Chapter XLIII

The next two days passed without incident or even interaction. Charisma and Brianna were going hard and long both days in opposite directions. Esmeralda didn't actually see either of them either day. While there was evidence that they were both still working when she entered their offices, neither of them made an appearance while she was cleaning and she was too tired to go looking for them. However, since she knew she'd see them on Sunday, she simply did her work and headed out.

So now it was Sunday morning and she and Saphira were sleeping in, knowing Charisma had arranged for Turq to bring them over in time for an early luncheon with Brianna. They had no idea when Brianna was due to arrive, but were happy at this point to cede all the planning to Charisma.

Saphira awoke first, and spent the first few minutes simply holding Esmeralda and breathing her in. She brushed a tender kiss over Esmeralda's forehead and smiled when Esmeralda mewed in her sleep before curling up more tightly into her. She closed her eyes and breathed a prayer before the sound of the bedroom door opening brought her attention back to her surroundings. She craned her neck, brow furrowing when she saw Ruby hesitantly poke her head into the room. Saphira cocked an eyebrow in Ruby's direction, then jerked her head just slightly to encourage Ruby to enter the room fully. Ruby looked at the two of them tangled up together and noted Esmeralda's stillness.

"Is she all right?" Ruby asked in the barest whisper, lifting her hand and gently pushing a lock of hair away from Esmeralda's cheek. She took a seat on the bed at Saphira's behest.

"As well as she has been, Ruby," Saphira replied shortly. Ruby covered Saphira's hand with her own and squeezed it lightly and Saphira dropped her eyes back to Esmeralda. "Sorry, Ruby. It's just...."

"No worries, kid," Ruby said with a teasing grin, eliciting the glare she hoped for though the worry never left her eyes. "At least she's got some serious time off coming up soon, right? She doesn't have to go to work when Congress goes on their holiday break, does she?"

"No, and no one's looking forward to that more than I am. Heaven knows it can't be anything but good for her to have nothing to do for a few weeks but rest and try to get caught up."

"You gonna want me to cover your shifts for you? So you can stay home with her?" Ruby offered.

Saphira tightened her fingers around the hand that still clutched her and shook her head. "I appreciate it, Ruby... more than you can possibly know. But you know and I know that we can't do that. As frustrated and aggravated and furious as I am about everything, I'd never put Es in more danger by flaunting the rules like that."

"I know, Saphira, but I think she might need you to help her heal."

Saphira shrugged as much as she was able. "Maybe, but we'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. Now was there something you needed?"

"Not really. I wanted to check on the two of you and I needed to let you know that Turq said she was available whenever you're ready to head over to Charisma's, but not to rush. We all know Es needs to rest and I'm sure your friends know it as well - Turq and Jas both told me about bringing you two home this week. The girls and I will be around the house today for a little while at least. With the weather a little warmer today than it's been, we'll probably go out and run a few errands this afternoon."

"You all go do whatever needs doing - even if that just means getting out and enjoying the fresh air and sunshine for a little while. Es and I'll be fine."

"Is there anything we can get you? Anything we can take care of?"

Saphira shook her head. "Not that I can think of, but if Es comes up with anything, we'll let you know. Today is mostly about helping Charisma and Brianna feel more comfortable together," Saphira added with a wry twist to her lips. "Not really sure how that's supposed to work, but then not much about this whole process makes a lot of sense to me either."

Ruby chuckled and patted the hand she still held before removing her clasp. "Honestly, Saphira? I'm not sure the whole process makes much sense to anyone but Him, but we don't question His ways. We simply do our jobs and hope for the best."

"Doesn't that make you nuts?" Saphira asked seriously. "Don't you ever wish you could be more proactive? And what about when things go awry?"

Ruby gave Esmeralda an uneasy glance, noting that she was still sleeping deeply despite the whispered conversation taking place around her. She wondered briefly how she'd ended up as part of this particular discussion, knowing better than most what a hot-button topic this could easily become.

"Sometimes," Ruby responded thoughtfully. "Sometimes it would be very satisfying to go in and beat a couple heads in to get the results we wanted without all the games and politics involved, for lack of a better way to put it," she confided. "Because there are politics involved in every mission... just usually not overtly or to this degree," she added with a small smile. "But since human beings have free will, we don't get the option to do that - we can only put forth the opportunity... they have to make the choice. Even if we *were* able to compel the consequence we desired, free will means they could easily reverse any outcome we achieved by force."

"Well I have to tell you, Rube - I pretty much think this way sucks. Especially since you can't even guarantee the outcome to be what you want it to be."

"I know. And it's harder for an avenging angel like yourself to appreciate this kind of work. It pretty much goes against the grain of every instinct you've got."

Saphira snorted... then stilled when Esmeralda shifted against her. "No kidding," she finally muttered when Esmeralda settled against her again. "But I'll do it for Es for the rest of my eternal life if it means we stay together."

Ruby cocked her head. "Maybe that is what Charisma and Brianna need to discover." She rose and backed away from the bed slowly, finding the doorknob unerringly without moving her eyes from Saphira's. "Go back to sleep, Saphira. Es needs the rest and it won't hurt you any either."

"Yes MOM," Saphira lipped, but the suggestion made her eyes start drooping without her conscious permission. "You'll let us know...."

"If anything happens, you'll be the first to hear," Ruby assured her. "But in the mean time...."

"I'm goin', I'm goin'," Saphira protested sleepily.

"Good girl," earning her a menacing glare from baleful blue eyes, but before Ruby could do much more than chuckle, the eyes closed and Saphira's breathing evened out in sleep. Ruby watched them for a minute longer, then let herself out of the room. Then she went to the kitchen to see what she could make up for comfort food, wanting to have something ready for them when they got up. Maybe things would make a little more sense then.


Kent glowered at his watch as the train pulled into the station. Not for the first time did he wonder about his sanity in doing this. Still, he was convinced there was something going on with Charisma whether she would admit it or not and he wanted to know what it was. He figured he deserved that much truth.

He ran a hand over his face, wincing at the rough stubble. It made for good subterfuge, but it also made his face itch terribly. He grabbed his overnight bag and pulled his ball cap a little lower over his eyes, fairly confident he wouldn't garner a second look here, but unwilling to risk recognition either. Because despite everything he knew and everything he suspected, he still cared very much for Charisma... both as his wife and as the mother of his child. He had no desire to embarrass her or damage the reputation she'd spent years cultivating.

Kent crossed the street and unlatched the gate, walking directly to the garden house in the back even as he gave thanks for fraternity brothers who didn't ask questions. He let himself in, dropping his bag on the table and crossing to the coffeemaker to start it brewing. Then he headed for the bathroom to take a quick shower before heading to Charisma's.

He idly noted just how accurate that assessment was - while the Manhattan apartment was definitely his, the house here in Washington absolutely belonged to Charisma. Kent wondered how they had managed to stay together as long as they had... considering how completely separate their lives really were. Then he shook his head and stuck it beneath the running water to rinse the shampoo, hoping to drown out the thoughts what were starting to go round like a whirligig. There was nothing productive in continuing down that particular path... at least not right now.

By the time he was showered and dressed his coffee was ready and he poured himself a cup and stepped outdoors. It was still chilly, but not with the bite in the air that had been present the weekend before. Kent was grateful for that. He didn't want to wind up with frostbite while he was doing surveillance on his wife. That would be a hell of a thing to have to explain to anyone and Kent wasn't sure whether Charisma or the authorities would be worse... though he suspected that honor would fall to Charisma.

So he stood on the back patio, well-insulated against the cold with his hands wrapped around his coffee mug for added warmth. He could just make out a landmark or two in the distance and wondered again how he'd come to this. It wasn't that he hated the capital - it had a life and a vibrancy all its own. But it couldn't compare to the throbbing pulse that pounded through Manhattan like a living entity.

Still, if he was wrong, he would be happy to continue living here with his family - going back to New York for only short periods of time to work when the mood struck him. As Adam got older, that would probably be more frequently. He wanted to introduce his son to the wonder and magic of the City that more than anywhere else in the world was home to him.

With a sigh, Kent finished up the remainder of his coffee and returned indoors, rinsing out his cup and placing it in the sink before snatching up the thick leather coat and grabbing the keys from the table. Then he went to the garage and climbed into the tiny car his friend had loaned him and set off for the house he and Charisma shared here.


Adam ran into his mother's room and jumped on the bed, not landing *on* her, but near enough that she groaned at being jolted awake. He giggled and pulled the pillow away from her face, squealing when long fingers crept out from beneath the covers that swaddled his mother to tickle his sides unmercifully. After a minute or two, however, Charisma relented, knowing if she wasn't careful, Adam would end up having an accident in her bed. And she didn't want that for his sake as much as for her own.

She pushed the blankets down under her arms and pushed the hair back from her face, smiling when Adam scooted up the bed to help. Then he cupped her cheek with one small hand. "Br'anna come today?" he asked seriously. Charisma smiled softly at him.

"Yes, and Es and Saphira too."

"Good!" he exclaimed promptly. "When?"

Charisma turned to the clock, nearly groaning when she realized just how early it was. She grabbed Adam and tucked him in next to her. "Not for a little while yet. Maybe we should rest up before they get here."

Adam looked at her dubiously, then closed his eyes and yawned when she started rubbing his belly. It only took a moment, and he was sleeping again. Charisma stared unguardedly at his innocence for a long moment, then closed her eyes and joined him.

From her spot in the corner, Amber just shook her head and grinned.


It really wasn't that much later when Charisma awoke the second time and she lay still wondering what had woken her. She listened carefully, but there was no sound to be heard other than Adam's breathing and the ceiling fan that whirred overhead. She sat up and stretched, then rose from the bed, tucking Adam in carefully before she moved to the bathroom to get ready for her day.

By the time she was done, Adam was awake and by the time he was ready, it was past time for breakfast. They made it downstairs and had a small bit of breakfast before Charisma bundled them up. Then they went outside to burn off some energy before their company for the day arrived.

It was to this scene that Brianna arrived. She had been hesitant to arrive too early, though Charisma had been less that forthcoming about an arrival time. All she'd been able to get out of the woman was 'come early and plan to stay past lunch'.

So she'd leisurely risen and eaten breakfast, checking email and looking over some notes from her friends and former colleagues. Then she decided a nice, decadent soak in the tub would go a long way towards helping her relax, and it had done so well, she'd almost fallen asleep in the water.

Still once that was taken care of, she really didn't have much to do without turning to work for a diversion, and more than anything, she didn't want to work today. So she put in a call to Jas and soon they were on their way to Charisma's for lunch.

Adam spotted her first and he didn't even hesitate. Instead he ran directly towards her, trusting her to make sure she caught him when he lunged for her.

"BR'ANNA!!" he shouted as he leapt into her arms.

"Hey, Little Man!" Brianna replied with a hug, holding him firmly as he latched on with both arms and legs. "How ya doing?" smiling when he laughed.

"GOOD!" Adam shouted and Charisma winced in sympathy with Brianna's, knowing how that hurt. Brianna kissed the top of his head and lowered him to the ground, expecting him to run back towards his mother. Brianna tilted her head at him when he held onto her hand.


"Br'anna stay," he maintained with a fierce scowl. Brianna chuckled and tousled his hair.

"I'm staying, Adam. But maybe we should go over to your mom. She looks kind of lonely."

Adam didn't release her hand - instead he started pulling Brianna along with him, still screaming at the top of his lungs. ''MAMA!"

Charisma's eyes met Brianna's and they shook their head in reaction before chuckling. Charisma jerked her head towards the house and invited, "Would you like to go inside?"

Brianna bit her lip thoughtfully and looked around. "Not really," she confessed. "It's so nice out... unless Es and Saphira are inside and waiting for us?" she queried.

"Not at all. I told them to take the time they needed this morning. Es is looking tired again and I don't want to be the reason she's run down." Charisma shook her head. "I'm worried about her."

Brianna nodded. "So am I. I wish there was something we could do for them. They're good people - they been good friends."

"I know, but we both know they won't take charity." She met the green eyes studying her so intensely. "Maybe between us we can come up with a way to help that won't step on their pride too much."

"I'd like that," Brianna agreed.

Charisma nodded. "We'll work on it. In the meantime - DUCK!" Charisma yelled with a laugh, but not quickly enough for Brianna to evade the large plastic rubber ball that hit her squarely in the back of the head. She stuck her tongue out at Charisma, then turned to find Adam standing behind her laughing. She grabbed the ball from where it had rolled, and slowly started stalking him with an evil smile. Adam took one look at her face and screeched, running as fast as his legs would carry him to hide behind his mother.

Charisma's eyes widened when she saw Brianna's focus change and she took off running, severely hindered by the child she now carried in her arms. Brianna took that into account as she gently lobbed it in their direction, hitting both mother and son in the face before she took off running in the opposite direction.

Adam howled in laughter. Charisma just looked gobsmacked by the fact that Brianna had actually *deliberately* hit her with the ball. She set Adam down on his feet and whispered in his ear. Then her expression turned feral and she snatched up the ball while Adam went running after Brianna.

It was SO on.


There was much screaming and hollering that could be heard all the way to the gate when Turq pulled up in the car. She exchanged glances with both Esmeralda and Saphira, then drove through and up towards the house. When they arrived, they shared looks again, but these were filled with mirth.

In the middle of the lawn were two sprawled bodies with Adam running back and forth between them. He was bouncing the ball off of each of them in turn, laughing and shrieking every time one of them reached for him, then scampering back to the other. When he saw the car, he dropped the ball and ran towards it.

"ADAM!" both Charisma and Brianna screamed, but they were too far away to do anything but watch.

Saphira was out before Turq could stop, yanking him out of its path and into her arms without missing a beat. Turq slammed on the brakes where she was and waited for her heart to slow before she put the car in park and slid out from behind the driver's seat to help Esmeralda out.

"You all right?" she asked, sotto voce. Esmeralda merely nodded. They turned to Saphira who held Adam and she nodded as well. Then they all turned to find Charisma and Brianna running back up the hill, and Saphira placed Adam in Charisma's arms as soon as she reached them.

"Everyone all right?" she asked after hugging Adam tightly for a moment. When she got affirmatives from everyone, she turned to Saphira and Turq. "Thank you... both of you," she said on a shaky breath. "I don't know what I would have done...."

"Don't think about it, Ri," Brianna instructed. "Nothing good can happen going down that road."

"She's right," Esmeralda stated firmly.

Charisma took a deep breath and nodded, then she cleared her throat. "Shall we go inside for a while, then? I thought we'd have fondue for lunch."

"That sounds lovely," Esmeralda assured her with a smile. "I love fondue and it will give us plenty of time to visit with each other."

"And before you ask," Charisma assured them all with a shaky smile. "Adam is getting a PB&J - it's his favorite."

"Mine too," they all agreed and headed inside chuckling.

Chapter XLIV

"Senator Tagherty?" Turq's voice made them all pause and turn back to find her still standing next to the car. Charisma crossed to meet her, extending her free hand to Turq who accepted it with alacrity, squeezing it briefly before releasing it again. "Is there anything else, Senator?"

"Oh... God no, Turq. What you did...."

"I'm glad I was able to, Senator. Are you certain there's nothing else I can do? Perhaps call Ame?"

"I hate to do that. She's supposed to be off." She gave Turq a wry look. "Of course... so are you." She sighed deeply then nodded. "Give her a call - if she can come over for a few hours, I'd count it as a favor."

"Yes ma'am," Turq said as she pulled out her phone. "Do you want me to stay...?"

Charisma shook her head. "No, no. If Ame's agreeable, bring her over and you can have the rest of the day. If you're shaking like I am...." burying her nose in Adam's hair for a moment.

"Mama!!" pointing imperiously towards Brianna before turning and grabbing at the buttons on Charisma's shirt. She covered his hand.

"Son, give Mama a minute, all right?" He turned his attention to her hand, playing with her fingers. She looked back at Turq. "I'll ask Brianna to take Es and Saphira home. I'm sure she won't mind."

Turq nodded. "As you say, Senator," raising the phone to her ear and relaying her request to Ame. It only took a minute and she was nodding Ame's agreement to Charisma and sliding behind the wheel of the car. Charisma watched her take off, then headed back to the house to join the friends who waited by the front door.


"MAMA! DOWN!!" Adam shrilled as they entered the door, twisting as he tried to pull away. Charisma gasped and hugged him to her harder. "MAMA!!"

"ADAM!" Brianna said firmly, but just loud enough to be heard. Everyone froze and Adam turned big blue eyes towards her, then lunged, scrambling up Charisma's body. "No," Brianna instructed him quietly. He stuck his finger in the side of his mouth, then reached for her again. She held up a finger and shook her head. "No, Adam," she reiterated kindly. "You scared your mama and now you're hurting her."

Adam leaned back so he could look at Charisma, blinking when he saw tears in her eyes. Gently he patted her face. "Mama scared? Love mama," he whispered, throwing his arms around her neck.

"Love you too, Little Man," Charisma replied, hugging him tightly once more and kissing the top of his head. He returned the kiss to her cheek sloppily when she loosened her hold.

"Mama good," he said with a cheerful laugh.

"Your mama is very good," Brianna assured him, putting one hand on Charisma's back and the other on Adam's. She turned to look Charisma in the eye. "How about I take him for a few minutes? I'll get him cleaned up while you get his lunch ready. He'll be safe with me, Ri - I promise. I'd never...."

Charisma nodded. "I know you wouldn't, Bri," patting the hand that rested on Adam's back. "Are you sure...?"

"Yeah," Brianna pledged as she shifted Adam into her arms. "We'll go wash up for lunch and maybe have a little talk about running in front of a moving vehicle. Thank God for swift reflexes," giving Saphira a look.

"No kidding," Charisma muttered. "Thanks, Bri. I...."

"I know," Brianna responded compassionately with a smile. "Now go get lunch started," she commanded with a strained chuckle. "I'm starving."

"Me too," Esmeralda agreed. "Can I give you a hand?" she offered Charisma. "I'm pretty sure Saphira and Brianna can manage Adam. Maybe with two of them he won't go streaking through the house."

Charisma's laughter was stressed, but it was the best she could do under the circumstances. Still she nodded gamely and took Esmeralda's arm. "Maybe I should lay out some towels... just in case." She turned back to the two women standing in the hallway with Adam cradled between them. "There's a half bath down the hall on the left," motioning past her and Esmeralda. "And there are several full baths including Adam's upstairs if you really want to risk it."

