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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 12

By Melissa Good

"Look, I don't much care what he's saying... that circuit isn't going to be completed in ten days." Dar pronounced, for the sixth time. "Not even if I drive to Tampa personally and kick the telco crew in the butt, so forget it."

"But Dar.... " The voice on the other end of the phone protested. "It's been two months.. they're screaming!"

The dark haired woman exhaled. "It's not our fault they got hit with a flood and it took out an entire CO, Brendan... we're pushing telco as hard as we can, all right?" She glanced at her watch. Only eleven thirty? Damn.. it felt like she'd been there for eight hours already. "They had to rebuild from scratch.. listen, tell them it's a good thing. They'll get brand new lines."

Brendan sighed. "All right.. I'll see if I can snow them with that... but do me a favor, and push a little harder, huh?"

"I'll see what I can do." Dar promised, then disconnected, and went back to her mail. "Damn... must be three hundred messages in here... " She went to the next one, a report from Mark about the mysterious packet the previous night. "Someone scoping the place out, eh?" She examined the trace. "From an outside link... huh... " It was a request for information searching on specific strings, and as she scrolled through the dump, she stiffened.

"Well, well." Her name, and social security number. "Son of a bitch." She picked up the phone and dialed Mark's number, waiting as it rang and gave her his voice mail. "Mark, it's Dar. I need to know where this came from." She hung up, then put that aside, and went to the next message.

The phone buzzed. "Yes?" A touch of impatience entered her voice.

"Dar, it's Miss Mariana on numero uno." Maria said over the intercom. "She says urgent."

The dark haired woman felt a twinge in her gut. "Okay.. I'll take it.. thanks." She drummed her fingers a moment, then pressed the button. "Hi, Mariana.. what's up?"

"Dar, I need to speak with you." The formality of the tone sent warning bells off in Dar's head. "Now, please."

Shit. "Mariana, I'm in the middle of a dozen fires here... what is it?" She objected warily.

"Please just come down here." The Personnel VP stated quietly. "I need to show you something."

Dar sighed inwardly. "All right.. I"ll be right over." She hung up, then stood and shrugged into her jacket, running a hand thorugh her hair to order it. "I can just imagine what this is about." She muttered softly, as she headed for the door.

Moments later, she was knocking lightly on the frame leading into Mariana's spacious office, giving the woman a nod as she looked up. "As you requested."

"Close the door." Mariana said, in a quiet, serious tone.

Dar did so, then walked across the carpet and sat down in the visitor's chair across from her, pretending a casualness she really didn't feel. "So, what's up?"

The brunette tossed a manilla envelope over to her. "I got these delivered via courier."

Dar reached across the desk and lifted the envelope, opening the top and slipping out a stack of eight by ten photos. She glanced at the first one, and started laughing. "Well, that was predictable." She leafed through the others, then tossed the pile down in front of her friend. "And?"

Mariana leaned forward. "Dar." She put a finger on the pictures. "What's going on ?"

Dar also leaned forward. "With what? Ten pictures of two people at Disney World?" She let a touch of incredulity show in her voice. "Is there a problem with that?"

"That's not two people, Dar.. that's you, and an employee of yours." Mariana stated quietly. "I need to tell you this is a very serious matter. "

The taller woman let out a snort. " Get a grip, Mari... it's not against company policy to have a couple hours off."

"Dar." Mariana stood and leaned on her hands. "What's going on with you? Do you understand what these pictures look like?" She pulled the first one off the top and showed it to her. It was a nice shot, somewhat fuzzy, of her and Kerry on Space Mountain, her arms wrapped snugly around the smaller woman's body and both of them laughing.

"It looks like two people having a good time." Dar answered calmly. "Which is what it was.. .Iím not sure I like what you're insinuating." She also stood, letting a little anger show. "Look..I know it's going to disrupt the entire corporate structure, but it's just possilble there's someone in my orgid who actually doesn't hate my guts... it's odd, I know, but there you have it. What's the god damned problem, Mari?"

"You're telling me there's nothing going on between you?" Mariana shot back. "Is that what you're saying?"

"No... " Dar answered, her tone dropping dangerously. "There is most certainly something going on .. it's called friendship, Mariana... or don't you think Iím capable of that?" She snapped back "You think every time I talk to someone I have to be sleeping with them? Is that it??"

Mariana edged back a little, staring at her uncertainly. "Okay..okay.. hold on, Dar." She put her hands up. "Iím trying to protect you, and more importantly, protect Kerry... it's my job, remember?" She looked away from the ice cold eyes glaring at her. "So... you're friends, is that what you're telling me?"

"Yes." Dar replied. "I donít hit it off with many people, Mari... you know that. I just got lucky... I can actually spend time with her and not want to strangle her to death. Is that a crime?"

"You spend time together." The brunette clarified, cautiously.

"Sure... been to dinner a few times... we go to the gym together... she's a nice kid, and I like her a lot." Dar responded.

The Personnel director relaxed a little. "I'm sorry." She said, simply, her hazel eyes finding Dar's and projecting regret. "Dar, you and I are friends... and I know how isolated you keep yourself. It just..." She touched the pictures. "I got scared for you, okay?" She sighed. "There are people who will take any chance to go after you.. and I don't want to see that happen."

Dar now relaxed a little, and exhaled. "I know... " She shook her head. "You know where those came from?"

Mariana blinked at her. "Disney World, I thought... not sure... was someone taking pictures of you while you were there?"

"They're a bit of spiteful malice from Michelle Graver." Dar responded, with a humorless smile. "I wouldn't sleep with her, so this is her way of replying."

Mariana jerked back, and let out a soft gasp. "You're joking."

"No." Dar answered. "I had to practically throw her out of my car last night."

"What a little... " The smaller woman gave the pictures a look of disgust. "Dar.. that's horrible."

The dark haired woman got up and wandered over to the window, leaning her hands against the glass and peering out. "Yeah.. I know." She snorted softly. "Imagine... I finally develop a conscience, and what do I get for it?"

Mariana studied her back, then got up and joined her at the window, putting a hand on her arm. "That wasn't want I..." She sighed, perplexed at the situation. "Dar... listen, in a strange way, I was halfway hoping it was true."

Shocked blue eyes turned and gathered her in. "What?"

"I've known you for years....and it's like I hardly know you, Dar.. you only let us see tiny bits and pieces of who you are... and I've been very worried about you." The shorter woman said quietly. "They put an enormous amount of pressure on you.. and it bothered me a lot to know you really had no one to share that with... beyond this stupid job, okay? "

Warily, Dar regarded her. "What are you saying?" She crossed her arms and leaned against the glass, the sun slanting in on both of them and bisecting the quiet office.

"Don't get mad at me." Mariana put a hand on her arm. "But I've seen a big difference in you the last month, and to be completely honest, I was hoping you'd found someone to share your thoughts and dreams with."

She didn't want to lie to Mariana. The woman had been a friend to her for years.. but this... Dar sighed. She didn't want the personnel executive to have her own crisis of conscience, pitting her liking of Dar against her duty to her job. She thought quickly. "I'd had a lot of things on my mind lately... " She chose her words carefully. "Not the least of which has been my health."

It threw the smaller woman right off the scent, now her eyes widened in real concern.

"I told you about the headaches... well, when they checked for that, they found something irregular in my heartbeat." Dar told her. "I went in for some tests... and believe me, Mari.. I was very concerned. My father died from a defective heart valve."

"Oh my god." Mariana moved a step closer. "What happened?"

Dar shook her head. "It came out all right... somehow.. I'm not really sure how myself, but.. it was a cloud that had been over me for a long time... I was really relieved to be rid of it." She glanced at the carpet and nudged a bit of the pile with her foot. "I guess that's why I've been a little more relaxed lately.. that and being told I'd better take it easy or risk real problems with those headaches." True, all of it. Just not the entire truth.

"Dar, you should have told me... I could have... "

"What, arranged for crises to stop happening?" Dar asked, mildly. "Those couple days in Orlando came at the right time... it really irks me that someone could take pictures of something so normal and make it seem like we were... " Dar shook her head sadly. "Damn." Also true. At the park, neither of them had even really begun to think about a romantic relationship.

"Dar, don't worry about it." Mariana replied soothingly. "I'll shred them."

Dar considered that, then let a faint smile cross her lips. "No... let me have them." She disagreed. "I have a better idea." You think you got me, huh, you little weeble? "Look.. Mari.. I'm sorry I yelled... you were absolutely right to call me on this.. it could be hell for all of us if it got out of hand."

Mariana patted her arm. "I could have approached it a little differently...I guess I was just so shocked...well, not shocked, just... " She walked over and picked up the pictures, and leafed through them, then glanced at Dar, who was gazing out of the window. Her eyes dropped back to the picture on top, seeing the relaxed and happy look on the tall executive's face as she hugged the blond Kerry to her . "Anyway, to change the subject, I'm looking forward to dinner tonight... you did remember, right?"

Dar turned and nodded. "I did... and Kerry tells me she accepted your invitation also.. it should be a good time." She pushed off the glass and crossed to her friend, holding a hand out. "Gimme.. I'm gonna have the damned things published on the internal web server... Ops monthly newsletter's about due."

Mariana blinked. "What?"

A smile. "I'll make sure to email Michelle a copy of the page."

"Tch.. Dar." The Personnel VP bit back a grin. "I'll send her a thank you note, how about that? On letterhead."

Dar chuckled. "Hey.. that'd be a nice touch." She lifted a hand. "I've got a pile of emergencies on my desk.. I'll see you tonight, Mari."

"Mm... see you tonight, my friend." She waved as Dar left, then sat, playing with a pencil in silence for a few minutes. Then a soft knock came at the door. "Entre Vous." She called out, unsurprised when Duks slipped in and padded over, perching on a corner of her desk.


