~ Guardian Angel ~
by D
avaliantheart01@gmail.com

Disclaimer: These characters and this narrative are mine, so there is nothing to disclaim in this here story. Besides, if you are still reading my stuff, you already know the drill - you will need an open mind to read it. If you find something you think needs disclaiming, you are more than welcome to let me know. It won't change anything, but it may make you feel better. Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.

Thanks: To my truly awesome Beta Team - Phil, Mac and Jeanne - they have certainly gone above and beyond for this story... 26 months of reading for mistakes. There was a point when I know each of you thought it was never going to end... because I wondered the same thing . Thanks, ya'll... this would have been much more difficult process without your efforts. You guys ROCK!

Author's Notes: So, it did actually take 26 months of writing to complete this sucker, and it's so much more than I ever envisioned it would be? because I certainly never expected it to be almost 700 pages when all was said and done. Still, I think it was worth the effort - we ended up with a good solid story and some great characters. And who knows? We may see them again someday.

The Storyteller's Cardinal Rule is in effect.

Prologue

Everyone has heard of guardian angels - we probably have the best PR department in the world. On the other hand, they're also very good about keeping the true nature of our job out of the press, so to speak. Oh, don't misunderstand - some guardian angels do exactly what is advertised. That is the job of a few... to uphold the myth that we are there for the protection of mankind. Most guardian angels don't protect - they offer hope to the scared and the lonely and the wounded. But for a few even that is not their primary function.

No, for a very few guardian angels, their job is to be there at a crucial time in their charge's life. They are supposed to guide and help a person make the right choice. Only sometimes, they're not in the right place at the right time and that's where I come in.

My job is clean up. When the guardian angel misses their opportunity, my job is to determine if the charge can be salvaged in spite of the guardian screw-up or if there is another choice that can be made or another opportunity offered.

This is the story of one such charge.



Chapter I

"Jim, I don't care what you have to do - just make it happen!" The woman snapped her phone shut with an aggrieved sigh and turned to the entourage standing next to her. "Opal, grab my day planner and meet me in the office. We have to rearrange a few things. Barbara, I need you to get Sen. Reynolds on the phone, please and make sure Kent is available to pick Adam up from school. Luke, I'd kill for a fresh cup of coffee," nodding in satisfaction when her assistant and aides scattered. Then she walked into her office and slid behind her desk, kicking off her shoes and removing her jacket before settling into the day's work.

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

Let me stop a minute here and bring you up to speed. I think you need to understand at least a little of the woman whose life I am now in charge of trying to salvage.

Charisma Tagherty is a smart, successful woman who has spent a lifetime in politics and as a Senator is counted as one of the up-and-coming leaders of not only her party, but the nation as well. She is as well-known for her charitable causes as she is for her political platform. She has worked hard to establish her reputation as a savvy politician, a smart businesswoman and a caring humanitarian and has succeeded beyond most expectations - except her own. She demanded success from herself and has done everything she could to ensure the results she was looking for.

Doesn't sound like she needs to be salvaged much, does it?

Except she is a liar - a liar of the highest order... beyond what you would expect from someone who spent their life as a politician. Charisma Tagherty has spent a lifetime lying to herself and it is destroying her and those who mean the most to her... even the unacknowledged ones.

You see, a person can only pretend for so long - then the lies become real and one can no longer distinguish the lies from truth... happiness from make-believe. The up side to that is that there is happiness - whether real or simply perceived - for a little while. The down side is eventually it will all come crashing down like a house of cards and what is left in its wake is generally disastrous to everyone touched by the aftershocks.

The course she is on now is headed for catastrophe unless I can help her be honest. Let me take you back to the beginning. Then you'll be able to see just exactly where we went wrong.

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

"You're gonna do big things, Charisma. I have faith in you," Patrick Tagherty said to his five-year-old daughter with a smile.

"What kind of things, Daddy?" Big blue eyes gazed up into eyes just like hers.

"Anything you want, baby. You're smart enough to be anything you wanna be."

"Really?"

Patrick smiled at her wide-eyed innocence. "Really."

Charisma Tagherty was the fourth child and only daughter of Patrick and Okasa Tagherty. Doted on by her three older brothers as well as her parents, Charisma lived up to her name in personality as well as looks. Beautiful with the dark hair and skin tone she'd inherited from her mother and her father's sparkling blue eyes, already she knew how to charm people. She was one of those who, it seemed, was destined to easily succeed throughout her life.

And so it went for Charisma, beautiful and gifted, she went through life always popular? always successful. Junior high school introduced her to politics and she decided then that would be her chosen profession. She liked the power and the elevated status it gave her, and she learned how to wield that power to accomplish the things she set out to achieve.

By the time she was a senior in high school, Charisma was well-versed in the art of illusion and presentation and she knew what image to show to the world at large. She was popular - president of the Student Government Association, a cheerleader, a track star, participated in glee club and band and spent her summers overseas as an exchange student, courtesy of her father's contacts. Popular, but unwilling to sacrifice what little free time she had to having a regular boyfriend.

It suited her parents - none of the boys she hung out with in her social circle were good enough for their little girl, and as long as she had friends and didn't isolate herself from everyone, they didn't see a problem with not rushing into a relationship that probably wouldn't last beyond high school anyway. Charisma had big dreams - Presidential dreams - there was no reason to give them up so early in her life for a tumble with someone she wouldn't remember when their five year class reunion rolled around.

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

Me again - sorry, but I need to break in here for a moment. In fairness to everyone involved in this situation... angels and humans alike... they were absolutely right. Any involvement on Charisma's part with anyone at this point would have been detrimental to her dreams. You see, fair or not, women are judged by a different set of standards than men are - they always have been. They are valued for their beauty and innocence and morality, while men are judged by their prowess and cunning and conquests. I'm not saying it's right - God knows we've had more than our share of shit to clean up because of these archaic ideals - but it is the truth nonetheless.

What we didn't know then... what we wouldn't know until much later was there was a far bigger reason Charisma Tagherty wasn't interested in the whole dating scene. But we will get to that... eventually.

Let me move time forward just a little bit - to Charisma's foray into college. This was the first time her guardian angel failed her... something I didn't learn of until much, *much* later.

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

"Are you sure about this, princess? It's not too late...."

"Oh, Daddy... don't be silly. This is going to be so awesome."

"Awesome, huh?" opening his arms and wrapping her in a tight embrace. "You think you're gonna like being a college kid?" chuckling when he felt her head bob up and down against his chest. He kissed the top of her dark head. "All right, just don't forget to give your mama and me a call now and then, okay? Let us know how you're doing and what's going on."

"I will, Daddy." She tilted her head back and looked up at him with bright, blue eyes. "Thank you for believing in me. It means everything."

"Always, Tiger... you know that. You really are going to do great things, and I'll be able to say I knew you when." He added the last with a crooked smile.

Charisma snorted at him and patted his chest as she pulled out of the hug. "You'll be able to say you *changed* me when."

Patrick guffawed and Charisma gave him her mother's smile, blinding in its intensity. "You're right, me wee lassie," he agreed, affecting a thick brogue. "I'm sure all the newspapers are waitin' for that particular scoop too. I'll have your mama go lookin' for some naked baby pictures."

Now she swatted at his arm hard. "You better not!" horrified at the thought. Charisma knew her mother... the woman had pictures of everything. She didn't want her naked baby butt out on the front page of every newspaper in the country for the whole world to stare at. She covered her eyes with her hand. "God... talk about embarrassing."

"It'd be one way to meet the press."

Charisma snorted. "Yes, but that doesn't make it a good way."

Patrick laughed aloud. "No, but it would certainly be memorable," ducking when she swung at him again. "Parent abuse! Parent abuse!" he squawked around his laughter as he tried to slide out of her reach....

... then stopped abruptly when a blonde head cautiously poked around the doorway and halted at the commotion inside the dorm room.

"Excuse me... I was looking for my dorm room and..." she consulted the slip of paper in her hand, "... and someone named Charisma Tagherty."

"I'm Charisma," the young woman offered, pushing her father to one side to extend her hand to the owner of the blonde hair. "And you are...?" wondering if the eyes hidden behind the glasses were really as green as they appeared to be or if it was just the lighting in the room.

"Brianna... Brianna Walker - your new roommate." She took Charisma's hand and allowed the other woman to pull her into the room.

"It's really nice to meet you, Brianna Brianna Walker," Charisma offered with an impish smile. "This big oaf is my father, Patrick. I promise he doesn't bite."

"Hey!" glaring at Charisma before giving Brianna a dashing smile. "Only if you ask nice, lassie," Patrick corrected, laying on the brogue as thickly as he could manage.

"Only until Mama hears him offer," Charisma countered, rolling her eyes in Brianna's direction and causing Brianna to smother her chuckle behind her hand. Patrick huffed.

"Well, I can see I'm not needed here." He turned to Brianna and held out his hand, watching with some amusement as she hesitated momentarily before taking it in a firm grasp. "It's been very nice to meet you, Ms Walker. I hope Charisma doesn't make you as crazy as she has her mother and me for the past eighteen years. You're gonna have your hands full with this one."

"HA! Don't believe a word of it, Brianna Brianna. I was the one bright spot of sanity in a world laden with testosterone."

"And you," Patrick turned back to Charisma. "Behave... and call your mother."

"Yes, Daddy." Charisma leaned forward and gave Patrick a hug, only to find herself in a near-crushing embrace. Brianna moved further into the room to give the two at the door a modicum of privacy.

"I'll miss you, princess. Just remember that I believe in you."

Charisma kissed his cheek. "Bye, Daddy... love you."

"Love you too, princess."

Charisma sighed as she closed the door behind Patrick after he left. Then she turned and looked at her erstwhile roommate. "Sorry about that," she apologized, waving her hand towards the door. "I didn't expect him to hang around so long, but I couldn't tell him no when he asked to come with me."

Brianna nodded. "You seem pretty close," was her comment.

"He's my best friend," Charisma confirmed. "He's always believed in me. My mother too, but in a different way." She shrugged. "I guess I've always been a 'Daddy's Girl'."

"That's not a bad thing. Did you choose...?" motioning between the two single beds.

"Not really... I dropped my stuff," gesturing to the luggage on one side of the room, "but it really doesn't matter to me. I learned a long time ago to pick my battles, Brianna Brianna. Sleeping arrangements don't even make it into the top one hundred as far as I'm concerned." She glanced at the small bag Brianna still held. "Is that all you brought?"

Brianna chuckled nervously and shook her head. "Oh... no. I just thought I'd carry the small one up first... until I found the right room. I'll have to make a couple trips to get all my junk up here."

"You want some help?"

"I couldn't ask...."

"Maybe not, but you don't have to - I offered. Pick a bed," waiting patiently until Brianna dropped her bag on the bed opposite the one Charisma had already placed her bags by. "Great," tugging on Brianna's arm and leading her from the room and down the hallway bustling with activity as students began the process of moving in to begin the fall term. "Let's get your stuff moved in." The rumble of thunder caused a squealing outcry throughout the building and Brianna and Charisma hastened their steps in hopes of beating the downpour.

"So why didn't your parents come?" Charisma asked conversationally as she followed Brianna to her car which was naturally parked on the north forty of the dorm parking lot. The thunder rolled even closer and she cringed, hoping they'd make it back to their room before it let loose.

"They wanted to," she said as they reached her vehicle and she started lifting bags from the trunk. "Unfortunately, they *both* wanted to come."

Charisma's forehead creased into a frown. "And that's a bad thing? I mean... the only reason Mama didn't come was because my oldest brother's wife went into labor and she was their midwife. Otherwise you'd have been pounced on by both of my parents - my father the charmer and my mother the interrogator."

Brianna looked at Charisma as she slammed the trunk closed and hefted the two heaviest bags. Charisma returned the look and picked up the remaining two. "I can see that," she said frankly as they headed back inside. "I'd say, if I had to guess without meeting your mother, that you have your father's charm and your mother's strength of will. It probably gets you pretty much everything you want."

Charisma blinked, bright blue eyes staring at Brianna in amazement. "Are you psychic or something?"

Brianna laughed, her face tilted up to the heavens just as the bottom dropped out of the sky. "Not at all... just very observant."

"I'll buy that for now Brianna Brianna," Charisma agreed. "But it still doesn't explain why your folks aren't here," raising her voice to be heard over the rapid pelting of raindrops. They reached the building dripping wet, and stood in the common room shedding wet for several minutes before deciding to take things upstairs. Only when the door was firmly closed behind them did Brianna deign to answer.

"My parents are divorced... have been since I was about five. I don't know what happened between them, but let's just say the settlement was less than amicable. Everything about me became a competition between them, and I just couldn't bear the thought of that following me into my adult life. So I put my foot down and refused to allow either of them to come here."

"Wow! That's impressive. How'd you manage that?"

Brianna snorted, removing a towel from her belongings while Charisma did the same with hers. "It was easy - I told them I'd disown them."

Charisma's eyebrows went to her hairline. "You're not pre-law by any chance?"

Brianna laughed again and Charisma found herself smiling from the happy sound. "Better... I'm pre-law with a double major in theatre. I figure one will teach me the law and the other will give me the best tools for presenting a case. If I can act in the courtroom, I can own it."

"You sound like a woman with a plan."

"What about you?" wrapping the damp towel around her neck and turned her back to Charisma to slip out of her wet clothes. "What are you here for?"

"A degree in political science and a minor in the law."

Brianna's eyes widened. "Can you minor in law?"

"If you schedule right, you can."

"So you wanna be a politician?"

"I want to be President. For now, though, I'm just going to settle for being a poli-sci student with a lot of extracurriculars to make me a well-rounded individual. It looks good to the press and on paper."

"You've given this a lot of thought."

"Ever since I was five. Daddy told me to dream big... figured I might as well start at the top. C'mon," sliding into her dry clothes. "Let's get unpacked and see if we can find some space to dry these clothes in this room. Then we can go find something to eat... I hope."

With a laugh, they settled down to work and in short order were heading out to find food. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

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

Did you see it? Did you catch what we missed? Don't feel bad - it took me half a dozen reviews of this and months of other moments before I caught it. It is the only reason Rafe didn't lose his job right away - no one was quick enough to catch it, and none of us could begin to imagine what was coming.

Let me show you what I mean... maybe you'll be able to spot it faster knowing you should be looking for something. Then again, Charisma is still in denial, despite what she knows in her heart of hearts to be true - it ain't just a river in Egypt, you know.

Who knows... maybe watching them *yet again* will help me to devise a solution to this ugly, convoluted mess.



Chapter II

I'm actually going to skip ahead three years - if you have to sit through each and every subtle nuance between Charisma and Brianna during this time, you'll be here for a lifetime and we really don't have time for that right now. So I'll give you the cliffs notes version - if you want to go through the nitty gritty details later, there'll be time for that then.

The first year of college was an eye opening experience for both young women and they gravitated towards one another to keep from falling into temptations that would sidetrack them from their respective goals. It helped them cement their friendship.

Not to say there weren't a few dalliances, but for the most part they were both too focused on their studies and the extracurricular activities they were involved in. Charisma became a cheerleader and Brianna never missed a game. And Brianna's involvement in the theatre insured Charisma attended every new performance the drama department put on.

Charisma met Brianna's parents, separately and then together and immediately issued a standing invitation for Brianna to join her on breaks and holidays. Patrick and Okasa welcomed Brianna as another daughter and Charisma's brothers treated her as though she was the coolest thing since sliced bread. Charisma could have gotten jealous, but she was too busy enjoying Brianna's reaction to a family life that was so different from her own. Brianna was soon immersed in what a real family was like - the good and the bad.

Some of their breaks they spent traveling - Europe, Asia, Australia - but they were very brief sojourns as both women were enrolled in courses every term. They were inseparable and their friends knew to include both of them in any activity they planned. Suffice it to say they spent a majority of their time together for three years, creating a friendship and family both knew was unbreakable.

That brings us to their senior year - and the next step in their ever-evolving relationship.

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

"Brianna Brianna, you in here?" Charisma called out as she entered their apartment.

"In the kitchen."

Charisma dropped her backpack on the sturdy furniture they'd gotten from the secondhand store when they decided to rent an apartment together for their senior year. It wasn't much, but it did give them each a tiny bedroom and a kitchenette that had seen as many failures as it had successes. Judging from the scents coming from that direction, it seemed that Brianna was well on her way to another success. Charisma took a deep, appreciative breath.

"Smells good. But wasn't it my turn?"

"Uh huh. But if I had to wait for you to get done with all those extracurriculars you've got going on, I'd starve to death," motioning to the cheerleading outfit Charisma was currently encased in.

"I know... sorry."

"It's all right, Ri. I understand what you're doing and why. How'd it go?"

Charisma shrugged. "Same shit...."

"... different day. Take a seat. It's about ready."

"Guess this means I've got clean up duty."

Brianna laughed. "Pretty much. Besides, I've got rehearsal tonight."

"Damn, I'd forgotten about that. The performance is this weekend, correct?" Charisma rose and snatched her backpack from the floor.

"The first one, yes," Brianna answered with a twinkle in her eye.

"Well, since I'm a confirmed first nighter...." Charisma replied teasingly.

"I think Professor Mac is ready to gild your seat." Brianna blushed and bit her lip, looking away from her best friend. Charisma noticed her withdrawal immediately and covered her hand.

"What is it, Bri Bri?"

"I'm nervous about this one, Ri. It's just...." She shrugged.

"Just what, Bri?"

"You ever feel like you've gotten in over your head? I never meant for this to go public. I never wanted to be a writer... not like this, anyway. I never expected for people to be performing my work. That's not why I took drama."

"Bri, what are you worried about? It's good... really good. I read it, remember?"

"I know... it's just...." She stuttered to stop once more.

"Just what? C'mon, Brianna Brianna - this is me you're talking to? you're very best friend in the whole world. What is bothering you so bad about this? You were so excited about the prospect when Professor Mac first offered you the opportunity."

Brianna let out a shaky breath. "I feel exposed... like the whole world can see right into my mind... into my soul. It's unnerving."

"Are you sure it's not just a case of really cold feet? Bri, you have a beautiful mind and an equally beautiful soul. Hell, girl... you're beautiful inside and out. If we weren't both women...." Charisma let the thought fall, knowing she couldn't let it go any farther. Besides, she was absolutely straight - there really wasn't anywhere else for that thought to go, right?

Brianna tilted her head thoughtfully. "Would that really stop you?" She smiled sadly at the mask of confusion Charisma forced onto her expression. "Never mind, Ri. That wasn't a fair question. Just forget it."

"No, I want to understand what you were asking, Brianna Brianna," picking at her own discomfort at what she *knew* Brianna was asking and trying to put a little levity back into the conversation.

"It doesn't really matter, Ri... honestly."

Blue eyes glared into green and Charisma held onto the hand she still covered when Brianna tried to pull away. "Would *what* really stop me Bri?"

"Would the fact that we are both women really stop you if we fell in love with one another? Or any woman, for that matter - would the fact that you're a woman keep you from allowing yourself to love another woman, even if you had feelings for her?"

To her credit, Charisma didn't pulled away; she held on to Brianna as tightly as she had before, wanting her to understand that nothing would change between them because of this conversation. They would still be... would always be... best friends.

They sat in silence for a moment - Brianna confident of what Charisma would say and Charisma framing her answer. Finally....

"In all honesty, Bri? I can't see myself falling in love with another woman. And frankly, it's just not a part of my political plan. Even if I had strong feelings for a woman, I'm not willing to give up everything I've worked for... my entire political career... just to be with her. Hell's bells... I'm not willing to do that with a man either at the moment."

"Maybe you just haven't met the right one, Ri," Brianna offered with another sad smile.

"Oh, I'm certain of that. If... *when*... I get married, it's going to have to be to someone who is willing to be second fiddle to my career. These college boys are still boys and they are much too full of themselves to be of any use to me. But," she said, pulling her hand from Brianna's and slapping her thighs before she stood to take the dishes to the sink. "We're pretty far afield of what started this whole conversation which would in point of fact be your play."

Charisma moved back over and knelt at Brianna's side. "Trust me when I tell you that this play of yours is going to go off without a hitch, and if you're not careful, you're going to become a sought-after playwright instead of a kick-ass attorney."

"Oh... no way!" Brianna exclaimed, pushing their previous conversation out of her mind. She rose to her feet and pulled Charisma up to stand beside her. "I have worked too damn hard for that law degree to let the lure of the theatre sway me now!" shaking her fist at the ceiling.

Charisma snorted. "Um... you don't think *that* was a little theatrical?"

"Nah," Brianna said with a straight face, though her eyes twinkled merrily. "That was aggressive posturing."

"Oh, is that what they're calling it in your law class now?"

"Well, no," Brianna replied sheepishly. "Professor Hayes calls it theatrics, but she has admitted their effectiveness in the courtroom if used sparingly and to good effect."

"So she approves of your drama classes now?" remembering the sarcasm Brianna had been subjected to by that particular professor for her choice of minors.

"Hardly, though at this point I think it has become more of a teasing argument than anything else. Why would she bother to attend every new performance I am a part of at least once?"

"Perhaps she is a theatre lover like I am."

Brianna pouted. "And here I thought you came just for me." Her eyes slid to the clock. "Shit! I'm gonna be late! You've got this?" motioning around the kitchen. Charisma rolled her eyes.

"I've got this. G'wan... get out of here before Professor Mac sends out a search party for you. You know the roommate is always the most likely suspect."

Brianna laughed and slung her backpack over her shoulder. "If your study group finishes early, drop by the theatre. You can have a sneak peek at what the piece you read at the beginning of the term has evolved into."

"That different, huh?"

Brianna opened the door. "You tell me. See you later?"

"Yeah... wait for me. We'll go for ice cream or beer when rehearsal's over."

Brianna made a face and crossed the threshold into the breezeway. "Hopefully not together. Bye, Ri."

"Later, Bri."

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

Now, I know what you're thinking - you're thinking that Charisma's and Brianna's little discussion about loving another woman made them self-conscious about one another and drove them apart. Actually, it didn't. It opened up their communication with one another even more, though that particular subject never came up again. That is the main reason Rafe missed the importance of it.

He, like you, expected things to be awkward and for it to put distance between them immediately and when that didn't happen, he disregarded it as a fluke.

For our two players in this little drama, however, it was anything but a fluke, and eventually, it would have far-reaching consequences.

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

"Brianna Brianna, that was amazing!!" Charisma exclaimed as she wrapped her best friend in a tight hug. "Are you sure you're destined to be a lawyer?"

"That's what I keep asking her," Professor Mac MacAvoy commented as he walked up behind the two women grinning like a maniac. "She has a real gift for storytelling."

"All the better to convince a jury of her position in court, Mac. Leave my star student alone and get your own protégé," Janice Hayes commented to Mac with a smile. Brianna just blushed at the perceived rivalry over her between her two most important professors.

"I have one - she just has to get the law bug out of her system first."

"All right, you two," Charisma cut in. "That's enough. You're embarrassing Brianna and this is her night."

Mac and Janice looked at the two young women with surprise, then they exchanged glances. "You're right, Charisma," Mac said with a charming smile. He turned to Brianna. "Fabulous effort, my dear. Absolutely exceptional work. I think it's safe to say your grade for the year is in the bag. And if you should ever change your mind on making drama your major...."

"Thanks, Prof," Brianna said with a smile.

"It really was wonderful, Ms Walker. I enjoyed it very much. Now, don't you have an opening night party to be the center of attention at?"

"As a matter of fact.... Thanks, Professor Hayes." The two young women made their way out the theatre door under the watchful eyes of the two teachers.

"Okay... that was pretty cool, Brianna Brianna. Why are you shaking?"

"That was the most nerve-wracking thing I have ever been through."

"But...?"

"It really was pretty cool. Nice to know the profs probably won't fail me."

Charisma snorted. "Not that that was even a possibility with your grades, Bri. Now c'mon... let's go celebrate your success with your colleagues for a little while. I'll make sure you get home before you crash or go crazy."

"Glad you've got my back, Ri."

"Always, Brianna Brianna."

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

Brianna's play was the hit of season, but despite Mac's greatest efforts and most eloquent pleas, she continued on her chosen path to law school.

When commencement rolled around, there were a number of tears and hugs between Charisma and Brianna as they packed up four years of living together. A lot of their time was spent reminiscing over the good times they had shared and the bad times they had helped one another through.

"You know," Charisma said, laughing through their latest round of tears. "We're acting like we're never going to be together again."

"Ri, we probably won't be together again... at least not like this. I mean, I'm heading off to law school in September and you'll be headed to DC to start your political career as a White House aide. You're going to do big things, you know, and I expect to be invited to the Inaugural Ball when you become President."

"Invited? I expect you to attend as a member of my new cabinet if not as my running mate!"

"You've got yourself a date, President Tagherty." Charisma grinned at Brianna's words.

"I like the sound of that." Brianna chuckled.

"Somehow I figured you might. But you see what I mean?"

Charisma sighed. "Yeah, I know. But we've got mail and phone and if Bill is telling the truth, we'll soon be using a computer to keep in touch."

"That could be pretty cool... if he can make it work."

"In the meantime, we have one more trip to take together and this time, we have almost three months. I plan to make a lifetime of memories with my best friend."

"That sounds great, but we gotta finish packing up all this stuff first," Brianna said, motioning to the mess still scattered around the room.

"Always something getting in the way of our fun," Charisma grumbled. "C'mon... before my parents get here and Mama decides she needs to help." Brianna's eyes widened. She loved Okasa Tagherty as much as she did her own mother, but she knew exactly what would happen if Okasa took a notion to help.

"I'm on it," and soon the two were working in tandem once more, packing up four years of life together.

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

I'm going to pause right here because the next bit is going to be a bit involved and you probably need a break at this point to review all the evidence so far. Can you see what we missed? Is it apparent to you what is happening... what has already happened between Charisma and Brianna?

It is so obvious to me now - the signs were there. They were just so subtle, so innocuous that they were impossible to see until it was too late and I was called in on a salvage operation. Sometimes I wonder if there was any way to keep this from becoming a salvage operation, but I guess we'll never know now.

Now the only thing I can do is give my best effort to fix this cluster.



Chapter III

You want to know one of the most interesting things about being a guardian angel - especially a guardian angel on clean-up detail? I spend time in the world of men as a human being. And while it's generally not glamorous, it is fascinating. I get to interact with a number of people on a more personal level - something I find intriguing. Human beings are so different from angels... so different from one another, and yet you are all the same as well. Not in a bad way. All of you think and feel and bleed and breathe, and those are good things. True, there are varying degrees of success in the thinking and feeling departments, but that is part of what makes you all human. It is one of the reasons guardian angels stay so busy, though thankfully, I am not called upon too often - only in cases of dire need. But when I am, it gives me a chance to be a part of the world.

Why am I telling you this? This is very rare for me - both the opportunity to be part of the human experience as well as the drama involved in this particular situation. You have to understand - until recently, we never had drama in heaven. That thing with Lucifer doesn't count. He was a moron, and frankly, most of us were glad to see the obnoxious prick go. The other - that's personal and a story for another time. Maybe I'll share it with you one day.

For now, however, let me briefly take you back to the present day Charisma Tagherty. I need you to see where she is before I can take you back to where we were. Don't worry - we will go back. There's still a lot more ground we have to cover.

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

"Senator Tagherty?" When there was no answer, Esmeralda stuck her head into the office, noting the dark head bent over a file on the desk. A single lamp near her left elbow provided the only illumination in the room, its small circle of light leaving the rest of the room in virtual darkness. "Charisma?" Esmeralda called out again, knowing no one was around to object to the familiarity in which she referred to the senator.

Charisma's head popped up at the sound of her name - so few people actually referenced her as anything besides her title. It had been one reason, though not the only one, that she'd given Esmeralda leave to do so. She had no problem skirting protocol and getting right to the heart of things. A smile formed on Charisma's face and she beckoned Esmeralda into her office.

"Come in, Es. How are you? How's the family?"

Esmeralda pushed her cleaning cart ahead of her into the room, then walked around the desk to greet the now standing senator with a brief, fierce hug that was returned wholeheartedly. Then Charisma motioned to the chairs across the desk from hers and resumed her seat.

Esmeralda accepted the unspoken invitation and took a chair across from Charisma, who sat waiting with her arms propped on the desk and an expectant expression on her face. "Well? How are you?" she repeated when Esmeralda didn't reply immediately. "How's the family? We've missed you around here."

"I'm doing much better, Sen... Charisma," she corrected herself when Charisma held up a hand to do so. "It's slow progress, but at least it's progress. And Saphira has been so patient with me."

"She loves you, Es. Why wouldn't she be?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "The last few months have been so hard...."

"Yes, but isn't that when love becomes the strongest?"

"Thankfully in our case - yes. Sometimes though... so many times I've seen something like this break up a couple. But she has been my rock."

"And you've been hers as well, I'll bet."

"As much as I can. It's nice to get back to work, though."

"Well, you've definitely been missed around here."

"And how would you know?" Esmeralda asked archly. "You're not supposed to be here this late. Aren't you supposed to be home with your family at this time of day?"

For the first time, Charisma's eyes shuttered and her head dropped. Esmeralda stood from her chair and walked around the desk to kneel at Charisma's side.

"Talk to me, Charisma. What troubles you, my friend?"

Charisma smiled weakly at the address Esmeralda used. "You're one of the few friends I have ever had, Es. Almost everyone I know is a colleague or an employee or an acquaintance. I hope Saphira knows how lucky she is to have you."

"We're lucky to have one another, Charisma, but that is not answering my question, is it? Is there something I can help with... something I can do to make things better?"

"Why would you want to, Esmeralda? Do you think you can get something out of me?"

The attack was unexpected and green eyes burned brightly with anger. Charisma was visibly startled. She'd never seen Esmeralda anything but helpful and friendly to everyone and her rage was shocking. She watched in fascination as Esmeralda deliberately put her anger aside and returned her eyes to meet Charisma's squarely. "I think you know how unfair that was," Esmeralda said softly. "But I'm guessing the reason behind it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with whatever it is that is bothering you."

Esmeralda rose from her place beside Charisma and extended her hand. "C'mon. I can't stay on the floor and I think you really need someone to talk to."

Charisma took the hand Esmeralda was holding out to her and stood, following the smaller woman over to the couch. Then she curled into one corner while Esmeralda folded herself into the other.

"I'm sorry," Charisma said quietly. "You're right; that was completely uncalled for. You've never been anything but honest and upfront with me." She paused. "Are you happy, Es?" Charisma held up her hands to prevent Esmeralda from answering before she was finished. "I mean - you've been through so much recently what with Saphira's job issues and your illness. And yet, you seem to have a sense of peace."

"I do have peace, Charisma. And I am happy."

"How? You have so little and you have been through so much. How is it you have happiness?"

Esmeralda smiled and propped her head on her hand. "Do you think that I shouldn't? Charisma, you yourself just pointed out, despite everything, my relationship with Saphira has grown stronger. Everything else is just so much chaff that has to be sorted from the wheat."

"But don't you find the struggle draining? Don't you ever wish it was easier... that you had more?" She broke off, not sure how to ask what she wanted to without sounding condescending.

Esmeralda smiled. "Charisma, we can't all be leaders and college graduates. Someone has to do the physical labor that gets things done. If there weren't custodians and garbage men and housekeepers, the world would be a perpetual dump. And what about the truck drivers and the sales clerks and construction workers? I'm proud of what I do and I'm good at it."

Charisma chuckled. "Trust me - I understand that. I know how impossible my life would be without all those people and so many others that take care of day to day drudgery I don't seems to have time for. But that's not what I meant exactly." She bit her lip and looked away from Esmeralda, blue eyes studying the office cast in darkness and shadow.

"Charisma, you're not going to offend me. Just spit it out!"

The chuckle this time was wry with an underlying hint of sadness. "Why are you happy?? I look at what you have and what you've been through, especially recently - and I wonder what I'm doing wrong. You do work many sneer at; you live paycheck to paycheck; your lifestyle and companion is a subject of derision and criticism...."

Esmeralda remained silent, knowing Charisma was talking to herself as much as she was to Esmeralda. "I have everything - power, influence, wealth, a nice home and a picture perfect family. And yet...."

"Yet?"

"I'm not sure I'm happy."

Silence reigned for a time, until Charisma turned to face Esmeralda, only to find Esmeralda gazing at her compassionately. It was nearly her undoing. Esmeralda reached out and covered the hand closest to her.

"Who are you living for, Charisma Tagherty?"

A frown crossed her face and she turned away again. "I'm not sure I understand what you're asking, Es."

"The Senator lives for the vote or the power or the constituency. The humanitarian lives for those in need or the fundraising efforts or the next charity event. The wife lives for her husband," noting the flicker that passed over Charisma's face, "sharing a life and love and a home. The mom lives for the child as a provider and teacher and guide. Then there's the woman - the person Charisma Tagherty is deep in her heart - the one who thinks and feels and laughs and cries."

"I haven't seen that Charisma Tagherty in a long, long time. There's not room for her in my world."

"You'll never find happiness then, Charisma. Until you're happy with the person you are, the most you will ever find is contentment."

"You make it sound so simple."

Esmeralda laughed. "If only it was. The truth is, it's the hardest thing in the world. It's easy to live for others - you only have to be honest as far as their expectations are concerned. With yourself - you can lie to yourself, but you still know that you're lying."

"You think I'm lying to myself?" Charisma said, turning intent blue eyes towards Esmeralda.

Esmeralda smiled. "Only you know if you're lying and what you're lying about. You wanted to know why you're not happy. I'm just offering you an explanation based on my experience and observations." She took a deep breath. "Maybe you should consider Charisma's happiness first for a change."

"I'm not sure I know how to do that anymore."

"Do you remember the last time you were happy?"

Charisma sighed. "I was happy when Adam was born. He's brought such joy into my life. I almost gave up my career then."

"But...?"

"But it's not enough. It wasn't enough then."

"What would be? What would bring you happiness, Charisma?"

"I don't know, Es. I really don't know."

Esmeralda was silent for a while. "Go home, Charisma. Whatever you're working on here will wait for another day. Go home and spend some time with your family. Maybe it will help you remember what happiness is."

"And if it doesn't?" her smile wry and a little sad.

"I'll be here tomorrow night. We can talk some more then."

"Promise?"

"Absolutely."

Charisma stood and offered Esmeralda a hand up, then pulled her into an unexpected hug. "Thanks, Es."

"Anytime, Charisma. You know that."

Charisma moved to her desk as Esmeralda walked to her cart, retrieving the supplies she needed to begin her work. Charisma slid into her jacket, picked up her purse and walked to the door before turning back to look at Esmeralda.

"Es?" waiting for the green eyes to meet hers. "Do you think I could meet Saphira sometime?"

"Do you really want to?"

Charisma appeared nonplussed at the question. "Yes, I would really like to."

Esmeralda nodded. "All right. I'll ask her."

"Thanks," was Charisma's only response before disappearing out the door.

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

Being a janitor isn't glamorous work, but it is one of the best ways to learn about a charge and gain their trust. Custodians see and hear a lot of secrets - it's all about dissemination and discretion. Fortunately, as a guardian angel, I learned those skills early in my existence. And I'm a clean-up angel - I'm all about making things neat and tidy. It is a job I do with great success.

One reason I was chosen for this assignment was the truth I had shared with Charisma Tagherty. Saphira is my mate and we have been through our share trials and tribulations. Not for the reasons you think - heaven is not nearly as uptight as some human beings would like to believe. It really doesn't matter at the moment. What does matter is that it added a sympathy on my part I had never had before and a depth of truth that Charisma could feel in my words and actions.

Now I just had to use all that to help Charisma find her own truth... and maybe even happiness.

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

The following evening, Esmeralda tapped on Charisma Tagherty's office door. "Charisma?" she called out as she crossed the threshold, then covered her mouth when she realized what she was interrupting. Charisma Tagherty lay on her sofa cradling her young son reading to him. Esmeralda started to back out of the room when Charisma looked up and motioned her closer.

Esmeralda pushed her cart to its customary place, then walked to the couch and knelt beside Charisma. "Sorry. I didn't realize...."

Twin pairs of blue eyes met Esmeralda's green and she smiled at their equally guileless stare. They returned her smile and Adam reached for her. Esmeralda took his hand, tickling his palm and chuckling at the laughter it elicited. Without warning, he lunged for her and only lightning fast reflexes allowed Esmeralda to catch him.

Instinctively, Charisma lunged for her son, then relaxed when she realized that Esmeralda had him well in hand. Instead, she sat up and leaned back to watch their interaction.

"Hello, little man," Esmeralda greeted softly. "My name is Esmeralda."

The boy smiled big and reached for her long hair. Esmeralda pulled her head back quickly, catching the child's hands and looking at Charisma who was laughing quietly at the two of them.

"Great reflexes," she commented. "Meet my son, Adam."

"Hi Adam," tweaking his nose and making him squeal. "He's beautiful, Charisma."

"Adam big boy," he said proudly.

"Mama's big boy?"

"Mama's big boy," he agreed with a scrunched nose grin, jumping back into Charisma's arms.

"I didn't mean to disturb you."

"It's all right, Es. I wanted you to meet him. We were waiting for you."

"Well, I'm glad you did. He's precious," stroking the dark head tucked under his mother's chin.

"Yeah, he is. He's the best part of my life."

"So, he is what makes you happy?"

"I'm happy when I'm with him."

"Only then?"

"At least then."

Esmeralda shifted, sliding from the floor and slipping into the chair closest to the head of the sofa. "Tell me the last time you were happy, Charisma."

She frowned and looked down at the body she cradled. "I told you...."

"Before Adam - when was the last time you were happy?"

"I don't... I don't know."

"Think about it, Charisma. It's important."

She slid back down on the couch, resting her head on the arm and tucking her son onto her chest. "It's been a long time," she confided after an interminable silence. "I think it was after my college graduation."

"What happened then? What made you happy?"

"I took a trip to Europe with the very best friend I had in the world."

"Tell me."



Chapter IV

Charisma's eyes took on a distant look and her lips creased into an enigmatic smile. She hugged the tiny body curled into hers a little tighter and kissed the top of her son's head. After a long moment, Charisma turned blue eyes to meet Esmeralda's green briefly. She shook her head a little and turned her attention inward again, shifting her body until she was laying down looking up at the ceiling.

"I don't remember much, really. I have impressions, mostly. The fog in London; the mist and scent of heather in Scotland; the Guinness in Ireland. I remember the sangria in Spain; the echoing caves on Gibraltar; the color of the Mediterranean; the reflection of the sun off the buildings on Santorini; the market in Istanbul. I remember freshness of the air in the Alps; the sense of timelessness in Rome; the amazing food in France."

Esmeralda waited but nothing more was forthcoming. "Do you have pictures?"

"Somewhere, I'm sure," Charisma replied noncommittally, though Esmeralda sensed a distinct tension suddenly present in Charisma's frame. Adam squirmed a little uncomfortably and Charisma forced herself to relax.

"It sounds like it was magical," Esmeralda offered with a smile in her voice.

"It was. I remember feeling happy then."

"So what happened?"

Charisma shrugged carefully so as not to disturb the child sleeping so peacefully again on her chest. "It was time to grow up. And life just became a roller coaster on the fast track."

"And what of your best friend?"

Charisma shook her head. "I don't know. I lost touch with her years ago." There was an inflection in her tone, but whether it was sadness or anger or something else again, Esmeralda wasn't sure.

"I guess that is part of growing up and getting older," Esmeralda commented. "We let go of the old as new friends and responsibilities enter our lives. It's a shame we can't hold onto both."

"Um," was Charisma's only reply. She had closed her eyes and her breathing was deepening and evening out in the first stages of sleep. But it couldn't stop the tear that trickled from the corner of her eye. Esmeralda stood and pulled the coverlet from the couch, tucking in Charisma and Adam before crossing back over to her cart to begin her night's work.

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

I had hoped when I asked her to share, Charisma would have been more forthcoming. I'm not sure if she really can't remember or if she just doesn't want to.

However, I don't need her to remember to know what happened to share it with you. Sometimes it's good to be an angel with the ability to rewind and review peoples' lives. I just wish it wasn't necessary - because utilizing that option means something's gone wrong.

Still, it's nice to have the ability when it's needed. So let me show you what happened on that trip to Europe.

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

Controlled chaos was perhaps the best way to describe the goings-on in the Tagherty household as Brianna and Charisma rushed through their final preparations. Over and over they packed and repacked their rucksacks, knowing everything they considered necessary provisions for the next few months needed to fit into their backpacks.

T-shirts, shorts, jeans, underwear, a thick sweater, a waterproof jacket and several pairs of heavy socks all managed to find a place. A few toiletries, a towel and washcloth and a notepad, a pen and a few addressed, stamped envelopes rounded out their supplies. They had determined to purchase sleeping bags once they reached Europe. Though the idea was to stay in hostels and mingle with others their age, they would both feel better about having something to protect them from the elements? just in case.

Charisma's brothers came to see them off before they left for the airport and Brianna's parents both called to wish them well in their travels. Then it was time to rush to the airport for the flight to London.

Okasa and Patrick accompanied the two young women to the terminal and waited with them until their flight was called. Then they embraced each girl in turn.

"Take lots of pictures and write once in a while," Okasa instructed them both. "And I tucked a couple phone cards into your bags for you to use, so don't wait for an emergency to call, all right?"

"Yes, Mama," Charisma confirmed with a nervous smile and Brianna backed her up with a brisk nod of her head.

"Take care of each other out there and live everyday as though it was going to be your last. This time will never come your way again," Patrick admonished them. Then he brushed a kiss over first the dark head, then the light and gently herded them towards the gate. He took Okasa's hand and together they gave the girls one last wave when they turned for a final glance before stepping into the jetway to board the plane.

Patrick and Okasa walked to the window, watching as the plane warmed up and rolled out of the gate, headed for the runway. It wasn't until the plane was a mere speck in the sky that Patrick glanced at his wife who returned his soft, knowing smile.

"Do you think they suspect? Do they have any idea?"

"Charisma doesn't," Okasa said confidently. "Or she would never have agreed to go on this trip."

"And Brianna?"

"I think she's a little more aware than our daughter, but I firmly believe Charisma doesn't see because she has deliberately turned her eyes away from that possibility."

Patrick shook his head and tugged on Okasa's hand, leading them away from the window and back towards the parking lot. "Sometimes I wonder if that is my fault? if she thinks she has to give up happiness to follow her dreams."

"Did you ever tell her that, Patrick-me-love?"

Blue eyes glared at twinkling brown for the moment it took for him to register the teasing in her voice. "You know I didn't," his voice growling though he couldn't stop the smile that flitted across his lips.

"You have to let her make her own decisions and mistakes, Paddy. You will always be her father, and she will probably always come to you for advice and direction. But she's a grown woman - it's time to let go. She's got to spread her wings and fly on her own."

"When did you get to be so smart?"

Okasa clutched his arm, squeezing lightly and smiling up at Patrick so brightly he was compelled to return the gesture. He covered her hand and waited for her to speak. "Probably when I decided to get you to marry me," Okasa admitted, causing laughter to spring forth from deep in his chest.

"So I had no choice in this, hmm?"

"Of course you didn't. I set my sights on you and you were a goner."

"Well," he said drolly, infusing his speech with a bit of a brogue as he pushed the door open to allow them to step outdoors. "If I had to go, I'm glad I went the way I did."

Okasa rolled her eyes and shook her head and together the Tagherty's made their way to their car.

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

I know what you're thinking - if they could see what was happening, how could an angel miss it? Trust me when I tell you that you're not the only one asking that particular question. The fact that Okasa was not only aware of the state of affairs between her daughters, but had accurately pegged their reactions has complicated things immeasurably for Rafe. *His* only saving grace is the fact that mamas seem to have a sixth sense about these things.

However, that is neither here nor there at the moment. The fact remains that even at this juncture, subtle as the signs were, there was at least some awareness of something between the two of them and heaven missed it. Talk about dropping the ball?.

Still, the signs remained subtle. They had to? for Charisma's peace of mind.

Let me show you what she doesn't remember.

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

It was actually sunny in London when the plane landed at Heathrow, and the two young women smiled in response as they exited the terminal. It was a wonderful omen for the start of their journey.

They found a hostel that was cheap yet close enough to get to everything, then they headed out to explore the city. For several days they went around, seeing the sights and finding interesting little shops and places to eat. Nights they spent sharing a tiny room with two single beds and a bathroom just down the hall.

"This is so much like our first years in college," Brianna commented as she returned from taking a shower. "I'd forgotten how much I hated community bathrooms."

Charisma snickered. "I hadn't. But it's the price we pay for traveling cheap."

"Remind me to win the lottery before we do this again," Brianna grumbled good-naturedly.

"Well, maybe the castle in Scotland will be a little more modern."

Brianna rolled her eyes at Charisma. "I don't think indoor plumbing was a real priority when most of those castles were built. But as long as we don't have to run outside to use the privy, I'll make do."

Charisma laughed. "Me too."

The Highlands were beautiful and the castle they'd found to stay in was in the first stages of refurbishment, forcing them to share accommodations. The room they were given was spacious and ancient, enfolding them in a sense of timelessness.

"I never expected?."

"No? neither did I. Everything about this place is different than what I had imagined - the palatial room, the fabulous vista, the friendly people. But I'm glad we came here," Brianna agreed as they hiked the trail their hostess had directed them to the following morning.

"Me too," Charisma said, catching Brianna's hand as she stumbled. "You all right?"

"Yeah? too busy looking around to watch where I'm going, thanks."

"Anytime. C'mon," tugging on the hand she still held. "We should be getting back."

They walked slowly back towards the castle, only to pause when they heard the plaintive wailing of the pipes. Charisma shivered.

"Bagpipes always sound so mournful," she said softly as they resumed their trek.

"Not always," Brianna disagreed as the sound turned decidedly upbeat. "I wonder what's going on." Then they emerged from the trail into the garden area, stopping when they realized they'd walked into the middle of someone's wedding. They froze? not wanting to disturb the nuptials, but unwilling to intrude on a private moment. Suddenly, the decision was taken out of their hands - the bride and groom beckoned them to join the circle and after a brief glance at each other, they did so, joining their hands with others in the circle until it was complete once more.

The ceremony was mercifully short; the reception, on the other hand, went on long into the night. And it was very late when Charisma and Brianna returned to their room. Charisma sat down in the wing chair nearest the bed and bent down to remove her shoes.

"Wow," Brianna said breathlessly and more than a little drunk as she flopped backwards onto the bed. "That was pretty amazing." Her words were low and measured, the only true indication Charisma had about how intoxicated her friend really was. But before she could comment on either Brianna's condition or her words, Brianna rolled onto her stomach and propped her head up on her hand. "You ever think about that?" she asked Charisma thoughtfully. Charisma cocked her head and raised an eyebrow in question. Brianna chuckled. "Sorry," she continued with a hiccup. "Your wedding? do you ever think about your wedding?"

Charisma's brow furrowed as she frowned. "Um? no? Why would I? It's not like it's even on the horizon of possibilities at the moment."

"And? C'mon, Ri? every little girl dreams about her wedding to her very own Prince Charming. You're telling me you've never even thought about it?"

"Pretty much. I'm sure I'll find the right man someday and settle down to whatever extent my career will allow. But getting married isn't the be all and end all for me." She rose from the chair and padded over to the bed, dropping gracelessly onto her back before folding her hands across her belly and turning her head to look at Brianna. "Are you telling me getting married is now a priority for you, Brianna Brianna?"


"What?!? Oh, hell no!" Brianna replied with a laugh. "I thought about it once, but I realized that's not what I want out of life? at least not right now." She shrugged and dropped her gaze to the heavy coverlet on the bed. "I suppose if and when I ever find the right person to share my life with, that might change, but for now, I am happy to be free and independent."

"You sound like Rudolph." Brianna rolled her eyes.

"Better the reindeer than the elf, I guess. At least the reindeer gets to be the hero."

Charisma snorted. "I think you should have skipped that last glass of punch."

"I think I should have skipped more than that. I have a feeling I may regret tonight when tomorrow comes."

Charisma sighed, then rolled off the bed. She reached for Brianna's hands, pulling her upright and sliding Brianna's shoes from her feet, deliberately tickling them. Brianna laughed, then glared, tucking her legs up under her.

"That wasn't nice."

"No? but it was funny. Here," passing Brianna several aspirin and a glass of water. "Drink up. You'll feel better in the morning."

"Yes, mom," Brianna answered drolly, but she complied, grimacing as the bitter taste of aspirin hit the back of her tongue. Dutifully she chugged the water, handing Charisma the empty glass and shimmying out of her jeans before flopping back onto the bed. "Man, I'm tired."

"You going to go to sleep in your clothes?"

"I don't think you'd appreciate it if I slept nude."

It was Charisma's turn to roll her eyes "Nothing I haven't seen before, Bri, but I don't think *you'd* appreciate it too much if you slept in the nude. It's still pretty chilly here in the Highlands in the morning. And I'm not keeping you warm," she added with a smirk.

"Spoilsport," Brianna complained good-naturedly. But she was smiling when she said it. She accepted the heavy shirt Charisma passed to her, not noticing that Charisma turned her back as she whipped off she other shirt and bra before she slipped into the flannel. "Ah? much better."

Charisma had turned down the bed in the meantime and Brianna climbed in with a sense of relief. It only took another moment before Charisma was dressed for bed and she slid in beside Brianna. She didn't even stiffen when Brianna curled up into her and gave her a brief hug before moving back to her side of the bed.

"Thanks, Ri," she said with a yawn, curling on her side and tucking her hands under her head.

"For what?" Charisma asked sleepily.

"Taking such good care of me," Brianna mumbled as she drifted to sleep.

"That's what friends do, Bri," Charisma whispered before following her friend into Morpheus' realm.

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

The first time I viewed this bit, I wondered if perhaps it was the point of awakening for Charisma. But the more I watched, the more I was convinced it wasn't. Why? Because I am fairly certain she is still in complete denial.

Of course, at the time, neither young woman could foresee that this would be the last time they would be actively involved in one another's lives. All they knew then was that they were best friends having a wonderful time together.

Fortunately, they took Patrick's words to heart and lived each day as though it could be their last. They went new places and tried new things, creating some beautiful memories. It's just a damned shame Charisma is no longer willing - or able - to remember them. C'mon? let me show you some more. You may as well enjoy the rest of the trip - it goes a long way towards explaining so much.



Chapter V

"Ya know, I knew from reading that Ireland was green, but I never expected it to be *so* green," Brianna commented as she looked at the rolling hills that surrounded their current abode. "I've never seen anything so lush? so vibrant. Have you?"

Charisma looked at Brianna as though she had grown a second head. "Hello? Look in the mirror much?" Brianna frowned. "C'mon, Bri - your eyes rival any shade of green out here."

Those green eyes widened. "Do you really think so?"

Charisma cupped Brianna's face in her hands and stared into her eyes for a long moment, searching. Finally she leaned forward and kissed Brianna's forehead. "Yes," she said bluntly, then stood and offered Brianna her hand. "C'mon. I hear a Guinness calling our names."

"Oh, that sounds wonderful."

And it was - the ale was cold and spicy and both young women had more than a few before making their unsteady way back to their room.

"We're gonna regret this in the mornin' aren't we?" Charisma slurred as she fell gracelessly onto the bed.

"I'm thinkin'," Brianna said with a groan. She tripped over to the nightstand that held a pitcher of water and a washbowl, pouring a glassful and guzzling it before refilling it and handing it to Charisma. Charisma looked at Brianna with disdain when she knocked against her knees, then reluctantly sat up and accepted the water. When the glass was empty, she passed it back to Brianna and flopped back down.

"You want some aspirin?"

"I s'pose we should," Charisma mumbled, one hand over her eyes and the other hand extended. Brianna chuckled and tapped Charisma's lips.

"Open wide and say 'ahh'."

"Yes, mahhhhm," Charisma replied, trying not to choke on the pills or her laughter at the look on Brianna's face.

"I'll mom you in a minute. We could always call your mother."

"Um? NO. I'm drunk, not stupid."

"You're not even good drunk - just a little tipsy."

"Let's hope the hangover tomorrow bears that out."

"Go t'sleep, Ri," Brianna instructed as she removed Charisma's shoes and tucked her erstwhile friend into bed. Then she crossed the room and collapsed on her own bed, kicking her shoes off before falling into sleep.

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

The next morning they were both moaning, but ambulatory and after a cold shower to wash away the last of their hangovers, they headed out to do a bit of sightseeing.

"Do you think Mama would like this?" Charisma asked, holding up a beautifully cut fruit bowl. Brianna just looked at her in disbelief.

"Ri, it's Waterford Crystal. What's not to like about it?"

"Good point. Are you going to get anything?"

"I'm still looking. I'd like something - I just haven't decided what yet."

Charisma nodded. "All right. I'm going to check out. Meet you outside?"

"Yeah," Brianna replied absently, her mind whirling with possibilities. The truth was, she knew what she wanted. It was simply a matter of choosing the right picture frame and the right Christmas ornament. It took a few minutes, but she finally found the perfect frame - simple in design, yet exactly what she needed to set off a photograph. The ornament was a little more difficult as most were too ornate for her taste. Still, Brianna did manage to find what she wanted and soon her purchases were paid for and she headed out to meet Charisma.

"Guinness?" she offered. "You know they'll never be as good as they are here."

"One," Charisma answered firmly. "I want to remember this trip and too many nights like last night will make it nothing but a haze."

"Agreed. We need to pace ourselves a little better. So, a Guinness and some dinner?"

"You've got yourself a date, Brianna Brianna."

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

"So, shall we head to the Continent tomorrow?"

"Yes. I promised Mama a postcard from Paris and I really want to see the City of Lights at night."

"You just want to go to the Moulin Rouge."

"Duh!" Charisma exclaimed with a chuckle. "If I don't sow my wild oats now, I'll never get to. It's straight into the political arena for me as soon as we get back home."

"Do you regret that, Charisma? Jumping into politics as a career, I mean. You seem to be giving up so much to ensure your success at it and sometimes I wonder if you really believe it's worth it."

"Becoming President is all I've ever wanted to do, Bri - it's all I've ever really planned for. I've been on this path since I was five years old. It's all I know."

"But is it enough?" Brianna held up a hand. "I'm not doubting you're sincerity or your calling - you're brilliant, and I really do think you'd make an outstanding President. But don't you miss getting to live a little without worrying about how the rest of the world might judge you for it?"

"Nah? that's what I have you for. You do all this fun, crazy stuff and I get to enjoy it without actually having to do it. Except the Moulin Rouge? I really would like to go there."

"If I take you to the Moulin Rouge, you're gonna have to dance. And don't give me that look. I know you can - I've seen you do it."

Charisma huffed. "Fine. Dictator," she grumbled.

"I heard that, ya know," Brianna complained. Charisma just laughed.

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

"That was fun!" Brianna gushed as they arrived back in their tiny hostel room.

"Except for those jackasses."

"C'mon, Ri - those are everywhere and you're gonna run into them a lot in the political arena. At least you know how to shut them down with a smile. Besides, how many jackasses in Washington are going to proposition you for a three-way with your hot girlfriend? Your 'hot girlfriend'," rolling her eyes, "isn't going to be anywhere near Washington and no one there is gonna ask once you get your reputation back as an Ice Princess."

"You think I'm an Ice Princess?"

"Me? No, Ri? after four years together I know better," glad Charisma was ignoring the 'hot girlfriend' comment. "But you did have the reputation in college. You worked hard to establish it, remember?"

"I know."

"Charisma," Brianna addressed her dryly while wrapping her in a hug, "You can't have it both ways, but I hope you never stop hoping for the best from people. I would suggest you keep the Ice Princess persona, though; you're so nice about it, you'll always be popular with folks and it will protect you better than anything else."

"Even you?"

"Even me. I won't always be able to be there, but that persona will be."

"I wonder why we never got those propositions in school."

"We did - you just generally didn't hear them."

Charisma snorted and Brianna looked her question at her. "I was just thinking - if I'm going to start hearing them, I think the Ice Princess may get a black belt in something so she can put her money where her mouth is."

Brianna laughed. "I want pictures." Charisma shook with laughter. "You all right now?"

"Always with you, Bri."

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

"I never expected the Mona Lisa to be so small. It seems like it should be massive."

"I know. It's been that way with all the masters' we've seen. Maybe it's some sort of unwritten rule."

"Maybe. You ready to head to Switzerland?"

"Yeah? I want to see the Alps."

"Me too."

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

"It's beautiful. I could stay here for a while."

"We can stay as long as you want, Ri; it's not like we have a schedule to keep other than our own. Maybe we should slow down and take some time to relax instead of pushing to see so much."

"I am relaxed, Bri. And I'm enjoying the trip. This is just a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Paris. I did enjoy the food there though."

"Umm? so did I. I'm gonna have to make sure I make enough money to have a French chef?."

"? and a personal trainer to work off all those butter and sugar calories." Brianna glared at Charisma's laughing comment.

"I hate you. Just for that, no chocolate for you," opening the package she'd been carrying. She deliberately withdrew a piece, sucking it into her mouth with a moan. Charisma narrowed her eyes in calculation before allowing them to widen pleadingly and sticking out her bottom lip in a pout. Brianna huffed. "That's not fair, Charisma."

"All is fair in love and chocolate, Brianna Brianna."

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

The market in Istanbul was loud and vibrant and unlike any place they had been before. Charisma and Brianna were careful to follow the customs of the region, but it didn't hinder their explorations. The artisans were amazing and they enjoyed shopping to their heart's content.

Then they moved on to Athens.

They spent several days wandering the city, visiting the obvious attractions as well as finding a few well off the beaten path.

"I sometimes wonder if somewhere way back in my ancestry there's a Greek matriarch or something. It feels a lot like home here."

"For me too," Brianna agreed. "Almost like?."

"Almost like we've been here before."

"I wish we had - you know, when this was all new. I imagine it was fabulous."

They looked around at the ruins they were currently standing in the middle of. "Considering how amazing it still is, I'd have to agree. Remember the friezes we saw in the British Museum?"

"Yeah? I wonder what stories those really told, because I don't think the archeologists got it right." Brianna bit her lip pensively, then she shrugged. "But what do I know? I'm a lawyer, not a writer."

"I think an argument could be made about that."

"Don't start." Charisma held up her hands in surrender.

"I'm not starting anything - just making a statement. C'mon, the boat to Santorini should be at the dock soon and we don't want to miss it."

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

Their days in Santorini were slow and laid back, in complete contrast to their frenzied pace in Athens. Then they were off to Italy on a sailboat that took them across the Mediterranean Sea.

"You do realize that leaving here and going home to weather that is turning cold and will soon be winter is less than appealing, right?" Brianna asked as she lay topless on the upper deck of the bow soaking in the sun's rays. Charisma kept her eyes closed to keep from staring or glaring; she had yet to gather enough courage to remove her top on the boat though she had done it on several of their beach trips together. She didn't care for the looks of appreciation and lust they garnered from men who saw them topless; she wasn't thrilled that Brianna didn't seem to notice them. Still, no one had made any real advances beyond looking, so there wasn't much Charisma could do about it. She turned her attention back to their conversation.

"I know. But at least you'll be going with a tan."

"And no one who will be able to appreciate it underneath all those layers."

"You'll find someone, Bri. You're too special not to. Just remember they have to pass the Tagherty test first."

"Geez, Ri? I'll be dead and buried before I find someone who can meet all that criteria."

Charisma shrugged but there was a wicked twinkle in her eyes. "I don't know - you found me that first day we became roommates."

"Yes, and I think that was more due to Fate and the forces of the universe at work than anything I did in particular."

"Being roommates? Maybe. But sweeping my daddy off his feet - that was all you, sweetie."

"So I need to find someone who can sweep Paddy off his feet?"

"Oh no? it won't be that easy. Not only do you have to sweep daddy off his feet, but mama, Hunter, Rocky, Forrest and of course, me as well. One of the joys of being part of a big family - welcome to the Taghertys."

Brianna sighed dramatically. "Good thing I am happy as a single woman, huh?"

"You'll find someone one day, Brianna Brianna. I have faith."

"I already did," she whispered some time later, secure in the knowledge that Charisma was sleeping. Then she turned over and watched the shoreline grow closer, wondering what Italy held in store for them.

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

The Isle de Capris was beautiful and they spent a full day exploring before crossing over to Naples. They walked Vesuvius and explored Pompeii, marveling at the life they could still feel in the city.

"I wonder how much of this is actually graffiti?" Charisma asked, motioning to the writing on a wall with her free hand as they walked down a narrow street with their fingers lightly tangled together so as not to lose one another in all the clamoring round them.

"I think they're ads - you know, for beer and cigarettes. It was probably the local seven-eleven of its time."

"You think?"

Brianna shrugged. "Works for me. According to the guidebook, it was a storefront of some kind."

"I would have liked to have visited here then - to have seen this place full of life and vitality. I bet it was a real party town."

"Considering the artwork we've seen? I'm betting you're right." They approached another piece of erotic art, tilting their heads in tandem before glancing at one another. "Is that even possible?"

"I think we'd have to break a couple things or grow some extra appendages to find out."

The two women snickered at the image that thought produced and moved further into the ruins that were Pompeii.

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

"I can't believe almost two months of our trip are gone," Brianna said as they settled into their overnight berth on the train taking them to Rome.

"I can't believe you bought that book of erotic art. What is my mother going to say?"

"Are you going to show it to her?"

"What?! NO!"

"Then I don't think we'll need to worry about her reaction."

"I think you are discounting the mothers' curse - the part where they always know when a kid has been up to something. But I agree with you about how quickly this trip has gone by. What a lifetime of memories we've already made."

Brianna smiled. "I can't wait to see all the pictures we've taken. As many rolls as we've taken, we should be able to fill a book or two."

"And tomorrow, we'll be in Rome."



Chapter VI

When the train stopped, they linked arms to keep from losing one another in the crush. They stepped out into the sunshine, looking around immediately for a metro line. First stop - the Coliseum.

They spent a bit of time in the outer area, studying the exhibits and the architecture. They marveled at the detail and precision involved in the building before taking the stairs into the stadium itself. When they stepped into the arena area, Brianna shuddered and curled herself into Charisma. Charisma automatically wrapped her arms around Brianna and bent her lips to the blonde woman's ear.

"What's wrong, Brianna Brianna?" blue eyes scouring the area to find what had set off such an alarming reaction.

"I don't know, Ri. I don't like it here. It reeks of suffering and death." She took a deep breath and met Charisma's eyes. "My soul hurts to be here."

"Then we'll go," taking another look around. "C'mon. Let's go see the Arches and the ruins across the way. Maybe we can get a look at the Emperor's Palace or those baths we read about, huh?" Charisma commented as she led them out of the Coliseum.

Brianna gave her a shaky smile. "I'd like that. I hear they sometimes hold concerts there now. I wouldn't mind running into one of those - I bet the performance acoustics are amazing."

"Performance acoustics, huh? I'm telling you, Bri? you shouldn't have given up the theatre for the law."

"I had to - who would take me seriously as your running mate if I was an actor?"

"Two words, Bri - Ronald Reagan."

"I'm not talking to you anymore," Brianna grumbled as they left the Coliseum grounds, walking slightly ahead of Charisma. "This is me not talking to you now."

Charisma laughed and caught up with her, taking her hand as they wandered past the Arch of Constantine and towards the Arch of Titus.

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

"Okay? can I honestly tell you I never expected to be eating at McDonald's in Rome?"

"I never expected to see a McDonald's like this," motioning to the marble and art that surrounded them.

"All right, I'll grant you that. So after we visit the Spanish Steps?"

"I don't know. There are still plenty of things left to see here."

"As long as we visit the Trevi Fountain, I'll be happy."

"So let's go see if we can find it."

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

"Is it what you expected?" Brianna asked as Charisma stood gazing at the famous fountain.

"Not at all. It is more and less than I ever imagined." She took Brianna's hand and led them to the edge of the large reservoir. "There is a legend told about this fountain that says that anyone who tosses a coin into the fountain will return to Rome again." She pulled two lire pieces from her pocket. "What do you say, Brianna Brianna? Shall we make a pact to return here together one day?"

For answer, Brianna brought the coin to her lips, kissing it before letting it fly from her grasp. Charisma laughed and did the same. Then Brianna caught her hand and they headed back to the small room they were sharing in the hostel.

"This city is amazing," Brianna commented as she curled up on her bed. "So much history and yet so modern and alive at the same time."

"So no more issues, then?"

"Not really - nothing like I felt at the Coliseum. That was just creepy. Besides, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican were incredible. I'm glad we came here."

"So am I. I was uneasy about coming here and after your reaction at the Coliseum, I was afraid I might be right in my feeling. I'm glad we proved me wrong. I really wouldn't mind coming here again. But?."

"But??"

"I need to figure out how to shrink to the size of my four year old niece before we come back."

Brianna's eyebrow went into her forehead. "Why? Most women would kill to look like you do."

"Maybe," Charisma agreed dismissively, "but they don't make clothes for women my size here. Did you see how tiny everything in the display windows was?"

"Yeah, but you don't want to be that tiny."

"Why not?"

"You're better than that. C'mon, Ri? think about this a minute. It may be the eighties, but it's going to be hard enough for you to be taken seriously as a woman in politics. Do you really want to be dismissed out of hand because you look like a four year old child?"

Charisma glared. "You know what I mean."

"Yes, and you know what *I* mean. You're a beautiful woman, Charisma. Don't discount that, and don't pretend like it doesn't matter to the people you'll need to eventually vote for you. Looks may not be everything, but they are part of the overall package."

Charisma blinked at Brianna's vehement tone. "Where is all this coming from, Bri?"

Brianna blew out a frustrated breath. "It bothers me to hear you talk like that about yourself, Charisma. You have so much to offer the world as the person you are. I hate to hear about you trying to change that to conform to some image you think you should have."

"But I should allow my looks to influence the way people see me."

"You're twisting my words. Your looks *do* influence the way people see you - that is true for everyone. But it is even truer for a politician. You have to present them with the picture you want them to see. You like Italian fashion? Excellent? great - I don't blame you. Have it tailored to suit you. Don't change your whole life for it. You shouldn't have to change your whole life for anything, Ri. Stick to your guns on the things that matter most to you - the rest will settle itself."

Charisma narrowed her eyes before sticking out her tongue. "When did you get to be so smart?"

"I've been smart; it's why they gave me a law degree with summa cum laude after it."

"Smartass."

"Better than a dumbass, I always say. Now shut up and go to sleep. If we're going to Florence tomorrow, we need to get some sleep tonight."

"Have you always been this bossy?"

"Yes. It is the sign of a great manager. Now go to sleep."

"But?."

"I have duct tape and I know how to use it."

"Meanie."

"It will fix that pouty lip too, ya know."

"I hate you."

"Goodnight, Charisma."

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

"Okay, this is kinda gross. I may never drink wine again."

"Why? We washed our feet."

"I know we did. I was thinking more along the lines of the gooshey feeling this is producing between my toes. It's just slimy."

Charisma covered her eyes and struggled to maintain her balance. "Thank you for the visual, Brianna Brianna. I could have gone a long time without imagining that. C'mon," she added, tugging on Bri's arm and easing out of the large vat. "Let's see what else there is to do here."

They had stopped in Pisa on their way to Florence as a matter of course, taking the obligatory pictures and climbing there way up the narrow flight of stairs to look out over the town made famous by its leaning tower. A local wine festival had attracted them and made them impromptu grape crushers, and the locals welcomed them with enthusiasm.

"That was a lot of fun," Charisma commented as she licked at the gelato she held in her hand. "Despite your slimy gooshiness."

"Don't blame me. That's the way it felt."

"You didn't need to share it though. I'm fairly certain the vinters would prefer not to have that image of their wine making process."

"Well, we can say we made wine once. We just won't share the gruesome details."

"I'm sure folks will be glad if we don't."

They were back on the train on their way to Florence. Brianna wanted to see David, to see if it lived up to the spectacle that had been the Sistine Chapel. Frankly, she didn't see how it possibly could, but since it was considered one of the showpieces of the Renaissance?.

She tilted her head to one side and then the other, narrowing her eyes at Charisma when she heard the soft chuckle coming from beside her. "Are you laughing at me?" she growled, though it was a struggle to keep the twinkle out of her eyes.

"Yes," Charisma replied bluntly. "How is tilting your head helping?"

"It's not, actually," Brianna said as she straightened. "I think a grape leaf might be the only thing that could save him."

Charisma couldn't stop the laughter that bubbled over at Brianna's words and she took Brianna by the arm and led her from the building under the watchful stares of the other patrons. "C'mon, Brianna Brianna. I've had enough culture and art to last me for a while. Let's go find some fun."

Fun was fairly easy to find - there were tavernas with good food and cheap beer, squares filled with dancing and a number of beaches along the coast to deepen their tans and erase any tan lines they had left. They met any number of young people, but none more interesting to either of them than the company they were already keeping. So they made their way across the Riviera to Barcelona, Spain and the end of their European journey.

Barcelona was odd and quirky and exciting and in the midst of making their bid for the Summer Olympic Games. Still there was a lot to see and do, though some of it was definitely more fascinating than others.

"Well, I liked Gaudi and that funky church, but I could have done without Picasso."

"Yeah? me too. What about Dali?"

Charisma shrugged. "He was more interesting, but still a little weird. I am beginning to think it's a requirement of all artists."

Brianna laughed. "I'd be inclined to agree with that. Prof Mac preached it, as a matter of fact."

"Weirdness?? Boy, that explains a lot," ducking away from the expected slap.

"No, goofball - thinking outside the box. He believes that any artist - painter, writer, sculptor - has to see beyond what everyone else does to be a true artist."

"Maybe. But it takes real talent to make everyone else appreciate and understand what you're seeing. Some of that?" motioning vaguely with her hands. "I don't think I'll ever get it."

"That's okay - some of that I'd rather not get? ever."

It was quiet for a long time after that and just as Brianna started to fall into a doze, Charisma spoke softly into the darkness.

"I've had a wonderful time on this trip, Brianna. So many good memories."

"For me too, Ri. I will always treasure this time in my life."

Charisma chuckled lightly. "We're acting like this is goodbye forever or something," the thought causing a pang in her heart.

"In a way, it is, sweetie. I'm off to law school for the next three years and you're going to Washington to begin your political career. We'll never have a chance to spend time together like this again. There will always be other responsibilities in our lives from now on."

"Okay? that's it. I no longer want to be an adult. I've decided I'd much rather be a vagabond and wander around the world with you."

Brianna smiled, glad the tears on her cheeks were hidden by the darkness of the room. "That sounds wonderful, Ri. But what of your dream of becoming President? What about that picture perfect family?"

"I told you that family thing was a far-off consideration for me, and I can always be President when I'm forty-five instead of forty."

"Yes, but you know and I know you have to be working on it now or it will be even later or never. You can't get cold feet about it now." She paused when Charisma blew a raspberry in her direction. "How about this? Why don't we plan to do this again - the whole trip from beginning to end - in twenty years? Unless you are President of course. If that's the case, we'll wait until your term's over."

"Why so long?" Charisma whined.

"Because it will take us that long to be able to afford to take three months out of our lives to do this again."

"I hate it when you make sense." She sighed. "All right. Twenty years from now we'll do this again. I'll ask Mama to make the arrangements with our travel agent when I get home. You just make sure you've got the time to take of from your writing career to be there."

"Careful there, Tagherty. You keep it up and I'll be the one writing the 'tell-all' book when you become President."

"Can you do that?? Isn't there some sort of best friend law against that?"

"Not if you keep calling me a writer there isn't."

"Very well, Brianna Walker, Esquire. I expect you to defend me from all comers then when the time comes."

"Yes, Madame President."

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

Their goodbye at the airport the following morning was bittersweet. Brianna was flying directly to law school while Charisma was headed home for a few days before reporting to Washington for the start of her internship. Brianna walked Charisma to her gate and opened her arms, gratified when Charisma stepped into the embrace without a moment's hesitation. The hug lasted for long moments, and they only removed themselves from it when the gate agent started calling for boarding of Charisma's flight.

"I've got to go," she said sadly.

"I know. I'm gonna miss you, cheerleader."

"I'll miss you too, playwright, so much."

They gazed at one another and Charisma started to pull away, turning towards her gate. Brianna held on, throwing caution to the wind and leaning forward to brush her lips against Charisma's. "I'll always love you, Ri. You're my very best friend in the whole world. I never had one of those before you came into my life. Thank you," she whispered, cupping her face tenderly for a minute before releasing Charisma from her touch and leaving without a backwards glance.

Charisma watched her go, then boarded the plane, skin still tingling where Brianna's essence lingered. She wondered why it felt like a forever goodbye.

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

Charisma was right of course - it was a forever goodbye. Brianna realized what was between the two of them and refused to force Charisma to choose. Part of her decision was based in fear - she couldn't bear to see pity or disgust in Charisma's eyes? or worse, a failure to acknowledge the truth. The other part however, was done out of a desire to spare Charisma the agony of deciding between her heart and her mind; her best friend and her career.

Instead, Brianna made the choice and slipped from Charisma's radar with an ease that belied the strength of the ties that bound them together. And Charisma, unwilling to acknowledge her feelings to herself or anyone else, let her go without a fight.

Okasa and Paddy watched helplessly, unable to do more than stand aside and see the two women grow estranged by their own choice. Brianna had demanded they stay out of it, threatening to cut off all contact with them if they didn't. So reluctantly, if only to maintain contact with one they had grown to love as their own, they remained silent but ever hopeful. Until the day Charisma brought Kent Rockwell home.



Chapter VII

Before I take you back to present day Charisma Tagherty, I think I need fill in a few of the blanks.

When Brianna and Charisma returned to the States, Brianna took steps to distance herself from Charisma. The first involved a visit to the Tagherty home as soon as she knew Charisma was in Washington.

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

Okasa opened the door at Brianna's knock, a wide, welcoming smile on her face as she ushered the younger woman inside. "Brianna? this is an unexpected surprise. Come in, come in," opening her arms for a hug. Brianna was happy to oblige, holding onto Okasa tightly and rocking her gently. Okasa felt the trembling in Brianna's frame and pulled back slightly so she could look the younger woman in the eye.

"Brianna? What's wrong, sweetheart?"

Brianna took a deep breath and steadied herself. She had sworn she wouldn't cry, but she'd never expected it to hurt this much. "Can we sit down?"

"Of course, of course. Can I get you something to drink?"

"No, thank you, Mama O. I'm not going to be here very long. I just? I came to say goodbye."

Okasa blinked. "Um? okay. Where are you going and when will you be back?" heart sinking at the look in Brianna's eyes. She suddenly understood what Brianna was saying, but she shook her head against the truth she knew was coming.

"I'm not coming back, Mama O."

Okasa took Brianna by the arm and seated her on the couch, immediately taking a place beside her. She covered Brianna's hands and gazed at her for a long moment, seeing an aching sadness peering back at her. "Talk to me, Little Bri. What's going on?"

"Nothing's going on, Mama. It's just time for me to grow up and I can't?." She trailed off when Okasa shook her head furiously.

"Don't lie to me, Brianna Walker. I know how you feel about Charisma. I've seen it in your eyes? in your actions. And I know how she feels about you."

"Then you know why I have to do this, Okasa."

"No I don't. What you have...."

"What we have Charisma will never acknowledge. She can't... not and be the person she needs to be for her own peace of mind."

"What about her happiness?"

"I don't think they're mutually exclusive. But I'm not willing to hang around and watch her pull away and become more distant because I can no longer hide how I feel. Or worse, have her continue on with her life acting as though nothing is different. I love her, Mama, but I'm not going to become a martyr because of it."

"Brianna, you're not being fair. You're not giving her the chance to choose."

"Okasa, I'm not disappearing from the face of the planet. If she wants to find me, she'll be able to. I'm just taking myself out of the mainstream of her life."

"I'll talk to he...."

"NO! No, Okasa. You and Patrick and the boys have to stay out of this. I mean it - stay out of this or I will disappear. She figures things out on her own or she doesn't - either way it needs to be her decision."

"If we stay out of it, you'll keep in touch?"

"Yes." Brianna took a deep breath and Okasa could see exactly what the decision was costing her. She silently cursed the foolishness and folly of youth, but marveled at Brianna's determination. "I don't want to lose any of you, Mama O. You've become more my family than my family ever was. I'm just can't stand in her way, Mama, and I don't know how much longer I can pretend."

"Can I ask what changed? Brianna, you were roommates for four years. You just spent three months in each other's back pockets touring around Europe."

"Exactly - I just spent three months coming to the realization that I can never have the one thing? the one person? that makes me happy despite everything. I need some space from her, Mama."

"And once you have the space?"

"I can learn how to be happy without her."

"And if she comes looking for you?"

Brianna couldn't stop the tears from coming to her eyes, but she kept them from rolling down her face. She smiled sadly, biting her lip before shaking her head at Okasa. "She won't, Okasa."

"You're sure."

"Yeah. She loves me, but she can't love me. So she'll let me go. It makes everything easier."

"I think you're wrong."

"I hope you're right, Mama O."

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

Of course, Brianna was right. But she was also true to her word and kept in touch with the Tagherty family, spending time with them when Charisma wasn't around. It was sometimes difficult trying coordinate their schedules, but when it became clear that Brianna had been correct about Charisma's reaction, Okasa was determined to ensure Brianna didn't lose touch with them.

At Okasa's request and because she couldn't seem to walk away completely, Brianna sent cards and letters to Charisma in care of Okasa. She trusted Mama O not to open them, but to give them to Charisma if the day ever came that she asked after Brianna - or if the right set of circumstances ever presented themselves. Okasa kept them in a locked box in her closet, hoping that one day Charisma would talk about Brianna or ask if Okasa ever heard from her. But she never did.

So while the Tagherty family shared their lives and holidays with Charisma, they also made an effort to do the same with Brianna. Without Charisma's presence they celebrated holidays and birthdays together on odd weekends, and Brianna fell more in love with the family she had come to appreciate as her own. Sometimes it hurt so much to be with them, but Brianna treasured the time she was able to spend with them.

And so life went on.

Brianna finished law school at the top of her class, and was immediately snapped up by the most prestigious firm in the city. She spent inordinate amounts of time making a name for herself, and soon she was as respected and feared outside of the courtroom as much as she was in it.

When the District Attorney approached her to join his office, she chuckled wryly. "Are you sure you want to work with someone from the dark side?"

He laughed, appreciating her cutting sense of humor in a way that many didn't understand. "Ms Walker, if I could lure you from the dark side, I wouldn't be facing you across the aisle in the courtroom. What better incentive could I possibly need?"

"And what's in it for me? I am exceptionally good at what I do and I am paid very lucratively for it. Why would I want to give it all up to become a public servant?"

"Because beneath that cutthroat demeanor beats the heart of a poet. I read the play you produced in college," he continued in answer to her startled look. "It was exceptional." He cleared his throat. "You have an eighty-six percent win ratio in court; ninety-seven if you include the deals made outside it. With those stats, you could have my job in a few years if you really wanted it. And you could use it as a stepping stone to other, bigger things - judge, state representative, even Congress."

The mention of Washington made her eye twitch slightly and the man watching her didn't miss her reaction. But he hadn't gotten to his position by being stupid - he knew when to push and when to back off. "Think about it, Ms Walker. You could do great things."

Brianna didn't take his offer immediately. She had no desire to do more than be the best lawyer she could; she certainly had no desire to end up in Washington - not with all the effort she'd put into staying out of Charisma Tagherty's life.

Still, the District Attorney was persistent and eventually Brianna gave in, becoming a rising star in his office before being appointed by him as his successor. That was when she started to really come into her own.

Meanwhile, Charisma had done her internship in Washington, making a number of contacts and impressing the hell out of those she came in contact with. It didn't take long for the party to take notice of her and soon they were grooming her for a position in Congress.

Charisma missed Brianna's presence in her life, but she had reconciled herself to the fact that for whatever reason, Brianna had said goodbye forever when she'd walked out of her life at the end of their trip. She'd decided to wait for Brianna to contact her again, not delving too deeply into the reason she was willing to let Brianna go so easily.

She wanted to ask her mother about Brianna - sure in the depths of her being that Okasa would never allow Brianna to simply leave the family, no matter what excuse she used. But Charisma had no desire to have her mother question the reasons behind her estrangement from Brianna - not sure she had answers to share and unwilling to look deep enough to find anything that might satisfy Okasa.

So Charisma went along - making time for her family on holidays and birthdays, but otherwise keeping to Washington until it came time for her to start stumping for a seat in the House of Representatives. Then she schmoozed her way across the state, collecting votes and support as she went, and when all was said and done, the Honorable Charisma Tagherty was a junior congresswoman in the House of Representatives.

"So how do you like being a hotshot Congressional Representative, sis? Everything you thought it'd be?"

"Eh," pinching the bridge of her nose. "It's not the Presidency, but it's a start."

Her brothers laughed. "Figures you'd want to start at the top. Does it at least keep you busy?"

"Yes, Hunter. That would be why we have to schedule time together," Charisma replied dryly. The brothers exchanged glances, knowing that wasn't the only reason they had to schedule time with Charisma. They each wanted so badly to say something? anything? to Charisma about Brianna. But Okasa had given them strict orders not to, and none of them were stupid enough to go against Mama.

Time passed and Charisma's responsibilities in Congress took more and more of her time. When it came time for re-election after her third term, Charisma surprised everyone including her family, by declaring her intention to run for the Senate instead. And she won by a landslide.

That was when her life started to change.

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

I'm going to show you something - something I think you need to see instead of me just filling in the blanks to bring you up to speed. If we had the time, I'd prefer to show you everything - from both Charisma's and Brianna's lives from the moment they separated at the airport up to this point. But we don't - I'm on a schedule and I can't make that kind of investment just to satisfy your curiosity for detail.

However, I do need to show you the next bit of excerpts to get you to the same page I'm on. And I need you to understand the importance of what I've told you so far.

When Charisma first arrived in Washington, she was young and single and for the most part, idealistic. Of course that last bit didn't last very long - it couldn't if she wanted to become a real player on the political stage. But she had a good mentor? someone who taught her the ins and outs of life in the political arena that is the Nation's capital. So by the time she became a representative, Charisma Tagherty was quite a force to be reckoned with.

Charisma was smart and she had learned from the best. She kept her nose clean and made a name for herself - sponsoring bills and making impassioned speeches that attracted voters and congressmen alike to her fold.

And all was well for a time, because you just can't argue with success.

As the end of her first tenure as a senator approached, however, people started to talk. You see, Charisma Tagherty was a wildly successful woman that employed only women. Not that this fact in and of itself was a matter for gossip and speculation. As Charisma herself was so fond of pointing out, there was absolutely no reason she shouldn't give other competent, successful women the chance to earn equal pay and establish a reputation for excellence. Because let's face it - when someone of Charisma Tagherty's caliber recommended your work, others tended to sit up and take notice.

No? where the difficulty arose was that Charisma Tagherty was not only a wildly successful woman, but she was a wildly successful *single* woman. A single woman who seemed to have little or no time to dedicate to finding the right man and settling down as her peers had already done.

Oh, don't get me wrong - she dated, if you could call it that. Hooked up with influential men by well-meaning friends and occasionally escorted to events by a friend of one or another of her brothers or by her brothers themselves. Unfortunately, except where her brothers and their friends were concerned, most of the men she was introduced to either simply wanted to bed her or desired her to be a wife and mother first and foremost. The friends knew better - they had been warned ahead of time and knew the score.

And although Charisma's biological clock had started ticking rather loudly as she approached her fortieth birthday, none of the men she dated were willing to accept a second or third place role in her life. As far as she was concerned, none of them were worth giving up her career for.

So the rumors started flying - about her frigidness; her unwillingness to settle; her demand for perfection and her concern for image. Then of course were the rumors about her girls - the women she employed for everything from household chores and landscaping to her personal assistant and office workers.

It infuriated her - she had worked so hard to maintain a sterling reputation in both her private and personal lives and suddenly she was under attack for not adhering to someone else's goals for her life. Finally, she had enough and took off one weekend to talk to her father.

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

"Well, well," Patrick drawled out his brogue, pulling a smile from Charisma's face. "What brings Senator Tagherty to my humble abode?" he asked with a twinkle in his eye - a twinkle that diminished when he noted the sadness lurking in her blue eyes. "What's wrong, Princess?"

She followed him into his study, but where he took a seat in front of the fireplace, Charisma continued walking until she was looking down into the darkened fireplace.

"I think it is time for me to find a husband," she stated bluntly. "There are things being said that could destroy my career."

"Are they true?" watching her head jerk up. He saw her eyes shutter and he wondered at the secrets she was keeping from herself before they pinned him in place.

"I am going to pretend you didn't just ask me that," she replied, keeping her voice low and even. "You know me better than that."

"Well, since you haven't shared with me what any of these rumors are, how am I supposed to know, baby girl? Obviously they are bothering you or you wouldn't be here making pronouncements about needing to get married right this instant."

She slumped just slightly and Patrick patted the seat beside him. "C'mon and tell your old man what's going on, Charisma. I can't help you until I know."

So Charisma told him - of her non-existent dating life; of the strong women she surrounded herself with; of the stories and rumors that were going around because she did not fit the congressional definition of family values. When she was done she blew out a frustrated breath and looked at Patrick desperately.

"So what do I do?"

Patrick chewed his lip carefully, knowing any advice he gave could turn the tide in a number of directions.

"The real question is - what do you want to do? Are you ready to commit to someone and settle down for the rest of your life? Do you want a husband and family?"

"I'd like a baby," she answered without hesitation. "I always saw a child in my future and if I wait much later?."

"Lots of women your age and even older are giving birth now, Charisma. There shouldn't be any urgency influencing your decision on that account. However, you do need a husband first. Despite what your constituents do or do not do as far as matrimony and wedlock is concerned, they expect you to be a moral example. And frankly, your mother would kill you if you didn't marry before you had a child."

Charisma laughed, knowing Patrick spoke the truth.

"So the question remains - what do you want to do?"

Charisma sighed then gazed at Patrick unflinching. "I need to find a husband - someone who will like me for who I am and not for who they want me to be for them. Someone who will be willing to take a backseat to my career."

"And love?"

"Not a real priority at the moment, Daddy, though I would like to like them too. Maybe someone who can make me laugh."

Patrick bit his lip. This was shaping up to be a disaster.

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

It wasn't really a disaster. Kent Rockwell met all of Charisma's qualifications and then some. He was handsome, well-mannered, wealthy enough to dabble in the theatre without having to dedicate himself to it to earn a living and good enough to do the occasional gig that interested him. He made her laugh and he understood from the outset that he would never be as important in her life as her career was and he was content with that. He liked her - found her fascinating... knowledgeable about a great many things and passionate about the things she cared about.

They discussed it quite calmly and decided that it would be in their mutual best interests to wed. She would give him a wife his mother would accept and appreciate and he in turn would not only quell the rumors surrounding her, but also add stability to her life and reputation.

So it was agreed upon, and Charisma brought Kent home to meet the family.

And oh? wasn't that an interesting day in the life of the Tagherty family.



Chapter VIII

Charisma had gotten in touch with her parents to let them know she was bringing someone home with her and was more than a little surprised when not only were her brothers and their families not present, but her folks had not gone to any trouble to have anything prepared. A frown crossed Charisma's face when Okasa opened the door and sedately welcomed them into her home.

"Mama, where's the family?" Charisma asked as she embraced her mother briefly before pulling back to look Okasa in the eye. "I've brought someone I wanted everyone to meet," motioning to the man who stood discretely behind her.

"Your father is in the den," Okasa said with a wave of her hand in that general direction. "I thought?." trailing off without finishing her sentence. "It doesn't matter," she continued without blinking at the man who was waiting for acknowledgment. She graciously extended her hand to him, inviting him into her home. He shook it gently and accepted her invitation, following her inside and waiting for Charisma to introduce him.

"Mama, I'd like you to meet Kent Rockwell? my fiancé."

Okasa smiled at the handsome man, though it never quite reached her eyes. "How do you do, Mr. Rockwell? This is an unexpected surprise."

"Though not an unwelcome one, I hope," he replied. "And please call me Kent."

"Well then, Kent? please come in," leading them both towards the den where Patrick was currently ensconced. "I'm Okasa and Charisma's father is Patrick, though the girls all call us Papa Paddy and Mama O if you think you'd be comfortable with that. Patrick?" calling out as they reached the door. She opened it without waiting for his response and ushered the two younger people inside in front of her.

Patrick looked up from his desk, then bade someone goodbye before hanging up the phone. He rose to greet them, taking Charisma in his arms and rocking her for a long moment before releasing her and looking her over with a jaundiced eye. With a faint nod, he turned his attention to the man who had accompanied her.

Kent stepped forward on his own this time, extending a hand and waiting for Patrick to take his measure. "My name is Kent Rockwell, sir."

"He is my fiancé, Daddy," Charisma cut in before Kent could say anything more.

Surprise flashed through Patrick's eyes, though it was gone so quickly Charisma wondered if she had imagined it. Without hesitating, he accepted Kent's hand, shaking it firmly and smiling slightly at the firm strength he found there.

"Can I offer you as drink, son?" giving Okasa the slightest nod. She took Charisma's elbow to lead her from the room. Charisma didn't refuse but arched an eyebrow in question.

"We'll just go get some dinner started," Okasa stated as she eased them from the room. Charisma followed without comment, smiling as they walked the familiar hallways to the large kitchen? until one particular picture caught her peripheral vision. She quickly turned away from the photograph and hurriedly crossed the threshold of the kitchen behind Okasa, running from the memories it and the crystal frame that surrounded it brought back. Okasa cocked her head and glanced at her briefly before opening the refrigerator door.

"Everything all right, baby girl?"

"Hmm? Oh? yes - fine, Mama."

"You sure? You came in here like the hounds of hell were on your heels and there's a frown putting deep creases in your forehead. Shouldn't you be happy?"

"I *am* happy, Mama. But where is everyone?"

"I don't know, Charisma. Did you let them know they needed to be here?"

"No. I figured when I told you I was bringing someone home, you would have let them know. I just assumed you understood what that meant. I expected some excitement? something. I mean, here I am after thirty-seven years finally bringing someone home to meet the folks."

Okasa shook her head and proceeded to get out her largest stew pot even as she directed Charisma to begin cutting up vegetables. Charisma didn't even hesitate; here in this house, she was Okasa's daughter? not a United States Senator. There was no way she was going to let her mother down by not helping prepare the meal they would soon share.

"You've brought people home before, baby girl."

"Not like this? and not in a very long time," her voice dropping to a whisper at the last.

Okasa bit her lip to keep the questions she wanted to ask about Brianna from escaping - as Brianna had been the last person Charisma had brought home for the family to meet. Instead she cleared her throat and asked about Kent with all the enthusiasm she could muster. "So? tell me about your young man. Where did you meet? What does he do? How long have you known him?"

Charisma smiled, though her eyes didn't twinkle. Okasa wondered what on earth Charisma had gotten herself into. "Mama, only you would refer to a grown man like Kent as young. We were introduced several months ago by a mutual friend at a party in Washington. Kent is from a wealthy family, so he doesn't have a singular interest. He does some acting, some investing, some traveling?."

Charisma sighed when Okasa's eyes narrowed. She'd known that tidbit wasn't going to go over well. Her parents firmly believed in a strong work ethic and Kent's genteel manner would not make up for the fact that he was essentially a playboy. Still she forged ahead. "We like a lot of the same things? we have a lot in common. He's bright, funny? he makes me laugh. I like him."

"You like him," Okasa repeated flatly. "You're engaged to marry this man, ready to commit your life to him and bring him into the family, and all you can say is you like him?"

"You don't think it's important to like the per? man you're going to marry?"

Okasa took Charisma into her arms and met her eyes squarely. "Charisma, of course I do," not commenting on Charisma's slip of the tongue. She was a grown woman after all - capable of making and living with her mistakes. "If your Daddy and I hadn't liked each other tremendously, the love we've shared for the last forty-something years wouldn't have been enough to carry us through any number of tough situations we lived through."

Okasa sighed and looked away for a long moment before bringing her eyes back to meet Charisma's. "But baby girl, simply liking someone isn't necessarily a good foundation for creating a life together."

"The love will come, Mama."

"And if it doesn't? Will it be enough, Charisma?"

"It will have to be, Mama. At least he's a good man who comes from a good family. He'll be a good partner? a good father."

Okasa held Charisma's gaze for a long moment before finally nodding her agreement. "All right, baby girl. I just hope you know what you're doing." Then she turned back to her preparations. Charisma sighed and shook her head. It could have gone a lot better? and a lot worse.

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

"So, Kent?" Patrick said, motioning the younger man to a seat in front of the fireplace before moving from behind his desk and over towards the bar. "What's your pleasure?"

"Whatever you're having is fine, sir. Personally, I like a good Scotch."

"Glenlivet?"

"That would be great, sir? thank you."

Patrick poured three fingers' worth into a glass and passed it to Kent. Then he poured something else for himself and took the seat opposite. He smiled. "I prefer an Irish Whiskey myself." He tilted his glass in Kent's direction.

Kent nodded his head and raised his glass. "To new beginnings."

Each man took a swallow of his chosen alcohol, taking one another's measure. Then Patrick cleared his throat. "Tell me about yourself, Kent. You'll forgive an old man his bluntness, but this is the first we've heard about you. It'd be nice to know a little bit about you before you marry my only daughter."

Kent smiled easily. "Yes sir. I guess it must have been something of a shock."

"My boy, you're a master of understatement. So??"

Kent chuckled and launched into his personal history, telling Patrick about his family and his childhood. He told anecdotes that made Patrick chuckle with the telling and went on about his interests. From there he told Patrick how he and Charisma had met, what they had in common and how they had come to be engaged.

"So she proposed to you, hmm?"

"Not exactly? well, she suggested it first, and we talked and decided it was a good idea. I'll admit it was something of a surprise when she brought it up. I mean? I always thought we were a good match, and my mother loves her. But I didn't realize she was ready to settle down - I know how important Charisma's career is to her - it comes first. Otherwise, I'd have already asked her."

Patrick nodded, hearing what was said as well as what wasn't. But unlike Okasa with Charisma, he didn't really know the man currently sitting in front of him and he had no way of knowing just how honest with Kent Charisma had actually been. So he tried a little more subtle approach.

"So you're happy together?"

"Yes, sir. And we have so much in common; we like many of the same things. Charisma and I have fun together and we enjoy each other's company. We're friends first."

Patrick smiled. "That sounds very much like Okasa and me. We were friends who liked each other long before we ever fell in love with one another. It's made our lives together and our marriage a much smoother journey."

"To smoother journeys," Kent said, raising his glass again.

"And a long life together," Patrick agreed.

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

After a short and pointed argument that Okasa won due to Kent's agreement and capitulation - Mama, I'm thirty-seven years old and we're engaged for God's sakes! That is not the point, Charisma? this is still my house, and in my house only married couples share a room and a bed. You knew that. It was that way with your brothers and I'm not changing it for you despite your age and position. Honey, it's all right. It won't hurt us to respect the rules your mother set up. We'll probably do the same thing to our kids one day - everyone was finally settled into bed for the night.

"Well," Patrick drawled, looking over his glasses at Okasa as she climbed under the cover and picked up her book. "That was interesting."

"Which part?" Okasa asked drolly. "The part where Charisma sprang a fiancé on us? The one where I realized this is a disaster in the making? Or the part where Kent agreed with me to keep the peace in the house even though Charisma will be in a snit about it for days where he is concerned?"

Patrick's eyebrows rose into his hairline. "Well when you put it that way? maybe we should start at the beginning. We obviously had some serious differences in our day. I think we need to compare notes."

"Where would you like to start? Surely you weren't aware she was bringing a fiancé home??"

"No? not at all. I thought? I mean I was hoping when she said she was bringing someone home?." Patrick trailed off, knowing Okasa knew where he was headed with his train of thought.

"So was I, Paddy. I really expected Brianna?." Okasa cleared her throat and spoke quietly. "So you got to talk to him alone. What do you think of Kent Rockwell?"

"I think Charisma chose him for several reasons - he's nice looking, has a good family background, apparently is well off enough not to have to do anything seriously and he obviously cares for her." Patrick hesitated, then continued. "Charisma suggested marriage to him? not the other way around. She even had the ring."

Okasa's head whipped around so fast Patrick heard the bones in her neck pop. "Excuse me?"

"You heard me, old woman. Charisma did the proposing and purchased the ring she wanted him to give her."

Okasa shook her head. "What is that girl thinking?"

"She's a grown woman, love."

"Then she needs to act like it!" Okasa blew out a frustrated breath trying to bring her emotions under control. "Honestly, Paddy? this is one screwed up pickle of a mess. Charisma admitted to me that she doesn't love him," she said in a near whisper, not wanting this conversation to carry.

"She said that?"

Okasa nodded. "She likes him - thinks he will make a good husband and father. But love doesn't fit into the equation - not right now at least. She hopes it will eventually, but it doesn't seem to be a priority for her." She bit her lip in thought. "Obviously, Charisma had her mind set to get married and Kent Rockwell fit the criteria she was looking for in an acceptable husband."

"I wouldn't be surprised. I knew she was looking. I didn't know she was so determined."

"What do you mean - you knew she was looking?" Okasa turned to face him again and crossed her arms over her chest. "*How* did you know she was looking??"

"She told me. When she came to see me several months ago - I told you about her visit remember? you were working that day - she informed me that it was time for her to find a husband. Apparently there were some folks in Washington - hell, maybe they were here, I dunno - that were making noise about the fact that she was still unmarried and pretty much without prospects."

Okasa frowned. "She may be unmarried, but she's never been without prospects, Patrick Tagherty."

"I am well aware of that, me love. I am simply telling you of the rumors that were flying around. They disturbed Charisma enough she decided to do something about them. She decided to find a husband."

"Of all the?" Okasa broke off before she could launch into a tirade. "So what do we do now?"

Patrick pulled his glasses off and set them aside before sliding down and reaching for the light. Okasa followed his example and they faced one another in the nearly dark room. He sighed and she waited, then he took her hand in his and sighed again.

