Chapter XXXI

"Hello?" Brianna yawned into the phone as she blinked her eyes open, glad for the darkening shades in her bedroom.

"Brianna? Did I wake you up, sweetheart?" The voice on the other end of the phone caused Brianna to shoot up into a sitting position.

"Mama O??" rubbing her eyes and trying to force a wakefulness she simply didn't feel, even with the rush of adrenaline hearing Okasa's voice had caused. She pushed her hair off her face and rubbed the back of her neck. "Is everything okay?" yawning again.

"I was going to ask you the same thing. What's going on down there? I got the strangest phone call from my daughter last night...."

Brianna blinked rapidly. "Um...."

"I did wake you up, didn't I? I'm sorry, Little Bri," the nickname bringing a smile to Brianna's face. "I didn't stop to think that you might have had a late night last night. I know about some of those parties and things that go on down there, you know," with a hint of a smile in her tone.

Brianna yawned and shook her head, even though Okasa couldn't see the motion. Then she slid from the bed and headed towards the kitchen. "Oh, Mama O - it's nothing nearly that exciting. I've been working really long hours here trying to catch up on all the stuff I'm supposed to be working on - either in committee or just generally speaking. I'm actually taking the day off today. A friend invited me over for lunch with her and her partner. That's why I was still in bed when you called."

"And I messed up your sleep-in," Okasa tsked. "I'm sorry, Brianna."

"Don't be, Mama O. It's good to hear from you."

"The phone does work both ways," she replied tartly, drawing a chuckle from Brianna and smiling in response. "However, I do understand you're still settling in - so I'll forgive you this time... as long as you promise it won't be too long before you call me."

"I promise, Mama. You know I'm good for it." She flipped on the coffee maker and started dumping things into her cup as she waited for it to brew. Then she snagged a banana for breakfast.

"I do indeed. Now what is going on down there... really? Charisma called me last night."

Brianna waited but when nothing more was forthcoming, she felt the need to prompt Okasa. "All right... and this is unusual how? Okasa, she's your daughter. Surely you talk on the phone occasionally."

"No one likes a smartass," Okasa muttered, "especially this early in the morning." Brianna arched an eyebrow and snorted.

"Then you shouldn't have called so early, Mama O. You know what a smartass I am after coffee. Why would you think a lack of it would make it better?"

"Good point," Okasa agreed with a hint of light laughter in her voice. Then she cleared her throat and Brianna could hear the worry in her tone. "I'm... concerned, Brianna. Charisma sounded upset."

Brianna frowned. "Did she say anything, Okasa? Give you any idea what she was upset about?"

"No. She didn't *say* anything - seriously. We talked about absolutely nothing - the weather, the traffic, Kent's new show. That's part of the reason I'm worried. There is always something real for us to talk about - her work, my work, the family. Her daddy thinks I'm crazy... insists that I'm imagining things. But I'm not - a mother knows when something is wrong... especially when...."

"Especially when what, Okasa? You can't just stop there. And doesn't Kent count as family? He is her husband and Adam's father, after all."

"Yes, he does and yes he is. But we didn't talk about Kent... just his show."

"Especially when what?" Brianna prodded again when Okasa didn't continue. "If you want me to try to give you answers, Okasa, I need to know the whole truth."

"Last night was the first time we had heard from her since you arrived in Washington. There was something different - her voice... her attitude." Okasa sighed. "It's hard to explain. Paddy would have recognized the difference if he'd been on the phone with her. Instead, he thinks I'm a lunatic."

"That's not fair, Mama," Brianna heard across the wire and the gentle brogue brought a smile to her face. "That's not what I said at all," Patrick protested, making Brianna chuckle. Okasa huffed.

"Little Bri, you're on speaker now. I'm not going to play go-between while Paddy argues his case."

"Hi, Brianna," Patrick offered a touch sheepishly.

"Good morning, Papa," she returned cheerfully, pouring her coffee into her cup and relishing her fist sip after she'd stirred everything in. "Why do you doubt Mama?"

"He doubts, Little One, because the only thing he said to Charisma was 'I love you' and because if he agrees with me it means there is something wrong with his baby girl that he didn't catch. That is bad enough. The fact that she hasn't come to us about it just makes it worse."

"Papa," Brianna scolded gently. "You do realize Charisma is a grown woman? A United States Senator? You can't expect her to come running to you when something goes wrong in her life hoping you can fix it and make it all go away."

"I know, but...."

"But," Brianna cut in, "she did call you. Trust that Mama knows that she called because she needed you. Now you have to figure out what she needs from you."

Patrick frowned. "Why exactly are you a lawyer? And how did you get into politics? You're much too smart for that, Brianna. You shoulda been a doctor."

Brianna laughed. "Um... NO. Too much drama. Haven't you ever seen those medical shows on television?" drawing laughs from the Taghertys. "So that's why you think something is wrong? Because Charisma called you last night and she sounded... what?"


"I'm not sure I understand."

Okasa sighed. "I'm not sure I can explain it well enough to make you understand."

"Try, Mama. You wouldn't have called me about this if it wasn't important."

"This is true," Okasa admitted. "You have to know that Charisma and I talk every Sunday as a matter of course. She calls in the evening so Paddy and I can talk to Adam before bedtime and then she and I generally spend a little time catching up - you know… like I told you earlier. We talk about the family; she shares some stories of her work and I do the same. Kind of like when you and I talk," hearing Brianna's hum of acknowledgement.

"So the fact that she called last night...."

"Rang all kinds of alarm bells. The fact that she didn't have anything to talk about ... I decided to call you. If anyone might have an idea of what was bothering her...."


"Brianna - discounting the fact that you're Charisma's best friend, you're the only one there where she is. You're the only one who might have an inkling of what happened to throw her off her stride."

"First of all, Okasa - I'm not Charisma's best friend... not for twenty years, and you know that. Please don't try to bullshit me."


"No, Okasa! I don't...."

"Brianna, listen to me a minute," hearing Brianna huff impatiently before she fell silent. "Brianna... despite everything, you're the only best friend Charisma ever had... still. Now I'll grant you that your situation could in no way be considered normal, but it is what it is. And until and unless that changes...."

Brianna sighed. "Mama O," she said resignedly. "Is there a point here?"

"You two make me crazy, you know that?" Okasa groused, then continued before Brianna could offer a response. "Even considering the fact that you and Charisma haven't been part of one another's lives for twenty years, no one knows my baby the way that you do. That plus the fact that you're actually in the same place...."

"Did you ever stop to think that might be her problem, Okasa? That us being in the same sphere for the first time in twenty years would be enough to shake her up?"

"Then why wait so long to call, Brianna? Why not call and vent as soon as you accepted the appointment? Or the first time you met again? Something must have happened to have caused her to call home just to babble." She paused. "What's going on there, Brianna... really?"

"I met Adam," Brianna offered into the well of silence between them.

"All right," Patrick finally said after exchanging long stares with Okasa. "Did it go poorly? God knows the first few days with his father could be considered horrific. He screamed every time Kent got near him."

"Oh no," Brianna reassured them swiftly. "Nothing like that at all. In fact...." Brianna trailed off and Patrick and Okasa let the silence go on until they wondered if their connection had been severed.


Brianna started and looked at the phone stupidly a moment before replying. "Sorry, Mama O. I was just thinking."

Patrick chuckled. "Still takes you that way, does it?"

Brianna laughed, especially when she heard Okasa backhand Patrick in the belly. "Papa, some days I count my blessings that it *can* still take me that way. It beats not being taken at all."

"So tell us, Little Bri. What happened when you met our precocious grandson?"

"Nothing I would consider special... at least I didn't until.... Let me start at the beginning." Brianna told them of her encounter with Adam in the hallway. "Now in fairness, I haven't had to deal with many kids in my life, except of course your *other* grandchildren. And you know how they are - very outgoing and friendly... kind of like your kids. So I just figured Adam was the same way. Except when we went for ice cream later, Charisma wanted to know what kind of a spell I put on her son."

The Taghertys laughed. "And what did you tell her, my dear?"

"I told her that I didn't do anything but talk to him at his level. He... it's funny - he looked at me for a long moment, then declared me to be 'good.' After that, it was just a matter of taking him back to his mom. Apparently being 'good' was reason enough for him to trust me."

"He's actually an astonishing judge of character - given his age and background. Especially when you consider his natural shyness. It took him several visits with his cousins before he actually decided to play with them. Now of course, he runs off to play with them the minute they arrive."

"I can't picture a child of Charisma's as quiet and reserved. He certainly wasn't with me."

"Brianna?" Patrick asked when their chuckles wound down again. "What else happened?" He paused, then pushed forward. "I mean... I think something else must've thrown her off. Otherwise she wouldn't have agreed to go get ice cream with you. Unless... was that the first time you'd been alone together since your arrival? Or have you been rebuilding...?" Brianna's indelicate snort caused his words to trail off. He waited, and finally Brianna spoke.

"We're not rebuilding anything, Papa. She basically told me flat out that the only interaction we'd ever have together would be professional. The only reason we went for ice cream together was because of Adam. He didn't want to let me go back to work after I found him. Ice cream in the afternoon was our compromise."

"Brianna?" Okasa spoke up. "When Adam declared you 'good', what was Charisma's reaction?"

"Aside from accusing me of witchcraft on her son? I don't know, really. I wasn't looking at her either time he said it; I was looking at Adam. He has her eyes, you know."

Okasa laughed. "Yes, I had noticed that." Then she sobered. "Can you think of any reason...?"

Brianna sighed. "Yeah," she said casually - more casual than her speech had been since high school. In her business, informality wasn't acceptable most of the time... even in casual conversation. People expected more. So Okasa knew the minute the slang fell from Brianna's lips, they were finally getting to the crux of the matter.

"Can you share?"

There was another heavy sigh and the Taghertys heard the sound of another cup of coffee being made before Brianna spoke again. "Charisma mentioned my eyes - said Adam was another sucker for green eyes. Then she took Adam and hightailed it out of the dining room like her feet were on fire."

"But that's wonderful!" Okasa exclaimed and Brianna could hear the smile in her voice. "That means she feels... she still...."

"No, Okasa. It means she's still unwilling to feel - or to acknowledge the possibility of... well, anything really. She's not even willing to feign friendship."

Okasa snorted. "So what are you going to do about it, Brianna?"

Brianna shook her head, even though Okasa couldn't see her. She chuckled sadly. "Nothing, Mama O. Not a damn thing. Nothing has changed as far as Charisma is concerned, and she made her choice years ago when she let me walk away without looking back. Despite what it could be if given a chance and as much as I'd like for things to be different...."

"That's bullshit, Brianna Walker! Tell her how you feel! Fight for her!"

Brianna sighed. "I've been fighting for twenty years to make sure she was happy - to make sure she got what she wanted out of life - even while I knew that what she wanted was never going to include me. I'm tired of fighting."

"Then start fighting for something instead of against it!"

"Was there anything else you needed to know, Mama?" she asked respectfully while completely avoiding Okasa's argument. "I still need to get ready to go out."

Okasa bit her lip and relaxed back into Patrick's body when he put his arms around her. "I think that's all for now, Little One. Remember you promised to call me soon."

"I know, Mama O. I will. You and Papa say a prayer at Mass for me this morning. Maybe God will listen to you."

"Oh Sweetheart. God listens to all his children. He just doesn't always answer in our time."

"I'm not sure I have enough life left to wait on His," Brianna said wryly. "I'll call next week. I want to tell you about the new friends I've made here. You'd like them - they think like you do... that Charisma and I should be together."

"Really? How long have you known them?"

"Only since I arrived in the capital, although Charisma has known at least one of them for a while. She's the custodian on our floor of the Senate office building we're in."

"That wouldn't be Esmeralda, would it?"

"Yes, it would," Brianna affirmed with a smile. "She and her partner Saphira helped me out the night I got here and ended up completely lost and they've become good friends since then. I wish you could meet them, Mama. They have something together that is so rare. But they have fought to be together... given up everything for one another. That's why I know...." She trailed off.

Okasa cleared her throat. "We'll look forward to hearing all about them. I wanna hear what you think about some of your colleagues as well. Given some of the tales Charisma has shared, it could make for a fun conversation."

"I'll just bet."

"All right, Brianna. You go get ready for your day out with your friends."

"Thanks, Mama. Love you. Love you, Papa."

"Love you too," Okasa and Patrick assured Brianna before hanging up their phone. Then they turned to look at one another.

"Are you satisfied now, Papa?"

"I'll agree something is definitely up with our daughter," he agreed reluctantly. "But I'm not sure I know what we're supposed to do about it."

"We're gonna go to church and light a candle and say a prayer. Then I'm gonna go to the post office tomorrow and mail Charisma a package she shoulda gotten years ago. Maybe we could've avoided this whole mess."


"Trust me, Paddy-me-love. I shoulda done this a long time ago. Now, go get ready for church. We've got some praying to do."

Chapter XXXII

"Knock, knock," Brianna called out even as she knocked on the door of the address Esmeralda had given her. She smiled when Saphira opened the door almost immediately.

"Brianna... welcome! Please come in," gesturing her into the narrow foyer. Brianna held up her hand.

"Hey, Saphira. I um... I actually brought some stuff with me," motioning to her car.

"Brianna, you didn't need to bring anything."

"I know. But I couldn't not. My mother might make an appearance to give me a lesson in manners and deportment." She shuddered dramatically. "I'd rather give that a miss if you don't mind." Brianna turned back to Jas who stood beside the car awaiting her orders.

"Well, let's grab your stuff before Es decides I got lost bringing you to the kitchen."

Brianna handed Saphira a couple bags, then she and Jas hefted a small cooler between them and followed Saphira back towards the house. By this point, Esmeralda had wondered at their delay and she met them at the door, eyebrows high on her forehead in puzzlement.

"Did I miss a memo?" she asked as they passed her on their way into the kitchen. "I thought we invited you over to have lunch with us - not for you to bring it with you," Esmeralda offered with a grin. "Thanks, Jas," she added when Jas turned to leave. Jas gave Esmeralda a snappy salute, then turned to Brianna.

"Is there anything else, Senator?"

"No," Brianna replied, shaking her head. "I'll call you when Saphira and Es are ready to throw me out."

"Yes ma'am," she acknowledged, then went out the door and back to the car. The rest watched her go, following the sound of the car until it faded away. Then they looked at one another and laughed.

Esmeralda opened her arms and offered Brianna a hug that she readily accepted, then Saphira did the same. "Welcome to our home," Esmeralda said. "We're really glad you're here, Brianna. But um... why all the stuff?" gesturing to the things that had been brought in.

Brianna cleared her throat. "Well, my mother taught me that you never go anywhere empty-handed. But I forgot to ask what we were having today, so I brought a few things hoping something would fit in with whatever you were preparing."

Esmeralda smiled gently. "All you needed to bring was yourself, but I'm sure we can probably use any number of things you brought along with you. I've learned to be flexible in my menu making. Besides, we wouldn't want you to get in trouble with your mother, would we?"

"I knew you'd understand."

Esmeralda snorted. "I have a mother too," was her only comment, making Brianna laugh and Saphira snicker. But the awkwardness was broken and they put things away. Saphira fixed them drinks and they crossed into the living room to visit.

"If it was warmer, we could sit out in the backyard."

"It would have to be a lot warmer, Es. There's no reason for you to catch a chill, and I'm pretty sure we'd get frostbite if we stayed outside for too long today. As pretty as the sunshine is, it's not very warm."

"And come mid-summer, we'll be wondering where the cool air has gotten off to."

Brianna smirked. "True. I guess we're never really satisfied." She groaned and twisted her neck, sighing when she felt it pop back into place. "This is wonderful. Thank you both for inviting me."

"We were glad you could come. Most wouldn't, you know."

"Their loss," Brianna stated emphatically. "Can I ask you something? It's been bugging me for... well, since it happened." Saphira and Esmeralda exchanged glances and shrugged, then nodded at Brianna. She looked at Esmeralda. "How do you know Jas?" She chuckled when Esmeralda's eyes widened and her brows flew into her hairline. "I mean, you do know her, right? As more than just a casual acquaintance?"

Esmeralda smiled. "I'd call us friends, though I can say the same about a lot of the sewer rats."

"Excuse me?! What the hell is a sewer rat?" green eyes sparking fire. "And you better not be talking about yourself!!"

"Brianna, it's all right. It's what all the big wigs refer to the common working class as when they think we're not listening."

"That's not right!"

"No," Esmeralda agreed sadly. "But it doesn't make it any less true. The non-public tunnels we use also house the pipes that carry the sewage and waste out of the building. So we're sewer rats. We come out of hiding when the building goes dark... in theory anyway."

Brianna grit her teeth and took a deep breath to try and center herself. When she felt the rage calm to a tolerable level, she spoke again. "So you met Jas...?"

"The drivers share a lounge with the custodial crew downstairs... between the entrance to the lot where the cars are kept and our cleaning closets. So when they're on a break or we are, we get a chance to talk. I think I know every driver for every senator in the building; of course I know most of the cleaning crew; and even though they're never down on our level, I chat with every staffer on my floor. It's quite a mixed bunch of folks."

Brianna laughed. "You should have gone into politics, Es. You're obviously a master of understatement."

"Oh no... no thank you. I have trouble enough keeping up with the truth. I couldn't manage the lies."

Brianna offered her a wry look. "I think I should be insulted." She snorted. "Actually, I would be insulted if I didn't already know that for the truth." She paused. "So tell me how you convinced my driver to do what you asked instead of her job... especially considering the kind of trouble that could have landed her in." Brianna didn't sound angry... merely curious.

Esmeralda sighed and looked at Saphira who held her gaze for a long moment, then squeezed her hand in support. Es lifted the hand to her lips and brushed a light kiss over the knuckles before turning her attention back to Brianna - to find her watching them in fascination.


Brianna shrugged and shook her head. "Nothing. I've just never seen two people communicate the way you two do. It's always been more like something you'd find in a novel - lovely to think about but not a genuine possibility in real life."

"Do you doubt our sincerity?" Saphira asked without a hint of malice in her tone.

"Not at all - that's what makes it so amazing. But that doesn't answer my original question," turning back to Esmeralda.

"It was easy, Brianna - I asked," holding up her free hand to stop Brianna's speech before she could form her first thought. "Remember... I have been doing my job for a long time and I have known Jas for most of that. She knew something was wrong, so she was willing to give me a shot at helping... even if that meant she risked her position. Jas is one of the good guys, Brianna. She cares."

"So you help a lot of folks then?"

Esmeralda shrugged. "I do what I can. I'm a firm believer in what goes around comes around, and if I have the chance to help someone out, I try to do that. I figure eventually, it'll all come back to me in a good way."

"And if it doesn't?"

"What have I lost except the chance to do the right thing?"

"I don't know if I could be that selfless."

"Haven't you already, Brianna? Didn't you give up your own opportunity at happiness with the one who meant the most to you in the whole world to insure her well-being and peace of mind?"

Brianna sighed. "That was different."

"How do you figure?" Saphira asked quietly.

"Because I loved Charisma. I needed to do it for me as much as I needed to do it for her. Esmeralda doesn't love me or anyone else she helps... at least not like that. It's one thing to sacrifice your happiness for one you love - you know that... you did it for each other. But it is something else again to do it for someone who is a mere acquaintance or even a stranger."

"Greater love hath no man than this...." Saphira quoted.

"Maybe," Brianna conceded, "but I don't think so."

"So what are you gonna do about her... Charisma, I mean?" Saphira asked when the silence started to draw out too long. Brianna shook her head and sighed.

"Nothing," she admitted, holding up her hand in an effort to quell their questions. "I've spent a lot of time thinking about this. I had all kinds of ideas - things I could do to get Charisma's attention... to make her realize how much I've missed her and her friendship in my life."

"That doesn't sound like a bad thing," Esmeralda approved.

"On the surface, it really doesn't. Except Charisma can't stand to be alone with me long enough to do more than exchange platitudes. I don't see a reason to make us both miserable. Besides, my feelings for Charisma are still as real and deep as they were when I first realized I'd fallen in love with my best friend. The only difference is now she's a married woman. And whatever else I am, I am not now, nor have I ever been a home wrecker."

"You think allowing the friendship you shared to resume would somehow destroy her marriage? That's not a very high commentary on your perception of the state of her marriage."

"Saphira, please don't put words in my mouth."

Saphira's eyes widened. "I wasn't trying to. I'm trying to understand your thinking."