"Well?" He raised a brow at her in inquiry.

"Well, I almost got my head handed to me, and I got some very plausible skating of the issue, but you know what Dukky?"

"What?" He folded his arms across his chest.

They both burst into song. "There's something there that wasn't there before!!!"

The door swung open, and Jose put his head in. "Was that singing?"

Two solemn faces looked back at him. "What?" Duks asked, his brows rising.

"Singing?" Mariana studied him. "Jose, use your health benefits and get the ears checked, will you?" She shook her head disapprovingly. "Did you need something?"

The stocky sales VP gave them an evil look. "My goddamn new regional sales manager, in fact... you going to make me wait until next year?" He complained. "Or do you have to be Dar Roberts to get anything done around here?"

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

"No, Peter." Dar rested one elbow on her desk, and closed her eyes. "I'm not going to release that... so they'll just have to wait." She held the phone away from her ear as a yell of outrage came out of it. "One more like that and I'm hanging up." She snapped into the phone. "I don't have time for this crap, Peter."

"You're sabotaging me, god damn it." He answered in frustration.

"Don't be stupid." Dar replied. "Why would I do that? You do a great job of it all by yourself."

"Bitch." The phone disconnected and Dar exhaled, grinning wryly.

"Asshole." She muttered, going back to her screen and plowing through yet another mail. The back door opened, and she glanced up, to see Kerry enter, a brown bag in her hands. "Hey."

The blond woman came over, putting the bag down and leaning against the edge of the desk. "Hi." She tugged the edge of her burgundy skirt up and folded her hands.

"What's that?" Dar nudged the bag with her pen.

"Lunch." Kerry replied readily. "I had to run out to the bank during mine...and I figured you'd still be buried in here, so..."

Dar poked at the bag again. "It's not anything with alfafa sprouts or anything, is it?" She glanced slyly at the smaller woman

"Oh.. yeah.. right." Kerry laughed. "As if...no, it's a cheesesteak sandwich, and spicy fries." She peered at the screen. "Good grief.. I thought I had a lot of mail... what's all that?"

Dar was investigating her lunch, and pulled out a fry, munching on it contentedly. "I've been letting things slide for a few days...it all caught up wth me today, I guess... oh yeah." She pulled the manila folder from her inbox and handed it over. "Look what Mariana got today.. from our friend Michelle."

Kerry pulled the pictures out and sucked in a breath in surprise. "Holy Christ!" She blurted in surprise. "Where in the... oh." She realized they must have been spotted by hidden cameras. "What a pig."

Dar looked, chewing another fry. "No.. that's Donald Duck." She pointed at the picture. "They don't have a pig character."

Kerry just looked at her. "Who got these?" She asked quietly.

"Mariana." Dar replied. "I.. um... got called on the carpet for them, more or less."

"Hmm... well, it's not like they're anything big.. I mean, Jesus, Dar... " Her voice trailed off. "Are we in trouble?"

We. Dar curled herself around the word, and remembered what Mari had said. "I don't know." She murmured. "She thinks there's something going on... I... I talked around it more than anything." Her eyes lifted wryly. 'We're going to have to watch it tonight, though... she's not easy to fool."

"Oh." Kerry considered that in thoughtful silence. "She's a friend of yours, right?"

Dar nodded quietly. "Yes, she is."

The smaller woman's brow furrowed. "I think you'd feel better if you told her." A pause. "Because I think she knows anyway.. just from the way she was talking to me the other day."

Dar chewed on a fry. "I think she does too... I just hate putting her.. or Duks, for that matter, into an uncomfortable situation... she's the director of personnel, and this is part of her job.. I don't know, Kerry."

"Mm." Kerry stole a fry. "Think about it..okay?" She changed the subject. "These are nice pictures... can I keep one?"

Dar smiled, and glanced at the pile. "Sure.. I was going to give them to Betty to put in the division newsletter."

The blond woman selected the one of them together on the ride and gave her back the other ones. "I like this one." She gazed at it. "I really wanted you to offer to go on that damn thing again."

Dar laughed. "I almost did." She admitted. "Hey.. it's supposed to be nice weather this weekend.. you up for a little time on the water?"

Kerry glanced up at her with a delighted look. "Yes! " She agreed quickly. "I have my first scuba class on Saturday morning... how about we head out after lunch?"

"Sounds good." Dar nodded. "You'll have all those snowbirds jealous of your nice tan, that's for sure." She put a hand out and rubbed Kerry's knee gently. "I think I'm going to call Mariana and ask her to change the location for dinner... two nights in a row... "

Kerry sucked in a breath. "Jesus.. I forgot you took her there... you have someplace else in mind?"

Dar shook her head, then punched the phone buttons. It rang twice, then Mariana answered. "Mari... listen, would you mind a change of venue tonight?"

She heard rustling, and a soft mutter in the background that she couldnít make out, then Mariana cleared her throat. "No.. no, in fact, Dar.. I was about to call you.. there's a new Thai restaurant in North Miami Duks has been dying to try."

Green and blue eyes met. Kerry tapped her nose, then made a scrunched up face, and poked her teeth out, sniffing. "I smell a rat..." She mouthed.

Dar bit back a chuckle. "Sure.. but Mari, I didn't know you liked that stuff." She agreed warily, her thumb still absently caressing Kerry's skin.

"Life's short, Dar.. always time to try something new.. besides, Duks swears by the stuff, and he's promised me the chicken is really just chicken."

"Okay... sounds good." The dark haired woman relaxed, with a pleased expression. "I happen to like Thai."

"Oh.. I guess I'd better ask Kerry.. she might not... " Mari sighed.

"No, she does." Dar answered without thinking, then slapped her head, and rolled her eyes, as Kerry covered her mouth with a hasty hand. "Jesus.. she got me." She whispered soundlessly. "We were talking about it the other day." She added towards the phone. "Having the 'is it cat, or is it Memorex debate."

Kerry bent over in laughter, and leaned against the desk.

"Oh.. well, that's great." Mariana stated smugly. "It'll just be the four of us.. it's down near US 1, Dar... just before the tracks." A pause. "You'll let Kerry know then?"

Dar sighed and covered her eyes, not quite able to believe Mariana had snagged her quite so easily. "Sure... I'll let her know." She agreed wryly, eyeing the now composed blond, whose sparkling green eyes were gazing merrily at her. "See you." She disconnected and lifted her hands, letting them drop in disgust. "God damn it."

Kerry glanced at the door, then leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. "You're so cute when you're flustered." She told her, with a smile.

Dar's brows shot up. "I am not flustered!" She objected, straightening her cuffs and brushing her sleeve off. "I'm just... um.."

The light tap warned them, and Kerry slipped around to the front of the desk, settling in one of Dar's visitor's chairs hastily Maria poked her head in and spotted them.

"Ah... there you are Kerisita... " The secretary entered, and walked across the carpet. "Dios Mio, Dar.. what is that?"

The executive paused in mid bite, enjoying her sandwich. "Lunch.. what does it look like, Jose's new account manager?" She retorted, taking a mouthful and chewing it.

"Tcha... that is so bad for you." Maria scolded. "Kerisita, you set her a better example, no?"

Kerry rubbed her brow. "Actually, I got it for her." She admitted sheepishly. "Miami Subs really doesn't have much in the way of healthy stuff, Maria." She paused. "Only some Greek roll up things... "

Dar stuck her tongue out then went back to the screen. "Maria, what is all this junk in my inbox?"

"Aie.. that's what I'm here talking to you about.. " The older woman wrung her hands. "Is Mark, he started up some... what he called it.. mailing listo."

Dar clicked with one hand while handling her sandwich with the other. "Oh.. okay.. that's why the damn things subjects range from TCP/IP to a... " She peered. "A recipe for vodka jello eggs." She glanced up, then punched the phone.

"Yeah?" Mark's voice sounded, as always, preoccupied.

"Get me the hell of this damn list." Dar growled. "Or I'm going to altroute every single message into an infinite loop, and dump them in your voice mail."

Dead silence. "Uh." Mark cleared his throat. "Can you do that?"

"Yes." Dar answered, in a silken voice. "I can even make it page you every time."

"You're off." Mark squeaked. "Wasn't on purpose.. I'm just testing this new listing software that's part of our web server... honest." He cleared his throat. "Listen.. sorry I have to miss out on tonight.. but I promised Barbara to take her on one of those Sea Escape things."

"Don't worry about it.. I'll catch you next time." Dar told him. "Any luck on that trace?"

A moment's silence, and the sound of the keyboard rattling. "Came in via the intranet through a link with the backbone routers in Chicago... looks like someone hooked in via one of the milnet hubs. I'm sending a query out after it." The MIS chief muttered. "Did you see the instruction set in that thing? I hex dumped it for you.. that's your shit in there, Dar!"

"I know." The executive replied quietly. "I was poking around in it last night."

A pause. "Yeah.. I saw you logged in." Mark replied. "Your incoming IP looked a little strange.. it's not one of the dialin lines you usually come in on."

Dar wagged a finger silently at the phone. "The cellular connection was acting up.. I had to use a land line." She commented. "Listen.. can you trace that packet or not?"

"I'm working on it." Mark assured her. "Later, Dar."

The line went dead. Kerry stood up and brushed her skirt off. "Well, I've got a conference all in five minutes.. I'm going to go grab some tea." She left, using the front door to Dar's office and closing it behind her.

Dar resumed chewing. "Did we get those contracts?" She asked Maria, glancing up at her.

"You know, Dar... Kerry is such a lovely person." Maria smiled at her. "You were so lucky to have found her."

Dar's jaws stopped, and she considered the statement for a moment. "Well, I think so." She finally answered, cautiously. "I'm glad you like her."

