Chapter LXVII

Brianna smirked as she leaned against the doorjamb, watching Charisma dig through her purse for the keys she swore she had. They were just back from Gypsum's party, and it was closer to tomorrow morning than it was to last night. She wasn't sure what exactly they had accomplished by attending, but it had been... interesting. Brianna had learned all kinds of fascinating things through simple observation and listening. It was amazing what you could learn by staying sober when everyone around you was getting plastered.

Brianna turned her attention back to Charisma, a frown furrowing her brow as she wondered how much alcohol Charisma had consumed once they'd been separated. Since it had been a political party that had happened fairly early, as there was wheeling-dealing to be done and pacts to be made with the devil, though Brianna had stayed outside most of that simply due to her very junior status. Because despite the fact the she held a senior Senator's seat, she herself was considered a plebe. So she was free to wander from group to group and observe.

With an impatient sigh, she took the purse from Charisma and tucked it under her arm, then removed the keys from Charisma's hand. Brianna found the appropriate one and inserted it, then opened the door and motioned Charisma to enter with a flourish. Then she turned to wave Turq off as she followed and closed the door behind them.

Charisma set the alarm code, then accepted the keys from Brianna with a smirk, though the color of her skin told its own story. She stepped out of her shoes with a sigh and dropped her purse on the hall table, then headed straight for the kitchen. Brianna chuckled and followed suit, and consented to the water Charisma offered with a nod of her head.

"Man, that's good," she said after guzzling down half the bottle. "I think everything being served to night was at room temperature."

Charisma grimaced. "I think so too. I know my martini could have used a little more ice."

"Martini singular?" Brianna asked, causing Charisma's head to jerk up until Brianna found herself pinned by a bright blue stare. Brianna met her glare for glare and added an arched eyebrow for good measure. "Hey, you were the one who couldn't find the keys in your hand."

"Yes, martini singular," Charisma replied gruffly. "There was no way I was even getting slightly punch drunk tonight. There were too many sharks circling."

Brianna's second eyebrow joined the first in her hairline. "Trouble?" she asked, taking another swallow of water.

Charisma bit her lips thoughtfully as her eyes grew distant, then finally shrugged and brought her attention back to Brianna. "I'm not sure. I mean, I always keep an eye out at these functions - you never know what's brewing until the alcohol starts flowing. But there was a lot of weirdness tonight." She shook her head. "What did you think of your first political soiree?"

"I think these people need to work more and drink less," Brianna replied dryly without a second's hesitation. Charisma's burst into unexpected laughter and Brianna just stared at her with fond amusement. When Charisma was able to contain herself, she put a hand on Brianna's shoulder.

"Don't you ever go changing, Brianna Brianna. I love you just the way you are. Now," turning and scooping up her water bottle, "what do you say to calling it a night? I don't know about you, but I'm beat and ready to get out of these fancy clothes and into bed."

"Yeah... I've been ready to put on some comfortable clothes since I tried this dress on this morning," Brianna said in a slightly higher tone than normal. Though she knew Charisma meant nothing suggestive by it, Brianna's mind had taken Charisma's words as an invitation and gone to town with her libido. She cleared her throat and willed the images away. "Besides, I'd like to get a few z's before the sun comes up in a little while," gesturing towards the clock.

Charisma winced. "On the plus side, we don't have a schedule to keep tomorrow. Do you have anything going on Monday?"

Brianna tilted her head in thought. "Not that I can think of, but honestly, I'm not firing on all cylinders either at the moment."

"I can relate," Charisma said with a yawn. She wrapped her free hand around Brianna's arm and hauled her towards the door gently. "C'mon. I'm pretty sure I hear a couple beds calling our names," stopping to pick up her shoes and purse before maneuvering them up the stairs together. "I'll see you in the morning?" as they reached Brianna's room for the night.

"It won't be bright and early," Brianna chuckled, "But I'm pretty sure I'll be here when you get up."

Charisma hesitated, then lightly squeezed the arm she held before releasing her grip. She crossed the few steps that led to her room, giving Brianna a wave before she opened the door and entered. Brianna watched her go, then went into the guest room Charisma had given her. It only took a few minutes to remove the dress and brush her teeth. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.


Kent entered the house some time later. He wasn't particularly quiet, but he didn't announce himself either as he had no expectation of anyone being in the house with him. He walked upstairs and went straight to his rooms, which were at the opposite side of the house from Charisma's. He looked around with an unbiased eye, recognizing that his space in this place was much like his apartment in New York - it was *his* space. He could still remember sharing space with Charisma, though that had ended once Adam had been born. And now that he considered it, it had been as much his decision as it had been her request.He spent a few minutes wondering why he'd let things come to this without taking some sort of decisive action one way or another.

Unwilling to waste time in pointless speculation, Kent went directly to the closet and grabbed his largest suitcase, opening it and placing it on the bed. Then he turned back to the room and began to consider the things he wanted to take with him to make his apartment more than a stopping point. It was time to make that his home.

He went downstairs to the family room first - there were a few pictures and mementos that he definitely wanted... things from before his time with Charisma as well as those that marked their years together. There weren't many, but there had been some good times, and he wanted something to remember them by.

Keepsakes in hand, he made his way back upstairs to begin his packing.


Coral arrived at the house at almost the identical minute that Mal did, having been sent by Amber the moment Kent had shown up to let Esmeralda know what was going on. Surprisingly, everyone was up and gathered around the table eating breakfast when the two of them walked into the kitchen side by side. Esmeralda took one look at both of them and motioned them to take a seat. Without a word, Saphira and Ruby rose and put two plates together while Opal poured them coffee. Saphira topped off her cup as well as Ruby's then they took spots behind Esmeralda leaning against the counters while the rest waited for Esmeralda to speak.

"I'm guessing that Kent is at Charisma's," glancing at Mal, "and Amber sent you to make sure I knew."

"Pretty much, yeah. I stuck around long enough to see him grab a suitcase." Coral turned and met Mal's eyes. "Where were you? We figured we'd see you as soon as he showed up."

"You would have if I hadn't been trying to get a hold of someone here. Is the phone off the hook or something? Because I kept getting a busy signal."

Esmeralda frowned. "I don't think so. Phira?"

"I'm on it," Saphira said as she padded out into the hall. "Oh," she said after a moment's inspection. "It appears we disconnected the phone from the wall jack at some point. Not really sure what that's all about. But it's fixed now."

"Thank you, love," Esmeralda said as Saphira re-entered the room. Saphira gently squeezed her shoulder, but didn't say anything as she resumed her sentinel position behind Esmeralda. Esmeralda looked back at the two newcomers, and focused her attention on Mal once more. "So I take it Amber sent you as soon as she saw you?"

"Pretty much. Said she'd keep an eye on things - that I needed to get here and find out why the phone lines weren't working."

"Did you see anything?" Ruby asked, startling Esmeralda and everyone else seated around the table. "I mean, we know he got out a suitcase - did you see him put anything in it?"

"Just some oddball stuff," Mal offered with a frown. "I was downstairs when I was trying to call you - I knew he couldn't leave without going by me, so I figured I was safe enough there, ya know?" seeing the nods of agreement. "Instead, when he came downstairs he went into the den and gathered up some things... mostly pictures... and headed straight back to his room. By that point I figured someone must be on the phone since I couldn't get through, so I followed him. That's when I met Amber and she told me she'd stay until I could get back to relieve her or Opal and Indi showed up."

"All right, ladies," Esmeralda said with a smile at Opal and Indi. "Go get ready to start your day. As soon as Mal's done with breakfast, you can leave together. I know it doesn't matter when you're ethereal and not using earthly transportation, but I'd feel better if you would all stick together."

"You think something's gonna happen?" Saphira asked, a concerned frown covering her face.

"I certainly hope not," Esmeralda said fervently. "But Mal has been on her own for a few weeks except for her few dashing visits back here while Kent was shadowing Charisma. It won't hurt to let her enjoy a few minutes of company with us... or them," gesturing to Opal and Indi who had stopped at the door when Saphira voiced her concerns. "Besides, I'm fairly certain Charisma and Brianna will spend most of their day indoors after last night. And speaking of which," she added, turning to Coral, "how was that little get together?"

"Brianna could write a tell-all book just on the things she learned last night and she'd be able to retire on the profits from it... let alone the movie rights. Charisma... well, you'll pretty much have to talk to Amber. They got split up almost immediately, and it was only when Charisma went in search of Brianna so they could leave that they were together again."

"Like culling the herd?"

"I'm not sure that's the right analogy," Coral replied slowly. "Charisma was pulled into the movers and shakers who were trying to put together some sort of deal. Brianna was basically left to her own devices - they don't see her as part of them, nor do they think she's a threat. After all, she's only a place saver right? How much damage can she do?"