Unexpectedly, Brianna chuckled. "Good luck with that. My mother swears she needs a map and a GPS to follow my thought processes." Saphira and Esmeralda laughed at Brianna's words and wry expression.

"Will you explain what you meant? I really am trying to understand."

Brianna sighed. "So am I really. When I first accepted this appointment, my goal was to just get through it. I mean, I had avoided Charisma for twenty years, surely I could manage two in close proximity, right?" She chuckled wryly. "Of course I didn't realize how close that proximity was going to be or I might have rethought the whole thing. However, once I got here, I was committed to two years and I figured... how hard could it be?"

"Harder than you thought?"

"Impossible. Being here... seeing her again - it made me understand how much I missed her. And after talking to Es, I thought maybe we could just be friends again, you know? I mean, we're both reasonable adults, right? Only she shot me down before I even got out of the gate. She doesn't want to be friends; she doesn't want anything to do with me beyond what is required of her professionally."

"So you're just giving up?"

"I'm just accepting the inevitable. Besides, it's probably for the best - maybe I can find someone for me now instead of holding on to an impossibility." Brianna sighed and looked at both women before settling her eyes on Esmeralda. "I'm tired of fighting, Es. There comes a point when you just have to say no more."

"Okay," Saphira conceded, "but that doesn't explain your home wrecker comment."

Brianna rubbed her forehead hard enough to leave crease marks. "That had nothing to do with Charisma or the state of her marriage particularly. In my book, married women are off-limits."

"Lesson learned the hard way?"

"Something like that," Brianna muttered. "It would have been ugly for me if I hadn't found out before anything happened. Besides, who needs that kind of drama in their life?? I've got enough going on without someone else's issues crowding my plate." Her voice was sardonic.

Esmeralda grinned. "Don't we all?"

Brianna laughed for a long moment before she sobered. "I will miss getting to know Adam and watch him grow up, though. He's a firecracker and I'm betting he'll be a heartbreaker some day."

"I have to say... as much as Saphira and I would like to be able to have children, I'm not sure the world is ready for what our offspring would be."

Brianna cocked her head. Saphira just chuckled and nodded her affirmation to Esmeralda's words. "Why do you say that?" she queried, looking between them. "Do you think they'd be born with super powers or something?" She paused in thought a moment. "That could actually be kind of cool... as long as you got super powers too - preferably better ones."

Esmeralda snorted. "Trust me, Brianna - even having super powers wouldn't help. Our kids would be hellions."

"You say that so factually... like you already know."

"Brianna," Esmeralda said in her driest tone. "Saphira and I grew up together. We know what we were like as children. Putting all that mischief into a single body...." She shuddered. "Not a good idea."

"Maybe," Brianna agreed with a grin. "But you have to admit they'd be adorable."

Saphira snorted. "Yeah... this planet needs more of that - brats that some people find adorable that the rest of us want to strangle on principle. I get enough of those in my day job. I sure wouldn't want to come home to them."

Brianna grimaced. "Ew... good point. Kind of a shame though - you two would make beautiful children together."

"What about you, Brianna? You ever thought about having kids?"

Brianna's eyes widened. "Me?? Um... no. Not really. Not at all, actually. I wouldn't know how to raise one."

"Isn't it all learned by trial and error?"

"I can't say, but I do know I'd prefer to skip the trial so I can avoid the error." Saphira and Esmeralda chuckled at Brianna's matter-of-fact statement and she smiled at them. "So tell me more about the two of you," she asked. "Es said you grew up together. What was that like for you?"

Before either of them could answer, Ruby stuck her head in the living room. Esmeralda motioned her in. "Brianna, this is Ruby, a dear friend who came to help us out while I'm recovering. Ruby, please meet Senator Brianna Walker."

"How do you do, Senator? It's a pleasure to meet you."

"The pleasure is all mine, Ruby, and I'm Brianna out of the office."

"I'm sorry to intrude, ladies, but I was gonna get started on lunch. Only I'm not quite sure what lunch is supposed to be now," she added ruefully.

Esmeralda grinned and looked at the other two women in the room. "What do you two say to moving this party to the kitchen so we can take a look at what we've got to work with?"

"I think that sounds like an excellent idea," Saphira said as she rose from her spot. "Besides, I could use a refill," holding up her empty glass. "How about you, Brianna?"

"I'm doing good, actually, but I never turn down a chance to be in the kitchen. I have yet to not learn something while I was there - whether it was a new recipe or cooking method or just the latest gossip."

Esmeralda smirked at Ruby, knowing she would go along with the tease. "See, I told you the kitchen was better than those rag mags you like to read in the checkout line." Ruby hip-checked her and they laughingly made their way into the kitchen. A hand on Saphira's arm made her hang back with Brianna and she arched a brow in silent question.

"How is Es... really, Saphira? I gotta tell you - she scared the lot of us on the floor the other day when she missed work."

Saphira sighed. "She scared me too, but we're taking it one day at a time. It's all we can do at this point. But thank you for asking, Brianna. It's nice to know that folks care."

Brianna smiled. "I think you'll find that Es has a lot of friends that care. Now c'mon," she instructed, linking her arm with Saphira's. "We better get in there before Es decides we've gotten lost again."

"Too late," Esmeralda said with a soft laugh as they stepped from the living room. "I've already figured out that the two of you are working on some sort of government conspiracy cover-up." She narrowed her eyes at them. "But I'll figure it out."

Saphira leaned forward and brushed Esmeralda's cheek with her lips. "Just remember to have mercy when you discover we're plotting to take over the world by means of ice cream infiltration."

Her words and deadpan delivery got her laughter and Saphira grinned in response. Then Esmeralda swatted her on the behind and shook her head. "Ice cream infiltration indeed. Maybe you should see if Ruby needs some help."

"Yes, dear," Saphira and Brianna chimed in sync, bursting into giggles as they crossed into the kitchen. Ruby just looked at them; Esmeralda shook her head and went to follow them when a knock sounded on the front door.

She frowned, but called out, "I've got it." Then she stepped to the door and looked out the peephole. "Oh boy," she muttered. "This could get interesting."

Chapter XXXIII

Charisma groaned as the early morning light from the partially open curtains landed squarely on her face. She wiped her eyes, blinking furiously at the burning sensation she felt coursing through them. She pulled a pillow on top of her head, hoping the world would pass her by for a little while so she could grab a little more sleep. Then she heard Adam stirring and groaned again. This time, however, she flung the pillow off her face and rolled to the edge of the bed, mumbling and cursing under her breath about her stupidity the night before. There wasn't one part of her not protesting, and most parts were doing so on a number of levels.

She shifted slowly, wincing as her body snapped and popped with every movement. When she was finally in an upright position, she twisted her back, realigning her spine bone by bone. Then she turned the other direction and the album caught her eye.

With a sigh, she pulled it towards her and let it fall open of its own volition. Not surprisingly, it fell naturally to the page she'd spent the better part of twenty years and a good portion of the prior evening simply staring at. Reverently, she slid the photograph from the book and gazed at it, gently tracing her fingers over it.

Charisma took a shuddering breath and blinked the tears from her eyes when she heard Adam's footsteps running down the hallway in the direction of her bedroom. Carefully, she eased the picture back into its protective plastic sleeve and closed the album... just in time to turn and catch her son as he leaped in her direction.

"Oof!" she gasped, though the sound was lost in Adam's laughter.

"MAMA!" he squealed, holding her face in his hands and pressing a sloppy kiss to her cheek. Charisma held Adam tightly and brushed a kiss over his hair.

"Good morning, Adam! How is mama's big boy today?"

"GOOD!" Adam confirmed as he leaned back lo look his mother in the eye. "Hungry," he added with an impish grin, knowing Charisma would return his smile.

"Oh, you are?" she queried, a smile turning up the corners of her lips even though she could still feel the tears burning in the back of her throat. "Well maybe we should see about getting breakfast then, hmm, little man?"

"PANCAKES!" Adam voted loudly and Charisma winced as he had determined to cast his vote right next to her ear. She had a passing thought to wonder why it was kids in general and her offspring particularly felt the need to shout to be heard. Putting it down to a desire to ensure they were heard, she shook her head and set Adam on his feet.

Before she could move to stand, Adam's attention was taken by the album still resting on the bed and he naturally gravitated towards it. Adam grabbed for it, but Charisma quickly moved it out of his reach. "No Adam," she commanded firmly. He looked at her and moved towards it again. "NO, Adam," she reiterated, her voice firm and her eyes sharp.

Adam's blue eyes watered and his bottom lip quivered. Charisma sighed. There was a reason she had a nanny, and right now she was wondering why Ame wasn't a live-in employee. She sat back on the bed, setting the book to one side of her body and lifting Adam up to sit on the other, groaning silently as her body protested her treatment of it. He cuddled into her and she hugged him gently.

"Adam?" she said softly. He looked up at her and stuck his finger in his mouth. Charisma just shook her head. She was fairly certain she could blame this on the 'Mother's Curse' her own mother had imparted to her numerous times during her childhood. "Honey, would you like to see Mama's pictures?"

Adam grinned and nodded his head vigorously. "YETH!" he lisped around the finger still embedded between his lips. Charisma shifted her hand around until she was able to gently grasp it and pull it from his mouth.

"If you're mama's big boy, you can't keep your finger in your mouth." She paused, but his eyes never left hers. "Okay?"

"KAY!" he answered loudly again and she winced again. She was going to have to talk to Ame about teaching Adam to use his inside voice. Otherwise, she was going to need a hearing aid before she had another birthday at this rate.

"A little softer please son... Mama's sitting right here and you only need to use your inside voice. I can hear you just fine, all right?" Adam nodded his head seriously. "All right then," tickling him and making him squeal. "Now, let's go fix some pancakes."

"Bring book?"

Charisma rolled her eyes out of sight. She'd been hoping he might forget about that little detail, but she nodded her head. "We'll bring the book, but we have to eat and clean up before we can look at it. These pictures are very important to Mama and I don't want anything to happen to them. So you're not allowed to touch them or look at them without me, okay?"

"Okay," Adam said agreeably, standing up and tugging on Charisma's hand until she did as well. Then with a smile, she scooped up her photo album, took Adam by the hand and together they headed for the kitchen to make breakfast.


It took a little longer than Charisma had anticipated - mostly because there had been a fight with the flour that she and Adam had sorely lost. So after eating, she wiped the sticky from Adam's hands and face and gave him a book to read while she tackled the disaster area that her kitchen had become. She just hoped it was clean enough that none of her staff would notice anything tomorrow. Because she knew that while most of her office staff was afraid enough of her that they minded their business, most of her home staff had been with her since she'd come to Washington. They wouldn't hesitate to speak up.

"It's my house," she grumbled to herself as she wiped the counters for the third time. "It shouldn't matter that I made a little mess," knowing there was no way she was going to explain the missing five pound bag of flour. "I'm a United States Senator for God's sakes!" wondering who exactly she was trying to convince. She shook her head and gave a wry smile. "Time to go clean up the people involved in this debacle," muttering to herself.

Charisma lifted Adam from his chair and he immediately wrapped his arms around her neck. "Mama?" his voice rising in question. "Book?" pointing at the album that had been carefully wiped clean and now sat resting on the kitchen counter.

"After we clean up, honey," she promised him. "We don't want to mess the pictures up," shaking her head and smiling when he gurgled in laughter as flour dusted down from her hair.

"You funny, Mama."

Charisma hiked an eyebrow at him. "Oh you think so?" shaking her head at him again.

"Yes!" he chortled with childish glee, shaking his own head at her in return.

"All right then, let's go get a shower. I think it will be the quickest and most effective." And with that, they headed upstairs and disappeared into the master bathroom.


When they came downstairs again, Charisma was happy to note that it was almost a decent hour of the morning and she felt a lot better having stood under a hot shower for a few minutes. Adam held her hand as the slowly made their way back to the kitchen, then waited for her to pick up the album. Without hesitation, she grabbed the book and moved down the hallway to her study.

Adam looked around carefully - he wasn't allowed in this room unless his mama was with him. He had his own corner for the very rare times he had to be here, but there were too many things in Charisma's home office that could get him and Charisma into trouble if Adam messed with them. So it was easier just to keep him out of this room most of the time.

But today was a little special, and Charisma felt better about sharing her pictures with Adam in the privacy of her study, even if they were the only ones home.

She took a seat on the small couch in the room and Adam scrambled up beside her. She placed the book on her lap, letting him stroke the soft leather cover. He looked up at her and smiled. "Soft," he proclaimed, stroking it again.

"Very soft," she agreed. "Would you like to see the pictures?"

"Yes," he said determinedly. She smiled and slowly opened the book. She had no idea they were no longer alone in the house.


When Kent had finished at the theatre the previous evening, he realized he had missed another call from Charisma. It troubled him though he was confident nothing was wrong with Adam - Charisma would have had no compunction about disrupting his show if something had been wrong with their son. Still, the fact that she had called him a second time in a week was enough to get his hackles up. The fact that he couldn't divine a legitimate reason for the contact made him more uneasy than he cared to admit.

Kent Rockwell had long ago figured out that he was a convenient prop for Charisma Tagherty. Not that he believed she didn't care about him - she did... he was fully convinced of that fact. But she didn't love him... she never had. He'd known that when they'd discussed marriage, but he was willing to overlook that one glaring flaw in what was otherwise a pretty perfect picture. After all, Charisma was beautiful, smart, powerful, wealthy in her own right and his mother adored her. Coupled with their compatibility and her desire for a child and his for an heir, it seemed like a perfect arrangement to agree to marriage when she'd proposed it.

Now, however, he wondered more and more frequently if they had both given up too much with far too little return. He wouldn't change anything if it meant losing Adam in the process - for despite their rocky start, father and son adored one another and Kent doted on his son at every given opportunity.

So with every nerve ending screaming in discord, he arranged for his understudy to be available over the next couple days and he headed home to see if he could figure out what the hell was going on.


Kent arrived home and given the earliness of the hour, crept into the dark kitchen with the intent of fixing himself a cup of coffee. Then he noticed the plates and a light dusting of flour in the sink and surmised that Charisma at least was already up for the day. He smiled grimly and bypassed the coffeemaker, only to be brought up short by the photo album that still sat on the countertop.

His curiosity got the better of him and he opened it… only to find himself staring into the face of his wife twenty years prior. He studied the photograph carefully, noting she looked happy. He realized as he gazed at it that he'd never seen that expression on her face since he'd known her.

Kent flipped through the pages slowly, recognizing this was a part of his wife he wasn't privy to, and never had been. He studied the woman who was Charisma's companion, thinking she looked familiar but unable to place her immediately.

He continued to look until he heard footsteps coming from the stairs. Without missing a beat, he closed the album and situated it on the counter just like he'd found it before disappearing into the mudroom. He waited until he heard Charisma and Adam moving away from him, then he made a move to follow them down the hall.

Kent carefully avoided the floorboards that squeaked as he approached Charisma's study, somewhat surprised that she had taken their son into her private room. As indulgent of a parent as she was, she was highly protective of the one private space she had. So Kent was intrigued that she brought Adam into her sanctuary with an album he'd never seen until today.

He stood out of sight, but close enough that he would be able hear Charisma's voice as she spoke to Adam. Then he waited.

Kent heard Adam speak. "Soft," the boy stated and Kent wondered what exactly Adam was describing. Then he heard Charisma's agreement.

"Very soft. Would you like to see the pictures?"

"Yes," came Adam's determined answer. The next sound Kent heard was the gentle creak of leather and the rustle of plastic pages when Charisma opened the book. He didn't need to be close to hear what happened next.

"BR'ANNA!" he yelled enthusiastically, grinning up at his mother as he pointed to the picture. Charisma put a gentle finger over Adam's lips.

"Remember your inside voice, please son," she admonished, biting her tongue when his smile fell.

"Mama," he proclaimed in a softer tone. "Br'anna. Br'anna good."

Charisma's smile was both pained and reflective. "Brianna's very good," she agreed. "She was Mama's best friend... a lifetime ago." Charisma shook her head and turned back to Adam. "Would you like to see the pictures with Mama and Brianna?"

Adam nodded vigorously and Charisma put her arm around him and snuggled him up next to her. Then picture by picture they started going through the album together.

Kent couldn't hear the words they exchanged now, but he really didn't need to. At least he finally knew why the woman in the pictures looked so familiar to him. Of course, that only gave him more questions to be answered - mainly, what had been between them and what had happened to keep them separated for twenty years. It occurred to him that Brianna's reemergence in Charisma's orbit might also go a long way towards explaining Charisma's recent behavior.

The sound of Charisma closing the album and sliding it carefully onto the table brought him out of his brown study and back to his immediate surroundings. Then he realized he could hear Adam and Charisma talking again and he returned his attention to their conversation.

"Mama?" Adam asked softly.


"I like Br'anna. Br'anna good."

There was silence for an eternal moment after that, then Charisma sighed. "Would you like to go see Brianna?" smiling when his whole countenance lit up. "She's visiting with Esmeralda and Saphira today and Esmeralda invited us over." She paused, grinning at his energetic nodding, though the smile never did quite reach her eyes. "Would you like to go visit?"

"YES!!" and she couldn't even chastise him for his loud enthusiasm. She had known, after all, what his answer would be before she'd even voiced the question. Charisma smiled and rose from her seat, watching Adam slide from the couch so quickly he ending up sitting on the floor. He stared at her, his expression a mixture of befuddlement and amusement. Charisma laughed and Adam joined her. Kent decided to take the opportunity to disappear.

Charisma put in a call to Turq, then the two of them walked back upstairs to find suitable clothing for their outing. It wasn't long before Charisma had herself and Adam bundled well in preparation for their venture into the cold outdoors. Then they went outside to wait, knowing Turq wouldn't be very much longer. Besides, Charisma wanted to give Adam the chance to expend a little of his somewhat frantic energy before they arrived at Esmeralda's and Saphira's.

So they were running around the front lawn when Turq pulled up. She exited the vehicle and stood waiting for them to trek over to her, keeping her smile to herself when Adam leaped into Charisma's arms and almost knocked her to the ground. She maintained her neutral façade - though she couldn't keep her eyes from twinkling - when Charisma drew nearer breathing heavily. Turq opened the door and Charisma put Adam on the ground so he could crawl in himself. She bent over at the waist for a moment, trying to catch her breath. Then she straightened and looked Turq in the eye.

"Not one word, Turq."

"No ma'am," Turq agreed without even the faintest hint of a smile gracing her lips. "I wouldn't dream of it." Charisma held her stance for another moment before allowing her own smile to split her face.

"I am getting too old for this," she muttered in an aside to Turq. "Dammit," she mumbled as she stuck her hand into her pocket and came up empty. "Can you watch Adam for a minute? I forgot to grab the address we need."

"Yes ma'am," Turq said with a nod. Charisma raced back up the stairs and into the house.

Kent had been watching her play with Adam from the living room window, and he ducked into the coat closet when Charisma ran up the stairs. Then he cursed - hoping beyond hope she wouldn't look in there. He had no desire to explain why he was hiding out in the coat closet of his own home... especially since he was supposed to be in the City.

Fortunately, Charisma bypassed the closet and went straight into her study, shuffling through the things on her desk for a moment before triumphantly proclaiming 'Aha!'. Kent heard her return footsteps and he waited for her to reset the alarm and close the door before he took a semi-deep breath. Then he strained to listen, hearing the limousine engine start and after another moment or two, head down the long driveway. Still it was another full minute before he ventured to stick his head out the door.

He stepped back into the foyer and shut the closet door softly, leaning his head on it and taking a deep breath. He had a lot to consider, and the first thing he wanted to do was get another look at that photo album. Then he could sit down and maybe figure out what it all meant.


Charisma handed the folded paper to Turq as she slid into the car and Turq closed the door behind her. Then she unfolded the slip, her eyes nearly bulging out of her head when she recognized the address. She climbed behind the driver's seat and turned to Charisma who had not raised the privacy screen.

"Is this correct, Senator? This part of town isn't really...."

"It's correct, Turq. It's Esmeralda's address. She invited Adam and me over to visit today. You can drop us off and then come back and pick us up later. I'm not going to ask you to wait there for us."

Turq nodded, wishing she had a way to let Esmeralda know what was coming down the pipeline, but unless Charisma chose to utilize the safety screen, there wasn't going to be an opportunity before they arrived at the house. So she drove through the relatively non-existent Sunday traffic, clenching the steering wheel until they arrived.