Maria reached over and patted her hand, then smiled, and made an impish face, before she turned and walked out.

Dar just stared after her in befuddlement. "What the hell is going on with everyone today? " She demanded to the empty room.

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

"You ready?" Dar waited, leaning against the side of her car as Kerry brushed her hair. The last fading rays of sun caught her through the glass of her windshield and Dar found herself smiling at the image. They were outside the restaurant, in a small and crowded parking lot that boded well for the quality of the restaurant.

Kerry glanced into the rearview mirror a final time, flicking her hair into place, then she got out, and brushed her shirt off. "I look okay?" She asked, giving her boss an inquiring look.

"Very much so." Dar assured her. Kerry was wearing a pair of very dark, neatly pressed jeans and an aqua polo shirt under a snugly fitting white sweatshirt with it's sleeves pushed halfway up. "So.. you ready?"

Kerry exhaled, and studied her companion, who had changed into a pair of tan dockers and a red tank top, with her leather jacket thrown over her shoulders. "Yep... let's go run the gauntlet..." She tugged at Dar's zipper. "You look nice."

The taller woman smiled, and patted her side. "So do you.. c'mon." She followed Kerry as they sauntered across the parking lot. "I like that sweatshirt." She admired the tiny, embroidered birds that danced across the front, and scampered down the sleeves.

Kerry straightened a little, and smiled, as they stepped up onto the desk which held the restaurant. She spotted Mariana and Duks leaning against the railing, and cleared her throat. "Okay.. here we go... I hope we can pull this off."

Dar snorted. "No problem. Just relax, we'll be fine."

"Dar?" Kerry murmured softly.

"Hmm?" The dark haired woman leaned a bit closer.

"You might want to take your hand off my back.. not that I mind, but.. "

"Right." Dar took the disobedient hand and waved at Mariana and Duks as they came closer. "I was just making sure you didn't fall off the steps."

"Well, hello you two." Mariana smiled at them. The Personnel VP was wearing a pair of slacks and a sweater, and Duks had changed into a dark blue sweatshirt and black chinos. "It smells great out here.. let's go in."

Dar gave them both a brief nod, then followed them inside, taking in the typical gold/red /and black décor that oriental restaurants seemed to regard as almost a livery. The room was large, with a few scattered, small tables in the center, and a raised platform all the way around the walls, which featured low tables and pillows.

Lots and lots of pillows. And no chairs.

They were lead to a table area in the back by a smiling, bobbing waiter, who indicated they were to take their shoes off and make themselves comfortable. The table had padded backrests to sit against, and piles of soft, silk covered pillows that lined the pit like enclosure. "Isn't this cute?" Mariana mused. "I've never eaten in a place like this before."

They sat down, one on each side of the table, and settled into the cushions. Dar found it surprisingly relaxing, and she began to release some of the pent up anxiety from the day, and the knowledge that her two friends were gazing at her in quiet knowing. She spread her arms out on the cushions, and gazed back. "So... hell of a day, huh?"

Duks looked up from his menu, and cracked a sardonic grin. He had a powerfully built face, with a square jaw and a thick neck that disappeared into heavy shoulders that betrayed a youth spent doing something other than running a calculator. "If I believed in Hell, I'd agree with you."

Kerry leaned forward, curiously. "Are you an atheist, Mr. Draefus?"

He turned his grin on her. "Duks, please, Kerry, and yes, I am." He selected what he wanted, then put the menu down. "I find it makes my life so much simpler."

"Simpler? How?" The blond woman inquired. "I would think having to find explanations for everything would make it more complicated... it's so easy just to say 'because God said so.'"

"Yes, isn't it?" Duks agreed softly. "Simpler because I have no expectations.. I have nothing to live up to, nothing to spend my life striving for, because at the end, it's just... the end." He told her. "You stop, and feed the worms... and so life becomes more precious, and you enjoy it more, knowing it's the only chance you'll get."

Kerry cupped her chin in her hand. "You don't belive in souls then, right?'

A smile. "No... I think what we have in here.." He thumped his chest. "Is blood and muscles, and nothing more." A pause. "Do you belive in a god, Kerry?"

"Yes, I do... in that I believe there's a higher power who directs things in our lives...and I think we all have an immortal soul." Kerry answered, seriously. "And that soul continues from life to life."

"Ah.. not a conventional Christian, I see." Mariana murmured, fascinated. "I had an orthodox Catholic upbringing.. and it stuck, along with all the glorious pageantry and mysticism that goes with it... I still shiver during the Mass." She glanced at Duks. "We have a long standing argument over that.. he thinks I'd get over it if I'd just go and see a good opera."

Kerry let out a surprised laugh.

"What about you, my friend?" Duks turned to the silently watching Dar. "I don't think we've ever discussed the big R...and I don't recall you ever saying you'd been in church, so.. "

Pale blue eyes flicked over their faces, then Dar shrugged a little. "My mother is a pagan." She smiled wryly at the surprised looks. "My father was as much of a Southern Baptist as you can get and not be a snake handler." She regarded the table for a moment. "We didn't have anything organized when I was growing up, I just knew they both believed in something, not necessarily the same something, but something."


"What a mix!" Mariana said in a surprised voice.

"True.. I picked up on that.. I believe in something, but I never got around to defining what that something was." Dar finished. "So I celebrate what I want, when I want to... it works out."

The waiter came back, and they ordered, with Mariana getting conflicting advice from Dar and Duks. "Shush." She finally said, then turned to Kerry in appeal. "Which is it?"

The blond woman laughed a bit. "The massaman is a sweet curry, with meat and potatoes in it.. the green curry is very sharp, the red curry is milder, and usually has coconut milk in it."

"Ah... so you're an expert." The Personnel VP gave her an approving nod.

Kerry just grinned, and watched as they completed the order, then she half turned her head to glance at Dar, and blinked at the suddenly frozen expression on her companion's face. Her eyes flicked to where Dar was looking, and she spotted a tall, willowy brunette, in an impeccably cut suit entering with two other women. When she looked back at Dar, the dark haired woman's face was carefully controlled, but she could see the faint bunching of her jaw muscles and she leaned over. "Dar?"

Ice blue eyes pinned her, then gentled. "Remember when I told you it would be unlikely for you to meet certain people." The taller woman commented with forced casualness.

What? Oh.. her former lovers. Right. "Yes." Kerry darted a glance to Duks and Mariana, who were busy with the waiter.

"I should have kept my mouth shut." Dar replied softly.

Kerry's eyes flicked away, then back. "Oh." She slid a hand around the edge of the low table and patted Dar's ankle. "Let me go get my boots."

That got a smile from Dar, who leaned her forearms on the table and considered her options. Given where she was seated, and where Elana was going to sit, there was no way in Hell the bitch couldnít just look over and see her. Sure enough, after glancing at the menu, Elana looked up right at her.

Dar half turned her head as though she was listening to Duks and Mari bicker, and watched as a slow, malicious smirk made it's way across the aristocratic face. Damn. She reached over and touched Duk's arm. "We're going to have a nasty scene here in a minute." She advised him in a low tone, letting her eyes move across the room and back.

Duks glanced up, then bit his lip. "Aw, crap."

Mari also looked. "Well well.. think she's got enough makeup on? She looks like Tammy Faye Baker." Her voice was sharp, though, and held little humor. "You know, there aren't many people that I can say I totally enjoyed processing termination papers on, but by God, she's one of them."

Elana crossed the floor, zeroing in on them with hazel eyes that kept steady on Dar's face. "Look what we have here.. hello, Lou.. Mariana... " A pause, and a faint smile. "Dar." Her eyes went to Kerry. "I'm sorry, I don' t know you."

Dar let her wait a moment, then leaned back, circling one knee with both arms. "Hello, Elana.. haven't seen you in a while.. been out of town?"

"No.. I just don't get outside much." The slim woman smirked. "We just took over another two hospitals.. neither of them your accounts, unfortunately."

"I'd heard you got those... you might want to be careful, though." Dar commented. "Word has it they just changed vendors because they're going bankrupt, and you'll give them a 120 day grace on the billing... IBM was about the cut them off."

"Don't bother with that, Dar." Elana laughed. "Your tricks don't work with me, remember?"

Actually, it was true. Dar shrugged. "Suit yourself."

Her eyes wandered "So what have you been doing with yourself? Same old, same old?" She chuckled. "I love telling people about you at cocktail parties.. it makes a great story, by the way." She smiled sweetly. "And who is this?" Her eyes went to Kerry.

"Kerry Stuart." The blond woman extended a friendly hand. "I work for Dar."

"I bet you do, honey." Elana laughed. "You must be new around here."

"Oh.. I am." Kerry replied, focusing sharp, green eyes on her. "New to the area too... say, Dar? Is that one of those palmetto bugs you keep describing to me? Oh my god they're ugly..." She let her eyes widen and fasten on Elana's shoulder.

The woman jumped. "Where... ?" She caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye and slapped at it, then screamed. "Oh my god..." She stumbled back wards, hands flailing at her head in panic. "Oh.. help.. get it off!!"

Kerry jumped to her feet and ran to help, colliding with a rushing waiter just as she reached the frantic woman. The tray he was carrying launched itself up into the air, and came down, splattering the floor, the tables, and Elana with a conglomeration of food.

"Oh shit!" Elana slipped in the mess and collapsed, still pawing at her hair. "Oh god.. is it gone?" She glanced around at the avidly watching restaurant patrons, who were starting to laugh. Her face reddened, and a blob of curried sauce ran down her cheek.

Kerry stepped forward, and crouched, getting to eye level with the woman and catching her attention. "You're lucky I didn't have time to go change into my boots.." She handed the woman a napkin. "Have a nice day." Then she stood up and walked back over to the table, careful not to slip in the piles of noodles and sauce that dotted the floor.