Esmeralda smirked. "They have no idea who she really is, do they?"

Coral's laughter was contagious and it went around the table swiftly. "No... and I don't think she's going to let them know until it's too late."

"I wonder if Charisma is even aware."

"I doubt it. It's not something her family would have shared before, and they won't share now, thinking it's Brianna's place to do so if she thinks she should."

Saphira cleared her throat and shook her head. "And the hits just keep on coming."


It was the sound of a door closing that brought Kent out of the brown study he'd fallen into as he went through hisrooms choosing things to take back to Manhattan with him. His brow furrowed and he wondered if he was just imagining things. Charisma wasn't supposed to be home today, was she? He was pretty sure she hadn't mentioned anything to him, but there was a lot of her life he wasn't privy to, he was discovering.

He heard a second door close and went to his door, intending to let Charisma know he was home and see if perhaps she wanted to join him for brunch somewhere later. His packing could wait - after all, he was on his own schedule for getting things moved, and maybe if he and Charisma talked, they might resolve a few things. At least Kent would know for certain where he stood instead of coming to his own conclusions - though he was the first to admit that his conclusions were sound and backed by the evidence of his own eyes and ears.

When he reached the door and opened it, however, he discovered - not Charisma - but Brianna Walker making her way slowly down the stairs. She paused along the way, looking at the pictures hung along its length, and Kent wondered what she thought about them. Most of them were of Adam as he grew, but a few of them were of them as a family.

He watched until she was far enough down the staircase that her head disappeared from view. Only then did he close the door and resume his packing, wondering curiously what would change if he announced his presence in the house.

He let himself contemplate that scenario for a long moment, then shook his head. He had a feeling it would only make them all uncomfortable. So he decided to finish his packing and wait until they were engrossed in whatever they had planned for the day before he took his leave. He doubted Charisma would even notice the rental car parked by the garage unless they went out. And judging from the lateness of the hour, he doubted that would happen for a while. If it did, well... he'd figure it out when it happened. He had enough to consider at the moment.

The scent of coffee wafting up the stairs made his stomach growl and Kent realized he was more than a little ravenous. He turned his attention back to his half-filled luggage - the sooner he was done, the sooner he could get a bite to eat.


"Morning," Charisma offered handing Brianna a cup of coffee as she crossed the threshold into the kitchen. Brianna inhaled deeply, a satisfied smile crossing her face before she allowed herself that first fulfilling sip. "How'd you sleep?"

"Ahhhh...." Brianna breathed. "That's wonderful," arching a brow at Charisma's cocky smirk. "What?? It's good coffee - this is made just the way I like it."

"I was hoping I remembered correctly," Charisma said.

"Oh yeah... this is perfect. Thank you, Ri."

"Welcome anytime, Bri... you know that. Now, how'd you sleep?"

"Wonderfully if not nearly long enough. I don't know how you keep this pace."

Charisma snorted. "What pace? We're off as often as we're working."

"Maybe, but even when you're off, there's always something going on."

"Wasn't it that way with the law as well? Especially once you started working for the DA's office?"

"Not like this," Brianna admitted. "There's politics, and then there's POLITICS. And politics doesn't involve nearly as much schmoozing as POLITICS does. However," she added before Charisma could break in, "I'm learning a lot. It's funny thing things you see and hear when you're an observer in a room full of posturers. I could write a book."

Charisma snorted. "I'll just bet you could. Of course, for your own safety, you'd have to live in another country once it was published."

"Yeah, but imagine the made-for-TV movie it'd make."

"You are very, very bad."

"Thank you," Brianna accepted with a smirk. "I've been perfecting my technique for years."

"Well, if worse comes to worst, you can sell it on eBay."

"Oh no you didn't," Brianna stated flatly. Charisma laughed.

"Sure I did. It was easy." She reached for Brianna's coffee cup. "You want another?"

Brianna hesitated for a split second before she nodded. "I shouldn't, but yes, please."

"All right. It'll take a couple minutes. Why don't you go upstairs and grab your album then meet me at my office door? It's the room you found me in that night...." trailing off with a sense of relief when Brianna nodded her head in understanding. "Good... see you in a few then?"

"You betcha. Be right back."

Brianna left the kitchen and headed back upstairs slowly, still fascinated by the pictures that lined the wall. Many of them were of Adam, but there were a few of the three of them - posed studio pictures, but lovely shots nonetheless. Brianna smiled, though there was as much sadness in her heart as there was happiness. She was glad that Charisma was happy - she just wished she had been the one to put the smile on her face. With a shrug, Brianna straightened her shoulders and put her fruitless thoughts behind her. Then she entered the guest room she was using and claimed the photo album that held the memories she still held dear to her heart, and without a backwards glance, ran lightly down the stairs to meet Charisma.

Maybe she could finally lay these ghosts to rest.


Kent finished with his packing just as he heard Brianna make her way down the stairs once more. He wondered what was so important that she felt the need to break one of Charisma's cardinal rules and run down the stairs. He was a little surprised he didn't hear Charisma say something about it as even he had been admonished for it a time or two. Of course, Adam didn't seem to be around, so perhaps it wasn't quite as important to worry about setting a good example.

Regardless, Kent looked around the rooms once more, then nodded his head in satisfaction and zipped his suitcase closed. He hefted it with a bit of a grunt, and headed downstairs. With a bit of luck they would be engrossed in whatever and he'd be able to make a clean getaway.

They were neatly ensconced on the couch in Charisma's study, heads bent together over something he couldn't see but that obviously meant a lot to both of them. He stood off to oneside of the doorway, realizing that once again Charisma had left the door open thinking she was alone in the house except for the company she was obviously sharing in her private space - bringing home again just how little of her life he actually shared.

He sighed as he watched them, seeing more than they probably realized they showed. There was amusement and adoration and love that flowed between them like a palpable thing, even though nothing untoward was going on. They weren't sitting too close or gazing too long - and yet it was clear to him that there was certainly more between them than simple friendship.

He wondered if he should fight for his wife... for their marriage and family. Then he saw a smile that hadn't graced her face once in the years they had known one another. And he picked up his bag and walked through the kitchen towards the garage. He had places to be.

Chapter LXVIII

Brianna accepted her coffee from Charisma as soon as she reached the bottom of the stairs, eyebrows popping when Charisma put a key in the lock of her study door before opening it and ushering Brianna in ahead of her.

"Adam," Charisma said succinctly, leading the way over to the sofa. She set her mug on the table next to the album she'd moved downstairs the day before, prior to Brianna's arrival. Brianna followed her example, easing the thick book onto the table and placing her cup beside it.


"You were wondering why the door was kept locked - Adam." Charisma took a seat and motioned Brianna to do the same, smiling when Brianna dropped onto the couch beside her. "When Adam was first learning to get around - crawling and walking - we discovered no place was safe from him." Charisma sighed. "I've always kept this room closed and Kent has always respected that. This is my space - I do a lot of work in here and before Adam was born, I conducted a lot of business with my colleagues here as well. Not as much anymore, but there was a time this place was utilized almost as much as my office on the Hill."

Brianna looked around and nodded. "I can see that."

Charisma laughed. "Oh it was much more pretentious at one time - very awe-inspiring," she added with a dramatic roll of her eyes. "But once Adam came along, I started changing it. I had to. There were times he had to be in here with me regardless of what else was going on around me. And then he started being mobile."

"I take it was a steep learning curve."

Charisma snorted. "I really hadn't thought about it - I mean... he was a baby, right? How much harm could he do?" She shook her head and smiled wryly when Brianna erupted into undisguised hilarity. "I didn't even realize he was big enough or coordinated enough to open the door on his own, but I completely underestimated the force of his determination."

"What did he get into?"

"Fortunately, nothing that could hurt him, and nothing that wasn't fairly easy to replace. It took a week to get all the ink off of his skin, and I did have to replace the carpet in here."

"Which is why it's a nice deep burgundy."

"And why my printer cartridges are currently in a locked drawer out of his reach."

Brianna chuckled. "Would you have believed this? If ten or fifteen years ago someone had told you we'd be sitting here having coffee together, laughing over the antics of your son, would you have believed them?"

"I'd have had them committed," Charisma returned dryly, though Brianna could see the latent pain in the back of her blue eyes. "For any number of reasons," she added as a belated afterthought. "I mean I wasn't even married ten years ago, and you KNOW what Mama would have done if I'd come home pregnant without a husband."

"It would have sucked to have been you," Brianna said sagely.

Charisma chuckled. "No kidding." She leaned forward, snagging her coffee cup in one hand and her album in the other. "C'mon... we need a starting place to begin catching up, and I think the beginning is probably going to be the best place."

Brianna took a deep breath and nodded, then followed Charisma's example - clutching her mug in one hand and grasping the book with the other. Then they leaned back and looked at one another, and as though touched by the same unseen hand, they opened the albums to the first picture... and sat looking in silence for a long moment before exclamations overcame them.