"We do what we've always done, Okasa. We watch and pray."

"I was afraid you were gonna say that."

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

The following day, Okasa called the boys and their families to come over and meet the newest member of the clan. And while they were welcoming and cordial enough so that Kent felt comfortable, Charisma recognized their distance and coolness. So when the girls pulled Kent into the kitchen to grill him about the details of their romance they knew Charisma wouldn't share with them, Charisma took the boys to task.

"What the hell is wrong with you three?" They stared at her unflinching, though none of them spoke up to answer her question. She gazed into the crackling fireplace to regain her composure before meeting each of their eyes squarely. "I know you don't like Kent - what I don't understand is why. You don't even know him. Don't you think you should give him a chance first?"

The boys exchanged glances before Hunter, as the eldest, stepped up to speak for all of them. "We have nothing against Kent, Chari. He seems like a pretty decent guy and he seems to be gone on you."

"So what's your issue then? Why are you treating him like he has the plague?" Silence. Charisma felt the anger blossom in her chest and she looked at them with hard eyes. "Why?? I deserve an answer."

The boys exchanged long looks this time, reminding Charisma of their growing up years when they were trying to keep things from her. Before she could call them on it, Hunter spoke again. "Because anyone with half an eye can see you don't feel the same." He paused then plowed forward, hoping his mother would forgive him for his next words. "Because he isn't Brianna!"

Charisma sucked in air like she'd been sucker-punched, then straightened and turned and left the room without another word to any of them. They stayed behind for another minute, waiting for Okasa to show up to ream them for bringing up Brianna's name in front of Charisma, but as the minutes passed, they realized she wasn't going to. Did she not know? Or did it not matter now that Charisma was engaged to marry Kent?

The three left the study and returned to the family room where everyone else was gathered. The visiting continued as though the incident in the study had never happened - Charisma was well-versed in the art of politics and knew how to put on a game face for the world. Not that it fooled her brothers, but it was enough to get through the visit and convince the family that despite whatever doubts and misgivings they felt about the situation, Charisma was not unhappy about her decision to wed. Even the boys could see that.

So the nuptials came and went. It was a small, intimate affair - only family and the very closest of friends were invited. And not long after she and Kent were settled into married life, Charisma announced she was expecting.

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

Despite all the misgivings, that was actually a happy occasion in the Tagherty household. Okasa and Patrick had been waiting a long time to welcome a grandchild from Charisma and the boys and their wives were equally excited. And that excitement went a long way towards healing the anger Charisma felt towards her brothers for their attitude towards Kent? especially since she knew their reaction was honest. She really couldn't stay mad when they were only looking out for her, no matter how misguided their concern.

Adam was born on summer solstice - the longest day of the year. Charisma swore he brought sunshine into her life. And if everything wasn't perfect, Adam made her remember the good things in her life. And so life went, bringing us to the present point in time.



Chapter IX

Let me catch you up a little more, because there are a few things you need to understand before we pick up our story in the present day.

Their marriage, while it made Kent's mother ecstatic, quickly became a thing of convenience for both of them, though to anyone looking from the outside they are happy enough. Like many of their peers, they have separate careers and in some ways, separate lives, but on the occasions they are together, they present a united, happy front.

Now, don't misunderstand me, Kent does love Charisma in his own way, but it soon became apparent to him that she does not return his affection to the same degree. She does care for him, but she sees him as a friend and a father to her son - not a husband or a lover. And it isn't something he knows how to overcome.

While sex is not non-existent between them, it is performed more as a duty than a pleasure. Once Charisma became pregnant, there was even less of an obligation between them. And when Adam was born, the expectation between them slipped even farther.

Charisma spends her time between Washington and her home state; Kent divides his time between being a house-husband and father in Washington and an actor working in Manhattan. Once or twice, Charisma has made an effort to support her husband's career by attending a production but by and large, he leads his life and she leads hers.

As for Adam - he stays with Charisma. Kent takes care of him when he is in Washington, but when he leaves to go work in Manhattan, Adam is strictly Charisma's son.

That brings us back to the present. Hopefully from here on out, you can see things in real time. Now, I don't know how things will go precisely, but one of the cool things about being a guardian angel means I can see the possibilities. So hold onto your horses - this promises to be a bumpy ride.

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

Esmeralda quietly cleaned the office, conscious of the two individuals resting on the couch just a few feet away. When she was finished, Esmeralda crossed back over to the couch and gently touched Charisma's shoulder, watching the blue eyes open alertly and gaze at her in confusion for a brief moment before clearing.

"Es?" Charisma whispered, one hand cupping her son's back while the other pushed the hair from her eyes. "What time is it?"

"Late," Esmeralda returned. "I was just getting ready to leave."

Charisma reached out a hand and Esmeralda took the hint, helping Charisma to sit up without losing the hold she had on her sleeping son. Then she pushed her hair back from her face, frowning as she tried to find a semblance of coherent wakefulness. Without seeming to impose, Esmeralda scooped Adam from Charisma's arms, giving her the opportunity to stand and gather her things together.

Charisma watched them for a long moment, smiling at the precious picture they made. Adam had always been shy around strangers - very particular about whom he let in his personal space even as a baby. And yet, seemingly without effort, Esmeralda had charmed Adam so quickly, he was actually squealing in laughter. Charisma smiled sympathetically.

"You must have some sort of magic," Charisma commented softly as she crossed the room to collect her purse and jacket as well as Adam's things. "He's never warmed up to anyone so quickly. It took three days before Kent could hold him without Adam screaming bloody murder, and he's Adam's father." Charisma chuckled. "We figured out it was the scent of greasepaint and the theatre that seemed to bother him. Once Kent came home and immediately took a shower before coming near him, Adam stopped wailing like a banshee." She brushed her hair back again and smiled at the joyful expression on Esmeralda's face.

"Children and babies love me," Es confided, cooing at Adam while gently rocking him back to sleep. Charisma watched amazed as her son's eyes closed again.

"Obviously," she agreed. "I think you're in the wrong line of work." A beat. "Do you and Saphira have children?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "No," she said sadly. "Neither of us is able to have children and because of who and what we are to one another, we can't adopt. But there's a reason for everything, Charisma. I think I'm right where I need to be."

Charisma gazed speculatively at her for a long moment. "Maybe you are," she muttered mostly to herself, though Esmeralda clearly understood her. She picked up the receiver and called for her car. "Can I offer you a lift? home?"

Esmeralda smiled and shook her head, easily transferring the toddler in her arms back into his mother's embrace. Then she moved to collect her cart. "As nice as that sounds, I still need to put away my things and I don't want to hold you up. You need to get your little guy to bed? and it wouldn't hurt you to get a little rest as well," she scolded, opening the door and motioning for Charisma to go in front of her. "Besides," Esmeralda added as she pushed her cleaning cart through the door and turned to lock it behind her, "I'm not going home."

Charisma smiled. "Late night date with your lady, then?"

Es smiled bashfully. "Something like that. Her shift at the diner will be over by the time I get there and we'll go home together."

"I can still drop you?." Charisma started, but stopped when the blonde head shook negatively.

"Not that I don't appreciate it, Charisma, because I do? more than I can make you understand. And I promise you'll get to meet her soon. You let me know when's good for you and we'll make it happen. But trust me when I tell you it's better for you not to do this for me right now."

Charisma's face hardened. "Oh? I see. You want to be some sort of reverse snob," she said, but Esmeralda cut her off before she could continue.

"Don't, Charisma - you know better," Es replied fiercely. "But can you really afford to be seen in a government vehicle riding around at this time of night with an out lesbian who happens to be part of the janitorial staff in your Senate building? Regardless of the fact that you'd be taking me to meet my mate, I don't think your constituents would take too kindly to it despite the fact that there really is nothing more untoward about it than you offering someone less fortunate a bit of consideration. You've worked too long and too hard to establish the reputation you have to throw it away on an unnecessary kindness."

"I'm sorry, Es - you're right. I don't know why I'm so raw today. But you shouldn't be catching the brunt of my pissiness." She paused. "Is there such a thing? as unnecessary kindness, I mean?"

"In this case, yes." Esmeralda unlocked the janitorial closet and pushed her cart in, taking care to restock just as she did every night even though she was still very aware of Charisma's presence. "It's been a long day for you and Adam - you should focus on getting the two of you home and settled. I'll be all right, Charisma - I promise. I do this every night. In fact," she added as she exited the closet and locked it behind her, "it would probably freak Saphira out if your car pulled up in front of the diner at this time of night with no warning. She'd think something bad had happened to me."

Charisma nodded - she hadn't thought of it like that before and she knew without asking that neither of them had cell phones. "But you promise I'll get to meet her soon? And that you'll be okay walking there by yourself? I know I sound paranoid - I guess I never really considered?."

"I promise, Charisma. You get me a date and time that will work for you and we'll arrange something. And I'll be fine - I've got a guardian angel watching over me," rubbing the tiny pin attached to her blouse

"I wish I had one of those," Charisma mumbled.

"I'm sure you do, Senator," motioning the other woman ahead of her as they approached the garage. Esmeralda held the door for Charisma to slip through with Adam, then followed behind her. "But here," removing the pin and carefully sticking it on Charisma's jacket. "Now you have a visible reminder."

"Oh Es," Charisma protested. "I can't take this from you. It's your guardian angel."

Esmeralda smiled and Charisma was overwhelmed by the sheer radiance of it. "No, Charisma. It is merely a reminder. My guardian angel is a little more ethereal than the pin and she sticks pretty close."

"She, huh?"

"In most cases, yes. I think the male angels are busy posturing and talking politics and completely missing the big picture around them? no offense."

Charisma couldn't stop the laughter that welled up at the assessment and she slid into her vehicle still chuckling. Es held the door until Charisma got Adam settled in his car seat and turned back to look at her.

"Thank you, Es - for being such a good friend. Most would have taken my bitchiness personally. Be safe tonight, all right?"

Es nodded. "See you tomorrow night, Senator Tagherty."

Charisma rolled her eyes and shook her head with a smile before sitting back and letting Esmeralda shut the door firmly behind her. Es patted the roof and the driver pulled off. She stood and watched the car out of sight, nodding in approval when Amber took up the job of looking out for them. Then she turned and headed out of the garage, anxious to meet Saphira at the diner.

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

Sorry? cutting in again very briefly to explain something. What I said was true - most guardian angels don't do the protection gig. There aren't enough of us to do that for every single person on the planet twenty-four/seven/three-sixty-five. But when a complete fubar like this one is thrown at the clean-up detail, we have a little more leeway and can call upon whatever resources we need to get things straightened out. We try not to overextend everyone else's departments or leave any one section short-handed for an extended period of time, but we do take what we need to resolve the situation we've been handed with all expediency.

To that end, I have enlisted several friends and cohorts to help me fix this mess. Saphira is truly my mate, though she is not a guardian angel of any kind. And I hope I do not need to call upon her true skills beyond supporting me before this is all over. Amber is my best friend other than Saphira - she's a guide guardian? the kind Rafe was before he created this debacle. I'm convinced if Charisma had been her charge, we wouldn't be cleaning up crap now. Hence my snarky comment to Charisma about male angels. Honestly, there are some things most of them just shouldn't try to handle - they don't do as well as their female counterparts.

There are a few other guardians I have on stand-by for if and when they are needed. But at the moment, Amber, Saphira and I and the rest have things well in hand and under control.

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

Esmeralda made her way from the metro station towards the diner, a smile on her face as she approached. It had been a long and interesting day and she was anxious to share her experiences with Saphira. Besides, things should be happening on the flip side of things soon, and Es was anxious to hear how things were progressing. And it didn't hurt that Matilda made the most awesome apple pie and always saved a piece for them to share before they headed home.

She was smiling as she opened the door and it grew to a genuine grin when Saphira's eyes met hers. "Hey, beautiful," Saphira greeted as Esmeralda took a stool at the counter. "How was your night?"

"Interesting. Yours?"

"Busy," placing a glass of milk in front of Esmeralda and pulling the slice of pie from the case and slipping it into the warming oven. "Not that you can tell at the moment," indicating the fairly empty restaurant with a sigh. "Hey, Joe!" calling out to the grill cook. He peeked through the window with a frown on his face until he caught a glimpse of Esmeralda. Then he grinned and came out of the kitchen for a hug. The embrace was brief and Joe pulled back to peer at her.

"You're too skinny there, Essie. Let me fix you something to go with that pie."

"I'm all right, Joe," she started, then continued when she saw him start to frown again, "but a burger would be nice, thanks."

"Good girl? maybe you can get this one to eat something too," he added with a glower in Saphira's direction before returning to he kitchen. Esmeralda turned to look at her mate.

"Joe giving you a hard time?" noting the weariness in Saphira's eyes and body language. Saphira smiled at her.

"No more than usual - he's just concerned. Remember, as far as he knows I lost my job taking care of you during your illness. And I've been working doubles here to pay the bills."

"Well," Es agreed quietly. "That's mostly true. You did give up your job, you did take care of me while I was sick and you have been working doubles here. The rest?."

"The rest will work itself out in His time - I know. I just? sometimes I don't know how you can do this all the time, Es. I just want to get in there and fix things."

Esmeralda smiled. "I know you do, Phira. That's your calling, and you're the best at what you do. But that's not what guardians do. This requires a little more finesse and finagling than brute strength and brilliance."

Saphira snorted. "Nice save, though we both know there is an enormous amount of brilliance that goes into these rescue missions," she said with a smirk, then rose from her stool. "Let me lock the door," she said as the last customer left with a wave. "Then we can eat in peace before we go home for some sleep."

She reached for the lock, turning it with a snick and grabbing the blinds. Before she could snap them closed she heard a desperate voice calling out, "Wait, please! Wait!"

Saphira's shoulders dropped, but she had long since learned not to ignore a plea for help when one was heard. You never knew who or what lay behind the call nor the difference you could make by taking the time to listen. With a sigh, she unlocked the door and motioned the woman forward and into the diner.

The woman crossed the threshold with a sigh of relief and a sincere thank you as she glanced around. She was pulling two large suitcases as well as a tote bag and looked completely lost and out of place. Esmeralda recognized her immediately, but she waited for the woman to speak.

"Thank you so much," she said to Saphira again, taking the stool the woman offered her and accepting a menu. "I somehow missed my driver at the airport and I'm pretty sure I got off the wrong Metro stop as well."

"Is this your first visit to Washington?"

The woman blushed and nodded her head. "I've been all over this country and all over the world, but I've never had the opportunity to come here until now." Not the complete truth, but she had no way of knowing they already knew that.

"So what brings you here - business or pleasure?" Esmeralda asked, eyes widening when Joe plopped the biggest burger she'd seen in a while in front of her. She turned her gaze to Saphira who understood her unspoken request, pulling another plate from behind the counter and proceeded to remove about half the food onto it. Saphira cocked an eyebrow at the other woman who was staring at the hamburger and fries like she hadn't eaten in days, then slid the plate over to sit in front of her. The woman immediately began to protest.

"Oh no? I can't take your food from you. Please."

Saphira just ignored her and poured up two more glasses of cold milk then refilled Esmeralda's. Esmeralda put her hand on top of the woman's and silenced her with it a look. "Please, don't insult us by refusing the food. It's obvious you're very hungry aside from being lost and alone. We can't afford to buy you a whole meal, but we can share what we have."

The woman's mouth snapped shut on her argument and she bowed her head in the face of such simple generosity. "Thank you," she murmured.

"Besides," Es added with a smile, hoping to chase away the woman's embarrassment. "Joe fixed enough to feed a family here and it will just go to waste otherwise."

The woman took a satisfying bite of her burger and her face lit up in a smile. "Oh, I don't think you have to worry about that. Man, this is great!" seeing Joe pop up from the back with a smile at her expression of pleasure. "I haven't had real food this good in ages."

"Well then," Saphira said around her own bite. "I'm glad I held the door open for you."

The woman moaned. "Me too. This place is going to be a regular stop for me while I'm here."

"So are you here for business or pleasure?" Esmeralda asked again.

"Business. I've just been appointed the junior Senator from my state to replace Richard Whitman." Saphira and Esmeralda nodded. Richard Whitman had been in the news for weeks due to a medical condition that had slowly left him incapacitated and unable to serve in the Senate any longer. Many had been waiting for the governor of his state to name his replacement, but nothing had been finalized in the press, though apparently the decision had already been made.

"It was supposed to be announced last week, but?." She shrugged. "The timing was never right - either the governor or I always had some sort of scheduling conflict that kept getting in the way of making an announcement together. I think now the governor is planning to call a press conference here on the capital steps tomorrow - make a big to do over the whole thing."

"And how do you feel about it?"

"The job or the press conference?" the woman asked with a smile.

"Yes," Esmeralda said as she munched on a few fries.

"Well, it's not like it's my first press conference," she confessed, wiping her mouth and taking a swallow of milk. "Man, that's good stuff." She shook her head. "I learned a long time ago that the press and paparazzi are a part of public life, like them or not. As for the job?." She shrugged and looked t her plate thoughtfully. "I'm not sure yet," she replied honestly. "This isn't really something I set out to do in my life - politics don't particularly interest me, but the governor felt I was the best choice for the job. Fortunately, I only have to do it for two years before the people can elect another candidate of their choice."

"And if they decide that choice is you?"

"I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." The woman chewed and swallowed, wiping her hands on her napkin before extending them. "By the way, my name is Brianna Walker."



Chapter X

"I'm Esmeralda and this is my partner Saphira and of course, there's Joe back behind the grill. You'll have to come back to meet Matilda, but for now allow us to welcome you to Washington, D.C."

Brianna smiled. "Thanks - I'm really glad to be here. I never expected to find such real people here." Saphira's eyebrows popped into her hairline and Brianna chuckled even as she blushed profusely at her forthrightness. "I'm sorry - that sounds pretty pretentious, doesn't it? It's just? you've shown more kindness to me, a complete stranger to you, than most people I consider to be friends."

"It sounds like you need new friends," Saphira growled as she swallowed the last bite of her food. Then she rose and went behind the counter, retrieving the apple pie and setting it in front of Esmeralda. With a thoughtful glance at Brianna, she withdrew a chocolate cake from the display and cut off a large slice, setting it in front of her. Green eyes widened comically before glancing at Saphira.

"Oh, I couldn't," she started, then stopped when Saphira held up her hand.

"I need to go clean up the last table before we can leave," she said to Esmeralda. "Save a bite for me, will ya?"

Esmeralda smiled and offered her the first forkful and Saphira didn't even hesitate. Brianna's eyes nearly popped from her head and this time when blue and green eyes turned her way, they burned more fiercely than anything she had ever seen before. The flames were almost soul piercing and she swallowed hard.

"I'm sorry - I didn't mean to stare. It's just? I've never seen anyone be so comfortable together in public."

"You mean a same-sex couple?" Esmeralda asked quietly. She squeezed Saphira's hand lightly and with the smallest nod, Saphira moved off to take care of her work. Esmeralda returned her attention to Brianna and Brianna sighed with relief. The fierceness of Esmeralda's gaze was no longer palpable and in fact felt almost understanding. Brianna nodded.

"Exactly," she replied. "Most gay people of my acquaintance are unable to live so openly. It would destroy them - their families, their careers, their friendships?." Brianna trailed off and Esmeralda waited patiently. Finally Brianna resumed speaking though she tried to sound off-hand. "It's just nice to see for a change."

"Because you can't?" Es asked without censure. Brianna smiled sadly.

"I never?." She shook her head. "It doesn't matter," she said as she rose from her stool. "I'm sorry - I really should get going. Thank you for?." Brianna stopped when Esmeralda laid a hand on her arm.

"Please don't go," Es pled softly. "I didn't mean to offend you."

Brianna smiled again and covered Esmeralda's hand with her own. "You didn't," Brianna assured her. "It's just not something?."

"I understand," Esmeralda said and looking into her eyes, Brianna was inclined to believe her. "You never have to, but if you ever need to?."

Brianna smiled and motioned around them. "I won't, but I know where to find you when I need the company of real people and good food. Besides, I have to come back to meet Matilda, right?"

"Right."

"Well then, let us get you where you need to be," Saphira insisted as she hung up her apron and grabbed her jacket from the hook.

"I couldn't ask you to do that," Brianna said, even though a sense of relief flowed through her at the offer.

"You're not asking," Esmeralda stated with a smile as she accepted her jacket when Saphira wrapped it around her. "We're offering. It's what real people do, Brianna."

Brianna smiled sadly and shook her head. "No, Esmeralda. It's what good people do. Real people aren't necessarily good ones - I know? I've seen plenty of real people in my lifetime and even more pretenders. And let me assure you that you and Saphira and Joe are the exception, not the rule."

Esmeralda smiled. "Then we're glad to be the exception," turning to wrap Saphira's scarf around her neck and tuck it into her jacket. She stood still while Saphira returned the favor, then together they turned back to Brianna.

"How long have you been together?" Brianna asked when she realized she was staring.

"An eternity," Esmeralda replied without hesitation, and looking at the two of them, Brianna was inclined to believe her.

"You're not joking are you?"

"Not at all. We've been together for as long as I can remember."

Brianna couldn't stop the smile that crossed her face. "You grew up together? That's so amazing."

Saphira wrapped an arm around Esmeralda and ushered them towards the door. "You have no idea - she is an angel to have put up with me for as long as she has." She grabbed one of Brianna's bags and waited for Brianna and Esmeralda to do the same before turning around to wave at Joe. "Night, Joe. See ya in the morning."

"Thank you, Joe. It was nice to meet you," Brianna added and then exited the diner.

"Night, girls," he returned before coming around the counter to lock up behind them.

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

Brianna stopped walking as soon as she exited the diner, waiting for Saphira and Esmeralda to lead the way. Instead they turned to her and waited. She looked at them curiously. "Um? which way?"

Saphira smiled rakishly. "Depends - where do you wanna go?"

Brianna blushed and shook her head as she chuckled. "Sorry? been a long day for me." She handed Saphira a card with an address. "This is where I'm supposed to be."

Saphira held it up to the light, her eyebrows popping into her hairline. "Well," she said after a moment's pause, allowing her brows to return to their rightful place on her forehead. "You're definitely lost. C'mon? we need to get you back to the Metro. You're about three stops off the beaten path," leading the way to the closest station.

They were silent as they swiped their cards and went through the turnstiles, sighing in relief when the train pulled in almost immediately. Saphira led the way and the others followed her, happy to sit down for their brief time to Brianna's stop. When they reached it, Saphira stood and led the way back outside, immediately making a right and heading towards the secure apartment building Brianna would be living in for the time being.

When they reached the outer door, Saphira and Esmeralda placed Brianna's bags beside her and stepped away. Brianna looked her question at them.

"We can't go inside," Esmeralda commented. "It's a secure building and we haven't been cleared for admittance."

"You won't lose touch with me, will you? It's nice to know good people for a change."

Esmeralda smiled and wrapped an arm around Brianna's shoulder. "You know where to find us, Brianna Walker. And if you invite us to visit and clear us to be here, we'll be here. Fair enough?"

"Fair enough," Brianna grinned. "And I'm going to hold you to it."

"We hope you do," Saphira confirmed softly. "It's nice to have met someone who? well, let's just say you've been a breath of fresh air for us as well. Too many think it's their place to look down and judge."

Brianna smiled sadly. "Despite my time in the prosecutor's office - or maybe because of it, I've learned to try not to judge people in my personal life. I would miss out on so many experiences if I only accepted people who were just like me. And honestly? wouldn't life be boring if we were all cut out of the same exact cloth?"

"Maybe," Saphira answered slowly, "but there would probably be less hatred and bigotry in the world if we were."

"Perhaps," Brianna conceded. "But for all its faults, I am thankful for the mishmash of humanity that exists. It allows me to meet people like you - people who bring something new and fresh into my life that makes me a richer, better person for it." She paused. "I think God sent you to me? just when I needed you most."

Saphira and Esmeralda exchanged startled glances before looking back at Brianna. Esmeralda took Brianna's hand in hers. "I think God sent us to each other, Brianna. We're happy to have made a new friend."

Brianna pulled Esmeralda into a brief hug and reached out a hand to Saphira that she took without hesitation. "So am I," she said with a hint of wonder in her voice. "I don't usually trust this quickly, but my gut's telling me you two are the real deal. And my gut rarely lies."

Esmeralda chuckled. "Go with the gut then - and come see us when you get settled in."

Brianna nodded. "I will. It might take a little while - I have a feeling this new job is going to take a bit of time to adjust to, but don't lose faith. I'll be there as soon as I can."

"We'll keep the light on for you." Then Saphira took Esmeralda's hand and pulled her from Brianna's embrace, wrapping a possessive arm around her waist. They stood together watching as Brianna gathered up her luggage and headed inside, nodding at the doorman who suddenly appeared to help. He gave them a brief glance before relieving Brianna of her bags and she turned to wave goodbye once more as she disappeared.

Saphira turned to Esmeralda, finally letting her exhaustion show. "Home now?"

Esmeralda nodded with a tired smile. "Home now, beloved."

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

The ride was silent; they had no need to fill it with meaningless chatter and anything they needed to say would wait until they were in the privacy of their home. Saphira unlocked the door and motioned Esmeralda in ahead of her. Then she closed and locked the door behind them and followed Es into their tiny bedroom.

Both women slipped out of their shoes with a tired groan and it was with a sense of relief that they showered briefly before curling up into bed together. When they were tucked in and the lights were turned off, Esmeralda spoke.

"Well," she said softly into Saphira's neck, "it's started."

"That it is," Saphira agreed, feeling completely out of her depth. "The question is - what now?"

"As in what will happen now or what do we do now?"

"Either? both? I'm not sure. You know this isn't generally my gig, sweetheart." She shook her head and felt Esmeralda's smile against her skin at the action. "Honestly, I don't know how you do this kind of work? how you've managed to do this for so long without violence. Don't you just want to shake some sense into them? Or I don't know - tie them up and make them sit and talk til they work it all out on their own?"

Esmeralda chuckled and Saphira smiled even as she sighed in relief. Things had been tough for them for a while - what with her job issues and Esmeralda's sickness. It was a blessing to hear Es laugh again, even if it was due to her complete frustration with their current assignment. And truth be told, Saphira couldn't even resent the assignment or their situation too much - not as long as she and Esmeralda were still together.

Esmeralda blew out a warm breath against Saphira's chest and she shivered in the wake of the goosebumps that followed. She felt Es grin again and trace a path along her suddenly burning skin.

"Sometimes," she admitted, "it would be a lot simpler if we could just bang a few heads together and be done with it. It would also probably be a lot more satisfying. But unfortunately for us, and luckily for most of our charges, it doesn't work that way. It requires patience and subtlety and?."

"? and a lot of teeth grinding."

Es nodded. "Sometimes. But when it works - when we're able to bring everything together and fix whatever it was that went so wrong - Phira, there's nothing like it. It makes all the frustration and head banging worth it."

Saphira chuckled soundlessly and shook her head again. "I'll take your word for it, Es. I'd just as soon smack their heads together and be done with it."

Esmeralda tilted her head back slightly and brought her hand up to cup Saphira's face. "I know, love. It's in your nature. That passion is just one reason I love you. But I do appreciate you being here for this one. I have a feeling it's not going to be easy."

Saphira snorted. "Like any of your assignments are," turning her head and kissing Esmeralda's palm.

"True," sliding her hand into Saphira's dark hair and gently massaging her scalp. "But I think one is going to be more difficult than most. So many people involved and my two protagonists?." She shook her head before tucking it beneath Saphira's chin once more without missing a beat in her gentle scratching.

"Stubborn?"

"Let's just say they remind me greatly of you."

"Hey!" Saphira protested, though she really didn't argue the point. "It sounds like you've got your work cut out for you."

Esmeralda sighed. "We all do. I just want this to work out." She paused. "Phira, they remind me so much of us? of what we could easily have been if things had worked out differently. We would have been miserable without each other, and for a while there, it was a near thing."

"No matter what," Saphira's fierce possessiveness lighting a fire along Esmeralda's nerve endings. "No matter what - we would have been together, Es. Anything else was never, ever an option and He knew that. They all did. I made that clear at the outset."

Esmeralda shifted until she could look into Saphira's eyes that glowed clearly in the otherwise thick darkness surrounding them. "Did you really?"

"Absolutely. Short of you choosing not to stay with me, nothing would have separated us."

Esmeralda snuggled closer into Saphira's body. "That means? everything." Saphira brushed a kiss over the top of her head and felt Es sigh against her.

"What?" she whispered into the blonde hair.

"I don't understand them, Phira. We came so close to losing this; we'd have done anything? everything? to keep it. You did - you stood up to Him and them for us. Why would they just throw something like this away?? Why give it up without even giving it a chance??"

"You can't miss what you've never had, sweetheart, and I don't think either of them have had it? not really."

"I think Brianna is aware of it - that's why she left. She loved Charisma enough to leave."

"But not enough to fight for her - I don't understand that."

"That's because you're a warrior by nature, my love."

"Well, I hope one of them figures out how to be a fighter sooner than later. I don't think I'm cut out to live among humans for any length of time? especially as a waitress. This has to be the hardest work I've ever done - worse than fighting a legion of demons locked in an eternal struggle."

Esmeralda couldn't stop the laughter from escaping. "That bad, Phira?"

Saphira growled. "That bad." Then she felt Esmeralda's hands soothing her belly. "Although that's making it much better."

"You pleasure hound you."

"Like you didn't know that already," Saphira snorted, then shifted on the bed until she was spooned around Esmeralda wrapping her in a total embrace. "C'mon, sweetheart. Despite our heavenly nature, we've still got to get some rest while we're on the earthly plane. You especially - I don't want you getting sick again."

"Neither do I. Too much work still to do."

"Close your eyes," Saphira commanded then began humming a lullaby. It was the last thing Esmeralda heard before she drifted off to sleep.



Chapter XI

"It is with great pleasure that I am able to announce District Attorney Brianna Walker as Senator Richard Whitman's replacement here on the steps of our nation's Capitol Building," the Governor droned on, pausing only for the smattering of polite applause. Brianna was tempted to look at her watch, but her ingrained training held as she turned her attention back to the Governor's words, hoping she hadn't missed too much. "Senator Whitman has served our state long and faithfully and it was with his input and blessing that we chose Ms Walker to represent us for the remainder of his term. It is our hope and firm belief that by taking this reprieve Senator Whitman will be able to recover his health."

Another smattering of applause and the Governor smiled, knowing it was time to wrap things up. "Ladies and gentlemen, Senator Brianna Walker." Flashes snapped as Brianna accepted the Governor's proffered hand, then she stepped behind the podium that had been set up for the press announcement.

"Thank you, Governor," she accepted graciously. "I won't keep you all out here in the freezing cold spotting platitudes and rhetoric and party line. I know you'll be keeping an eye on me for a little while at least. I'll let my actions speak louder than words."

This garnered Brianna some real applause and some smiles before she waved and stepped back from the platform as the flashes popped off again. She was quickly escorted to a waiting car and the Governor followed her and she directed the driver to take them to the airport.

"Are you sure you can't stay, Michael? I understand the President invited you to the luncheon today."

"If Jenny had come with me, I would have said yes, but she would never forgive me for going without her. Surprisingly, the President understood that and graciously offered to extend an invitation to both of us another time."

"Probably why he and his wife still actually give the appearance of happily married - he knows how to keep her happy."

Michael chuckled at her dry tone and as the car reached the drop off area for private jets, he reached over and covered her hand. "You'll have to let me know your thoughts after you sit down with him. In the meantime, don't stress too much over this, Brianna. You can do this job - it's why you were chosen. Just use the same tenacity you were famous for in the courtroom. There won't be a senator on the Hill that will be able to push you around."

He saw the shadow flash across her eyes, but it was gone before he could question its validity.

"Tell Jenny I'm looking forward to the two of you visiting together."

"Will do," Michael said as she opened the door. "Keep us in the loop, and let us know if you?."

"I'll be fine, Michael. Go home to your wife."

He rolled his eyes, but slid out of the car, giving Brianna a wave before closing it behind him. They watched him out of sight, then Brianna told the driver to go on. They pulled back into traffic and headed for the Senate. It was time to go to work.

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

"Well, that was interesting," Saphira said as she dressed for the lunch shift at the diner. Esmeralda put the last of their breakfast dishes away and dried her hands before turning to look at Saphira.

"It was something, but I'm not sure exactly what it was supposed to accomplish."

"It was an introduction. It was meant to get people's attention. I'm pretty sure it did that. And I'm pretty sure you'll probably get an earful about it sooner or later."

Es sighed. "I hope this doesn't backfire, Phira." Saphira cocked her head. "This could push Charisma right over the edge."

"No," Saphira stated fiercely. "Don't lose your faith now, Es. She needs this push. You know and I know that everything has to blow to hell and back between Brianna and Charisma before anything real can happen for them here in this time and place. They are too pigheaded stubborn to allow it to be easy. But we're gonna make sure to give them that chance if we have to drag them to it kicking and screaming."

Esmeralda chuckled, feeling better by the minute. "And once we get them there?"

Saphira smiled smugly and briefly she allowed her true self to flash across her person - spreading her wings to their fullest extension and grasping the sword in both hands as the flame raced from hilt to tip. She held the pose momentarily, then reverted to her human form, waggling her eyebrows rakishly. "I don't think keeping them there to work things out will be a real problem, Es. If the wings don't stun them, the fiery sword will."

"Well it would certainly get their attention," Esmeralda commented after clearing her throat delicately and wiping the smile from her face. "But I'm not sure He would accept the results that sort of convincing."

Saphira smirked, though her shoulders fell and her eyes lost their twinkle. "Probably not. He has a knack for taking the fun out of things."

Esmeralda wrapped Saphira in her embrace, gratified beyond words when Saphira returned it without hesitation. "You know it has to be their choice, love. Putting the fear of Him into them like that eliminates their free will - and that negates all of our efforts as well."

Saphira sighed. "I know. Doesn't make the prospect any less tempting." She pulled back just slightly, enough to duck her head and capture Esmeralda's lips in a fervent kiss. "Try to get some rest today," she chided as they separated. "The place couldn't get any cleaner if He came in and did it Himself, and you still look tired."

"I am a little, but so do you," Es confessed as she pushed dark bangs out of Saphira's eyes. "You need a trim."

Saphira blew out a breath, fluffing her bangs up briefly and drawing a smile from Esmeralda. "I know," she replied drolly, but unable to keep herself from responding to the happiness in Esmeralda's eyes. "You do what you need to do to make this work, Es," returning to their original discussion. "I'll follow you."

"Walk beside me, Phira. That's all I ask."

"Sounds like a plan, Es, but I've gotta go before I'm late." She brushed their lips together once more. "I'll see you tonight?"

"As soon as I can get there. I'll call if it looks like I'm going to be late."

Saphira nodded and headed out the door. Esmeralda watched her go, then lay down on the couch, hoping for a few minutes of rest before she needed to get up to run a few errands before heading in to work. She was therefore more than a little disconcerted to open her eyes what felt like mere moments later to find a couple hours had passed and someone was knocking on her door.

She blinked sleepily, trying to kick-start her brain, even as she rose from the sofa and made her way towards the door. She peeked through the hole and smiled, opening the door to let Amber in. Amber cupped Esmeralda's face in her hands and let her golden eyes roam over Es' features. Esmeralda captured Amber's hands in hers and smiled.

"I'm all right, Amber. I just fell asleep."

"Best thing for you," she stated unequivocally. Esmeralda rolled her eyes but couldn't stop the grin that crossed her face.

"I know - you sound just like Saphira."

Now it was Amber's turn to roll her eyes and she did so with gusto. "Imagine that," she said drolly. "You'd think we were related or something."

"Or something for sure," Es chuckled. "How'd things go last night?"

"About like you'd expect. Charisma went home and put Adam to bed. Then she went into her study and stayed there for a long time." Amber looked at Esmeralda's expectant face and she sighed. "There was no way for me to see clearly without literally climbing into her personal space - she was curled around them protectively."

"But??"

"But she got out an album of pictures. And from the frantic way she searched for them and the possessive way she safeguarded them even in the privacy of her own home, I'd say it was *the* album? the pictures from her European trip with Brianna."

Esmeralda gnawed her lip thoughtfully as she considered Amber's words. "Only those?" she finally asked.

Amber gave an exasperated sigh. "I don't know, Es. I really couldn't see. But if I was to offer a guess, I would say yes - only those. I will try to get a look tonight."

"And Kent?"

Amber shook her head. "He got in late, but he didn't disturb her. He went straight to his room and settled in for the night. Charisma didn't even give him a thought when she finally went upstairs last night. She re-hid the album in her office then went right to her room, but she didn't sleep - at least not for a long time. It was almost dawn before I saw her eyes flutter closed. And even then it wasn't particularly restful."

"So how did she take the announcement?"

"Do the words fire and ice mean anything to you?"

"Oh boy."

"Yeah? although I'll admit that my first thought was duck and cover."

"Great. Well, I guess tonight should be interesting."

Amber chuckled. "You, my dear, are a master of understatement."

Esmeralda glared at her compatriot briefly before she closed her eyes and whispered a short prayer. "Well," she said when green appeared again. "We knew it was coming. The sooner we get started?."

"? the sooner we get this mess fixed. At least you know she won't take it out on you."

"Yes she will, Amber. I will be the closest, safest target. That's one reason I am where I am."

"What?? How do you figure?"

"C'mon, Amber? how many times have we been through this? She can't have a public reaction of any kind - it would invite too many questions from constituents and opponents alike. She would never take it out on Adam, and Kent is immune because she needs to cling to the facade of her marriage, especially now that Brianna Walker has been forced into her life again, however benign their interaction. She trusts me - it may take a little while, but eventually she is going to need to vent, and I am the most logical person for her to talk to. She knows I know how to keep her secrets; I already have to some extent."

"You don't think she will do something stupid?"

"It's my job to make sure she doesn't," Es sighed. "You crashing?" she asked, watching Amber's golden eyes start to droop shut.

"Yeah? long night." Her shoulders slumped. "I don't know, Es. It was disheartening? or maybe I'm just tired from being up all night and half the day besides." She rotated her head and shoulders in an attempt to relieve the stress she felt. "How do humans put up with this?"

Esmeralda gave Amber a long look. "They don't know any other way? At least you don't have to be corporeal for most of your work in this case? although I know staying in an invisible observation state for hours on end is draining." She motioned towards Amber's teensy bedroom. "Go get some sleep. I've got a few errands to run before I go to work. I'll leave you something for supper."

Amber nodded before walking into her room and falling face first into her bed. Es just smiled and shook her head, then closed the door softly. She gathered up her purse and coat, wrapping her scarf around her neck and pulling on her gloves. With a final look around the spotless apartment, Esmeralda stepped out into the cold and headed out to take care of her errands.

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

When Esmeralda came home to drop of her few packages, she checked on Amber only to find that her fellow guardian hadn't stirred an inch. She shook her head, understanding all too well the exhaustion Amber felt, then she turned to the kitchen and started preparing a simple meal. She ate her portion, then covered the rest and left it for Amber when she got up. Then she gathered her things and headed out again, this time making her way to work at the Senate Building.

She passed through security, nodding to the guys she saw every night and waving to her fellow custodians. Esmeralda went directly to her cleaning closet, collecting her cart and checking her supplies before starting her nightly rounds.

"Esmeralda?" Her boss calling her name pulled Es out of the brown study she'd fallen into as she did her restocking by rote. She looked up and smiled. Rick had been a good friend to her since she'd come to work for him and very understanding about her medical issues.

"Hey Rick? what's up?"

"I just wanted to let you know that you've got to cover the new Senator." Her brows rose in question and Rick continued speaking. "You know that Senator Whitman retired because of his health. Well, his replacement has been installed in his office. I know it's unusual, but someone managed to pull some serious strings for the new senator to keep her there for at least the length of his remaining tenure. So, you've got the new kid, kid," he added with a waggle of bushy gray eyebrows.

Esmeralda nodded. "All right, Rick. I'll take care of her. Do you know?? Nevermind."

"What?"

"I was wondering if you knew her work habits - whether she worked late or not. But she hasn't been here long enough for us to have even heard anything yet? to say nothing of having any practical knowledge."

"No, but from what I have heard of her time as a District Attorney, I'm thinking you probably have another Senator Tagherty on your hands." Green eyes flew open wide and Rick chuckled. "I know," he said in response. "If they all worked that hard, the world would be a much better place."

"Yes, but I'd never get *my* work done in that case," Es confided with a wry chuckle.

"And on that note," Rick said as he stepped away from her cart, "I'll let you get to work."

"Thanks for the heads-up, Rick."

"Anytime, Es. Tell Saphira hello from me."

"Will do."

She watched him walk back towards his office and shook her head at the way things were falling into place. Then she gathered up her supplies and started forward to make her rounds.

Most of the senators were in session or in meetings or otherwise out of the office at this time of day and it didn't take Esmeralda much time to tidy and clean each of these office areas. The spaces that had pages and other political assistants taking care of various duties went a little slower, but the employees recognized Esmeralda and greeted her cordially.

As darkness fell around her and evening gave way to night, Esmeralda slowly made her way through the offices she was assigned to, saving Brianna and Charisma for the last.

She knocked on the door like she always did before entering a senator's private office space, not even a little surprised to hear Brianna's voice bid her entrance. Esmeralda opened the door and pushed the cart in ahead of her, turning to close the door behind her before facing the woman currently seated behind the desk.

"Esmeralda?" Brianna asked as she rose from her seat. "What are you??" She held up her hands to stop her question and Esmeralda's answer. "Sorry - obviously you're working. I just didn't realize?."

"I can come back if my being here is a problem, Senator Walker."

Brianna frowned. "Senator Walker? What happened to Brianna?"

"It's not my place to assume that sort of intimacy inside these walls, Senator."

"And if I insist?"

"I am happy to be recognized as a friend, Brianna."

Brianna smiled and stepped forward, embracing Esmeralda briefly before moving back and crossing her arms over her chest. "Always, Esmeralda. You're the nicest surprise I've had all day."

"Rough first day?"

"Just a lot of politics - story of my life for a while, I'm afraid. But seriously, it is great to see you. Did you know??"

"That you'd be here? Not until I got to work this evening. Rick told me someone pulled strings to keep you here." Brianna tilted her head. "Normally, junior senators don't start off here. This building is considered premium real estate and most senators wait for years before having the opportunity to occupy an office here. Some never do. So someone worked a deal somewhere to keep you here."

"So I've already started out owing favors?"

Es shrugged. "It's the way of things here - business as usual." Brianna didn't comment, but went around and sat back at her desk. "So is it all right??" motioning to her cart. "I won't get in your way." Brianna nodded.

"Yes, please." She let the silence go on for a little while, then?. "Tell me about you and Saphira." Esmeralda cocked an eyebrow in Brianna's direction. "I'd just like to know more about you." Brianna paused. "Tell you what - you share with me and I'll share with you."

"All right," Esmeralda agreed as she picked up the duster. "I'll start. Do you want to ask specific questions or should I just throw out random bits of information?"

Brianna's eyes narrowed. "You haven't always been a custodian, have you?" Esmeralda grinned. This was going to be fun.



Chapter XII

"What makes you say that?" Esmeralda asked as started pulling supplies from her cart, setting them out in the order she planned to use them.

"Call it prosecutor's intuition," Brianna said with a satisfied smile, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning back in her chair. For the first time since the announcement about her posting that very morning - what felt like a veritable lifetime ago - Brianna felt comfortable. Though she had only met Esmeralda the previous day, there was something about her that inspired a sense of well-being and Brianna hadn't been kidding when she'd told them she'd long ago learned to trust her gut. It was an instinct she had developed the hard way and she wasn't going to dismiss it now? especially when it boded well for her for a change.

She noted the smirk on Esmeralda's face and couldn't stop the smile from breaking out across her own, even though she was confident that the twinkle reflected in green eyes that could have been her twins meant nothing but trouble for her. "What?"

"I didn't realize prosecuting attorneys were allowed to have intuition, Senator. I thought they had to check it at the door in order to get their ID badges."

"Oh ho? funny woman, hmm?" Brianna allowed the twinkle to form in her own eyes. "Let me guess - you were a comedienne in another life," she continued drolly.

"No, I've always been a custodian or a janitor in one capacity or other. I'm good at it, it pays the bills and you'd be surprised at the things you learn cleaning up behind a person. And while I would never use that knowledge for my own personal gain, it has taught me how to read and relate to people better. And that has given me some wonderful, interesting friends in my life."

"Seriously?"

"Absolutely. To those who see me - who relate to me as a person - I am a viable friend? someone who has earned trust and respect. But to most of those that I work for, I'm not a person but a job to be done. They don't see me - only the results of my labor - so it's easy to dismiss me, but it tends to make them more careless than they would be if they realized I was able to see the things they left behind."

Brianna tilted her head, eyes gone serious at Esmeralda's words. "Such as?"

"Well, you can tell about a lot about a person's personal habits by how they leave their desk. Or what they throw away. What they eat or how they personalize their workspace."

"So you're a student of human nature?"

"Something like that," Es shrugged diffidently. "It keeps my mind busy at any rate."

"Don't downplay your intelligence, Esmeralda, or any of the other talents that you possess." Brianna held up her hand to keep Esmeralda from interrupting before she could finish. "I don't trust easily, Es - I've learned not to in my line of work. Too many people have a tendency to lie first and I've come to expect it as a matter of course. Because of that I have developed a sense about people - not always completely accurate, but right much more often than not."

Esmeralda nodded, but waited for Brianna to continue.

"There's something about you, Esmeralda. You are much more than you allow most to see, but still people feel comfortable around you. I imagine a lot of people talk to you - spilling any number of secrets. And you keep each and every one."

"Brianna, you haven't known me long enough to make that sort of judgment."

Brianna smiled, the expression genuine and visible in her eyes. "Normally, I'd agree with you. But I'd be willing to bet good money I'm right."

"You sure it's not just because you need someone to talk to? need someone to trust?" Esmeralda watched sadly as the light faded from Brianna's eyes. "I'm not saying you're wrong, Brianna, but I don't want you to ever regret confiding in me."

"Do you think I would?"

"I would never give you a reason to, but that doesn't mean you wouldn't have doubts and regrets if you jumped in with both feet right at the start. Right now you have nothing more to go on than your gut and my word, and while I'm sure you trust your gut with very good reason, my word means nothing to you yet."

Brianna sat back, impressed despite herself. "Seems you really are a student of human nature, Esmeralda. You appear to know me very well. So what does my office tell you about me?"

"Aside from the fact that you are moving in?" Es asked with some levity, motioning to the many boxes still packed and scattered around the large space. Brianna smiled with appreciation then nodded and Es took her time surveying the room, walking around slowly as she observed everything.

"Well, going strictly by the labels on the boxes, you are something of a scholar if the sheer number and variety of books is anything to go by. That is not the most important thing to you though as they haven't even been opened and uncrated yet. You were probably a Girl Scout at some point in your life as evidenced by the large first aid kit and several changes of clothing already ensconced in your closet. Family and friends are important to you - though some hold more weight and value in your life than others do. You traveled the world a bit when you were younger, but adulthood and its responsibilities allows you that luxury only on rare occasions. And either photography is a bit of a serious hobby or you travel alone now when you go." She tapped her fingers on her lips, pretending not to notice Brianna's shell-shocked countenance. "Let's see? what else?"

"There's more?"

"Not much at first glance," Esmeralda confessed as her eyes continued to roam the room. "I'd say you probably came from money and that your parents divorced when you were still fairly young although you appear to have found or cultivated a new family unit. And you're most comfortable surrounded by the warmth of familiarity that these reminders bring you. Other than that??" She shrugged. "Only time will reveal more."

Brianna blinked. "How did you??" She looked around the office. "How can you tell all that? All I see is a bunch of unpacked boxes in a mostly bare space."

"I explained about the books," Esmeralda started patiently, waiting for Brianna to nod her agreement. "Were you a girl scout?"

Brianna blushed slightly but nodded again. "I went through the whole program - I was an ambassador."

"Which is why you've learned to prepare for the unexpected as much as you possibly can."

"And the family and friends?"

"You already have their pictures out and placed around your office; you can see all of them, but their framing and placement indicate their value in your life. This one," picking up the crystal frame Brianna had purchased in Ireland years before. "This one is especially important - the frame is expensive and it holds the most prominent position on your desk - so it stands to reason that the other person in it is important to you? or was when the picture of the two of you was taken. Either way, it is a reminder of what you consider to be one of the happiest times of your life. These," motioning to a small grouping of silver frames on one corner of the desk, "are family or close friends, I'm guessing? maybe both. Those," gesturing to the pictures hung on the wall across from the desk, "are people you're glad to have met - you may even keep in touch with the occasional email or Christmas cards - but that's it. The collages - places you've gone and the memories make you happy, so you keep them close behind you where you can turn and look anytime you need to relax."

"I would guess these," motioning to two pictures that hung on either side of prominently displayed diplomas, "are your parents. You have her height, build and eye color and his smile and hair. Since you are alone with your father in his picture and with your mother and her husband in hers and since your dad isn't wearing a wedding ring, it stands to reason that they are no longer married to one another. The fact that there is no mark on his ring finger means they probably haven't been together for a while."

"And the travel?"

Esmeralda smiled. "That was actually the easiest." She walked around the desk to take a closer look. "These," pointing to the college of Brianna's and Charisma's graduation trip, "show you in most of them. If I was to guess, I'd say probably when you were in college and you traveled with at least one friend," not yet mentioning she recognized the same younger version of Charisma Tagherty that sat so prominently on Brianna's desk in the crystal frame. "These," gesturing to the next set, " are still whimsical and personal, and yet there are no obvious people in them, except the one you're in. The photos are of the places themselves, not the people you spent time with there. The timeline is only a guess on my part because photography has changed so much over the last twenty years or so, but I'd guess the two trips were at least ten years apart. And these," standing in front of the last collage, "these are the work of an artist - someone who knows how frame a shot and get the maximum effect. You could probably sell them if you were so inclined. I find it interesting that you don't seem to have visited the same place twice in a row? judging by your photography anyway."

Esmeralda turned to face Brianna, smiling gently at the totally gobsmacked look that graced her face. "So? how'd I do?"

Brianna blinked a couple times, her mouth opening and closing silently as she tried to recover her scattered wits. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were either psychic or a stalker." She held up her hand before Esmeralda could protest. "But your explanations - seeing through your eyes was amazing? and very telling in and of itself."

"How so?"

"You're wasted as a custodian, Esmeralda. You should be a police detective or a secret service agent. You don't miss very much and you have a real grasp on human nature."

Esmeralda smiled. "Lots of practice." She drew in a breath then hesitated, unsure if she should continue. Brianna cocked an inquiring brow and Es shrugged. "I was just noticing - this reminds me of someone I know," retrieving the crystal frame from the desk and studying it carefully. "Another friend of mine. This young woman is about half her age, although given your age here?." She placed it gently back on the desk and met Brianna's green eyes squarely, shaking her head. "But what are the odds of that, huh?"

Brianna smiled weakly, but plowed ahead. "This friend? she doesn't happen to be a United States Senator, does she?"

"As a matter of fact?."

"Um hmm? and does she have a name?"

"Senator Tagherty? Charisma Tagherty. Is that??"

Brianna nodded. "We were college roommates and best friends once upon a time. Then our lives took different paths and we lost touch with one another."

Esmeralda smiled despite the feeling of impending doom that suddenly resonated throughout the room. The tension was apparent in the stiff lines of Brianna's body and Es could feel it scrape and vibrate along her own nerves. However, she was committed to this course of action, so?.

"Well, then - isn't it nice that you're neighbors now?" gesturing towards the closed office door. "It will give you the chance to?."

"No!" Brianna cut in before Esmeralda could finish her thought. Esmeralda looked at her with shock and confusion clear in her eyes and expression. While Brianna's reaction was not unexpected for the angel, the custodian needed a more human response.

"But??"

Brianna held up her hand to halt Esmeralda's words and she took a deep breath before speaking again herself. "I appreciate what you're saying, Esmeralda. But that was a long time ago - things aren't the same anymore."

Es rolled her eyes dramatically, coaxing a reluctant smile from Brianna despite her best efforts to remain stern. "Of course they're not, Brianna. Life is about change - it's the one guaranteed constant we're assured of. That doesn't make it a bad thing. C'mon? can you sit there and tell me you have so many friends you can afford to refuse the opportunity to make another? or renew one that's been lost for years?"

"In this case, yes," Brianna replied firmly. "Leave it alone, Esmeralda. You don't know what happened between Charisma and me."

"You're not going to able to avoid her forever, Brianna. You're from the same state; your offices are just down the hall from one another; and you belong to the same social and political circles. Eventually you're going to run into one another."

"I'm sure at some point we'll even have to work together. That doesn't mean we have to try to be friends again, Es. Far too much water has flowed beneath that particular bridge, I'm afraid. However, I am a consummate professional - I've spent years cultivating that persona in the courtroom - and I will deal with Senator Tagherty as such. She's done a lot of good in her position Esmeralda, and I admire that about her - I always have. I also appreciate the hard work and effort she's put into her career. Her focus was legendary in college and she's successful for that very reason. I've had to do much the same thing to be at the top of my profession." Brianna shrugged. "We don't have to be friendly to get things done."

"Wouldn't it be easier?"

"Probably. But it's not likely, so I'm happy just to maintain the status quo."

Esmeralda remained quiet for a bit, biting her lip in silent contemplation. Finally? "I think you're wrong, you know."

Brianna smiled sadly. "I know. It still doesn't alter the truth."

"Maybe," Es conceded as she started putting her cleaning supplies away. "Will you do something for me?"

Brianna eyed her warily. "What, exactly?"

"Let me reintroduce you. Nothing fancy? nothing public. Just a casual reintroduction here. She works late many nights? says she gets more done without all the interruptions daylight hours bring."

Brianna blew out a frustrated breath. She'd known when she'd accepted the appointment to this position that she and Charisma would have to meet face to face at some point. Would it be better to do so privately with only the two of them where things could turn personal and questions get asked that Brianna didn't have a ready answer she was willing to share? Or in a public venue where the hundreds of eyes surrounding them ensured that any interaction between them would remain polite and professional? Brianna scoffed silently to herself. She felt confident, given their history and the fact that Charisma had let her go without seeking her out for answers years ago, that as long as she did not assume the air of an injured party, things could remain cordial and cool between them. And since she freely acknowledged that she was the one that had set them on this course years ago, she decided that was the best she could hope for.

"I'll tell you what, Es. You talk to Charisma first. If she wants something like that, then I'll agree to it, all right?"

Esmeralda studied green eyes so like her own for a long moment, then solemnly nodded once. "All right." She pushed her cart towards the door. She stopped when Brianna called out to her again, then turned to look at her, waiting for her to speak.

"Why do you care? You don't know me? not really? and you don't know the story of what happened between me and Charisma or the circumstances surrounding our estrangement. So why?"

Esmeralda held her eyes for a long moment. "I've been where you are Brianna." She held up her hand to keep Brianna from interrupting her. "No, I don't know the details of what happened between you and Charisma, but the look you have in your eyes? I've seen that look in my own before. It was one of the darkest periods of my life? when I thought Saphira was lost to me forever. If I can do something to bring you a measure of peace, even if it is just be there to support you both when you meet again for the first time or listen when you need to talk, I want to do that. No one should be completely alone, especially in that much pain - no matter how bravely and stoically you try to bear it."

"Will you tell me the story one day?"

Esmeralda smiled gently. "Absolutely. I got my happy ending, you know."

"I know," Brianna agreed softly, remembering the feeling of family she'd felt surrounding the two of them the night before. "I hope you realize how lucky you are."

"I count my blessings every single day, Brianna. But I need to get a move on. I still have work to do, and I promised to meet Saphira at the diner when I'm done."

Brianna nodded, donning her professional facade once more. She rose and moved to open the door for Esmeralda, stopping her just outside the office with a touch on her arm. "Thank you, Esmeralda," her eyes conveying so much more than her words. Esmeralda simply smiled and nodded then headed through the outer offices towards the hall. Brianna watched her go, only closing the door when she was out of sight.

When she was in the hall, Esmeralda leaned against the wall and took a deep breath. Well, it could have gone better, but it certainly wasn't as bad as it could have been. Of course, there's still Charisma to talk to and after what Amber said?.

Esmeralda shook her head and sighed, pushing off the wall and slipping down the hallway to her next charge. This was turning out to be a far more interesting day than she'd expected. But at least her talk with Brianna had given her an inkling of hope about the possibilities of salvaging things. Time to beard the lion, she thought, and knocked softly on Charisma's door.

Only time would tell if her inklings were right.



Chapter XIII

Saphira noticed the distinct slump in Esmeralda's shoulders even in the darkness as she approached the diner. A swift look of concern passed between Joe and Saphira before Saphira headed to the door to meet Esmeralda. Es leaned her head against Saphira's shoulder and closed her eyes, smiling when the other woman's arms wrapped around her securely. She returned the hug without reservation, tucking her nose into the crook of Saphira's neck and breathing deeply. A chuckle made her pull back slightly to look into twinkling blue eyes.

"You were tickling me."

Es smiled briefly before tucking herself back beneath Saphira's chin. "Sorry," she said softly, though the smile was apparent in her voice. Saphira shifted to keep Esmeralda in a one armed embrace and turned them towards the seating area of the diner. She closed the door and locked it, drawing the blinds and flipping the 'open' sign off. Then they made their way to the counter and took a seat as Joe came around from the back with two laden plates.

Esmeralda cocked an eyebrow at him. He grinned and set one between them and put the other in front of himself. Saphira rose and filled three glasses with milk, placing them on the counter before resuming her seat beside Esmeralda.

"Thank you, Joe," Es said as she picked up half of the huge club sandwich.

"Anytime, Essie. You eat up. Matilda should be here in a few and you don't want her to see you picking at your food. She already worries about you enough," he said with the merest hint of chiding in his voice.

"I know. I'm sor?." She stopped speaking when Joe held up his hand.

"I'm not saying it to make you feel bad, Essie. I just want you to know you're important to more than just Saphira. You were sick for a long time, and we worry about you... both of you. You've been like family to us since you came here and we just wanna see you get back to full health again."

Esmeralda smiled and covered his hand. "I'm getting better every day, Joe."

"If you're gonna be holding hands with my hubby, I think I'm gonna be stealing me a kiss from your best girl," Matilda declared as she came around from the kitchen and brushed a kiss over Saphira's cheek before coming around to cup Esmeralda's face in her hands. "How're you doing, Essie? I missed seeing you yesterday."

Es patted the hands that held her face and kept her eyes locked on Matilda's deep brown ones. "I'm better, Matilda? really. Just a little tired."

Matilda studied the green eyes that held hers, brushing a lock of blonde hair from her face. "You're working too hard. Are those big shots on the Hill working you to death?"

"No, Matilda. My work isn't stressful and the Senators that I work for are very kind to me. Besides," she added impishly, "I get the best gossip you know. I could probably make a fortune if I ever decided to become a tell-all author."

"You probably could," Matilda snorted, holding her eyes for another long moment, then nodding her head. "All right. Now eat up," motioning to the unfinished sandwich and the fries Saphira hadn't eaten. "I have chocolate cake for you to take home with you," chuckling as Esmeralda's eyes widened comically. "Please? like I don't know exactly what it'll take to fatten you up. It's in a box in the fridge. Uh uh," she continued when Es made as if to get up to go retrieve it. "Food first? then cake. And don't even try it," Matilda instructed when Esmeralda's bottom lip threatened to make an appearance. "You act like I didn't learn all the tricks with my own kids," she added with a snort. "You're gonna have to get a lot older before you get old enough to put one over on me, young lady. And you should already be old enough to know better than to even try."

"Yes, Matilda," Esmeralda agreed with a smirk green eyes twinkling merrily. Matilda snorted again and shook her head. She turned to Saphira who was swallowing the last of her milk. "You better keep an eye on this one, Phira," she commented. "She's getting saucy again."

Saphira grinned. "Good? I've missed the sauciness. Saucy means she's feeling better."

Esmeralda swallowed her mouthful and glared at them both balefully. "I'm sitting right here, you know." Saphira wrapped an arm around her shoulders and Esmeralda relaxed into the embrace.

"We know? that's what makes it easy."

Esmeralda didn't deign to speak again; instead, she concentrated on finishing the food Joe had prepared. With a contented sigh, she popped the last fry into her mouth and chugged the last of her milk. She deliberately snatched up her napkin and wiped the milk mustache covering her upper lip.

"Feel better?" Saphira asked with real concern in both eyes and voice. Esmeralda's lack of response to Matilda's teasing meant one of two things - either she had just been peckish and needed to eat, in which case she would soon make a snarky remark as payback. Or something deeper was wrong. And given her slumped posture as she approached the diner earlier, Saphira was inclined to lean towards the second option. "Es?"

Esmeralda turned her face into Saphira's neck for a long moment, closing her eyes and accepting the wordless comfort she found there. When Saphira's arms tightened convulsively around her, she sighed and pulled back and looked into troubled blue eyes. Esmeralda smiled gently.

"I'm fine, Phira. Just been one of those days."

Saphira cocked an eyebrow, but she realized Esmeralda couldn't elaborate in front of their mortal friends, regardless of how much they loved and trusted Joe and Matilda. Angel business was strictly that, and not losing face in front of the mortals they interacted with was one of the first rules they tried to abide by.

Matilda leaned over and placed a hand on Esmeralda's forehead, briefly checking for fever before brushing a kiss over the self-same spot. She exchanged glances with Saphira and pushed away from the counter to head back towards the kitchen. Saphira followed suit, gathering the empty plates, only to have Joe take them from her. So she turned back towards Esmeralda, waiting for her to stand before helping her on with her coat. Es was returning the favor just as Matilda returned from the kitchen with a box in hand.

"Here," she offered and Saphira accepted the box. "There's a big piece in there for you to share tonight and three smaller pieces - one for each of you to have tomorrow and one for Amber. You go home now and get some rest, all right?"

Esmeralda smiled and leaned forward to brush a kiss over the older woman's cheek. "Thank you, Matilda. You're the best. God will repay you in kind one day."

The woman shook her head slightly as though to brush off the words. "I dunno about that, Essie. But I do know what goes around will come around and it don't pay to kick folks when they're down. And I know you and Saphira have had more than your share of trials and tribulations." She chuckled at the bewildered look on the two that stood facing her. "I know you don't say much, but we know," motioning between her and Joe. "We've been there a time or two before ourselves and I recognize the look. Now," shooing them towards the door unceremoniously, "home? both of you."

They leaned around on either side of Matilda. "Night, Joe."

He grinned and waved. "Night, lovelies. Be safe," he added before disappearing into the kitchen. Matilda urged them towards the door.

"You heard the old man," she said with a smile. "Be safe. We'll see you both tomorrow." She let them out the door and locked it firmly behind them, then waited for them both to turn and wave goodnight one last time before they headed for the subway. Only then did Matilda move away from the door and head to the back.

Saphira and Esmeralda walked in silence til they reached the station, swiping their cards and nodding to the attendants who recognized them. The train pulled in just as they approached the platform and they stepped aboard, finding a seat with ease and settling back for the short ride to their stop.

When they reached their small apartment, it was quiet and empty. Amber had long since headed out for her assignment and it was only the two of them in the house. Saphira took Esmeralda's coat and her own, hanging them neatly in the closet while Esmeralda put their cake on a plate and stuffed the rest of it into the fridge. Then they headed to their room together. A few minutes spent preparing for bed and they were soon curled up together in the middle of the mattress sharing the large slice of decadent chocolate cake. After they were finished, Saphira placed the plate on the nightstand and took Esmeralda in her arms.

"You ready to talk about it?" she asked quietly.

Esmeralda sighed and curled tighter into Saphira's body. "Some days, Phira," shaking her head and sighing again. "Charisma didn't show up for work - actually, that's not quite true. She wasn't there very long because Amber got a call to go looking for her. I'm still not sure?."

She broke off abruptly and when she didn't continue, Saphira prompted, "You want to start at the beginning, sweetheart? I'm a little lost."

Esmeralda sighed again. "You heard the announcement of Brianna's appointment," feeling Saphira nod her head above her. "According to Amber, Charisma's private reaction was less than welcoming - her words were 'fire and ice'."

"Yikes!"

"Yes - I suspect it wasn't pretty. Fortunately, Charisma was smart enough to keep it private."

She felt Saphira draw a deep breath and waited, knowing her partner was thinking things through. When she didn't speak immediately, Esmeralda tilted her head up to peer at Saphira in the gloom of near darkness, knowing her partner would understand the action from the movement.

"Okay? so, Charisma went to work, heard the announcement and disappeared for the rest of the day?"

"Essentially. Opal said she came in like usual, though she seemed preoccupied. After the announcement was made, Charisma had Opal cancel her appointments for the day and call for her car. Opal called Turq for the car and then called Amber to bring her up to speed on things."

"Why not you? This is your operation, after all."

Esmeralda smirked, knowing that even if the expression couldn't be seen on her face, the infliction would be clearly heard in her voice. "And they have strict orders from you and Amber not to disturb me if it isn't an emergency on threat of horrific bodily harm. They take that seriously." She felt Saphira duck her head in acknowledgement and cupped her cheek gently before brushing their lips together.

"How long? How long have you known?"

"Why do you think Amber is my second on this mission, love?" feeling the cheek beneath her hand crease into a smile. "I know as well as they do that I am not completely up to par yet and I appreciate everyone looking out for me. I know Amber would have called if I was needed; but the truth is that right now I am in the best place I can be for both of them and I shouldn't be seen outside of that capacity."

Saphira nodded. "So where did she go?"

"The riding stable. Apparently, she and Cleo ran until they were both soaked with sweat. Amber left her when she returned home knowing Ame was there to keep an eye on her. I am assuming she is still there since I haven't gotten a call from either Ame or Amber indicating anything different. Amber is with her now? not that Charisma is even aware of her presence."

"I think it might be time for a roundtable."

Esmeralda sighed and nodded her agreement. "I think you may be right. I'll contact those who aren't on the clock right now. Good thing we share a building, huh? Those that are sleeping will only have to come downstairs."

Saphira rose from the bed, kissing Es firmly before allowing her corporeal form to fall away and her wings to re-emerge. "I'll send Amber back as soon as I get there."

"Thank you, Phira. I don't think it will take long, but I need to know?."

"Shh? I understand, love. I'm the one who suggested it, remember? You need to know so we know what direction we need to head in to get these two back on track." She spread her wings and faded from mortal sight. "I'll be back."

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

"I'm sorry to call everyone here on such short notice, especially those of you are usually sleeping now," glancing at Turq, Ame and Opal. "Thank you for your quick response. I'd just like a brief recap of today's events from each of you and your take on them. Let's start with Ame's arrival at the house this morning and go through the events as they happened."

Ame told of her arrival as housekeeper, mentioning that Charisma seemed tired and a little distracted, but otherwise much as she was any other day. Turq made the same observations and then Es turned to Opal.

"It was like watching her freeze over. When she saw the news, she didn't move? she was barely breathing. She was exceptionally calm about it - she simply returned to her office and closed the door behind her. When she came out, she gave me the orders to call for Turq and cancel her appointments. Then she left."

"Turq, Amber - did she say anything? call anyone, once she was in the car?"

Turq shook her dark head. "No? neither time, actually. I took her to the stables and waited for her there; Amber kept an eye on her while she was out on Cleo, then I took her home and she dismissed me for the remainder of the day."

"And she stayed home the rest of the day?"

Ame nodded. "Playing with Adam. As soon as dinner was over, she sent me home. I had to shield myself from her gaze to remain with her until Amber arrived."

Esmeralda turned to Amber. "And tonight?"

"She was sitting in her office staring at her desk when Saphira arrived. And speaking of? I better get back there so she can get some sleep."

Esmeralda nodded. "Thanks, Amber? ladies. I appreciate your insights," folding her hands on the table. The rest took their cue and bid Es a soft goodnight before returning to their own apartments. Esmeralda waited until the door closed behind the last of them before rising and moving back to the bedroom to await Saphira's return.

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

Charisma sat at her desk, her eyes unseeing in the darkness, though she would have been unable to see Saphira's silent figure observing her regardless of the light factor in the room. A knock on the door didn't faze her - it wasn't until the door opened and a streak of light fell across her desk that she looked up and met Kent's gaze as he poked his head into the room. She stared at him without blinking and he tilted his head, frowning at her lack of expression.

"Charisma?"

It took a moment, but finally Charisma blinked and focused on Kent. She smiled at him, but it was sad? different from the sadness he was used to seeing. He stepped further into the room, but left the door open to shed some light in the room.

"Charisma? Are you okay?"

She blinked again and nodded slowly. "I'm fine, Kent," she replied, and after a tiny hesitation, gestured him inside. "What can I do for you?"

He shook his head awkwardly and cleared his throat. "Nothing. I just wanted to remind you I'm leaving for the city in the morning. I have several auditions over the next few days, but I should be back by the end of next week."

"All right," she agreed absently, then looked at him fully. "Break a leg, Kent. I hope you get the part you really want."

"You really do, don't you?"

Charisma nodded. "I want for you to have what you want in life, Kent. I'd like for you to be happy."

He paused, not saying what he wanted to, but turning the question around on her instead. "What about you, Charisma?"

"I'm happy, Kent - I'm just tired." She stepped from behind the desk and headed towards the door, brushing a kiss on his cheek when she passed by him on the way out of the room. He stood still and accepted the rare touch before following her out of the room and closing the door. He never saw the photograph lying in the center of the desk.

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

Esmeralda blinked sleepily when she felt the warm body curl up behind her and Esmeralda turned in Saphira's arms. "Sorry, I meant to wait up?."

Saphira removed her fingers from Esmeralda's lips when her words stopped. "It's all right, love. I expected you to be asleep."

"So nothing to report?" a sleepy smile in her voice.

"Nothing that won't wait until tomorrow," Saphira assured her. "Go back to sleep."

"Love you," Es mumbled before sleep overtook her once more. It was a little while longer before Saphira closed her eyes and joined her.



Chapter XIV

Saphira blinked against the brightness she could feel coming in the windows and sat up so swiftly, she nearly banged her head against the headboard. Only the weight of Esmeralda's warm body against her own kept her from leaping completely out of the bed. Saphira consciously slowed her frantic heartbeat and gentled her actions as she pushed Esmeralda's hair from her eyes and shook her shoulder with a light touch.

"Es... Esmeralda? Sweetheart, you gotta wake up. We overslept and I've missed half my first shift."

"Uh uh... Ruby's coverin'," Esmeralda mumbled, burying her face deeper into Saphira's belly. Saphira chuckled lightly, causing Es to lean back far enough to glare at her before trying to burrow back into Saphira's body. Saphira stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. Esmeralda huffed and rolled onto her back so she could look up into Saphira's blue eyes.

"What do you mean, Ruby's covering? Since when is Ruby part of this assignment? I thought we had already stretched the numbers too thin with this operation."

Esmeralda shrugged. "I thought so too, actually, but apparently having to cover two such prominent and active individuals means we get more help."

"Did you ask for it?"

"No, Phira. He supplied it."

"Any explanation?"

"Only that He deemed it necessary and timely. Jas' words were 'He supplied your need in His time'."

Saphira only just contained the snort she wanted to release and instead nodded her head solemnly. She knew what Jas had said was true; it was just that her time would have been much sooner than His time... especially considering Esmeralda's slow recovery and the magnitude of this particular project. "Well, I for one will be glad of the help. Maybe we can all get a little more rest so we don't mess things up by being careless."

Esmeralda nodded. "I think that is the idea. Ruby said she'll be taking the morning shift at the diner, so you'll only be working one shift from now on." Es shifted until she was sitting beside Saphira, wrapping her arms around her waist and holding Saphira in a loose embrace. "I can't tell you how glad I am for that, Phira. I know being here with me like this is part of your restitution and punishment, but I've worried about the toll this has taken on you."

Her touch was gentle, but her eyes were fierce when Saphira tilted Esmeralda's head up. "Me?? What about you, sweetheart?? I'm not the one who got sick and almost died!!" Esmeralda could hear the near panic in Saphira's voice and feel the racing of her heart. She put a hand over Saphira's heart even as she leaned forward and brushed their lips together.

"It's all right, Phira. I didn't die and I'm getting better every day... a little stronger every day. Besides, this is my job. I'm a little more used to the aggravations and frustrations that go along with being a clean-up angel."

"Yeah, but He still shouldn't have sent you...."

"Don't question His reason, love," Esmeralda chided. "I had to be the one to do this... *we* had to be the ones to do this. They need us." She paused. "Besides, I'm the best at what I do."

Saphira grinned at Esmeralda's shy admission and the tiny smile that accompanied it. "Yes," she admitted. "Yes, you are. And I suppose if they really need us...."

"They do. Trust me on this, Phira. It'll make a lot more sense when you meet Charisma."

"Yeah... what about that, by the way?"

"She's asked - she's very anxious to meet you. I just need to find a time that works." She hesitated. "Maybe I'll see if I can pin her down for some time next week. Since it's Friday, I doubt she'll be available for the next few days."

Saphira nodded. "Let me know. We'll work something out." She shifted until she was lying almost flat again. "So who else is here besides Ruby and Jas? And how do the rest feel about doubling up on their living space?"

"Well, to answer your second question first, I don't think they care - they're as glad to have the extra help as we are. As for who is here - Jas is gonna be Brianna's new driver; Jade and Mal are on 'whatever' duty until and unless Brianna sets up her own household. We'll make sure they are placed on her household staff if that happens. Indi will be in the office and Coral will be Amber's opposite... watching over her at night."

Saphira nodded. "Maybe this will give everybody a little breathing space, at least for a little while. Until Jade and Mal have something more permanent, they can rotate around and give each of the others a little time off to not be human." She looked at Esmeralda. "I never understood how wearing that was until I had to do it. How do mortals survive this stuff?" motioning around her.

"His grace," Es mumbled. "And true grit. He created them to survive, Phira." She turned into Saphira's body, cuddling up until she was lying on Saphira's chest. "I'm just glad we don't have to get up yet. I hadn't realized how tired I was until Ruby sent me back to bed."

"So we've got a little more time before we have to go rushing out of the house today?" Saphira asked quietly, her voice dropping into its deepest registers. Esmeralda shivered and tilted her head until her eyes met Saphira's. She gasped at the naked love and desire shining back at her from glowing blue eyes. Es reached up a hand and tenderly cupped Saphira's face - it had been an eternity since Saphira had let her see such raw passion in her expression... unwilling to guilt Esmeralda into more than she felt able to give during her recovery. She felt her own eyes start to glow in response.

"Yes," she replied briefly, letting her hand slide along the smooth skin of Saphira's face before tangling in her dark hair. Esmeralda felt the wicked smile form, only to find its twin in Saphira's expression. Without another word, she tugged Saphira's lips to her own, then there were no more words between them for a very long time.

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

"So what happened last night?" Esmeralda asked when they were once more curled comfortably around one another, blissfully sated. Saphira still had a couple hours before she needed to get ready for work, but there was still angel business to discuss. Saphira stretched and shifted around in the bed until she was laying flat on her back with Esmeralda wiggling into place beside her. "Better?" Es asked, tilting her head just enough to see Saphira's profile in her peripheral vision. Saphira glanced down at her and nodded.

"Yes, thanks," she drawled lazily, her rakish grin indicative of the fact that she was referring to more than just their current positions. Es blushed and Saphira's smile gentled. "I love you, ya know."

"I know," Es agreed readily. "It's very mutual."

"Lucky for me," Saphira mumbled. "Don't know what I'd do without you, sweetheart." She swallowed hard. "I'd be a lost soul like Charisma."

"So something *did* happen last night," Esmeralda stated with conviction. "Tell me," she commanded.

Saphira kept one arm firmly around Esmeralda's body, cradling her into her own warmth. The other arm she pulled up and tucked under her head, assuming what Es referred to as her 'thinking pose'. Saphira worried her lip as she marshaled her thoughts, then let out a deep sigh. "All right. I'll tell you what happened, but you need to understand that I'm the one who had the epiphany last night."

"Phira?"

"Hush, love, and let me tell it. Did Amber tell you what went on prior to my arrival?" Es shook her head. Saphira grunted slightly. "Figures."

"We only got into bare basics last night."

Saphira nodded. "All right... well, it seems that as soon as dinner was finished in the Tagherty household, Kent went into his study while Charisma put Adam down for the night. Then she went into her study, opened her safe and pulled out a well-loved photo album."

"*The* photo album?"

"Yes. She removed a single picture from the album and returned the book to the safe."

"What picture?" Es asked impatiently. Saphira chuckled in silence, only to let out a whoosh of air when Esmeralda smacked her on the belly before soothing the self-same spot. Saphira glared at her momentarily before relaxing into the soft touch.

"My word, you're an impatient little thing," Saphira teased after a moment. It was Esmeralda's turn to glare and Saphira squeezed her lightly in an effort to placate her. "I must have arrived not long after, because that was all Amber shared with me before she took off to head back here."

"Did you get a chance to look at the picture?" Es asked again, impatience tingeing her voice though Saphira felt her effort to control it. She nodded.

"I did." She paused and Es lifted her head, realizing immediately that Saphira was lost in her thoughts and not simply trying to tease her by drawing things out.

"Phira?"

Saphira blinked and shook her head. "Sorry. I was just...."

"...thinking," Es said with her. "I know. Share?"

"I will - it's part of this story actually. The picture Charisma had pulled from the album was one of her and Brianna. It was night and they were standing in front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome."

"Were their arms around each other?" Es asked knowingly. "Looking at the camera and grinning?"

"No," Saphira said, bringing Esmeralda's head up in surprise. "I don't think they were even aware of the camera at all." She bit her lip and Esmeralda waited silently. "Their foreheads were leaned together and their eyes were closed... or focused on their hands. It was hard to tell from my angle," Saphira added with a shrug. "I was afraid to get too close; I think Charisma could sense me."

Esmeralda frowned. "Really? That's...."

"I know. It was unnerving for me as well. That's never happened before."

"Why did you think she could?" Not doubting her mate's words, but Esmeralda was curious as to what had led Saphira to that conclusion.

"Maybe she's of gypsy descent; all I know is when I got close enough to see the photograph, her head came up and she looked around the room as though searching for something... or someone."

Esmeralda blinked. "That's odd. She's never given me any indication that she senses me as anything other than mortal."

"Because you've never been anything other than mortal around her, Es. You've never been near her as an angel."

Esmeralda nodded. "This is true. I wonder if it's happened to Amber."

"I dunno - she hasn't said anything to me, but it's not like I've seen her except in passing."

"Well, she hasn't said anything to me either, but I'm certainly going ask when I see her next."

Saphira glanced at the clock. "That should be fairly soon. She's probably out there drumming her fingers on the table waiting for you to get up." She made a face. "She's probably waiting for you to fix lunch." Saphira flinched when Esmeralda pinched her. "OW! What'd you do that for?"

"She could be cooking for us, you know."

Saphira shuddered visibly. "I hope not. I've seen what happens to people that eat her cooking... angel status not withstanding."

Esmeralda couldn't stop the laughter that howled from between her lips and Saphira grinned broadly, pleased with herself immeasurably. After a moment, Es straightened and drew a deep breath, shaking her head to compose her expression. "Thank you, love. I know we're pretty far afield of our original discussion, but I needed that. I needed this," motioning between them.

Saphira brushed a kiss over the top of Esmeralda's head. "So did I."

"So back to the picture.... How could they not have been aware of it? Someone had to have taken it, which means they had to have asked someone... given someone their cameras to take it."

"Doesn't mean they were aware that picture was being taken until after it was on film."

"True. Wonder if Brianna has a copy of it," Saphira mused.

"Maybe, but I'd be willing to guess she doesn't - it's not anywhere in her office anyway. The one of them at Trevi has the two of them facing the camera and grinning like crazy; it's on her desk facing her. She's the only one that can see it." Es shifted. "So tell me more about Charisma's reaction."

"It was... sad." Saphira paused thoughtfully. "Poignant. She sat staring at it for a long time - just looking; I'm almost positive there were tears in her eyes. Just before Kent knocked on the door, she trailed her fingers over it, though I'm not sure if she was just touching it as she remembered or if it was something more."

"So she knows."

Saphira nodded. "I'd say yes."

Esmeralda blew out a breath. "That could go either way."

"As to?"

"If Charisma knows how Brianna feels and she's at least acknowledged her own feelings to herself, then this will likely play out one of two ways. Either she will be hurt, but will need to forgive Brianna for leaving or she will be angry and will struggle to keep their interactions strictly profession and to a minimum."

"That's it?"

"Those are the typical human reactions to this sort of situations. But that is assuming she is aware of both her feelings and Brianna's."

"And if she isn't?"

"If she isn't aware of Brianna's feelings, she will be hurt. If she hasn't acknowledged her own feelings, she will be angry."

Saphira covered her face with her arm. "This is giving me a headache."

Esmeralda smiled sympathetically. "Those are just the basic hypotheticals. The fact is we don't have quite enough of the pieces in our hands yet to have a good idea of what's coming down the pipeline yet. Once I get a good feel for where Charisma is about all this, we'll have a better idea."

"Are you *certain* we can't just smack them around a little and make them resolve this now?" Esmeralda shifted and sat up, making a move to get out of the bed. She slid into her robe, only to feel Saphira's arms wrap around her. "Where you going?" Saphira mumbled into her shoulder.

"Yes, I'm certain," Es answered, patting the arms slowly rocking her side to side. "And I'm going to get a shower. Would you like to join me?"

Saphira was out of the bed so quickly, Esmeralda was nearly catapulted from the bed. She narrowed her eyes at Saphira who gave her a sheepish smile in return.

"Sorry."

Es held her gaze for another moment before she relented. "C'mon. We still need to eat before we go to work." Then they crossed into the bathroom and closed the door solidly behind them.

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

Amber was sitting at the table eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when they exited their room, both dried and dressed and ready for work. She looked up and gave them the stink eye before turning her attention back to the newspaper she was reading without a word.

"What are you still doing up?" Esmeralda asked, glancing at the clock before pulling out a skillet. Saphira joined her and they rustled through the fridge together, pulling out ingredients for their lunch. They put things on the counter, then turned back to Amber, realizing she hadn't answered Esmeralda's question. Saphira cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Problem?"

Amber turned and looked at Esmeralda. "Are you all right?"

Esmeralda frowned. "Yes, why wouldn't I be?"

Amber took a deep breath. "No reason, I guess. I was just worried when I saw so many newbies headed out of here when I got in this morning... especially when I was told you were off limits. Ruby said you needed the rest."

"I did; I haven't felt this good in a long time, Amber."

Amber smirked. "I'll bet," watching the blood flush Esmeralda's face. "Don't mind your old sis, Es. It's just become natural to worry about you, and I'm tired after last night."

Saphira pushed off the counter and turned to grab three plates as Esmeralda removed the skillet from the heat. She set one in front of Amber, then placed the other two on the table for herself and Es. "Something happened?"

"Grab a seat," Amber instructed. "I'll bring you up to date."



Chapter XV

"By the time I got back and went upstairs, Charisma was already in bed; I figured she was asleep."

"She wasn't?"

Amber shook her head. "No... not at first, anyway. She was curled around her pillow, eyes closed. Only when I got closer did I see the tears rolling silently down her cheeks."

"Did she sense you?" Saphira asked. Amber blinked at her.

"Excuse me?"

"Charisma... did she sense you?" Amber frowned.

"No... why would she?" Her golden eyes widened. "Wait... you're saying she could sense you?" Saphira nodded. Amber turned to Esmeralda. "Has she ever...?"

"No, but as Saphira pointed out to me, I have only been a human mortal around her. I've never observed her as an angel."

"Weird." Amber bit her lip thoughtfully. "Maybe it has to do with our classifications?" watching as Saphira's and Esmeralda's brows rose in tandem. "Well, think about it - I'm a guide guardian... I'm not supposed to be noticed as more than a feeling or an influence. You're a clean-up guardian, Es - your job requires you to be human... no interaction as an angel while you're on a job. But Saphira's an Angel of Retribution - she's supposed to make an impact as an angel. If Charisma is sensitive at all, she might be able to feel the strength of that impression."

Esmeralda and Saphira exchanged brief stares. "Well, that would explain a lot." They turned back to Amber. "So what else happened?"

Amber sighed. "Her breathing changed, so I know she fell asleep, but the tears didn't stop. After a bit she seemed to fall into a dream... or a nightmare; it's hard to say without knowing any details. I do know she shot up out of bed gasping for breath." The three swapped looks, knowing full well that could indicate any number of things. "Then she got up and went back downstairs to her study. She stayed there the rest of the night - caught between pacing the length of the room and studying the pictures on her desk."

"Pictures? Plural?"

Amber nodded. "Yes. She recovered the album from her safe and went through them slowly... one at a time."

"Did you get an opportunity to see them?"

"Yes. And I don't believe she doesn't know. It was there in every single photograph."

Esmeralda blew out a breath. "Today should be interesting."

"I know Turq and Opal weren't looking forward to it. Ame apparently warned them Charisma was being a bitch on wheels." Amber nodded at Es' raised eyebrows. "She was - yelling, impatient, frustrated... if I hadn't known better I'd have thought she was upset because Kent was leaving."

"Are you sure she wasn't?"

The look Amber gave Saphira could have cut diamonds. "I'm sure. For the most part, she completely ignored him, except to wish him well and say goodbye. If she was upset with him, she wouldn't have bothered to speak to him at all - or she would have focused her anger in his direction." She shook her head. "It's hard to explain if you haven't guided humans as long as I have; you kind of get to know how your charges think after a while. And while all humans are individuals and I will never claim to understand them, they still have a lot of traits in common with us. So it makes it a little easier to relate to their actions as well as their reactions."

Esmeralda chanced a look at the clock. "You should get some sleep, Amber. If today is as much fun as I expect it to be, your night will probably be another long one."

Amber blew out a breath and nodded her head wearily. "Probably." She rose and took her plate to the sink. "I'm glad you're feeling better, Little One," leaning down and brushing a kiss over Esmeralda's forehead. "Leave the dishes. I'll do them when I get up. Goodnight, guys."

"Goodnight, Amber," they replied together, watching her disappear into her room. Then they turned to one another. Saphira took her plate and Esmeralda's to the sink and extended her hand.

"C'mon, Angel mine. We've got to get to work."

"And you still have to share your epiphany with me."

Saphira nodded. It was time.

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

"The picture that had Charisma so mesmerized last night - the one of her and Brianna," waiting for Es to nod her head before continuing. "It brought home so many truths to me. I know I told you that even He couldn't have kept us apart... and I meant that, Es. I meant that with my whole heart, even before...." She blew out a breath and clasped Esmeralda's hand tighter in her own. "I saw what this separation has done to Charisma to the smallest extent and it's by her choice! I can't fathom... I won't let that happen to us, Es. I can't. I wouldn't survive it!"

Esmeralda pulled them to a stop, heedless of the odd looks and stares they garnered. She brought her free hand to cup Saphira's face, gratified when she immediately leaned into the touch. "Neither would I, love. And He knows that."

"Why would she choose this, Es? Why would she deliberately turn her back on happiness?"

"I can't answer that, Phira - not yet. I'm not sure she remembers what happiness feels like any more. She's content in her life... or she was until yesterday."

Saphira shook her head. "This is my stop. I'll see you tonight?"

Esmeralda grinned. "Don't you always? Have a good day."

"You too, Sweetheart. Love you."

"Love you more," Es quipped just as the Metro door closed between them. She laughed at the face Saphira made at her before the train pulled away headed to its next stop. Then Es took a deep breath to center herself. It was shaping up to be a hell of a day.

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

Esmeralda entered the building and waited her turn to step through the security. When she reached the metal detector, Derek greeted her. "Hey, Es. Glad it's Friday?"

She gave the security agent a smile. "Always, Derek. Aren't you?"

He looked around conspiratorially. "Yeah, but especially today. Word has it Tagherty is on the warpath." Esmeralda's eyes widened. That's not good. Derek nodded his head at her unspoken thought. "Just watch yourself, Es."

She nodded. "You know it. Say hi to Doc Janie for me."

"You betcha. She expects to see you next week, you know."

"I know. I've got an appointment."

"Make sure you keep it," he warned with a smile. "You know we'll both hear about it if you don't."

"Worse," Es countered with a grin. "She'll sic Saphira on me."

"True. Here comes your boss - have a good night."

"You too," she replied as she walked away from security to be intercepted by Rick. She noted the frown on his face. "Something wrong, Rick?"

He pinched his lower lip even as he accompanied Esmeralda to the supply closet that held her cleaning cart. He observed her checking everything, making sure she was fully stocked before starting her cleaning rounds. When she realized Rick still hadn't responded, she faced him, arching an eyebrow and putting her hands on her hips.

"Rick?"

"Senator Tagherty is in quite a mood. Just watch yourself, huh? I'd hate to see anything happen to you."

Esmeralda nodded. "I will. Who knows... maybe she'll be gone by the time I get to her office."

"We'll hope so. You call me if you have any problems, all right?"

"I will, Rick... thanks."

Rick gave Esmeralda a nod, then left her to start her rounds. She wondered what Charisma had done to warrant her being warned not once, but twice about her mood. She hoped she'd get a chance to talk to someone on the team assigned to Charisma before she reached the Senator's office.

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

Opal stepped from the office the second she heard Esmeralda walk by the door. At the moment she was thankful for the respite she'd been given, as she had been the main target of every outburst Charisma'd had since she'd walked into the office that morning. It was just as well, she reasoned - the few non-angel personnel Charisma had working for her would have long quit had they been subjected to her ire that day.

"Es?" Esmeralda stopped and turned back to Opal, eyes widening at her weary countenance. She hurried back and put a concerned arm around her shoulders, smiling sadly when Opal tucked her head into her neck and sighed in exhaustion.

"You okay, Opal? You look...."

"I am," Opal nodded and confessed at the same time. "Been a long, LONG day," she added for emphasis. "I've spent the entire day running interference for everyone to ensure that Charisma still has a staff tomorrow."

"Feel a little black and blue?" Opal nodded, then stiffened when she heard the clearing of a throat behind her.

"Opal, is there a reason you're standing out in the hall instead of taking care of your work? I'm sure I can find someone who would be thrilled to be promoted to your position if you feel you can no longer handle your responsibilities with timeliness."

Opal sagged briefly in Esmeralda's arms at the cutting words and tone before she straightened and put a bit of space between them. "No, Senator Tagherty. I'll get back to it." She risked a glance at Esmeralda. "Thank you, Es," her words pulling a surprised reaction from Charisma. Esmeralda smiled gently.

"Anytime, my friend," she assured before Opal disappeared back into the office. Charisma remained where she was, her blue eyes studying Esmeralda carefully.

"Is there anyone you can't make friends with, Esmeralda?" letting her eyes roam around the hall and briefly rest on Brianna's door before returning to meet Esmeralda's green ones squarely.

"I've found that one can never have too many friends, Senator."

Charisma's eyes shuttered and she bit her lip thoughtfully before nodding briskly. "I suppose you're right. If you'll excuse me...." her tone almost cold. Charisma winced when she saw the hurt flash across Esmeralda's face before she could school her expression into a polite mask.

"Of course, Senator Tagherty. I have work that needs tending. Have a good evening, Senator." Esmeralda gave a respectful nod of her head and moved her cart towards the far end of the hall to begin her cleaning. Charisma chewed on her inner lip a moment longer.

"Esmeralda?" Es turned at the first syllable of her name being called down the hall.

"Yes, Senator?"

"Will you be by later?"

"Of course, Senator - it is part of my responsibility to take care of your office suite."

Charisma nodded, not sure what to say at this point - anger and hurt warring in her expression. Then without another word, she went back into her office and closed the door. Esmeralda shook her head and got to work.

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

"Senator Walker?" Esmeralda called out as she knocked on the door - just as she always did before entering an office. Then she used her passkey and stuck her head in the door, only to instantly recognize that Brianna's office was empty of her presence. Es walked further into the room, pushing her cart ahead of her and idly wondering if this was going to be the way of things for the next two years - with the two of them doing everything they could to avoid one another. She blew out a frustrated breath and took a good look around.

Clearly her words from the previous day had made an impact on Brianna; nothing was out of place. All the boxes had been emptied and the things in them put away neatly in their designated spot in the office. The boxes had been flattened and marked for recycling beside a mostly empty trash can. Otherwise, there was little out of place in the room.

Knowing Brianna was more than likely gone for the day, Esmeralda set to work. She still had plenty to do before she could meet Saphira at the diner.

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

Esmeralda knocked lightly on the door of Senator Tagherty's office, fairly confident Charisma was waiting inside. "Senator Tagherty?" She got no answer, so Es pushed her cart in and stepped into the office behind it. She saw Charisma sitting at her desk in the dark, but ignored her, knowing it was up to Charisma to make the next move. It didn't take long.

"You know, don't you?" she asked softly, though her tone was cutting.

Esmeralda, having been engrossed on keeping her attention on her work, started slightly before she looked up at Charisma. A look of confusion crossed her face. "Senator?" watching hurt flash in blue eyes. "Charisma?"

"You know, don't you?" Charisma repeated, her tone more defeated than angry.

Esmeralda set down the spray bottle she'd been filling and padded to the desk, extending her hand to Charisma. Charisma looked at her in confusion and Esmeralda cocked an eyebrow, then jerked her head towards the couch. Charisma couldn't help the smile that twitched her lips and she took Esmeralda's hand with alacrity, allowing the other woman to tug her to her feet and lead her to the sofa. They plopped onto opposite ends of the cushions and Esmeralda reached for the light, only to be stopped by Charisma's voice.

"Leave it off... please?"

"Do you find the darkness comforting, Charisma?"

"Sometimes it seems like my only friend."

"Can I help?"

"I don't think so, Es," Charisma replied resignedly. "No one can help. I need to work through this on my own."

"What if I reintroduced you?" Esmeralda offered quietly. "Nothing public, just...."

"NO!" Charisma lashed out. "No!" she said again a little quieter, but no less forcefully. "I will not be subjected to meeting with her outside of an occupational venue! I may be forced to deal with her professionally, but otherwise, I will tolerate no interaction with her! Do you understand me??"

"Charisma...."

"No, Esmeralda! Do. You. Understand. Me?"

Esmeralda rose and nodded her head sadly, her eyes never leaving Charisma's even in the darkness. "I understand, Charisma, more than you know... even if I don't understand why." She moved back over to her cart. "I do know one thing," she added as she picked up her spray bottle again.

"What's that, Es?" Charisma asked, her voice tired and defeated.

"You will never find peace or happiness until you settle things with Brianna."

"Things were settled with Brianna Walker twenty years ago, Esmeralda... when she walked out of my life without even saying goodbye!"

"And you never made an effort to find out why, did you? Doesn't that make you equally culpable?"

Charisma's blue eyes hardened and iced over. "Get. Out."

Esmeralda sucked in a sharp breath, but otherwise gave no outward reaction to the bite in Charisma's words. Instead, she put her things away without further acknowledgment and headed to the door. She placed a hand on the doorknob, then turned back to Charisma.

"One day - maybe sooner, maybe later - you're going to have to face one another. Whether that happens publicly or privately is entirely up to the two of you, but it will happen, Charisma. It's only a matter of when and where." Esmeralda sighed. "I hope... I had hoped you would let me help be a part of your reconciliation, but you obviously have no intention...." She trailed off and shrugged. "You've made it clear it's not my business. However, Saphira is and she would still like to meet you if you're still willing. So if you can let me know when would be a good time for you, we'll arrange something soon." She held up a hand. "And I promise, no funny business. Goodnight, Senator."

Esmeralda was out the door with it closed behind her before Charisma had a chance to recover her wits. She blinked and the tears rolled silently down her face. It was a long time before Charisma called for her car to take her home.



Chapter XVI

"Brianna?" Saphira welcomed hesitantly as the Senator crossed the threshold of the diner, not having expected to see the woman here alone at this time of day. "Please, come in," she added a little more firmly, seeing the uncertainty in Brianna's expression morph into something less frightened and more sure of herself. She gave Saphira a big smile and glanced around the busy restaurant, then back at Saphira who took the opportunity to ask, "Would you like a table, booth or a seat at the counter?"

"I'd like a seat at the counter," Brianna replied softly, "if you will be the one waiting on me."

Saphira smiled graciously while wondering what had sent Brianna running from Esmeralda to her. She nodded her head. "I'm sure we can work something out to make that possible. C'mon," leading her around the counter to the far side. It was quieter here and Saphira suspected Brianna had come looking for sanctuary. Saphira went around to the back of the counter and poured Brianna a glass of ice water and placed that and a menu in front of her. "Here," she offered. "You take a look at this while I go take care of those folks," motioning to a nearby table. "All right? Then I'll be right back."

Brianna blinked and nodded. "Take your time, Saphira. I'm fine here by myself for now."

"You sure?"

Brianna looked around again cautiously, realizing it was probably the dinner hour rush at the diner. Not wanting to cause Saphira to lose tips on her account, she nodded firmly. "Absolutely. As long as you don't mind me hanging around for a while, I'm great."

Saphira awkwardly patted her hand. "You're welcome to stay as long as you need to, Brianna. Look over the menu and I'll be back in a few."

"Thanks, Saphira." Then Brianna watched as Saphira melted away to take care of her other customers.

A few minutes later, Saphira returned to where Brianna was sitting. She arched an eyebrow in question, causing Brianna to blush and chuckle simultaneously. "I'm sorry," Brianna said with only a hint of the embarrassment currently flooding her fair complexion. "I never realized...." Her voice trailed off thoughtfully and her expression sobered before her head dropped. "Doesn't matter now, I guess."

Saphira worried her lip between her teeth, contemplating her options. This was actually Esmeralda's field of expertise and Saphira felt like a fish out of water. Still, she was an angel and there was a part of her that knew only too well how Brianna felt, having faced the possibility of losing Esmeralda for the rest of their immortal lifetimes. It wasn't something she'd wish on her worst enemy and as an Angel of Retribution, that was saying a lot. The fact that this woman had chosen this path, thinking it was the right thing to do for the woman she loved more than anything simply made it worse.