Dar's blue eyes captured her as she came closer, and she walked the last few steps gazing into them, lucky she didn't end up plowing right into the table. She settled herself in her place, as the crowd continued it laughter and picked up her napkin again, as she looked up at the faces watching her. "Okay.. so it was her epaulet... it was brown.. how was I supposed to know?"

It broke them all up, and Dar ended up gasping for breath, holding onto the table for dear life as she reached out and circled Kerry's wrist, squeezing it. "That was priceless."

"Bitch." Kerry muttered under her breath, her still angry green eyes glaring at the sodden mess on the floor, now being helped up by her two friends. "I'll give her a cocktail party story all right.. I'll send out a mail to Users All so that whenever anyone sees her from now on they'll do this." She waggled her fingers near her head like a pair of antennae.

Then she realized what she was saying, and how it must sound to the watching Duks and Mari, and she bit her lip, glancing at Dar in apologetic appeal.

The taller woman's face was an interesting study, a cross between chagrin, amusement, and embarrassment, with a good strong dose of warm affection thrown in. A wry smile crossed her face and she let out a tiny chuckle.

"I just blew it, didn't I?" Kerry murmured.

Dar couldnít help it, the look of dismay on Kerry's face was so comical, she had to laugh. "Yeah, I think you did." She admitted, exhaling, and looking over at Mariana, to meet expectant, knowing hazel eyes. "Looks like you've got a personnel issue on your hands, Mari." She kept her voice even and managed, somehow, not to blush.

"So I see." The shorter woman commented quietly. "Fortunately, I'm off the clock." She added, with a gentle smile. She'd been chiefly worried, to be honest, that Kerry had been brought into something she had no way of getting out of.. that she felt an obligation about. Seeing the young woman tonight fiercely defending Dar...

No. She had no worries about that for Kerry Stuart. The kid had a spirit that matched her companions. "And what happens off hours is none of anyone's business." She patted Duks hand with an impish grin. "Isn't that right?"

Duks chuckled, and blushed a little. "You bet."

"I do wish I'd gotten pictures of that rampaging hormone induced witch on wheels, though." Mari sighed regretfully. "Wouldn't I love to put that shot in the next company newsletter."

Duks cleared his throat, and held up a tiny digital camera, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. "And what would you be willing to pay for that, madam?"

They all laughed, and Mariana let a sigh of relief trickle out of her lungs. She peered over at Dar, who was studying the tablecloth with a quiet expression, then she let her eyes flick over to Kerry.

Caught unguarded, the blond woman had her attention focused on Dar, a gently affectionate look on her face as she regarded her companion's profile. This was not another Elana, Mari realized. This was not an office fling, or casual affair.

Kerry felt herself being watched, and returned the gaze, her shoulders moving as she took in a deep breath. Mariana let a reassuring smile cross her face as she returned the look. How could the eyes of someone so young carry such depth, the personnel executive wondered, as Kerry met her eyes for a long moment, then lifted her chin a touch in proud challenge. "Kerry, that really was absolutely brilliant...congratulations."

A shy smile. "It wasn't planned.. it just sort of happened." She admitted. "I got so mad it was either that, or hit her... and I don't think that would have been a good idea."

"Probably not." Dar finally spoke, having spent a few moments collecting herself. Kerry's sudden and spectacular defense of her had almost caused her brain to seize up in pure wonder. And once the blond woman had, she knew there was no going back. No way to pretend Kerry's fierce defense of what was, patently, her territory was anything other than exactly that.

Aw, Hell. Mariana had known anyway... and her statement that she was off duty meant she wasn't going to do anything about it. As long as she and Kerry kept it out of the office.

Okay. Fine. She'd been rehearsing a speech to the personnel director anyway.

And besides, seeing Elana with pickled squid hanging over her ear had been worth every single minute of it.

"Dar, was that true about IBM?" Duks drew attention away from her gracefully. "About the hospitals?"

Dar nodded. "Yep... it sure was... I was talking to one of their account reps, who was telling me it was a good thing we did a no bid on them." She glanced up as their appetizers arrived, suddenly finding herself starving. "Sorry about that accident before." She told the waiter.

"No problem.. no problem.. lady always comes in, cause fuss, no tip." The waiter confided. "Worth spoiled fish." He put a plate down before Kerry, containing a beautiful piece of fried wonton skin, shaped into a swan. The swan's body held a delicious smelling mixture of chicken, peanuts and spices. "Chef make special for you."

Kerry looked up at him, and smiled, a blush coloring her face. "Thank you." She tasted it, then grinned. "This is really good."

Dar sniffed at interestedly. "Looks like it."

"Ah ah.. " Kerry cupped her hand around the swan teasingly. "Mine."

Dar raised an eyebrow. "I didn't say I wanted any." She retorted, returning her attention to her plate.

A moment's silence, then blue and green eyes looked up at the same time, and met, and they both started laughing.

"This is so cute, it makes me want to sing." Duks announced, as he swallowed a mouthful.

"Oh god, cut it out Kerry." Dar said instantly. "You don't want him to start that."

"No?" Kerry inquired curiously.

"He thinks he's Placido Domingo." The dark haired woman waved her fork at him.

Another laugh, which Duks joined cheerfully in on.

It was shaping up to be a night to remember.

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

They parted in the parking lot some time later, under the bright stars of a cool night. Even from here, Kerry realized, she could smell the sea, and she took a large breath of air as she and Dar strolled back towards where they'd parked. "Well." She cleared her throat, and glanced at her taller companion. "That... didn't quite go as expected."

Dar laughed. "No..it sure didn't." She agreed. "But it's all right... I was thinking about what you said... you know, about telling Mari what was going on, and I'd halfway decided to do it....maybe it was fate."

"So.. you're not mad at me/" Kerry asked quietly. "I didn't... Jesus, Dar.. that wasn't planned.. I don't know what came over me."

Dar glanced at her. "Mad at you?" She asked, incredulously. "Kerry... that was.. thank you, that soothed some really old aches and pains inside, if you know what I mean." She glanced down and shook her head. "That certainly changes the scene I always picture when I think of her."

They reached their cars and turned to face each other. "Thanks." Dar said, simply.

"You're welcome." Came the simple response. "After all, that's what friends are for, right?"

Dar cupped her cheek and smiled. "You bet." A soft beep startled both of them and Dar reached for her cell phone, only to find it deactivated. "It's not mine."

"Mine." Kerry was pulling her's out and opening it. "Hello?" Her face tensed, then took on a shocked look. "Okay.. okay.. I'm on my way back there now.. be about... forty minutes or so... all right. Bye." She folded the phone closed, and looked up at Dar grimly. "My place was broken into."

Dar's eyes narrowed. "Let's go."

Kerry kept her hands clenched on the steering wheel the entire way home, aware of the comforting presence of Dar's Lexus right behind her. She pulled into a parking lot full of police cars, and spotted Colleen's agitated figure near the door to her apartment. "Shit." She wasn't sure to be upset, angry, frightened, or all three, but she got out of the car and hadn't taken two steps before Dar was right there, with a hand on her shoulder.

Colleen spotted them, and ran over immediately. "Thank god you're here... I just got home, and I went to see if you were back yet, and found your door wide open.. I called the cops."

Too late to do anything about that now, Kerry sighed inwardly. "Great.. just great." She shook her head. "Thanks Col... "

"No problem.. they won't let me in there, but I poked my head in and the place looks pretty trashed." She paused for breath. "Hi, Dar."

"Hi." The taller woman answered briefly. "Anyone see anything?"

Colleen snorted. "These self absorbed yuppies? They wouldnít' have seen anything if Fox Mulder had landed a frigging alien spacecraft in the parking lot and gotten out to do the hula."

Dar had to suppress a chuckle at this description. "C'mon.. let's see what the deal is." She gave Kerry a tiny nudge. "You have renters insurance?"

Kerry had to think through what Dar was asking. "Yes.. State Farm." She answered absently, as they moved through the lot and up to her front door, peering inside. She was vaguely aware of Dar's voice muttering into her cell phone, as she tried to make her mind see order where there was only...

Colleen had been right. It was a mess. Things were torn apart, and thrown everywhere. Her eyes flicked to the television, then to the computer, both of which were still in place. A policeman came towards her. "Ma'am?"

"I live here." Kerry said quietly. "What happened?"

The officer shook his head. "Beats the hell out of me... looks like whoever it is was looking for something pretty bad.. you keep cash in the apartment?"

She shook her head. "No.... well, five or six bucks in change, sure.. on the dresser. That kind of thing."

He nodded. "Yeah.. gotcha.. any jewelry?"

She felt her neck, and pulled out her single gold chain. "This, and a few pairs of earrings, and a ring are all I have." She glanced over. "Nothing seems to be missing."

The cop was writing furiously on his pad. "Probably druggies looking for cash for a buy, Ms.... " His eyes questioned her.

"Stuart." She answered. "You think so? I guess they went away empty then, huh?" She moved into the room, and peered around. Cushions were scattered everywhere from the couch, and she crossed to her bedroom and pushed the door open. Every drawer was emptied, and the bedding was torn from the bed. Pooh was thrown against the wall and she picked him up, hugging him to her in reflex.

Kerry walked back into the living room. "Everything looks like it's here." She told the policeman quietly.

He glanced at her, then at Pooh, and gave her a pat on the shoulder. "Listen.. sorry about your fish there... looks like some chemical can fell in the tank... "

Kerry's eyes tracked to the glass enclosure, and saw the floating forms.

Dar's eyes went the same way, then went to her face in quiet compassion.

The blond woman walked over and stood staring at them, bobbing lifelessly on top of the water. A container of kitchen cleaner bobbed next to them, half empty. With exaggerated care, she pulled the container out, and close the lid, aware of Dar's close presence behind her. "I keep that cleaner in the cupboard in the kitchen." She said quietly.

