Chapter XX

"Opal? I need...." Charisma stutter-stopped and glanced around her dark and silent outer office. A frown marred her features and she moved to Opal's desk, intent on calling her wayward staff back to work, if only to fire them for disappearing in the first place. She froze when she noticed Esmeralda casually sitting behind Opal's desk.

"Es?" she muttered, struck dumb by the sight of the young woman she had spent the last several days avoiding. Charisma cleared her throat. "Is there... is there something I can do for you?"

Esmeralda smiled, her teeth white in the darkness. Then she stood and held out a hand, gratified when Charisma took it without hesitation. "No, Charisma. But I think there is probably something I can do for you," tugging gently on the hand she held. Charisma dug her heels in and refused to move.

"Where is my staff?"

"I sent them home," watching dark brows crawl up Charisma's forehead before they slammed down in the formation of a scowl.

"Excuse me?" her whisper fierce in its softness.

"I sent them home," Esmeralda repeated dutifully, then held up her free hand to keep Charisma from speaking further. "I wanted to speak to you privately, and you've used them to avoid me all week. Don't," she continued forcefully when Charisma opened her mouth to deny the accusation. "I am not stupid, Charisma. I know avoidance tactics when they are used against me."

"I would never accuse you of being stupid, Esmeralda. I just never realized you were quite so conniving... so sneaky." Her expression was one of confusion, though her voice was more accusatory. Esmeralda cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Charisma, be honest - if I hadn't sent them home, would you even be talking to me right now?" Charisma's blue eyes met Esmeralda's green ones briefly before finding the carpet pattern fascinating. Esmeralda squeezed the hand she still held. "Charisma?"

She saw Charisma bite her lip before sighing loudly and shaking her head. "Probably not."

"Can I ask why?"

Charisma snorted and pulled her hand out of Esmeralda's clasp. "Are you serious?"

Esmeralda just tilted her head and waited. Charisma growled and it was only centuries of familiarity with the sound that allowed Esmeralda to keep her composure.

"Of course you're serious. Why would I think otherwise?" Charisma grumbled. She took several steps away from Esmeralda, raking her hands through what to that moment had been a neat coiffure. Then she clenched her hands in her hair and whipped around furiously, mildly surprised when Esmeralda didn't flinch, even in the face of Charisma's glare. "How did you do it?"

"Excuse me?" a look of confusion marring Esmeralda's expression. "I don't understand."

Charisma studied Esmeralda for a long moment. "You really don't, do you?" she asked at last. "You have no idea...." She whirled until her back was to Esmeralda and remained that way for a long moment. When she turned around once more, she did so slowly and deliberately, the politician's mask firmly in place. "How did you convince my staff to simply leave here without a word to me? Surely they know...."

"Know what, Senator?" Esmeralda asked quietly, intentionally using Charisma's title to remind her... of so many things. "I know that you've been terrorizing them since you and Brianna met at the diner Friday night. No," she hastened to reassure Charisma when her eyes widened theatrically. "They haven't said anything; they didn't need to. I'm a student of human nature, remember? In my job, I see a lot and I hear a lot more. As for how I got them to leave, I asked them to give me a chance to talk to you."

Charisma's brows went into her hairline. "And that worked?"

Esmeralda shrugged. "Given your state of mind in the office this week? Is it really that difficult to believe?"

Charisma pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes, hoping to alleviate the headache she could feel beginning behind her eyes. She blew out a breath. "No, I guess not," she replied without opening her eyes.

Esmeralda walked back over to stand beside Charisma, reaching up and removing Charisma's hand from in front of her face. It took another minute, but soon Charisma blinked her eyes and met Esmeralda's. "C'mon," Esmeralda invited, drawing Charisma towards her office. "I'm tired and you look like you could use a chance to take your shoes off."

Charisma snickered, as Esmeralda's pronouncement was nothing like what she'd expected it to be. However, she couldn't deny the truth of her words either. "How'd you guess?"

Esmeralda made a show of looking at her sneaker-clad feet before staring at the four-inch heels Charisma wore. "Dumb luck," she deadpanned, causing Charisma to snort before she reluctantly chuckled. Then she allowed Esmeralda to lead her back into her office.

"And the fact that you're a good half a foot shorter than your partner means you're the one stuck in heels when you go out." She stepped out of her heels with a sigh of relief and simultaneously, they collapsed on the couch.

"Actually, Saphira is more than my partner, Charisma - she's my mate. And when we go out, our heights don't change."

Charisma blinked her eyes, opening them wide. "Really?"

"Um hmm," Esmeralda confirmed, though she didn't elaborate, seeing another question lurking in Charisma's eyes. She waited and in another minute, Charisma cleared her throat.

"Can I ask you something, Es?" Esmeralda nodded. "What did you mean you when said Saphira was more than your partner? I mean... I thought that partner was the proper way to refer to her in regards to your relationship."

Esmeralda held Charisma's gaze, searching for any hint of disparagement or bigotry; what she found was an honest desire to understand why Esmeralda had felt the need to correct her wording... especially since she *knew* she had gotten it right. It was her business to be politically correct, after all.

"I suppose," Esmeralda started hesitantly, "that in your politically correct world, partner is the description that is utilized most often. And in some ways, I suppose it's probably an accurate description of what Saphira and I share together. After all, we are a couple in a relationship that has sex," she stated bluntly. "But more than that, we are connected - we are joined... here," she declared, placing a hand over her heart. "In our hearts and in our souls. Even without the recognition of the government or of a church, what we have is beyond price."

"You mean that," stated without inflection.

"I do," Esmeralda assured Charisma without hesitation. "I nearly lost it once, Charisma, and it almost killed me. I would have done anything to keep it."

"Why? How can you be so sure it's worth it... that *she's* worth it?"

"Because I know what it feels like to live without her."

Silence reigned while Charisma contemplated Esmeralda's words. Esmeralda could see her struggling and she placed a hand on Charisma's knee as it was the closest body part to her given the way Charisma had curled into the couch. Charisma looked up.

"What do you want to know, Charisma?"

The Senator swallowed and dropped her eyes back to the small hand that rested lightly on her knee, covering it with her own and smiling when Esmeralda shifted her hand so she could clasp Charisma's. Finally, Charisma took a deep breath. "Would you have done it anyway...." She paused and drew another deep breath. "If you had something to lose, would you have done it anyway?"

Esmeralda gently squeezed the hand she held, waiting patiently for Charisma's eyes to meet hers. "I had everything to lose, Charisma. Everything. But without Saphira, it didn't matter. None of it mattered. Without her...." Esmeralda shook her head and glanced away, remembering all too clearly the desolation and devastation she'd felt when she thought Saphira was gone from her forever.

Charisma sat silently. Esmeralda let it last a while before she decided to break it. "Tell me your story, Charisma," turning to look at Charisma again. When Charisma didn't speak, Esmeralda sighed. "Charisma," she said softly, "I can't help if you don't share."

"I don't think there's anything you can do regardless, Es, though I love you dearly for wanting to try."

"Even if I can't, you're not going to feel better until you get this off your chest, and aside from a therapist, I'm probably the safest bet in the world."

Charisma snorted. "You're probably a safer bet than a therapist. You've been there, done that - your experience is hard-earned and therefore more honest in its approach."

"I'm cheaper too," Esmeralda replied cheekily, garnering her the soft laughter she'd hoped for. Charisma squeezed her hand.

"I don't know. I think you're pretty priceless." Charisma sighed. "If I tell you mine, will you share yours?" Esmeralda nodded. Charisma squeezed the hand she held one final time, then released it as she stood. "All right, but I need something to drink." She went over to the small refrigerator that sat behind her desk. "Can I get you something?"

Esmeralda smiled. "Since I'm betting you don't keep milk in there, how about some water?"

"Plain or chocolate?" At Esmeralda's confused look, Charisma chuckled. "I do have milk. I started drinking it when I got pregnant with Adam. I never really gave it up." She shrugged. "Besides, Adam needs something when he's here, and I'm not giving him soda."

"Ooh... chocolate then please," Esmeralda responded with a giggle and a twinkle in her eyes. "Saphira always gives me white milk at the diner."

"I'm pretty sure denying access to chocolate milk is grounds for divorce, my friend," Charisma joked, the twinkle clear in her blue eyes. Esmeralda chuckled.

"That's okay - if I have to choose between Saphira and chocolate milk, I'm keeping Saphira. Doesn't mean I'm not choosing chocolate when she's not here though."

"Sneaky woman," Charisma commented, even as she passed Esmeralda a bottle of chocolate milk. She grinned at the look of sheer bliss that covered Esmeralda's face at her first taste. "Good, huh?"

"Better than good - fabulous," Esmeralda agreed with a big smile. She leaned back into the couch with a contented sigh. "Maybe I should take a chocolate milk break everyday." She turned her head to look at Charisma. "Now... tell me your story."

Charisma sighed. "Do you need to call Saphira and let her know what's going on? It's already late and I don't want you to make her worry."

"It's fine, and sweet of you to consider that. She knows where I am and that I planned to talk to you tonight. She'll go home and wait for me there - she knows I have a guardian angel looking out for me." Literally, Es thought, remembering Amber's silent presence just a few yards away.

"All right," Charisma agreed with a nod of her head. "As long as you being here won't make things worse for anyone."

Esmeralda smiled and patted Charisma's hand. "Trust me, Charisma - I wouldn't put Saphira through that kind of worry... not after all we've been through together. It's all good."

"And you'll let me drive you home tonight?"

"Absolutely, as long as it doesn't mess up your time with Adam."

"Thank you. I feel better knowing that. And Adam is taken care of - he's already in bed asleep." Esmeralda tilted her head at Charisma's announcement, hearing the inherent sadness in her voice. Charisma gave her a heartbreaking smile. "Sometimes I regret all the time I miss with him. But I'm not sure I could give all this up," motioning around the room. "Even for him."

"Tell me your story, Charisma."

"What do you know?"

"Would you like to know what I've put together from my observations of the two of you?" waiting for Charisma to nod. Esmeralda took a deep breath. "I know that you were friends years ago; that she walked out of your life and neither of you have made an effort to resolve things between you since then. I know this is tearing you up inside... both of you. Other than that...?" Esmeralda shrugged.

Charisma chuckled ruefully. "You've got the basics." She stood and moved into the shadows of the room, facing the window so all Esmeralda could see was the stiffness of her posture. "Brianna Walker was my very best friend," Charisma said softly into the quiet darkness that surrounded them. "We were assigned as roommates in our freshman year of college and immediately hit it off. I don't know how to explain it - it was like we fit together. It's hard... it's not like I didn't have friends before. I mean, I was considered popular in high school, but this was different. And mama and daddy took her into the family without even a second thought." Charisma snorted. "She was welcomed more easily than any of the spouses were... just like she had always belonged to us."

Charisma stopped talking and Esmeralda let the silence lengthen between them, knowing Charisma was nowhere close to being done with her story. Finally, Charisma drew a sharp breath and continued. "I never thought.... We went everywhere - did everything - together. It was an unwritten rule between us and among our friends."

"So what happened?" Esmeralda asked when the silence lengthened uncomfortably. Charisma turned her head from the window, catching the gaze fixed on her briefly before facing the window once more. She wasn't quick enough, however, for Esmeralda to miss the hint of tears that sparkled on her lashes.

"We graduated," Charisma sighed softly. "I guess at the time I didn't realize how that would change everything. I guess I thought we'd be friends forever." She shrugged. "I was wrong."

Esmeralda clasped her hands tightly together to keep from crossing the room and shaking some sense into her deliberately obtuse friend. Instead, she bit her lip thoughtfully and took the time to ponder her words before she spoke.

"So you're telling me that you simply drifted away after graduation?" She rose and crossed to stand beside Charisma at the window, keeping her focus on the world outside, but able to see Charisma's reflection in the glass. "I'm not stupid, Charisma," her tone even and non-accusatory. "Please don't lie to me. I've seen the pictures in Senator Walker's office. I can guess at part of what happened. So even if you can't speak the truth aloud to me, at least be honest with yourself."

Charisma pinched the bridge of her nose. "What do you want me to tell you, Es? The truth is Brianna and I spent four incredible years together almost twenty-four/seven, then three fabulous months tooling around Europe without a care in the world. It was the most amazing, magical time of my life. Then she kissed me goodbye and walked out of my life."

"Which part of that bothered you - the kissing or the goodbye?"

Charisma whirled on Esmeralda, her eyes blazing. "She left without a word... without explanation!"

"And you never followed her... never looked her up to ask why. Why is that?" Esmeralda put her hands on Charisma's arms, unsurprised to find them shaking, though she was unsure if it was due to hurt or fury or terror or some combination of the three. "Charisma, you don't have to answer me - you don't owe me anything. But you do need to face the truth for yourself, if only so you can find happiness in your life again."

Charisma didn't move - neither shaking off Esmeralda's touch nor embracing it. Esmeralda gently guided Charisma back to the couch, easing her to a seat before kneeling in front of her. "Let me tell you a story," waiting for blue eyes to track to hers.

"Once upon a time there were two little girls who were best friends. They grew up together knowing they were mated... that they would always be part of one another. Then one day, the older of the girls did something that caused her to be banished from her home and so the two - now young women - were separated. It nearly crushed the younger woman; the older of them, however, once she knew of its effects on her beloved, refused to accept banishment as the sentence for her perceived crime. She insisted she be given a different punishment. Her Father, surprised by her actions, offered her a choice. She could come home - all would be forgiven and everything restored if she and the other young woman remained separated for a time to be determined by Him. She refused, demanding He find something that would not cause detriment to her mate. He grew furious, insisting she was in no position to demand anything after what she had done.

She met His eyes squarely and said, 'If you are the benevolent Father you claim to be, you will find a way to punish my transgressions without destroying the one I love. She has done nothing to be punished for.'

'And if I don't?' He asked, curious as to her answer.

'If you don't, we will leave together. Banishment will be our punishment, but it will be something we will share together. I won't allow you to destroy her for my sake.'

The Father studied her for an eternal moment before finally nodding his agreement. 'Very well,' he intoned. 'You will give up everything - your title, your home, your riches and you will do penance together until such time as I deem your debt has been paid.'

He took all that we had, but we still have one another. And Charisma - it's enough."

"Did you really have so much? Did giving it up change your life?"

Esmeralda's smile was full of compassion. "It changed everything. I had never known hunger or cold or sickness before then. But I would still give it all up... go through everything we have suffered through together, just because it would mean we were still together. And that's worth everything."

"Brianna and I were never together... not like that."

"Weren't you?" A beat. "Maybe you should be," Esmeralda commented softly. Charisma didn't answer. For a while there was no sound except their breathing. Then Charisma rose and fetched her purse before making a quick phone call and offering Esmeralda her hand.

"C'mon," she said. "Time to get you home to your mate."

Esmeralda took her hand and remained quiet, knowing the next step was Charisma's to take.

Chapter XXI

"So do we still have jobs?" Opal asked with a hint of humor after Esmeralda had taken her first sip of coffee. They had all been alarmed by the look of utter exhaustion on her face when she'd entered the kitchen a few moments before, and had given her a chance to collect herself and wake up a bit. Esmeralda blinked at the question and pushed messy hair back from her face, blinking again as she cleared her throat and returned Opal's tentative smile with a more sure one of her own.

"Oh yes... you still have jobs. You're not getting out of this assignment *that* easy," she teased, garnering smiles from all of them and feeling them relax at her words. "In fact," she turned to look at Opal directly, "things might even be a little easier for you."

Opal's eyes went wide. "Really? What kind of hex did you put on her, boss? Because I've gotta tell you - Charisma's never been easy to work for, but this last week she's been downright wicked."

Esmeralda's green eyes sharpened. "Tell me."

"Well, I can't speak for the rest, but in the office she's been on edge about everything... the way we dress, the way we speak, the tone of our voices, the color of the walls," watching Esmeralda's eyebrows shoot into her hairline. "I'm not making this up," Opal insisted. "She nearly had a come apart the day before yesterday because she decided she didn't like the color of the walls. Es... those walls have been that color since she got there. She picked it out!"

"All right," Esmeralda agreed slowly. "How has she been professionally?"

"Oh my word - she has nitpicked every single bill and vote to death. Granted, she has only done so to us in the privacy of her office, but she's out of control. If I didn't know better, I swear she was PMSing on crack."

"She's been that way at home, as well," Ame concurred. "Very bi-polar. She's very calm and under control when she's with Adam, but otherwise we're getting all sorts of mixed signals. It's a good thing Kent is still out of town. I'm not sure she could keep up a pretense with him at the moment."

"Any idea when he's due home?" Ame, Turq and Opal exchanged glances, starting when Esmeralda forcefully cleared her throat. "Hey! Somebody want to clue me in here?"

"Sorry, Es," Opal apologized. "We've just gotten used to...." Esmeralda held up her hand.

"I know, and that's my fault. I know I haven't been around as much as I should."

"No... it's not...."

"Enough," Esmeralda cut her off tiredly. "We can argue fault later. Now tell me."

"He's supposed to be in at the end of the week, but he hasn't been in touch with Charisma yet to let her know for sure when he'll be home," Ame started.

"And...?" Esmeralda prompted.

"And he's got more than theatre interests in the City," Turq replied. "When I was driving him to the airport, I overheard him making plans to meet up with someone. It sounded pretty serious."

Esmeralda pinched her bridge of her nose. "And you didn't think I needed to know about this?" She shook her head and blew out a breath. "Sorry… that was uncalled for."

"Actually, we didn't start putting it together until this week," Opal said, taking charge again. "We don't have anyone keeping an eye on him. It's not like he's been much of a player in this whole drama."

"And he is now?"

The three looked at one another again and Ame and Turq gave Opal a brief nod. "As I said, we've only just started putting pieces together. But we don't think he will ever be much of a player as far as Charisma is concerned."

Esmeralda cast her glance around the table, noting the attitudes of attentive listening among all the women gathered there. Even those who'd just joined her team seemed to be fully invested in what was going on. She nodded in satisfaction and turned her attention back to Opal.

"Is there any fact to back up your thinking or is it just a gut feeling at this point?"

"A little of both, actually. We know he's never been much of a factor in Charisma's life. She married him because she wanted a baby and she needed a husband. They were compatible and he was willing."

"And you don't think he's willing anymore?"

"If I was to hazard a guess?" waiting for Esmeralda's nod. "I'd say he still cares for her very much - she is the mother of his son, after all. And in fairness, she was completely up front with him about her career coming first before they married."