Saphira took a deep breath and cupped Brianna's chin gently but firmly in her hand. She urged Brianna's face up, then stroked her jaw line, causing Brianna's eyes to fly open and meet her blue ones in startlement. "It does matter, Brianna Walker. It matters more than anything else in the world."

"How do you...?" Then Brianna sucked in a pained breath, seeing the depth of agony and sorrow Saphira was allowing her to witness. Brianna clasped the hand that still tenderly held her face and brought it down to the counter between them, covering it with her other hand. "You really do understand, don't you? You know...."

"All too well, Brianna."

A crashing sound brought them out of their private reverie and Saphira straightened, though she did not pull away from Brianna's hold. Brianna, however, appreciating that Saphira was still at work, released her hold and made a weak shooing motion.

"Go on," she encouraged. "I know you've got more important things to do than to mollycoddle me."

Saphira met Brianna's eyes fiercely and Brianna froze. "There is nothing more important than this," she replied softly, putting a hand over her own heart. "But if you want to talk privately, I do need to finish up here first and get folks on their way."

Brianna patted the hand that remained on the counter. "No one understands better than I do that responsibilities have to come first. Go on," she said again. "I'm not going anywhere."

Saphira gave her a long look, then nodded. "I'll be back. You be deciding what you're gonna want to eat in the meantime, all right?"

"Deal."

Brianna watched as Saphira wove in and out of tables, expertly taking orders, refilling glasses and bringing plates as fast as Joe called out, 'order up'. In a very brief amount of time, Saphira had been to every table and was back in front of her.

"You know what you want yet?" asked with a smile. Brianna smiled in response.

"Yep. I think I'll have the blue plate special."

"Great choice; lemme go put it in. It shouldn't take but a few minutes. That's been real popular today. You want something else to drink?"

"No, thanks - I'm good with water right now."

Saphira nodded. "All right. I'll be back."

Saphira stopped at the window and placed Brianna's order with Joe, then headed out around the corner to check on the other tables again. Just before she headed back to Brianna, Jade and Coral stepped into the diner. Her eyebrow arched, but she allowed them to seat themselves. She wasn't surprised when they took a booth near the door that allowed them ample sight of the entire room, but particularly Brianna. Saphira scooped up two menus and headed over to them.

"Ladies," she greeted. "This is an unexpected pleasure," the question in her tone clear.

"Es called us as soon as she discovered Brianna wasn't in her office. A call to Jas confirmed that Brianna came here before she dismissed Jas for the evening, so we came right over."

"Is she supposed to see you, Cor? I thought part of your protection was the fact that charges never see their guardians."

"She can't see me, Phira... only you and Jade can. We just didn't want to risk losing her, and if she hadn't been here when we arrived, we'd have split up again. Now that we know she's here, Jade will stay until she's ready to go. I'll take over once she leaves."

Saphira nodded. "Go back to the house and get some rest and something to eat. She's gonna be here a while."

Coral frowned at her. "You're sure?"

Saphira scowled. "She came here to talk and I have at least another four hours to work. Yes... I'm sure. Besides, I'd never do anything to put this mission in danger - it's too important to them and too important to Es."

"And Him?"

"I'm not as concerned about Him as I am Esmeralda and them," Saphira answered honestly.

"Still a little residual anger, Saphira?"

"Drop it, Coral. You really don't want to start something with me that you can't possibly win and have little hope of even finishing."

Coral met Saphira's eyes, squelching a flinch at the raw emotion that was focused her way. She nodded her acceptance and rose, patting Saphira lightly on the shoulder as a form of muted apology. Saphira jerked her head once roughly in acceptance, keeping her eyes on Jade to keep up the pretense that she was alone at the table.

"Look over the menu, Jade," she instructed. "I'll be right back."

Joe called out order up just as Saphira passed his window, and she snatched the plate from the ledge and gracefully set it in front of Brianna. Then she refilled her water and raised her brows. "Anything else I can get for you right now, Brianna?"

Brianna looked over her loaded plate and then at the condiments that were within easy reach. She shook her head. "I'm good; thanks, Saphira."

"Anytime, my friend. Enjoy." Brianna put a cautious hand on Saphira's arm when she went to move away from the counter once more and Saphira tilted her head in question. "Brianna?"

"Seriously... thank you, Saphira. Do you... when do you expect Esmeralda?"

"Same time as always... a little after midnight."

Brianna blew out an impatient breath. "Do you...?" She cleared her throat and started again. "Would you and Joe mind if I waited here for her with you? I'd really... I'd like to talk to both of you alone."

"I told you, Brianna - you're welcome to stay here as long as you need to."

Brianna smiled tremulously and released her hold, her eyes watering this time though she didn't allow them to fall. Saphira nodded and turned away, praying for Esmeralda to hurry with her own work and get to the diner quickly. She didn't want to handle this alone.

Then she headed out to make another round of the tables, hoping beyond hope her prayer would be answered.

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

Esmeralda blew out a shaky breath as she returned her cart to its closet and donned her coat prior to going outside. She was headed towards the security exit when a hail made her pause and turn. She waited, knowing Rick was probably more concerned than upset - a state confirmed by his expression when he got closer. She tilted her head at him and offered him a tired smile.

"Everything all right, Es?" he queried, though the air around him lightened considerably as he returned her smile measure for measure. "It's earlier than usual for you... especially a Friday night."

"I know. But Senator Walker left very little for me to clean and Senator Tagherty dismissed me before I could even get started. Don't be surprised if she requests a new custodian."

Rick's grey brows flew to his grizzled hairline. "Excuse me?" Esmeralda nodded but didn't elaborate and Rick huffed out a breath. "Do you want...?"

"No, Rick. I'm happy where I am and I like the people I take care of. But I might have over-stepped myself with her tonight. So she may ask you for a change."

"And if she does?"

Esmeralda shrugged tiredly. "You do what you need to, Rick."

Rick snorted. "In that case, you're staying put."

Esmeralda smiled and she patted his arm. "Thanks, Rick. I'm gonna cut out early tonight. I'll see you on Monday?"

"You betcha, Es. You be careful going home, all right?"

"Always," she promised and headed towards the door. At least, she comforted herself, she'd get to spend a little more time with Saphira, acknowledging how much she'd missed that since beginning this current assignment where they were together for little more than sleeping most of the time. First, though, she needed to give Amber a quick update, angling herself to the bathroom. It would be where Amber would materialize when she arrived. And frankly, though no one would be able to see Amber, Esmeralda preferred to keep their conversation private. This was the best way to do that in a Senate office building. Besides, she didn't need an audience to witness what looked like her talking to herself - no need to give Rick a reason to fire her for insanity, she thought wryly as she opened the door.

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

"What's up, Little One?" Amber asked as Esmeralda entered, then yawned widely. She stretched and looked around, furrowing her brow as she realized where she'd been summoned. "Um... Es?"

"Sorry, Amber. This was the best I could do on short notice. Charisma threw me out of her office a few minutes ago, so I wanted you to be with her. I know this cuts your sleep short...." Amber waving her hand cut off Esmeralda's apology.

"It happens, Es. Are you all right?"

Esmeralda nodded. "Just a little frustrated. Why would anyone *choose* to be miserable, Amber?"

"I don't think she knows she is - remember, she's been content in her life up to now. She's trying to hold onto the status quo she's known and been comforted by for twenty years. And since it's worked for her up to now...." letting her thought trail off.

"You've been thinking about this."

"Yeah. I was putting together what I've seen from her, what I know about human behavior in general and the things you said this morning. She'll come around."

"Let's hope for sooner rather than later."

Amber wrapped an arm around Esmeralda's shoulders and guided her towards the door. "Go on - go see Saphira. I'll be watching Charisma."

Esmeralda rested her forehead on Amber's shoulder. "What would I do without you, Amber?"

Amber brushed a kiss over the blonde hair tucked beneath her chin. "Let's make a deal never to find out, all right?" Esmeralda nodded. "Good. Now go see your girl and let me get to work. I'll let you know if anything comes up."

"Have I ever told you how glad I am you're my big sister?" Amber snorted and gave Esmeralda a noogie to alleviate some of the emotion she felt welling up inside her. "Hey!" Esmeralda protested, straightening and patting her hair back into some semblance of order.

"Send me a Hallmark card," Amber snarked. "Now get out of here and let me get to work," pushing Esmeralda out of the bathroom.

"Thanks, Amber," Esmeralda whispered.

"Anytime, Little One." Then Esmeralda closed the door and turned her steps towards Derek and the security outpost. She needed to see Saphira.

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

Jade had eaten quickly and left the diner, though she remained outside in her non-corporeal, angel form in case she was needed. So the diner was relatively empty when Saphira noticed Esmeralda approaching. She glanced at the clock with a frown, then turned to Joe who had also noticed Esmeralda's arrival. He shrugged and motioned Saphira to the door.

Saphira had a brief thought to send up a prayer of thanks for Esmeralda's unexpectedly early arrival before she crossed to the door and exited the diner. She noted Jade and Esmeralda in conference and took her time reaching them. Jade smiled and nodded before disappearing from their gaze, headed, presumably for the house to get some rest.

Esmeralda turned as Saphira drew closer and held out her hand. Saphira took it and pulled Esmeralda to her. "Everything all right, Sweetheart?"

"Rough night," she replied shortly. "I'll tell you about it later," blowing her bangs out of her eyes. "Brianna's inside?"

"Yeah - she got here about ten minutes ahead of Jade and Coral," noting the widening of Esmeralda's eyes. "Coral remained invisible to her and I sent her back to the house to get some rest. Jade ate and came out here to keep an eye on things in case Brianna decided to leave before you got here and before I got off. However, she wanted to talk to both of us, so she's sitting at the counter just waiting."

"Tell me she's at least eaten something."

Saphira grinned. "Not to worry, my love. Whatever she wants to talk to us about doesn't seem to be adversely affecting her appetite." She paused. "How are you?" noting the residual sadness in green eyes.

"I'll be all right," Esmeralda promised. "C'mon," she invited, looping her arm through Saphira's and tugging them gently forward towards the diner door. "Let's go find out what our other charge has to say. Maybe she'll be more willing to move things along than her counterpart seems to be," growling low in her throat. Saphira chuckled.

"You about ready to try things my way, Es?" asked teasingly.

"Don't tempt me, Phira. That much stupid should be painful," her reply abrupt and sharp.

Saphira pulled them to a halt and took Esmeralda in her embrace again, waiting for green eyes to track to hers. "You sure you're all right, Es?" knowing the response was unusual.

Esmeralda sighed deeply. "Just frustrated... and a little hurt," she admitted. "I'll get over it. C'mon," tugging again. "Let's go talk to Brianna."

Saphira gave into the tugging, knowing they would revisit the subject again once they were alone. Then they entered the diner together and their attention focused on Senator Brianna Walker.



Chapter XVII

"Well, Senator Walker," Esmeralda greeted in a teasing tone. "I guess I know now why you snuck out of the Senate building so early," smiling and motioning to the slab of chocolate cake and glass of milk Joe had just placed in front of Brianna. Brianna picked up her fork and returned the smile briefly before turning her attention to the cake to concentrate on cutting off her first bite.

"You know it, Es," she joked lightly, just holding back a moan when the rich chocolate hit her tongue. "I heard it calling my name."

"Wow, Brianna!" tilting her head left and right before meeting green eyes with a hint of a twinkle in her own. "You should hire out to be a spy or something. With hearing like that...." letting the thought trail off when Brianna snorted and nearly ended up with cake up her nose. Esmeralda chuckled at the glare Brianna bestowed on her.

"That wasn't very nice," Brianna commented, carefully cleaning the chocolate icing from her fork before wiping her lips and taking a large swallow of milk. Esmeralda waited until she put the milk back down in front of her, then grinned cheekily at her.

"Maybe not," she agreed, "but it sure was funny."

Brianna chuckled and shook her head. "Not if I'd had to explain that to an Emergency Room doctor."

"We're well-versed in CPR," Saphira assured her. "Not a problem," locking the door and flipping the closed sign around before dropping the shade into place.

"Is it wrong that I don't find that particularly comforting at the moment?"

"Nope," Esmeralda assured her as she took the seat next to her even while Saphira went around the backside of the counter and started pouring up three glasses of milk. "I wouldn't want to explain the presence of chocolate cake in my nasal passages either. And imagine the stir that would make in the press." Brianna just groaned and dropped her head onto the counter, careful to miss her plate.

"That would be humiliating," came the muted words from Brianna.

"And embarrassing," Esmeralda concurred. She accepted the plate of food Saphira placed in front of her with a smile, immediately shifting half of it onto Saphira's empty plate. Saphira mumbled a 'thank you' and picked up her fork, perfectly willing to let Esmeralda continue to lead the conversation with Brianna. Esmeralda took a bite of her pot roast, chewing slowly and holding up her thumbs to Joe who grinned at her assessment. She swallowed carefully and turned back to Brianna who was decimating her slice of cake bite by slow bite.

"So Brianna Walker," the address garnering Brianna's attention faster than almost anything else would have. "What brings you to our humble establishment, so to speak?" giving Joe another grin when he popped up in the kitchen window. He winked then returned his attention back to his food.

"Guess you wouldn't buy that I came by for the chocolate cake, huh?" Esmeralda cocked an eyebrow, knowing without looking that Saphira had done the same. "Yeah, I didn't think you would," Brianna confessed. "I just felt the need for a couple friendly faces."

"Rough day?" Saphira asked, feeling a distinct sense of deja vu with the question.

Brianna shook her head. "Not really... I mean, not what you'd probably consider rough. I spent the day putting my stuff away and reading the bills and policies I'm going to be making decisions on soon." She gave them each a wry look. "Do you know the money the government could save just by joining the electronic age and doing away with paper?"

"Yeah," Joe spoke up unexpectedly. "We'd be out of debt."

Brianna laughed and Saphira and Esmeralda joined in. "Not quite, but it would be pretty close." A beat. "Maybe I should suggest that."

"Someone certainly should - better for the nation; better for the planet."

"Hmm," Brianna commented, letting the thought roll around in her mind for a few moments before shaking her head to clear it. "Anyway, I guess I was pretty engrossed in my reading, because when I looked up, it was getting dark and my stomach was complaining fiercely over the lack of sustenance I had provided it today. So I had my driver bring me over. I figured I'd find good food and good company. I was right."

"Well, we're glad you came to us when you needed a friend, Brianna," Esmeralda said placidly, placing a hand on Saphira's leg before Saphira could make a comment. "Is there something we can do to make things easier?" noting a haunting sadness she recognized in the green eyes that met her own.

"You've already done so much," Brianna confessed, "just by making a place for me at your table, so to speak," gesturing around the otherwise empty diner.

"But...." Saphira prompted impatiently when Brianna fell silent once again. "C'mon, Brianna - we can't help if you won't tell us what's going on."

Brianna sighed. "I'm not sure I know. I just? I couldn't stand being cooped up in that office for another minute. And this is probably one of the safest places I have ever known," hoping they would understand what she was saying.

Esmeralda and Saphira exchanged stares for a long moment before Esmeralda turned back to Brianna with a smile. "We're glad you think so," patting Brianna's hand. "Did you see Charisma today?" going right to the heart of the matter when she realized Brianna wasn't going to bring it up.

Anger flared in Brianna's eyes for a brief moment, then she visibly deflated, slumping back into her seat. "How do you do that?"

Esmeralda smiled gently. "It's a gift."

Brianna returned the smile sadly. "And your hobby as a student of human nature." Her smile became a little more genuine. "See... I *was* actually paying attention. I think it's the reason that, despite your warning to the contrary, I am still inclined to trust you."

"Why?"

Brianna shrugged. "I can't explain any more than that - it's just a gut feeling."

Esmeralda swallowed the last of her milk and spared Saphira a grateful smile when she removed her empty plate from in front of her so smoothly it didn't disrupt the atmosphere of confidentiality Esmeralda had created between herself and Brianna.

"And do you trust your gut, Brianna? Despite my warning, are you willing to risk it?"

Brianna held Esmeralda's gaze for a long moment before nodding slowly. "Yes," she finally decided aloud. "I have to."

"Tell me about your day, Brianna."

"I already did," Brianna frowned.

"Tell me about your day."

"What do you want from me, Esmeralda??" Brianna hissed as she jumped from the stool she'd been perched on. "Hmm??" leaning down into Esmeralda's personal space, surprised when the other woman made no movement to get away from her. "What the hell do you want from me?" she added in a defeated whisper.

Esmeralda caught Brianna's hand and guided her back to the chair she'd spent the evening in. "Brianna, I... *we*... don't want anything from you. This isn't about us; this is about you. If you trust me, you need to trust me with this - tell me about your day."

"It was like I told you. I really did spend most of my day unpacking as I'm sure you saw," smiling when Esmeralda nodded. "In fairness, it was necessary if only so I could begin my real work here in an organized space where I could find what I needed. I'm a little anal that way," Brianna confided. Saphira snickered, causing both blond heads to turn in her direction.

"You don't need to explain that compunction," Saphira offered with a smile. "You're talking to someone who cleans and organizes for a living." Esmeralda ducked her head to acknowledge the truth of Saphira's words.

"She has a point," Esmeralda agreed. "Of course, it takes one to know one in this case," she added.

Brianna chuckled. "When I grow up, I want to be just like you two." She sobered and took a deep breath. "In truth, finishing my unpacking and setting up my workspace was as much for my peace of mind as it was something to keep me from having to leave my office yesterday. Aside from having promised you the chance to moderate between us, I just.... Charisma was on the warpath from the moment she stepped foot into the building this morning - enough so that security sent us a warning to steer clear of her." She sighed and shook her head. "I knew when I accepted this appointment that it wasn't going to be easy - I did walk away from my best friend without a word of explanation and for someone as passionate as Charisma Tagherty has always been, there still has to be a lot of hurt and anger over that. I just... I never expected it to spill over onto the rest of the world like it did today."

"And you weren't ready to be her main target yet," Esmeralda stated with compassion.

Brianna looked at Esmeralda frankly. "I saw the expression on your face when you walked in here tonight, so I don't even need to answer that question, do I?" She blew out a deep breath. "Sorry - I know it makes me a coward. I just don't know how not to be... not in this. Twenty years of habit is hard to break."

"Does this mean you're going to keep running for the next couple years? Are you gonna play hide and seek to keep from interacting with Charisma on more than a professional level?" Esmeralda asked pointedly, though there was compassion in her gaze. Brianna studied her briefly before letting her eyes drop back down to the counter.

"It means, short of quitting, I'm going to do whatever it takes to get through the next two years." She paused. "What I would like to do is to rewind time... to go back to that airport in Barcelona and tell Charisma the truth. Then at least it would have been her choice... her decision to leave, and I wouldn't have to deal with all the backlash now." She looked up and blinked the tears from her eyes before turning to face Esmeralda again. "However, until good ol' Doc Brown builds that DeLorean time machine, complete with flux capacitor, I'm stuck living with the consequences of my actions. And if that means avoiding situations that put Charisma and I in the same sphere, then so be it. Because I know she refused your request."

Esmeralda cocked an eyebrow. "How do you know?"

Brianna's look was wry. "Because I'm a student of human nature too. And I heard her laying down the law to her staff... in no uncertain terms."

"And it hurt."

"More than I ever thought possible." Brianna sighed. "I thought I had put this behind me twenty years ago."

"You may have put it behind you, Brianna, but you never worked through it... never dealt with it. So now you have to deal with it and with Charisma's reaction to it." Esmeralda hesitated a moment, biting her lip in thought before nodding her head as though she had reached a decision. "I'm going to share something with you - something I've learned from experience over the years."

Brianna looked at her skeptically. Esmeralda didn't appear to be as old as Brianna herself, much less old enough to refer to her 'experience over the years'. A hard glance made her pause - there was an agelessness in Esmeralda's eyes - as though she had seen and lived lifetimes - and Brianna chanced to wonder just how old her friend really was. "Please," was all she said aloud.

"You commented yourself on Charisma's passionate nature," waiting for Brianna to nod her agreement. "That passion has to be focused somewhere. Right now, it is focused on the anger and betrayal she feels in regards to you. It's easy and it's familiar. And as long as you were outside her circle, it was easy to maintain. Eventually, though, it's going to have to come to a head - simply because you're close enough to confront."

"So you're saying...?"

"I'm saying a confrontation is going to happen. You need to decide how you're going to deal with it."

Brianna sat silently, waiting for Esmeralda to continue. When she didn't, Brianna sighed with exasperation. "That's it?? That's all you've got for me??"

Esmeralda squeezed the hands she still covered. "What would you like me to tell you, Brianna?"

"I would like you to tell me how to make this situation better. Or how to make it go away completely. Give me something... anything...."

"I can't solve this problem for you, Brianna. Only you can make those decisions."

"What would you do, Esmeralda? What did you do?"

"My situation was a little different than yours was, Brianna."

"How so?"

"Because I made the decision that could have cost us everything," Saphira said before Esmeralda could respond. "I chose to seek vengeance where it was felt vengeance wasn't warranted, and it nearly cost me... cost us... everything."

"I don't understand." Saphira parted her lips to speak again, but the minutest shake of Esmeralda's blonde head caused her to clamp her lips together and move away from them again without another word. Brianna turned back to meet Esmeralda's eyes. "Did I say something wrong?"

"Not at all, Brianna. It's just something that is very painful and very private and I won't put Saphira through that pain again. I can't... not even for you."

"Will you tell me what happened then?"

Esmeralda held Brianna's eyes. "Tell me, Brianna... do you regret having confided in me?"

Brianna opened her mouth to speak, then stopped short, giving serious contemplation to Esmeralda's words. "No," she said finally. "I actually feel... better... lighter. Like sharing with you made my burden less than it had been before." She bit her lip thoughtfully. "I never realized how it felt... carrying that around for so long. It's been such a part of me."

"And now?"

"Now? It's still there but not as great."

"So you still feel confident in trusting me?"

"Yes... absolutely."

"Then I am asking you to trust me again... right now. I will share with you what happened to Saphira and me one day, but not now and not when Saphira is around to hear the story."

"All right," Brianna drawled slowly. "Can I at least ask what you did?" When Esmeralda hesitated, Brianna hurried on. "You can trust me Esmeralda."

At this, Esmeralda smiled. "Of that I am sure, Brianna Walker. I trust my gut too," earning her the smile she was looking for. "I was trying to figure out the best way to put it because it doesn't put me in a very good light. You see, I did nothing."

"Excuse me?"

"I did nothing," Esmeralda repeated, her head hung down in shame. "The reason Saphira takes all the responsibility for what happened is because she was the stronger of us. She did what had to be done to keep us together."

Saphira glared at Brianna before taking Esmeralda in her arms from behind. Esmeralda didn't start, though she didn't see Saphira's approach. Instead, she leaned back into the warm comfort of the strong body behind her.

"What she's not telling you is that she was dying, and not really in a position to do much of anything except get well," the tears in her fierce eyes not betrayed by the strength in her voice.

Brianna covered her mouth with one hand while squeezing Esmeralda's with her other. "Oh God... I'm so sorry. This must make my situation look petty and selfish."

Her words brought Esmeralda's head up and green eyes bore into her own. "Never belittle something as important as this," Esmeralda instructed in her firmest tone. "We don't... not for anyone."

"So what should I do?"

"Well, that really depends on you, Brianna. What do you want to do?"

"What are my options?"

Saphira groaned. "Lawyers!" she grumbled, then with another light squeeze of Esmeralda's belly, she moved away from them once more to do a last check of everything so they could head for home as soon as Brianna and Esmeralda were done talking. A flash of lights caught her attention and she moved to the windows that overlooked the parking lot.

"As I see it, you've basically got two," Esmeralda said in response to Brianna's query. "Those two can be broken down further once you decide which route to go, but you start with two."

"Let me guess - either Mohammed goes to the mountain...."

"... or the mountain goes to Mohammed... uh huh."

"Guess I need to decide whether or not I want to be Mohammed or the mountain then."

"You better decide pretty quick," Saphira announced as she turned away from the window she had been looking out. She glanced at Brianna before facing Esmeralda head on. "Senator Tagherty's limo just pulled up in the parking lot."



Chapter XVIII

After a time, Charisma wiped the tears from her face. She drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly before standing. In the darkness, she made her way to the fully furnished bathroom, flinching when she flipped the light on. Charisma blinked furiously, dropping her chin to her chest and focusing on the edge of the sink until her eyes adjusted to the light. Only then did she let her eyes rise to the mirror.

Red-rimmed blue eyes stared back at her and Charisma bit her lip hard to keep the tears from starting again. Instead, she slipped her jacket from her body and hung it on the hook at the back of the door. She rolled her sleeves to her elbows and plugged the sink, then started the cold water running.

Charisma considered simply plunging her head in face first, knowing that would cool the fever she felt burning in her face and eyes. However, aware that she drew attention whenever she was in the public eye, Charisma settled for grabbing a clean washcloth out of the small, well-stocked linen closet. She tossed it into the sink and grabbed a towel, setting it beside the sink. Then she snatched up the washcloth, wrung the excess water from it, and started patting down her face.

It took a while, but eventually, the burning cooled and Charisma could feel the swelling in her eyes decreasing enough that she looked in the mirror again. She gave herself a wry smile.

"Well," she commented, "it's not perfect, but it'll do. If anyone will understand my tears, Esmeralda will."

She fixed her hair and rolled her sleeves down, shrugging at her reflection before sliding on her coat once more. Charisma shut off the lights, then stood in the doorway a moment as her eyes adjusted back to the darkness of her office. She crossed to her desk and removed her purse, then lifted the phone to call for her driver.

Turq pulled around and waited, opening the door as soon as Charisma stepped from the building. She closed it carefully, then slid behind the wheel, putting it in drive and waiting for Charisma to give her a destination. When Charisma didn't say anything, Turq prompted, "Home, Senator?"

Charisma pulled her eyes from the window and turned her attention outward once more. "I'm sorry, Turq - what?"

"Where are we headed, Senator?"

Despite her earlier resolve, Charisma found herself faltering. She bit her lip a moment, then met Turq's blue eyes in the rearview mirror. "Do you know of a place called Angel's Diner?"

"I've heard of it, Senator. I'm not certain it's open at this time of night, though."

"Take me there," Charisma commanded.

"Yes ma'am," Turq replied, even as she wondered how to let Esmeralda know they were coming.

The ride was silent and fairly swift - this late at night, traffic was at a minimum and before Turq could figure out a way to alert Esmeralda that they were headed her way, they arrived at Angel's Diner. Turq put the vehicle in park, then got out to open the door for Charisma. It took several minutes for Charisma to offer Turq her hand, but Turq was quick to take the hint and accepted the proffered hand with alacrity.

As Charisma emerged from the back seat of the limo, they heard the faint ringing of a bell, indicating someone had exited the diner. Dark and light heads turned simultaneously to find Esmeralda standing just outside the door. She didn't appear angry or upset and Charisma blew out a small sigh of relief.

"Senator Tagherty?"

Charisma stepped forward. "Esmeralda, we're not in the Senate building," her voice shaking just slightly. Esmeralda nodded her acceptance and gave Charisma a slight smile.

"What can I do for you, Charisma?"

"Can we go inside?"

"I don't think that's a good idea," Esmeralda answered softly.

"Oh," Charisma replied with more than a hint of dejection in her tone. "I came by because I owe you an apology. I was unfair to you and you didn't deserve my harsh words. I'm sorry."

The tender smile Esmeralda gave her almost broke Charisma's heart. Esmeralda extended a hand and Charisma clasped it like a lifeline, allowing Esmeralda to tug her forward until they were only a couple feet apart.

"I really do understand, Charisma."

"Do you, Esmeralda? Do you know what it's like for your best friend to say goodbye one day and have it be forever? No warning... no explanation - just gone?"

"Yes, Charisma - I do." Esmeralda held Charisma's eyes and let Charisma see a hint of the life she and Saphira had shared. Blue eyes widened as they recognized the truth.

"How did you survive?"

"I nearly didn't," Esmeralda confessed. "But Charisma - when I had the chance... when Saphira walked back into my life, I didn't hesitate. I couldn't."

"How could you?" Charisma smiled sadly when Esmeralda frowned and tilted her head. Charisma shook her head. "Nevermind, Es... it doesn't matter. It's late and I need to get home to Adam. I just... I just wanted to come by and apologize."

Esmeralda put a warm hand on Charisma's arm and Charisma stopped moving before she could take a step. "Charisma, you didn't need to apologize, but I appreciate it and if it makes you feel better, I accept your apology. However, I would like to continue this conversation sometime soon."

Charisma hesitated then nodded. "All right. I'd like to hear your story." Before she could move away, Saphira stepped out of the diner.

"Everything all right, sweetheart?" glancing between the two women.

Esmeralda held out her hand and pulled Saphira towards them when Saphira twined their fingers together. "Everything's fine, Saphira. Charisma..."

"... stopped by to apologize for being rude to Esmeralda earlier." Saphira slid her free arm around Esmeralda's waist, only to find herself pulled forward to stand beside her. She caught Esmeralda's eyes and Charisma watched in fascination as they held a silent conversation. Then they turned to her and Esmeralda cleared her throat.

"Senator Charisma Tagherty, my mate Saphira. Saphira, Senator Tagherty."

Charisma extended her hand and Saphira accepted it gently. "I'm delighted to meet you, Saphira. Esmeralda has told me so much about you."

"The pleasure is mine, Senator. Es has spoken highly of you."

"Please, Saphira... my name is Charisma. I'd be pleased to have you call me such."

"Thank you, Sen... Charisma."

"Look... it's late and I really do need to get home. Can I offer the two of you a ride somewhere?"

"Maybe another time, Charisma, though we appreciate the offer," Esmeralda said with a smile. "As you pointed out, it's late and you should probably get home to Adam." Charisma narrowed her eyes.

"This isn't because you're still upset at me for earlier, is it?"

"No, Ri... it's because she made a promise to both of us and she's doing her best to keep it without betraying either of us or sharing any secrets she's been asked to keep."

At the first sound of Brianna's voice, Charisma had stiffened but she hadn't moved. Only when Brianna stopped speaking did Charisma look around, finding her standing casually behind her leaning negligently against Charisma's limousine. Charisma held her gaze for a fathomless moment, watching as a myriad of emotions flitted across Brianna's face. Charisma felt several of them strike a sympathetic chord in her soul and she hardened herself to it, turning her back on Brianna as she brought her attention around to Esmeralda. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then opened them and started speaking.

"This is why you kept me out here, isn't it? Because you promised me no funny business." Esmeralda nodded, holding her breath. Charisma stepped forward and took Esmeralda in her arms, the hug brief but fierce. "Thank you," she whispered, brushing a kiss over the smooth cheek under her lips before she pulled away and offered her hand to Saphira.

"It was really nice to meet you, Saphira. Perhaps sometime soon we'll have the opportunity to sit down together and talk."

"Thank you, Charisma. We'll look forward to it."

Charisma smiled at them once more, then they watched the professional mask of polite courtesy fall over her features before she turned to face Brianna. Brianna straightened, but didn't move away from the car, wondering what Charisma would do. Turq stood perfectly still beside her door and that gave Charisma the impetus she needed to look at Brianna.

"It was good to see you again, Brianna," her tone one of courteous friendliness, though her expression was one of bland tolerance. "I hope you'll enjoy your term here in Washington. Now if you'll excuse me," motioning to Turq, who immediately opened the door, "I must get home to my son. Goodnight, ladies," she added, then disappeared behind the door.

Turq shut the door solidly, then ran around and crawled into the driver's seat. Another moment and they were headed back down the road, three pairs of eyes following them until they vanished out of sight.

"Well," Brianna commented, her voice full of tears though she didn't allow them to spill from her eyes. "I guess we know which of us is Mohammed now."

"Did you expect any difference?" Saphira asked kindly.

"I actually expected anger," Brianna said plainly. "Not indifference."

"Ah, but doesn't that describe Mohammed perfectly? Wasn't it his indifference that caused the mountain to go to him?" Saphira inquired, despite the look Esmeralda was giving her.

Brianna shrugged wearily. "It doesn't matter tonight. I'm going to go home - I can worry about this tomorrow."

"Let us walk you home, Brianna." Esmeralda held up a hand when Brianna opened her lips to speak. "We don't have to talk about Charisma anymore; we don't have to talk about anything at all tonight if you don't feel like it. But let us take you home. It's too late for you to be out alone."

Brianna smiled, the effort causing the tears to slide soundlessly down her cheeks. She brushed them off impatiently, though she never lost her smile.

"You must have old-fashioned parents," she commented. "You have old-fashioned manners," she added when their foreheads creased with frown lines at her statement. "That's a good thing... trust me."

"You do realize I'll have to share this with Amber," Saphira commented to Esmeralda. "She's been saying for years that I needed to learn some manners." Saphira turned to Brianna. "Amber is my sister. She thinks I'm rude and pushy."

Brianna chuckled. "Don't most siblings think that about one another at some point?"

"Maybe," Saphira agreed with a crooked grin. "But it'll be nice to be able to rub her face in this."

Brianna laughed out loud. Esmeralda just covered her eyes with her hand and shook her head. Saphira looked between the two of them.

"What?" she asked in all innocence. "Whaaaaat?"

"You girls about done out here?" came Joe's voice from the doorway. "I'm ready to lock up and head to the house." Even though the home he shared with Matilda was just behind the diner, they couldn't blame him - not with the hours he worked seven days a week.

"Sorry, Joe," Esmeralda apologized as they stepped back into the diner to retrieve their purses.

"Not a problem, Little Es. I'd just rather be snuggled in bed with the old woman than hanging out here if I have the choice."

Saphira snickered. "Matilda hears you calling her an old woman, the only thing you're gonna be snuggling with is a pillow on the couch for the duration, old man."

Joe glared. "That's why you're not gonna tell her about that," motioning to the three of them. "I like where I sleep."

The women snickered, then solemnly zipped their lips and tossed the imaginary key away. After grabbing their purses from the counter where they'd left them, they nodded goodnight to Joe as he held the door open for them. Then they made their way towards the Metro station, headed for home.

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

"That could've gone better," Saphira commented to Esmeralda as she stepped from the shower.

"It could also have gone much, much worse," Esmeralda replied. Saphira cocked her head in Esmeralda's reaction, dropping the towel she'd been drying her hair with and picking up a comb.

"How so? I thought Charisma's lack of reaction was more cutting than anything else could have been."

"At least she acknowledged Brianna, and Brianna can use that. Nothing is worse than being persona non grata to the one who means the most to you in the whole world. Brianna exists to her and that's more than Brianna has had to hold onto for almost twenty years."

"So Charisma gave her hope today?"

Esmeralda hesitated. "I don't know that I'd go that far. Charisma gave Brianna acknowledgement. What Brianna chooses to do with it will determine what happens next."

"I'm not following," Saphira confessed as she crawled into bed next to Esmeralda.

"Brianna has several options open to her - she can aggressively pursue Charisma, goading her into what in all likelihood will be an angry response; she can try to re-establish their friendship, hoping to break through Charisma's barriers by essentially killing her with kindness; or she can leave it to Charisma to take the initiative in deciding their next course of action."

"You don't think she'd leave the initiative to Charisma at this point, do you?" Saphira asked, plumping her pillows and settling down as she reached over and snapped off her bedside light. Esmeralda finished rubbing in the lotion she'd applied and slid further down the bed, tucking the covers up under her arms and turning to face Saphira.

"Not really... not at this point. She gave Charisma twenty years to take the initiative to come and find her... to find out why she left without a word. Unless she's given up the idea of them being together, I'd say she's gonna push Charisma until Charisma pushes back."

"You think she will... push back, I mean?"

Esmeralda laughed and Saphira smiled, even though she didn't as yet know what the joke was. "Sweetie, she's a passionate woman - do you really think she won't?"

"Can she afford to? I mean... wouldn't this destroy her career?"

"Phira, you did," Esmeralda responded softly. "You risked everything when you came back to me, knowing the consequences... knowing you could lose everything you cared about."

Saphira covered Esmeralda's cheek with her hand. "Not everything, Es. When I knew you would stand beside me regardless, it was easy to risk the rest. Does Charisma have that assurance? Is she willing to give up everything she has worked for her whole life for the chance to be happy with Brianna?" She paused, but Esmeralda remained silent, seeing the thoughtful look on Saphira's face by the moonlight that streamed through the open blinds in the room. Her patience was quickly rewarded.

"Given what you've already told me, Charisma gave up her chance for happiness with Brianna once by letting her go without finding out why she left, correct?" waiting for Esmeralda to nod. "Why is there any reason to think she wouldn't do that a second time? After all, she doesn't know what she's missing."

"Maybe she does," Esmeralda started, before trailing off because of Saphira's shaking head. "Saphira, she's missed having her best friend in her life for twenty years."

"But this, Es," pulling Esmeralda into her body and embracing her completely. She smiled wistfully when Esmeralda naturally melted into her. "She doesn't know what it's like to have had this and then to have lost it. And she's gonna have to be willing to risk everything she has and everything she's known her whole life to take a chance on having this. Do you really think she will?"

"I don't think Brianna's going to give her a choice."

"At least you made progress tonight. They both seem to be interested in talking to you now. Sounds like the next few weeks could be interesting."

"Oh, they're liable to be something all right. I hope the girls are ready for what's coming down the line because I have a feeling there could be fireworks before it's all over."

"Yipee Ki Yay!"



Chapter XIX

"Oh my...." Amber flopped onto the bed face first, cutting off her exclamation and drawing a sympathetic chuckle from Saphira. Amber turned her head just enough to glare at Saphira with glowing eyes. Saphira held up a hand in surrender, but she didn't stop laughing. Amber just growled.

"What's wrong, Amber?" Esmeralda asked in concern. It was now Wednesday morning following the somewhat anti-climactic meeting between Brianna and Charisma at the diner five nights previous. As of yet, neither of them had spoken to Esmeralda about it - doing their best to avoid her as though they weren't sure what to say now that the impasse had seemingly been breached. But Esmeralda had certainly heard about it to varying degrees from every single angel on the project. Amber was just the latest.

"They're going to kill me - or each other - before this is all over."

Saphira frowned and crossed over to sit on the bed beside Amber. "What happened?"

"What hasn't?" Amber countered, flipping to lie on her back. "Push me, pull you - two steps forward, three steps back.... Honestly it's like watching a bad soap - and don't look at me like that, Saphira," she commanded as she turned to face her. Amber glared at the twinkle in the blue eyes facing her and her lips twitched grudgingly. "Not a word," she instructed. Saphira just smirked, but obediently kept silent. Amber looked back at Esmeralda.

"I think it's time for a team meeting. I can't be the only one getting blasted by this stuff."

"You're not. It's actually worse for the day crew because they have to interact with them on a mortal level. Opal's got it the worst."

"Yeah... Charisma's lucky Opal answers to a higher authority. She'd have quit by now otherwise."

Esmeralda's brows rose into her hairline. Opal hadn't shared that bit with her and their paths had crossed several times since Friday night. On the other hand, Charisma had always been around and was pricklier than a hedgehog in Esmeralda's presence.

"Okay - I hadn't heard that. I guess it is time for a meeting. Let me get Coral and you two can tell me what's been going on at night. I'll speak to the rest in the morning before they go to work." She felt Saphira's eyes on her and held up a hand before she could speak. "I know I need to rest, but it will work better for everyone else to do it then. I promise to go right back to bed."

"But will you sleep?"

"I'll try," Esmeralda said honestly. "It's the best I can do at the moment. Besides, this way you and Ruby can be there as well. I'd like your input."

"All right. We'll leave them a note so they'll be ready early in the morning." Saphira rose. "I'll grab Coral for you. You gonna meet in here?"

"At the table," Esmeralda answered. "They need breakfast and so do we." Saphira nodded and headed out of the room. Esmeralda stood to follow her, only to find her hand caught in Amber's. She cocked an eyebrow but remained silent, waiting.

"You look a little tired still. Everything all right?"

"Everything's fine, Amber... honestly. Saphira is taking good care of me. I'm not tired really... just frustrated. I'm beginning to wonder if it wouldn't have been better for them to have had a knock down, drag out fight. At least we wouldn't be riding in this limbo."

"If it makes you feel better, I think that's coming down the pipe sooner rather than later." Esmeralda waited but Amber shook her head and held out a hand for Esmeralda to take. Esmeralda took it and pulled Amber to her feet, groaning theatrically. Amber glared at her, then smirked.

"So you're saying it's not these pants making my butt look big?" looking inordinately pleased with herself when Esmeralda gave a bark of unexpected laughter. She hadn't heard the sound very much lately and it tickled her to be able to draw that response now. Saphira stuck her head in the door, glancing first at Esmeralda's smiling face and then to Amber's smirking one.

"Are you flirting with my best girl?" Saphira growled at Amber. Esmeralda squeezed her hand before crossing the room to stand beside Saphira.

"I'd better be your ONLY girl," she stated, poking Saphira in the chest for emphasis.

"Always," Saphira affirmed immediately. "You know there's never been anyone else."

Esmeralda looked into Saphira's eyes, absorbing the look of adoration being bestowed on her. Amber making gagging sounds behind them effectively ended the moment and they turned to glare at her simultaneously. She held up her hands in surrender.

"I'm just going to go get some breakfast now," trying to push between them to get out the door. Saphira smacked the back of her head.

"And you say *I* have no manners!"

"Well, you're taking up the entire doorway. I suppose I could have just knocked you to the ground."

Saphira snorted. "I'd like to see you try."

"All right, you two... enough!" Esmeralda broke in, rolling her eyes at their posturing. "Honestly, anyone listening to the two of you would think you were still toddlers," she added, moving out of the doorway towards the kitchen and pulling Saphira with her. Coral smirked into her coffee, having clearly heard Esmeralda's last statement.

"Wait," she said. "You mean they're not?"

"Not. Helping." Esmeralda stated firmly when she heard growls emanating from either side, but Coral could see the twinkle in her eyes. She chuckled.

"Was I supposed to be?" She rose from her place at the table and took out some hamburger and fresh produce. "Well then - take a seat. I'll see about fixing us all something to eat."

Esmeralda moved over beside Coral to begin prepping the vegetables, but Coral simply glared at her. Esmeralda held up her hands in surrender, moving to take a seat at the table beside Saphira. Amber grabbed three coffee cups, pouring them up and topping off Coral's before passing it to her. Then she set out to make another pot of coffee.

While it made, Amber grabbed a knife and started slicing toppings for the hamburgers Coral was preparing. Saphira and Esmeralda just exchanged looks, then Esmeralda cleared her throat to speak. Coral and Amber turned their heads slightly to acknowledge they were listening and continued their work, waiting for Esmeralda to break the silence. It didn't take long.

"Okay... so this is a mini-team meeting since the two of you are my night-shifters and won't be here in the morning when I sit down with everyone else. I need to know what's going on with your charges." She saw Coral's startled look at her and continued. "They've been avoiding being alone with me like the plague - like my being witness to their interaction the other night is the ultimate embarrassment. I figure it will be another day or two before someone breaks down and hunts me up to talk. But until then, I need to know what's going on with them from your point of view."

Coral and Amber gazed at one another briefly, then Amber jerked her head towards the table and turned back to her slicing. Coral neatly put four hamburgers into the pan, then turned to face Esmeralda and Saphira.

"Brianna's been very cool... laid back and reserved with her people. Indi and Jas haven't mentioned a whole lot to me at any rate. But she seems to be intent on driving Charisma crazy."

Esmeralda cocked her head. "How do you mean?"

Coral shook her head. "You'll have to talk to the rest of the team; I haven't seen anything myself."

"All right. Then what have you seen? How is she spending her nights?"

"Sedately. She's been leaving her office early as you know," waiting for Esmeralda to nod, "then coming back later to work alone. Since she's been sending Indi home, my watch starts there."

"But she's not in contact with Charisma then?"

"No. Her time in the late evenings seems to be dedicated to actually working on Senate stuff - please don't ask me what exactly. I haven't figured out all that mumbo-jumbo they use in those stacks and stacks of paper."

Esmeralda chuckled. "Don't feel bad, Coral. I don't think they understand a majority of it. Hence the reason for the stacks and stacks... clarification."

Coral grinned and turned back to the burgers, flipping them smoothly before looking at Esmeralda again. "Probably."

"So what happens once you leave there?"

"We go back to her apartment and she maps out ways to get Charisma's attention." Amber whipped around, but Esmeralda asked the question.

"Excuse me?"

Coral shrugged her shoulders. "You heard me. So far, every night she's pulled out a legal pad and made a list of ways to be nice, ways to aggravate, ways to grab her attention - and let me tell you... some of what I've seen on *that* list are REAL doozies - ways to offer Charisma her support. You name it, Brianna's been thinking about it."

"And I haven't heard about any of this before now because...?"

"There's really not anything to tell," Coral replied practically. "She makes a list, then she wads it up and throws it away."

Esmeralda closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. She smiled when Saphira moved behind her smoothly and began a gentle kneading of her shoulders. After a moment, she turned her attention back to Coral who was just lifting the burgers from the pan. "Is there anything else?"

Coral nodded. "When she throws the list away, she pulls out an album - the same album every night. From what Amber's said and what I can figure out, it's twin to the one that Charisma keeps locked away in her home office." Es nodded but didn't speak. "Brianna's gone through it twice since I was assigned to her Friday, but usually she stops on a singular picture and...." She stopped and shrugged. "She studies them is the best way to describe it - memorizing or reliving or...." Another pause. "I don't know. I'm not really sure how to describe it."

Esmeralda nodded again. "Is it always the same photograph?"

"No," Coral denied immediately. "In fact, it hasn't been the same one yet." She put the burger patties on the buns Amber had ready and moved the plates to the able. Amber placed the sliced vegetables she'd prepared in the center with the condiments and she and Coral to their places. Coral returned her attention to Esmeralda. "Is that important, do you think?"

"I think everything's important at this point," Esmeralda stated plainly. "We can't afford to overlook anything." She turned to Amber, just as she took a large bite of her burger. "What about you?"

Amber glared at her and held up a hand, chewing and swallowing as rapidly as she could manage without choking. "You've been taking lessons from Saphira, haven't you?" narrowing her eyes in Esmeralda's direction and garnering her a full-bodied laugh from everyone at the table. She swallowed the rest of her food and took a healthy draught of coffee.

"Better?" Saphira asked with more than a hint of laughter in her voice.

"Much, thank you," Amber responded regally, pulling another snort from Saphira. Amber stuck out her tongue and faced Esmeralda.

"How do you stand it?"

"Love conquers all," Esmeralda said. Saphira grinned; Amber gagged.

"Remind me why I put up with the two of you again."

"Love conquers all," Esmeralda repeated, this time allowing a fond smile to etch itself on her face. Amber's head hit the table.

"I give up. I can't compete with all the mush around here. You guys are killing me." The other two snorted, but Coral patted her back.

"Sit up and tell your story. Surely watching over Charisma gives you a break from all the mush these two provide."

Amber glared at her. "You have *no* idea." She sighed and looked at her plate. "You have no idea how lucky you are to be following Brianna instead of Charisma. I mean... she seems kind of mellow about the whole thing, right? Maybe making a few plans and doing some reminiscing, but for the most part she's calm at the moment, isn't she?"

"Yeah," Coral nodded. "I expect that to change sooner or later, but for now she seems pretty much in control of things."

"And she's not overly concerned with how this affects her career, is she? I mean... Brianna has a job to go back to if she decides this political thing isn't working out for her or she gets voted out at the end of this term - politics has never been a long-term goal for her."

"Right," Coral agreed again.

"This is all Charisma has. Aside from her son, politics is her life. It's all she's ever known... all she's ever wanted to do with her life. And Brianna Walker is poised to take all of that away."

Coral tilted her head in question. "Why would she?"

Amber shook her head, curls bouncing all over in an effort to make her point. "I'm not saying she would... or that she even wants to. I'm trying to make you see things from Charisma's point of view. To her, Brianna Walker is a threat - to her and everything she knows... everything she cares about. And yet for all that, I don't think she wants to destroy Brianna."

"What do you think she wants?" asked Saphira. Esmeralda nodded, telling Amber she wondered the same thing.

Amber blew out a breath. "I think what she really wants is for this all to have never been. Barring that...."

"Wait... all of what? Brianna and her ever becoming friends? Brianna leaving her twenty years ago? Brianna showing up in her life now? What??"

"Yes," Amber stated emphatically. Amber got up to pace, mindless of the food that sat cooling on her plate. After a few moments, Esmeralda grabbed her by the hand. Amber met her eyes and blew out a breath before she resumed her place at the table.

"Give me your impressions, Amber. I need to know what you think."

"Well, I think you should expect her to talk to you soon." Amber paused. "She's gonna have to before she blows a gasket."

"What do you mean? I thought she already had... blown a gasket, I mean."

"Oh she has, according to Opal, but it's been contained to her staff. Fortunately for her, her staff is heavenly and has learned to deal with the devil in a number of different ways. But if something doesn't change soon, she's gonna do something in public and that could destroy her. So I think she'll come looking to talk to Es to prevent that. After all - you owe her a story and can relate to hers."

"I'm safe."

"Exactly. And since she's spent the last several nights pacing and ranting and not sleeping...."

Esmeralda bit her lip thoughtfully. "Maybe I should force the issue," watching three sets of eyebrows jump to their foreheads. "Nono... not like that. When I get to work tonight, I'll send Opal and the girls home. Charisma will talk to me if there's no way for her to hide behind work."

"She'll have a come apart," Amber cautioned.

"Probably. But she's not stupid. And if it gets things moving again...."

Amber cocked her head. "I'll be there," she stated firmly.

"Amber...."

"Es, Saphira can't be there and I'd prefer you not be left alone if she's gonna go postal on you."

"Amber, you can't."

"Es, she won't be able to see me."

"But I will. And I can't share with her if I know you're there."

Amber was silent for a long moment. They all knew how Esmeralda worked, so she should have expected the objection. But with all she had been through recently....

"I don't like it," she finally said, "but I respect your reasoning. I will be there," holding up her hand when Esmeralda's lips parted in protest. "But I'll wait outside - beyond my ability to hear normal conversation. So if you need me, you'll only need to holler and I'll be there."

"That sounds fair," Saphira offered cautiously.

"I can accept that," Esmeralda agreed. "Thanks, Amber. Better safe than sorry, right?"

"Exactly."

"All right then... you need to finish eating and get to bed. I'll give you a call before I head to Charisma's office. She's usually my last stop, and there's no reason for you to have to be there for hours on end just waiting."

"Okay - just make sure you call me."

"I will. Thanks for breakfast, Coral. Thank you both for your reports. I don't feel quite so out of the loop now."

"Hopefully it will help things move forward soon."

"Here's hoping."



Chapter XX

"Opal? I need...." Charisma stutter-stopped and glanced around her dark and silent outer office. A frown marred her features and she moved to Opal's desk, intent on calling her wayward staff back to work, if only to fire them for disappearing in the first place. She froze when she noticed Esmeralda casually sitting behind Opal's desk.

"Es?" she muttered, struck dumb by the sight of the young woman she had spent the last several days avoiding. Charisma cleared her throat. "Is there... is there something I can do for you?"

Esmeralda smiled, her teeth white in the darkness. Then she stood and held out a hand, gratified when Charisma took it without hesitation. "No, Charisma. But I think there is probably something I can do for you," tugging gently on the hand she held. Charisma dug her heels in and refused to move.

"Where is my staff?"

"I sent them home," watching dark brows crawl up Charisma's forehead before they slammed down in the formation of a scowl.

"Excuse me?" her whisper fierce in its softness.

"I sent them home," Esmeralda repeated dutifully, then held up her free hand to keep Charisma from speaking further. "I wanted to speak to you privately, and you've used them to avoid me all week. Don't," she continued forcefully when Charisma opened her mouth to deny the accusation. "I am not stupid, Charisma. I know avoidance tactics when they are used against me."

"I would never accuse you of being stupid, Esmeralda. I just never realized you were quite so conniving... so sneaky." Her expression was one of confusion, though her voice was more accusatory. Esmeralda cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Charisma, be honest - if I hadn't sent them home, would you even be talking to me right now?" Charisma's blue eyes met Esmeralda's green ones briefly before finding the carpet pattern fascinating. Esmeralda squeezed the hand she still held. "Charisma?"

She saw Charisma bite her lip before sighing loudly and shaking her head. "Probably not."

"Can I ask why?"

Charisma snorted and pulled her hand out of Esmeralda's clasp. "Are you serious?"

Esmeralda just tilted her head and waited. Charisma growled and it was only centuries of familiarity with the sound that allowed Esmeralda to keep her composure.

"Of course you're serious. Why would I think otherwise?" Charisma grumbled. She took several steps away from Esmeralda, raking her hands through what to that moment had been a neat coiffure. Then she clenched her hands in her hair and whipped around furiously, mildly surprised when Esmeralda didn't flinch, even in the face of Charisma's glare. "How did you do it?"

"Excuse me?" a look of confusion marring Esmeralda's expression. "I don't understand."

Charisma studied Esmeralda for a long moment. "You really don't, do you?" she asked at last. "You have no idea...." She whirled until her back was to Esmeralda and remained that way for a long moment. When she turned around once more, she did so slowly and deliberately, the politician's mask firmly in place. "How did you convince my staff to simply leave here without a word to me? Surely they know...."

"Know what, Senator?" Esmeralda asked quietly, intentionally using Charisma's title to remind her... of so many things. "I know that you've been terrorizing them since you and Brianna met at the diner Friday night. No," she hastened to reassure Charisma when her eyes widened theatrically. "They haven't said anything; they didn't need to. I'm a student of human nature, remember? In my job, I see a lot and I hear a lot more. As for how I got them to leave, I asked them to give me a chance to talk to you."

Charisma's brows went into her hairline. "And that worked?"

Esmeralda shrugged. "Given your state of mind in the office this week? Is it really that difficult to believe?"

Charisma pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes, hoping to alleviate the headache she could feel beginning behind her eyes. She blew out a breath. "No, I guess not," she replied without opening her eyes.

Esmeralda walked back over to stand beside Charisma, reaching up and removing Charisma's hand from in front of her face. It took another minute, but soon Charisma blinked her eyes and met Esmeralda's. "C'mon," Esmeralda invited, drawing Charisma towards her office. "I'm tired and you look like you could use a chance to take your shoes off."

Charisma snickered, as Esmeralda's pronouncement was nothing like what she'd expected it to be. However, she couldn't deny the truth of her words either. "How'd you guess?"

Esmeralda made a show of looking at her sneaker-clad feet before staring at the four-inch heels Charisma wore. "Dumb luck," she deadpanned, causing Charisma to snort before she reluctantly chuckled. Then she allowed Esmeralda to lead her back into her office.

"And the fact that you're a good half a foot shorter than your partner means you're the one stuck in heels when you go out." She stepped out of her heels with a sigh of relief and simultaneously, they collapsed on the couch.

"Actually, Saphira is more than my partner, Charisma - she's my mate. And when we go out, our heights don't change."

Charisma blinked her eyes, opening them wide. "Really?"

"Um hmm," Esmeralda confirmed, though she didn't elaborate, seeing another question lurking in Charisma's eyes. She waited and in another minute, Charisma cleared her throat.

"Can I ask you something, Es?" Esmeralda nodded. "What did you mean you when said Saphira was more than your partner? I mean... I thought that partner was the proper way to refer to her in regards to your relationship."

Esmeralda held Charisma's gaze, searching for any hint of disparagement or bigotry; what she found was an honest desire to understand why Esmeralda had felt the need to correct her wording... especially since she *knew* she had gotten it right. It was her business to be politically correct, after all.

"I suppose," Esmeralda started hesitantly, "that in your politically correct world, partner is the description that is utilized most often. And in some ways, I suppose it's probably an accurate description of what Saphira and I share together. After all, we are a couple in a relationship that has sex," she stated bluntly. "But more than that, we are connected - we are joined... here," she declared, placing a hand over her heart. "In our hearts and in our souls. Even without the recognition of the government or of a church, what we have is beyond price."

"You mean that," stated without inflection.

"I do," Esmeralda assured Charisma without hesitation. "I nearly lost it once, Charisma, and it almost killed me. I would have done anything to keep it."

"Why? How can you be so sure it's worth it... that *she's* worth it?"

"Because I know what it feels like to live without her."

Silence reigned while Charisma contemplated Esmeralda's words. Esmeralda could see her struggling and she placed a hand on Charisma's knee as it was the closest body part to her given the way Charisma had curled into the couch. Charisma looked up.

"What do you want to know, Charisma?"

The Senator swallowed and dropped her eyes back to the small hand that rested lightly on her knee, covering it with her own and smiling when Esmeralda shifted her hand so she could clasp Charisma's. Finally, Charisma took a deep breath. "Would you have done it anyway...." She paused and drew another deep breath. "If you had something to lose, would you have done it anyway?"

Esmeralda gently squeezed the hand she held, waiting patiently for Charisma's eyes to meet hers. "I had everything to lose, Charisma. Everything. But without Saphira, it didn't matter. None of it mattered. Without her...." Esmeralda shook her head and glanced away, remembering all too clearly the desolation and devastation she'd felt when she thought Saphira was gone from her forever.

Charisma sat silently. Esmeralda let it last a while before she decided to break it. "Tell me your story, Charisma," turning to look at Charisma again. When Charisma didn't speak, Esmeralda sighed. "Charisma," she said softly, "I can't help if you don't share."

"I don't think there's anything you can do regardless, Es, though I love you dearly for wanting to try."

"Even if I can't, you're not going to feel better until you get this off your chest, and aside from a therapist, I'm probably the safest bet in the world."

Charisma snorted. "You're probably a safer bet than a therapist. You've been there, done that - your experience is hard-earned and therefore more honest in its approach."

"I'm cheaper too," Esmeralda replied cheekily, garnering her the soft laughter she'd hoped for. Charisma squeezed her hand.

"I don't know. I think you're pretty priceless." Charisma sighed. "If I tell you mine, will you share yours?" Esmeralda nodded. Charisma squeezed the hand she held one final time, then released it as she stood. "All right, but I need something to drink." She went over to the small refrigerator that sat behind her desk. "Can I get you something?"

Esmeralda smiled. "Since I'm betting you don't keep milk in there, how about some water?"

"Plain or chocolate?" At Esmeralda's confused look, Charisma chuckled. "I do have milk. I started drinking it when I got pregnant with Adam. I never really gave it up." She shrugged. "Besides, Adam needs something when he's here, and I'm not giving him soda."

"Ooh... chocolate then please," Esmeralda responded with a giggle and a twinkle in her eyes. "Saphira always gives me white milk at the diner."

"I'm pretty sure denying access to chocolate milk is grounds for divorce, my friend," Charisma joked, the twinkle clear in her blue eyes. Esmeralda chuckled.

"That's okay - if I have to choose between Saphira and chocolate milk, I'm keeping Saphira. Doesn't mean I'm not choosing chocolate when she's not here though."

"Sneaky woman," Charisma commented, even as she passed Esmeralda a bottle of chocolate milk. She grinned at the look of sheer bliss that covered Esmeralda's face at her first taste. "Good, huh?"

"Better than good - fabulous," Esmeralda agreed with a big smile. She leaned back into the couch with a contented sigh. "Maybe I should take a chocolate milk break everyday." She turned her head to look at Charisma. "Now... tell me your story."

Charisma sighed. "Do you need to call Saphira and let her know what's going on? It's already late and I don't want you to make her worry."

"It's fine, and sweet of you to consider that. She knows where I am and that I planned to talk to you tonight. She'll go home and wait for me there - she knows I have a guardian angel looking out for me." Literally, Es thought, remembering Amber's silent presence just a few yards away.

"All right," Charisma agreed with a nod of her head. "As long as you being here won't make things worse for anyone."

Esmeralda smiled and patted Charisma's hand. "Trust me, Charisma - I wouldn't put Saphira through that kind of worry... not after all we've been through together. It's all good."

"And you'll let me drive you home tonight?"

"Absolutely, as long as it doesn't mess up your time with Adam."

"Thank you. I feel better knowing that. And Adam is taken care of - he's already in bed asleep." Esmeralda tilted her head at Charisma's announcement, hearing the inherent sadness in her voice. Charisma gave her a heartbreaking smile. "Sometimes I regret all the time I miss with him. But I'm not sure I could give all this up," motioning around the room. "Even for him."

"Tell me your story, Charisma."

"What do you know?"

"Would you like to know what I've put together from my observations of the two of you?" waiting for Charisma to nod. Esmeralda took a deep breath. "I know that you were friends years ago; that she walked out of your life and neither of you have made an effort to resolve things between you since then. I know this is tearing you up inside... both of you. Other than that...?" Esmeralda shrugged.

Charisma chuckled ruefully. "You've got the basics." She stood and moved into the shadows of the room, facing the window so all Esmeralda could see was the stiffness of her posture. "Brianna Walker was my very best friend," Charisma said softly into the quiet darkness that surrounded them. "We were assigned as roommates in our freshman year of college and immediately hit it off. I don't know how to explain it - it was like we fit together. It's hard... it's not like I didn't have friends before. I mean, I was considered popular in high school, but this was different. And mama and daddy took her into the family without even a second thought." Charisma snorted. "She was welcomed more easily than any of the spouses were... just like she had always belonged to us."

Charisma stopped talking and Esmeralda let the silence lengthen between them, knowing Charisma was nowhere close to being done with her story. Finally, Charisma drew a sharp breath and continued. "I never thought.... We went everywhere - did everything - together. It was an unwritten rule between us and among our friends."

"So what happened?" Esmeralda asked when the silence lengthened uncomfortably. Charisma turned her head from the window, catching the gaze fixed on her briefly before facing the window once more. She wasn't quick enough, however, for Esmeralda to miss the hint of tears that sparkled on her lashes.

"We graduated," Charisma sighed softly. "I guess at the time I didn't realize how that would change everything. I guess I thought we'd be friends forever." She shrugged. "I was wrong."

Esmeralda clasped her hands tightly together to keep from crossing the room and shaking some sense into her deliberately obtuse friend. Instead, she bit her lip thoughtfully and took the time to ponder her words before she spoke.

"So you're telling me that you simply drifted away after graduation?" She rose and crossed to stand beside Charisma at the window, keeping her focus on the world outside, but able to see Charisma's reflection in the glass. "I'm not stupid, Charisma," her tone even and non-accusatory. "Please don't lie to me. I've seen the pictures in Senator Walker's office. I can guess at part of what happened. So even if you can't speak the truth aloud to me, at least be honest with yourself."

Charisma pinched the bridge of her nose. "What do you want me to tell you, Es? The truth is Brianna and I spent four incredible years together almost twenty-four/seven, then three fabulous months tooling around Europe without a care in the world. It was the most amazing, magical time of my life. Then she kissed me goodbye and walked out of my life."

"Which part of that bothered you - the kissing or the goodbye?"

Charisma whirled on Esmeralda, her eyes blazing. "She left without a word... without explanation!"

"And you never followed her... never looked her up to ask why. Why is that?" Esmeralda put her hands on Charisma's arms, unsurprised to find them shaking, though she was unsure if it was due to hurt or fury or terror or some combination of the three. "Charisma, you don't have to answer me - you don't owe me anything. But you do need to face the truth for yourself, if only so you can find happiness in your life again."

Charisma didn't move - neither shaking off Esmeralda's touch nor embracing it. Esmeralda gently guided Charisma back to the couch, easing her to a seat before kneeling in front of her. "Let me tell you a story," waiting for blue eyes to track to hers.

"Once upon a time there were two little girls who were best friends. They grew up together knowing they were mated... that they would always be part of one another. Then one day, the older of the girls did something that caused her to be banished from her home and so the two - now young women - were separated. It nearly crushed the younger woman; the older of them, however, once she knew of its effects on her beloved, refused to accept banishment as the sentence for her perceived crime. She insisted she be given a different punishment. Her Father, surprised by her actions, offered her a choice. She could come home - all would be forgiven and everything restored if she and the other young woman remained separated for a time to be determined by Him. She refused, demanding He find something that would not cause detriment to her mate. He grew furious, insisting she was in no position to demand anything after what she had done.

She met His eyes squarely and said, 'If you are the benevolent Father you claim to be, you will find a way to punish my transgressions without destroying the one I love. She has done nothing to be punished for.'

'And if I don't?' He asked, curious as to her answer.

'If you don't, we will leave together. Banishment will be our punishment, but it will be something we will share together. I won't allow you to destroy her for my sake.'

The Father studied her for an eternal moment before finally nodding his agreement. 'Very well,' he intoned. 'You will give up everything - your title, your home, your riches and you will do penance together until such time as I deem your debt has been paid.'

He took all that we had, but we still have one another. And Charisma - it's enough."

"Did you really have so much? Did giving it up change your life?"

Esmeralda's smile was full of compassion. "It changed everything. I had never known hunger or cold or sickness before then. But I would still give it all up... go through everything we have suffered through together, just because it would mean we were still together. And that's worth everything."

"Brianna and I were never together... not like that."

"Weren't you?" A beat. "Maybe you should be," Esmeralda commented softly. Charisma didn't answer. For a while there was no sound except their breathing. Then Charisma rose and fetched her purse before making a quick phone call and offering Esmeralda her hand.

"C'mon," she said. "Time to get you home to your mate."

Esmeralda took her hand and remained quiet, knowing the next step was Charisma's to take.



Chapter XXI

"So do we still have jobs?" Opal asked with a hint of humor after Esmeralda had taken her first sip of coffee. They had all been alarmed by the look of utter exhaustion on her face when she'd entered the kitchen a few moments before, and had given her a chance to collect herself and wake up a bit. Esmeralda blinked at the question and pushed messy hair back from her face, blinking again as she cleared her throat and returned Opal's tentative smile with a more sure one of her own.

"Oh yes... you still have jobs. You're not getting out of this assignment *that* easy," she teased, garnering smiles from all of them and feeling them relax at her words. "In fact," she turned to look at Opal directly, "things might even be a little easier for you."

Opal's eyes went wide. "Really? What kind of hex did you put on her, boss? Because I've gotta tell you - Charisma's never been easy to work for, but this last week she's been downright wicked."

Esmeralda's green eyes sharpened. "Tell me."

"Well, I can't speak for the rest, but in the office she's been on edge about everything... the way we dress, the way we speak, the tone of our voices, the color of the walls," watching Esmeralda's eyebrows shoot into her hairline. "I'm not making this up," Opal insisted. "She nearly had a come apart the day before yesterday because she decided she didn't like the color of the walls. Es... those walls have been that color since she got there. She picked it out!"

"All right," Esmeralda agreed slowly. "How has she been professionally?"

"Oh my word - she has nitpicked every single bill and vote to death. Granted, she has only done so to us in the privacy of her office, but she's out of control. If I didn't know better, I swear she was PMSing on crack."

"She's been that way at home, as well," Ame concurred. "Very bi-polar. She's very calm and under control when she's with Adam, but otherwise we're getting all sorts of mixed signals. It's a good thing Kent is still out of town. I'm not sure she could keep up a pretense with him at the moment."

"Any idea when he's due home?" Ame, Turq and Opal exchanged glances, starting when Esmeralda forcefully cleared her throat. "Hey! Somebody want to clue me in here?"

"Sorry, Es," Opal apologized. "We've just gotten used to...." Esmeralda held up her hand.

"I know, and that's my fault. I know I haven't been around as much as I should."

"No... it's not...."

"Enough," Esmeralda cut her off tiredly. "We can argue fault later. Now tell me."

"He's supposed to be in at the end of the week, but he hasn't been in touch with Charisma yet to let her know for sure when he'll be home," Ame started.

"And...?" Esmeralda prompted.

"And he's got more than theatre interests in the City," Turq replied. "When I was driving him to the airport, I overheard him making plans to meet up with someone. It sounded pretty serious."

Esmeralda pinched her bridge of her nose. "And you didn't think I needed to know about this?" She shook her head and blew out a breath. "Sorry? that was uncalled for."

"Actually, we didn't start putting it together until this week," Opal said, taking charge again. "We don't have anyone keeping an eye on him. It's not like he's been much of a player in this whole drama."

"And he is now?"

The three looked at one another again and Ame and Turq gave Opal a brief nod. "As I said, we've only just started putting pieces together. But we don't think he will ever be much of a player as far as Charisma is concerned."

Esmeralda cast her glance around the table, noting the attitudes of attentive listening among all the women gathered there. Even those who'd just joined her team seemed to be fully invested in what was going on. She nodded in satisfaction and turned her attention back to Opal.

"Is there any fact to back up your thinking or is it just a gut feeling at this point?"

"A little of both, actually. We know he's never been much of a factor in Charisma's life. She married him because she wanted a baby and she needed a husband. They were compatible and he was willing."

"And you don't think he's willing anymore?"

"If I was to hazard a guess?" waiting for Esmeralda's nod. "I'd say he still cares for her very much - she is the mother of his son, after all. And in fairness, she was completely up front with him about her career coming first before they married."

"But...?"

"But I think he may have found someone willing to put him first instead."

"I have a question," Ruby spoke quietly, causing all eyes to turn her way. Esmeralda gestured for her to proceed and Ruby cleared her throat. "Has anyone considered that Charisma may be as much of a beard for Kent as Kent is for her?"

Everyone stared at her and Ruby felt compelled to continue. "I just think it's something that needs to be considered. After all, we know one thing that appealed to Kent about Charisma was the fact that he knew his mother would approve of her as a suitable wife. The fact that Charisma desperately wanted a child made her even more attractive, because he knew he would be able to give his mother at least one grandchild. The fact that he and Charisma liked one another was a bonus and since she was attractive, he was willing to give it a go."

"You don't think he loves her?"

"I didn't say that. Given what we saw of their courtship, I believe Opal's right - he cares for her very much."

"But...?"

"But I don't know if there is more than caring involved. And to be completely honest, we don't know that much about Kent. At least," motioning to her compatriots, "*we* don't. Our briefings before we arrived centered on Charisma and Brianna."

"Ours as well," Ame concurred, crumbling a bit of toast onto her plate. "Kent was seen as something of a bit player to the real drama that was playing out between our two protagonists."

Esmeralda picked up her coffee cup and took another sip, letting her focus go to the window where the sun was just starting to peek over the horizon. She lifted the cup to her lips again and sighed once she'd swallowed. "It would be really nice if we didn't have to dig for answers. All right, Mal - I need you to go shadow Kent. Ame should be able to get you the information you need to find him in the City. I just need to know if he has interests there other than the theatre."

"You got it, Es."

"Thanks, Mal. Now, what about the rest of you? How are things going? What's going on with Brianna?"

They looked at one another and Ruby gestured for Indi to start. "She's been very tame... very sedate - at least with me. She comes in early and we tackle whatever's on the agenda for the day. She's learning her job quickly and is already gaining allies. She's making a real effort to do the job she's been appointed to."

"That's it?"

"For me," Indi said. "She's been sending me home at what she calls a 'reasonable hour', so Coral's been pulling some long shifts."

Esmeralda nodded. "I know. I talked to both her and Amber yesterday." She turned to Jasper. "What about you, Jas?"

"There's not much to tell, Es. She's only just started using me with any regularity. I pick her up in the morning and take her to the Senate building. I pick her up again in the late afternoon when she sends Indi home and take her back to her apartment for an hour or so and then take her back to the office for a few hours in the evenings. She hasn't said much."

"Have either of you observed anything unusual in her behavior?" watching them exchange puzzled glances, then shake their heads at her.

"To be honest, I'm not sure what unusual behavior would be for her. But she hasn't gone ballistic; she's not having a come apart. It all seems pretty normal."

"Does she spend any time brooding?"

They cocked their heads at her, then traded looks before turning back to Esmeralda. "Um... no?"

Esmeralda chuckled. "Are you asking me or telling me?"

"A little of both maybe?" Indi replied. "She hasn't done anything that we would consider brooding, but we're still learning her quirks. I do know that whatever happened with you and Saphira Friday night changed her behavior somewhat - I mean... that's when she started this new schedule."

"It's like she's thrown her focus into her professional life."

Esmeralda pinched her bottom lip between her fingers in thought. "Have you noticed her studying any of the photographs in her office?" fixing her gaze on Indi. Indi just shook her head.

"Not at all. As I said, she's been very focused... very professional."

Esmeralda nodded her head and took her last swallow of coffee, grimacing at the lukewarm beverage. Ruby held up the pot in silent question, but Esmeralda shook her head. Without missing a beat, Ruby poured her a glass of cold milk. Esmeralda rolled her eyes, but dutifully picked up the glass and took a big swallow. "Thanks, Ruby. What about you?"

"What about me, Es? I'm just here to give Saphira a break and keep an eye on the rest of you." She arched a brow. "Someone has to make sure you girls eat right and get some rest."

"Den mother, huh?"

"You bet your sweet bippy, sweetheart." Ruby pushed the hair out of Esmeralda's face. "You worry about taking care of the assignment. I'll look after the lot of you."

Esmeralda covered the hand that cupped her cheek. "Thanks, Ruby," her smile tired but sincere.

"And on that note," Ruby said, looking at her watch, "we've got to get our day started and you need to go back to bed before Saphira bodily picks you up and carries you to the bedroom." She nodded her head towards the doorway where Saphira had been standing during the entire meeting, arms crossed over her chest. "We'll keep you in the loop, especially if anything changes."

Esmeralda nodded and rose, finishing her milk before handing the empty glass back to Ruby. "I appreciate it, Ruby." She turned to Jas. "I need you to have some sort of mechanical trouble today - just enough to give me a chance to speak to Brianna."

"Got it covered, boss."

"And you'll let me know what's going on with Kent?" to Mal.

"As soon as I have something to report, boss."

Esmeralda nodded. "Good work, ladies. I think we're on track. Once I talk to Brianna, I should have a little clearer picture. But I expect things to start moving pretty quickly."

"Es?" Ame asked, causing everyone to stop moving and Esmeralda and Saphira to turn back from the bedroom doorway they'd just opened. Esmeralda tilted her head in question while Saphira merely cocked her eyebrow. "I was wondering if you had any idea how this was going to turn out... really."

"In what way? I'm not omniscient, Ame - you know that."

"No... I know that. But this situation has the potential to go out of control so easily." She bit her lip. "I don't want Adam to get hurt. He's just a child."

Esmeralda tapped the strong arms that had embraced her when she had moved from the table and Saphira released her hold. Then Esmeralda crossed to stand in front of Ame, cupping her face gently. "He'll be all right, Ame. He still has two parents and three grandparents who love him dearly and who knows - there might be one or two more before this is all said and done."

Ame nodded, but her shoulders slumped. Esmeralda lifted Ame's chin, drawing her face back up until their eyes met. "There aren't any guarantees here, Ame - you know that. We can only give them a second chance and do our best to make sure it comes out right."

"I know. I just... we usually don't come into situations this late. There aren't any kids involved." She leaned forward and brushed a kiss over Esmeralda's forehead. "Go to bed - before your mate loses what's left of her patience with me."

Esmeralda smiled and the rest chuckled, knowing none of them wanted Saphira on the warpath with them in her sights - not given that she'd stood up to Him for Esmeralda. They waved goodbye and left to begin their day.

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

"So you're the reason Jas called me with car trouble?" Brianna asked when she beckoned Esmeralda into her inner sanctum many hours later. She didn't appear angry... just a little chagrined. Esmeralda nodded her head sheepishly.

"I asked her to. I wanted to check on you."

"I'm all right," Brianna assured Esmeralda. "I've just been... I've been trying to figure things out. I need to do something. I just need to figure out what that something is."

"And you need to do that on your own," Esmeralda stated.

Brianna shrugged. "I don't know. I really... it seems like I should, you know? I mean, this is my life... our lives. Seems like we should be the ones...."

Esmeralda smiled as she moved around the room, dusting as she moved. "I understand, Brianna. I really do. But I know sometimes you just need an impartial ear and if you find you need someone to talk to, you know where to find me."

"How do you do that?" Brianna asked after a few minutes of silence as she watched Esmeralda dust around the room then return to her cart for a spray bottle and clean cloth to start a second round of cleaning. Esmeralda turned back and looked at Brianna with a confused frown.

"Excuse me?" glancing at her cleaning tools.

Brianna chuckled. "No... sorry. I understand the cleaning thing, even if I'm not nearly as thorough as you are," grinning at the unexpected blush that chased up Esmeralda's fair skin. Then she sobered. "No," she said, her voice dropping. "How do you know just what to say? I mean, it's true - I have been busy this week trying to settle in and learn this job as quickly as I can. But I've also been avoiding you because I didn't know what to say after what happened at the diner the other night," hanging her head down so her hair hid her face.

Esmeralda looked at the stuff in her hands and sighed, then she put it down and crossed to Brianna's desk and extended a hand to her. When she realized Brianna couldn't actually see her hand, she touched Brianna's hand, gratified when warmth closed around hers immediately.

"Come sit with me a minute." Brianna rose without argument and followed Esmeralda to the couch, taking a seat at one end and releasing her hold on the hand she held to let Esmeralda sit down on the other. "Brianna," waiting for green eyes to track to hers. "Do you remember what I told you just last week - your first day in this office? About being a student of human nature?"

"Of course, Es. You proved it pretty spectacularly."

Esmeralda chuckled. "I've had a lot of practice at trying to say the right thing as well. I don't always get it right, but I keep trying. But in your case... well, I've been there, done that."

"How so?"

"When it looked like Saphira might be lost to me, it was... oh heavens... it was so many horrible things wrapped up into this tight little ball of misery that sat in the pit of my stomach and made it hard for me to breathe, much less anything else. And the worst part was everyone who knew us knew what was happening, even if they couldn't begin to know what I was going through. So I know what it feels to be embarrassed and humiliated and confused and angry and any other number of emotions that you've probably run the gamut on as well. Helps give me a little more insight to your situation."

"What did you do?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "Nothing you want to try, Brianna. I fell deathly ill. Saphira was the one who did all the doing."

"And what did she do?"

"She stood up and demanded something different."

"I'm not sure I understand," Brianna admitted. "Would that apply here?"

"I don't think so. What does your gut tell you?"

"That I would like to hear your story. And then I would like to discuss ideas with you."

"I can do that, but I need to finish the rest of the floor first. That will give us whatever time we need."

Brianna waved her off. "Go do what you need to do. I will be here when you get done."

Esmeralda nodded and put things away. Then she edged her cart out the door. "I'll be back shortly," she promised.

"I'll be here," Brianna answered as she watched Esmeralda leave, then rose and went back to her desk, focusing on her work once more. Suddenly, she felt better.



Chapter XXII

"Wow, that's amazing," Brianna said quietly when Esmeralda finished relaying the story she had also shared with Charisma. "She really stood up for you... gave up everything??" Esmeralda nodded solemnly.

"She did. She actually gave up more than I did. She literally gave up everything - her home, her title and wealth, her occupation... everything. I kept my job and actually ended up with a promotion of sorts."

Brianna's lips twisted wryly. "Yeah... those 'of sorts' things can get you into real trouble - usually more work and responsibility for less money. But Es, from what you said she didn't give up her home. She fought for that."

Esmeralda tilted her head in confusion. "I'm not sure I understand what you mean, Brianna. I know the home she had before... the home we shared. We don't live there anymore."

This time Brianna smiled. "Oh Es... that was just a house. The home she shares is with you, and she refused to give that up." Esmeralda covered her lips but couldn't contain the gasp that escaped. Brianna patted her free hand. "See, I got the important parts."

"Even better than I did, apparently," Esmeralda replied self-deprecatingly. "Sometimes I am such an idiot."

Brianna snorted. "Sometimes we all are, my friend. Otherwise, the world would be a much nicer place to live, and I wouldn't be sitting here trying to figure out what to do about the woman I have been in love with for more than half my life."

"What would you like to do?"

"Kiss her senseless??" Brianna replied immediately, then promptly blushed. "I mean...."

Esmeralda smiled. "Oh, I think you meant exactly that, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm just not sure it's the right thing to do in this case at the moment." She paused. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure," Brianna said good-naturedly. "It's not like I have to answer, and it's not like I couldn't use some help here if you've got any ideas. Go for it."

"You're considered out, aren't you? People know your orientation?"

Brianna frowned. "Pretty much, yes. I mean... I didn't announce it over a PA system like Ellen did, and I don't introduce myself as Brianna Walker, lesbian, but it's pretty common knowledge as far as I know. I haven't used a man as an escort since my first year out of college and I have been seen with women publicly - both for professional reasons and in my personal life." She hesitated, then continued. "I'm no blushing virgin, if that's what you're asking."

Esmeralda's brows went into her hairline. "Um, no... that wasn't what I was asking, but thanks for sharing," grinning when Brianna stuck out her tongue. "No... I was asking because - would you go into the closet? Would you hide your relationship to be with Charisma?"

Brianna held green eyes that matched her own for a long moment, then shook her head. "I don't think I could," she said honestly. "I don't think I could be someone I'm not to be with anyone." She shrugged. "If I can't be honest and be who I am with the person who is supposed to love me unconditionally, what kind of foundation are we going to have together? So no. Besides," she added, clasped her hands together in her lap. "Charisma is married and that makes her off-limits to me. I'm not a home wrecker... ever."

"All right - I can appreciate the sentiment. I actually agree with you... about all of it. And as bad as I hate to say it, and as much as you don't want to hear it, I think your very best option at the moment is to become friends with Charisma again. She'll fight it and she'll resist you, but she needs you. She needs your friendship. Nothing has been quite right for her since you left, and she knows that in her heart of hearts whether she admits it anywhere else or not. It's gonna be an uphill battle though."

"Of course it is," Brianna grumbled.

Esmeralda studied her speculatively for a long moment. "If I gave you an opportunity to get your foot in the door, would you take it?"

"What are you talking about?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "Uh uh... blind faith. If I can arrange it so she gets to see the friend she loves and remembers, will you take the chance?"

"Of course, Es. I'd do anything - short of breaking the law or breaking up her marriage. As much as I love her... have always loved her... I miss her friendship in my life. There were a lot of times in the past twenty years when I wished for her advice and counsel."

"All right," Esmeralda nodded. "You just keep doing what you've been doing - be polite and kind and friendly. I'll do what I can on my end."

"How will I know?"

"You just will," Esmeralda promised. "It'll feel right."

Brianna looked at her askance, but slowly nodded her agreement. "All right... If you say so."

"I say so."

Brianna snickered. "You sound like my grandmother." She chanced a look at the clock. "Holy crap! Saphira is going to kill me for keeping you here so late. She's gotta be worried. C'mon," she encouraged, holding out her hand and tugging them both to their feet. "We need to get you to the diner before she sets the entire DC police force out after me."

Esmeralda giggled and lightly squeezed the hand she held. "It's all right, Brianna. I called her before I came back in here. She's already headed for home. I'll just go straight there tonight."

Brianna looked her over shrewdly. "And you'll let me drive you home, right? I don't feel right about you being out by yourself at this time of night."

"I have a guardian angel," Esmeralda stated without compunction knowing Coral was waiting out of sight not too far away. "But if it'll make you feel better, I'll be happy to," she added with a smile before Brianna could protest.

"Good," Brianna muttered. "Glad we got that settled," going around behind her desk. "Give me a minute to call Jasper and we can head out."

"I still have to put my cart away. Would you like me to meet you somewhere or...?"

"I'll walk with you; then you can walk with me."

Esmeralda nodded. "That sounds good," waiting as Brianna made her call and shut down her office for the night. Then they headed out together.

Brianna looked around in wonder, never having seen that part of the Senate Building. It was positively plain, though it was also spotlessly clean. "So different," she murmured. Esmeralda smiled at her words.

"Isn't that the way things are in life as well?" not specifying what she meant, but Brianna nodded anyway.

"I suppose it is," she agreed softly. "Now c'mon... let's get you home."

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

"So are you any closer to understanding?" Saphira asked when she closed the door behind Esmeralda. Brianna had been as good as her word and dropped Esmeralda off at home, waiting until she was inside and had turned and waved before instructing Jasper to take her home. Esmeralda blew out a breath and leaned against the closed door with her eyes closed for a moment. Saphira tenderly cupped Esmeralda's cheek and leaned down until only Esmeralda would hear her bare whisper. "Sweetheart?"

Green eyes blinked open and Esmeralda gave Saphira a wan smile even as she covered the hand on her face. "I understand that I'm an idiot," causing Saphira to frown. She giggled tiredly. "However... that's neither here nor there at the moment as it had nothing to do with this assignment. I do have an idea that may help jumpstart things for them. Have we heard anything from Mal?"

"No," Saphira supplied, leaning forward and kissing Esmeralda briefly, surprised when Esmeralda held on and deepened it for several minutes. Despite their interlude only a few days previous - their first since Esmeralda had started on the long road to recovery - things were still not very physical between them. Esmeralda still tended to exhaustion most days and Saphira refused to push. She was able to hold Esmeralda in her arms every night, and that was a blessing beyond price.

Still, she rarely considered herself to be stupid and when Esmeralda offered as she was doing now, Saphira simply wrapped Esmeralda in strong arms and held on for dear life.

Slowly, Esmeralda pulled back from Saphira until she could look into the blue eyes she treasured so much. Esmeralda reached up a hand to cup Saphira's face, smiling when Saphira leaned into her touch.

"I love you," Esmeralda said gently. "So much."

Saphira left her hands on Esmeralda's waist and turned her face until she could brush Esmeralda's palm with her lips.

"And I love you, Esmeralda."

"I know, Saphira. I know by your words and your actions and the look in your eyes. I just don't want you to ever wonder about how I feel about you."

Saphira smiled. "I've never doubted you, Esmeralda." She let her smile become a leer. "But anytime you'd like to remind me like that," licking her lips, "please feel free." Esmeralda chuckled and threw herself into Saphira's arms. Saphira caught her and held on, rocking them back and forth. "You wanna tell me what brought this on?"

"Brianna. We had an interesting talk tonight. And she reminded me that I have everything I need in my life - I have you."

"I hope you never have cause to doubt that," Saphira said quietly. "I hope I never give you a reason to."

"You won't," Esmeralda affirmed. "Not after everything we've been through." She slid out of Saphira's arms and let her feet touch the floor. Then she linked her fingers with Saphira's and tugged her towards the bed. "I want to hold you tonight. Tomorrow I'll tell you what I'm thinking about all this."

"Sounds like a plan."

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

It was later than they normally got up. Already the day crew was up and gone; Amber and Coral had returned some minutes ago and were in the kitchen preparing something to eat. Still they lay together while Esmeralda told Saphira about her conversation with Brianna the day before.

"Are you sure you want to get involved like that?" Saphira asked when Esmeralda laid out her idea to help facilitate the building of the friendship between Brianna and Charisma. Esmeralda leaned up from her spot on Saphira's chest where she'd been listening to the strong heartbeat beneath her cheek. The disbelieving look on her face spoke volumes and Saphira waved her hands to stop her speech before Esmeralda could make a comment. "You know what I mean."

Esmeralda shook her head. "I'm not sure I do, Phira. We're already involved in this... up to our eyeballs."

"I know, Es, but this is different." She paused. "Isn't it?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "No, Sweetheart. We're just expanding our horizons by...." Whatever her thought was going to be, it remained incomplete as there was a rapid knock on the door mere seconds before it opened and Amber stuck her head in, eyes firmly closed.

"You need to come quick, Es. Opal's on the phone. I think there's trouble in paradise again."

Esmeralda sat up and reached for her robe, slipping into it before she stood and tying it as she made her way towards the door with Saphira right behind her. Esmeralda nodded at Coral who put the phone on speaker so they could all hear Opal's conversation.

"Opal? What's up?"

"I'm not sure Es," Opal practically whispered into the phone. "Charisma had me call Brianna in for a meeting."

Four sets of eyes around the table widened comically and they exchanged flabbergasted expressions before Esmeralda cleared her throat. "Excuse me?"

Opal sighed. "You heard me. Charisma had me call Indi and set up a meeting between them. She should be here in.... Hello Senator Walker. Thank you for your rapid response. Allow me to announce you to Senator Tagherty." Through the connection, they heard Opal knock on the door and inform her of Brianna's presence, then Opal ushered Brianna into the inner sanctum before she resumed her seat and picked the receiver up once more.

"I suppose you heard all of that?"

"Yes," Esmeralda replied decisively. "What brought this on?"

"I don't know, boss. We didn't get much more warning than what I gave you."

Esmeralda blew out a breath. "All right. Keep your eyes and ears open and call me back once Brianna's gone back to her office. I'm gonna give Indi a call."

"Will do, boss."

"Thanks Opal. Good work."

Amber put a cup of coffee in front of Esmeralda even as Coral hung up the phone, then turned around and dialed Indi. It didn't ring twice before Indi picked up. "Senator Brianna Walker's office. This is Indigo - how may I help you?"

"Indi, it's Es," Esmeralda said without preamble. "What happened?"

They could almost hear Indi's shrug through the phone. "I dunno, Es. Opal called; I put her through to Brianna. Next thing I knew she was out the door and down the hall."

Esmeralda pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. "How did she seem?"

"Determined, if I had to put a name to it. She didn't hesitate and she was pretty focused when she walked out of here."

Esmeralda sighed. "All right. Let me know what happens when she gets back, will ya?"

"You betcha, boss. Anything else?"

"No, Indi. Thanks." Esmeralda nodded at Coral who thumbed the phone off and hung it up. Esmeralda leaned back when Amber put a plate of food down in front of her. There was the sound of chairs scraping against the floor and silverware tinkling against plates, but otherwise it was quiet in the kitchen as they allowed Esmeralda to process what she'd just heard.

After a while, she pushed back from her place and leaned back in her chair. Three sets of eyes turned her way and she sighed.

"Now what?" Amber asked before Esmeralda could speak. Saphira reached out a hand and smacked the back of her head. Amber clapped a hand on her head and turned to glare at Saphira. "What'd you do that for??" Saphira just gave her a look.

"All right you two... enough," Esmeralda said without a hint of a smile, though Coral was having problems keeping a straight face. "Now we wait. Who knows... maybe they'll solve this without us now."

"But you don't think so," Saphira stated without question. Esmeralda shook her head.

"No. It's never that easy."

"Okay, so now what?" Amber asked again. "And no smacking," she added with a glare in Saphira's direction. "It's a legitimate question."

"Yes, it is. But for right now... we do nothing. We can't do anything until we know what they're doing."

"Any thoughts about that?" Coral asked.

"I have all kinds of thoughts," Esmeralda replied dryly. "But I'd like to wait and see what we hear from Opal and Indi. I have a feeling this is Charisma's attempt to take control of things before they get completely away from her. I doubt Brianna is gonna let that happen."

"Well, you did say things were going to get more interesting."

"Lucky me," Esmeralda answered drolly, drawing laughs from around the table. She stood up and Saphira followed, picking up their plates and moving them to the sink... only to be pushed out of the way by Coral and Amber.

"We've got this," they proclaimed. "You two go... do something else. We'll let you know when Opal and Indi call back. They you can figure out what to do with it."

"Thanks, guys," Saphira said with a nod. The she held her hand out to Esmeralda who took it without hesitation. Then they went back into the bedroom and closed the door behind them. Coral and Amber watched them go, then shook their heads and got back to work.



Chapter XXIII

Charisma looked up from the legal brief on her desk when Opal knocked on the door. She pulled her reading glasses off and folded the arms together, placing them on the desk and motioning Opal in. Opal stepped into the room just past the threshold and announced Brianna's arrival in the office. Charisma nodded her acceptance and simply said, "Show her in."

Opal crossed back into the outer office and gestured Brianna forward. When Brianna reached the door, Opal announced her. "Senator Brianna Walker."

"Thank you, Opal," Charisma acknowledged with a smile, then she looked at Brianna. "Can she bring you anything...?"

"No thank you."

Charisma nodded and Opal took the dismissal for what it was, closing the door behind her and returning to her desk to resume her conversation with Esmeralda. Meanwhile, inside the office, Charisma motioned Brianna to a seat. Instead, Brianna stood behind one of the guest chairs facing Charisma and braced her hands on the top.

"Why am I here, Charisma?"

Charisma held Brianna's gaze, searching the green eyes she'd once known as well as those she saw in the mirror every morning. Brianna didn't flinch or look away and eventually, Charisma sighed and looked down at her desk for a moment, leaning her arms on it and folding her hands in front of her before bringing her eyes back up to meet Brianna's.

"Brianna, would you please have a seat?"

Brianna held her gaze another full minute, then relented and took the seat she had been hovering behind. "Now will you tell me why you summoned me, Charisma?"

Charisma's eyes widened. "I didn't summon you. I simply asked for a few minutes of your time at your earliest convenience."

Brianna barely contained the urge to roll her eyes. "Semantics, Charisma," then held up her hand before Charisma could protest. "It doesn't matter. What can I do for you?"

Charisma picked up her glasses and leaned back, crossing her legs and bringing the arms of her glasses to her lips. "I thought perhaps we could clear the air... set some ground rules," watching Brianna's brows fly into her hairline and her eyes darken to a stormy gray color. "I mean," she stumbled on hastily, "since we'll be working together and all."

Brianna settled back herself, crossing her legs and leaning her elbow on the chair arm so she could prop her head on her fingertips. "Can I ask why?"

Charisma frowned. "I don't understand - why what?"

"Why this? Why now? It's not like we've really had occasion to interact with one another so far, so why start worrying about it now?"

Charisma sighed. "Because at some point in the near future, we *will* have to interact with each other, and I'd like us to be on the same page when it happens to save us both from being embarrassed or worse."

"And I'd like for us to be friends again, but I doubt there's any likelihood of that happening in my lifetime, despite...." trailing off when she saw the anger cloud Charisma's blue eyes.

"Despite what, Brianna? And I suggest you tread lightly, Senator Walker."

Brianna shook her head. "No," she stated. "I'm not treading at all. I'm not getting into this with you here."

Charisma stood and laid her hands on the desk, leaning forward until she almost reached the other side. "You expect me to simply forget the fact that you walked out on me twenty years ago... with no explanation?"

Brianna rose and mirrored Charisma's position until they were nose to nose, practically breathing the same air. "I expect you to remember that you never once tried to find out why I did." She drew in a deep breath and was suddenly assaulted by the scent of Charisma that surrounded her. Instinctively, she closed her eyes and straightened, backing away from the desk and walking towards the door. "You never once considered that I did it for you, did you, Ri?" Brianna smiled sadly at the flummoxed expression on Charisma's face. She waved her hand to stop Charisma's speech before she could open her mouth. "It doesn't matter, Senator," she went on formally. "I will be the consummate professional on any occasion we are forced to work together. If anyone asks, we were college roommates that lost touch, only to be brought back together again by the winds of chance or Fate or God... whatever. Pick one - I don't care."

"Are you serious?"

"As a freaking heart attack," Brianna replied flatly. She reached the door and put her hand on the knob, then turned back to Charisma once more. "I've missed you, Charisma... more than you could possibly understand, but I'm not going to be pushed into anything. However, if you ever decide you want to talk about things, well... you know where to find me."

A frown creased Charisma's face. "That's why I called you down here - so we could talk."

Brianna shook her head. "No - you called me down here so you could ensure that I wouldn't screw up your political career by embarrassing you in some way. I can assure you that I won't and have no intention of doing so. But I don't want or need your lectures on behavior and deportment."

"That's not what...."

"That's *exactly* what you were going to do. You were planning to give me ground rules, remember? That's tantamount to a lecture." Brianna sighed. "Look, I haven't done anything in twenty years to mess you up. I'm certainly not going to start now."

Without another word, Brianna opened the door and crossed back into the outer office before shutting the door soundlessly behind her once more. Charisma simply watched her go, unable to think of a way to make her stay without causing some sort of scene. And since that had been the entire point of meeting with Brianna in the first place, she decided that discretion was definitely the better part of valor in this case.

Opal observed the shakiness of Brianna's limbs as she paused outside the closed door, but did nothing to bring attention to it. Instead she returned the courtesy when Brianna nodded her goodbye, wondering how long it would be before Charisma came storming out of her office.

Meanwhile, Indi followed Brianna into her inner sanctum, hoping she could find out *something* to report to Esmeralda. What she got was a request for a tea tray and some notes on the bill Brianna was currently studying.

When she'd retrieved the things Brianna had asked for, Indi made as if to leave Brianna's office, intent on calling Opal to see if they could conference call with Esmeralda. A question from Brianna immediately waylaid that idea.

"Indi, do you know the custodian Esmeralda?" Brilliant blue eyes widened, but otherwise she gave no indication of what she thought of the query. She blinked once and nodded, wondering where this had come from and better yet - where it was going.

"Um, yeah... sure. Senator Whitman was very fond of her. He always stayed a few minutes to talk to her when he could, so I've known her for a while now, I guess. Why?"

Brianna shrugged. "I think she's far more than she seems."

Indi smiled. "Aren't we all, Senator? I mean, none of us really reveals all of who we are to anyone."

"That's true," Brianna nodded in agreement. "But with her I feel like... I don't know exactly - I feel like I'm missing something important."

Indi tilted her head in question. "Do you like her, Senator? Do you trust her?"

Brianna chuckled. "That's the funny thing - I really do. My gut tells me she's good people... she and Saphira both. And I learned a long time ago to trust my gut."

"But...?"

"But she seems too good to be true. Too real... too genuine."

"If you trust her... trust your gut... shouldn't that be enough?"

"I don't know - should it? What are your impressions?"

Indi took a deep breath. She was treading a very thin line. "Senator, I can only tell you what I know from what I've learned in this office," waiting for Brianna to nod before continuing. "Right... in the time I've know Esmeralda, she's proven to be loyal, insightful and able to keep a secret tighter than Fort Knox. Her genuine concern for people could have made her a part of the clergy or the medical field, but she seems happy in what she does as a custodian." Indi scratched the side of her jaw. "Come to think of it, she's a really good custodian."

"And your personal opinion? C'mon, Indi," Brianna coaxed when Indigo hesitated. "I know you've got to have one."