Dar's hands closed on her shoulders. "Go siddown. I'll take care of this."

"Dar, someone killed my fish." She whispered sadly.

"I know." Came the low, vibrant response. "First, we're going to get this place cleaned up, and then we're going to get some sleep. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to take you to get more fish."

Kerry exhaled. "Maybe that's not a good idea."

"Yes, it is." Dar insisted quietly. "Don't let them win, Kerry." She squeezed her shoulders. "Go sit down, I'm going to take care of this, and dump the water." She paused. "Oh.. what is Kyle's last name?"

Kerry should have asked why. She knew she should. She knew she should keep Dar out of this.. out of this especially. "Lewis." She heard her voice answering anyway. "Look, Dar... I.. "

"It's okay." The executive reassured her. "Just for informational purposes...go sit down, all right?"

Kerry felt exhausted, and she complied, mechanically putting the cushions back into place before she sat down on them, facing the officer, who was still getting details. She tried not to watch what Dar was doing, and concentrated on the questions instead. Colleen came over and sat down next to her, and she gave the redhead a grateful smile.

Dar scooped the dead fish out of the water, putting them in a small container. She was carefully controlling her breathing, and focusing on remaining calm, when her first and most immediate instincts were to be yelling her fool head off. The random destruction in the room didn't bother her. This pointed, deliberate, vicious cruelty to helpless creatures, on the other hand, made her so angry, it was a wonder her hands were vibrating from the force of it. Bastard. She disposed of the dead fish, then dipped out a good portion of the water, before she lifted the tank up, and drained the rest of it out, removing the gravel and decorations and running them under clean tap water.

Then she mixed a saline solution and cleaned the tank out, using the motion to calm herself. She did a thorough job of it, scrubbing the inside out to get out all the traces of chemical. Bastard. She rinsed the ferns and then ran water through the filter. Son of a bitch. Then she carried the tank back, and filled it three quarters full with clean tap water, adding the rinsed gravel to it, and putting in a the drops of water cleaner Kerry had in a bottle near the tank itself. Which she sniffed first, just in case.

When she'd gotten it to her satisfaction, she turned to see Kerry shaking the officer's hand, and watching him leave, taking his partner with him, both of them giving Kerry looks of professional sympathy.

The door closed, and Kerry turned to look at her, the haunted green eyes beseeching. Dar crossed to her immediately. "C'mere." She pulled Kerry into a hug, feeling her whole body jerk with a sob. "Shh.. I've got you." Over the blond woman's shoulder, she met Colleen's eyes, and the redhead glanced down, then back up with a faint smile as Kerry buried her face into Dar's shirt, and clung to her with desperate strength. "Give us a hand getting this place straightened up?" She asked Colleen.

"You bet your... uh.. sorry, I mean.. " Colleen blushed.

"I've heard the term." Dar replied dryly. She felt Kerry take a deep, shaky breath, and released her a little, so she could pull back and look up.

"Sorry." The blond woman sniffled a little, disengaging one hand and rubbing at her eyes. "It's just late, I guess."

Dar pulled a handkerchief from her inner jacked pocket and handed it to Kerry. "Here.." She patted her back, and left her arm draped over the blond woman's shoulders. "All right.. let's start in the kitchen, I guess.. that seemed to be the least messed up, then do in here, then the bedroom."

They started picking things up, and worked in mostly silence until Colleen trotted over and picked up all the CD"s thrown around on the floor and popped one into the changer. The soft strands of the Disney tune Circle of Life drifted across the room.. " I know you like this." The redhead gave her friend a smile, which Kerry half heartedly returned.

It didn't take as long as she feared, until the apartment began to resemble it's former state, only the quiet waters of the fish tank a glaring testimony to the invasion. She stood in the center of the room after they finished, listening to Dar putter around in the kitchen and folded her arms across her chest. Colleen entered from the bedroom and went to her, giving her a little pat on the back.

"All done...got you some fresh sheets on." Her eyes twinkled gently at Kerry, who looked down and blushed. "Ah, c'mon now Ker...for what it's worth, I think you've got a real winner in there."

That got a smile from Kerry, who glanced at the kitchen door, then back at her. "Think so, huh?"

"Yep.. someone who knows when to give a hug when it's needed." Colleen nodded firmly. "That's a very good sign." She was glad to see Dar's unquestioning support of her friend, which has surprised her a little, given the executive's reputation.

The dark haired woman interrupted the conversation by reappearing with three mugs of something hot and handing them each one, then motioning them to sit down. She took a seat on the end of the couch and stretched her legs out, patting the cushion next to her, which got her a compliant Kerry. The blond woman tucked her legs up under her and sipped her chocolate with a sigh. "Well, this has been a night."

Dar dropped a hand to her knee and gently stroked it. "It's over." She said, simply, before she took out her cell phone and dialed a number. "Mark?" A pause." I know what time it is. Get the light on, and put your glasses on, because I need you to write something down."

Dar waited, as ideas and plans started clicking into view. "All right.. I need you to run a full profile.. I need everything.. on a Kyle Lewis.. he's an employee of Senator Roger Stuart of Michigan." She waited. "You'll probably have to tap Milnet." Another pause. "Let's just say I have feeling about him, okay? Route the results to my inbox."

Mark left the phone for a moment, and she sat waiting, drumming her fingers against her thigh. "You did? Thanks... oh, one more thing... I need you to put a scope on the outbound router for Miami Dade, and filter any packets that contain the following number." She read it off." Just discard them.. on the federal transfer." She waited. "I know.. it would be from the Kendall substation IP if that helps." Another pause. "Good... thanks, Mark... I'll fill you in tomorrow ." She hung up, and glanced at her audience, who was watching her with interest. She smiled. "Welcome to the information age."

"Jesus.. can you do that?" Colleen blurted. "I mean.. why are you... that was the report number the cops gave us."

Kerry nodded in understanding. "It will exist locally here, but not be updated to the federal system... that was really smart, Dar.. thank you."

Dar smiled briefly. 'When you move the data, you control it." She told Colleen quietly.

"Wow." Colleen regarded her respectfully. "Remind me not to piss you off.. you do our payroll transfer."

That got a chuckle from Dar, and a smile from Kerry. "I don't generally do that sort of thing.. but I think it would be better for Kerry.. and it doesn't hurt anything since they didn't find any fingerprints or MO, and that's what the federal database checks."

Kerry leaned her head against Dar's shoulder. "My hero." She dared Dar to refute her in front of Colleen, and was please when all the taller woman did was reach out and tweak her nose.

"You really think it was that stinker Kyle?" Colleen asked, watching them with a gentle smile.

Kerry sighed. "The fish... and the door wasn't forced open.. did you notice that? Someone keyed in, and when I checked the doorlock, it had my code in it."

"Ew... change it." Colleen advised.

The blond woman nodded wearily. "I did... but the only people with it are the building manager, you, and my family." She paused an glanced up. "And Dar.. but she was with me the whole night, so that knocks her out as a suspect."

"Only that?" Dar's brows lifted teasingly.

"Well, that and a few other things." Kerry admitted, with a smile. "But... well, I told my mother I wasn't going to move back home last night...the timing's just too coincidental."

"Mm." Colleen pulled her lip. "Kerry, that sucks."

A sigh. "No kidding." Kerry sipped her chocolate, enjoying the smooth taste as it warmed her insides. "This is the only thing you can cook, isn't it?" She asked Dar, who laughed softly. "I knew it.. this, coffee, and what else?"

"Eggs." Dar supplied briefly. "And ice cream."

Kerry smiled. "Dar, ice cream doesn't require cooking." She shook her head in disbelief, then flicked on the television. "Oh..look.. the crocodile guy!"

"Good gravy.. what is he doing to that fish??" Colleen yelped.

Kerry settled back to watch, feeling a lot better. It was good to have friends around, she decided, as she felt Dar's arm slip around her waist and tug her closer. She leaned back and gazed at the dark haired woman. "Thanks." She sighed. '"Thanks for being her.. and helping.. and cheering me up"

A wink of a very blue eye. "That's what friends are for, right?" Dar replied softly.

"You bet." Kerry replied, then she hesitated. "Listen, Dar... you donít' have to get involved in all this.. it's not your business, really."

"Sure it is." Dar replied, her voice shielded by the rounded vowels of the tv character they were watching. "You are my business."

Kerry felt a gentle chill run down her spine. "Am I?"

Pale blue engulfed her. "I love you.." Dar stated, with quiet sincerity. "That makes you my business."

Kerry just sat there, breathing, for a long moment. "Oh." She finally said, faintly.

"Does that bother you?" Dar inquired.

Kerry shook her head. "No... " She studied Dar's face. "I guess that means you're very much my business too." She exhaled, then settled into the crook of Dar's arm, as the crocodile man went through his antics.

It had been Kyle.. she knew it. She felt his slimy fingers in the whole thing.. and she knew he'd be back. Her eyes lifted to see the sharp profile above her, and she smiled grimly. He didn't know what he was getting into this time, though, and she was glad.

He'd lose.

This time.

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

She was running through a forest. Dark trees threatened on either side, and she could hear thunder overhead. The ground underneath her was dark, and mossy, and she felt her boots slide a little as she skidded over the moist ground.

Yells behind her. She redoubled her efforts, straining against her already shortened breathing and hoping her legs would hold out. Just ahead, she saw a place to hide, and she headed towards it, having to pass under a group of trees.

As she crossed under the first one, she was suddenly yanked up into the tree, legs flailing, a yell of startled surprise in her throat.

Silenced by a powerful hand and a soft, low voice she knew.

