around... but honestly, Ker.. I don't blame you for staying away."

"Well, I'll see you next week, I guess." Kerry replied. "If they don't lock me out of the house, that is... maybe they'll settle down by then."

"I doubt it.. but I'll be glad to see you anyway.. if they give you a hard time, you can stay by us." Angela advised her. "How are things with you? You find anyone.. um... I mean... well, you know."

Kerry knew. She'd told Angela the last time she was home about some of the things she'd discovered about herself. Her younger sister had been far more accepting than she'd believed possible, and it was one of the few things she did miss about being away from home. "Yes. " She twined her fingers with Dar's. "I did find someone.. as a matter of fact."

"Ah... " Angela sighed. "So this doesn't really have anything to do with your job, does it?"

Kerry laughed softly. "In a way.. it does." She admitted. "I'll tell you about it when I get there... it's a long story."

"Bring pictures." Her sister advised her. "I want to make sure my sister isn't running around with some crazy Latin goat sacrificer."

Dar's eyes grew round as she listened, and she lifted her head in outrage. "Goat sacrificer???" She mouthed.

"Shh.. " Kerry put a hand on her lips. "No on both counts, Angie." She assured her. "Honest."

An awkward pause. "Are you alone?" Angela asked, hesitantly.

Kerry let a breath trickle out of her lungs. "No."

"Oh." It came out awkwardly. "Well, I should let you go then... you must be.. um... busy."

Blue eyes and green met, and dropped. "I just got back from skating, actually.. " Kerry cleared her throat. "We're just sitting around talking... but.. listen, keep an ear on the folks for me, okay? I'd rather know if I'm going to walk into Hell next week."

Angela sighed. "Okay.. I can do that... you take care of yourself Kerry.. okay?"

"I will... you too, Angie.. see you next week." Her sister told her. "Night... "

She hung up, and let the phone rest on the floor. "My sister."

Dar chewed on that. "She seems nice.. you sure you two aren't foundlings?"

Kerry snorted softly. "It's crossed my mind, believe me." She reached down and riffled through Dar's dark hair. "Want some chocolate milk? Some followed me home from the store today."

"Sure." The taller woman stood, and extended a hand down to her. "C'mon... I think the Crocodile Lover is on." She grabbed Kerry's arm and pulled her upright, smiling as the skates brought her smaller companion a good two inches higher than usual. "Mm... nice positioning." She leaned forward a little and kissed the waiting lips, feeling Kerry's hands slip down and come to rest against her belt.

"Oh great... " Kerry enjoyed herself, hooking her fingers in the loops and pulling herself closer. "I'm destined to be stuck on skates for the rest of my life." Dar's arms closed around her, and she gladly let her body relax against her companions.

"Goat sacrificer? What kind of stories have you been telling your sister?" Dar breathed in her ear. "You haven't been scaring her with that stuff about Santeria and the Chupacabre, have you?"

Kerry let her head rest against Dar's shoulder. "No... she's been watching reruns of Miami Vice on cable, again." A pause, while they both just silently absorbed each other. "What are you doing for Thanksgiving?"

"You could invite me home with you." Dar teased, watching wistful look cross Kerry's face. "I'm invited up to Gerald Eaton's house.. he's been a good friend, and sort of an uncle to me since I was a kid."

Kerry patted her gently. "Good. .I'm glad.. I hated to think of you being all by yourself... that's in Washington, right?"

A nod. "Maryland, actually.. just over the border... he's promised me leaves other than green ones, and the chance of a little snow."

"Mm." Kerry nibbled her jaw. "You're taking your cell phone, right?"

Dar leaned back and studied her seriously. "If you get into trouble with your folks.. you call me, Kerry.. I'll be there, okay?" She paused. "Cell phone.. oh shit.. that reminds me.. I need to log in. Mark conveniently interrupted me as I was dropping Michelle off and told me we had a security breach."

"Yikes... " Kerry sat down on the couch and started unstrapping her skates. "Did he catch them?"

"Yeah. But they shot off a packet into the network.. he was tracing it when he talked to me. He was going to route it and find out where it came from."

"Help yourself." Kerry motioned towards her desk. "I'll get some milk and cookies... " She got up and leaned on Dar's back, watching her start up sessions. "And turn on the Crocodile Dude." She got a gentle, insistent kiss for that, and closed her eyes as Dar half turned to continue the pressure. Bite me, Michelle.. I hope you spend the whole night with your pillow and a breadstick.

The night was definitely looking up.


 Continued in Part 12