"I am glad that she is willing to call me friend," Indigo confessed. "I'd like to be like her when I grow up."

Brianna's eyebrows went into her hairline. "May I ask why? Indigo, you're the epitome of a successful woman - beautiful, brilliant... a college honor grad with a successful career."

"And you don't think Es is because she didn't go to college or because she's a janitor?"

"I didn't say that," Brianna replied defensively. "In fact, it was Es that pointed out to me that most people don't consider her to be successful for those very reasons."

"And those that dismiss her miss out on so much - *that* is why I'd like to be her." She paused. "Is there anything else, Senator?"

Brianna gazed at Indigo for another moment before nodding her head. "Thanks, Indi," dismissing her before turning back to the work she'd been engrossed in before Charisma's phone call. Indi nodded and went back to her desk.

Things were finally starting to move - she needed to get ahold of Esmeralda soon. But first she was going to call Opal. They might as well be on the same page before they brought Esmeralda into it.

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

Opal sat quietly taking care of her work and directing the work of the other aides while Charisma remained conspicuously silent behind closed doors. She wondered at the lack of reaction, but like the others in the office, she was just counting her blessings.

For a little while, they just went about their business quietly, so the phone ringing caused everyone to jump slightly. Opal glared at it briefly before lifting the receiver to her ear. "Senator Tagherty's office. This is Opal - how may I help you?"

"Op... it's Indi," her voice quiet across the wire.

"Hey, Indi... what's up?" equally cautiously.

"What's happening on your end?"

Opal glanced at the still closed door. "Nothing."

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing, Indi. Not one thing."

"I don't understand." Opal rolled her eyes.

"What do you not understand, Indi? Nothing is happening here. Brianna left and closed the door behind her and we haven't heard anything from Charisma yet. She hasn't even asked for coffee yet. Why? What's happening on your side?"

Opal couldn't see it, but she heard Indi shake her head. "It was weird. Brianna kept me in her office for a few minutes; we had a very cryptic conversation about Es and then she shooed me out to go back to work."

"And?"

"And? That's it."

Opal pulled the phone from her ear and looked at it strangely for a long moment, glad that the rest were too involved in their own work to pay attention to her conversation. Then she tucked the phone back between her face and her shoulder and turned back to her computer.

"All right, Indi. I want you to start this dialogue over; step-by-step and don't leave out any of the details. Then we can decide what to do next."

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

"Es, this is Opal and I've got Indi conferenced in. Have you got a few minutes?"

"Talk to me, ladies. What's going on?"

First Opal told her side and then Indi shared hers. Then for several long moments they sat silently while Esmeralda considered their words. Finally, though....

"Es? You still there?" Opal asked since no sound could be heard from Esmeralda's side of the phone.

"She's here," Saphira answered.

"Is everything okay, Saphira?"

"I think so. Es is kind of in her own zone at the moment. Not sure I want to mess with that. Do you want me to have her call you back when she comes out of it?"

"No," Esmeralda said. "I'm good." She sighed. "All right. Thank you both. Keep your eyes and ears open, but I doubt you're gonna have anything to worry about for the rest of the day at least. If I'm wrong, though, feel free to let me know," her voice dry and droll.

Opal and Indi chuckled. "No thanks, boss. We're going with the 'Es is always right' theory on this one," Opal stated. "I can't speak for Indi, but we're enjoying the peace in Charisma's office."

Saphira snorted; Esmeralda just shook her head. "All right. You two get back to work. I'll be in at my normal time tonight."

"Nothing special planned tonight Es?"

"No. They're talking to one another... sorta. I can't mess with anything if they're making an effort."

"Even if their efforts suck?"

"At least it's an effort," Saphira commented wryly.

"At least it's a start," Esmeralda corrected. "As long as they're talking...."

"And if they stop?"

"I have an idea how to move things forward. But if I don't have to, I won't. All right, guys. Back to work. Thanks."

"Later, Es." Then Esmeralda and Saphira were left with nothing but a dial tone.

Esmeralda covered her face with her hands and she leaned into Saphira's body when strong arms wrapped around her middle. Saphira didn't speak - she simply rocked them gently together, humming an old lullaby she knew was a favorite of Esmeralda's.

When Esmeralda dropped her hands from her face, she turned in Saphira's arms and twined her hands into the dark hair. "Thank you."

Saphira smiled and hugged Esmeralda to her for a long moment. "C'mon," she invited. "Let's go enjoy the sun for a little while before we head for work."

Esmeralda pulled Saphira's lips down to meet her own briefly. "I'd like that, love. I'd like that a lot."

They were out the door in record time and Esmeralda locked her arm with Saphira as they walked against the wind. She took a deep breath. "This is nice," after a long stretch of silence.

"Yeah, it really is." She paused. "You all right?"

Esmeralda smiled. "I am. I will be interested to hear their points of view if they decide to share though. I'd like to know what was said in that office and I'll admit to being a little curious what Brianna was thinking about when she talked to Indi."

Saphira snorted. "I'd like to know that myself."

"Well, I promise if I find out, so will you."

"Sounds good. In the meantime...."

"In the meantime, we've got to get to work. Who knows what adventures await us today."

Saphira just shook her head, and guided them to the nearest metro stop.



Chapter XXIV

Saphira noticed Mal first and she squeezed Esmeralda's hand lightly to get her attention before jerking her head in Mal's direction. With a nod, they edged towards the nearest coffee shop and Mal followed them inside. She gestured towards the sitting area and Saphira led Esmeralda towards it. Esmeralda rolled her eyes good-naturedly at the pampering, but allowed Saphira to seat her comfortably before she stepped up beside Mal to help carry their coffee back to Esmeralda. Esmeralda accepted hers gratefully and turned to Mal expectantly. "What news?"

"Sorry it took so long. This is the first chance I've had to get here."

"Easier than just calling?"

"Coming here via the heavenly express takes about as much time as making a phone call and I knew I could catch you in person at this time of day."

"So what's up?"

"Well, first you need to know Kent's going to be gone for a little while longer. He has actually been legitimately busy with his theatre gig. He's at the theatre as we speak - the show is already in dress rehearsals, and he's signed for at least three months."

"Does Charisma know?"

Mal shrugged. "I don't know. He hasn't called her since I've been with him." Saphira and Esmeralda exchanged glances and Mal simply watched them communicate silently for a long moment before they turned back to her simultaneously. Her eyes widened. "What?"

"What else?" Esmeralda asked. "If that was all you knew, you'd have just called and left a message with someone, knowing I'd get it fairly quickly."

Mal smiled crookedly. "Some days you're just too smart for your own good," shaking her head and taking a sip of her coffee. "You're right - there's more... I'm just not sure how much more." She sighed and took another swallow of coffee, aware that the impatience in Saphira's expression was the antithesis to the serenity Esmeralda wore.

"Well?" Saphira prompted, only to clamp her lips together when Esmeralda laid a comforting hand on her arm. "Sorry," Saphira mumbled after taking a deep breath. "I'm just...."

Mal smiled and patted her other arm. "Trust me, Saphira. We've all been where you are and felt like you've felt. No one wants this settled soon more than we do - even those of us who haven't been on this assignment as long as you and Es have." She turned back to Esmeralda. "I'm still working on what the more is. I think he's invested in some sort of fledgling business... at least he seems to be spending most of his free time away from the theatre there. I'm still trying to ascertain if he's interested in the business itself or someone in particular there."

"What's the business?"

"It's a bar/restaurant."

"Like a sports bar combo?"

Mal shook her head. "No. It's more upscale. They're completely separate yet part of the same building."

"Thoughts?"

"I don't think I've got enough evidence to support anything at this point... not even impressions. Give me another day or two and I'll get back to you with something more concrete."

Esmeralda nodded thoughtfully. "All right, Mal. Good work, thanks."

"You know it, boss. I'll be back as soon as I have something more to report," she added as she rose and emptied her cup before she nodded to them and headed out the door. Esmeralda and Saphira remained where they were, hands still cradling their coffee cups. Finally, Saphira spoke.

"How do you stand this?"

Esmeralda gave her a smile and leaned her head on Saphira's shoulder. "Lots of practice." She patted Saphira's leg with her free hand. "C'mon," she continued after a moment, sitting up straight once more. "We're gonna be late." She slid forward and stood then offered her hand to Saphira.

Saphira accepted the proffered hand and stood, keeping Esmeralda's hand in hers as they exited the shop and headed for the metro once more.

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

Esmeralda slowly pushed her cart through the hallway, stopping at each office to clean as she made her way towards Charisma's office. Opal had given her an update as soon as she arrived on the floor, ensuring Esmeralda knew Charisma had yet to emerge from her office after Brianna's visit.

She interacted with everyone that she encountered, spending a little time with the people in each office as she went along... like she did every working day. However, the later it got, the fewer people she met - until she was sure she was the only one left on her floor.

Still her training held and she knocked on each door before she entered either outer or inner office. When she reached Brianna's office, she wasn't really surprised to find it empty. Given what Indi had shared with her earlier, she'd have been more surprised to find Brianna waiting for her. She was a little stunned at how much Brianna's sudden doubts hurt.

Esmeralda bit her lip and shook her head. She knew better than to take anything personally - in her job, she couldn't afford to. But it was hard not to in this case. So much of this *was* personal and familiar and it made her heart hurt on a number of levels. She wondered, however briefly, if what she felt now was part of His punishment, but she didn't dwell on it. She couldn't afford to... not now. Later maybe, when this was resolved, she would be able to give the idea more consideration.

She turned her attention back to her work, cleaning methodically and quickly. Only when she reached the rogue's gallery of pictures did Esmeralda slow down and take a good look at the images in the photographs. She didn't even hear the door open and close behind her.

"Do you see any answers, Es?" Brianna asked as she leaned casually against the door. She had to smile - except for the slightest hesitation at the initial sound of her voice, Esmeralda hadn't reacted to her unexpected presence at all... not even a flinch at the vaguely accusing tone.

"It would probably help if I knew what the questions were first, Brianna," Esmeralda replied evenly, continuing to study the pictures for another moment before she looked up to meet green eyes. She shrugged. "I know what I see."

Brianna cocked a brow. "And what is that?"

"I see two women who have lost the ability to communicate with one another... on the most basic level."

Brianna glared. "How do you do that?" slapping her palm against the door before crossing her arms over her chest. "How do you know...?" She held up a hand before Esmeralda could respond. "Who are you, Esmeralda? Who are you... really?"

"No one, Brianna. I am no one."

"Nuh uh. Not buying it."

"I'm not sure what you want me to tell you, Brianna."

"The truth, Es. All I want is the truth," her tone one of frustration tinged with anger, though Esmeralda wasn't sure at whom the anger was directed.

"I haven't lied to you, Brianna. I wouldn't lie... not about something this important."

"See? There you go again! Why is this important? After all, I've lived with this for almost twenty years. So why does it matter to anyone besides me at this point? It hasn't up to now!"

Esmeralda held Brianna's gaze for a long moment before she answered carefully. "I can't really say anything about that... I'm not God, you know. But you know why it matters to me - I would never see anyone suffer what Saphira and I have to be together."

"Why would you think Charisma would even care? She hasn't given me any sign that it makes a difference to her except how her career is concerned. And yet you're certain she does care beyond her career aspirations, aren't you?" She paused. "Who are you really, Es? And how do you know this stuff?"

Esmeralda tilted her head and gave Brianna a tiny smile. "Would you believe I'm an answer to prayer? That I was put here in this time and place for a reason?"

The unexpected reply caused Brianna to start, then freeze as her mind processed Esmeralda's words. Esmeralda stood still and let Brianna think about what she said, waiting for the deep breath and exhalation she knew was coming. When it happened, Esmeralda smiled at the wonder that filled Brianna's eyes.

"You know what?" Brianna finally said after a long moment. "I would actually believe that. I'm a firm believer in karma... that everything happens in its own time and way for a reason." She dropped her eyes and shook her head. "I don't know who you are, Esmeralda or who sent you here, but I guess it really doesn't matter. I truly am glad to have met you."

"I'm glad to have met you too, Brianna."

Brianna pushed off the door. "Do you have a few minutes?"

"For you? Absolutely." Esmeralda paused and waited for Brianna to cross the room and take a seat on the couch before moving over to join her. "What can I do for you?"

"Tell me more about yourself... or about you and Saphira."

Esmeralda frowned. That hadn't been what she'd expected to hear. "What would you like to know?"

"Anything you'd like to share. You know so much about me, and yet I know next to nothing about you. I'd like to change that."

"Level out the playing field a little?"

Brianna shrugged and blushed faintly. "Maybe," she conceded.

Esmeralda looked at her for a moment, then rose from her spot on the couch to resume her work. "I have a better idea," she said as she grabbed the duster and began her next round of cleaning, paying special attention to the pictures Brianna treasured. "Why don't you come to visit Saphira and me this weekend? We have a few hours on Saturday or all of Sunday together, and we'd be glad to have you join us for a meal and some conversation."

Brianna's eyes widened. "I'd like that."

Esmeralda smiled and nodded. "All right." She picked up a pen and carefully wrote the address on a piece of Brianna's letterhead, then passed the folded paper to Brianna. "You let me know when you 're available and I'll make sure Saphira and I are too."

Brianna accepted the missive with a watery smile, touched by Esmeralda's guileless generosity. "Thank you," she nodded. "Could we try for Sunday? I promise not to take up your whole day off."

Esmeralda smiled. "Sounds good. It means we don't have to rush."

Brianna reached a hand over and placed it on Esmeralda's arm, squeezing gently. "Thank you," she said again. Then she chuckled and nudged Esmeralda out from behind her desk before taking her seat and slipping on her reading glasses. "Guess if I'm going to play hooky on Sunday for a little while, I better spend a little extra time here the rest of the week so I don't get behind, huh?"

Esmeralda smirked and moved back towards her cart. "Whatever it takes. Have a good night, Senator Walker," causing Brianna's head to pop up in response and laughing at the glare and finger wag it garnered her. She gave Brianna a grin, laughing at the comical expression she got in return. Then she opened the door and headed out to finish the rest of her day's work.

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

Charisma checked her watch when the knock sounded on her door, muttering, "Come in," without ever removing her eyes from the documents in front of her. Esmeralda poked her head into the office, not surprised to find Charisma engrossed in some piece of legislation.

"Excuse me, Senator Tagherty. Is it all right if I come in and clean up in here?"

Esmeralda's soft question got Charisma's attention immediately and she raised her eyes from the papers in front of her. "Of course, Es. Please," motioning her further into the room. "I know you've got a job to do here too."

"Yes, but it can wait until you're done if it needs to, Senator," putting emphasis on her title. Charisma smirked wryly and shook her head.

"Not really, Es... and you know that."

Esmeralda grinned. "I know. But your work has to come first."

Charisma shrugged. "Maybe," she granted as she pushed her chair back from the desk and stood. She straightened up the papers she'd been studying and shoved them into her briefcase, then set about shutting down her computer for the night. "But I can take mine home and work on it there. You literally have to keep your work at work, because I'm pretty sure you'd get arrested if you tried to take my office home with you."

"I'm pretty sure that'd give me a hernia," Esmeralda joked, smiling when Charisma chuckled softly. "Besides," she confessed, "I like not being able to take my work home. It means when I leave here, I'm done til I come back and Saphira and I have time to be together."

Charisma tilted her head. "What's that like?"

Esmeralda's eyes widened. "I beg your pardon?"

"Having time together... wanting to have time together." She paused. "It's never been that way with Kent and me. I don't mind spending time with him, but neither of us goes out of our way to make it happen either." She turned and closed the laptop, slipping it into her bag as well, then locking it shut. "He called a little while ago - Kent did," Charisma clarified and waited for Es to nod her understanding. "He got the part he wanted. He'll be staying in the city for the next few months."

"How do you feel about that?" Esmeralda asked when she realized Charisma was waiting for her to comment.

"I'm glad for him," Charisma said instantly. "He really wanted this and I want him to have the things he wants out of life. I'd like him to be happy."

"And it doesn't bother you to be separated?"

Charisma shook her head. She picked up the phone and made a brief call to Turq then turned back to Esmeralda. "No... why would it? It's only a few months and he's only a couple hours away if something comes up here. Our military men and women are separated from their families for much longer and without the access I have." She looked hard at Esmeralda. "You still haven't answered my question."

"I'm sorry, Charisma. What was the question again?"

"What's it like... wanting to have time together?"

"You already know, Charisma. Don't you wish you had more time with Adam?"

"Not the same thing, Es - Adam is my son, not my mate," remembering Esmeralda's discourse. She picked up her briefcase and headed towards the door. By the way," she said casually as she reached the same spot Brianna had earlier in the day, putting a hand on the doorknob and turning partially to give Esmeralda a view of her profile. "I spoke to Brianna today."

"That's a good thing, right?"

Charisma shrugged. "Time will tell." She turned until she could look fully at Esmeralda. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Charisma." Then Esmeralda turned back to her work, not noticing she remained under Charisma's regard for another long moment before the door closed.

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

"So we're having company Sunday?" Saphira said as she and Esmeralda walked home from the metro station closest to the house they shared.

"Yeah - I hope the rest won't mind disappearing for a while."

"Well, except for Amber and Coral, it shouldn't be a problem. And they'll both be asleep upstairs. We'll manage."

"We always do." Esmeralda smiled as she spoke.

"What about Charisma?"

"I don't know, Phira. She's harder to read than Brianna is. She's been hiding a lot longer... from herself as well as everyone else."

"And when she finds out Kent has been hiding from her?"

"I don't know," Esmeralda repeated. "She won't make a scene, but she may use it to push him further out of her sphere. I think it'll depend on what he's been hiding."

"Well, hopefully Mal will find out soon - and before Charisma knows. It'd be nice to be ahead in this situation for a change and be able to make plans accordingly."

Esmeralda chuckled as they mounted the steps to their abode. "It never hurts to hope, I guess," she said quietly as they entered the house, taking care not to waken the other occupants. It wasn't long before they were settled in bed and silence descended once more.



Chapter XXV

Brianna glanced at the clock, eyes widening comically when she realized how late... or how early, depending on your point of view... it actually was. She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes, then tilted her head from one side to the other, sighing in satisfaction when it popped back into place. Brianna dropped her glasses onto the desk and stood, stretching and groaning when her back cracked unexpectedly.

"Well," she said to the silent office. "At least I'll be able to enjoy my Sunday with Es and Saphira without feeling any guilt," she said with a little chuckle. She debated going home, knowing she needed to be back relatively early to attend several committee meetings. But her desire for a hot shower won out over the need for a couple hours sleep on the couch, so she lifted the phone and put in a quick call to Jas. In minutes, she was being whisked to her apartment.

"Feel better, Senator Walker?" Jas asked as Brianna approached her car sometime later with a bounce in her step and a smile on her face.

"Much, Jas. I'm sure I'll regret the lack of sleep later, but at the moment I feel like I could take on the world and win." Jas grinned and nodded at Brianna's enthusiasm, shutting her door carefully and sliding into her place behind the wheel. "Were you up all night waiting on me, Jas?"

"I caught a good nap, Senator."

"Uh huh. I want you to go home after you drop me at the Senate Building and get some rest. I'll call you before I need you to let you know when you come pick me up again."

"But Senator...."

"Jas, don't make me make it an order. I'm not going anywhere today - at least not for a while. Long enough for you to get some decent sleep, all right?"

"You're the boss, ma'am."

Brianna smirked. "And don't you forget it." Then they were arriving back at the Senate Building and Jas opened Brianna's door and waited for her to disappear inside the building before she resumed her spot in the driver's seat and headed the car towards the house. She idly wondered who'd still be home when she arrived and then simply focused on getting there in the still heavy darkness.

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

"Dammit!" was the muttered curse Brianna heard as she made her way down the hallway towards her office after having enjoyed a full breakfast in the Senate dining room. She sped up her steps, wondering who'd found it necessary to be cursing in the building at daybreak. What she saw caused her heart to hesitate but her steps to speed up.

"Let me help," she offered, seeing Charisma struggle to hold onto her briefcase, unlock the door and juggle a cup of coffee while cradling her still sleeping son to her chest. Before Charisma could even think to protest, Brianna relieved her of her briefcase, coffee cup and keycard, swiping it quickly and pushing the door open so Charisma could enter the office ahead of her.

Charisma nodded her thanks, making her way from the outer office and towards her inner sanctum. Without a word, Brianna swiped the card again, unlocking the second secure door and opening it so Charisma could pass in front of her once more.

Charisma made her way to her couch, laying Adam on it and covering him before she turned to find Brianna's eyes on them. She straightened, but before she could clear her throat to speak, Brianna whispered, "He's beautiful, Ri."

Charisma smiled, then bit her lip to keep the tears from falling unchecked down her cheeks. She turned back to look at Adam still sleeping so peacefully. "He's my pride and joy."

Brianna smiled. "I can see why," causing Charisma to look at her again.

"Oh for... give me that stuff," Charisma demanded curtly, holding out her hands. "I didn't mean for you to stand here holding it like some sort of pack mule."

"It's all right, Ri. It was worth it to see your son. Someday I'd like to meet him." Charisma nodded but didn't answer verbally as she took her things and put them on her desk. "I guess I better go," Brianna added when Charisma turned around again.

Charisma looked hard at Brianna then, noticing the dark circles make-up couldn't hide. "You weren't here all night, were you? You don't want to get into that habit, Brianna. You'll burn out before you get settled in if you push like that."

"It was only one night, Ri. And I don't plan to be around here long enough to burn out. Politics was never my thing - you know that. I appreciate your concern though," she added with a gentle smile as she made her way back towards the door.

"Why did you take the appointment?" Charisma asked quietly, keeping the desk between them. Brianna turned back towards her but didn't move from her spot near the door. "As you said, you've never been interested in politics, and you knew I was here... that we'd be back in one another's lives at least peripherally if you came here. So why did you accept the appointment? You stayed away from me for almost twenty years."

Brianna stood quietly for a long moment, hearing the layers of hurt and anger and confusion in Charisma's voice, though she doubted Charisma was fully aware of them. "Michael asked. Richard really does hope to return to work by election time. So I make the perfect placeholder until Richard is better. When Michael asked he knew I wasn't interested in making a career change. I like what I do, Charisma. And I'm very good at it."

"I know," Charisma said simply, causing Brianna's brows to jump into her hairline. But when she didn't expound on her response, Brianna picked up the thread of conversation.

"Besides," she continued wryly, "when I was offered the job, it was pointed out to me not-so-subtlely that we're both adults and should be able to make this work." She didn't add that it had been Okasa making the statement nor did she share some of the other directives Charisma's mother had given her.

Charisma waited, but Brianna didn't expound further, so she nodded. "Thank you for your help this morning. I probably would've been wearing my coffee if you hadn't come to my rescue."

"I was glad to do it," Brianna assured her warmly. "Though," her smile turning to a contemplative frown. "How come you had Adam with you this morning?"

"His nanny had an emergency and it's a teacher's holiday at his school."

"Everything all right?" Brianna asked with concern at the expression Charisma wore.

"I hope so. Ame's been with us since his birth and she's never missed a day, so it must have been pretty serious. She's supposed to call me later."

Brianna nodded. "I hope everything's okay," she said simply as she turned to go.

"Me too. Thanks, Brianna." Brianna lifted a hand in farewell and left the office without another word. Charisma thoughtfully watched her go before shaking her head to clear it and turning her concentration to her briefcase, ready to start her workday.

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

"Ow," Ame complained, holding the side of her face as she was guided back to the bed. "What hit me? Saphira's sword?"

"Brianna's car," Esmeralda replied softly. "Though in fairness they probably feel about the same," garnering smiles and snickers from around the room as the rest watched with concerned eyes.

"OW," Ame reiterated. "Why did Brianna's car hit me?" trying to glance around the room in an attempt to look for answers, but finding the effort too much. She closed her eyes and blew out a breath, hoping to quell the roiling she felt in her belly. Ame was pretty sure she didn't want to throw up as badly as her head hurt at the moment.

"It wasn't my fault," Jas whined, drawing everyone's attention. "At least, not ALL my fault," she continued in response to the incredulous looks she was getting. "She walked into my path!"

Esmeralda held up a hand before anyone could make a remark. She and Saphira had been woken out of a sound sleep by the ruckus that had followed the accident and they had stumbled out of the room just as Ame was carried in the door by Indi and Opal.

"Maybe we should call a doctor... or go to the hospital."

"No," Ame groaned. "I just need to lie still. I'll be all right."

"All right, ladies," Esmeralda said, rubbing her hand over her face in an attempt to stimulate wakefulness. She smiled when Ruby put a cup of hot coffee in her other hand. "Thanks, Ruby!"

"C'mon, girls," Ruby invited, ushering most of the women out the door. "We've got to get to work. Es can sort this out without all of us hovering." She turned back to Esmeralda as the room emptied. "I already called and left a message with Charisma, and Opal will give Charisma the message again as soon as she arrives in the office."

"Thank you, Ruby," Esmeralda offered with a tired smile.

Ruby grinned. "It's what I do, honey. Let me know how it goes," jerking her head towards the bedroom where Jas and Ame were currently laying side by side talking in low tones. Esmeralda nodded.

"I will. Have a good day, Ruby."

"You too, Es," Ruby offered, closing the door and leaving the four of them in silence. Esmeralda turned back to the bedroom, passing Saphira as she exited. She cocked a brow in question.

"I may as well start some breakfast. Coral and Amber will be here sooner or later and we may as well eat with them before we go try to get a little more sleep. Go find out what happened."

Esmeralda brushed a kiss over Saphira's neck, then stepped into the bedroom. She gave Jas and Ame a long look. "You two all right?" asked as she sat on a corner of the bed.

Ame didn't move, but Jas nodded. "Yeah. It was an accident - I swear!"

"I'm sure it was," Esmeralda agreed distractedly. "At least on your parts," she added. Jas frowned.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Esmeralda sighed. "This may be my fault."

Finally Ame stirred, opening her good eye. "Es, unless you've suddenly become omniscient, I'm pretty sure this wasn't your fault. This happened because I was careless and Jas is tired."

Esmeralda pinched her bottom lip between her finger and thumb thoughtfully. "Maybe. Why don't you two tell me what happened?"

"And then you'll tell us how you think this could possibly be your fault?" Jas pressed. Esmeralda nodded her agreement. "All right. Well, I was coming home this morning - Brianna was working all night and she sent me home after I took her back to the Senate Building at oh-dark-thirty this morning." Esmeralda motioned for her to continue. "Right, well - I must have gotten distracted for a minute or something... I dunno. I just know that I looked and there was no one there and the next minute, I was running into Ame. I swear, Es - I didn't see her. She wasn't there when I looked."

"All right, Jas - calm down. I believe you." She took a deep breath and turned to Ame. "What about you, Ame? What's your story?"

"Pretty similar," Ame replied softly. "I mean, it's not like I don't normally look around before I walk out the door, you know? I did - I looked and noticed both Turq and Jas had already left for the day. I didn't know Jas hadn't made it home yet. The next thing I knew, I'm seeing stars... both kinds," she added drolly, getting a wry grin from Esmeralda. "I thought all those cartoons were just trying to be funny." She put a hand on her forehead. "Who knew it was the truth?"

"At least they weren't tweeting birds," Jas snarked.

"Thank heaven," Ame replied. "I think that might have pushed me over the edge this morning."

"Are you sure you don't want to go to the doctor? Ame, this could be serious."

"I'll be all right, Es. I just want to lie here and be still for a while. It doesn't hurt as bad if I don't move." Ame closed her good eye. "So spill... why do you think this might be your fault?"

"Because I was hoping to facilitate communication between Charisma and Brianna by bringing Adam into the mix."

Jas frowned. "I'm not sure I follow."

Esmeralda blew out a frustrated breath. "Before yesterday - before Charisma called Brianna into her office for their talk, I'd been weighing my options on how to get them to talk to one another instead of me. My favored solution had been to ask Ame to bring Adam to Charisma's office in the hopes that he could break the ice between them somehow."

"Right - still not following."

Esmeralda spared Jas a glare. "I think the Father may have helped that along this morning. I mean, Charisma won't even think to question Ame's absence once she gets a good look at her face. The bruising and swelling kinda speaks for itself."

"Oh," Jas said slowly, turning to get a good look at the damage Ame's face currently sported. "OH," she repeated, scrubbing her hand over her eyes. "Sorry. I don't think I'm firing on all cylinders."

Ame chuckled, then hissed, cradling her face tenderly. "Jas, we love you, but you're never firing on all cylinders."

Jas stuck out her tongue. Esmeralda just laughed.

"All right, you two. Jas, you need to get some rest. Ame, you should really see a doctor, but barring that," she continued before Ame could protest. "Just be still. Try not to fall asleep though. I'm worried about concussion." Esmeralda rose and moved to the open doorway. "Would either of you like something to eat?"

"Please no," Ame growled, causing Esmeralda to give her yet another concerned glance.

"No thanks," Jas said through a yawn. "Maybe when I get up."

"Okay," Esmeralda agreed with a slow nod. "If you need us. Saphira and I will be here a while longer. Just knock on the door." Then she pulled the door shut and went to find Saphira.

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

Esmeralda had just finished telling Saphira what she had learned and what she suspected when Amber and Coral burst through the door. Esmeralda looked up in surprise and gave them both a look of reproach and motioned them to a seat at the table even as Saphira put plates down in front of them.

"Please tone it down a little bit, you two. Ame and Jas are resting."

Coral and Amber exchanged startled glances and turned to Esmeralda. "Sorry, Es," Amber apologized for both of them. "We didn't know. But boy... do we have news."

"Of course," Coral added with a frown and a nudge at Amber, "what Charisma told Brianna makes better sense now. Is Ame okay?"

"I hope so," Es answered honestly. "She refuses to see a doctor... says she just needs to lie still and rest. Can you two keep an eye on her for a little while? Saphira and I need to catch a little longer nap when we're done eating, but I'd like someone looking out for her in case it gets more serious."

"Oh yeah... absolutely," they assured Esmeralda with nods. Amber looked up from her plate with a frown. "Do you think it will?"

Esmeralda shrugged. "I hope not," she said, "but I'd rather not take the chance. Now," changing the subject, "what news do you have for me?"

So Coral and Amber told their stories, filling Esmeralda and Saphira in on the office interlude between the two senators with great detail. Esmeralda listened quietly and pushed back her plate before she spoke.

"Thoughts? Impressions?"

"I was impressed," Amber replied after a silent conversation with Coral. "It was actually civil and non-defensive on both sides. I would call it real progress."

"I agree," Coral responded immediately. "Even without knowing the extent of Charisma's anger and confusion at Brianna, it was obvious she was making a real effort to be non-confrontational. I will say it appears Brianna came to a decision about the situation in some way. She seems more settled than she did even a week ago."

"Very good," Esmeralda answered thoughtfully. "Thank you both," she said as she stood. "Now if you'll excuse us," reaching for Saphira's hand, "I think we're going to try to catch a little more sleep."

Amber nodded, exchanging anxious glances with the other two before facing Esmeralda directly. She stood and took Esmeralda into a hug. "We'll take care of things here. Go get some rest."

"Yeah," Coral agreed. "Things are finally starting to move. Better get it while you can."

Esmeralda gave them a smile and tugged Saphira with her into their room. Coral and Amber waited until the door was shut before they turned back to one another.

"Is she relapsing?" Coral asked quietly, her voice tinged with more than a hint of alarm. "She seems...."

"I know," Amber said tightly. "And I hope not. I'm not sure heaven or earth would be ready to face the consequences that Saphira would mete out if anything happened to Es."

Coral shook her head. "At lest we've got progress on the work front. Maybe it really will go swiftly from here so we can all go home soon."

"We can hope," Amber replied as she began moving the dishes to the sink and started running dishwater. Coral brought the rest of the plates, and they cleaned up together in silence. Then by unspoken mutual consent, they went into the tiny living room to sit for a while where they could watch over the rest of the sleeping household.



Chapter XXVI

"What do you mean you don't know where he is?" Opal hissed at Luke. He scowled and crossed his arms over his chest defensively.

"I mean," he returned with a growl, "I don't know where he is. We went to the men's room... he said he needed to use the restroom and I figured I'd better grab the chance to go as well." Luke shrugged. "I guess I took too long. When I came out of the stall, he was gone."

Opal took a deep breath and released it slowly. "All right - start looking... but you're going to be the one to explain it to Senator Tagherty if she asks."

"If I ask what?" Charisma said as she stepped from her office with several papers in her hand. She looked around. "Where's Adam?"

Luke scratched the back of his neck and looked down at the floor. "Well, you see Senator...." watching her eyes go wide in fear and alarm.

"Luke... where is my son?"

"See," Brianna's voice came from the doorway where she stood cradling Adam in her arms. Three heads swiveled in her direction. "I told you your mom was going to notice you'd gone missing." Luke slumped in relief and Opal blew out a nervous breath. Charisma stood stock-still, stunned by the picture of Brianna and Adam framed in the door.

Brianna had Adam on her hip and he had curled himself into her body. His head was tucked under her chin and his arms were wrapped around her neck. Even as Charisma watched, Brianna tried to lower Adam to the ground. Adam, however, was having none of it and tightened his grip.

"Whoa, little man - careful," Brianna instructed with a chuckle. "I still need to breathe." Adam tilted his head up at her and giggled. "Don't you want to go to your mom?" Adam shook his head and giggled again. Charisma cocked an eyebrow and tilted her head.

"What sort of magic have you worked on my son?" Brianna shook her head and shrugged. Charisma turned to Adam. "Son, we have to let Senator Walker go back to work. That means you have to let her go," seeing him shake his head and clutch Brianna tighter. Charisma moved closer to them, even as Brianna knelt and put Adam down on the floor.

"I'll make a deal, big guy. You let me go now and do my work, and if your mom says it's okay, we'll go for ice cream later, okay?"

Adam grinned and nodded, then ran to his mother and wrapped his arms around her leg, looking up at her with bright blue eyes. "Pwease?"

Charisma pushed Adam's dark hair out of his eyes. "We'll see," she promised. "But you have to stay here and not run off like that again, all right? You scared mama."

Adam tilted his head. "Mama okay?"

Charisma smiled. "Mama's fine, son." She turned back to Brianna as she rose to her feet again. "Thank you for bringing my son back to me."

"It was my pleasure," Brianna assured Charisma. She looked at Adam. "It was nice to meet you, Adam."

"Br'anna good," he declared with a smile. Brianna returned his grin and left without another word. Charisma turned back to her office staff.

"Does someone want to tell me what just happened here?"

"Br'anna good," Adam reiterated. Charisma looked down at him and brushed his hair back again.

"She is, huh?" smiling when Adam nodded vigorously. "All right. Adam, you stay here with Luke, okay? Luke, try to keep up with my son this time. Opal, you're with me." Adam went to the couch and Luke went back behind his desk. Opal and Charisma went into Charisma's office and things settled down again.

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

"So really... what sort of hex did you put on my son?" Charisma's tone was a little accusatory when she and Brianna sat down with their ice cream some time later. Adam had curled up beside Brianna as a matter of course and pulled Charisma down into the chair beside them.

"I'm not sure what you mean, Ri. I haven't done anything. Why do you ask?" trying not to lose her temper at the perceived indictment in Charisma's voice.

"Adam doesn't trust easily, and yet he warmed up to you immediately." She paused and took a bite of ice cream. "How did you end up with him anyway?" narrowing her eyes in question.

Brianna and Adam looked at each other and Brianna chuckled. "We found each other in the hallway, didn't we buddy?" waiting for Adam to nod. She turned her attention back to Charisma. "I was returning from a meeting and met Adam coming out of the men's room. Since I was pretty sure you didn't want him wandering around the building by himself, I figured I'd better bring him back to you."

"And he just came to you?" slight suspicion still in her tone.

Brianna tilted her head, sucking the ice cream from her spoon as she pondered her answer. "Not exactly. I knelt down to speak to him... you know, at his level. He came close enough to look me in the eyes, staring at me for a very long time before he wrapped his arms around my neck." She looked back at Charisma. "Are you saying that isn't normal for him?"

"Not at all. He's not friendly to strangers and it generally takes him a long time to warm up to people. It was three days after he was born before he let his father near him without screaming bloody murder." A beat. "Maybe he's another sucker for green eyes," Charisma muttered under her breath, remembering Adam's similar response to Esmeralda.

"Excuse me?" Brianna said, her green eyes widening, not quite sure she'd heard Charisma correctly. It was the nicest thing Charisma had said to her since they'd said goodbye in Barcelona.

Charisma, on the other hand, seemed to realize she'd stepped beyond some self-imposed line and withdrew immediately. "I'm sorry," she said as she scrambled to stand up and reached for Adam's hand. "That was untoward of me. If you'll excuse us...." she continued awkwardly. "Thank you for the ice cream."

"Charisma...?"

"Mama? NO!" Adam screamed loudly enough to draw the attention of the whole dining room as he pulled away from Charisma and curled up tighter into Brianna. Before Charisma could react, Brianna moved Adam to her lap, wiping away the ice cream on his face.

"It's okay, little man. I'm sure your mama will let you take your ice cream with you and you can come see me again sometime, all right?"

Adam studied Brianna's face carefully, then gently patted her face. "Br'anna good," giving her a smile that Brianna returned wholeheartedly. Adam laughed.

"Good boy. You go with your mama now." He wrapped his arms around Brianna's neck and gave her a sloppy kiss before turning back to Charisma and extending his arms.

"Mama... up!" he commanded with a grin. Charisma hefted him into her arms.

"I'm sorry, Brianna. I can't do this... not even for Adam. Especially for Adam," she added, then she and Adam made their way out of the dining room. Brianna watched them go as tears formed in her eyes, though she refused to let them fall. When Charisma's back disappeared through the door, Brianna returned her attention to her ice cream, determined to finish it quickly and continue on with her schedule. She still had one more meeting to attend before she could call it quits for the day.

"I wouldn't take it personally," one of the other Senators in the room instructed her as he crossed to stand beside her table. "Senator Tagherty is known for her aloofness, so the fact that she spent any time at all with you while she had her son with her is nothing short of amazing." He glanced at the empty chair, then looked at her questioningly. Brianna studied him a moment longer and nodded her head. He took the seat across from her and extended his hand. "Senator Scott Patterson. You're the new Senator... Brianna Walker, right?"

Brianna nodded, shaking his hand briefly before turning back to her ice cream. Patterson nodded his head and sat back to allow the server to pour him a cup of coffee. He prepared it as Brianna continued eating her ice cream. She took her time, wondering what this Senator wanted with her and she figured that patience on her part would garner her more satisfactory results. He was the first to break the silence.

"So how are you settling in, Senator Walker? Think you could get to like it here?"

"I find Washington an interesting place," Brianna replied calmly. Patterson's brows went into his hairline when she didn't continue.

"That's it? That's all you've got to say? Do you realize how many people would love to be where you are?"

"Senator Patterson, I don't want to be rude, but do you have a point?"

He shook his head. "Not really," he confessed. "Just trying to get to know you a little bit, Senator Walker. After all, you don't want to get a reputation like your fellow Senator, do you?"

"I don't know, Senator. I haven't heard anything about the reputation Senator Tagherty has here. I know that for a politician she is considered well-liked and respected at home."

"She's well-liked and respected here... at least in the political arena. On a personal level, not so much."

"And does the personal level matter?" Brianna asked with a confused frown. "I thought we were here to do a job. That makes this professional."

"You're new - you'll learn. There are certain rules and protocols around here that can't be ignored if you want to get ahead. Senator Tagherty has big ambitions, and while she doesn't have any real enemies, she doesn't have any real friends either. Her entire state may be behind her, but she'll never get any further with her political pursuits if she doesn't have any friends behind her here."

"What do you mean?"

Patterson shrugged. "Having friends makes the professional side a little easier."

"I see," Brianna replied as she stood, prompting Patterson to stand as well. "I'll keep that in mind," she said as she headed out the door.

"It was nice to meet you," Patterson offered.

"I'm sure it was," Brianna responded with a smirk, then disappeared without another word. Patterson watched her go and shook his head, then took his coffee and turned to go back to his own office.

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

"So, how were things tonight?" Saphira asked when Esmeralda was seated at the counter with a plate of food in front of her and a cold glass of milk. Esmeralda immediately shifted half the food onto another plate and pushed it over in front of Saphira. Saphira picked up her fork and started eating.

"Quiet," Esmeralda confessed in a whisper. "Brianna was long gone of course, though Indi was still there. She gave me a quick overview of the day."

"Es?" Saphira prompted when Esmeralda grew pensively silent. Esmeralda gave a look around the nearly empty diner, then shook her head. "Later?" Saphira asked, getting the barest nod in response.

"Apparently, Charisma had some sort of human resources issue today," Esmeralda went on in a more normal tone. "Her son was at work with her."

"Oh, that must have been interesting," Matilda said as she came out of the kitchen. She looked back at Joe who gave her a grin as he shook his head. "We had a few experiences like that back in the day."

"Well, according to a few of the staff of several of the senators that were still working, it made for a noteworthy day anyway."

Matilda chuckled. "I'll bet it did." She looked a little closer at Esmeralda and frowned. "Are you all right, Es? You look a little tired to me," putting her hand on Esmeralda's forehead.

"I am tired," Esmeralda agreed, patting Matilda's hand. "Our roommates woke us up very early this morning."

Matilda scowled. "Do they not understand you're recovering from a serious illness?" She turned to Saphira and glared. "You need to do something about this." Saphira's eyes widened and she looked at Esmeralda. Es smiled at her and turned her attention back to Matilda.

"It's all right, Matilda... honestly. They are aware of my situation and usually they are very considerate about being quiet in the mornings - just like Saphira and I are late at night when we get home. But there was an accident this morning; it kinda threw everything into chaos."

Matilda's eyes widened and she looked between them. "Is everyone all right?"

"Everyone will be," Saphira replied, nudging Esmeralda into resuming her meal. "Apparently, they didn't see one another and well... you know the saying about the irresistible force meeting the immoveable object?" watching Matilda's jaw drop open even as she nodded her head. "That's about what happened this morning. I think one of them probably ended up with a pretty nice shiner."

Esmeralda nodded. "She's lucky she didn't end up with a concussion and a broken jaw."

"Wow," Matilda murmured. "No wonder it woke you up."

"Pretty much. I mean we went back to bed, but it's just not the same once you've been jerked out of a sound sleep, ya know?"

Joe laughed as he came out of the kitchen. "Sounds like the first few years of parenthood, actually," he said as he wiped his hands on a towel. "You girls about done?" looking at Saphira's empty plate and Esmeralda's partially filled one. "You want to take that with you, Essie?"

Esmeralda closed her eyes and nodded. "Would you mind, Joe? I'm just too tired to eat tonight."

Joe and Matilda exchanged worried glances and he shook his head as he took the plate. "Not a problem, Es... you know that. Just give me two shakes of a lamb's tail and Saphira can take you home and tuck you into bed," slipping into the kitchen and returning almost immediately with a take out box. Matilda put the rest of Esmeralda's dinner on one side of the partition and added a thick slice of chocolate cake to the other before closing the lid.

"You know the rule - finish your dinner before you eat dessert," Matilda admonished with a finger wag, though the concern in her eyes belied the teasing in her voice. Esmeralda smiled.

"I will," she promised, crossing her hand over her heart.

"All righty, then," Matilda said as she handed the box to Saphira. "You two get on home then. And I hope your friends are okay."

"Thanks, Matilda," Saphira said as she helped Esmeralda on with her coat before slipping into her own. "See you tomorrow."

"Goodnight, girls. Be safe." The two waved and moved off into the darkness without looking back. Matilda watched them out of sight before locking the door. Then she turned... only to find Joe standing directly behind her, a worried look on his face.

"Something's not right," he muttered, shaking his head as he led the way back towards the kitchen.

"No, but I'm not sure there's anything we can do besides pray," Matilda commented.

Joe grunted and turned off the lights, knowing tomorrow was going to come soon enough.

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

"Wow," Saphira said when Esmeralda was finished giving her Indi's report. "And how did Brianna react?" as they reached the metro station.

"She said Brianna was a natural with him. Adam acted like he'd known Brianna all his life."

"That must have been something. How did Charisma take it?" as they got onto their train.

"That's where it gets kinda hairy and until I can talk to Opal...." waiting for Saphira to nod after they took a seat. "Apparently she didn't take it well. Whatever she did or said, she hurt Brianna's feelings. Indi said Brianna came back from having ice cream with the two of them in a very somber mood. And as soon as her meeting was over, Brianna left for the day."

"Wait... she had ice cream with Charisma and Adam? Isn't that a good thing?"

"If I knew all the details, I'd probably say yes, but since it put Brianna into an unhappy state of mind, I have to wonder."

"So now what?" Saphira asked after a thoughtful pause. The train reached their stop and they exited the station before Esmeralda spoke again.

"I honestly don't know. There are so many things in play at the moment, and I don't have all the pieces I need to make a judgment call on any of it. I'm hoping they'll both be around tomorrow and anxious to talk about it. At least that would give me a better idea of what *they* think is going on."

"I'll keep my fingers crossed," Saphira promised in a whisper as they entered the silent house. But they had no way of knowing what the morrow was going to bring.



Chapter XXVII

Saphira crawled out of the bed as soon as she heard the others stirring in the kitchen. She gave Esmeralda a long look, then closed the door silently behind her. Everyone turned to her and she grabbed her mug, pouring hot water into it and adding a teabag, then she took a seat at the table. The rest took the unspoken hint and finished up their breakfast preparations, pulling up chairs at the table as quickly as possible.

"What's up, Saphira?" Ruby asked the question once they were all seated. Saphira gazed at her tea, removing the bag and cupping her hands around the mug. She slowly released her breath.

First she looked at Ame - who, as predicted, had a tremendous shiner that covered nearly half her face. "How are you doing?"

"I have a headache," she replied simply. "But I'll live."

"You're okay to go to work?"

"I'll be fine. I've taken something; I'm just waiting for it to kick in."

Saphira nodded her acceptance of Ame words, then turned back to the rest. "I need to know what happened yesterday," pinning Opal and Indi with a direct look. "I know you told Es," she acknowledged with a nod at Indi, "but I'd like to hear it directly from both of you."

"Are you taking over this mission, Saphira?"

"No," firmly and without hesitation. "I couldn't even if I wanted to," she admitted. "This whole assignment isn't even close to being something I could manage - not with my job qualifications. We all know what I'd do if I was put in charge of this fiasco," she added drolly, drawing grins around the table. "No," she repeated. "I'm just trying to liaison between you guys and Es so she can get some more rest. I figure with the two of you here together, you might remember something more," she said to Indi. "And either way, I don't think it will hurt for everyone to know what's going on. If this moves as fast as Es thinks it might, everyone should probably be prepared for anything."

"Is Es okay?" Ruby asked, meeting Saphira's eyes and sucking in a breath at the agony she could see. "Is she relapsing?"

"I don't know," Saphira answered softly after a long moment. "I'm hoping she's just tired. Her sleep's been cut short lately for a number of reasons. That's one reason I'm trying to take care of this now and let her sleep." She looked around the table. "Talk to me," she said finally.

First Indi, then Opal offered their perspective on the events of the previous day. Saphira listened in silence until they were done. "And Brianna didn't say anything else?" she asked Indi.

"No. She was thoughtful when she came back from her getting ice cream with Adam and Charisma, but all she did was grab a folder from her desk before heading for her committee meeting. Then I met her outside the committee room to take her notes and things and she left."

"Did she say anything to you, Jas?"

Jas shook her head. "Not a word. She leaned her head on the back of the seat and kept her eyes closed all the way home. When we reached her building, she dismissed me and went inside."

Saphira scratched the back of her neck and turned to Opal. "And Charisma just up and left?"

Opal nodded. "When they came back from getting ice cream, she had me call Turq while she gathered her stuff together. They left as soon as she had everything ready."

"That's it?"

"That's it. She seemed preoccupied, but I can't say if it was because of Brianna or Adam or something else. She was pretty focused on the kid when they came back from getting ice cream."

"All right. Thank you, ladies," Saphira said in dismissal. They took her words in the tone they were given and rose from the table. They all needed to get ready for work. Only Ruby remained seated, and after a moment, Saphira looked up to meet her eyes. "Ruby?"

Ruby covered one of Saphira's hands. "Are you sure everything's all right, Phira?"

Saphira shook her head. "I don't think anything is, Rube." She blew out an unsteady breath. "I'm really worried about her," glancing at the closed bedroom door. "I haven't seen her this run down since she started recovering. She didn't even have the energy to eat last night."

Ruby frowned. "Call her in sick and you stay home with her. I'll cover your shift this afternoon."

"That makes for a really long day, Ruby." Ruby just arched an eyebrow at Saphira.

"You think I haven't pulled a few doubles in my time, kiddo? Besides, you did it for how long before we got here? I think I'll be all right for a few days," narrowing her eyes in Saphira's direction. "Just don't you go getting used to it, you hear? I expect you to bring Es back up to full running speed pretty quick."

"You're sure?" Saphira asked seriously, not responding to Ruby's teasing tone. Ruby immediately lost any hint of playfulness and gave Saphira a sympathetic look.

"Yes," she replied gently. "This assignment is important, but we need Esmeralda at full capacity if it's going to work. She really is the best at what we do. It's why she always gets the tough jobs."

Saphira held her gaze a moment longer, then nodded. "All right - thanks, Ruby."

"Anytime, Sweetheart. You know that. And you call and let me know if either of you need anything, okay? My main job here is support. Don't worry about Matilda and Joe. I'll let them know what's going on. I'm sure they'll be worried."

Saphira patted the hand still covering hers, then slid her hand from Ruby's grasp and rose. "Thanks, Ruby," she repeated, then put her mug in the sink and returned to the room she shared with Esmeralda. Ruby watched until the door closed silently behind her, then she left to prepare for what promised to be a very long day.

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

Saphira crawled back into bed with Esmeralda, a chill passing through her being when Esmeralda did nothing to acknowledge her presence. Normally, Esmeralda would mewl softly or curl into Saphira's body or even simply sigh in contentment. But she did none of these things and Saphira's brow furrowed in worry. For a while she lay beside her, listening to her breathe. Only then did she realize that the breathing was slow and deep. She curled tighter into Esmeralda and let the silent tears roll down her cheeks unhindered.

When Saphira heard Amber and Coral return from their respective assignments, Saphira gathered herself together and rose from the bed. She crossed to the tiny bathroom and washed the remnants of tears from her face and stepped out of the bedroom once more.

Coral and Amber looked up from their breakfasts and then turned concerned glances towards one another. Without hesitation, they both rose - Amber led Saphira to the table while Coral swiped another mug and filled it with coffee.

"Saphira? Is everything all right?" Amber asked, her tone conveying her anxiety. She'd only ever seen Saphira lose her brashness once in all of the bickering and playful run-ins they'd indulged in over the millennia. So she had a hard time now trying to keep the fear and worry out of her voice.

Saphira shook her head. "I don't think so," she responded, accepting the cup from Coral absently. "I think Es may be relapsing," causing both heads to whip around in her direction.

"What?? How could she...?" Amber started when Coral cut her off.

"What makes you think that, Saphira?"

"Several things," she admitted. "I mean... I was hoping she was just tired. You know how crazy it's been around here for the last few days and her sleep's been cut into every time something new happened because of course it's her responsibility to keep track of everything that's going on. So I wasn't completely surprised when she claimed she was exhausted last night - too tired to even eat."

"Saphira, that's...."

Saphira watched the two guardians exchange glances and nodded. "Exactly." She sighed. "This morning she didn't notice me get out of bed to talk to the day crew and she never acknowledged me crawling back into bed with her when they left." She looked up at them, holding Amber's golden eyes with her own. "Her breathing is deep... coma deep."

"Oh no," Coral whispered.

"Yeah, that was about my take on it as well," Saphira concurred painfully. "I'm hoping she'll wake up soon - that she's just sleeping deeply because of her exhaustion."

"But you don't think so," Amber stated flatly.

"At this point, I don't think we can afford to wait to find out."

"So what are you going to do?"

Saphira shrugged and shook her head, letting her gaze fall back to the nearly full coffee cup. "I'm not sure what I can do at this point. We can't afford a doctor; and besides, you *know* what'll happen if Es wakes up in a hospital bed. And to be honest, I'm not sure how her heavenly body would react to all those earthly drugs being pumped into her system."

"So you're saying we do nothing?" Amber asked, her voice tight, but not quite accusing.

"I'm saying if you've got any viable ideas, I'm all ears, because I'm at a complete loss here." Saphira's voice was angry and her eyes were filled with tears. Coral tapped Amber on the shoulder before she could open her mouth to speak and jerked her head towards the corner. They squeezed Saphira's hand in support, then moved to the secluded spot where they could talk privately and still keep an eye on Saphira whose stare never wavered from her mug.

"What, Coral?" Amber ground out, needing to vent her frustration and knowing Coral was her only feasible target at the moment. Coral just held her eyes, understanding Amber's position and wanting to give her the outlet for her anger that she required. "C'mon," she pleaded when Coral was silent for a long moment. "Tell me you've got an idea."

"Oh, I've got an idea all right, but you're not going to like it."

Amber blew out a frustrated breath. "I've felt that way about a huge chunk of this assignment. Spill."

"I think this might be His way of moving things along."

"Excuse me?" Amber frowned hard. "You're telling me you think the Father may have worsened Es' illness? Because we're not moving fast enough?" she fumed. "I'm pretty sure if that idea occurs to Saphira, we won't have to do anything at all - she'll take matters into her own hands and force them together if she has to!"

"Will you shut up and listen to me for a minute?!" Coral huffed. "How do we know it hasn't been His strength... His will that has kept Es from relapsing all this time?" She met Amber's eyes steadily. "Amber, you *know* how sick Es was and how weak the sickness made her. Do you really think she recovered that quickly on her own?"

Amber snorted. "I wouldn't say she recovered at all. And I certainly wouldn't classify it as fast!"

Coral rolled her eyes. "Step back a minute and remember just how ill she was, Amber. She shouldn't have recovered at all. She should have died."

"Don't say that!" Amber growled, casting a worried glance towards Saphira. "Do you know the consequences we all would have suffered if she had?"

"All too well," Coral agreed calmly. "It's one reason I think He might be involving Himself in this now."

"Well, if that's true... why not simply involve Himself from the beginning? Or why bother to involve any of us at all? Why not simply put them together Himself?"

"You know He can't do that with humanity - not since He gave them free will to choose. As for the rest, I don't know," Coral replied, shaking her head. "I can't claim to begin to know how He thinks. But in a very twisted way, it makes perfect sense." She paused. "What better way to force both Brianna's and Charisma's hands than to let them witness and experience the aftermath of a broken soul bond?"

"And us? What about what we'll have to go through? What about what Saphira will suffer?"

"Collateral damage," Coral said succinctly, then shrugged. "I really don't know, Amber. It's just a theory."

"Unfortunately, I think it's also very possibly the truth. Is there anything we can do?"

"Aside from be there for the fallout and do our best support to Saphira?" Coral shook her head. "Not that I know of."

"This sucks," Amber grumbled.

"Yes, it does. I think we should probably talk to Ruby about it."

Amber blew out a breath and nodded. "Agreed. And in the meantime?"

"In the meantime, we take it one day at a time. Isn't that Es' first rule?"

Amber smirked. "One of them, at any rate."

"In the meantime, you can both kindly remember that I am an Angel of Vengeance and I can hear every word you're whispering to one another," Saphira said flatly from the table without looking up. Coral and Amber exchanged nervous looks, then crossed back over to Saphira's side.

"I'm sorry, Saphira," Coral responded softly. "It was just a thought. That doesn't mean there's any merit to it."

"Unfortunately, much like Amber, I think it has more than merit. I think it is probably the truth."

"So what do you want to do?"

Saphira looked up at Amber, her blue eyes now raging with the flames of vengeance and anger. "I'm fairly confident my wants don't figure into His plans. I don't think there is anything we can do, not if He's suddenly decided to put His hand in the mix. But I will tell you this," she said, rising to her feet and allowing her heavenly nature to come to the fore. She flexed her wings and caressed her sword. "If anything happens to Es, He'll get His reaction. There's a reason the saying goes, 'Hell hath no fury'," she stated unequivocally, then turned and made her way back to Esmeralda's side to keep watch.

Coral and Amber traded anxious glances. "This could get ugly," was Coral's comment.

Amber snorted. "I'm sure it already has. The real question is how bad is it going to get before we hit rock bottom." She sighed and started clearing away their few dishes. "C'mon. We've still got things to do and Saphira's going to have to be told what happened last night. Until Es is better, she's in charge."

Coral frowned. "How do you figure? Aren't you usually Es' second?"

"Yes, but they are mates. That comes before anything else in my book. Don't worry - I'll be keeping an eye on things as well. But as far as I'm concerned, officially Saphira is in charge until Es comes back."

"And if she doesn't?"

"May God have mercy on all of us."

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

"You know what they think, Es?" Saphira asked the still figure on the bed as she prowled around the room. "They think He kept you alive; they think He is letting you die now. But that's not true, is it? None of it is true. You're alive because of your own tenacity and strength of will. And you're not gonna die for those very same reasons, right?"

Silence was its own answer and Saphira's shoulders visibly slumped. Carefully, she lowered herself to the bed and took one of Esmeralda's limp hands in hers. "C'mon, Es... I can't do this without you. We both know who the strong one in this relationship is and if anything happens to you...."

Saphira broke off and sighed, looking at their twined hands. Her voice lowered to a whisper. "Es, we can't do this without you. I don't have a clue what to do and yet they're all going to look to me to fill in for you until you're better. So if you don't get better like... right now, it's likely to be a horrible mess by the time you get back to straighten things out."

A knock on the door made Saphira growl and glare at it. Then she realized she hadn't spoken to Amber or Coral about their nights with Charisma and Brianna. She lifted Esmeralda's hand to her lips and brushed a kiss over the back of her hand.

"All right," she conceded. "If you're gonna be lazy and lie about in the bed all morning, I need to go take care of things. You stay here and get your beauty sleep, though if you ask me, you couldn't get any more beautiful than you already are. However, I expect no complaints out of you when you wake up and have to fix the cluster this assignment will be by then."

Another knock made Saphira growl louder and she gave Esmeralda another kiss before placing Esmeralda's hand back by her side. Then Saphira moved to the door and opened it, glaring at Amber for a long moment. Then she stepped out of the bedroom and closed the door silently behind her, motioning Amber away from the bedroom. They went into the tiny living room and found Coral waiting for them. Saphira gestured Amber to a seat.

"What can I do for you, ladies?" she asked, her voice still husky.

"You need to know what happened last night. Until Es gets better...."

Saphira held up her hand. "Tell me," she commanded.



Chapter XXVIII

"Turq called me as soon as she got the call from Opal, so I was waiting at the house when Charisma and Adam arrived home. The house was otherwise empty when they got there of course because Kent is still in the City and Ame was here recovering," Amber reminded Saphira and waited for her to nod. "Charisma walked into the house holding Adam's hand, smiling as he chattered on about his day. I think she enjoyed sharing that with him. From what I have been given to understand, she misses a lot of interaction with Adam because of her job."

Saphira nodded. "Es has indicated much the same thing to me. But Charisma seems unable to compromise and is unwilling to give up her career."

Amber shrugged. "I don't know. I rarely get to see them together. Adam is usually sleeping by the time I get there and of course Ame takes care of him during the day. I don't think she sees them together much either."

Saphira waved her hand. "It doesn't matter right now. Tell me what happened last night."

"As I said, Adam was chattering on about his day; he even had his mother chuckling at one point. I never did figure out what it was all about, but Charisma was smiling pretty big at one point. Of course, the smile became a pained grimace when he enthusiastically spoke of his time with Brianna. He really was pretty smitten with her, you know."

"It's the green eyes," Saphira offered with a sad smile.

"She'll be all right, Phira. He won't let anything happen to Es; He needs her."

"Not nearly as much as I do," Saphira muttered. Then she turned her attention back to Amber. "So what happened next?"

"It was weird. I mean... don't get me wrong - the whole situation was weird for me. Very different from what I am used to, but this next bit was just peculiar," holding up her hand for a little tolerance when Saphira glared at her impatiently.

"Charisma didn't hush him or try to change the subject - she listened to him while she fed him some dinner and while she bathed him and got him ready for bed. This was precious - she let him tell her a story and he told her the Three Pigs, I think. Doesn't matter really, though it was pretty cute. Charisma stayed with him until he fell asleep - it didn't take very long, especially when you consider the kind of day he'd had.

Charisma remained in his room for a little while just staring at him. Occasionally, she'd brush his hair back, but mostly she simply watched him breathing. She doesn't usually do that - she comes in and checks on him if he's already in bed... tucks him in, kisses him goodnight... that sort of thing. But she never lingers for any length of time."

"All right... so then what?"

"Charisma wandered around aimlessly, like she couldn't settle down to anything. That's very unusual because she's generally tightly focused, even with all the multi-tasking she does. Finally, she went back into the kitchen and fixed herself a sandwich. She took a long time eating it, then she picked up the phone. She dialed a number, but hung up before it could connect. She actually did it twice more before shaking her head in frustration and slapping it on the table."

"Could you see who she called?"

Amber nodded. "Her parents. It was weird. Her hands were actually shaking and she clenched them together beneath her chin for a long time before she picked up the phone again. She studied it a long moment - like it could tell her the meaning of life - then went back to grab her purse from the hall. She took her cell out and rolled her eyes at it when it vibrated in her hand. She'd missed quite a few messages from her colleagues."

"I take it that wasn't why she wanted her cell phone?"

"No. She scrolled through her contacts and then dialed Kent."

"Excuse me?" Saphira inquired as she straightened in her chair. "You mean she doesn't know his number by heart? Or have him on speed dial?"

"I guess not, because she looked him up and dialed it into the household receiver one digit at a time."

"What happened?"

Amber shook her head. "Not much, actually. They were kind of like strangers talking to each other. Kent was apparently pretty stunned to hear from her. She's never called him before just to talk. It's always been because she needed something."

"How long did the call last?" Coral asked, her question reminding the others of her presence. Amber took a deep breath and released it as she thought.

"Not long, relatively speaking - maybe ten minutes?"

"Did they talk about anything important?"

Amber shook her head again. "They didn't actually talk about anything at all. It was mostly awkward pauses and long silences. In fairness, I think Kent was in shock. Charisma played it off like she just wanted to see how things were going. Kent actually had to cut the call short because it was time for him to get to the stage."

"I can't imagine that," Saphira said softly. "I can't imagine not needing to talk to your mate or not having anything to discuss when you had the chance to do so without interruption. Es and I always have something to talk about... even if it's just our days at work or the things we'd like to do while we're off. And when we have time to simply sit down and talk...."

"I know," Amber agreed. "I'm the one that generally has to risk life and limb to interrupt the two of you, remember?"

Saphira cut her eyes at Amber in a mild glare. "I am well aware. Your timing usually leaves a lot to be desired."

"That's not what Michael says," she replied with a smirk. Saphira's eyes widened and she covered her ears to block the sound.

"Lalalalalalala - TMI, Amber. I don't think Coral and I needed to know that." Coral kept her hand over her mouth to keep her laughter from escaping. Saphira glared at both of them. "We've moved pretty far afield of yesterday's activities. Did anything else of note happen?" pinning each of them balefully.

"Only one more thing, as far as I'm concerned," Amber answered slowly, pinching her bottom lip between her thumb and forefinger as she considered her words.

Saphira arched her brow when the silence continued. "Would you like to share with the rest of the class or are we supposed to guess?"

"Oh... sorry. Charisma went directly to her bedroom as soon as she got off the phone with Kent."

Saphira blinked slowly. "Okay... pretend I'm a complete moron here and explain to me the significance of your statement."

Amber blew out a frustrated breath. "Almost without fail, Charisma sticks to a routine once she gets home. She drops her stuff in her office and heads directly to Adam's room. After she spends a little time with her son, she goes straight to her office and takes out whatever she brought home with her. If she's home relatively early - meaning she didn't have some sort of political function to attend - she grabs whatever dinner Ame leaves for her in the fridge and takes it to the study. Until Brianna crashed back into her orbit, her time was spent going over whatever bills and legislation she felt needed her attention while she ate dinner at her desk."

"And since then?"

"A lot less of both. She still brings her plate to the desk and she still pulls out her work, but so far she's not finishing much. Most of her time has been spent looking at that album."

"And this doesn't bother Kent?"

Amber tilted her head. "I don't think he knows about the album. And the other is just SOP as far as he's concerned. It's always been like that between them. Most of their time together is spent in the public eye - most of their private time is separate."

Saphira pinched the bridge of her nose and rubbed her eyes. "Father Above," she prayed, trying to rid herself of the headache she could feel coming on in the back of her skull. Coral and Amber remained silent, knowing Saphira hadn't talked to her Father since He had turned her out of Paradise with Esmeralda to begin this assignment. Saphira didn't say anything else and finally exhaled noisily. Then she turned to Coral. "What about Brianna?"

Coral shook her head. "It was... normal. She went home early after her all-nighter. She called for some dinner and took a shower, changing into some old sweats before her meal arrived. Then she ate, brushed her teeth and crawled into bed. She read a little - Harry Potter, before you ask - then turned out the light and went right to sleep."

"That's it?"

Coral nodded. "That's it. She didn't even get up for the bathroom or a drink of water. The first time she stirred was when the alarm went off." Coral stopped speaking and bit her lip thoughtfully. Saphira cocked her head in question.

"What?"

"Well, aside from the fact that she didn't move at all, the only thing that was a little odd about her night was that she seemed to resent the alarm going off this morning."

"Doesn't everyone?" Amber asked with a hint of a grin. It was a well-known fact that she was perfectly suited to her night job because she didn't have to deal with a morning alarm. In her mind, that made all the difference in getting out of bed every day.

Coral looked at her seriously. "Not Brianna. I know we've only been here a few weeks, but according to the background I had to dig out on her she's always been one to face the day as something to be treasured for the gift it is. She was almost angry this morning."

Saphira blew out a breath. "I guess Indi will have an interesting report tonight."

"Maybe," Coral said with a shrug. "Brianna was in the bathroom for a few minutes this morning, giving quite a pep talk to herself in the mirror."

"Oh?"

"Yeah - she was assuring herself that she could do this... that it was only for two years... that she had survived this long, she could survive a little longer."

"Did she believe what she was saying?"

"Well, there were no tears in her eyes and her spine was straight when she walked out the door. If she didn't believe it, she was at least able to put up a credible façade that would fool the rest of the world."

"Including Charisma?"

"Especially Charisma. She doesn't want to see past it, given what we know of her."

"This just keeps getting better and better," Saphira muttered as she rose from her corner of the couch. She gave Amber a wry smile when she immediately stretched her length along it as soon as Saphira vacated her space. "All right. I hate to ask, but I need the two of you to go out and get groceries before you settle down to sleep. Ruby was going to when she got off this afternoon, but since she's taking my shift...." She stopped speaking when Amber held up her hand.

"Saphira, it's all right. Coral and I do a lot of grocery shopping. Stuff is generally stocked better when you go early and the farmers' markets open early."

"Yeah," Coral concurred. "You go take care of Es. We'll restock the larder and fix up some lunch when we get back."

"You're sure?"

Coral snickered. "We're sure - we've cooked a lot of lunches that translate into dinner for the day crew."

Amber scowled at Saphira. "Will you please get out of here? We're professionals - we know what we're doing. You, on the other hand, are a neophyte in the guardian business, and you need to get back to guarding the boss for now. We'll call you if we think we need you. But we know Es does, okay?" putting a firm hand in the middle of Saphira's back and pushing her towards the bedroom door. "Go on... buh-bye... see ya."

"Thanks, Amber," Saphira said softly without turning away from the door even as she reached out for the knob. Amber scowled again... this time to keep the tears at bay.

"Yeah, well... just don't get used to it, all right? The world would probably stop spinning or something equally horrible if the universe caught us playing nice together."

Saphira's chuckle came out more like a strangled sob, but Amber let it go. "Heaven forbid," she whispered. "I've got enough to worry about without having that on my shoulders."

"Amen!" Amber agreed, patting Saphira's back gently. "Now go be with Es. Coral and I'll be back in a little while." Saphira nodded and opened the door, crossing the threshold and shutting it behind her without a backwards glance.

Amber stood looking at the closed door for a moment longer, then shook her head and went back to the kitchen to meet up with Coral. There was still work to be done.

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

Saphira leaned against the closed door, waiting for the sound of Amber's footsteps to indicate that she and Es were alone in the house again. It took a moment, then another for her to hear the echo of the outer door shutting and the car starting and pulling away. Only then did she let the tears slide silently down her face.

They only lasted a brief minute. Then she took a deep breath and closed her eyes, centering herself before allowing them to flutter open again and moving towards the bed. Saphira crawled onto the mattress carefully and curled herself around Esmeralda's warmth. Then she jerked in surprise when a warm hand touched her still-damp face. She leaned up and looked down into Esmeralda's sleepy green eyes, smiling broadly.

"Es?"

Esmeralda smiled momentarily, then her brow furrowed in concern. "Saphira?" in a hushed tone. "What's wrong, love? Why the tears?"

Saphira took Esmeralda's hand in hers, bringing it to her lips and brushing a kiss over the fingertips. "You scared me," she admitted in a small voice. "You were sleeping so deeply... it was like when you were so sick."

"Oh, Sweetheart. I'm fine. Just a little tired."

Saphira nodded her head firmly. "Then there's nothing for you to do but stay in the bed today and catch up on some sleep."

Esmeralda gave her a fond smile and shook her head. "I can't do that, Phira. You know that - though I do appreciate the sentiment. You don't know how much."

"Actually, you can. It's all arranged. I called you off sick today and Ruby is taking my shift at the diner. So there's nothing to keep you from getting some of that rest you need to catch up on."

"But the mission...."

"... will go on regardless today. You can start worrying about it again tomorrow. But today you're going to rest. Amber and Coral are out getting groceries at the moment, but they will be back shortly to fix something for lunch before they settle down to sleep. Trust that the rest know their jobs and will do them."

Esmeralda was quiet for a moment, then nodded her head. "All right. And you'll fill me in?"

Saphira rolled her eyes and chuckled. "Naturally."

"Good," Esmeralda smiled, tapping Saphira on the nose with a soft finger. She pushed up into a sitting position and sighed tiredly. "I'm going to go the little angel's room. Then I'll crawl back in bed beside you and you can tell me what I missed. Then I promise to take another nap," holding up one hand as if taking an oath.

"Do you want something to eat?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "No... not now," changing her answer when she saw the look of concern flash across Saphira's visage. "I'll eat whatever lunch Coral and Amber surprise us with."

"That's awfully brave of you," Saphira commented with a smirk.

"Never let it be said I'm not the bravest of them all."

Saphira laughed and Esmeralda smiled. Esmeralda got out of bed slowly to take care of her morning business and Saphira went into the kitchen to get them both something to drink and make some toast for Esmeralda. If they were going to have a sick day, she might as well do her best to make Esmeralda feel better before she settled down to sleep some more.

It only took a few minutes before they had resumed their places on the bed. Esmeralda had taken a little of the liquid but hadn't touched the toast, preferring to curl up into Saphira's arms instead.

"Now tell me what I missed," she insisted. Saphira rolled her eyes again and shook her head at Esmeralda's persistence. Then she started relaying the morning's events, not realizing when Esmeralda dropped off to sleep - only knowing that she did eventually. Saphira smiled and closed her eyes. This was how Amber found them some time later when she knocked on the door, then opened it to find them asleep in one another's arms.

"Guess lunch will have to wait a little while," she commented to Coral when she returned to the kitchen alone.

"Best thing for all of us," was Coral's only reply. Then they sat down to eat so they could go to bed themselves.



Chapter XXIX

"I missed you yesterday," Brianna greeted with a concerned smile when Esmeralda peered around the door of Brianna's office as she knocked. She waved Esmeralda into the inner sanctum and Esmeralda pushed the door open and rolled her cleaning cart into the room ahead of her. "Is everything all right?"

Esmeralda nodded her head even as she gathered together the things she needed, then started her cleaning routine. "Everything's fine," she promised with a smile. "Saphira was being a little overly cautious."

"How so?"

"I was sleeping very hard... very deeply... to the point she was afraid I had fallen into a coma. The last time I slept like that was when I was so sick - I really was in a coma then. I think it scared her."

"I'm sure it did. Even as little as I actually know of you both, I can imagine her reaction to seeing you like that again, especially after being given a brief glimpse of the two of you together."

Esmeralda stilled her duster and turned to face Brianna directly. "How do you mean?"

Brianna chuckled and shook her head. "You remind me of my grandparents," letting her eyes glaze over in memory. "My grandmother and papa were married for forty-seven years before Grandmother passed away suddenly one night. Just... BAM! and she was gone. Papa couldn't do anything; she was gone before emergency services could get there."

"I'm so sorry, Brianna. She obviously meant a lot to you," Esmeralda offered sincerely.

"Thank you," Brianna said even as she shook her head. "But that's not what I meant." She sighed. "As upset as I was when Grandmother died, it was nothing compared to the loss Papa felt. Even now... years later, I can still tell he misses her fiercely. He gets this look in his eye when he thinks about her. It's like part of him is missing and nothing will ever fill that hole she left."

"Part of him is missing," Esmeralda replied sadly, "and it always will be. Nothing except his death will change that for him."

"That's my point - you and Saphira are a lot like my grandmother and papa were. I don't know how long you have been a couple, but to someone that has seen real love before and what happens to the one left behind when that bond is broken by death, I would say you're truly part of one another. And from what you told me of your story, you were near death before. I'm sure it hit Saphira hard seeing you like that again. So I don't blame her for being cautious where your health is concerned."

"I don't blame her." Esmeralda released a breath and turned back to her work. "I just wish there was a way to keep her from worrying so much. She's gonna make herself sick if she keeps trying to carry the world around on her shoulders."

"Just take care of yourself, Es. Knowing you're all right will go a long way towards alleviating that burden."

"When did you get so smart, Brianna?"

"Oh, I've always been this smart. I'm brilliant - like the stars that shine in the firmament." She was able to hold the lofty expression on her face for several long seconds before the look on Esmeralda's face made her burst into laughter. Esmeralda snickered.

Finally, Brianna's laughter tapered off and she pushed her hair off her face. "Thanks, Es... I needed that."

"I didn't do anything but stand here," Esmeralda insisted, moving to put her duster away and grabbing the small carpet sweeper.

"That was enough - trust me," Brianna claimed. She looked back at the pile of paper still on her desk. "Back to work for me, though."

"Will it disturb you if I finish my work?"

"Just make sure you say goodnight before you leave," Brianna requested.

"Absolutely," Esmeralda promised and continued working as quietly as she could. Brianna watched her a moment longer, then resumed studying the documents she had in front of her. She wondered when bureaucracy had become so paper-logged that they needed forests to keep them supplied. Then her mind focused on what she was reading, not even hearing the vacuum when Esmeralda started running it through the entire office. Only a light touch on her arm brought Brianna out of the quagmire of words her mind was rolling through.

"Leaving already?" she asked Esmeralda, looking up into sparkling green eyes. Esmeralda smiled.

"I've been here almost an hour, Senator Walker," chuckling when Brianna's eyebrow arched at her address. "I still have to go clean Senator Tagherty's office, but I promised to say goodbye before I left," not missing the shadow that passed over Brianna's face at the mention of Charisma's name.

Brianna rose from her seat. "Yes, you did," she agreed, squeezing the hand still resting on her arm. "I'm glad you're doing better. Try not to scare the lot of us like that again, all right? Politicians don't do well with change... I don't care what their rhetoric is."

Esmeralda smiled, returning the clasp on Brianna's arm. "I'll do my best to maintain the status quo, Senator. We'll see you tomorrow?"

"Yep. Oh... are we still on for Sunday or would you like to...?" stopping when Esmeralda held up a hand.

"We're still on for Sunday. We're not planning to do anything elaborate, and we're looking forward to it."

"So am I," Brianna smiled and opened the door for Esmeralda. "Have a good night, Es."

"You too, Senator," with a wave and a smirk at the mock-glare she got from Brianna with the second use of her title. Brianna just shook her head and closed the door and Esmeralda continued down the hallway to Senator Tagherty's office.

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

"Senator Tagherty?" Esmeralda called out as she poked her head in the door. "Charisma?"

Charisma's head popped up at the sound of Esmeralda's voice and a grin creased her face. "Es!" she said, waving the other woman into her office. "Come in! How are you? We missed you around here yesterday."

Esmeralda's smile was genuine. "Thank you, Charisma. It's nice to be missed."

"I guess you heard that from a lot of people today," smiling when Esmeralda blushed. Charisma took one of Esmeralda's hands in her own. "How are you doing... really?"

"I'm okay... really. I was just very, very tired yesterday. It scared Saphira and she insisted I stay home and get some rest," squeezing Charisma's hand lightly and releasing it.

"Can't blame her," Charisma commented as Esmeralda grabbed her cleaning supplies and got to work.

"No... and I don't. Besides," she admitted with a wry grin, "I think it helped. I feel a little better... a little more rested."

"That's always a good thing."

"No arguments from me. Everything all right with you?"

"Same ol', same old," Charisma said as she re-settled herself behind her desk. "Work, home - work, home. Adam was here with me day before yesterday," she confessed without raising her eyes from the work in front of her.

"I'm sorry I missed him," Esmeralda responded without turning around. "He's such a good kid."

"Yes, he is," Charisma agreed without a hint of modesty. "But I have to tell you - having him here all day gave me a lot more respect for Ame and the job she does day in and day out. That boy is a handful - very much like I was at his age, I imagine."

"Isn't that known as the mother's curse?"

Charisma snorted. "Probably." She shook her head, even though Esmeralda couldn't see it. "I should have a word with my mother."

This time Esmeralda did turn to face her, eyes dancing with mischief. "Her only word for you is gonna be howling laughter."

"More than likely," Charisma admitted wryly. "Of course, he was really well-behaved all things considered. And it was a little bit amusing watching Luke pull his hair out trying to keep up."

"That's just mean, Charisma. That young man doesn't have the hair to lose to such an unfortunate incident."

"True," Charisma agreed with a chuckle. She looked up at Esmeralda and thoughtfully tilted the head propped up on her hand. Esmeralda arched a brow, but continued working.

"What?"

"Why don't you and Saphira plan to come out to the house one day? I'd love the chance to talk to Saphira more and I know Adam would love to see you again."

Esmeralda nodded. "I'd have to talk to Saphira, but I'm pretty sure we could work something out. It would probably need to be on a Sunday. That's the only day we have off all day together."

"Are you sure? I don't want to take away from your couple time together."

Esmeralda smiled. "Charisma, every time we're together is couple time for us. Why do you think we meet at the diner and go home together every night? Are you certain we won't be cutting into your family time?" Charisma shook her head.

"With Kent in Manhattan for the duration, it's just me and Adam on Sundays. I'm pretty sure he'll appreciate the company... especially since he already made friends with you. I imagine he thinks of you as a big playmate."

"Oh dear," Esmeralda exclaimed, shaking her head and drawing a frown from Charisma. "If he thinks *I* am playmate material, wait til he gets a load of Saphira."

Charisma's eyebrows shot into her head. "Really? I never would have thought - I mean, she seems so serious."

"Oh she is - when it comes to work or taking care of me, she's absolutely no nonsense. But put a child in her vicinity...."

"I'd like to see that. How about this weekend?"

Esmeralda sucked in a breath. "We can't this weekend. Brianna is coming to our home." She paused then pushed on. "Would you like to join us?"

Charisma removed her head from her hand and let her eyes drop back to the desk before she peered up at Esmeralda from beneath her lashes. "I don't think that's a good idea," she finally offered.

"Why not?" Esmeralda inquired plainly. "As I see it, it'd be the safest bet in the world."

Charisma jerked her head up and frowned. "And just how do you figure that?"

Esmeralda gave Charisma a knowing look. "It gives you and Brianna a place to meet that is basically neutral ground. And then of course there is the built-in babysitting factor."

"Why would you assume we need a neutral place to meet? Why assume that we even want one?" Charisma asked on a huffed out breath. "I am perfectly content with the status quo, Es. I thought I'd made that clear to you already."

Esmeralda stared at Charisma for a long moment, then shrugged her shoulders. "As you say," was her only comment, then she resumed her work once more.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Charisma snapped defensively.

"Nothing, Charisma. Not a thing. The invitation still stands. I'll talk to Saphira and get back with you on a date for us to visit with you and Adam one Sunday."

Charisma nodded slowly and gave Esmeralda the tiniest hint of a grin. "I'd like that."

"So would we," Esmeralda assured her as she pulled the small vacuum from her cart. "Is it all right...?"

"Oh, sure. It's just a little more white noise," Charisma said with a smile. "Should help me focus," motioning at the work she still had left to go over.

"Good luck with that," Esmeralda replied seriously. "I'm pretty sure it would make me want to scratch my eyeballs out."

Charisma chuckled as she stretched her arms over her head. "It's not all bad."

Esmeralda smiled and shook her head. "If you say so. I'll stick with what I'm good at," turning on the vacuum and making conversation almost impossible. Charisma watched her for another moment, then gave her work her full attention.

After a few minutes, Esmeralda was done with the vacuuming and she moved quickly to finish up the remainder of her work. When she was done, she moved to the door.

"I'm on my way out, Charisma," Esmeralda said quietly, not wanting to disturb her but knowing Charisma would be upset if she left without saying anything at all. Charisma looked up from her work.

"Hang on just a minute and I'll walk out with you. I've looked at this stuff about as much as I can tonight."

Esmeralda nodded and waited for Charisma to gather her things together. Then they walked out the door and down the hallway in silence. Finally, Charisma cleared her throat awkwardly.

"I appreciate you inviting me and Adam to your home, Es. I just... I just don't see the point in...."

"It's all right, Charisma," Esmeralda replied as she pushed the button on the service elevator. "I know how you feel about the situation and I shouldn't have pushed you like that." The elevator door opened and Esmeralda pushed her cart in while she remained in the doorway. "Have a good night, Senator Tagherty," she said with a smile. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Good night, Es," Charisma offered with a wave of her hand, then slowly strolled back to the large public elevator at the other end of the hall.

***********

"So Es is doing better?" Matilda asked Saphira as they closed up the diner.

"Well, she got some good rest yesterday," she responded with another quick peek out the window. "So, yeah... I think she's doing better. She's still not well, though," she continued with a resigned sigh.

"Something like that takes a long time," Joe said from the kitchen window. "Months... years even, in some cases. At least she's getting better. There was a time we were worried that might not happen."

Saphira nodded. "Me too. Not sure what else I can do about it though." Matilda patted her hand before clearing away a stack of dirty dishes.

"You're doing fine, Saphira. You're her rock and that's the best you can do for her." A light tap on the door caught her attention and Matilda left the dishes to go look, grinning when Esmeralda smiled back at her. "Speak of the devil," she said as she opened the door and ushered Esmeralda into the warm diner. "How ya doing, Cutie? You look a little better than you did the other night."

Esmeralda put her hands on her hips and glared at Matilda, though her green eyes twinkled beguilingly. "I think I'm being insulted," she growled. "First I'm the devil and now I look bad?"

Matilda's eyes widened. "That's not what I said!" she protested, then caught sight of Esmeralda's smirk. She narrowed her eyes and then had to smile when Esmeralda laughed. "You like living dangerously, don't you?" she asked, then glanced at Saphira. "Nevermind," she continued dryly.

"HEY!" Saphira protested, then smiled when Esmeralda walked straight into her arms. Matilda just pointed a finger at her.

"Don't even bother. Now you two sit down and have a bite to eat before you head for home."

"Matilda...."

"Eh," holding up a single finger and halting Esmeralda's protest on her lips. "Do as I say, young lady. You're not gonna get sick again if I have anything to do with it. You got me?"

"Yes ma'am," Esmeralda acknowledged. "Thank you, Matilda."

"You and Saphira are like our own, Essie. Now sit up to the counter and tell me about your night. It had to be more interesting than the food fight we had here this evening."

"Food fight?" Esmeralda repeated, looking around at the spotless restaurant. Saphira snorted and shook her head.

"Don't let her fool ya, Sweetheart. Matilda put a stop to it so fast, those kids' eyeballs are probably still rolling around in their heads."

"Not to mention the bruises they're gonna have from being on their knees after cleaning up," Joe added as he set a plate between them and another for him and Matilda to share. "I've never seen anything so funny in my life."

"Why's that?" Esmeralda asked as she scooped up a forkful of mashed potatoes.

"Cause I made the parents get down there with 'em. The looks on their faces... priceless. But I betcha they never act like that in public again."

Saphira snorted again. "I betcha they never act like that ANYWHERE again." She turned to Esmeralda with a smirk. "Matilda threatened to turn them over to the Marines for discipline if they tried something that stupid in her sight again."

Esmeralda sighed. "And of course there's no video of this. That's way more interesting than my night - though I was apparently missed last night."

"You sure were, hon," Matilda assured her. "Both of you were. Now eat up. It's time for you two to get on home to bed."

"Us too, old woman."

"Watch who you're calling old woman there, old man."

Saphira and Esmeralda snickered and turned their attention to their food.



Chapter XXX

Saphira and Esmeralda were surprised to find Ruby waiting up for them when they got home. They immediately went into the living room to see what the problem was and Ruby motioned them to the couch opposite the chair she was occupying.

Ruby looked at them hard for several long, silent moments. Finally, Esmeralda couldn't stand it any more and moved to kneel beside Ruby, taking the worn hand in her own. She tilted her head in question.

"What is it, Ruby? What's wrong?"

She patted the hand that held hers, then gently cupped Esmeralda's face. "How are you, Es? Really?"

Esmeralda met Ruby's eyes and held them with her own. "I'm tired, Ruby," she replied honestly, "but I'm better than I was. I appreciate you working for Phira yesterday so she could stay home with me. I think that helped... a lot."

Ruby held Esmeralda's gaze for another long moment, then nodded her head slowly. "I wasn't looking for thanks, Es; I was glad to do it. You know that. You scared us yesterday - all of us... not just Saphira. Are you sure you're gonna be all right to finish this assignment?"

Esmeralda smiled gently and shook her head. "Only He knows that, Ruby. I can only take it one day at a time and do my best every day."

"That's as may be, young lady, but you're not to let yourself get run down like that again. If you need a break, you let us know so we can give one to you *before* you collapse. We're here to help... and to help you bear this burden. Let us."

"I'll try, Ruby. But so much of this sits on my shoulders and I've never...." She broke off and bit her lips before continuing. "I've never been in a position like this before - to where my health plays a role in how things get done."

"I know, honey. I know how you work. But you're gonna have to take it into account, because it does affect everything." She looked at Saphira whose head was down, hiding her eyes. "I know Amber is usually your second and she's exceptional at what she does, but you've got the best watching your back this time. She may not be a guardian, but Saphira has the strength to be the rock you need," smiling when Saphira's head popped up and she was pinned with blazing blue eyes. "Don't be afraid to utilize everything you've got. It's why we're here."

Esmeralda dropped her head into Ruby's lap, balancing her forehead on Ruby's knees. "I'm trying, Ruby. It's just hard."

Ruby trailed her hand through Esmeralda's messy blonde hair. "And you're exhausted. Are you sure you don't need a little more time off to recover?"

"I can't, Ruby. I feel like we're so close to a breakthrough. Once we get that, I think I'll be able to stop pushing so hard."

"Why?" Saphira asked unexpectedly. "Why do you think that a breakthrough is coming soon? And why will you get to slow down then?"

"It's hard to explain," Esmeralda said slowly. "It's one of those things I know because of my experience... you know, kind of like a gut feeling." She paused and looked at Saphira thoughtfully and smiled when Saphira nodded her understanding.

"So the fact that they're talking to one another again...?"

"That in and of itself is a huge breakthrough. But it's not enough - it's not the breakthrough we need. But it's progress."

"So how do you know you'll be able to ease up a little?"

Esmeralda smiled. "Because my job is to achieve that breakthrough. That's the objective here. After that...." She shrugged. "I can't force the results, Phira - you know that; none of us can."

"I know," Saphira answered with more than a hint of irritation in her tone. "I just...."

Esmeralda covered her hand. "I know, love. Soon... I promise," holding Saphira's eyes for another long moment before she turned back to Ruby. "Brianna is coming over on Sunday."

Ruby nodded her understanding. "I'll be here. Do you want the rest of the girls to go out?"

"Yeah - less questions that way."

"I'll take care of it. I'm sure they can find something to do in this town for a little while."

"Thanks, Ruby. Now shouldn't you be getting to bed? Morning will be here sooner than you want."

Ruby chuckled and shook her head. "Technically, morning's already here. And I always have to be up before I want to be anymore." She sighed dramatically. "I'm getting old. I need a vacation."

Esmeralda couldn't stop the laugh that bubbled up from her chest. "You may need a vacation, but you're not getting old, Ruby."

Ruby snorted. "You're right. I hit old years ago," cackling at their smirks. She patted Esmeralda's hands, then rose and headed for the door. "Night girls."

"Night, Ruby," they called back quietly, watching her slip up the stairs to the room on the next floor. Saphira and Esmeralda remained still for another couple minutes, then Saphira offered Esmeralda her hand, smiling when she clasped it immediately.

"C'mon, Es. It's late and I'm tired."

Esmeralda yawned and gave in to Saphira's gentle tugging towards their bedroom. "Me too," she conceded. "Maybe the next couple days will be quiet." They exchanged glances.

"Nah," they agreed wryly, knowing the way things tended to go. Then they went into the bedroom and shut the door. They would worry about tomorrow on the morrow.

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

Except that the next couple days were completely quiet. Charisma and Brianna stuck to their schedules and routines, not once interacting with each other as their work didn't demand it. Charisma's staff breathed the smallest sigh of relief - it was nice to return to some semblance of the chaos that passed for normalcy in her office. And without Brianna in her sphere, Charisma found it easier to focus and maintain her professional demeanor. Brianna's staff, still feeling their way around their new boss, was just glad for the chance to watch her at work. Brianna may have been the new kid on this particular political block, but she had been around the type all her adult life and knew how to work a crowd to her advantage.

Indi and Opal spoke to Esmeralda briefly, giving her updates as they were preparing to abscond for the day, then leaving her to her work. Charisma and Brianna both chatted with her for a few minutes before heading off to their respective homes for the evening. Esmeralda made sure Brianna knew where she and Saphira lived so she would be able to find them on Sunday. But otherwise, everything remained status quo and so the week passed into the weekend.

When Sunday rolled around, Saphira rose early and slipped out of the room stealthily, determined to do the last-minute cleaning that needed to be done before Esmeralda woke to do it. She walked to the coffee pot and found it half-full and hot, so she went into the living room to see if she could discover what was going on. What she found was all their housemates doing a little bit each, making quick work of everything that needed to be done.

Ruby took one look at her gobsmacked expression and laughed, crossing the room to push Saphira's mouth closed. "Don't want you catching flies," she commented, chuckling again when Saphira cut her eyes and glared, then crossed her arms over her chest.

"There are no flies this time of year, Ruby."

Ruby snorted. "Figure of speech, Saphira. You looked like you got hit between the eyes."

"S'okay... I kinda feel that way at the moment. What are you all doing up so early? And how come I didn't hear you?"

The rest looked at her and smiled, then shook their heads and returned to their silent work. Ruby took her by the arm and led her back to the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator door and started pulling out stuff to make breakfast. Saphira took it from her as she handed it out, placing it on the counter and waiting for Ruby to speak.

Once she had everything she needed, Ruby shut the door and motioned to Saphira. Then together they started preparing breakfast for the crew. "Ruby?" Saphira coaxed as she set the first tray of bacon into the microwave and slid the biscuits into the oven.

Ruby looked up from her cutting board and shook her head. "Sorry - I was thinking ahead today. Remember, we're always up this early and you generally don't hear us. And we've all worked with Es before. We know what she likes and what she expects."

"I don't...."

"Angel or not, Es is a proud woman. And even though we are all neat and fastidious in our habits, the fact is that with a dozen women living here - give or take - the house is not always going to be as neat or as clean as we'd like it to be... especially when we're having company over. So the girls and I decided to take care of that this morning before they head out for the day. With that many women working together, it really doesn't take long."

Saphira held up the pot and Ruby nodded. She topped off their cups and started another pot brewing. Once it was underway, she started the eggs. If they had timed it right, breakfast would be ready just about the time that the girls were done with their cleaning. And it would still be warm when Amber and Coral returned.

"Has anyone heard from Mal?" Ruby asked. Saphira shook her head.

"No. She asked Es to give her a couple more days to pin some things down, so we should be hearing from her shortly." Saphira turned to the kitchen door as the troops wordlessly filed in just as she was taking the eggs off of the stove. They seated themselves and Ruby said grace, then they silently began to fill their plates.

After the first rush of hunger was sated, Saphira turned to Ame, whose bruising was now muted shades of yellow and green. "How do you feel?"

Ame swallowed and nodded her head. "Better," she replied. "Not even a residual headache."

"Good," Saphira confirmed. "Are you going over to Charisma's today?"

"No... Sunday is my normal day off. She'd start asking questions if I just showed up there. Why?"

Saphira shook her head. "Who usually watches her?"

"Amber. She usually does a thirty-six hour stretch between Saturday night and Monday morning."

Saphira's eyes popped. "Well that explains a lot." She turned to Jade. "I want you over there today. Amber deserves a break and I don't want to leave Charisma alone."

"You got it, boss," Jade responded with a nod. Saphira shook her head.

"I'm not the boss. I'm just keeping an eye on things for her at the moment."

"Speaking of the boss," Ruby broke in. "How's Es doing?"

Saphira felt every eye in the room turn her way and she chewed slowly and swallowed before she opened her mouth to answer. "I'd like to say she's getting better, but I honestly don't know that. I know she felt a little better after the extra rest she got this week, but...." She shrugged. "Something's still not right."

"Is there anything we can do?" Opal asked.

"I don't think so," Saphira countered softly. "I think this is a wait and see thing. But if something comes up, you all will be the first to know."

"Just so you know we're here if you need us."

"Yeah, I know. We both do. So what are you guys planning to do today?"

"We're going to be tourists today. We thought we'd walk the Mall - maybe take in a few museums."

"Yeah, we figure Jas will let us know when we can come home."

Jas snorted. "Assuming Brianna decides to use the car today. I'm still waiting for a phone call to let me know when to pick her up this morning and bring her here. It wouldn't surprise me a bit for her to decide to hop the Metro."

"Me either," Saphira agreed. "She's just that independent."

"Wonder how long that will last," Opal murmured, drawing everyone's attention. "Most politicians can't wait to take advantage of all the perks."

"Given what I've seen," Indi contributed softly, "Brianna Walker isn't your normal politician."

"Now if she can just convince Charisma Tagherty of that," Esmeralda commented sleepily from the doorway of the bedroom. "What are you all doing up so early? And why didn't somebody," pinning Saphira's eyes with her own, "wake me?"

Ruby snorted. "As for the first," she replied without hesitation, "we're always up this early. It's pretty much a habit for us. And for the second...?" She cut her gaze in Saphira's direction and chuckled. "You're kidding me, right?"

Esmeralda sniffed and stuck out her tongue in Ruby's direction, causing laughter to ripple around the table. She tried to glare, but her sleep-rumpled appearance and a huge yawn made the effort less than effective. Instead, Saphira rose and patted the back of her empty chair, sliding her dirty plate off the table and putting a clean one in its place. Ruby poured her a fresh cup of coffee and the rest began passing the food in her direction.

Without a word, Jade rose from the table as well, giving Saphira a nod and heading out to relieve Amber for the day. Some minutes later, she came in the door, almost giving Esmeralda whiplash as her head jerk around.

"Amber??"

She raised her full coffee cup towards Saphira and took an empty spot as the others began to file out of the kitchen to make their last-minute preparations for their day. Esmeralda simply sat and waited, looking back and forth between Saphira, Ruby and Amber. "Someone wanna fill me in this morning?" she prompted with a hint of acid in her voice.

"I sent Jade to Charisma's to give Amber a bit of a break. I know it was Coral's turn, but Amber's been doing this longer and Coral will get a break today anyway," Saphira offered quietly. "Even if Brianna uses the Metro to get here."

Esmeralda nodded. "Fair enough." She turned to Amber. "Straight up to bed with you, Missy."

"No arguments from me, boss. I'm beat."

Esmeralda frowned. "Something happen?"

"I didn't have to fight or struggle or anything like that, if that's what you mean. But watching Charisma last night... it was exhausting." She held up her hand before anyone could interrupt, shoveling the last of her meal into her mouth, then pushing her plate away and leaning back with her coffee cup cradled in her hands. Esmeralda pushed away her mostly untouched plated, causing a look of concern to pass between the other three before Ruby rose and took it to the sink.

She started the water running to wash the dishes, knowing the conversation would continue around her work. Saphira took a seat next to Esmeralda and waited for Amber to continue. Finally, Amber swallowed the last bite of food and took a deep breath.

"When I got there, Adam was having bath time. Actually, *they* were having bath time - Adam was just the only one undressed for it. But Charisma seemed to be enjoying it and Adam basked under his mom's attention. Once they were done and he was in his pajamas, Charisma slipped into a robe and they settled down for story time. According to Ame, they'd had quite a busy playtime, so it didn't take long or very much of Green Eggs and Ham for Adam to nod right on off to sleep. Still, she read the whole book and rocked him for a few minutes more before she tucked him in for the night. That's when things got interesting.

She went into her room and phoned Kent, but of course he was onstage and not able to take her call. Then she called her mother - I'm not sure who was the most surprised about that," Amber commented thoughtfully, cocking her head. "I'll come back to that," she promised.

"After a few minutes on the phone with first Okasa and then Patrick, Charisma got up and started pacing the floor. It went on for half an hour or so before she went down to her office and took out that album." Amber looked up at both Saphira and Esmeralda. "I wish you could have seen this - she was angry and frustrated and melancholy and sad - so many emotions roiling through her being. I half expected her to throw the album into the fire a time or two. But every time, she'd pull back... just short of doing any real damage.