Not surprisingly, the first picture in both albums was similar - them at the airport, arms wrapped around each other waving wildly at the camera. They stared at the photographs, then looked at one another.

"Mama O gave it to me when I went to see her that first time after...." Brianna broke off and Charisma nodded her understanding. "I couldn't say no - especially since it reminded me how happy we'd been setting off on that trip of a lifetime."

"When did you put your album together?" Charisma asked suddenly, her curiosity overriding her prudence. Brianna frowned and pursed her lips in thought.

"Not long after I came home, I guess. I was at law school, and I was... truthfully, I was depressed. Now I'll admit that it was my own fault - I mean, I was the one who walked way, and I'm the one that decided I could suffer three New England winters to get my JD from an Ivy League school - but that knowledge didn't make me *less* depressed. It was after my first family holiday without you, but before Christmas...." Brianna closed her eyes and let herself travel back across the years she and Charisma had been apart. Those first had been the most painful, so they were harder to dredge up.

"Bri... it's not critical if it hurts you to remember," Charisma offered softly. Brianna opened her eyes and gave Charisma a sad smile.

"It does, but I think it's good to remember. I think it's time these memories were purged. Maybe it will eradicate the pain and we can replace them with happier thoughts."

"If you're sure...."

"I am." Brianna scrunched up her forehead. "It was right before finals and I couldn't focus on anything. So I called Mama O. I didn't know whom else to call. I mean I had made a few friends in law school, but it wasn't anything serious at that point. We were all still feeling our way around the whole law school thing and worried about projects and grades and it was just a whole lot of craziness at the time."

"You did make friends, though... right?" Charisma broke in unexpectedly.

"Oh yes," Brianna assured her. "It got easier after the first semester - we had time to do more than eat sleep and breathe the law. I think they use that semester to weed out all the candidates that see big bucks without seeing all the work that goes into it."

Charisma dipped her head in acknowledgement. "I think all the programs beyond a bachelor level tend towards that. Saves a lot of grief if you get out early."

"Saves a lot of student loan debt," Brianna agreed wryly. Charisma laughed, then waved her hand in a 'continue' motion.

"I'm sorry I interrupted. Please go on."

"Where was I?" Brianna asked, rubbing her forehead. "Oh yes - calling Mama O," she responded before Charisma had a chance to react. "I needed someone to talk to before I blew every chance I had of earning my JD to holy hell. So I picked up the phone and dialed Okasa without even hesitating. I don't remember what we talked about anymore - settling in, my studies, the family - I'm sure they were all part of the conversation at one point. I do remember - near the end of the discussion - she mentioned you and told me how you were doing. She knew I needed to know, I guess, but she also knew I was too proud and too stubborn to ever ask."

"What did she tell you? Do you remember?"

"Just that Washington suited you and you seemed to be winning friends and influencing people already... even as a Congressional aide."

"I was, you know. And I made sure to get pictures with all of them... for two reasons."

"Which were?" Brianna asked when Charisma let the silence drag on. Charisma smirked and Brianna rolled her eyes.

"The first was of course for my own benefit - so I could show my brothers that I really did meet Presidents and foreign dignitaries and lesser political beings like Senators and Congressmen."

"And the second?"

"I knew I'd need them for that tell-all book you would write about me someday."

"Uh huh," Brianna drawled out so slowly Charisma despaired of her actually finishing the word. "And you were so sure I'd write that story... despite everything that had happened?"

"Yes," Charisma stated emphatically. "You promised, and I knew that despite everything, you'd keep that promise when the time came. Of course, I have to become President first."

"Never say never, Ri."

Charisma shrugged. "We'll see. I'm not always sure I want it anymore. Adam changed a lot for me."

Brianna held her gaze for a long moment. "I guess he did," was her only comment.

Charisma looked down at the albums and realized they hadn't even turned a page yet. "Good grief - at the rate we're going, my son will have graduated from the Naval Academy before we get done."

"The Naval Academy?" Brianna asked. "Should I ask where that came from?"

"It's Kent's dream for Adam. He always wanted to go, but he didn't qualify scholastically. Adam may not want that for himself, and when the time comes, he'll choose his own path. But for the timebeing, we can use Kent's dream for him."

"It's a nice dream," was all Brianna said.

"Shall we?" Charisma asked readying the sheet to turn the page. Brianna did the same and bobbed her head, and together they moved to the next picture... and the next memory... in their books.


There had been a lot of laughter and a lot of tears as they slowly made their way across Europe through their memories. They were almost halfway when they reached Rome and Brianna shivered in pure reaction when she saw the photo Charisma had in her album. Charisma looked up in concern, then grimaced when she noticed Brianna's unnatural paleness. She rapidly closed the book and set it on the table, then slid Brianna's from her lap. A moment later, she was chafing Brianna's cold fingers between her warmer ones.

"Oh God, Bri... I'm so sorry. I didn't even think...."

Brianna blinked and took a deep breath, then she squeezed Charisma's hands lightly as she met her eyes. "It's okay, Ri. I should have realized you might have pictures of the Coliseum - it is an impressive structure, after all."

"Yeah, but I should have remembered how you reacted to the real thing when we were there and taken that picture out or something."

"Charisma, it's all right. I didn't even think about it; and I certainly didn't expect to react that violently to a photograph."

"Are you all right now?"

Brianna nodded. "I think so. It was like I was there again." She shook her head to clear the thought. "I like it here much better."

"Me too. You want to keep going or do you need a time out?"

Brianna cocked her eyebrow and smirked. "You are such a mom. A time out?"

Charisma chuckled. "At least I didn't offer you the time-out chair," motioning to a kid's size chair next to her desk. "I'm pretty sure you'd be more uncomfortable than Adam is when he sits there."

Brianna looked at the chair and then back to Charisma. "I'm pretty sure my knees would be up around my ears," recognizing Charisma's tactics and appreciating the effort. "How about a bio break and maybe a snack stop before we start again?"

"Sounds like a plan. Meet you back in here in fifteen?"

Brianna wasn't gone that long, but Charisma had removed the Coliseum picture from her album and had snacks out on the table by the time Brianna made it back in the room.

"Better?" she asked solicitously, though a smile graced her features as she noted the color that had returned to Brianna's face.

"Much, thank you. Now where were we?"

Charisma opened her album once more, to a picture of the two of them at the Vatican. A lovely old nun had offered to take their photograph in front of the Pieta. They had been appropriately somber for the picture, in deference to the older woman's serious devotion as well as the stunning beauty of the work itself.

"Is it wrong," Brianna asked in a hushed voice, "that I found that to be the most amazing thing about the Vatican?"

"I hope not. I felt much the same way... as though its sheer simplicity was much grander than the obscene displays of wealth."

Brianna's eyebrows flew into her hairline at Charisma's tone of disgust. "I thought you were a good Catholic."

"I am a recovering Catholic. I have found parts of the religion that do not mesh with my faith. So I don't practice that religion anymore... except to attend holiday mass with the family when we're there. It keeps Mama happy, and I don't think it hurts anything."

"Oooo-kaaay," Brianna drawled slowly, letting her nod communicate that she did understand the intent of what Charisma was saying even if she wasn't quite clear on the details. "So any other pictures of Rome in that book?" she asked.

"Of course," Charisma said with a smile. "Augustus' tomb, the Baths, the Spanish Steps...."

"So let's see them," Brianna goaded with a smile of her own. "C'mon... you show me yours, I'll show you mine."

Charisma imagined and discarded several retorts before deciding to say, "Oh... you sweet talker you. Show me what you've got."

Brianna answered by reopening her album and Charisma did the same. Then they stopped and blinked at the pages that were facing them. Similar pictures this time, but noticeably different as well. They stood in front of Trevi Fountain. In Brianna's they were facing the camera, arms wrapped tightly around one another as they were caught in a moment of laughter after having thrown their coins into the fountain.

Charisma's however....

"I don't remember that being taken," Brianna said softly, keeping her eyes on the page. Charisma glanced at the page, then focused her eyes on the far wall, hoping it would give her the answers she needed. Brianna's voice didn't sound accusing, but it did sound a little lost. Charisma took a deep breath, then started to speak.

"I'm not quite sure when that was taken. You remember the lovely little girl that offered to take our pictures - we gave her our cameras," seeing Brianna's nod out of the corner of her eye. "I *think* she took a picture using my camera first, because I'm almost positive that was just before we turned to throw our coins over our shoulders."

"Did you have two pictures in front of the fountain?"

Charisma shook her head. "No... just the one." She took another deep breath. "I've always felt like it was trying to tell me something, but...." She shrugged. "I don't know." Finally she turned and looked at Brianna whose focus was still on the photograph in front of the fountain.