"Don't get out," Charisma instructed as she reached for the door handle. "Wait until I'm sure we're welcome - then you can have the day until I call you, all right?"

"Yes ma'am," Turq replied and waited for Charisma to wave her off as she and Adam entered the house. Turq had a feeling there were going to be some stories to tell tonight.

Chapter XXXIV

Esmeralda took a deep breath and opened the door to find the woman standing in front of her rapidly rubbing her hands together to stimulate some warmth. Esmeralda cocked an eyebrow and tilted her head slightly. "Mal, is there a good reason you're standing on the front porch in Washington without your gloves instead of in the City with Kent?" She paused and frowned. "And why did you knock anyway?"

Mal stuck her hands under her armpits and jerked her head towards the door. "Can I come in? I didn't realize it was going to be so cold here or I'd have made sure my gloves were in my coat pockets before we left the City." Esmeralda opened the door wider and gestured Mal into the house. "As for why I knocked, I wasn't sure what was going on today. I thought I saw a limousine leaving the neighborhood and I didn't want to chance barging in on something. At least knocking means I can be a friend who stopped by to check on you."

Esmeralda nodded. "Good thinking, Mal. But it still doesn't explain why you're here instead of the City with Kent. Do you have the information we need?" reaching out to help Mal remove her coat.

"I dunno," Mal shrugged. "I'll tell you what I know and you can make that decision."

"Okay," Esmeralda agreed. "Go into the bedroom and wait for me. I need to let Saphira know you're here and then I'll join you and you can tell me what's going on."

Mal nodded and slipped into the hall. Esmeralda hung up Mal's coat in the closet, then stuck her head into the kitchen. She watched unnoticed for a moment. She didn't know what the joke was, but it was heartwarming to see old friends and new bonding so well. After a moment, she shifted just slightly, knowing that any movement on her part would garner Saphira's attention.

"Es?" she invited, holding out a hand. "Who was at the door?"

"It was Mal," watching two sets of brows hike into hairlines. She arched her own brow. "She came to see how I was doing, but she forgot her gloves and can hardly move her fingers. So I'm gonna go help her warm her hands slowly and then I'll bring her in."

"Go," Saphira commanded. "Ruby and I can entertain Brianna for a few more minutes."

"She's right," Ruby agreed. "We have lots more diner stories to share." Esmeralda saw Brianna nodding her agreement and smiled.

"All right. We'll be out in a few minutes," she said with a slight wave as she disappeared around the corner of the kitchen. It was quiet long enough for them to hear a door down the hall close softly, then they returned to their conversation.

Esmeralda looked around the bedroom and realized that Mal had already moved into the bathroom and was running cold water over her hands. She nodded approvingly. "Good girl. I told them I was going to help you get your hands warmed up. Now talk to me - what's going on?"

Mal sighed. "Do you know what's been going on between Kent and Charisma... with the phone calls and everything?" waiting for Esmeralda to nod. "When he realized she'd called him again - and in the middle of a show, no less - he made arrangements to leave the City for a couple days to come back to Washington and find out exactly what was going on. Unfortunately, by the time he decided to do this, it was very, very late last night. And I didn't want to leave him unwatched until I was sure he got home safely."

"I can understand that, Mal. So you're here now because...?"

"When he arrived home, I found Jade keeping watch over Charisma and Adam. She agreed to keep an eye on Kent so I could come over and give you the lowdown on what was going on." Mal winced when Esmeralda made the water lukewarm, sucking in a breath and then relaxing again under Esmeralda's tender ministrations. "You could have been a nurse, Es."

"No thank you," Esmeralda declined firmly with a shudder. "I don't like the sight of blood."

Mal bit her lip, knowing she had wandered into a hornet's nest with her comment. "Sorry, Es," she whispered.

Esmeralda leaned forward and brushed a kiss over Mal's forehead. "No harm, no foul, my friend," offering her forgiveness in the touch. "Now what can you tell me about what else is going on up there? Does he have a lover or significant other? Or are his interests purely business related?"

"From everything I've seen and been able to find out, his interests are legitimate. He has his theatre gigs and he has that restaurant/bar combo that he's invested in. He goes into the theatre around four-thirty or five every afternoon, and he's there until the show is over. Then he goes over to the restaurant for an hour or two - has a meal, talks to his partner...."

"Tell me about the partner."

Mal studied the running water thoughtfully, almost smiling this time when Esmeralda turned up the temperature on the water. "I can't believe I was stupid enough to forget my gloves," she mumbled. "I know better."

"Yeah, but it's easy to forget when you're not in the habit of needing them," Esmeralda commented lightly, knowing Mal wasn't ignoring the question as much as she was trying to determine what to say.

"Kent's partner is a couple - a man and wife he went to school with. As far as I can tell, they have been friends for almost twenty years." She paused and Esmeralda waited silently. "From what I have been able to gather...." Here Mal broke off and looked directly into Esmeralda's green eyes. "You know, this would all be a lot easier if we had access to the heavenly files."

"I know," Esmeralda agreed softly. "But I can't ask for that, Mal."

Mal heaved a deep breath. "I know," she grumbled. "But it would've made things easier. However," she continued without pause, "from what I've be able to put together, Kent and the male - whose name is Doug, by the way - were roommates in college and had talked about this whole business idea off and on during that time. Doug and Carolyn met in his junior year - she was a freshman. He went into the Army after college and she stayed to finish her degree, but they eventually got married. Kent was Doug's best man, but after the wedding they drifted apart."

"Like Charisma and Brianna?"

"Oh no... not at all. They still wrote once in a while - Christmas cards, newsletters - or made the occasional phone call, but life kind of got in the way of their friendship. Doug was overseas as well as being newly married and Kent was trying to establish himself in the theatre world."

"Okay, so then what?"

"After Doug's stint, he was tapped for a teaching position at NYU where he is still a professor. Carolyn is a nurse manager at NYU Medical Center. And when Kent was working on some production or other, they stumbled across one another again... literally. They got to talking and one thing led to another and they decided to try and make that college dream come true."

"How long did it take... before they made the dream come true?"

Mal paused thoughtfully when Esmeralda turned off the water and passed her a towel. "A little while, but I can't say for certain how long it took. I know that Kent and Charisma used it for their reception, but I don't know if she knows why."

"You don't think Charisma is aware of this part of Kent's life?"

Mal shook her head. "Would she need to be?"

Esmeralda's focus went inward for a long moment before she looked at Mal again. "Given what I know of the two of them, I'd be surprised if she is actually aware of this venture. The only thing they seem to have in common is their son." She paused. "Does Kent talk to both Doug and Carolyn or just Doug?"

"Mostly just Doug. Even though Carolyn is a nurse manager, a majority of her time is still wrapped up in the hospital. Doug, on the other hand, can put the hours into the business now that he's tenured."

"What do they talk about?"

Mal scrunched up her brows in confusion. "I'm not sure I understand the question."

Now Esmeralda furrowed her own eyebrow. "What's not to understand, Mal? What do Kent and Doug talk about when they sit down together?"

"Um... the business, mostly. What's going right, what needs work... sometimes they throw menu ideas back and forth to each other." She turned a little green. "I'm glad they have a trained chef," her wry comment and screwed-up facial expression causing laughter to bubble up in Esmeralda's chest. Mal chuckled sympathetically. "Once in a while they talk about their kids or sports."

"But not their wives?"

Mal shrugged. "Doug does... especially if Carolyn hasn't been there for a while. Kent tends to be noncommittal and changes the subject pretty quickly."

Esmeralda remained thoughtful for another moment, then motioned to Mal. "C'mon... we still have company, and I'm gonna need time and space to process this."

"You want me to stay?"

"Unless Jade notifies you that Kent is suddenly leaving, yeah." And together they exited the bedroom and headed back down the hall towards the kitchen.

The sound of hilarity and the scent of meat cooking hastened their steps and three sets of eyes turned to greet them as they reached the threshold. Esmeralda tugged Mal by the elbow until they were standing side by side.

"Mal, you remember my mate Saphira," introducing her as though she was a friend as she was purported to be and not part of the household. Saphira offered her hand, though her eyes twinkled in mischief. Mal accepted it and shook it briefly, then waited for Ruby's introduction and did the same. When Esmeralda reached Brianna, however, Brianna held up her hands.

"Are yours all right now?" flexing her fingers to show Mal what she meant. Mal blushed and nodded.

"Yeah, thanks. I forgot how cold it can get here and just walked off without my gloves."

"Bet that doesn't happen again," Brianna teased.

"No bet," Mal muttered. "Pretty sure I've forgotten them before and I'm guessing it wouldn't take much for me to do it again. Not enough working brain cells, you know."

Brianna laughed. "I feel like that some days. So what do you do, if you don't mind my asking?"

Mal didn't miss a beat. "Surveillance," she replied candidly. "It's dirty work, but it pays the bills."

Brianna snorted. "I feel the same about politics," she confessed, garnering her laughter from around the kitchen.

"What about the law?" Saphira inquired. "Do you ever feel that way about the law?"

Brianna scratched the back of her neck and frowned. "Sometimes," she answered. "Like when I know we're going to lose a case because the evidence isn't there, even if we know the person being tried is as guilty as sin."

"Does that happen a lot?" Ruby asked from her spot at the counter. Brianna shrugged.

"Not as often as you'd think, but more often than I'd like to admit." She turned and looked at Esmeralda. "Are you sure there isn't something I can do to help? Despite the nature of my current job, I promise I really am quite proficient in the kitchen.

Esmeralda was standing beside Ruby, currently helping prepare lunch when Brianna voiced her question. She turned and smiled. "It's not a matter of proficiency, Brianna - it's a matter of logistics." She motioned around her. "There's really not room but for one or two of us to be doing anything constructive like making a meal."

"But you're still recovering...." with concerned eyes.

"I know, but trust me... you don't want Saphira to cook. I love her dearly, but there's a reason she waits tables at the diner, and it's not because she's overly fond of screaming kids," she said tenderly. Then Esmeralda laughed, forcing Brianna to turn and catch Saphira crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue at the sentiment. "Besides," she added a moment later, "you *provided* lunch. Least we can do is prepare it."

Brianna held up her hands in surrender. "All right," she conceded. "I'll just sit here and look pretty," making the same face the Saphira had.

Esmeralda shook her head at the three women sitting at the table currently trying to outdo one another making ridiculous faces. She crossed to the cabinet that held the dishes, but before she could grab a stack of plates, Mal jumped up and slapped at a pocket of her pants. The rest just looked at her in astonishment.

"Stupid phone," she muttered for Brianna's benefit, knowing full well the others would understand. "Sorry," she said to Brianna. "I always forget about it til it vibrates. And unfortunately, it means I have to go back to work now." She extended her hand to Brianna. "It was nice to meet you." She turned and looked at Ruby. "And you as well, ma'am," knowing that would get her butt kicked later. Mal turned to Saphira who had risen to stand beside Esmeralda. "It was good to see you both again. Es, I'm glad you're doing better."

"Let me walk you to the door," Saphira offered. "You're gonna need some gloves if you're going back out into this weather, and I think I've got an old pair in the hall closet you can take with you."

"I'd appreciate that, Saphira - thanks."

Mal waved once more and then followed Saphira to the foyer. Esmeralda grabbed the plates and put them on the table in front of Brianna. "Now you can help if you wanna," Esmeralda offered. "The table needs to be set," putting the silverware and napkins with the plates.

"I can do that," Brianna said enthusiastically. "And can I just say how glad I am not to have to worry about the number of forks?"

Ruby laughed. "I never quite got that myself."

Meanwhile, Saphira had opened the hall closet and extricated Mal's coat. Mal slipped into it and began fastening it up when Saphira dug around for gloves. With her head still in the closet, she spoke quietly over her shoulder. "You wanna tell me that was all about? Because you know and I know and Es and Ruby both know it wasn't a cell phone buzzing that made you jump like that."

"It was me," Jade spoke. "I stepped into the hall where she could see me."

Saphira frowned. "What are you doing here?" she hissed. "You're supposed to be watching Charisma."

"I'm aware," Jade agreed drolly. "However, Charisma is getting ready to leave her house - I heard her put in a call to Turq. So I figured I'd better let Mal know she needed to get back to keep an eye on Kent."

Saphira rubbed her forehead and blew out an impatient breath before she met Mal's eyes. "I'm gonna take a real leap here and assume Es can explain all this to me later... when we don't have company?"


"All right. Go then... both of you. And be careful."

Jade and Mal both nodded and shimmered out of sight. Saphira took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then turned her footsteps back towards the kitchen. Hopefully this would start to make sense soon. She was getting a headache.

Brianna had the table nearly set when Saphira crossed back into the kitchen and Ruby was beginning to put the food on the table. "Everything all right?" Esmeralda asked, noting that Saphira was rubbing her forehead.

"Yeah. It just took me longer to find those gloves than I expected. You want me to refill the drinks?"

"Would you mind?" watching as Brianna and Ruby took their seats.

"Not at all," Saphira agreed, pulling out Esmeralda's chair. "Why don't you...?" A knock at the front door stopped her words with a sigh. Saphira's chin dropped to her chest and she looked out at Esmeralda from beneath thick bangs and lashes. Esmeralda just smiled and patted her forearm.

"You finish fixing the drinks - I'll be right back."

"You two seem pretty popular today," Esmeralda heard Ruby comment before she moved out of hearing. Then she stepped up to the door once more and looked through the peephole again. "Oh boy," she muttered, feeling a distinct sense of déjà vu. "This day just keeps getting better and better."

Chapter XXXV

Esmeralda took a deep breath and opened the door, smiling brightly at Charisma and Adam who waited her reaction nervously... or in Adam's case, with great anticipation. She opened her arms when Adam grabbed for her, glad for swift reflexes. Charisma lunged after him, keeping her arms around his middle even as his arms wound around Esmeralda's neck. Esmeralda held Adam tightly with one arm while she steadied Charisma with her other. Then she smiled.

"Hello, Charisma. Welcome to our home," opening her arms and briefly embracing them both.

Charisma chuckled as she pulled back from the hug, her face flushed pink. "Thank you, Esmeralda. It wasn't quite the impression I hoped to make - I hope you don't mind us taking you up on your invitation and just dropping by."

"Of course not, Charisma - it was an open invitation. We're very glad you're here." She glanced at Adam. "Why don't you let me take him and we can move indoors where it's warmer?"

"Oh God... I'm sorry, Es," suddenly noting Esmeralda's lack of cold weather clothing and detecting her slight shivers. She released her hold on Adam and turned to wave Turq off before she crossed the threshold and closed the door behind her. Esmeralda had already put Adam down and had knelt to help him remove his coat. When she stood, Esmeralda extended her hand to Charisma, taking her coat and motioning towards the kitchen as she turned to put both coats in the closet. She idly noted that Adam took Charisma's hand, but neither of them seemed inclined to move.

When she had the outerwear taken care of, she extended her hand to Charisma. It took a minute, but finally Charisma put her slightly shaky hand into Esmeralda's, then they made their way down the short hall that led to the kitchen.

Saphira had long since stuck her head out the kitchen door to try and discover what was delaying Esmeralda. When she got a glimpse at the reason, she simply grabbed two more place settings and put them on the table.

Ruby and Brianna looked their question at her and Saphira shrugged. "Pretty sure we're fixing to have a couple more join us for lunch."

Then Esmeralda entered the kitchen with Charisma and Adam following. It could have been awkward, except Adam caught sight of Brianna and pulled his hand free of his mother's. Then he ran around the table and jumped into her lap without hesitation.

"BR'ANNA!" shouted as he threw his arms around her neck. Brianna had long enough to be thankful for fast reflexes before she had to wince at the volume screamed directly in her ear. Still, she wrapped him in a tight hug when he squeezed and gave her a sloppy kiss. Then she released him and waited to see what he would do... and more to the point, what his mother's reaction would be.

Adam leaned back slightly... just enough to allow his arms to release their hold so he could cup her face in his hands. He stared at her for long moments, moving close enough to touch their noses together, then tilt his head back with a laugh. Adam repeated this several times, laughing louder when Brianna crossed her eyes to keep him in view without moving her head.

Finally, he hugged her around the neck again, then patted her face with tender hands. "Br'anna good," he proclaimed and snuggled down into her lap. Brianna kissed his forehead and lifted her eyes to take in the rest of the room.

Meanwhile, Charisma started when Adam jerked his hand free of hers, then she watched his interaction with the woman who had once meant more to her than anyone else in the world. Charisma took a deep, shaky breath and wrenched her eyes away from Adam and Brianna when he bumped their noses together and then laughed. That was something that had always been theirs - something they hadn't shared with anyone else... even Kent - and now he was making Brianna part of their ritual.

Charisma turned at the light touch on her back, tilting her head just slightly to look into Saphira's blue eyes. When Saphira opened her arms wide, Charisma gave an almost audible sigh of relief and stepped into the hug she needed. Esmeralda released her hand and Charisma embraced Saphira fully for a long moment. Then she withdrew and turned to Ruby, hand extended.

"Hi. I'm Charisma Tagherty. And the wild man across the table is supposed to be my son Adam, though I don't actually recognize him at the moment. He's usually much more reserved."

Ruby laughed and accepted Charisma's hand. "I'm Ruby. And I wouldn't worry about it - he's just being a kid."

"I guess," Charisma agreed hesitantly. "It's just so different from what I'm used to." She paused, unable to find a good way to phrase her question, but wanting to know. "So how do you know Esmeralda and Saphira?"

Ruby laughed, her good humor coming to the fore. "I've known Es and Saphira forever, it seems like. I came in to help out while Es is recovering."

"Good," Charisma said firmly. "I'm glad."

Ruby patted the hand resting on her arm. "Me too, Charisma."

"You too, what?" Esmeralda asked and Charisma realized the rest of the room had gone silent waiting for Ruby's answer. She felt Brianna's eyes on her and she turned to meet them, wondering at the emotions she could see swirling in their depths. So she nearly jumped when Ruby spoke unexpectedly.

"I'm glad I'm here, Es. Aside from being able to help you and Saphira out, I'm enjoying being here. Meeting your friends is a bonus because they are interesting people."

Charisma smirked at Brianna. "At least we are considered interesting."

Brianna held her gaze steadily. "I was happier to be considered a friend."

Charisma bit her lip and looked away from Brianna. "Maybe this was a bad idea," she mumbled, turning to look at Esmeralda. But before she could say anything else, Esmeralda cut in.

"No, Charisma - it wasn't. C'mon... let's sit down and eat before all the hard work Ruby did with the food Brianna provided goes to waste. Besides," she continued without giving Charisma an opportunity to object, "I want Saphira to meet Adam. I have a feeling they will get on splendidly."

Charisma wanted to balk at Esmeralda's suggestion, but one look at the contentment on her son's face made her acquiesce with grace. She nodded her agreement to Esmeralda and was soon seated between her and Ruby. She met Brianna's eyes, watching her thoughtfully.

"Would you like me to take him?" she offered softly while motioning to Adam. "It can get quite difficult trying to eat and feed him."

Brianna's lips barely quirked, but Charisma recognized the gesture as swiftly hidden mirth. She took a deep breath to release the flash of anger she felt at being laughed at, then cocked her head in question. Brianna read her expression perfectly.

"I'm not laughing at you, Charisma. I've dealt with far worse than Adam in my life." She paused. "Lawyer, remember?" Brianna leaned forward and whispered in Adam's ear. He clambered over Brianna's lap and into the chair next to her, waiting for her to tuck his napkin into his collar before reaching for his plate. Esmeralda stopped him with a hand on his.

"We need to say grace first, Adam." His eyes widened, but he didn't move. Everyone else bowed their heads. "For that which we are about to receive, the Lord has made us most truly thankful. Amen."

"Amen," the rest murmured. Adam looked around and nodded.

"AMEN!" he declared, drawing chuckles from around the table. He smiled, well-pleased with the reaction he had garnered, then turned his attention to Esmeralda. "Eat now?" he asked.

"Eat now," she assured him with a smile. "What would you like?"

Adam climbed up on his knees so he could see the table better. Brianna naturally placed a hand on his back and held on even as she continued to serve herself from the food being passed around the table. Charisma chanced to wonder where she'd learned her behavior, because Charisma distinctly remembered her own steep learning curve.

Once Esmeralda had taken care of filling Adam's plate, she sat down in her seat, only to find that Saphira had taken care of preparing hers. She smiled at her mate. "Thank you, love."

Saphira pointed a finger at her. "Just make sure you eat."