"But I think he may have found someone willing to put him first instead."

"I have a question," Ruby spoke quietly, causing all eyes to turn her way. Esmeralda gestured for her to proceed and Ruby cleared her throat. "Has anyone considered that Charisma may be as much of a beard for Kent as Kent is for her?"

Everyone stared at her and Ruby felt compelled to continue. "I just think it's something that needs to be considered. After all, we know one thing that appealed to Kent about Charisma was the fact that he knew his mother would approve of her as a suitable wife. The fact that Charisma desperately wanted a child made her even more attractive, because he knew he would be able to give his mother at least one grandchild. The fact that he and Charisma liked one another was a bonus and since she was attractive, he was willing to give it a go."

"You don't think he loves her?"

"I didn't say that. Given what we saw of their courtship, I believe Opal's right - he cares for her very much."


"But I don't know if there is more than caring involved. And to be completely honest, we don't know that much about Kent. At least," motioning to her compatriots, "*we* don't. Our briefings before we arrived centered on Charisma and Brianna."

"Ours as well," Ame concurred, crumbling a bit of toast onto her plate. "Kent was seen as something of a bit player to the real drama that was playing out between our two protagonists."

Esmeralda picked up her coffee cup and took another sip, letting her focus go to the window where the sun was just starting to peek over the horizon. She lifted the cup to her lips again and sighed once she'd swallowed. "It would be really nice if we didn't have to dig for answers. All right, Mal - I need you to go shadow Kent. Ame should be able to get you the information you need to find him in the City. I just need to know if he has interests there other than the theatre."

"You got it, Es."

"Thanks, Mal. Now, what about the rest of you? How are things going? What's going on with Brianna?"

They looked at one another and Ruby gestured for Indi to start. "She's been very tame... very sedate - at least with me. She comes in early and we tackle whatever's on the agenda for the day. She's learning her job quickly and is already gaining allies. She's making a real effort to do the job she's been appointed to."

"That's it?"

"For me," Indi said. "She's been sending me home at what she calls a 'reasonable hour', so Coral's been pulling some long shifts."

Esmeralda nodded. "I know. I talked to both her and Amber yesterday." She turned to Jasper. "What about you, Jas?"

"There's not much to tell, Es. She's only just started using me with any regularity. I pick her up in the morning and take her to the Senate building. I pick her up again in the late afternoon when she sends Indi home and take her back to her apartment for an hour or so and then take her back to the office for a few hours in the evenings. She hasn't said much."

"Have either of you observed anything unusual in her behavior?" watching them exchange puzzled glances, then shake their heads at her.

"To be honest, I'm not sure what unusual behavior would be for her. But she hasn't gone ballistic; she's not having a come apart. It all seems pretty normal."

"Does she spend any time brooding?"

They cocked their heads at her, then traded looks before turning back to Esmeralda. "Um... no?"

Esmeralda chuckled. "Are you asking me or telling me?"

"A little of both maybe?" Indi replied. "She hasn't done anything that we would consider brooding, but we're still learning her quirks. I do know that whatever happened with you and Saphira Friday night changed her behavior somewhat - I mean... that's when she started this new schedule."

"It's like she's thrown her focus into her professional life."

Esmeralda pinched her bottom lip between her fingers in thought. "Have you noticed her studying any of the photographs in her office?" fixing her gaze on Indi. Indi just shook her head.

"Not at all. As I said, she's been very focused... very professional."

Esmeralda nodded her head and took her last swallow of coffee, grimacing at the lukewarm beverage. Ruby held up the pot in silent question, but Esmeralda shook her head. Without missing a beat, Ruby poured her a glass of cold milk. Esmeralda rolled her eyes, but dutifully picked up the glass and took a big swallow. "Thanks, Ruby. What about you?"

"What about me, Es? I'm just here to give Saphira a break and keep an eye on the rest of you." She arched a brow. "Someone has to make sure you girls eat right and get some rest."

"Den mother, huh?"

"You bet your sweet bippy, sweetheart." Ruby pushed the hair out of Esmeralda's face. "You worry about taking care of the assignment. I'll look after the lot of you."

Esmeralda covered the hand that cupped her cheek. "Thanks, Ruby," her smile tired but sincere.

"And on that note," Ruby said, looking at her watch, "we've got to get our day started and you need to go back to bed before Saphira bodily picks you up and carries you to the bedroom." She nodded her head towards the doorway where Saphira had been standing during the entire meeting, arms crossed over her chest. "We'll keep you in the loop, especially if anything changes."

Esmeralda nodded and rose, finishing her milk before handing the empty glass back to Ruby. "I appreciate it, Ruby." She turned to Jas. "I need you to have some sort of mechanical trouble today - just enough to give me a chance to speak to Brianna."

"Got it covered, boss."

"And you'll let me know what's going on with Kent?" to Mal.

"As soon as I have something to report, boss."

Esmeralda nodded. "Good work, ladies. I think we're on track. Once I talk to Brianna, I should have a little clearer picture. But I expect things to start moving pretty quickly."

"Es?" Ame asked, causing everyone to stop moving and Esmeralda and Saphira to turn back from the bedroom doorway they'd just opened. Esmeralda tilted her head in question while Saphira merely cocked her eyebrow. "I was wondering if you had any idea how this was going to turn out... really."

"In what way? I'm not omniscient, Ame - you know that."

"No... I know that. But this situation has the potential to go out of control so easily." She bit her lip. "I don't want Adam to get hurt. He's just a child."

Esmeralda tapped the strong arms that had embraced her when she had moved from the table and Saphira released her hold. Then Esmeralda crossed to stand in front of Ame, cupping her face gently. "He'll be all right, Ame. He still has two parents and three grandparents who love him dearly and who knows - there might be one or two more before this is all said and done."

Ame nodded, but her shoulders slumped. Esmeralda lifted Ame's chin, drawing her face back up until their eyes met. "There aren't any guarantees here, Ame - you know that. We can only give them a second chance and do our best to make sure it comes out right."

"I know. I just... we usually don't come into situations this late. There aren't any kids involved." She leaned forward and brushed a kiss over Esmeralda's forehead. "Go to bed - before your mate loses what's left of her patience with me."

Esmeralda smiled and the rest chuckled, knowing none of them wanted Saphira on the warpath with them in her sights - not given that she'd stood up to Him for Esmeralda. They waved goodbye and left to begin their day.


"So you're the reason Jas called me with car trouble?" Brianna asked when she beckoned Esmeralda into her inner sanctum many hours later. She didn't appear angry... just a little chagrined. Esmeralda nodded her head sheepishly.

"I asked her to. I wanted to check on you."

"I'm all right," Brianna assured Esmeralda. "I've just been... I've been trying to figure things out. I need to do something. I just need to figure out what that something is."

"And you need to do that on your own," Esmeralda stated.

Brianna shrugged. "I don't know. I really... it seems like I should, you know? I mean, this is my life... our lives. Seems like we should be the ones...."

Esmeralda smiled as she moved around the room, dusting as she moved. "I understand, Brianna. I really do. But I know sometimes you just need an impartial ear and if you find you need someone to talk to, you know where to find me."

"How do you do that?" Brianna asked after a few minutes of silence as she watched Esmeralda dust around the room then return to her cart for a spray bottle and clean cloth to start a second round of cleaning. Esmeralda turned back and looked at Brianna with a confused frown.

"Excuse me?" glancing at her cleaning tools.

Brianna chuckled. "No... sorry. I understand the cleaning thing, even if I'm not nearly as thorough as you are," grinning at the unexpected blush that chased up Esmeralda's fair skin. Then she sobered. "No," she said, her voice dropping. "How do you know just what to say? I mean, it's true - I have been busy this week trying to settle in and learn this job as quickly as I can. But I've also been avoiding you because I didn't know what to say after what happened at the diner the other night," hanging her head down so her hair hid her face.

Esmeralda looked at the stuff in her hands and sighed, then she put it down and crossed to Brianna's desk and extended a hand to her. When she realized Brianna couldn't actually see her hand, she touched Brianna's hand, gratified when warmth closed around hers immediately.

"Come sit with me a minute." Brianna rose without argument and followed Esmeralda to the couch, taking a seat at one end and releasing her hold on the hand she held to let Esmeralda sit down on the other. "Brianna," waiting for green eyes to track to hers. "Do you remember what I told you just last week - your first day in this office? About being a student of human nature?"

"Of course, Es. You proved it pretty spectacularly."

Esmeralda chuckled. "I've had a lot of practice at trying to say the right thing as well. I don't always get it right, but I keep trying. But in your case... well, I've been there, done that."

"How so?"

"When it looked like Saphira might be lost to me, it was... oh heavens... it was so many horrible things wrapped up into this tight little ball of misery that sat in the pit of my stomach and made it hard for me to breathe, much less anything else. And the worst part was everyone who knew us knew what was happening, even if they couldn't begin to know what I was going through. So I know what it feels to be embarrassed and humiliated and confused and angry and any other number of emotions that you've probably run the gamut on as well. Helps give me a little more insight to your situation."

"What did you do?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "Nothing you want to try, Brianna. I fell deathly ill. Saphira was the one who did all the doing."

"And what did she do?"

"She stood up and demanded something different."

"I'm not sure I understand," Brianna admitted. "Would that apply here?"

"I don't think so. What does your gut tell you?"

"That I would like to hear your story. And then I would like to discuss ideas with you."

"I can do that, but I need to finish the rest of the floor first. That will give us whatever time we need."

Brianna waved her off. "Go do what you need to do. I will be here when you get done."

Esmeralda nodded and put things away. Then she edged her cart out the door. "I'll be back shortly," she promised.

"I'll be here," Brianna answered as she watched Esmeralda leave, then rose and went back to her desk, focusing on her work once more. Suddenly, she felt better.

Chapter XXII

"Wow, that's amazing," Brianna said quietly when Esmeralda finished relaying the story she had also shared with Charisma. "She really stood up for you... gave up everything??" Esmeralda nodded solemnly.

"She did. She actually gave up more than I did. She literally gave up everything - her home, her title and wealth, her occupation... everything. I kept my job and actually ended up with a promotion of sorts."

Brianna's lips twisted wryly. "Yeah... those 'of sorts' things can get you into real trouble - usually more work and responsibility for less money. But Es, from what you said she didn't give up her home. She fought for that."

Esmeralda tilted her head in confusion. "I'm not sure I understand what you mean, Brianna. I know the home she had before... the home we shared. We don't live there anymore."

This time Brianna smiled. "Oh Es... that was just a house. The home she shares is with you, and she refused to give that up." Esmeralda covered her lips but couldn't contain the gasp that escaped. Brianna patted her free hand. "See, I got the important parts."

"Even better than I did, apparently," Esmeralda replied self-deprecatingly. "Sometimes I am such an idiot."

Brianna snorted. "Sometimes we all are, my friend. Otherwise, the world would be a much nicer place to live, and I wouldn't be sitting here trying to figure out what to do about the woman I have been in love with for more than half my life."

"What would you like to do?"

"Kiss her senseless??" Brianna replied immediately, then promptly blushed. "I mean...."

Esmeralda smiled. "Oh, I think you meant exactly that, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm just not sure it's the right thing to do in this case at the moment." She paused. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure," Brianna said good-naturedly. "It's not like I have to answer, and it's not like I couldn't use some help here if you've got any ideas. Go for it."

"You're considered out, aren't you? People know your orientation?"

Brianna frowned. "Pretty much, yes. I mean... I didn't announce it over a PA system like Ellen did, and I don't introduce myself as Brianna Walker, lesbian, but it's pretty common knowledge as far as I know. I haven't used a man as an escort since my first year out of college and I have been seen with women publicly - both for professional reasons and in my personal life." She hesitated, then continued. "I'm no blushing virgin, if that's what you're asking."

Esmeralda's brows went into her hairline. "Um, no... that wasn't what I was asking, but thanks for sharing," grinning when Brianna stuck out her tongue. "No... I was asking because - would you go into the closet? Would you hide your relationship to be with Charisma?"

Brianna held green eyes that matched her own for a long moment, then shook her head. "I don't think I could," she said honestly. "I don't think I could be someone I'm not to be with anyone." She shrugged. "If I can't be honest and be who I am with the person who is supposed to love me unconditionally, what kind of foundation are we going to have together? So no. Besides," she added, clasped her hands together in her lap. "Charisma is married and that makes her off-limits to me. I'm not a home wrecker... ever."

"All right - I can appreciate the sentiment. I actually agree with you... about all of it. And as bad as I hate to say it, and as much as you don't want to hear it, I think your very best option at the moment is to become friends with Charisma again. She'll fight it and she'll resist you, but she needs you. She needs your friendship. Nothing has been quite right for her since you left, and she knows that in her heart of hearts whether she admits it anywhere else or not. It's gonna be an uphill battle though."

"Of course it is," Brianna grumbled.

Esmeralda studied her speculatively for a long moment. "If I gave you an opportunity to get your foot in the door, would you take it?"

"What are you talking about?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "Uh uh... blind faith. If I can arrange it so she gets to see the friend she loves and remembers, will you take the chance?"

"Of course, Es. I'd do anything - short of breaking the law or breaking up her marriage. As much as I love her... have always loved her... I miss her friendship in my life. There were a lot of times in the past twenty years when I wished for her advice and counsel."

"All right," Esmeralda nodded. "You just keep doing what you've been doing - be polite and kind and friendly. I'll do what I can on my end."

"How will I know?"

"You just will," Esmeralda promised. "It'll feel right."

Brianna looked at her askance, but slowly nodded her agreement. "All right... If you say so."

"I say so."

Brianna snickered. "You sound like my grandmother." She chanced a look at the clock. "Holy crap! Saphira is going to kill me for keeping you here so late. She's gotta be worried. C'mon," she encouraged, holding out her hand and tugging them both to their feet. "We need to get you to the diner before she sets the entire DC police force out after me."

Esmeralda giggled and lightly squeezed the hand she held. "It's all right, Brianna. I called her before I came back in here. She's already headed for home. I'll just go straight there tonight."

Brianna looked her over shrewdly. "And you'll let me drive you home, right? I don't feel right about you being out by yourself at this time of night."

"I have a guardian angel," Esmeralda stated without compunction knowing Coral was waiting out of sight not too far away. "But if it'll make you feel better, I'll be happy to," she added with a smile before Brianna could protest.

"Good," Brianna muttered. "Glad we got that settled," going around behind her desk. "Give me a minute to call Jasper and we can head out."

"I still have to put my cart away. Would you like me to meet you somewhere or...?"

"I'll walk with you; then you can walk with me."

Esmeralda nodded. "That sounds good," waiting as Brianna made her call and shut down her office for the night. Then they headed out together.

Brianna looked around in wonder, never having seen that part of the Senate Building. It was positively plain, though it was also spotlessly clean. "So different," she murmured. Esmeralda smiled at her words.

"Isn't that the way things are in life as well?" not specifying what she meant, but Brianna nodded anyway.

"I suppose it is," she agreed softly. "Now c'mon... let's get you home."


"So are you any closer to understanding?" Saphira asked when she closed the door behind Esmeralda. Brianna had been as good as her word and dropped Esmeralda off at home, waiting until she was inside and had turned and waved before instructing Jasper to take her home. Esmeralda blew out a breath and leaned against the closed door with her eyes closed for a moment. Saphira tenderly cupped Esmeralda's cheek and leaned down until only Esmeralda would hear her bare whisper. "Sweetheart?"

Green eyes blinked open and Esmeralda gave Saphira a wan smile even as she covered the hand on her face. "I understand that I'm an idiot," causing Saphira to frown. She giggled tiredly. "However... that's neither here nor there at the moment as it had nothing to do with this assignment. I do have an idea that may help jumpstart things for them. Have we heard anything from Mal?"

"No," Saphira supplied, leaning forward and kissing Esmeralda briefly, surprised when Esmeralda held on and deepened it for several minutes. Despite their interlude only a few days previous - their first since Esmeralda had started on the long road to recovery - things were still not very physical between them. Esmeralda still tended to exhaustion most days and Saphira refused to push. She was able to hold Esmeralda in her arms every night, and that was a blessing beyond price.

Still, she rarely considered herself to be stupid and when Esmeralda offered as she was doing now, Saphira simply wrapped Esmeralda in strong arms and held on for dear life.

Slowly, Esmeralda pulled back from Saphira until she could look into the blue eyes she treasured so much. Esmeralda reached up a hand to cup Saphira's face, smiling when Saphira leaned into her touch.

"I love you," Esmeralda said gently. "So much."

Saphira left her hands on Esmeralda's waist and turned her face until she could brush Esmeralda's palm with her lips.

"And I love you, Esmeralda."

"I know, Saphira. I know by your words and your actions and the look in your eyes. I just don't want you to ever wonder about how I feel about you."

Saphira smiled. "I've never doubted you, Esmeralda." She let her smile become a leer. "But anytime you'd like to remind me like that," licking her lips, "please feel free." Esmeralda chuckled and threw herself into Saphira's arms. Saphira caught her and held on, rocking them back and forth. "You wanna tell me what brought this on?"

"Brianna. We had an interesting talk tonight. And she reminded me that I have everything I need in my life - I have you."

"I hope you never have cause to doubt that," Saphira said quietly. "I hope I never give you a reason to."

"You won't," Esmeralda affirmed. "Not after everything we've been through." She slid out of Saphira's arms and let her feet touch the floor. Then she linked her fingers with Saphira's and tugged her towards the bed. "I want to hold you tonight. Tomorrow I'll tell you what I'm thinking about all this."

"Sounds like a plan."


It was later than they normally got up. Already the day crew was up and gone; Amber and Coral had returned some minutes ago and were in the kitchen preparing something to eat. Still they lay together while Esmeralda told Saphira about her conversation with Brianna the day before.

"Are you sure you want to get involved like that?" Saphira asked when Esmeralda laid out her idea to help facilitate the building of the friendship between Brianna and Charisma. Esmeralda leaned up from her spot on Saphira's chest where she'd been listening to the strong heartbeat beneath her cheek. The disbelieving look on her face spoke volumes and Saphira waved her hands to stop her speech before Esmeralda could make a comment. "You know what I mean."

Esmeralda shook her head. "I'm not sure I do, Phira. We're already involved in this... up to our eyeballs."

"I know, Es, but this is different." She paused. "Isn't it?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "No, Sweetheart. We're just expanding our horizons by...." Whatever her thought was going to be, it remained incomplete as there was a rapid knock on the door mere seconds before it opened and Amber stuck her head in, eyes firmly closed.