Saphira and Brianna traded looks and shook their heads simultaneously. "We'll stick with the downstairs for now. It shouldn't take you *that* long to fix a PB&J." Saphira turned back to meet Brianna's eyes and gestured her towards the bathroom. "After you, Senator Walker."

Brianna glared. "You're just trying to start something, aren't you?" she growled, causing Adam to laugh at the sound she was making. Saphira's eyes widened innocently.

"Me??" pointing to her chest. "I've never tried to start something in my whole life," making Brianna howl in relief at her nonsense. Charisma couldn't help but chuckle at the look of wounded outrage reflected on Saphira's face, and though she knew they were carrying on ridiculously to lighten the still-tense atmosphere, she could feel her muscles starting to uncoil and relax. When Saphira stuck out her lip and frowned mightily, she had to laugh out loud.

"What??" Saphira whined. "I haven't - you can ask Es."

"She really hasn't," Esmeralda confirmed. "Saphira doesn't start things; she finishes them."

Before either woman could comment or question, Adam decided he'd been silent long enough. "BR'ANNA!! GO!!"

She shifted him until she could push a finger against her ear, trying to eliminate the ringing Adam's screaming had caused. "Inside voice, please, Little Man," holding his eyes until he patted her face. "But you're right... we're not getting anything done standing around here. Chop, chop, you two," she said to Charisma and Esmeralda. "We won't be but a couple minutes."

They disappeared down the hall and Charisma and Esmeralda looked at one another and nodded, turning without a word and headed to the kitchen.

They never did find out what Brianna and Saphira had said to the little boy, but they heard him running down the hall seconds before he ran into the kitchen and wrapped Charisma up at her knees. She was thankful for rapid reflexes and Esmeralda's hand at her back besides when Adam collided with her. She bent and lifted him up for a kissing, smiling when he wrapped his arms around her neck.

"Sorry, Mama," he murmured, tightening his hold when she squeezed him.

"I love you, Adam."

"Love Mama," he replied, then leaned back to look at her when she slackened her grip. "Eat now?" peering over her shoulder at the sandwich sitting on the counter behind her.

"You hungry?"

"YES!!" he affirmed cheerfully. She carried him to the table and seated him at his place, scooting the chair close before taking the sandwich and sippy cup of milk from Esmeralda's hands. She riffled her hand through his hair and moved back to the counter.

"The resilience of children, hmm?" Esmeralda commented wryly. "We should all be able to maintain our equilibrium so easily."

"At least then I wouldn't need to have a stylist who covered the gray every couple weeks."

"Oh, I don't know, Charisma," Brianna commented from the doorway as she and Saphira entered the kitchen. "I think you would probably look very distinguished with gray. It looks good on your mother."

"Yes, but my mother is a grandmother," Charisma replied drolly. "It fits her image."

"But not yours?"

Charisma paused thoughtfully, then turned to remove the raw food she had prepared earlier. She set the platters on the counter before she spoke. "I don't think so... at least not right now." She focused on Brianna a long moment, then looked at Esmeralda and Saphira. "So much of this job is about imagine... how the public perceives us. Sometimes I think the scrutiny is worse than the politics."

"Is it worth it?" This from Brianna who held Charisma's gaze until Charisma looked away. But before Charisma had a response, Adam chimed in.

"Mama! All done!" cringing away from her when she approached him with a wet towel. So naturally a knock sounded at the back door before Ame stuck her head in. "AME!!"

There were several reactions to his screech - Ame's brows flew into her hairline; Brianna chuckled; Saphira and Esmeralda exchanged glances with one another and then Ame; Charisma blew out a frustrated breath then grabbed and missed when Adam jumped from the chair and made a beeline for Ame. Without looking up, Ame raised her hand for the towel she knew Charisma held and Charisma tossed it to her. The towel and Adam arrived at the same time and Ame caught Adam by the hands and wiped them off, then did the same to his face, despite his squirming. Then she scooped him up in her arms and headed out of the kitchen.

It was silent for a full thirty seconds before the four women left behind turned to each other and burst into laughter.

"Wow!" Brianna said after taking a deep breath and getting her laughter under some semblance of control. "Who was that masked woman?" causing another round of giggles to peel throughout the room.

"That was my wonderful and long-suffering nanny, Ame. She agreed to come sit with Adam for a while so we could have a little time to regroup after the morning's excitement."

"Would you prefer we leave, Charisma?" Esmeralda asked sincerely. "I can only imagine how you feel after watching that. I know how I felt and Saphira is old enough to take care of herself... most of the time anyway," giving her mate a smirk. Saphira just stuck out her tongue.

Charisma shook her head. "I'd like you to stay... unless you need to go home." She moved over and tilted Esmeralda's chin so she could look into her eyes. "We're a little worried about you, Es."

Esmeralda covered Charisma's hand. "I'm fine, Charisma. I promise." She paused and gave an impish smile. "I am a little hungry, though."

Charisma's smile broadened. "I can fix that." She moved back to the counter. "C'mon on. Have a seat and I'll get things on the table."

"Need some help?" Brianna offered.

Charisma met her eyes briefly and nodded. "Sure. If you'll grab the platters, I'll get the fondue pots."

Saphira stepped up and took the pots out of Charisma's hands. "You need to get the oil and stuff out. I don't know where it is."

"Good point," Charisma allowed with a grin. "Does everyone drink wine?"

"Could I have milk?" Esmeralda asked. "Wine gives me a headache."

"Absolutely," Charisma agreed, turning back to the refrigerator. "Are you sure you want milk? I've got soda, lemonade, flavored water...."

"Milk is good," Esmeralda assured her. "I drink a lot of milk."

"That would explain the great skin," Brianna muttered, smirking at Esmeralda. Esmeralda stuck out her tongue and crinkled her nose. Then they settled in to putting lunch on the table.


"Oh... I'm so full," Saphira groaned as she leaned back in her chair. She tilted her head in Esmeralda's direction and gave her puppy dog eyes. "How could you let me eat so much?"

Esmeralda sputtered and set her milk back on the table, wiping her lips before she turned a forceful glare on Saphira. "Excuse me? Let you?? Since when do *I* let *you* do anything?"

"Wasn't there something in our wedding vows about love, honor and keep from overeating?" Esmeralda snorted and threw her napkin in towards Saphira.

"You're so ridiculous."

Saphira grinned rakishly and waggled her eyebrows. "I know - it's why you keep me around. Cheap entertainment."

"That's debatable," Esmeralda mumbled.

"Which part?"

"Yes," she agreed, recognizing what Saphira was doing and knowing their playing like this would help Charisma and Brianna to relax a little more. Not that they weren't more comfortable together, but there had still been a few awkward moments and silences. Esmeralda bit her lips to keep from smiling when Saphira narrowed her eyes, but she couldn't stop the sparkle from twinkling out of her own.

"Fine. Just for that, you can wash the dishes. I'm gonna go see if I can find my little buddy. I bet he won't pick on me."

"Yeah about that...." Charisma started as Saphira rose from her chair. "They're probably in the playroom - up the stairs and down the hall on the right. You'll be able to hear them. Will you ask Ame to come downstairs, please? And be careful not to let him jump on you. He may be little, but he's not small and if you're as full as you say you are... it could get ugly."

"Got it," Saphira said. "Is it all right if I bring him back downstairs?"

"Absolutely. I know he wanted some time with all of you." Saphira nodded and headed out the door. Brianna and Esmeralda rose and started moving things to the sink while Charisma put the leftovers away. It wasn't long before the kitchen was spotless and Ame was standing in the doorway waiting for Charisma's instruction.

With only a few words, Ame was headed back out and the rest made their way towards the study. Saphira met them as she and Adam made their way down the stairs together. Then they were all entering Charisma's private sanctum.

She had debated long and hard about leaving her album out, but in the end, it remained on the coffee table it had been sitting on for the last couple weeks. Adam looked around carefully, then turned to his mother.

"Mama? Ame?"

"She's gone home, Sweetie. She'll be back tomorrow. Saphira thought you might want to play with her for a little while. She doesn't have friends to play with very often like you do."

Adam nodded sagely and took Saphira's hand to lead her over to his place in the study. When they reached the sofa where Brianna was ensconced, he patted the album that sat in front of her and pronounced, "Br'anna." Then without another word, he continued taking Saphira over to the nest of pillow that were his and tugged her to sit down beside her.

Esmeralda watched them, smiling when Adam handed Saphira his favorite book and curled up in her lap. Suddenly Esmeralda felt very much like a fifth wheel and she wondered if there was a graceful way to extract herself from Charisma and Brianna and go sit with Adam and Saphira. Then she turned her attention to the two of them and realized they had forgotten she was sitting there.

"Is this...?" Brianna began, then stopped when Charisma nodded her head.

"Yes. I was sharing my memories with Adam the other day."

Brianna tilted her head. "And what do you remember, Charisma?" reverting to the formality from before. Charisma bit her lips in frustration, then blew out a calming breath.

"I remember... so much," she replied softly. "But I still don't understand why you left. Why did you leave me, Bri?"

Brianna shook her head. "You're still not ready to hear that, Charisma. And besides - we're being rude," motioning to Esmeralda who had moved to sit with Saphira and Adam. Brianna and Charisma spared a long moment to appreciate the beautiful family portrait they created together before turning their attention back to one another.

"We're not being rude, Bri. Esmeralda knows... well, she knows a lot and understands a lot more. More than I do it seems at any rate. She knows we're learning to become friends again - I think she's just trying to give us that chance." She gave a defeated sigh. "Why won't you talk to me, Brianna? I think I deserve to know why you left like you did."

Brianna caressed the smooth album underneath her fingertips. "When you ask the right question, I promise I will tell you the truth, Charisma. But you're not going to ask until you're really ready to know." She looked back at Adam, carefully cradled between Saphira and Esmeralda. "They make a stunning family, don't they?"

Charisma nodded. "It's a shame they can't have their own. I'm glad to share Adam for a little while."

Brianna smiled. "He seems to be enjoying it." She took a good look around the room. "This space is very much you. I miss my home office."

"Are you going to look for a more permanent place to live?"

"No. I really have no plans to stay here after my two years are up. Most of my so-called colleagues make me want to throw them in jail on principle. It's probably better if I go home."

"Maybe you just need a different focus," Charisma offered.

"I'd take up writing again if I wanted a different focus," Brianna replied drolly. "And that reminds me... I heard from Professor Mac."

"Really? Do tell."

From their corner, Saphira and Esmeralda watched the interaction and nodded to one another in satisfaction. While Brianna and Charisma weren't pouring over the photo album like Esmeralda had expected them to after Adam's nudging, they were obviously much more comfortable talking to one another. At least they seemed to have lost the tension that had been plaguing them all day.

Then they turned their attention back to Adam, hoping the day would progress a little more smoothly than it had before.

Chapter XLV

"Mama?" Adam asked some time later, bringing Charisma's and Brianna's back to the present. They blinked awkwardly at each other before turning their heads in his direction, noting Saphira and Esmeralda had remained in Adam's corner and were quietly talking. Charisma smiled at her son and tousled his hair, making him laugh and climb in her lap. He cupped her cheeks with his chubby hands and stared into her blue eyes... close enough that Charisma needed to cross her eyes to keep him in focus. "Mama?" he reiterated, waiting for her to respond.

"Yes, son? What can I do for you?"

"Pictures?" he asked, leaning forward until their foreheads touched. Brianna covered her mouth, trying not to laugh aloud at the image they made. She spared a glance towards Esmeralda and Saphira and saw they were doing much the same thing, only with better success. Charisma gave Adam an Eskimo kiss, causing him to laugh again and making her smile.

"What pictures, son?"

"Mama pictures... Br'anna."

Charisma frowned and Brianna picked the album up off the table, passing it towards Charisma and nudging her with it. "I think he means this," she suggested.

"Yes!" he agreed firmly, patting the cover for good measure.

Charisma bit her lip. "Maybe we should see if Saphira and Esmeralda would want to look at something like this, son. They may be ready to go home."

"No go home!" he stated fiercely. "Stay!" He jumped from Charisma's lap and went over to the corner where Saphira and Esmeralda were comfortably entrenched. He tugged on Saphira's hand, wearing a severe scowl on his face and a command of "Come!" on his lips. Esmeralda and Saphira exchanged a long glance, then Saphira allowed Adam to 'help' her to her feet. She released his hand, but he held on, not wanting her to change her mind.

"Adam, I need to help Esmeralda up. Would you like to help too?" She extended her free hand to Esmeralda and Adam followed her example and did the same. Esmeralda rolled her eyes briefly at Saphira, then accepted the help. When she was upright, she brushed a kiss over first Adam's forehead and then Saphira's.

Then Adam was tugging on them both impatiently, and they dutifully followed him back to the divan where Charisma and Brianna remained watching their little tableau. He dragged them over to the sofa opposite the one Brianna and Charisma were currently seated on and dropped their hands so he could crawl up on the couch between them. Then he turned the full-force of puppy dog blue eyes on his mother first, then the rest of them.

"Pictures, Mama? Pwease?"

"Did you ask Saphira and Esmeralda if they'd like to stay?" Adam tilted his head back and smiled at them beguilingly.


Esmeralda and Saphira looked at one another across him and then turned to look at Brianna who was snickering and Charisma who was smirking at them complete with a cocked eyebrow.

"Do you ever get the feeling we've been set-up?" Esmeralda asked without a hint of rancor or malice in her tone. Saphira just chuckled and shook her head.

"I get the feeling we're going to look at pictures," she stated with a grin. "But you two are going to come over here and join us, right?"

"Of course," Brianna replied, getting up immediately. She made a move to sit on one side of Esmeralda, but Esmeralda shifted to one end while Saphira did the same on the other side, causing there to be space in the middle. Brianna pursed her lips briefly, then picked up Adam and set him on her lap as she took a seat beside Saphira. Charisma naturally sat between Brianna and Esmeralda, and soon they were all comfortable squished on the couch.

"All right," Charisma offered with a deep sigh. She hadn't actually expected them to capitulate so easily and now was in the embarrassing position of having to expose a part of herself she hadn't allowed out in almost twenty years. "First I'd like to apologize in advance to both Saphira and Esmeralda, since this will be like looking at someone's vacation slides for the two of you. If at any time you want to stop, just let me know. I know this visit hasn't exactly been a standout kind of day for either of you and I don't want to drive you off completely by boring you to death."

She stopped speaking immediately when Esmeralda's hand landed gently on her arm. "Charisma, we'd be delighted to share your pictures with you - it's been a long time since Saphira and I were last in Europe together. I imagine there are a lot of places you went that we have seen as well. But if it makes you uncomfortable, you don't have to share. We wouldn't do that."


"Student of human nature," Brianna responded before Esmeralda could answer. "You should've heard her tell me about myself when I was moving into my office. It was astounding... and a little unnerving."

"I can understand that," Charisma said, giving Esmeralda a small smile. "You do realize you have an uncanny ability, right?"

"Yes, but as I told Brianna when we met - it's a skill I've learned and honed over the years. Now," she continued without hesitation, "it's getting late and it might be for the best if we postpone this little trip down memory lane. That way you can sort of mentally prepare for it."

"You're sure you don't mind?" looking around at the others expectantly.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a little disappointed," Brianna confessed. "But I also know how I'd feel sitting in your place. So it's all good," she finished on a small breath.

"Besides, that just means we can do this again, right?" Saphira quipped.

"Oh you bet," Charisma affirmed eagerly.

"MAMA!" Adam cut in impatiently, reaching for the book that remained on the coffee table out of range. "Pictures?"

"Not tonight, Little Man," holding up a finger when he started to wail. "Adam, if you're going to be ugly, Brianna and Esmeralda and Saphira won't want to come back and visit again. Now hush," taking him from Brianna when his keening turned into soft sobs. "They've promised to come back again just to look at the pictures, all right?"

He nodded, but buried his face in her neck, crying and hiccupping. Charisma looked around at the women she called friends. "Sorry," she apologized.

"Why?" Saphira asked bluntly. "He's had a long, busy day. That'll wear anyone out."

"Speaking of...." Brianna said as she removed her phone from her pocket and turned it on, wincing when it started vibrating in her hand. "Let me call Jas. It shouldn't take long for her to get here and we'll get out of your hair," she said to Charisma. Then she turned to Esmeralda and Saphira. "We'll give you a ride home as well - no arguments," scowling fiercely and pointing at them.

Saphira held up her hands. "Who am I to argue with a US Senator?" causing both Charisma and Brianna to howl in unexpected laughter. Adam looked up from Charisma's arms, face wet and eyes still filled with tears, laughing just because everyone else was. Brianna finally waved a hand at her face to try and get some air.

"You forget we've both heard the stories, Saphira."

Saphira stuck out her tongue that Adam naturally grabbed. Then the laughter started again and Brianna stepped away to make her call to Jas. She paused as she reached the door, looking around carefully. If she hadn't known better, she would have thought there was someone in the house with them, but she didn't see anyone and put it down to the stressful day. In minutes, she'd contacted Jas and was returning to Charisma's office with a final glance behind her as she crossed the threshold.


Kent stepped out of the shadows he had ducked into when Brianna had come to the door. He moved back towards the study, curious to hear how the day would end. It had been enlightening thus far.


Adam clapped when Brianna re-entered the room and jumped from Charisma's lap before she had a chance to react. But Brianna was ready and she dropped to her knees to catch him. Unfortunately, she underestimated the strength of his excitement and when he hit her full-force, he knocked her flat of her back and landed on top of her.

"Oof!" Brianna gasped, as she hit the floor hard, hitting her head though she never lost her hold on him. Adam just laughed and held on tightly, bumping his head against her lips. Brianna winced and closed her eyes; Adam snuggled down into her body, tucking his head beneath her chin. He closed his eyes in satisfaction.

"Br'anna good," he declared sleepily.

By this time, the other three women in the room had hasten over to where Brianna lay completely still on the floor, her breathing deep and even. Charisma got one look at her face and bit her lip in dismay even as her eyes widened. That'll make a hell of a talking point tomorrow, she thought as she stepped out of the office and headed right down the hall to the bathroom. In only a moment, she was returning with a wet washcloth in her hand.