Relief flooded through her, and she scrambled up onto the limb, held in place by strong arms as she watched the men chasing her go pelting by. Her chest was heaving, and she felt a thin film of sweat across her bare midsection slip against the grip of the comforting form behind her as she leaned against the bole of the tree.

They watched in silence as the men ran around in circles, yelling their heads off, and finally, she'd gotten enough breath back to laugh softly.

An answering rumble came from behind her, and she half turned to give the piercing blue eyes an apologetic look in return.

The dark head shook, but a tolerant grin edged well shaped lips, and she got a pat on the belly that made her understand she was forgiven for getting in trouble.

Again.

Kerry woke up with that same sure, comfortable grip around her, and she kept her eyes closed as she absorbed the sensation of waking up naked, and tangled in Dar's embrace. It was warm, and she could feel the gentle rhythm of the taller woman's breathing moving against her where Dar was pressed up against her back.

She thought about her dream. It was strange.. she'd had a few of these weird ones lately, where she seemed to be seeing through someone else's eyes, in situations completely unfamiliar to her, but which seemed as comfortable as the nice well of contentment she found herself in right now.

Weird. She exhaled, feeling Dar's grip tighten a little, and she lifted a hand to lazily stroke the powerful thigh tucked in back of her own. It felt nice... the skin all soft and velvety over the strong muscles that shifted a tiny bit under her touch.

Kerry let her eyes drift open a bit, taking in the morning sunlight that bathed the room and judging it to be about nine o-clock. She glanced around the room, remembering what it had looked like last night, and managed to retain a good feeling about how her friends had so carefully returned it to it's original state. Even the clothes pulled out of her drawers had been neatly folded and put back... probably more neatly than they were originally, she wryly admitted. Dar had taken personal responsibility for her underwear drawer, with a sly, mischievous look that had brought a reluctant smile to her own face.

She should feel horrible. She knew that. And her poor fish. Kerry imagined coming home to all that alone, and she shivered, glad of Dar's close presence. It was nice to have someone she could share things with.

A tiny tickle edged around her ear, and she giggled in startlement. That was followed by a low, almost soundless chuckle the echoed perfectly the one in her dream. "That tickles." She accused, enjoying the sensation thoroughly.

"I know." Dar replied , nibbling further. "How are you feeling?"

Kerry hummed deep in her throat. "Nice." She replied dreamily. "I like waking up like this." She sighed contentedly. "Especially after last night."

"Glad you postponed your scuba lesson." Dar commented, moving further down her neck and smiling a little as the blond woman's body arched against her. "We have fish buying to do."

Kerry rolled over, and snuggled closer, letting her hands roam freely over Dar's body, curiously exploring the planes and curves of it. "What's that from?" She traced a long, thin scar that started just below the taller woman's breast, and ended near her hip.

"I was tree climbing." Dar admitted, glancing down wryly. "I went to jump for a branch and missed, and scraped up against the trunk.. there was an old nail there and I sliced myself up pretty good."

"Oh." Kerry ducked her head and kissed the spot. "Bet that hurt."

"I was screaming like a banshee, yeah." Dar chuckled. "I've never liked hospitals.. had to go get stitches, and a tetanus shot the size of a harpoon."

"Ouch." The blond woman winced, then continued her exploration. "Can I ask you a personal question?" She peered up at her companion, who raised an eyebrow at her. "Well?"

"Sure." Dar replied, with a grin. "How much more personal can we get here?" She traced a line down Kerry's throat, tickling her pulse point.

"How old are you?" Kerry rested her cheek on Dar's belly, and blinked at her.

A sheepish grin covered the dark haired woman's face. "I'll be thirty in about a month and a half or so."

"Son of a bitch." Kerry laughed "I knew it... you just act like you've been running the world for years." She paused. "When's your birthday?" She coaxed.

"Ah ah.. I never tell anyone what day it is." Dar shook her head.

"Why?"

"Just because." The pale blue eyes flickered. "I don't like fusses."

"Mm." Kerry drew a circle on the soft surface she was resting on. "Please tell me?" She asked quietly. "It's no fair.. you know mine."

Life isn't fair. Dar almost retorted, then she sighed. What did it matter, after all, if Kerry knew? She'd probably actually get a card or something from her. That would be different. "Christmas Day."

The blond woman blinked in surprise. "Really?"

Dar nodded. "Yep... so you could say I've never really had a birthday... because there's no point in making anything separate, you know?" She'd gotten over feelng bad about that years and years ago.

Right?

"Hmm." Kerry drew another circle, then watched her hand move in idle patterns on the tanned skin. "Would you be really pissed off at me if I made you a party?"

Dar remained quiet for a bit, then she raked her fingers through Kerry's pale hair. "It'd be a pretty damn small party." She told her friend. "I think I'd rather celebrate Christmas."

Kerry held her peace. For now. "Okay... well... I guess some breakfast is in order...I think I have some cinnamon toast left." She rubbed Dar's skin.

"Mm... we could be adventurous and let me cook." Dar replied playfully. "And you'll see why I always have corn flakes for breakfast."

"Those" Kerry poked her. "Aren't" Another poke. "Corn Flakes.. they're Frosted Flakes, and they are so unhealthy for you."

"Yeah.. but they taste great." Dar shot back immediately, rolling the r's on the great and sounding very much like the commercial. "And besides.. I"ve been eating them since I was a kid, and it certainly didn't stunt my growth." She spread her arms out and indicated her tall frame. "Now, you.. on the other hand... "

"Ah ah.. don't you start!" Kerry warned, with a laugh. "I always got told drinking alcohol would stunt my growth.. I didn't touch a damn drop until I got to college, and look where it got me?"

Dar grinned back, tracing a line down her arm. "I think you're the perfect size."

A snort. "For what? Shortstop?"

Dar slid her arms around her smaller companion and lifted her up, rolling over and settling her into place sprawled on top of her, with Kerry's head tucked against her shoulder. "For that." She closed her eyes and hugged the blond woman to her, feeling Kerry's body go limp and relaxed against her own. "See? Perfect fit."

Kerry had the sudden urge to burrow into the taller woman's soft skin and never let go. "Yes, but can you breathe?" She murmured softly, knowing the answer by the steady movement under her.

"No problem." Dar assured her, rubbing a hand gently up and down Kerry's back. She fell silent as peace flooded over her completely foreign to anything she'd ever known. She had no desire to do anything but stay right here with the blond woman, trading touches and the exploratory kisses Kerry was planting on her chest. There was no restless urge to move, no desire to be up and going...just a warmly sensual place she had no intentions of leaving. Her hands moved slowly up Kerrys' sides, tracing the curves.

Kerry sighed in pleasure. She definitely liked waking up like this.

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

"Here... at least make me feel better by drinking some orange juice." Kerry put a glass of the fragrant orange beverage in front of her.

"I can't drink that, Kerry." Dar informed her, munching on her toast. "It's un Floridian.. we leave it all for the tourists, and the export trade. Why do you think it costs so damn much here?"

"Dar." Green eyes gave her an amusedly exasperated look. "Drink the damn juice."

That got her a bright grin. "You're feisty this morning." The dark haired woman commented.

"It's not morning." Kerry pointed out wryly. "Not that I'm complaining... it's been a while since I've slept in."

Dar sucked on her juice and nodded. "Me too." She agreed, in mild surprise, feeling very relaxed. "Why donít you grab a shower, and I'll log into see if there's anything going on I need to take care of." She leaned back and stretched, feeling her shoulders pop into place.

Kerry leaned over her, thoroughly enjoying the taut stretch of the cotton fabric against Dar's body. Her lips found the taller woman's and lingered, tasting the cinnamon from the toast she'd been chewing, and the tartness of the orange juice. Before she knew it, Dar's arms had slipped aorund her, and tugged her down on her lap, and the blond woman's hands were insistently sliding under the thin cotton.

They broke off, amidst trailing touches and ragged breathing. "Whoo." Kerry let her forehead rest against Dar's. "We're not really getting very far today, are we?" She sucked in air, as her hands returned to the warm skin she couldn't seem to stop touching. "Sorry."

Dar smiled at her, through lazily half lidded eyes. "Don't apologize.. it feels great." She nuzzled Kerry's neck, then nipped lightly at the neatly outlined breasts under the soft fabric, drawing a soft, incoherent sound from the blond woman. "Ooo.. I like that noise." She purred, then relented, and simply hugged her lover. "Okay.. okay.. we've got plenty of time to indulge.. let's get our chores finished."

Kerry was very close to telling her to toss the chores, then she sighed, and hugged Dar back. "Right... okay.. I was going to go shower." Reluctantly, she unwound herself from Dar's embrace and stood. "Be out in a minute." She started to move off, but found her shirt being tugged from behind. "Hmm?"

"Want some help?" Dar inquired, lifting an eyebrow.

A sigh. "Good thing I don't pay for hot water, I think." Kerry held out a hand with a grin. . "C'mon." Well, she rationalized. At least we're sort of making progress towards the fish store.

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

It was a Petsmart. Dar glanced around her approvingly. She liked Petsmarts, because they weren't puppy mills, they hosted shelter adoption centers, and they had fifty two different colors of dog collars.

She didn't know why that was important, except that she hated to think she was being forced into something, and that big a variety pretty much insured you could pick what you wanted. They also let people bring their pets inside, and it was interesting to note that people generally picked dog breeds that matched them.

She watched Kerry browse the aquarium aisle, as a woman with an Afgan Hound walked by, the dog's nervously coquettish air matching her owner's with uncanny precision. Next came a man with an unlit cigar, and no neck walking a bulldog.

Amazing. Then she spotted a woman strolling down the bulk dog food aisle with a small, golden cocker spaniel. She examined the dog, then casting a glance at her companion, she slipped after the woman silently.