Esmeralda stuck out her tongue, and then found it caught by chubby, mashed potatoed hands. "MINE!" Adam chortled. The laughter that followed that pronouncement was loud and long. It took a few minutes before they were able to settle down without bursting into another wild gale of laughter by simply looking at each other. Esmeralda reclaimed her tongue from Adam's grasp and wiped his hand clean. He grinned.

"Es good," he stated confidently.

"Well," Esmeralda agreed without missing a beat. "Es is something all right."

Unexpectedly, Brianna turned to Charisma. "You mentioned the other day that Adam was in school," waiting for Charisma to nod. "He seems a little young for that," she commented, hoping Charisma wouldn't perceive it to be an accusation but an interested inquiry instead.

"He is, a little - at least for regular school. It is more than daycare and less than school. But the people who oversee the kids are certified teachers, so we call it school. He enjoys it and he's learning a lot - he'll be more than ready for school when it's time for him to go off to kindergarten."

"Is that a good thing?" Ruby asked, eyes widening when Charisma turned burning blue eyes in her direction. "Wait - I don't mean the being ready for kindergarten part. I think all children should know their letters and numbers and colors - you know... the basic stuff. But is it really fair to a child to make them start learning math and science and reading when they're so young? Is it so wrong to let them simply be kids?"

"I don't think it's wrong," Charisma replied softly. "I just think it's impossible."

"I don't understand," Saphira stated. "If it's not wrong for a kid to be a kid, why is it impossible?"

Charisma sighed. Though she'd had no clear course of action in mind when she'd decided to try this today, she certainly had never expected Adam to be the main topic of conversation. On the other hand, his presence had managed to break the ice in more ways than one. And in fairness, she understood that it was curiosity and not condemnation that drove the current line of questioning.

But before she could speak, Brianna presented a response. "From my observations, it's impossible because society had declared it to be. These days, your kid has to be faster, better, brighter and as a parent, you're required to do whatever you have to in order to have your child seen as such. No one wants an average child - everyone wants them to be exceptional."

"Well that seems somewhat unrealistic," Ruby commented with a frown. "If there's no average, how can you tell who's exceptional?"

"It's assumed," Charisma's disdain could be clearly heard in her tone, "that breeding will eventually out and their natural genius will assert itself as the child grows into school. But it's an accepted fact that without an early start, a child will never blossom into brilliance."

Ruby snorted. "That has got to be the stupidest idea I have ever heard."

"It is, really," Charisma agreed. "But it is also the way of things."

"And it didn't occur to you to try and change it?" Brianna asked, a hint of challenge in her tone. Charisma gave her a sharp look, then took a deep breath to keep from replying in the same manner.

"If I had been able to figure out a way without messing up his chances down the road perhaps." She looked around at the table. "It's not as bad as it sounds - the school Adam is in isn't so strictly structured that he isn't allowed to be a child at all during the day. It's one of the reasons Kent and I decided to send him there as opposed to any number of schools for young children that function strictly to teach. And it allows him time to play and be with children his own age."

"He doesn't get that interaction any other way?" Esmeralda asked, even though she knew the answer.

"Not as often as I'd like," Charisma replied while watching Adam eat. "My family... my parents and brothers... all live in the same part of my home state. And since they're there and we're here...."

"That must be hard," Brianna said softly. Charisma cut her eyes over and raised a brow in question. Brianna just shrugged. "I just remember going to visit and the fun we had. If I miss it, having had it for only the four years we were in college together, I can't imagine how you must feel."

This time Charisma turned and met Brianna's eyes with her own, and she held them for the longest time, searching. Brianna never flinched or backed away and finally Charisma dialed down the intensity of her gaze. She shrugged.

"It is hard sometimes," looking around at the rest of the table. "Are any of you from a large family?" watching Esmeralda, Saphira and Ruby all nod. Charisma chuckled. "Then you'll understand what I mean." She turned back to Brianna. "I do miss it... and them, but at the same time, sometimes I'm glad to be far enough away that they can't just stop by on a whim," seeing Brianna's eyebrow go up in query. "C'mon, Bri... don't you remember the times we had to duck out on the boys to keep them from driving us crazy?"

Before Brianna recovered from her surprise at the familiarity of Charisma's address, Adam decided it was time for his presence to be acknowledged again.

"Mama!!" grinning through the food that covered his face. Every head swiveled in his direction and Saphira laughed out loud at the sight.

"My word, boy - are you somewhere under all of that?" Adam laughed and made as if to jump down from his chair, only to find himself caught and held by Brianna's hand. "Br'anna!!" he complained, twisting to see if he could find what was holding him in place. Before he could complain any more, Charisma and Saphira both stood.

"If you could just point me to the bathroom...." walking around the table intending to remove him from the chair. She idly noted that Brianna's grip didn't loosen despite Adam's best efforts. Saphira reached for him and he lunged when Brianna let go of him at Saphira's nod.

"If you'll trust me, I'll clean him up."

"Are you sure?" Charisma asked. "He can be a handful."

"More than Es is?" blue eyes twinkling. And though she knew what Saphira was doing, Esmeralda couldn't let the remark pass unchallenged.

"I know where you live, warrior, and you have to sleep sometime," seeing Saphira's eyes widen in response. "Don't think I don't know this is just a ploy to get you out of dish duty."

Saphira tried to protest, but could only sputter incoherently as laughter rippled around the table. Even Adam, who had no idea what the joke was, laughed uproariously. When things calmed marginally, Charisma held up her hand.

"If you really want to try and clean him up, I have another outfit in his bag in the closet." She looked around the table at the rest of the women. "Lesson learned the hard way. It might be easier than trying to get all the food out of what he's wearing now."

Saphira nodded. "That'd be fine, Charisma." She looked at Adam. "C'mon, buddy - what say you and I go get clean and then we can go play."

Adam threw his arms around her neck. "Go, Horsie!!" he cheered, causing more laughter. Saphira took it in stride and galloped off towards the bathroom. An awkward silence settled in the room, and Esmeralda felt compelled to break it.

"Well, since our chief bottle washer has managed to skip out on her duty for the moment, I'm thinking maybe we should adjourn back to the living room and leave this for later," glancing around at the untidy kitchen. Brianna and Charisma traded looks and then shook their heads in tandem.

"Mama would kill us," Brianna murmured. Charisma nodded her agreement.

"No kidding - and she can find us," smiling when Brianna snorted. Esmeralda crossed her arms and tilted her head in question.

"What are you two muttering about?"

"You remember the mama thing we were talking about earlier?" waiting for Esmeralda to nod her head. "If we leave the kitchen looking like this, *her* mama will find us and do something drastic to all of us. And she CAN find us, you know."

"How would she know?" Ruby asked. "It's not like she's here and none of us are going to tell her."

Brianna and Charisma both snorted. "You don't know my mama," Charisma volunteered after a moment's hesitation and Brianna nodded her agreement vigorously. Ruby and Esmeralda exchanged looks, then shrugged.

"All right," Esmeralda relented. "Um...." But Brianna broke in before she could even finish her thought.

"Es, if Ruby wants to put the leftovers away, I can wash while you dry and put the dishes away."

"What about me?" Charisma demanded.

"I thought you needed to get Adam's clean clothes to Saphira."

Charisma rolled her eyes. "It won't take *that* long. I'll be back before you get started."

Brianna bit her lip. It wasn't supposed to be this hard... or this awkward. Then Esmeralda's voice cut in. "Charisma, if you'd like to dry, I can put the dishes away." Charisma nodded and Brianna sighed in relief.

"I'll be right back," Charisma said before leaving the room. No one saw her lean against the wall for a moment, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath before she headed down the hall towards the coat closet.

"You okay?" Esmeralda asked Brianna when she saw her grab onto the back of a chair and close her eyes. Green met green and slowly Brianna nodded.

"Yeah," she said softly. "I didn't realize...." she started, then stopped speaking. Instead of encouraging her to continue, Esmeralda simply squeezed her arm lightly in understanding. Then she turned to find Ruby emptying out the refrigerator and threw up her hands in exasperation.


Ruby turned around and looked abashed at being caught, but didn't stop what she was doing. Brianna looked between Ruby and Esmeralda and then settled her gaze on Esmeralda.

"Should I even ask?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "C'mon and let's get started, and I'll explain it."

Chapter XXXVI

Kent made his way down the hallway to Charisma's study. He felt a little weird going into her sanctuary without an invitation. After all, it wasn't like he had any business in that room except to snoop. But his curiosity had been raised by what he'd witnessed earlier and he knew himself well enough to know he'd find no peace until he got an answer to some of the questions he suddenly had about a great many things.

He realized that the door was unlocked - something unheard of when he was home and he wondered if it was locked against him specifically or if she hadn't bothered because Adam was with her and there was no possibility of the child getting into places he wasn't allowed.

Kent figured that was most likely the reason, but it still served to niggle at the back of his mind nonetheless. Then he pushed the door opened and crossed into Charisma's private study.

He took a good, hard look around the room he seldom entered more than simply to bid Charisma goodnight. So he took the opportunity to really check out the one place in their house that represented Charisma Tagherty more than any other.

The desk was neat... clean - a large monitor taking up one side of the desk and a custom made set of mini-shelves that held the different documents she was reviewing on the other. In the center was a blotter, but it was free and clear of any writing - not even the hint of a doodle on it. Between the monitor and the shelving was a single picture of Adam in a silver frame.

His glance moved on, noting the eclectic art that hung on the walls - pieces she'd had since before they had met. Kent wondered at their significance, but since he didn't recognize them, he figured they might have been the work of a starving artist she'd stumbled on when she'd traveled to Europe after college. He didn't know much about that trip... only that she'd gone and spent three months touring around before returning to Washington to begin her political career immediately.

He continued his visual tour, recognizing the painting over the fireplace as the one he'd given her on their wedding day. He thought back on that with a wry twist to his lips. Would he, knowing what he knew now, still have married her? He liked Charisma... loved her even, and he admired many things about her. But aside from the son that they shared, did they have anything in common anymore?

Kent moved over to the sofa and dropped onto the cushions, sighing in soundless relief as his body automatically relaxed into its decadent softness. He hadn't realized he was strung so tightly. He let his eyes travel around the room again, grateful for the soft muted colors that allowed him to unwind a little more. There wasn't much else remarkable about in the room - a few file cabinets that had been crafted to fit the décor and the furniture.

The furniture was plush, but sturdy - a change from the formality that had previously occupied this room. Now the furniture could be considered rough and tumble - stuff that was comfortable for any guests Charisma needed to entertain here and yet sturdy enough to survive hard use by a young boy. Only the coffee table that was placed between the long sofa where he was currently ensconced and the two chairs that sat opposite him didn't fall into that category.

That, he remembered clearly, had been his mother's gift to his wife. It was a family heirloom and befitting a United States Senator. Charisma had been thrilled to accept it and had immediately made it part of her home office. It was quite the talking point, and many of her colleagues had commented on its history at one time or another.

Now, though, the only thing he could find interesting about it was the leather covered photo album he'd glimpsed at very briefly earlier. This time, however, he wasn't quite as anxious to open it and delve into its secrets. In the back of his mind Kent knew that unwrapping this particular mystery would probably change his life. There had to be a reason Charisma kept this locked away from the light of day. He wondered if it tied in to her recent sadness and decided it most likely did.

With a sigh, he leaned forward and reached for the book, hesitating only briefly before scooping it up in his hand. He caressed the cover just like his son had, noting that it was very soft and very smooth - a testament to the age of the album at least. Then he opened it once more.

The images were definitely his wife taken at least twenty years prior. Aside from the look of the photographs themselves, he knew when she had graduated from college - the diplomas she displayed in this office as well as on Capitol Hill prominently stated it. And the very first picture in this album was of her and another young woman who he now knew to be Senator Brianna Walker on what must have been their graduation day.

Kent studied the picture carefully, wondering again what had happened between the two women to keep them apart for so long. They were posing for the camera - arms wrapped around each other and cheeks pressed together as they held up their diplomas and laughed with delight in their accomplishment. The next few pictures were similar, though Charisma's family and what he supposed were Brianna's parents joined them in different groupings.

He tilted his head in thought and let his gaze go inward for a few minutes. Then he carefully set the album aside and rose, making his way to the other side of the house and the family room. This was the most comfortable room in the house, in his opinion. It was the one spot that looked lived in - with the magazines and TV Guide, the entertainment center with the gaming consoles and the shelves of DVDs. It also held the largest assortment of family photos... the kind snapped on outings together and not done in a professional studio.

Kent took a moment to look around at them. Many of them were taken at the various family functions they had attended at Okasa's and Patrick's home. In those, there was always a variation of who got grouped together, and he smiled when he realized just how often his mother was included as well. Okasa had made it a point to adopt them both into the family when he and Charisma had gotten married and he hadn't even noticed it consciously until right then.

Still, as much as that made him smile, it wasn't the reason he'd come in here looking, and he took his time studying each and every single picture. He remembered when he'd initially met Charisma's brothers - they had been cool and less than welcoming and he'd put it down to the natural protectiveness of older brothers towards a baby sister... even when that sister was long since grown up and a US Senator besides. Now he wondered.

The pictures didn't reveal anything, really - other than the fact that Charisma never smiled in them like she was smiling in her album. After a few more minutes, Kent shook his head and went back to Charisma's office.

He picked up the book again and moved past the graduation pictures and onto... He squinted his eyes trying to look harder. Then he flipped through a few pages to confirm his guess - this was the extended European trip Charisma had taken after college.

The first picture was them waving goodbye at the airport and Kent could only assume Okasa or Patrick had snapped it for them. And from there the photos told their own story of two college girls touring their way across Europe.

Some of the pictures made Kent smile or laugh out loud. Some of them brought a tear to his eye. But all of them were bringing him to the realization that Brianna Walker meant far more to his wife than he ever had. Then he found the picture of them in front of the Trevi Fountain.

He paused for a long moment and simply stared. Charisma and Brianna were standing with Trevi Fountain lit behind them in the darkness. Their foreheads were leaned together and their eyes were closed - if he didn't know any better, he'd have sworn they had just kissed one another senseless. The shot was just that intimate. However, the very next picture had them wrapped up in the same hug he'd seen in their graduation pictures with the same crazy, giddy smiles on their faces.

Kent was tempted to close the book then. He'd found what he needed to know and really didn't want further confirmation. Still, he was only a few pages from the end and figured he'd never get a better chance. So he slowly turned through the last few photographs the album held.

There was nothing remarkable - nothing that stood out like Trevi did... until the last picture. The very last photo in the album was a picture of Brianna alone. They were obviously in an airport and Brianna was waving to the camera. But it wasn't the waving or the airport background that caught his attention. It was instead the sad smile on her face and the hint of tears in her eyes.

Kent stared at that photograph for a very long time. Then his stomach growled, reminding him that not only had he missed his dinner after the theatre the previous night, but that he never had managed to get his coffee fixed that morning. A glance at his watch showed him it was well past a normal lunch hour too. He glanced back to the book he held once more, then carefully closed it and put it back on the coffee table where he'd found it.

He rose and stretched, wincing when he heard his bones popping back into place. Then he turned and walked out of Charisma's study, closing the door behind him without ever looking back.


Okasa looked at the box of unopened letters she held and bit her lip to hold in the sigh she wanted to release. The letters were separated by year and tied with ribbon and still she'd had to invest in a mid-sized Rubbermaid container several years before. Now she stared down at the box with a pensive expression on her face. She had been so sure sending them to Charisma would solve everything.

"Second thoughts, me love?" Paddy drawled as he wrapped his arms around her from behind. She leaned into him and tilted her face up to him so gauge his seriousness. When she recognized the genuine concern in his expression, she nodded slowly.

"I think we should send them, Paddy - I really do. Charisma has a right to know how Brianna feels... how she's always felt."


"But I'm not sure it's right to betray Brianna's trust this way. If it backfires - if Charisma will not accept Brianna's feelings for her... even if only to herself - Brianna will see it as a betrayal... my betrayal. And I couldn't live with driving her out of our lives like that. The boys would never forgive me."

"Then why take the risk, Okasa?" Patrick asked playing devil's advocate. "Surely they can figure it out on their own."

Okasa snorted and turned in his arms. "Oh no you didn't. Please tell me you didn't just say that." She huffed at him. "Patrick Tagherty - those two young women have had twenty years to figure things out on their own and they've refused to do so. I don't think leaving it to them is a prudent course of action anymore."

"Neither is buttin' in where you've no business being." Patrick sighed and leaned his forehead into hers. "So what do you want to do, Sweetheart? You've basically eliminated your choices."

Okasa crossed her eyes to keep him in focus and grinned. "How do you feel about a road trip?"

Patrick pulled away just slightly so he could uncross his eyes. "What are you thinking, Mama?"

"I think I need to go talk to Brianna. And we could go visit our daughter and grandson as well."

Patrick raised his eyebrows at her. "Been thinking about this a little have you? Did you actually hear a word that Father Ross spoke in mass today?"

"I got the essential bits," she smirked. "Now, can you be ready in an hour?"

"Can you get the time off?"

"I'm waiting to hear back from Nancy now. As much time as I have saved, it shouldn't be a problem... especially since I am supposed to be partially retired at this point."

Patrick just stared at her for the longest moment, then he started chuckling silently. "You're something else, Mama... you know that?"

Okasa snorted. "I had to be to keep up with you lot." The phone rang and she moved to answer it. With a little luck, they'd be on their way to the Capital shortly.


Charisma walked back into the kitchen just a few minutes after having left it and looked at the stack of dishes with a frown. "Did they multiply while I was gone? Someone forget to separate the boys and girls?"

Esmeralda laughed. "Nothing so dramatic," she replied as Ruby stirred a big pot on the stovetop and Brianna shut off the running water. "Whenever Ruby doesn't have to wash the dishes, she cleans out the fridge. And then she'll make a soup or macho nachos... depending on what's in there. That way the leftovers don't go to waste and she doesn't get stuck washing the containers."

Charisma cut her eyes at Ruby who gave her a serene glance in return. "That's pretty clever," she admitted as she accepted a towel from Esmeralda. "But can I ask what macho nachos are?"

"Leftovers on a bed of nacho chips and smothered in cheese and jalapeños. That way, even though you're never quite sure what's under there, you'll eat them anyway."

"Seems kind of risky."

"Kind of like asking for trouble isn't it?"

Esmeralda snorted at their dual response causing laughter to ripple through both Charisma and Brianna. "Well," she conceded as she took the first dry dishes out of Charisma's hand, "you can end up with some pretty interesting dreams if you're not careful."

"I'm not sure that'd be a good thing in this town. I'm not sure I'm ready to dream about naked congressmen flying kites on the Mall or something."

Esmeralda scrunched up her face in distaste. "That's not interesting... it's downright scary. Thank you very much for that visual. I don't wanna know where that came from."

Brianna laughed. "Me either, although I have to admit I'm going to have a hard time keeping a straight face when I have to talk to any of those people now."

"Me too," Charisma muttered, her face flushed pink. She turned to Esmeralda. "So what would you call interesting?"

"It was actually more on the side of bizarre. I was being chased by a sneezing feather duster who kept kicking at me and insisting - 'NO SPREADSHEETS!!'. I still don't know where it came from or what it was about... at least as far as the spreadsheets go. I never use spreadsheets. The duster on the other hand...." She laughed at their expressions. "I did warn you it was bizarre," she added with a shrug, taking the next batch of dry dishes and putting them away.

Charisma and Brianna exchanged looks. "Not sure I want to be chased round by my work either."

"Oh God no! We'd end up being flattened by some of those tree killer bills."

"Do you actually read them... word for word, I mean?" Ruby asked as she continued to stir the pot. A squeal from Adam brought all four heads up and around facing the kitchen door. Then they heard Adam's laughter follow and smiled....

... only to laugh when the naked boy streaked through the kitchen with Saphira hot on his heels. He didn't even pause, but just kept going into Saphira and Esmeralda's bedroom, shrieking again when she pounced and wrapped him in a bath sheet. Then Saphira tipped him over her shoulder in a fireman's carry and marched them back down to the big bathroom without a word or explanation.

The other four looked around at one another and just shook their heads. "I did warn her he was a handful," Charisma said as she offered Esmeralda a stack of plates.

"She knows - it's why she let him run. But I guarantee you he'll go to bed when you get home this evening and you won't hear from him again until in the morning."

"Wow," Charisma muttered. "We don't usually have those kinds of outings. Even school doesn't usually do him in like that."