Meanwhile, Saphira and Esmeralda had moved to kneel by the two still on the floor. Esmeralda put a hand on Brianna's head and shoulder while Saphira gathered Adam into her arms and stood. Once she was able to step away, Esmeralda gently shook Brianna.

It only took a moment and Brianna groaned. "Don't move around yet, Brianna," Esmeralda instructed. "We need to make sure you don't have a concussion," sliding around to the top of Brianna's head when Charisma reentered the room and knelt down beside her.

"How ya feeling?" putting a hand on Brianna's forehead even as she lowered the cloth to her lips. Charisma gently wiped the blood off of Brianna's face, wincing when she flinched even under the light touch. Brianna tried to smile, but it looked more like a bloody grimace than anything else.

"Like I got hit by a Mack truck. Did somebody get the number of the one that ran me over?" She turned her head slowly, her face contorting in pain. "Is Adam all right??" spotting him in Saphira's arm. "He's not hurt is he?"

Esmeralda eased Brianna's head around until she was looking at the ceiling again. "Adam's fine - he fell asleep on you. Saphira moved him so we could get a better look at you. Now, close your eyes... I need to check for concussion."

Brianna did as Esmeralda instructed and a moment later opened them to find Esmeralda staring at her eyes - first left, then right. Then she smiled and patted Brianna's shoulder.

"No concussion, but you're liable to have quite a headache tonight and that fat lip is gonna stay with you for a couple days."

Brianna reached a hand up and felt her lip, cringing when her fingers met her lip. "Ow."

"Yeah," Charisma agreed. "He did quite a number on you." She pushed her hair back out of her face. "You know, I was hoping we could do this again. I mean, I know we've got a break coming up, but I thought it'd be nice to have another girls' day when the holidays were over." She looked at Brianna and then around the room, shaking her head. "Now I'm not so sure."

A buzz sounded at the front door and Charisma stood. "Don't go anywhere," she stated with authority. "I'm going to go see who that is and get some ice for your lip. Be right back."

Charisma stepped from the room and went to the buzzer first, acknowledging Jas' request and opening the gates. Then she moved on into the kitchen for the ice. Kent watched her buzz the car up and head for the kitchen, knowing he didn't have long. He peeked into the office, seeing Saphira holding his son and watching Esmeralda help Brianna gingerly sit up.

Then he moved away from the door and headed out the back way. He'd seen enough for this trip; he was pretty sure this wasn't the ending any of them had expected to have. Saphira and Esmeralda exchanged glances when he left, but said nothing. And then Charisma was returning to the study with a bag of crushed ice for Brianna's lip.

Gently, she and Esmeralda eased Brianna to her feet, each holding onto an arm until they were certain she was stable. Only then did they release her and Brianna immediately perched on the arm of the couch. Before Charisma could move in take a better look at the damage her son had inadvertently caused, a knock sounded on the door. Esmeralda put a hand on her arm.

"Would you like me to get that, Charisma?"

"Would you mind? I'd just like to check...."

"Charisma," Brianna protested softly. "I'm fine," a twisted smile gracing her features when Charisma raised a skeptical brow into her hairline. "Okay... maybe fine is stretching it a little at the moment, but I'll heal. I'm betting this will cause quite a bit a gossip to race through the building tomorrow."

Charisma snorted. "Of that I have no doubt."

"I'll be all right. It was an accident. It's nice to know that he likes me so much. Next time, I'll bring a helmet."

"And a defibrillator," Charisma joked weakly.

"Yeah... one of those too. Now, don't you need to take your son and put him to bed?"

"I probably should," she replied with a smile as Esmeralda returned with Jas trailing along behind her.

"I thought Jas could give me a hand making sure Brianna got to the car all right," Esmeralda said, answering Charisma's unspoken question. "I'm not sure I could do anything but fall with her if something went wrong and since Saphira still has Adam...."

"Here," Charisma said to Saphira extending her arms. "Let me take him."

"Are you sure you wouldn't like me to carry him up for you, Senator - I mean, since I already have him? It's not any trouble."

"Saphira, you're a terrible liar, but I appreciate it." She turned back to the other three who were just starting towards the door together. "You all take it easy getting to the car. Saphira and I will be right back."

Esmeralda raised her eyebrows at Saphira and Saphira carried the precious bundle she held to Esmeralda. Esmeralda leaned forward and brushed a kiss over his cheek, smiling when Brianna did the same. Then without a backwards look, they proceeded to the front door, while Saphira went to the steps. Charisma stood frozen for a long moment, then hurried out of the study and up the stairs in front of Saphira.

It didn't take but a moment and Adam was tucked soundly into bed. Saphira placed a kiss on his forehead, and Charisma did the same. She flipped on the monitor and slipped into her room to grab the receiver before motioning Saphira down the stairs, raking her hand through her hair in frustration. The day hadn't been anything like she expected... or hoped.

Saphira turned to her when they reached the front door and Charisma took it as a matter of course. "Thank you for having us over, Charisma. Despite the unplanned-for excitement, I really did have a good time."

Charisma pulled on the hand she held until she was holding Saphira in a firm hug. "Thank you," she whispered in a hoarse voice. "What you did...."

"He's a good kid, Senator. I'm glad I was able to make a difference."

"More than you know, my friend. More than you know." She turned and found Esmeralda standing beside the car and took Saphira's hand as they walked down the steps. "Thank you," she offered sincerely as she put Saphira's hand in Esmeralda's. "Despite everything, this was a good day for me."

"For us too, Charisma. Thank you for having us."

"Well," she replied with a slow smile, "if you are brave enough to attempt it again, I'd like to have you both over again sometime soon." Esmeralda and Saphira looked at one another, then nodded at Charisma. "Good!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands together. "We'll plan on it."

"Me too?" inquired a voice from inside the car. Charisma leaned down until her eyes met Brianna's, shadowed in the interior.

"You are always welcome in my home, Bri."

Brianna didn't say anything, but nodded and smiled, closing her eyes again as she leaned her head against the back of the seat. Charisma straightened and held the door, motioning Esmeralda and Saphira into the back with Brianna. Then she shut the door and looked at Jas who had been standing by the driver's door.

"Drive safely."

"I will, Senator. Have a good night."

Charisma went back up the steps and watched the car out of sight. Then she went inside to settle down for the night.

Chapter XLVI

"Brianna?" Esmeralda said softly, laying a hand on Brianna's arm and waiting for her eyes to open. Brianna blinked slowly, bringing Esmeralda's face into focus, then frowning when she noticed the worry in the green eyes studying her face. "Brianna?" Esmeralda repeated.


"Brianna, we'd like for you to come home with us. I don't think it's a good idea for you to go home alone tonight."

"I thought you said I didn't have a concussion."

"You don't, Sweetie. But a little tlc will go a long way to making you feel better."

"Don't argue with her, Brianna," Saphira instructed. "Even you can't win when Esmeralda gets an idea in her head," grinning at Esmeralda impishly. "Besides, she's right."

"I'm being ganged up on," Brianna complained good-naturedly. "I appreciate it, guys, but I couldn't impose on you like that," snickering when Esmeralda and Saphira raised their eyebrows simultaneously. Then she covered her mouth with the ice bag Charisma had given her. "Ow."

"Yeah, he did a good job while he was at it," Esmeralda commented. "And you wouldn't be imposing - we're insisting."

"He'll be a great tackle when he gets old enough to play football," Saphira stated. Brianna snorted.

"He already is." She shifted so she could look at both of them. "Would one of you be willing to stay with me instead? I don't mean to seem ungrateful, but I'd have to go home anyway to pack up my stuff or we'd have to head over at an ungodly hour of the morning tomorrow so I could get ready for work."

Esmeralda and Saphira traded a glance, then Saphira tapped on the glass separating them from Jas. Jas rolled down the window and met Saphira's eyes in the rearview mirror. "Change of plan - we need to drop Esmeralda and the Senator at the Senator's apartment. Then you can give me a ride home, if you would," knowing Jas wouldn't object.

"Senator?" needing Brianna to give her approval.

"That's fine, Jas. Thanks." Jas nodded her head and altered course to get Brianna home first.

They reached the apartment building and Esmeralda and Brianna exited the car and made their way into the lobby. Saphira and Jas waited until Esmeralda waved them off, and they climbed back in the car and headed for home.


The security guard met them at the door, noting Brianna's swollen lip instantly. "Senator Walker? Is everything all right?"

"Yes, David. I had a run-in with a little boy's head. This is my friend Esmeralda. She should be on my cleared list," waiting for him to go back to his desk and bring up the information on the computer. He looked up at her and nodded.

"Yes ma'am. I just need to get some information from her and then she'll be free to go upstairs." Esmeralda passed him her custodial ID which helped to expedite the process and soon she and Brianna were headed upstairs.

Brianna unlocked the door, only to have Esmeralda usher her inside first. She went right in to the kitchenette and placed the bag of ice in the small refrigerator, then turned to find Esmeralda leaning on the doorjamb.

"Why don't you go climb in the tub for a little while and I'll see about getting something together that will be easy on your lips and your stomach."

"Thanks, Es. I'm sorry...."

"Don't be, Brianna. I'm happy to do this for a friend. And unless you need me to physically pick you up, this is something I can do. Let me help."

Brianna's eyes smiled, though she was careful not to with her mouth. "You already have... more than you know." She moved out into the tiny living area and said, "I won't be too long. Make yourself at home - though I'm not sure what you're going to find in that kitchen. I don't keep a lot here."

"I'll find something, and if I don't we can have something brought in. Now go on. You'll feel better if you relax a little bit."

Brianna stepped into the bedroom, but left the door cracked so she could still talk to Esmeralda. "Can I ask how you got volunteered for babysitting duty, Es? Not that I don't appreciate it, because I do. It's nice knowing someone cares, ya know? But I also know that you're not up to snuff yourself. And even though I'm more comfortable with you just because I feel like I know you better, I'm a little surprised Saphira didn't insist on staying with me." She started the water running in the tub and cinched the knot on her robe tighter, then moved back to the bedroom door to find Esmeralda looking through her cabinets and fridge. "I did warn you," she added with a smile.

"I thought you were exaggerating," Esmeralda said dryly.

"Just the facts, ma'am," Brianna drawled, getting a smile from Esmeralda for her efforts.

"As for why me," Esmeralda continued, moving out of the kitchen and walking towards the couch. "Believe it or not, I have the most nursing experience between us. Remember I said Saphira didn't start fights... she finished them? I've doctored my share of bumps and bruises and scrapes over the years. And as you pointed out, you're more comfortable with me, so why not make you as comfortable as we can - you'll heal better." She kicked a good-sized plastic container that was sitting next to the couch but not completely hidden by it. "Ow."

"Ooh... sorry about that. A friend brought that over to me the other day and I haven't found a good place to put it yet," pushing it back out of the way.

"My fault," Esmeralda said. "I should have been watching where I was going. Let me go check on your water before it runs over," crossing into the bedroom and causing Brianna to head back towards the bathroom with as much speed as she could muster... which wasn't very much at all.

Esmeralda had the water turned off by the time Brianna arrived behind her, and she pulled a towel out and placed it on the counter before turning to look at Brianna. "Is there anything else you need?"

"I don't think so."

"All right. I'm gonna get out of here to give you some privacy, but if you need anything, just holler. I'll be right here."

"Thanks, Es. And if you'd like to call Saphira, please feel free. The place came complete with an analog phone."

"Thank you, Brianna. Now get in... before your water gets cold." And without another word, she was out the door, pulling it closed behind her.


"Saphira? Is everything all right?" Ruby asked as Saphira and Jas stepped into the house together. She looked pointedly around them. "Where's Es?"

Saphira shook her head. "That's quite a story. Could we have some tea while I tell you about our day?"

Ruby didn't answer more than to turn around and head to the kitchen. Jas stopped by the living room to let the rest know to join them in the kitchen. When they were all there and seated, Saphira began her tale. The tea was made, steeped, doctored and drunk before Saphira finished and the first thing Ruby did when she was done was to pour fresh tea around the table.

"Well," she finally concurred as she sat back with her cup in her hands. "That was definitely quite a story. Is everyone okay... relatively speaking, that is?"

"I think it shook Charisma up a lot more than she was letting on. But other than that and Brianna's run-in with Adam's head and the floor... yeah. I was never in any real danger and Es knew that. We were mostly bystanders for this whole thing."

"So what's your opinion, Saphira?"

Saphira shook her head. "Um... NO. You really don't want my opinion - it involves serious amounts of head bashing and butt kicking." Everyone at the table tittered.

"So what's the plan then?"

Saphira shrugged. "I dunno. Es is staying with Brianna tonight, just to be sure she's okay."

"So do I need to head over there?" Coral asked. Amber had ridden over to Charisma's with Jas, enjoying the rare opportunity to have company for a little while. Saphira bit her lip thoughtfully as she considered Coral's question.

"Ya know what? I don't think so, but you may want to swing by later. You can check on them and see if Es needs anything." Coral nodded. That seemed reasonable. "And if you could," Saphira continued, smiling when Coral arched an eyebrow at her, "run by Charisma's as well. I'd like to know if there was any backlash from today's adventures."

"Oh," Ruby cut in. "Mal called. She was at the house watching Kent today."

"Yeah? What'd she say?"

"Not a lot. Said he was ducking in and out of shadows in the house trying to keep an eye on things without being caught. Said he didn't seem angry when he left - mostly resigned... like he expected to see what he saw." Ruby frowned. "But from what you told us, there really wasn't anything to see."

"There really wasn't," Saphira confirmed. "There might have been if we'd looked through that album, but as it was...."

"Maybe he knows something," Opal offered. Saphira tilted her head in question.

"What do you mean?"

Opal sighed. "I doubt he's looking for overt displays of affection. C'mon, guys... he's been married to Charisma for a number of years. He more than almost anybody knows exactly how important appearances are to her in her line of work."

"Okay, so...?"

"So, if I was him and I suspected something had changed with my wife, I'd be looking for the subtle things with her. Like I said - he knows Charisma isn't going to go running through the streets naked or be photographed going in and out of a sleazy motel. But if she smiles more or starts inviting friends over more often than colleagues, he's going to start paying attention to the little stuff."

"So you think he knows what's going on?"

"I think he's pretty sure he thinks he knows what's going on," Opal said. "But since I don't know what he's thinking...." She shrugged. Saphira nodded and turned to Ruby. "Is Mal still here?"

"As far as I know. She told me that they would be supposed to be here overnight."

"All right," Saphira said, sliding her chair back from the table and standing. She picked up her cup and drank the last swallow, wincing at the bitter, lukewarm beverage. "Ew," shuddering slightly. "I'm gonna go...." A shrill ringing cut into her thought. "Answer the phone," she continued without missing a beat. She stepped out into the hall and lifted the receiver. The rest could hear the smile in her voice when she realized Esmeralda was on the other end. So they sat back to wait, curious to know what Saphira had planned next.


Charisma stood in the doorway of Adam's room, simply watching him breathe. It brought tears to her eyes, and she took a deep breath and swallowed hard, blinking her eyes to keep the tears from escaping. She pushed away from the door, sniffing once before she crossed to stand at Adam's bedside. Charisma pushed his hair back off his face, then leaned down and kissed him. Then she pulled the blanket up over his small body and kissed him again before she headed out of his room.

She eased his door closed without shutting it completely, then leaned against the wall and closed her eyes for a long moment. When she felt her equilibrium return, Charisma pushed off the wall and moved down the hallway towards her own room.

She walked into her room, setting the monitor back beside her bed, taking a few minutes to listen to Adam breathe. When she felt a measure of peace and control settle into her soul, she took her phone from her pocket and studied the faceplate for a long moment before she scrolled through her phonebook until she found the name she was searching for.

With barely a second's hesitation, Charisma pushed the button and listened to it ringing, waiting for the call to be picked up.

"Charisma? Honey, is everything all right?" Kent asked with concern. Despite what he'd seen earlier, he was still surprised that she'd called him. Fortunately, his greeting was enough to add to her sense of stability and she chuckled.

"Everything's better now, Kent - thank you. We haven't talked in a while so I thought I'd give it another shot since today's performance was early."

He nodded his head, though she couldn't see him. "I've been trying to return your call, but we seemed to be playing at cross-purposes lately.

"Yes - we're pushing really hard to finish up our business before the holiday break. So how are you holding up? How's the play?"

"Well, we're getting good reviews, so we're all pretty happy with it."

Silence fell between them and it quickly grew a little awkward. Kent couldn't help but compare it to the exuberance he'd seen in Charisma earlier that day. Before it could drag out too long, he opened his mouth to speak just as Charisma seemingly decided to do the same thing.

"So why did you call me the other night?"

"Adam gave me a bit of a scare today."

Silence fell again and Kent cleared his throat, indicating his intention to speak. "I'm sorry... Adam did what?"

"He gave me a bit of a scare today." She paused and bit her lip, blinking her eyes again as a wave of remembered terror shuddered through her body again. She gave a shaky sigh. "I had some friends over today and Adam ran out in front of the car as it pulled up to the house." She cleared her throat inelegantly, sniffing slightly before she continued speaking. "If it hadn't been for Saphira's quick actions, he could have been hurt... or worse." Now she let the tears flow.

"Is he all right? Are you?" Kent swallowed hard, realizing he'd missed something pretty significant trying to get into the house undetected. He'd watched Brianna and Charisma playing with Adam and it had twisted his gut uncomfortably, and when he'd heard the car approaching the house, decided he needed to get indoors. He rubbed a hand over his face, realizing his insides were shaking as bad as his outsides were.

Charisma's wry chuckle brought him back to the present. "Adam's fine. Saphira is like a grown-up playmate and he adores her - thinks she's the coolest thing to come along since PB&J. Me on the other hand... I have the feeling I'm going to be shaky for a while."

"Do you need me to come home?" he offered, hoping she'd say yes. For once he wanted to be part of the family instead of an individual that did little more than share space and responsibility.

He could hear the smile in her voice when she spoke and it made him feel marginally better when she spoke. "Oh Kent... I appreciate that - you don't know how much. But I wouldn't want to pull you away from your show... not when you're doing so well. We're both all right, and we'll see you at Mama's soon, right?"

"Absolutely," he agreed with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. "Mother already told me I'll be there."

Charisma laughed. She loved her mother-in-law, but she was definitely a formidable woman. "How is your mother?"

The discussion went on for several more minutes and for a change it flowed like good conversation is supposed to. When it wound down, Charisma cleared her throat and spoke softly. "Thank you, Kent."