Finally, she slammed the book shut and raced upstairs. She threw on some ratty old workout clothes - real old... like college old - and headed into the gym. That was something. She must have been in that room for the better part of four hours. When she finished, she could hardly make herself move up the stairs to her room. She took the album up with her." Amber turned golden eyes to Esmeralda.

"Es, that's the first time that book has been out of her office since we started this."

"What happened?"

"Charisma took a shower and crawled... almost literally... into her bed. Then she sat looking at that album til she fell asleep. Es... she was crying."

Esmeralda pinched her lips thoughtfully and covered Amber's hand. "Thank you, Amber. Can you let Ame know she's likely to get a call to go in to work today? Then go get some rest. You look as tired as I feel."

Amber smiled. "As long as I don't look as tired as Charisma feels, I'll be all right. Call me if you need me, all right?"

"Go on. We'll be all right. Ruby's here and Brianna will be here shortly. The rest... you know my motto."

Amber nodded as she stood and stretched. "Yeah, but I think we're down to taking it a minute at a time right now. Night, guys." They watched her head up the stairs and turned back to the table thoughtfully, each wondering what else the day might bring.



Chapter XXXI

"Hello?" Brianna yawned into the phone as she blinked her eyes open, glad for the darkening shades in her bedroom.

"Brianna? Did I wake you up, sweetheart?" The voice on the other end of the phone caused Brianna to shoot up into a sitting position.

"Mama O??" rubbing her eyes and trying to force a wakefulness she simply didn't feel, even with the rush of adrenaline hearing Okasa's voice had caused. She pushed her hair off her face and rubbed the back of her neck. "Is everything okay?" yawning again.

"I was going to ask you the same thing. What's going on down there? I got the strangest phone call from my daughter last night...."

Brianna blinked rapidly. "Um...."

"I did wake you up, didn't I? I'm sorry, Little Bri," the nickname bringing a smile to Brianna's face. "I didn't stop to think that you might have had a late night last night. I know about some of those parties and things that go on down there, you know," with a hint of a smile in her tone.

Brianna yawned and shook her head, even though Okasa couldn't see the motion. Then she slid from the bed and headed towards the kitchen. "Oh, Mama O - it's nothing nearly that exciting. I've been working really long hours here trying to catch up on all the stuff I'm supposed to be working on - either in committee or just generally speaking. I'm actually taking the day off today. A friend invited me over for lunch with her and her partner. That's why I was still in bed when you called."

"And I messed up your sleep-in," Okasa tsked. "I'm sorry, Brianna."

"Don't be, Mama O. It's good to hear from you."

"The phone does work both ways," she replied tartly, drawing a chuckle from Brianna and smiling in response. "However, I do understand you're still settling in - so I'll forgive you this time... as long as you promise it won't be too long before you call me."

"I promise, Mama. You know I'm good for it." She flipped on the coffee maker and started dumping things into her cup as she waited for it to brew. Then she snagged a banana for breakfast.

"I do indeed. Now what is going on down there... really? Charisma called me last night."

Brianna waited but when nothing more was forthcoming, she felt the need to prompt Okasa. "All right... and this is unusual how? Okasa, she's your daughter. Surely you talk on the phone occasionally."

"No one likes a smartass," Okasa muttered, "especially this early in the morning." Brianna arched an eyebrow and snorted.

"Then you shouldn't have called so early, Mama O. You know what a smartass I am after coffee. Why would you think a lack of it would make it better?"

"Good point," Okasa agreed with a hint of light laughter in her voice. Then she cleared her throat and Brianna could hear the worry in her tone. "I'm... concerned, Brianna. Charisma sounded upset."

Brianna frowned. "Did she say anything, Okasa? Give you any idea what she was upset about?"

"No. She didn't *say* anything - seriously. We talked about absolutely nothing - the weather, the traffic, Kent's new show. That's part of the reason I'm worried. There is always something real for us to talk about - her work, my work, the family. Her daddy thinks I'm crazy... insists that I'm imagining things. But I'm not - a mother knows when something is wrong... especially when...."

"Especially when what, Okasa? You can't just stop there. And doesn't Kent count as family? He is her husband and Adam's father, after all."

"Yes, he does and yes he is. But we didn't talk about Kent... just his show."

"Especially when what?" Brianna prodded again when Okasa didn't continue. "If you want me to try to give you answers, Okasa, I need to know the whole truth."

"Last night was the first time we had heard from her since you arrived in Washington. There was something different - her voice... her attitude." Okasa sighed. "It's hard to explain. Paddy would have recognized the difference if he'd been on the phone with her. Instead, he thinks I'm a lunatic."

"That's not fair, Mama," Brianna heard across the wire and the gentle brogue brought a smile to her face. "That's not what I said at all," Patrick protested, making Brianna chuckle. Okasa huffed.

"Little Bri, you're on speaker now. I'm not going to play go-between while Paddy argues his case."

"Hi, Brianna," Patrick offered a touch sheepishly.

"Good morning, Papa," she returned cheerfully, pouring her coffee into her cup and relishing her fist sip after she'd stirred everything in. "Why do you doubt Mama?"

"He doubts, Little One, because the only thing he said to Charisma was 'I love you' and because if he agrees with me it means there is something wrong with his baby girl that he didn't catch. That is bad enough. The fact that she hasn't come to us about it just makes it worse."

"Papa," Brianna scolded gently. "You do realize Charisma is a grown woman? A United States Senator? You can't expect her to come running to you when something goes wrong in her life hoping you can fix it and make it all go away."

"I know, but...."

"But," Brianna cut in, "she did call you. Trust that Mama knows that she called because she needed you. Now you have to figure out what she needs from you."

Patrick frowned. "Why exactly are you a lawyer? And how did you get into politics? You're much too smart for that, Brianna. You shoulda been a doctor."

Brianna laughed. "Um... NO. Too much drama. Haven't you ever seen those medical shows on television?" drawing laughs from the Taghertys. "So that's why you think something is wrong? Because Charisma called you last night and she sounded... what?"

"Disconnected."

"I'm not sure I understand."

Okasa sighed. "I'm not sure I can explain it well enough to make you understand."

"Try, Mama. You wouldn't have called me about this if it wasn't important."

"This is true," Okasa admitted. "You have to know that Charisma and I talk every Sunday as a matter of course. She calls in the evening so Paddy and I can talk to Adam before bedtime and then she and I generally spend a little time catching up - you know? like I told you earlier. We talk about the family; she shares some stories of her work and I do the same. Kind of like when you and I talk," hearing Brianna's hum of acknowledgement.

"So the fact that she called last night...."

"Rang all kinds of alarm bells. The fact that she didn't have anything to talk about ... I decided to call you. If anyone might have an idea of what was bothering her...."

"Okasa...."

"Brianna - discounting the fact that you're Charisma's best friend, you're the only one there where she is. You're the only one who might have an inkling of what happened to throw her off her stride."

"First of all, Okasa - I'm not Charisma's best friend... not for twenty years, and you know that. Please don't try to bullshit me."

"Brianna...."

"No, Okasa! I don't...."

"Brianna, listen to me a minute," hearing Brianna huff impatiently before she fell silent. "Brianna... despite everything, you're the only best friend Charisma ever had... still. Now I'll grant you that your situation could in no way be considered normal, but it is what it is. And until and unless that changes...."

Brianna sighed. "Mama O," she said resignedly. "Is there a point here?"

"You two make me crazy, you know that?" Okasa groused, then continued before Brianna could offer a response. "Even considering the fact that you and Charisma haven't been part of one another's lives for twenty years, no one knows my baby the way that you do. That plus the fact that you're actually in the same place...."

"Did you ever stop to think that might be her problem, Okasa? That us being in the same sphere for the first time in twenty years would be enough to shake her up?"

"Then why wait so long to call, Brianna? Why not call and vent as soon as you accepted the appointment? Or the first time you met again? Something must have happened to have caused her to call home just to babble." She paused. "What's going on there, Brianna... really?"

"I met Adam," Brianna offered into the well of silence between them.

"All right," Patrick finally said after exchanging long stares with Okasa. "Did it go poorly? God knows the first few days with his father could be considered horrific. He screamed every time Kent got near him."

"Oh no," Brianna reassured them swiftly. "Nothing like that at all. In fact...." Brianna trailed off and Patrick and Okasa let the silence go on until they wondered if their connection had been severed.

"Brianna?"

Brianna started and looked at the phone stupidly a moment before replying. "Sorry, Mama O. I was just thinking."

Patrick chuckled. "Still takes you that way, does it?"

Brianna laughed, especially when she heard Okasa backhand Patrick in the belly. "Papa, some days I count my blessings that it *can* still take me that way. It beats not being taken at all."

"So tell us, Little Bri. What happened when you met our precocious grandson?"

"Nothing I would consider special... at least I didn't until.... Let me start at the beginning." Brianna told them of her encounter with Adam in the hallway. "Now in fairness, I haven't had to deal with many kids in my life, except of course your *other* grandchildren. And you know how they are - very outgoing and friendly... kind of like your kids. So I just figured Adam was the same way. Except when we went for ice cream later, Charisma wanted to know what kind of a spell I put on her son."

The Taghertys laughed. "And what did you tell her, my dear?"

"I told her that I didn't do anything but talk to him at his level. He... it's funny - he looked at me for a long moment, then declared me to be 'good.' After that, it was just a matter of taking him back to his mom. Apparently being 'good' was reason enough for him to trust me."

"He's actually an astonishing judge of character - given his age and background. Especially when you consider his natural shyness. It took him several visits with his cousins before he actually decided to play with them. Now of course, he runs off to play with them the minute they arrive."

"I can't picture a child of Charisma's as quiet and reserved. He certainly wasn't with me."

"Brianna?" Patrick asked when their chuckles wound down again. "What else happened?" He paused, then pushed forward. "I mean... I think something else must've thrown her off. Otherwise she wouldn't have agreed to go get ice cream with you. Unless... was that the first time you'd been alone together since your arrival? Or have you been rebuilding...?" Brianna's indelicate snort caused his words to trail off. He waited, and finally Brianna spoke.

"We're not rebuilding anything, Papa. She basically told me flat out that the only interaction we'd ever have together would be professional. The only reason we went for ice cream together was because of Adam. He didn't want to let me go back to work after I found him. Ice cream in the afternoon was our compromise."

"Brianna?" Okasa spoke up. "When Adam declared you 'good', what was Charisma's reaction?"

"Aside from accusing me of witchcraft on her son? I don't know, really. I wasn't looking at her either time he said it; I was looking at Adam. He has her eyes, you know."

Okasa laughed. "Yes, I had noticed that." Then she sobered. "Can you think of any reason...?"

Brianna sighed. "Yeah," she said casually - more casual than her speech had been since high school. In her business, informality wasn't acceptable most of the time... even in casual conversation. People expected more. So Okasa knew the minute the slang fell from Brianna's lips, they were finally getting to the crux of the matter.

"Can you share?"

There was another heavy sigh and the Taghertys heard the sound of another cup of coffee being made before Brianna spoke again. "Charisma mentioned my eyes - said Adam was another sucker for green eyes. Then she took Adam and hightailed it out of the dining room like her feet were on fire."

"But that's wonderful!" Okasa exclaimed and Brianna could hear the smile in her voice. "That means she feels... she still...."

"No, Okasa. It means she's still unwilling to feel - or to acknowledge the possibility of... well, anything really. She's not even willing to feign friendship."

Okasa snorted. "So what are you going to do about it, Brianna?"

Brianna shook her head, even though Okasa couldn't see her. She chuckled sadly. "Nothing, Mama O. Not a damn thing. Nothing has changed as far as Charisma is concerned, and she made her choice years ago when she let me walk away without looking back. Despite what it could be if given a chance and as much as I'd like for things to be different...."

"That's bullshit, Brianna Walker! Tell her how you feel! Fight for her!"

Brianna sighed. "I've been fighting for twenty years to make sure she was happy - to make sure she got what she wanted out of life - even while I knew that what she wanted was never going to include me. I'm tired of fighting."

"Then start fighting for something instead of against it!"

"Was there anything else you needed to know, Mama?" she asked respectfully while completely avoiding Okasa's argument. "I still need to get ready to go out."

Okasa bit her lip and relaxed back into Patrick's body when he put his arms around her. "I think that's all for now, Little One. Remember you promised to call me soon."

"I know, Mama O. I will. You and Papa say a prayer at Mass for me this morning. Maybe God will listen to you."

"Oh Sweetheart. God listens to all his children. He just doesn't always answer in our time."

"I'm not sure I have enough life left to wait on His," Brianna said wryly. "I'll call next week. I want to tell you about the new friends I've made here. You'd like them - they think like you do... that Charisma and I should be together."

"Really? How long have you known them?"

"Only since I arrived in the capital, although Charisma has known at least one of them for a while. She's the custodian on our floor of the Senate office building we're in."

"That wouldn't be Esmeralda, would it?"

"Yes, it would," Brianna affirmed with a smile. "She and her partner Saphira helped me out the night I got here and ended up completely lost and they've become good friends since then. I wish you could meet them, Mama. They have something together that is so rare. But they have fought to be together... given up everything for one another. That's why I know...." She trailed off.

Okasa cleared her throat. "We'll look forward to hearing all about them. I wanna hear what you think about some of your colleagues as well. Given some of the tales Charisma has shared, it could make for a fun conversation."

"I'll just bet."

"All right, Brianna. You go get ready for your day out with your friends."

"Thanks, Mama. Love you. Love you, Papa."

"Love you too," Okasa and Patrick assured Brianna before hanging up their phone. Then they turned to look at one another.

"Are you satisfied now, Papa?"

"I'll agree something is definitely up with our daughter," he agreed reluctantly. "But I'm not sure I know what we're supposed to do about it."

"We're gonna go to church and light a candle and say a prayer. Then I'm gonna go to the post office tomorrow and mail Charisma a package she shoulda gotten years ago. Maybe we could've avoided this whole mess."

"Mama?"

"Trust me, Paddy-me-love. I shoulda done this a long time ago. Now, go get ready for church. We've got some praying to do."



Chapter XXXII

"Knock, knock," Brianna called out even as she knocked on the door of the address Esmeralda had given her. She smiled when Saphira opened the door almost immediately.

"Brianna... welcome! Please come in," gesturing her into the narrow foyer. Brianna held up her hand.

"Hey, Saphira. I um... I actually brought some stuff with me," motioning to her car.

"Brianna, you didn't need to bring anything."

"I know. But I couldn't not. My mother might make an appearance to give me a lesson in manners and deportment." She shuddered dramatically. "I'd rather give that a miss if you don't mind." Brianna turned back to Jas who stood beside the car awaiting her orders.

"Well, let's grab your stuff before Es decides I got lost bringing you to the kitchen."

Brianna handed Saphira a couple bags, then she and Jas hefted a small cooler between them and followed Saphira back towards the house. By this point, Esmeralda had wondered at their delay and she met them at the door, eyebrows high on her forehead in puzzlement.

"Did I miss a memo?" she asked as they passed her on their way into the kitchen. "I thought we invited you over to have lunch with us - not for you to bring it with you," Esmeralda offered with a grin. "Thanks, Jas," she added when Jas turned to leave. Jas gave Esmeralda a snappy salute, then turned to Brianna.

"Is there anything else, Senator?"

"No," Brianna replied, shaking her head. "I'll call you when Saphira and Es are ready to throw me out."

"Yes ma'am," she acknowledged, then went out the door and back to the car. The rest watched her go, following the sound of the car until it faded away. Then they looked at one another and laughed.

Esmeralda opened her arms and offered Brianna a hug that she readily accepted, then Saphira did the same. "Welcome to our home," Esmeralda said. "We're really glad you're here, Brianna. But um... why all the stuff?" gesturing to the things that had been brought in.

Brianna cleared her throat. "Well, my mother taught me that you never go anywhere empty-handed. But I forgot to ask what we were having today, so I brought a few things hoping something would fit in with whatever you were preparing."

Esmeralda smiled gently. "All you needed to bring was yourself, but I'm sure we can probably use any number of things you brought along with you. I've learned to be flexible in my menu making. Besides, we wouldn't want you to get in trouble with your mother, would we?"

"I knew you'd understand."

Esmeralda snorted. "I have a mother too," was her only comment, making Brianna laugh and Saphira snicker. But the awkwardness was broken and they put things away. Saphira fixed them drinks and they crossed into the living room to visit.

"If it was warmer, we could sit out in the backyard."

"It would have to be a lot warmer, Es. There's no reason for you to catch a chill, and I'm pretty sure we'd get frostbite if we stayed outside for too long today. As pretty as the sunshine is, it's not very warm."

"And come mid-summer, we'll be wondering where the cool air has gotten off to."

Brianna smirked. "True. I guess we're never really satisfied." She groaned and twisted her neck, sighing when she felt it pop back into place. "This is wonderful. Thank you both for inviting me."

"We were glad you could come. Most wouldn't, you know."

"Their loss," Brianna stated emphatically. "Can I ask you something? It's been bugging me for... well, since it happened." Saphira and Esmeralda exchanged glances and shrugged, then nodded at Brianna. She looked at Esmeralda. "How do you know Jas?" She chuckled when Esmeralda's eyes widened and her brows flew into her hairline. "I mean, you do know her, right? As more than just a casual acquaintance?"

Esmeralda smiled. "I'd call us friends, though I can say the same about a lot of the sewer rats."

"Excuse me?! What the hell is a sewer rat?" green eyes sparking fire. "And you better not be talking about yourself!!"

"Brianna, it's all right. It's what all the big wigs refer to the common working class as when they think we're not listening."

"That's not right!"

"No," Esmeralda agreed sadly. "But it doesn't make it any less true. The non-public tunnels we use also house the pipes that carry the sewage and waste out of the building. So we're sewer rats. We come out of hiding when the building goes dark... in theory anyway."

Brianna grit her teeth and took a deep breath to try and center herself. When she felt the rage calm to a tolerable level, she spoke again. "So you met Jas...?"

"The drivers share a lounge with the custodial crew downstairs... between the entrance to the lot where the cars are kept and our cleaning closets. So when they're on a break or we are, we get a chance to talk. I think I know every driver for every senator in the building; of course I know most of the cleaning crew; and even though they're never down on our level, I chat with every staffer on my floor. It's quite a mixed bunch of folks."

Brianna laughed. "You should have gone into politics, Es. You're obviously a master of understatement."

"Oh no... no thank you. I have trouble enough keeping up with the truth. I couldn't manage the lies."

Brianna offered her a wry look. "I think I should be insulted." She snorted. "Actually, I would be insulted if I didn't already know that for the truth." She paused. "So tell me how you convinced my driver to do what you asked instead of her job... especially considering the kind of trouble that could have landed her in." Brianna didn't sound angry... merely curious.

Esmeralda sighed and looked at Saphira who held her gaze for a long moment, then squeezed her hand in support. Es lifted the hand to her lips and brushed a light kiss over the knuckles before turning her attention back to Brianna - to find her watching them in fascination.

"What?"

Brianna shrugged and shook her head. "Nothing. I've just never seen two people communicate the way you two do. It's always been more like something you'd find in a novel - lovely to think about but not a genuine possibility in real life."

"Do you doubt our sincerity?" Saphira asked without a hint of malice in her tone.

"Not at all - that's what makes it so amazing. But that doesn't answer my original question," turning back to Esmeralda.

"It was easy, Brianna - I asked," holding up her free hand to stop Brianna's speech before she could form her first thought. "Remember... I have been doing my job for a long time and I have known Jas for most of that. She knew something was wrong, so she was willing to give me a shot at helping... even if that meant she risked her position. Jas is one of the good guys, Brianna. She cares."

"So you help a lot of folks then?"

Esmeralda shrugged. "I do what I can. I'm a firm believer in what goes around comes around, and if I have the chance to help someone out, I try to do that. I figure eventually, it'll all come back to me in a good way."

"And if it doesn't?"

"What have I lost except the chance to do the right thing?"

"I don't know if I could be that selfless."

"Haven't you already, Brianna? Didn't you give up your own opportunity at happiness with the one who meant the most to you in the whole world to insure her well-being and peace of mind?"

Brianna sighed. "That was different."

"How do you figure?" Saphira asked quietly.

"Because I loved Charisma. I needed to do it for me as much as I needed to do it for her. Esmeralda doesn't love me or anyone else she helps... at least not like that. It's one thing to sacrifice your happiness for one you love - you know that... you did it for each other. But it is something else again to do it for someone who is a mere acquaintance or even a stranger."

"Greater love hath no man than this...." Saphira quoted.

"Maybe," Brianna conceded, "but I don't think so."

"So what are you gonna do about her... Charisma, I mean?" Saphira asked when the silence started to draw out too long. Brianna shook her head and sighed.

"Nothing," she admitted, holding up her hand in an effort to quell their questions. "I've spent a lot of time thinking about this. I had all kinds of ideas - things I could do to get Charisma's attention... to make her realize how much I've missed her and her friendship in my life."

"That doesn't sound like a bad thing," Esmeralda approved.

"On the surface, it really doesn't. Except Charisma can't stand to be alone with me long enough to do more than exchange platitudes. I don't see a reason to make us both miserable. Besides, my feelings for Charisma are still as real and deep as they were when I first realized I'd fallen in love with my best friend. The only difference is now she's a married woman. And whatever else I am, I am not now, nor have I ever been a home wrecker."

"You think allowing the friendship you shared to resume would somehow destroy her marriage? That's not a very high commentary on your perception of the state of her marriage."

"Saphira, please don't put words in my mouth."

Saphira's eyes widened. "I wasn't trying to. I'm trying to understand your thinking."

Unexpectedly, Brianna chuckled. "Good luck with that. My mother swears she needs a map and a GPS to follow my thought processes." Saphira and Esmeralda laughed at Brianna's words and wry expression.

"Will you explain what you meant? I really am trying to understand."

Brianna sighed. "So am I really. When I first accepted this appointment, my goal was to just get through it. I mean, I had avoided Charisma for twenty years, surely I could manage two in close proximity, right?" She chuckled wryly. "Of course I didn't realize how close that proximity was going to be or I might have rethought the whole thing. However, once I got here, I was committed to two years and I figured... how hard could it be?"

"Harder than you thought?"

"Impossible. Being here... seeing her again - it made me understand how much I missed her. And after talking to Es, I thought maybe we could just be friends again, you know? I mean, we're both reasonable adults, right? Only she shot me down before I even got out of the gate. She doesn't want to be friends; she doesn't want anything to do with me beyond what is required of her professionally."

"So you're just giving up?"

"I'm just accepting the inevitable. Besides, it's probably for the best - maybe I can find someone for me now instead of holding on to an impossibility." Brianna sighed and looked at both women before settling her eyes on Esmeralda. "I'm tired of fighting, Es. There comes a point when you just have to say no more."

"Okay," Saphira conceded, "but that doesn't explain your home wrecker comment."

Brianna rubbed her forehead hard enough to leave crease marks. "That had nothing to do with Charisma or the state of her marriage particularly. In my book, married women are off-limits."

"Lesson learned the hard way?"

"Something like that," Brianna muttered. "It would have been ugly for me if I hadn't found out before anything happened. Besides, who needs that kind of drama in their life?? I've got enough going on without someone else's issues crowding my plate." Her voice was sardonic.

Esmeralda grinned. "Don't we all?"

Brianna laughed for a long moment before she sobered. "I will miss getting to know Adam and watch him grow up, though. He's a firecracker and I'm betting he'll be a heartbreaker some day."

"I have to say... as much as Saphira and I would like to be able to have children, I'm not sure the world is ready for what our offspring would be."

Brianna cocked her head. Saphira just chuckled and nodded her affirmation to Esmeralda's words. "Why do you say that?" she queried, looking between them. "Do you think they'd be born with super powers or something?" She paused in thought a moment. "That could actually be kind of cool... as long as you got super powers too - preferably better ones."

Esmeralda snorted. "Trust me, Brianna - even having super powers wouldn't help. Our kids would be hellions."

"You say that so factually... like you already know."

"Brianna," Esmeralda said in her driest tone. "Saphira and I grew up together. We know what we were like as children. Putting all that mischief into a single body...." She shuddered. "Not a good idea."

"Maybe," Brianna agreed with a grin. "But you have to admit they'd be adorable."

Saphira snorted. "Yeah... this planet needs more of that - brats that some people find adorable that the rest of us want to strangle on principle. I get enough of those in my day job. I sure wouldn't want to come home to them."

Brianna grimaced. "Ew... good point. Kind of a shame though - you two would make beautiful children together."

"What about you, Brianna? You ever thought about having kids?"

Brianna's eyes widened. "Me?? Um... no. Not really. Not at all, actually. I wouldn't know how to raise one."

"Isn't it all learned by trial and error?"

"I can't say, but I do know I'd prefer to skip the trial so I can avoid the error." Saphira and Esmeralda chuckled at Brianna's matter-of-fact statement and she smiled at them. "So tell me more about the two of you," she asked. "Es said you grew up together. What was that like for you?"

Before either of them could answer, Ruby stuck her head in the living room. Esmeralda motioned her in. "Brianna, this is Ruby, a dear friend who came to help us out while I'm recovering. Ruby, please meet Senator Brianna Walker."

"How do you do, Senator? It's a pleasure to meet you."

"The pleasure is all mine, Ruby, and I'm Brianna out of the office."

"I'm sorry to intrude, ladies, but I was gonna get started on lunch. Only I'm not quite sure what lunch is supposed to be now," she added ruefully.

Esmeralda grinned and looked at the other two women in the room. "What do you two say to moving this party to the kitchen so we can take a look at what we've got to work with?"

"I think that sounds like an excellent idea," Saphira said as she rose from her spot. "Besides, I could use a refill," holding up her empty glass. "How about you, Brianna?"

"I'm doing good, actually, but I never turn down a chance to be in the kitchen. I have yet to not learn something while I was there - whether it was a new recipe or cooking method or just the latest gossip."

Esmeralda smirked at Ruby, knowing she would go along with the tease. "See, I told you the kitchen was better than those rag mags you like to read in the checkout line." Ruby hip-checked her and they laughingly made their way into the kitchen. A hand on Saphira's arm made her hang back with Brianna and she arched a brow in silent question.

"How is Es... really, Saphira? I gotta tell you - she scared the lot of us on the floor the other day when she missed work."

Saphira sighed. "She scared me too, but we're taking it one day at a time. It's all we can do at this point. But thank you for asking, Brianna. It's nice to know that folks care."

Brianna smiled. "I think you'll find that Es has a lot of friends that care. Now c'mon," she instructed, linking her arm with Saphira's. "We better get in there before Es decides we've gotten lost again."

"Too late," Esmeralda said with a soft laugh as they stepped from the living room. "I've already figured out that the two of you are working on some sort of government conspiracy cover-up." She narrowed her eyes at them. "But I'll figure it out."

Saphira leaned forward and brushed Esmeralda's cheek with her lips. "Just remember to have mercy when you discover we're plotting to take over the world by means of ice cream infiltration."

Her words and deadpan delivery got her laughter and Saphira grinned in response. Then Esmeralda swatted her on the behind and shook her head. "Ice cream infiltration indeed. Maybe you should see if Ruby needs some help."

"Yes, dear," Saphira and Brianna chimed in sync, bursting into giggles as they crossed into the kitchen. Ruby just looked at them; Esmeralda shook her head and went to follow them when a knock sounded on the front door.

She frowned, but called out, "I've got it." Then she stepped to the door and looked out the peephole. "Oh boy," she muttered. "This could get interesting."



Chapter XXXIII

Charisma groaned as the early morning light from the partially open curtains landed squarely on her face. She wiped her eyes, blinking furiously at the burning sensation she felt coursing through them. She pulled a pillow on top of her head, hoping the world would pass her by for a little while so she could grab a little more sleep. Then she heard Adam stirring and groaned again. This time, however, she flung the pillow off her face and rolled to the edge of the bed, mumbling and cursing under her breath about her stupidity the night before. There wasn't one part of her not protesting, and most parts were doing so on a number of levels.

She shifted slowly, wincing as her body snapped and popped with every movement. When she was finally in an upright position, she twisted her back, realigning her spine bone by bone. Then she turned the other direction and the album caught her eye.

With a sigh, she pulled it towards her and let it fall open of its own volition. Not surprisingly, it fell naturally to the page she'd spent the better part of twenty years and a good portion of the prior evening simply staring at. Reverently, she slid the photograph from the book and gazed at it, gently tracing her fingers over it.

Charisma took a shuddering breath and blinked the tears from her eyes when she heard Adam's footsteps running down the hallway in the direction of her bedroom. Carefully, she eased the picture back into its protective plastic sleeve and closed the album... just in time to turn and catch her son as he leaped in her direction.

"Oof!" she gasped, though the sound was lost in Adam's laughter.

"MAMA!" he squealed, holding her face in his hands and pressing a sloppy kiss to her cheek. Charisma held Adam tightly and brushed a kiss over his hair.

"Good morning, Adam! How is mama's big boy today?"

"GOOD!" Adam confirmed as he leaned back lo look his mother in the eye. "Hungry," he added with an impish grin, knowing Charisma would return his smile.

"Oh, you are?" she queried, a smile turning up the corners of her lips even though she could still feel the tears burning in the back of her throat. "Well maybe we should see about getting breakfast then, hmm, little man?"

"PANCAKES!" Adam voted loudly and Charisma winced as he had determined to cast his vote right next to her ear. She had a passing thought to wonder why it was kids in general and her offspring particularly felt the need to shout to be heard. Putting it down to a desire to ensure they were heard, she shook her head and set Adam on his feet.

Before she could move to stand, Adam's attention was taken by the album still resting on the bed and he naturally gravitated towards it. Adam grabbed for it, but Charisma quickly moved it out of his reach. "No Adam," she commanded firmly. He looked at her and moved towards it again. "NO, Adam," she reiterated, her voice firm and her eyes sharp.

Adam's blue eyes watered and his bottom lip quivered. Charisma sighed. There was a reason she had a nanny, and right now she was wondering why Ame wasn't a live-in employee. She sat back on the bed, setting the book to one side of her body and lifting Adam up to sit on the other, groaning silently as her body protested her treatment of it. He cuddled into her and she hugged him gently.

"Adam?" she said softly. He looked up at her and stuck his finger in his mouth. Charisma just shook her head. She was fairly certain she could blame this on the 'Mother's Curse' her own mother had imparted to her numerous times during her childhood. "Honey, would you like to see Mama's pictures?"

Adam grinned and nodded his head vigorously. "YETH!" he lisped around the finger still embedded between his lips. Charisma shifted her hand around until she was able to gently grasp it and pull it from his mouth.

"If you're mama's big boy, you can't keep your finger in your mouth." She paused, but his eyes never left hers. "Okay?"

"KAY!" he answered loudly again and she winced again. She was going to have to talk to Ame about teaching Adam to use his inside voice. Otherwise, she was going to need a hearing aid before she had another birthday at this rate.

"A little softer please son... Mama's sitting right here and you only need to use your inside voice. I can hear you just fine, all right?" Adam nodded his head seriously. "All right then," tickling him and making him squeal. "Now, let's go fix some pancakes."

"Bring book?"

Charisma rolled her eyes out of sight. She'd been hoping he might forget about that little detail, but she nodded her head. "We'll bring the book, but we have to eat and clean up before we can look at it. These pictures are very important to Mama and I don't want anything to happen to them. So you're not allowed to touch them or look at them without me, okay?"

"Okay," Adam said agreeably, standing up and tugging on Charisma's hand until she did as well. Then with a smile, she scooped up her photo album, took Adam by the hand and together they headed for the kitchen to make breakfast.

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

It took a little longer than Charisma had anticipated - mostly because there had been a fight with the flour that she and Adam had sorely lost. So after eating, she wiped the sticky from Adam's hands and face and gave him a book to read while she tackled the disaster area that her kitchen had become. She just hoped it was clean enough that none of her staff would notice anything tomorrow. Because she knew that while most of her office staff was afraid enough of her that they minded their business, most of her home staff had been with her since she'd come to Washington. They wouldn't hesitate to speak up.

"It's my house," she grumbled to herself as she wiped the counters for the third time. "It shouldn't matter that I made a little mess," knowing there was no way she was going to explain the missing five pound bag of flour. "I'm a United States Senator for God's sakes!" wondering who exactly she was trying to convince. She shook her head and gave a wry smile. "Time to go clean up the people involved in this debacle," muttering to herself.

Charisma lifted Adam from his chair and he immediately wrapped his arms around her neck. "Mama?" his voice rising in question. "Book?" pointing at the album that had been carefully wiped clean and now sat resting on the kitchen counter.

"After we clean up, honey," she promised him. "We don't want to mess the pictures up," shaking her head and smiling when he gurgled in laughter as flour dusted down from her hair.

"You funny, Mama."

Charisma hiked an eyebrow at him. "Oh you think so?" shaking her head at him again.

"Yes!" he chortled with childish glee, shaking his own head at her in return.

"All right then, let's go get a shower. I think it will be the quickest and most effective." And with that, they headed upstairs and disappeared into the master bathroom.

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

When they came downstairs again, Charisma was happy to note that it was almost a decent hour of the morning and she felt a lot better having stood under a hot shower for a few minutes. Adam held her hand as the slowly made their way back to the kitchen, then waited for her to pick up the album. Without hesitation, she grabbed the book and moved down the hallway to her study.

Adam looked around carefully - he wasn't allowed in this room unless his mama was with him. He had his own corner for the very rare times he had to be here, but there were too many things in Charisma's home office that could get him and Charisma into trouble if Adam messed with them. So it was easier just to keep him out of this room most of the time.

But today was a little special, and Charisma felt better about sharing her pictures with Adam in the privacy of her study, even if they were the only ones home.

She took a seat on the small couch in the room and Adam scrambled up beside her. She placed the book on her lap, letting him stroke the soft leather cover. He looked up at her and smiled. "Soft," he proclaimed, stroking it again.

"Very soft," she agreed. "Would you like to see the pictures?"

"Yes," he said determinedly. She smiled and slowly opened the book. She had no idea they were no longer alone in the house.

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

When Kent had finished at the theatre the previous evening, he realized he had missed another call from Charisma. It troubled him though he was confident nothing was wrong with Adam - Charisma would have had no compunction about disrupting his show if something had been wrong with their son. Still, the fact that she had called him a second time in a week was enough to get his hackles up. The fact that he couldn't divine a legitimate reason for the contact made him more uneasy than he cared to admit.

Kent Rockwell had long ago figured out that he was a convenient prop for Charisma Tagherty. Not that he believed she didn't care about him - she did... he was fully convinced of that fact. But she didn't love him... she never had. He'd known that when they'd discussed marriage, but he was willing to overlook that one glaring flaw in what was otherwise a pretty perfect picture. After all, Charisma was beautiful, smart, powerful, wealthy in her own right and his mother adored her. Coupled with their compatibility and her desire for a child and his for an heir, it seemed like a perfect arrangement to agree to marriage when she'd proposed it.

Now, however, he wondered more and more frequently if they had both given up too much with far too little return. He wouldn't change anything if it meant losing Adam in the process - for despite their rocky start, father and son adored one another and Kent doted on his son at every given opportunity.

So with every nerve ending screaming in discord, he arranged for his understudy to be available over the next couple days and he headed home to see if he could figure out what the hell was going on.

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

Kent arrived home and given the earliness of the hour, crept into the dark kitchen with the intent of fixing himself a cup of coffee. Then he noticed the plates and a light dusting of flour in the sink and surmised that Charisma at least was already up for the day. He smiled grimly and bypassed the coffeemaker, only to be brought up short by the photo album that still sat on the countertop.

His curiosity got the better of him and he opened it? only to find himself staring into the face of his wife twenty years prior. He studied the photograph carefully, noting she looked happy. He realized as he gazed at it that he'd never seen that expression on her face since he'd known her.

Kent flipped through the pages slowly, recognizing this was a part of his wife he wasn't privy to, and never had been. He studied the woman who was Charisma's companion, thinking she looked familiar but unable to place her immediately.

He continued to look until he heard footsteps coming from the stairs. Without missing a beat, he closed the album and situated it on the counter just like he'd found it before disappearing into the mudroom. He waited until he heard Charisma and Adam moving away from him, then he made a move to follow them down the hall.

Kent carefully avoided the floorboards that squeaked as he approached Charisma's study, somewhat surprised that she had taken their son into her private room. As indulgent of a parent as she was, she was highly protective of the one private space she had. So Kent was intrigued that she brought Adam into her sanctuary with an album he'd never seen until today.

He stood out of sight, but close enough that he would be able hear Charisma's voice as she spoke to Adam. Then he waited.

Kent heard Adam speak. "Soft," the boy stated and Kent wondered what exactly Adam was describing. Then he heard Charisma's agreement.

"Very soft. Would you like to see the pictures?"

"Yes," came Adam's determined answer. The next sound Kent heard was the gentle creak of leather and the rustle of plastic pages when Charisma opened the book. He didn't need to be close to hear what happened next.

"BR'ANNA!" he yelled enthusiastically, grinning up at his mother as he pointed to the picture. Charisma put a gentle finger over Adam's lips.

"Remember your inside voice, please son," she admonished, biting her tongue when his smile fell.

"Mama," he proclaimed in a softer tone. "Br'anna. Br'anna good."

Charisma's smile was both pained and reflective. "Brianna's very good," she agreed. "She was Mama's best friend... a lifetime ago." Charisma shook her head and turned back to Adam. "Would you like to see the pictures with Mama and Brianna?"

Adam nodded vigorously and Charisma put her arm around him and snuggled him up next to her. Then picture by picture they started going through the album together.

Kent couldn't hear the words they exchanged now, but he really didn't need to. At least he finally knew why the woman in the pictures looked so familiar to him. Of course, that only gave him more questions to be answered - mainly, what had been between them and what had happened to keep them separated for twenty years. It occurred to him that Brianna's reemergence in Charisma's orbit might also go a long way towards explaining Charisma's recent behavior.

The sound of Charisma closing the album and sliding it carefully onto the table brought him out of his brown study and back to his immediate surroundings. Then he realized he could hear Adam and Charisma talking again and he returned his attention to their conversation.

"Mama?" Adam asked softly.

"Hmm?"

"I like Br'anna. Br'anna good."

There was silence for an eternal moment after that, then Charisma sighed. "Would you like to go see Brianna?" smiling when his whole countenance lit up. "She's visiting with Esmeralda and Saphira today and Esmeralda invited us over." She paused, grinning at his energetic nodding, though the smile never did quite reach her eyes. "Would you like to go visit?"

"YES!!" and she couldn't even chastise him for his loud enthusiasm. She had known, after all, what his answer would be before she'd even voiced the question. Charisma smiled and rose from her seat, watching Adam slide from the couch so quickly he ending up sitting on the floor. He stared at her, his expression a mixture of befuddlement and amusement. Charisma laughed and Adam joined her. Kent decided to take the opportunity to disappear.

Charisma put in a call to Turq, then the two of them walked back upstairs to find suitable clothing for their outing. It wasn't long before Charisma had herself and Adam bundled well in preparation for their venture into the cold outdoors. Then they went outside to wait, knowing Turq wouldn't be very much longer. Besides, Charisma wanted to give Adam the chance to expend a little of his somewhat frantic energy before they arrived at Esmeralda's and Saphira's.

So they were running around the front lawn when Turq pulled up. She exited the vehicle and stood waiting for them to trek over to her, keeping her smile to herself when Adam leaped into Charisma's arms and almost knocked her to the ground. She maintained her neutral façade - though she couldn't keep her eyes from twinkling - when Charisma drew nearer breathing heavily. Turq opened the door and Charisma put Adam on the ground so he could crawl in himself. She bent over at the waist for a moment, trying to catch her breath. Then she straightened and looked Turq in the eye.

"Not one word, Turq."

"No ma'am," Turq agreed without even the faintest hint of a smile gracing her lips. "I wouldn't dream of it." Charisma held her stance for another moment before allowing her own smile to split her face.

"I am getting too old for this," she muttered in an aside to Turq. "Dammit," she mumbled as she stuck her hand into her pocket and came up empty. "Can you watch Adam for a minute? I forgot to grab the address we need."

"Yes ma'am," Turq said with a nod. Charisma raced back up the stairs and into the house.

Kent had been watching her play with Adam from the living room window, and he ducked into the coat closet when Charisma ran up the stairs. Then he cursed - hoping beyond hope she wouldn't look in there. He had no desire to explain why he was hiding out in the coat closet of his own home... especially since he was supposed to be in the City.

Fortunately, Charisma bypassed the closet and went straight into her study, shuffling through the things on her desk for a moment before triumphantly proclaiming 'Aha!'. Kent heard her return footsteps and he waited for her to reset the alarm and close the door before he took a semi-deep breath. Then he strained to listen, hearing the limousine engine start and after another moment or two, head down the long driveway. Still it was another full minute before he ventured to stick his head out the door.

He stepped back into the foyer and shut the closet door softly, leaning his head on it and taking a deep breath. He had a lot to consider, and the first thing he wanted to do was get another look at that photo album. Then he could sit down and maybe figure out what it all meant.

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

Charisma handed the folded paper to Turq as she slid into the car and Turq closed the door behind her. Then she unfolded the slip, her eyes nearly bulging out of her head when she recognized the address. She climbed behind the driver's seat and turned to Charisma who had not raised the privacy screen.

"Is this correct, Senator? This part of town isn't really...."

"It's correct, Turq. It's Esmeralda's address. She invited Adam and me over to visit today. You can drop us off and then come back and pick us up later. I'm not going to ask you to wait there for us."

Turq nodded, wishing she had a way to let Esmeralda know what was coming down the pipeline, but unless Charisma chose to utilize the safety screen, there wasn't going to be an opportunity before they arrived at the house. So she drove through the relatively non-existent Sunday traffic, clenching the steering wheel until they arrived.

"Don't get out," Charisma instructed as she reached for the door handle. "Wait until I'm sure we're welcome - then you can have the day until I call you, all right?"

"Yes ma'am," Turq replied and waited for Charisma to wave her off as she and Adam entered the house. Turq had a feeling there were going to be some stories to tell tonight.



Chapter XXXIV

Esmeralda took a deep breath and opened the door to find the woman standing in front of her rapidly rubbing her hands together to stimulate some warmth. Esmeralda cocked an eyebrow and tilted her head slightly. "Mal, is there a good reason you're standing on the front porch in Washington without your gloves instead of in the City with Kent?" She paused and frowned. "And why did you knock anyway?"

Mal stuck her hands under her armpits and jerked her head towards the door. "Can I come in? I didn't realize it was going to be so cold here or I'd have made sure my gloves were in my coat pockets before we left the City." Esmeralda opened the door wider and gestured Mal into the house. "As for why I knocked, I wasn't sure what was going on today. I thought I saw a limousine leaving the neighborhood and I didn't want to chance barging in on something. At least knocking means I can be a friend who stopped by to check on you."

Esmeralda nodded. "Good thinking, Mal. But it still doesn't explain why you're here instead of the City with Kent. Do you have the information we need?" reaching out to help Mal remove her coat.

"I dunno," Mal shrugged. "I'll tell you what I know and you can make that decision."

"Okay," Esmeralda agreed. "Go into the bedroom and wait for me. I need to let Saphira know you're here and then I'll join you and you can tell me what's going on."

Mal nodded and slipped into the hall. Esmeralda hung up Mal's coat in the closet, then stuck her head into the kitchen. She watched unnoticed for a moment. She didn't know what the joke was, but it was heartwarming to see old friends and new bonding so well. After a moment, she shifted just slightly, knowing that any movement on her part would garner Saphira's attention.

"Es?" she invited, holding out a hand. "Who was at the door?"

"It was Mal," watching two sets of brows hike into hairlines. She arched her own brow. "She came to see how I was doing, but she forgot her gloves and can hardly move her fingers. So I'm gonna go help her warm her hands slowly and then I'll bring her in."

"Go," Saphira commanded. "Ruby and I can entertain Brianna for a few more minutes."

"She's right," Ruby agreed. "We have lots more diner stories to share." Esmeralda saw Brianna nodding her agreement and smiled.

"All right. We'll be out in a few minutes," she said with a slight wave as she disappeared around the corner of the kitchen. It was quiet long enough for them to hear a door down the hall close softly, then they returned to their conversation.

Esmeralda looked around the bedroom and realized that Mal had already moved into the bathroom and was running cold water over her hands. She nodded approvingly. "Good girl. I told them I was going to help you get your hands warmed up. Now talk to me - what's going on?"

Mal sighed. "Do you know what's been going on between Kent and Charisma... with the phone calls and everything?" waiting for Esmeralda to nod. "When he realized she'd called him again - and in the middle of a show, no less - he made arrangements to leave the City for a couple days to come back to Washington and find out exactly what was going on. Unfortunately, by the time he decided to do this, it was very, very late last night. And I didn't want to leave him unwatched until I was sure he got home safely."

"I can understand that, Mal. So you're here now because...?"

"When he arrived home, I found Jade keeping watch over Charisma and Adam. She agreed to keep an eye on Kent so I could come over and give you the lowdown on what was going on." Mal winced when Esmeralda made the water lukewarm, sucking in a breath and then relaxing again under Esmeralda's tender ministrations. "You could have been a nurse, Es."

"No thank you," Esmeralda declined firmly with a shudder. "I don't like the sight of blood."

Mal bit her lip, knowing she had wandered into a hornet's nest with her comment. "Sorry, Es," she whispered.

Esmeralda leaned forward and brushed a kiss over Mal's forehead. "No harm, no foul, my friend," offering her forgiveness in the touch. "Now what can you tell me about what else is going on up there? Does he have a lover or significant other? Or are his interests purely business related?"

"From everything I've seen and been able to find out, his interests are legitimate. He has his theatre gigs and he has that restaurant/bar combo that he's invested in. He goes into the theatre around four-thirty or five every afternoon, and he's there until the show is over. Then he goes over to the restaurant for an hour or two - has a meal, talks to his partner...."

"Tell me about the partner."

Mal studied the running water thoughtfully, almost smiling this time when Esmeralda turned up the temperature on the water. "I can't believe I was stupid enough to forget my gloves," she mumbled. "I know better."

"Yeah, but it's easy to forget when you're not in the habit of needing them," Esmeralda commented lightly, knowing Mal wasn't ignoring the question as much as she was trying to determine what to say.

"Kent's partner is a couple - a man and wife he went to school with. As far as I can tell, they have been friends for almost twenty years." She paused and Esmeralda waited silently. "From what I have been able to gather...." Here Mal broke off and looked directly into Esmeralda's green eyes. "You know, this would all be a lot easier if we had access to the heavenly files."

"I know," Esmeralda agreed softly. "But I can't ask for that, Mal."

Mal heaved a deep breath. "I know," she grumbled. "But it would've made things easier. However," she continued without pause, "from what I've be able to put together, Kent and the male - whose name is Doug, by the way - were roommates in college and had talked about this whole business idea off and on during that time. Doug and Carolyn met in his junior year - she was a freshman. He went into the Army after college and she stayed to finish her degree, but they eventually got married. Kent was Doug's best man, but after the wedding they drifted apart."

"Like Charisma and Brianna?"

"Oh no... not at all. They still wrote once in a while - Christmas cards, newsletters - or made the occasional phone call, but life kind of got in the way of their friendship. Doug was overseas as well as being newly married and Kent was trying to establish himself in the theatre world."

"Okay, so then what?"

"After Doug's stint, he was tapped for a teaching position at NYU where he is still a professor. Carolyn is a nurse manager at NYU Medical Center. And when Kent was working on some production or other, they stumbled across one another again... literally. They got to talking and one thing led to another and they decided to try and make that college dream come true."

"How long did it take... before they made the dream come true?"

Mal paused thoughtfully when Esmeralda turned off the water and passed her a towel. "A little while, but I can't say for certain how long it took. I know that Kent and Charisma used it for their reception, but I don't know if she knows why."

"You don't think Charisma is aware of this part of Kent's life?"

Mal shook her head. "Would she need to be?"

Esmeralda's focus went inward for a long moment before she looked at Mal again. "Given what I know of the two of them, I'd be surprised if she is actually aware of this venture. The only thing they seem to have in common is their son." She paused. "Does Kent talk to both Doug and Carolyn or just Doug?"

"Mostly just Doug. Even though Carolyn is a nurse manager, a majority of her time is still wrapped up in the hospital. Doug, on the other hand, can put the hours into the business now that he's tenured."

"What do they talk about?"

Mal scrunched up her brows in confusion. "I'm not sure I understand the question."

Now Esmeralda furrowed her own eyebrow. "What's not to understand, Mal? What do Kent and Doug talk about when they sit down together?"

"Um... the business, mostly. What's going right, what needs work... sometimes they throw menu ideas back and forth to each other." She turned a little green. "I'm glad they have a trained chef," her wry comment and screwed-up facial expression causing laughter to bubble up in Esmeralda's chest. Mal chuckled sympathetically. "Once in a while they talk about their kids or sports."

"But not their wives?"

Mal shrugged. "Doug does... especially if Carolyn hasn't been there for a while. Kent tends to be noncommittal and changes the subject pretty quickly."

Esmeralda remained thoughtful for another moment, then motioned to Mal. "C'mon... we still have company, and I'm gonna need time and space to process this."

"You want me to stay?"

"Unless Jade notifies you that Kent is suddenly leaving, yeah." And together they exited the bedroom and headed back down the hall towards the kitchen.

The sound of hilarity and the scent of meat cooking hastened their steps and three sets of eyes turned to greet them as they reached the threshold. Esmeralda tugged Mal by the elbow until they were standing side by side.

"Mal, you remember my mate Saphira," introducing her as though she was a friend as she was purported to be and not part of the household. Saphira offered her hand, though her eyes twinkled in mischief. Mal accepted it and shook it briefly, then waited for Ruby's introduction and did the same. When Esmeralda reached Brianna, however, Brianna held up her hands.

"Are yours all right now?" flexing her fingers to show Mal what she meant. Mal blushed and nodded.

"Yeah, thanks. I forgot how cold it can get here and just walked off without my gloves."

"Bet that doesn't happen again," Brianna teased.

"No bet," Mal muttered. "Pretty sure I've forgotten them before and I'm guessing it wouldn't take much for me to do it again. Not enough working brain cells, you know."

Brianna laughed. "I feel like that some days. So what do you do, if you don't mind my asking?"

Mal didn't miss a beat. "Surveillance," she replied candidly. "It's dirty work, but it pays the bills."

Brianna snorted. "I feel the same about politics," she confessed, garnering her laughter from around the kitchen.

"What about the law?" Saphira inquired. "Do you ever feel that way about the law?"

Brianna scratched the back of her neck and frowned. "Sometimes," she answered. "Like when I know we're going to lose a case because the evidence isn't there, even if we know the person being tried is as guilty as sin."

"Does that happen a lot?" Ruby asked from her spot at the counter. Brianna shrugged.

"Not as often as you'd think, but more often than I'd like to admit." She turned and looked at Esmeralda. "Are you sure there isn't something I can do to help? Despite the nature of my current job, I promise I really am quite proficient in the kitchen.

Esmeralda was standing beside Ruby, currently helping prepare lunch when Brianna voiced her question. She turned and smiled. "It's not a matter of proficiency, Brianna - it's a matter of logistics." She motioned around her. "There's really not room but for one or two of us to be doing anything constructive like making a meal."

"But you're still recovering...." with concerned eyes.

"I know, but trust me... you don't want Saphira to cook. I love her dearly, but there's a reason she waits tables at the diner, and it's not because she's overly fond of screaming kids," she said tenderly. Then Esmeralda laughed, forcing Brianna to turn and catch Saphira crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue at the sentiment. "Besides," she added a moment later, "you *provided* lunch. Least we can do is prepare it."

Brianna held up her hands in surrender. "All right," she conceded. "I'll just sit here and look pretty," making the same face the Saphira had.

Esmeralda shook her head at the three women sitting at the table currently trying to outdo one another making ridiculous faces. She crossed to the cabinet that held the dishes, but before she could grab a stack of plates, Mal jumped up and slapped at a pocket of her pants. The rest just looked at her in astonishment.

"Stupid phone," she muttered for Brianna's benefit, knowing full well the others would understand. "Sorry," she said to Brianna. "I always forget about it til it vibrates. And unfortunately, it means I have to go back to work now." She extended her hand to Brianna. "It was nice to meet you." She turned and looked at Ruby. "And you as well, ma'am," knowing that would get her butt kicked later. Mal turned to Saphira who had risen to stand beside Esmeralda. "It was good to see you both again. Es, I'm glad you're doing better."

"Let me walk you to the door," Saphira offered. "You're gonna need some gloves if you're going back out into this weather, and I think I've got an old pair in the hall closet you can take with you."

"I'd appreciate that, Saphira - thanks."

Mal waved once more and then followed Saphira to the foyer. Esmeralda grabbed the plates and put them on the table in front of Brianna. "Now you can help if you wanna," Esmeralda offered. "The table needs to be set," putting the silverware and napkins with the plates.

"I can do that," Brianna said enthusiastically. "And can I just say how glad I am not to have to worry about the number of forks?"

Ruby laughed. "I never quite got that myself."

Meanwhile, Saphira had opened the hall closet and extricated Mal's coat. Mal slipped into it and began fastening it up when Saphira dug around for gloves. With her head still in the closet, she spoke quietly over her shoulder. "You wanna tell me that was all about? Because you know and I know and Es and Ruby both know it wasn't a cell phone buzzing that made you jump like that."

"It was me," Jade spoke. "I stepped into the hall where she could see me."

Saphira frowned. "What are you doing here?" she hissed. "You're supposed to be watching Charisma."

"I'm aware," Jade agreed drolly. "However, Charisma is getting ready to leave her house - I heard her put in a call to Turq. So I figured I'd better let Mal know she needed to get back to keep an eye on Kent."

Saphira rubbed her forehead and blew out an impatient breath before she met Mal's eyes. "I'm gonna take a real leap here and assume Es can explain all this to me later... when we don't have company?"

"Yep."

"All right. Go then... both of you. And be careful."

Jade and Mal both nodded and shimmered out of sight. Saphira took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then turned her footsteps back towards the kitchen. Hopefully this would start to make sense soon. She was getting a headache.

Brianna had the table nearly set when Saphira crossed back into the kitchen and Ruby was beginning to put the food on the table. "Everything all right?" Esmeralda asked, noting that Saphira was rubbing her forehead.

"Yeah. It just took me longer to find those gloves than I expected. You want me to refill the drinks?"

"Would you mind?" watching as Brianna and Ruby took their seats.

"Not at all," Saphira agreed, pulling out Esmeralda's chair. "Why don't you...?" A knock at the front door stopped her words with a sigh. Saphira's chin dropped to her chest and she looked out at Esmeralda from beneath thick bangs and lashes. Esmeralda just smiled and patted her forearm.

"You finish fixing the drinks - I'll be right back."

"You two seem pretty popular today," Esmeralda heard Ruby comment before she moved out of hearing. Then she stepped up to the door once more and looked through the peephole again. "Oh boy," she muttered, feeling a distinct sense of déjà vu. "This day just keeps getting better and better."



Chapter XXXV

Esmeralda took a deep breath and opened the door, smiling brightly at Charisma and Adam who waited her reaction nervously... or in Adam's case, with great anticipation. She opened her arms when Adam grabbed for her, glad for swift reflexes. Charisma lunged after him, keeping her arms around his middle even as his arms wound around Esmeralda's neck. Esmeralda held Adam tightly with one arm while she steadied Charisma with her other. Then she smiled.

"Hello, Charisma. Welcome to our home," opening her arms and briefly embracing them both.

Charisma chuckled as she pulled back from the hug, her face flushed pink. "Thank you, Esmeralda. It wasn't quite the impression I hoped to make - I hope you don't mind us taking you up on your invitation and just dropping by."

"Of course not, Charisma - it was an open invitation. We're very glad you're here." She glanced at Adam. "Why don't you let me take him and we can move indoors where it's warmer?"

"Oh God... I'm sorry, Es," suddenly noting Esmeralda's lack of cold weather clothing and detecting her slight shivers. She released her hold on Adam and turned to wave Turq off before she crossed the threshold and closed the door behind her. Esmeralda had already put Adam down and had knelt to help him remove his coat. When she stood, Esmeralda extended her hand to Charisma, taking her coat and motioning towards the kitchen as she turned to put both coats in the closet. She idly noted that Adam took Charisma's hand, but neither of them seemed inclined to move.

When she had the outerwear taken care of, she extended her hand to Charisma. It took a minute, but finally Charisma put her slightly shaky hand into Esmeralda's, then they made their way down the short hall that led to the kitchen.

Saphira had long since stuck her head out the kitchen door to try and discover what was delaying Esmeralda. When she got a glimpse at the reason, she simply grabbed two more place settings and put them on the table.

Ruby and Brianna looked their question at her and Saphira shrugged. "Pretty sure we're fixing to have a couple more join us for lunch."

Then Esmeralda entered the kitchen with Charisma and Adam following. It could have been awkward, except Adam caught sight of Brianna and pulled his hand free of his mother's. Then he ran around the table and jumped into her lap without hesitation.

"BR'ANNA!" shouted as he threw his arms around her neck. Brianna had long enough to be thankful for fast reflexes before she had to wince at the volume screamed directly in her ear. Still, she wrapped him in a tight hug when he squeezed and gave her a sloppy kiss. Then she released him and waited to see what he would do... and more to the point, what his mother's reaction would be.

Adam leaned back slightly... just enough to allow his arms to release their hold so he could cup her face in his hands. He stared at her for long moments, moving close enough to touch their noses together, then tilt his head back with a laugh. Adam repeated this several times, laughing louder when Brianna crossed her eyes to keep him in view without moving her head.

Finally, he hugged her around the neck again, then patted her face with tender hands. "Br'anna good," he proclaimed and snuggled down into her lap. Brianna kissed his forehead and lifted her eyes to take in the rest of the room.

Meanwhile, Charisma started when Adam jerked his hand free of hers, then she watched his interaction with the woman who had once meant more to her than anyone else in the world. Charisma took a deep, shaky breath and wrenched her eyes away from Adam and Brianna when he bumped their noses together and then laughed. That was something that had always been theirs - something they hadn't shared with anyone else... even Kent - and now he was making Brianna part of their ritual.

Charisma turned at the light touch on her back, tilting her head just slightly to look into Saphira's blue eyes. When Saphira opened her arms wide, Charisma gave an almost audible sigh of relief and stepped into the hug she needed. Esmeralda released her hand and Charisma embraced Saphira fully for a long moment. Then she withdrew and turned to Ruby, hand extended.

"Hi. I'm Charisma Tagherty. And the wild man across the table is supposed to be my son Adam, though I don't actually recognize him at the moment. He's usually much more reserved."

Ruby laughed and accepted Charisma's hand. "I'm Ruby. And I wouldn't worry about it - he's just being a kid."

"I guess," Charisma agreed hesitantly. "It's just so different from what I'm used to." She paused, unable to find a good way to phrase her question, but wanting to know. "So how do you know Esmeralda and Saphira?"

Ruby laughed, her good humor coming to the fore. "I've known Es and Saphira forever, it seems like. I came in to help out while Es is recovering."

"Good," Charisma said firmly. "I'm glad."

Ruby patted the hand resting on her arm. "Me too, Charisma."

"You too, what?" Esmeralda asked and Charisma realized the rest of the room had gone silent waiting for Ruby's answer. She felt Brianna's eyes on her and she turned to meet them, wondering at the emotions she could see swirling in their depths. So she nearly jumped when Ruby spoke unexpectedly.

"I'm glad I'm here, Es. Aside from being able to help you and Saphira out, I'm enjoying being here. Meeting your friends is a bonus because they are interesting people."

Charisma smirked at Brianna. "At least we are considered interesting."

Brianna held her gaze steadily. "I was happier to be considered a friend."

Charisma bit her lip and looked away from Brianna. "Maybe this was a bad idea," she mumbled, turning to look at Esmeralda. But before she could say anything else, Esmeralda cut in.

"No, Charisma - it wasn't. C'mon... let's sit down and eat before all the hard work Ruby did with the food Brianna provided goes to waste. Besides," she continued without giving Charisma an opportunity to object, "I want Saphira to meet Adam. I have a feeling they will get on splendidly."

Charisma wanted to balk at Esmeralda's suggestion, but one look at the contentment on her son's face made her acquiesce with grace. She nodded her agreement to Esmeralda and was soon seated between her and Ruby. She met Brianna's eyes, watching her thoughtfully.

"Would you like me to take him?" she offered softly while motioning to Adam. "It can get quite difficult trying to eat and feed him."

Brianna's lips barely quirked, but Charisma recognized the gesture as swiftly hidden mirth. She took a deep breath to release the flash of anger she felt at being laughed at, then cocked her head in question. Brianna read her expression perfectly.

"I'm not laughing at you, Charisma. I've dealt with far worse than Adam in my life." She paused. "Lawyer, remember?" Brianna leaned forward and whispered in Adam's ear. He clambered over Brianna's lap and into the chair next to her, waiting for her to tuck his napkin into his collar before reaching for his plate. Esmeralda stopped him with a hand on his.

"We need to say grace first, Adam." His eyes widened, but he didn't move. Everyone else bowed their heads. "For that which we are about to receive, the Lord has made us most truly thankful. Amen."

"Amen," the rest murmured. Adam looked around and nodded.

"AMEN!" he declared, drawing chuckles from around the table. He smiled, well-pleased with the reaction he had garnered, then turned his attention to Esmeralda. "Eat now?" he asked.

"Eat now," she assured him with a smile. "What would you like?"

Adam climbed up on his knees so he could see the table better. Brianna naturally placed a hand on his back and held on even as she continued to serve herself from the food being passed around the table. Charisma chanced to wonder where she'd learned her behavior, because Charisma distinctly remembered her own steep learning curve.

Once Esmeralda had taken care of filling Adam's plate, she sat down in her seat, only to find that Saphira had taken care of preparing hers. She smiled at her mate. "Thank you, love."

Saphira pointed a finger at her. "Just make sure you eat."

Esmeralda stuck out her tongue, and then found it caught by chubby, mashed potatoed hands. "MINE!" Adam chortled. The laughter that followed that pronouncement was loud and long. It took a few minutes before they were able to settle down without bursting into another wild gale of laughter by simply looking at each other. Esmeralda reclaimed her tongue from Adam's grasp and wiped his hand clean. He grinned.

"Es good," he stated confidently.

"Well," Esmeralda agreed without missing a beat. "Es is something all right."

Unexpectedly, Brianna turned to Charisma. "You mentioned the other day that Adam was in school," waiting for Charisma to nod. "He seems a little young for that," she commented, hoping Charisma wouldn't perceive it to be an accusation but an interested inquiry instead.

"He is, a little - at least for regular school. It is more than daycare and less than school. But the people who oversee the kids are certified teachers, so we call it school. He enjoys it and he's learning a lot - he'll be more than ready for school when it's time for him to go off to kindergarten."

"Is that a good thing?" Ruby asked, eyes widening when Charisma turned burning blue eyes in her direction. "Wait - I don't mean the being ready for kindergarten part. I think all children should know their letters and numbers and colors - you know... the basic stuff. But is it really fair to a child to make them start learning math and science and reading when they're so young? Is it so wrong to let them simply be kids?"

"I don't think it's wrong," Charisma replied softly. "I just think it's impossible."

"I don't understand," Saphira stated. "If it's not wrong for a kid to be a kid, why is it impossible?"

Charisma sighed. Though she'd had no clear course of action in mind when she'd decided to try this today, she certainly had never expected Adam to be the main topic of conversation. On the other hand, his presence had managed to break the ice in more ways than one. And in fairness, she understood that it was curiosity and not condemnation that drove the current line of questioning.

But before she could speak, Brianna presented a response. "From my observations, it's impossible because society had declared it to be. These days, your kid has to be faster, better, brighter and as a parent, you're required to do whatever you have to in order to have your child seen as such. No one wants an average child - everyone wants them to be exceptional."

"Well that seems somewhat unrealistic," Ruby commented with a frown. "If there's no average, how can you tell who's exceptional?"

"It's assumed," Charisma's disdain could be clearly heard in her tone, "that breeding will eventually out and their natural genius will assert itself as the child grows into school. But it's an accepted fact that without an early start, a child will never blossom into brilliance."

Ruby snorted. "That has got to be the stupidest idea I have ever heard."

"It is, really," Charisma agreed. "But it is also the way of things."

"And it didn't occur to you to try and change it?" Brianna asked, a hint of challenge in her tone. Charisma gave her a sharp look, then took a deep breath to keep from replying in the same manner.

"If I had been able to figure out a way without messing up his chances down the road perhaps." She looked around at the table. "It's not as bad as it sounds - the school Adam is in isn't so strictly structured that he isn't allowed to be a child at all during the day. It's one of the reasons Kent and I decided to send him there as opposed to any number of schools for young children that function strictly to teach. And it allows him time to play and be with children his own age."

"He doesn't get that interaction any other way?" Esmeralda asked, even though she knew the answer.

"Not as often as I'd like," Charisma replied while watching Adam eat. "My family... my parents and brothers... all live in the same part of my home state. And since they're there and we're here...."

"That must be hard," Brianna said softly. Charisma cut her eyes over and raised a brow in question. Brianna just shrugged. "I just remember going to visit and the fun we had. If I miss it, having had it for only the four years we were in college together, I can't imagine how you must feel."

This time Charisma turned and met Brianna's eyes with her own, and she held them for the longest time, searching. Brianna never flinched or backed away and finally Charisma dialed down the intensity of her gaze. She shrugged.

"It is hard sometimes," looking around at the rest of the table. "Are any of you from a large family?" watching Esmeralda, Saphira and Ruby all nod. Charisma chuckled. "Then you'll understand what I mean." She turned back to Brianna. "I do miss it... and them, but at the same time, sometimes I'm glad to be far enough away that they can't just stop by on a whim," seeing Brianna's eyebrow go up in query. "C'mon, Bri... don't you remember the times we had to duck out on the boys to keep them from driving us crazy?"

Before Brianna recovered from her surprise at the familiarity of Charisma's address, Adam decided it was time for his presence to be acknowledged again.

"Mama!!" grinning through the food that covered his face. Every head swiveled in his direction and Saphira laughed out loud at the sight.

"My word, boy - are you somewhere under all of that?" Adam laughed and made as if to jump down from his chair, only to find himself caught and held by Brianna's hand. "Br'anna!!" he complained, twisting to see if he could find what was holding him in place. Before he could complain any more, Charisma and Saphira both stood.

"If you could just point me to the bathroom...." walking around the table intending to remove him from the chair. She idly noted that Brianna's grip didn't loosen despite Adam's best efforts. Saphira reached for him and he lunged when Brianna let go of him at Saphira's nod.

"If you'll trust me, I'll clean him up."

"Are you sure?" Charisma asked. "He can be a handful."

"More than Es is?" blue eyes twinkling. And though she knew what Saphira was doing, Esmeralda couldn't let the remark pass unchallenged.

"I know where you live, warrior, and you have to sleep sometime," seeing Saphira's eyes widen in response. "Don't think I don't know this is just a ploy to get you out of dish duty."

Saphira tried to protest, but could only sputter incoherently as laughter rippled around the table. Even Adam, who had no idea what the joke was, laughed uproariously. When things calmed marginally, Charisma held up her hand.

"If you really want to try and clean him up, I have another outfit in his bag in the closet." She looked around the table at the rest of the women. "Lesson learned the hard way. It might be easier than trying to get all the food out of what he's wearing now."

Saphira nodded. "That'd be fine, Charisma." She looked at Adam. "C'mon, buddy - what say you and I go get clean and then we can go play."

Adam threw his arms around her neck. "Go, Horsie!!" he cheered, causing more laughter. Saphira took it in stride and galloped off towards the bathroom. An awkward silence settled in the room, and Esmeralda felt compelled to break it.

"Well, since our chief bottle washer has managed to skip out on her duty for the moment, I'm thinking maybe we should adjourn back to the living room and leave this for later," glancing around at the untidy kitchen. Brianna and Charisma traded looks and then shook their heads in tandem.

"Mama would kill us," Brianna murmured. Charisma nodded her agreement.

"No kidding - and she can find us," smiling when Brianna snorted. Esmeralda crossed her arms and tilted her head in question.

"What are you two muttering about?"

"You remember the mama thing we were talking about earlier?" waiting for Esmeralda to nod her head. "If we leave the kitchen looking like this, *her* mama will find us and do something drastic to all of us. And she CAN find us, you know."

"How would she know?" Ruby asked. "It's not like she's here and none of us are going to tell her."

Brianna and Charisma both snorted. "You don't know my mama," Charisma volunteered after a moment's hesitation and Brianna nodded her agreement vigorously. Ruby and Esmeralda exchanged looks, then shrugged.

"All right," Esmeralda relented. "Um...." But Brianna broke in before she could even finish her thought.

"Es, if Ruby wants to put the leftovers away, I can wash while you dry and put the dishes away."

"What about me?" Charisma demanded.

"I thought you needed to get Adam's clean clothes to Saphira."

Charisma rolled her eyes. "It won't take *that* long. I'll be back before you get started."

Brianna bit her lip. It wasn't supposed to be this hard... or this awkward. Then Esmeralda's voice cut in. "Charisma, if you'd like to dry, I can put the dishes away." Charisma nodded and Brianna sighed in relief.

"I'll be right back," Charisma said before leaving the room. No one saw her lean against the wall for a moment, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath before she headed down the hall towards the coat closet.

"You okay?" Esmeralda asked Brianna when she saw her grab onto the back of a chair and close her eyes. Green met green and slowly Brianna nodded.

"Yeah," she said softly. "I didn't realize...." she started, then stopped speaking. Instead of encouraging her to continue, Esmeralda simply squeezed her arm lightly in understanding. Then she turned to find Ruby emptying out the refrigerator and threw up her hands in exasperation.

"RUBY!!"

Ruby turned around and looked abashed at being caught, but didn't stop what she was doing. Brianna looked between Ruby and Esmeralda and then settled her gaze on Esmeralda.

"Should I even ask?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "C'mon and let's get started, and I'll explain it."



Chapter XXXVI

Kent made his way down the hallway to Charisma's study. He felt a little weird going into her sanctuary without an invitation. After all, it wasn't like he had any business in that room except to snoop. But his curiosity had been raised by what he'd witnessed earlier and he knew himself well enough to know he'd find no peace until he got an answer to some of the questions he suddenly had about a great many things.

He realized that the door was unlocked - something unheard of when he was home and he wondered if it was locked against him specifically or if she hadn't bothered because Adam was with her and there was no possibility of the child getting into places he wasn't allowed.

Kent figured that was most likely the reason, but it still served to niggle at the back of his mind nonetheless. Then he pushed the door opened and crossed into Charisma's private study.

He took a good, hard look around the room he seldom entered more than simply to bid Charisma goodnight. So he took the opportunity to really check out the one place in their house that represented Charisma Tagherty more than any other.

The desk was neat... clean - a large monitor taking up one side of the desk and a custom made set of mini-shelves that held the different documents she was reviewing on the other. In the center was a blotter, but it was free and clear of any writing - not even the hint of a doodle on it. Between the monitor and the shelving was a single picture of Adam in a silver frame.

His glance moved on, noting the eclectic art that hung on the walls - pieces she'd had since before they had met. Kent wondered at their significance, but since he didn't recognize them, he figured they might have been the work of a starving artist she'd stumbled on when she'd traveled to Europe after college. He didn't know much about that trip... only that she'd gone and spent three months touring around before returning to Washington to begin her political career immediately.

He continued his visual tour, recognizing the painting over the fireplace as the one he'd given her on their wedding day. He thought back on that with a wry twist to his lips. Would he, knowing what he knew now, still have married her? He liked Charisma... loved her even, and he admired many things about her. But aside from the son that they shared, did they have anything in common anymore?

Kent moved over to the sofa and dropped onto the cushions, sighing in soundless relief as his body automatically relaxed into its decadent softness. He hadn't realized he was strung so tightly. He let his eyes travel around the room again, grateful for the soft muted colors that allowed him to unwind a little more. There wasn't much else remarkable about in the room - a few file cabinets that had been crafted to fit the décor and the furniture.

The furniture was plush, but sturdy - a change from the formality that had previously occupied this room. Now the furniture could be considered rough and tumble - stuff that was comfortable for any guests Charisma needed to entertain here and yet sturdy enough to survive hard use by a young boy. Only the coffee table that was placed between the long sofa where he was currently ensconced and the two chairs that sat opposite him didn't fall into that category.

That, he remembered clearly, had been his mother's gift to his wife. It was a family heirloom and befitting a United States Senator. Charisma had been thrilled to accept it and had immediately made it part of her home office. It was quite the talking point, and many of her colleagues had commented on its history at one time or another.

Now, though, the only thing he could find interesting about it was the leather covered photo album he'd glimpsed at very briefly earlier. This time, however, he wasn't quite as anxious to open it and delve into its secrets. In the back of his mind Kent knew that unwrapping this particular mystery would probably change his life. There had to be a reason Charisma kept this locked away from the light of day. He wondered if it tied in to her recent sadness and decided it most likely did.

With a sigh, he leaned forward and reached for the book, hesitating only briefly before scooping it up in his hand. He caressed the cover just like his son had, noting that it was very soft and very smooth - a testament to the age of the album at least. Then he opened it once more.

The images were definitely his wife taken at least twenty years prior. Aside from the look of the photographs themselves, he knew when she had graduated from college - the diplomas she displayed in this office as well as on Capitol Hill prominently stated it. And the very first picture in this album was of her and another young woman who he now knew to be Senator Brianna Walker on what must have been their graduation day.

Kent studied the picture carefully, wondering again what had happened between the two women to keep them apart for so long. They were posing for the camera - arms wrapped around each other and cheeks pressed together as they held up their diplomas and laughed with delight in their accomplishment. The next few pictures were similar, though Charisma's family and what he supposed were Brianna's parents joined them in different groupings.

He tilted his head in thought and let his gaze go inward for a few minutes. Then he carefully set the album aside and rose, making his way to the other side of the house and the family room. This was the most comfortable room in the house, in his opinion. It was the one spot that looked lived in - with the magazines and TV Guide, the entertainment center with the gaming consoles and the shelves of DVDs. It also held the largest assortment of family photos... the kind snapped on outings together and not done in a professional studio.

Kent took a moment to look around at them. Many of them were taken at the various family functions they had attended at Okasa's and Patrick's home. In those, there was always a variation of who got grouped together, and he smiled when he realized just how often his mother was included as well. Okasa had made it a point to adopt them both into the family when he and Charisma had gotten married and he hadn't even noticed it consciously until right then.

Still, as much as that made him smile, it wasn't the reason he'd come in here looking, and he took his time studying each and every single picture. He remembered when he'd initially met Charisma's brothers - they had been cool and less than welcoming and he'd put it down to the natural protectiveness of older brothers towards a baby sister... even when that sister was long since grown up and a US Senator besides. Now he wondered.

The pictures didn't reveal anything, really - other than the fact that Charisma never smiled in them like she was smiling in her album. After a few more minutes, Kent shook his head and went back to Charisma's office.

He picked up the book again and moved past the graduation pictures and onto... He squinted his eyes trying to look harder. Then he flipped through a few pages to confirm his guess - this was the extended European trip Charisma had taken after college.

The first picture was them waving goodbye at the airport and Kent could only assume Okasa or Patrick had snapped it for them. And from there the photos told their own story of two college girls touring their way across Europe.

Some of the pictures made Kent smile or laugh out loud. Some of them brought a tear to his eye. But all of them were bringing him to the realization that Brianna Walker meant far more to his wife than he ever had. Then he found the picture of them in front of the Trevi Fountain.

He paused for a long moment and simply stared. Charisma and Brianna were standing with Trevi Fountain lit behind them in the darkness. Their foreheads were leaned together and their eyes were closed - if he didn't know any better, he'd have sworn they had just kissed one another senseless. The shot was just that intimate. However, the very next picture had them wrapped up in the same hug he'd seen in their graduation pictures with the same crazy, giddy smiles on their faces.

Kent was tempted to close the book then. He'd found what he needed to know and really didn't want further confirmation. Still, he was only a few pages from the end and figured he'd never get a better chance. So he slowly turned through the last few photographs the album held.

There was nothing remarkable - nothing that stood out like Trevi did... until the last picture. The very last photo in the album was a picture of Brianna alone. They were obviously in an airport and Brianna was waving to the camera. But it wasn't the waving or the airport background that caught his attention. It was instead the sad smile on her face and the hint of tears in her eyes.

Kent stared at that photograph for a very long time. Then his stomach growled, reminding him that not only had he missed his dinner after the theatre the previous night, but that he never had managed to get his coffee fixed that morning. A glance at his watch showed him it was well past a normal lunch hour too. He glanced back to the book he held once more, then carefully closed it and put it back on the coffee table where he'd found it.

He rose and stretched, wincing when he heard his bones popping back into place. Then he turned and walked out of Charisma's study, closing the door behind him without ever looking back.

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

Okasa looked at the box of unopened letters she held and bit her lip to hold in the sigh she wanted to release. The letters were separated by year and tied with ribbon and still she'd had to invest in a mid-sized Rubbermaid container several years before. Now she stared down at the box with a pensive expression on her face. She had been so sure sending them to Charisma would solve everything.

"Second thoughts, me love?" Paddy drawled as he wrapped his arms around her from behind. She leaned into him and tilted her face up to him so gauge his seriousness. When she recognized the genuine concern in his expression, she nodded slowly.

"I think we should send them, Paddy - I really do. Charisma has a right to know how Brianna feels... how she's always felt."

"But...?"

"But I'm not sure it's right to betray Brianna's trust this way. If it backfires - if Charisma will not accept Brianna's feelings for her... even if only to herself - Brianna will see it as a betrayal... my betrayal. And I couldn't live with driving her out of our lives like that. The boys would never forgive me."

"Then why take the risk, Okasa?" Patrick asked playing devil's advocate. "Surely they can figure it out on their own."

Okasa snorted and turned in his arms. "Oh no you didn't. Please tell me you didn't just say that." She huffed at him. "Patrick Tagherty - those two young women have had twenty years to figure things out on their own and they've refused to do so. I don't think leaving it to them is a prudent course of action anymore."

"Neither is buttin' in where you've no business being." Patrick sighed and leaned his forehead into hers. "So what do you want to do, Sweetheart? You've basically eliminated your choices."

Okasa crossed her eyes to keep him in focus and grinned. "How do you feel about a road trip?"

Patrick pulled away just slightly so he could uncross his eyes. "What are you thinking, Mama?"

"I think I need to go talk to Brianna. And we could go visit our daughter and grandson as well."

Patrick raised his eyebrows at her. "Been thinking about this a little have you? Did you actually hear a word that Father Ross spoke in mass today?"

"I got the essential bits," she smirked. "Now, can you be ready in an hour?"

"Can you get the time off?"

"I'm waiting to hear back from Nancy now. As much time as I have saved, it shouldn't be a problem... especially since I am supposed to be partially retired at this point."

Patrick just stared at her for the longest moment, then he started chuckling silently. "You're something else, Mama... you know that?"

Okasa snorted. "I had to be to keep up with you lot." The phone rang and she moved to answer it. With a little luck, they'd be on their way to the Capital shortly.

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

Charisma walked back into the kitchen just a few minutes after having left it and looked at the stack of dishes with a frown. "Did they multiply while I was gone? Someone forget to separate the boys and girls?"

Esmeralda laughed. "Nothing so dramatic," she replied as Ruby stirred a big pot on the stovetop and Brianna shut off the running water. "Whenever Ruby doesn't have to wash the dishes, she cleans out the fridge. And then she'll make a soup or macho nachos... depending on what's in there. That way the leftovers don't go to waste and she doesn't get stuck washing the containers."

Charisma cut her eyes at Ruby who gave her a serene glance in return. "That's pretty clever," she admitted as she accepted a towel from Esmeralda. "But can I ask what macho nachos are?"

"Leftovers on a bed of nacho chips and smothered in cheese and jalapeños. That way, even though you're never quite sure what's under there, you'll eat them anyway."

"Seems kind of risky."
"Kind of like asking for trouble isn't it?"

Esmeralda snorted at their dual response causing laughter to ripple through both Charisma and Brianna. "Well," she conceded as she took the first dry dishes out of Charisma's hand, "you can end up with some pretty interesting dreams if you're not careful."

"I'm not sure that'd be a good thing in this town. I'm not sure I'm ready to dream about naked congressmen flying kites on the Mall or something."

Esmeralda scrunched up her face in distaste. "That's not interesting... it's downright scary. Thank you very much for that visual. I don't wanna know where that came from."

Brianna laughed. "Me either, although I have to admit I'm going to have a hard time keeping a straight face when I have to talk to any of those people now."

"Me too," Charisma muttered, her face flushed pink. She turned to Esmeralda. "So what would you call interesting?"

"It was actually more on the side of bizarre. I was being chased by a sneezing feather duster who kept kicking at me and insisting - 'NO SPREADSHEETS!!'. I still don't know where it came from or what it was about... at least as far as the spreadsheets go. I never use spreadsheets. The duster on the other hand...." She laughed at their expressions. "I did warn you it was bizarre," she added with a shrug, taking the next batch of dry dishes and putting them away.

Charisma and Brianna exchanged looks. "Not sure I want to be chased round by my work either."

"Oh God no! We'd end up being flattened by some of those tree killer bills."

"Do you actually read them... word for word, I mean?" Ruby asked as she continued to stir the pot. A squeal from Adam brought all four heads up and around facing the kitchen door. Then they heard Adam's laughter follow and smiled....

... only to laugh when the naked boy streaked through the kitchen with Saphira hot on his heels. He didn't even pause, but just kept going into Saphira and Esmeralda's bedroom, shrieking again when she pounced and wrapped him in a bath sheet. Then Saphira tipped him over her shoulder in a fireman's carry and marched them back down to the big bathroom without a word or explanation.

The other four looked around at one another and just shook their heads. "I did warn her he was a handful," Charisma said as she offered Esmeralda a stack of plates.

"She knows - it's why she let him run. But I guarantee you he'll go to bed when you get home this evening and you won't hear from him again until in the morning."

"Wow," Charisma muttered. "We don't usually have those kinds of outings. Even school doesn't usually do him in like that."

Esmeralda smiled. "Saphira is special. Kids love her because she not only plays *with* them, she plays *like* them."

"She should be in charge of a daycare; she'd make a fortune."

"No," Esmeralda disagreed. "She likes the interaction of one on one or one on two. She couldn't stand trying to deal with a roomful. She couldn't give them each the attention she'd want to."

It didn't take them long and they were done with the dishes. Ruby shooed them out, promising fresh cookies and milk later. They went into the living room only to find Saphira and Adam on the floor playing together. The three curled up to watch and attempted to make conversation. They talked about their work and Esmeralda shared some of Saphira's experiences at the diner. But so much was off-limits, it was a little stilted and a little awkward. Still each of them was trying, so it never quite became an elephant in the room.

After a while, they could smell the scent of cookies and Ruby was coming into the room with a platter of warm sugar cookies and tall glasses of milk. They all smiled and sighed in relief. It meant the day was coming to a close. And for whatever else it had been - even though most of it had been good - it had definitely been exhausting for everyone. But it was especially apparent on Esmeralda's face.

Charisma went over and claimed her son, much to his dismay. "MAMA!" his voice loud and unhappy.

"Son," she admonished. "What have I told you about your inside voice?"

He looked down at the floor. "Sowwy. Like it here... wanna stay."

"Well we can't stay today, but maybe we can come back and visit again. But not if you're rude; Esmeralda and Saphira won't want to have us here."

"Come again?" he pleaded, blue eyes wide. Saphira and Esmeralda nodded and he smiled. "Br'anna too?"

"Brianna too," they agreed.

Soon everyone was bundled against the weather and waiting for their cars to arrive. Brianna had insisted that Esmeralda keep the extra groceries she'd brought, insisting she had nowhere to store them. Charisma surprisingly backed her up, having stayed in the same apartments when she'd first moved to Washington. They each carried a small packet of cookies, however, at Ruby's insistence.

It was on that note that the little gathering broke up and Saphira took Esmeralda's hand and led her back to the kitchen when both limousines were out of sight.

"So?" Saphira demanded as soon as they were seated in the kitchen once more. Esmeralda held her eyes for a long moment before shaking her head.

"I don't know, Phira. I really don't know."



Chapter XXXVII

Jade had stayed with Charisma until she and Adam had reached Esmeralda's. Then she decided to go look up Mal and see if she could get the lowdown on what was going on - since she hadn't actually expected to see her or Kent in town. As far as Jade knew, Kent was still supposed to be in the City doing his show, and she was honest enough to admit to more than a hint of curiosity.

Mal glared at her when she popped in beside her, even though Jade had taken great pains not to sneak up on her unannounced. She lifted up her hands in a gesture of unknowing innocence and Mal only held onto her scowl for another moment before giving Jade a sheepish expression and a shrug. "Sorry," she said softly, though there was no way for Kent to hear them when they were in a non-corporeal state. "I seem to be having one of those days."

Jade wrapped an arm around Mal's shoulders and offered her a brief hug. "What's wrong? Why are you here?"

So Mal told Jade her story from the time Kent had found the phone call from Charisma the night before until the moment just before Jade had appeared by her side. They watched as Kent went through the album slowly, picture by picture, studying his expression and body language since they both knew without a doubt that Esmeralda would ask when the time came.

When Kent finally left Charisma's study, both Mal and Jade followed him, wondering what he had planned. When he picked up the phone to call a taxi, they traded skeptical looks.

"That's it?" Jade hissed. "He's just going to go back to work?"

Mal shrugged. "Looks like it. And that means I need to go with him. Will you tell Es...?"

"Absolutely," Jade nodded. "I need to get back. I'm sure she knows I'm not watching Charisma at the moment, and I don't want to get chewed out if Charisma takes off with no one to keep an eye on her."

"Es wouldn't chew you out."

"She probably wouldn't let me have it with both barrels, but I'm pretty sure I'd get an earful. And you know Ruby and Saphira both would give me those looks," Jade added with a theatrical shudder. Mal just chuckled and shook her head.

"I've gotta go," seeing Kent exit the house as surreptitiously as he'd entered earlier that morning.

Jade nodded. "Be safe... and good luck."

"Thanks - you too." Then Mal left with Kent, and Jade headed back to wait for Charisma.

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

Kent kept his own counsel on his way back to Manhattan... less than twenty-four hours after he'd left it. He didn't go to the theatre - he figured he had the time off, he might as well use it for the day at least. And truthfully, he was exhausted. Between the whirlwind round-trip and what he had discovered while in Washington, he needed a little time and space to consider his next course of action.

Instead, he went straight to the rooms he kept in the City for the times he was there. Not that Charisma didn't use them as well because she did - on the rare occasion she made the trip with him. They were simply something that he'd had since he'd reached majority and it never occurred to him to give them up once he and Charisma married. He enjoyed visiting the City too much.

Now he looked around them closely and recognized that these rooms were strictly 'his' rooms. Everything about them screamed bachelor pad, though it had been tastefully decorated by one of the top interior designers in New York. There hadn't been a woman's touch put on this place and as he looked around, Kent realized he hadn't put much of a personal stamp on this place either.

He crossed over to the bar and poured himself a drink, taking a swallow and refilling it before moving to look out the window. He stood there for a while, watching the sun sink lower towards the horizon. When it disappeared from sight, Kent turned back to the room. He set down his now empty glass and headed into his bedroom. He wanted a shower and some dinner. Then he had some decisions to make.

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

Charisma and Adam reentered their home several hours after having left it and Charisma still wasn't quite sure how she felt about their outing. On the one hand, it had been... well, if not fun, at least it hadn't been unbearable. And it had been enlightening... to a point. Obviously Brianna was upset with her about something, but her innate good manners hadn't let her do more than let Charisma know there was an issue that would have to be resolved privately between them.

Charisma looked down at her sleepy son. Adam had been wonderful - not only had he broken the ice, he had positively charmed everyone... including Brianna. And that brought her focus right back to Brianna. But before she could pursue that train of thought, Adam smiled up at her.

"Mama?"

Charisma couldn't stop the smile he brought to her face, and she brushed his hair off his forehead then tugged his bedcovers up a little higher. "Hmm? What, Sweetie? Did you have fun today?"

"Yes!" he confirmed stoutly, though he was too tired to be more enthusiastic about it. "Br'anna good. Es good. Phira fun."

Charisma laughed. "She was, huh? Did you like playing with Saphira?"

"Yes - go play again," he demanded with an impish grin.

"Not today," Charisma replied with a light chuckle against his neck that made Adam giggle in response. "We'll have to invite them over to visit us so you can share your toys with Saphira. Would you like that, son?"

"Br'anna too?" he asked seriously.

Charisma tilted her head. "Why?" watching Adam scrunch his forehead up in a frown. "Why do you like Brianna so much?"

"Br'anna good," he stated plainly, as if that explained everything. And as far as Adam was concerned, it did. He rubbed his eyes and yawned. "Br'anna good," he repeated as he nodded off. Charisma sighed, wondering again what kind of spell Brianna Walker had cast over her son. Then she leaned forward and brushed a kiss over his forehead before turning out his bedside lamp and standing up. She left his room, pulling the door closed without shutting it completely and heading back downstairs to her study. She had work to do.

Charisma crossed the hall and reached for her key even as her hand touched the doorknob. She frowned when she realized it wasn't locked and let her mind wander over the morning. Then she remembered she hadn't bothered in her haste to get both herself and Adam ready to go visit Esmeralda and Saphira. She shook her head at her carelessness and then pushed the door open.
She looked around her office briefly as she always did when she crossed the threshold of this room. This space, more than any other in the whole house, was hers and she reveled in the sense of peace she got when she entered.

So Charisma sighed in contentment and left the door open in deference to being alone with her sleeping son. She moved over to her desk to start working on the bills she still had to read over before she went to work on the morrow. Then her attention was grabbed by the photo album she'd left resting on the coffee table that morning.

She folded her hands and focused her eyes on it for long moments. Then Charisma deliberately turned her back on it and snatched up the first stack of legislation she needed to review. It didn't take long, however, before she found herself facing the table again... and subsequently, the album.

Charisma looked back down at the paperwork she was supposed to be concentrating on and realized the futility of her actions when she didn't even recognize the bill she had hypothetically been studying for the last thirty minutes. Heaving a disgusted sigh, she ran her hands through her hair and gave into the inevitable.

Laying her paperwork aside, Charisma pushed back from her desk and crossed to the divan. She leaned over the coffee table, gently caressing the leather cover before she dropped onto the couch and pulled the book to her. Then she laid back with her head against the arm and opened the album to the first page. Her eyes sparkled with tears even as her lips curled into a smile.

"Oh Bri... what happened to us?"

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

Brianna sighed deeply as she exited the bathroom that billowed clouds of steam out behind her. She was comfortably wrapped in a thick, warm robe, hair up in a towel and fuzzy slippers on her feet. She made her way into her kitchenette, grateful for the microwave. She filled a cup with water and set the time, then pulled out a bag of her favorite tea, the honey and milk while she waited for it to heat. When the machine beeped its readiness, she quickly prepared her tea, letting it steep while she removed the towel from her head.

After a few minutes, she took the towel to the bathroom, grabbing her comb in its place and retrieved her tea... minus the bag. Then she moved into her bedroom and curled up under the warm blankets with a sigh. It had been a hell of a day, and not at all what she expected. She was surprisingly - and not at all pleasantly - exhausted.

Brianna had just finished drying her hair when the inner phone buzzed. She sighed and looked at the clock, wondering why security was calling her so late. Then she realized it wasn't nearly as late as she felt like it should be, and she seized the handset.

"Yes?"

"Senator Walker? This is Sergeant Orwin downstairs. I'm sorry to disturb you, but we have a cleared guest who is asking to see you."

Brianna frowned until the creases of her forehead squeaked with her effort. "Sergeant, if they are on my cleared list, why are you calling me?"

Orwin cleared his throat. "Actually ma'am - we have to call if anyone stops in without being scheduled to make sure you are available and willing to receive them." Brianna flushed at the slightest hint of scolding in his tone and recognized the reality of his words. But before she could apologize, he continued. "But in this case, the visitor has been cleared by another senator... not you."

"Excuse me?" waving her hand though she knew Orwin couldn't see her. "Sergeant, who is downstairs?"

"Mrs. Okasa Tagherty - Senator Charisma Tagherty's mother."

Brianna would have slapped her hand over her face had she not held a cup of hot tea in it. As it was, she was cognizant enough to be thankful for her restraint before she took a deep breath. "Thank you for calling me, Sergeant. Please allow Mrs. Tagherty to come up."

"Yes ma'am," he replied. "Have a nice evening ma'am."

"You too, Sergeant," she answered, then clicked off the phone before returning it to the cradle beside her bed. She contemplated getting dressed - for all of thirty seconds - then decided that since Okasa had seen her in her pajamas and robe before, it probably wouldn't bother her now.

Instead she went looking to see what she had to offer a guest in her home... even if the guest was practically family. She realized pretty quickly that there wasn't much, so she shrugged and pulled out the fig newtons she used as a quick breakfast until she got to work. They would have to do in a pinch. Then a knock was sounding on her door, and she crossed the room to answer it.

Okasa stood on the other side, large Rubbermaid container in hand and a nervous air around her entire being. Brianna wondered what on earth she had gotten herself into when Okasa dropped the box and launched herself at Brianna.

Brianna, used to such outlandish greeting, simply braced herself and held on. Okasa hugged her fervently and for once Brianna returned the hug with all the strength she could muster. Today had battered and beaten her black and blue, and Okasa's unreserved affection went a long way towards soothing her soul.

After a long moment, Okasa stepped back and cradled Brianna's face in her hands. Her eyes searched Brianna's, nodding when she was finally satisfied with what she found. Then she turned and picked up the box and stepped into Brianna's apartment, closing the door behind her.

"Come in, Mama O," Brianna gestured gracefully, even through her confusion. "Can I get you something? Tea? Milk? Newtons?"

Okasa set the box on the small table in the living area, then turned and covered Brianna's lips with her fingertips. "Shh," she instructed. "I know you're confused and wondering why I'm here... now. I promise to tell you everything, but first things first. I need the little girls' room."

Brianna pointed her to the correct door and took a seat on the small sofa. Whatever Okasa wanted, it wasn't life or death. So Brianna closed her eyes and focused on getting her heart rate back to normal. For a few minutes, she'd been terrified something had happened to...

She stopped herself. She wasn't going to allow herself to walk that particular path. A touch on her shoulder made her jump and her eyes shot open to find Okasa looking at her in concern.

"Little Bri? Are you all right?"

Brianna took a deep breath. "I was going to ask you the same thing Mama O. Didn't I just talk to you this morning?" seeing Okasa nod. "Has something happened?"

"Sort of," Okasa confirmed, "but not like you're thinking. Everyone is fine - Paddy is with me here in town. He went to get us a room for the night," watching the confusion wash over Brianna's face. "I'll explain, I promise."

Brianna nodded. "And the boys are okay?"

"Well, they're gonna be jealous as all get out when they find out Papa and I will get to see you when they don't, but otherwise they're all fine."

"All right," Brianna agreed slowly. "Then what's the problem? Why are you here? Or rather," realizing how rude that sounded, "what problem has brought you to my door this late in the evening that I can help you with?"

Okasa chuckled. "Ah, Brianna - how I miss you. I know... I know - but even when you were close it was hard to see you. Not your fault," Okasa added when Brianna's eyes dropped to the ground. "It's just the way of life. Kids grow up - they move on and move away. Doesn't mean we miss them any less."

"So you're here because you miss me?"

"That too," Okasa admitted. "But I am here now because I made you a promise twenty years ago, and I'd like you to promise me something now."

Brianna looked at the box and then back to Okasa, a feeling of sick dread filling her belly. "I won't make a blind promise Okasa."

"I'm not asking you to, Little Bri," knowing Brianna had her hackles up. "I'm asking you to listen to what I have to say first... then make me a promise."

"I promise to listen, Okasa. But beyond that...."

Okasa nodded. "That's all I can ask."

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

Esmeralda and Saphira looked up from the table as the rest of the angels returned from their day out. Without a word, they circled around and took seats at the table, then stood around the periphery of the room where they could see Esmeralda when she spoke. Esmeralda nodded to Ruby who started ladling out bowls of hot soup, passing them along until everyone had food in front of them. Only when they were all served did Esmeralda finally speak.

"First, did everyone have a good day out?" asked with a tender smile and genuine interest. Looks were exchanged and they all nodded, but no one spoke. Esmeralda and Saphira traded wry looks. "Guess we're gonna have to tell about ours before we hear about theirs, huh?" garnering soft chuckles from around the room. "Okay then... everyone dig in while it's still hot and we'll tell you all how our day went."

"First, however, I want you all to know you own a huge debt to Brianna and Charisma. They did leftover dishes duty. Ruby decided to clean out the refrigerator while they were here."

"You didn't!"
"Ruby!!"
"Are you serious??"
"How could you??"

Ruby looked back at them in all innocence and shrugged. "What??" she protested. "It was time. Besides, you didn't see the groceries Brianna brought that we had to make room for. I had to do something with all that stuff," holding up her bowl of soup. "And I'm not hearing any complaints about supper."

"Yeah," Indi agreed, "but still...."

"But still nothing. At least it kept them busy doing something besides skirting around each other for a change."

"Okay, Ruby... that's enough," Esmeralda advised beaming and holding up her hands. "I don't mind if you tell it, but you need to tell it all and in the right order," smiling when Ruby smirked and shrugged.

"You young people are no fun these day," drawing snorts from everyone in the room. "Where's the challenge in that?"

"Like we don't have enough of that around here already. Keep it up, Granny," Saphira warned. "You might find out what real kids these days consider fun to be." Before she could continue, the front door banged open and Jade blew in on a cold, stiff wind. Immediately everyone moved into action, making sure she got into the warmth beside the stove and had a bowl of hot soup in her hands. Esmeralda waited until Jade caught her breath before she spoke.

