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 <g>. 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.
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.
"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."
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.
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."
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."
"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.
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...."
"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 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."
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."
"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."
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."
"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.
"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?"
"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 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."
"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."
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?"
"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."
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…."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"I have duct tape and I know how to use it."
"It will fix that pouty lip too, ya know."
"I hate you."
"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.
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."
"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."
"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.
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."
"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.
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."
"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?"
"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."
"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?"
"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.
"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.
"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 <ahem> 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 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."
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?"
"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."
"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."
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.
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"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.
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.
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'."
"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.
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.
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."
"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."
"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.
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."
"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."
"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.
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.
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."
"By the time I got back and went upstairs, Charisma was already in bed; I figured she was asleep."
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.
"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."
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.
"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.
"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??"
"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.
"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."
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?"
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."
"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.
"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."
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."
"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."
"Now? It's still there but not as great."
"So you still feel confident in trusting me?"
"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."
"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."
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.
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!"
"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.
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."
"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.
"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?"
"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."
To be continued
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