His brow furrowed in confusion, and even though she couldn't see his expression, Charisma could hear it in his voice. "For what?"

"Being there for me to talk to," Charisma replied after a moment's hesitation. She wasn't sure she could put into words what she really wanted to say, but she felt comfortable offering that. It was true, even if it wasn't complete.

"Oh, Sweetheart. I'll always be there for that. I promise."

"You're a good man, Kent Rockwell."

He snorted. "Let's not let that get around, all right? I make such a great villain." Charisma laughed again and he smiled, reminded once more why he loved her. "However, I need to go. I haven't had dinner yet and I'll bet you haven't either. And before you say it, yes... you have to eat. Image may be everything in your business, but you can't afford to skip meals, Charisma. Not if you expect to keep up with Adam."

"I know - I think I'm going to have to give Ame a raise."

"You do that. And call me if you need anything."

"You too, Kent. Thanks."

"Anytime, honey. Goodnight."



Mal gave Saphira a look when Kent hung up the phone. Saphira nodded - she'd caught it as well. "Keep up the good work, Mal. Don't be surprised if you hear from Es in the next few days." Mal nodded her understanding and Saphira took a last look around before she headed back to the house. Tomorrow was going to come soon enough.

Chapter XLVII

When Esmeralda had ended her call with Saphira, she'd rung the security desk to find someone who was cleared for grocery delivery. It only took a few minutes and she had ordered enough food for both dinner and breakfast. So the following morning, she was already cooking when Brianna finally crawled from the bed.

Brianna glared at her while accepting the coffee Esmeralda was offering. Aside from wrinkled clothes that looked as though they had been slept in - because they had - Esmeralda appeared much the same as she did everyday.

"It's not fair," Brianna grumbled, wincing when the hot cup touched her swollen lip, but still sighing in relief when the first taste of coffee reached her tongue. Esmeralda stirred the eggs she was scrambling and pulled the bacon out of the pan. In only another minute, Brianna was sitting at the counter eating a hot breakfast, courtesy of Esmeralda.

"What's not fair?" Esmeralda asked as she lifted a forkful of eggs to her mouth.

"It's not fair that you can literally roll off the couch and look like that," gesturing in Esmeralda's general direction. "The rest of us have to work at looking good, you know."

Esmeralda frowned and glanced down at herself. "Um... Brianna...?"

Brianna shook her head. "Don't even try. Your clothes are wrinkled, sure. But your hair is neat, your eyes are bright, there are no sleep wrinkles on your face...." Se paused and looked at Esmeralda more carefully. "You *did* sleep, didn't you?"

Esmeralda smiled. "Yes, Brianna. I slept. I just sleep lightly when I have a patient."

"Oh... oh Es, I'm so sorry...." halting as soon as Esmeralda's fingers touched her arm.

"Don't be, Brianna. I'm good at this and though I wouldn't wish harm to someone just so I could heal them, I'm proud to have the skill necessary to be able to do so if it's needed."

"Well, I'm glad you're here, and I appreciate your efforts... even though I do look like I was on the losing end of a title prizefight."

"Could be worse - you could look like you got thrown off a cliff."

Brianna snorted. "Pretty sure I'm not going to care too much if I'm dead."

Esmeralda rolled her eyes. "Fair enough," she conceded. "Now eat your breakfast. If you're going in to work today, you're gonna need your strength."

"I need my strength every day in that place."

Esmeralda tilted her head thoughtfully and gazed at Brianna with curious eyes. "Can I ask you something?" waiting for Brianna to agree. "Why did you take this job? Wait," she commanded, holding up a hand before Brianna could speak. "I know you were flattered to be asked - anyone would be. But you were never interested in politics in school and by your own accounts abhor them... in and out of the office. And you *knew* Charisma was here, and you'd gone to great lengths to avoid any sort of contact between you for twenty years. So what changed?"

"I did... or at least I hoped I had. I figured these were professionals, so there had to be some professionalism here, right? I never realized people that do politics for a living are a hundred times worse than those who practice office politics. For them it's all about the games they can play and the deals they can make. It's not about what they can do for their constituents or making the world a better place - it's all about THEM and what THEY can get out of it."

"And Charisma?" Esmeralda prodded. She couldn't argue with Brianna's take on government politics. She'd seen way too much from the inside to disagree with her assessment.

Brianna shrugged and played with the remnants of food on her plate. "I told you, Es - I really didn't expect to have more than a passing interaction with her. And when I realized that wasn't going to be the case, I made an effort to make peace with her." She sighed. "I meant what I said before, Es. I'm not a home wrecker. But if Charisma is willing to be friends again, I'm not going to say no to that. I can't."

Esmeralda nodded. "Okay, Brianna... I believe you. Now... how do you feel? I already know how you look," chuckling when Brianna stuck out her tongue.

"My headache is mostly gone, though there's a good-sized knot back there that is really tender to the touch. My lip is very sore... bruised on top of being split. But as long as I don't smile and I keep from touching it, I should be all right to get through the day. I'm glad a break is coming up though."

Esmeralda sighed. "I think everybody is - I sure am."

"Do you and Saphira have any plans? I know from what you've told me you can't go home. But are you going to do anything special together?"

"We'll be spending the day together - that makes it special for us."

"Oh," Brianna replied, her tone a little dejected.

"Brianna?" Esmeralda placed a concerned hand on Brianna's shoulder and lightly squeezed. "Is something wrong?"

Brianna smiled up at Esmeralda, patting her hand before she slipped from under the soft touch. She stood and grabbed both plates, taking them to the sink before she answered. "Nothing at all. I was going to see if you wanted to join me, but I know how little time you two really have together and you've already given up two days trying to make me and Charisma more comfortable."

Esmeralda didn't reply immediately, giving Brianna time to wash up the few dishes. When she was done, Esmeralda dried them and handed them to her to put away. Then she turned and met Brianna's eyes. "I'll talk to Saphira."

"You're sure?"

"Brianna," Esmeralda smiled, her eyes twinkling. "When you've been a couple as long as Saphira and I have, you learn to make time for your friends. If you don't, they tend to fade way and even if you find them again, there's no going back. Things are never the same."

Brianna nodded, but didn't say anything immediately. Esmeralda's words hit too close to home. She swallowed the lump in her throat and then cleared it to speak. "Would you be interested in meeting Mama O, by any chance?"

"Excuse me?"

Brianna chuckled. "Sorry - Mama O is Okasa Tagherty... Charisma's mom. I spend one day around each holiday season with the Tagherty clan." She took a deep breath. "When I walked away from Charisma, Mama O insisted I stay in touch - it was her price for keeping silent to Charisma about me. And to be fair, I was glad she did. It kept me part of the family."

"She sounds like a good woman."

"She is," Brianna agreed without hesitation. "She's bossy, but she's got a heart of gold."

"I'll tell you what - you talk to Okasa and I'll talk to Saphira and if they're both amenable to it, we'll see about spending some time over the break together. Saphira and I are always up for making new friends."

"And Okasa would adopt you both in a heartbeat. You're her kind of people."

"Broke?" Esmeralda joked.

"Real," Brianna said seriously.


Jas wasn't surprised to see Esmeralda climb into the back of the car with Brianna, but she was a little taken back by Brianna's directive. "Jas, drop me at the office, then take Esmeralda home and wait there until she's ready to go to work, all right?" watching Jas blink in surprise and hearing Esmeralda's gasp. She held up a hand before Esmeralda could protest. "Let me do this for you. It's little enough after what you've done for me."

"Thank you, Brianna. I appreciate it."

"Anytime," Brianna assured her with a smile. She leaned back and watched the traffic move slowly towards the Senate Building. "If you get a chance to talk to Saphira before you come in tonight, let me know. I'll be talking to Okasa in another day or two... just to confirm things."

"You sure she won't mind you springing us on her?"

"I'm telling you, Es... she's gonna love you both." Jas pulled up and jumped out of the car, opening the door for Brianna... only to have Esmeralda follow her out.

"I can't sit back there by myself," she announced. "It's too weird."

"Whatever makes you happy, Es," Brianna said as she grabbed her briefcase and headed towards the door. "I'll see you tonight."

Esmeralda and Jas watched her enter the building, then Jas opened the passenger door for Esmeralda, getting a look for her trouble. "Get in, Es. It won't kill you to let me do this for you. Besides," she added with a grin, "it's my job."

Esmeralda rolled her eyes, but slid into the seat with a grin. Jas slammed the car door closed behind her and ran around to the driver's side, then pointed the car for home.


Saphira was sitting at the kitchen table with Amber and Coral when they heard the limo pull up. While that wasn't necessarily an unusual occurrence, Saphira was hoping Esmeralda might be with Jas this time and she rose and went to the front door. Amber and Coral traded amused looks.

"She's got it bad, huh?" Coral joked.

"Still - I swear you'd think they were newlyweds the way they carry on some days," Amber snarked.

"You're just jealous," Saphira spouted as she came around the corner holding Esmeralda's hand.

"No kidding. Sometimes I wonder if He was and that's why you were punished as severely as you were," Amber said, watching four sets of eyes grow big at her words. She sighed. "Don't any of you sit there and tell me that thought hasn't crossed your mind at least once," gratified when silence met her words. "All right... so what's going on? Charisma had a great case of the shakes last night. She even called Kent and they had actual conversation for almost ten minutes."

Esmeralda sighed. "Let me take a quick shower and we'll pool our stories."


Brianna walked quickly down the hall, ignoring the looks and whispers she could already hear coming from the aides and staff members. She stepped into her office, hearing the gasps of her own staff before they immediately turned back to their work. Indi came around the desk and followed her into her inner sanctum, taking her coat and moving towards the closet as Brianna made her way to her desk and took a seat. She dropped her briefcase on top and leaned back in her chair.

"Well?" she said a touch impatiently.


"Aren't you going to ask?"

"Are you all right, Senator Walker? Have you seen a doctor?"

Brianna raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you the least bit curious about what happened?"

Indi rolled her eyes and gave her a droll look. "Would answering DUH be considered impertinent, Senator? Of course I'm curious. I am also a professional, so beyond ensuring you're suffering no lasting damage, it's not my place to ask."

"You don't like gossip?"

"I suppose it has its time and place," Indi conceded, "but personally, I have to say no. It generally spreads beyond the truth and can hurt people enormously."

"Personal experience?"

"Yes ma'am," was all Indi said. Brianna waited for a long moment, then nodded her head in acceptance.

"All right then... for the record, I was assaulted by a child's head. He jumped and I caught him - I also caught his head with my mouth."


Brianna snorted. "No kidding... that was about what I said. But that's what happened, so if anyone actually asks, feel free to tell them the truth."

"Yes ma'am. Is there anything particular you need for me to take care of this morning? I'm already working on refining the legislation like we talked about on Saturday."

"Call Senator Charisma - let me know when you have her on the line. Otherwise, keep working on that piece. I'd like to have it ready before we leave so I can present it as soon as we return."

"Can do, Senator. I'll let you know as soon as Senator Tagherty is available. Would you like some coffee or tea this morning?"

"Thank you, Indi. Tea would be wonderful."

"Coming right up, Senator," Indi said and made her way out the door, closing it softly behind her. Brianna slid her laptop from her briefcase and quickly got down to work. It only took moments for her to become engrossed and she nearly jumped when Indi stuck her head in the door again.

"I have Senator Tagherty on line one," she said as she carried the tea tray and placed it on one side of Brianna's desk. Then she turned and left without another word.

"Charisma?" Brianna said as soon as the door was shut. "Are you okay this morning? How's Adam?"

"I'm all right," she admitted softly. "It will probably be a while before I sleep through the night again, but it could be so much worse," she added shakily. "Adam on the other hand doesn't even seem to remember what happened. He slept through the night and got up this morning bouncing off the walls." Charisma chuckled. "I am *seriously* going to have to give Ame a raise."

"Running her ragged?"

"Like you would not believe." She paused a moment, then decided to plunge ahead. "Listen... I'm glad you called. I was wondering if you'd consider joining the family for the holiday this year. I mean... I know it's been forever, but it'd mean a lot to me if you'd join us again... like you used to."

Brianna cleared her throat awkwardly. "Have you talked to Okasa about this?"

Charisma frowned. "Do I need to?"

Brianna offered a discomfited chuckle. "Well it is her house, Charisma; that kind of makes her the hostess. I'd love to come, Ri, but I've already invited Esmeralda and Saphira and Ruby to spend the day with me," making a mental note to make sure Esmeralda knew Ruby was invited along as well.

"Bring them with you," Charisma said impulsively, causing Brianna to look askance at the speakerphone. "You know Mama would love them."

"I'll tell you what, Charisma - I'll talk to Okasa. If she is willing to have us all there AND Es and Saphira and Ruby are willing to be part of a big family gathering, we'll be there."

"I'll give Mama a call and let her know to expect your call. I'm sure she'll be thrilled to hear from you." Only then did Brianna realize how thoroughly and completely Okasa and her entire family had kept their interactions with Brianna over the years a secret from Charisma. She wondered if this might come back to bite them in the ass.

"Maybe not as much as you think," Brianna muttered, and then realized she'd spoken aloud.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Charisma demanded and Brianna could hear the frown in her voice.

Brianna sighed. Best to have it done with now, I suppose. "Charisma, I never lost touch with Okasa... or your family. They never mentioned it because no one wanted you to be uncomfortable about it."

"I see," Charisma said slowly, her tone sending a chill over the wires that Brianna felt in the depths of her soul. "Well then - it shouldn't be a problem for you to join us then. Now if you'll excuse me...."


"No, Brianna. I can't talk about this right now. I'll see you later." And she hung up the phone without giving Brianna a chance to say goodbye.

"Dammit!!" Brianna cursed as she jammed the speakerphone's off button. "That could have gone better." Then she turned back to her work. Despite everything that was suddenly complicating her personal life, Brianna still had a job to do. And even though she wanted to rush down to Charisma's office and straighten things out, she had a responsibility here that didn't allow it at the moment.

She could only cross her fingers and hope she got the opportunity to explain things later - and that Charisma would actually listen to what she had to say. Then Brianna sighed and got back to work.


Okasa looked at the phone receiver she held in her hand, waiting to see if it would catch fire after Charisma's call. When it didn't immediately, she placed it gently in the cradle and headed off to find Patrick. It seemed things were finally moving... and apparently, so were they.

Chapter XLVIII

"Gramma!" Adam exclaimed when Ame opened the door for Okasa and Patrick. Okasa grinned and bent down to pick Adam up, lifting him into her arms with a groan before crossing the threshold.

"My goodness... you're getting big, Little Man."

"Adam Mama's big boy," he proclaimed proudly. Patrick followed them in and set their bags just inside the door.

"You got a hug for your Pop Pop, boy?"

Adam squealed and reached, causing Okasa to wince and hand him over to Patrick. Without another word, Patrick took him Adam and headed towards the backyard. Ame knew Patrick would bundle Adam up before they went outside, so she picked up the bags and turned to Okasa. "Would you like to go with them? I can take your bags upstairs. The Senator called to have me prepare your room before she arrived."

"How angry was she?"

"Ma'am?" Ame knew what Okasa was asking, but she was going to make her actually ask the question if she wanted the answer. Okasa just gave her a look.

"Please don't prevaricate with me, Ame. I know how furious she was when she called me this morning. How angry was she when she called you?"

"Well, ma'am - I know she was very short and to the point when I spoke to her. But she wasn't angry... at least not with me. She sounded tired... and busy."

Okasa nodded. She'd expected as much - she'd actually expected worse. She had a feeling Charisma was more hurt than angry, and that was something she could work with. "I imagine she did. Thank you, Ame. I know you don't want to break any confidences, but I needed to know that."

"Can you fix it?" Ame asked, then blushed when Okasa's head snapped around to meet her eyes. Okasa stared at her for a long moment, then nodded at what she found and smiled. She opened the door Ame gestured to and took one of the bags from her hands.

"If she gives me a chance... yes. If she's already made up her mind? Probably not. Won't stop me from trying, though."

Ame nodded and set the second bag on the bed, then went to the door. "If there's nothing else...."

"Actually...." Okasa started. Ame turned back and waited. "I'd like to join you in the kitchen. Have you decided what's for dinner?"

"Adam asked for hamburgers and fries." She shrugged. "I actually haven't made those in a while, so I was going to do those."

"Sounds good. Can I help?"

Ame smiled. "Sure. You know where the kitchen is. I'll be in there if Patrick hasn't decided he needs rescuing before you get downstairs." Okasa snorted.

"Considering we don't see that boy as often as either of us would like, I think it's more likely that we'll need to drag them in for supper." Ame laughed and left while Okasa turned back to her unpacking.


Brianna was slumped over her desk with her head cradled in both hands when Esmeralda entered her office much later that evening. She rushed to Brianna's side, only to have Brianna look up at her as Esmeralda reached her side.

"Brianna?" she asked softly, recognizing the misery in her eyes. "What's wrong?"

Brianna blew out an exasperated breath. "Nothing a kick in the ass wouldn't cure," she muttered, her sadness turning to anger. Esmeralda backed up slightly and scratched the back of her neck awkwardly.

"I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it's not me you're angry with."

Brianna snorted. "Not even close, though I can be if you'd like me to add you to the list. Apparently, my stupidity knows no bounds today, so I could certainly add that to my list of dim-witted actions today." Esmeralda held out her hand, extending it a second time when Brianna hesitated. Brianna gave Esmeralda a wry smile and shook her head. "How do you do that?"

"Do what?" Esmeralda asked with a furrowed brow as they walked to the sofa and took seats in either corner.

"Make me feel better just by caring. I mean, I know you can't do anything to fix this or make it better, but I also know as surely as I'm sitting here that just sharing it with you will not only make me feel better, but will probably give me some insight on how to do something about it."

Esmeralda blinked. "Um... experience?" causing Brianna to laugh.

"See what I mean? I feel better already. I don't know what I would've done if I hadn't met you and Saphira that first night here. Talk about right place, right time."

"I'm glad, Brianna. We both are. Now why don't you tell me what's wrong?"

"Yeah - I'm trying to figure out where to start," rising and crossing to her mini-fridge. Without asking, she pulled out two chocolate milks. She tossed one to Esmeralda who grinned when she caught it, then shook hers, looking down carefully as she eased it open.