Kerry paced back and forth, peering into the tanks trying to decide which ones to pick. "Do you have any gouramies?" She asked the patiently waiting boy in the red vest who was holding a small case filled with water and a net.

"Sure.. over here." He pointed to two large tanks to her right. "There are some big ones in there"

"Mm." Kerry examined the fish. "Okay...okay... that one." She pointed, then realized Dar was behind her. "That's a nice one, isn't it?"

"Yep." Dar agreed, putting her hands behind her back. "That's a nice one, too." She pointed at a brightly striped gouramie near the tank's filter.

"Okay.. and that one." Kerry smiled at her. "Thanks.." She looked into the next tank. "Do I want guppies again?"

"They're easy to take care of." Dar offered. "Goldfish are nice, too."

The blond woman gave her a look, then glanced up. "Oh.. hey..Siamese fighting fish." She blinked respectfully at the luridly colorful, solitary creatures each in it's own bowl. An idea formed. "Dar, you should get one of these."

"No." Dar shook her head. "I don't have pets."

"It's not a pet." Kerry turned and concentrated on convincing her. "Think of it as.. a..um... a business strategy... you can keep it on your desk."

"Kerry, I don't have pets. I especially don't have pets on my desk." The taller woman replied sternly.

"C'mon.. " Kerry spotted a double tank. "Oh.. no, this one.. " She pulled it down. It was a clever construct, with intertwining lucite tubes that let it's inhabitants see but not touch each other. "Look.. you can get two.. I think it would be good for you, Dar.. something nice and relaxing on your desk to look at."

"Kerry." Dar's voice dropped ominously.

"Listen.. I'll feed them.. they'll just look so pretty in your office.... You can get a blue one and a red one... think of how relaxing they'd be to watch."

The taller woman turned to the watching attendant. "Do they eat human flesh?"

The boy's eyes bugged out. "Uh..... I.. they eat... uh... brine shrimp, ma'am, but I guess.. I mean, if you fed it to them in tiny bites.. " He swallowed. "Like if you ground it up or something."

Dar wanted to bark a refusal, she really did. She didn't have time for fish, or pets, or... The green eyes facing her blinked beseachingly. No no... fish had no place in her life...nothing like that... Kerry tilted her head a bit, and put a hopeful smile on her face.

Oh shit. "Fine." She gave up. "Put em in a bag or something." She gave the mischeviously delighted Kerry a dour look. "I'm warning you...I'll end up knocking them over. I"ve got the worst luck with pets." She winced, imagining the comments she'd get from the rest of the staff.

Then she considered. Siamese fighting fish. Her fingers drummed against her thigh. Maybe that wouldn't be so bad after all. She grinned. Here, Jose.. give me your finger... oops.. did I prick you? Sorry.. didn't realize I was holding a needle.. oh, here, just put your finger in here to wash it off. "Heh heh."

"What's so funny?" Kerry was busy picking out two of the biggest, prettiest fighting fish she could find.

"Oh.. nothing." Dar cupped her chin in her hand. "You up for some lunch after this? I'm starved."

Kerry gave her a look, then gathered her choices and proceeded towards the checkout lane. "Sure... what'd you have in mind?"

"Dunno." Dar chuckled softly to herself "How about some burgers?"

"Mm...okay... "The blond woman agreed. "Did you get some shrimp for your fish?"

Dar juggled the box. "Yep.. do you know what these really are?" She asked teasingly.

Kerry peered at the container." Yes.. brine shrimp." She got to the counter and put her stuff down.

"Nope.. they're Sea Monkeys." Dar took possession of her fish and their case, and pulled out her credit card, passing it over to the woman. She took advantage of the fact that Kerry was staring, agast at her food to make a circling gesture over Kerry's fish too, and give the clerk a smile.

"Sea Monkeys?" Kerry squeaked. "Those cute little things that have families, and do tricks?" She grabbed the container. "Dar, you can't feed your fish Sea Monkeys!!"

Dar snatched it back. "Yes, I can." She gave her companion a piratical grin. "Just be glad you didn't talk me in to a python."

Kerry stared at her. "What do they eat?"

"Bunnies." Dar told her, seriously, as she took the slip from the clerk and signed her name. "Nice fluffy ones."

"EEEWWWWW!!!!!" Her shorter companion let out a squeal. Then she turned to the clerk. "Do they?"

The clerk nodded sadly at her. "Oh yes, ma'am... and they go down tail first.. the last thing you see is their twitching little noses."

"That's it." Kerry slapped her hand on the counter. "I'm out of here." She looked up expectantly. "How much?"

The clerk glanced at her, then up at Dar. "Um... " She cleared her throat .

"I took care of it." Dar stated quietly. "You were too busy squealing."

Kerry put her hands on her hips and looked first at the clerk, then at her boss. "I will get you for that." She warned, then shook her head. "Thank you." She added, picking up the bags. "Now.. let's get out of here before you start telling me the feed the parrots live mice." She stalked out, leaving Dar to exchange amused looks with the clerk, and pick up her own purchases.

Dar strolled out after her, feeling quite pleased with herself.

For several reasons.

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

It was clouding over by the time they got back to Kerry's apartment, and Dar tipped her dark head back to regard the clouds as they walked towards the door. "Looks like a front's coming through..." The wind rose, and whipped their hair around them. "Good thing we're not out on the water ..this could get nasty."

"Brr." Kerry hopped up on the sidewalk. "I must be getting used to the warmth down here... that wind feels cool."

Dar only barely kept herself from wrapping a friendly arm around the smaller woman. Jesus, Dar.. she admonished herself. What the hell happened to the 'I don't like to be touched' person you used to be? All it takes is one five foot four inch blonde with pretty eyes to turn you into a huge, dripping pile of mush? "Yeah." She commented simply.

"Well.. " Kerry keyed in her new code, and opened the door, standing back to let Dar enter. "I.. um... " Suddenly, she didn't want Dar to go home. "Hey.. I picked up some stuff the other night.. to try a new recipe. You game?"

There was so much she had to do at home, Dar reflected. Worklists, and projects she had to take care of... She could see the imperfectly hidden hopefulness in Kerry's eyes, though, and she smiled inwardly. "I'd love to.. but I"ve got to login and take care of some stuff."

Kerry smiled happily. "Computer's all yours... I'll get the fish put away." She gestured towards her desk, and moved past it to put the packages down on the dining room table. "Listen.. I picked up a copy of the Xfiles movie.. we could watch that afterward."

Dar settled into the comfortable desk chair and flipped the computer on, cracking her knuckles lightly. It felt good to be part of someone else's plans, for a change. "Hmm... I'd like that..." She waited for the connection to complete, then logged in and set her mail to downloading while she started up a session with the mainframe. "Oh.. crap." She reviewed an urgent notify. "Ouch."

Kerry finished tucking the containers of fish into the tank without opening them, allowing the temperatures to equalize, then she wandered over and peered at the screen. "What's wrong?"

"Damned airline tried to backup it's print servers.. and blew one.." Dar sighed. "All of domestic printing is down for them... "

"What does that mean?" Kerry asked curiously.

"You ever check in at an airline counter?" Dar asked, as she flicked through the report.

"Sure." Kerry laughed. "A lot of times.. why?"

"You ever need a boarding pass?"

"Yeah.."

"You ever need your bags tagged?"

"Sure.."

"You see all those lists the stews check passengers off on?"

"Um.."

"Ever had to buy a ticket at the counter?"

"I'm getting a clue here, Dar." Kerry patted her shoulder. "What do they do if this stuff's down?"

"Hand write everything."

Kerry blinked. "Oh my god.. I'm glad I'm not at Newark."

Dar turned her head and gently kissed the hand resting on her shoulder. "Me too...it's going to be a lousy night to fly." Mushball. The hand lifted and caressed her cheek. "This close to the holidays, too."

"Can you do anything?" Kerry asked, enjoying the feel of her soft skin.

About what? Dar wondered. Oh.. right.. the printers. "Well... it's their server.. we just carry the data."

"They don't have a backup?" The blond woman tsked. "Where are those servers?"

"Charlotte... they maintain them long distance." Dar leaned back against her.

"Do we have a backup we can lend them?"

The dark haired woman crossed her arms and thought. "Hm... damn thing's a beast box... quad Pentium II... hundred twenty eight megs of ram... they have a raid five array on the thing, and normally they'd just plug the array into the backup box, but they upgraded the operating system on the primary, and hadn't gotten around to doing the back up yet.. and they have different controller cards."

"Not supported?" Kerry winced.

"Nope." Dar shook her head. "They'd need a duplicate of their existing box." She closed her eyes and concentrated. "Let me think."

Kerry obliged, massaging her neck lightly with a gentle touch. "When we were doing the Disney project...I thought we had some pretty powerful resources up there... those Alpha boxes I was plugging into, for instance."

Dar cocked her head. "I wonder... " She reached over and typed a request in the database. "No.. those are dual processor.. but... wait a minute." She drummed her fingers on the desk, then unclipped her cell phone from her belt and dialed a number. "Brent? Dar Roberts." She glanced at the screen. "Listen.. you've got a backup server we use for the Sprint account.. right?"

"Well, yes, ma'am.. we do." The man answered hesitantly. "Haven't used it in forever.. but it's still back there. "

"Good... dust it off, and get it over to the server room." Dar told him. "Disconnect it from their backup lines, under my authority."

"Okay." The man was more than happy to comply.

Dar hung up and dialed again. "Isis? Dar Roberts here. I understand you've got a little problem."

"A little problem?" The woman's voice was clearly incredulous. "I don't have a single printer working in all of the continental United States.. that's not a problem.. that's a high order cluster, Dar."

"What's the prognosis?" The tall executive asked, circling the listening Kerry with one arm.

"Don't ask.. they're trying to build a duplicate, but it's going to take HP about six hours to fly the controller board out there from Washington State." The woman sighed.