"You need to come quick, Es. Opal's on the phone. I think there's trouble in paradise again."

Esmeralda sat up and reached for her robe, slipping into it before she stood and tying it as she made her way towards the door with Saphira right behind her. Esmeralda nodded at Coral who put the phone on speaker so they could all hear Opal's conversation.

"Opal? What's up?"

"I'm not sure Es," Opal practically whispered into the phone. "Charisma had me call Brianna in for a meeting."

Four sets of eyes around the table widened comically and they exchanged flabbergasted expressions before Esmeralda cleared her throat. "Excuse me?"

Opal sighed. "You heard me. Charisma had me call Indi and set up a meeting between them. She should be here in.... Hello Senator Walker. Thank you for your rapid response. Allow me to announce you to Senator Tagherty." Through the connection, they heard Opal knock on the door and inform her of Brianna's presence, then Opal ushered Brianna into the inner sanctum before she resumed her seat and picked the receiver up once more.

"I suppose you heard all of that?"

"Yes," Esmeralda replied decisively. "What brought this on?"

"I don't know, boss. We didn't get much more warning than what I gave you."

Esmeralda blew out a breath. "All right. Keep your eyes and ears open and call me back once Brianna's gone back to her office. I'm gonna give Indi a call."

"Will do, boss."

"Thanks Opal. Good work."

Amber put a cup of coffee in front of Esmeralda even as Coral hung up the phone, then turned around and dialed Indi. It didn't ring twice before Indi picked up. "Senator Brianna Walker's office. This is Indigo - how may I help you?"

"Indi, it's Es," Esmeralda said without preamble. "What happened?"

They could almost hear Indi's shrug through the phone. "I dunno, Es. Opal called; I put her through to Brianna. Next thing I knew she was out the door and down the hall."

Esmeralda pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. "How did she seem?"

"Determined, if I had to put a name to it. She didn't hesitate and she was pretty focused when she walked out of here."

Esmeralda sighed. "All right. Let me know what happens when she gets back, will ya?"

"You betcha, boss. Anything else?"

"No, Indi. Thanks." Esmeralda nodded at Coral who thumbed the phone off and hung it up. Esmeralda leaned back when Amber put a plate of food down in front of her. There was the sound of chairs scraping against the floor and silverware tinkling against plates, but otherwise it was quiet in the kitchen as they allowed Esmeralda to process what she'd just heard.

After a while, she pushed back from her place and leaned back in her chair. Three sets of eyes turned her way and she sighed.

"Now what?" Amber asked before Esmeralda could speak. Saphira reached out a hand and smacked the back of her head. Amber clapped a hand on her head and turned to glare at Saphira. "What'd you do that for??" Saphira just gave her a look.

"All right you two... enough," Esmeralda said without a hint of a smile, though Coral was having problems keeping a straight face. "Now we wait. Who knows... maybe they'll solve this without us now."

"But you don't think so," Saphira stated without question. Esmeralda shook her head.

"No. It's never that easy."

"Okay, so now what?" Amber asked again. "And no smacking," she added with a glare in Saphira's direction. "It's a legitimate question."

"Yes, it is. But for right now... we do nothing. We can't do anything until we know what they're doing."

"Any thoughts about that?" Coral asked.

"I have all kinds of thoughts," Esmeralda replied dryly. "But I'd like to wait and see what we hear from Opal and Indi. I have a feeling this is Charisma's attempt to take control of things before they get completely away from her. I doubt Brianna is gonna let that happen."

"Well, you did say things were going to get more interesting."

"Lucky me," Esmeralda answered drolly, drawing laughs from around the table. She stood up and Saphira followed, picking up their plates and moving them to the sink... only to be pushed out of the way by Coral and Amber.

"We've got this," they proclaimed. "You two go... do something else. We'll let you know when Opal and Indi call back. They you can figure out what to do with it."

"Thanks, guys," Saphira said with a nod. The she held her hand out to Esmeralda who took it without hesitation. Then they went back into the bedroom and closed the door behind them. Coral and Amber watched them go, then shook their heads and got back to work.

Chapter XXIII

Charisma looked up from the legal brief on her desk when Opal knocked on the door. She pulled her reading glasses off and folded the arms together, placing them on the desk and motioning Opal in. Opal stepped into the room just past the threshold and announced Brianna's arrival in the office. Charisma nodded her acceptance and simply said, "Show her in."

Opal crossed back into the outer office and gestured Brianna forward. When Brianna reached the door, Opal announced her. "Senator Brianna Walker."

"Thank you, Opal," Charisma acknowledged with a smile, then she looked at Brianna. "Can she bring you anything...?"

"No thank you."

Charisma nodded and Opal took the dismissal for what it was, closing the door behind her and returning to her desk to resume her conversation with Esmeralda. Meanwhile, inside the office, Charisma motioned Brianna to a seat. Instead, Brianna stood behind one of the guest chairs facing Charisma and braced her hands on the top.

"Why am I here, Charisma?"

Charisma held Brianna's gaze, searching the green eyes she'd once known as well as those she saw in the mirror every morning. Brianna didn't flinch or look away and eventually, Charisma sighed and looked down at her desk for a moment, leaning her arms on it and folding her hands in front of her before bringing her eyes back up to meet Brianna's.

"Brianna, would you please have a seat?"

Brianna held her gaze another full minute, then relented and took the seat she had been hovering behind. "Now will you tell me why you summoned me, Charisma?"

Charisma's eyes widened. "I didn't summon you. I simply asked for a few minutes of your time at your earliest convenience."

Brianna barely contained the urge to roll her eyes. "Semantics, Charisma," then held up her hand before Charisma could protest. "It doesn't matter. What can I do for you?"

Charisma picked up her glasses and leaned back, crossing her legs and bringing the arms of her glasses to her lips. "I thought perhaps we could clear the air... set some ground rules," watching Brianna's brows fly into her hairline and her eyes darken to a stormy gray color. "I mean," she stumbled on hastily, "since we'll be working together and all."

Brianna settled back herself, crossing her legs and leaning her elbow on the chair arm so she could prop her head on her fingertips. "Can I ask why?"

Charisma frowned. "I don't understand - why what?"

"Why this? Why now? It's not like we've really had occasion to interact with one another so far, so why start worrying about it now?"

Charisma sighed. "Because at some point in the near future, we *will* have to interact with each other, and I'd like us to be on the same page when it happens to save us both from being embarrassed or worse."

"And I'd like for us to be friends again, but I doubt there's any likelihood of that happening in my lifetime, despite...." trailing off when she saw the anger cloud Charisma's blue eyes.

"Despite what, Brianna? And I suggest you tread lightly, Senator Walker."

Brianna shook her head. "No," she stated. "I'm not treading at all. I'm not getting into this with you here."

Charisma stood and laid her hands on the desk, leaning forward until she almost reached the other side. "You expect me to simply forget the fact that you walked out on me twenty years ago... with no explanation?"

Brianna rose and mirrored Charisma's position until they were nose to nose, practically breathing the same air. "I expect you to remember that you never once tried to find out why I did." She drew in a deep breath and was suddenly assaulted by the scent of Charisma that surrounded her. Instinctively, she closed her eyes and straightened, backing away from the desk and walking towards the door. "You never once considered that I did it for you, did you, Ri?" Brianna smiled sadly at the flummoxed expression on Charisma's face. She waved her hand to stop Charisma's speech before she could open her mouth. "It doesn't matter, Senator," she went on formally. "I will be the consummate professional on any occasion we are forced to work together. If anyone asks, we were college roommates that lost touch, only to be brought back together again by the winds of chance or Fate or God... whatever. Pick one - I don't care."

"Are you serious?"

"As a freaking heart attack," Brianna replied flatly. She reached the door and put her hand on the knob, then turned back to Charisma once more. "I've missed you, Charisma... more than you could possibly understand, but I'm not going to be pushed into anything. However, if you ever decide you want to talk about things, well... you know where to find me."

A frown creased Charisma's face. "That's why I called you down here - so we could talk."

Brianna shook her head. "No - you called me down here so you could ensure that I wouldn't screw up your political career by embarrassing you in some way. I can assure you that I won't and have no intention of doing so. But I don't want or need your lectures on behavior and deportment."

"That's not what...."

"That's *exactly* what you were going to do. You were planning to give me ground rules, remember? That's tantamount to a lecture." Brianna sighed. "Look, I haven't done anything in twenty years to mess you up. I'm certainly not going to start now."

Without another word, Brianna opened the door and crossed back into the outer office before shutting the door soundlessly behind her once more. Charisma simply watched her go, unable to think of a way to make her stay without causing some sort of scene. And since that had been the entire point of meeting with Brianna in the first place, she decided that discretion was definitely the better part of valor in this case.

Opal observed the shakiness of Brianna's limbs as she paused outside the closed door, but did nothing to bring attention to it. Instead she returned the courtesy when Brianna nodded her goodbye, wondering how long it would be before Charisma came storming out of her office.

Meanwhile, Indi followed Brianna into her inner sanctum, hoping she could find out *something* to report to Esmeralda. What she got was a request for a tea tray and some notes on the bill Brianna was currently studying.

When she'd retrieved the things Brianna had asked for, Indi made as if to leave Brianna's office, intent on calling Opal to see if they could conference call with Esmeralda. A question from Brianna immediately waylaid that idea.

"Indi, do you know the custodian Esmeralda?" Brilliant blue eyes widened, but otherwise she gave no indication of what she thought of the query. She blinked once and nodded, wondering where this had come from and better yet - where it was going.

"Um, yeah... sure. Senator Whitman was very fond of her. He always stayed a few minutes to talk to her when he could, so I've known her for a while now, I guess. Why?"

Brianna shrugged. "I think she's far more than she seems."

Indi smiled. "Aren't we all, Senator? I mean, none of us really reveals all of who we are to anyone."

"That's true," Brianna nodded in agreement. "But with her I feel like... I don't know exactly - I feel like I'm missing something important."

Indi tilted her head in question. "Do you like her, Senator? Do you trust her?"

Brianna chuckled. "That's the funny thing - I really do. My gut tells me she's good people... she and Saphira both. And I learned a long time ago to trust my gut."


"But she seems too good to be true. Too real... too genuine."

"If you trust her... trust your gut... shouldn't that be enough?"

"I don't know - should it? What are your impressions?"

Indi took a deep breath. She was treading a very thin line. "Senator, I can only tell you what I know from what I've learned in this office," waiting for Brianna to nod before continuing. "Right... in the time I've know Esmeralda, she's proven to be loyal, insightful and able to keep a secret tighter than Fort Knox. Her genuine concern for people could have made her a part of the clergy or the medical field, but she seems happy in what she does as a custodian." Indi scratched the side of her jaw. "Come to think of it, she's a really good custodian."

"And your personal opinion? C'mon, Indi," Brianna coaxed when Indigo hesitated. "I know you've got to have one."

"I am glad that she is willing to call me friend," Indigo confessed. "I'd like to be like her when I grow up."

Brianna's eyebrows went into her hairline. "May I ask why? Indigo, you're the epitome of a successful woman - beautiful, brilliant... a college honor grad with a successful career."

"And you don't think Es is because she didn't go to college or because she's a janitor?"

"I didn't say that," Brianna replied defensively. "In fact, it was Es that pointed out to me that most people don't consider her to be successful for those very reasons."

"And those that dismiss her miss out on so much - *that* is why I'd like to be her." She paused. "Is there anything else, Senator?"

Brianna gazed at Indigo for another moment before nodding her head. "Thanks, Indi," dismissing her before turning back to the work she'd been engrossed in before Charisma's phone call. Indi nodded and went back to her desk.

Things were finally starting to move - she needed to get ahold of Esmeralda soon. But first she was going to call Opal. They might as well be on the same page before they brought Esmeralda into it.


Opal sat quietly taking care of her work and directing the work of the other aides while Charisma remained conspicuously silent behind closed doors. She wondered at the lack of reaction, but like the others in the office, she was just counting her blessings.

For a little while, they just went about their business quietly, so the phone ringing caused everyone to jump slightly. Opal glared at it briefly before lifting the receiver to her ear. "Senator Tagherty's office. This is Opal - how may I help you?"

"Op... it's Indi," her voice quiet across the wire.

"Hey, Indi... what's up?" equally cautiously.

"What's happening on your end?"

Opal glanced at the still closed door. "Nothing."

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing, Indi. Not one thing."

"I don't understand." Opal rolled her eyes.

"What do you not understand, Indi? Nothing is happening here. Brianna left and closed the door behind her and we haven't heard anything from Charisma yet. She hasn't even asked for coffee yet. Why? What's happening on your side?"

Opal couldn't see it, but she heard Indi shake her head. "It was weird. Brianna kept me in her office for a few minutes; we had a very cryptic conversation about Es and then she shooed me out to go back to work."


"And? That's it."

Opal pulled the phone from her ear and looked at it strangely for a long moment, glad that the rest were too involved in their own work to pay attention to her conversation. Then she tucked the phone back between her face and her shoulder and turned back to her computer.

"All right, Indi. I want you to start this dialogue over; step-by-step and don't leave out any of the details. Then we can decide what to do next."


"Es, this is Opal and I've got Indi conferenced in. Have you got a few minutes?"

"Talk to me, ladies. What's going on?"

First Opal told her side and then Indi shared hers. Then for several long moments they sat silently while Esmeralda considered their words. Finally, though....

"Es? You still there?" Opal asked since no sound could be heard from Esmeralda's side of the phone.

"She's here," Saphira answered.

"Is everything okay, Saphira?"

"I think so. Es is kind of in her own zone at the moment. Not sure I want to mess with that. Do you want me to have her call you back when she comes out of it?"

"No," Esmeralda said. "I'm good." She sighed. "All right. Thank you both. Keep your eyes and ears open, but I doubt you're gonna have anything to worry about for the rest of the day at least. If I'm wrong, though, feel free to let me know," her voice dry and droll.

Opal and Indi chuckled. "No thanks, boss. We're going with the 'Es is always right' theory on this one," Opal stated. "I can't speak for Indi, but we're enjoying the peace in Charisma's office."

Saphira snorted; Esmeralda just shook her head. "All right. You two get back to work. I'll be in at my normal time tonight."

"Nothing special planned tonight Es?"

"No. They're talking to one another... sorta. I can't mess with anything if they're making an effort."

"Even if their efforts suck?"

"At least it's an effort," Saphira commented wryly.

"At least it's a start," Esmeralda corrected. "As long as they're talking...."

"And if they stop?"

"I have an idea how to move things forward. But if I don't have to, I won't. All right, guys. Back to work. Thanks."

"Later, Es." Then Esmeralda and Saphira were left with nothing but a dial tone.

Esmeralda covered her face with her hands and she leaned into Saphira's body when strong arms wrapped around her middle. Saphira didn't speak - she simply rocked them gently together, humming an old lullaby she knew was a favorite of Esmeralda's.

When Esmeralda dropped her hands from her face, she turned in Saphira's arms and twined her hands into the dark hair. "Thank you."

Saphira smiled and hugged Esmeralda to her for a long moment. "C'mon," she invited. "Let's go enjoy the sun for a little while before we head for work."

Esmeralda pulled Saphira's lips down to meet her own briefly. "I'd like that, love. I'd like that a lot."

They were out the door in record time and Esmeralda locked her arm with Saphira as they walked against the wind. She took a deep breath. "This is nice," after a long stretch of silence.

"Yeah, it really is." She paused. "You all right?"

Esmeralda smiled. "I am. I will be interested to hear their points of view if they decide to share though. I'd like to know what was said in that office and I'll admit to being a little curious what Brianna was thinking about when she talked to Indi."

Saphira snorted. "I'd like to know that myself."

"Well, I promise if I find out, so will you."

"Sounds good. In the meantime...."

"In the meantime, we've got to get to work. Who knows what adventures await us today."

Saphira just shook her head, and guided them to the nearest metro stop.

Chapter XXIV

Saphira noticed Mal first and she squeezed Esmeralda's hand lightly to get her attention before jerking her head in Mal's direction. With a nod, they edged towards the nearest coffee shop and Mal followed them inside. She gestured towards the sitting area and Saphira led Esmeralda towards it. Esmeralda rolled her eyes good-naturedly at the pampering, but allowed Saphira to seat her comfortably before she stepped up beside Mal to help carry their coffee back to Esmeralda. Esmeralda accepted hers gratefully and turned to Mal expectantly. "What news?"

"Sorry it took so long. This is the first chance I've had to get here."

"Easier than just calling?"

"Coming here via the heavenly express takes about as much time as making a phone call and I knew I could catch you in person at this time of day."

"So what's up?"

"Well, first you need to know Kent's going to be gone for a little while longer. He has actually been legitimately busy with his theatre gig. He's at the theatre as we speak - the show is already in dress rehearsals, and he's signed for at least three months."

"Does Charisma know?"

Mal shrugged. "I don't know. He hasn't called her since I've been with him." Saphira and Esmeralda exchanged glances and Mal simply watched them communicate silently for a long moment before they turned back to her simultaneously. Her eyes widened. "What?"

"What else?" Esmeralda asked. "If that was all you knew, you'd have just called and left a message with someone, knowing I'd get it fairly quickly."

Mal smiled crookedly. "Some days you're just too smart for your own good," shaking her head and taking a sip of her coffee. "You're right - there's more... I'm just not sure how much more." She sighed and took another swallow of coffee, aware that the impatience in Saphira's expression was the antithesis to the serenity Esmeralda wore.

"Well?" Saphira prompted, only to clamp her lips together when Esmeralda laid a comforting hand on her arm. "Sorry," Saphira mumbled after taking a deep breath. "I'm just...."

Mal smiled and patted her other arm. "Trust me, Saphira. We've all been where you are and felt like you've felt. No one wants this settled soon more than we do - even those of us who haven't been on this assignment as long as you and Es have." She turned back to Esmeralda. "I'm still working on what the more is. I think he's invested in some sort of fledgling business... at least he seems to be spending most of his free time away from the theatre there. I'm still trying to ascertain if he's interested in the business itself or someone in particular there."

"What's the business?"

"It's a bar/restaurant."

"Like a sports bar combo?"

Mal shook her head. "No. It's more upscale. They're completely separate yet part of the same building."


"I don't think I've got enough evidence to support anything at this point... not even impressions. Give me another day or two and I'll get back to you with something more concrete."

Esmeralda nodded thoughtfully. "All right, Mal. Good work, thanks."