"I generally find the beginning to be a good choice," Esmeralda responded, giving a chuckle when Brianna stuck her tongue out. "Oh... before I forget, Saphira said we'd be pleased to join you if we won't be intruding."

"Well, that's a great segue," Brianna muttered as she returned to the couch, smiling wryly at Esmeralda's arched brow. She proceeded to tell Esmeralda what had occurred between her and Charisma earlier that day. "She needed to know... I understand that. But I probably could have found a better tack to take than just blurting it out like that." A pause. "I think I hurt her feelings," Brianna added in a much softer tone.

"You probably did," Esmeralda agreed bluntly. "But as you said - she needed to know, and better now than when you arrive and her brothers greet you like old family instead of acting like it's been years since they've seen you. I'm thinking she wouldn't take too kindly to being made a fool of like that."

"I think she already feels that way."

"Then you need to make her realize that wasn't the case at all." Esmeralda bit her lip thoughtfully. "Have you spoken to her mother?"

"Only briefly. Apparently Charisma called her the moment we were off the phone and pretty much ripped her a new one in the iciest calm and polite manner possible. She called me right after and said they were headed down... at Charisma's insistence."

"And have you talked to her?"

Brianna shook her head. "No - not since I faux pas'd this morning. She asked for a little bit of time to process - what could I say?" Brianna sighed deeply and rubbed a hand over her eyes. "Why do I let her do this to me? Why do I let her make me crazy? Why can't I just cut my losses and let her go?" the last whispered tearfully. Esmeralda gently took her hand.

"Because you love her, Brianna. That's reason enough."

Brianna chuckled, though there was a hint of a sob as well. "I guess it is."

"So what are you gonna do now?"

"Wait for her to call me, I guess," shaking her head when Esmeralda did. "No?"

"No," Esmeralda stated firmly. "Stop being so passive about this. If you want Charisma in your life again - even as simply a friend - then DO something about it, Brianna. Find that determination you had when I first met you. Stop giving Charisma all the control."

"That's going to cause a fight, you know."

"And the problem with that is...? Brianna, a little passion is not a bad thing... even in friendships. It brings vitality and excitement and enthusiasm. Otherwise things become lackluster and boring. And that just causes things to wither and die on the vine." Esmeralda took a deep breath and met Brianna's eyes. Brianna blinked, stunned by the fire that was sparking from Esmeralda's eyes. "Make a decision, Brianna, and stick with it. At least things will be resolved one way or the other for good and you can finally move forward... either with Charisma in your life or with her out of it forever."

"You make it sound so easy."

"It's only as difficult as you make it, Brianna. I've been where you are, remember."

"Yes, I remember - but I think yours was actually worse." Esmeralda shrugged but didn't comment. She knew what she thought, but she wasn't going to give voice to it. She figured she had gone as close to the line as she dared without crossing it. She wasn't going to push anymore.

They sat in silence for a long moment before Esmeralda realized Brianna was deep in thought. Without a word she rose and began her cleaning. Once again she was behind, but with any luck it would be worth it. In the meantime she had plenty to do.

She was almost finished when Brianna started from her brown study, suddenly realizing she was sitting alone in her semi-darkened office. Then she turned and saw Esmeralda packing away her cleaning supplies.

"Done already?" she asked, then glanced at her watch when Esmeralda smirked at her. "Holy shit!" she exclaimed, then slapped a hand over her mouth. "Sorry - I 'm trying to do better here at least."

"No worries, my friend," Esmeralda assured her with a smile. "But I need to get finished. I don't want to worry Saphira any more than necessary."

"Would you like a ride to the diner?"

"No, Brianna - thank you. I appreciate it, but I just can't." She held up a hand. "Before you ask.... For one thing, I can't keep accepting limo rides to the diner from you just on general principle. Trust me when I tell you that would cause you more grief and controversy than you suddenly getting a girlfriend. For another, I've still got work to do and you should probably go home and get some rest. I'd be willing to bet you've got a pretty good headache going again."

"How can you tell?"

"I recognize the signs."

Brianna nodded once and winced. "You're right. I'd like to hear more about the grief and controversy thing - I can't imagine offering a friend a ride could possibly be considered worse than me being a participatory lesbian." Esmeralda snorted and Brianna smirked. "Sorry - I like that better than practicing. That implies I'm still working on it and I feel confident I know what I'm doing."

Esmeralda laughed aloud. "That always makes for a much more pleasant experience for all involved. Now go home. You can worry about all this," motioning around the room, "tomorrow."

"Anybody ever tell you you're bossy?" Brianna grumbled, even as she rose to do Esmeralda's bidding.

"Saphira," Esmeralda offered deadpan. "Constantly."

"She'd be right," Brianna muttered, gathering her things and crossing to stand beside Esmeralda. "Thank you, Es. Thank you for the kick in the ass and for being my friend. I hope Saphira knows how lucky she is."

"She does - I remind her every day," Esmeralda said with a smirk. Brianna just laughed and gave Esmeralda a brief hug. Then she headed for the door, holding it and gesturing Esmeralda through ahead of her with a flourish.

"Goodnight, Es," she offered when they made it back out into the main hall.

"Goodnight, Senator Walker," eyes twinkling at the mock-glare that garnered her. "Sweet dreams."


"I almost wish I could have stayed," Ame said to the other angels as they put dinner on the table. "Charisma was furious. I imagine Amber's getting an earful to share with Es in the morning. I know Okasa is."

"That woman needs to learn to loosen up," Coral commented as she leaned against the doorjamb watching the activity taking place around her. "Honestly, at least Brianna knows how to go with the flow once in a while."

"Speaking of which," Ruby said, "why are you still here? Aren't you supposed to be covering her right now?" with a pointed look at the clock.

"I was," Coral replied emphatically. "Es sent me back. Said she needed to talk with her privately."


Coral shrugged. "I dunno - I didn't ask."

"You would make a seriously sucky spy."

"Yeah, but I make a great guardian," Coral replied immodestly. "So it's all good." She straightened and grabbed her phone. "Jas just texted. Gotta go." Then she was gone. Ruby looked around at the rest of them and indicated the table.

"C'mon ladies. It's time to eat. We'll hear about it eventually, I'm sure."

"That's one reason that despite everything I wanted to be part of this assignment. Es keeps everyone in the loop as much as possible and she shares the credit."

"Not sure credit's gonna help much in this instance - not as long as they are out of favor."

"As long as this one works out, I don't care. This one feels really personal, you know? Like we're actually part of the fight for a change instead of simply out on the fringe of things." Heads nodded around the table, but there were no more words for a while. And when they finally came again, the conversation moved on to other subjects.


Charisma was cool and composed by the time she entered her home, but it was a cold fury that seemed to burn through her veins. She wasn't sure why it made her so angry. After all, she wanted Brianna to be part of the family again, didn't she? She wanted things to be like they had been twenty years before when they'd been best friends and had the whole world ahead of them. Of course, she had a husband and child now, but that shouldn't change too much between them, right?

And then to find out that while she was doing without HER best friend - the same best friend that had walked out of her life without even bothering to say goodbye - her family had continued to enjoy her companionship.... Charisma was ready to blow. She was only holding it together at the moment because it was Adam's time.

She came in like she did every other evening, thanking Ame and dismissing her, then taking over Adam's bath and bedtime. Only once he was settled down and tucked into bed did she venture downstairs to find her parents.

She found them much where she expected them to be - in the kitchen waiting for her to join them for dinner. Instead, she stepped into the room and leaned against the doorjamb with her arms crossed protectively over her chest. She didn't even offer them a welcome, but jumped right in with both feet.

"So would one of you like to tell me what the HELL is going on?? When did I become a lesser member of the family??"

"Charisma...." Okasa soothed as she approached.

"Don't," she growled. "Don't take another step. I want you to stand there and explain to me why I am just now finding out that MY BEST FRIEND has been part of your lives for the last twenty years when she hasn't been a part of mine?? Hmm??"

"Did you ask her?" Okasa responded calmly.

"Excuse me?" Charisma said, blinking.

"Did. You. ASK. HER?"

"No... I'm asking you."

"Maybe you should be asking her, Charisma. Or maybe you should ask yourself why you let her walk out of yours. Because I will tell you this - she *tried* to walk out of ours, and I wouldn't let her. I refused. Her only condition was that you not know."


Okasa sighed and walked over to the refrigerator, removing the raw burgers she and Ame had made up earlier. Then she jerked her head at Patrick who had remained silently watching the tableau. Okasa had asked for his support, and he had given it freely. But he was happy to let her take the lead. Charisma may have been a Daddy's girl, but when it came to this, he was in way over his head. Okasa had always been more successful dealing with their daughter's stubborn streak. So he lit the indoor grill and started placing the burgers on the rack while Okasa continued to take things from the fridge and place them on the counter.

"Mother," Charisma growled. Okasa sighed again.

"Charisma, if you want to know, you're going to have to talk to Brianna. I made her a promise, and I'm not going to break it."

"Fine," she snarled, pushing off the doorjamb. "I'm not hungry," she threw over her shoulder as she slammed out and headed for her study.

"Charisma! Charisma!!" Okasa called after her. She exchanged a look with Patrick.

"That went well," he commented benignly. Okasa glared at him. He just shrugged and turned back to his cooking. This was going to be a hell of a visit.

Chapter XLIX

Charisma slammed into her office - or at least slammed as loudly as she dared with Adam asleep upstairs. She caught sight of the album that still rested on the coffee table and picked it up with a jerk. She hefted it as though she was going to throw it, then dropped it back on the table with a sneer as though that would make the damn thing disappear on its own.

She looked around the room, realizing that she'd basically created her own prison. Her mother wouldn't bother her as long as she was in here, but the moment she set foot outside the door, Okasa would feel Charisma was fair game. And for whatever reason, Charisma just didn't feel up to dealing with it anymore today. She was exhausted and heart sore.

She moved to the couch and lay down, putting her head on the arm and curling her legs up. She grabbed the pillow and pulled it into her chest. Charisma let her mind drift for a long moment, thinking about - had it only been yesterday that Brianna had been here? She shook her head, then she closed her eyes and shut out the world for a little while. She never heard the knock on the door.


Brianna seriously considered going home as she made her way downstairs to her waiting car. Her head really did hurt and thanks to Esmeralda, she actually had food for several days. Still, Esmeralda's words niggled at her and she couldn't shake the feeling that Esmeralda had a good point. She had been extremely passive about this whole affair - for lack of a better word - allowing Charisma to run roughshod over her in almost every confrontation they'd had since her arrival in Washington. Only once had she really called Charisma out about it, and only then had Adam been able to affect a change.

She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the seat, wincing when she rolled over the bump as she pressed the speaker button. "Jas?"

"Yes, Senator?"

"I need you to take me over to Senator Tagherty's."

"Senator?" Jas asked. A glance at the clock told her how late it was, and while she honestly believed Charisma was still awake, she doubted a positive action would come of simply dropping by the woman's home at this time of night. Still....

"Is there a problem, Jas?"

"No problem, Senator. I wanted to be sure I heard you correctly. You want me to drive you to Senator Tagherty's?"

"Yes. You'll have to wait out front as my understanding is that her limousine is not garaged there either, but with a little luck this won't take too long. Of course, the way my luck's been running today...." Brianna muttered under her breath, but Jas still heard her. However, she was a woman of no small intelligence and chose to ignore the last bit and focus on the first.

"Yes, Senator. I am at your disposal," neatly swinging the large car towards Charisma's and hoping she had time to call Esmeralda if the whole thing went south.


Okasa and Patrick were sitting at the table eating when the gate buzzed for attention. They exchanged glances, then Patrick rose and went to the hall.


Jas blinked. She certainly hadn't expected to hear a man's voice, and she had to clear her throat before she could speak.

"Senator Brianna Walker to see Senator Charisma Tagherty."

Now it was Patrick's turn to blink and he turned towards the kitchen doorway when he heard Okasa approaching him. Her eyes were wide, but she was motioning 'YES' to him frantically. So like any good husband and father, he pushed the button to give Brianna access to the house. Then he took Okasa's hand and they waited together in the foyer for the car to arrive.

It only took a moment, then they heard the doors open and close and footsteps on the concrete. Then there was a knock and Okasa smiled and moved to open the door.

"Brianna!" she welcomed quietly but with enthusiasm. Brianna held onto the embrace for a long moment, then stepped back, only to find herself in Patrick's strong arms.

"Oh, Papa," she said softly, and he lifted her completely off the ground. Her spine pooped back into alignment and she groaned. Patrick and Okasa looked at one another over her head.

"Little Girl, when was the last time you had that taken care of?

Brianna squeezed his neck one more time for good measure and pushed away slightly. Patrick took the hint and set her back on her feet, but kept a protective arm around her shoulder. She leaned her head on his chest and wrapped an arm around both Patrick's and Okasa's waists, hugging them again. "Honestly?" she replied after a moment. "The last time you hugged me."

Okasa frowned. "That's not funny, Little Bri. That's way too long to go."

"Without a hug from you guys? Trust me - I know. Now," looking between them, "how bad is it?"

"You know... sometimes I wish she was small enough to take over my knee. I might be able to put some sense into her again."

"That bad, huh?"

"Well," Patrick drawled slowly. "She skipped dinner and locked herself up in that room she calls a study."

"Oh boy. All right let me.... Mama?" stopping when Okasa tightened her grip around Brianna's waist.

"First you're gonna come with me and Papa to the kitchen. I'm pretty sure you haven't eaten yet either and if you're going to beard *that* lion in *her* den, you may as well do so with a full belly. You'll feel better, and given the damage I can see, I'd say you need to feel as good as you possibly can before you go in there. What happened to you, anyway?"

Brianna released her hold on both of them and allowed them to lead her to the kitchen. Her mouth watered when she smelled hamburgers - they were a favorite when the family got together and it seemed like it had been forever since her summer visit. "Adam," she answered succinctly.

"Excuse me? Are you saying my grandson beat up on you?"

Brianna laughed then winced when it pulled at her healing lip. "Not exactly. He was actually trying to show me love - I just wasn't quite ready for the force of nature that particular future linebacker is."

Patrick and Okasa nodded and chuckled. It had been talked about between them before. Okasa motioned Brianna to a seat and reached in the fridge for the milk. She simply returned Brianna's look when the younger woman tried to give her one. Then she cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Don't even try it young lady. With all the coffee and God knows what other crap you put into your body on a daily basis, you will survive drinking a glass of milk with your dinner."

"Yes, Mama," Brianna responded.

It didn't take long for Brianna to eat. It wasn't much - not nearly what it could have been and barely enough to make Okasa happy, but even Okasa recognized Brianna's logic about not gorging herself too late at night. Besides, Brianna was obviously getting antsy about talking to Charisma. So Okasa eyeballed her still half-filled glass of milk and then stared at Brianna pointedly. Brianna sighed dramatically, but lifted the glass to her lips and dutifully drained it.

When she was done, she placed the empty glass back on the counter and waited for Okasa to nod her approval. Instead, Okasa leaned over and kissed her cheek and whispered, "Go get 'er, Brianna." Brianna flushed to the roots of her hair, then nodded and rose. Without another word, she left the kitchen and headed for Charisma's study.

Patrick and Okasa watched her go, then without speaking, started cleaning up the kitchen.


It was a light tapping on the door that brought Charisma out of the doze she'd fallen into. She frowned, taking a moment to get her bearings and then realizing her sanctuary had become her prison. And now, it seemed, her mother felt the need to torture her here as well. She sighed and sat up, running her fingers through her hair and scrubbing a hand over her face in an attempt to force wakefulness into her brain.

Another knock sounded and she growled. "Go away, Mother. I'm not in the mood."

"Charisma?" the voice causing her to sit up straight in a blind panic. "It's Brianna. May I come in?"

Charisma felt a myriad of reactions and emotions roar through her and she gripped the couch with

white-knuckled strength. She sat breathing for a long moment, trying to find some semblance of control. It was only when Brianna spoke again that she understood her time was up.

"Okay, well... maybe you're sleeping or maybe you're just furious and don't want to talk to me. Whatever." She sighed. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry. I never meant for this to hurt you, but I'm not the only one at fault here. You bear some of the responsibility too and...."

Whatever else Brianna had been about to say was lost when Charisma jerked the door open and glared at her. "Excuse me? *My* responsibility?"

Brianna held her stare measure for measure, and finally Charisma stepped back a pace and gestured towards her sanctum. "Would you like to come in?" she invited. "I'd prefer to handle this privately between us, if you don't mind."

Brianna wondered why, if that was the case, Okasa and Patrick were now ensconced in Charisma's home at her demand. She had no way of knowing that Okasa had instructed Charisma to take care of things with Brianna directly. But she would momentarily.

"My mother insisted that we handle this between us; she swears she's not culpable for anything to do with this situation," Charisma said snidely as she closed the door.

"She's telling the truth," Brianna affirmed.

"How can you know that? You don't even know what she said yet!" Charisma would have been yelling had Adam not been asleep. As it was, her whisper was quite deadly in its ferocity.

"Because she did what I asked her to do, Charisma."

Charisma sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. "It always comes back to you leaving me, doesn't it? WHY?" she continued without pausing. "Why did you leave?? Why was I not enough for you anymore, but my family was? What made them so goddamn special, Brianna??" Charisma asked, chest heaving and eyes flashing fire.

Brianna couldn't help but admire how beautiful and passionate Charisma was in that moment, then she closed off that part of herself and turned the question around. "Why didn't you come after me, Charisma? Why didn't you make an effort to find out what was wrong? Why didn't you want to know then why I left? What difference could it possibly make to you now??"

Charisma blew out an impatient breath. "This isn't getting us anywhere."

Brianna raked her hands through her hair. "Charisma, I've told you this, but allow me to reiterate - when you're ready to hear the answer, you'll ask the right question. And I promise I will give you the truth. Charisma, I have never lied to you; I won't lie about this."

Blue eyes held green for a long moment, and finally Charisma nodded. "Keep reminding me - eventually it'll stick."

Brianna snorted. "No it won't. You'll keep asking until you get the result you want."

Charisma laughed. "You know me so well," seeing a flinch pass over Brianna's face. "Bri?"

"Sorry - when I try to smile it pulls on my lip and it's still pretty bruised."

Charisma put her fingertips under Brianna's chin and lifted it so she could get a better look. "Yeah, he did quite a number on you. How do you feel?"