"What's a ten minute uptime worth to you?" Dar drawled.

"If you're joking, Dar.. I'm going to fly to damn Miami, and punch you." Isis replied. "What's it worth? My undying gratitude."

"I have a backup server set up in Charlotte.. you'll just have to plug in your array.. it's got the same architecture as your old one."

"God bless you Dar.. goodbye, Dar.. " The woman spoke rapidly and hung up.

Dar chuckled, then turned to her companion. "Very good idea, Kerry.. thank you." She gazed fondly at her. "The traveling public thanks you."

Kerry grinned. "Hey.. I do my best." She gave Dar a quick hug then went back to the fish, setting up Dar's tanklet while her boss continued to check her mail. The fighting fish were swimming in their little bags, watching her suspiciously, and she waved at them as she cleaned out the tank, and filled it with fresh water. "You think this stuff will make the water okay?" She held up the container of bacteria they'd gotten.

"Hm?" Dar turned around and peered at her. "You're asking me? " She chuckled softly. "I think it'll be okay... they guy said they're pretty sturdy fish." She turned back, hesitating before she opened up the file Mark had sent her. It was a complete... a very complete.. outline on Kyle Lewis. "Did you know Kyle was discharged with predjeduce from the Marines?"

Kerry looked up with a start. "Oh.. I forgot you did that.. um... yeah, I did....he really resented that.. but I never knew why. He just used to tell people he'd been set up." She put the top on Dar's fish, and smiled at them. "There you go... "

The two fish explored their new home suspiciously, immediately heading for the twined bridge where they could keep an eye on each other. Kerry wandered over to where Dar was sitting again and perched on the corner of the desk. "Yeah, that's him."

The picture Mark had included was of a handsome, sharply featured man with silvered hair, and direct, intelligent hazel eyes. Dar glanced over his record, then flicked her eyes to Kerry's face, which was cool, and expressionless. "He was in charge of a training exercise that went bad... six men died, and three were wounded."

Kerry nodded a little. "You think he was framed/ That's what he says."

A shake of her head. "I don't know... based on the report.. it seems pretty cut and dried. He told the group to go ahead, into an area that had been blocked off as off limits due to a live mining exercise." Dar said, softly. "Two of the three injured had their legs blown off."

The blond woman remained silent, then they both looked up at a tap on the door. "You expecting someone?" Dar asked quietly.

"Colleen's out shopping.. she thought I wasn't going to be here today." Kerry answerd, just as quietly, as she moved across the carpet and peered out the security hole. Her eyes widened. "It's Kyle." She mouthed back to Dar. Another tap. Dar motioned her back and she came to her side.

"Tell him you'll be right there." Dar whispered.

Kerry licked her lips, her heart pounding in reaction to seeing Kyle's face. "Coming!" She called out. "Hold on."

Dar had closed out her sessions, and now she took Kerry by the shoulders. "All right... just take it easy. I'll duck behind the door there, and you just let him in, and pretend nothing happened last night."

Kerry sucked in a breath. "I think I can do that." She nodded. "He's proabaly here to take notes and report back. "

"Probably... you keep calm.. I'll be right here. Trust me, Kerry.. if he touches you... " Dar left the threat unfinished.

The blond woman kissed her lightly. "My hero." She said, with quiet insistence. "Okay.. you go hide, let me let the slimeball in." Dar's presence gave her courage, and she watched her companion tuck herself away behind the bathroom door while she padded over to the front door, taking a deep breath, then pulling it open.

Hazel eyes immediately fastened on her, running over her as though she were a racehorse. Kerry stiffened in pure reflex."Oh.. hello Kyle.. I wasn't expecting you."

"I bet." He smiled at her. "Can I come in?"

"Sure." Kerry stepped back and watched him enter, getting a whiff of his distinctive cologne as he passed. He was dressed in a sport coat and slacks, and was impeccable as usual. "What brings you to Miami?"

"Oh.. this and that for your father.. as usual." He turned full circle, regarding the room with a slightly puzzled air. "I thought I"d stop in and see how you were doing." Now his eyes came to rest on her. "You're looking good... put on a little weight, though, haven't you?" Another smile. "You're mother will be devastated."

Kerry perched on the corner of the couch, very aware of the silent presence at her back. "Actually, I feel better than I have in a long time... I think I was a little too thin before." She met his eyes unflinchingly.

"Tch... not according to your mother... " He shook his head. "You donít' want to disappoint her, Kerry.. you know how important appearances are to her."

It was funny, Kerry thought. Not a sound came from Dar, but she could swear she could hear the taller woman's teeth grinding together. Hers were. "Well, she'll just have to live with it, I guess... I leave on Wednesday."

"Oh yes.. I heard you told her you were thinking of staying... " Kyle looked around again. "Nice place... can't say I blame you... " He looked back at her. "Now, you know that's not going to happen, right?" His voice was friendly and sweet. "It's time you came home and settled down, Kerry... they've planned the wedding for April."

Kerry looked right at him. "That's a matter between me and my parents, Kyle." She stated softly. "So I guess I'll be talking to them about it next week."

Kyle came up to her, suddenly, and frighteningly fast. "You're going to be a good girl, aren't you?" He asked softly. "You're not going to get your father upset now, hmm?"

Kerry swallowed, feeling a lifetime of concession laying on her like a blanket. "I hope not.. but as I said, that's between them, and I." She deliberately remained seated, her arms crossed on her chest. His eyes bored into hers, and Kerry knew if Dar hadn't been there, she would have been in a lot of trouble.

A fingertip found her chin. "Be good." He warned, softly. "I donít like to have to deal with your father when he's upset. It makes me.. anxious."

Kerry looked past his eyes, and up, and found herself staring into a pair of pale blue chips of ice, framed by a set, furious face so close behind Kyle, it was a wonder he didn't hear her breathing. "Kyle... go home." She said quietly. "I'm not a kid anymore, and you're not my keeper."

He breathed on her for a moment, hesitant. "Now I know you're going to have to come home... this place isn't good for you, Kerry." He reached out to grip her jaw in a sudden, savage move.

It never completed, as he found his wrist held by long, powerful fingers. Slowly, he turned his head, and found his eyes captured by incredibly blue ones in the face of a stranger. "Who the fuck are you?"

Dar smiled, with a total lack of humor. "A friend." She released his hand, then moved a step closer to Kerry. "Who doesn't like to see other friends being manhandled."

"Lady, I don't know who in the hell you are, but you'd do better for yourself to keep out of my business. " Kyle told her. "Got me?" His voice dropped in menace.

"You know.. my father had a name for people like you." Dar replied, in a conversational tone. "But you probably don't want to hear what it was." She gave him an amused look, very obviously not intimidated by his threat.

He studied her. "Oh... let me see here... are you Kerry's... special.. friend?" His mouth twisted into a sneer.

"No.. I'm far worse than that." Dar responded with a smile. "I'm her boss." She handed him her business card. "Here.. make sure you spell the name right." She moved a step closer to him. "Now.. are you done threatening, browbeating, and insulting my employee?"

Kyle flicked his gaze at the card, then up at her face. "Be careful, Ms. Roberts... this is family business, and you're not welcome in it."

Ice blue eyes stared back at him unflinchingly. "Be careful, Mr. Lewis...you'd be surprised at what businesses I choose to take an interest in." Dar replied very softly. "Or what happens when I do."

He chose not to answer that. Instead, he turned to the silent blond woman at Dar's side. "Well...always nice to see you, Kerry." A forced smile shaped his lips. "It will be good to have you home on Wednesday.. perhaps we can continue our discussion then." He pocketed Dar's card, then turned, and walked to the door, yanking it open, then exiting and slamming it behind him.

A momentary silence fell, then Kerry sighed. "Well. That was pleasant." She turned and gazed at her companion. "But it could have been a lot worse.. thanks."

"Obnoxious little son of a puta... " Dar cursed disgustedly. "Piece of... " She exhaled. "What a horse's ass."

Kerry leaned against her. "Yeah." She sighed. "He certainly is... this coming weekend's not going to be pleasant." Briefly, she contemplated not going, and was startled at how tempting that was. "I"d rather be here, eating turkey roll on white bread and watching that watchamacallit marathon they're doing on cable."

"Well.. " Dar kissed her forehead. "If you decide to cop out.. let me know.. I'll stick around and come share turkey roll with you.. okay?"

The smaller woman circled her with her arms. "You don't know how tempting that is... but I have to go.. I've got to get this over with." She sighed. "And tell them I won't be home for Christmas."

Dar hugged her back. "I'll be there with you in spirit, you know that, right?"

Kerry looked up at her. "I know that." She murmured, in wonder. "It.. helps... I never could have answered him like that otherwise."

The dark haired woman brushed her bangs back gently. "You did a good job of it." She informed Kerry. "He was looking to push your buttons."

"Mm." Kerry let her head rest against Dar's shoulder. And he did, too... it was just like there was a warm layer between her and his words, even the meanest of them. "Always has to get his digs in."

Dar looked over her shoulder without really seeing anything, her mind on strategy. "Maybe it's time someone did a little digging at him." She commented. "C'mon.. let's go cause some trouble" She lead Kerry back to the desk and sat down. "He have a favorite airline?"

"Delta, but.. " Kerry peered at the screen as Dar activated a session.

"Delta... today... from here to DC... his name.... Ah. " She typed in a sequence, and pulled up something." There you go.. there's his flight pnr for his return. " She looked at Kerry mischievously. " You know what you can do in here?"

A shake of the blond head.

"This." Dar typed in a four letter sequence, and the screen disappeared. "Poof. He no longer has airline reservations." She smiled at the screen. "Welcome to the Information Age, Mr. Lewis."

Kerry covered her eyes.


 Continued in Part 13