"You know it, boss. I'll be back as soon as I have something more to report," she added as she rose and emptied her cup before she nodded to them and headed out the door. Esmeralda and Saphira remained where they were, hands still cradling their coffee cups. Finally, Saphira spoke.

"How do you stand this?"

Esmeralda gave her a smile and leaned her head on Saphira's shoulder. "Lots of practice." She patted Saphira's leg with her free hand. "C'mon," she continued after a moment, sitting up straight once more. "We're gonna be late." She slid forward and stood then offered her hand to Saphira.

Saphira accepted the proffered hand and stood, keeping Esmeralda's hand in hers as they exited the shop and headed for the metro once more.


Esmeralda slowly pushed her cart through the hallway, stopping at each office to clean as she made her way towards Charisma's office. Opal had given her an update as soon as she arrived on the floor, ensuring Esmeralda knew Charisma had yet to emerge from her office after Brianna's visit.

She interacted with everyone that she encountered, spending a little time with the people in each office as she went along... like she did every working day. However, the later it got, the fewer people she met - until she was sure she was the only one left on her floor.

Still her training held and she knocked on each door before she entered either outer or inner office. When she reached Brianna's office, she wasn't really surprised to find it empty. Given what Indi had shared with her earlier, she'd have been more surprised to find Brianna waiting for her. She was a little stunned at how much Brianna's sudden doubts hurt.

Esmeralda bit her lip and shook her head. She knew better than to take anything personally - in her job, she couldn't afford to. But it was hard not to in this case. So much of this *was* personal and familiar and it made her heart hurt on a number of levels. She wondered, however briefly, if what she felt now was part of His punishment, but she didn't dwell on it. She couldn't afford to... not now. Later maybe, when this was resolved, she would be able to give the idea more consideration.

She turned her attention back to her work, cleaning methodically and quickly. Only when she reached the rogue's gallery of pictures did Esmeralda slow down and take a good look at the images in the photographs. She didn't even hear the door open and close behind her.

"Do you see any answers, Es?" Brianna asked as she leaned casually against the door. She had to smile - except for the slightest hesitation at the initial sound of her voice, Esmeralda hadn't reacted to her unexpected presence at all... not even a flinch at the vaguely accusing tone.

"It would probably help if I knew what the questions were first, Brianna," Esmeralda replied evenly, continuing to study the pictures for another moment before she looked up to meet green eyes. She shrugged. "I know what I see."

Brianna cocked a brow. "And what is that?"

"I see two women who have lost the ability to communicate with one another... on the most basic level."

Brianna glared. "How do you do that?" slapping her palm against the door before crossing her arms over her chest. "How do you know...?" She held up a hand before Esmeralda could respond. "Who are you, Esmeralda? Who are you... really?"

"No one, Brianna. I am no one."

"Nuh uh. Not buying it."

"I'm not sure what you want me to tell you, Brianna."

"The truth, Es. All I want is the truth," her tone one of frustration tinged with anger, though Esmeralda wasn't sure at whom the anger was directed.

"I haven't lied to you, Brianna. I wouldn't lie... not about something this important."

"See? There you go again! Why is this important? After all, I've lived with this for almost twenty years. So why does it matter to anyone besides me at this point? It hasn't up to now!"

Esmeralda held Brianna's gaze for a long moment before she answered carefully. "I can't really say anything about that... I'm not God, you know. But you know why it matters to me - I would never see anyone suffer what Saphira and I have to be together."

"Why would you think Charisma would even care? She hasn't given me any sign that it makes a difference to her except how her career is concerned. And yet you're certain she does care beyond her career aspirations, aren't you?" She paused. "Who are you really, Es? And how do you know this stuff?"

Esmeralda tilted her head and gave Brianna a tiny smile. "Would you believe I'm an answer to prayer? That I was put here in this time and place for a reason?"

The unexpected reply caused Brianna to start, then freeze as her mind processed Esmeralda's words. Esmeralda stood still and let Brianna think about what she said, waiting for the deep breath and exhalation she knew was coming. When it happened, Esmeralda smiled at the wonder that filled Brianna's eyes.

"You know what?" Brianna finally said after a long moment. "I would actually believe that. I'm a firm believer in karma... that everything happens in its own time and way for a reason." She dropped her eyes and shook her head. "I don't know who you are, Esmeralda or who sent you here, but I guess it really doesn't matter. I truly am glad to have met you."

"I'm glad to have met you too, Brianna."

Brianna pushed off the door. "Do you have a few minutes?"

"For you? Absolutely." Esmeralda paused and waited for Brianna to cross the room and take a seat on the couch before moving over to join her. "What can I do for you?"

"Tell me more about yourself... or about you and Saphira."

Esmeralda frowned. That hadn't been what she'd expected to hear. "What would you like to know?"

"Anything you'd like to share. You know so much about me, and yet I know next to nothing about you. I'd like to change that."

"Level out the playing field a little?"

Brianna shrugged and blushed faintly. "Maybe," she conceded.

Esmeralda looked at her for a moment, then rose from her spot on the couch to resume her work. "I have a better idea," she said as she grabbed the duster and began her next round of cleaning, paying special attention to the pictures Brianna treasured. "Why don't you come to visit Saphira and me this weekend? We have a few hours on Saturday or all of Sunday together, and we'd be glad to have you join us for a meal and some conversation."

Brianna's eyes widened. "I'd like that."

Esmeralda smiled and nodded. "All right." She picked up a pen and carefully wrote the address on a piece of Brianna's letterhead, then passed the folded paper to Brianna. "You let me know when you 're available and I'll make sure Saphira and I are too."

Brianna accepted the missive with a watery smile, touched by Esmeralda's guileless generosity. "Thank you," she nodded. "Could we try for Sunday? I promise not to take up your whole day off."

Esmeralda smiled. "Sounds good. It means we don't have to rush."

Brianna reached a hand over and placed it on Esmeralda's arm, squeezing gently. "Thank you," she said again. Then she chuckled and nudged Esmeralda out from behind her desk before taking her seat and slipping on her reading glasses. "Guess if I'm going to play hooky on Sunday for a little while, I better spend a little extra time here the rest of the week so I don't get behind, huh?"

Esmeralda smirked and moved back towards her cart. "Whatever it takes. Have a good night, Senator Walker," causing Brianna's head to pop up in response and laughing at the glare and finger wag it garnered her. She gave Brianna a grin, laughing at the comical expression she got in return. Then she opened the door and headed out to finish the rest of her day's work.


Charisma checked her watch when the knock sounded on her door, muttering, "Come in," without ever removing her eyes from the documents in front of her. Esmeralda poked her head into the office, not surprised to find Charisma engrossed in some piece of legislation.

"Excuse me, Senator Tagherty. Is it all right if I come in and clean up in here?"

Esmeralda's soft question got Charisma's attention immediately and she raised her eyes from the papers in front of her. "Of course, Es. Please," motioning her further into the room. "I know you've got a job to do here too."

"Yes, but it can wait until you're done if it needs to, Senator," putting emphasis on her title. Charisma smirked wryly and shook her head.

"Not really, Es... and you know that."

Esmeralda grinned. "I know. But your work has to come first."

Charisma shrugged. "Maybe," she granted as she pushed her chair back from the desk and stood. She straightened up the papers she'd been studying and shoved them into her briefcase, then set about shutting down her computer for the night. "But I can take mine home and work on it there. You literally have to keep your work at work, because I'm pretty sure you'd get arrested if you tried to take my office home with you."

"I'm pretty sure that'd give me a hernia," Esmeralda joked, smiling when Charisma chuckled softly. "Besides," she confessed, "I like not being able to take my work home. It means when I leave here, I'm done til I come back and Saphira and I have time to be together."

Charisma tilted her head. "What's that like?"

Esmeralda's eyes widened. "I beg your pardon?"

"Having time together... wanting to have time together." She paused. "It's never been that way with Kent and me. I don't mind spending time with him, but neither of us goes out of our way to make it happen either." She turned and closed the laptop, slipping it into her bag as well, then locking it shut. "He called a little while ago - Kent did," Charisma clarified and waited for Es to nod her understanding. "He got the part he wanted. He'll be staying in the city for the next few months."

"How do you feel about that?" Esmeralda asked when she realized Charisma was waiting for her to comment.

"I'm glad for him," Charisma said instantly. "He really wanted this and I want him to have the things he wants out of life. I'd like him to be happy."

"And it doesn't bother you to be separated?"

Charisma shook her head. She picked up the phone and made a brief call to Turq then turned back to Esmeralda. "No... why would it? It's only a few months and he's only a couple hours away if something comes up here. Our military men and women are separated from their families for much longer and without the access I have." She looked hard at Esmeralda. "You still haven't answered my question."

"I'm sorry, Charisma. What was the question again?"

"What's it like... wanting to have time together?"

"You already know, Charisma. Don't you wish you had more time with Adam?"

"Not the same thing, Es - Adam is my son, not my mate," remembering Esmeralda's discourse. She picked up her briefcase and headed towards the door. By the way," she said casually as she reached the same spot Brianna had earlier in the day, putting a hand on the doorknob and turning partially to give Esmeralda a view of her profile. "I spoke to Brianna today."

"That's a good thing, right?"

Charisma shrugged. "Time will tell." She turned until she could look fully at Esmeralda. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Charisma." Then Esmeralda turned back to her work, not noticing she remained under Charisma's regard for another long moment before the door closed.


"So we're having company Sunday?" Saphira said as she and Esmeralda walked home from the metro station closest to the house they shared.

"Yeah - I hope the rest won't mind disappearing for a while."

"Well, except for Amber and Coral, it shouldn't be a problem. And they'll both be asleep upstairs. We'll manage."

"We always do." Esmeralda smiled as she spoke.

"What about Charisma?"

"I don't know, Phira. She's harder to read than Brianna is. She's been hiding a lot longer... from herself as well as everyone else."

"And when she finds out Kent has been hiding from her?"

"I don't know," Esmeralda repeated. "She won't make a scene, but she may use it to push him further out of her sphere. I think it'll depend on what he's been hiding."

"Well, hopefully Mal will find out soon - and before Charisma knows. It'd be nice to be ahead in this situation for a change and be able to make plans accordingly."

Esmeralda chuckled as they mounted the steps to their abode. "It never hurts to hope, I guess," she said quietly as they entered the house, taking care not to waken the other occupants. It wasn't long before they were settled in bed and silence descended once more.

Chapter XXV

Brianna glanced at the clock, eyes widening comically when she realized how late... or how early, depending on your point of view... it actually was. She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes, then tilted her head from one side to the other, sighing in satisfaction when it popped back into place. Brianna dropped her glasses onto the desk and stood, stretching and groaning when her back cracked unexpectedly.

"Well," she said to the silent office. "At least I'll be able to enjoy my Sunday with Es and Saphira without feeling any guilt," she said with a little chuckle. She debated going home, knowing she needed to be back relatively early to attend several committee meetings. But her desire for a hot shower won out over the need for a couple hours sleep on the couch, so she lifted the phone and put in a quick call to Jas. In minutes, she was being whisked to her apartment.

"Feel better, Senator Walker?" Jas asked as Brianna approached her car sometime later with a bounce in her step and a smile on her face.

"Much, Jas. I'm sure I'll regret the lack of sleep later, but at the moment I feel like I could take on the world and win." Jas grinned and nodded at Brianna's enthusiasm, shutting her door carefully and sliding into her place behind the wheel. "Were you up all night waiting on me, Jas?"

"I caught a good nap, Senator."

"Uh huh. I want you to go home after you drop me at the Senate Building and get some rest. I'll call you before I need you to let you know when you come pick me up again."

"But Senator...."

"Jas, don't make me make it an order. I'm not going anywhere today - at least not for a while. Long enough for you to get some decent sleep, all right?"

"You're the boss, ma'am."

Brianna smirked. "And don't you forget it." Then they were arriving back at the Senate Building and Jas opened Brianna's door and waited for her to disappear inside the building before she resumed her spot in the driver's seat and headed the car towards the house. She idly wondered who'd still be home when she arrived and then simply focused on getting there in the still heavy darkness.


"Dammit!" was the muttered curse Brianna heard as she made her way down the hallway towards her office after having enjoyed a full breakfast in the Senate dining room. She sped up her steps, wondering who'd found it necessary to be cursing in the building at daybreak. What she saw caused her heart to hesitate but her steps to speed up.

"Let me help," she offered, seeing Charisma struggle to hold onto her briefcase, unlock the door and juggle a cup of coffee while cradling her still sleeping son to her chest. Before Charisma could even think to protest, Brianna relieved her of her briefcase, coffee cup and keycard, swiping it quickly and pushing the door open so Charisma could enter the office ahead of her.

Charisma nodded her thanks, making her way from the outer office and towards her inner sanctum. Without a word, Brianna swiped the card again, unlocking the second secure door and opening it so Charisma could pass in front of her once more.

Charisma made her way to her couch, laying Adam on it and covering him before she turned to find Brianna's eyes on them. She straightened, but before she could clear her throat to speak, Brianna whispered, "He's beautiful, Ri."

Charisma smiled, then bit her lip to keep the tears from falling unchecked down her cheeks. She turned back to look at Adam still sleeping so peacefully. "He's my pride and joy."

Brianna smiled. "I can see why," causing Charisma to look at her again.

"Oh for... give me that stuff," Charisma demanded curtly, holding out her hands. "I didn't mean for you to stand here holding it like some sort of pack mule."

"It's all right, Ri. It was worth it to see your son. Someday I'd like to meet him." Charisma nodded but didn't answer verbally as she took her things and put them on her desk. "I guess I better go," Brianna added when Charisma turned around again.

Charisma looked hard at Brianna then, noticing the dark circles make-up couldn't hide. "You weren't here all night, were you? You don't want to get into that habit, Brianna. You'll burn out before you get settled in if you push like that."

"It was only one night, Ri. And I don't plan to be around here long enough to burn out. Politics was never my thing - you know that. I appreciate your concern though," she added with a gentle smile as she made her way back towards the door.

"Why did you take the appointment?" Charisma asked quietly, keeping the desk between them. Brianna turned back towards her but didn't move from her spot near the door. "As you said, you've never been interested in politics, and you knew I was here... that we'd be back in one another's lives at least peripherally if you came here. So why did you accept the appointment? You stayed away from me for almost twenty years."

Brianna stood quietly for a long moment, hearing the layers of hurt and anger and confusion in Charisma's voice, though she doubted Charisma was fully aware of them. "Michael asked. Richard really does hope to return to work by election time. So I make the perfect placeholder until Richard is better. When Michael asked he knew I wasn't interested in making a career change. I like what I do, Charisma. And I'm very good at it."

"I know," Charisma said simply, causing Brianna's brows to jump into her hairline. But when she didn't expound on her response, Brianna picked up the thread of conversation.

"Besides," she continued wryly, "when I was offered the job, it was pointed out to me not-so-subtlely that we're both adults and should be able to make this work." She didn't add that it had been Okasa making the statement nor did she share some of the other directives Charisma's mother had given her.

Charisma waited, but Brianna didn't expound further, so she nodded. "Thank you for your help this morning. I probably would've been wearing my coffee if you hadn't come to my rescue."

"I was glad to do it," Brianna assured her warmly. "Though," her smile turning to a contemplative frown. "How come you had Adam with you this morning?"

"His nanny had an emergency and it's a teacher's holiday at his school."

"Everything all right?" Brianna asked with concern at the expression Charisma wore.

"I hope so. Ame's been with us since his birth and she's never missed a day, so it must have been pretty serious. She's supposed to call me later."

Brianna nodded. "I hope everything's okay," she said simply as she turned to go.

"Me too. Thanks, Brianna." Brianna lifted a hand in farewell and left the office without another word. Charisma thoughtfully watched her go before shaking her head to clear it and turning her concentration to her briefcase, ready to start her workday.


"Ow," Ame complained, holding the side of her face as she was guided back to the bed. "What hit me? Saphira's sword?"

"Brianna's car," Esmeralda replied softly. "Though in fairness they probably feel about the same," garnering smiles and snickers from around the room as the rest watched with concerned eyes.

"OW," Ame reiterated. "Why did Brianna's car hit me?" trying to glance around the room in an attempt to look for answers, but finding the effort too much. She closed her eyes and blew out a breath, hoping to quell the roiling she felt in her belly. Ame was pretty sure she didn't want to throw up as badly as her head hurt at the moment.

"It wasn't my fault," Jas whined, drawing everyone's attention. "At least, not ALL my fault," she continued in response to the incredulous looks she was getting. "She walked into my path!"

Esmeralda held up a hand before anyone could make a remark. She and Saphira had been woken out of a sound sleep by the ruckus that had followed the accident and they had stumbled out of the room just as Ame was carried in the door by Indi and Opal.

"Maybe we should call a doctor... or go to the hospital."

"No," Ame groaned. "I just need to lie still. I'll be all right."

"All right, ladies," Esmeralda said, rubbing her hand over her face in an attempt to stimulate wakefulness. She smiled when Ruby put a cup of hot coffee in her other hand. "Thanks, Ruby!"

"C'mon, girls," Ruby invited, ushering most of the women out the door. "We've got to get to work. Es can sort this out without all of us hovering." She turned back to Esmeralda as the room emptied. "I already called and left a message with Charisma, and Opal will give Charisma the message again as soon as she arrives in the office."

"Thank you, Ruby," Esmeralda offered with a tired smile.

Ruby grinned. "It's what I do, honey. Let me know how it goes," jerking her head towards the bedroom where Jas and Ame were currently laying side by side talking in low tones. Esmeralda nodded.

"I will. Have a good day, Ruby."

"You too, Es," Ruby offered, closing the door and leaving the four of them in silence. Esmeralda turned back to the bedroom, passing Saphira as she exited. She cocked a brow in question.

"I may as well start some breakfast. Coral and Amber will be here sooner or later and we may as well eat with them before we go try to get a little more sleep. Go find out what happened."

Esmeralda brushed a kiss over Saphira's neck, then stepped into the bedroom. She gave Jas and Ame a long look. "You two all right?" asked as she sat on a corner of the bed.

Ame didn't move, but Jas nodded. "Yeah. It was an accident - I swear!"

"I'm sure it was," Esmeralda agreed distractedly. "At least on your parts," she added. Jas frowned.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Esmeralda sighed. "This may be my fault."

Finally Ame stirred, opening her good eye. "Es, unless you've suddenly become omniscient, I'm pretty sure this wasn't your fault. This happened because I was careless and Jas is tired."