"Thrilled I will not be playing quarterback against him." Brianna said, eyes twinkling. "Pretty sure he would have given me brain damage if he'd been a little bigger." Charisma let her hands slide over Brianna's hair to the back of her head, wincing in tandem when they touched the knot.


"Yeah, but it doesn't hurt unless I put pressure on it."

"Are you hungry?" Charisma asked suddenly.

"Mama O fed me the minute I walked in the door. You KNOW what that's like."

"Oh yeah," Charisma agreed. "Well, would you mind coming to the kitchen with me anyway? I need something to eat and I am still curious about a couple things."

"Are we all right?"

"We're all right. I just would really like to know why my family got you when I didn't and why everyone felt the need to keep it a secret from me. I feel all kinds of an idiot, you know?"

Brianna took Charisma's hand and tugged her towards the door. "C'mon. This calls for ice cream."


"Mama?" Patrick asked when she took his hand and led him upstairs towards their room. "I thought we were gonna wait downstairs... maybe watch a little TV." She gave him a look.

"Patrick Tagherty - don't stand there and act the fool with me. I know very well you set the machine to record every show you watch while we're gone, so don't pretend like you're actually missing something." She held up a hand when he started to speak. "They're not yelling and Brianna hasn't left, so I'm gonna take a big leap here and guess they're essentially talking to one another. That being the case, we're gonna give them the space they need to do so. You remember how they used to take over the house when they settled in to talk. We can keep an eye on Adam."

"You're pretty smart for an old woman," Patrick said saucily, his leer belied by the twinkle in his eye. Okasa narrowed her eyes at him and gave him a baleful stare.

"You're treading on thin ice, old man." Patrick chuckled silently.

"I know... ain't it great??" Okasa just smirked and shook her head, then they went in to check on Adam.


"So talk to me, Brianna. Tell me why my family got to have you around for the last twenty years."

Brianna sighed. She had to skirt such a thin line with this discussion, but Charisma deserved the answers Brianna was able to give. "When I got back from Barcelona," seeing Charisma acknowledge her words, "I went straight to school. But my first free weekend, I went down to see your folks. I needed to say goodbye to them."

"Like you couldn't say goodbye to me?" Charisma asked, her ire returning. Brianna covered her hand.

"I said goodbye, Charisma, even if I never uttered the actual words. You knew when I walked away from you in that airport it was goodbye." Charisma dropped her head until her eyes were focused on their hands and she nodded her admission of the truth. "Right," Brianna offered in acceptance.

"So, when I told Okasa I was saying goodbye, she told me NO. She refused to accept a goodbye from me - insisted I was part of the family and informed me in no uncertain terms that family didn't just get to leave. So I stayed with the understanding that it would be done around your schedule."

"But why keep it secret?" looking at Brianna again.

"Because you let me go, Charisma. You let me walk away without once trying to understand why I left. I took that as my cue that you were done with me. I didn't see a need to anger you."

Charisma held Brianna's eyes, studying them as she hadn't done since college. And she discovered that the woman before her was much like the girl she had known. She finally nodded. "Fair enough," she conceded. "Now what?"

Brianna shrugged. "I figure that's up to you. You invited me to join you again, but I won't hold you to it."

"Do you want to come?"

Brianna just gave Charisma a droll look and Charisma chuckled, knowing what was coming. "Charisma, I have spent the last nearly twenty years going to your mother's house on oddball weekends to celebrate the holidays with your family. I'm pretty sure my wanting is not going to be a problem here. Not sure how your family will react to going back to one celebration per holiday, but we can cross that bridge if we come to it."

"They'll live," Charisma declared. "However, if it's left up to me, they'll only get to celebrate once like the rest of the world does. Have you talked to Mama?"

Brianna shook her head. "Figured I needed to talk to you first. But Es said she and Saphira would love to join us if Okasa wouldn't think they're imposing."

"I'll talk to Mama in the morning, but you *know* what she's going to say."

"Bring 'em along, Little Bri. The more, the merrier."

Charisma covered her mouth to keep from shouting her laughter. "Wow - you've got her down pat."

Brianna rolled her eyes. "As many times as I've heard her say something similar...? Well, check with her in the morning to be sure, will you? Esmeralda and Saphira have been such a blessing in my life since I got here and I'd really rather they weren't embarrassed. Not that I think anyone would say a word if they just showed up with me," Brianna continued before Charisma could protest. "But as sensitive as Es is, I think she'd notice if they were sprung on your family without warning.

Charisma nodded. "Probably. I'll talk to her in the morning and let you know at work."

"Speaking of... I need to get home." They rose and took their dishes to the sink and Charisma waved Brianna off when she started to wash them. "I'll take care of them before I go to bed. You, on the other hand, still have to get there, so.... Do you have a way?"

"Jas is waiting outside," seeing Charisma nod her approval. She headed towards the front door with Charisma right beside her. "Thank you for seeing me, Charisma."

"Thank you for caring enough to stop by, Bri. We'll get there."

"Maybe one day. Goodnight."

"Night." Charisma watched her to the car and waited for the taillights to disappear down the hill. Then she locked up and washed up the dishes before heading up to bed. Everything else could wait until morning.

Chapter L

The next few days passed much the same way. Everyone was incredibly busy trying to get their work wrapped up before week's end. Even if they had to come back for a short assembly between holidays, they preferred to have things done and ready for the next full session once the holidays were officially over.

So everyone was pushing - putting in extra hours in an effort to get done and leave Washington for a while. Ruby and Saphira noticed a difference in their clientele and Esmeralda didn't have time to do more than nod at her friends. But no one was happier to see the weekend than Charisma and Brianna.

Despite their best efforts, they had barely had time for hello. Even lunches were impossible as both of them ended up working through them with other people. So when Esmeralda finally made it into Brianna's office on Friday night, she wasn't particularly surprised to find them together. They weren't doing anything - seriously... they were curled into opposite corners of the couch, shoes off and legs tucked up under them each holding a tumbler of something Esmeralda strongly suspected was a very old whiskey.

Even her entrance into the office didn't merit more than a peek from beneath long lashes before the eyes closed once more. Loath to disturb them, Esmeralda simply parked her cart and quietly pulled her supplies from it. Then she started in on her work.

It took Brianna a few minutes to realize that what she'd seen when she'd struggled to open her eye was in fact, Esmeralda. She rubbed her eyes and pushed her hair back before she sat up and nudged Charisma with her foot. Charisma jumped and glared at Brianna, then looked in the direction Brianna had jerked her head. Her eyes widened and she sat up and wiped her face.


Esmeralda turned back from her garbage collection and smiled. "Good evening, Senator Tagherty... Senator Walker," giggling at the twin glowers her greeting garnered her.

"Smart mouth." Charisma muttered loud enough for Esmeralda to hear it. She turned to Brianna. "My mother is going to love her." She looked back at Esmeralda. "You are coming with Brianna next week, right?"

Esmeralda's eyes went wide. "Ummm...."

"I haven't seen her long enough to let her know that Okasa insisted to the point of threatening," Brianna admitted.

"Neither have I," Charisma sighed, then patted the sofa. "Come sit a minute, Es."

"Ri, she might be as anxious as we were to get done so she can get out of here. Remember, she's on holiday too," Brianna reminded Charisma when Esmeralda hesitated.

"Sorry, Es. I don't think I'm functioning on all cylinders," Charisma confessed. "Bri told Mama that she'd invited you and Saphira to spend the holiday with her when Mama told her she expected her for the holiday. So Mama instructed her to bring you - I was told to make sure it happened." She turned big blue eyes on Esmeralda, and for a brief moment, Esmeralda was reminded of Saphira. "Please don't make me explain to my Mama why you didn't come with Brianna."

"Um... okay." She looked at Brianna as relief passed through Charisma's expression. "I didn't realize you meant the actual holiday."

Brianna shrugged. "I didn't at the time."

Esmeralda's eyes twinkled, understanding more than Brianna felt comfortable saying. "All right," she reaffirmed. "As long as you're sure we won't be intruding."

"Es, I'm not kidding you when I tell you Mama insisted. You'll find my Mama tends to get what she wants. Just ask Brianna." She pointed to Brianna whose head was bobbing up and down vigorously. "Trust me when I tell you that not only will you not be intruding, you're expected and will be more than welcome to join us. Ruby is invited as well."

Esmeralda blinked. "I'll tell her, but I think she expected to go home for the weekend. Matilda has already given her the time off."

Brianna frowned. "Doesn't that mean Saphira will have to work?"

Esmeralda shook her head and smiled. "No. Joe and Matilda close the diner early the night before and celebrate with their family - all the kids and grandkids. Then on Thanksgiving they volunteer at the local shelter as a family... they've done it since the kids were very little. It's become a family tradition - some of the in-laws have even started joining them."

"Wow," Charisma said. "That's an amazing tradition."

"And what a fabulous mindset to pass on to the next generation," Brianna added. "Imagine being able to see your children and grandchildren making a difference in the lives of others," she added, losing herself in thought.

"Do you miss not having children, Bri?" Charisma asked softly.

"I don't think so, no. I've gotten the chance to enjoy your brother's kids growing up and now there's Adam for me to play with and enjoy." She shrugged. "I don't think I'd make a very good mother anyway... not given the example I had growing up."

Charisma's eyebrows crawled into her hairline. "Should I tell my mother you think she's a bad example?"

Brianna cringed and shook her head rapidly, thankful that both her head and her lip had healed during the week. "No!! I was grown when I met Okasa! That's not what I meant and you know it!"

"Yes, but the look on your face was pretty priceless," Charisma teased. Brianna just gawked at her, then stuck out her tongue. Charisma just snorted. Esmeralda decided it was time to remind them of her presence and cleared her throat, startling them. "Oh God, Es... I'm so sorry."

"Why?" she asked honestly. "It was highly entertaining, but I'm done here and wanted to say goodnight before I left."

"Wait a sec, and we'll walk out with you," Brianna declared as she put her shoes back on with a groan and stood. "Okay, that was a really stupid thing to do," she said with a grimace. Charisma winced.

"No kidding. Where are the Danskins when you need them?" She swallowed the last of her liquor and shivered, then took her glass and Brianna's to the bathroom sink to wash them out. In a moment, they were all set and ready to go.

"OH!" Charisma exclaimed as she tucked her purse under her arm and picked up her briefcase. "I was wondering if you," motioning to both of them, "would like to try for another get together on Sunday. Ame has already said she'll come watch Adam for a little while if we need her too. He's been asking about the album since Mama and Papa left yesterday. I think they kept him too busy to think about it before then."

Esmeralda shrugged. "I don't think it will be a problem, but I need to check with Saphira. It's a short week for her, so it should be fine."

"Well, I'm headed that way, so let me give you a ride and we can ask her while I'm there. Don't," Charisma said, holding up her hand. "I need to talk to Matilda about her chocolate cake." She looked at Brianna to forestall Esmeralda's protest. "What about you?"

"Depends... which part are you asking me about?" Charisma frowned. "Are you asking me about Sunday or tonight?"

"Oh... Sunday naturally. Though never let it be said I got between a woman and her need for chocolate cake," she added with a smile. Brianna snorted.

"I seem to recall...."

"Eh," Charisma held up a hand. "No telling tales out of school, Brianna Brianna. Now... about Sunday?"

"I'll be there."

They had reached the public elevators and Esmeralda pushed on by them with her cart, headed towards the service elevator. They looked at her and then at one another.

"Can we ride down with you?" Esmeralda just blinked and Brianna continued speaking. "You can't use these with that," she stated, "and we know that. And the cars are pretty close to your exit, correct?" smiling when Esmeralda nodded dumbly. "So why don't we just save a couple steps and a few minutes and just ride down with you. That way we can be sure you get that ride."

Esmeralda just chuckled. "All right," gesturing them to one side. "You're gonna want to let me get in with this thing first though. It's gonna be crowded, but at least that way, you'll be able to back in and face the door."

"Let's do it," Charisma said as the door dinged opened, and almost instantly, they were loaded up and headed down. The reaction when they stepped out into the service corridor was abrupt and entertaining. The custodial manager rushed to greet them.

"Senator Walker... Senator Tagherty - is there a problem I can help you with?" When he greeted them by name, every janitor and driver froze, not quite sure how to behave with hierarchy down in the catacombs. Esmeralda just rolled her eyes and moved to her supply closet, carefully restocking before she put her cart away. Charisma and Brianna just remained nearby, trying not to stare and make folks feel more uncomfortable with their presence than they already did. Jas and Turq headed out to recover the limousines, knowing they would be necessary in a very few minutes.

"No Rick," Brianna answered the man, having met him briefly the last time she'd been down here with Esmeralda. "We're just here with Es."

Rick frowned and looked between them and Esmeralda. "Is something wrong?" he asked again. "Es?"

She glanced over at him and shook her head. "Everything's fine, Rick. They want to go over to the diner to talk to Matilda about her chocolate cake, and since I'm headed that way, they decided to give me a ride with them."

His frown deepened into a scowl and he shook his head. "That's highly unusual," he commented. Now it was Charisma's turn to frown.

"Is it a problem for you, Rick?" her words sharp and biting.

He snapped his head around at her tone, and suspected immediately that she was displeased about something. He turned back to Esmeralda, who shrugged and nodded her head in Charisma's direction, knowing Charisma expected an answer from Rick and not her. He cleared his throat.

"No, Senator Tagherty. It's not a problem," he replied stiffly. "It's just never been done."

Brianna smiled at him. "Well, 'tis the season and all that, right? Since we're headed that way anyway...."

He looked at Esmeralda, noting the pallor of her skin and the exhaustion in her eyes despite the smile she wore. Rick nodded slowly. "I suppose so," he conceded. "And it's good of you to look out for Es like that. She's had a bit of a rough time, you know, so anything that makes things a little easier...."

Esmeralda glared at him. "I'm standing right here, you know."

He leered at her, then stepped behind Charisma and Brianna, peeking his head between them. "I know. I figure I've got big guns backing me up this time.

Esmeralda narrowed her eyes. "That's like cheating, you know."

"Um hmm - Saphira would be proud of me," earning him muffled chuckles from not only Brianna and Charisma, but also from several of the custodial and driving staff.

"I'm being ganged up on."

"You'll live," Charisma assured her drolly. "Now let's move it. I hear chocolate cake calling my name." She turned to Brianna. "You want to send Jas home and just ride over with us? I'm pretty sure we can get you home."

"You're pretty sure?"

"Yes. I'm pretty sure. How much do you trust me?" blue eyes twinkling.

Brianna studied her thoughtfully. "I guess I'd have to say completely, so let me go dismiss Jas and I'll meet you at the car." She turned and walked off before Charisma could respond... not that she'd have had a clue what to say. Still, Charisma couldn't stop the smile that tweaked the corners of her mouth. She turned to Esmeralda who had finished her stocking and had locked her cart away for the duration.

"You ready, Es?"

"Yes, Senator." She didn't even crack a smile when Charisma rolled her eyes, but dutifully followed her to the vehicle that had been pulled to the door. Turq opened the car door and Charisma slid in, gasping in surprise to find Brianna already sitting inside. Brianna grinned.

"Turq insisted. She and Jas were waiting here and when I told Jas to go home and why, Turq put me in the car." Brianna wrinkled her forehead in thought. "I think she actually would have done so physically if I'd refused to get in."

"No," Charisma assured her. "But she would have stood there holding the door until you got in just to keep from feeling ridiculous." Esmeralda snorted and Charisma smirked. Brianna just grinned.

"Happened to you before, I take it?"

"Oh yes. We like to think we're in control, but let's face it - it's the people around us who keep us going that are really in charge."

"There's something so wrong about that statement."

"Yes, but there's also a lot of truth to it too," Charisma replied. She turned to Esmeralda. "You're not going to get into trouble for us going downstairs with you, are you?"

"A little late to worry about it, Charisma," Brianna responded drolly. "I mean, there's not a lot we can do about it at this point without potentially making it worse."

Esmeralda held up her hands. "All right, you two - enough," seeing Charisma gearing up for an argument. "You're not gonna start fighting about this on my account. Brianna's right - it's a little late to worry about it, but the fact is that it really doesn't matter. For one thing, we're all going on holiday, and by the time we come back they will have mostly forgotten. For another, you're certainly not forbidden from being there - it's just we never get visitors from your level - it kinda threw everybody off-stride."


"Because we get to be ourselves there," Esmeralda offered with a shrug. "It's where we eat our meals and smoke our cigarettes and talk about our families and cheer for our favorite sports teams - none of the stuff we're allowed to do upstairs. There are rules we have to follow when we're in your world. And I'd venture to say that not a lot of the lower level staff has cultivated any sort of relationship with their… clients, for lack of a better word."


Esmeralda raised an eyebrow and both heads nodded. She sighed. "Mostly because a lot of the folks upstairs feel they are our betters. It's all right to say hi or ask how we're doing, but they don't want to be our friends. So we don't welcome them into our lives."

"Have they tried?" Charisma asked, forehead scrunched in thought. "Surely…."

Esmeralda smiled gently. "The world isn't a nice place Charisma… especially to people like me. Most people look at me and they see poor white trash. And when they find out I love another woman, it makes me less than the dirt on their shoes."

"That's not right!"

"No, it isn't, but it is life. It shouldn't matter that I clean up behind people to make a living or that my mate is a woman like I am. What should matter is that I work hard and pay my bills on time; that I talk to God diligently and am a loving, faithful mate to Saphira."

"How does you loving another woman make you a bad person, Esmeralda? And what is wrong with honest, hard work that people look down their noses at you for doing it?"

"You're asking the wrong person, Charisma. I just know how things work in my world."

Brianna tilted her head. "Do you think your world is so different from ours?"

Esmeralda returned her look thoughtfully. "In many ways, no. But in some ways…. People with money and power make the rules, Brianna. And they get treated differently because of it. I can't say if it's better - I don't know. But if I was a betting person, I would say it probably is to some extent."

"How so?"

"People don't question your right to be somewhere or do something because you're seen as somebody. You probably have never had someone look down their nose at you because of what you do or what you wear or who you're with. If I was in your place, my relationship with Saphira would titillate, not offend. Not that I want my relationship with her to become some sort of front page sensation, but people would be intrigued by us because we were rich and powerful."

"Do you really think so?"