"Do you think I could have a copy of this?"

"Sure... absolutely - as long as I can have a copy of yours as well." Charisma paused. "That was such a magical night, you know? Everything about that trip was wonderful, but if I close my eyes, I can still hear the hawkers and smell the garlic and taste the gelato... well, not all at once of course," grinning at the mental picture she'd painted."But I remember so clearly the rushing sound of the water; the lights and the shadows they cast; your smile; our laughter...." Charisma sucked in a breath as truth dawned and recognition bloomed in her eyes. "Why didn't you tell me?"


"Why didn't you tell me that you loved me?"


"Don't!!" fierce and commanding. "Don't play semantics with me about this. You know what I mean. Why didn't you tell me that you were in love with me??" She didn't even give Brianna the chance to respond; Charisma shot off the sofa and crossed to the dark fireplace, absently wishing for flames to gaze into. "Why didn't I see it? I mean..." flinging her arm in the direction of the albums, "it seems so obvious. How did I miss this??" Charisma turned back to the empty grate, keeping her eyes fastened there as though they would give her the answers she sought. When she heard movement behind her, Charisma's head shot up, and she glared balefully at Brianna.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"I was...."

"I'd think very carefully about my answer if I was you." A beat. "You were running way from me again, weren't you?"

"I was just going to give you...."

"This was why you left me before, wasn't it?" Charisma broke in again, running her hand through her hair in agitation. She pinned Brianna with her eyes, and Brianna willingly held Charisma's gaze. "You promised you'd be honest with me - that you'd tell me why you left me that day in Barcelona if I asked the right question," waiting for Brianna to nod. "Did you walk away from me because you loved me?"

Brianna took a deep breath, but never dropped her eyes from Charisma's. "Yes," she replied steadily.

Chapter LXIX

To say the expression on Charisma's face was flummoxed would be an understatement of massive proportions, but to her credit, she held Brianna's eyes while a myriad of emotions swirled in her eyes. Finally, they slowed, though Brianna couldn't rightly read what was left when Charisma took a deep breath before consciously relaxing her shoulders.

"Okay," she said after a long moment of silence, accepting Brianna's confession as the truth it was. "Where do we go from here?"

"Where do you want to go, Charisma? The ball's in your court."

"How do you figure?"

"You know now why I left twenty years ago, and like it or not, it's going to change the way you see me and how you interact with me... if it hasn't already. Do I make you uncomfortable now? Does it bother you to be in the same room with me?"

Charisma studied Brianna for a few minutes, and Brianna kept her eyes focused on Charisma's. If she was going to be judged for who she was, Brianna was going to make damn sure every measure counted. It was hard to hear anything over the thudding of her heart, however, and she almost missed Charisma's response.


Brianna blinked when she realized that Charisma mouth had moved and sound had issued forth from it. "Excuse me?"

Charisma smiled gently, understanding all too well exactly just how off-balance Brianna felt at the moment. "No... you don't make me uncomfortable and it doesn't bother me to share space with you. I would never have guessed... obviously - I didn't get it for the better part of twenty years, and only then when I was hit in the face with it... so to speak. I'm not sure I get the appeal - after all, you know me better than anyone in the world... or you did then. I'm not sure why you'd want to be with someone like me."

"You're kidding, right?" almost a flat statement.

"Um... no?"

Brianna snorted and shook her head. "Remind me some day, and we'll sit down and I'll explain it to you, all right?" watching Charisma nod slowly, trying to find understanding in Brianna's words. When Charisma's brow crinkled, Brianna continued. "Trust me, Charisma - it's a story best left to another day. When you have a chance to sit down and think about all this, you're going to have questions. And frankly I'd rather not have to go through this over and over and over again as you think of new things to ask me."

"I do have one question I think I need to have answered now," Charisma said, deliberately moving to sit on the couch and patting the seat beside her.

Brianna sighed, having a very good idea what was coming. Still, she took a seat next to Charisma - not too close, but within reach. Charisma gave her a withering look and tugged her closer. "*You're* the one letting this change us, Brianna Brianna, and I won't let you do that... unless it makes you uncomfortable that I know the truth."

"But you still want to know if I still love you, don't you? Even if I'm uncomfortable."

Charisma's eyes widened as her brows slid upwards. "Um... while I would actually like to know that, to tell you the honest truth - it wasn't the question I was going to ask."

"Oh... um...."

"Brianna - it's just you and me here. And like you said, we're going to have to figure out a time and a place to talk about all this. There's a lot that I need to understand and a lot you probably need to share. I'd like to know what the family thinks and what Mama said to you and of course, we still have twenty years of life and memories to catch up on. That being said - what I'd really need to know is why you ran away... why you were running away from me again."

Brianna took a deep breath. Nothing like starting with the tough stuff, she thought wryly. Then she looked at Charisma squarely, figuring brutal honesty was her best bet. Charisma would appreciate the truthful part, if not the manner in which it was delivered.

"I knew the first time... when I figured out that what I felt for you went beyond friendship... I knew that if I put you in the position of having to choose, I wouldn't be the one to get chosen. You couldn't have chosen me then even if you'd felt as I did - too much of your career depends on your image - and I knew in no uncertain terms that you didn't love me the way I loved you. You told me as much point blank." She held up her hands when Charisma opened her mouth. "Please, Charisma - let me finish. This is hard enough for me."


"I also knew I couldn't stay. I couldn't be around you - not knowing that what I felt for you would never be returned. I was unwilling to become a martyr... for my sake as well as yours. Unrequited love is one thing - twisting a knife in it day after day wasn't something I was prepared to live with. And by leaving, I could pretend that we were still best friends - that my falling in love with you hadn't changed things between us."

When the silence dragged on, Charisma spoke. "So you were running away this time because...."

"I really wasn't sure how you were going to react. And while I didn't expect violence, I thought you might need some time and space to process," waving her hand around, "all this."

"I'm sure I will need some time and space to process all this, as you put it. But I'd rather you didn't run away from me again... ever. We'll get through this, Brianna Brianna. I have faith."

Brianna nodded. "I hope so... because I missed having you in my life." She reached forward and closed her album, pulling it into her lap and folding her hands on top of it. "However, I'm going to go now, and give you a chance to think about all this and the differences it will make in your life and your way of thinking. I know we still have to finish going through our albums, and we have a lot of other things to talk about besides. But first I think you could probably use a little time to ponder things. I'll still be around if and when you're ready to talk, and you know where to find me." Brianna rose from her seat and Charisma did the same.

"Are you sure?" biting her lip.

"Aren't you?" smiling wistfully when Charisma's head bobbed her acknowledgement slowly. "All right, then - let me go grab my stuff from upstairs, and I'll get out of your hair."

"I really liked having you here, Bri - it was like old times."

"Yes, it was - I enjoyed being here. Maybe we can do it again sometime."

"I'd like that a lot," Charisma replied before she could censor her words. Brianna disappeared upstairs before Charisma could become embarrassed, and slipped back downstairs almost immediately. "That was quick."

"Practice." She paused a moment, then resumed her speech."Listen, there's one more thing you should know right now - it's going to be the only way you'll be able to figure things out completely." Brianna put her hand on the doorknob, praying Jas had been nearby when she called and she wouldn't have too wait too long for her arrival. "I do love you, Charisma - I think I always will. But I'm not a home wrecker. So if you decide that we can make this friendship work again, I'll need to talk to Kent. I won't give him a reason to misunderstand our friendship because of my love for you."

Charisma would have answered - if she could have gotten words past her suddenly closed throat. And if she'd had *any* idea what sort of response to make to Brianna's declaration. Or if Brianna hadn't escaped from her home as soon as the words were out of her mouth.

Charisma stood stunned for a few moments, hand at her throat as though trying to ease the pressure enough to draw a deep breath. When she realized Brianna was no longer in the room, Charisma shook her head and yanked the door open....

... only to see taillights at the end of her driveway as Jas readied to pull the car onto the road. Another moment and they were gone. Charisma took a deep breath and closed the door. Maybe it was time to talk to Mama.


"So did she call Okasa?" Esmeralda asked Indi some time later. They were all scattered around the living room, though Indigo and Opal had been holding court for quite a bit as she recounted their afternoon watching Charisma and Brianna.

"No... at least not in the remaining time that I was with her. When Brianna left with Jas, Charisma stayed leaned up against the door for a few minutes muttering to herself. When she finally straightened, she walked back into the study and resumed her place on the couch, glaring at the album like it had caused the situation. Honestly, Es... I would have laughed if things weren't as serious as they are." She shrugged. "As it is, she was making me a little seasick."

Esmeralda frowned. "How so?"

"I have a question first," waiting for Esmeralda to signal her to go ahead. "Is Charisma a paranoid schizophrenic or multiple personality?"