Esmeralda pinched her bottom lip between her finger and thumb thoughtfully. "Maybe. Why don't you two tell me what happened?"

"And then you'll tell us how you think this could possibly be your fault?" Jas pressed. Esmeralda nodded her agreement. "All right. Well, I was coming home this morning - Brianna was working all night and she sent me home after I took her back to the Senate Building at oh-dark-thirty this morning." Esmeralda motioned for her to continue. "Right, well - I must have gotten distracted for a minute or something... I dunno. I just know that I looked and there was no one there and the next minute, I was running into Ame. I swear, Es - I didn't see her. She wasn't there when I looked."

"All right, Jas - calm down. I believe you." She took a deep breath and turned to Ame. "What about you, Ame? What's your story?"

"Pretty similar," Ame replied softly. "I mean, it's not like I don't normally look around before I walk out the door, you know? I did - I looked and noticed both Turq and Jas had already left for the day. I didn't know Jas hadn't made it home yet. The next thing I knew, I'm seeing stars... both kinds," she added drolly, getting a wry grin from Esmeralda. "I thought all those cartoons were just trying to be funny." She put a hand on her forehead. "Who knew it was the truth?"

"At least they weren't tweeting birds," Jas snarked.

"Thank heaven," Ame replied. "I think that might have pushed me over the edge this morning."

"Are you sure you don't want to go to the doctor? Ame, this could be serious."

"I'll be all right, Es. I just want to lie here and be still for a while. It doesn't hurt as bad if I don't move." Ame closed her good eye. "So spill... why do you think this might be your fault?"

"Because I was hoping to facilitate communication between Charisma and Brianna by bringing Adam into the mix."

Jas frowned. "I'm not sure I follow."

Esmeralda blew out a frustrated breath. "Before yesterday - before Charisma called Brianna into her office for their talk, I'd been weighing my options on how to get them to talk to one another instead of me. My favored solution had been to ask Ame to bring Adam to Charisma's office in the hopes that he could break the ice between them somehow."

"Right - still not following."

Esmeralda spared Jas a glare. "I think the Father may have helped that along this morning. I mean, Charisma won't even think to question Ame's absence once she gets a good look at her face. The bruising and swelling kinda speaks for itself."

"Oh," Jas said slowly, turning to get a good look at the damage Ame's face currently sported. "OH," she repeated, scrubbing her hand over her eyes. "Sorry. I don't think I'm firing on all cylinders."

Ame chuckled, then hissed, cradling her face tenderly. "Jas, we love you, but you're never firing on all cylinders."

Jas stuck out her tongue. Esmeralda just laughed.

"All right, you two. Jas, you need to get some rest. Ame, you should really see a doctor, but barring that," she continued before Ame could protest. "Just be still. Try not to fall asleep though. I'm worried about concussion." Esmeralda rose and moved to the open doorway. "Would either of you like something to eat?"

"Please no," Ame growled, causing Esmeralda to give her yet another concerned glance.

"No thanks," Jas said through a yawn. "Maybe when I get up."

"Okay," Esmeralda agreed with a slow nod. "If you need us. Saphira and I will be here a while longer. Just knock on the door." Then she pulled the door shut and went to find Saphira.


Esmeralda had just finished telling Saphira what she had learned and what she suspected when Amber and Coral burst through the door. Esmeralda looked up in surprise and gave them both a look of reproach and motioned them to a seat at the table even as Saphira put plates down in front of them.

"Please tone it down a little bit, you two. Ame and Jas are resting."

Coral and Amber exchanged startled glances and turned to Esmeralda. "Sorry, Es," Amber apologized for both of them. "We didn't know. But boy... do we have news."

"Of course," Coral added with a frown and a nudge at Amber, "what Charisma told Brianna makes better sense now. Is Ame okay?"

"I hope so," Es answered honestly. "She refuses to see a doctor... says she just needs to lie still and rest. Can you two keep an eye on her for a little while? Saphira and I need to catch a little longer nap when we're done eating, but I'd like someone looking out for her in case it gets more serious."

"Oh yeah... absolutely," they assured Esmeralda with nods. Amber looked up from her plate with a frown. "Do you think it will?"

Esmeralda shrugged. "I hope not," she said, "but I'd rather not take the chance. Now," changing the subject, "what news do you have for me?"

So Coral and Amber told their stories, filling Esmeralda and Saphira in on the office interlude between the two senators with great detail. Esmeralda listened quietly and pushed back her plate before she spoke.

"Thoughts? Impressions?"

"I was impressed," Amber replied after a silent conversation with Coral. "It was actually civil and non-defensive on both sides. I would call it real progress."

"I agree," Coral responded immediately. "Even without knowing the extent of Charisma's anger and confusion at Brianna, it was obvious she was making a real effort to be non-confrontational. I will say it appears Brianna came to a decision about the situation in some way. She seems more settled than she did even a week ago."

"Very good," Esmeralda answered thoughtfully. "Thank you both," she said as she stood. "Now if you'll excuse us," reaching for Saphira's hand, "I think we're going to try to catch a little more sleep."

Amber nodded, exchanging anxious glances with the other two before facing Esmeralda directly. She stood and took Esmeralda into a hug. "We'll take care of things here. Go get some rest."

"Yeah," Coral agreed. "Things are finally starting to move. Better get it while you can."

Esmeralda gave them a smile and tugged Saphira with her into their room. Coral and Amber waited until the door was shut before they turned back to one another.

"Is she relapsing?" Coral asked quietly, her voice tinged with more than a hint of alarm. "She seems...."

"I know," Amber said tightly. "And I hope not. I'm not sure heaven or earth would be ready to face the consequences that Saphira would mete out if anything happened to Es."

Coral shook her head. "At lest we've got progress on the work front. Maybe it really will go swiftly from here so we can all go home soon."

"We can hope," Amber replied as she began moving the dishes to the sink and started running dishwater. Coral brought the rest of the plates, and they cleaned up together in silence. Then by unspoken mutual consent, they went into the tiny living room to sit for a while where they could watch over the rest of the sleeping household.

Chapter XXVI

"What do you mean you don't know where he is?" Opal hissed at Luke. He scowled and crossed his arms over his chest defensively.

"I mean," he returned with a growl, "I don't know where he is. We went to the men's room... he said he needed to use the restroom and I figured I'd better grab the chance to go as well." Luke shrugged. "I guess I took too long. When I came out of the stall, he was gone."

Opal took a deep breath and released it slowly. "All right - start looking... but you're going to be the one to explain it to Senator Tagherty if she asks."

"If I ask what?" Charisma said as she stepped from her office with several papers in her hand. She looked around. "Where's Adam?"

Luke scratched the back of his neck and looked down at the floor. "Well, you see Senator...." watching her eyes go wide in fear and alarm.

"Luke... where is my son?"

"See," Brianna's voice came from the doorway where she stood cradling Adam in her arms. Three heads swiveled in her direction. "I told you your mom was going to notice you'd gone missing." Luke slumped in relief and Opal blew out a nervous breath. Charisma stood stock-still, stunned by the picture of Brianna and Adam framed in the door.

Brianna had Adam on her hip and he had curled himself into her body. His head was tucked under her chin and his arms were wrapped around her neck. Even as Charisma watched, Brianna tried to lower Adam to the ground. Adam, however, was having none of it and tightened his grip.

"Whoa, little man - careful," Brianna instructed with a chuckle. "I still need to breathe." Adam tilted his head up at her and giggled. "Don't you want to go to your mom?" Adam shook his head and giggled again. Charisma cocked an eyebrow and tilted her head.

"What sort of magic have you worked on my son?" Brianna shook her head and shrugged. Charisma turned to Adam. "Son, we have to let Senator Walker go back to work. That means you have to let her go," seeing him shake his head and clutch Brianna tighter. Charisma moved closer to them, even as Brianna knelt and put Adam down on the floor.

"I'll make a deal, big guy. You let me go now and do my work, and if your mom says it's okay, we'll go for ice cream later, okay?"

Adam grinned and nodded, then ran to his mother and wrapped his arms around her leg, looking up at her with bright blue eyes. "Pwease?"

Charisma pushed Adam's dark hair out of his eyes. "We'll see," she promised. "But you have to stay here and not run off like that again, all right? You scared mama."

Adam tilted his head. "Mama okay?"

Charisma smiled. "Mama's fine, son." She turned back to Brianna as she rose to her feet again. "Thank you for bringing my son back to me."

"It was my pleasure," Brianna assured Charisma. She looked at Adam. "It was nice to meet you, Adam."

"Br'anna good," he declared with a smile. Brianna returned his grin and left without another word. Charisma turned back to her office staff.

"Does someone want to tell me what just happened here?"

"Br'anna good," Adam reiterated. Charisma looked down at him and brushed his hair back again.

"She is, huh?" smiling when Adam nodded vigorously. "All right. Adam, you stay here with Luke, okay? Luke, try to keep up with my son this time. Opal, you're with me." Adam went to the couch and Luke went back behind his desk. Opal and Charisma went into Charisma's office and things settled down again.


"So really... what sort of hex did you put on my son?" Charisma's tone was a little accusatory when she and Brianna sat down with their ice cream some time later. Adam had curled up beside Brianna as a matter of course and pulled Charisma down into the chair beside them.

"I'm not sure what you mean, Ri. I haven't done anything. Why do you ask?" trying not to lose her temper at the perceived indictment in Charisma's voice.

"Adam doesn't trust easily, and yet he warmed up to you immediately." She paused and took a bite of ice cream. "How did you end up with him anyway?" narrowing her eyes in question.

Brianna and Adam looked at each other and Brianna chuckled. "We found each other in the hallway, didn't we buddy?" waiting for Adam to nod. She turned her attention back to Charisma. "I was returning from a meeting and met Adam coming out of the men's room. Since I was pretty sure you didn't want him wandering around the building by himself, I figured I'd better bring him back to you."

"And he just came to you?" slight suspicion still in her tone.

Brianna tilted her head, sucking the ice cream from her spoon as she pondered her answer. "Not exactly. I knelt down to speak to him... you know, at his level. He came close enough to look me in the eyes, staring at me for a very long time before he wrapped his arms around my neck." She looked back at Charisma. "Are you saying that isn't normal for him?"

"Not at all. He's not friendly to strangers and it generally takes him a long time to warm up to people. It was three days after he was born before he let his father near him without screaming bloody murder." A beat. "Maybe he's another sucker for green eyes," Charisma muttered under her breath, remembering Adam's similar response to Esmeralda.

"Excuse me?" Brianna said, her green eyes widening, not quite sure she'd heard Charisma correctly. It was the nicest thing Charisma had said to her since they'd said goodbye in Barcelona.

Charisma, on the other hand, seemed to realize she'd stepped beyond some self-imposed line and withdrew immediately. "I'm sorry," she said as she scrambled to stand up and reached for Adam's hand. "That was untoward of me. If you'll excuse us...." she continued awkwardly. "Thank you for the ice cream."


"Mama? NO!" Adam screamed loudly enough to draw the attention of the whole dining room as he pulled away from Charisma and curled up tighter into Brianna. Before Charisma could react, Brianna moved Adam to her lap, wiping away the ice cream on his face.

"It's okay, little man. I'm sure your mama will let you take your ice cream with you and you can come see me again sometime, all right?"

Adam studied Brianna's face carefully, then gently patted her face. "Br'anna good," giving her a smile that Brianna returned wholeheartedly. Adam laughed.

"Good boy. You go with your mama now." He wrapped his arms around Brianna's neck and gave her a sloppy kiss before turning back to Charisma and extending his arms.

"Mama... up!" he commanded with a grin. Charisma hefted him into her arms.

"I'm sorry, Brianna. I can't do this... not even for Adam. Especially for Adam," she added, then she and Adam made their way out of the dining room. Brianna watched them go as tears formed in her eyes, though she refused to let them fall. When Charisma's back disappeared through the door, Brianna returned her attention to her ice cream, determined to finish it quickly and continue on with her schedule. She still had one more meeting to attend before she could call it quits for the day.

"I wouldn't take it personally," one of the other Senators in the room instructed her as he crossed to stand beside her table. "Senator Tagherty is known for her aloofness, so the fact that she spent any time at all with you while she had her son with her is nothing short of amazing." He glanced at the empty chair, then looked at her questioningly. Brianna studied him a moment longer and nodded her head. He took the seat across from her and extended his hand. "Senator Scott Patterson. You're the new Senator... Brianna Walker, right?"

Brianna nodded, shaking his hand briefly before turning back to her ice cream. Patterson nodded his head and sat back to allow the server to pour him a cup of coffee. He prepared it as Brianna continued eating her ice cream. She took her time, wondering what this Senator wanted with her and she figured that patience on her part would garner her more satisfactory results. He was the first to break the silence.

"So how are you settling in, Senator Walker? Think you could get to like it here?"

"I find Washington an interesting place," Brianna replied calmly. Patterson's brows went into his hairline when she didn't continue.

"That's it? That's all you've got to say? Do you realize how many people would love to be where you are?"

"Senator Patterson, I don't want to be rude, but do you have a point?"

He shook his head. "Not really," he confessed. "Just trying to get to know you a little bit, Senator Walker. After all, you don't want to get a reputation like your fellow Senator, do you?"

"I don't know, Senator. I haven't heard anything about the reputation Senator Tagherty has here. I know that for a politician she is considered well-liked and respected at home."

"She's well-liked and respected here... at least in the political arena. On a personal level, not so much."

"And does the personal level matter?" Brianna asked with a confused frown. "I thought we were here to do a job. That makes this professional."

"You're new - you'll learn. There are certain rules and protocols around here that can't be ignored if you want to get ahead. Senator Tagherty has big ambitions, and while she doesn't have any real enemies, she doesn't have any real friends either. Her entire state may be behind her, but she'll never get any further with her political pursuits if she doesn't have any friends behind her here."

"What do you mean?"

Patterson shrugged. "Having friends makes the professional side a little easier."

"I see," Brianna replied as she stood, prompting Patterson to stand as well. "I'll keep that in mind," she said as she headed out the door.

"It was nice to meet you," Patterson offered.

"I'm sure it was," Brianna responded with a smirk, then disappeared without another word. Patterson watched her go and shook his head, then took his coffee and turned to go back to his own office.


"So, how were things tonight?" Saphira asked when Esmeralda was seated at the counter with a plate of food in front of her and a cold glass of milk. Esmeralda immediately shifted half the food onto another plate and pushed it over in front of Saphira. Saphira picked up her fork and started eating.

"Quiet," Esmeralda confessed in a whisper. "Brianna was long gone of course, though Indi was still there. She gave me a quick overview of the day."

"Es?" Saphira prompted when Esmeralda grew pensively silent. Esmeralda gave a look around the nearly empty diner, then shook her head. "Later?" Saphira asked, getting the barest nod in response.

"Apparently, Charisma had some sort of human resources issue today," Esmeralda went on in a more normal tone. "Her son was at work with her."

"Oh, that must have been interesting," Matilda said as she came out of the kitchen. She looked back at Joe who gave her a grin as he shook his head. "We had a few experiences like that back in the day."

"Well, according to a few of the staff of several of the senators that were still working, it made for a noteworthy day anyway."

Matilda chuckled. "I'll bet it did." She looked a little closer at Esmeralda and frowned. "Are you all right, Es? You look a little tired to me," putting her hand on Esmeralda's forehead.

"I am tired," Esmeralda agreed, patting Matilda's hand. "Our roommates woke us up very early this morning."

Matilda scowled. "Do they not understand you're recovering from a serious illness?" She turned to Saphira and glared. "You need to do something about this." Saphira's eyes widened and she looked at Esmeralda. Es smiled at her and turned her attention back to Matilda.

"It's all right, Matilda... honestly. They are aware of my situation and usually they are very considerate about being quiet in the mornings - just like Saphira and I are late at night when we get home. But there was an accident this morning; it kinda threw everything into chaos."

Matilda's eyes widened and she looked between them. "Is everyone all right?"

"Everyone will be," Saphira replied, nudging Esmeralda into resuming her meal. "Apparently, they didn't see one another and well... you know the saying about the irresistible force meeting the immoveable object?" watching Matilda's jaw drop open even as she nodded her head. "That's about what happened this morning. I think one of them probably ended up with a pretty nice shiner."

Esmeralda nodded. "She's lucky she didn't end up with a concussion and a broken jaw."

"Wow," Matilda murmured. "No wonder it woke you up."

"Pretty much. I mean we went back to bed, but it's just not the same once you've been jerked out of a sound sleep, ya know?"

Joe laughed as he came out of the kitchen. "Sounds like the first few years of parenthood, actually," he said as he wiped his hands on a towel. "You girls about done?" looking at Saphira's empty plate and Esmeralda's partially filled one. "You want to take that with you, Essie?"

Esmeralda closed her eyes and nodded. "Would you mind, Joe? I'm just too tired to eat tonight."

Joe and Matilda exchanged worried glances and he shook his head as he took the plate. "Not a problem, Es... you know that. Just give me two shakes of a lamb's tail and Saphira can take you home and tuck you into bed," slipping into the kitchen and returning almost immediately with a take out box. Matilda put the rest of Esmeralda's dinner on one side of the partition and added a thick slice of chocolate cake to the other before closing the lid.

"You know the rule - finish your dinner before you eat dessert," Matilda admonished with a finger wag, though the concern in her eyes belied the teasing in her voice. Esmeralda smiled.

"I will," she promised, crossing her hand over her heart.

"All righty, then," Matilda said as she handed the box to Saphira. "You two get on home then. And I hope your friends are okay."

"Thanks, Matilda," Saphira said as she helped Esmeralda on with her coat before slipping into her own. "See you tomorrow."

"Goodnight, girls. Be safe." The two waved and moved off into the darkness without looking back. Matilda watched them out of sight before locking the door. Then she turned... only to find Joe standing directly behind her, a worried look on his face.

"Something's not right," he muttered, shaking his head as he led the way back towards the kitchen.

"No, but I'm not sure there's anything we can do besides pray," Matilda commented.

Joe grunted and turned off the lights, knowing tomorrow was going to come soon enough.


"Wow," Saphira said when Esmeralda was finished giving her Indi's report. "And how did Brianna react?" as they reached the metro station.

"She said Brianna was a natural with him. Adam acted like he'd known Brianna all his life."

"That must have been something. How did Charisma take it?" as they got onto their train.

"That's where it gets kinda hairy and until I can talk to Opal...." waiting for Saphira to nod after they took a seat. "Apparently she didn't take it well. Whatever she did or said, she hurt Brianna's feelings. Indi said Brianna came back from having ice cream with the two of them in a very somber mood. And as soon as her meeting was over, Brianna left for the day."