"Yes," Esmeralda replied without hesitation. Then they were pulling up at the diner and Turq was opening the door. "I'd be willing to bet that if your colleagues had met Saphira and me before the Father dismissed us, we'd have been welcomed with open arms." She took Turq's hand to help her from the car, leaving two thoughtful Senators behind her.

Chapter LI

"What did you do to them?" Saphira asked quietly as she approached the car. Turq had called and warned Saphira they were coming, so Saphira had been waiting at the door watching for them when the limousine pulled up. She'd waited a moment, watching Esmeralda slowly emerge and had come out to greet her. Turq was still standing by the open car door. "I thought they were coming in with you."

Esmeralda frowned. "So did I, actually. Give me a sec?" she asked and Saphira nodded. Esmeralda walked back around to stick her head in the door. She cleared her throat, bringing two sets of eyes swinging in her direction. "Are the two of you coming in or should I say goodnight here?"

"What? Oh… I didn't realize," Charisma said.

Brianna blinked. "Me either."

Esmeralda shook her head. "It wasn't that profound, really. Now c'mon… Matilda has chocolate cake waiting."

Esmeralda backed away from the door quickly when she realized their intent. Charisma and Brianna scrambled out of the vehicle so quickly, Turq barely had a chance to offer them a hand. Then they came around the back of the car to greet Saphira. Charisma turned to Turq.

"Come with us, Turq."

"Oh, no ma'am… I couldn't."

"Does the snobbery thing work both ways?" she asked Esmeralda before turning back to Turq.


"Just once, forget the rules. If it makes you feel better, no one will know except for us." Charisma saw Turq's eyes shift behind her for a bare moment and wondered if she had been seeking permission, because when they fastened on her again, Turq nodded her agreement.

"Thank you for the invitation, Senator." Then they were walking inside together and Saphira locked the door behind them.

Matilda walked around the counter when they crossed the threshold. If she was surprised by the number of people walking in the door of her technically closed diner, she didn't even blink to show it. Instead, she held out her arms to Esmeralda and offered her a hug. Then she did the same to Brianna, though with a much briefer embrace. Then she turned back to Esmeralda.

"Introduce me to my new friends, Essie. I know Brianna, but this is…?"

"Matilda, this is Senator Charisma Tagherty and my friend Turq."

Matilda's eyes twinkled in delight. "Senator Tagherty, it's nice to make your acquaintance. And Turq…" She wrinkled her brow in thought. "You look familiar to me. Have you been here before?"

"Yes, ma'am. Es recommended your pot roast, so I've been in once or twice for that."

"Did you enjoy it?"

Turq cleared her throat and blushed. "As often as I can manage, ma'am."

"My name is Matilda, Turq. Only old folks get called ma'am around here, ya got it?"

"Yes ma'am… um, Matilda." Matilda just laughed.

"Don't worry about it Turq. You were obviously raised right."

"My mama will be glad to hear that."

Matilda laughed again and directed them towards the counter. "Now what can I do for you ladies tonight? We don't have much, I'm afraid."

"Please tell me there's chocolate cake?" Brianna practically whined. "Charisma had to go and mention it earlier and I've been jonesing for it ever since."

"Well, Brianna - you're in luck. I happened to make one earlier to have it for the lunch crowd tomorrow. Guess I'll be making another one in the morning, won't I?" She turned to Charisma. "And you, Senator Tagherty? What can I get for you?"

"I'd like it very much if you'd call me Charisma, Matilda. Otherwise I feel very much the odd woman out here." Matilda nodded.

"Of course, Charisma. Thank you. I've learned not to assume that privilege in this town."

"I can understand why. I'd like the chocolate cake as well. And I'd like to talk to you about ordering about a half dozen more of them," smiling when Matilda's eyebrows shot up into her hairline. "I'm taking Es' word on faith. She swears it's the best thing going."

Matilda smiled at Esmeralda before turning back to Charisma. "Well, I'll admit it's pretty damn good, but I'm pretty sure six of them will make you hurl your guts, Charisma. It wouldn't be pretty."

Charisma blinked. "Oh… ew, no. I'd like them for next weekend. We're going to my parents for the holiday and I figure that should be enough for the entire family. My brothers have teenagers - mostly teenage boys," as if that explained it all. And for Matilda it seemed to as she nodded her head sagely.

"In that case… when do you need them by?"

"Wednesday morning?" She looked at Brianna. "Would you mind swinging by here and picking them up on your way?"

"Not at all. Es?" finally noting that Esmeralda and Saphira were seated at one end of the counter, quietly eating the meal Saphira had split between them. Saphira nudged her and jerked her head in Brianna's direction, and Esmeralda refocused her gaze.

"I'm sorry, Brianna - what did I miss?"

"Charisma was wondering if we could pick up the cakes she's ordering from Matilda on Wednesday morning on our way out of town." Esmeralda's eyes widened and she swallowed. "Of course, Brianna - whatever you want to do. Saphira and I are just along for the ride."

"You're along for much more than that," Brianna and Charisma declared in tandem, then stared at one another in startlement. The rest chuckled softly and it broke the tableau, causing Brianna and Charisma to smile.

"Great," Matilda said clapping her hands together excitedly. "Now that we have that settled, what can I get for you Turq?"

"I'll have the same, ma'am… Matilda."

Matilda turned and reached towards the window, swiping the three plates of cake Joe had put there as soon as he'd heard the orders. Matilda set them in front of her impromptu guests, then turned and pulled three glasses of milk from the big machine behind the counter. All three women looked at her. Matilda just raised an eyebrow.

"You must be related to my mother," Charisma mumbled. Matilda snorted.

"You really want to try arguing about it?" she offered, setting a glass down in front of each of them. They shook their heads and muttered "No, ma'am," then dug into their cake, moaning aloud when the taste of chocolate fudge hit their tongues. Then she laughed when they all grabbed for their milk, draining half the glass.

"I'm really glad I didn't argue," Charisma commented to Brianna in an aside loud enough she knew the rest would hear.

"Yeah, we might not get a refill, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to need one." Then they focused their attention on eating and Matilda moved over to check on Esmeralda and Saphira.

"How ya doing, Essie?"

"Better," she replied instantly. "Where's Joe?"

"Saphira told us your Senator friends were coming, and he skedaddled to the kitchen. I think he's feeling a little outnumbered."

Esmeralda snorted. "He's always outnumbered when I'm here. There are three of us and one of him."

"Yes, but now there are six of us and two of them are lawmakers. It's a little daunting for him."

"He should give them a chance, Matilda. They've never once made me feel like they look down on me, and I don't have any more education than he does. And he had a distinguished career in the military. That counts for a lot too."

"You try telling him, Es. Maybe he'll take it better from you."

Saphira rolled her eyes. "Or I could just drag him out here by his ear."

"Saphira!!" Esmeralda's exclamation drew the attention of the others. Saphira raised her hands as if she didn't know why Esmeralda was calling her down and Esmeralda nudged her. Saphira nudged back and Brianna, surprisingly was the one to raise her fork at them and point.

"Don't make me come over there and separate the two of you." She turned to Charisma with horror in her eyes. "Oh my God - I've become your mother!!"

Charisma howled in laughter at the pronouncement, and the rest weren't that far behind her. Finally, when she could speak again, she motioned to the empty milk glasses. "Garcon… another round, please. I need milk to wash this down and it's too good to leave on the plate. Besides, aren't you ready for us to leave so you can go home as well?"

"Well," Matilda acknowledged as she drew three more glasses of milk, "I will be very happy to crawl into bed tonight as I am every night. But if I was to be completely honest, I haven't had this much free entertainment in a while."

Brianna exchanged a wry look with Charisma. "Great - at least we know if this whole political thing doesn't work out, we can take our act on the road."

"Yeah," Turq agreed as she scooped up her last bite of cake. "But would people pay to see you? That's the big question." Brianna stuck out her tongue. Matilda and Charisma laughed. Esmeralda and Saphira just watched bemusedly.


"Okay, so what voodoo did you do on those two?" Saphira asked an hour or so later when they were comfortably ensconced in their bed. "They're like totally different people."

Esmeralda shook her head. "It's not me. It's all them."

"Amazing. They're actually acting like… I dunno - friends? Certainly more than colleagues."

"I think they are friends. They're having to relearn how to be best friends." She sighed and clicked off the lamp, then snuggled deeper into Saphira's arms. "I think Sunday will be very telling."

"Because of the album?"

"Yeah. That's a huge risk… for both of them. For Charisma because she doesn't want to see what's there, and I'm pretty sure given what Amber has said that there are some very personal pictures in there. And for Brianna because she does know what's there and she can't do anything about it until Charisma acknowledges it to herself first."

"Oh what a tangled web we weave…."

"Especially when we're practicing to deceive ourselves. However," she added, then paused to yawn. "If we're really lucky, Sunday will have to be the last time we'll need to chaperone. Hopefully they will be comfortable enough together that they will be able to be alone without us between them."

Saphira frowned. "You all right, Es?"

"Yeah," Esmeralda said sleepily. "Why'd you ask?"

Saphira shrugged, but before Esmeralda could push her on it, she drew a deep breath to speak. "I dunno. I didn't realize you were as anxious to be done with this assignment as I am - as I have been since we started, truth be told," she added with a mutter. Esmeralda chuckled silently.

"I know, Phira. This kind of work is totally unsuited to your personality. You've done very well… better than I would if our positions were reversed, I think." She reached up and put a finger to Saphira's lips, smiling when she felt a kiss being brushed against them. "Trust me, Phira. *This* I'm sure about. I could never do what you do - I don't have that kind of strength or courage."

Saphira removed Esmeralda's hand from her mouth, though she still held onto it when she spoke. "You don't have that kind of anger, and that's a good thing, Sweetheart. The world will never be ready for more than one of me. However, that still doesn't answer my question about why you're so anxious to be done with this mission."

Even though it was dark in the room, Saphira could hear the smile in Esmeralda's voice. "Phira, I'm always ready to have an assignment over with when I can start to see the finish line. Doesn't mean I'm gonna change the way things are being handled or I'm gonna knock heads together - just means I am starting to see the end."

"And it makes you antsy?"

"Yeah. Sometimes Amber has to remind me it's not my timing… it's His, and I just have to be patient and let things happen in His time. Even when I can tell there's a ways to go before things reach whatever conclusion they're going to, once I have an ending in sight, I kinda tend to want to rush right to it."

"Hallelujah!" Saphira muttered, causing Esmeralda to lean up and look down at her, knowing Saphira could see her expression even in the darkened room. Saphira kept her eyes conveniently closed, however, and Esmeralda had to resort to poking her. Saphira scowled and growled, finally opening an eyeball to glare at Esmeralda. "Whaaaaaat?"

"Would you like to explain why I just heard something that sounded suspiciously like praise come out of your mouth? Phira, you haven't praised anything since we were thrown out."

"My praise, as you call it, was directly in reference to you, Es, and nothing else."

"Oooookay," Esmeralda drawled. "Would you like to finish that thought for me?" after an extended period of silence. Saphira sighed, knowing Esmeralda wouldn't let it go until she 'fessed up.

"Fine," she sighed aggrievedly. "I was happy to find you're as human - so to speak - as the rest of us. I mean, it's good to know you get impatient too."

Esmeralda rolled her eyes and snorted. "Saphira… how long have we been together? You KNOW I'm not all that patient."

"Maybe not in some things, Es, but when it comes to this.. when it comes to doing your job and getting a good result for your charges, I haven't seen you be anything *but* patient. Amber may have to remind you from time to time, but you're all about giving them the time and space to work things out for themselves while I would just as soon beat it into them."

Esmeralda chuckled. "But you also hear me bitching and griping."

"Es, we all bitch and gripe. But you never force it along to make it go faster. Besides, I'm also glad you didn't want it to be over because you needed the time off."

Esmeralda cupped Saphira's face gently in her hands. "Phira, I am getting better. I'll be the first to admit that I'm glad for this break. But I'm getting better."

Saphira took Esmeralda's hands in hers and tugged until they were laying curled up together again. "Keep reminding me, Es."

"For all the rest of our lives together," Esmeralda promised with a smile and a kiss. In moments they were both asleep.

Chapter LII

When the phone rang on Saturday morning, Brianna glared at it balefully. She was beginning to think there was some sort of law in this town specifically that prevented her from sleeping in on what was supposed to be her day off. Still, not many people had this number, so she sighed deeply and lifted the receiver from the cradle and put it to her ear.


"Brianna?" her name whispered low. Brianna frowned and eased up onto one elbow, pushing her hair out of her eyes and blinking rapidly to try and stimulate some sort of higher brain function.

"Who is this?"

"It's Saphira. Look, I'm sorry to call you so early, but I thought you'd want to know as soon as possible - Es and I won't be able to be at Charisma's tomorrow."

Brianna sat up and turned on the bedside lamp. "Is everything all right?"

"Relatively speaking. I figure it's more important that we are at your mother-in-law's for the holiday, right?" not even giving Brianna the chance to correct her slip. "I don't know if you've seen the weather forecast for the weekend, but I really don't want Es out in it... not with us supposed to join your family later this week."

"Is there anything I can do? Not to change your mind," she added hastily when she heard Saphira draw a deep breath. "But something to help?"

"I'm not sure what that would be, Brianna... honestly."

"What if I brought lunch and spent some time visiting with Esmeralda?"

"I'll leave her a note to call you - she's not up yet, and I have to go into work early today. Ruby's off for the next few days, so I'm picking up the slack."

Brianna frowned. "That seems a little wrong - shouldn't you be the one getting some time off?"

"Ruby has other family to be concerned with, Brianna. Besides, it's only a few days... piece of cake."

Brianna shook her head, even though she knew Saphira couldn't see her. "You're a little bit crazy, Saphira - you know that right?"

Saphira snorted. "Es has been telling me that for years." She hesitated. "Listen, Brianna, I've really am sorry about all this, but I've got to get to work. I'll leave Es a note, all right?"

"You do that, Saphira. And try to stay out of the weather yourself. Es doesn't need you getting sick. We'll see you in a few days?"

"Count on it, Brianna. Bye now," Saphira offered before hanging up. Brianna looked at the phone blaring out a dial tone and hung it up, then she dropped back onto her pillow. With a little luck, she'd be able to get a little more sleep before needing to crawl out from beneath the warmth of the covers.


It wasn't much later that same morning when Charisma took one good look out the window and realized it was going to be one of *those* days; there was no way she going to take Adam out in the mess that was outside today. At least now she understood what Saphira had been talking about when she'd called earlier. She scrubbed a hand through her hair and sighed before clasping her hands together and leaning her chin on them.

"Problem, Charisma?" came an unexpected voice from the doorway. Charisma met her husband's concerned eyes and shook her head.

"Just bemoaning the weather," she replied as she stood. "What are you doing here?" giving him a slight, uneasy smile. She came out from behind her desk, snatching the monitor before guiding him away from her study and towards the kitchen. The distinct snick of the lock as she closed the door ripped at Kent's composure just slightly, but in Charisma's preoccupation, she didn't even notice. "Not that you shouldn't be here - Adam will be thrilled to have you home."

"And you, Charisma?"

"Of course, I'm glad you're home... if it's by your choice," Charisma assured him with a squeeze to his hand. Then she released it as she moved over to the coffee maker and raised an eyebrow. He nodded and she set it to brewing even as she asked, "Is everything all right? I thought things were going well with your production."

"The production's fine. After your phone call last weekend, I decided to take a little extra time off this week."

"Oh, Kent... you didn't need to do that. We're fine. I don't think Adam even remembers it."

"I wanted to," he said stubbornly and Charisma spared him another odd glance before nodding her agreement.

"Well, would you like to go get your son up?" she asked with a nod of her head towards the monitor that sat on the counter. "He sounds like he about ready."

"Sure... be right back." Kent headed upstairs and into his son's room while Charisma listened in below.

"Da!" Adam exclaimed with delight, holding his arms up when Kent walked into the room.

"Hey, Boy! Did you miss me?" hefting him up with a groan. "God, you're getting heavy. Mama been feeding you rocks?"

Adam giggled as Kent blew raspberries on his neck and belly, then wrapped his arms around Kent's neck. "Da funny. Adam Mama's big boy," he said proudly.

Kent's brow furrowed. He knew that Adam was his mama's boy, but having it stated so plainly by Adam twisted something in his gut. Still, Adam's hands on his face made him smile and he tickled his son briefly to listen to him howl in laughter. "So she *is* feeding you rocks," Kent teased with a pained smile. "Well, let's go potty, then we can see what kind of rocks Mama is planning for breakfast, huh?"

Adam squealed and raced to the bathroom as soon as Kent put him down. Kent followed at a much more leisurely pace. Charisma just shook her head and finished making Adam's oatmeal.


It was much later than usual when Esmeralda blinked her eyes open in the semi-darkness of their bedroom. A glance at the clock told her immediately that Saphira had already left for what would be a double shift at the diner. Ruby had been called home as had Opal and Indi. Apparently, He had need of them elsewhere while they were on break during this assignment. Esmeralda just shook her head. Even she was beginning to think He was being more than a little unfair in His treatment of them... all of them. They were all supposed to remain in place until the assignment was complete; instead, part of them had been pulled away and left the rest to pick up the slack. Esmeralda only hoped Mal and Jade didn't get yanked as well.

She stretched luxuriously, the sound of paper crinkling when her arm hit Saphira's pillow. She rolled over and flipped on the bedside light, then reached for the paper and her glasses at the same time.

Dear Es,(it read)

I talked to both Brianna and Charisma this morning to let them know we wouldn't be there tomorrow. The weather today is bad and it's supposed to be worse tomorrow. We can't risk it if we're going to go to Okasa's house this week, and I think that is probably more important than babysitting for Charisma and Brianna.

Stop glaring - you know I'm right.

Anyway, if you think you might want some company for lunch, give Brianna a call. She offered - I didn't ask... just so you know. Frankly, I think she may be a little lonely or maybe a little confused. I don't know. But I do know if you feel up to it, she'll come over and spend the day with you.

I'll see you tonight, love, but don't wait up. It'll be late.

I love you, Esmeralda... everyday a little more.


Esmeralda smiled as she got to the end of Saphira's note. Though everyone - including the Father - knew of Saphira's strength and ferocity, only Esmeralda saw the soft touch her warrior could be. She tucked the note into the drawer of the stand beside her. She stretched again and slowly sat up, sliding her legs from the bed. She got up and headed into the bathroom, frowning as she reviewed Saphira's words about Brianna. First she'd take a shower, then she'd give Brianna a call.