Esmeralda blinked so rapidly Indi expected her to take flight. A glance at Opal showed she was plainly shocked by the question by the way her jaw swung unhinged. Esmeralda shook her head. "No, Indi... not at all. Why do you ask?"

"Because," Indi sighed deeply, "her actions this afternoon were beyond what I'd consider reasonable."

"Okay. What did she do that you consider unreasonable?"

"She was like a mad woman, Es. First she cried a little and then she smiled and hugged the album to her like it was a precious child. Then she cried some more and then she got angry - not the good kind of angry either. Then she cried some more and looked through her pictures with that odd little sentimental smile on her face - you know the kind I'm talking about. Then she got mad again, and this time instead of muttering invectives, she paced and ranted and clenched her fists. Then she sat down and cried - and this time the crying was a deluge."

"And after that?" Opal finally asked when the silence had gone on too long for her comfort. She looked around and saw everyone staring at her as though she'd lost her marbles... everyone except for Esmeralda. She nodded her approval of Opal's question, and relieved, Opal turned back to Indi, waiting for an answer. Indi gave her a half-smile.

"How did you know?"

"Because I know Charisma. She may rant and rave and act like a lunatic by herself for a little while in the privacy of her own home - let's face it... we all have to vent from time to time. But she is far too much of a control freak to let anyone or anything wrest that control from her for very long. If she had a good, long cry, she got the release she needed. Even if the situation hasn't been dealt with, she's under control again, and things can move forward."

Esmeralda nodded her approval of Opal's summation. "I agree. A lot of the outcome will depend on how true her words to Brianna were. Because let's face it - Brianna was correct when she told Charisma that the knowledge would change how Charisma thought of Brianna as a person and how she perceived their relationship... even one of friendship."

"Yeah, but I really admire Brianna's tenacity. She didn't back down and she didn't take the easy road out by glossing over things or leaving things unsaid. She laid it all on the line."

"I don't think Charisma expected that," Opal replied to Indi's observation though she was looking at Esmeralda when she said it. Esmeralda cocked her head in a listening attitude and waited for Opal to continue."I got the impression she figured she'd get an answer to her first question - when she asked Brianna if she left all those years ago because she loved her. Brianna promised to tell her the truth if and when she ever actually asked the right question, and as far as I can tell - except for saying goodbye - Brianna has never broken a promise to Charisma. But she seemed completely overwhelmed by the thoroughness of Brianna's response."

"Could she have done the same?" The question caused all eyes to swing in Saphira's direction. Saphira shrugged. "What??" looking around the room. "It seems like a fair question."

"It is a fair question. I don't think she could," Esmeralda stated quietly. "Given what we know of her history and behavior, probably not... even now."

"So she'll prove Brianna right?"

"I didn't say that," Esmeralda replied to the anguish in Saphira's voice as much as her words. "Charisma has grown and changed in the years they've been apart just like Brianna has. The difference is she has only half-lived - a large part of herself missing and hidden away because she refuses to see what she knows is true."

"I dunno, Boss - you didn't see bewildered look on Charisma's face when Brianna confirmed that she loved her," Indi offered hesitantly.

"But was it because of WHAT she said or the fact that she SAID IT at all?" Esmeralda glanced at all the confused expressions looking back at her and sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose in an effort to relieve the tension headache she could feel building behind her eyes. Without a word, Saphira moved from her spot next to the fireplace and padded over to stand behind Esmeralda. Saphira rested her hands on narrow shoulders and felt Esmeralda relax beneath her touch.

For a few minutes this went on, until Esmeralda reached up and covered Saphira's hands with her own. Saphira stopped her kneading, but didn't remove her hands from Esmeralda's body. She smiled when Esmeralda leaned back into her, and when she tilted her head back to meet Saphira's eyes with her own, the world ceased to exist outside of the two of them for a long moment.

Then Ruby cleared her throat and brought their attention back to the women in the room with them, trying valiantly to look anywhere but at the two of them. Esmeralda colored delicately; Saphira merely raised an impertinent eyebrow.

"I'm sorry to interrupt you two lovebirds," she said with a sarcastic smirk, "but we're obviously missing something that you're seeing, Es. Can you share with the rest of us? 'Cause I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who feels like an idiot at the moment," getting nods of agreement from around the room.

Esmeralda cleared her throat and nodded, then looked first at Opal, then at Indi. "I want you two to concentrate for just a minute. I want you to think about what you saw when Brianna made her initial confession... when Charisma asked if that was why she walked away. I want you to focus on the expression on Charisma's face - did you both see it?"

"I did."

"Me too."

"All right... now think. Was she really surprised by the *answer* Brianna gave? Was she surprised to hear Brianna loved her? Or was she more surprised that Brianna GAVE her an honest answer?"

Opal and Indi let their sight turn inward as they replayed the incident in their mind's eye. Then they looked at one another, and Opal motioned for Indi to speak first.

"I think she *was* surprised to hear that Brianna left her because she loved her because she's refused to see that for twenty years. But I think the flabbergasted look on her face was probably because she actually got an answer... much more of an answer than she ever expected to hear."


"I think Indi's right. She got caught flatfooted by Brianna's confession of love, but I got the feeling she was more surprised that Brianna admitted to it." She paused and bit her lip; Esmeralda simply waited. "I think she knew - in the depths of her mind or the recesses of her heart or whatever - she knew why Brianna said goodbye. But she was totally sucker punched by the fact that Brianna just put it out there for her to see... even if it was twenty years too late."

"You think it was too late?" Turq asked.

"I think we wouldn't all be here now if it was. But that doesn't mean we won't get our happy ending; it just means we have to work at it a little harder."

Esmeralda waited until she was sure Opal was done, then she turned to Jas. "How was Brianna in all of this? How was the drive home?"

"Stiff," she replied succinctly, running a hand through her hair. "She called me while she was upstairs packing her bag. I was close, like you told me, so when she stepped outside, I was waiting with the door open, ready for her."

"Wait... how'd you get in the locked gates?"

"Kent left and I drove in. I was waiting at the bottom of the drive."

"Very clever," Saphira said approvingly. Jas blushed.

"Well, we're supposed to keep the Angel stuff to a minimum when we're in mortal form. I'm trying to play by the rules."

"You did good, Jas... real good. But how was Brianna stiff? Like she was trying not to cry or she was angry or...?"

"More like she was trying to hold herself together. I don't think she was trying not to cry, but she was shaking like a leaf... like there was a sudden release of tension in her body and she wasn't really sure how to live without it."

"That's probably exactly what it was. Remember, she's lived with this secret for half her life."

"So she's relieved...?"

"And terrified and happy and any one of a hundred other things. It'll be interesting to hear Coral's take on her in the morning."

"I've gotta tell you, Es - except for the fact that you actually look better and more rested because of this time off, I am hating this break thing," Opal confessed. "It was easier to keep an eye on them and things as they happened when we were with them in an office setting. There was consistency there that I could appreciate instead of winging it like we are now."

"Oh Opal... we've always been winging it," Esmeralda offered with a smile. "And you are all doing a great job juggling things around for this holiday. I suspect you and the rest will be going back to work before I will." She held up a hand to stop the concerned mutters around the room. "Not because of my health, guys. Think a minute - even while they've been out of session, most of the House and Senate have been working, right?" seeing everyone nod slowly. "So I figure you'll be going back sooner than expected so that when they 'officially' resume business, they'll be caught up and ready to go."

"I hope it's soon, then," Opal muttered. "This is driving me nuts."

"Short trip," Ruby snarked, laughing at Opal's look of indignation. Still, it was enough to break the tension in the room, and they headed to their rooms to settle in for the night in a much better frame of mind than they'd been in a while. It was a good feeling.

Chapter LXX

"So she knows now? You told her the truth?"

"She knows why I left her all those years ago - she knows that I love her," Brianna answered.

"And what was her reaction?"

"She was pretty calm and rational about it all really, Mama O. Acted like it wasn't that big of a deal...."

"But...?" Okasa hesitated, waiting to see if Brianna would continue her thought on her own. When she didn't, Okasa prodded a little bit. "C'mon, Little Bri... remember who you're talking to. She really acted like you didn't just change the very foundation of her world?"

Brianna bit her lip and shook her head, then realized Okasa couldn't see her through the phone line. "No. I left before it really sank in, I guess. Charisma deserved the chance to think about what I said and how it would change things for her - because despite everything, we both know that it will." She paused. "On the other hand, she did seem a little shocked that I actually told her the truth."

"Did you think she was surprised that you love her?"

"Maybe a little that I still do, but mostly I got the feeling she was more astounded by the fact that I actually admitted it."

"And how are you? How do you feel about all this?"

"Honestly, Mama? I think I'm more relieved than anything else. It's like... I don't feel like a different person, but I do feel like a whole one."

Okasa nodded. "So now what?"