"Wait... she had ice cream with Charisma and Adam? Isn't that a good thing?"

"If I knew all the details, I'd probably say yes, but since it put Brianna into an unhappy state of mind, I have to wonder."

"So now what?" Saphira asked after a thoughtful pause. The train reached their stop and they exited the station before Esmeralda spoke again.

"I honestly don't know. There are so many things in play at the moment, and I don't have all the pieces I need to make a judgment call on any of it. I'm hoping they'll both be around tomorrow and anxious to talk about it. At least that would give me a better idea of what *they* think is going on."

"I'll keep my fingers crossed," Saphira promised in a whisper as they entered the silent house. But they had no way of knowing what the morrow was going to bring.

Chapter XXVII

Saphira crawled out of the bed as soon as she heard the others stirring in the kitchen. She gave Esmeralda a long look, then closed the door silently behind her. Everyone turned to her and she grabbed her mug, pouring hot water into it and adding a teabag, then she took a seat at the table. The rest took the unspoken hint and finished up their breakfast preparations, pulling up chairs at the table as quickly as possible.

"What's up, Saphira?" Ruby asked the question once they were all seated. Saphira gazed at her tea, removing the bag and cupping her hands around the mug. She slowly released her breath.

First she looked at Ame - who, as predicted, had a tremendous shiner that covered nearly half her face. "How are you doing?"

"I have a headache," she replied simply. "But I'll live."

"You're okay to go to work?"

"I'll be fine. I've taken something; I'm just waiting for it to kick in."

Saphira nodded her acceptance of Ame words, then turned back to the rest. "I need to know what happened yesterday," pinning Opal and Indi with a direct look. "I know you told Es," she acknowledged with a nod at Indi, "but I'd like to hear it directly from both of you."

"Are you taking over this mission, Saphira?"

"No," firmly and without hesitation. "I couldn't even if I wanted to," she admitted. "This whole assignment isn't even close to being something I could manage - not with my job qualifications. We all know what I'd do if I was put in charge of this fiasco," she added drolly, drawing grins around the table. "No," she repeated. "I'm just trying to liaison between you guys and Es so she can get some more rest. I figure with the two of you here together, you might remember something more," she said to Indi. "And either way, I don't think it will hurt for everyone to know what's going on. If this moves as fast as Es thinks it might, everyone should probably be prepared for anything."

"Is Es okay?" Ruby asked, meeting Saphira's eyes and sucking in a breath at the agony she could see. "Is she relapsing?"

"I don't know," Saphira answered softly after a long moment. "I'm hoping she's just tired. Her sleep's been cut short lately for a number of reasons. That's one reason I'm trying to take care of this now and let her sleep." She looked around the table. "Talk to me," she said finally.

First Indi, then Opal offered their perspective on the events of the previous day. Saphira listened in silence until they were done. "And Brianna didn't say anything else?" she asked Indi.

"No. She was thoughtful when she came back from her getting ice cream with Adam and Charisma, but all she did was grab a folder from her desk before heading for her committee meeting. Then I met her outside the committee room to take her notes and things and she left."

"Did she say anything to you, Jas?"

Jas shook her head. "Not a word. She leaned her head on the back of the seat and kept her eyes closed all the way home. When we reached her building, she dismissed me and went inside."

Saphira scratched the back of her neck and turned to Opal. "And Charisma just up and left?"

Opal nodded. "When they came back from getting ice cream, she had me call Turq while she gathered her stuff together. They left as soon as she had everything ready."

"That's it?"

"That's it. She seemed preoccupied, but I can't say if it was because of Brianna or Adam or something else. She was pretty focused on the kid when they came back from getting ice cream."

"All right. Thank you, ladies," Saphira said in dismissal. They took her words in the tone they were given and rose from the table. They all needed to get ready for work. Only Ruby remained seated, and after a moment, Saphira looked up to meet her eyes. "Ruby?"

Ruby covered one of Saphira's hands. "Are you sure everything's all right, Phira?"

Saphira shook her head. "I don't think anything is, Rube." She blew out an unsteady breath. "I'm really worried about her," glancing at the closed bedroom door. "I haven't seen her this run down since she started recovering. She didn't even have the energy to eat last night."

Ruby frowned. "Call her in sick and you stay home with her. I'll cover your shift this afternoon."

"That makes for a really long day, Ruby." Ruby just arched an eyebrow at Saphira.

"You think I haven't pulled a few doubles in my time, kiddo? Besides, you did it for how long before we got here? I think I'll be all right for a few days," narrowing her eyes in Saphira's direction. "Just don't you go getting used to it, you hear? I expect you to bring Es back up to full running speed pretty quick."

"You're sure?" Saphira asked seriously, not responding to Ruby's teasing tone. Ruby immediately lost any hint of playfulness and gave Saphira a sympathetic look.

"Yes," she replied gently. "This assignment is important, but we need Esmeralda at full capacity if it's going to work. She really is the best at what we do. It's why she always gets the tough jobs."

Saphira held her gaze a moment longer, then nodded. "All right - thanks, Ruby."

"Anytime, Sweetheart. You know that. And you call and let me know if either of you need anything, okay? My main job here is support. Don't worry about Matilda and Joe. I'll let them know what's going on. I'm sure they'll be worried."

Saphira patted the hand still covering hers, then slid her hand from Ruby's grasp and rose. "Thanks, Ruby," she repeated, then put her mug in the sink and returned to the room she shared with Esmeralda. Ruby watched until the door closed silently behind her, then she left to prepare for what promised to be a very long day.


Saphira crawled back into bed with Esmeralda, a chill passing through her being when Esmeralda did nothing to acknowledge her presence. Normally, Esmeralda would mewl softly or curl into Saphira's body or even simply sigh in contentment. But she did none of these things and Saphira's brow furrowed in worry. For a while she lay beside her, listening to her breathe. Only then did she realize that the breathing was slow and deep. She curled tighter into Esmeralda and let the silent tears roll down her cheeks unhindered.

When Saphira heard Amber and Coral return from their respective assignments, Saphira gathered herself together and rose from the bed. She crossed to the tiny bathroom and washed the remnants of tears from her face and stepped out of the bedroom once more.

Coral and Amber looked up from their breakfasts and then turned concerned glances towards one another. Without hesitation, they both rose - Amber led Saphira to the table while Coral swiped another mug and filled it with coffee.

"Saphira? Is everything all right?" Amber asked, her tone conveying her anxiety. She'd only ever seen Saphira lose her brashness once in all of the bickering and playful run-ins they'd indulged in over the millennia. So she had a hard time now trying to keep the fear and worry out of her voice.

Saphira shook her head. "I don't think so," she responded, accepting the cup from Coral absently. "I think Es may be relapsing," causing both heads to whip around in her direction.

"What?? How could she...?" Amber started when Coral cut her off.

"What makes you think that, Saphira?"

"Several things," she admitted. "I mean... I was hoping she was just tired. You know how crazy it's been around here for the last few days and her sleep's been cut into every time something new happened because of course it's her responsibility to keep track of everything that's going on. So I wasn't completely surprised when she claimed she was exhausted last night - too tired to even eat."

"Saphira, that's...."

Saphira watched the two guardians exchange glances and nodded. "Exactly." She sighed. "This morning she didn't notice me get out of bed to talk to the day crew and she never acknowledged me crawling back into bed with her when they left." She looked up at them, holding Amber's golden eyes with her own. "Her breathing is deep... coma deep."

"Oh no," Coral whispered.

"Yeah, that was about my take on it as well," Saphira concurred painfully. "I'm hoping she'll wake up soon - that she's just sleeping deeply because of her exhaustion."

"But you don't think so," Amber stated flatly.

"At this point, I don't think we can afford to wait to find out."

"So what are you going to do?"

Saphira shrugged and shook her head, letting her gaze fall back to the nearly full coffee cup. "I'm not sure what I can do at this point. We can't afford a doctor; and besides, you *know* what'll happen if Es wakes up in a hospital bed. And to be honest, I'm not sure how her heavenly body would react to all those earthly drugs being pumped into her system."

"So you're saying we do nothing?" Amber asked, her voice tight, but not quite accusing.

"I'm saying if you've got any viable ideas, I'm all ears, because I'm at a complete loss here." Saphira's voice was angry and her eyes were filled with tears. Coral tapped Amber on the shoulder before she could open her mouth to speak and jerked her head towards the corner. They squeezed Saphira's hand in support, then moved to the secluded spot where they could talk privately and still keep an eye on Saphira whose stare never wavered from her mug.

"What, Coral?" Amber ground out, needing to vent her frustration and knowing Coral was her only feasible target at the moment. Coral just held her eyes, understanding Amber's position and wanting to give her the outlet for her anger that she required. "C'mon," she pleaded when Coral was silent for a long moment. "Tell me you've got an idea."

"Oh, I've got an idea all right, but you're not going to like it."

Amber blew out a frustrated breath. "I've felt that way about a huge chunk of this assignment. Spill."

"I think this might be His way of moving things along."

"Excuse me?" Amber frowned hard. "You're telling me you think the Father may have worsened Es' illness? Because we're not moving fast enough?" she fumed. "I'm pretty sure if that idea occurs to Saphira, we won't have to do anything at all - she'll take matters into her own hands and force them together if she has to!"

"Will you shut up and listen to me for a minute?!" Coral huffed. "How do we know it hasn't been His strength... His will that has kept Es from relapsing all this time?" She met Amber's eyes steadily. "Amber, you *know* how sick Es was and how weak the sickness made her. Do you really think she recovered that quickly on her own?"

Amber snorted. "I wouldn't say she recovered at all. And I certainly wouldn't classify it as fast!"

Coral rolled her eyes. "Step back a minute and remember just how ill she was, Amber. She shouldn't have recovered at all. She should have died."

"Don't say that!" Amber growled, casting a worried glance towards Saphira. "Do you know the consequences we all would have suffered if she had?"

"All too well," Coral agreed calmly. "It's one reason I think He might be involving Himself in this now."

"Well, if that's true... why not simply involve Himself from the beginning? Or why bother to involve any of us at all? Why not simply put them together Himself?"

"You know He can't do that with humanity - not since He gave them free will to choose. As for the rest, I don't know," Coral replied, shaking her head. "I can't claim to begin to know how He thinks. But in a very twisted way, it makes perfect sense." She paused. "What better way to force both Brianna's and Charisma's hands than to let them witness and experience the aftermath of a broken soul bond?"

"And us? What about what we'll have to go through? What about what Saphira will suffer?"

"Collateral damage," Coral said succinctly, then shrugged. "I really don't know, Amber. It's just a theory."

"Unfortunately, I think it's also very possibly the truth. Is there anything we can do?"

"Aside from be there for the fallout and do our best support to Saphira?" Coral shook her head. "Not that I know of."

"This sucks," Amber grumbled.

"Yes, it does. I think we should probably talk to Ruby about it."

Amber blew out a breath and nodded. "Agreed. And in the meantime?"

"In the meantime, we take it one day at a time. Isn't that Es' first rule?"

Amber smirked. "One of them, at any rate."

"In the meantime, you can both kindly remember that I am an Angel of Vengeance and I can hear every word you're whispering to one another," Saphira said flatly from the table without looking up. Coral and Amber exchanged nervous looks, then crossed back over to Saphira's side.

"I'm sorry, Saphira," Coral responded softly. "It was just a thought. That doesn't mean there's any merit to it."

"Unfortunately, much like Amber, I think it has more than merit. I think it is probably the truth."

"So what do you want to do?"

Saphira looked up at Amber, her blue eyes now raging with the flames of vengeance and anger. "I'm fairly confident my wants don't figure into His plans. I don't think there is anything we can do, not if He's suddenly decided to put His hand in the mix. But I will tell you this," she said, rising to her feet and allowing her heavenly nature to come to the fore. She flexed her wings and caressed her sword. "If anything happens to Es, He'll get His reaction. There's a reason the saying goes, 'Hell hath no fury'," she stated unequivocally, then turned and made her way back to Esmeralda's side to keep watch.

Coral and Amber traded anxious glances. "This could get ugly," was Coral's comment.

Amber snorted. "I'm sure it already has. The real question is how bad is it going to get before we hit rock bottom." She sighed and started clearing away their few dishes. "C'mon. We've still got things to do and Saphira's going to have to be told what happened last night. Until Es is better, she's in charge."

Coral frowned. "How do you figure? Aren't you usually Es' second?"

"Yes, but they are mates. That comes before anything else in my book. Don't worry - I'll be keeping an eye on things as well. But as far as I'm concerned, officially Saphira is in charge until Es comes back."

"And if she doesn't?"

"May God have mercy on all of us."


"You know what they think, Es?" Saphira asked the still figure on the bed as she prowled around the room. "They think He kept you alive; they think He is letting you die now. But that's not true, is it? None of it is true. You're alive because of your own tenacity and strength of will. And you're not gonna die for those very same reasons, right?"

Silence was its own answer and Saphira's shoulders visibly slumped. Carefully, she lowered herself to the bed and took one of Esmeralda's limp hands in hers. "C'mon, Es... I can't do this without you. We both know who the strong one in this relationship is and if anything happens to you...."

Saphira broke off and sighed, looking at their twined hands. Her voice lowered to a whisper. "Es, we can't do this without you. I don't have a clue what to do and yet they're all going to look to me to fill in for you until you're better. So if you don't get better like... right now, it's likely to be a horrible mess by the time you get back to straighten things out."

A knock on the door made Saphira growl and glare at it. Then she realized she hadn't spoken to Amber or Coral about their nights with Charisma and Brianna. She lifted Esmeralda's hand to her lips and brushed a kiss over the back of her hand.

"All right," she conceded. "If you're gonna be lazy and lie about in the bed all morning, I need to go take care of things. You stay here and get your beauty sleep, though if you ask me, you couldn't get any more beautiful than you already are. However, I expect no complaints out of you when you wake up and have to fix the cluster this assignment will be by then."

Another knock made Saphira growl louder and she gave Esmeralda another kiss before placing Esmeralda's hand back by her side. Then Saphira moved to the door and opened it, glaring at Amber for a long moment. Then she stepped out of the bedroom and closed the door silently behind her, motioning Amber away from the bedroom. They went into the tiny living room and found Coral waiting for them. Saphira gestured Amber to a seat.

"What can I do for you, ladies?" she asked, her voice still husky.

"You need to know what happened last night. Until Es gets better...."

Saphira held up her hand. "Tell me," she commanded.

Chapter XXVIII

"Turq called me as soon as she got the call from Opal, so I was waiting at the house when Charisma and Adam arrived home. The house was otherwise empty when they got there of course because Kent is still in the City and Ame was here recovering," Amber reminded Saphira and waited for her to nod. "Charisma walked into the house holding Adam's hand, smiling as he chattered on about his day. I think she enjoyed sharing that with him. From what I have been given to understand, she misses a lot of interaction with Adam because of her job."

Saphira nodded. "Es has indicated much the same thing to me. But Charisma seems unable to compromise and is unwilling to give up her career."

Amber shrugged. "I don't know. I rarely get to see them together. Adam is usually sleeping by the time I get there and of course Ame takes care of him during the day. I don't think she sees them together much either."

Saphira waved her hand. "It doesn't matter right now. Tell me what happened last night."

"As I said, Adam was chattering on about his day; he even had his mother chuckling at one point. I never did figure out what it was all about, but Charisma was smiling pretty big at one point. Of course, the smile became a pained grimace when he enthusiastically spoke of his time with Brianna. He really was pretty smitten with her, you know."

"It's the green eyes," Saphira offered with a sad smile.

"She'll be all right, Phira. He won't let anything happen to Es; He needs her."

"Not nearly as much as I do," Saphira muttered. Then she turned her attention back to Amber. "So what happened next?"

"It was weird. I mean... don't get me wrong - the whole situation was weird for me. Very different from what I am used to, but this next bit was just peculiar," holding up her hand for a little tolerance when Saphira glared at her impatiently.

"Charisma didn't hush him or try to change the subject - she listened to him while she fed him some dinner and while she bathed him and got him ready for bed. This was precious - she let him tell her a story and he told her the Three Pigs, I think. Doesn't matter really, though it was pretty cute. Charisma stayed with him until he fell asleep - it didn't take very long, especially when you consider the kind of day he'd had.

Charisma remained in his room for a little while just staring at him. Occasionally, she'd brush his hair back, but mostly she simply watched him breathing. She doesn't usually do that - she comes in and checks on him if he's already in bed... tucks him in, kisses him goodnight... that sort of thing. But she never lingers for any length of time."

"All right... so then what?"

"Charisma wandered around aimlessly, like she couldn't settle down to anything. That's very unusual because she's generally tightly focused, even with all the multi-tasking she does. Finally, she went back into the kitchen and fixed herself a sandwich. She took a long time eating it, then she picked up the phone. She dialed a number, but hung up before it could connect. She actually did it twice more before shaking her head in frustration and slapping it on the table."

"Could you see who she called?"

Amber nodded. "Her parents. It was weird. Her hands were actually shaking and she clenched them together beneath her chin for a long time before she picked up the phone again. She studied it a long moment - like it could tell her the meaning of life - then went back to grab her purse from the hall. She took her cell out and rolled her eyes at it when it vibrated in her hand. She'd missed quite a few messages from her colleagues."

"I take it that wasn't why she wanted her cell phone?"

"No. She scrolled through her contacts and then dialed Kent."

"Excuse me?" Saphira inquired as she straightened in her chair. "You mean she doesn't know his number by heart? Or have him on speed dial?"

"I guess not, because she looked him up and dialed it into the household receiver one digit at a time."

"What happened?"

Amber shook her head. "Not much, actually. They were kind of like strangers talking to each other. Kent was apparently pretty stunned to hear from her. She's never called him before just to talk. It's always been because she needed something."

"How long did the call last?" Coral asked, her question reminding the others of her presence. Amber took a deep breath and released it as she thought.

"Not long, relatively speaking - maybe ten minutes?"

"Did they talk about anything important?"

Amber shook her head again. "They didn't actually talk about anything at all. It was mostly awkward pauses and long silences. In fairness, I think Kent was in shock. Charisma played it off like she just wanted to see how things were going. Kent actually had to cut the call short because it was time for him to get to the stage."

"I can't imagine that," Saphira said softly. "I can't imagine not needing to talk to your mate or not having anything to discuss when you had the chance to do so without interruption. Es and I always have something to talk about... even if it's just our days at work or the things we'd like to do while we're off. And when we have time to simply sit down and talk...."