Brianna was walking along the Mall, wondering at her wisdom in being out in the weather after she had decided Esmeralda didn't want company for the day. She didn't want to be stuck inside by herself, but this was kind of ridiculous... especially since she hadn't bothered to call Jas. So she ducked into the nearest museum just as her phone buzzed.


"Um... Brianna? It's Esmeralda. I know it's kinda late, but I was wondering if you were still available for lunch."

"Oh hey, Es. Yes! Yes, please. I'd count it as a favor," she added a little louder as thunder rolled around her.

Esmeralda pulled the phone from her ear to look at it a moment before she put it back up. "Brianna? Um, where are you?"

"The Smithsonian. I had just stepped into the Museum of Natural History when you called."

"Oh. Well, I'm sorry I distur...."

"NO! No don't be sorry. You're not disturbing me at all. Really. Most of my colleagues have already left the capital to go home for the holidays and this weather makes me a little stir crazy."

Esmeralda laughed softly. "I can empathize with that. C'mon over. I'll put the soup on. It should be hot by the time you get here."

"I told Saphira I'd bring lunch."

"Yes, and the last time we invited you over, you brought lunch with you."

"Es, you have to let me bring something."

Esmeralda bit her lip thoughtfully. "Well," she finally relented, "if you can figure out how to get some fresh bread here to go with our soup, I'd appreciate it."

"All right. I should be there in about half an hour. Depends on how long it takes Jas to get here. See you soon!" Brianna ended the call before Esmeralda could respond, and she only had to wait a moment before she heard Jas' phone ringing upstairs and then Jas bounding down the stairs.

"Yes ma'am, Senator Walker. I'll be right there," Jas said as she reached the bottom landing, then hung up her phone. "I'll be back shortly with the other boss, Boss," she offered with a crooked smile. Esmeralda just returned the look with one of bemusement.

"Um... Jas? Don't you think you should... I dunno - change first maybe?" motioning to Jas' comfortable lounging-around-the-house clothes.

"She told me to come as I was and be quick about it - not to worry about what I was wearing." Jas grabbed her coat and umbrella from the closet and donned the one before opening the door and expanding the umbrella just outside it. She chuckled. "Coulda been worse - I could have still been in my pajamas."

Esmeralda nodded and laughed, knowing Jas was right. More than once she and Turq had both been unready when the phone rang. It didn't happen often, and now they at least put on clothing around the house as opposed to a bathrobe. They could be seen outside in sweats and jeans - negligees and robes were a little more noticeable when you actually had to be seen in public.

"You're right," Esmeralda agreed. "It almost has been once or twice. Be quick, Jas, but be careful."

"I will. Be back shortly."

"I'll be here." And with that, Jas started the car and headed towards the city center to pick up Brianna.


Charisma watched Kent play with Adam for a while in the family room, before she rose. Adam instantly stopped playing and ran over to wrap his arms around her legs. "Mama, where going?"

"I'm going to go take care of a little work, Son. You stay here and play with Daddy."

"What would you have done if I hadn't been here to watch him, Charisma?"

"Same thing I do every other weekend you're not here, Kent," she replied tiredly. "Taken him into the study with me. But since you're here, and he hasn't seen you for a while...." She let the thought trail off.

"Why don't you stay with us, Charisma? It's not like your work is pressing right now and we have so little time together as a family."

Charisma sighed. It seemed like they went through this every time Kent came back from being out of town for any length of time. He should know better by now. "I won't be long, Kent, but I need to get this done before we head home on Monday."

"Yeah, about that - why don't we leave now? You know your mother would be thrilled to have us home for a couple extra days."

Charisma thought about the album viewing 'date' she and Adam had scheduled with Brianna for the following morning. Part of her was loath to give that up, but the other part wondered if it might be better to delay it. She wasn't certain how Kent and Brianna would react to each other... especially when Kent saw how Adam responded to Brianna so naturally. At least at her mother's home, they would keep their company manners. It would give her an idea on whether having them both in her home at the same time was a good idea.

"Charisma?" Kent called out with only a hint of impatience. "Did you hear me?"

Charisma blinked and shook her head, then met Kent's eyes. "Yes... I'm sorry. I was mentally trying to rearrange a few things. Let me take care of my work and see if I can rearrange a couple things I had scheduled for tomorrow. If I can get that done, we can go up this afternoon if you want."

Kent nodded, smiling. "Good. I'm looking forward to this holiday."

Charisma returned his smile. "I am too," she said honestly. "Seems like forever since I saw the whole family."

"Okay - go do your work or whatever," Kent answered, making shooing motions with his hands. "Adam and I'll go see about getting our stuff packed up. Yours ready to go?"

"Mostly. I'll add the few things I need as soon as I get done. I'll be on my cell if you want to call Mama and let her know to expect us. You know how she feels about being sprung upon," added with a smirk.

Kent chuckled. "Yeah. Now shoo - the boy and me have got this covered."

Charisma laughed and headed out of the family room. "Don't forget to call your mother as well," she reminded. Kent's brows went into his hairline, then he looked at his son.

"C'mon Boy - we've got work to do so we can go see your Gramma and Pop Pop and your Grandmother."

"Br'anna too?"

Kent's brow furrowed. "How about you tell me about Brianna, Adam? Daddy hasn't met Brianna yet."

"Br'anna good. Adam love Br'anna."

"C'mon, son. Let's go upstairs and get ready to go. You can tell me all about Brianna Walker."

Chapter LIII

"Brianna!" Esmeralda exclaimed as she opened the door to find a wet, bedraggled senator standing at her door. She reached out an arm and pulled Brianna inside, waving to Jas as she eased the car from the drive. Esmeralda offered Brianna a warm, dry towel even as she helped her out of her coat. Brianna accepted the towel as she slipped out of her outer garment, thankful it had kept most of her relatively dry. Her shoes, however.... Esmeralda hung the coat and took the loaf of French bread, then grabbed Brianna by the elbow and tugged her towards the kitchen. "C'mon," she invited. "It's warmest in the kitchen."

They entered the kitchen and Brianna took a deep breath. "It smells really good in here."

"Thanks," Esmeralda grinned. "It's Saphira's favorite. Take off your shoes," she instructed, placing the bread on the counter and slipping into her room, only to return a moment later with a pair of dry, woolen socks. Esmeralda raised her eyebrows at Brianna when she realized the other woman hadn't moved. "Your shoes?"

Brianna looked down at her feet. "What about them?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "Take them off and put these on," she said, passing Brianna the socks. "Here," she added, handing Brianna another towel. "Dry your feet real good. I'm gonna take these and see if we can't get them dry before you head home," holding up the soggy socks and shoes. "Be right back."

"Ahh," Brianna exclaimed as she eased the long socks onto her feet. "That feels like heaven."

"Not quite, but close," Esmeralda chuckled as she returned to the kitchen. She poured Brianna a cup of coffee. "Do you take cream or sugar?"

"If it's available, yes. I learned to drink coffee in many different forms during my tenure with the DA's office. I swear what I got in some precincts would be considered 'rot gut' only if you were feeling generous."

Esmeralda made a face. "Well, I don't think my coffee is bad, but I do have cream and sugar. I take lots of both myself." She wrinkled her nose. "I don't like the taste of coffee much."

"I'd rather have chocolate milk myself, but this is good coffee, Es," raising her cup. "And just what I needed to warm me up. Man, it's nasty out there today. Saphira wasn't kidding."

"Do I wanna ask how you got so wet?"

"Um... no. I don't want a lecture."

Esmeralda raised her eyebrow. "That bad, hmm?"

"Let's just say that as a lawyer, I recognize the importance of keeping my own counsel in certain circumstances."

Esmeralda just smirked and shook her head, then stepped closer to the stove. She ladled some soup into two bowls, setting one in front of Brianna and putting the other at the place beside her. Then she took the bread and sliced it quickly and efficiently, causing Brianna's eyebrows to jerk into her hairline in surprise. "What?" Esmeralda asked in confusion at the expression on Brianna's face. She set the bread between them and grabbed the small plate of butter from the fridge. She poured herself a glass of milk and topped off Brianna's coffee, then took her seat.

Brianna shook her head. "Nothing. I didn't realize you had been a waitress as well as a custodian."

Esmeralda chuckled. "Not me. I've just learned a few tricks from Saphira over the years."

"She must be a great teacher then. I don't think a machine could have made it any more even," Brianna commented as she picked up a slice of bread and buttered it.

"Oh, that...." Esmeralda laughed. "I learned that when I was younger," not going into specifics. "Thank you for braving the weather to come visit today. You didn't have to."

"I know," Brianna agreed, moaning when the taste of the soup hit her tongue. "But it was either throw myself on your kindness or eat Fig Newtons for lunch."

Esmeralda snorted. "You have GOT to go shopping, Brianna."

"I know, I know. I'll pick up a few things on the way home - I just didn't see any sense in stocking up right before going home for a few days."

"Are you looking forward to it?" Esmeralda asked curiously since Brianna's voice was devoid of emotion.

"Mostly, yes. At some point, it'll give me a chance to see a few people and catch up with my friends. I have a small circle of female friends who I try to get together with once a month or so. We have dinner and go to a movie or show; or we do something outdoorsy - you know... hiking or spelunking or diving. I've really missed that since I've been here. You can't know how thankful I've been for yours and Saphira's presence in my life here."

"I'll bet. I know how it feels to be stuck inside for weeks on end with only yourself for company."

"Well, I have managed a short phone call to each of my friends at some point and they've returned the courtesy, but it just isn't the same as being there together in person, you know?"

"Yeah... I do know. Miss anyone special?" biting her lip when Brianna's head snapped up in surprise. "C'mon, Brianna - you're a beautiful, intelligent, successful woman. Those are attractive qualities to everyone. Do you mean to sit there and tell me that no one else has noticed that? That Charisma is the only person to hold a special place in your heart?"

"Charisma is the only person to hold THAT special place in my heart - it's why nothing else has ever really worked out. But there have been one or two women who were important to me in their own way, and yes, they are part of my inner circle, so to speak. We all parted on good terms and chose to remain friends." Brianna frowned hard. "Why the sudden curiosity?"

Esmeralda bit her lip. "In many ways, you remind me of myself. But in one very important thing, you seem to be much like my Saphira. She isolates herself sometimes, and I think - whether you intended to or not - you've let yourself become somewhat isolated here."

Brianna reached over and squeezed Esmeralda's hand with a smile. "Don't you ever go changing, Es. You remind me very much of Kay. She was my first lover," she continued, reading the question clearly in Esmeralda's eyes.

"I remind you of your first lover?" Esmeralda's eyes grew wide. Brianna laughed.

"Not in the way you think, Es. Physically, you and Kay are very different, but in here," pointing to Esmeralda's head, "and here," pointing to her heart, "you are very much alike. You draw people to you with your caring and genuine concern. There's something about both of you that makes people believe in you... trust you to keep them safe." She chuckled. "Don't be embarrassed, Es... it's a good thing. The world could use more people like you two in it - it would be a much better place."

Esmeralda ducked her head to hide the red flush she could feel creeping up her neck. "I don't know if that's all true, Brianna, but I'm flattered you think so." She took a deep breath. "So what happened between you and Kay, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Charisma, more than anything else. I was still young and hurting over losing her from my life and Kay was my rebound relationship." Brianna sighed. "We wouldn't have worked in the long run anyway for several reasons," she confessed. "But part of me will always love Kay. She was my first and she taught me a lot - not just about the ways of love and lust, but about life itself."

"Who broke it off?"

"It was mutual. I couldn't stop dreaming of Charisma and she was falling in love with a man."


Brianna smiled. "Yeah, Kay is truly a bisexual woman - she's enjoyed good relationships with both sexes. And he's a wonderful guy - good husband, great father. Lee and I are actually good friends. Kay deserved someone who could love her like Lee does and she's totally devoted to him. They have a lovely family together, and they include me as often as I can join them."

"And she knows about Charisma?"

Brianna nodded. "Aside from those immediately involved, including you and Saphira, she's the only one who knows the whole truth. Apparently I talk in my sleep. It's how she learned about Charisma in the first place, and I wasn't going to lie to her when she asked."

"I would like to meet her," Esmeralda said spontaneously, then bit her lip. Brianna smiled.

"I'll see what I can do. She earned the Tagherty seal of approval," she added wiggling her eyebrows. Before Esmeralda could comment, Brianna's phone buzzed. She glanced at the screen. "It's Charisma," she relayed with a frown. "Let me take this real quick."

"Go on," Esmeralda instructed, shooing her off. "Go to the living room. I'll join you as soon as I clean up in here." Brianna nodded as she clicked the phone on and raised it to her ear on her way out the kitchen door. She was back before Esmeralda had the dishes done. "Problem?" Esmeralda asked over her shoulder as she caught a glimpse of the expression on Brianna's face.

"Hmm?" Brianna replied, shaking her head to clear it. "Oh... no, not really. Charisma called to cancel tomorrow. It seems Kent came home from the theatre earlier than expected, and they've decided to spend the extra time at the Tagherty homestead."

"And how do you feel about that?"

"Relieved," Brianna admitted instantly. "I mean, part of me really wants to see those pictures... to know what Charisma sees when she looks at them." She picked up a towel and started drying as Esmeralda turned to wipe the table and counters down. "The other part of me isn't sure I'm ready for that."

Esmeralda nodded. "What about Kent?"

Brianna bit her lip thoughtfully, her drying slowing to almost nil as she reflected on Esmeralda's question. Her hands picked up speed again as she brought her eyes back to meet Esmeralda's. "If I am completely honest, I'd like to hate him. After all, he is my rival and he has what I want most in the world... a love and a home with Charisma. That being said - I really don't know him beyond the fact that he is Charisma's husband and Adam's father. And if he makes her happy and takes care of his son, well... it's kind of hard to fault that."

"And how do you feel about meeting him this week?"

"Actually, I'm kind of looking forward to it. I'd like to know what kind of man finally captured Charisma's heart. And I know that Okasa will keep us both honest, so to speak."

"I have to say I'm looking forward to meeting her. She sounds like a formidable woman."

"Oh, she is," Brianna assured her. "And to see her and Kay together...." She shook her head. "It made for some interesting holidays... especially with the boys around to egg them on."

"Sounds like Saphira and I have a lot to look forward to."

"Oh, Es... you have no idea."

Esmeralda chuckled. "I can't wait."

"Me either," Brianna laughed. "I love spending holidays with the Tagherty clan. Even without Charisma there... there's just something about getting them all together that makes it a lot of fun. And they're going to love you two."

"You think so?"

"Oh, Es... I know it." She accepted the cup Esmeralda offered her and they headed out of the kitchen. "So tell me more about you and Saphira," Brianna asked as they took seats in the living room. "Were you really childhood sweethearts?"

"Is it so hard to believe?"

"Don't take this the wrong way, but really? Yes, it is. That kind of love - that kind of bond - doesn't seem to actually exist these days... not for anyone."

Esmeralda smiled shyly. "Doesn't it, Brianna? Isn't it exactly the kind of love you feel for Charisma?"

"We were never childhood sweethearts, Es. We've never been sweethearts at all."

"But the love you have... that you've held in your heart for over twenty years - Brianna, it's the same thing. The difference is that Saphira and I were very lucky."

"Do you think so?"

"That Saphira and I were very lucky? I know we are, Brianna. How many people find the love of their life as a child AND manage to keep it into and throughout their lives? But I know... I am sure in my heart of hearts... that we are not the only people in the world who have known that kind of love - or who have held onto that kind of love for years. What about your grandparents? You said they were married for forty-seven years."

"They were, and they were devoted to one another, but I'm not sure it's the same thing you and Saphira have."

Esmeralda propped her arm on the back of the couch and leaned her head on her hand. "What do you think makes it different... aside from the fact that Saphira and I are two women?"

"I don't think that matters," Brianna replied, her gaze going inward. "You and Saphira are a part of one another - it's like you are two parts of one whole. I'm not sure how else to explain it," holding up a hand to keep Esmeralda from commenting. "I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like it, even with my grandparents."

"Saphira and I are two parts of one whole - we're soulmates."

"Soulmates? I'm not sure I have ever heard that term before."

"It means we are together not just in one another's hearts, but also in our souls. When she hurts, I bleed."

"See? That's what I mean! Esmeralda, that's not normal. Most people don't know that kind of connection with another person... EVER."

Esmeralda pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, wondering how on earth she'd gotten cornered into this conversation. She sighed and prayed for guidance. "I can only speak from my own experience, Brianna, and that has only ever been with Saphira. Soulmates may not be common, but love is. Forget the soulmates aspect of our relationship for a minute because I'll admit that as far as that goes, we are rare in the extreme. Think about the love we share as you've seen it between us. Can you honestly say you've never seen that kind of love anywhere else?"

Now Brianna sat back, turning her focus to the flames in the fireplace, and Esmeralda let her be for a few minutes before she spoke again.

"Brianna, you're over-thinking. That kind of love is all around us - it's up to us to decide what to do with it."

"That's just it, Es - I don't think we're always offered a choice."

Esmeralda looked pensive, turning her own gaze to the fireplace for a long moment before looking back to meet Brianna's eyes. "I don't think we necessarily have a choice about who we fall in love with and I don't think that all love is meant to be permanent... especially for the young. On the other hand, I believe Saphira and I were destined to be together from birth basically, but I'm pretty sure that's not true for everyone. However, I do think we're all given a choice about what we do with love once it comes into our lives."

"Do you believe in second chances? Do you think we can have another chance if we...?" looking down at her hands twined in her lap.

Esmeralda reached over and covered Brianna's hands with her own, stopping the flow of words and forcing Brianna took look up to meet her eyes. Green eyes flooded with tears at the happiness reflected in Esmeralda's own.

"Oh, Brianna - not only do I believe... I KNOW. I got my second chance, remember? And for everything it cost me, I'd do the same thing again as long as Saphira was still by my side. Trust me Sweetie - and when that second chance comes, grab it and hold on with both hands."

"You're pretty smart," Brianna commented as she pulled one hand free to wipe at her eyes before the tears spilled down her face.

"Years of practice," Esmeralda deadpanned, drawing a strangled laugh from Brianna before she drew a shuddering breath and spoke.

"So tell me about you and Saphira."

To be continued

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