Esmeralda smiled. "Saphira is special. Kids love her because she not only plays *with* them, she plays *like* them."

"She should be in charge of a daycare; she'd make a fortune."

"No," Esmeralda disagreed. "She likes the interaction of one on one or one on two. She couldn't stand trying to deal with a roomful. She couldn't give them each the attention she'd want to."

It didn't take them long and they were done with the dishes. Ruby shooed them out, promising fresh cookies and milk later. They went into the living room only to find Saphira and Adam on the floor playing together. The three curled up to watch and attempted to make conversation. They talked about their work and Esmeralda shared some of Saphira's experiences at the diner. But so much was off-limits, it was a little stilted and a little awkward. Still each of them was trying, so it never quite became an elephant in the room.

After a while, they could smell the scent of cookies and Ruby was coming into the room with a platter of warm sugar cookies and tall glasses of milk. They all smiled and sighed in relief. It meant the day was coming to a close. And for whatever else it had been - even though most of it had been good - it had definitely been exhausting for everyone. But it was especially apparent on Esmeralda's face.

Charisma went over and claimed her son, much to his dismay. "MAMA!" his voice loud and unhappy.

"Son," she admonished. "What have I told you about your inside voice?"

He looked down at the floor. "Sowwy. Like it here... wanna stay."

"Well we can't stay today, but maybe we can come back and visit again. But not if you're rude; Esmeralda and Saphira won't want to have us here."

"Come again?" he pleaded, blue eyes wide. Saphira and Esmeralda nodded and he smiled. "Br'anna too?"

"Brianna too," they agreed.

Soon everyone was bundled against the weather and waiting for their cars to arrive. Brianna had insisted that Esmeralda keep the extra groceries she'd brought, insisting she had nowhere to store them. Charisma surprisingly backed her up, having stayed in the same apartments when she'd first moved to Washington. They each carried a small packet of cookies, however, at Ruby's insistence.

It was on that note that the little gathering broke up and Saphira took Esmeralda's hand and led her back to the kitchen when both limousines were out of sight.

"So?" Saphira demanded as soon as they were seated in the kitchen once more. Esmeralda held her eyes for a long moment before shaking her head.

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

Chapter XXXVII

Jade had stayed with Charisma until she and Adam had reached Esmeralda's. Then she decided to go look up Mal and see if she could get the lowdown on what was going on - since she hadn't actually expected to see her or Kent in town. As far as Jade knew, Kent was still supposed to be in the City doing his show, and she was honest enough to admit to more than a hint of curiosity.

Mal glared at her when she popped in beside her, even though Jade had taken great pains not to sneak up on her unannounced. She lifted up her hands in a gesture of unknowing innocence and Mal only held onto her scowl for another moment before giving Jade a sheepish expression and a shrug. "Sorry," she said softly, though there was no way for Kent to hear them when they were in a non-corporeal state. "I seem to be having one of those days."

Jade wrapped an arm around Mal's shoulders and offered her a brief hug. "What's wrong? Why are you here?"

So Mal told Jade her story from the time Kent had found the phone call from Charisma the night before until the moment just before Jade had appeared by her side. They watched as Kent went through the album slowly, picture by picture, studying his expression and body language since they both knew without a doubt that Esmeralda would ask when the time came.

When Kent finally left Charisma's study, both Mal and Jade followed him, wondering what he had planned. When he picked up the phone to call a taxi, they traded skeptical looks.

"That's it?" Jade hissed. "He's just going to go back to work?"

Mal shrugged. "Looks like it. And that means I need to go with him. Will you tell Es...?"

"Absolutely," Jade nodded. "I need to get back. I'm sure she knows I'm not watching Charisma at the moment, and I don't want to get chewed out if Charisma takes off with no one to keep an eye on her."

"Es wouldn't chew you out."

"She probably wouldn't let me have it with both barrels, but I'm pretty sure I'd get an earful. And you know Ruby and Saphira both would give me those looks," Jade added with a theatrical shudder. Mal just chuckled and shook her head.

"I've gotta go," seeing Kent exit the house as surreptitiously as he'd entered earlier that morning.

Jade nodded. "Be safe... and good luck."

"Thanks - you too." Then Mal left with Kent, and Jade headed back to wait for Charisma.


Kent kept his own counsel on his way back to Manhattan... less than twenty-four hours after he'd left it. He didn't go to the theatre - he figured he had the time off, he might as well use it for the day at least. And truthfully, he was exhausted. Between the whirlwind round-trip and what he had discovered while in Washington, he needed a little time and space to consider his next course of action.

Instead, he went straight to the rooms he kept in the City for the times he was there. Not that Charisma didn't use them as well because she did - on the rare occasion she made the trip with him. They were simply something that he'd had since he'd reached majority and it never occurred to him to give them up once he and Charisma married. He enjoyed visiting the City too much.

Now he looked around them closely and recognized that these rooms were strictly 'his' rooms. Everything about them screamed bachelor pad, though it had been tastefully decorated by one of the top interior designers in New York. There hadn't been a woman's touch put on this place and as he looked around, Kent realized he hadn't put much of a personal stamp on this place either.

He crossed over to the bar and poured himself a drink, taking a swallow and refilling it before moving to look out the window. He stood there for a while, watching the sun sink lower towards the horizon. When it disappeared from sight, Kent turned back to the room. He set down his now empty glass and headed into his bedroom. He wanted a shower and some dinner. Then he had some decisions to make.


Charisma and Adam reentered their home several hours after having left it and Charisma still wasn't quite sure how she felt about their outing. On the one hand, it had been... well, if not fun, at least it hadn't been unbearable. And it had been enlightening... to a point. Obviously Brianna was upset with her about something, but her innate good manners hadn't let her do more than let Charisma know there was an issue that would have to be resolved privately between them.

Charisma looked down at her sleepy son. Adam had been wonderful - not only had he broken the ice, he had positively charmed everyone... including Brianna. And that brought her focus right back to Brianna. But before she could pursue that train of thought, Adam smiled up at her.


Charisma couldn't stop the smile he brought to her face, and she brushed his hair off his forehead then tugged his bedcovers up a little higher. "Hmm? What, Sweetie? Did you have fun today?"

"Yes!" he confirmed stoutly, though he was too tired to be more enthusiastic about it. "Br'anna good. Es good. Phira fun."

Charisma laughed. "She was, huh? Did you like playing with Saphira?"

"Yes - go play again," he demanded with an impish grin.

"Not today," Charisma replied with a light chuckle against his neck that made Adam giggle in response. "We'll have to invite them over to visit us so you can share your toys with Saphira. Would you like that, son?"

"Br'anna too?" he asked seriously.

Charisma tilted her head. "Why?" watching Adam scrunch his forehead up in a frown. "Why do you like Brianna so much?"

"Br'anna good," he stated plainly, as if that explained everything. And as far as Adam was concerned, it did. He rubbed his eyes and yawned. "Br'anna good," he repeated as he nodded off. Charisma sighed, wondering again what kind of spell Brianna Walker had cast over her son. Then she leaned forward and brushed a kiss over his forehead before turning out his bedside lamp and standing up. She left his room, pulling the door closed without shutting it completely and heading back downstairs to her study. She had work to do.

Charisma crossed the hall and reached for her key even as her hand touched the doorknob. She frowned when she realized it wasn't locked and let her mind wander over the morning. Then she remembered she hadn't bothered in her haste to get both herself and Adam ready to go visit Esmeralda and Saphira. She shook her head at her carelessness and then pushed the door open.

She looked around her office briefly as she always did when she crossed the threshold of this room. This space, more than any other in the whole house, was hers and she reveled in the sense of peace she got when she entered.

So Charisma sighed in contentment and left the door open in deference to being alone with her sleeping son. She moved over to her desk to start working on the bills she still had to read over before she went to work on the morrow. Then her attention was grabbed by the photo album she'd left resting on the coffee table that morning.

She folded her hands and focused her eyes on it for long moments. Then Charisma deliberately turned her back on it and snatched up the first stack of legislation she needed to review. It didn't take long, however, before she found herself facing the table again... and subsequently, the album.

Charisma looked back down at the paperwork she was supposed to be concentrating on and realized the futility of her actions when she didn't even recognize the bill she had hypothetically been studying for the last thirty minutes. Heaving a disgusted sigh, she ran her hands through her hair and gave into the inevitable.

Laying her paperwork aside, Charisma pushed back from her desk and crossed to the divan. She leaned over the coffee table, gently caressing the leather cover before she dropped onto the couch and pulled the book to her. Then she laid back with her head against the arm and opened the album to the first page. Her eyes sparkled with tears even as her lips curled into a smile.

"Oh Bri... what happened to us?"


Brianna sighed deeply as she exited the bathroom that billowed clouds of steam out behind her. She was comfortably wrapped in a thick, warm robe, hair up in a towel and fuzzy slippers on her feet. She made her way into her kitchenette, grateful for the microwave. She filled a cup with water and set the time, then pulled out a bag of her favorite tea, the honey and milk while she waited for it to heat. When the machine beeped its readiness, she quickly prepared her tea, letting it steep while she removed the towel from her head.

After a few minutes, she took the towel to the bathroom, grabbing her comb in its place and retrieved her tea... minus the bag. Then she moved into her bedroom and curled up under the warm blankets with a sigh. It had been a hell of a day, and not at all what she expected. She was surprisingly - and not at all pleasantly - exhausted.

Brianna had just finished drying her hair when the inner phone buzzed. She sighed and looked at the clock, wondering why security was calling her so late. Then she realized it wasn't nearly as late as she felt like it should be, and she seized the handset.


"Senator Walker? This is Sergeant Orwin downstairs. I'm sorry to disturb you, but we have a cleared guest who is asking to see you."

Brianna frowned until the creases of her forehead squeaked with her effort. "Sergeant, if they are on my cleared list, why are you calling me?"

Orwin cleared his throat. "Actually ma'am - we have to call if anyone stops in without being scheduled to make sure you are available and willing to receive them." Brianna flushed at the slightest hint of scolding in his tone and recognized the reality of his words. But before she could apologize, he continued. "But in this case, the visitor has been cleared by another senator... not you."

"Excuse me?" waving her hand though she knew Orwin couldn't see her. "Sergeant, who is downstairs?"

"Mrs. Okasa Tagherty - Senator Charisma Tagherty's mother."

Brianna would have slapped her hand over her face had she not held a cup of hot tea in it. As it was, she was cognizant enough to be thankful for her restraint before she took a deep breath. "Thank you for calling me, Sergeant. Please allow Mrs. Tagherty to come up."

"Yes ma'am," he replied. "Have a nice evening ma'am."

"You too, Sergeant," she answered, then clicked off the phone before returning it to the cradle beside her bed. She contemplated getting dressed - for all of thirty seconds - then decided that since Okasa had seen her in her pajamas and robe before, it probably wouldn't bother her now.

Instead she went looking to see what she had to offer a guest in her home... even if the guest was practically family. She realized pretty quickly that there wasn't much, so she shrugged and pulled out the fig newtons she used as a quick breakfast until she got to work. They would have to do in a pinch. Then a knock was sounding on her door, and she crossed the room to answer it.

Okasa stood on the other side, large Rubbermaid container in hand and a nervous air around her entire being. Brianna wondered what on earth she had gotten herself into when Okasa dropped the box and launched herself at Brianna.

Brianna, used to such outlandish greeting, simply braced herself and held on. Okasa hugged her fervently and for once Brianna returned the hug with all the strength she could muster. Today had battered and beaten her black and blue, and Okasa's unreserved affection went a long way towards soothing her soul.

After a long moment, Okasa stepped back and cradled Brianna's face in her hands. Her eyes searched Brianna's, nodding when she was finally satisfied with what she found. Then she turned and picked up the box and stepped into Brianna's apartment, closing the door behind her.

"Come in, Mama O," Brianna gestured gracefully, even through her confusion. "Can I get you something? Tea? Milk? Newtons?"

Okasa set the box on the small table in the living area, then turned and covered Brianna's lips with her fingertips. "Shh," she instructed. "I know you're confused and wondering why I'm here... now. I promise to tell you everything, but first things first. I need the little girls' room."

Brianna pointed her to the correct door and took a seat on the small sofa. Whatever Okasa wanted, it wasn't life or death. So Brianna closed her eyes and focused on getting her heart rate back to normal. For a few minutes, she'd been terrified something had happened to...

She stopped herself. She wasn't going to allow herself to walk that particular path. A touch on her shoulder made her jump and her eyes shot open to find Okasa looking at her in concern.

"Little Bri? Are you all right?"

Brianna took a deep breath. "I was going to ask you the same thing Mama O. Didn't I just talk to you this morning?" seeing Okasa nod. "Has something happened?"

"Sort of," Okasa confirmed, "but not like you're thinking. Everyone is fine - Paddy is with me here in town. He went to get us a room for the night," watching the confusion wash over Brianna's face. "I'll explain, I promise."

Brianna nodded. "And the boys are okay?"

"Well, they're gonna be jealous as all get out when they find out Papa and I will get to see you when they don't, but otherwise they're all fine."

"All right," Brianna agreed slowly. "Then what's the problem? Why are you here? Or rather," realizing how rude that sounded, "what problem has brought you to my door this late in the evening that I can help you with?"

Okasa chuckled. "Ah, Brianna - how I miss you. I know... I know - but even when you were close it was hard to see you. Not your fault," Okasa added when Brianna's eyes dropped to the ground. "It's just the way of life. Kids grow up - they move on and move away. Doesn't mean we miss them any less."

"So you're here because you miss me?"

"That too," Okasa admitted. "But I am here now because I made you a promise twenty years ago, and I'd like you to promise me something now."

Brianna looked at the box and then back to Okasa, a feeling of sick dread filling her belly. "I won't make a blind promise Okasa."

"I'm not asking you to, Little Bri," knowing Brianna had her hackles up. "I'm asking you to listen to what I have to say first... then make me a promise."

"I promise to listen, Okasa. But beyond that...."

Okasa nodded. "That's all I can ask."


Esmeralda and Saphira looked up from the table as the rest of the angels returned from their day out. Without a word, they circled around and took seats at the table, then stood around the periphery of the room where they could see Esmeralda when she spoke. Esmeralda nodded to Ruby who started ladling out bowls of hot soup, passing them along until everyone had food in front of them. Only when they were all served did Esmeralda finally speak.

"First, did everyone have a good day out?" asked with a tender smile and genuine interest. Looks were exchanged and they all nodded, but no one spoke. Esmeralda and Saphira traded wry looks. "Guess we're gonna have to tell about ours before we hear about theirs, huh?" garnering soft chuckles from around the room. "Okay then... everyone dig in while it's still hot and we'll tell you all how our day went."

"First, however, I want you all to know you own a huge debt to Brianna and Charisma. They did leftover dishes duty. Ruby decided to clean out the refrigerator while they were here."

"You didn't!"


"Are you serious??"

"How could you??"

Ruby looked back at them in all innocence and shrugged. "What??" she protested. "It was time. Besides, you didn't see the groceries Brianna brought that we had to make room for. I had to do something with all that stuff," holding up her bowl of soup. "And I'm not hearing any complaints about supper."

"Yeah," Indi agreed, "but still...."

"But still nothing. At least it kept them busy doing something besides skirting around each other for a change."

"Okay, Ruby... that's enough," Esmeralda advised beaming and holding up her hands. "I don't mind if you tell it, but you need to tell it all and in the right order," smiling when Ruby smirked and shrugged.

"You young people are no fun these day," drawing snorts from everyone in the room. "Where's the challenge in that?"

"Like we don't have enough of that around here already. Keep it up, Granny," Saphira warned. "You might find out what real kids these days consider fun to be." Before she could continue, the front door banged open and Jade blew in on a cold, stiff wind. Immediately everyone moved into action, making sure she got into the warmth beside the stove and had a bowl of hot soup in her hands. Esmeralda waited until Jade caught her breath before she spoke.

"Everything all right, Jade?" seeing her nod.

"Yeah," she replied after swallowing a mouthful of soup. "Wait'll you hear the stories I've got to tell."


Esmeralda scrubbed her hands through her hair when Jade finished her telling. The girls had eaten and done up the dishes while they were listening, so now it was just a matter of choosing the next course of action. Saphira watched with troubled eyes as the hands moved from Esmeralda's scalp to her temples, gently rubbing in a circular motion as though to will away a headache. Without hesitation, she rose and stood behind Esmeralda, kneading the knots out of her shoulders.

"Es?" her concerned voice a bare whisper in Esmeralda's ear. Esmeralda patted one of the hands rubbing the side of her neck.

"I'm all right, Saphira. Just a bit of a headache. I never expected them to be so stiff and polite...."

"... and at the same time so antagonistic," Saphira added. "I know; neither did I. But it could have gone a lot worse. We were lucky Adam was here."

"How so?" Ame asked. "Did you find a story he liked that they could relate to?" wondering at the sudden burst of giggles seeming to afflict Esmeralda, Saphira and Ruby. She looked around, glad to note she wasn't the only one missing the joke and raised an eyebrow at them. "Would one of you like to let the rest of us in on it or should we start guessing?"

Saphira appeared to recover herself the quickest, and after a deep breath, she met Ame's eyes steadily. "Tell us about Adam... the Adam you know."

Ame scowled at the wording, but she held Saphira's eyes. "Um... well, he's a quiet child mostly. He reads a lot - or I should say, he loves to be read to and tries to read along. He has several learning video games he plays, but there are also blocks and paints and basketball. We take walks and go to the museum.... I'm not sure what you're looking for here Phira. He's a good kid."

"He is a good kid," Saphira agreed in all seriousness. "And we're really glad he was here today. He kept things from becoming impossible between Charisma and Brianna."

"And letting him streak naked through the kitchen screaming didn't hurt either." All eyes turned to Esmeralda and she shrugged. "It's the truth," rubbing her head again. "Let me give you the Angel's Notes version of our day, then I think I'm going to go lay down. I can't believe how stressful this day was." She turned to Saphira. "Wasn't it supposed to be easier for them with us around?"

Saphira bit her lip briefly. "I think it was, Sweetheart. But that doesn't mean it was supposed to be easier for us." She caught Ruby's eye and the subtle nod. "Why don't we let Ruby fill the girls in on what happened today? We're not gonna have a mad planning session tonight, are we?"

Esmeralda slowly shook her head. "I don't think so. Truthfully, I'm not really sure what more we can do at this point. It's basically up to them - we're just here for support if they need it."

"Okay, so let Ruby give them a quick rundown while I go start you a tub to soak in. I'm sure the girls won't mind hearing from Granny - she gives them their marching orders in the mornings."

"One of these days, Saphira," Ruby threatened with a grin. Esmeralda smiled tiredly at their banter.

"Sometimes, I don't understand how the two of you have managed to coexist for so many millennia. Then I realized you have to be in the same space to have to actually coexist and you two rarely are."

"The world is probably much better off," Ruby offered with a smirk and Esmeralda nodded. "Good - now that we have that settled, let your troublemaking half go run your bath and tuck you into bed. The girls and I need to head to bed in a little while too. Morning comes early you know."

"All right - thanks Ruby. If any of you think of anything...."

"We know where to find you, Es," Opal assured her with a shooing motion. "Now go!"

Esmeralda smiled and waved goodnight before entering the bedroom. Saphira gave everyone a last look, then shut the door behind them.

They waited until they heard the second door open and the water start running before they took their eyes from the closed door. But it wasn't until they heard the inner door shut and the water stop running that they finally looked to Ruby for an explanation.

"Get comfortable, girls," she commented. "This is gonna take a few."


"Will you join me?" Es asked softly as Saphira turned to make her way out of the bathroom. "I know it's small and we usually don't with a houseful, but...."

"But what, Es?"

"I need to feel you, Phira."

Blue eyes held green for a long moment, then Saphira nodded and stripped off her clothing before easing herself behind Esmeralda in the tub. It was a tight squeeze and not truly comfortable, but they managed and Saphira resumed the massage she had started in the kitchen. Esmeralda dropped her neck forward and sighed.

"That feels so wonderful," she murmured.

Saphira leaned forward and kissed the slim neck beneath her fingertips. "Yes it does," letting her lips tickle the soft skin and chuckling soundlessly when Esmeralda squirmed. "Now... you wanna tell me what's really bothering you, Sweetheart?"

"I'm not sure I can put it into words, Love. It just feels like everything is slipping away from me."

Saphira frowned and straightened up as much as the crowded tub allowed her. "In what way, Es? You don't mean me...?"