"I don't know," Brianna admitted with the shrug apparent in her voice. "I think that's up to Charisma at this point. There's not a whole lot else I can do until she decides what she wants to do with this information." She sighed. "I did tell her if she chose to go forward with our friendship, I would talk to Kent and tell him the truth about me. I won't come between them, Mama. I won't become a homewrecker, especially not hers. And I'm not going to give him a reason to misunderstand what our friendship is - I'm not going to lie and sneak around about it."

"And if he forbids it? If he feels too threatened by you?"

"We'll deal with it when the time comes."

"Fair enough," Okasa agreed. "What about the letters?" she asked after a brief delay.

Brianna shook her head so vehemently, Okasa could hear the motion through the phone. "No. I'm out far enough on this limb without exposing myself completely. *If* the fact that I have loved her for twenty years despite everything doesn't drive her away and *if* when she gets through with her soul searching she and I are still able to remain friends, then perhaps I will share them with her. But until then? No... I don't think so."

"But they're hers!"

"Technically, they're mine. You gave them back to me before she ever saw them. She doesn't even know they exist."

"Well, that's not *entirely* true," Okasa admitted slowly, bracing herself for the blowup she knew was coming when her words computed in Brianna's mind. It only took a second.

"Excuse me?" the words cold and deadly.

Okasa flinched, but soldiered on, knowing she had to prepare Brianna for what was most likely headed her way sooner or later. "She called me last night, ostensibly to check on Adam, but I could tell something had happened. Her voice was rough... like she'd been crying and she seemed.... I'm not sure how to describe it - confused, but resolute. She wouldn't share anything with me - said there was nothing for me to concern myself over."

"Um hmm... so how does that translate into her knowing about the letters, Okasa?"

"I'm getting to that," Okasa replied plaintively, knowing she was in the wrong, but hoping for absolution anyway. "She had mentioned that you two were going to go to that party together, so I naturally asked how it had gone."


"I'm getting there." Okasa sighed. "She said that you two had been catching up." She sighed again and fell silent, hoping Brianna would connect the dots and spare her the need to spell it out.

"Okasa, I think I've been pretty patient here, but you're pushing my limits."

"I'm sorry, Brianna... I really am," Okasa rushed ahead. "I thought when Charisma mentioned catching up, she meant from the beginning... from when you left. I assumed that you let her read... I asked what she thought of them. That's all I said."

"Until she asked what 'them' you were talking about."

"Yes. I thought...." Brianna pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger and blew out a deep breath, cutting Okasa off mid-stream. "I'm really sorry, Brianna. I would've never...."

"I know, Okasa. Nothing I can do about it now except deal with the fallout."


"I've got to go, Okasa. I'll call you later." Without another word, Brianna hung up the phone and turned it off. Then she moved over to the window where she could just make out the lights of several different memorials. It was amazing how quickly a hand basket went to hell once it started down the slippery, steep slope.

At least it would all be over with quickly - despite Charisma's assurances, Brianna didn't expect to come out of this unscathed. It was just a matter of time.


When Charisma had first called Brianna - the Monday morning after Brianna's confession - she'd already gone to her office and was up to her eyeballs in paperwork. And since she never turned her cell phone back on, she never realized Charisma had called until much later in the day. When Brianna had returned the call, Charisma had already left DC to return to Okasa's to check on Adam and meet with more of her supporters in several different districts. So Brianna left a message and she and Charisma began a game of phone tag.

Charisma tried to reach Brianna again, only to reach Brianna's answering service, discovering that Brianna had left Washington and was meeting withthe Governor, and from there had meetings with constituents in a few of her districts.

And back and forth they went for the better part of a week - trying to reach each other, but only making the most minimal effort possible. It was easy to blame it on work - they were busy. But both knew that what needed to be said between them needed to be said face to face, so it was easy to make their phone calls brief and impersonal and still keep in touch.

As Esmeralda had predicted, both Charisma and Brianna called their office staff back to work briefly, though much of their work was done more informally than was considered normal. Since they still technically had three more weeks of holiday before the new session resumed, it was mostly going through the mail that had accumulated. Still, it took several days to catch up, and so it was more than a week later before they actually found one another sharing personal space again.

It could have been awkward, those first few minutes together again - would have been... had it not been for the fact that they were both too exhausted to make a big deal of things. Instead, they settled in like the old friends they were - at least to begin with.


"Rough week?" Charisma asked as they literally ran into one another in the hall outside their offices. They'd bounced off each other and landed on opposite sides against the walls, and her question made Brianna snort. That in turn made Charisma chuckle. Then Brianna laughed, and soon the two of them couldn't stop - every time they thought they had it under control, one would look at the other and it would start all over again.

The sound brought their respective staffs to the doorways of their offices, and they exchanged looks before turning around and heading back to their work. That just made Charisma and Brianna laugh harder. After a few minutes, however, and a bit of effort, they finally managed to bring themselves under some semblance of control, and Brianna took a deep breath.

"I needed that," she wheezed.

Charisma snorted, but managed not to start laughing again. "So did I evidently," she said as she blew out a breath. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm fine. You?"

"I'm good. Sorry about running you over, though. I didn't even see you...."

Brianna narrowed her eyes. "I *know* you weren't about to make a short joke."

"I can't," Charisma deadpanned. "I'm pretty sure you didn't see me either, and I'm not short," sticking out her tongue just slightly. Brianna glared.

"I know where you live and you have to sleep sometime."

Charisma burst into laughter again, only this time it wasn't the out-of-control giggles she'd had before. "You're priceless, Brianna Brianna. Don't you ever go changing on me."

Brianna tilted her head, the conversation suddenly taking an unexpectedly serious turn. "You really mean that?"

Charisma sighed roughly. "I do." She hesitated."At least I think I do... I mean, I'd like to. But I'd like to know more about you... about who you are and how you got to be the woman you are today. And I'd like to share the same with you - let you know who I am now and what's happened in my life to make me the Charisma Tagherty that is standing in front of you."

"Are you really so different, Charisma? Are you that different from the woman I knew?"

"I think I am, Brianna. A lot has happened in the last twenty years... for better or worse. And for better or worse, it's changed me."

"Maybe in some things, Charisma - I know I've changed... obviously. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here now doing this job in this place. But fundamentally, I am still the same woman you knew in school... just a little less idealistic. And that's not necessarily a bad thing - it's just part of growing up."

"I suppose," Charisma agreed thoughtfully. "I never thought growing up would be what it was."

"I don't think any of us did," Brianna shrugged. "But it is what it is. You do what you can with what you're given and make the best of it. That's just life."

"And if things are taken away instead?"

"You deal with that too."

"I want to read those letters you wrote," Charisma announced abruptly. "I know I probably shouldn't have a right to them after all this time, but the truth is, I would really like to know what they say... especially since they are addressed to me."

"And if I refuse?" Brianna asked wearily. Charisma cocked her head thoughtfully.

"I don't think you will. You wrote them for a reason, Brianna, and you sent them to Mama for safekeeping. Some part of you wants me to read them... maybe even needs me to. I don't know. But I do know you wouldn't have kept them if they weren't important to you... and to me."

"I'd like to talk first," Brianna said frankly. "Privately. I've put myself out there, Charisma. I'd like to know where we stand before...."

"All right," Charisma agreed without hesitation. "Come for dinner...." trailing off when Brianna shook her head.

"No, you come to my place this time. I'll cook."



"I'll bring the wine?"

"Bring bottled water. I want to be sober for this."

Charisma nodded. "Okay. I'll see you in a little while, Bri."

Brianna smiled, but didn't answer. She merely disappeared into her office once more.


"So things are going to change between us regardless, aren't they?" Charisma asked as Brianna ushered her into the small apartment. Brianna took Charisma's coat and motioned her to the sofa.

"Yes," Brianna confirmed. "It doesn't mean they'll be bad changes though. But we need to be on more even footing than we are right now. I know you're probably still processing... still trying to figure out what all of this means to you and for you and about you. But I've been left kind of hanging - blowing in the breeze as it were. And I know you've been busy and I've been busy and this really isn't something we want to discuss over the phone in between meetings and strategy sessions and office work. But...." Brianna finally looked up and noticed an amused spark in Charisma's eye and she frowned. "What?"

"I haven't seen this side of you in twenty years, Bri. It's... refreshing. It makes me feel young again."

"Charisma, you *are* young," the words muffled as she hung Charisma's coat in the closet.

"Not THAT young," she muttered, but she was smiling. "It's been a long time since we met in that dorm room and you swept Daddy off his feet. Truth be told...."Charisma broke off brusquely.

"Truth be told what, Charisma?" Brianna demanded when the silence continued, only to be met with a shake of Charisma's dark head and eyes that studiously avoided hers. Brianna crossed to the couch and curled her fingers under Charisma's chin, lifting it and nudging gently until blue eyes rose to meet green. "Truth be told what, Charisma?" she asked again, her voice soft and filled with understanding.