"Everything all right, Jade?" seeing her nod.

"Yeah," she replied after swallowing a mouthful of soup. "Wait'll you hear the stories I've got to tell."



Chapter XXXVIII

Esmeralda scrubbed her hands through her hair when Jade finished her telling. The girls had eaten and done up the dishes while they were listening, so now it was just a matter of choosing the next course of action. Saphira watched with troubled eyes as the hands moved from Esmeralda's scalp to her temples, gently rubbing in a circular motion as though to will away a headache. Without hesitation, she rose and stood behind Esmeralda, kneading the knots out of her shoulders.

"Es?" her concerned voice a bare whisper in Esmeralda's ear. Esmeralda patted one of the hands rubbing the side of her neck.

"I'm all right, Saphira. Just a bit of a headache. I never expected them to be so stiff and polite...."

"... and at the same time so antagonistic," Saphira added. "I know; neither did I. But it could have gone a lot worse. We were lucky Adam was here."

"How so?" Ame asked. "Did you find a story he liked that they could relate to?" wondering at the sudden burst of giggles seeming to afflict Esmeralda, Saphira and Ruby. She looked around, glad to note she wasn't the only one missing the joke and raised an eyebrow at them. "Would one of you like to let the rest of us in on it or should we start guessing?"

Saphira appeared to recover herself the quickest, and after a deep breath, she met Ame's eyes steadily. "Tell us about Adam... the Adam you know."

Ame scowled at the wording, but she held Saphira's eyes. "Um... well, he's a quiet child mostly. He reads a lot - or I should say, he loves to be read to and tries to read along. He has several learning video games he plays, but there are also blocks and paints and basketball. We take walks and go to the museum.... I'm not sure what you're looking for here Phira. He's a good kid."

"He is a good kid," Saphira agreed in all seriousness. "And we're really glad he was here today. He kept things from becoming impossible between Charisma and Brianna."

"And letting him streak naked through the kitchen screaming didn't hurt either." All eyes turned to Esmeralda and she shrugged. "It's the truth," rubbing her head again. "Let me give you the Angel's Notes version of our day, then I think I'm going to go lay down. I can't believe how stressful this day was." She turned to Saphira. "Wasn't it supposed to be easier for them with us around?"

Saphira bit her lip briefly. "I think it was, Sweetheart. But that doesn't mean it was supposed to be easier for us." She caught Ruby's eye and the subtle nod. "Why don't we let Ruby fill the girls in on what happened today? We're not gonna have a mad planning session tonight, are we?"

Esmeralda slowly shook her head. "I don't think so. Truthfully, I'm not really sure what more we can do at this point. It's basically up to them - we're just here for support if they need it."

"Okay, so let Ruby give them a quick rundown while I go start you a tub to soak in. I'm sure the girls won't mind hearing from Granny - she gives them their marching orders in the mornings."

"One of these days, Saphira," Ruby threatened with a grin. Esmeralda smiled tiredly at their banter.

"Sometimes, I don't understand how the two of you have managed to coexist for so many millennia. Then I realized you have to be in the same space to have to actually coexist and you two rarely are."

"The world is probably much better off," Ruby offered with a smirk and Esmeralda nodded. "Good - now that we have that settled, let your troublemaking half go run your bath and tuck you into bed. The girls and I need to head to bed in a little while too. Morning comes early you know."

"All right - thanks Ruby. If any of you think of anything...."

"We know where to find you, Es," Opal assured her with a shooing motion. "Now go!"

Esmeralda smiled and waved goodnight before entering the bedroom. Saphira gave everyone a last look, then shut the door behind them.

They waited until they heard the second door open and the water start running before they took their eyes from the closed door. But it wasn't until they heard the inner door shut and the water stop running that they finally looked to Ruby for an explanation.

"Get comfortable, girls," she commented. "This is gonna take a few."

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

"Will you join me?" Es asked softly as Saphira turned to make her way out of the bathroom. "I know it's small and we usually don't with a houseful, but...."

"But what, Es?"

"I need to feel you, Phira."

Blue eyes held green for a long moment, then Saphira nodded and stripped off her clothing before easing herself behind Esmeralda in the tub. It was a tight squeeze and not truly comfortable, but they managed and Saphira resumed the massage she had started in the kitchen. Esmeralda dropped her neck forward and sighed.

"That feels so wonderful," she murmured.

Saphira leaned forward and kissed the slim neck beneath her fingertips. "Yes it does," letting her lips tickle the soft skin and chuckling soundlessly when Esmeralda squirmed. "Now... you wanna tell me what's really bothering you, Sweetheart?"

"I'm not sure I can put it into words, Love. It just feels like everything is slipping away from me."

Saphira frowned and straightened up as much as the crowded tub allowed her. "In what way, Es? You don't mean me...?"

"No, Phira, no! You've been my one rock through this whole ordeal. It's everything else. There's Charisma and Brianna - both of whom I believe are beyond heavenly help at the moment, and yet they are still our responsibility until this thing reaches some sort of conclusion. Then there's Kent - who wasn't even considered enough of a factor in this at the beginning to warrant any sort of information on. We've got the girls who are scrambling and getting hurt - when at this point in the operation, we should all be either gearing up for the final push or packing up to go home."

"What else?" Saphira asked in her ear quietly when the silence went on for too long. "I know something else is eating away at you Es. What is it? Let me help."

"You can't, Phira. I don't think anyone can... except for Him." Esmeralda paused and took a shuddering breath. Saphira reached forward and instinctively brushed the wetness from Esmeralda's cheeks. "Something's wrong - and we both know it!" She twisted until she could meet Saphira's eyes in her periphery then continued. "I don't know what's wrong, but I do know everything isn't the way it's supposed to be either - not like it was before. I'm not getting better like I should."

Saphira nodded. "How do you feel?"

"Tired, mostly... like I haven't recovered my strength or my stamina." She clenched her hands into fists and slammed them into her thighs in frustration. "It shouldn't be like this, Phira. It shouldn't be taking so long for me to feel like myself again!" As quickly as it flared, her anger dissipated and Esmeralda curled into Saphira's body seeking comfort.

This Saphira could do easily, and she did so without hesitation. She brushed a kiss over the blonde head tucked awkwardly under her chin and rubbed her hands up and down arms that were chilly due to their exposure to the cooler air in the room.

Without warning, Saphira stood up and pulled Esmeralda with her. "C'mon," she offered, pulling the thick towels from the rod and wrapping them both up quickly. "The whole point of the hot bath was to get you warm and relaxed. You can't get warm with me in there with you, and you won't relax if I get out without you. So we'll both get out and go curl up in the middle of the bed. The blanket should have it warmed by now and we can relax together."

Esmeralda nodded, but didn't say anything else. She felt much like the tub, she thought idly as she watched the water whirlpool down the drain. Then Saphira was taking her hand and she put the metaphor from her mind as she followed her mate to their bed.

They curled up together in the center of the mattress, sighing in relief when the warmth of the heating blanket surrounded them. "This is nice," Esmeralda confessed.

"Um hmm," Saphira agreed, embracing Esmeralda firmly before she shifted them until she could look down into Esmeralda's eyes. Esmeralda cocked a questioning brow. Despite her concern and her rigid belief that something was seriously wrong, being held in the comfort of Saphira's arms made everything seem more manageable. She reached up a hand to trace the smooth planes and contours of Saphira's face and smiled gently when she closed her eyes to relish Esmeralda's touch.

"I love you," Esmeralda murmured, stunned by the look of sheer need and desire reflected in the blue orbs that were filled with love just for her.

"Oh Es - I love you too? so much. And I want you to understand something right now, and believe it if you never believe anything else, all right?" waiting for Esmeralda to nod. "Good. I want you to know that I do understand your frustration and aggravation with this whole healing process you're having to endure. And I'm so sorry about that," catching the fingers that would have covered her lips. "No, Es - the blame for that more than anything else lies strictly at my feet and I willingly accept that responsibility. I will spend the rest of our eternal days together trying to make that up to you. But beyond that," she added, holding up a finger and glowering to keep Esmeralda from interrupting, "I do believe... with all my heart... that you will recover from this, Es. It may take longer than we want it to or hope it will, but you will recover. And you know why?" watching the blonde head shake slowly. "Because He needs you, Es. He needs you almost as much as I do."

"You really think so, Phira?"

"Oh no, Love - I *know* so."

"What did I ever do to deserve you?" Esmeralda asked with a tender expression on her face. She raised her hands to cup Saphira's cheeks and gently stroke her cheekbones and brows.

Saphira arched an eyebrow. "As I recall, you hit me in the head with a mud ball," trying to look at least a little bit put out by Esmeralda's selective memory. But the twinkle in her eyes gave her away.

Esmeralda moved one hand to pop her lightly on the hip. "Brat!" she complained as she threaded her hands into Saphira's dark hair and pulled them closer.

"But you love me anyway," Saphira proclaimed as she leaned forward.

Esmeralda didn't bother to answer. She let her lips speak for her directly. Saphira got the message loud and clear.

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

"Okasa, pardon my bluntness, but have you lost your mind?! Do you know what you're asking of me?" Brianna jumped up from her spot on the couch and paced in front of the table that held the dreaded box. She glared at it briefly, then resumed her pacing, hands clenched together.

Okasa had taken a seat beside Brianna while she spoke. Now she leaned back into the far corner of the divan and watched Brianna pace, knowing she needed the release before there would be any calm, rational discussion between them - if it was still possible.

She and Patrick had discussed the possibilities on the trip down and though Okasa recognized this as one of the choices he'd laid out for her as the most likely response, it wasn't the one she wanted... or even hoped for.

"Brianna...." she started, then stopped immediately when Brianna help up an imperious finger.

"No, no," she scolded with a desperate smile. "You had your turn to talk, and I listened... just like I promised you I would. You don't get to talk anymore now."

"But Brianna...."

"Okasa - I'm not kidding. I'm still trying to decide whether to be furiously angry with you or unbearably hurt. The *only* thing you have going in your favor at the moment is that you came and talked to me about this instead of just giving the letters directly to Charisma."

"I did consider it," Okasa confessed, seeing a glimmer of hurt flash through the green eyes facing her. "But you're a part of this family too, Little Bri. And I would never forgive myself if I did something to make you feel otherwise. I would never betray your trust on this, Brianna. It's too important to everyone... not just you and Charisma." She paused briefly. "Is it wrong that I want my whole family back together again?"

Brianna sighed and let her shoulders slump in defeat. "It may not be wrong, Mama O, but you need to understand it's impossible."

"It doesn't have to be."

Brianna nodded sadly. "In this case, it does. I cannot... WILL not... be the one to break the stalemate between us, Okasa. I bent over backwards for twenty years to ensure her success and she can't bring herself to offer me more than professional courtesy." She snorted. "Sometimes she can't even offer me that. No, Mama - I will not offer these letters to her... and neither will you. If there's something she wants to know, she can ask - I'm right here. But I'm not going to keep enabling her. I can't."

Okasa nodded and rose. "I understand, Brianna. I really do. I just wish it hadn't turned out like this."

Brianna offered her a wistful smile. "I wish a lot of things hadn't turned out the way they have, Mama, but you can only play the cards you're dealt - even when all you've got is a lot of nothing."

Okasa nodded, but didn't reply otherwise. Instead she moved towards the door. Brianna picked up the box to follow, but Okasa shook her head. "No, Little Bri. That's not for my keeping any longer. It's yours now. You do what you want with it."

"But...."

"You mind now, young lady. I need to get back to Patrick. If we can arrange it before we go back home, will you have lunch with us? Just me and Paddy?"

"Of course, Mama. You let me know when and where."

Okasa smiled. "I know better. I'll call and see when you're available and fit our schedule to it." She turned back to Brianna, removed the box from her grip and placed it on the table before she opened her arms for a hug. Brianna didn't even hesitate, but stepped into the embrace and held on tightly for a long moment. "Don't be mad at me, Brianna, or angry with me either. What I did here was borne out of love and affection for you both."

"I know, Mama O. I love you too. Are you certain you're okay to go back to Paddy this late alone?"

Okasa smiled. "He's coming to get me if he's not waiting outside already. You know the man has the patience of Job."

"Oh, Mama - he could have come upstairs. It's too cold to be sitting in the car tonight."

"And knowing me Paddy, he came into the lobby as soon as he got here and is sitting downstairs with Sergeant Orwin watching whatever sporting event is on at the moment. I promise you, Brianna - Patrick Tagherty can take care of himself."

"Truer words were never spoken," Brianna muttered, gaining her another smile and hug from Okasa.

"However, I see no reason to make him wait longer than necessary, or to keep you up any longer." Okasa cupped Brianna's face carefully in her hands. "You look exhausted, my dear. Don't let this job kill you, Little Bri. It'll take over your life if you let it."

"Two years, Okasa. That's all I said I would do."

Okasa nodded, but said nothing until they reached the door. Then they briefly embraced before Brianna opened the door. "Be careful, Mama O."

"Get some rest, Little Bri. Goodnight."

Brianna watched until the elevator door closed behind Okasa, then she shut her apartment door. She glared balefully at the Rubbermaid box, then deliberately turned her back to it and went back into her bedroom. Everything would wait until tomorrow. Now it was time to sleep.

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

And in Manhattan, Kent sat in the dark looking out at the night sky. He missed the stars here, but the skyline made up for it in so many ways, and he could feel the energy of the City pulsing around and through him as a living entity. He wondered if he could give it all up - if he'd want to. Then he determined that before he made any major decisions, he would watch and wait and observe.

With his mind made up on that score, he rose and closed the curtains in the living room - after all, he still had neighbors even this high up. Tonight he would go to bed and sleep. Tomorrow, he would go back to the theatre and go back to work. The tomorrows after that would have to care for themselves as they came along.

For now, he would remain in the shadows... and watch.



Chapter XXXIX

It was several days later before Charisma and Brianna chanced to run into one another again. Although they hadn't consciously been avoiding one another, it was their first meeting since their Sunday afternoon at Esmeralda's and both were at something of a loss to find words to say to each other. After a long moment of awkward staring, Charisma shook her head and chuckled sadly as her eyes dropped to the floor.

Despite herself, Brianna felt a pang of concern ripple through her and she briefly placed a gentle hand on Charisma's arm, leaving it there until blue eyes lifted to meet green. Then she sucked in a breath at the pain that was reflected back to her and she pulled her hand away as a matter of course. Charisma caught it and held on - not tight enough to cause injury, but firmly. Brianna looked at their joined hands and then back at Charisma's eyes.

"Charisma?"

Charisma held her gaze, then took a deep breath and nodded. "Will you join me for lunch?"

Brianna blinked. Whatever she'd expected to come from Charisma's mouth, those words weren't even in the top one hundred possibilities. "Excuse me?"

"Will you join me for lunch?" Charisma repeated, then shook her head at Brianna's continued dumbfounded expression. "You know what... nevermind." Charisma squeezed the hand she held once, then dropped it and turned away, shaking her head again. This time Brianna did the holding - catching Charisma by the bicep before she could walk away.

"Charisma? Charisma, talk to me. I think I deserve that much."

"Have lunch with me." This time the words actually made sense to Brianna's brain and she nodded her agreement almost without conscious thought.

"All right," she decided. "But you have to talk to me."

Now it was Charisma's turn to blink. She hadn't expected Brianna to capitulate at all - and to have her agreement so easily and so quickly.... She shook her head again and then nodded. "Okay. I need to let my office know. Would you like to walk with me or should we meet in the dining room?"

"We can walk together. I should let my girls know as well," motioning Charisma down the hall. They walked together silently, oblivious to the hustle and bustle of the comings and goings around them. Brianna stopped at her office, surprised when Charisma followed her in.

"Ladies," Brianna announced without preamble, "Senator Tagherty and I are going to lunch. If you need me, just page me, but it better be an emergency." She turned to Indi. "What time is my next appointment?"

"Three o'clock, Senator - committee meeting."

"Very well. We should be back long before then." She looked at Charisma. "Shall we?"

Without a word, Charisma nodded and they left the way they'd come. The staff silently watched them go, but when the door was shut and a full minute had passed, they looked around at one another in amazement.

"Did we just...?"
"Was that...?"
"Did they actually...?"

Indi held up her hands and the mutterings stopped immediately. She met each pair of eyes and offered the tiniest smile of her own. "Yes, we did; yes, that was and yes, they did. I think I should probably call Es and give her a heads up. The rest of you," waving her arms dramatically, "get back to work."

Chuckles followed her pronouncement, but everyone settled back down. Indi picked up the phone and dialed Charisma's office, figuring Opal would need to be in on the call if Esmeralda was going to get the full story. And she was pretty sure Esmeralda was going to want to whole story.

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

Esmeralda pinched the bridge of her nose and looked at Saphira who simply returned the stare with a shrug. They both turned back to the speakerphone where Opal and Indi were patiently waiting for ... something. Esmeralda sighed.

"Thanks guys. Continue to keep an eye out and let me know if things become vastly different after this lunch meeting. I don't expect them to, but you never know... especially with these two."

"Will do, Es."
"Okay, Es."

"Good job to both of you. Thanks for the heads up. My job should be interesting tonight." With that, they signed off and Saphira took the handset back to the cradle and resumed her seat by Esmeralda.

"Does this mean things are finally going the way they're supposed to?"

"Well, it means things are finally moving of their own accord - that is to say, Brianna and Charisma are behind the movement."

"So we may be done with this assignment soon."

"Could be," Esmeralda agreed. "Although it's not like we have anywhere else to go, Phira. This is our home now."

"Maybe not... I mean, maybe if I apologize...." she started, watching startled green eyes widen at her words. Saphira had sworn she wouldn't apologize for doing what she thought was right, no matter the cost. And the cost had been everything they'd held dear. And though Esmeralda certainly missed what they'd had in Paradise, she had never begrudged giving it all up to stay with Saphira. And now Saphira was willing to do the one thing she'd refused the Father?

"Saphira? Sweetheart? Why? Why would you do that? Have you changed your mind?"

"No - not at all. I still believe it was the right thing to do... despite everything. But Es... if I apologize, we can go home and He will make you better. You won't have to suffer anymore. You shouldn't have to continue to suffer because of me."

"I thought you believed I was going to get better."

"I did... I *do*. But...."

"No, Phira," Esmeralda insisted, shaking her head emphatically. "I will get better - you said so yourself. And if it takes a little longer, that's fine. I don't want you to dishonor the sacrifices we've made. They have to count for something. Besides," holding up a hand when Saphira would have broken in, "He would know if you were only saying it from your lips and not your heart."

"I can be sorry for having done it without believing I was wrong for doing so," Saphira protested weakly, knowing He would never accept that as a viable apology. But it was killing her to watch Esmeralda suffer everyday for something Saphira was being punished for. Then Esmeralda was changing the subject and Saphira put the thoughts out of her mind for the time being.

"At any rate, work should be interesting tonight. Wonder if either of them will share about their luncheon together. Neither of them has been very talkative this week so far."

"Why's that?" Saphira asked, this being the first time Esmeralda had brought it up.

"There's probably a lot of thinking going on. If I was a betting person, I'd say they're both trying to figure out what to do now - especially since their original plans have gone up in smoke."

"Shouldn't it be obvious?"

Esmeralda smiled wryly and shook her head. "Twenty years of habit is hard to break. And it's scary to step out of a groove that deep."

"I guess," Saphira replied hesitantly. "I just don't get this situation at all, but then I usually don't deal with this stuff either. Have you heard from Mal?"

"Not yet. I sent Jade out this morning to see what she can find out, so I expect we'll have a report from that side before the end of the day. Now c'mon... it's time to get ready for work."

Saphira groaned, but rolled from her seat and stood up, stretching. Esmeralda winced when she heard all the bones popping into place, then smiled when Saphira sighed deeply.

"Better?" she asked.

"Much," Saphira confirmed. "I should be able to walk without stooping now."

"I'm sure Matilda will appreciate that."

Saphira snorted. "I'm sure the customers will. Less food tends to end up in their laps." She held out her hands and pulled Esmeralda to her feet. "C'mon. You want me to have Ruby tell Jade to meet us at the diner tonight?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "No. We can't talk in front of Matilda and Joe. But ask her to make sure she's awake and downstairs when we get home."

Saphira nodded and led the way into their bedroom to finish their preparations for work.

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

Charisma and Brianna took seats at a table for two tucked away in a quiet corner near a window. They remained silent for a few minutes, waiting for the server to come take their order. Only when that was done and the young man was gone did Brianna lean forward and turn her full attention to Charisma.

"All right Charisma - talk to me. What's going on with you?"

Charisma looked away from the window and met Brianna's intense gaze. She took a deep breath. "I miss you," she confessed softly.

Brianna leaned back in her chair, stunned by Charisma's words. Apparently, this was Charisma Tagherty's day to rock Brianna Walker's world, and Brianna wasn't sure she really cared for it. She'd been off-kilter since Sunday - with Charisma and Adam showing up unexpectedly at Esmeralda's; Okasa showing up at her apartment; and now this unlooked for lunch invitation.

Part of her was surprised. Part of her was confused. But the biggest part of her was torn between hurt and anger and it was this part that responded.

"You miss me," she replied flatly, crossing her arms over her chest. "Why?" watching the frown lines form between Charisma's eyes. "Why, Charisma? Why do you miss me? And why now??" her voice never rising above a fierce whisper. "You haven't missed me for twenty years."

Tears filled Charisma's blue eyes, but fire sparked behind them and she refused to allow the tears to fall. "That's not true! I missed you every damn day, Brianna. You walked out of my life without a word and I could never figure out why."

Brianna bit her lip to keep from saying anything. She wasn't going to start a scene in the Senate Dining Room and she'd sworn to Okasa that she wasn't going to be the one to cross the chasm. If Charisma wanted answers, she was going to have to ask the hard questions.

"Well?!" Charisma demanded, crossing her arms over her chest in mimicry of Brianna's position.

Brianna sighed and raked a hand through her hair. "Charisma - you didn't want to know then and you certainly don't want to know now."

"That's it? That's all you have to say??"

"What would you like me to say, Charisma? What brought all this on anyway? A week ago, you didn't want to have anything to do with me at all - even professional courtesy was a stretch for you. And now suddenly you want to be my best friend again? What gives?"

Charisma suddenly slumped in her chair, visibly deflated. "I had forgotten how good we were together, Bri. And as awkward as things were between us Sunday, it made me remember... so much. So much more than the anger I've been holding onto for years. Besides, my son loves you."

"So you're doing this for Adam?"

Charisma's eyes dropped to the table for a long moment. "I don't know," she replied honestly. "Maybe I'm doing it for all of us. I just know after the other day I have to do something. I don't think I can keep being mad; I don't think I want to. Twenty years is a long time to hang onto something like that."

"Can't you just leave it alone? You were fine without me in your life for twenty years. Can't you just ignore me for the next two? I promise once it's over you won't see or hear from me again."

"What if I want to? What if I want you back in my life - and to be back in yours?"

"What if I don't?" Brianna asked bitingly. "Like you pointed out in this very room just the other day, this is too hard."

"Only if we let it be." Charisma paused a moment, unsure why she was pushing so hard for something she had done without for so long. "If you don't want to try and pick our friendship up from where we left off, do you think we could try starting over instead?"

Their server chose that moment to return with their food and they straightened up to allow him to place their plates in front of them. He carefully refilled their drinks and moved away from the table, sensing the tension that rolled off both women in waves.

They focused on their food, concentrating on nothing except eating the meal in front of them. Neither of them was willing to show how upset their dialogue had made them and slowly, methodically they made their way through their repast without exchanging a word. When they were done, they pushed their plates away and accepted coffee from their waiter, finally meeting each other's eyes again.

"I'm not sure I can do this, Charisma. I'm not sure I want to."

"Can I ask what changed? I thought you wanted this to work between us."

"I did," Brianna said honestly. "Until you made it brutally clear that you couldn't, *wouldn't* make the effort. I decided to give up and move on."

Charisma let her eyebrow creep into her hairline. "Since when do you give up?"

"Since I'm black and blue from being beaten down by my supposed best friend."

"I'm sorry, Bri," Charisma said sincerely. "I was angry and hurt and...."

Brianna held up her hand, more exhausted than she could ever remember being. "I'd be willing to start over, Charisma. But don't expect it to be the same. It can't be."

"Will you tell me why you left?"

Brianna looked at her watch and rose, pushing the chair up under the table and resting her hands on the high back. "One day maybe." She paused. "But not here and not now."

"When, Brianna? When do I get to know?" rough and impatient.

"One day, Charisma - when you're really ready for the answer and are willing to ask the hard questions to get it. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to work. And so do you, I imagine. Thank you for lunch." She started to leave, then turned back for a brief moment. "Give me a call, Charisma. Maybe we can set up some time to do this again." Then without another word, Brianna left the dining room. Charisma just watched her go. She had a lot to consider.

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

"What troubles you, old friend?" Doug asked with a hand on Kent's shoulder as he took a seat at what had become Kent's regular table over the years. "Forget your lines at the theatre tonight?"

Kent raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think anything's wrong? And when have you ever known me to forget my lines? And before you say it, that time at dress rehearsal doesn't count. I was more than a little drunk."

"And high from some incredible marathon sex with... what was that girl's name again? Musty? Dusty?"

"Misty, you bastard," Kent replied with a fond smile. "Oh yeah... she was something else. Wonder whatever happened to her."

"Maybe we should go to a reunion some time and find out."

Kent snorted. "My luck - she's a CEO of a worldwide bank somewhere. I'm doomed to be surrounded by extremely successful women."

"Is that a bad thing?" Doug frowned when he caught the melancholy expression on Kent's face. "Trouble in paradise?" wondering if this perhaps was the heart of the matter.

He shrugged. "I dunno," he replied candidly, a little surprised, but feeling lighter having made the confession. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm missing out on the important things in life by being here, pursuing my theatre career instead of...."

"Instead of playing house-husband to a US Senator? Why should you? You're entitled to a life and a career too, Kent."

"Maybe. I do love it here, and the show is doing well. Did you see the reviews we got today?" turning his attention and Doug's to another train of thought. He had already made arrangements to be off for the next few Sundays. With a little luck, the overnight trips home would put the niggling at the back of his mind at ease. Then he could get back to living his life instead of wondering when the rug was going to be pulled out from under him.



Chapter XL

"I did it," Charisma proclaimed in an excited whisper as she pulled Esmeralda into her office. Esmeralda dutifully followed, though it meant she was off her normal schedule. Obviously Charisma felt the need to share and Esmeralda certainly wasn't going to discourage that. So she parked her cleaning cart and began removing the items she needed even as she met Charisma's eyes.

"Wonderful!" Esmeralda cheered with a bright smile. "What did you do?"

"I invited Brianna to lunch, and we... talked. Sorta - I mean, we did talk, but it was nothing like I expected it would be, you know? It wasn't anything like I hoped, BUT - I did invite her and we did have a conversation. And she even agreed to do it again."

Esmeralda's eyes widened. "That's a good thing, right?" seeing the frown mar Charisma's features and hastening on. "I'm sorry, Charisma - I'm a little confused. Just last week you were resistant to spending time with her when you had chaperones and now you're seemingly over the moon about sitting down alone together. Don't get me wrong - I'm thrilled, especially if it makes you both happy. I'm just a little confused."

Charisma snorted but smiled. "So am I, actually, if you want to know the truth. But this feels... for the first time in like.. forever, this feels right." She took Esmeralda's hand and led her to the couch, immediately taking a seat beside her. "I'm still angry... and hurt... and confused. And until we get everything worked out between us, I probably will be. But I realized the other day that Brianna felt the same things I do. I don't know why yet, but I intend to. And Adam made me understand that the people suffering were the only people who could fix it, and if Brianna was willing, why shouldn't I be?"

"And is Brianna willing?"

"Yes."

Now Esmeralda smiled wholeheartedly, opening her arms for a hug and Charisma responded without hesitation. Esmeralda held her tightly, feeling the silent sobs that shook Charisma's body. She brushed a light kiss over Charisma's temple and whispered, "I'm so glad, Charisma. I hope this works out beautifully for both of you."

Charisma pulled back and smiled into Esmeralda's eyes, sweeping a lock of hair of her face. "You're one in a million, Es. I hope Saphira knows how lucky she is."

"Oh, I think we're both pretty lucky, Charisma. Now, don't you need to get home to that boy of yours?"

Charisma dabbed at the corners of her eyes with her knuckles, then straightened and rose from the divan. "Actually, yes - I'm hoping Saphira hasn't given him a new bath time game."

"You mean the streaking thing," Esmeralda stated flatly as she moved back towards her cart to gather her supplies so she could get to work.

"Uh... YES. He never did that before he met her, but now it seems to be becoming a nightly event according to Ame."

"I did warn you she had a way with kids because she *was* a kid at heart, right?"

Charisma chuckled. "Yes, you did. And to tell the truth, he's blossomed after spending just one afternoon with her. I can't imagine the corruption if he had days on end with her." She waggled her eyebrows. "Are you two available again on Sunday next?"

Esmeralda laughed. "Are you sure you're ready for that again so soon?"

"I meant what I said about cultivating your friendship, Esmeralda. I really like you and Saphira, and so does Adam. Personally, I think he believes she's his own personal superhero. And to be completely honest, I'd like to invite Brianna over as well, and I'd feel more comfortable with you and Saphira there. But I figure you may need a little recovery time from last week, hence the invite for next Sunday and not this one."

"I'll talk to Saphira. I know she'll be willing, but let me make sure she doesn't have plans for something else that day. Sometimes when the weather's good, we go out to the Mall and take a picnic - or visit the museums."

"I haven't done that in a long time," Charisma responded wistfully. "Sometimes I miss having time just to do what I want or be just Charisma. Sometimes I think she got lost in the politics that living here and being part of the political machine is."

"Maybe. But maybe in reconnecting with Brianna, you'll be able to find her again."

"That'd be nice - highly unlikely, but nice." Charisma moved over behind her desk, shutting down her laptop and stuffing it and the bills she needed to review into her briefcase. "Let me get out of here so you can get done and go home. No reason to worry Saphira if you don't have too, right?"

Esmeralda nodded. "Yeah - she worries enough without me adding to it. Goodnight, Senator Tagherty."

"Goodnight, Es."

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

"Brianna?" Esmeralda called out as she knocked on the door. "Senator Walker?" When there was no answer, Esmeralda opened the door to the inner office and pushed her cart ahead of her. She closed the door and reached for the light switch, only to have her hand stayed by the sound of Brianna's voice in the dark.

"Leave it off, please."

Esmeralda's head snapped up and she peered around in the near pitch darkness, finding a tiny light coming from the direction of Brianna's desk. "Brianna?" she asked softly. "Are you all right?"

"I don't think so, Es."

Esmeralda gave silent thanks for the advantages of Angel vision and slowly threaded her way across the room until she was standing beside Brianna's desk. A quick look showed her clearly what the light was shining on and Esmeralda gestured towards it. "May I?"

Brianna handed it over to Esmeralda and turned on the brighter desk lamp so Esmeralda could actually see what she was holding. Esmeralda leaned down, surprised to find that the photograph she held was not the one she expected it to be. Instead, it showed Brianna and Charisma in what appeared to be a private moment backstage after a performance. Esmeralda wanted to ask, but before she could open her lips to speak, Brianna began to explain.

"I was a double major in college - one in law, of course, and one in the theatre. I figured the theatre degree could be put to good use in the courtroom if utilized correctly, and I was right," she said with a proud smile. Esmeralda returned the smile and studied the picture once more. Brianna started talking again. "What I didn't know when I decided to have a theatre major was that it meant I had to learn all aspects of the theatre - acting, lighting, sound, set building, costume design and writing. Most of it was easy enough and I enjoyed it. After a day studying the law, it was a welcome break and a chance to be creative."

"So what happened?" Esmeralda asked when the silence began to drag on uncomfortably.

"I had to write." Esmeralda's eyebrows went into her hairline and her eyes widened comically. Brianna chuckled at her expression.

"Was it a bad thing?"

Brianna sighed. "No... not really. I was actually very good at it. A little too good, maybe," she added, biting her lip. "Professor Mac - my theatre prof - chose my play to be introduced to the student body during the Spring Bonanza. Trust me... it was a really big deal," Brianna explained, waving off Esmeralda's questions. "I had put my heart and soul into this play - it exposed me in ways nothing ever had before."

"Or since, I imagine."

"Or since," Brianna agreed. "But it was really good and exceptionally well received."

"And the picture?" Esmeralda prompted when Brianna stopped speaking. Brianna reached for the picture and Esmeralda released it, watching Brianna's expression shift as she studied it with both eyes and hands.

"The picture was something I didn't know about until some time later. At the end of the night, before the bows were taken or the accolades received, Charisma made her way backstage. You have to understand that she was a confirmed first-nighter for every performance I was part of in college. It didn't matter how big or small the part, Charisma was always there for the first night's performance. Everyone learned very quickly who she was and that we were best friends. So by the time our Senior Spring Bonanza rolled around, no one even questioned her right to be backstage before the play was even properly over. She was one of us."

"Okay, so...?" motioning to the photograph Brianna was still absently caressing.

"The moment she got backstage, she wrapped me up in a hug so tight," shaking her head as she waved the picture. "Professor Mac snapped this picture without our knowledge, though he did send me a copy of it later. He commented on what a beautiful couple we were and hoped that we would be able to find happiness together in life."

"What did you tell him?"

"What could I tell him? I knew that was never going to happen. Charisma and I had talked about it and she told me in no uncertain terms that she would never derail her political aspirations for love with a woman... even me." Brianna looked down at the picture again and smiled through her tears. "Es, it was amazing. She surrounded me and I knew I never wanted to be anywhere else but in her arms. In her arms I was safe and sheltered and loved."

"So why did you go to Europe with her? Why didn't you just leave after graduation?"

Brianna's laugh was painfully sad. "It sounds like that would be the smart thing to do, doesn't it? It sounds like it would be so easy." She shook her head again. "I couldn't. I *wanted* that trip with her and the memories it would give me - because I knew there would never be a chance for more. I tried to convince myself that it would be easier to say goodbye if I had something to hang on to." She snorted. "Sometimes I wonder how I've ever been as successful as I've been as a lawyer, because even *I* didn't believe that one."

"And you couldn't just tell her the truth?"

"No more than I can now," her voice bitter.

"Then why are you doing this, Brianna? If she can't accept what's between you, why are you letting her back into your life?" Esmeralda waited patiently for the answer. She wanted Brianna to be sure of what she was doing and why she was doing it. Because if things went wrong this time, there was no next time and no more chances.

"I thought you wanted me to, Es. I thought you wanted us to be friends."

"I think it would be fantastic if you two could be friends again. You're obviously so good together, or you were at one time," motioning to the pictures scattered around the office. "But this isn't about me and what I want. I thought you had decided to move on." She paused a moment. "I want you to be happy, Brianna, and you don't seem very happy about this turn of events. And I feel a little responsible for that since I invited her and Adam to join us Sunday and that seems to be what has precipitated this change of heart for you."

Brianna took a deep breath. "You're right - I had decided to move on, accepting that our friendship was over and nothing but a lost cause as far as she was concerned. Charisma made it abundantly clear she would never forgive me for leaving, even though she refused to acknowledge why. She's still refusing to do that, by the way." Brianna turned and met Esmeralda's eyes, both of them glittering black in the darkness. "Es, have you ever had something you really wanted - even though you knew it was bad for you and was probably going to do more harm than you could possibly live through - have you ever had something like that handed to you? As much as I need Charisma out of my life, I want her there," as if that explained everything.

And maybe to Esmeralda, it did, because she simply nodded her head in acceptance. "Will you tell her the truth? Why you left and why you stayed away?"

"If she asks, I'll tell her. The worst she can do is dismiss me from her life, and I've already lived like that for almost twenty years. And in the meantime, maybe I can make a few more memories to hold onto for the rest of my life."

"You're so sure she'll reject you."

"Yeah, I really am. But I'm like a drug addict and she's my drug of choice. And she will never, ever accept what that means."

"And if by some miracle she does?"

"She won't. But maybe she'll have grown enough to still be my friend."

Esmeralda covered Brianna's hand. "Saphira and I'll be here for you if you ever need to talk."

Brianna squeezed the hand covering hers. "I know. And I appreciate it... so much more than you know. I don't know what I would have done without you both." She turned and noticed the time. "Holy shit! I'm making you obscenely late. Saphira's going to have a duck."

Esmeralda blinked. "Well, that'd be something of a feat, I'm sure," smiling when Brianna burst into laughter.

"Oh Es... you're priceless. C'mon now and let's get this room straightened up. Then I'll give you a lift to the diner. Don't...." she instructed, holding up an imperious hand. "It's my fault you're going to be late regardless of how you get there. So you can just let me give you a ride over so I can explain it to Saphira myself. In fact...." motioning Esmeralda to do her thing. Brianna snatched her cell phone out of her desk and scrolled through her contacts until she found the number she was looking for. A brief phone call later, and.... "All done. Matilda will tell Saphira I am bringing you over because I made you late. Then she won't worry when she sees the car pull up."

"You're pretty slick there, Senator Walker," Esmeralda complimented with a smile, noting Brianna seemed better for having refocused her attention. She wondered what that meant for their earlier discussion, then figured Brianna had probably had all she could stand for now. At least Esmeralda had some idea of what was going on with both of them and both Brianna and Charisma knew she was available if they needed to talk. Then Brianna answered her.

"Lawyer, remember? Slick is my middle name."

"Your mother must have really struggled to come up with that one," she stated deadpanned, eyes twinkling at Brianna's gobsmacked expression. Then she settled down to finish up her work while Brianna wrapped up hers. It was time to go home.

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

"I'm really glad Brianna thought to call," Saphira said as they made their way up the front walk. When they reached the door, Ruby opened it on cue. They turned and waved to Brianna, watching as Jas slowly pulled the car away before they turned to enter the house. Ruby opened the door wider and welcomed them in.

"What are you doing up, Ruby? It's late... we're late."

"I know. I was a little concerned until Jas called and let me know that you were with her." She shrugged when Esmeralda raised an eyebrow waiting for the rest of the explanation. "Jade's here. I'd kind of like to hear what she has to say."

"But you need your sleep too. Ruby, you don't wanna get rundown like I did."

"I won't, Es. I've been napping on the couch."

"All right," shrugging out of her coat and watching Saphira catch it before it hit the floor. "Thank you, Phira," she offered with a smile, then turned to Ruby. "Where's Jade now?" A dirty blonde head stuck itself out of the kitchen door.

"Did somebody call me?"

"Yep, you betcha," Esmeralda replied, smiling when Saphira caught her hand and led her into the kitchen. "Is this going to be a short telling or a long one?" with a look at Jade. "Should we make coffee or stick with milk?"

"I'd stick with the milk. The telling won't take long, and what you do with it.... Well, any debate on that score can certainly wait for a more civilized hour. Though honestly, I'm not sure you can actually *do* anything. I think Kent is gonna do what Kent is gonna do and we're just gonna have to hold on for the fallout."

"Oh boy."



Chapter XLI

"Well, that was enlightening," Esmeralda said as she went into the bathroom. "You know, this could get ugly before all is said and done." She sighed. "I wish I knew what Kent was thinking instead of simply what he was doing. I might have a clue what was coming down the pipeline. As it is...."

"As it is, we know he thinks something is going on with Charisma - enough that he's given up his Sunday and Monday performances to be here surreptitiously to try and figure out for himself what's happening." Saphira pushed her hair away from her forehead, then scrubbed a hand over her face. "Is this what mortals consider a cluster?" she asked seriously. She watched as Esmeralda wiped her face and hung up the towel before turning off the bathroom light and crossing over to the bed. She pulled the covers back and let her shoulders slump.

"I think so. Thing is, I'm not sure if it's our cluster or theirs at this point."

Saphira urged Esmeralda into the bed and tucked her in, then went around to the other side and climbed in. She yanked the blankets up to her waist and crossed her arms over her chest, looking down at Esmeralda who had turned on her side and was propped up on an elbow gazing back at her.

"I gotta tell you, Es - I'm about over this whole 'push me... pull you' routine Charisma and Brianna have got going on here. Seriously, I'm about thiiiiiis close," holding her fingertips less than a millimeter apart, "from just smashing heads and having done with it."

"Saphira...."

"No, Es. I'm serious. As far as I'm concerned, these two have already used every chance they get. I don't think they want to be happy."

"Why would you say that?" Esmeralda asked with a frown.

"Because they could be if they wanted to be. Happy, I mean. Instead, they're choosing to be miserable apart."

"So you don't think they want to be together?"

"I don't know!" Saphira slammed her fists against the mattress. "How do you stand this?"

"Lots of practice?" reaching a hand over to cover the clenched fist closest to her. "Saphira, I know this is frustrating for you. But you have to try to be patient. As far as Brianna and Charisma are concerned, life is suddenly in flux. Things they have taken for granted as fact are suddenly changing."

"Oh c'mon, Es - all they have to do is be honest."

"Easy to say, Sweetheart - not always easy to do... especially if lying to yourself has become a way of life."

Saphira huffed. "So what now?"

Esmeralda shrugged and shifted so she was lying on her back. "We wait and we continue to be their friends. Not much else we can do until they reach a decision."

"And if they make the wrong one?" Saphira asked as she slid down to lay flat on the bed. Then she turned on her side so she could see Esmeralda. Saphira reached out a hand and stroked a lock of hair from Esmeralda's forehead when Esmeralda turned her head to face her. She smiled when Esmeralda brushed a kiss over her pulse point. "Isn't that what got us in this mess to begin with?"

"That's not our call, Phira. As much as we'd like to make the choice for them, they have to determine what is right for them. Because they're gonna have to live with whatever they decide. There won't be anymore chances when this is over."

"And He decides when it's over?"

"No... they do. When they finally make that choice, *then* we'll be done."

"I just don't get their hesitation. We made our choice to be together as soon as it was offered to us."

"Different circumstances, love." She tugged gently on the hand she still held, smiling when Saphira shifted and opened her arms. Esmeralda snuggled into her embrace and they settled down to sleep.

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

The next day was much like the ones that had gone before it, except that Charisma made it a point to speak to Brianna as opposed to avoiding any and all contact with her. It was only a brief meeting in the hallway, but it was enough to remind Brianna just how drastically things had changed between them.

"Senator Walker."

"Senator Tagherty."

They held each other's gaze for a moment before Charisma broke the tableau with an undignified snort. "Okay, this was *not* what I had in mind when I asked if we could renew our friendship. Even if we're going to start over from the beginning, I'm not sure I can do formal, because that puts us back on purely professional footing."

Brianna smirked just the tiniest bit. "Well, it's not like you don't know my name, Charisma."

Charisma smiled. "This is true, Brianna Brianna Walker."

"Just Brianna will be fine, Charisma," Brianna replied softly. She wasn't nearly ready to allow Charisma the intimacy of teasing yet.

The smile fell from Charisma's eyes, knowing they really were starting over from beyond square one, but happy they were being given a second chance at friendship. Still, the smile never left her lips and she nodded gracefully. "All right, Brianna. Are you free for lunch this afternoon?"

Brianna shook her head. "Lunch meeting with Senators Richards and Michaels. Committee stuff. Tomorrow maybe?"

"I'll have Opal call Indi and schedule it."

"Okay," looking at her watch. "I've got to get a move on, but remind me later to ask you how you've put up with this for twenty years."

"Oh, the stories I could tell you."

"I'll just bet. See you tomorrow, Charisma." Then she was down the hall and out of sight before Charisma could make a response. Charisma shrugged and turned back to return to her office.

"It's not much, but it's a start."

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

The following day, they met in the dining room and headed for the small, private table they had shared only a few days before. The same young man returned to take their order, nodding his understanding and leaving them alone as quickly as he could. Though it wasn't tense like it had been before, it was still awkward and he was happy to get away.

Brianna fussed with the place setting, tucking the napkin into place on her lap, then straightening the silverware with military precision. Only Charisma's light touch on her hand caused her to freeze and look up and meet bright blue eyes. She caught her breath, recognizing the same pained confusion she felt and relaxed. Brianna patted the hand covering hers.

"So tell me about Adam," she said, feeling Charisma relax even as she leaned back in her chair with a smile on her face.

"What would you like to know?" unable to keep her eyes from twinkling.

"Everything. He seems to be something of a pistol."

"I'm blaming that on Saphira," Charisma stated emphatically. "Honestly, he was such a calm child before Sunday," watching Brianna's brow rise in disbelief. "I'm not kidding. This was a child whose favorite activity was reading."

"Are we talking about the same child - the one who went streaking through the kitchen naked? The one who tried to take Esmeralda's tongue out of her mouth with potatoey fingers? Charisma, he hadn't even had a chance to play with Saphira at that point. And I seem to remember...."

Charisma narrowed her eyes at Brianna. "You're supposed to be on my side here, you know."

"Who said I wasn't? Now tell me about your son."

Charisma's grin was wide and genuine, and she began to speak about Adam at length. Neither of them noticed when their server interrupted them to place their food down or refilled their drinks. In fact, neither of them was even aware of the passage of time until Opal appeared at the table. Charisma looked up at her in surprise and a frown crossed her face.

"Opal? Is there something...?"

"I'm sorry to intrude, Senator Tagherty? Senator Walker," nodding slightly in Brianna's direction. "I tried to reach you on your phone, but you weren't answering," ignoring the slight flush that colored Charisma's cheeks. "You have an appointment with Senator Long in fifteen minutes, Senator. I didn't want you to miss it."

Charisma's eyes widened. She'd totally forgotten her meeting with the Senate Minority Leader - not good, considering the lengths she'd gone to secure it. She looked at Brianna, who shrugged and motioned her away from the table. Opal took the hint immediately and headed towards the door.

"Go on. I know what a pompous as... windbag that old fart is. If you've got an appointment with him, you don't want to miss it."

Charisma snorted. "I take it you've had to deal with him already?"

"Oh my God, YES. But it's a story that will keep for another day. Go on... before you're late."

"Thanks, Bri. And thanks for the company. I had a great time."

"So did I, Charisma," refusing to give into too much informality too soon.

"So we can do this again?"

"I'd like that," Brianna admitted honestly.

"Good. I'll have Opal talk to Indi to make sure your schedule is clear. OH! And Adam and I'd like you to come over next Sunday. We've invited Es and Saphira to join us as well - which is why it's next Sunday and not this one. I figure they probably need to recuperate from the last one first. Just think about it," Charisma instructed without giving Brianna a chance to reply. "In the meantime...."

"In the meantime, you need to get out of here before you're late."

"See you later?"

"You bet," and Brianna watched Charisma and Opal leave the dining room together. She turned back to her coffee, sipping it slowly as she closed her eyes.

"Well, well..." came an amused voice from behind her. "Aren't the two of you terribly chummy all of a sudden?" Scott Patterson asked. "How'd you manage to melt the Ice Queen?"

Brianna turned around and gave him a mild look. "Excuse me?"

"Come on, Senator. Charisma Tagherty has never been friendly with any of us like she is with you and we've been trying for years. So what's the story?"

"Maybe you should ask her," Brianna replied with a smirk. Patterson chuckled.

"Maybe I will." He put his hands on the back of her chair. "Now c'mon. It's time for our committee meeting," tugging gently until she relented and helped him ease the seat away from the table.

Brianna sighed and rose. "My days seem to be endless committee meetings."

Patterson snorted. "Welcome to Washington."

Brianna rolled her eyes. "I should have stayed home." Then she laughed at the scandalized look Patterson wore. "Get over it, Scott," she admonished as they headed out the door. "I didn't run for my seat, remember? It doesn't mean I won't do my best for the people of my state while I'm here, but it doesn't mean I'm all that thrilled to be here either."

Patterson stared at her with something akin to amazement on his face. Then he shook his head and led the way out the door.

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

The weekend passed quietly for everyone, much to Esmeralda's relief. They saw Mal briefly, but it was mostly to confirm what they already knew - Kent was in town, but Charisma had no knowledge of his visit. He wasn't doing anything except watching Charisma, but according to both Mal and Amber, there was nothing to see.

Charisma had spent her Saturday looking over legislation, making phone calls and generally doing what she did during the rest of the week. And Sunday was dedicated to time with Adam. They read and played chase and made lunch and took a nap. And after a bath, after Adam had been rocked and read to and hummed to sleep, only then did Charisma go to her study.

Kent observed as she poured herself a glass of wine and moved to the sofa. For a while she simply sat, staring into the fireplace, watching the flames snap and flicker. Only when her glass was empty did she shift her attention away from the fire. She turned to the coffee table and lifted the album from the place it had been sitting since the previous Sunday when she'd shared it with Adam.

Once more she opened the book and simply gazed at the pictures within. Kent watched until Charisma fell asleep, still holding the book cradled in her arms. Then he left and headed back to the City.

Otherwise, the days were unexceptional and everyone took the chance to rest and relax and gear up for the coming week.

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

Charisma and Brianna met again for lunch on Monday afternoon, amidst a flurry of appointments and meetings. It was a welcome bit of respite in an otherwise hectic day, and both women were glad for the downtime. It was made nicer by the chance to spend it together, though neither of them was particularly willing to admit that fact aloud to the other.

When Esmeralda came by much later that evening, they were both anxious to talk and Esmeralda was more than willing to listen. And once she did, she was anxious to share with Saphira.

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

"Essie... c'mon in here," Matilda beckoned as Saphira held open the door to the diner for her to enter. "I've got something new I want you to try."

Esmeralda allowed Saphira to take her coat even as she cast a questioning glance her way. Saphira barely shrugged, shaking her head. "I dunno," she whispered in Esmeralda's ear as she brushed a kiss over the soft cheek under her lips. She felt the trembling in Esmeralda's frame and pulled back to stare at her with concerned eyes. "You all right?"

"Busy night," she responded softly, though not soft enough for Matilda not to hear.

"Must have been a good busy," she commented as she brought her latest concoction out of the window where Joe stood watching the three of them with a grin on his face. "You've got color in your cheeks, and I don't think it's from the cold." Matilda raised a hand to Esmeralda's forehead, then leaned forward and kissed it. "I don't think you've got fever either."

Esmeralda smiled and captured Matilda's hand in her own. "No fever," she promised. "Just a good night and we got plenty of rest this weekend, which helped a lot, I think."

"Yeah, Saphira told us about that little hellion of that Senator friend of yours. That little guy sounds like quite a handful," Matilda added as she put the plate in front of Esmeralda.

"He is, but he's a good kid. I think he just liked having a grown-up playmate."

Three sets of eyes turned to look at Saphira, whose eyes grew wide as she returned their stares. "Whaaaaat?" she whined. "I didn't do nothin'," she complained, sitting down next to Esmeralda and picking up a fork before digging into the potpie with single-minded focus.

"Give it up, Saphira," Joe admonished with a laugh. "We all know better."

"So what do you think?" Matilda asked after they had eaten for a few minutes. "It must be pretty good - you're actually eating. Or are you feeling better?"

Esmeralda smiled. "I am feeling better, but this is really good too. Are you adding it to the menu as a blue plate special?"

"I'm thinking about it. Opinion?"

Esmeralda chewed slowly, her eyes thoughtful. "I would," she finally said. "But I wouldn't do it too often. This should be a special blue plate special - you know... the kind that only gets offered once in a while because of the work involved in preparing it. Because if I'm guessing right, this took hours, if not a couple days, didn't it?"

Joe nodded. "It did." He looked at Saphira who was methodically making inroads on her portion. "What do you think?"

"I think this is really good, and I would like to selfishly keep it all for myself," she replied with a grin. "But I think it will do well if you put it on the board."

"All right then," Matilda said. "You two finish up while I wrap you up a piece of pie to go. You need to get home and get to bed and so do the old man and I. We don't want you losing that color in your cheeks," she added, shaking a finger at Esmeralda.

"You're a sweetheart, Matilda. God will be good to you for looking out for us."

"Maybe. I'll just be happy for you to keep coming round. That's thanks enough."

Esmeralda smiled. "You just like hearing all the good gossip," she teased.

"That too. Now c'mon," noticing Esmeralda had stopped eating. "Let me box this up so you two can go home. I'm sure you've got more interesting things to do than talk to old folks like me and Joe all night." And in minutes, she had shooed them out the door headed home.

"I doubt this is the interesting Matilda had in mind," Esmeralda said as they soundlessly entered the house and made their way straight to the kitchen. "But do I have a lot to tell you."

Saphira chuckled. "You heat the water and I'll go turn on the blanket. Then we can curl up together while you share what happened tonight."

"You've got yourself a date, Sweetheart."



Chapter XLII

"So things are moving satisfactorily then?" Saphira asked as she set their cups on the nightstand. Esmeralda nodded slowly.

"At least things are moving forward. They're at different places with this whole state of affairs between them - Charisma seems nervous and unsure and yet she's become the pursuer, determined to have Brianna as part of her life again. Brianna is more resigned to the whole situation; she's not moving away from it, but she seems unwilling to advance it at the moment either. She believes it will eventually come back to bite her in the ass, so she's willing to take what she can get from Charisma until Charisma learns the truth. She's convinced that circumstance will remove her from Charisma's life completely and for good."

"I don't understand why she doesn't stand up and fight for what she wants. Isn't she sick and tired of always giving in to what she thinks is best for Charisma? Why not fight for them to be together if it'll make them both happy?"

"I dunno, love," Esmeralda shrugged. "Maybe we'll be able to figure it out a little better next Sunday. We've been invited to Charisma's and Brianna is supposed to be there. Charisma thinks our presence will make it easier for them to become friends again."

Saphira pinched the bridge of her nose. "I feel a headache coming on," she mumbled, smiling when she felt Esmeralda's lips brush against her temple.

"I totally understand," tugging gently on Saphira's arm until they were laying flat on the bed. "On the plus side, it is progress."

"And on the down side is they're gonna drive us all nuts in the meantime," Saphira postulated darkly.

Esmeralda snorted. "Not a very far trip for most of us, Phira."

"I know - I wouldn't even make it out of the driveway most days."

Their chuckles were silent and they fell asleep with smiles on their faces.

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

It was Thursday before Charisma and Brianna had the chance to get together for lunch again, and Charisma blessed her foresight in having Opal and Indi coordinate things between them. There was a big push to get as much done as possible before the upcoming holiday break and every minute of the day seemed to be crowded with things that just couldn't wait. Even lunches became more like meetings and less like mealtimes, so Charisma was especially thankful to have a little time carved out that *wasn't* dedicated to more politics.

It floored her to realize she was more than a little put out by the political machinations that seemed determined to keep her and Brianna apart and wondered when and why her priorities had changed so drastically. After all... politics had been her life her whole life, and she'd done without Brianna's presence for almost twenty years after only having it for four.

Still, she was honest enough with herself to recognize the resentment she felt. She didn't take the time to examine it any further, but she knew it for what it was.

So it was with a big smile on her face that she entered the dining room on Thursday afternoon to find Brianna there ahead of her and waiting at what was quickly becoming their usual table. She nodded to their regular attendant and made her way across the room....

... only to be stopped by a junior senator from one of her committees that wanted her input on a late piece of legislation he was putting together. Brianna watched the exchange with interest, knowing from their long history together that Charisma was politely flaying him alive. Given the expression on the man's face when he turned - a mix of fury, embarrassment and humiliation - Brianna glanced to see if there was a wet spot on his trousers. Then she turned her attention to Charisma whose appearance was one of supreme satisfaction.

"Should I ask?" Brianna queried as Charisma pulled out her chair and took a seat.

"Depends," Charisma smirked. "Do you really want to know?"

"If I was a gambler," Brianna commented slowly as she sipped from her water glass, "I'd say he was asking for inappropriate favors."

Charisma snorted. "He's not quite *that* stupid. He just doesn't seem to think the rules of courtesy should apply to him." At Brianna's interested look, Charisma sighed and crossed her legs before leaning back in the chair and propping her face on her fingers. "He believes he can demand because he thinks he needs and everyone around him will capitulate."

"He expected you to have lunch with him at a moment's notice?"

"Uh huh," Charisma drawled as their server approached the table. She motioned him forward. "And I wasn't going to give up the time with you because he waited until the last minute to decide he wanted input so he could offer some legislation for consideration."

"Was it important... the legislation?"

Charisma shrugged. "No more or less than anything else we're deliberating at the moment." She turned and gave her order to the young man and waited for Brianna to do the same. Then they waited for him to scurry off before resuming their conversation.

"So how've you been otherwise?" Brianna asked seriously. "Indi told me it was like pulling teeth to get this lunch scheduled."

"You'd know... your schedule has been about the same as mine."

"Without the child and the marital responsibilities," Brianna pointed out, but before Charisma could comment on either of those, she continued speaking. "But yeah - it's been a little nuts."

This time Charisma's laugh was full-bodied and caused several heads to twist in their direction in surprise. Brianna noted the looks of amazement that she was given, but they had all gone back to their own business by the time Charisma calmed enough to wipe the tears out of her eyes.

"Oh my God, Bri... I had forgotten what a master of understatement you were. And that reminds me," she added, staring at Brianna and watching the blonde brow go up in question. "Rumor has it you're stirring up quite a pot lately."

Now both brows jumped into her hairline and Brianna wanted to pat the top of her head to ensure that they didn't actually leap off her head and go running out the door. Instead she frowned, scrunching them together just above her nose.

"I beg your pardon?"

The waiter chose that moment to make an appearance and they waited for him to deliver their food and move away from the table. Charisma picked up her fork and took a bite, chewing thoughtfully and motioning Brianna to do the same. Brianna picked up her fork and arched her brow.

"It's making the rounds that you told Scott Patterson to get over himself."

Brianna choked on the food in her mouth and quickly snatched up her water and took a swallow, hoping to force the bite down the correct hole. Fortunately for her it worked, and after a couple deep breaths, she set the water back on the table and raised her napkin to her lips.

"Excuse me?" she croaked. "I never told Scott Patterson any such thing."

"You must have said something."

"Oh, I said plenty. I told him if he wanted to know how I melted the Ice Queen - that would be you, in this case - he'd have to ask you himself. Because I certainly wasn't going to explain to him or anyone else here that you've never been an Ice Queen as far as I'm concerned. Then I told him to get over the fact that this job isn't the be all and end all for me." Brianna absently chewed on the tines of her fork as her eyes went distant. "He seemed a little offended by that, actually." Charisma's grunt brought Brianna's attention back to the table and she shrugged. "Well, it's true... all of it."

"Oh I know... better than most actually. I still wonder how you ended up here if you want to know the truth. Not that you're not completely qualified or that you're doing a poor job," added quickly when she saw Brianna's brow fly upwards. "It's just you made it clear in college you had no interest in this life. It's just a little weird is all... especially after you just disappeared."

"I didn't disappear, Charisma," Brianna stated sharply, eyes burning with a hint of anger.

"You did," Charisma argued, but held up her hands in a sign of peace to keep Brianna from replying. "But that's a discussion for another time and place. Besides, you don't think it's a little odd how we ended up here together... despite everything?"

Brianna bit back the anger and frustration she felt and tilted her head at Charisma as she observed her thoughtfully. "Do you believe in fate?" she finally asked.

Charisma used the time it took for their server to clear the table and pour them cups of coffee to consider her answer. When he left, she stirred it slowly, watching the swirls absently for a long time before meeting Brianna's eyes. "I don't think there's a good way to answer that question. I don't believe in predestination, but I do believe fate occasionally takes a hand in our lives."

Brianna blinked. "You do realize you just contradicted yourself, right?" she asked drolly. "If something is fated, it's predestined - you can't escape it."

"I don't believe that," Charisma frowned. "Sometimes fate taking a hand means giving us a choice. But we have to make the choice... and we have to live with the consequences that follow."

"Perhaps," Brianna conceded, pushing back her chair and rising from the seat. "However, that discussion will have to wait as well," glancing at her watch. "I've got to get back to work and I imagine you do as well."

Charisma blew out a breath. "Yes, actually," she agreed a little shortly. "We'll see you on Sunday?"

"Of course," Brianna concurred. "I told you I'd be there."

"Good - Adam's excited," Charisma confessed as they started making their way out of the dining room. "He reminded me again this morning that you were good."

Brianna crinkled up her nose trying to contain her laughter in her wide smile. "What does that mean exactly and where did he get it?"

"I don't know, but my son does seem to be an inherently excellent judge of character, so enjoy it. Oh... and you might want to watch your back."

"Okay," Brianna drawled slowly, glad they were currently alone in the hall. "Why?"

"That response you gave Patterson? It's not the best way to win friends and influence people in this town."

"And do I want to do that?"

"If you want to survive, you're going to have to at some point."

"Then allow me to return the favor. I know you're popular among the constituents of our fair state, but you're seen as aloof and untouchable by a lot of your peers here."

"I know. But I have solid friends in the places I need them." Charisma took one of Brianna's hands in hers and patted it gently with her other one before covering it. "Thank you - for caring enough...."

"I never stopped caring, Charisma," Brianna replied, then bit her lip to keep from saying anything else. Charisma stared at Brianna for a long moment, but when she didn't offer anything further, she squeezed her hand once more then released her hold.

"Me either," she tendered as a parting shot, then turned and entered her office. Brianna waited until the door closed behind her, then blew out an aggravated breath and continued down the hall to her own. There was still work to be done.

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

"Es? Do you believe in destiny?"

Esmeralda blinked as she got hit with that question the moment she stepped into Brianna's office much later that evening, but she didn't let it slow her stride. She parked her cart and took out the items she needed, setting them on top. She grabbed the duster first and started making her way around the room slowly as she considered her reply. Brianna let her be, knowing she'd been heard and that Esmeralda would give her answer as soon he she had one formulated.

"I dunno," Esmeralda eventually said. "I guess I do about some things, but not so much about others."

Brianna tilted her head and tapped her pen on the blotter, frowning a little. "I don't understand."

Esmeralda chuckled softly. "I'm not sure I can explain it." She cleared her throat. "I absolutely believe Saphira and I were meant to be together - that no matter what reality we'd been born into, we'd have found one another because we're supposed to be. On the other hand, I don't think that our being here... in the situation we're in... is anything other than our choice - the result of the decisions we made."

"So our lives are a little bit of fate or destiny or God and a lot about what we do with what we're given." A statement... not a question.

Esmeralda shrugged. "I think so," continuing to dust - first around Brianna to get to the desk and then back behind it to take care of the pictures that Brianna was apparently studying. Brianna remained silent and Esmeralda didn't pause, not wanting to interrupt whatever thoughts Brianna was having. Instead when she was done, she went back over to her cart and retrieved the polish. She was almost done, packing up her supplies to leave the office when Brianna swiveled in her chair and met Esmeralda's eyes.

"I hear you and Saphira are going to be at Charisma's on Sunday," she said with a light smile, though the twinkle in her eyes couldn't hide her concern.

Esmeralda smiled back. "Yeah - I have been given the impression that Adam covets Saphira as a playmate - he wants to share his toys with her." Brianna laughed.

"I think he just wants another chance to streak through the house naked." She looked at Esmeralda seriously. "Are you sure you're up for it, Es? You seem kind of tired again," not mentioning her sallow skin-tone or her run-down appearance.

"Do you not want us there, Brianna?"

"I am simply concerned, my friend. You haven't been well and I know the cold weather isn't helping. I don't want to contribute to anything that is going to slow down your recovery."

Esmeralda's smile was real and genuine. "I appreciate that, Brianna, but I can't stop living just because my recovery is slower than I want it to be. Imagine all the things I'd miss. It's gonna take time before I'm completely well and there's stuff to do in the meantime. Besides, when the senators go on holiday break, so does the custodial staff," motioning to herself. "I'll have plenty of time then to rest and recover some more."

"If you're sure."

"I am, Brianna, but thank you for caring."

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

"How do you feel about fate, Es?" Charisma asked as she crossed the threshold. This time she did stop and met Charisma's eyes squarely.

"Did you and Brianna talk recently?"

Charisma chuckled. "She asked you the same thing?"

"Something very similar."

"And what did you tell her?"

"I believe in Fate about some things, but not so much about others."

"How so?"

Once again Esmeralda explained her thoughts as she cleaned the office, noting that Charisma seemed to be intently focused on what she was saying. When she was done speaking, silence reined for some time while Charisma contemplated what she'd said. Esmeralda continued to work, more tired than she'd been willing to admit to Brianna.

"I agree with you," Charisma admitted after a while. "I think there's a little of one and a lot of the other. And it's usually the other that gets us into trouble." She bit her lip. "Sometimes I wonder if mankind would have been better off with a predetermined destiny instead of free will."

"But wouldn't that make us like the animals, Charisma? Having only ingrained behavior without a choice?"

"Maybe." She crossed her arms over her chest and cocked an eyebrow in Esmeralda's direction. Esmeralda returned the look and Charisma snickered. "You're something else, Es. Do you think sometimes Fate gives us a second chance?"

"I know it does," Esmeralda affirmed. "That I'm here is proof of that."

Charisma waited until Esmeralda had put the last of her cleaning tools away, then stepped up beside her. She cupped her cheek and looked into her green eyes. "I'm glad," she assured Esmeralda. "But you're also exhausted, so I'm going to give you a ride home tonight."

"But Saphira...."

"I'll get the number to the diner and we'll call her to let her know we'll be by in a few minutes."

Esmeralda searched the blue eyes that held her gaze and finally closed her eyes in relief as she nodded. "Thank you, Charisma."

"You're welcome, Es," not letting on how disturbed she was that the younger woman was giving in without a fight. "Are you sure you're going to be up to coming over Sunday?"

"As I reminded Brianna earlier - I get to rest when you go on break. I'll be fine as long as you're sure you want us there."

"Always," without hesitation. "Now come on. It's time to get you home."



Chapter XLIII

The next two days passed without incident or even interaction. Charisma and Brianna were going hard and long both days in opposite directions. Esmeralda didn't actually see either of them either day. While there was evidence that they were both still working when she entered their offices, neither of them made an appearance while she was cleaning and she was too tired to go looking for them. However, since she knew she'd see them on Sunday, she simply did her work and headed out.

So now it was Sunday morning and she and Saphira were sleeping in, knowing Charisma had arranged for Turq to bring them over in time for an early luncheon with Brianna. They had no idea when Brianna was due to arrive, but were happy at this point to cede all the planning to Charisma.

Saphira awoke first, and spent the first few minutes simply holding Esmeralda and breathing her in. She brushed a tender kiss over Esmeralda's forehead and smiled when Esmeralda mewed in her sleep before curling up more tightly into her. She closed her eyes and breathed a prayer before the sound of the bedroom door opening brought her attention back to her surroundings. She craned her neck, brow furrowing when she saw Ruby hesitantly poke her head into the room. Saphira cocked an eyebrow in Ruby's direction, then jerked her head just slightly to encourage Ruby to enter the room fully. Ruby looked at the two of them tangled up together and noted Esmeralda's stillness.

"Is she all right?" Ruby asked in the barest whisper, lifting her hand and gently pushing a lock of hair away from Esmeralda's cheek. She took a seat on the bed at Saphira's behest.

"As well as she has been, Ruby," Saphira replied shortly. Ruby covered Saphira's hand with her own and squeezed it lightly and Saphira dropped her eyes back to Esmeralda. "Sorry, Ruby. It's just...."

"No worries, kid," Ruby said with a teasing grin, eliciting the glare she hoped for though the worry never left her eyes. "At least she's got some serious time off coming up soon, right? She doesn't have to go to work when Congress goes on their holiday break, does she?"

"No, and no one's looking forward to that more than I am. Heaven knows it can't be anything but good for her to have nothing to do for a few weeks but rest and try to get caught up."

"You gonna want me to cover your shifts for you? So you can stay home with her?" Ruby offered.

Saphira tightened her fingers around the hand that still clutched her and shook her head. "I appreciate it, Ruby... more than you can possibly know. But you know and I know that we can't do that. As frustrated and aggravated and furious as I am about everything, I'd never put Es in more danger by flaunting the rules like that."

"I know, Saphira, but I think she might need you to help her heal."

Saphira shrugged as much as she was able. "Maybe, but we'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. Now was there something you needed?"

"Not really. I wanted to check on the two of you and I needed to let you know that Turq said she was available whenever you're ready to head over to Charisma's, but not to rush. We all know Es needs to rest and I'm sure your friends know it as well - Turq and Jas both told me about bringing you two home this week. The girls and I will be around the house today for a little while at least. With the weather a little warmer today than it's been, we'll probably go out and run a few errands this afternoon."

"You all go do whatever needs doing - even if that just means getting out and enjoying the fresh air and sunshine for a little while. Es and I'll be fine."

"Is there anything we can get you? Anything we can take care of?"

Saphira shook her head. "Not that I can think of, but if Es comes up with anything, we'll let you know. Today is mostly about helping Charisma and Brianna feel more comfortable together," Saphira added with a wry twist to her lips. "Not really sure how that's supposed to work, but then not much about this whole process makes a lot of sense to me either."

Ruby chuckled and patted the hand she still held before removing her clasp. "Honestly, Saphira? I'm not sure the whole process makes much sense to anyone but Him, but we don't question His ways. We simply do our jobs and hope for the best."

"Doesn't that make you nuts?" Saphira asked seriously. "Don't you ever wish you could be more proactive? And what about when things go awry?"

Ruby gave Esmeralda an uneasy glance, noting that she was still sleeping deeply despite the whispered conversation taking place around her. She wondered briefly how she'd ended up as part of this particular discussion, knowing better than most what a hot-button topic this could easily become.

"Sometimes," Ruby responded thoughtfully. "Sometimes it would be very satisfying to go in and beat a couple heads in to get the results we wanted without all the games and politics involved, for lack of a better way to put it," she confided. "Because there are politics involved in every mission... just usually not overtly or to this degree," she added with a small smile. "But since human beings have free will, we don't get the option to do that - we can only put forth the opportunity... they have to make the choice. Even if we *were* able to compel the consequence we desired, free will means they could easily reverse any outcome we achieved by force."

"Well I have to tell you, Rube - I pretty much think this way sucks. Especially since you can't even guarantee the outcome to be what you want it to be."

"I know. And it's harder for an avenging angel like yourself to appreciate this kind of work. It pretty much goes against the grain of every instinct you've got."

Saphira snorted... then stilled when Esmeralda shifted against her. "No kidding," she finally muttered when Esmeralda settled against her again. "But I'll do it for Es for the rest of my eternal life if it means we stay together."

Ruby cocked her head. "Maybe that is what Charisma and Brianna need to discover." She rose and backed away from the bed slowly, finding the doorknob unerringly without moving her eyes from Saphira's. "Go back to sleep, Saphira. Es needs the rest and it won't hurt you any either."

"Yes MOM," Saphira lipped, but the suggestion made her eyes start drooping without her conscious permission. "You'll let us know...."

"If anything happens, you'll be the first to hear," Ruby assured her. "But in the mean time...."

"I'm goin', I'm goin'," Saphira protested sleepily.

"Good girl," earning her a menacing glare from baleful blue eyes, but before Ruby could do much more than chuckle, the eyes closed and Saphira's breathing evened out in sleep. Ruby watched them for a minute longer, then let herself out of the room. Then she went to the kitchen to see what she could make up for comfort food, wanting to have something ready for them when they got up. Maybe things would make a little more sense then.

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

Kent glowered at his watch as the train pulled into the station. Not for the first time did he wonder about his sanity in doing this. Still, he was convinced there was something going on with Charisma whether she would admit it or not and he wanted to know what it was. He figured he deserved that much truth.

He ran a hand over his face, wincing at the rough stubble. It made for good subterfuge, but it also made his face itch terribly. He grabbed his overnight bag and pulled his ball cap a little lower over his eyes, fairly confident he wouldn't garner a second look here, but unwilling to risk recognition either. Because despite everything he knew and everything he suspected, he still cared very much for Charisma... both as his wife and as the mother of his child. He had no desire to embarrass her or damage the reputation she'd spent years cultivating.

Kent crossed the street and unlatched the gate, walking directly to the garden house in the back even as he gave thanks for fraternity brothers who didn't ask questions. He let himself in, dropping his bag on the table and crossing to the coffeemaker to start it brewing. Then he headed for the bathroom to take a quick shower before heading to Charisma's.

He idly noted just how accurate that assessment was - while the Manhattan apartment was definitely his, the house here in Washington absolutely belonged to Charisma. Kent wondered how they had managed to stay together as long as they had... considering how completely separate their lives really were. Then he shook his head and stuck it beneath the running water to rinse the shampoo, hoping to drown out the thoughts what were starting to go round like a whirligig. There was nothing productive in continuing down that particular path... at least not right now.

By the time he was showered and dressed his coffee was ready and he poured himself a cup and stepped outdoors. It was still chilly, but not with the bite in the air that had been present the weekend before. Kent was grateful for that. He didn't want to wind up with frostbite while he was doing surveillance on his wife. That would be a hell of a thing to have to explain to anyone and Kent wasn't sure whether Charisma or the authorities would be worse... though he suspected that honor would fall to Charisma.

So he stood on the back patio, well-insulated against the cold with his hands wrapped around his coffee mug for added warmth. He could just make out a landmark or two in the distance and wondered again how he'd come to this. It wasn't that he hated the capital - it had a life and a vibrancy all its own. But it couldn't compare to the throbbing pulse that pounded through Manhattan like a living entity.

Still, if he was wrong, he would be happy to continue living here with his family - going back to New York for only short periods of time to work when the mood struck him. As Adam got older, that would probably be more frequently. He wanted to introduce his son to the wonder and magic of the City that more than anywhere else in the world was home to him.

With a sigh, Kent finished up the remainder of his coffee and returned indoors, rinsing out his cup and placing it in the sink before snatching up the thick leather coat and grabbing the keys from the table. Then he went to the garage and climbed into the tiny car his friend had loaned him and set off for the house he and Charisma shared here.

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

Adam ran into his mother's room and jumped on the bed, not landing *on* her, but near enough that she groaned at being jolted awake. He giggled and pulled the pillow away from her face, squealing when long fingers crept out from beneath the covers that swaddled his mother to tickle his sides unmercifully. After a minute or two, however, Charisma relented, knowing if she wasn't careful, Adam would end up having an accident in her bed. And she didn't want that for his sake as much as for her own.

She pushed the blankets down under her arms and pushed the hair back from her face, smiling when Adam scooted up the bed to help. Then he cupped her cheek with one small hand. "Br'anna come today?" he asked seriously. Charisma smiled softly at him.

"Yes, and Es and Saphira too."

"Good!" he exclaimed promptly. "When?"

Charisma turned to the clock, nearly groaning when she realized just how early it was. She grabbed Adam and tucked him in next to her. "Not for a little while yet. Maybe we should rest up before they get here."

Adam looked at her dubiously, then closed his eyes and yawned when she started rubbing his belly. It only took a moment, and he was sleeping again. Charisma stared unguardedly at his innocence for a long moment, then closed her eyes and joined him.

From her spot in the corner, Amber just shook her head and grinned.

***********

It really wasn't that much later when Charisma awoke the second time and she lay still wondering what had woken her. She listened carefully, but there was no sound to be heard other than Adam's breathing and the ceiling fan that whirred overhead. She sat up and stretched, then rose from the bed, tucking Adam in carefully before she moved to the bathroom to get ready for her day.

By the time she was done, Adam was awake and by the time he was ready, it was past time for breakfast. They made it downstairs and had a small bit of breakfast before Charisma bundled them up. Then they went outside to burn off some energy before their company for the day arrived.

It was to this scene that Brianna arrived. She had been hesitant to arrive too early, though Charisma had been less that forthcoming about an arrival time. All she'd been able to get out of the woman was 'come early and plan to stay past lunch'.

So she'd leisurely risen and eaten breakfast, checking email and looking over some notes from her friends and former colleagues. Then she decided a nice, decadent soak in the tub would go a long way towards helping her relax, and it had done so well, she'd almost fallen asleep in the water.

Still once that was taken care of, she really didn't have much to do without turning to work for a diversion, and more than anything, she didn't want to work today. So she put in a call to Jas and soon they were on their way to Charisma's for lunch.

Adam spotted her first and he didn't even hesitate. Instead he ran directly towards her, trusting her to make sure she caught him when he lunged for her.

"BR'ANNA!!" he shouted as he leapt into her arms.

"Hey, Little Man!" Brianna replied with a hug, holding him firmly as he latched on with both arms and legs. "How ya doing?" smiling when he laughed.

"GOOD!" Adam shouted and Charisma winced in sympathy with Brianna's, knowing how that hurt. Brianna kissed the top of his head and lowered him to the ground, expecting him to run back towards his mother. Brianna tilted her head at him when he held onto her hand.

"Adam?"

"Br'anna stay," he maintained with a fierce scowl. Brianna chuckled and tousled his hair.

"I'm staying, Adam. But maybe we should go over to your mom. She looks kind of lonely."

Adam didn't release her hand - instead he started pulling Brianna along with him, still screaming at the top of his lungs. ''MAMA!"

Charisma's eyes met Brianna's and they shook their head in reaction before chuckling. Charisma jerked her head towards the house and invited, "Would you like to go inside?"

Brianna bit her lip thoughtfully and looked around. "Not really," she confessed. "It's so nice out... unless Es and Saphira are inside and waiting for us?" she queried.

"Not at all. I told them to take the time they needed this morning. Es is looking tired again and I don't want to be the reason she's run down." Charisma shook her head. "I'm worried about her."

Brianna nodded. "So am I. I wish there was something we could do for them. They're good people - they been good friends."

"I know, but we both know they won't take charity." She met the green eyes studying her so intensely. "Maybe between us we can come up with a way to help that won't step on their pride too much."

"I'd like that," Brianna agreed.

Charisma nodded. "We'll work on it. In the meantime - DUCK!" Charisma yelled with a laugh, but not quickly enough for Brianna to evade the large plastic rubber ball that hit her squarely in the back of the head. She stuck her tongue out at Charisma, then turned to find Adam standing behind her laughing. She grabbed the ball from where it had rolled, and slowly started stalking him with an evil smile. Adam took one look at her face and screeched, running as fast as his legs would carry him to hide behind his mother.

Charisma's eyes widened when she saw Brianna's focus change and she took off running, severely hindered by the child she now carried in her arms. Brianna took that into account as she gently lobbed it in their direction, hitting both mother and son in the face before she took off running in the opposite direction.

Adam howled in laughter. Charisma just looked gobsmacked by the fact that Brianna had actually *deliberately* hit her with the ball. She set Adam down on his feet and whispered in his ear. Then her expression turned feral and she snatched up the ball while Adam went running after Brianna.

It was SO on.

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

There was much screaming and hollering that could be heard all the way to the gate when Turq pulled up in the car. She exchanged glances with both Esmeralda and Saphira, then drove through and up towards the house. When they arrived, they shared looks again, but these were filled with mirth.

In the middle of the lawn were two sprawled bodies with Adam running back and forth between them. He was bouncing the ball off of each of them in turn, laughing and shrieking every time one of them reached for him, then scampering back to the other. When he saw the car, he dropped the ball and ran towards it.

"ADAM!" both Charisma and Brianna screamed, but they were too far away to do anything but watch.

Saphira was out before Turq could stop, yanking him out of its path and into her arms without missing a beat. Turq slammed on the brakes where she was and waited for her heart to slow before she put the car in park and slid out from behind the driver's seat to help Esmeralda out.

"You all right?" she asked, sotto voce. Esmeralda merely nodded. They turned to Saphira who held Adam and she nodded as well. Then they all turned to find Charisma and Brianna running back up the hill, and Saphira placed Adam in Charisma's arms as soon as she reached them.

"Everyone all right?" she asked after hugging Adam tightly for a moment. When she got affirmatives from everyone, she turned to Saphira and Turq. "Thank you... both of you," she said on a shaky breath. "I don't know what I would have done...."

"Don't think about it, Ri," Brianna instructed. "Nothing good can happen going down that road."

"She's right," Esmeralda stated firmly.

Charisma took a deep breath and nodded, then she cleared her throat. "Shall we go inside for a while, then? I thought we'd have fondue for lunch."

"That sounds lovely," Esmeralda assured her with a smile. "I love fondue and it will give us plenty of time to visit with each other."

"And before you ask," Charisma assured them all with a shaky smile. "Adam is getting a PB&J - it's his favorite."

"Mine too," they all agreed and headed inside chuckling.



Chapter XLIV

"Senator Tagherty?" Turq's voice made them all pause and turn back to find her still standing next to the car. Charisma crossed to meet her, extending her free hand to Turq who accepted it with alacrity, squeezing it briefly before releasing it again. "Is there anything else, Senator?"

"Oh... God no, Turq. What you did...."

"I'm glad I was able to, Senator. Are you certain there's nothing else I can do? Perhaps call Ame?"

"I hate to do that. She's supposed to be off." She gave Turq a wry look. "Of course... so are you." She sighed deeply then nodded. "Give her a call - if she can come over for a few hours, I'd count it as a favor."

"Yes ma'am," Turq said as she pulled out her phone. "Do you want me to stay...?"

Charisma shook her head. "No, no. If Ame's agreeable, bring her over and you can have the rest of the day. If you're shaking like I am...." burying her nose in Adam's hair for a moment.

"Mama!!" pointing imperiously towards Brianna before turning and grabbing at the buttons on Charisma's shirt. She covered his hand.

"Son, give Mama a minute, all right?" He turned his attention to her hand, playing with her fingers. She looked back at Turq. "I'll ask Brianna to take Es and Saphira home. I'm sure she won't mind."

Turq nodded. "As you say, Senator," raising the phone to her ear and relaying her request to Ame. It only took a minute and she was nodding Ame's agreement to Charisma and sliding behind the wheel of the car. Charisma watched her take off, then headed back to the house to join the friends who waited by the front door.

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

"MAMA! DOWN!!" Adam shrilled as they entered the door, twisting as he tried to pull away. Charisma gasped and hugged him to her harder. "MAMA!!"

"ADAM!" Brianna said firmly, but just loud enough to be heard. Everyone froze and Adam turned big blue eyes towards her, then lunged, scrambling up Charisma's body. "No," Brianna instructed him quietly. He stuck his finger in the side of his mouth, then reached for her again. She held up a finger and shook her head. "No, Adam," she reiterated kindly. "You scared your mama and now you're hurting her."

Adam leaned back so he could look at Charisma, blinking when he saw tears in her eyes. Gently he patted her face. "Mama scared? Love mama," he whispered, throwing his arms around her neck.

"Love you too, Little Man," Charisma replied, hugging him tightly once more and kissing the top of his head. He returned the kiss to her cheek sloppily when she loosened her hold.

"Mama good," he said with a cheerful laugh.

"Your mama is very good," Brianna assured him, putting one hand on Charisma's back and the other on Adam's. She turned to look Charisma in the eye. "How about I take him for a few minutes? I'll get him cleaned up while you get his lunch ready. He'll be safe with me, Ri - I promise. I'd never...."

Charisma nodded. "I know you wouldn't, Bri," patting the hand that rested on Adam's back. "Are you sure...?"

"Yeah," Brianna pledged as she shifted Adam into her arms. "We'll go wash up for lunch and maybe have a little talk about running in front of a moving vehicle. Thank God for swift reflexes," giving Saphira a look.

"No kidding," Charisma muttered. "Thanks, Bri. I...."

"I know," Brianna responded compassionately with a smile. "Now go get lunch started," she commanded with a strained chuckle. "I'm starving."

"Me too," Esmeralda agreed. "Can I give you a hand?" she offered Charisma. "I'm pretty sure Saphira and Brianna can manage Adam. Maybe with two of them he won't go streaking through the house."

Charisma's laughter was stressed, but it was the best she could do under the circumstances. Still she nodded gamely and took Esmeralda's arm. "Maybe I should lay out some towels... just in case." She turned back to the two women standing in the hallway with Adam cradled between them. "There's a half bath down the hall on the left," motioning past her and Esmeralda. "And there are several full baths including Adam's upstairs if you really want to risk it."

Saphira and Brianna traded looks and shook their heads simultaneously. "We'll stick with the downstairs for now. It shouldn't take you *that* long to fix a PB&J." Saphira turned back to meet Brianna's eyes and gestured her towards the bathroom. "After you, Senator Walker."

Brianna glared. "You're just trying to start something, aren't you?" she growled, causing Adam to laugh at the sound she was making. Saphira's eyes widened innocently.

"Me??" pointing to her chest. "I've never tried to start something in my whole life," making Brianna howl in relief at her nonsense. Charisma couldn't help but chuckle at the look of wounded outrage reflected on Saphira's face, and though she knew they were carrying on ridiculously to lighten the still-tense atmosphere, she could feel her muscles starting to uncoil and relax. When Saphira stuck out her lip and frowned mightily, she had to laugh out loud.

"What??" Saphira whined. "I haven't - you can ask Es."

"She really hasn't," Esmeralda confirmed. "Saphira doesn't start things; she finishes them."

Before either woman could comment or question, Adam decided he'd been silent long enough. "BR'ANNA!! GO!!"

She shifted him until she could push a finger against her ear, trying to eliminate the ringing Adam's screaming had caused. "Inside voice, please, Little Man," holding his eyes until he patted her face. "But you're right... we're not getting anything done standing around here. Chop, chop, you two," she said to Charisma and Esmeralda. "We won't be but a couple minutes."

They disappeared down the hall and Charisma and Esmeralda looked at one another and nodded, turning without a word and headed to the kitchen.

They never did find out what Brianna and Saphira had said to the little boy, but they heard him running down the hall seconds before he ran into the kitchen and wrapped Charisma up at her knees. She was thankful for rapid reflexes and Esmeralda's hand at her back besides when Adam collided with her. She bent and lifted him up for a kissing, smiling when he wrapped his arms around her neck.

"Sorry, Mama," he murmured, tightening his hold when she squeezed him.

"I love you, Adam."

"Love Mama," he replied, then leaned back to look at her when she slackened her grip. "Eat now?" peering over her shoulder at the sandwich sitting on the counter behind her.

"You hungry?"

"YES!!" he affirmed cheerfully. She carried him to the table and seated him at his place, scooting the chair close before taking the sandwich and sippy cup of milk from Esmeralda's hands. She riffled her hand through his hair and moved back to the counter.

"The resilience of children, hmm?" Esmeralda commented wryly. "We should all be able to maintain our equilibrium so easily."

"At least then I wouldn't need to have a stylist who covered the gray every couple weeks."

"Oh, I don't know, Charisma," Brianna commented from the doorway as she and Saphira entered the kitchen. "I think you would probably look very distinguished with gray. It looks good on your mother."

"Yes, but my mother is a grandmother," Charisma replied drolly. "It fits her image."

"But not yours?"

Charisma paused thoughtfully, then turned to remove the raw food she had prepared earlier. She set the platters on the counter before she spoke. "I don't think so... at least not right now." She focused on Brianna a long moment, then looked at Esmeralda and Saphira. "So much of this job is about imagine... how the public perceives us. Sometimes I think the scrutiny is worse than the politics."

"Is it worth it?" This from Brianna who held Charisma's gaze until Charisma looked away. But before Charisma had a response, Adam chimed in.

"Mama! All done!" cringing away from her when she approached him with a wet towel. So naturally a knock sounded at the back door before Ame stuck her head in. "AME!!"

There were several reactions to his screech - Ame's brows flew into her hairline; Brianna chuckled; Saphira and Esmeralda exchanged glances with one another and then Ame; Charisma blew out a frustrated breath then grabbed and missed when Adam jumped from the chair and made a beeline for Ame. Without looking up, Ame raised her hand for the towel she knew Charisma held and Charisma tossed it to her. The towel and Adam arrived at the same time and Ame caught Adam by the hands and wiped them off, then did the same to his face, despite his squirming. Then she scooped him up in her arms and headed out of the kitchen.

It was silent for a full thirty seconds before the four women left behind turned to each other and burst into laughter.

"Wow!" Brianna said after taking a deep breath and getting her laughter under some semblance of control. "Who was that masked woman?" causing another round of giggles to peel throughout the room.

"That was my wonderful and long-suffering nanny, Ame. She agreed to come sit with Adam for a while so we could have a little time to regroup after the morning's excitement."

"Would you prefer we leave, Charisma?" Esmeralda asked sincerely. "I can only imagine how you feel after watching that. I know how I felt and Saphira is old enough to take care of herself... most of the time anyway," giving her mate a smirk. Saphira just stuck out her tongue.

Charisma shook her head. "I'd like you to stay... unless you need to go home." She moved over and tilted Esmeralda's chin so she could look into her eyes. "We're a little worried about you, Es."

Esmeralda covered Charisma's hand. "I'm fine, Charisma. I promise." She paused and gave an impish smile. "I am a little hungry, though."

Charisma's smile broadened. "I can fix that." She moved back to the counter. "C'mon on. Have a seat and I'll get things on the table."

"Need some help?" Brianna offered.

Charisma met her eyes briefly and nodded. "Sure. If you'll grab the platters, I'll get the fondue pots."

Saphira stepped up and took the pots out of Charisma's hands. "You need to get the oil and stuff out. I don't know where it is."

"Good point," Charisma allowed with a grin. "Does everyone drink wine?"

"Could I have milk?" Esmeralda asked. "Wine gives me a headache."

"Absolutely," Charisma agreed, turning back to the refrigerator. "Are you sure you want milk? I've got soda, lemonade, flavored water...."

"Milk is good," Esmeralda assured her. "I drink a lot of milk."

"That would explain the great skin," Brianna muttered, smirking at Esmeralda. Esmeralda stuck out her tongue and crinkled her nose. Then they settled in to putting lunch on the table.

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

"Oh... I'm so full," Saphira groaned as she leaned back in her chair. She tilted her head in Esmeralda's direction and gave her puppy dog eyes. "How could you let me eat so much?"

Esmeralda sputtered and set her milk back on the table, wiping her lips before she turned a forceful glare on Saphira. "Excuse me? Let you?? Since when do *I* let *you* do anything?"

"Wasn't there something in our wedding vows about love, honor and keep from overeating?" Esmeralda snorted and threw her napkin in towards Saphira.

"You're so ridiculous."

Saphira grinned rakishly and waggled her eyebrows. "I know - it's why you keep me around. Cheap entertainment."

"That's debatable," Esmeralda mumbled.

"Which part?"

"Yes," she agreed, recognizing what Saphira was doing and knowing their playing like this would help Charisma and Brianna to relax a little more. Not that they weren't more comfortable together, but there had still been a few awkward moments and silences. Esmeralda bit her lips to keep from smiling when Saphira narrowed her eyes, but she couldn't stop the sparkle from twinkling out of her own.

"Fine. Just for that, you can wash the dishes. I'm gonna go see if I can find my little buddy. I bet he won't pick on me."

"Yeah about that...." Charisma started as Saphira rose from her chair. "They're probably in the playroom - up the stairs and down the hall on the right. You'll be able to hear them. Will you ask Ame to come downstairs, please? And be careful not to let him jump on you. He may be little, but he's not small and if you're as full as you say you are... it could get ugly."

"Got it," Saphira said. "Is it all right if I bring him back downstairs?"

"Absolutely. I know he wanted some time with all of you." Saphira nodded and headed out the door. Brianna and Esmeralda rose and started moving things to the sink while Charisma put the leftovers away. It wasn't long before the kitchen was spotless and Ame was standing in the doorway waiting for Charisma's instruction.

With only a few words, Ame was headed back out and the rest made their way towards the study. Saphira met them as she and Adam made their way down the stairs together. Then they were all entering Charisma's private sanctum.

She had debated long and hard about leaving her album out, but in the end, it remained on the coffee table it had been sitting on for the last couple weeks. Adam looked around carefully, then turned to his mother.

"Mama? Ame?"

"She's gone home, Sweetie. She'll be back tomorrow. Saphira thought you might want to play with her for a little while. She doesn't have friends to play with very often like you do."

Adam nodded sagely and took Saphira's hand to lead her over to his place in the study. When they reached the sofa where Brianna was ensconced, he patted the album that sat in front of her and pronounced, "Br'anna." Then without another word, he continued taking Saphira over to the nest of pillow that were his and tugged her to sit down beside her.

Esmeralda watched them, smiling when Adam handed Saphira his favorite book and curled up in her lap. Suddenly Esmeralda felt very much like a fifth wheel and she wondered if there was a graceful way to extract herself from Charisma and Brianna and go sit with Adam and Saphira. Then she turned her attention to the two of them and realized they had forgotten she was sitting there.

"Is this...?" Brianna began, then stopped when Charisma nodded her head.

"Yes. I was sharing my memories with Adam the other day."

Brianna tilted her head. "And what do you remember, Charisma?" reverting to the formality from before. Charisma bit her lips in frustration, then blew out a calming breath.

"I remember... so much," she replied softly. "But I still don't understand why you left. Why did you leave me, Bri?"

Brianna shook her head. "You're still not ready to hear that, Charisma. And besides - we're being rude," motioning to Esmeralda who had moved to sit with Saphira and Adam. Brianna and Charisma spared a long moment to appreciate the beautiful family portrait they created together before turning their attention back to one another.

"We're not being rude, Bri. Esmeralda knows... well, she knows a lot and understands a lot more. More than I do it seems at any rate. She knows we're learning to become friends again - I think she's just trying to give us that chance." She gave a defeated sigh. "Why won't you talk to me, Brianna? I think I deserve to know why you left like you did."

Brianna caressed the smooth album underneath her fingertips. "When you ask the right question, I promise I will tell you the truth, Charisma. But you're not going to ask until you're really ready to know." She looked back at Adam, carefully cradled between Saphira and Esmeralda. "They make a stunning family, don't they?"

Charisma nodded. "It's a shame they can't have their own. I'm glad to share Adam for a little while."

Brianna smiled. "He seems to be enjoying it." She took a good look around the room. "This space is very much you. I miss my home office."

"Are you going to look for a more permanent place to live?"

"No. I really have no plans to stay here after my two years are up. Most of my so-called colleagues make me want to throw them in jail on principle. It's probably better if I go home."

"Maybe you just need a different focus," Charisma offered.

"I'd take up writing again if I wanted a different focus," Brianna replied drolly. "And that reminds me... I heard from Professor Mac."

"Really? Do tell."

From their corner, Saphira and Esmeralda watched the interaction and nodded to one another in satisfaction. While Brianna and Charisma weren't pouring over the photo album like Esmeralda had expected them to after Adam's nudging, they were obviously much more comfortable talking to one another. At least they seemed to have lost the tension that had been plaguing them all day.

Then they turned their attention back to Adam, hoping the day would progress a little more smoothly than it had before.



Chapter XLV

"Mama?" Adam asked some time later, bringing Charisma's and Brianna's back to the present. They blinked awkwardly at each other before turning their heads in his direction, noting Saphira and Esmeralda had remained in Adam's corner and were quietly talking. Charisma smiled at her son and tousled his hair, making him laugh and climb in her lap. He cupped her cheeks with his chubby hands and stared into her blue eyes... close enough that Charisma needed to cross her eyes to keep him in focus. "Mama?" he reiterated, waiting for her to respond.

"Yes, son? What can I do for you?"

"Pictures?" he asked, leaning forward until their foreheads touched. Brianna covered her mouth, trying not to laugh aloud at the image they made. She spared a glance towards Esmeralda and Saphira and saw they were doing much the same thing, only with better success. Charisma gave Adam an Eskimo kiss, causing him to laugh again and making her smile.

"What pictures, son?"

"Mama pictures... Br'anna."

Charisma frowned and Brianna picked the album up off the table, passing it towards Charisma and nudging her with it. "I think he means this," she suggested.

"Yes!" he agreed firmly, patting the cover for good measure.

Charisma bit her lip. "Maybe we should see if Saphira and Esmeralda would want to look at something like this, son. They may be ready to go home."

"No go home!" he stated fiercely. "Stay!" He jumped from Charisma's lap and went over to the corner where Saphira and Esmeralda were comfortably entrenched. He tugged on Saphira's hand, wearing a severe scowl on his face and a command of "Come!" on his lips. Esmeralda and Saphira exchanged a long glance, then Saphira allowed Adam to 'help' her to her feet. She released his hand, but he held on, not wanting her to change her mind.

"Adam, I need to help Esmeralda up. Would you like to help too?" She extended her free hand to Esmeralda and Adam followed her example and did the same. Esmeralda rolled her eyes briefly at Saphira, then accepted the help. When she was upright, she brushed a kiss over first Adam's forehead and then Saphira's.

Then Adam was tugging on them both impatiently, and they dutifully followed him back to the divan where Charisma and Brianna remained watching their little tableau. He dragged them over to the sofa opposite the one Brianna and Charisma were currently seated on and dropped their hands so he could crawl up on the couch between them. Then he turned the full-force of puppy dog blue eyes on his mother first, then the rest of them.

"Pictures, Mama? Pwease?"

"Did you ask Saphira and Esmeralda if they'd like to stay?" Adam tilted his head back and smiled at them beguilingly.

"Stay?"

Esmeralda and Saphira looked at one another across him and then turned to look at Brianna who was snickering and Charisma who was smirking at them complete with a cocked eyebrow.

"Do you ever get the feeling we've been set-up?" Esmeralda asked without a hint of rancor or malice in her tone. Saphira just chuckled and shook her head.

"I get the feeling we're going to look at pictures," she stated with a grin. "But you two are going to come over here and join us, right?"

"Of course," Brianna replied, getting up immediately. She made a move to sit on one side of Esmeralda, but Esmeralda shifted to one end while Saphira did the same on the other side, causing there to be space in the middle. Brianna pursed her lips briefly, then picked up Adam and set him on her lap as she took a seat beside Saphira. Charisma naturally sat between Brianna and Esmeralda, and soon they were all comfortable squished on the couch.

"All right," Charisma offered with a deep sigh. She hadn't actually expected them to capitulate so easily and now was in the embarrassing position of having to expose a part of herself she hadn't allowed out in almost twenty years. "First I'd like to apologize in advance to both Saphira and Esmeralda, since this will be like looking at someone's vacation slides for the two of you. If at any time you want to stop, just let me know. I know this visit hasn't exactly been a standout kind of day for either of you and I don't want to drive you off completely by boring you to death."