"No, Phira, no! You've been my one rock through this whole ordeal. It's everything else. There's Charisma and Brianna - both of whom I believe are beyond heavenly help at the moment, and yet they are still our responsibility until this thing reaches some sort of conclusion. Then there's Kent - who wasn't even considered enough of a factor in this at the beginning to warrant any sort of information on. We've got the girls who are scrambling and getting hurt - when at this point in the operation, we should all be either gearing up for the final push or packing up to go home."

"What else?" Saphira asked in her ear quietly when the silence went on for too long. "I know something else is eating away at you Es. What is it? Let me help."

"You can't, Phira. I don't think anyone can... except for Him." Esmeralda paused and took a shuddering breath. Saphira reached forward and instinctively brushed the wetness from Esmeralda's cheeks. "Something's wrong - and we both know it!" She twisted until she could meet Saphira's eyes in her periphery then continued. "I don't know what's wrong, but I do know everything isn't the way it's supposed to be either - not like it was before. I'm not getting better like I should."

Saphira nodded. "How do you feel?"

"Tired, mostly... like I haven't recovered my strength or my stamina." She clenched her hands into fists and slammed them into her thighs in frustration. "It shouldn't be like this, Phira. It shouldn't be taking so long for me to feel like myself again!" As quickly as it flared, her anger dissipated and Esmeralda curled into Saphira's body seeking comfort.

This Saphira could do easily, and she did so without hesitation. She brushed a kiss over the blonde head tucked awkwardly under her chin and rubbed her hands up and down arms that were chilly due to their exposure to the cooler air in the room.

Without warning, Saphira stood up and pulled Esmeralda with her. "C'mon," she offered, pulling the thick towels from the rod and wrapping them both up quickly. "The whole point of the hot bath was to get you warm and relaxed. You can't get warm with me in there with you, and you won't relax if I get out without you. So we'll both get out and go curl up in the middle of the bed. The blanket should have it warmed by now and we can relax together."

Esmeralda nodded, but didn't say anything else. She felt much like the tub, she thought idly as she watched the water whirlpool down the drain. Then Saphira was taking her hand and she put the metaphor from her mind as she followed her mate to their bed.

They curled up together in the center of the mattress, sighing in relief when the warmth of the heating blanket surrounded them. "This is nice," Esmeralda confessed.

"Um hmm," Saphira agreed, embracing Esmeralda firmly before she shifted them until she could look down into Esmeralda's eyes. Esmeralda cocked a questioning brow. Despite her concern and her rigid belief that something was seriously wrong, being held in the comfort of Saphira's arms made everything seem more manageable. She reached up a hand to trace the smooth planes and contours of Saphira's face and smiled gently when she closed her eyes to relish Esmeralda's touch.

"I love you," Esmeralda murmured, stunned by the look of sheer need and desire reflected in the blue orbs that were filled with love just for her.

"Oh Es - I love you too… so much. And I want you to understand something right now, and believe it if you never believe anything else, all right?" waiting for Esmeralda to nod. "Good. I want you to know that I do understand your frustration and aggravation with this whole healing process you're having to endure. And I'm so sorry about that," catching the fingers that would have covered her lips. "No, Es - the blame for that more than anything else lies strictly at my feet and I willingly accept that responsibility. I will spend the rest of our eternal days together trying to make that up to you. But beyond that," she added, holding up a finger and glowering to keep Esmeralda from interrupting, "I do believe... with all my heart... that you will recover from this, Es. It may take longer than we want it to or hope it will, but you will recover. And you know why?" watching the blonde head shake slowly. "Because He needs you, Es. He needs you almost as much as I do."

"You really think so, Phira?"

"Oh no, Love - I *know* so."

"What did I ever do to deserve you?" Esmeralda asked with a tender expression on her face. She raised her hands to cup Saphira's cheeks and gently stroke her cheekbones and brows.

Saphira arched an eyebrow. "As I recall, you hit me in the head with a mud ball," trying to look at least a little bit put out by Esmeralda's selective memory. But the twinkle in her eyes gave her away.

Esmeralda moved one hand to pop her lightly on the hip. "Brat!" she complained as she threaded her hands into Saphira's dark hair and pulled them closer.

"But you love me anyway," Saphira proclaimed as she leaned forward.

Esmeralda didn't bother to answer. She let her lips speak for her directly. Saphira got the message loud and clear.


"Okasa, pardon my bluntness, but have you lost your mind?! Do you know what you're asking of me?" Brianna jumped up from her spot on the couch and paced in front of the table that held the dreaded box. She glared at it briefly, then resumed her pacing, hands clenched together.

Okasa had taken a seat beside Brianna while she spoke. Now she leaned back into the far corner of the divan and watched Brianna pace, knowing she needed the release before there would be any calm, rational discussion between them - if it was still possible.

She and Patrick had discussed the possibilities on the trip down and though Okasa recognized this as one of the choices he'd laid out for her as the most likely response, it wasn't the one she wanted... or even hoped for.

"Brianna...." she started, then stopped immediately when Brianna help up an imperious finger.

"No, no," she scolded with a desperate smile. "You had your turn to talk, and I listened... just like I promised you I would. You don't get to talk anymore now."

"But Brianna...."

"Okasa - I'm not kidding. I'm still trying to decide whether to be furiously angry with you or unbearably hurt. The *only* thing you have going in your favor at the moment is that you came and talked to me about this instead of just giving the letters directly to Charisma."

"I did consider it," Okasa confessed, seeing a glimmer of hurt flash through the green eyes facing her. "But you're a part of this family too, Little Bri. And I would never forgive myself if I did something to make you feel otherwise. I would never betray your trust on this, Brianna. It's too important to everyone... not just you and Charisma." She paused briefly. "Is it wrong that I want my whole family back together again?"

Brianna sighed and let her shoulders slump in defeat. "It may not be wrong, Mama O, but you need to understand it's impossible."

"It doesn't have to be."

Brianna nodded sadly. "In this case, it does. I cannot... WILL not... be the one to break the stalemate between us, Okasa. I bent over backwards for twenty years to ensure her success and she can't bring herself to offer me more than professional courtesy." She snorted. "Sometimes she can't even offer me that. No, Mama - I will not offer these letters to her... and neither will you. If there's something she wants to know, she can ask - I'm right here. But I'm not going to keep enabling her. I can't."

Okasa nodded and rose. "I understand, Brianna. I really do. I just wish it hadn't turned out like this."

Brianna offered her a wistful smile. "I wish a lot of things hadn't turned out the way they have, Mama, but you can only play the cards you're dealt - even when all you've got is a lot of nothing."

Okasa nodded, but didn't reply otherwise. Instead she moved towards the door. Brianna picked up the box to follow, but Okasa shook her head. "No, Little Bri. That's not for my keeping any longer. It's yours now. You do what you want with it."


"You mind now, young lady. I need to get back to Patrick. If we can arrange it before we go back home, will you have lunch with us? Just me and Paddy?"

"Of course, Mama. You let me know when and where."

Okasa smiled. "I know better. I'll call and see when you're available and fit our schedule to it." She turned back to Brianna, removed the box from her grip and placed it on the table before she opened her arms for a hug. Brianna didn't even hesitate, but stepped into the embrace and held on tightly for a long moment. "Don't be mad at me, Brianna, or angry with me either. What I did here was borne out of love and affection for you both."

"I know, Mama O. I love you too. Are you certain you're okay to go back to Paddy this late alone?"

Okasa smiled. "He's coming to get me if he's not waiting outside already. You know the man has the patience of Job."

"Oh, Mama - he could have come upstairs. It's too cold to be sitting in the car tonight."

"And knowing me Paddy, he came into the lobby as soon as he got here and is sitting downstairs with Sergeant Orwin watching whatever sporting event is on at the moment. I promise you, Brianna - Patrick Tagherty can take care of himself."

"Truer words were never spoken," Brianna muttered, gaining her another smile and hug from Okasa.

"However, I see no reason to make him wait longer than necessary, or to keep you up any longer." Okasa cupped Brianna's face carefully in her hands. "You look exhausted, my dear. Don't let this job kill you, Little Bri. It'll take over your life if you let it."

"Two years, Okasa. That's all I said I would do."

Okasa nodded, but said nothing until they reached the door. Then they briefly embraced before Brianna opened the door. "Be careful, Mama O."

"Get some rest, Little Bri. Goodnight."

Brianna watched until the elevator door closed behind Okasa, then she shut her apartment door. She glared balefully at the Rubbermaid box, then deliberately turned her back to it and went back into her bedroom. Everything would wait until tomorrow. Now it was time to sleep.


And in Manhattan, Kent sat in the dark looking out at the night sky. He missed the stars here, but the skyline made up for it in so many ways, and he could feel the energy of the City pulsing around and through him as a living entity. He wondered if he could give it all up - if he'd want to. Then he determined that before he made any major decisions, he would watch and wait and observe.

With his mind made up on that score, he rose and closed the curtains in the living room - after all, he still had neighbors even this high up. Tonight he would go to bed and sleep. Tomorrow, he would go back to the theatre and go back to work. The tomorrows after that would have to care for themselves as they came along.

For now, he would remain in the shadows... and watch.

Chapter XXXIX

It was several days later before Charisma and Brianna chanced to run into one another again. Although they hadn't consciously been avoiding one another, it was their first meeting since their Sunday afternoon at Esmeralda's and both were at something of a loss to find words to say to each other. After a long moment of awkward staring, Charisma shook her head and chuckled sadly as her eyes dropped to the floor.

Despite herself, Brianna felt a pang of concern ripple through her and she briefly placed a gentle hand on Charisma's arm, leaving it there until blue eyes lifted to meet green. Then she sucked in a breath at the pain that was reflected back to her and she pulled her hand away as a matter of course. Charisma caught it and held on - not tight enough to cause injury, but firmly. Brianna looked at their joined hands and then back at Charisma's eyes.


Charisma held her gaze, then took a deep breath and nodded. "Will you join me for lunch?"

Brianna blinked. Whatever she'd expected to come from Charisma's mouth, those words weren't even in the top one hundred possibilities. "Excuse me?"

"Will you join me for lunch?" Charisma repeated, then shook her head at Brianna's continued dumbfounded expression. "You know what... nevermind." Charisma squeezed the hand she held once, then dropped it and turned away, shaking her head again. This time Brianna did the holding - catching Charisma by the bicep before she could walk away.

"Charisma? Charisma, talk to me. I think I deserve that much."

"Have lunch with me." This time the words actually made sense to Brianna's brain and she nodded her agreement almost without conscious thought.

"All right," she decided. "But you have to talk to me."

Now it was Charisma's turn to blink. She hadn't expected Brianna to capitulate at all - and to have her agreement so easily and so quickly.... She shook her head again and then nodded. "Okay. I need to let my office know. Would you like to walk with me or should we meet in the dining room?"

"We can walk together. I should let my girls know as well," motioning Charisma down the hall. They walked together silently, oblivious to the hustle and bustle of the comings and goings around them. Brianna stopped at her office, surprised when Charisma followed her in.

"Ladies," Brianna announced without preamble, "Senator Tagherty and I are going to lunch. If you need me, just page me, but it better be an emergency." She turned to Indi. "What time is my next appointment?"

"Three o'clock, Senator - committee meeting."

"Very well. We should be back long before then." She looked at Charisma. "Shall we?"

Without a word, Charisma nodded and they left the way they'd come. The staff silently watched them go, but when the door was shut and a full minute had passed, they looked around at one another in amazement.

"Did we just...?"

"Was that...?"

"Did they actually...?"

Indi held up her hands and the mutterings stopped immediately. She met each pair of eyes and offered the tiniest smile of her own. "Yes, we did; yes, that was and yes, they did. I think I should probably call Es and give her a heads up. The rest of you," waving her arms dramatically, "get back to work."

Chuckles followed her pronouncement, but everyone settled back down. Indi picked up the phone and dialed Charisma's office, figuring Opal would need to be in on the call if Esmeralda was going to get the full story. And she was pretty sure Esmeralda was going to want to whole story.


Esmeralda pinched the bridge of her nose and looked at Saphira who simply returned the stare with a shrug. They both turned back to the speakerphone where Opal and Indi were patiently waiting for ... something. Esmeralda sighed.

"Thanks guys. Continue to keep an eye out and let me know if things become vastly different after this lunch meeting. I don't expect them to, but you never know... especially with these two."

"Will do, Es."

"Okay, Es."

"Good job to both of you. Thanks for the heads up. My job should be interesting tonight." With that, they signed off and Saphira took the handset back to the cradle and resumed her seat by Esmeralda.

"Does this mean things are finally going the way they're supposed to?"

"Well, it means things are finally moving of their own accord - that is to say, Brianna and Charisma are behind the movement."

"So we may be done with this assignment soon."

"Could be," Esmeralda agreed. "Although it's not like we have anywhere else to go, Phira. This is our home now."

"Maybe not... I mean, maybe if I apologize...." she started, watching startled green eyes widen at her words. Saphira had sworn she wouldn't apologize for doing what she thought was right, no matter the cost. And the cost had been everything they'd held dear. And though Esmeralda certainly missed what they'd had in Paradise, she had never begrudged giving it all up to stay with Saphira. And now Saphira was willing to do the one thing she'd refused the Father?

"Saphira? Sweetheart? Why? Why would you do that? Have you changed your mind?"

"No - not at all. I still believe it was the right thing to do... despite everything. But Es... if I apologize, we can go home and He will make you better. You won't have to suffer anymore. You shouldn't have to continue to suffer because of me."

"I thought you believed I was going to get better."

"I did... I *do*. But...."

"No, Phira," Esmeralda insisted, shaking her head emphatically. "I will get better - you said so yourself. And if it takes a little longer, that's fine. I don't want you to dishonor the sacrifices we've made. They have to count for something. Besides," holding up a hand when Saphira would have broken in, "He would know if you were only saying it from your lips and not your heart."

"I can be sorry for having done it without believing I was wrong for doing so," Saphira protested weakly, knowing He would never accept that as a viable apology. But it was killing her to watch Esmeralda suffer everyday for something Saphira was being punished for. Then Esmeralda was changing the subject and Saphira put the thoughts out of her mind for the time being.

"At any rate, work should be interesting tonight. Wonder if either of them will share about their luncheon together. Neither of them has been very talkative this week so far."

"Why's that?" Saphira asked, this being the first time Esmeralda had brought it up.

"There's probably a lot of thinking going on. If I was a betting person, I'd say they're both trying to figure out what to do now - especially since their original plans have gone up in smoke."

"Shouldn't it be obvious?"

Esmeralda smiled wryly and shook her head. "Twenty years of habit is hard to break. And it's scary to step out of a groove that deep."

"I guess," Saphira replied hesitantly. "I just don't get this situation at all, but then I usually don't deal with this stuff either. Have you heard from Mal?"

"Not yet. I sent Jade out this morning to see what she can find out, so I expect we'll have a report from that side before the end of the day. Now c'mon... it's time to get ready for work."

Saphira groaned, but rolled from her seat and stood up, stretching. Esmeralda winced when she heard all the bones popping into place, then smiled when Saphira sighed deeply.

"Better?" she asked.

"Much," Saphira confirmed. "I should be able to walk without stooping now."

"I'm sure Matilda will appreciate that."

Saphira snorted. "I'm sure the customers will. Less food tends to end up in their laps." She held out her hands and pulled Esmeralda to her feet. "C'mon. You want me to have Ruby tell Jade to meet us at the diner tonight?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "No. We can't talk in front of Matilda and Joe. But ask her to make sure she's awake and downstairs when we get home."

Saphira nodded and led the way into their bedroom to finish their preparations for work.


Charisma and Brianna took seats at a table for two tucked away in a quiet corner near a window. They remained silent for a few minutes, waiting for the server to come take their order. Only when that was done and the young man was gone did Brianna lean forward and turn her full attention to Charisma.

"All right Charisma - talk to me. What's going on with you?"

Charisma looked away from the window and met Brianna's intense gaze. She took a deep breath. "I miss you," she confessed softly.

Brianna leaned back in her chair, stunned by Charisma's words. Apparently, this was Charisma Tagherty's day to rock Brianna Walker's world, and Brianna wasn't sure she really cared for it. She'd been off-kilter since Sunday - with Charisma and Adam showing up unexpectedly at Esmeralda's; Okasa showing up at her apartment; and now this unlooked for lunch invitation.

Part of her was surprised. Part of her was confused. But the biggest part of her was torn between hurt and anger and it was this part that responded.

"You miss me," she replied flatly, crossing her arms over her chest. "Why?" watching the frown lines form between Charisma's eyes. "Why, Charisma? Why do you miss me? And why now??" her voice never rising above a fierce whisper. "You haven't missed me for twenty years."

Tears filled Charisma's blue eyes, but fire sparked behind them and she refused to allow the tears to fall. "That's not true! I missed you every damn day, Brianna. You walked out of my life without a word and I could never figure out why."

Brianna bit her lip to keep from saying anything. She wasn't going to start a scene in the Senate Dining Room and she'd sworn to Okasa that she wasn't going to be the one to cross the chasm. If Charisma wanted answers, she was going to have to ask the hard questions.

"Well?!" Charisma demanded, crossing her arms over her chest in mimicry of Brianna's position.

Brianna sighed and raked a hand through her hair. "Charisma - you didn't want to know then and you certainly don't want to know now."

"That's it? That's all you have to say??"

"What would you like me to say, Charisma? What brought all this on anyway? A week ago, you didn't want to have anything to do with me at all - even professional courtesy was a stretch for you. And now suddenly you want to be my best friend again? What gives?"

Charisma suddenly slumped in her chair, visibly deflated. "I had forgotten how good we were together, Bri. And as awkward as things were between us Sunday, it made me remember... so much. So much more than the anger I've been holding onto for years. Besides, my son loves you."

"So you're doing this for Adam?"

Charisma's eyes dropped to the table for a long moment. "I don't know," she replied honestly. "Maybe I'm doing it for all of us. I just know after the other day I have to do something. I don't think I can keep being mad; I don't think I want to. Twenty years is a long time to hang onto something like that."

"Can't you just leave it alone? You were fine without me in your life for twenty years. Can't you just ignore me for the next two? I promise once it's over you won't see or hear from me again."

"What if I want to? What if I want you back in my life - and to be back in yours?"

"What if I don't?" Brianna asked bitingly. "Like you pointed out in this very room just the other day, this is too hard."

"Only if we let it be." Charisma paused a moment, unsure why she was pushing so hard for something she had done without for so long. "If you don't want to try and pick our friendship up from where we left off, do you think we could try starting over instead?"

Their server chose that moment to return with their food and they straightened up to allow him to place their plates in front of them. He carefully refilled their drinks and moved away from the table, sensing the tension that rolled off both women in waves.

They focused on their food, concentrating on nothing except eating the meal in front of them. Neither of them was willing to show how upset their dialogue had made them and slowly, methodically they made their way through their repast without exchanging a word. When they were done, they pushed their plates away and accepted coffee from their waiter, finally meeting each other's eyes again.

"I'm not sure I can do this, Charisma. I'm not sure I want to."

"Can I ask what changed? I thought you wanted this to work between us."

"I did," Brianna said honestly. "Until you made it brutally clear that you couldn't, *wouldn't* make the effort. I decided to give up and move on."

Charisma let her eyebrow creep into her hairline. "Since when do you give up?"

"Since I'm black and blue from being beaten down by my supposed best friend."

"I'm sorry, Bri," Charisma said sincerely. "I was angry and hurt and...."

Brianna held up her hand, more exhausted than she could ever remember being. "I'd be willing to start over, Charisma. But don't expect it to be the same. It can't be."

"Will you tell me why you left?"

Brianna looked at her watch and rose, pushing the chair up under the table and resting her hands on the high back. "One day maybe." She paused. "But not here and not now."

"When, Brianna? When do I get to know?" rough and impatient.

"One day, Charisma - when you're really ready for the answer and are willing to ask the hard questions to get it. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to work. And so do you, I imagine. Thank you for lunch." She started to leave, then turned back for a brief moment. "Give me a call, Charisma. Maybe we can set up some time to do this again." Then without another word, Brianna left the dining room. Charisma just watched her go. She had a lot to consider.


"What troubles you, old friend?" Doug asked with a hand on Kent's shoulder as he took a seat at what had become Kent's regular table over the years. "Forget your lines at the theatre tonight?"

Kent raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think anything's wrong? And when have you ever known me to forget my lines? And before you say it, that time at dress rehearsal doesn't count. I was more than a little drunk."