"Don't make me," Charisma whispered. "Please don't make me."

"Charisma, I promised to tell you the truth when you asked the right question. I think I deserve the same consideration." Silence. "If you can't be honest with me, can you at least be honest with yourself about this?"

"Please don't make me."

Brianna sighed. Here then was the biggest reason she had left - the reason she'd never shared the truth with Charisma. As difficult as it was for Charisma to acknowledge the fact the Brianna loved her, she would never be able to accept the truth of the reverse... that she was in love with Brianna and had been forever.

Brianna leaned down and brushed a kiss of benediction over Charisma's forehead, not surprised to feel the stiffening and slight flinch under her lips. She felt the tears gather in her eyes, but bit them back, knowing Charisma had no right to her pain anymore. She took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling.

"It's all right, Charisma - I won't make you. No one will."

Brianna released her grasp on Charisma's chin, and moved to step away from the couch and towards the kitchen. At least dinner preparations would give her... give them both... a chance to compose themselves. She figured Charisma would try to maintain the status quo they had already established, pretending they were still friends. It would take some effort on her part, but Brianna figured she could manage to pretend friendship for another year and a half or so. Then it wouldn't matter. She would be away from Washington and Charisma and it would be simple enough to disappear from the public eye. And she felt confident that like before, Charisma would be content in allowing Brianna to walk out of her life... because it was easier that way.

All this passed through Brianna's mind in the mere seconds it took her to drop her hand from Charisma's face and take her first step away from Charisma. Then a touch on her hand caused Brianna to freeze.

"Don't go," the words a bare whisper.

Brianna kept her eyes on the kitchen. "I have to, Charisma. I can't stay."

"I can't lose you, Bri... not again."

Brianna smiled sadly. "You can't lose what you never had, Charisma... what you never wanted to have," the harsh words tempered only by the pain she felt. "And we'll always be friends, right?" seeing Charisma shrug uncertainly and knowing she felt exactly the same at the moment."But right now I'm only going to the kitchen. Dinner, remember? I need to get it started if we're going to eat before it gets too late."

"I'm not really hungry," Charisma confessed, swallowing the lump in her throat.

"Would you like to leave then?"

Charisma shook her head. "I thought I had this all figured out. I thought we could be friends again - go back to the way things were before... before you left. When we were best friends and had the world at our feet and our whole lives in front of us. It wouldn't matter that you loved me because friends love each other, right? Especially best friends. And we could work around the fact that loving someone and being in love with them are two different things because it would mean we had our friendship back again. But that's not going to happen, is it?"

Brianna kept her eyes on the far wall, unwilling to let Charisma see the tears and pain in them. She shook her head slowly, the slump of her shoulders conveying her sadness and defeat.

"No, Charisma - it isn't. I've been as honest with you as I know how to be. But if you can't be honest with yourself, you'll never be honest with me. And without honesty between us, we'll never really be friends again - not like we were before. Oh, we might be able to keep in touch... exchange gossip and Christmas cards and recipes now and then. But it will never be like it was." Brianna paused and glanced down at the bowed dark head. "One thing we always had between us was honesty, Charisma, right until the very end. That lack of honesty is what brought us here."

"Your lack of honesty," the words practically spit out in frustration.

"My lack of honesty with you - your lack of honesty with yourself," was the sharp retort.

"And you think that would have mattered??" Charisma asked with venom, jerking her head up to meet Brianna's eyes with angry blue ones. "You think it would have mattered if I had...??" breaking off her words and biting her lip until it bled.

"If you had what, Charisma?" Silence... again. "If you had what??

"I can't," her voice once again so low that Brianna could barely make out the words.

"Can't? Or won't?"

"Everything changes if I say it."

"Everything has already changed, Ri... and it will change again. It's up to you how it happens. Time to decide whether you live by your rules... or everyone else's."

Chapter LXXI

Charisma drew herself up tall though she remained sitting on the couch. "You haven't been in this business very long, Brianna, so I don't expect you to understand. In your business, it's all about truth - your job is to pursue the truth to the best of your ability and ensure that the truth works for you to put the bad guys away and make the world a safer place to live. But here - we're all bad guys, and the truth doesn't matter. It's all about perception - even a lie is okay as long as it's presented in a way that people find acceptable."

"Image is all that matters."

"Essentially, yes."

"And you'd rather live...."

"I accepted that my reality had to conform to society's standard a long time ago, Brianna."

Brianna held Charisma's eyes for a long moment, then blew out a breath while shaking her head in disgust. "I'm glad I don't have to live like that then." She picked up her cell phone and hit her speed dial, gratified when Jas picked it up on the first ring.

"Yes, Senator?"

"Jas, can you please come pick up Senator Tagherty from my apartment and take her home?" Brianna felt Charisma's head snap in her direction, but she refused to acknowledge her. Instead, she kept her attention on her phone conversation.

"Absolutely, Senator. I can be there in five minutes."

"Thanks, Jas. Senator Tagherty will be downstairs waiting. And she'll have a good-sized box with her as well - you'll need to put it in the trunk and help her get it inside when you arrive at her home."

"Understood, Senator."

"Thank you, Jas. I owe you."

"It's my pleasure, Senator." Brianna thumbed off the phone and crossed over to the closet, removing Charisma's coat and turning to find Charisma still sitting on the couch, unmoving. She placed Charisma's coat over the back of the sofa and picked up the analog phone, dialing a single digit. It was answered immediately.

"Sergeant Orwin? Could you send someone up to my apartment, please? Senator Tagherty is leaving and she's got some stuff to take with her."

"Yes ma'am, Senator. Someone will be right there."

"Thank you, Sergeant." When Brianna hung up the phone, she turned to find Charisma glaring at her.

"You're throwing me out??"

"You could look at it that way I suppose. You stated that you weren't hungry, and I'm now completely clear on where I stand with you. As I see it, that means our business is finished. So you're free to take the letters and be on your way with them. Because you were right, of course - I wrote them to you for a reason, and I sent them to Mama for safekeeping. Some part of me obviously does want you to read them... otherwise I would have destroyed them myself when Okasa returned them to me."

A knock on the door halted their conversation, and Brianna walked over to answer it. "Senator Walker? It's Corporal North. Sergeant Orwin sent me - said Senator Tagherty needed help getting some things downstairs." Brianna checked the peephole, then waited for the young woman to hold up her ID badge. Satisfied, Brianna nodded and opened the door, then motioned to the box she'd tucked under the table behind the couch.

"Thank you, Corporal," Brianna offered as the woman hefted the box.

"Of course, Senator. Anything else?"

"No... that's it. Senator Tagherty will be right down."

"Yes ma'am," waiting for Brianna to open the door, then leaving without looking back. Brianna shut the door and turned back to Charisma who was slowly belting her coat.

"So that's it then?" Charisma asked as she moved to stand beside Brianna at the door. Brianna forced herself not to stiffen as Charisma approached, but Charisma picked up on Brianna's trepidation and lingered just out of touching distance.

"That's it. They're yours now, Charisma - you can do what you want with them. Read them, put them away somewhere safe... hell, make a bonfire out of them for all I care. It doesn't matter to me."

"I... thank you, Brianna. You do understand there's nothing personal about this, right?"

Brianna snorted. "Of course there's nothing personal. There never has been," ignoring Charisma's sharp inhalation.

"So, I'll see you at Mama's for Christmas Eve, right?"trying to get the conversation back to something that they would both be comfortable talking about. She was glad there was still over a week before the holiday rolled around. Maybe she and Brianna would be back on a more even keel by then.

"No, Charisma. You won't see me at Mama's for Christmas Eve. I'll call and make my regrets."

Charisma searched the green gaze, but there was nothing to read in Brianna's eyes. "If you really feel that way," she started to say slowly, only to find herself cut off by Brianna's determined voice.

"I do. I'll make sure Mama understands that it is solely my decision."

"You're running away again??"

"No. This time I'm saying goodbye." Brianna opened the door and Charisma crossed the threshold, feeling a finality about things when Brianna softly shut the door between them. Charisma drew a deep breath and headed towards the elevator, refusing to look back.


"So that's it then? We're done?" Saphira asked when Indi stopped speaking. As soon as Charisma had climbed into the limousine, Indi had taken off to let Esmeralda and the rest know what had happened during the confrontation in Brianna's apartment. Even without knowing what had caused Indigo to ask, Jas had given her the go-ahead with a nod, agreeing to keep an eye on Charisma until Indi could get back to watch over her until time for Amber's shift.

Esmeralda motioned her thanks and indicated for Indi to head back before she turned to Saphira. "Not yet," smiling sympathetically when Saphira slumped marginally. "He will decide when it's over and we'll be called home then... or at least the rest will. Ruby will have to make a report and everyone else will corroborate her story by filling in their bits."