She stopped speaking immediately when Esmeralda's hand landed gently on her arm. "Charisma, we'd be delighted to share your pictures with you - it's been a long time since Saphira and I were last in Europe together. I imagine there are a lot of places you went that we have seen as well. But if it makes you uncomfortable, you don't have to share. We wouldn't do that."

"How...?"

"Student of human nature," Brianna responded before Esmeralda could answer. "You should've heard her tell me about myself when I was moving into my office. It was astounding... and a little unnerving."

"I can understand that," Charisma said, giving Esmeralda a small smile. "You do realize you have an uncanny ability, right?"

"Yes, but as I told Brianna when we met - it's a skill I've learned and honed over the years. Now," she continued without hesitation, "it's getting late and it might be for the best if we postpone this little trip down memory lane. That way you can sort of mentally prepare for it."

"You're sure you don't mind?" looking around at the others expectantly.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a little disappointed," Brianna confessed. "But I also know how I'd feel sitting in your place. So it's all good," she finished on a small breath.

"Besides, that just means we can do this again, right?" Saphira quipped.

"Oh you bet," Charisma affirmed eagerly.

"MAMA!" Adam cut in impatiently, reaching for the book that remained on the coffee table out of range. "Pictures?"

"Not tonight, Little Man," holding up a finger when he started to wail. "Adam, if you're going to be ugly, Brianna and Esmeralda and Saphira won't want to come back and visit again. Now hush," taking him from Brianna when his keening turned into soft sobs. "They've promised to come back again just to look at the pictures, all right?"

He nodded, but buried his face in her neck, crying and hiccupping. Charisma looked around at the women she called friends. "Sorry," she apologized.

"Why?" Saphira asked bluntly. "He's had a long, busy day. That'll wear anyone out."

"Speaking of...." Brianna said as she removed her phone from her pocket and turned it on, wincing when it started vibrating in her hand. "Let me call Jas. It shouldn't take long for her to get here and we'll get out of your hair," she said to Charisma. Then she turned to Esmeralda and Saphira. "We'll give you a ride home as well - no arguments," scowling fiercely and pointing at them.

Saphira held up her hands. "Who am I to argue with a US Senator?" causing both Charisma and Brianna to howl in unexpected laughter. Adam looked up from Charisma's arms, face wet and eyes still filled with tears, laughing just because everyone else was. Brianna finally waved a hand at her face to try and get some air.

"You forget we've both heard the stories, Saphira."

Saphira stuck out her tongue that Adam naturally grabbed. Then the laughter started again and Brianna stepped away to make her call to Jas. She paused as she reached the door, looking around carefully. If she hadn't known better, she would have thought there was someone in the house with them, but she didn't see anyone and put it down to the stressful day. In minutes, she'd contacted Jas and was returning to Charisma's office with a final glance behind her as she crossed the threshold.

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

Kent stepped out of the shadows he had ducked into when Brianna had come to the door. He moved back towards the study, curious to hear how the day would end. It had been enlightening thus far.

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

Adam clapped when Brianna re-entered the room and jumped from Charisma's lap before she had a chance to react. But Brianna was ready and she dropped to her knees to catch him. Unfortunately, she underestimated the strength of his excitement and when he hit her full-force, he knocked her flat of her back and landed on top of her.

"Oof!" Brianna gasped, as she hit the floor hard, hitting her head though she never lost her hold on him. Adam just laughed and held on tightly, bumping his head against her lips. Brianna winced and closed her eyes; Adam snuggled down into her body, tucking his head beneath her chin. He closed his eyes in satisfaction.

"Br'anna good," he declared sleepily.

By this time, the other three women in the room had hasten over to where Brianna lay completely still on the floor, her breathing deep and even. Charisma got one look at her face and bit her lip in dismay even as her eyes widened. That'll make a hell of a talking point tomorrow, she thought as she stepped out of the office and headed right down the hall to the bathroom. In only a moment, she was returning with a wet washcloth in her hand.

Meanwhile, Saphira and Esmeralda had moved to kneel by the two still on the floor. Esmeralda put a hand on Brianna's head and shoulder while Saphira gathered Adam into her arms and stood. Once she was able to step away, Esmeralda gently shook Brianna.

It only took a moment and Brianna groaned. "Don't move around yet, Brianna," Esmeralda instructed. "We need to make sure you don't have a concussion," sliding around to the top of Brianna's head when Charisma reentered the room and knelt down beside her.

"How ya feeling?" putting a hand on Brianna's forehead even as she lowered the cloth to her lips. Charisma gently wiped the blood off of Brianna's face, wincing when she flinched even under the light touch. Brianna tried to smile, but it looked more like a bloody grimace than anything else.

"Like I got hit by a Mack truck. Did somebody get the number of the one that ran me over?" She turned her head slowly, her face contorting in pain. "Is Adam all right??" spotting him in Saphira's arm. "He's not hurt is he?"

Esmeralda eased Brianna's head around until she was looking at the ceiling again. "Adam's fine - he fell asleep on you. Saphira moved him so we could get a better look at you. Now, close your eyes... I need to check for concussion."

Brianna did as Esmeralda instructed and a moment later opened them to find Esmeralda staring at her eyes - first left, then right. Then she smiled and patted Brianna's shoulder.

"No concussion, but you're liable to have quite a headache tonight and that fat lip is gonna stay with you for a couple days."

Brianna reached a hand up and felt her lip, cringing when her fingers met her lip. "Ow."

"Yeah," Charisma agreed. "He did quite a number on you." She pushed her hair back out of her face. "You know, I was hoping we could do this again. I mean, I know we've got a break coming up, but I thought it'd be nice to have another girls' day when the holidays were over." She looked at Brianna and then around the room, shaking her head. "Now I'm not so sure."

A buzz sounded at the front door and Charisma stood. "Don't go anywhere," she stated with authority. "I'm going to go see who that is and get some ice for your lip. Be right back."

Charisma stepped from the room and went to the buzzer first, acknowledging Jas' request and opening the gates. Then she moved on into the kitchen for the ice. Kent watched her buzz the car up and head for the kitchen, knowing he didn't have long. He peeked into the office, seeing Saphira holding his son and watching Esmeralda help Brianna gingerly sit up.

Then he moved away from the door and headed out the back way. He'd seen enough for this trip; he was pretty sure this wasn't the ending any of them had expected to have. Saphira and Esmeralda exchanged glances when he left, but said nothing. And then Charisma was returning to the study with a bag of crushed ice for Brianna's lip.

Gently, she and Esmeralda eased Brianna to her feet, each holding onto an arm until they were certain she was stable. Only then did they release her and Brianna immediately perched on the arm of the couch. Before Charisma could move in take a better look at the damage her son had inadvertently caused, a knock sounded on the door. Esmeralda put a hand on her arm.

"Would you like me to get that, Charisma?"

"Would you mind? I'd just like to check...."

"Charisma," Brianna protested softly. "I'm fine," a twisted smile gracing her features when Charisma raised a skeptical brow into her hairline. "Okay... maybe fine is stretching it a little at the moment, but I'll heal. I'm betting this will cause quite a bit a gossip to race through the building tomorrow."

Charisma snorted. "Of that I have no doubt."

"I'll be all right. It was an accident. It's nice to know that he likes me so much. Next time, I'll bring a helmet."

"And a defibrillator," Charisma joked weakly.

"Yeah... one of those too. Now, don't you need to take your son and put him to bed?"

"I probably should," she replied with a smile as Esmeralda returned with Jas trailing along behind her.

"I thought Jas could give me a hand making sure Brianna got to the car all right," Esmeralda said, answering Charisma's unspoken question. "I'm not sure I could do anything but fall with her if something went wrong and since Saphira still has Adam...."

"Here," Charisma said to Saphira extending her arms. "Let me take him."

"Are you sure you wouldn't like me to carry him up for you, Senator - I mean, since I already have him? It's not any trouble."

"Saphira, you're a terrible liar, but I appreciate it." She turned back to the other three who were just starting towards the door together. "You all take it easy getting to the car. Saphira and I will be right back."

Esmeralda raised her eyebrows at Saphira and Saphira carried the precious bundle she held to Esmeralda. Esmeralda leaned forward and brushed a kiss over his cheek, smiling when Brianna did the same. Then without a backwards look, they proceeded to the front door, while Saphira went to the steps. Charisma stood frozen for a long moment, then hurried out of the study and up the stairs in front of Saphira.

It didn't take but a moment and Adam was tucked soundly into bed. Saphira placed a kiss on his forehead, and Charisma did the same. She flipped on the monitor and slipped into her room to grab the receiver before motioning Saphira down the stairs, raking her hand through her hair in frustration. The day hadn't been anything like she expected... or hoped.

Saphira turned to her when they reached the front door and Charisma took it as a matter of course. "Thank you for having us over, Charisma. Despite the unplanned-for excitement, I really did have a good time."

Charisma pulled on the hand she held until she was holding Saphira in a firm hug. "Thank you," she whispered in a hoarse voice. "What you did...."

"He's a good kid, Senator. I'm glad I was able to make a difference."

"More than you know, my friend. More than you know." She turned and found Esmeralda standing beside the car and took Saphira's hand as they walked down the steps. "Thank you," she offered sincerely as she put Saphira's hand in Esmeralda's. "Despite everything, this was a good day for me."

"For us too, Charisma. Thank you for having us."

"Well," she replied with a slow smile, "if you are brave enough to attempt it again, I'd like to have you both over again sometime soon." Esmeralda and Saphira looked at one another, then nodded at Charisma. "Good!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands together. "We'll plan on it."

"Me too?" inquired a voice from inside the car. Charisma leaned down until her eyes met Brianna's, shadowed in the interior.

"You are always welcome in my home, Bri."

Brianna didn't say anything, but nodded and smiled, closing her eyes again as she leaned her head against the back of the seat. Charisma straightened and held the door, motioning Esmeralda and Saphira into the back with Brianna. Then she shut the door and looked at Jas who had been standing by the driver's door.

"Drive safely."

"I will, Senator. Have a good night."

Charisma went back up the steps and watched the car out of sight. Then she went inside to settle down for the night.



Chapter XLVI

"Brianna?" Esmeralda said softly, laying a hand on Brianna's arm and waiting for her eyes to open. Brianna blinked slowly, bringing Esmeralda's face into focus, then frowning when she noticed the worry in the green eyes studying her face. "Brianna?" Esmeralda repeated.

"Hmm?"

"Brianna, we'd like for you to come home with us. I don't think it's a good idea for you to go home alone tonight."

"I thought you said I didn't have a concussion."

"You don't, Sweetie. But a little tlc will go a long way to making you feel better."

"Don't argue with her, Brianna," Saphira instructed. "Even you can't win when Esmeralda gets an idea in her head," grinning at Esmeralda impishly. "Besides, she's right."

"I'm being ganged up on," Brianna complained good-naturedly. "I appreciate it, guys, but I couldn't impose on you like that," snickering when Esmeralda and Saphira raised their eyebrows simultaneously. Then she covered her mouth with the ice bag Charisma had given her. "Ow."

"Yeah, he did a good job while he was at it," Esmeralda commented. "And you wouldn't be imposing - we're insisting."

"He'll be a great tackle when he gets old enough to play football," Saphira stated. Brianna snorted.

"He already is." She shifted so she could look at both of them. "Would one of you be willing to stay with me instead? I don't mean to seem ungrateful, but I'd have to go home anyway to pack up my stuff or we'd have to head over at an ungodly hour of the morning tomorrow so I could get ready for work."

Esmeralda and Saphira traded a glance, then Saphira tapped on the glass separating them from Jas. Jas rolled down the window and met Saphira's eyes in the rearview mirror. "Change of plan - we need to drop Esmeralda and the Senator at the Senator's apartment. Then you can give me a ride home, if you would," knowing Jas wouldn't object.

"Senator?" needing Brianna to give her approval.

"That's fine, Jas. Thanks." Jas nodded her head and altered course to get Brianna home first.

They reached the apartment building and Esmeralda and Brianna exited the car and made their way into the lobby. Saphira and Jas waited until Esmeralda waved them off, and they climbed back in the car and headed for home.

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

The security guard met them at the door, noting Brianna's swollen lip instantly. "Senator Walker? Is everything all right?"

"Yes, David. I had a run-in with a little boy's head. This is my friend Esmeralda. She should be on my cleared list," waiting for him to go back to his desk and bring up the information on the computer. He looked up at her and nodded.

"Yes ma'am. I just need to get some information from her and then she'll be free to go upstairs." Esmeralda passed him her custodial ID which helped to expedite the process and soon she and Brianna were headed upstairs.

Brianna unlocked the door, only to have Esmeralda usher her inside first. She went right in to the kitchenette and placed the bag of ice in the small refrigerator, then turned to find Esmeralda leaning on the doorjamb.

"Why don't you go climb in the tub for a little while and I'll see about getting something together that will be easy on your lips and your stomach."

"Thanks, Es. I'm sorry...."

"Don't be, Brianna. I'm happy to do this for a friend. And unless you need me to physically pick you up, this is something I can do. Let me help."

Brianna's eyes smiled, though she was careful not to with her mouth. "You already have... more than you know." She moved out into the tiny living area and said, "I won't be too long. Make yourself at home - though I'm not sure what you're going to find in that kitchen. I don't keep a lot here."

"I'll find something, and if I don't we can have something brought in. Now go on. You'll feel better if you relax a little bit."

Brianna stepped into the bedroom, but left the door cracked so she could still talk to Esmeralda. "Can I ask how you got volunteered for babysitting duty, Es? Not that I don't appreciate it, because I do. It's nice knowing someone cares, ya know? But I also know that you're not up to snuff yourself. And even though I'm more comfortable with you just because I feel like I know you better, I'm a little surprised Saphira didn't insist on staying with me." She started the water running in the tub and cinched the knot on her robe tighter, then moved back to the bedroom door to find Esmeralda looking through her cabinets and fridge. "I did warn you," she added with a smile.

"I thought you were exaggerating," Esmeralda said dryly.

"Just the facts, ma'am," Brianna drawled, getting a smile from Esmeralda for her efforts.

"As for why me," Esmeralda continued, moving out of the kitchen and walking towards the couch. "Believe it or not, I have the most nursing experience between us. Remember I said Saphira didn't start fights... she finished them? I've doctored my share of bumps and bruises and scrapes over the years. And as you pointed out, you're more comfortable with me, so why not make you as comfortable as we can - you'll heal better." She kicked a good-sized plastic container that was sitting next to the couch but not completely hidden by it. "Ow."

"Ooh... sorry about that. A friend brought that over to me the other day and I haven't found a good place to put it yet," pushing it back out of the way.

"My fault," Esmeralda said. "I should have been watching where I was going. Let me go check on your water before it runs over," crossing into the bedroom and causing Brianna to head back towards the bathroom with as much speed as she could muster... which wasn't very much at all.

Esmeralda had the water turned off by the time Brianna arrived behind her, and she pulled a towel out and placed it on the counter before turning to look at Brianna. "Is there anything else you need?"

"I don't think so."

"All right. I'm gonna get out of here to give you some privacy, but if you need anything, just holler. I'll be right here."

"Thanks, Es. And if you'd like to call Saphira, please feel free. The place came complete with an analog phone."

"Thank you, Brianna. Now get in... before your water gets cold." And without another word, she was out the door, pulling it closed behind her.

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

"Saphira? Is everything all right?" Ruby asked as Saphira and Jas stepped into the house together. She looked pointedly around them. "Where's Es?"

Saphira shook her head. "That's quite a story. Could we have some tea while I tell you about our day?"

Ruby didn't answer more than to turn around and head to the kitchen. Jas stopped by the living room to let the rest know to join them in the kitchen. When they were all there and seated, Saphira began her tale. The tea was made, steeped, doctored and drunk before Saphira finished and the first thing Ruby did when she was done was to pour fresh tea around the table.

"Well," she finally concurred as she sat back with her cup in her hands. "That was definitely quite a story. Is everyone okay... relatively speaking, that is?"

"I think it shook Charisma up a lot more than she was letting on. But other than that and Brianna's run-in with Adam's head and the floor... yeah. I was never in any real danger and Es knew that. We were mostly bystanders for this whole thing."

"So what's your opinion, Saphira?"

Saphira shook her head. "Um... NO. You really don't want my opinion - it involves serious amounts of head bashing and butt kicking." Everyone at the table tittered.

"So what's the plan then?"

Saphira shrugged. "I dunno. Es is staying with Brianna tonight, just to be sure she's okay."

"So do I need to head over there?" Coral asked. Amber had ridden over to Charisma's with Jas, enjoying the rare opportunity to have company for a little while. Saphira bit her lip thoughtfully as she considered Coral's question.

"Ya know what? I don't think so, but you may want to swing by later. You can check on them and see if Es needs anything." Coral nodded. That seemed reasonable. "And if you could," Saphira continued, smiling when Coral arched an eyebrow at her, "run by Charisma's as well. I'd like to know if there was any backlash from today's adventures."

"Oh," Ruby cut in. "Mal called. She was at the house watching Kent today."

"Yeah? What'd she say?"

"Not a lot. Said he was ducking in and out of shadows in the house trying to keep an eye on things without being caught. Said he didn't seem angry when he left - mostly resigned... like he expected to see what he saw." Ruby frowned. "But from what you told us, there really wasn't anything to see."

"There really wasn't," Saphira confirmed. "There might have been if we'd looked through that album, but as it was...."

"Maybe he knows something," Opal offered. Saphira tilted her head in question.

"What do you mean?"

Opal sighed. "I doubt he's looking for overt displays of affection. C'mon, guys... he's been married to Charisma for a number of years. He more than almost anybody knows exactly how important appearances are to her in her line of work."

"Okay, so...?"

"So, if I was him and I suspected something had changed with my wife, I'd be looking for the subtle things with her. Like I said - he knows Charisma isn't going to go running through the streets naked or be photographed going in and out of a sleazy motel. But if she smiles more or starts inviting friends over more often than colleagues, he's going to start paying attention to the little stuff."

"So you think he knows what's going on?"

"I think he's pretty sure he thinks he knows what's going on," Opal said. "But since I don't know what he's thinking...." She shrugged. Saphira nodded and turned to Ruby. "Is Mal still here?"

"As far as I know. She told me that they would be supposed to be here overnight."

"All right," Saphira said, sliding her chair back from the table and standing. She picked up her cup and drank the last swallow, wincing at the bitter, lukewarm beverage. "Ew," shuddering slightly. "I'm gonna go...." A shrill ringing cut into her thought. "Answer the phone," she continued without missing a beat. She stepped out into the hall and lifted the receiver. The rest could hear the smile in her voice when she realized Esmeralda was on the other end. So they sat back to wait, curious to know what Saphira had planned next.

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

Charisma stood in the doorway of Adam's room, simply watching him breathe. It brought tears to her eyes, and she took a deep breath and swallowed hard, blinking her eyes to keep the tears from escaping. She pushed away from the door, sniffing once before she crossed to stand at Adam's bedside. Charisma pushed his hair back off his face, then leaned down and kissed him. Then she pulled the blanket up over his small body and kissed him again before she headed out of his room.

She eased his door closed without shutting it completely, then leaned against the wall and closed her eyes for a long moment. When she felt her equilibrium return, Charisma pushed off the wall and moved down the hallway towards her own room.

She walked into her room, setting the monitor back beside her bed, taking a few minutes to listen to Adam breathe. When she felt a measure of peace and control settle into her soul, she took her phone from her pocket and studied the faceplate for a long moment before she scrolled through her phonebook until she found the name she was searching for.

With barely a second's hesitation, Charisma pushed the button and listened to it ringing, waiting for the call to be picked up.

"Charisma? Honey, is everything all right?" Kent asked with concern. Despite what he'd seen earlier, he was still surprised that she'd called him. Fortunately, his greeting was enough to add to her sense of stability and she chuckled.

"Everything's better now, Kent - thank you. We haven't talked in a while so I thought I'd give it another shot since today's performance was early."

He nodded his head, though she couldn't see him. "I've been trying to return your call, but we seemed to be playing at cross-purposes lately.

"Yes - we're pushing really hard to finish up our business before the holiday break. So how are you holding up? How's the play?"

"Well, we're getting good reviews, so we're all pretty happy with it."

Silence fell between them and it quickly grew a little awkward. Kent couldn't help but compare it to the exuberance he'd seen in Charisma earlier that day. Before it could drag out too long, he opened his mouth to speak just as Charisma seemingly decided to do the same thing.

"So why did you call me the other night?"
"Adam gave me a bit of a scare today."

Silence fell again and Kent cleared his throat, indicating his intention to speak. "I'm sorry... Adam did what?"

"He gave me a bit of a scare today." She paused and bit her lip, blinking her eyes again as a wave of remembered terror shuddered through her body again. She gave a shaky sigh. "I had some friends over today and Adam ran out in front of the car as it pulled up to the house." She cleared her throat inelegantly, sniffing slightly before she continued speaking. "If it hadn't been for Saphira's quick actions, he could have been hurt... or worse." Now she let the tears flow.

"Is he all right? Are you?" Kent swallowed hard, realizing he'd missed something pretty significant trying to get into the house undetected. He'd watched Brianna and Charisma playing with Adam and it had twisted his gut uncomfortably, and when he'd heard the car approaching the house, decided he needed to get indoors. He rubbed a hand over his face, realizing his insides were shaking as bad as his outsides were.

Charisma's wry chuckle brought him back to the present. "Adam's fine. Saphira is like a grown-up playmate and he adores her - thinks she's the coolest thing to come along since PB&J. Me on the other hand... I have the feeling I'm going to be shaky for a while."

"Do you need me to come home?" he offered, hoping she'd say yes. For once he wanted to be part of the family instead of an individual that did little more than share space and responsibility.

He could hear the smile in her voice when she spoke and it made him feel marginally better when she spoke. "Oh Kent... I appreciate that - you don't know how much. But I wouldn't want to pull you away from your show... not when you're doing so well. We're both all right, and we'll see you at Mama's soon, right?"

"Absolutely," he agreed with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. "Mother already told me I'll be there."

Charisma laughed. She loved her mother-in-law, but she was definitely a formidable woman. "How is your mother?"

The discussion went on for several more minutes and for a change it flowed like good conversation is supposed to. When it wound down, Charisma cleared her throat and spoke softly. "Thank you, Kent."

His brow furrowed in confusion, and even though she couldn't see his expression, Charisma could hear it in his voice. "For what?"

"Being there for me to talk to," Charisma replied after a moment's hesitation. She wasn't sure she could put into words what she really wanted to say, but she felt comfortable offering that. It was true, even if it wasn't complete.

"Oh, Sweetheart. I'll always be there for that. I promise."

"You're a good man, Kent Rockwell."

He snorted. "Let's not let that get around, all right? I make such a great villain." Charisma laughed again and he smiled, reminded once more why he loved her. "However, I need to go. I haven't had dinner yet and I'll bet you haven't either. And before you say it, yes... you have to eat. Image may be everything in your business, but you can't afford to skip meals, Charisma. Not if you expect to keep up with Adam."

"I know - I think I'm going to have to give Ame a raise."

"You do that. And call me if you need anything."

"You too, Kent. Thanks."

"Anytime, honey. Goodnight."

"Night."

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

Mal gave Saphira a look when Kent hung up the phone. Saphira nodded - she'd caught it as well. "Keep up the good work, Mal. Don't be surprised if you hear from Es in the next few days." Mal nodded her understanding and Saphira took a last look around before she headed back to the house. Tomorrow was going to come soon enough.



Chapter XLVII

When Esmeralda had ended her call with Saphira, she'd rung the security desk to find someone who was cleared for grocery delivery. It only took a few minutes and she had ordered enough food for both dinner and breakfast. So the following morning, she was already cooking when Brianna finally crawled from the bed.

Brianna glared at her while accepting the coffee Esmeralda was offering. Aside from wrinkled clothes that looked as though they had been slept in - because they had - Esmeralda appeared much the same as she did everyday.

"It's not fair," Brianna grumbled, wincing when the hot cup touched her swollen lip, but still sighing in relief when the first taste of coffee reached her tongue. Esmeralda stirred the eggs she was scrambling and pulled the bacon out of the pan. In only another minute, Brianna was sitting at the counter eating a hot breakfast, courtesy of Esmeralda.

"What's not fair?" Esmeralda asked as she lifted a forkful of eggs to her mouth.

"It's not fair that you can literally roll off the couch and look like that," gesturing in Esmeralda's general direction. "The rest of us have to work at looking good, you know."

Esmeralda frowned and glanced down at herself. "Um... Brianna...?"

Brianna shook her head. "Don't even try. Your clothes are wrinkled, sure. But your hair is neat, your eyes are bright, there are no sleep wrinkles on your face...." Se paused and looked at Esmeralda more carefully. "You *did* sleep, didn't you?"

Esmeralda smiled. "Yes, Brianna. I slept. I just sleep lightly when I have a patient."

"Oh... oh Es, I'm so sorry...." halting as soon as Esmeralda's fingers touched her arm.

"Don't be, Brianna. I'm good at this and though I wouldn't wish harm to someone just so I could heal them, I'm proud to have the skill necessary to be able to do so if it's needed."

"Well, I'm glad you're here, and I appreciate your efforts... even though I do look like I was on the losing end of a title prizefight."

"Could be worse - you could look like you got thrown off a cliff."

Brianna snorted. "Pretty sure I'm not going to care too much if I'm dead."

Esmeralda rolled her eyes. "Fair enough," she conceded. "Now eat your breakfast. If you're going in to work today, you're gonna need your strength."

"I need my strength every day in that place."

Esmeralda tilted her head thoughtfully and gazed at Brianna with curious eyes. "Can I ask you something?" waiting for Brianna to agree. "Why did you take this job? Wait," she commanded, holding up a hand before Brianna could speak. "I know you were flattered to be asked - anyone would be. But you were never interested in politics in school and by your own accounts abhor them... in and out of the office. And you *knew* Charisma was here, and you'd gone to great lengths to avoid any sort of contact between you for twenty years. So what changed?"

"I did... or at least I hoped I had. I figured these were professionals, so there had to be some professionalism here, right? I never realized people that do politics for a living are a hundred times worse than those who practice office politics. For them it's all about the games they can play and the deals they can make. It's not about what they can do for their constituents or making the world a better place - it's all about THEM and what THEY can get out of it."

"And Charisma?" Esmeralda prodded. She couldn't argue with Brianna's take on government politics. She'd seen way too much from the inside to disagree with her assessment.

Brianna shrugged and played with the remnants of food on her plate. "I told you, Es - I really didn't expect to have more than a passing interaction with her. And when I realized that wasn't going to be the case, I made an effort to make peace with her." She sighed. "I meant what I said before, Es. I'm not a home wrecker. But if Charisma is willing to be friends again, I'm not going to say no to that. I can't."

Esmeralda nodded. "Okay, Brianna... I believe you. Now... how do you feel? I already know how you look," chuckling when Brianna stuck out her tongue.

"My headache is mostly gone, though there's a good-sized knot back there that is really tender to the touch. My lip is very sore... bruised on top of being split. But as long as I don't smile and I keep from touching it, I should be all right to get through the day. I'm glad a break is coming up though."

Esmeralda sighed. "I think everybody is - I sure am."

"Do you and Saphira have any plans? I know from what you've told me you can't go home. But are you going to do anything special together?"

"We'll be spending the day together - that makes it special for us."

"Oh," Brianna replied, her tone a little dejected.

"Brianna?" Esmeralda placed a concerned hand on Brianna's shoulder and lightly squeezed. "Is something wrong?"

Brianna smiled up at Esmeralda, patting her hand before she slipped from under the soft touch. She stood and grabbed both plates, taking them to the sink before she answered. "Nothing at all. I was going to see if you wanted to join me, but I know how little time you two really have together and you've already given up two days trying to make me and Charisma more comfortable."

Esmeralda didn't reply immediately, giving Brianna time to wash up the few dishes. When she was done, Esmeralda dried them and handed them to her to put away. Then she turned and met Brianna's eyes. "I'll talk to Saphira."

"You're sure?"

"Brianna," Esmeralda smiled, her eyes twinkling. "When you've been a couple as long as Saphira and I have, you learn to make time for your friends. If you don't, they tend to fade way and even if you find them again, there's no going back. Things are never the same."

Brianna nodded, but didn't say anything immediately. Esmeralda's words hit too close to home. She swallowed the lump in her throat and then cleared it to speak. "Would you be interested in meeting Mama O, by any chance?"

"Excuse me?"

Brianna chuckled. "Sorry - Mama O is Okasa Tagherty... Charisma's mom. I spend one day around each holiday season with the Tagherty clan." She took a deep breath. "When I walked away from Charisma, Mama O insisted I stay in touch - it was her price for keeping silent to Charisma about me. And to be fair, I was glad she did. It kept me part of the family."

"She sounds like a good woman."

"She is," Brianna agreed without hesitation. "She's bossy, but she's got a heart of gold."

"I'll tell you what - you talk to Okasa and I'll talk to Saphira and if they're both amenable to it, we'll see about spending some time over the break together. Saphira and I are always up for making new friends."

"And Okasa would adopt you both in a heartbeat. You're her kind of people."

"Broke?" Esmeralda joked.

"Real," Brianna said seriously.

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

Jas wasn't surprised to see Esmeralda climb into the back of the car with Brianna, but she was a little taken back by Brianna's directive. "Jas, drop me at the office, then take Esmeralda home and wait there until she's ready to go to work, all right?" watching Jas blink in surprise and hearing Esmeralda's gasp. She held up a hand before Esmeralda could protest. "Let me do this for you. It's little enough after what you've done for me."

"Thank you, Brianna. I appreciate it."

"Anytime," Brianna assured her with a smile. She leaned back and watched the traffic move slowly towards the Senate Building. "If you get a chance to talk to Saphira before you come in tonight, let me know. I'll be talking to Okasa in another day or two... just to confirm things."

"You sure she won't mind you springing us on her?"

"I'm telling you, Es... she's gonna love you both." Jas pulled up and jumped out of the car, opening the door for Brianna... only to have Esmeralda follow her out.

"I can't sit back there by myself," she announced. "It's too weird."

"Whatever makes you happy, Es," Brianna said as she grabbed her briefcase and headed towards the door. "I'll see you tonight."

Esmeralda and Jas watched her enter the building, then Jas opened the passenger door for Esmeralda, getting a look for her trouble. "Get in, Es. It won't kill you to let me do this for you. Besides," she added with a grin, "it's my job."

Esmeralda rolled her eyes, but slid into the seat with a grin. Jas slammed the car door closed behind her and ran around to the driver's side, then pointed the car for home.

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

Saphira was sitting at the kitchen table with Amber and Coral when they heard the limo pull up. While that wasn't necessarily an unusual occurrence, Saphira was hoping Esmeralda might be with Jas this time and she rose and went to the front door. Amber and Coral traded amused looks.

"She's got it bad, huh?" Coral joked.

"Still - I swear you'd think they were newlyweds the way they carry on some days," Amber snarked.

"You're just jealous," Saphira spouted as she came around the corner holding Esmeralda's hand.

"No kidding. Sometimes I wonder if He was and that's why you were punished as severely as you were," Amber said, watching four sets of eyes grow big at her words. She sighed. "Don't any of you sit there and tell me that thought hasn't crossed your mind at least once," gratified when silence met her words. "All right... so what's going on? Charisma had a great case of the shakes last night. She even called Kent and they had actual conversation for almost ten minutes."

Esmeralda sighed. "Let me take a quick shower and we'll pool our stories."

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

Brianna walked quickly down the hall, ignoring the looks and whispers she could already hear coming from the aides and staff members. She stepped into her office, hearing the gasps of her own staff before they immediately turned back to their work. Indi came around the desk and followed her into her inner sanctum, taking her coat and moving towards the closet as Brianna made her way to her desk and took a seat. She dropped her briefcase on top and leaned back in her chair.

"Well?" she said a touch impatiently.

"Senator?"

"Aren't you going to ask?"

"Are you all right, Senator Walker? Have you seen a doctor?"

Brianna raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you the least bit curious about what happened?"

Indi rolled her eyes and gave her a droll look. "Would answering DUH be considered impertinent, Senator? Of course I'm curious. I am also a professional, so beyond ensuring you're suffering no lasting damage, it's not my place to ask."

"You don't like gossip?"

"I suppose it has its time and place," Indi conceded, "but personally, I have to say no. It generally spreads beyond the truth and can hurt people enormously."

"Personal experience?"

"Yes ma'am," was all Indi said. Brianna waited for a long moment, then nodded her head in acceptance.

"All right then... for the record, I was assaulted by a child's head. He jumped and I caught him - I also caught his head with my mouth."

"Ouch."

Brianna snorted. "No kidding... that was about what I said. But that's what happened, so if anyone actually asks, feel free to tell them the truth."

"Yes ma'am. Is there anything particular you need for me to take care of this morning? I'm already working on refining the legislation like we talked about on Saturday."

"Call Senator Charisma - let me know when you have her on the line. Otherwise, keep working on that piece. I'd like to have it ready before we leave so I can present it as soon as we return."

"Can do, Senator. I'll let you know as soon as Senator Tagherty is available. Would you like some coffee or tea this morning?"

"Thank you, Indi. Tea would be wonderful."

"Coming right up, Senator," Indi said and made her way out the door, closing it softly behind her. Brianna slid her laptop from her briefcase and quickly got down to work. It only took moments for her to become engrossed and she nearly jumped when Indi stuck her head in the door again.

"I have Senator Tagherty on line one," she said as she carried the tea tray and placed it on one side of Brianna's desk. Then she turned and left without another word.

"Charisma?" Brianna said as soon as the door was shut. "Are you okay this morning? How's Adam?"

"I'm all right," she admitted softly. "It will probably be a while before I sleep through the night again, but it could be so much worse," she added shakily. "Adam on the other hand doesn't even seem to remember what happened. He slept through the night and got up this morning bouncing off the walls." Charisma chuckled. "I am *seriously* going to have to give Ame a raise."

"Running her ragged?"

"Like you would not believe." She paused a moment, then decided to plunge ahead. "Listen... I'm glad you called. I was wondering if you'd consider joining the family for the holiday this year. I mean... I know it's been forever, but it'd mean a lot to me if you'd join us again... like you used to."

Brianna cleared her throat awkwardly. "Have you talked to Okasa about this?"

Charisma frowned. "Do I need to?"

Brianna offered a discomfited chuckle. "Well it is her house, Charisma; that kind of makes her the hostess. I'd love to come, Ri, but I've already invited Esmeralda and Saphira and Ruby to spend the day with me," making a mental note to make sure Esmeralda knew Ruby was invited along as well.

"Bring them with you," Charisma said impulsively, causing Brianna to look askance at the speakerphone. "You know Mama would love them."

"I'll tell you what, Charisma - I'll talk to Okasa. If she is willing to have us all there AND Es and Saphira and Ruby are willing to be part of a big family gathering, we'll be there."

"I'll give Mama a call and let her know to expect your call. I'm sure she'll be thrilled to hear from you." Only then did Brianna realize how thoroughly and completely Okasa and her entire family had kept their interactions with Brianna over the years a secret from Charisma. She wondered if this might come back to bite them in the ass.

"Maybe not as much as you think," Brianna muttered, and then realized she'd spoken aloud.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Charisma demanded and Brianna could hear the frown in her voice.

Brianna sighed. Best to have it done with now, I suppose. "Charisma, I never lost touch with Okasa... or your family. They never mentioned it because no one wanted you to be uncomfortable about it."

"I see," Charisma said slowly, her tone sending a chill over the wires that Brianna felt in the depths of her soul. "Well then - it shouldn't be a problem for you to join us then. Now if you'll excuse me...."

"Charisma...."

"No, Brianna. I can't talk about this right now. I'll see you later." And she hung up the phone without giving Brianna a chance to say goodbye.

"Dammit!!" Brianna cursed as she jammed the speakerphone's off button. "That could have gone better." Then she turned back to her work. Despite everything that was suddenly complicating her personal life, Brianna still had a job to do. And even though she wanted to rush down to Charisma's office and straighten things out, she had a responsibility here that didn't allow it at the moment.

She could only cross her fingers and hope she got the opportunity to explain things later - and that Charisma would actually listen to what she had to say. Then Brianna sighed and got back to work.

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

Okasa looked at the phone receiver she held in her hand, waiting to see if it would catch fire after Charisma's call. When it didn't immediately, she placed it gently in the cradle and headed off to find Patrick. It seemed things were finally moving... and apparently, so were they.



Chapter XLVIII

"Gramma!" Adam exclaimed when Ame opened the door for Okasa and Patrick. Okasa grinned and bent down to pick Adam up, lifting him into her arms with a groan before crossing the threshold.

"My goodness... you're getting big, Little Man."

"Adam Mama's big boy," he proclaimed proudly. Patrick followed them in and set their bags just inside the door.

"You got a hug for your Pop Pop, boy?"

Adam squealed and reached, causing Okasa to wince and hand him over to Patrick. Without another word, Patrick took him Adam and headed towards the backyard. Ame knew Patrick would bundle Adam up before they went outside, so she picked up the bags and turned to Okasa. "Would you like to go with them? I can take your bags upstairs. The Senator called to have me prepare your room before she arrived."

"How angry was she?"

"Ma'am?" Ame knew what Okasa was asking, but she was going to make her actually ask the question if she wanted the answer. Okasa just gave her a look.

"Please don't prevaricate with me, Ame. I know how furious she was when she called me this morning. How angry was she when she called you?"

"Well, ma'am - I know she was very short and to the point when I spoke to her. But she wasn't angry... at least not with me. She sounded tired... and busy."

Okasa nodded. She'd expected as much - she'd actually expected worse. She had a feeling Charisma was more hurt than angry, and that was something she could work with. "I imagine she did. Thank you, Ame. I know you don't want to break any confidences, but I needed to know that."

"Can you fix it?" Ame asked, then blushed when Okasa's head snapped around to meet her eyes. Okasa stared at her for a long moment, then nodded at what she found and smiled. She opened the door Ame gestured to and took one of the bags from her hands.

"If she gives me a chance... yes. If she's already made up her mind? Probably not. Won't stop me from trying, though."

Ame nodded and set the second bag on the bed, then went to the door. "If there's nothing else...."

"Actually...." Okasa started. Ame turned back and waited. "I'd like to join you in the kitchen. Have you decided what's for dinner?"

"Adam asked for hamburgers and fries." She shrugged. "I actually haven't made those in a while, so I was going to do those."

"Sounds good. Can I help?"

Ame smiled. "Sure. You know where the kitchen is. I'll be in there if Patrick hasn't decided he needs rescuing before you get downstairs." Okasa snorted.

"Considering we don't see that boy as often as either of us would like, I think it's more likely that we'll need to drag them in for supper." Ame laughed and left while Okasa turned back to her unpacking.

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

Brianna was slumped over her desk with her head cradled in both hands when Esmeralda entered her office much later that evening. She rushed to Brianna's side, only to have Brianna look up at her as Esmeralda reached her side.

"Brianna?" she asked softly, recognizing the misery in her eyes. "What's wrong?"

Brianna blew out an exasperated breath. "Nothing a kick in the ass wouldn't cure," she muttered, her sadness turning to anger. Esmeralda backed up slightly and scratched the back of her neck awkwardly.

"I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it's not me you're angry with."

Brianna snorted. "Not even close, though I can be if you'd like me to add you to the list. Apparently, my stupidity knows no bounds today, so I could certainly add that to my list of dim-witted actions today." Esmeralda held out her hand, extending it a second time when Brianna hesitated. Brianna gave Esmeralda a wry smile and shook her head. "How do you do that?"

"Do what?" Esmeralda asked with a furrowed brow as they walked to the sofa and took seats in either corner.

"Make me feel better just by caring. I mean, I know you can't do anything to fix this or make it better, but I also know as surely as I'm sitting here that just sharing it with you will not only make me feel better, but will probably give me some insight on how to do something about it."

Esmeralda blinked. "Um... experience?" causing Brianna to laugh.

"See what I mean? I feel better already. I don't know what I would've done if I hadn't met you and Saphira that first night here. Talk about right place, right time."

"I'm glad, Brianna. We both are. Now why don't you tell me what's wrong?"

"Yeah - I'm trying to figure out where to start," rising and crossing to her mini-fridge. Without asking, she pulled out two chocolate milks. She tossed one to Esmeralda who grinned when she caught it, then shook hers, looking down carefully as she eased it open.

"I generally find the beginning to be a good choice," Esmeralda responded, giving a chuckle when Brianna stuck her tongue out. "Oh... before I forget, Saphira said we'd be pleased to join you if we won't be intruding."

"Well, that's a great segue," Brianna muttered as she returned to the couch, smiling wryly at Esmeralda's arched brow. She proceeded to tell Esmeralda what had occurred between her and Charisma earlier that day. "She needed to know... I understand that. But I probably could have found a better tack to take than just blurting it out like that." A pause. "I think I hurt her feelings," Brianna added in a much softer tone.

"You probably did," Esmeralda agreed bluntly. "But as you said - she needed to know, and better now than when you arrive and her brothers greet you like old family instead of acting like it's been years since they've seen you. I'm thinking she wouldn't take too kindly to being made a fool of like that."

"I think she already feels that way."

"Then you need to make her realize that wasn't the case at all." Esmeralda bit her lip thoughtfully. "Have you spoken to her mother?"

"Only briefly. Apparently Charisma called her the moment we were off the phone and pretty much ripped her a new one in the iciest calm and polite manner possible. She called me right after and said they were headed down... at Charisma's insistence."

"And have you talked to her?"

Brianna shook her head. "No - not since I faux pas'd this morning. She asked for a little bit of time to process - what could I say?" Brianna sighed deeply and rubbed a hand over her eyes. "Why do I let her do this to me? Why do I let her make me crazy? Why can't I just cut my losses and let her go?" the last whispered tearfully. Esmeralda gently took her hand.

"Because you love her, Brianna. That's reason enough."

Brianna chuckled, though there was a hint of a sob as well. "I guess it is."

"So what are you gonna do now?"

"Wait for her to call me, I guess," shaking her head when Esmeralda did. "No?"

"No," Esmeralda stated firmly. "Stop being so passive about this. If you want Charisma in your life again - even as simply a friend - then DO something about it, Brianna. Find that determination you had when I first met you. Stop giving Charisma all the control."

"That's going to cause a fight, you know."

"And the problem with that is...? Brianna, a little passion is not a bad thing... even in friendships. It brings vitality and excitement and enthusiasm. Otherwise things become lackluster and boring. And that just causes things to wither and die on the vine." Esmeralda took a deep breath and met Brianna's eyes. Brianna blinked, stunned by the fire that was sparking from Esmeralda's eyes. "Make a decision, Brianna, and stick with it. At least things will be resolved one way or the other for good and you can finally move forward... either with Charisma in your life or with her out of it forever."

"You make it sound so easy."

"It's only as difficult as you make it, Brianna. I've been where you are, remember."

"Yes, I remember - but I think yours was actually worse." Esmeralda shrugged but didn't comment. She knew what she thought, but she wasn't going to give voice to it. She figured she had gone as close to the line as she dared without crossing it. She wasn't going to push anymore.

They sat in silence for a long moment before Esmeralda realized Brianna was deep in thought. Without a word she rose and began her cleaning. Once again she was behind, but with any luck it would be worth it. In the meantime she had plenty to do.

She was almost finished when Brianna started from her brown study, suddenly realizing she was sitting alone in her semi-darkened office. Then she turned and saw Esmeralda packing away her cleaning supplies.

"Done already?" she asked, then glanced at her watch when Esmeralda smirked at her. "Holy shit!" she exclaimed, then slapped a hand over her mouth. "Sorry - I 'm trying to do better here at least."

"No worries, my friend," Esmeralda assured her with a smile. "But I need to get finished. I don't want to worry Saphira any more than necessary."

"Would you like a ride to the diner?"

"No, Brianna - thank you. I appreciate it, but I just can't." She held up a hand. "Before you ask.... For one thing, I can't keep accepting limo rides to the diner from you just on general principle. Trust me when I tell you that would cause you more grief and controversy than you suddenly getting a girlfriend. For another, I've still got work to do and you should probably go home and get some rest. I'd be willing to bet you've got a pretty good headache going again."

"How can you tell?"

"I recognize the signs."

Brianna nodded once and winced. "You're right. I'd like to hear more about the grief and controversy thing - I can't imagine offering a friend a ride could possibly be considered worse than me being a participatory lesbian." Esmeralda snorted and Brianna smirked. "Sorry - I like that better than practicing. That implies I'm still working on it and I feel confident I know what I'm doing."

Esmeralda laughed aloud. "That always makes for a much more pleasant experience for all involved. Now go home. You can worry about all this," motioning around the room, "tomorrow."

"Anybody ever tell you you're bossy?" Brianna grumbled, even as she rose to do Esmeralda's bidding.

"Saphira," Esmeralda offered deadpan. "Constantly."

"She'd be right," Brianna muttered, gathering her things and crossing to stand beside Esmeralda. "Thank you, Es. Thank you for the kick in the ass and for being my friend. I hope Saphira knows how lucky she is."

"She does - I remind her every day," Esmeralda said with a smirk. Brianna just laughed and gave Esmeralda a brief hug. Then she headed for the door, holding it and gesturing Esmeralda through ahead of her with a flourish.

"Goodnight, Es," she offered when they made it back out into the main hall.

"Goodnight, Senator Walker," eyes twinkling at the mock-glare that garnered her. "Sweet dreams."

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

"I almost wish I could have stayed," Ame said to the other angels as they put dinner on the table. "Charisma was furious. I imagine Amber's getting an earful to share with Es in the morning. I know Okasa is."

"That woman needs to learn to loosen up," Coral commented as she leaned against the doorjamb watching the activity taking place around her. "Honestly, at least Brianna knows how to go with the flow once in a while."

"Speaking of which," Ruby said, "why are you still here? Aren't you supposed to be covering her right now?" with a pointed look at the clock.

"I was," Coral replied emphatically. "Es sent me back. Said she needed to talk with her privately."

"About...?"

Coral shrugged. "I dunno - I didn't ask."

"You would make a seriously sucky spy."

"Yeah, but I make a great guardian," Coral replied immodestly. "So it's all good." She straightened and grabbed her phone. "Jas just texted. Gotta go." Then she was gone. Ruby looked around at the rest of them and indicated the table.

"C'mon ladies. It's time to eat. We'll hear about it eventually, I'm sure."

"That's one reason that despite everything I wanted to be part of this assignment. Es keeps everyone in the loop as much as possible and she shares the credit."

"Not sure credit's gonna help much in this instance - not as long as they are out of favor."

"As long as this one works out, I don't care. This one feels really personal, you know? Like we're actually part of the fight for a change instead of simply out on the fringe of things." Heads nodded around the table, but there were no more words for a while. And when they finally came again, the conversation moved on to other subjects.

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

Charisma was cool and composed by the time she entered her home, but it was a cold fury that seemed to burn through her veins. She wasn't sure why it made her so angry. After all, she wanted Brianna to be part of the family again, didn't she? She wanted things to be like they had been twenty years before when they'd been best friends and had the whole world ahead of them. Of course, she had a husband and child now, but that shouldn't change too much between them, right?

And then to find out that while she was doing without HER best friend - the same best friend that had walked out of her life without even bothering to say goodbye - her family had continued to enjoy her companionship.... Charisma was ready to blow. She was only holding it together at the moment because it was Adam's time.

She came in like she did every other evening, thanking Ame and dismissing her, then taking over Adam's bath and bedtime. Only once he was settled down and tucked into bed did she venture downstairs to find her parents.

She found them much where she expected them to be - in the kitchen waiting for her to join them for dinner. Instead, she stepped into the room and leaned against the doorjamb with her arms crossed protectively over her chest. She didn't even offer them a welcome, but jumped right in with both feet.

"So would one of you like to tell me what the HELL is going on?? When did I become a lesser member of the family??"

"Charisma...." Okasa soothed as she approached.

"Don't," she growled. "Don't take another step. I want you to stand there and explain to me why I am just now finding out that MY BEST FRIEND has been part of your lives for the last twenty years when she hasn't been a part of mine?? Hmm??"

"Did you ask her?" Okasa responded calmly.

"Excuse me?" Charisma said, blinking.

"Did. You. ASK. HER?"

"No... I'm asking you."

"Maybe you should be asking her, Charisma. Or maybe you should ask yourself why you let her walk out of yours. Because I will tell you this - she *tried* to walk out of ours, and I wouldn't let her. I refused. Her only condition was that you not know."

"WHY??"

Okasa sighed and walked over to the refrigerator, removing the raw burgers she and Ame had made up earlier. Then she jerked her head at Patrick who had remained silently watching the tableau. Okasa had asked for his support, and he had given it freely. But he was happy to let her take the lead. Charisma may have been a Daddy's girl, but when it came to this, he was in way over his head. Okasa had always been more successful dealing with their daughter's stubborn streak. So he lit the indoor grill and started placing the burgers on the rack while Okasa continued to take things from the fridge and place them on the counter.

"Mother," Charisma growled. Okasa sighed again.

"Charisma, if you want to know, you're going to have to talk to Brianna. I made her a promise, and I'm not going to break it."

"Fine," she snarled, pushing off the doorjamb. "I'm not hungry," she threw over her shoulder as she slammed out and headed for her study.

"Charisma! Charisma!!" Okasa called after her. She exchanged a look with Patrick.

"That went well," he commented benignly. Okasa glared at him. He just shrugged and turned back to his cooking. This was going to be a hell of a visit.



Chapter XLIX

Charisma slammed into her office - or at least slammed as loudly as she dared with Adam asleep upstairs. She caught sight of the album that still rested on the coffee table and picked it up with a jerk. She hefted it as though she was going to throw it, then dropped it back on the table with a sneer as though that would make the damn thing disappear on its own.

She looked around the room, realizing that she'd basically created her own prison. Her mother wouldn't bother her as long as she was in here, but the moment she set foot outside the door, Okasa would feel Charisma was fair game. And for whatever reason, Charisma just didn't feel up to dealing with it anymore today. She was exhausted and heart sore.

She moved to the couch and lay down, putting her head on the arm and curling her legs up. She grabbed the pillow and pulled it into her chest. Charisma let her mind drift for a long moment, thinking about - had it only been yesterday that Brianna had been here? She shook her head, then she closed her eyes and shut out the world for a little while. She never heard the knock on the door.

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

Brianna seriously considered going home as she made her way downstairs to her waiting car. Her head really did hurt and thanks to Esmeralda, she actually had food for several days. Still, Esmeralda's words niggled at her and she couldn't shake the feeling that Esmeralda had a good point. She had been extremely passive about this whole affair - for lack of a better word - allowing Charisma to run roughshod over her in almost every confrontation they'd had since her arrival in Washington. Only once had she really called Charisma out about it, and only then had Adam been able to affect a change.

She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the seat, wincing when she rolled over the bump as she pressed the speaker button. "Jas?"

"Yes, Senator?"

"I need you to take me over to Senator Tagherty's."

"Senator?" Jas asked. A glance at the clock told her how late it was, and while she honestly believed Charisma was still awake, she doubted a positive action would come of simply dropping by the woman's home at this time of night. Still....

"Is there a problem, Jas?"

"No problem, Senator. I wanted to be sure I heard you correctly. You want me to drive you to Senator Tagherty's?"

"Yes. You'll have to wait out front as my understanding is that her limousine is not garaged there either, but with a little luck this won't take too long. Of course, the way my luck's been running today...." Brianna muttered under her breath, but Jas still heard her. However, she was a woman of no small intelligence and chose to ignore the last bit and focus on the first.

"Yes, Senator. I am at your disposal," neatly swinging the large car towards Charisma's and hoping she had time to call Esmeralda if the whole thing went south.

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

Okasa and Patrick were sitting at the table eating when the gate buzzed for attention. They exchanged glances, then Patrick rose and went to the hall.

"Yes?"

Jas blinked. She certainly hadn't expected to hear a man's voice, and she had to clear her throat before she could speak.

"Senator Brianna Walker to see Senator Charisma Tagherty."

Now it was Patrick's turn to blink and he turned towards the kitchen doorway when he heard Okasa approaching him. Her eyes were wide, but she was motioning 'YES' to him frantically. So like any good husband and father, he pushed the button to give Brianna access to the house. Then he took Okasa's hand and they waited together in the foyer for the car to arrive.

It only took a moment, then they heard the doors open and close and footsteps on the concrete. Then there was a knock and Okasa smiled and moved to open the door.

"Brianna!" she welcomed quietly but with enthusiasm. Brianna held onto the embrace for a long moment, then stepped back, only to find herself in Patrick's strong arms.

"Oh, Papa," she said softly, and he lifted her completely off the ground. Her spine pooped back into alignment and she groaned. Patrick and Okasa looked at one another over her head.

"Little Girl, when was the last time you had that taken care of?

Brianna squeezed his neck one more time for good measure and pushed away slightly. Patrick took the hint and set her back on her feet, but kept a protective arm around her shoulder. She leaned her head on his chest and wrapped an arm around both Patrick's and Okasa's waists, hugging them again. "Honestly?" she replied after a moment. "The last time you hugged me."

Okasa frowned. "That's not funny, Little Bri. That's way too long to go."

"Without a hug from you guys? Trust me - I know. Now," looking between them, "how bad is it?"

"You know... sometimes I wish she was small enough to take over my knee. I might be able to put some sense into her again."

"That bad, huh?"

"Well," Patrick drawled slowly. "She skipped dinner and locked herself up in that room she calls a study."

"Oh boy. All right let me.... Mama?" stopping when Okasa tightened her grip around Brianna's waist.

"First you're gonna come with me and Papa to the kitchen. I'm pretty sure you haven't eaten yet either and if you're going to beard *that* lion in *her* den, you may as well do so with a full belly. You'll feel better, and given the damage I can see, I'd say you need to feel as good as you possibly can before you go in there. What happened to you, anyway?"

Brianna released her hold on both of them and allowed them to lead her to the kitchen. Her mouth watered when she smelled hamburgers - they were a favorite when the family got together and it seemed like it had been forever since her summer visit. "Adam," she answered succinctly.

"Excuse me? Are you saying my grandson beat up on you?"

Brianna laughed then winced when it pulled at her healing lip. "Not exactly. He was actually trying to show me love - I just wasn't quite ready for the force of nature that particular future linebacker is."

Patrick and Okasa nodded and chuckled. It had been talked about between them before. Okasa motioned Brianna to a seat and reached in the fridge for the milk. She simply returned Brianna's look when the younger woman tried to give her one. Then she cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Don't even try it young lady. With all the coffee and God knows what other crap you put into your body on a daily basis, you will survive drinking a glass of milk with your dinner."

"Yes, Mama," Brianna responded.

It didn't take long for Brianna to eat. It wasn't much - not nearly what it could have been and barely enough to make Okasa happy, but even Okasa recognized Brianna's logic about not gorging herself too late at night. Besides, Brianna was obviously getting antsy about talking to Charisma. So Okasa eyeballed her still half-filled glass of milk and then stared at Brianna pointedly. Brianna sighed dramatically, but lifted the glass to her lips and dutifully drained it.

When she was done, she placed the empty glass back on the counter and waited for Okasa to nod her approval. Instead, Okasa leaned over and kissed her cheek and whispered, "Go get 'er, Brianna." Brianna flushed to the roots of her hair, then nodded and rose. Without another word, she left the kitchen and headed for Charisma's study.

Patrick and Okasa watched her go, then without speaking, started cleaning up the kitchen.

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

It was a light tapping on the door that brought Charisma out of the doze she'd fallen into. She frowned, taking a moment to get her bearings and then realizing her sanctuary had become her prison. And now, it seemed, her mother felt the need to torture her here as well. She sighed and sat up, running her fingers through her hair and scrubbing a hand over her face in an attempt to force wakefulness into her brain.

Another knock sounded and she growled. "Go away, Mother. I'm not in the mood."

"Charisma?" the voice causing her to sit up straight in a blind panic. "It's Brianna. May I come in?"

Charisma felt a myriad of reactions and emotions roar through her and she gripped the couch with
white-knuckled strength. She sat breathing for a long moment, trying to find some semblance of control. It was only when Brianna spoke again that she understood her time was up.

"Okay, well... maybe you're sleeping or maybe you're just furious and don't want to talk to me. Whatever." She sighed. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry. I never meant for this to hurt you, but I'm not the only one at fault here. You bear some of the responsibility too and...."

Whatever else Brianna had been about to say was lost when Charisma jerked the door open and glared at her. "Excuse me? *My* responsibility?"

Brianna held her stare measure for measure, and finally Charisma stepped back a pace and gestured towards her sanctum. "Would you like to come in?" she invited. "I'd prefer to handle this privately between us, if you don't mind."

Brianna wondered why, if that was the case, Okasa and Patrick were now ensconced in Charisma's home at her demand. She had no way of knowing that Okasa had instructed Charisma to take care of things with Brianna directly. But she would momentarily.

"My mother insisted that we handle this between us; she swears she's not culpable for anything to do with this situation," Charisma said snidely as she closed the door.

"She's telling the truth," Brianna affirmed.

"How can you know that? You don't even know what she said yet!" Charisma would have been yelling had Adam not been asleep. As it was, her whisper was quite deadly in its ferocity.

"Because she did what I asked her to do, Charisma."

Charisma sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. "It always comes back to you leaving me, doesn't it? WHY?" she continued without pausing. "Why did you leave?? Why was I not enough for you anymore, but my family was? What made them so goddamn special, Brianna??" Charisma asked, chest heaving and eyes flashing fire.

Brianna couldn't help but admire how beautiful and passionate Charisma was in that moment, then she closed off that part of herself and turned the question around. "Why didn't you come after me, Charisma? Why didn't you make an effort to find out what was wrong? Why didn't you want to know then why I left? What difference could it possibly make to you now??"

Charisma blew out an impatient breath. "This isn't getting us anywhere."

Brianna raked her hands through her hair. "Charisma, I've told you this, but allow me to reiterate - when you're ready to hear the answer, you'll ask the right question. And I promise I will give you the truth. Charisma, I have never lied to you; I won't lie about this."

Blue eyes held green for a long moment, and finally Charisma nodded. "Keep reminding me - eventually it'll stick."

Brianna snorted. "No it won't. You'll keep asking until you get the result you want."

Charisma laughed. "You know me so well," seeing a flinch pass over Brianna's face. "Bri?"

"Sorry - when I try to smile it pulls on my lip and it's still pretty bruised."

Charisma put her fingertips under Brianna's chin and lifted it so she could get a better look. "Yeah, he did quite a number on you. How do you feel?"

"Thrilled I will not be playing quarterback against him." Brianna said, eyes twinkling. "Pretty sure he would have given me brain damage if he'd been a little bigger." Charisma let her hands slide over Brianna's hair to the back of her head, wincing in tandem when they touched the knot.

"Ow."

"Yeah, but it doesn't hurt unless I put pressure on it."

"Are you hungry?" Charisma asked suddenly.

"Mama O fed me the minute I walked in the door. You KNOW what that's like."

"Oh yeah," Charisma agreed. "Well, would you mind coming to the kitchen with me anyway? I need something to eat and I am still curious about a couple things."

"Are we all right?"

"We're all right. I just would really like to know why my family got you when I didn't and why everyone felt the need to keep it a secret from me. I feel all kinds of an idiot, you know?"

Brianna took Charisma's hand and tugged her towards the door. "C'mon. This calls for ice cream."

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

"Mama?" Patrick asked when she took his hand and led him upstairs towards their room. "I thought we were gonna wait downstairs... maybe watch a little TV." She gave him a look.

"Patrick Tagherty - don't stand there and act the fool with me. I know very well you set the machine to record every show you watch while we're gone, so don't pretend like you're actually missing something." She held up a hand when he started to speak. "They're not yelling and Brianna hasn't left, so I'm gonna take a big leap here and guess they're essentially talking to one another. That being the case, we're gonna give them the space they need to do so. You remember how they used to take over the house when they settled in to talk. We can keep an eye on Adam."

"You're pretty smart for an old woman," Patrick said saucily, his leer belied by the twinkle in his eye. Okasa narrowed her eyes at him and gave him a baleful stare.

"You're treading on thin ice, old man." Patrick chuckled silently.

"I know... ain't it great??" Okasa just smirked and shook her head, then they went in to check on Adam.

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

"So talk to me, Brianna. Tell me why my family got to have you around for the last twenty years."

Brianna sighed. She had to skirt such a thin line with this discussion, but Charisma deserved the answers Brianna was able to give. "When I got back from Barcelona," seeing Charisma acknowledge her words, "I went straight to school. But my first free weekend, I went down to see your folks. I needed to say goodbye to them."

"Like you couldn't say goodbye to me?" Charisma asked, her ire returning. Brianna covered her hand.

"I said goodbye, Charisma, even if I never uttered the actual words. You knew when I walked away from you in that airport it was goodbye." Charisma dropped her head until her eyes were focused on their hands and she nodded her admission of the truth. "Right," Brianna offered in acceptance.

"So, when I told Okasa I was saying goodbye, she told me NO. She refused to accept a goodbye from me - insisted I was part of the family and informed me in no uncertain terms that family didn't just get to leave. So I stayed with the understanding that it would be done around your schedule."

"But why keep it secret?" looking at Brianna again.

"Because you let me go, Charisma. You let me walk away without once trying to understand why I left. I took that as my cue that you were done with me. I didn't see a need to anger you."

Charisma held Brianna's eyes, studying them as she hadn't done since college. And she discovered that the woman before her was much like the girl she had known. She finally nodded. "Fair enough," she conceded. "Now what?"

Brianna shrugged. "I figure that's up to you. You invited me to join you again, but I won't hold you to it."

"Do you want to come?"

Brianna just gave Charisma a droll look and Charisma chuckled, knowing what was coming. "Charisma, I have spent the last nearly twenty years going to your mother's house on oddball weekends to celebrate the holidays with your family. I'm pretty sure my wanting is not going to be a problem here. Not sure how your family will react to going back to one celebration per holiday, but we can cross that bridge if we come to it."

"They'll live," Charisma declared. "However, if it's left up to me, they'll only get to celebrate once like the rest of the world does. Have you talked to Mama?"

Brianna shook her head. "Figured I needed to talk to you first. But Es said she and Saphira would love to join us if Okasa wouldn't think they're imposing."

"I'll talk to Mama in the morning, but you *know* what she's going to say."

"Bring 'em along, Little Bri. The more, the merrier."

Charisma covered her mouth to keep from shouting her laughter. "Wow - you've got her down pat."

Brianna rolled her eyes. "As many times as I've heard her say something similar...? Well, check with her in the morning to be sure, will you? Esmeralda and Saphira have been such a blessing in my life since I got here and I'd really rather they weren't embarrassed. Not that I think anyone would say a word if they just showed up with me," Brianna continued before Charisma could protest. "But as sensitive as Es is, I think she'd notice if they were sprung on your family without warning.

Charisma nodded. "Probably. I'll talk to her in the morning and let you know at work."

"Speaking of... I need to get home." They rose and took their dishes to the sink and Charisma waved Brianna off when she started to wash them. "I'll take care of them before I go to bed. You, on the other hand, still have to get there, so.... Do you have a way?"

"Jas is waiting outside," seeing Charisma nod her approval. She headed towards the front door with Charisma right beside her. "Thank you for seeing me, Charisma."

"Thank you for caring enough to stop by, Bri. We'll get there."

"Maybe one day. Goodnight."

"Night." Charisma watched her to the car and waited for the taillights to disappear down the hill. Then she locked up and washed up the dishes before heading up to bed. Everything else could wait until morning.



Chapter L

The next few days passed much the same way. Everyone was incredibly busy trying to get their work wrapped up before week's end. Even if they had to come back for a short assembly between holidays, they preferred to have things done and ready for the next full session once the holidays were officially over.

So everyone was pushing - putting in extra hours in an effort to get done and leave Washington for a while. Ruby and Saphira noticed a difference in their clientele and Esmeralda didn't have time to do more than nod at her friends. But no one was happier to see the weekend than Charisma and Brianna.

Despite their best efforts, they had barely had time for hello. Even lunches were impossible as both of them ended up working through them with other people. So when Esmeralda finally made it into Brianna's office on Friday night, she wasn't particularly surprised to find them together. They weren't doing anything - seriously... they were curled into opposite corners of the couch, shoes off and legs tucked up under them each holding a tumbler of something Esmeralda strongly suspected was a very old whiskey.

Even her entrance into the office didn't merit more than a peek from beneath long lashes before the eyes closed once more. Loath to disturb them, Esmeralda simply parked her cart and quietly pulled her supplies from it. Then she started in on her work.

It took Brianna a few minutes to realize that what she'd seen when she'd struggled to open her eye was in fact, Esmeralda. She rubbed her eyes and pushed her hair back before she sat up and nudged Charisma with her foot. Charisma jumped and glared at Brianna, then looked in the direction Brianna had jerked her head. Her eyes widened and she sat up and wiped her face.

"Es?"

Esmeralda turned back from her garbage collection and smiled. "Good evening, Senator Tagherty... Senator Walker," giggling at the twin glowers her greeting garnered her.

"Smart mouth." Charisma muttered loud enough for Esmeralda to hear it. She turned to Brianna. "My mother is going to love her." She looked back at Esmeralda. "You are coming with Brianna next week, right?"

Esmeralda's eyes went wide. "Ummm...."

"I haven't seen her long enough to let her know that Okasa insisted to the point of threatening," Brianna admitted.

"Neither have I," Charisma sighed, then patted the sofa. "Come sit a minute, Es."

"Ri, she might be as anxious as we were to get done so she can get out of here. Remember, she's on holiday too," Brianna reminded Charisma when Esmeralda hesitated.

"Sorry, Es. I don't think I'm functioning on all cylinders," Charisma confessed. "Bri told Mama that she'd invited you and Saphira to spend the holiday with her when Mama told her she expected her for the holiday. So Mama instructed her to bring you - I was told to make sure it happened." She turned big blue eyes on Esmeralda, and for a brief moment, Esmeralda was reminded of Saphira. "Please don't make me explain to my Mama why you didn't come with Brianna."

"Um... okay." She looked at Brianna as relief passed through Charisma's expression. "I didn't realize you meant the actual holiday."

Brianna shrugged. "I didn't at the time."

Esmeralda's eyes twinkled, understanding more than Brianna felt comfortable saying. "All right," she reaffirmed. "As long as you're sure we won't be intruding."

"Es, I'm not kidding you when I tell you Mama insisted. You'll find my Mama tends to get what she wants. Just ask Brianna." She pointed to Brianna whose head was bobbing up and down vigorously. "Trust me when I tell you that not only will you not be intruding, you're expected and will be more than welcome to join us. Ruby is invited as well."

Esmeralda blinked. "I'll tell her, but I think she expected to go home for the weekend. Matilda has already given her the time off."

Brianna frowned. "Doesn't that mean Saphira will have to work?"

Esmeralda shook her head and smiled. "No. Joe and Matilda close the diner early the night before and celebrate with their family - all the kids and grandkids. Then on Thanksgiving they volunteer at the local shelter as a family... they've done it since the kids were very little. It's become a family tradition - some of the in-laws have even started joining them."

"Wow," Charisma said. "That's an amazing tradition."

"And what a fabulous mindset to pass on to the next generation," Brianna added. "Imagine being able to see your children and grandchildren making a difference in the lives of others," she added, losing herself in thought.

"Do you miss not having children, Bri?" Charisma asked softly.

"I don't think so, no. I've gotten the chance to enjoy your brother's kids growing up and now there's Adam for me to play with and enjoy." She shrugged. "I don't think I'd make a very good mother anyway... not given the example I had growing up."

Charisma's eyebrows crawled into her hairline. "Should I tell my mother you think she's a bad example?"

Brianna cringed and shook her head rapidly, thankful that both her head and her lip had healed during the week. "No!! I was grown when I met Okasa! That's not what I meant and you know it!"

"Yes, but the look on your face was pretty priceless," Charisma teased. Brianna just gawked at her, then stuck out her tongue. Charisma just snorted. Esmeralda decided it was time to remind them of her presence and cleared her throat, startling them. "Oh God, Es... I'm so sorry."

"Why?" she asked honestly. "It was highly entertaining, but I'm done here and wanted to say goodnight before I left."

"Wait a sec, and we'll walk out with you," Brianna declared as she put her shoes back on with a groan and stood. "Okay, that was a really stupid thing to do," she said with a grimace. Charisma winced.

"No kidding. Where are the Danskins when you need them?" She swallowed the last of her liquor and shivered, then took her glass and Brianna's to the bathroom sink to wash them out. In a moment, they were all set and ready to go.

"OH!" Charisma exclaimed as she tucked her purse under her arm and picked up her briefcase. "I was wondering if you," motioning to both of them, "would like to try for another get together on Sunday. Ame has already said she'll come watch Adam for a little while if we need her too. He's been asking about the album since Mama and Papa left yesterday. I think they kept him too busy to think about it before then."

Esmeralda shrugged. "I don't think it will be a problem, but I need to check with Saphira. It's a short week for her, so it should be fine."

"Well, I'm headed that way, so let me give you a ride and we can ask her while I'm there. Don't," Charisma said, holding up her hand. "I need to talk to Matilda about her chocolate cake." She looked at Brianna to forestall Esmeralda's protest. "What about you?"

"Depends... which part are you asking me about?" Charisma frowned. "Are you asking me about Sunday or tonight?"

"Oh... Sunday naturally. Though never let it be said I got between a woman and her need for chocolate cake," she added with a smile. Brianna snorted.

"I seem to recall...."

"Eh," Charisma held up a hand. "No telling tales out of school, Brianna Brianna. Now... about Sunday?"

"I'll be there."

They had reached the public elevators and Esmeralda pushed on by them with her cart, headed towards the service elevator. They looked at her and then at one another.

"Can we ride down with you?" Esmeralda just blinked and Brianna continued speaking. "You can't use these with that," she stated, "and we know that. And the cars are pretty close to your exit, correct?" smiling when Esmeralda nodded dumbly. "So why don't we just save a couple steps and a few minutes and just ride down with you. That way we can be sure you get that ride."

Esmeralda just chuckled. "All right," gesturing them to one side. "You're gonna want to let me get in with this thing first though. It's gonna be crowded, but at least that way, you'll be able to back in and face the door."

"Let's do it," Charisma said as the door dinged opened, and almost instantly, they were loaded up and headed down. The reaction when they stepped out into the service corridor was abrupt and entertaining. The custodial manager rushed to greet them.

"Senator Walker... Senator Tagherty - is there a problem I can help you with?" When he greeted them by name, every janitor and driver froze, not quite sure how to behave with hierarchy down in the catacombs. Esmeralda just rolled her eyes and moved to her supply closet, carefully restocking before she put her cart away. Charisma and Brianna just remained nearby, trying not to stare and make folks feel more uncomfortable with their presence than they already did. Jas and Turq headed out to recover the limousines, knowing they would be necessary in a very few minutes.

"No Rick," Brianna answered the man, having met him briefly the last time she'd been down here with Esmeralda. "We're just here with Es."

Rick frowned and looked between them and Esmeralda. "Is something wrong?" he asked again. "Es?"

She glanced over at him and shook her head. "Everything's fine, Rick. They want to go over to the diner to talk to Matilda about her chocolate cake, and since I'm headed that way, they decided to give me a ride with them."

His frown deepened into a scowl and he shook his head. "That's highly unusual," he commented. Now it was Charisma's turn to frown.

"Is it a problem for you, Rick?" her words sharp and biting.

He snapped his head around at her tone, and suspected immediately that she was displeased about something. He turned back to Esmeralda, who shrugged and nodded her head in Charisma's direction, knowing Charisma expected an answer from Rick and not her. He cleared his throat.

"No, Senator Tagherty. It's not a problem," he replied stiffly. "It's just never been done."

Brianna smiled at him. "Well, 'tis the season and all that, right? Since we're headed that way anyway...."

He looked at Esmeralda, noting the pallor of her skin and the exhaustion in her eyes despite the smile she wore. Rick nodded slowly. "I suppose so," he conceded. "And it's good of you to look out for Es like that. She's had a bit of a rough time, you know, so anything that makes things a little easier...."

Esmeralda glared at him. "I'm standing right here, you know."

He leered at her, then stepped behind Charisma and Brianna, peeking his head between them. "I know. I figure I've got big guns backing me up this time.

Esmeralda narrowed her eyes. "That's like cheating, you know."

"Um hmm - Saphira would be proud of me," earning him muffled chuckles from not only Brianna and Charisma, but also from several of the custodial and driving staff.

"I'm being ganged up on."

"You'll live," Charisma assured her drolly. "Now let's move it. I hear chocolate cake calling my name." She turned to Brianna. "You want to send Jas home and just ride over with us? I'm pretty sure we can get you home."

"You're pretty sure?"

"Yes. I'm pretty sure. How much do you trust me?" blue eyes twinkling.

Brianna studied her thoughtfully. "I guess I'd have to say completely, so let me go dismiss Jas and I'll meet you at the car." She turned and walked off before Charisma could respond... not that she'd have had a clue what to say. Still, Charisma couldn't stop the smile that tweaked the corners of her mouth. She turned to Esmeralda who had finished her stocking and had locked her cart away for the duration.

"You ready, Es?"

"Yes, Senator." She didn't even crack a smile when Charisma rolled her eyes, but dutifully followed her to the vehicle that had been pulled to the door. Turq opened the car door and Charisma slid in, gasping in surprise to find Brianna already sitting inside. Brianna grinned.

"Turq insisted. She and Jas were waiting here and when I told Jas to go home and why, Turq put me in the car." Brianna wrinkled her forehead in thought. "I think she actually would have done so physically if I'd refused to get in."

"No," Charisma assured her. "But she would have stood there holding the door until you got in just to keep from feeling ridiculous." Esmeralda snorted and Charisma smirked. Brianna just grinned.

"Happened to you before, I take it?"

"Oh yes. We like to think we're in control, but let's face it - it's the people around us who keep us going that are really in charge."

"There's something so wrong about that statement."

"Yes, but there's also a lot of truth to it too," Charisma replied. She turned to Esmeralda. "You're not going to get into trouble for us going downstairs with you, are you?"

"A little late to worry about it, Charisma," Brianna responded drolly. "I mean, there's not a lot we can do about it at this point without potentially making it worse."

Esmeralda held up her hands. "All right, you two - enough," seeing Charisma gearing up for an argument. "You're not gonna start fighting about this on my account. Brianna's right - it's a little late to worry about it, but the fact is that it really doesn't matter. For one thing, we're all going on holiday, and by the time we come back they will have mostly forgotten. For another, you're certainly not forbidden from being there - it's just we never get visitors from your level - it kinda threw everybody off-stride."

"Why?"

"Because we get to be ourselves there," Esmeralda offered with a shrug. "It's where we eat our meals and smoke our cigarettes and talk about our families and cheer for our favorite sports teams - none of the stuff we're allowed to do upstairs. There are rules we have to follow when we're in your world. And I'd venture to say that not a lot of the lower level staff has cultivated any sort of relationship with their? clients, for lack of a better word."

"Why?"

Esmeralda raised an eyebrow and both heads nodded. She sighed. "Mostly because a lot of the folks upstairs feel they are our betters. It's all right to say hi or ask how we're doing, but they don't want to be our friends. So we don't welcome them into our lives."

"Have they tried?" Charisma asked, forehead scrunched in thought. "Surely?."

Esmeralda smiled gently. "The world isn't a nice place Charisma? especially to people like me. Most people look at me and they see poor white trash. And when they find out I love another woman, it makes me less than the dirt on their shoes."

"That's not right!"

"No, it isn't, but it is life. It shouldn't matter that I clean up behind people to make a living or that my mate is a woman like I am. What should matter is that I work hard and pay my bills on time; that I talk to God diligently and am a loving, faithful mate to Saphira."

"How does you loving another woman make you a bad person, Esmeralda? And what is wrong with honest, hard work that people look down their noses at you for doing it?"

"You're asking the wrong person, Charisma. I just know how things work in my world."

Brianna tilted her head. "Do you think your world is so different from ours?"

Esmeralda returned her look thoughtfully. "In many ways, no. But in some ways?. People with money and power make the rules, Brianna. And they get treated differently because of it. I can't say if it's better - I don't know. But if I was a betting person, I would say it probably is to some extent."

"How so?"

"People don't question your right to be somewhere or do something because you're seen as somebody. You probably have never had someone look down their nose at you because of what you do or what you wear or who you're with. If I was in your place, my relationship with Saphira would titillate, not offend. Not that I want my relationship with her to become some sort of front page sensation, but people would be intrigued by us because we were rich and powerful."

"Do you really think so?"

"Yes," Esmeralda replied without hesitation. Then they were pulling up at the diner and Turq was opening the door. "I'd be willing to bet that if your colleagues had met Saphira and me before the Father dismissed us, we'd have been welcomed with open arms." She took Turq's hand to help her from the car, leaving two thoughtful Senators behind her.



Chapter LI

"What did you do to them?" Saphira asked quietly as she approached the car. Turq had called and warned Saphira they were coming, so Saphira had been waiting at the door watching for them when the limousine pulled up. She'd waited a moment, watching Esmeralda slowly emerge and had come out to greet her. Turq was still standing by the open car door. "I thought they were coming in with you."

Esmeralda frowned. "So did I, actually. Give me a sec?" she asked and Saphira nodded. Esmeralda walked back around to stick her head in the door. She cleared her throat, bringing two sets of eyes swinging in her direction. "Are the two of you coming in or should I say goodnight here?"

"What? Oh? I didn't realize," Charisma said.

Brianna blinked. "Me either."

Esmeralda shook her head. "It wasn't that profound, really. Now c'mon? Matilda has chocolate cake waiting."

Esmeralda backed away from the door quickly when she realized their intent. Charisma and Brianna scrambled out of the vehicle so quickly, Turq barely had a chance to offer them a hand. Then they came around the back of the car to greet Saphira. Charisma turned to Turq.

"Come with us, Turq."

"Oh, no ma'am? I couldn't."

"Does the snobbery thing work both ways?" she asked Esmeralda before turning back to Turq.

"Ma'am?"

"Just once, forget the rules. If it makes you feel better, no one will know except for us." Charisma saw Turq's eyes shift behind her for a bare moment and wondered if she had been seeking permission, because when they fastened on her again, Turq nodded her agreement.

"Thank you for the invitation, Senator." Then they were walking inside together and Saphira locked the door behind them.

Matilda walked around the counter when they crossed the threshold. If she was surprised by the number of people walking in the door of her technically closed diner, she didn't even blink to show it. Instead, she held out her arms to Esmeralda and offered her a hug. Then she did the same to Brianna, though with a much briefer embrace. Then she turned back to Esmeralda.

"Introduce me to my new friends, Essie. I know Brianna, but this is??"

"Matilda, this is Senator Charisma Tagherty and my friend Turq."

Matilda's eyes twinkled in delight. "Senator Tagherty, it's nice to make your acquaintance. And Turq?" She wrinkled her brow in thought. "You look familiar to me. Have you been here before?"

"Yes, ma'am. Es recommended your pot roast, so I've been in once or twice for that."

"Did you enjoy it?"

Turq cleared her throat and blushed. "As often as I can manage, ma'am."

"My name is Matilda, Turq. Only old folks get called ma'am around here, ya got it?"

"Yes ma'am? um, Matilda." Matilda just laughed.

"Don't worry about it Turq. You were obviously raised right."

"My mama will be glad to hear that."

Matilda laughed again and directed them towards the counter. "Now what can I do for you ladies tonight? We don't have much, I'm afraid."

"Please tell me there's chocolate cake?" Brianna practically whined. "Charisma had to go and mention it earlier and I've been jonesing for it ever since."

"Well, Brianna - you're in luck. I happened to make one earlier to have it for the lunch crowd tomorrow. Guess I'll be making another one in the morning, won't I?" She turned to Charisma. "And you, Senator Tagherty? What can I get for you?"

"I'd like it very much if you'd call me Charisma, Matilda. Otherwise I feel very much the odd woman out here." Matilda nodded.

"Of course, Charisma. Thank you. I've learned not to assume that privilege in this town."

"I can understand why. I'd like the chocolate cake as well. And I'd like to talk to you about ordering about a half dozen more of them," smiling when Matilda's eyebrows shot up into her hairline. "I'm taking Es' word on faith. She swears it's the best thing going."

Matilda smiled at Esmeralda before turning back to Charisma. "Well, I'll admit it's pretty damn good, but I'm pretty sure six of them will make you hurl your guts, Charisma. It wouldn't be pretty."

Charisma blinked. "Oh? ew, no. I'd like them for next weekend. We're going to my parents for the holiday and I figure that should be enough for the entire family. My brothers have teenagers - mostly teenage boys," as if that explained it all. And for Matilda it seemed to as she nodded her head sagely.

"In that case? when do you need them by?"

"Wednesday morning?" She looked at Brianna. "Would you mind swinging by here and picking them up on your way?"

"Not at all. Es?" finally noting that Esmeralda and Saphira were seated at one end of the counter, quietly eating the meal Saphira had split between them. Saphira nudged her and jerked her head in Brianna's direction, and Esmeralda refocused her gaze.

"I'm sorry, Brianna - what did I miss?"

"Charisma was wondering if we could pick up the cakes she's ordering from Matilda on Wednesday morning on our way out of town." Esmeralda's eyes widened and she swallowed. "Of course, Brianna - whatever you want to do. Saphira and I are just along for the ride."

"You're along for much more than that," Brianna and Charisma declared in tandem, then stared at one another in startlement. The rest chuckled softly and it broke the tableau, causing Brianna and Charisma to smile.

"Great," Matilda said clapping her hands together excitedly. "Now that we have that settled, what can I get for you Turq?"

"I'll have the same, ma'am? Matilda."

Matilda turned and reached towards the window, swiping the three plates of cake Joe had put there as soon as he'd heard the orders. Matilda set them in front of her impromptu guests, then turned and pulled three glasses of milk from the big machine behind the counter. All three women looked at her. Matilda just raised an eyebrow.

"You must be related to my mother," Charisma mumbled. Matilda snorted.

"You really want to try arguing about it?" she offered, setting a glass down in front of each of them. They shook their heads and muttered "No, ma'am," then dug into their cake, moaning aloud when the taste of chocolate fudge hit their tongues. Then she laughed when they all grabbed for their milk, draining half the glass.

"I'm really glad I didn't argue," Charisma commented to Brianna in an aside loud enough she knew the rest would hear.

"Yeah, we might not get a refill, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to need one." Then they focused their attention on eating and Matilda moved over to check on Esmeralda and Saphira.

"How ya doing, Essie?"

"Better," she replied instantly. "Where's Joe?"

"Saphira told us your Senator friends were coming, and he skedaddled to the kitchen. I think he's feeling a little outnumbered."

Esmeralda snorted. "He's always outnumbered when I'm here. There are three of us and one of him."

"Yes, but now there are six of us and two of them are lawmakers. It's a little daunting for him."

"He should give them a chance, Matilda. They've never once made me feel like they look down on me, and I don't have any more education than he does. And he had a distinguished career in the military. That counts for a lot too."

"You try telling him, Es. Maybe he'll take it better from you."

Saphira rolled her eyes. "Or I could just drag him out here by his ear."

"Saphira!!" Esmeralda's exclamation drew the attention of the others. Saphira raised her hands as if she didn't know why Esmeralda was calling her down and Esmeralda nudged her. Saphira nudged back and Brianna, surprisingly was the one to raise her fork at them and point.

"Don't make me come over there and separate the two of you." She turned to Charisma with horror in her eyes. "Oh my God - I've become your mother!!"

Charisma howled in laughter at the pronouncement, and the rest weren't that far behind her. Finally, when she could speak again, she motioned to the empty milk glasses. "Garcon? another round, please. I need milk to wash this down and it's too good to leave on the plate. Besides, aren't you ready for us to leave so you can go home as well?"

"Well," Matilda acknowledged as she drew three more glasses of milk, "I will be very happy to crawl into bed tonight as I am every night. But if I was to be completely honest, I haven't had this much free entertainment in a while."

Brianna exchanged a wry look with Charisma. "Great - at least we know if this whole political thing doesn't work out, we can take our act on the road."

"Yeah," Turq agreed as she scooped up her last bite of cake. "But would people pay to see you? That's the big question." Brianna stuck out her tongue. Matilda and Charisma laughed. Esmeralda and Saphira just watched bemusedly.

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

"Okay, so what voodoo did you do on those two?" Saphira asked an hour or so later when they were comfortably ensconced in their bed. "They're like totally different people."

Esmeralda shook her head. "It's not me. It's all them."

"Amazing. They're actually acting like? I dunno - friends? Certainly more than colleagues."

"I think they are friends. They're having to relearn how to be best friends." She sighed and clicked off the lamp, then snuggled deeper into Saphira's arms. "I think Sunday will be very telling."

"Because of the album?"

"Yeah. That's a huge risk? for both of them. For Charisma because she doesn't want to see what's there, and I'm pretty sure given what Amber has said that there are some very personal pictures in there. And for Brianna because she does know what's there and she can't do anything about it until Charisma acknowledges it to herself first."

"Oh what a tangled web we weave?."

"Especially when we're practicing to deceive ourselves. However," she added, then paused to yawn. "If we're really lucky, Sunday will have to be the last time we'll need to chaperone. Hopefully they will be comfortable enough together that they will be able to be alone without us between them."

Saphira frowned. "You all right, Es?"

"Yeah," Esmeralda said sleepily. "Why'd you ask?"

Saphira shrugged, but before Esmeralda could push her on it, she drew a deep breath to speak. "I dunno. I didn't realize you were as anxious to be done with this assignment as I am - as I have been since we started, truth be told," she added with a mutter. Esmeralda chuckled silently.

"I know, Phira. This kind of work is totally unsuited to your personality. You've done very well? better than I would if our positions were reversed, I think." She reached up and put a finger to Saphira's lips, smiling when she felt a kiss being brushed against them. "Trust me, Phira. *This* I'm sure about. I could never do what you do - I don't have that kind of strength or courage."

Saphira removed Esmeralda's hand from her mouth, though she still held onto it when she spoke. "You don't have that kind of anger, and that's a good thing, Sweetheart. The world will never be ready for more than one of me. However, that still doesn't answer my question about why you're so anxious to be done with this mission."

Even though it was dark in the room, Saphira could hear the smile in Esmeralda's voice. "Phira, I'm always ready to have an assignment over with when I can start to see the finish line. Doesn't mean I'm gonna change the way things are being handled or I'm gonna knock heads together - just means I am starting to see the end."

"And it makes you antsy?"

"Yeah. Sometimes Amber has to remind me it's not my timing? it's His, and I just have to be patient and let things happen in His time. Even when I can tell there's a ways to go before things reach whatever conclusion they're going to, once I have an ending in sight, I kinda tend to want to rush right to it."

"Hallelujah!" Saphira muttered, causing Esmeralda to lean up and look down at her, knowing Saphira could see her expression even in the darkened room. Saphira kept her eyes conveniently closed, however, and Esmeralda had to resort to poking her. Saphira scowled and growled, finally opening an eyeball to glare at Esmeralda. "Whaaaaaat?"

"Would you like to explain why I just heard something that sounded suspiciously like praise come out of your mouth? Phira, you haven't praised anything since we were thrown out."

"My praise, as you call it, was directly in reference to you, Es, and nothing else."

"Oooookay," Esmeralda drawled. "Would you like to finish that thought for me?" after an extended period of silence. Saphira sighed, knowing Esmeralda wouldn't let it go until she 'fessed up.

"Fine," she sighed aggrievedly. "I was happy to find you're as human - so to speak - as the rest of us. I mean, it's good to know you get impatient too."

Esmeralda rolled her eyes and snorted. "Saphira? how long have we been together? You KNOW I'm not all that patient."

"Maybe not in some things, Es, but when it comes to this.. when it comes to doing your job and getting a good result for your charges, I haven't seen you be anything *but* patient. Amber may have to remind you from time to time, but you're all about giving them the time and space to work things out for themselves while I would just as soon beat it into them."

Esmeralda chuckled. "But you also hear me bitching and griping."

"Es, we all bitch and gripe. But you never force it along to make it go faster. Besides, I'm also glad you didn't want it to be over because you needed the time off."

Esmeralda cupped Saphira's face gently in her hands. "Phira, I am getting better. I'll be the first to admit that I'm glad for this break. But I'm getting better."

Saphira took Esmeralda's hands in hers and tugged until they were laying curled up together again. "Keep reminding me, Es."

"For all the rest of our lives together," Esmeralda promised with a smile and a kiss. In moments they were both asleep.



Chapter LII

When the phone rang on Saturday morning, Brianna glared at it balefully. She was beginning to think there was some sort of law in this town specifically that prevented her from sleeping in on what was supposed to be her day off. Still, not many people had this number, so she sighed deeply and lifted the receiver from the cradle and put it to her ear.

"'Lo?"

"Brianna?" her name whispered low. Brianna frowned and eased up onto one elbow, pushing her hair out of her eyes and blinking rapidly to try and stimulate some sort of higher brain function.

"Who is this?"

"It's Saphira. Look, I'm sorry to call you so early, but I thought you'd want to know as soon as possible - Es and I won't be able to be at Charisma's tomorrow."

Brianna sat up and turned on the bedside lamp. "Is everything all right?"

"Relatively speaking. I figure it's more important that we are at your mother-in-law's for the holiday, right?" not even giving Brianna the chance to correct her slip. "I don't know if you've seen the weather forecast for the weekend, but I really don't want Es out in it... not with us supposed to join your family later this week."

"Is there anything I can do? Not to change your mind," she added hastily when she heard Saphira draw a deep breath. "But something to help?"

"I'm not sure what that would be, Brianna... honestly."

"What if I brought lunch and spent some time visiting with Esmeralda?"

"I'll leave her a note to call you - she's not up yet, and I have to go into work early today. Ruby's off for the next few days, so I'm picking up the slack."

Brianna frowned. "That seems a little wrong - shouldn't you be the one getting some time off?"

"Ruby has other family to be concerned with, Brianna. Besides, it's only a few days... piece of cake."

Brianna shook her head, even though she knew Saphira couldn't see her. "You're a little bit crazy, Saphira - you know that right?"

Saphira snorted. "Es has been telling me that for years." She hesitated. "Listen, Brianna, I've really am sorry about all this, but I've got to get to work. I'll leave Es a note, all right?"

"You do that, Saphira. And try to stay out of the weather yourself. Es doesn't need you getting sick. We'll see you in a few days?"

"Count on it, Brianna. Bye now," Saphira offered before hanging up. Brianna looked at the phone blaring out a dial tone and hung it up, then she dropped back onto her pillow. With a little luck, she'd be able to get a little more sleep before needing to crawl out from beneath the warmth of the covers.

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

It wasn't much later that same morning when Charisma took one good look out the window and realized it was going to be one of *those* days; there was no way she going to take Adam out in the mess that was outside today. At least now she understood what Saphira had been talking about when she'd called earlier. She scrubbed a hand through her hair and sighed before clasping her hands together and leaning her chin on them.

"Problem, Charisma?" came an unexpected voice from the doorway. Charisma met her husband's concerned eyes and shook her head.

"Just bemoaning the weather," she replied as she stood. "What are you doing here?" giving him a slight, uneasy smile. She came out from behind her desk, snatching the monitor before guiding him away from her study and towards the kitchen. The distinct snick of the lock as she closed the door ripped at Kent's composure just slightly, but in Charisma's preoccupation, she didn't even notice. "Not that you shouldn't be here - Adam will be thrilled to have you home."

"And you, Charisma?"

"Of course, I'm glad you're home... if it's by your choice," Charisma assured him with a squeeze to his hand. Then she released it as she moved over to the coffee maker and raised an eyebrow. He nodded and she set it to brewing even as she asked, "Is everything all right? I thought things were going well with your production."

"The production's fine. After your phone call last weekend, I decided to take a little extra time off this week."

"Oh, Kent... you didn't need to do that. We're fine. I don't think Adam even remembers it."

"I wanted to," he said stubbornly and Charisma spared him another odd glance before nodding her agreement.

"Well, would you like to go get your son up?" she asked with a nod of her head towards the monitor that sat on the counter. "He sounds like he about ready."

"Sure... be right back." Kent headed upstairs and into his son's room while Charisma listened in below.

"Da!" Adam exclaimed with delight, holding his arms up when Kent walked into the room.

"Hey, Boy! Did you miss me?" hefting him up with a groan. "God, you're getting heavy. Mama been feeding you rocks?"

Adam giggled as Kent blew raspberries on his neck and belly, then wrapped his arms around Kent's neck. "Da funny. Adam Mama's big boy," he said proudly.

Kent's brow furrowed. He knew that Adam was his mama's boy, but having it stated so plainly by Adam twisted something in his gut. Still, Adam's hands on his face made him smile and he tickled his son briefly to listen to him howl in laughter. "So she *is* feeding you rocks," Kent teased with a pained smile. "Well, let's go potty, then we can see what kind of rocks Mama is planning for breakfast, huh?"

Adam squealed and raced to the bathroom as soon as Kent put him down. Kent followed at a much more leisurely pace. Charisma just shook her head and finished making Adam's oatmeal.

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

It was much later than usual when Esmeralda blinked her eyes open in the semi-darkness of their bedroom. A glance at the clock told her immediately that Saphira had already left for what would be a double shift at the diner. Ruby had been called home as had Opal and Indi. Apparently, He had need of them elsewhere while they were on break during this assignment. Esmeralda just shook her head. Even she was beginning to think He was being more than a little unfair in His treatment of them... all of them. They were all supposed to remain in place until the assignment was complete; instead, part of them had been pulled away and left the rest to pick up the slack. Esmeralda only hoped Mal and Jade didn't get yanked as well.

She stretched luxuriously, the sound of paper crinkling when her arm hit Saphira's pillow. She rolled over and flipped on the bedside light, then reached for the paper and her glasses at the same time.

Dear Es, (it read)

I talked to both Brianna and Charisma this morning to let them know we wouldn't be there tomorrow. The weather today is bad and it's supposed to be worse tomorrow. We can't risk it if we're going to go to Okasa's house this week, and I think that is probably more important than babysitting for Charisma and Brianna.

Stop glaring - you know I'm right.

Anyway, if you think you might want some company for lunch, give Brianna a call. She offered - I didn't ask... just so you know. Frankly, I think she may be a little lonely or maybe a little confused. I don't know. But I do know if you feel up to it, she'll come over and spend the day with you.

I'll see you tonight, love, but don't wait up. It'll be late.

I love you, Esmeralda... everyday a little more.

Saphira

Esmeralda smiled as she got to the end of Saphira's note. Though everyone - including the Father - knew of Saphira's strength and ferocity, only Esmeralda saw the soft touch her warrior could be. She tucked the note into the drawer of the stand beside her. She stretched again and slowly sat up, sliding her legs from the bed. She got up and headed into the bathroom, frowning as she reviewed Saphira's words about Brianna. First she'd take a shower, then she'd give Brianna a call.

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

Brianna was walking along the Mall, wondering at her wisdom in being out in the weather after she had decided Esmeralda didn't want company for the day. She didn't want to be stuck inside by herself, but this was kind of ridiculous... especially since she hadn't bothered to call Jas. So she ducked into the nearest museum just as her phone buzzed.

"Walker."

"Um... Brianna? It's Esmeralda. I know it's kinda late, but I was wondering if you were still available for lunch."

"Oh hey, Es. Yes! Yes, please. I'd count it as a favor," she added a little louder as thunder rolled around her.

Esmeralda pulled the phone from her ear to look at it a moment before she put it back up. "Brianna? Um, where are you?"

"The Smithsonian. I had just stepped into the Museum of Natural History when you called."

"Oh. Well, I'm sorry I distur...."

"NO! No don't be sorry. You're not disturbing me at all. Really. Most of my colleagues have already left the capital to go home for the holidays and this weather makes me a little stir crazy."

Esmeralda laughed softly. "I can empathize with that. C'mon over. I'll put the soup on. It should be hot by the time you get here."

"I told Saphira I'd bring lunch."

"Yes, and the last time we invited you over, you brought lunch with you."

"Es, you have to let me bring something."

Esmeralda bit her lip thoughtfully. "Well," she finally relented, "if you can figure out how to get some fresh bread here to go with our soup, I'd appreciate it."

"All right. I should be there in about half an hour. Depends on how long it takes Jas to get here. See you soon!" Brianna ended the call before Esmeralda could respond, and she only had to wait a moment before she heard Jas' phone ringing upstairs and then Jas bounding down the stairs.

"Yes ma'am, Senator Walker. I'll be right there," Jas said as she reached the bottom landing, then hung up her phone. "I'll be back shortly with the other boss, Boss," she offered with a crooked smile. Esmeralda just returned the look with one of bemusement.

"Um... Jas? Don't you think you should... I dunno - change first maybe?" motioning to Jas' comfortable lounging-around-the-house clothes.

"She told me to come as I was and be quick about it - not to worry about what I was wearing." Jas grabbed her coat and umbrella from the closet and donned the one before opening the door and expanding the umbrella just outside it. She chuckled. "Coulda been worse - I could have still been in my pajamas."

Esmeralda nodded and laughed, knowing Jas was right. More than once she and Turq had both been unready when the phone rang. It didn't happen often, and now they at least put on clothing around the house as opposed to a bathrobe. They could be seen outside in sweats and jeans - negligees and robes were a little more noticeable when you actually had to be seen in public.

"You're right," Esmeralda agreed. "It almost has been once or twice. Be quick, Jas, but be careful."

"I will. Be back shortly."

"I'll be here." And with that, Jas started the car and headed towards the city center to pick up Brianna.

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

Charisma watched Kent play with Adam for a while in the family room, before she rose. Adam instantly stopped playing and ran over to wrap his arms around her legs. "Mama, where going?"

"I'm going to go take care of a little work, Son. You stay here and play with Daddy."