"And high from some incredible marathon sex with... what was that girl's name again? Musty? Dusty?"

"Misty, you bastard," Kent replied with a fond smile. "Oh yeah... she was something else. Wonder whatever happened to her."

"Maybe we should go to a reunion some time and find out."

Kent snorted. "My luck - she's a CEO of a worldwide bank somewhere. I'm doomed to be surrounded by extremely successful women."

"Is that a bad thing?" Doug frowned when he caught the melancholy expression on Kent's face. "Trouble in paradise?" wondering if this perhaps was the heart of the matter.

He shrugged. "I dunno," he replied candidly, a little surprised, but feeling lighter having made the confession. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm missing out on the important things in life by being here, pursuing my theatre career instead of...."

"Instead of playing house-husband to a US Senator? Why should you? You're entitled to a life and a career too, Kent."

"Maybe. I do love it here, and the show is doing well. Did you see the reviews we got today?" turning his attention and Doug's to another train of thought. He had already made arrangements to be off for the next few Sundays. With a little luck, the overnight trips home would put the niggling at the back of his mind at ease. Then he could get back to living his life instead of wondering when the rug was going to be pulled out from under him.

Chapter XL

"I did it," Charisma proclaimed in an excited whisper as she pulled Esmeralda into her office. Esmeralda dutifully followed, though it meant she was off her normal schedule. Obviously Charisma felt the need to share and Esmeralda certainly wasn't going to discourage that. So she parked her cleaning cart and began removing the items she needed even as she met Charisma's eyes.

"Wonderful!" Esmeralda cheered with a bright smile. "What did you do?"

"I invited Brianna to lunch, and we... talked. Sorta - I mean, we did talk, but it was nothing like I expected it would be, you know? It wasn't anything like I hoped, BUT - I did invite her and we did have a conversation. And she even agreed to do it again."

Esmeralda's eyes widened. "That's a good thing, right?" seeing the frown mar Charisma's features and hastening on. "I'm sorry, Charisma - I'm a little confused. Just last week you were resistant to spending time with her when you had chaperones and now you're seemingly over the moon about sitting down alone together. Don't get me wrong - I'm thrilled, especially if it makes you both happy. I'm just a little confused."

Charisma snorted but smiled. "So am I, actually, if you want to know the truth. But this feels... for the first time in like.. forever, this feels right." She took Esmeralda's hand and led her to the couch, immediately taking a seat beside her. "I'm still angry... and hurt... and confused. And until we get everything worked out between us, I probably will be. But I realized the other day that Brianna felt the same things I do. I don't know why yet, but I intend to. And Adam made me understand that the people suffering were the only people who could fix it, and if Brianna was willing, why shouldn't I be?"

"And is Brianna willing?"


Now Esmeralda smiled wholeheartedly, opening her arms for a hug and Charisma responded without hesitation. Esmeralda held her tightly, feeling the silent sobs that shook Charisma's body. She brushed a light kiss over Charisma's temple and whispered, "I'm so glad, Charisma. I hope this works out beautifully for both of you."

Charisma pulled back and smiled into Esmeralda's eyes, sweeping a lock of hair of her face. "You're one in a million, Es. I hope Saphira knows how lucky she is."

"Oh, I think we're both pretty lucky, Charisma. Now, don't you need to get home to that boy of yours?"

Charisma dabbed at the corners of her eyes with her knuckles, then straightened and rose from the divan. "Actually, yes - I'm hoping Saphira hasn't given him a new bath time game."

"You mean the streaking thing," Esmeralda stated flatly as she moved back towards her cart to gather her supplies so she could get to work.

"Uh... YES. He never did that before he met her, but now it seems to be becoming a nightly event according to Ame."

"I did warn you she had a way with kids because she *was* a kid at heart, right?"

Charisma chuckled. "Yes, you did. And to tell the truth, he's blossomed after spending just one afternoon with her. I can't imagine the corruption if he had days on end with her." She waggled her eyebrows. "Are you two available again on Sunday next?"

Esmeralda laughed. "Are you sure you're ready for that again so soon?"

"I meant what I said about cultivating your friendship, Esmeralda. I really like you and Saphira, and so does Adam. Personally, I think he believes she's his own personal superhero. And to be completely honest, I'd like to invite Brianna over as well, and I'd feel more comfortable with you and Saphira there. But I figure you may need a little recovery time from last week, hence the invite for next Sunday and not this one."

"I'll talk to Saphira. I know she'll be willing, but let me make sure she doesn't have plans for something else that day. Sometimes when the weather's good, we go out to the Mall and take a picnic - or visit the museums."

"I haven't done that in a long time," Charisma responded wistfully. "Sometimes I miss having time just to do what I want or be just Charisma. Sometimes I think she got lost in the politics that living here and being part of the political machine is."

"Maybe. But maybe in reconnecting with Brianna, you'll be able to find her again."

"That'd be nice - highly unlikely, but nice." Charisma moved over behind her desk, shutting down her laptop and stuffing it and the bills she needed to review into her briefcase. "Let me get out of here so you can get done and go home. No reason to worry Saphira if you don't have too, right?"

Esmeralda nodded. "Yeah - she worries enough without me adding to it. Goodnight, Senator Tagherty."

"Goodnight, Es."


"Brianna?" Esmeralda called out as she knocked on the door. "Senator Walker?" When there was no answer, Esmeralda opened the door to the inner office and pushed her cart ahead of her. She closed the door and reached for the light switch, only to have her hand stayed by the sound of Brianna's voice in the dark.

"Leave it off, please."

Esmeralda's head snapped up and she peered around in the near pitch darkness, finding a tiny light coming from the direction of Brianna's desk. "Brianna?" she asked softly. "Are you all right?"

"I don't think so, Es."

Esmeralda gave silent thanks for the advantages of Angel vision and slowly threaded her way across the room until she was standing beside Brianna's desk. A quick look showed her clearly what the light was shining on and Esmeralda gestured towards it. "May I?"

Brianna handed it over to Esmeralda and turned on the brighter desk lamp so Esmeralda could actually see what she was holding. Esmeralda leaned down, surprised to find that the photograph she held was not the one she expected it to be. Instead, it showed Brianna and Charisma in what appeared to be a private moment backstage after a performance. Esmeralda wanted to ask, but before she could open her lips to speak, Brianna began to explain.

"I was a double major in college - one in law, of course, and one in the theatre. I figured the theatre degree could be put to good use in the courtroom if utilized correctly, and I was right," she said with a proud smile. Esmeralda returned the smile and studied the picture once more. Brianna started talking again. "What I didn't know when I decided to have a theatre major was that it meant I had to learn all aspects of the theatre - acting, lighting, sound, set building, costume design and writing. Most of it was easy enough and I enjoyed it. After a day studying the law, it was a welcome break and a chance to be creative."

"So what happened?" Esmeralda asked when the silence began to drag on uncomfortably.

"I had to write." Esmeralda's eyebrows went into her hairline and her eyes widened comically. Brianna chuckled at her expression.

"Was it a bad thing?"

Brianna sighed. "No... not really. I was actually very good at it. A little too good, maybe," she added, biting her lip. "Professor Mac - my theatre prof - chose my play to be introduced to the student body during the Spring Bonanza. Trust me... it was a really big deal," Brianna explained, waving off Esmeralda's questions. "I had put my heart and soul into this play - it exposed me in ways nothing ever had before."

"Or since, I imagine."

"Or since," Brianna agreed. "But it was really good and exceptionally well received."

"And the picture?" Esmeralda prompted when Brianna stopped speaking. Brianna reached for the picture and Esmeralda released it, watching Brianna's expression shift as she studied it with both eyes and hands.

"The picture was something I didn't know about until some time later. At the end of the night, before the bows were taken or the accolades received, Charisma made her way backstage. You have to understand that she was a confirmed first-nighter for every performance I was part of in college. It didn't matter how big or small the part, Charisma was always there for the first night's performance. Everyone learned very quickly who she was and that we were best friends. So by the time our Senior Spring Bonanza rolled around, no one even questioned her right to be backstage before the play was even properly over. She was one of us."

"Okay, so...?" motioning to the photograph Brianna was still absently caressing.

"The moment she got backstage, she wrapped me up in a hug so tight," shaking her head as she waved the picture. "Professor Mac snapped this picture without our knowledge, though he did send me a copy of it later. He commented on what a beautiful couple we were and hoped that we would be able to find happiness together in life."

"What did you tell him?"

"What could I tell him? I knew that was never going to happen. Charisma and I had talked about it and she told me in no uncertain terms that she would never derail her political aspirations for love with a woman... even me." Brianna looked down at the picture again and smiled through her tears. "Es, it was amazing. She surrounded me and I knew I never wanted to be anywhere else but in her arms. In her arms I was safe and sheltered and loved."

"So why did you go to Europe with her? Why didn't you just leave after graduation?"

Brianna's laugh was painfully sad. "It sounds like that would be the smart thing to do, doesn't it? It sounds like it would be so easy." She shook her head again. "I couldn't. I *wanted* that trip with her and the memories it would give me - because I knew there would never be a chance for more. I tried to convince myself that it would be easier to say goodbye if I had something to hang on to." She snorted. "Sometimes I wonder how I've ever been as successful as I've been as a lawyer, because even *I* didn't believe that one."

"And you couldn't just tell her the truth?"

"No more than I can now," her voice bitter.

"Then why are you doing this, Brianna? If she can't accept what's between you, why are you letting her back into your life?" Esmeralda waited patiently for the answer. She wanted Brianna to be sure of what she was doing and why she was doing it. Because if things went wrong this time, there was no next time and no more chances.

"I thought you wanted me to, Es. I thought you wanted us to be friends."

"I think it would be fantastic if you two could be friends again. You're obviously so good together, or you were at one time," motioning to the pictures scattered around the office. "But this isn't about me and what I want. I thought you had decided to move on." She paused a moment. "I want you to be happy, Brianna, and you don't seem very happy about this turn of events. And I feel a little responsible for that since I invited her and Adam to join us Sunday and that seems to be what has precipitated this change of heart for you."

Brianna took a deep breath. "You're right - I had decided to move on, accepting that our friendship was over and nothing but a lost cause as far as she was concerned. Charisma made it abundantly clear she would never forgive me for leaving, even though she refused to acknowledge why. She's still refusing to do that, by the way." Brianna turned and met Esmeralda's eyes, both of them glittering black in the darkness. "Es, have you ever had something you really wanted - even though you knew it was bad for you and was probably going to do more harm than you could possibly live through - have you ever had something like that handed to you? As much as I need Charisma out of my life, I want her there," as if that explained everything.

And maybe to Esmeralda, it did, because she simply nodded her head in acceptance. "Will you tell her the truth? Why you left and why you stayed away?"

"If she asks, I'll tell her. The worst she can do is dismiss me from her life, and I've already lived like that for almost twenty years. And in the meantime, maybe I can make a few more memories to hold onto for the rest of my life."

"You're so sure she'll reject you."

"Yeah, I really am. But I'm like a drug addict and she's my drug of choice. And she will never, ever accept what that means."

"And if by some miracle she does?"

"She won't. But maybe she'll have grown enough to still be my friend."

Esmeralda covered Brianna's hand. "Saphira and I'll be here for you if you ever need to talk."

Brianna squeezed the hand covering hers. "I know. And I appreciate it... so much more than you know. I don't know what I would have done without you both." She turned and noticed the time. "Holy shit! I'm making you obscenely late. Saphira's going to have a duck."

Esmeralda blinked. "Well, that'd be something of a feat, I'm sure," smiling when Brianna burst into laughter.

"Oh Es... you're priceless. C'mon now and let's get this room straightened up. Then I'll give you a lift to the diner. Don't...." she instructed, holding up an imperious hand. "It's my fault you're going to be late regardless of how you get there. So you can just let me give you a ride over so I can explain it to Saphira myself. In fact...." motioning Esmeralda to do her thing. Brianna snatched her cell phone out of her desk and scrolled through her contacts until she found the number she was looking for. A brief phone call later, and.... "All done. Matilda will tell Saphira I am bringing you over because I made you late. Then she won't worry when she sees the car pull up."

"You're pretty slick there, Senator Walker," Esmeralda complimented with a smile, noting Brianna seemed better for having refocused her attention. She wondered what that meant for their earlier discussion, then figured Brianna had probably had all she could stand for now. At least Esmeralda had some idea of what was going on with both of them and both Brianna and Charisma knew she was available if they needed to talk. Then Brianna answered her.

"Lawyer, remember? Slick is my middle name."

"Your mother must have really struggled to come up with that one," she stated deadpanned, eyes twinkling at Brianna's gobsmacked expression. Then she settled down to finish up her work while Brianna wrapped up hers. It was time to go home.


"I'm really glad Brianna thought to call," Saphira said as they made their way up the front walk. When they reached the door, Ruby opened it on cue. They turned and waved to Brianna, watching as Jas slowly pulled the car away before they turned to enter the house. Ruby opened the door wider and welcomed them in.

"What are you doing up, Ruby? It's late... we're late."

"I know. I was a little concerned until Jas called and let me know that you were with her." She shrugged when Esmeralda raised an eyebrow waiting for the rest of the explanation. "Jade's here. I'd kind of like to hear what she has to say."

"But you need your sleep too. Ruby, you don't wanna get rundown like I did."

"I won't, Es. I've been napping on the couch."

"All right," shrugging out of her coat and watching Saphira catch it before it hit the floor. "Thank you, Phira," she offered with a smile, then turned to Ruby. "Where's Jade now?" A dirty blonde head stuck itself out of the kitchen door.

"Did somebody call me?"

"Yep, you betcha," Esmeralda replied, smiling when Saphira caught her hand and led her into the kitchen. "Is this going to be a short telling or a long one?" with a look at Jade. "Should we make coffee or stick with milk?"

"I'd stick with the milk. The telling won't take long, and what you do with it.... Well, any debate on that score can certainly wait for a more civilized hour. Though honestly, I'm not sure you can actually *do* anything. I think Kent is gonna do what Kent is gonna do and we're just gonna have to hold on for the fallout."

"Oh boy."

Chapter XLI

"Well, that was enlightening," Esmeralda said as she went into the bathroom. "You know, this could get ugly before all is said and done." She sighed. "I wish I knew what Kent was thinking instead of simply what he was doing. I might have a clue what was coming down the pipeline. As it is...."

"As it is, we know he thinks something is going on with Charisma - enough that he's given up his Sunday and Monday performances to be here surreptitiously to try and figure out for himself what's happening." Saphira pushed her hair away from her forehead, then scrubbed a hand over her face. "Is this what mortals consider a cluster?" she asked seriously. She watched as Esmeralda wiped her face and hung up the towel before turning off the bathroom light and crossing over to the bed. She pulled the covers back and let her shoulders slump.

"I think so. Thing is, I'm not sure if it's our cluster or theirs at this point."

Saphira urged Esmeralda into the bed and tucked her in, then went around to the other side and climbed in. She yanked the blankets up to her waist and crossed her arms over her chest, looking down at Esmeralda who had turned on her side and was propped up on an elbow gazing back at her.

"I gotta tell you, Es - I'm about over this whole 'push me... pull you' routine Charisma and Brianna have got going on here. Seriously, I'm about thiiiiiis close," holding her fingertips less than a millimeter apart, "from just smashing heads and having done with it."


"No, Es. I'm serious. As far as I'm concerned, these two have already used every chance they get. I don't think they want to be happy."

"Why would you say that?" Esmeralda asked with a frown.

"Because they could be if they wanted to be. Happy, I mean. Instead, they're choosing to be miserable apart."

"So you don't think they want to be together?"

"I don't know!" Saphira slammed her fists against the mattress. "How do you stand this?"

"Lots of practice?" reaching a hand over to cover the clenched fist closest to her. "Saphira, I know this is frustrating for you. But you have to try to be patient. As far as Brianna and Charisma are concerned, life is suddenly in flux. Things they have taken for granted as fact are suddenly changing."

"Oh c'mon, Es - all they have to do is be honest."

"Easy to say, Sweetheart - not always easy to do... especially if lying to yourself has become a way of life."

Saphira huffed. "So what now?"

Esmeralda shrugged and shifted so she was lying on her back. "We wait and we continue to be their friends. Not much else we can do until they reach a decision."

"And if they make the wrong one?" Saphira asked as she slid down to lay flat on the bed. Then she turned on her side so she could see Esmeralda. Saphira reached out a hand and stroked a lock of hair from Esmeralda's forehead when Esmeralda turned her head to face her. She smiled when Esmeralda brushed a kiss over her pulse point. "Isn't that what got us in this mess to begin with?"

"That's not our call, Phira. As much as we'd like to make the choice for them, they have to determine what is right for them. Because they're gonna have to live with whatever they decide. There won't be anymore chances when this is over."

"And He decides when it's over?"

"No... they do. When they finally make that choice, *then* we'll be done."

"I just don't get their hesitation. We made our choice to be together as soon as it was offered to us."

"Different circumstances, love." She tugged gently on the hand she still held, smiling when Saphira shifted and opened her arms. Esmeralda snuggled into her embrace and they settled down to sleep.


The next day was much like the ones that had gone before it, except that Charisma made it a point to speak to Brianna as opposed to avoiding any and all contact with her. It was only a brief meeting in the hallway, but it was enough to remind Brianna just how drastically things had changed between them.

"Senator Walker."

"Senator Tagherty."

They held each other's gaze for a moment before Charisma broke the tableau with an undignified snort. "Okay, this was *not* what I had in mind when I asked if we could renew our friendship. Even if we're going to start over from the beginning, I'm not sure I can do formal, because that puts us back on purely professional footing."

Brianna smirked just the tiniest bit. "Well, it's not like you don't know my name, Charisma."

Charisma smiled. "This is true, Brianna Brianna Walker."

"Just Brianna will be fine, Charisma," Brianna replied softly. She wasn't nearly ready to allow Charisma the intimacy of teasing yet.

The smile fell from Charisma's eyes, knowing they really were starting over from beyond square one, but happy they were being given a second chance at friendship. Still, the smile never left her lips and she nodded gracefully. "All right, Brianna. Are you free for lunch this afternoon?"

Brianna shook her head. "Lunch meeting with Senators Richards and Michaels. Committee stuff. Tomorrow maybe?"

"I'll have Opal call Indi and schedule it."

"Okay," looking at her watch. "I've got to get a move on, but remind me later to ask you how you've put up with this for twenty years."

"Oh, the stories I could tell you."

"I'll just bet. See you tomorrow, Charisma." Then she was down the hall and out of sight before Charisma could make a response. Charisma shrugged and turned back to return to her office.

"It's not much, but it's a start."


The following day, they met in the dining room and headed for the small, private table they had shared only a few days before. The same young man returned to take their order, nodding his understanding and leaving them alone as quickly as he could. Though it wasn't tense like it had been before, it was still awkward and he was happy to get away.

Brianna fussed with the place setting, tucking the napkin into place on her lap, then straightening the silverware with military precision. Only Charisma's light touch on her hand caused her to freeze and look up and meet bright blue eyes. She caught her breath, recognizing the same pained confusion she felt and relaxed. Brianna patted the hand covering hers.

"So tell me about Adam," she said, feeling Charisma relax even as she leaned back in her chair with a smile on her face.

"What would you like to know?" unable to keep her eyes from twinkling.

"Everything. He seems to be something of a pistol."

"I'm blaming that on Saphira," Charisma stated emphatically. "Honestly, he was such a calm child before Sunday," watching Brianna's brow rise in disbelief. "I'm not kidding. This was a child whose favorite activity was reading."

"Are we talking about the same child - the one who went streaking through the kitchen naked? The one who tried to take Esmeralda's tongue out of her mouth with potatoey fingers? Charisma, he hadn't even had a chance to play with Saphira at that point. And I seem to remember...."

Charisma narrowed her eyes at Brianna. "You're supposed to be on my side here, you know."

"Who said I wasn't? Now tell me about your son."

Charisma's grin was wide and genuine, and she began to speak about Adam at length. Neither of them noticed when their server interrupted them to place their food down or refilled their drinks. In fact, neither of them was even aware of the passage of time until Opal appeared at the table. Charisma looked up at her in surprise and a frown crossed her face.

"Opal? Is there something...?"

"I'm sorry to intrude, Senator Tagherty… Senator Walker," nodding slightly in Brianna's direction. "I tried to reach you on your phone, but you weren't answering," ignoring the slight flush that colored Charisma's cheeks. "You have an appointment with Senator Long in fifteen minutes, Senator. I didn't want you to miss it."