"I know," Amber agreed. "I'm the one that generally has to risk life and limb to interrupt the two of you, remember?"

Saphira cut her eyes at Amber in a mild glare. "I am well aware. Your timing usually leaves a lot to be desired."

"That's not what Michael says," she replied with a smirk. Saphira's eyes widened and she covered her ears to block the sound.

"Lalalalalalala - TMI, Amber. I don't think Coral and I needed to know that." Coral kept her hand over her mouth to keep her laughter from escaping. Saphira glared at both of them. "We've moved pretty far afield of yesterday's activities. Did anything else of note happen?" pinning each of them balefully.

"Only one more thing, as far as I'm concerned," Amber answered slowly, pinching her bottom lip between her thumb and forefinger as she considered her words.

Saphira arched her brow when the silence continued. "Would you like to share with the rest of the class or are we supposed to guess?"

"Oh... sorry. Charisma went directly to her bedroom as soon as she got off the phone with Kent."

Saphira blinked slowly. "Okay... pretend I'm a complete moron here and explain to me the significance of your statement."

Amber blew out a frustrated breath. "Almost without fail, Charisma sticks to a routine once she gets home. She drops her stuff in her office and heads directly to Adam's room. After she spends a little time with her son, she goes straight to her office and takes out whatever she brought home with her. If she's home relatively early - meaning she didn't have some sort of political function to attend - she grabs whatever dinner Ame leaves for her in the fridge and takes it to the study. Until Brianna crashed back into her orbit, her time was spent going over whatever bills and legislation she felt needed her attention while she ate dinner at her desk."

"And since then?"

"A lot less of both. She still brings her plate to the desk and she still pulls out her work, but so far she's not finishing much. Most of her time has been spent looking at that album."

"And this doesn't bother Kent?"

Amber tilted her head. "I don't think he knows about the album. And the other is just SOP as far as he's concerned. It's always been like that between them. Most of their time together is spent in the public eye - most of their private time is separate."

Saphira pinched the bridge of her nose and rubbed her eyes. "Father Above," she prayed, trying to rid herself of the headache she could feel coming on in the back of her skull. Coral and Amber remained silent, knowing Saphira hadn't talked to her Father since He had turned her out of Paradise with Esmeralda to begin this assignment. Saphira didn't say anything else and finally exhaled noisily. Then she turned to Coral. "What about Brianna?"

Coral shook her head. "It was... normal. She went home early after her all-nighter. She called for some dinner and took a shower, changing into some old sweats before her meal arrived. Then she ate, brushed her teeth and crawled into bed. She read a little - Harry Potter, before you ask - then turned out the light and went right to sleep."

"That's it?"

Coral nodded. "That's it. She didn't even get up for the bathroom or a drink of water. The first time she stirred was when the alarm went off." Coral stopped speaking and bit her lip thoughtfully. Saphira cocked her head in question.


"Well, aside from the fact that she didn't move at all, the only thing that was a little odd about her night was that she seemed to resent the alarm going off this morning."

"Doesn't everyone?" Amber asked with a hint of a grin. It was a well-known fact that she was perfectly suited to her night job because she didn't have to deal with a morning alarm. In her mind, that made all the difference in getting out of bed every day.

Coral looked at her seriously. "Not Brianna. I know we've only been here a few weeks, but according to the background I had to dig out on her she's always been one to face the day as something to be treasured for the gift it is. She was almost angry this morning."

Saphira blew out a breath. "I guess Indi will have an interesting report tonight."

"Maybe," Coral said with a shrug. "Brianna was in the bathroom for a few minutes this morning, giving quite a pep talk to herself in the mirror."


"Yeah - she was assuring herself that she could do this... that it was only for two years... that she had survived this long, she could survive a little longer."

"Did she believe what she was saying?"

"Well, there were no tears in her eyes and her spine was straight when she walked out the door. If she didn't believe it, she was at least able to put up a credible façade that would fool the rest of the world."

"Including Charisma?"

"Especially Charisma. She doesn't want to see past it, given what we know of her."

"This just keeps getting better and better," Saphira muttered as she rose from her corner of the couch. She gave Amber a wry smile when she immediately stretched her length along it as soon as Saphira vacated her space. "All right. I hate to ask, but I need the two of you to go out and get groceries before you settle down to sleep. Ruby was going to when she got off this afternoon, but since she's taking my shift...." She stopped speaking when Amber held up her hand.

"Saphira, it's all right. Coral and I do a lot of grocery shopping. Stuff is generally stocked better when you go early and the farmers' markets open early."

"Yeah," Coral concurred. "You go take care of Es. We'll restock the larder and fix up some lunch when we get back."

"You're sure?"

Coral snickered. "We're sure - we've cooked a lot of lunches that translate into dinner for the day crew."

Amber scowled at Saphira. "Will you please get out of here? We're professionals - we know what we're doing. You, on the other hand, are a neophyte in the guardian business, and you need to get back to guarding the boss for now. We'll call you if we think we need you. But we know Es does, okay?" putting a firm hand in the middle of Saphira's back and pushing her towards the bedroom door. "Go on... buh-bye... see ya."

"Thanks, Amber," Saphira said softly without turning away from the door even as she reached out for the knob. Amber scowled again... this time to keep the tears at bay.

"Yeah, well... just don't get used to it, all right? The world would probably stop spinning or something equally horrible if the universe caught us playing nice together."

Saphira's chuckle came out more like a strangled sob, but Amber let it go. "Heaven forbid," she whispered. "I've got enough to worry about without having that on my shoulders."

"Amen!" Amber agreed, patting Saphira's back gently. "Now go be with Es. Coral and I'll be back in a little while." Saphira nodded and opened the door, crossing the threshold and shutting it behind her without a backwards glance.

Amber stood looking at the closed door for a moment longer, then shook her head and went back to the kitchen to meet up with Coral. There was still work to be done.


Saphira leaned against the closed door, waiting for the sound of Amber's footsteps to indicate that she and Es were alone in the house again. It took a moment, then another for her to hear the echo of the outer door shutting and the car starting and pulling away. Only then did she let the tears slide silently down her face.

They only lasted a brief minute. Then she took a deep breath and closed her eyes, centering herself before allowing them to flutter open again and moving towards the bed. Saphira crawled onto the mattress carefully and curled herself around Esmeralda's warmth. Then she jerked in surprise when a warm hand touched her still-damp face. She leaned up and looked down into Esmeralda's sleepy green eyes, smiling broadly.


Esmeralda smiled momentarily, then her brow furrowed in concern. "Saphira?" in a hushed tone. "What's wrong, love? Why the tears?"

Saphira took Esmeralda's hand in hers, bringing it to her lips and brushing a kiss over the fingertips. "You scared me," she admitted in a small voice. "You were sleeping so deeply... it was like when you were so sick."

"Oh, Sweetheart. I'm fine. Just a little tired."

Saphira nodded her head firmly. "Then there's nothing for you to do but stay in the bed today and catch up on some sleep."

Esmeralda gave her a fond smile and shook her head. "I can't do that, Phira. You know that - though I do appreciate the sentiment. You don't know how much."

"Actually, you can. It's all arranged. I called you off sick today and Ruby is taking my shift at the diner. So there's nothing to keep you from getting some of that rest you need to catch up on."

"But the mission...."

"... will go on regardless today. You can start worrying about it again tomorrow. But today you're going to rest. Amber and Coral are out getting groceries at the moment, but they will be back shortly to fix something for lunch before they settle down to sleep. Trust that the rest know their jobs and will do them."

Esmeralda was quiet for a moment, then nodded her head. "All right. And you'll fill me in?"

Saphira rolled her eyes and chuckled. "Naturally."

"Good," Esmeralda smiled, tapping Saphira on the nose with a soft finger. She pushed up into a sitting position and sighed tiredly. "I'm going to go the little angel's room. Then I'll crawl back in bed beside you and you can tell me what I missed. Then I promise to take another nap," holding up one hand as if taking an oath.

"Do you want something to eat?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "No... not now," changing her answer when she saw the look of concern flash across Saphira's visage. "I'll eat whatever lunch Coral and Amber surprise us with."

"That's awfully brave of you," Saphira commented with a smirk.

"Never let it be said I'm not the bravest of them all."

Saphira laughed and Esmeralda smiled. Esmeralda got out of bed slowly to take care of her morning business and Saphira went into the kitchen to get them both something to drink and make some toast for Esmeralda. If they were going to have a sick day, she might as well do her best to make Esmeralda feel better before she settled down to sleep some more.

It only took a few minutes before they had resumed their places on the bed. Esmeralda had taken a little of the liquid but hadn't touched the toast, preferring to curl up into Saphira's arms instead.

"Now tell me what I missed," she insisted. Saphira rolled her eyes again and shook her head at Esmeralda's persistence. Then she started relaying the morning's events, not realizing when Esmeralda dropped off to sleep - only knowing that she did eventually. Saphira smiled and closed her eyes. This was how Amber found them some time later when she knocked on the door, then opened it to find them asleep in one another's arms.

"Guess lunch will have to wait a little while," she commented to Coral when she returned to the kitchen alone.

"Best thing for all of us," was Coral's only reply. Then they sat down to eat so they could go to bed themselves.

Chapter XXIX

"I missed you yesterday," Brianna greeted with a concerned smile when Esmeralda peered around the door of Brianna's office as she knocked. She waved Esmeralda into the inner sanctum and Esmeralda pushed the door open and rolled her cleaning cart into the room ahead of her. "Is everything all right?"

Esmeralda nodded her head even as she gathered together the things she needed, then started her cleaning routine. "Everything's fine," she promised with a smile. "Saphira was being a little overly cautious."

"How so?"

"I was sleeping very hard... very deeply... to the point she was afraid I had fallen into a coma. The last time I slept like that was when I was so sick - I really was in a coma then. I think it scared her."

"I'm sure it did. Even as little as I actually know of you both, I can imagine her reaction to seeing you like that again, especially after being given a brief glimpse of the two of you together."

Esmeralda stilled her duster and turned to face Brianna directly. "How do you mean?"

Brianna chuckled and shook her head. "You remind me of my grandparents," letting her eyes glaze over in memory. "My grandmother and papa were married for forty-seven years before Grandmother passed away suddenly one night. Just... BAM! and she was gone. Papa couldn't do anything; she was gone before emergency services could get there."

"I'm so sorry, Brianna. She obviously meant a lot to you," Esmeralda offered sincerely.

"Thank you," Brianna said even as she shook her head. "But that's not what I meant." She sighed. "As upset as I was when Grandmother died, it was nothing compared to the loss Papa felt. Even now... years later, I can still tell he misses her fiercely. He gets this look in his eye when he thinks about her. It's like part of him is missing and nothing will ever fill that hole she left."

"Part of him is missing," Esmeralda replied sadly, "and it always will be. Nothing except his death will change that for him."

"That's my point - you and Saphira are a lot like my grandmother and papa were. I don't know how long you have been a couple, but to someone that has seen real love before and what happens to the one left behind when that bond is broken by death, I would say you're truly part of one another. And from what you told me of your story, you were near death before. I'm sure it hit Saphira hard seeing you like that again. So I don't blame her for being cautious where your health is concerned."

"I don't blame her." Esmeralda released a breath and turned back to her work. "I just wish there was a way to keep her from worrying so much. She's gonna make herself sick if she keeps trying to carry the world around on her shoulders."

"Just take care of yourself, Es. Knowing you're all right will go a long way towards alleviating that burden."

"When did you get so smart, Brianna?"

"Oh, I've always been this smart. I'm brilliant - like the stars that shine in the firmament." She was able to hold the lofty expression on her face for several long seconds before the look on Esmeralda's face made her burst into laughter. Esmeralda snickered.

Finally, Brianna's laughter tapered off and she pushed her hair off her face. "Thanks, Es... I needed that."

"I didn't do anything but stand here," Esmeralda insisted, moving to put her duster away and grabbing the small carpet sweeper.

"That was enough - trust me," Brianna claimed. She looked back at the pile of paper still on her desk. "Back to work for me, though."

"Will it disturb you if I finish my work?"

"Just make sure you say goodnight before you leave," Brianna requested.

"Absolutely," Esmeralda promised and continued working as quietly as she could. Brianna watched her a moment longer, then resumed studying the documents she had in front of her. She wondered when bureaucracy had become so paper-logged that they needed forests to keep them supplied. Then her mind focused on what she was reading, not even hearing the vacuum when Esmeralda started running it through the entire office. Only a light touch on her arm brought Brianna out of the quagmire of words her mind was rolling through.

"Leaving already?" she asked Esmeralda, looking up into sparkling green eyes. Esmeralda smiled.

"I've been here almost an hour, Senator Walker," chuckling when Brianna's eyebrow arched at her address. "I still have to go clean Senator Tagherty's office, but I promised to say goodbye before I left," not missing the shadow that passed over Brianna's face at the mention of Charisma's name.

Brianna rose from her seat. "Yes, you did," she agreed, squeezing the hand still resting on her arm. "I'm glad you're doing better. Try not to scare the lot of us like that again, all right? Politicians don't do well with change... I don't care what their rhetoric is."

Esmeralda smiled, returning the clasp on Brianna's arm. "I'll do my best to maintain the status quo, Senator. We'll see you tomorrow?"

"Yep. Oh... are we still on for Sunday or would you like to...?" stopping when Esmeralda held up a hand.

"We're still on for Sunday. We're not planning to do anything elaborate, and we're looking forward to it."

"So am I," Brianna smiled and opened the door for Esmeralda. "Have a good night, Es."

"You too, Senator," with a wave and a smirk at the mock-glare she got from Brianna with the second use of her title. Brianna just shook her head and closed the door and Esmeralda continued down the hallway to Senator Tagherty's office.


"Senator Tagherty?" Esmeralda called out as she poked her head in the door. "Charisma?"

Charisma's head popped up at the sound of Esmeralda's voice and a grin creased her face. "Es!" she said, waving the other woman into her office. "Come in! How are you? We missed you around here yesterday."

Esmeralda's smile was genuine. "Thank you, Charisma. It's nice to be missed."

"I guess you heard that from a lot of people today," smiling when Esmeralda blushed. Charisma took one of Esmeralda's hands in her own. "How are you doing... really?"

"I'm okay... really. I was just very, very tired yesterday. It scared Saphira and she insisted I stay home and get some rest," squeezing Charisma's hand lightly and releasing it.

"Can't blame her," Charisma commented as Esmeralda grabbed her cleaning supplies and got to work.

"No... and I don't. Besides," she admitted with a wry grin, "I think it helped. I feel a little better... a little more rested."

"That's always a good thing."

"No arguments from me. Everything all right with you?"

"Same ol', same old," Charisma said as she re-settled herself behind her desk. "Work, home - work, home. Adam was here with me day before yesterday," she confessed without raising her eyes from the work in front of her.

"I'm sorry I missed him," Esmeralda responded without turning around. "He's such a good kid."

"Yes, he is," Charisma agreed without a hint of modesty. "But I have to tell you - having him here all day gave me a lot more respect for Ame and the job she does day in and day out. That boy is a handful - very much like I was at his age, I imagine."

"Isn't that known as the mother's curse?"

Charisma snorted. "Probably." She shook her head, even though Esmeralda couldn't see it. "I should have a word with my mother."

This time Esmeralda did turn to face her, eyes dancing with mischief. "Her only word for you is gonna be howling laughter."

"More than likely," Charisma admitted wryly. "Of course, he was really well-behaved all things considered. And it was a little bit amusing watching Luke pull his hair out trying to keep up."

"That's just mean, Charisma. That young man doesn't have the hair to lose to such an unfortunate incident."

"True," Charisma agreed with a chuckle. She looked up at Esmeralda and thoughtfully tilted the head propped up on her hand. Esmeralda arched a brow, but continued working.


"Why don't you and Saphira plan to come out to the house one day? I'd love the chance to talk to Saphira more and I know Adam would love to see you again."

Esmeralda nodded. "I'd have to talk to Saphira, but I'm pretty sure we could work something out. It would probably need to be on a Sunday. That's the only day we have off all day together."

"Are you sure? I don't want to take away from your couple time together."

Esmeralda smiled. "Charisma, every time we're together is couple time for us. Why do you think we meet at the diner and go home together every night? Are you certain we won't be cutting into your family time?" Charisma shook her head.

"With Kent in Manhattan for the duration, it's just me and Adam on Sundays. I'm pretty sure he'll appreciate the company... especially since he already made friends with you. I imagine he thinks of you as a big playmate."

"Oh dear," Esmeralda exclaimed, shaking her head and drawing a frown from Charisma. "If he thinks *I* am playmate material, wait til he gets a load of Saphira."

Charisma's eyebrows shot into her head. "Really? I never would have thought - I mean, she seems so serious."

"Oh she is - when it comes to work or taking care of me, she's absolutely no nonsense. But put a child in her vicinity...."

"I'd like to see that. How about this weekend?"

Esmeralda sucked in a breath. "We can't this weekend. Brianna is coming to our home." She paused then pushed on. "Would you like to join us?"

Charisma removed her head from her hand and let her eyes drop back to the desk before she peered up at Esmeralda from beneath her lashes. "I don't think that's a good idea," she finally offered.

"Why not?" Esmeralda inquired plainly. "As I see it, it'd be the safest bet in the world."

Charisma jerked her head up and frowned. "And just how do you figure that?"

Esmeralda gave Charisma a knowing look. "It gives you and Brianna a place to meet that is basically neutral ground. And then of course there is the built-in babysitting factor."

"Why would you assume we need a neutral place to meet? Why assume that we even want one?" Charisma asked on a huffed out breath. "I am perfectly content with the status quo, Es. I thought I'd made that clear to you already."

Esmeralda stared at Charisma for a long moment, then shrugged her shoulders. "As you say," was her only comment, then she resumed her work once more.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Charisma snapped defensively.

"Nothing, Charisma. Not a thing. The invitation still stands. I'll talk to Saphira and get back with you on a date for us to visit with you and Adam one Sunday."

Charisma nodded slowly and gave Esmeralda the tiniest hint of a grin. "I'd like that."

"So would we," Esmeralda assured her as she pulled the small vacuum from her cart. "Is it all right...?"

"Oh, sure. It's just a little more white noise," Charisma said with a smile. "Should help me focus," motioning at the work she still had left to go over.

"Good luck with that," Esmeralda replied seriously. "I'm pretty sure it would make me want to scratch my eyeballs out."