"What would you have done if I hadn't been here to watch him, Charisma?"

"Same thing I do every other weekend you're not here, Kent," she replied tiredly. "Taken him into the study with me. But since you're here, and he hasn't seen you for a while...." She let the thought trail off.

"Why don't you stay with us, Charisma? It's not like your work is pressing right now and we have so little time together as a family."

Charisma sighed. It seemed like they went through this every time Kent came back from being out of town for any length of time. He should know better by now. "I won't be long, Kent, but I need to get this done before we head home on Monday."

"Yeah, about that - why don't we leave now? You know your mother would be thrilled to have us home for a couple extra days."

Charisma thought about the album viewing 'date' she and Adam had scheduled with Brianna for the following morning. Part of her was loath to give that up, but the other part wondered if it might be better to delay it. She wasn't certain how Kent and Brianna would react to each other... especially when Kent saw how Adam responded to Brianna so naturally. At least at her mother's home, they would keep their company manners. It would give her an idea on whether having them both in her home at the same time was a good idea.

"Charisma?" Kent called out with only a hint of impatience. "Did you hear me?"

Charisma blinked and shook her head, then met Kent's eyes. "Yes... I'm sorry. I was mentally trying to rearrange a few things. Let me take care of my work and see if I can rearrange a couple things I had scheduled for tomorrow. If I can get that done, we can go up this afternoon if you want."

Kent nodded, smiling. "Good. I'm looking forward to this holiday."

Charisma returned his smile. "I am too," she said honestly. "Seems like forever since I saw the whole family."

"Okay - go do your work or whatever," Kent answered, making shooing motions with his hands. "Adam and I'll go see about getting our stuff packed up. Yours ready to go?"

"Mostly. I'll add the few things I need as soon as I get done. I'll be on my cell if you want to call Mama and let her know to expect us. You know how she feels about being sprung upon," added with a smirk.

Kent chuckled. "Yeah. Now shoo - the boy and me have got this covered."

Charisma laughed and headed out of the family room. "Don't forget to call your mother as well," she reminded. Kent's brows went into his hairline, then he looked at his son.

"C'mon Boy - we've got work to do so we can go see your Gramma and Pop Pop and your Grandmother."

"Br'anna too?"

Kent's brow furrowed. "How about you tell me about Brianna, Adam? Daddy hasn't met Brianna yet."

"Br'anna good. Adam love Br'anna."

"C'mon, son. Let's go upstairs and get ready to go. You can tell me all about Brianna Walker."



Chapter LIII


"Brianna!" Esmeralda exclaimed as she opened the door to find a wet, bedraggled senator standing at her door. She reached out an arm and pulled Brianna inside, waving to Jas as she eased the car from the drive. Esmeralda offered Brianna a warm, dry towel even as she helped her out of her coat. Brianna accepted the towel as she slipped out of her outer garment, thankful it had kept most of her relatively dry. Her shoes, however.... Esmeralda hung the coat and took the loaf of French bread, then grabbed Brianna by the elbow and tugged her towards the kitchen. "C'mon," she invited. "It's warmest in the kitchen."

They entered the kitchen and Brianna took a deep breath. "It smells really good in here."

"Thanks," Esmeralda grinned. "It's Saphira's favorite. Take off your shoes," she instructed, placing the bread on the counter and slipping into her room, only to return a moment later with a pair of dry, woolen socks. Esmeralda raised her eyebrows at Brianna when she realized the other woman hadn't moved. "Your shoes?"

Brianna looked down at her feet. "What about them?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "Take them off and put these on," she said, passing Brianna the socks. "Here," she added, handing Brianna another towel. "Dry your feet real good. I'm gonna take these and see if we can't get them dry before you head home," holding up the soggy socks and shoes. "Be right back."

"Ahh," Brianna exclaimed as she eased the long socks onto her feet. "That feels like heaven."

"Not quite, but close," Esmeralda chuckled as she returned to the kitchen. She poured Brianna a cup of coffee. "Do you take cream or sugar?"

"If it's available, yes. I learned to drink coffee in many different forms during my tenure with the DA's office. I swear what I got in some precincts would be considered 'rot gut' only if you were feeling generous."

Esmeralda made a face. "Well, I don't think my coffee is bad, but I do have cream and sugar. I take lots of both myself." She wrinkled her nose. "I don't like the taste of coffee much."

"I'd rather have chocolate milk myself, but this is good coffee, Es," raising her cup. "And just what I needed to warm me up. Man, it's nasty out there today. Saphira wasn't kidding."

"Do I wanna ask how you got so wet?"

"Um... no. I don't want a lecture."

Esmeralda raised her eyebrow. "That bad, hmm?"

"Let's just say that as a lawyer, I recognize the importance of keeping my own counsel in certain circumstances."

Esmeralda just smirked and shook her head, then stepped closer to the stove. She ladled some soup into two bowls, setting one in front of Brianna and putting the other at the place beside her. Then she took the bread and sliced it quickly and efficiently, causing Brianna's eyebrows to jerk into her hairline in surprise. "What?" Esmeralda asked in confusion at the expression on Brianna's face. She set the bread between them and grabbed the small plate of butter from the fridge. She poured herself a glass of milk and topped off Brianna's coffee, then took her seat.

Brianna shook her head. "Nothing. I didn't realize you had been a waitress as well as a custodian."

Esmeralda chuckled. "Not me. I've just learned a few tricks from Saphira over the years."

"She must be a great teacher then. I don't think a machine could have made it any more even," Brianna commented as she picked up a slice of bread and buttered it.

"Oh, that...." Esmeralda laughed. "I learned that when I was younger," not going into specifics. "Thank you for braving the weather to come visit today. You didn't have to."

"I know," Brianna agreed, moaning when the taste of the soup hit her tongue. "But it was either throw myself on your kindness or eat Fig Newtons for lunch."

Esmeralda snorted. "You have GOT to go shopping, Brianna."

"I know, I know. I'll pick up a few things on the way home - I just didn't see any sense in stocking up right before going home for a few days."

"Are you looking forward to it?" Esmeralda asked curiously since Brianna's voice was devoid of emotion.

"Mostly, yes. At some point, it'll give me a chance to see a few people and catch up with my friends. I have a small circle of female friends who I try to get together with once a month or so. We have dinner and go to a movie or show; or we do something outdoorsy - you know... hiking or spelunking or diving. I've really missed that since I've been here. You can't know how thankful I've been for yours and Saphira's presence in my life here."

"I'll bet. I know how it feels to be stuck inside for weeks on end with only yourself for company."

"Well, I have managed a short phone call to each of my friends at some point and they've returned the courtesy, but it just isn't the same as being there together in person, you know?"

"Yeah... I do know. Miss anyone special?" biting her lip when Brianna's head snapped up in surprise. "C'mon, Brianna - you're a beautiful, intelligent, successful woman. Those are attractive qualities to everyone. Do you mean to sit there and tell me that no one else has noticed that? That Charisma is the only person to hold a special place in your heart?"

"Charisma is the only person to hold THAT special place in my heart - it's why nothing else has ever really worked out. But there have been one or two women who were important to me in their own way, and yes, they are part of my inner circle, so to speak. We all parted on good terms and chose to remain friends." Brianna frowned hard. "Why the sudden curiosity?"

Esmeralda bit her lip. "In many ways, you remind me of myself. But in one very important thing, you seem to be much like my Saphira. She isolates herself sometimes, and I think - whether you intended to or not - you've let yourself become somewhat isolated here."

Brianna reached over and squeezed Esmeralda's hand with a smile. "Don't you ever go changing, Es. You remind me very much of Kay. She was my first lover," she continued, reading the question clearly in Esmeralda's eyes.

"I remind you of your first lover?" Esmeralda's eyes grew wide. Brianna laughed.

"Not in the way you think, Es. Physically, you and Kay are very different, but in here," pointing to Esmeralda's head, "and here," pointing to her heart, "you are very much alike. You draw people to you with your caring and genuine concern. There's something about both of you that makes people believe in you... trust you to keep them safe." She chuckled. "Don't be embarrassed, Es... it's a good thing. The world could use more people like you two in it - it would be a much better place."

Esmeralda ducked her head to hide the red flush she could feel creeping up her neck. "I don't know if that's all true, Brianna, but I'm flattered you think so." She took a deep breath. "So what happened between you and Kay, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Charisma, more than anything else. I was still young and hurting over losing her from my life and Kay was my rebound relationship." Brianna sighed. "We wouldn't have worked in the long run anyway for several reasons," she confessed. "But part of me will always love Kay. She was my first and she taught me a lot - not just about the ways of love and lust, but about life itself."

"Who broke it off?"

"It was mutual. I couldn't stop dreaming of Charisma and she was falling in love with a man."

"Really?"

Brianna smiled. "Yeah, Kay is truly a bisexual woman - she's enjoyed good relationships with both sexes. And he's a wonderful guy - good husband, great father. Lee and I are actually good friends. Kay deserved someone who could love her like Lee does and she's totally devoted to him. They have a lovely family together, and they include me as often as I can join them."

"And she knows about Charisma?"

Brianna nodded. "Aside from those immediately involved, including you and Saphira, she's the only one who knows the whole truth. Apparently I talk in my sleep. It's how she learned about Charisma in the first place, and I wasn't going to lie to her when she asked."

"I would like to meet her," Esmeralda said spontaneously, then bit her lip. Brianna smiled.

"I'll see what I can do. She earned the Tagherty seal of approval," she added wiggling her eyebrows. Before Esmeralda could comment, Brianna's phone buzzed. She glanced at the screen. "It's Charisma," she relayed with a frown. "Let me take this real quick."

"Go on," Esmeralda instructed, shooing her off. "Go to the living room. I'll join you as soon as I clean up in here." Brianna nodded as she clicked the phone on and raised it to her ear on her way out the kitchen door. She was back before Esmeralda had the dishes done. "Problem?" Esmeralda asked over her shoulder as she caught a glimpse of the expression on Brianna's face.

"Hmm?" Brianna replied, shaking her head to clear it. "Oh... no, not really. Charisma called to cancel tomorrow. It seems Kent came home from the theatre earlier than expected, and they've decided to spend the extra time at the Tagherty homestead."

"And how do you feel about that?"

"Relieved," Brianna admitted instantly. "I mean, part of me really wants to see those pictures... to know what Charisma sees when she looks at them." She picked up a towel and started drying as Esmeralda turned to wipe the table and counters down. "The other part of me isn't sure I'm ready for that."

Esmeralda nodded. "What about Kent?"

Brianna bit her lip thoughtfully, her drying slowing to almost nil as she reflected on Esmeralda's question. Her hands picked up speed again as she brought her eyes back to meet Esmeralda's. "If I am completely honest, I'd like to hate him. After all, he is my rival and he has what I want most in the world... a love and a home with Charisma. That being said - I really don't know him beyond the fact that he is Charisma's husband and Adam's father. And if he makes her happy and takes care of his son, well... it's kind of hard to fault that."

"And how do you feel about meeting him this week?"

"Actually, I'm kind of looking forward to it. I'd like to know what kind of man finally captured Charisma's heart. And I know that Okasa will keep us both honest, so to speak."

"I have to say I'm looking forward to meeting her. She sounds like a formidable woman."

"Oh, she is," Brianna assured her. "And to see her and Kay together...." She shook her head. "It made for some interesting holidays... especially with the boys around to egg them on."

"Sounds like Saphira and I have a lot to look forward to."

"Oh, Es... you have no idea."

Esmeralda chuckled. "I can't wait."

"Me either," Brianna laughed. "I love spending holidays with the Tagherty clan. Even without Charisma there... there's just something about getting them all together that makes it a lot of fun. And they're going to love you two."

"You think so?"

"Oh, Es... I know it." She accepted the cup Esmeralda offered her and they headed out of the kitchen. "So tell me more about you and Saphira," Brianna asked as they took seats in the living room. "Were you really childhood sweethearts?"

"Is it so hard to believe?"

"Don't take this the wrong way, but really? Yes, it is. That kind of love - that kind of bond - doesn't seem to actually exist these days... not for anyone."

Esmeralda smiled shyly. "Doesn't it, Brianna? Isn't it exactly the kind of love you feel for Charisma?"

"We were never childhood sweethearts, Es. We've never been sweethearts at all."

"But the love you have... that you've held in your heart for over twenty years - Brianna, it's the same thing. The difference is that Saphira and I were very lucky."

"Do you think so?"

"That Saphira and I were very lucky? I know we are, Brianna. How many people find the love of their life as a child AND manage to keep it into and throughout their lives? But I know... I am sure in my heart of hearts... that we are not the only people in the world who have known that kind of love - or who have held onto that kind of love for years. What about your grandparents? You said they were married for forty-seven years."

"They were, and they were devoted to one another, but I'm not sure it's the same thing you and Saphira have."

Esmeralda propped her arm on the back of the couch and leaned her head on her hand. "What do you think makes it different... aside from the fact that Saphira and I are two women?"

"I don't think that matters," Brianna replied, her gaze going inward. "You and Saphira are a part of one another - it's like you are two parts of one whole. I'm not sure how else to explain it," holding up a hand to keep Esmeralda from commenting. "I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like it, even with my grandparents."

"Saphira and I are two parts of one whole - we're soulmates."

"Soulmates? I'm not sure I have ever heard that term before."

"It means we are together not just in one another's hearts, but also in our souls. When she hurts, I bleed."

"See? That's what I mean! Esmeralda, that's not normal. Most people don't know that kind of connection with another person... EVER."

Esmeralda pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, wondering how on earth she'd gotten cornered into this conversation. She sighed and prayed for guidance. "I can only speak from my own experience, Brianna, and that has only ever been with Saphira. Soulmates may not be common, but love is. Forget the soulmates aspect of our relationship for a minute because I'll admit that as far as that goes, we are rare in the extreme. Think about the love we share as you've seen it between us. Can you honestly say you've never seen that kind of love anywhere else?"

Now Brianna sat back, turning her focus to the flames in the fireplace, and Esmeralda let her be for a few minutes before she spoke again.

"Brianna, you're over-thinking. That kind of love is all around us - it's up to us to decide what to do with it."

"That's just it, Es - I don't think we're always offered a choice."

Esmeralda looked pensive, turning her own gaze to the fireplace for a long moment before looking back to meet Brianna's eyes. "I don't think we necessarily have a choice about who we fall in love with and I don't think that all love is meant to be permanent... especially for the young. On the other hand, I believe Saphira and I were destined to be together from birth basically, but I'm pretty sure that's not true for everyone. However, I do think we're all given a choice about what we do with love once it comes into our lives."

"Do you believe in second chances? Do you think we can have another chance if we...?" looking down at her hands twined in her lap.

Esmeralda reached over and covered Brianna's hands with her own, stopping the flow of words and forcing Brianna took look up to meet her eyes. Green eyes flooded with tears at the happiness reflected in Esmeralda's own.

"Oh, Brianna - not only do I believe... I KNOW. I got my second chance, remember? And for everything it cost me, I'd do the same thing again as long as Saphira was still by my side. Trust me Sweetie - and when that second chance comes, grab it and hold on with both hands."

"You're pretty smart," Brianna commented as she pulled one hand free to wipe at her eyes before the tears spilled down her face.

"Years of practice," Esmeralda deadpanned, drawing a strangled laugh from Brianna before she drew a shuddering breath and spoke.

"So tell me about you and Saphira."



Chapter LIV

"So what did Mama say when you called?" Charisma asked as she snapped the last part of the harness in Adam's car seat into place, securing him comfortably. Then she handed him a book and closed the door of the SUV they used so rarely together before sliding into the passenger seat. She latched her seatbelt and shut her door, idly wondering when the last time she'd driven was. She heard Kent slam the back hatch, then he was climbing in beside her, fastening his own seatbelt and starting the vehicle in almost the same motion.

He checked his mirrors and eased out of the garage with a finger in his ear as he replied, "She was surprised, but genuinely glad to hear it. She cheered... loudly..." rubbing his ear again, "then said something about never getting enough time with her grandson."

"It's not like the road doesn't work both ways," Charisma muttered, conveniently ignoring the fact that her parents had been down just recently. "And we do have other responsibilities."

"I think Mama O is just a little spoiled," Kent said with a chuckle. "After all, the rest of her family is right there. She sees her sons and their families every week. And she knows we only have a few days before I have to be back at the theatre and you have to start your political rounds in the state."

Charisma blew out a frustrated breath. "It's just a little aggravating - they knew when I went into politics it was going to keep me away from home most of the time and be time consuming even when I was there."

"Maybe it's the whole retirement thing. I think even though she hasn't completely quit working, she's finding herself with more time than she knows how to fill. She's naturally going to turn her attention to her family."

Charisma snorted. "Maybe I should send Daddy to a travel agent."

"Charisma," Kent teased with a light laugh.

"What about your mother? Is she going to join us early as well?"

Now it was Kent's turn to snort. "She'll probably get there before we will." He cut his eyes in Charisma's direction. "Maybe we could send them on a world tour together."

Charisma laughed. "I'm not sure the world is ready for our parents to be traveling together."

"Mama GO!" Adam chimed in from the back seat. Kent and Charisma just laughed a little more.

For a little while after that it was quiet. Adam had dozed off and Charisma's attention was focused out the window at the passing scenery. Kent risked a quick glance before he tapped her softly on the arm. Charisma started, then turned towards him with a raised eyebrow. He motioned to a sign on the highway. "You need to stop?"

She looked at Adam and nodded. "I think we should. Besides, it'd be nice to stretch my legs for a few minutes." Kent nodded and signaled his intention, pulling the big truck off the road and into the rest area. Adam, feeling the change in speed, blinked his eyes open.

"Gramma?" he asked, looking around curiously.

"No, son," Charisma said as Kent parked the vehicle and she got out to open Adam's door. "We're not at Gramma's yet. Time to go potty," she added as she lifted him from his seat. He wrapped his arms around her neck, scrunching up his nose and laughing when Charisma took the invitation to tickle him.

"MAMA!" he squealed.

"C'mon, Little Man," she answered with a smile as she set him on his feet. "Let's go potty."

"You want me to take him, Charisma?" Kent offered.

"Sure," she accepted after a long moment looking between them. "Adam, go with Daddy." Adam looked seriously at his mother before taking Kent's hand. Then they went into the men's room, leaving Charisma alone to enter the ladies.

A few minutes later, they met up outside the restrooms and Adam took Charisma's hand, walking happily between his parents. Then he jerked from both handholds, cheering as he ran from them. "Mama, look - BR'ANNA!!" Charisma was running as soon as Adam pulled away, catching him after a mere step or two. He struggled, pointing to the blonde women he'd seen. "MAMA!!! BR'ANNA!!"

The woman, hearing the commotion behind her, turned and Charisma nodded while giving the woman an awkward smile. "See, son - that's not Brianna. She won't be at Gramma's for a few days yet." She glanced at the woman who was watching the tableau with interested eyes. "I'm sorry; my son mistook you for a friend."

The blonde woman smiled. "Not a problem. My granddaughter has done the same thing. You're just quicker than my daughter. Rebecca actually caught up to the woman she thought was her aunt."

Charisma shook her head. "Scary," watching the woman agree. "Well, I'm sorry to have troubled you."

"No trouble, dear," the blonde woman nodded, then continued on her way. Charisma walked around to her side of the SUV and opened Adam's door, setting him in the seat and strapping him in. Kent watched from the other side, waiting until Charisma was done with Adam and sliding into her own seat before opening his door and climbing in.

"Should I even ask?"

"Just a case of mistaken identity," Charisma said with a shrug.

"Someone I've met?" he asked slowly not giving anything away. "Because that woman didn't seem familiar to me," wondering how much Charisma would share with him.

She bit her lip. "I don't think so - a fellow Senator... Brianna Walker. She's an old family friend I'd lost touch with until just recently."

Kent nodded his head slowly... thoughtfully - considering the information he'd just been offered. "Walker... Walker - why does that name sound so familiar?"

Charisma sighed. This really wasn't something she wanted to be discussing with her husband at the moment, but she supposed he needed to be looped into the circle before they got to her parents house. Given what Brianna had told her, and knowing her brothers like she did, she was convinced Brianna would be treated more like a part of the family than Kent had a prayer of ever being. No fault of his own, of course, but even as Charisma's husband he couldn't compete with the more than twenty year head start Brianna had on him.

"She's the replacement Senator the Governor appointed a few months ago."

"Oh," he said as though a light had gone off. "Of course - I remember that. She made quite a big deal about only keeping the office until the election," glancing at Charisma who laughed and shook her head, letting her hair fall down around her face, concealing her expression.

"Yes, that would be the one."

Kent laughed. "I can't begin to imagine how that's gone over with your colleagues."

"Well, I'm pretty sure none of them quite know how to deal with her."

And you, Charisma? Do you know how to deal with her? he wanted to ask, but refrained. Instead, he queried, "So how did Adam meet her?"

"They ran into each other in the hallway of the Senate Building. Brianna was coming back from a meeting and Adam was wandering the hallway. Luke had taken him to the men's room and Adam got done before him, so he left. Brianna found him and brought him back to my office."

"Why was Adam at work with you?" Kent asked with a frown. He didn't remember hearing anything about Adam going to work with Charisma. "What happened to Ame?"

Charisma shook her head. "She never said exactly, but half of her face was a lurid shade of black and blue the next morning."

"Like someone had hit her?"

"More like some *thing*," Charisma corrected. "It was a really big bruise. But she recovered pretty quickly and she seemed uncomfortable talking about it, so I didn't push."

"So Adam likes her... this Brianna Walker?"

"Yes," Charisma answered but didn't speculate on how much or why. "She'll be at Mama's for the holiday."

Kent's eyebrows went into his hairline. That he hadn't expected to hear. "It'll be nice to meet her," he replied neutrally, then focused his attention back on the road. Charisma blew out a breath and looked back out her window, hoping for the best.

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

"Are you sure about this, Mama?" Patrick Tagherty asked as he helped Okasa make up the beds in the guest room Kent and Charisma always took when they visited. "This has the earmarking of a disaster written all over it," he added as they pulled the spread up and tucked it into place.

"What would you have me do, Paddy? They're gonna have to meet at some point; better it be here with family to support them than somewhere where things could turn ugly and quickly get out of hand."

"You really think they would?" Patrick asked dubiously as they finished the small bed that Adam used in their home. When he was a little older and they had fewer guests, he would be moved to a room of his own. But for this trip, he would be ensconced with his parents. Okasa gave the room a once over and nodded her head in satisfaction that everything was in readiness. Then she crossed to the door and went to the next guest room so they could prepare it for Kent's mother. They expected her to arrive before their daughter and son-in-law did. Paddy picked up the bedding and followed right behind her, waiting for an answer to her question.

Okasa sighed as she removed the dustcover, folding it carefully before setting it aside and taking the bottom sheet from the stack Patrick still held. "I think it could easily go beyond something manageable into something unrecoverable." She sighed again. "I don't want to lose any part of my family in the fallout."

"Including Kent?"

"Including Kent," she confirmed. "Patrick, I love Kent - he's a good man, and he's been a good father to Adam. He's just not the right mate for Charisma and never has been."

"And what of Kay and her family joining us for dinner? I know they have since she and Brianna were together; are they still coming as well?" waiting for Okasa's affirmation. He shook his head. "Seems to me things could get unpleasant regardless," Patrick said as he added the throw pillows to the bed.

"I think that depends on us," Okasa replied, cocking her head when she heard a car door slam. "Now c'mon. I think Margaret is here," snatching up the dustcover and stuffing it into the bedding bag. Together they headed downstairs to greet the first member of their extended family to join them for the holiday.

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

"So then Patrick looks at Adam who's looking at Patrick before they both turn to me and point fingers at each other," Okasa relayed through her laughter. "It was all I could do to keep the smile off my face long enough to send them upstairs to clean up!"

Margaret delicately wiped a tear from the corner of her eye even as she continued to chuckle silently. She only lifted her hand to accept the drink Patrick offered her once the tear had been removed. "I wish I could have seen that."

"I'm glad you didn't," Patrick grumped. "She threatened to scrub me with steel wool," making a face at Okasa who simply grinned back at him.

"Well really, Paddy - Adam's too young to know better. What was your excuse?"

"It was something the boy needed to learn," he replied with great dignity, turning his head away from them and lifting his nose into the air. Margaret and Okasa exchanged smirks. Then the slamming of a vehicle door caught their attention, and the sound of running footsteps took them both to the door... just as Adam reached it. Okasa opened it and he went right to her with a screech.

"GRAMMA!!" jumping into her arms and giving her a big kiss. Then he spotted his other grandmother and reached for her as well.

"GRA'MUVER!!" causing her to wince even as she wrapped her arms around him and Okasa and leaned in for her kiss. "WHERE'S POP POP??" looking around for Patrick and squealing again as he caught sight of the older man. Okasa lowered him to the floor and he took off running, arriving in Patrick's arms just as Charisma and Kent made it to the front stoop.

Greetings were made all the way around with Charisma apologizing for the volume of her offspring's voice. Both grandmothers just laughed and reminded her it was part of growing up.

"I'm actually a little glad to hear it," Margaret confessed, wiggling her finger over her ear. "Or I will be when I get my hearing back," she joked. "Adam's always been so quiet and reserved. It's nice to see the little boy coming out in him."

Charisma chuckled. "More than you know."

"Oh?" Margaret asked, cocking her head and pulling Charisma out of the pathway as Kent eased by them and headed for the stairs.

"Oh yes," Okasa agreed, then turned to meet Charisma's eyes. "If you are referring to...."

Charisma nodded and turned back to Margaret. "Have you heard about my friend Esmeralda? She's a custodian at the Senate Building."

"You're friends with a custodian?" Margaret asked in a disbelieving tone of voice, paling slightly when Charisma's expression hardened and her eyes went the color of ice. "I'm sorry, my dear," she apologized immediately. "I haven't heard of her. She must be quite an interesting individual."

"She's an amazing woman, Margaret. I'm so lucky to be able to call her my friend."

Now Margaret blinked in surprise. "I'd like to meet her."

"Well, you're in luck," Okasa broke in, giving Charisma a minute to collect herself. "She and her partner...."

"Her mate, Mama," Charisma corrected softly. Okasa looked at her with a frown and Charisma shrugged. "There's a big difference, and it's important to them."

"She and her mate will be here for the holiday," Okasa continued without missing a beat.

"I'll look forward to meeting them then... if only so I can know how they tie in to bringing out the little boy in my grandson."

The smile returned to Charisma's face and both Margaret and Okasa relaxed. "Esmeralda's mate Saphira let him go streaking through their house after a bath. It's become something of a nightly ritual." Charisma chuckled. "I think you're going to find Adam a lot different from the last time you saw him, Margaret."

Right at that moment, Adam ran into the back of Charisma's legs, nearly knocking her over. "Mama, come!" he demanded imperiously. She looked at Okasa who just smiled and nodded. She turned back to Adam. "Where's your Pop Pop?"

"Outside," tugging on her hand. "Mama, COME!"

"Guess we're going outside," seeing Okasa handing Margaret her coat before slipping into her own. Then they headed out to the backyard where Patrick waited beside a Big Wheel that had Adam's name stenciled on it. Charisma, of course knew that her parents had gotten one for each of the grandchildren as they got old enough. She just hadn't realized Adam had reached that age yet.

"Mama, SEE? Mine!" running his hands along the letters that spelled out his name.

"I see that, son. Are you going to ride it?"

He looked at the Big Wheel and at his appreciative audience, then firmly nodded his head. "YES!" he declared as he straddled the seat and sat down. The four adults took pictures and cheered appropriately as he slowly figured out the mechanics of moving the plastic trike. Kent stood by the window and watched the action from upstairs. Almost an hour later, Charisma thought to include him and called up for him to join them. Only then did he finally go downstairs and into the backyard with the rest of the family.



Chapter LV

"Good morning, Matilda," Esmeralda greeted as she and Brianna entered the diner behind Saphira. Matilda gave them a wave and motioned them towards the counter as she filled coffee cups. Joe poked his head in the window and grinned, then slid a couple platters onto the opening.

"Order up," he called, chuckling at the glare Matilda gave him. She shook her head and rounded the counter, only to stop as Saphira snatched them up and deposited them in front of the customers that had been waiting for them. Matilda grinned and nodded her thanks, blowing at the lock of hair that fell in her eyes. Then she chuckled when Esmeralda came around and gave her a hug.

"You must be feeling better," Matilda offered as she returned the embrace. "Thanks, Saphira; hi, Brianna," squeezing each of their hands briefly once she released Esmeralda.

"I am," Esmeralda confirmed. "But I've missed you both too," she said, waving at Joe.

"We've missed you too, Cutie. I guess you're headed out of town?"

"Yeah. We just stopped by to wish you both a good holiday and pick up the cakes Charisma ordered."

"Yes, of course," Matilda agreed. "Let me get them for you, so you can get on the road. You still have a bit of a trip ahead of you, don't you?"

"It won't be too bad, Matilda. I rented a nice big SUV - plenty of room for all those cakes and us beside," Brianna commented. "Should I pull around back... make it easier to load them in?"

"That's a great idea, Brianna. It'll save us a few steps." Matilda looked around the diner, satisfied that her customers were content for the moment. "Now, can I get you girls some breakfast before you go?" Saphira cocked an eyebrow, garnering her a smirk from Matilda before she yielded to her desire and laughed aloud. "All right... I get the hint. We'll miss you both, but enjoy yourselves, okay? You deserve some time off and a chance to share the holidays with friends. Just let us know when you get there and when you get home. You know I'll be worried otherwise."

Joe caught Saphira's eye and she headed back to the kitchen to help load up. Esmeralda nodded. "We will, Matilda. When are your kids supposed to be here?"

"Within the hour," she said excitedly. "Seems like it's been forever since their last visit."

Esmeralda smiled softly. "I think all parents feel that way - the good ones anyway."

"Well, I don't know about that. I just know I like having them home again for a little while."

"Hey, Old Woman. You wanna come show us which cakes are supposed to go with these girls before daylight's gone?" Joe called from the kitchen. A few of the customers, most of them regulars, chuckled quietly. Matilda glanced at the clock, realizing it wasn't that long past daybreak and just glared.

"One of these days," she muttered to Esmeralda. Then she stepped around the corner and into the kitchen. "You got a death wish, Old Man? What do you mean calling me 'Old Woman' in front of the clientele?"

Joe raised an eyebrow and guffawed. "Clientele? Since when did we get to be so high-falutin'? These folks are regular customers... almost family. Now, point out what these girls are supposed to take so they can get on the road. I want them to get there before the weather turns... preferably before dark."

Matilda scowled, but squeezed his bicep as she moved towards the refrigerator. "You old softy," she mumbled, then she opened the doors and pointed out the appropriate boxes. In just a few minutes, Saphira and Brianna had them loaded and Saphira motioned Esmeralda around to the back. Esmeralda gave Joe a hug and brushed a kiss over Matilda's cheek, then with a last wave, the three of them were on the road and headed for the Tagherty homestead.

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

"So tell us a little more about your friends, Charisma," Margaret asked as they sat at the breakfast table that same morning. "I have to admit to being more than a little intrigued."

Charisma had to wonder why Margaret was suddenly intrigued, but had to admit that she hadn't been around much in the past few days either. With three grandparents that didn't get to see Adam nearly as often as they'd like to, Charisma had taken advantage of the built-in, willing babysitting and already started her political glad-handing. So she hadn't been around much more than to say good morning before she left for the day, usually not making it back until just before dinner. That time was spent catching up on everyone's day, and then it was back to work for her for a few more hours before falling into bed beside Kent for a bit of sleep before waking up to start it all over again.

And wasn't that weird? She and Kent rarely shared a bed anymore - hadn't since Adam had been born if the truth were told... except when they were here in her mother's home. Still, since she had fought so hard to be allowed to sleep together at Okasa's before they were married, she wasn't about to tell her mother any differently. And since Kent didn't seem to mind nor did he demand anything from her, she was content to keep the status quo.

All this flashed through her mind briefly as she considered Margaret's request, which she had to admit was a valid one. After all, before Esmeralda had come into her life, she'd never given much thought to her friends - or the lack thereof - in Washington. There it was all about the movers and shakers - who you knew and who knew you. Meeting Esmeralda had changed that... at least in part.

"Charisma?" Okasa finally nudged her. "Margaret asked...."

"I know, Mama. I'm trying to decide what to say." Her words caused more than one set of eyebrows to go up.

"Are they that unusual?" Margaret asked curiously.

"In some ways, yes," Charisma replied honestly. "They're not like anyone I have ever met before."

"Why?"

Now Charisma's eyebrows jumped onto her forehead, but she considered the question before she spoke. "I'm not sure," she said slowly. "I don't think it's because of our different economic circumstances even though that is considerable; I think it's just them. They're *real* people, if you know what I mean... something I don't see a lot of in my line of work."

"How did you meet them? I mean, I know you said the one was a custodian in your building, but they don't come in until after you are long gone, do they?"

"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Charisma said wryly. "But I pull a lot of late nights trying to finish the work I can't get to during the day with all the meetings and committees and whatnot constantly interrupting. So I did actually meet Es while I was working."

"Tell us about it."

Charisma let her eyes unfocus on the room around her and turned her sight inward, thinking back on the first day Esmeralda had walked into her office... and into her life.

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

A knock sounded on her door and Charisma glanced at the clock, frowning. Who on earth was left to disturb her this late at night? Before she could invite them in... or dismiss them, for that matter... the door opened and a honey gold head peeked around the frame.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, Senator. I didn't realize that anyone was still here. I can come back...."

"If you didn't know anyone was here, why did you knock?" Charisma asked sharply, blue eyes boring into green that met hers steadily.

"I always knock before entering any room here, Senator. It's considered polite and I never know if someone might be working late. My work is somewhat noisy. I don't just barge into any of the offices I clean in case I'm interrupting something."

Charisma blinked, wondering what kinds of things this woman might have interrupted in her line of work and realizing she'd just been thoroughly dressed down by the custodian in front of her who took such care of maintaining her office space. But instead of becoming angry, it made her thoughtful. "What's your name?"

"Esmeralda," the young woman answered.

"Well, Esmeralda - I think you've been doing a magnificent job here," motioning around the room. "Don't let me keep you from your work."

"Yes, Senator," Esmeralda nodded and pushed the door open further, pulling her cart in behind her. Charisma watched her for a few more minutes as she started her cleaning routine, recognizing a serenity about Esmeralda that she'd rarely seen outside of church on the odd occasion she went. Then Charisma went back to her own work, ready to wrap things up for the evening.

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

"This went on for several weeks before we actually spoke again. And when we did, we started talking... like friends do. Not at first, of course, but eventually we were talking about *real* things... important things. And then she fell ill."

"By fell ill, I'm assuming you don't mean she got a cold," Margaret commented, seeing an odd look in Charisma's expression. Charisma shook her head.

"No, it certainly wasn't a cold." She bit her lip thoughtfully and picked up her coffee cup. "I don't know what it was - my colleagues and I were never told. But I do know she was out for a long time; whatever it was almost killed her."

"Wait... she made friends with other Senators?"

"Esmeralda has made a friend of most of the people on our floor - Senators and aides alike. If you've worked late enough to be there when the cleaning staff comes in, you've probably made friends with Esmeralda. She's just the kind of person who attracts people to her."

"And she told you that this illness nearly killed her?"

"She did - but we also saw how wan and gaunt she was when she returned to work. Whatever it was, it took a lot out of her. She's still recovering, truth be told."

"And you're sure she was actually sick - that it wasn't drugs or something similar?"

Charisma's face flushed crimson with the anger that washed over her, but before she could speak, Kent answered Margaret's accusation. "Mother! That was completely uncalled for! Maybe you should try giving people the benefit of the doubt instead of judging them sight unseen. You might be happier and your life might be more than just an endless round of affairs. You might actually find some real friends," he finished before he rose and strode from the table. Margaret's jaw dropped in response to his tirade, but before she could recover to make a waspish reply, Charisma spoke calmly.

"Margaret, that was completely unfair and if you think about it... a somewhat stupid accusation of someone you've never even met. The government does random drug testing every week - they would have caught Esmeralda long before her illness if she'd been a user."

"I was thinking that she could be using her so-called illness to her advantage. After all, that building is full of people with secrets whose careers could be permanently destroyed if those secrets got out. And you know there are people who would pay a lot of money to know them."

"Margaret, Es is a custodian - despite 'National Security', she's privy to every government secret put on paper if she really wants to discover it. And God only knows what she's learned about the men and women she works for - people talk and she's a listener... besides which, garbage can be very telling. And yet nothing I've shared with her has ever even been whispered about in the hallways, and I've never heard anything about anyone else there... beyond the normal political crap which was there long before Es ever made an appearance in the building. Maybe you should consider your need to condemn a stranger like that. Now if you'll excuse me...." glancing at her mother before she rose and followed Kent's path out of the room.

Margaret looked at Okasa and Patrick plaintively. "I thought it a fair question. After all...."

"After all, Margaret, maybe you should wait until you meet her. Esmeralda might pleasantly surprise you. And I won't have you making her feel unwelcome here."

Okasa bit her lip to keep from showing the anger she felt. Charisma had finally found a friend outside the political arena she felt she could trust, and Margaret was doing her best to destroy that before she had even met the other woman. Instead, she rose and began to clear the table of the breakfast dishes Kent and Charisma had left behind. Patrick remained silent, eating the remainder of his food while allowing Margaret to wonder just what kind of boundaries she'd overstepped and how to go about repairing them.

Meanwhile, Charisma had followed Kent upstairs into their room where Adam was still soundly sleeping. The past few days' activities with his grandparents had worn him out and Charisma was thankful he'd been spared the little scene downstairs. She found Kent sitting on the floor by their son's bed just watching him sleep. Charisma took a seat beside him and lightly bumped his shoulder with hers.

"You all right?"

Kent glanced at her briefly before returning his attention to Adam. "Yeah. She just... she makes me so angry when she does things like that. Just because she got taken in once...."

"Your dad?" knowing it for the truth. Simon Rockwell had been a scoundrel - a charming scoundrel, but a scoundrel nonetheless. And his duplicity had colored every human interaction Margaret had had since his defection when Kent was still much younger.

"Yeah," he sighed. "I'm sorry she attacked your friend. I'm looking forward to meeting her... them."

"I think you'll like them, Kent. They're good people. I'm glad they weren't here to hear your mother's accusations, though. I get the feeling Saphira would have cleaned her clock one good time."

"She some kind of tough broad or something?" Kent joked with a twinkle in his eye.

Charisma smirked. "Well, she's a waitress in a diner, so I'm sure she can hold her own. But she's very protective of Esmeralda - they're very protective of one another. I'm pretty sure if Saphira had heard your mother's tirade, we'd be picking bits of her up from around the room for the next few days."

"That would be something to try and explain to an ER doctor," he quipped as Adam slowly blinked his eyes open. "Morning, Little Man," he greeted, chuckling when Adam leaped into his arms and snuggled into his neck. "You got a kiss for Mama before we go potty?"

Adam leaned over and nuzzled Charisma's cheek, then tucked himself back into Kent's body. Kent and Charisma exchanged looks, then Kent eased to his feet. "Guess that's my cue," he said as he moved into the connecting bathroom. "You going out today?"

Charisma leaned over and made up Adam's bed, then turned her attention to theirs. "No. I'm not sure what time the girls expect to arrive and I'd like to be here to meet them when they do."

"I can certainly understand that, especially after what happened downstairs."

"Thank you for that, by the way. You didn't have to say anything to your mother, but I appreciate you saying that to her."

She could hear the shrug in his voice when he answered. "It needed to be said."

Before Charisma could continue the conversation, Adam ran out of the bathroom, obviously much more awake than he had been scant minutes before. He latched on to Charisma's leg, and she reached down to tickle him. He squealed and tried to get away without actually losing his grip on her. Kent laughed at the picture they made as he leaned on the doorjamb of the bathroom.

"I've never seen a kid wake up like that boy does."

"Mama, bre'fas?" Adam asked, blue eyes looking at her adoringly. She touched her finger to the tip of his nose and smiled, watching his nose crinkle up in response.

"You hungry, son?" she queried, knowing the answer before his head started nodding vigorously. "Let's go downstairs and see what Gramma has for you to eat. How does that sound?"

"YUM!" causing Kent and Charisma both to laugh out loud.

"I guess that means yes," Kent said as he pushed off the doorway and moved to the bed. "I'll finish up here," gesturing to the partially made bed, "and meet you downstairs in a few minutes."

Charisma nodded, and laid a hand on his arm. "Are you all right?"

He patted her hand awkwardly and bent down to pick up the throw pillows. "I will be," he assured her. "Go on now, before Adam starts chewing on your leg."

Charisma smiled and took Adam's hand. They headed downstairs without a backwards glance.



Chapter LVI

Margaret had quietly apologized for her assumptions and was sitting in the living room when the SUV pulled up in front of the house. Adam had been sitting on her lap while she read to him, but the minute he heard the car door slam he struggled to get down.. "Mama?"

Charisma held out her hand. "Come on, son. It should be...."

"BR'ANNA!" he shouted, seeing the twinkle in Charisma's eyes. He rushed for the door. Outside, the three women exchanged glances and chuckled.

"Well, Brianna," Saphira offered with a smile. "It looks like at least your arrival is anticipated." Just then, Charisma opened the door and Adam ran out with a glad cry... right into Brianna's arms as she knelt to intercept him. He pulled back just enough to cup her face in his hands rubbing their noses together and giggling. Then he released her and ran straight for Saphira's kneecaps. She caught him just before he reached her and swung him up high into the air and into her arms.

"PHIRA!" he hollered, squealing in laughter when she blew raspberries over his belly. "ES!!" he added, screaming, reaching for her. Adam got his arms around Esmeralda's neck while Saphira held onto his bottom half. He looked at her in frustration.

"Where's my hug?" Adam pulled back from Esmeralda, who helped him lean back into Saphira to give her a hug and a wet kiss. Then he jumped at Esmeralda, and she just managed to catch him with Saphira stepping up beside her to help balance them. They didn't even realize the audience that had gathered at the doorway watching them until Adam turned around and cheered.

"MAMA!!"

Charisma stepped out of the house and the rest spilled out behind her. Adam wiggled and Esmeralda put him on the ground, then he ran back to his family and took Charisma by the hand.

"Mama, come!" tugging until she followed him out onto the lawn where her guests were still standing where they'd stopped when Adam came running out. Only after she was standing in front of them did she realize everyone else was right behind her waiting for introductions. Charisma took a moment, giving each of them a hug before she turned back to her family.

"Ladies," she said to Brianna, Saphira and Esmeralda. "This is my family - my husband Kent, my mother-in-law Margaret, my mother Okasa and my father Patrick. My brothers and their families will be here tomorrow," she explained, then went on with the introductions. "Guys, this is Brianna, Saphira and Esmeralda... my friends."

There was a long moment of exchanged handshakes and greetings before Patrick turned to Kent. "What do you say we help these young ladies bring their things inside, and then you and me and Adam can go to town for some ice cream."

Kent smiled and nodded. "I think that's a fine plan, Paddy." He glanced between the three new arrivals. "Would one of you mind popping the hatch so we can get started?"

Brianna pressed the unlock button, then crossed to the back of the truck. Both men turned and looked at her with a questioning expression. Brianna rolled her eyes. "You fellas might need a little help - we brought the chocolate cakes Charisma ordered before we left DC."

They looked at her, then at the boxes stacked in front of the luggage. "Got it," Kent replied. "Good thinking."

Brianna chuckled. "Yes - I'm trying not to let my skills rust while I'm in Washington," causing the two men to laugh in sympathy with her attitude. Charisma just snorted.

"Good luck with that, lass," Patrick joked, placing a cake box into either hand. Then he reached around her to hand Charisma two and Saphira stepped up and took the last two and they followed Okasa into the house where Adam had already led Esmeralda inside, and Margaret had followed them more slowly.

Now they entered to find Adam comfortably ensconced on Esmeralda's lap, telling her a story from the book Margaret had been reading earlier. Margaret was watching them with a curious expression, but Esmeralda didn't even seem to notice. Charisma, Brianna and Saphira followed Okasa down the hall and into the kitchen, then to a walk-in pantry. She motioned them where to set the cakes, then turned to Saphira and Brianna.

"Have you girls eaten?"

"Yes ma'am." Saphira replied, causing Okasa's brows to fly into her hairline.

"Saphira, we don't stand on formality here. I'm Okasa or Mama, but not ma'am."

Saphira blushed and shook her head. "We'll try, Okasa, but you're going against a lifetime of habit."

"Something your mama taught you from a child?"

"Yes ma'am... something like that."

Okasa chuckled and shook her head. "All right. Let's go into the living room," turning to find Charisma behind her with a tray of assorted drinks. Okasa didn't ask - she just nodded her approval and led the way back to where Margaret and Esmeralda were now sharing a bit of quiet conversation. Obviously it hadn't taken Paddy and Kent long to unload the SUV and claim Adam.

Charisma played the dutiful hostess, handing out favorite drinks to each woman, then taking a seat beside Esmeralda on the couch. "It's so good to have you guys here," Charisma commented as she reached over and squeezed Esmeralda's hand. "I'm really glad you came."

"*We're* glad they came," Okasa corrected firmly. "I've heard so much about you both; it's wonderful to have you in my home." She turned to Brianna. "And I'm thrilled to have you back with us again," reaching out to the woman she considered a second daughter. "It's about time."

"Hear! Hear!" Charisma muttered under her breath, though everyone heard her. Her words caused a myriad of reactions around the room. Brianna blushed; Okasa smiled; Saphira's and Esmeralda's eyes met and they nodded slightly; and Margaret frowned.

Okasa noticed, and before Margaret could say anything, she looked at Charisma. "Do I want to know why there are six chocolate cakes sitting in my pantry?" chuckling at the flummoxed look on Margaret's face.

"Oh Mama - wait til you taste this cake. It is spectacular," seeing Brianna and Esmeralda nodding their heads in agreement. Margaret tilted her head at Saphira.

"You don't like it?"

"Oh... yes, ma'am, I do. But I prefer the banana pudding. Matilda serves an amazing banana pudding - her mama's recipe."

"Matilda?"

"My boss, and the woman who made the cakes. She and her husband Joe own a diner just outside the city. It's how we met Brianna."

Now Charisma's ears perked up. "I don't think I've heard this story. Share?"

"I'd like to hear how all of you met, actually," Margaret confessed. "I mean... Charisma told us how she and Esmeralda met, but you just seem like such an unlikely group of friends. It's almost like Fate stepped in and brought you together or something."

"Do you believe in Fate, Margaret?" Esmeralda questioned.

Margaret studied her a long moment, interested despite her unwillingness to be. Having actually met Esmeralda, she could understand Charisma's earlier words. There was something about the younger woman that drew people to her - that inspired confidence and trust. She found that she was curious... and more than that, she was concerned about this woman she had just met, yet seemed to know.

"You know - sometimes, I think I do. And then there are times that I wonder why we choose the outcomes we do." She smirked. "I think it depends on the kind of day I'm having."

Charisma chuckled. "I think we all have days like that, Margaret." She looked around the room. "So we were going to hear about how you three met." Saphira and Esmeralda turned to Brianna whose eyes widened comically.

"Why me?"

"Two reasons," Esmeralda said. "It started with you and you're the writer here," garnering a light laugh from Charisma. Brianna directed a glare towards her and Charisma held up her hands in surrender.

"Don't blame me - I didn't say a word. Professor Mac would be thrilled by the description though."

"Wait," Margaret pled, pinching the bridge of her nose before rubbing her forehead. "Am I missing something else?"

"Brianna and I were roommates in college. She had a double major - law and theatre."

"That's an... interesting choice," Margaret said slowly. "Though it does make a certain amount of sense. And let me guess - writing was one of the criteria for the theatre major."

"Yes," Brianna answered uneasily.

"Do you still practice?"

"Writing?" Brianna asked, waiting for Margaret to nod. "Um... not really. Practicing law has kept me pretty busy, and this whole political thing is just something else again." She looked at Charisma. "I have to admire your fortitude. I don't think I could make a career out of politics," raising her glass in salute.

Charisma returned the salute. "That's okay - I think it takes a special breed of animal to be a politician."

"Oh the things I can think of to say to that," Okasa quipped, drawing an irked stare from her daughter and laughter from the remainder of the women in the room. After a moment, Charisma yielded the field and stuck her tongue out at her mother before she smirked. Margaret turned back to Brianna.

"So how did you end up in politics? I apparently missed something... several somethings, it seems... while I was abroad and you're quite obviously un-enamored of the whole idea."

Thus the next little while was spent filling Margaret in on what she had missed, though no one went into too much detail, especially concerning their friendship. For one thing, Brianna and Charisma were on less than stable ground, and for another, Saphira and Esmeralda had no idea how this new variable factored into the equation they were already well into solving.

So they glossed over much of their history together and instead told funny little anecdotes about other things. Margaret and Okasa were both intrigued to hear Saphira's and Esmeralda's tale, and wondered aloud at what kind of Father would dismiss a child so heartlessly that he would leave them to suffer so badly.

"And have you recovered, my dear?" Margaret asked Esmeralda solicitously... in complete contrast to her strident accusations early that morning. Having met the woman in question, she understood Charisma's defense of her and now was concerned with the fact that Esmeralda's health did not appear to be retuning to her as it should. "Is there anything we can do to help speed the process for you?"

Esmeralda smiled shyly and briefly covered Margaret's hand with her own. "It's lovely of you to be so concerned with someone you don't even know Margaret. Thank you for that. But we have been assured it's gonna be a slow recovery - the only thing that will make this better is time."

"Would you do any less?" Margaret asked, causing Esmeralda to frown in confusion. "Wasn't it your care and concern for both Charisma and Brianna when they were mere strangers to you that created the friendship you share now?" Esmeralda nodded. "Then allow me the courtesy of the same. I have a feeling you and Saphira would make magnificent friends if given the chance. I'd like to give you that chance and perhaps have it offered in return."

"Quite a change from this morning," Okasa commented.

"I was wrong this morning," Margaret confessed. She looked first at Esmeralda, then Saphira. "I judged without knowing... without giving you the opportunity to speak for yourself. That was wrong of me and I'm sorry," flinching slightly at the fire she felt burning from Saphira's eyes. It was Esmeralda's touch and her compassion that caught her attention though.

"We would never have known if you hadn't told us, Margaret, and we've all been guilty of it for far less reason. Consider yourself forgiven."

"Thank you, Esmeralda. Now are you sure there's nothing we can do?"

"I'm getting as much rest as I can manage, which right now is a lot." She turned and looked at Charisma. "I love holiday break," she said with a smile.

"Are we having a break?" Charisma groaned theatrically. "I must have missed the memo. I am still working as hard as I was when we were in session."

A chorus of 'Awws' and 'Poor Baby's' rang out along with laughter at Charisma's response which was to maturely stick out her tongue, throw a pillow and crossed her arms over her chest. At that moment, the men of the group returned and decided it was time for dinner. Just the suggestion of food made a number of tummies rumble and the large group headed towards the kitchen to make pizza.

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

"So what do you think?" Saphira asked Esmeralda once they were settled into bed much later that evening. After pizza, they had adjourned to the living room once more, with the exception of Saphira and Adam. He had chosen her as his bath buddy, so with much adieu-ing and many goodnights, she had taken him upstairs for his bath, just managing to keep him from streaking downstairs and through the house. Once he was clean, she had tucked him in and read to him, staying with him until he fell asleep. So she missed quite a bit of the adult interaction that had taken place.

"Well, I think Margaret knows now that we're not mooching off anyone nor are we planning to take advantage of her family in any way." She held up a hand to halt Saphira's growl in its tracks. "Not sure where all her distrust and suspiciousness came from, but I'm pretty sure we were just residual damage. Hopefully, we have opened her heart just a little, but either way, I don't think she views us as a threat anymore.

As for the rest...." She closed her eyes thoughtfully and worked her way around the room. "Charisma and Brianna were... weird, for lack of a better word. Their whole vibe was off and I'm not sure which of the many factors in play were to blame for the change in their interaction. Okasa and Paddy were expectant, hopeful, and Kent...." She paused, then opened her eyes and met Saphira's which were patiently waiting for Esmeralda to finish her description. "Kent was watchful - it's the only way I can think to describe him. He didn't seem upset or anxious; he just seemed to be paying an extraordinary amount of attention to things going on around him without actually participating in them."

"And did I understand Brianna correctly on the drive up? Is her first lover joining us for dinner tomorrow?"

"You understood perfectly, my love. Apparently, when Brianna first came over for the holidays after she and Charisma split, Okasa told Brianna that if she ever found someone special, the family wanted to meet her - that the family still had an obligation to ensure that whoever Brianna chose was worthy of her. Brianna needed that feeling of belonging... of family, so on the first holiday after she and Kay got together, she brought Kay with her."

"The family approved?"

"The family was shocked, but they like Kay, and they loved the way Kay adored Brianna. So they gave her the Tagherty seal of approval. Kay has joined them on every holiday that Brianna was here since then. Even after they broke up and Kay and Lee married, they still joined the Tagherty's during whatever holiday time Brianna spent here with them."

"You do realize that this cluster just keeps getting bigger and bigger, don't you?"

Esmeralda snorted. "Yeah - I'm waiting for my hair to start falling out." She climbed into bed and Saphira reached over and turned out the light. "Tomorrow should be...."

"... something," Saphira filled in. "Tomorrow should be something. I just hope it's not on the Titanic scale of something."

Esmeralda moaned. "Me too."

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

Kent waited until Charisma was tucked in beside him before he spoke. "I like your friends."

Charisma stopped her roll away from him and lay on her back so they were side by side. "I'm glad. They're good people... all of them."

"I agree. And Esmeralda sure gave my mother a complete change of heart." He chuckled. "I'd like to know her secret. That'd be worth a fortune."

"I think it's just who Es is, Kent. There's just something about her...."

He nodded, even though Charisma couldn't see the action in the dark. "I think you're right. Your brothers are going to love her... her and Saphira both."

"Probably," Charisma agreed through a yawn. "Night, Kent."

"Goodnight, Charisma."

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

"Well, that was interesting," Patrick said, turning out the light as he crawled into bed.

"It was all right," Okasa stated. "And Esmeralda was able to bring Margaret to her side just by being herself."

"I wonder what their story is... really," Paddy said as he rolled onto his side. "I get the feeling that there's a lot more there than they're telling."

"Well, whatever it is, it's gonna have to wait until morning. And tomorrow should be enlightening, to say the least."

"I just hope it's not painful," Patrick muttered before he dropped off with a snore. Okasa lay quietly in the silent darkness for some time before finally allowing sleep to claim her.



Chapter LVII

"You're up early," Brianna commented as she passed Esmeralda on her way to the coffee pot. "Everything all right?" taking a cup from the cabinet and filling it with coffee. She inhaled deeply, and a beatific smile crossed her face before she gently sipped her first taste of the morning. "That is good coffee, Es."

Esmeralda chuckled and shook her head. "Not me. Okasa had it set; I just turned it on when I heard you stirring around upstairs."

Brianna frowned. "How long have you been down here?"

"A while," Esmeralda sighed. "I wasn't sleeping, so I figured it was better to come down here where I wouldn't disturb anyone with my reading," holding up her book. She glanced at the clock, wondering why Charisma had hesitated outside the kitchen door instead of joining them. "What are you doing up so early?"

Brianna took a seat and folded her hands around her cup, staring into it as though it held the answers to the secrets of life. "I couldn't sleep either," she said softly. "It's... weird being here like this. I don't belong here."

Esmeralda cocked her head. "Why do you say that, Brianna? I thought the Taghertys were like your family."

"They are, but not like this... not for years." She lifted the cup and took another sip, then sighed, relishing the warmth of the coffee as it reflected onto her face. "When I agreed to not lose contact with the family after I walked away from Charisma, I had my own place nearby... I didn't stay here. When I took a position in the DAs office, and was forced to travel to be here, I stayed somewhere else." Brianna took another deep breath. "This is the first time I've stayed here since college."

"Why?"

Brianna blinked and turned her head to meet Esmeralda's tired eyes. "Why what? Why didn't I stay here before or why am I staying here now?"

"Yes," Esmeralda stated firmly.

Brianna lifted her coffee cup again, taking a deep draught this time and only slightly wincing at the heat in her mouth. "It was habit as much as anything to stay somewhere else. At first it was because I lived close... relatively speaking - like the boys, I just came over to share the holiday... I didn't need to stay overnight. But once I moved, there was always a possibility of a casual tryst while I was here. I have a friend in town who...." She stopped explaining when Esmeralda held up a hand and nodded her understanding. "Aside from Kay, who I was with when I still lived in the area, I've never brought anyone with me when I came home. I was never serious about anyone, and it seemed presumptuous to bring someone who was merely a fu... a booty call into Okasa's home, especially for the holidays. So it was just easier to stay at a hotel."

"And she didn't mind?"

Brianna shrugged. "If she did, she never said. She asked me to stay with her after the first time we met at my hotel, but that was never really an option." She shrugged and studied her coffee intently. "It would have led to unwanted complications."

"What did she think of you staying here this trip... or didn't you tell her you were coming?"

Brianna cocked her head thoughtfully. "I didn't tell her. We haven't been together that way for a while."

Esmeralda heard their silent observer move away and nodded. "Okay - so staying here is weird because you've never done it before?"

"I haven't done it since college," Brianna corrected. "And it was different then. The boys were here off and on and if Charisma and I didn't share a room, we were at least back and forth in one room or the other constantly - we pretty much lived like we did in the dorms... in one another's back pockets."

"So why are you staying here now?"

Brianna visibly slumped in her chair. "Mama O insisted. We had quite a talk once Charisma and I agreed to try to be friends again. Okasa knew about...." gesturing vaguely with her hand and getting Esmeralda's nod of understanding. "She appreciated my discretion," Brianna stated drolly with a smirk, "but insisted that since THAT was no longer part of my visit here, it was time to come home where I belonged. Told me if she had to come to some hotel to find me and drag me home, she'd make sure it was in all the papers."

"Okasa sounds like a force of nature," Esmeralda offered with a smile.

"You have no idea, Es. Wait til she turns it on you."

Just then, they heard the clearing of a throat from the doorway and flinched in tandem when they saw Okasa standing there with her arms crossed over her chest. "The Force of Nature would like to know what the two of you are doing up in my kitchen at this hour of the day," she demanded gruffly, though she couldn't hide the concern present in her eyes. "It's not even daylight yet, and from the looks of it, you've been here a while," noting the coffee that was already in the pot and the empty glass of milk beside Esmeralda's book. "Is everything all right?" cupping Brianna's cheek briefly before checking Esmeralda for fever.

Brianna caught the hand resting on her face. "Everything's fine, Mama O. Just a little insomnia."

Okasa stared into Brianna's eyes and saw the unease. She wondered what she had missed of the conversation to put that look there, but decided not to pursue it with Esmeralda present. She had no way of knowing what Esmeralda knew about the truth between Charisma and Brianna, and she wasn't going to be the one to tell her either. It was different if her daughters wanted to share, but it wasn't her place to do so.

She nodded her acceptance of Brianna's words and turned to look at Esmeralda, shaking her head at the utter weariness in the green eyes that were so much like Brianna's. "Does this happen a lot?" she asked Esmeralda, gently gripping her wrist while she stared into her eyes.

"Insomnia?" Esmeralda questioned softly. "Thankfully, no. I think it's just being someplace new and strange to me... no offense. It's been a while since Saphira and I have gone anywhere that kept us away from home overnight."

Okasa smiled gently. "No offense taken, Esmeralda. I'm the same way when Paddy and I leave home. It takes me a few days to adjust - usually by the time I do, the trip's over and we're back home again." She smiled in sympathy when Esmeralda chuckled. "I have something that might help, but it may make you miss breakfast."

"I'd be grateful," Esmeralda confessed. "I'd be embarrassed to fall asleep in the gravy at the dinner table."

Okasa laughed. "I like you, Esmeralda...." pausing when Esmeralda shook her head.

"Please call me Es - all my friends do."

Okasa's smile was genuine and she nodded. "All right, Es. Let me get you something to help you get a little sleep. You," she said pointedly, eyeing Brianna with a glare. "I'll take care of in a minute. Don't move," she commanded. "And don't drink any more coffee."

Okasa slipped away, but returned a moment later. It only took a few minutes, and Esmeralda was yawing, barely able to keep her eyes open. Brianna had to wonder if it was Okasa's 'remedy' as much as it was Esmeralda's very real exhaustion. Whichever, they needed to get Esmeralda back to bed, so with one on each side of her, they slowly escorted her back upstairs.

They were halfway up when a whirlwind silently flew out of one of the guest rooms. They didn't even have time to recognize Saphira before Esmeralda was scooped from between them and settled safely in Saphira's arms. Okasa opened her mouth to offer their help, but Saphira had already moved up the remainder of the stairs and disappeared into their bedroom. Since she didn't close the door, Brianna and Okasa tentatively followed her to make certain everything was all right.

"What happened?" Saphira whispered, continuing to tuck Esmeralda back into their bed without turning around.

Brianna shrugged. "She was in the kitchen reading when I got up. Mama offered her something to help her get a little sleep - it didn't take long to work."

Saphira whirled at the mention of a remedy, but instead of becoming angry, she crept to the door and motioned them to follow. When they were out in the hallway, she pulled the door mostly closed and crossed her arms over her chest.

"Thank you - both of you - for looking out for her. It's been a long time since we've been away from home overnight, and her illness has made Es more sensitive to things like that." She squinted at both of them. "Why are you two up, anyway? It's like oh-dark-thirty in the morning."

"I got up to put the turkey on to cook," Okasa said. "This one has insomnia," jerking her thumb in Brianna's direction.

"Maybe you should give her some of whatever it was you gave to Es. It seems to work pretty well."

"I think she just needs some warm milk," chuckling at the face Brianna made.

"Ew - I'd rather go back to bed and try counting sheep," Brianna said as she slowly backed up towards the door just beyond the one they were standing out side of. "I'm sure that will do the trick nicely," she added as she scooted into the room and shut the door soundlessly behind her.

Okasa and Saphira exchanged glances and giggled for a brief moment. "Are all holidays around here this exciting?" Saphira asked with a twinkle.

"Usually, yes... but it doesn't generally start until later in the day. And speaking of... if I don't get that turkey in the oven soon, we won't be eating until much, much later in the day."

"Do you need some help?" Saphira offered.

Okasa smiled and patted Saphira's arm. "You're sweet, but no. I do this every year and it doesn't take but a few minutes... usually, anyway," she added with another soft laugh. "Besides, you've got more important things to take care of, I think," gesturing towards the door.

Saphira nodded. "Thank you, Okasa. I can't tell you...." She stopped speaking when Okasa held up a hand.

"I was glad to be able to help. As I told Es, I like you two, and I'm glad you came. My daughters could both do with more people like the two of you in their lives."

"Broke?" Saphira joked.

"Real," Okasa replied, then lightly patted Saphira's arm. "Goodnight, Saphira."

"Goodnight, Okasa."

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

Paddy and Kent were the first ones up when morning came the second time, though Okasa wasn't far behind them. Still, Patrick looked at her with concern when she eased into the kitchen in her bathrobe and poured herself a cup of coffee without saying a word. She squeezed his shoulder, then took a seat beside him, focusing on her cup as though to force herself to wakefulness a little faster.

"Everything all right?" he asked softly. Kent didn't look up from the paper he was reading, but they were acutely aware of his presence in the room. "You're usually the first person up."

"Hmm," Okasa offered noncommittally. "Putting the turkey on this morning took longer than expected. I think it threw my cycle off a little."

Before he could question further, a sleepy Charisma scuffed into the room carrying her wide-awake, wide-eyes son. She plopped him on Kent's lap, then she dropped into the seat beside him and let her head fall to the table. Okasa reached over and smacked the back of her head, causing Charisma to look up and glare at her mother. Okasa glared right back.

"Don't take that tone with me, young lady. I am still your mother and you know better than to behave like that at the table. What's wrong with you?" reaching a hand over and letting it rest on Charisma's forehead. "You're not coming down with something, are you?"

Charisma leaned into the touch and closed her eyes. "No, Mama. I just didn't sleep well last night."

Okasa nodded. "That seems to have gone around," she muttered, garnering her a questioning look from Patrick. "Brianna and Esmeralda were both up when I got up. I gave Es something to help her sleep, so she'll probably miss breakfast. I'm not sure about Brianna - she declined my offer of warm milk," her words causing all but Kent to laugh. He cocked his eyebrow in question.

"What'd I miss?"

Okasa looked at Charisma, who shrugged and nodded. Okasa turned back to Kent. "When Brianna first came to visit, she had trouble sleeping, so I offered her some warm milk. She didn't realize I meant just that, and not hot chocolate. Oh, the faces she made while she drank it."

"Not a fan, I take it," Kent guessed with a grin.

"Warm milk makes me want to cry," Brianna said from the doorway, pushing her hair away from her face and making a beeline for the coffeepot. "I mean seriously... there ought to be a law. If it wasn't so frivolous, I'd introduce one on the Senate floor just to outlaw it." She shivered. "Just thinking about it is... ew." She held up the coffee pot and four cups raised for refills. She looked at Okasa with a grin. "Now I understand why you're using the percolator."

Okasa nodded sagely. "I always do this time of year."

Kent turned to Adam. "You want some breakfast, Boy?" grinning when Adam nodded vigorously. "Let's see what we can find," rising from his chair and moving to the cabinet Okasa kept stocked with all manner of cereal for her visiting grandkids. Brianna took a seat beside Okasa, then looked at Kent.

"Are you done with the paper?"

He nodded. "Go ahead. I don't think I'll be getting back to it today."

It was quiet for a few minutes after that. Brianna and Patrick turned a page occasionally, and Adam ate his cereal, but otherwise, there was very little sound beyond the odd swallow of coffee and breathing. It was into this scenario that a fully-dressed Saphira walked a few minutes later.

It wasn't that she was loud - on the contrary, Saphira had an almost cat-like stealth. Still, her footsteps were louder than anything else going on in the kitchen, and every eye, including Adam's turned her way as she crossed the threshold. The scrutiny caused her to halt mid-step. She looked behind her and carefully around the entire room before she spoke in a whisper.

"Did I missing something or did I do something wrong?"

Okasa smiled and shook her head. "Neither," she confessed in a normal tone of voice. "We're all sitting here trying to get the old brain cells jump-started for the day. So far, it doesn't seem to be very successful - except for you, obviously," motioning to Saphira's fully clad state, then around the table where the rest of them were still wearing pajamas and robes.

"Hey!" Brianna protested. "Speak for yourself! My brain cells are working."

Charisma snorted. Saphira smirked. "But not really firing on all cylinders yet, are they? You haven't looked in a mirror yet this morning, have you?"

Brianna narrowed her eyes. "Noooo," she drawled. "I am sleepy, not brain dead. I never look in the mirror until *after* my shower."

Saphira scratched her nose and crooked a half-smile at her. "You may want to reconsider that practice while you're here."

Brianna scowled and stuck out her tongue. "You're picking on me!"

"I'm not trying to," Saphira replied honestly, though she didn't lose her smile. Then she turned to Okasa. "What can I do to help?"

"You know," Charisma said conversationally to Brianna as though Saphira wasn't sitting right there. "We should discover her secret. Think what our fellow Senators would pay to be able to come downstairs first thing in the morning completely put together without even needing a cup of coffee."

Brianna smirked. "We could rule the world."

"You wouldn't want to," Saphira said softly, seriously. "Not at this price," her tone draining all the teasing out of the room. Okasa laid a hand on her arm.

"How is she this morning?"

"Sleeping. Whatever you gave her did the trick." She looked around the room. "I'm sorry - I didn't mean to ruin the mood."

Charisma placed a hand on her other arm. "You didn't. We should have thought about it first."

"Yeah," Brianna agreed. "Especially me since I was up with her last night."

"You were up with whom?" Margaret asked as she crossed the threshold and headed straight for the coffee. "Am I the last?" looking around the room. "Where's Es?"

"Still sleeping," Okasa replied briefly, her eyes telling Margaret to let the subject go. Margaret acknowledged the directive with the barest nod of her head and then turned to Saphira as she stirred condiments into her coffee.

"Well, Saphira, I guess that means you and I will be starting the prep work while these three," motioning to the other women in the room, "go get ready for the day. You two," pointing to Kent and Patrick, "are assigned to keeping my grandson out from under foot."

Okasa chuckled. She sometimes forgot Margaret's tendency to become a drill sergeant in the kitchen, but what she'd said made a good deal of sense. "Sounds like a plan, Margaret. You know where things are," waiting for Margaret to nod. "All right, the rest of you - you heard the woman. Hop to!" Then she turned back to Saphira and Margaret. "I'll be back in a few."

"Go on," Margaret made shooing motions in Okasa's direction. "You know what happens if I'm left alone in the kitchen too long, and this time, I have a helper."

That alone was enough to spur reaction from almost everyone, and Brianna followed their example as a matter of course. When they were gone, Saphira turned to Margaret.

"Should I even ask?"

"No, my dear. Let's just say I learned a long time ago how to get things done to my satisfaction." Then she turned to the refrigerator and started pulling out the things they would need.



Chapter LVIII

It was some time later when Saphira stood in the doorway of their darkened room with a cup of steaming hot coffee clutched in her hands. Okasa has sent her upstairs to check on Esmeralda and waken her if possible, as the rest of the family was due to join them within the hour and she was anxious to introduce to her sons the friends her daughter had brought home.

Saphira stood still for several minutes, her eyes clearly seeing Esmeralda's sleeping form beneath the covers and her ears detecting the deep, steady breaths indicating her depth of sleep. "I talked to the Father this morning, Es," knowing her mate wouldn't hear her, but needing to say it anyway. "Everything's taken care of. You're gonna be all right."

She crossed to the side of the bed and set the coffee cup on the nightstand, then carefully seated herself on the bed. The motion was enough to paint a frown on Esmeralda's face, but otherwise, she gave no indication of waking. Saphira reached out a hand to soothe the lines created by Esmeralda's displeasure, then had to smile as they turned to a smile beneath her touch.

She kept up the light stroking, recognizing the signs of wakefulness as Esmeralda slowly made her way towards consciousness. Finally, green eyes blinked open and Saphira leaned down and pressed her lips to Esmeralda's. "Good morning," she whispered, blue eyes closing when Esmeralda gently scratched the base of her scalp.

"Good morning," Esmeralda replied throatily. "What time is it?" glancing at the clock and feeling her eyes widen in response. "Oh... wow."

Saphira chuckled, pulling one hand from the back of her neck and cradling it so she could brush a kiss over her palm. "Yeah - Okasa asked me to see if you felt like joining us. The boys and their families will be here in an hour or so and I think she's anxious to introduce us."

"What else?" Esmeralda asked when she felt Saphira's hesitation. Saphira shrugged.

"I'm not sure," she replied honestly. "I can't read this stuff like you do, but things are weird down there," handing Esmeralda the coffee cup as soon as she slid into a sitting position. Esmeralda inhaled deeply - Saphira didn't give her coffee often, so this was a nice treat... especially since Saphira had fixed it just the way she liked it. She arched an eyebrow, knowing Saphira would see it and understand.

Saphira sighed. "I'm not sure how to explain it," biting her lip thoughtfully. "Okasa was pretty cool - she kinda let me and Margaret take over in the kitchen until she could get her brain cells kick-started... her words. When she came back, though, she was right there with us. I don't think much fazes that woman."

"She's survived three boys, Charisma and Brianna. What could phase her at this point?"

"True," Saphira acknowledged, dropping her eyes to Esmeralda's hand on the coffee cup.

"However, except for letting you and Margaret 'kinda take over' for a bit, none of this sounds weird. So what's up with Charisma and Brianna?"

Saphira blew out a breath. "I'm not sure. Brianna reminds me a little of a porcupine and Charisma's acting like her feelings got hurt. But they haven't actually said anything to one another this morning besides 'could you pass...' or 'excuse me'." She met Esmeralda's eyes. "Now you see why I said it was weird?"

"Yep," Esmeralda said succinctly, nudging Esmeralda with her legs and waiting until she stood before turning so she was sitting on the edge of the bed. "I think I know what's going on." She accepted the hand Saphira offered and rose smoothly from the mattress. Then she tugged on the hand she still clasped and headed towards the bathroom. "C'mon," she invited. "You can keep me company and I'll fill you in on what happened last night... aside from my insomnia."

Saphira smiled and followed her into the bathroom, grateful to go where Esmeralda led. And thrilled that Esmeralda was obviously feeling better. Then she shut the door to give them some privacy and waited for Esmeralda to fill her in.

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

"Well, that explains a lot," Saphira commented slowly as Esmeralda finished drying off. "Sometimes I feel like those two are doing a dance that only they can hear the music to - one of those where they come close to one another but never really connect, ya know?"

"I do indeed," Esmeralda concurred as she started to dress. "At least with the rest of the family here today, it should make for an interesting day. Did Okasa tell the boys Brianna was going to be here?"

Saphira shrugged. "No one's mentioned it to me."

Esmeralda dried her hair as well as she could and neatly hung up her wet towel before extending her hand to Saphira. "C'mon. We should get downstairs before they send up a search party for us. Besides, I want to see for myself what's going on. With Charisma already having her feelings hurt about what Brianna told me this morning...."

Saphira blew out an aggravated breath even as she took Esmeralda's hand in her own. "Honestly," she muttered mostly to herself but loud enough that Esmeralda could clearly make out her words. "How much drama does a situation need before they figure it out?"

Esmeralda just smirked and shook her head, then led the way downstairs.

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

"Do you suppose everything's all right?" Margaret asked some time later as the four women sat around the table with fresh cups of coffee. Patrick and Kent had taken her at her word, and as soon as they'd gotten ready, they'd taken Adam outside to ride his Big Wheel. And since Saphira had gone upstairs and had yet to return with Esmeralda in tow, it was just Margaret, Okasa, Brianna and Charisma. Everything was as done as they could manage at the moment, and they were taking a well-deserved break before the house was overrun with family.

"I think we would've probably heard from Saphira if it wasn't," Okasa replied. "She's likely just waiting for Esmeralda to get ready so they can come downstairs together. I told her to take her time if she needed to? that the boys wouldn't be here for another half hour or so if they stay true to form."

Before Margaret could question further, the back door to the kitchen opened and Adam came rushing in, his rosy cheeks and bright smile bringing answering smiles to the women seated around the table. He ran straight to Okasa and leaned on her lap, grinning up at her mischievously.

"Gramma, Pop Pop says come in now - is damn cold," he repeated proudly, not seeing the glare Okasa and Charisma leveled at Patrick who stood sheepishly in the doorway with Kent behind him trying to muffle his chuckles.

"That's not what I told you to say, Boy," Patrick scolded, though the twinkle in his eyes and the smile on his lips belied anything other than affection in his gruff tone. Adam pushed off of Okasa's lap and ran back to wrap his arms around Patrick's legs. Paddy lifted him up and walked through the kitchen, studiously ignoring the stares he was getting. Kent followed, a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing aloud.

The women watched them go, then turned back to the table. It took less than five seconds and a single exchange of glances before they were cackling softly. Okasa covered her face with her hands to try and retrieve some semblance of control.

"I may have to kill my father," Charisma said dryly, though the smirk on her face told a story all its own. "If Adam does that at school, I'll be visiting the principal's office, you know," giving her mother a droll look.

"Wouldn't be the first time," Okasa quipped, chuckling when Charisma blushed.

"Should we ask what caused such a lovely shade of red, Charisma?" Esmeralda queried from the doorway. Saphira stood just behind her, hands resting lightly on Esmeralda's hips. Okasa stood and crossed to the doorway, taking Esmeralda by the elbow and peering at her carefully, placing a hand on her forehead and letting it linger on Esmeralda's cheek. Then Okasa nodded her head in satisfaction.

"You look like you feel better," she commented with a smile and noting that Saphira seemed more relaxed as a result. "Both of you," garnering her a small smile from Saphira.

"I do, Okasa; thank you," patting the hand still clutching her arm tenderly, and taking the hand from her face and squeezing it gently in her own. "I don't know what was in that remedy you gave me this morning, but it certainly seemed to do the trick. I don't even remember going upstairs."

"That's because we practically carried you partway," Brianna said softly. "And Saphira met us about halfway up and literally did carry you the rest of the way to your room." She smiled. "I'm glad you're feeling better though," offering her a hug that was immediately reciprocated.

"Hear! Hear!!" Charisma agreed, rising from her place and giving Esmeralda a hug of her own. "Maybe this will be a turning point in your recovery."

Margaret rose from her spot. "I don't want to be left out," she said with a smile, getting a brief squeeze. "Coffee?" she asked when the embrace ended.

"I've already had a cup, thank you. But maybe a glass of milk? Thank you, Charisma," she chuckled as she accepted the glass that appeared in her hand before the words were out of her mouth. She turned back to Margaret. "Saphira only allows me coffee sparingly, and rightly so," she added, seeing the disbelief writ large in Margaret's expression at the word 'allow'. "I really shouldn't have coffee at all. But milk - it does a body good, right?"

"Well, it's given you a beautiful complexion at any rate. You could be a model."

Esmeralda's eyes widened and she shook her head vehemently. "Oh no thank you. That kind of work would drive me crazy."

Margaret tilted her head. "Why do you say that? Have you modeled before?"

"No - but modeling strikes me as a lot like politics. You really have to put yourself out there for public consumption, but you're never allowed to be who you really are. Everything depends on other peoples' perception of what you should be."

"You're a very smart woman, Es," Margaret said into the stunned silence. "May I ask where you studied?"

"She's a student of human nature," Charisma and Brianna replied together - staring at one another fleetingly before turning their attention to Esmeralda who simply laughed and diffused the tension suddenly apparent in the room.

"Are you really?" Margaret inquired, watching Esmeralda nod. "Oh please. I'd like to hear about this. I consider myself to be as well, but I think you probably have a much different view of humanity than I do."

"I'd like to hear this as well," Okasa said, moving from the doorway and taking Esmeralda by the elbow to lead her back towards the table. "C'mon? we have a few minutes before everyone arrives."

Charisma and Brianna watched as Esmeralda was compelled to sit between the two older women, then they looked at Saphira who hadn't moved from her spot in the doorway. She seemed content to watch with adoring eyes as Esmeralda absorbed the love and attention currently being lavished on her.

"How are you doing, Saphira?" Brianna asked quietly.

"I'm all right," she said after a moment's hesitation. "It takes a load off my mind to see such a difference in Es. I think this break was something she really needed, and being here...."

"I'm glad you were able to come... especially if it makes a difference for her," Charisma confessed, then looked up when Okasa called her name. "Yes, Mama?"

"Are you three gonna hover in the doorway like co-conspirators of some sort, or would you like to join the rest of us at the table?" her eyebrow arching with a hint of rebuke as she turned her glance pointedly at each of them.

"Coming, Mama," Charisma and Brianna said in tandem. Saphira just shook her head and chuckled as she moved to claim a seat at the table. It was shaping up to be a memorable holiday.

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

They boys and their families arrived almost as a group. They had discovered several years prior - that is, when Charisma added Kent and subsequently Margaret to their number, that doing so compelled them to only make a single greeting instead of multiple ones. And though they liked Kent well enough of his own accord, especially after taking the opportunity to know him better, the fact of the matter was that they did resent him slightly. After all? he wasn't Brianna and never would be. And while they were actually angry at Charisma for letting Brianna get away, she was still their sister. So it was easier to direct their ire towards Kent... however unfair.

So generally a day or two before the holiday celebration that involved Charisma and Kent, the three of them would meet for lunch and decide what time they would show up at Mama's. Not that Okasa knew any of this - she just figured they had done it so long, they had it down to a science. In fairness, they did the same thing when Brianna visited, but then it was to maximize their time with her and Okasa had missed the difference in arrival times, mostly because they saw Brianna a lot less often than they did Charisma. And since she hadn't told them of the change in status between Brianna and Charisma, just as Okasa had expected, there was a knock at the door and Paddy was inviting the rest of the family into the house.

As one body, the women arose from their place at the table. Charisma rushed out first, anxious to see her brothers despite the awkwardness she still sometimes felt from them towards Kent even after several years of marriage and a child together.

Hunter stepped up first and lifted her off the ground before turning and offering his hand to Kent. Rocky followed suit as did Forrest while the children claimed Adam and headed off to the playroom that Okasa and Patrick had set up specifically for them.

Then of course the wives exchanged hugs as well before Maria turned to Charisma and asked, "Is Mama in the kitchen?"

Charisma nodded, but before anyone could move, Brianna emerged and everything and everyone stopped. There was dead silence... dead stillness before the boys looked at one another and whooped, then moved as a single entity in her direction. Brianna just grinned goofily at them and let them wrap her up in a single hug. Charisma stepped back and watched in confusion and not a little hurt as her family welcomed Brianna with an enthusiasm she hadn't seen since she'd first brought her home twenty plus years before. Kent simply watched Charisma.

Before Charisma could say or do anything that might make things awkward for everyone, Okasa slipped from the kitchen with an arm around Saphira and the other around Esmeralda. She had asked them to let Brianna precede them out of the kitchen, having a good idea of what might happen. Esmeralda and Saphira both agreed, instinctively understanding that Okasa wanted them to diffuse any kind of situation that might erupt.

So they stepped from the kitchen together and all eyes turned to them, though no one went still or silent, this time. Instead, the manners Okasa had worked so hard to instill in her children came to the fore and her three sons immediately moved towards them to meet and welcome the newcomers into the family circle, promising Brianna a talk with the boys later.

Esmeralda was her naturally gracious self, drawing everyone to her with her smiles and soft-spoken words. They were a little more in awe of Saphira, sensing in her a more kindred spirit despite her current occupation. Still, it was with much enthusiasm that they were brought into the family holiday. Then the men went to look after the children and the women headed for the kitchen where Margaret had returned after brief greetings in the living room. That to her was the hardest part of the holidays, and she was glad to have it be mostly over for this one.

The girls were a little noisier than usual - Brianna's unexpected return to the fold coupled with the introduction of Esmeralda and Saphira made for an exciting day. So they were quite chatty as they picked up the work where it had been left off.

Charisma deliberately stayed to the outer edges of the fray, content for the moment to be an observer... knowing it was unfair, but feeling a bit ostracized by her own family in favor of the newer members she herself had added to it.

Okasa noticed her odd behavior and crossed the room to stand beside her as she carefully wiped the plates that would soon be gracing the dining room table.

"Is something wrong, Charisma?" she asked bluntly, wondering if Charisma even recognized the issue she was having. Charisma bit her lip, but shook her head. She wasn't going to admit to something as petty as jealousy? especially when she was responsible for creating it.

"No, Mama," she replied softly. "I'm fine. Just trying to get the place settings ready so we can set the table shortly." She met her mama's eyes squarely and Okasa wondered when Charisma had become such a proficient liar. Okasa decided not to call her on it immediately. There would be time enough for that later. Besides, it was almost time for the rest of her guests to arrive and Okasa was morbidly curious to see Charisma's reaction to that arrival.

As if on cue, the doorbell rang, and Okasa nodded at Brianna when she met her eyes. Brianna took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, then headed out of the kitchen to answer the front door. The rest followed as a matter of course - anxious to greet the newcomers, but also a little nosy. They had all sensed Charisma's withdrawal from them like a tangible thing, and while they didn't realized their own actions were the cause, they expected Okasa would take care of that quickly... not wanting disharmony present at the dinner table.

"C'mon, Charisma," Okasa chided when Charisma made no move to go into the living room. The girls had already dragged Esmeralda and Saphira out, and Margaret had gone along out of curiosity. Whoever it was, they were new to her and if they were as pleasant and charming as Esmeralda and Saphira, Margaret certainly didn't want to miss out on making their acquaintance.

Charisma tried to protest, knowing everyone she expected had already arrived, but Okasa was having none of it. So she huffed and crossed her arms, stalking out of the kitchen to lean on the doorway to watch the proceedings with more interest than she would ever allow herself to admit to. A feeling in the pit of her belly told her who the new arrival was, but all that knowledge did was sour her stomach. She could only hope she was wrong. This holiday was turning out to be a disaster.



Chapter LIX

"Kay!" Brianna exclaimed happily as she opened the door and her arms to accept the embrace she knew was coming. Kay scooped her up and held her close for a long moment, brushing a kiss over her lips before setting her back on her feet. Then she moved onto greet the girls and Okasa while Lee repeated her actions with Brianna. The kids, hearing the commotion, scrambled from the playroom to welcome the newcomers to their midst. Before Brianna could even begin to perform introductions, the Tagherty kids had dragged Kay's children to the playroom, leaving the adults standing around the foyer.

"Well," Brianna said with a nervous smile, "I guess I'll introduce the kids later. Kay... Lee - you know Okasa and the sisters," waiting for them to them all to grin and nod. "These are my friends Charisma, Esmeralda, Saphira and Margaret. Ladies, these are my friends Kay and Lee."

Surprisingly, Kay and Margaret exchanged brief air kisses as did Lee and Margaret. "Margaret and I work together," Kay offered in explanation, "though I didn't know we'd see her here." She gave Margaret a questioning look.

"The Taghertys and I are in-laws," she offered breezily.

"Really? I never realized...."

"Probably because I never said," Margaret replied dryly. "Charisma is my daughter-in-law."

"Ah yes... the formidable Senator Tagherty," Kay said with a genuine smile. "You don't know how long I've waited to meet you."

"Oh really?" Charisma responded, though her smile was purely a political one. "Why is that?" taking Kay's proffered hand and squeezing briefly before releasing her hold. She was purely in political mode now and Brianna cocked her head and frowned, wondering what Kay could possibly have done in three minutes to bring that personality to the forefront of Charisma's mind.

"I admire your work for and legislation about victims. I think it's done a lot to raise awareness where there wasn't much before. And that's so important."

Charisma's eyebrows went into her hairline. Whatever she'd expected from this woman that she viewed as a rival for reasons she refused to voice to herself, it hadn't been genuine interest or sincerity about her work. "Thank you," she said genuinely. She turned to Kay's husband who was waiting patiently and Kay extended a hand to Esmeralda, then Saphira.

"So which of you is Esmeralda and which is Saphira?" she asked with a smile.

"I'm Esmeralda; this is my mate, Saphira," Esmeralda said with quiet confidence. Kay's eyes narrowed slightly.

"That's important to you, isn't it?" she asked without a hint of maliciousness in her tone. She saw the ire flame in Saphira's, Charisma's and Brianna's eyes and hastened to clarify herself. "I mean referring to yourselves as mates," she added, seeing the understanding in Esmeralda's eyes and relaxing just slightly. "You're more than partners... more than simply wives. You belong to one another."

Esmeralda smiled and nodded and Saphira visibly relaxed. "You understand."

"I do indeed," Kay stated firmly, but didn't offer any further edification. Before the silence could become awkward, Okasa spoke up.

"I hate to break up the conversation, especially as I would really like to understand why that whole 'mate' thing is so important. However, we have work to do in the kitchen and Lee...."

"Yes Mama - I know where to go." He brushed a kiss over Kay's cheek, then excused himself to the playroom with the rest of the men. The women naturally headed back into the kitchen for coffee and conversation as they finalized the preparations for dinner.

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

They separated into small groups as a matter of course as soon as they entered the kitchen. There were still a number of things that needed to be completed before they could sit down to the table, and they each took a task to make them go faster. Only Charisma returned to the edges - close enough to listen, but far enough away that she wouldn't be required to participate in any other way unless she chose to do so.

Theresa, Hunter's wife, turned to Esmeralda with a question. "Esmeralda, will you explain why you feel it is so important to be seen as Saphira's mate instead of her wife or her partner? I don't understand the difference."

Esmeralda looked around carefully finding only curiosity and a desire to understand... until she met Saphira's eyes. The love and adoration she found there made her smile and the rest of the world faded away for a long moment. Rocky's wife Danielle cleared her throat and shook her head, grinning at them both when they broke their stare to fix their eyes in her direction.

"I think that might explain a lot."

"What?" Esmeralda asked with a frown. Cindy, Forrest's wife wrapped an arm around Esmeralda's shoulders.

"Don't mind her," she offered with a smile. "Now tell us about the mate thing. Who knows - it may make our marriages stronger too."

Esmeralda met Saphira's eyes again and at her slight nod, she nodded her agreement to the rest of the group. Everyone brought their work with them and stepped closer to hear her words. Kay took the distraction that provided her with and moved up next to Brianna.

"You all right?" she asked, her eyes briefly darting in Charisma's direction before coming back to rest on Brianna's face. She didn't miss the twinge of anger that flitted over Charisma's expression before her political mask fell into place, concealing every thought and feeling.

"I'm fine, Kay," she said with a smile. "I love you for your concern though."

"I never stopped, you know."

"I know, and part of me will always love you as well." Brianna paused and sighed deeply. "Charisma actually invited me to be here."

"Okay, so why is she acting like you've got the plague?" Kay hesitated. "Or is it me? Does she know about me, Bri? Does she know about us?"

Brianna shrugged and shook her head. "Not as far as I know - at least I didn't tell her. Maybe Okasa...." Both women glanced at the family matriarch and shook their heads. "I don't think she would do that."

"Me either... not given the outcome she'd like to see between the two of you," Kay added, smirking when she noticed Brianna's raised eyebrows. "What? We talk," she confessed. "We've kept in touch since you and I broke up and I confided in her the reason why."

"You didn't." flatly.

"Sure I did."

"Kay... how could you? That could have...."

"Sweetie, I knew it wouldn't change anything. Okasa talked to me very frankly about things after you and I were no longer together. She never did anything to undermine us when we were a couple, but she made it clear to me what she hoped for once we split up."

"Oh, umm...."

"Take a deep breath, Bri," Kay said, putting a gentle arm around Brianna's waist when the color faded. "C'mon... sit down," easing her into a chair. Without warning, a glass appeared over her shoulder and Kay accepted it with a murmured thanks before offering it to Brianna. Brianna's hands shook slightly when she took it, so Kay held it steady and Brianna drank slowly for a moment. When she pushed the glass away, Kay set it on the counter and leaned down into Brianna's personal space. "You all right now?" running a hand lightly along her jaw before it was captured in Brianna's hand.

"Maybe if you'd give her a little space to breathe," Charisma snapped curtly. Kay rose to her full height - several inches more than Charisma's - her dark eyes meeting incensed blue ones and her lips tilting up in a smirk that made Charisma grit her teeth for a moment before she dropped her mask into place once more.

"I'm not the enemy, Senator Tagherty - yours or Brianna's," Kay informed Charisma softly. "I realize my friendship with Brianna isn't as old as the one between the two of you, but we have been friends for a very long time. I promise you I'm not trying to usurp your place in her heart," wincing when Brianna's nails dug into the hand she still held. "Or life," she added with a glare in Brianna's direction. "I just wanted to ensure she was all right when the color drained from her face."

Charisma nodded brusquely and turned back to move towards the corner she had been ensconced in before she saw Brianna drop shakily into the chair. Brianna dropped Kay's hand, and Kay stepped back so Brianna could clasp Charisma's hand instead. Charisma hesitated, then firmly closed her hand around Brianna's and waited.

"Thank you, Charisma."

Charisma gave Brianna a brief smile and nodded, then with a squeeze to her hand, she moved back to the stack of dishes which she picked up and walked into the dining room with. Kay patted Brianna's shoulder.

"I'll be right back," causing Brianna to open her mouth, then close and nod her agreement. Whatever was going on with Charisma, it apparently had something to do with Kay. Better that they get it taken care of before everyone was called to the table - no one wanted that kind of awkwardness today.

Saphira watched the tableau taking place to the obliviousness of everyone around her, though she suspected Esmeralda was far more aware of what was happening than her current conversation allowed her to show. Saphira saw everything, and when Kay made it a point to follow Charisma into the dining room, she moved over to Brianna.

"Everything all right?"

Brianna shook her head. "I don't think so, but I don't know how things went wrong or what to do to make them right."

"And you think that's a good idea?" inclining her head towards the dining room that remained silent.

"Not really," Brianna snorted. "But I think they need to work things out between them before I talk to Charisma. She took an instant dislike to Kay for some reason - I saw it and Kay, well... she can read people very well." She smirked at Saphira's raised brow. "It's her job."

"Lemme guess - shrink?"

Brianna's eyes widened. "How did you...? Nevermind - you're probably as much a student of human nature as Es is, aren't you?" chuckling when Saphira gave her a bashful shrug. "Obviously I did something to set her off as well, but for the life of me, I can't figure out what I did."

Saphira bit her lip, then blurted out softly, "Does she know about you and Kay?"

"I don't think so. I certainly didn't tell her."

"And none of the rest of the family would?"

Brianna shook her head. "No. Until a couple weeks ago, Charisma didn't even know I was still in contact with her family."

"Except that when they discovered you here, they treated you differently than they treated Charisma. If I hadn't known better, I'd have thought you were a long lost sister finally returned to the fold. And even though the boys didn't come out to say Hi when Kay and her family arrived, it was clear she was part of the family as well. You greeted Kay like the long-time friend and confidante she has been to you; Charisma's sisters-in-law acted like Kay was one of them; the Tagherty kids came and took Kay's kids back to the playroom as a matter of course; and Mama sent Lee to join the rest of the male contingent, and he made it clear he knew what was expected of him." She paused. "Brianna, Charisma's not a stupid woman. It wouldn't take a lot for her to come to the right conclusion about the two of you."

Brianna bit her lip thoughtfully, then shrugged as nonchalantly as she could manage. "Kay was never something I hid - not when we were together and not since we broke up. She was a wonderful lover, Saphira, and she's been an even better friend. I don't regret the time we had together. I'm sure we could have been very happy if things had worked out between us, but they didn't. They couldn't have - not with the way I felt about Charisma... still feel, truth be told. So I certainly don't begrudge the love and family Kay has with Lee. More than anything, I want her to be happy."

"And I am, Sweetie," Kay assured her as she caught the tail end of the conversation. "However, you may want to go talk to Charisma. She... well, I don't think she's angry at me."

"No, I'm sure she's not," Brianna replied tiredly.

"You want me to...?" Saphira started to offer, but stopped when Brianna shook her head.

"No. This is my problem to solve."

"Are you gonna tell her why you left?"

"Only if she asks the right question."

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

Kay picked up the silverware and followed Charisma into the dining room, feeling her stiffen though her motions to set the table never ceased. She laid the placemats slowly, taking her time to ensure each one was perfect before moving on to the next one. She made it all the way around the table before Kay cleared her throat.

"Is there something I can help you with?" Charisma offered stiffly, turning enough to see Kay in her periphery, but not enough to look her full in the face. Kay noticed the lack of any sort of address and wondered if Charisma felt better by not calling her by name.

"Can I help?" she said by way of starting a conversation, holding up the silverware she had carried in.

Kay could feel Charisma's struggle warring between good manners and her true desire. Charisma took a deep breath and good manners won, though Kay was curious how close the race had been. "Of course," she said after a long moment of silence. "Would you like to set the plates as well? I usually create some sort of napkin animal to decorate the table a little bit."

"I never could get the hang of that. I just fold mine and hope for the best."

Charisma finished folding and held it up with a flourish. "Stupid parlor tricks," she muttered. "I learned when the boys started having kids. It was something to amuse them at a grown-up table," gesturing to the myriad of silverware and dishes at each place. "Mama insisted that we and they learn to eat correctly from a very young age. I agree that it's important for a child to grow up learning proper etiquette - I'm just not certain they need to start quite so young."

"So no kids' table, huh?"

"No... but you already knew that, didn't you?" her voice bitter.

"Yes, I did. But you knew that as well," framed as a statement, garnering a jerky nod of agreement from Charisma. "May I ask what I did to earn your disdain?" Kay asked in a calm voice. "Please don't try to dissimulate for me. I read people for a living."

"Don't!" Charisma said harshly. "Don't read me or psychoanalyze me or whatever it is that you do. Just please leave me alone," she added resignedly.

"Then answer my question, please Charisma," bringing Charisma's head up with a snap when she dropped her title and addressed her familiarly. "I think I deserve to know what I've done to antagonize you. We've hardly been introduced for an hour."

Charisma sighed. "It's not you. It is any number of mitigating factors and you just happened to fall into the crosshairs. I apologize for making you feel uncomfortable."

Kay smirked. "I'm not the one who's uncomfortable here, Charisma - you are. And I do believe that any number of realizations have put me at the forefront of your issues today, but I still think you've chosen to dislike me on a personal level without even giving me a chance."

"I see. Should I ask what brought you to these conclusions?"

"I told you - I read people for a living. Ask your brothers... ask your mother-in-law. They know who I am and what I do. And Charisma... I'm very good at what I do, so let me tell you what I know just from having met you an hour ago. You're jealous - you're jealous of what you think is between Brianna and me, and you're jealous of what you've missed while she was out of your life. Maybe you ought to sit down and figure out why that is."

Charisma stared at her, neither acknowledging nor denying Kay's words. Kay saw the look of agonized confusion in Charisma's eyes and softened, understanding for the first time why Brianna had been forced to walk away from the woman she loved so much she had never forgotten.

"Senator... Charisma - Brianna is my friend, and she's been my friend for twenty years. She's a very special woman, and she's very dear to my heart. I would do a lot for her, and I'm asking you as her friend - be careful with her. She hasn't been truly happy in a long, long time." Charisma opened her mouth as though to interrupt and Kay shook her head. "You don't have to like me, but I want you to understand that I know her as well as you do... maybe better. Don't hurt her again."

"I didn't hurt her to begin with! She's the one who left me!!"

"Did you ever ask her why?"

"Yes! She refuses to tell me until I ask the right question. But I don't know what that is!"

"Then consider things carefully, Senator Tagherty. I think you do know, and when you're ready to be honest with yourself, you'll know what to ask," Kay said as she put the last piece of silverware into places and turned to leave the room.

"Why do you care?"

"I told you - Brianna is my friend. I just want to see her happy." This time when Kay turned to leave, Charisma let her go.



Continued in Part 2



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