Charisma's eyes widened. She'd totally forgotten her meeting with the Senate Minority Leader - not good, considering the lengths she'd gone to secure it. She looked at Brianna, who shrugged and motioned her away from the table. Opal took the hint immediately and headed towards the door.

"Go on. I know what a pompous as... windbag that old fart is. If you've got an appointment with him, you don't want to miss it."

Charisma snorted. "I take it you've had to deal with him already?"

"Oh my God, YES. But it's a story that will keep for another day. Go on... before you're late."

"Thanks, Bri. And thanks for the company. I had a great time."

"So did I, Charisma," refusing to give into too much informality too soon.

"So we can do this again?"

"I'd like that," Brianna admitted honestly.

"Good. I'll have Opal talk to Indi to make sure your schedule is clear. OH! And Adam and I'd like you to come over next Sunday. We've invited Es and Saphira to join us as well - which is why it's next Sunday and not this one. I figure they probably need to recuperate from the last one first. Just think about it," Charisma instructed without giving Brianna a chance to reply. "In the meantime...."

"In the meantime, you need to get out of here before you're late."

"See you later?"

"You bet," and Brianna watched Charisma and Opal leave the dining room together. She turned back to her coffee, sipping it slowly as she closed her eyes.

"Well, well..." came an amused voice from behind her. "Aren't the two of you terribly chummy all of a sudden?" Scott Patterson asked. "How'd you manage to melt the Ice Queen?"

Brianna turned around and gave him a mild look. "Excuse me?"

"Come on, Senator. Charisma Tagherty has never been friendly with any of us like she is with you and we've been trying for years. So what's the story?"

"Maybe you should ask her," Brianna replied with a smirk. Patterson chuckled.

"Maybe I will." He put his hands on the back of her chair. "Now c'mon. It's time for our committee meeting," tugging gently until she relented and helped him ease the seat away from the table.

Brianna sighed and rose. "My days seem to be endless committee meetings."

Patterson snorted. "Welcome to Washington."

Brianna rolled her eyes. "I should have stayed home." Then she laughed at the scandalized look Patterson wore. "Get over it, Scott," she admonished as they headed out the door. "I didn't run for my seat, remember? It doesn't mean I won't do my best for the people of my state while I'm here, but it doesn't mean I'm all that thrilled to be here either."

Patterson stared at her with something akin to amazement on his face. Then he shook his head and led the way out the door.


The weekend passed quietly for everyone, much to Esmeralda's relief. They saw Mal briefly, but it was mostly to confirm what they already knew - Kent was in town, but Charisma had no knowledge of his visit. He wasn't doing anything except watching Charisma, but according to both Mal and Amber, there was nothing to see.

Charisma had spent her Saturday looking over legislation, making phone calls and generally doing what she did during the rest of the week. And Sunday was dedicated to time with Adam. They read and played chase and made lunch and took a nap. And after a bath, after Adam had been rocked and read to and hummed to sleep, only then did Charisma go to her study.

Kent observed as she poured herself a glass of wine and moved to the sofa. For a while she simply sat, staring into the fireplace, watching the flames snap and flicker. Only when her glass was empty did she shift her attention away from the fire. She turned to the coffee table and lifted the album from the place it had been sitting since the previous Sunday when she'd shared it with Adam.

Once more she opened the book and simply gazed at the pictures within. Kent watched until Charisma fell asleep, still holding the book cradled in her arms. Then he left and headed back to the City.

Otherwise, the days were unexceptional and everyone took the chance to rest and relax and gear up for the coming week.


Charisma and Brianna met again for lunch on Monday afternoon, amidst a flurry of appointments and meetings. It was a welcome bit of respite in an otherwise hectic day, and both women were glad for the downtime. It was made nicer by the chance to spend it together, though neither of them was particularly willing to admit that fact aloud to the other.

When Esmeralda came by much later that evening, they were both anxious to talk and Esmeralda was more than willing to listen. And once she did, she was anxious to share with Saphira.


"Essie... c'mon in here," Matilda beckoned as Saphira held open the door to the diner for her to enter. "I've got something new I want you to try."

Esmeralda allowed Saphira to take her coat even as she cast a questioning glance her way. Saphira barely shrugged, shaking her head. "I dunno," she whispered in Esmeralda's ear as she brushed a kiss over the soft cheek under her lips. She felt the trembling in Esmeralda's frame and pulled back to stare at her with concerned eyes. "You all right?"

"Busy night," she responded softly, though not soft enough for Matilda not to hear.

"Must have been a good busy," she commented as she brought her latest concoction out of the window where Joe stood watching the three of them with a grin on his face. "You've got color in your cheeks, and I don't think it's from the cold." Matilda raised a hand to Esmeralda's forehead, then leaned forward and kissed it. "I don't think you've got fever either."

Esmeralda smiled and captured Matilda's hand in her own. "No fever," she promised. "Just a good night and we got plenty of rest this weekend, which helped a lot, I think."

"Yeah, Saphira told us about that little hellion of that Senator friend of yours. That little guy sounds like quite a handful," Matilda added as she put the plate in front of Esmeralda.

"He is, but he's a good kid. I think he just liked having a grown-up playmate."

Three sets of eyes turned to look at Saphira, whose eyes grew wide as she returned their stares. "Whaaaaat?" she whined. "I didn't do nothin'," she complained, sitting down next to Esmeralda and picking up a fork before digging into the potpie with single-minded focus.

"Give it up, Saphira," Joe admonished with a laugh. "We all know better."

"So what do you think?" Matilda asked after they had eaten for a few minutes. "It must be pretty good - you're actually eating. Or are you feeling better?"

Esmeralda smiled. "I am feeling better, but this is really good too. Are you adding it to the menu as a blue plate special?"

"I'm thinking about it. Opinion?"

Esmeralda chewed slowly, her eyes thoughtful. "I would," she finally said. "But I wouldn't do it too often. This should be a special blue plate special - you know... the kind that only gets offered once in a while because of the work involved in preparing it. Because if I'm guessing right, this took hours, if not a couple days, didn't it?"

Joe nodded. "It did." He looked at Saphira who was methodically making inroads on her portion. "What do you think?"

"I think this is really good, and I would like to selfishly keep it all for myself," she replied with a grin. "But I think it will do well if you put it on the board."

"All right then," Matilda said. "You two finish up while I wrap you up a piece of pie to go. You need to get home and get to bed and so do the old man and I. We don't want you losing that color in your cheeks," she added, shaking a finger at Esmeralda.

"You're a sweetheart, Matilda. God will be good to you for looking out for us."

"Maybe. I'll just be happy for you to keep coming round. That's thanks enough."

Esmeralda smiled. "You just like hearing all the good gossip," she teased.

"That too. Now c'mon," noticing Esmeralda had stopped eating. "Let me box this up so you two can go home. I'm sure you've got more interesting things to do than talk to old folks like me and Joe all night." And in minutes, she had shooed them out the door headed home.

"I doubt this is the interesting Matilda had in mind," Esmeralda said as they soundlessly entered the house and made their way straight to the kitchen. "But do I have a lot to tell you."

Saphira chuckled. "You heat the water and I'll go turn on the blanket. Then we can curl up together while you share what happened tonight."

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

Chapter XLII

"So things are moving satisfactorily then?" Saphira asked as she set their cups on the nightstand. Esmeralda nodded slowly.

"At least things are moving forward. They're at different places with this whole state of affairs between them - Charisma seems nervous and unsure and yet she's become the pursuer, determined to have Brianna as part of her life again. Brianna is more resigned to the whole situation; she's not moving away from it, but she seems unwilling to advance it at the moment either. She believes it will eventually come back to bite her in the ass, so she's willing to take what she can get from Charisma until Charisma learns the truth. She's convinced that circumstance will remove her from Charisma's life completely and for good."

"I don't understand why she doesn't stand up and fight for what she wants. Isn't she sick and tired of always giving in to what she thinks is best for Charisma? Why not fight for them to be together if it'll make them both happy?"

"I dunno, love," Esmeralda shrugged. "Maybe we'll be able to figure it out a little better next Sunday. We've been invited to Charisma's and Brianna is supposed to be there. Charisma thinks our presence will make it easier for them to become friends again."

Saphira pinched the bridge of her nose. "I feel a headache coming on," she mumbled, smiling when she felt Esmeralda's lips brush against her temple.

"I totally understand," tugging gently on Saphira's arm until they were laying flat on the bed. "On the plus side, it is progress."

"And on the down side is they're gonna drive us all nuts in the meantime," Saphira postulated darkly.

Esmeralda snorted. "Not a very far trip for most of us, Phira."

"I know - I wouldn't even make it out of the driveway most days."

Their chuckles were silent and they fell asleep with smiles on their faces.


It was Thursday before Charisma and Brianna had the chance to get together for lunch again, and Charisma blessed her foresight in having Opal and Indi coordinate things between them. There was a big push to get as much done as possible before the upcoming holiday break and every minute of the day seemed to be crowded with things that just couldn't wait. Even lunches became more like meetings and less like mealtimes, so Charisma was especially thankful to have a little time carved out that *wasn't* dedicated to more politics.

It floored her to realize she was more than a little put out by the political machinations that seemed determined to keep her and Brianna apart and wondered when and why her priorities had changed so drastically. After all... politics had been her life her whole life, and she'd done without Brianna's presence for almost twenty years after only having it for four.

Still, she was honest enough with herself to recognize the resentment she felt. She didn't take the time to examine it any further, but she knew it for what it was.

So it was with a big smile on her face that she entered the dining room on Thursday afternoon to find Brianna there ahead of her and waiting at what was quickly becoming their usual table. She nodded to their regular attendant and made her way across the room....

... only to be stopped by a junior senator from one of her committees that wanted her input on a late piece of legislation he was putting together. Brianna watched the exchange with interest, knowing from their long history together that Charisma was politely flaying him alive. Given the expression on the man's face when he turned - a mix of fury, embarrassment and humiliation - Brianna glanced to see if there was a wet spot on his trousers. Then she turned her attention to Charisma whose appearance was one of supreme satisfaction.

"Should I ask?" Brianna queried as Charisma pulled out her chair and took a seat.

"Depends," Charisma smirked. "Do you really want to know?"

"If I was a gambler," Brianna commented slowly as she sipped from her water glass, "I'd say he was asking for inappropriate favors."

Charisma snorted. "He's not quite *that* stupid. He just doesn't seem to think the rules of courtesy should apply to him." At Brianna's interested look, Charisma sighed and crossed her legs before leaning back in the chair and propping her face on her fingers. "He believes he can demand because he thinks he needs and everyone around him will capitulate."

"He expected you to have lunch with him at a moment's notice?"

"Uh huh," Charisma drawled as their server approached the table. She motioned him forward. "And I wasn't going to give up the time with you because he waited until the last minute to decide he wanted input so he could offer some legislation for consideration."

"Was it important... the legislation?"

Charisma shrugged. "No more or less than anything else we're deliberating at the moment." She turned and gave her order to the young man and waited for Brianna to do the same. Then they waited for him to scurry off before resuming their conversation.

"So how've you been otherwise?" Brianna asked seriously. "Indi told me it was like pulling teeth to get this lunch scheduled."

"You'd know... your schedule has been about the same as mine."

"Without the child and the marital responsibilities," Brianna pointed out, but before Charisma could comment on either of those, she continued speaking. "But yeah - it's been a little nuts."

This time Charisma's laugh was full-bodied and caused several heads to twist in their direction in surprise. Brianna noted the looks of amazement that she was given, but they had all gone back to their own business by the time Charisma calmed enough to wipe the tears out of her eyes.

"Oh my God, Bri... I had forgotten what a master of understatement you were. And that reminds me," she added, staring at Brianna and watching the blonde brow go up in question. "Rumor has it you're stirring up quite a pot lately."

Now both brows jumped into her hairline and Brianna wanted to pat the top of her head to ensure that they didn't actually leap off her head and go running out the door. Instead she frowned, scrunching them together just above her nose.

"I beg your pardon?"

The waiter chose that moment to make an appearance and they waited for him to deliver their food and move away from the table. Charisma picked up her fork and took a bite, chewing thoughtfully and motioning Brianna to do the same. Brianna picked up her fork and arched her brow.

"It's making the rounds that you told Scott Patterson to get over himself."

Brianna choked on the food in her mouth and quickly snatched up her water and took a swallow, hoping to force the bite down the correct hole. Fortunately for her it worked, and after a couple deep breaths, she set the water back on the table and raised her napkin to her lips.

"Excuse me?" she croaked. "I never told Scott Patterson any such thing."

"You must have said something."

"Oh, I said plenty. I told him if he wanted to know how I melted the Ice Queen - that would be you, in this case - he'd have to ask you himself. Because I certainly wasn't going to explain to him or anyone else here that you've never been an Ice Queen as far as I'm concerned. Then I told him to get over the fact that this job isn't the be all and end all for me." Brianna absently chewed on the tines of her fork as her eyes went distant. "He seemed a little offended by that, actually." Charisma's grunt brought Brianna's attention back to the table and she shrugged. "Well, it's true... all of it."

"Oh I know... better than most actually. I still wonder how you ended up here if you want to know the truth. Not that you're not completely qualified or that you're doing a poor job," added quickly when she saw Brianna's brow fly upwards. "It's just you made it clear in college you had no interest in this life. It's just a little weird is all... especially after you just disappeared."

"I didn't disappear, Charisma," Brianna stated sharply, eyes burning with a hint of anger.

"You did," Charisma argued, but held up her hands in a sign of peace to keep Brianna from replying. "But that's a discussion for another time and place. Besides, you don't think it's a little odd how we ended up here together... despite everything?"

Brianna bit back the anger and frustration she felt and tilted her head at Charisma as she observed her thoughtfully. "Do you believe in fate?" she finally asked.

Charisma used the time it took for their server to clear the table and pour them cups of coffee to consider her answer. When he left, she stirred it slowly, watching the swirls absently for a long time before meeting Brianna's eyes. "I don't think there's a good way to answer that question. I don't believe in predestination, but I do believe fate occasionally takes a hand in our lives."

Brianna blinked. "You do realize you just contradicted yourself, right?" she asked drolly. "If something is fated, it's predestined - you can't escape it."

"I don't believe that," Charisma frowned. "Sometimes fate taking a hand means giving us a choice. But we have to make the choice... and we have to live with the consequences that follow."

"Perhaps," Brianna conceded, pushing back her chair and rising from the seat. "However, that discussion will have to wait as well," glancing at her watch. "I've got to get back to work and I imagine you do as well."

Charisma blew out a breath. "Yes, actually," she agreed a little shortly. "We'll see you on Sunday?"

"Of course," Brianna concurred. "I told you I'd be there."

"Good - Adam's excited," Charisma confessed as they started making their way out of the dining room. "He reminded me again this morning that you were good."

Brianna crinkled up her nose trying to contain her laughter in her wide smile. "What does that mean exactly and where did he get it?"

"I don't know, but my son does seem to be an inherently excellent judge of character, so enjoy it. Oh... and you might want to watch your back."

"Okay," Brianna drawled slowly, glad they were currently alone in the hall. "Why?"

"That response you gave Patterson? It's not the best way to win friends and influence people in this town."

"And do I want to do that?"

"If you want to survive, you're going to have to at some point."

"Then allow me to return the favor. I know you're popular among the constituents of our fair state, but you're seen as aloof and untouchable by a lot of your peers here."

"I know. But I have solid friends in the places I need them." Charisma took one of Brianna's hands in hers and patted it gently with her other one before covering it. "Thank you - for caring enough...."

"I never stopped caring, Charisma," Brianna replied, then bit her lip to keep from saying anything else. Charisma stared at Brianna for a long moment, but when she didn't offer anything further, she squeezed her hand once more then released her hold.

"Me either," she tendered as a parting shot, then turned and entered her office. Brianna waited until the door closed behind her, then blew out an aggravated breath and continued down the hall to her own. There was still work to be done.


"Es? Do you believe in destiny?"

Esmeralda blinked as she got hit with that question the moment she stepped into Brianna's office much later that evening, but she didn't let it slow her stride. She parked her cart and took out the items she needed, setting them on top. She grabbed the duster first and started making her way around the room slowly as she considered her reply. Brianna let her be, knowing she'd been heard and that Esmeralda would give her answer as soon he she had one formulated.

"I dunno," Esmeralda eventually said. "I guess I do about some things, but not so much about others."

Brianna tilted her head and tapped her pen on the blotter, frowning a little. "I don't understand."

Esmeralda chuckled softly. "I'm not sure I can explain it." She cleared her throat. "I absolutely believe Saphira and I were meant to be together - that no matter what reality we'd been born into, we'd have found one another because we're supposed to be. On the other hand, I don't think that our being here... in the situation we're in... is anything other than our choice - the result of the decisions we made."

"So our lives are a little bit of fate or destiny or God and a lot about what we do with what we're given." A statement... not a question.

Esmeralda shrugged. "I think so," continuing to dust - first around Brianna to get to the desk and then back behind it to take care of the pictures that Brianna was apparently studying. Brianna remained silent and Esmeralda didn't pause, not wanting to interrupt whatever thoughts Brianna was having. Instead when she was done, she went back over to her cart and retrieved the polish. She was almost done, packing up her supplies to leave the office when Brianna swiveled in her chair and met Esmeralda's eyes.

"I hear you and Saphira are going to be at Charisma's on Sunday," she said with a light smile, though the twinkle in her eyes couldn't hide her concern.

Esmeralda smiled back. "Yeah - I have been given the impression that Adam covets Saphira as a playmate - he wants to share his toys with her." Brianna laughed.

"I think he just wants another chance to streak through the house naked." She looked at Esmeralda seriously. "Are you sure you're up for it, Es? You seem kind of tired again," not mentioning her sallow skin-tone or her run-down appearance.

"Do you not want us there, Brianna?"

"I am simply concerned, my friend. You haven't been well and I know the cold weather isn't helping. I don't want to contribute to anything that is going to slow down your recovery."

Esmeralda's smile was real and genuine. "I appreciate that, Brianna, but I can't stop living just because my recovery is slower than I want it to be. Imagine all the things I'd miss. It's gonna take time before I'm completely well and there's stuff to do in the meantime. Besides, when the senators go on holiday break, so does the custodial staff," motioning to herself. "I'll have plenty of time then to rest and recover some more."

"If you're sure."

"I am, Brianna, but thank you for caring."


"How do you feel about fate, Es?" Charisma asked as she crossed the threshold. This time she did stop and met Charisma's eyes squarely.

"Did you and Brianna talk recently?"

Charisma chuckled. "She asked you the same thing?"

"Something very similar."

"And what did you tell her?"

"I believe in Fate about some things, but not so much about others."

"How so?"

Once again Esmeralda explained her thoughts as she cleaned the office, noting that Charisma seemed to be intently focused on what she was saying. When she was done speaking, silence reined for some time while Charisma contemplated what she'd said. Esmeralda continued to work, more tired than she'd been willing to admit to Brianna.

"I agree with you," Charisma admitted after a while. "I think there's a little of one and a lot of the other. And it's usually the other that gets us into trouble." She bit her lip. "Sometimes I wonder if mankind would have been better off with a predetermined destiny instead of free will."

"But wouldn't that make us like the animals, Charisma? Having only ingrained behavior without a choice?"

"Maybe." She crossed her arms over her chest and cocked an eyebrow in Esmeralda's direction. Esmeralda returned the look and Charisma snickered. "You're something else, Es. Do you think sometimes Fate gives us a second chance?"

"I know it does," Esmeralda affirmed. "That I'm here is proof of that."

Charisma waited until Esmeralda had put the last of her cleaning tools away, then stepped up beside her. She cupped her cheek and looked into her green eyes. "I'm glad," she assured Esmeralda. "But you're also exhausted, so I'm going to give you a ride home tonight."

"But Saphira...."

"I'll get the number to the diner and we'll call her to let her know we'll be by in a few minutes."

Esmeralda searched the blue eyes that held her gaze and finally closed her eyes in relief as she nodded. "Thank you, Charisma."

"You're welcome, Es," not letting on how disturbed she was that the younger woman was giving in without a fight. "Are you sure you're going to be up to coming over Sunday?"

"As I reminded Brianna earlier - I get to rest when you go on break. I'll be fine as long as you're sure you want us there."

"Always," without hesitation. "Now come on. It's time to get you home."

To be continued

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