Charisma chuckled as she stretched her arms over her head. "It's not all bad."

Esmeralda smiled and shook her head. "If you say so. I'll stick with what I'm good at," turning on the vacuum and making conversation almost impossible. Charisma watched her for another moment, then gave her work her full attention.

After a few minutes, Esmeralda was done with the vacuuming and she moved quickly to finish up the remainder of her work. When she was done, she moved to the door.

"I'm on my way out, Charisma," Esmeralda said quietly, not wanting to disturb her but knowing Charisma would be upset if she left without saying anything at all. Charisma looked up from her work.

"Hang on just a minute and I'll walk out with you. I've looked at this stuff about as much as I can tonight."

Esmeralda nodded and waited for Charisma to gather her things together. Then they walked out the door and down the hallway in silence. Finally, Charisma cleared her throat awkwardly.

"I appreciate you inviting me and Adam to your home, Es. I just... I just don't see the point in...."

"It's all right, Charisma," Esmeralda replied as she pushed the button on the service elevator. "I know how you feel about the situation and I shouldn't have pushed you like that." The elevator door opened and Esmeralda pushed her cart in while she remained in the doorway. "Have a good night, Senator Tagherty," she said with a smile. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Good night, Es," Charisma offered with a wave of her hand, then slowly strolled back to the large public elevator at the other end of the hall.


"So Es is doing better?" Matilda asked Saphira as they closed up the diner.

"Well, she got some good rest yesterday," she responded with another quick peek out the window. "So, yeah... I think she's doing better. She's still not well, though," she continued with a resigned sigh.

"Something like that takes a long time," Joe said from the kitchen window. "Months... years even, in some cases. At least she's getting better. There was a time we were worried that might not happen."

Saphira nodded. "Me too. Not sure what else I can do about it though." Matilda patted her hand before clearing away a stack of dirty dishes.

"You're doing fine, Saphira. You're her rock and that's the best you can do for her." A light tap on the door caught her attention and Matilda left the dishes to go look, grinning when Esmeralda smiled back at her. "Speak of the devil," she said as she opened the door and ushered Esmeralda into the warm diner. "How ya doing, Cutie? You look a little better than you did the other night."

Esmeralda put her hands on her hips and glared at Matilda, though her green eyes twinkled beguilingly. "I think I'm being insulted," she growled. "First I'm the devil and now I look bad?"

Matilda's eyes widened. "That's not what I said!" she protested, then caught sight of Esmeralda's smirk. She narrowed her eyes and then had to smile when Esmeralda laughed. "You like living dangerously, don't you?" she asked, then glanced at Saphira. "Nevermind," she continued dryly.

"HEY!" Saphira protested, then smiled when Esmeralda walked straight into her arms. Matilda just pointed a finger at her.

"Don't even bother. Now you two sit down and have a bite to eat before you head for home."


"Eh," holding up a single finger and halting Esmeralda's protest on her lips. "Do as I say, young lady. You're not gonna get sick again if I have anything to do with it. You got me?"

"Yes ma'am," Esmeralda acknowledged. "Thank you, Matilda."

"You and Saphira are like our own, Essie. Now sit up to the counter and tell me about your night. It had to be more interesting than the food fight we had here this evening."

"Food fight?" Esmeralda repeated, looking around at the spotless restaurant. Saphira snorted and shook her head.

"Don't let her fool ya, Sweetheart. Matilda put a stop to it so fast, those kids' eyeballs are probably still rolling around in their heads."

"Not to mention the bruises they're gonna have from being on their knees after cleaning up," Joe added as he set a plate between them and another for him and Matilda to share. "I've never seen anything so funny in my life."

"Why's that?" Esmeralda asked as she scooped up a forkful of mashed potatoes.

"Cause I made the parents get down there with 'em. The looks on their faces... priceless. But I betcha they never act like that in public again."

Saphira snorted again. "I betcha they never act like that ANYWHERE again." She turned to Esmeralda with a smirk. "Matilda threatened to turn them over to the Marines for discipline if they tried something that stupid in her sight again."

Esmeralda sighed. "And of course there's no video of this. That's way more interesting than my night - though I was apparently missed last night."

"You sure were, hon," Matilda assured her. "Both of you were. Now eat up. It's time for you two to get on home to bed."

"Us too, old woman."

"Watch who you're calling old woman there, old man."

Saphira and Esmeralda snickered and turned their attention to their food.

Chapter XXX

Saphira and Esmeralda were surprised to find Ruby waiting up for them when they got home. They immediately went into the living room to see what the problem was and Ruby motioned them to the couch opposite the chair she was occupying.

Ruby looked at them hard for several long, silent moments. Finally, Esmeralda couldn't stand it any more and moved to kneel beside Ruby, taking the worn hand in her own. She tilted her head in question.

"What is it, Ruby? What's wrong?"

She patted the hand that held hers, then gently cupped Esmeralda's face. "How are you, Es? Really?"

Esmeralda met Ruby's eyes and held them with her own. "I'm tired, Ruby," she replied honestly, "but I'm better than I was. I appreciate you working for Phira yesterday so she could stay home with me. I think that helped... a lot."

Ruby held Esmeralda's gaze for another long moment, then nodded her head slowly. "I wasn't looking for thanks, Es; I was glad to do it. You know that. You scared us yesterday - all of us... not just Saphira. Are you sure you're gonna be all right to finish this assignment?"

Esmeralda smiled gently and shook her head. "Only He knows that, Ruby. I can only take it one day at a time and do my best every day."

"That's as may be, young lady, but you're not to let yourself get run down like that again. If you need a break, you let us know so we can give one to you *before* you collapse. We're here to help... and to help you bear this burden. Let us."

"I'll try, Ruby. But so much of this sits on my shoulders and I've never...." She broke off and bit her lips before continuing. "I've never been in a position like this before - to where my health plays a role in how things get done."

"I know, honey. I know how you work. But you're gonna have to take it into account, because it does affect everything." She looked at Saphira whose head was down, hiding her eyes. "I know Amber is usually your second and she's exceptional at what she does, but you've got the best watching your back this time. She may not be a guardian, but Saphira has the strength to be the rock you need," smiling when Saphira's head popped up and she was pinned with blazing blue eyes. "Don't be afraid to utilize everything you've got. It's why we're here."

Esmeralda dropped her head into Ruby's lap, balancing her forehead on Ruby's knees. "I'm trying, Ruby. It's just hard."

Ruby trailed her hand through Esmeralda's messy blonde hair. "And you're exhausted. Are you sure you don't need a little more time off to recover?"

"I can't, Ruby. I feel like we're so close to a breakthrough. Once we get that, I think I'll be able to stop pushing so hard."

"Why?" Saphira asked unexpectedly. "Why do you think that a breakthrough is coming soon? And why will you get to slow down then?"

"It's hard to explain," Esmeralda said slowly. "It's one of those things I know because of my experience... you know, kind of like a gut feeling." She paused and looked at Saphira thoughtfully and smiled when Saphira nodded her understanding.

"So the fact that they're talking to one another again...?"

"That in and of itself is a huge breakthrough. But it's not enough - it's not the breakthrough we need. But it's progress."

"So how do you know you'll be able to ease up a little?"

Esmeralda smiled. "Because my job is to achieve that breakthrough. That's the objective here. After that...." She shrugged. "I can't force the results, Phira - you know that; none of us can."

"I know," Saphira answered with more than a hint of irritation in her tone. "I just...."

Esmeralda covered her hand. "I know, love. Soon... I promise," holding Saphira's eyes for another long moment before she turned back to Ruby. "Brianna is coming over on Sunday."

Ruby nodded her understanding. "I'll be here. Do you want the rest of the girls to go out?"

"Yeah - less questions that way."

"I'll take care of it. I'm sure they can find something to do in this town for a little while."

"Thanks, Ruby. Now shouldn't you be getting to bed? Morning will be here sooner than you want."

Ruby chuckled and shook her head. "Technically, morning's already here. And I always have to be up before I want to be anymore." She sighed dramatically. "I'm getting old. I need a vacation."

Esmeralda couldn't stop the laugh that bubbled up from her chest. "You may need a vacation, but you're not getting old, Ruby."

Ruby snorted. "You're right. I hit old years ago," cackling at their smirks. She patted Esmeralda's hands, then rose and headed for the door. "Night girls."

"Night, Ruby," they called back quietly, watching her slip up the stairs to the room on the next floor. Saphira and Esmeralda remained still for another couple minutes, then Saphira offered Esmeralda her hand, smiling when she clasped it immediately.

"C'mon, Es. It's late and I'm tired."

Esmeralda yawned and gave in to Saphira's gentle tugging towards their bedroom. "Me too," she conceded. "Maybe the next couple days will be quiet." They exchanged glances.

"Nah," they agreed wryly, knowing the way things tended to go. Then they went into the bedroom and shut the door. They would worry about tomorrow on the morrow.


Except that the next couple days were completely quiet. Charisma and Brianna stuck to their schedules and routines, not once interacting with each other as their work didn't demand it. Charisma's staff breathed the smallest sigh of relief - it was nice to return to some semblance of the chaos that passed for normalcy in her office. And without Brianna in her sphere, Charisma found it easier to focus and maintain her professional demeanor. Brianna's staff, still feeling their way around their new boss, was just glad for the chance to watch her at work. Brianna may have been the new kid on this particular political block, but she had been around the type all her adult life and knew how to work a crowd to her advantage.

Indi and Opal spoke to Esmeralda briefly, giving her updates as they were preparing to abscond for the day, then leaving her to her work. Charisma and Brianna both chatted with her for a few minutes before heading off to their respective homes for the evening. Esmeralda made sure Brianna knew where she and Saphira lived so she would be able to find them on Sunday. But otherwise, everything remained status quo and so the week passed into the weekend.

When Sunday rolled around, Saphira rose early and slipped out of the room stealthily, determined to do the last-minute cleaning that needed to be done before Esmeralda woke to do it. She walked to the coffee pot and found it half-full and hot, so she went into the living room to see if she could discover what was going on. What she found was all their housemates doing a little bit each, making quick work of everything that needed to be done.

Ruby took one look at her gobsmacked expression and laughed, crossing the room to push Saphira's mouth closed. "Don't want you catching flies," she commented, chuckling again when Saphira cut her eyes and glared, then crossed her arms over her chest.

"There are no flies this time of year, Ruby."

Ruby snorted. "Figure of speech, Saphira. You looked like you got hit between the eyes."

"S'okay... I kinda feel that way at the moment. What are you all doing up so early? And how come I didn't hear you?"

The rest looked at her and smiled, then shook their heads and returned to their silent work. Ruby took her by the arm and led her back to the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator door and started pulling out stuff to make breakfast. Saphira took it from her as she handed it out, placing it on the counter and waiting for Ruby to speak.

Once she had everything she needed, Ruby shut the door and motioned to Saphira. Then together they started preparing breakfast for the crew. "Ruby?" Saphira coaxed as she set the first tray of bacon into the microwave and slid the biscuits into the oven.

Ruby looked up from her cutting board and shook her head. "Sorry - I was thinking ahead today. Remember, we're always up this early and you generally don't hear us. And we've all worked with Es before. We know what she likes and what she expects."

"I don't...."

"Angel or not, Es is a proud woman. And even though we are all neat and fastidious in our habits, the fact is that with a dozen women living here - give or take - the house is not always going to be as neat or as clean as we'd like it to be... especially when we're having company over. So the girls and I decided to take care of that this morning before they head out for the day. With that many women working together, it really doesn't take long."

Saphira held up the pot and Ruby nodded. She topped off their cups and started another pot brewing. Once it was underway, she started the eggs. If they had timed it right, breakfast would be ready just about the time that the girls were done with their cleaning. And it would still be warm when Amber and Coral returned.

"Has anyone heard from Mal?" Ruby asked. Saphira shook her head.

"No. She asked Es to give her a couple more days to pin some things down, so we should be hearing from her shortly." Saphira turned to the kitchen door as the troops wordlessly filed in just as she was taking the eggs off of the stove. They seated themselves and Ruby said grace, then they silently began to fill their plates.

After the first rush of hunger was sated, Saphira turned to Ame, whose bruising was now muted shades of yellow and green. "How do you feel?"

Ame swallowed and nodded her head. "Better," she replied. "Not even a residual headache."

"Good," Saphira confirmed. "Are you going over to Charisma's today?"

"No... Sunday is my normal day off. She'd start asking questions if I just showed up there. Why?"

Saphira shook her head. "Who usually watches her?"

"Amber. She usually does a thirty-six hour stretch between Saturday night and Monday morning."

Saphira's eyes popped. "Well that explains a lot." She turned to Jade. "I want you over there today. Amber deserves a break and I don't want to leave Charisma alone."

"You got it, boss," Jade responded with a nod. Saphira shook her head.

"I'm not the boss. I'm just keeping an eye on things for her at the moment."

"Speaking of the boss," Ruby broke in. "How's Es doing?"

Saphira felt every eye in the room turn her way and she chewed slowly and swallowed before she opened her mouth to answer. "I'd like to say she's getting better, but I honestly don't know that. I know she felt a little better after the extra rest she got this week, but...." She shrugged. "Something's still not right."

"Is there anything we can do?" Opal asked.

"I don't think so," Saphira countered softly. "I think this is a wait and see thing. But if something comes up, you all will be the first to know."

"Just so you know we're here if you need us."

"Yeah, I know. We both do. So what are you guys planning to do today?"

"We're going to be tourists today. We thought we'd walk the Mall - maybe take in a few museums."

"Yeah, we figure Jas will let us know when we can come home."

Jas snorted. "Assuming Brianna decides to use the car today. I'm still waiting for a phone call to let me know when to pick her up this morning and bring her here. It wouldn't surprise me a bit for her to decide to hop the Metro."

"Me either," Saphira agreed. "She's just that independent."

"Wonder how long that will last," Opal murmured, drawing everyone's attention. "Most politicians can't wait to take advantage of all the perks."

"Given what I've seen," Indi contributed softly, "Brianna Walker isn't your normal politician."

"Now if she can just convince Charisma Tagherty of that," Esmeralda commented sleepily from the doorway of the bedroom. "What are you all doing up so early? And why didn't somebody," pinning Saphira's eyes with her own, "wake me?"

Ruby snorted. "As for the first," she replied without hesitation, "we're always up this early. It's pretty much a habit for us. And for the second...?" She cut her gaze in Saphira's direction and chuckled. "You're kidding me, right?"

Esmeralda sniffed and stuck out her tongue in Ruby's direction, causing laughter to ripple around the table. She tried to glare, but her sleep-rumpled appearance and a huge yawn made the effort less than effective. Instead, Saphira rose and patted the back of her empty chair, sliding her dirty plate off the table and putting a clean one in its place. Ruby poured her a fresh cup of coffee and the rest began passing the food in her direction.

Without a word, Jade rose from the table as well, giving Saphira a nod and heading out to relieve Amber for the day. Some minutes later, she came in the door, almost giving Esmeralda whiplash as her head jerk around.


She raised her full coffee cup towards Saphira and took an empty spot as the others began to file out of the kitchen to make their last-minute preparations for their day. Esmeralda simply sat and waited, looking back and forth between Saphira, Ruby and Amber. "Someone wanna fill me in this morning?" she prompted with a hint of acid in her voice.

"I sent Jade to Charisma's to give Amber a bit of a break. I know it was Coral's turn, but Amber's been doing this longer and Coral will get a break today anyway," Saphira offered quietly. "Even if Brianna uses the Metro to get here."

Esmeralda nodded. "Fair enough." She turned to Amber. "Straight up to bed with you, Missy."

"No arguments from me, boss. I'm beat."

Esmeralda frowned. "Something happen?"

"I didn't have to fight or struggle or anything like that, if that's what you mean. But watching Charisma last night... it was exhausting." She held up her hand before anyone could interrupt, shoveling the last of her meal into her mouth, then pushing her plate away and leaning back with her coffee cup cradled in her hands. Esmeralda pushed away her mostly untouched plated, causing a look of concern to pass between the other three before Ruby rose and took it to the sink.

She started the water running to wash the dishes, knowing the conversation would continue around her work. Saphira took a seat next to Esmeralda and waited for Amber to continue. Finally, Amber swallowed the last bite of food and took a deep breath.

"When I got there, Adam was having bath time. Actually, *they* were having bath time - Adam was just the only one undressed for it. But Charisma seemed to be enjoying it and Adam basked under his mom's attention. Once they were done and he was in his pajamas, Charisma slipped into a robe and they settled down for story time. According to Ame, they'd had quite a busy playtime, so it didn't take long or very much of Green Eggs and Ham for Adam to nod right on off to sleep. Still, she read the whole book and rocked him for a few minutes more before she tucked him in for the night. That's when things got interesting.

She went into her room and phoned Kent, but of course he was onstage and not able to take her call. Then she called her mother - I'm not sure who was the most surprised about that," Amber commented thoughtfully, cocking her head. "I'll come back to that," she promised.

"After a few minutes on the phone with first Okasa and then Patrick, Charisma got up and started pacing the floor. It went on for half an hour or so before she went down to her office and took out that album." Amber looked up at both Saphira and Esmeralda. "I wish you could have seen this - she was angry and frustrated and melancholy and sad - so many emotions roiling through her being. I half expected her to throw the album into the fire a time or two. But every time, she'd pull back... just short of doing any real damage.

Finally, she slammed the book shut and raced upstairs. She threw on some ratty old workout clothes - real old... like college old - and headed into the gym. That was something. She must have been in that room for the better part of four hours. When she finished, she could hardly make herself move up the stairs to her room. She took the album up with her." Amber turned golden eyes to Esmeralda.

"Es, that's the first time that book has been out of her office since we started this."

"What happened?"

"Charisma took a shower and crawled... almost literally... into her bed. Then she sat looking at that album til she fell asleep. Es... she was crying."

Esmeralda pinched her lips thoughtfully and covered Amber's hand. "Thank you, Amber. Can you let Ame know she's likely to get a call to go in to work today? Then go get some rest. You look as tired as I feel."

Amber smiled. "As long as I don't look as tired as Charisma feels, I'll be all right. Call me if you need me, all right?"

"Go on. We'll be all right. Ruby's here and Brianna will be here shortly. The rest... you know my motto."

Amber nodded as she stood and stretched. "Yeah, but I think we're down to taking it a minute at a time right now. Night, guys." They watched her head up the stairs and turned back to the table thoughtfully, each wondering what else the day might bring.

To be continued

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