"And what about your part, Es? You're still in charge of this.... I'm not sure what to call what this has become."

"All in a day's work, Phira," Esmeralda replied. "As for my part, He'll let me know when He's ready for my report on the mission."

"That's messed up."

"A little maybe - but that's the way things work... or not, in this case."

"So how long does it take to get the call?" Esmeralda frowned, not understanding Saphira's question. "Once He is satisfied with the results... or once the results are deemed final," waiting for Esmeralda to nod her comprehension, "how quickly does the call come?"

"It's almost immediate... at least for the team leader. The others follow pretty quickly though."

"So we're not done yet."

"Evidently not. I'd like to be a fly on the wall when Brianna calls Okasa though. I think Okasa is going to see the District Attorney side of Brianna Walker, and there isn't gonna be room for a plea bargain."

"Do you think Charisma will read those letters tonight?"

"No," said firmly and without hesitation. "I think she'll wait, accepting the time as some sort of penance for having them in the first place. I wouldn't be surprised if somehow in her rationalization about all this, Charisma sees not reading the letters as a form of punishment for Brianna as well."

"That's warped."

"Yeah, but everything else is at this point, so why not her thinking as well? Remember what she told Brianna - it's all about image and perception. She believes that Brianna needs her to read these letters, so if she delays reading them, then she does penance and Brianna is punished."

"For what?"

"Excuse me?"

"For what? Why does Brianna need to be punished?"

"I dunno - you asked if I thought Charisma would read the letters immediately. I was just thinking aloud from there. Given how things have gone so far...."

"My head hurts now."

"Honestly... so does mine. But my heart hurts too. These two seem determined to be miserable apart. Granted, it's more Charisma than Brianna at this point. Denial's not just a river, ya know. Brianna's mostly given up, I think." Esmeralda shook her head. "It's still a lot of speculation on my part of course. Opal and Indi will be able to give us more facts when they get home."

"Meantime, let's go fix a little dinner. I'm not sure Ruby will eat at the diner like we do."

Esmeralda nodded. "And you can tell me how you got the night off while Ruby is working."


"Okasa, this is Brianna."

Okasa frowned. There was something in Brianna's voice... something she hadn't heard since that day long ago when Brianna had come to say goodbye. She shivered in reaction, feeling the tendrils of anxiety begin to curl in her belly. Still, she forced a note of cheerfulness into her voice, hoping beyond hope that her premonition about what was coming was completely off base.

"Hello, Little Bri. How are you this evening?"

"I've been better, Okasa," diligently taking pains *not* to refer to Okasa more familiarly. What she was doing was going to break the older woman's heart and she had no desire to twist the knife any more than was necessary to break the ties that bound them together.

"Is everything all right, Brianna?" her tone of concern genuine and caring. Brianna swallowed hard and steeled herself for what was coming.

"It will be. Listen, Okasa," rushing ahead before she changed her mind, "I wanted to let you know that I won't be there for Christmas."

Okasa sucked in a breath. Despite its awkward moments, Thanksgiving had been such a wonderful holiday for Okasa - having the whole family together again after being fractured for so long had soothed her heart. And she'd thought everyone felt the same. Obviously, she had missed something.

"So we should plan to see you...?"

"You shouldn't. Don't make separate arrangements for me - I won't be celebrating with your family anymore."


"I'm sorry, Okasa. I should have stuck to my guns and done this twenty years ago - then we wouldn't be in this mess and this wouldn't...." She trailed off without finishing the thought, then took a deep breath and steeled her fortitude once more. "Anyway, just... give the boys a kiss for me and tell them I love them, will you? I'm glad you were all a part of my life - I really do love all of you."

"Then why are you doing this, Brianna?"

"Because it needs to be done."


"Goodbye, Okasa," Brianna said, then clicked off the phone and tossed it to the table. She knew it would ring again in a few minutes, but she didn't particularly care. She didn't have to answer it. Besides, she had other things to take care of, and the first thing involved going downstairs to talk to Sergeant Orwin. Then she'd call Indi and go from there.


"And you're sure you want her removed from your list, Senator Walker?"

"I'm sure, Sergeant. Is it going to be a problem?"

"No ma'am. A little unusual, but not a problem. Is Mrs. Tagherty the only visitor you need removed?"

Brianna bit her lip thoughtfully. "Actually, I need all the Taghertys taken off my list. It will make things easier."

Sergeant Orwin cocked his head, wondering what had happened in the hour that Senator Tagherty had been upstairs that Senator Walker was ensuring that Charisma no longer had access to her in her residence. However, it wasn't his job to be a busybody - it was his job to make the tenants of this building comfortable and secure. And if Senator Walker wanted their entrance blocked, then he would make sure it happened for her. He thought it a shame, though - Senator Tagherty had always been nice to him, and she seemed to be one of the few friends Senator Walker had here. Then again, it wasn't his business, so he simply nodded his head.

"It'll be taken care of, Senator. Is there anything else I can do?"

"Not tonight, Sergeant. Thank you for your help."

"I'm glad to do it Senator Walker. Have a nice night."

"You too, Sergeant," Brianna offered as she entered the elevator and headed back to her apartment. She had a couple more calls to make.


When Indi showed up the second time out of the blue, Esmeralda and Saphira just waited for her to explain. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Esmeralda and Saphira exchanged glances, then Saphira nodded and disappeared. Indi sighed and dialed Brianna's number on her cell phone, then put it on speaker so Esmeralda could hear the conversation as well. It was answered on the first ring.

"Senator Walker? This is Indi. I'm sorry I missed your call, but...."

"It's all right, Indi. You *are* supposed to be on holiday. I just need your help for a few minutes, and then you can go back to whatever it was that I interrupted."

"What can I do for you, Senator?"

"I've decided I'd like to go out of town for the holidays." Indi and Esmeralda looked at one another with wide eyes, and Esmeralda gestured towards the phone with her head before the silence drew out too long.

"Yes ma'am," she replied. "And you need me to make the arrangements for you?"

"If you could, please. I'm not sure I remember the last time I did something like that. I'm not even sure where to start to tell you the truth."

"It's all right, Senator. That's what I'm here for," booting up her computer. "Where would you like to go?"

Brianna snorted, brought up short by Indi's question. "You know something? I'm not really sure. I'm being spontaneous, so I haven't actually gotten that far in my thinking."

"Okay - how about I ask you some questions and we'll figure it out together." Brianna agreed, and a few minutes later, the arrangements were made. Brianna thanked Indi for her help and the call ended. Then Indi sank back into the chair she was sitting in and sighed.

"I'm sorry, Es - I didn't know what else to do."

"You did the right thing, Indi. At least we'll know where she is. And Opal and Coral should be able to go back and forth to cover her until she returns."

"Es, do you think that's necessary?"

Esmeralda sighed. "I don't think we can afford to think otherwise. We can't let our guard down now."

"You think we're close to the end?"

Esmeralda snorted. "I've thought that several times already and every time I've been wrong," garnering a sympathetic smile from Indi. "However, I refuse to be lax at this stage. I won't fail them as long as I have the opportunity to make a difference for them."

"This one hit close to home, huh?"

"Yeah - I just wish...."

"Es, you've done all you can."

"I know. It doesn't make me wish any less." She sighed. "How was Charisma?"

"Broody. She kept glaring at that box of letters like it had stolen her favorite dolly and was dismembering it in front of her."

Esmeralda's eyebrows shot into her hairline. "That's quite a visual."

"Yeah, well... so was the look on her face."

Esmeralda snorted. "So I take it she hadn't opened the box yet?"

"She hasn't actually touched it. Jas brought it in the house for her and put it on the coffee table in her study. That's where it was when I left - still unopened. And Charisma was sitting at her desk... just glaring at it."

"So I was at least partially correct."


Esmeralda shook her head. "Later. C'mon. Amber and Coral will be leaving in just a few and when Opal and Saphira and Ruby get here we can see where we're at."

"We're behind the eight ball, Es," Amber offered with a smile as she walked by the living room. "Just like always." Esmeralda just smirked and shook her head, waving goodbye to Amber and Coral before they disappeared from sight.

Chapter LXXII

Charisma had glared at the box for a while longer before she headed up to her bedroom. She deliberately ignored the photo album that once again rested on her bedside table, and went straight into the bathroom to run a hot bath. When it was full and fragrant, she stepped into the water with a sigh, closing her eyes and letting the sounds of Mozart lull her into a place of serenity.

But eventually the water cooled and Charisma bathed quickly and wrapped herself in a bath sheet when her feet were firmly on the mat. Then she looked up and caught sight of herself in the mirror, and she walked closer to get a better look.

She dropped the towel and eyed herself critically, noting with a bit of pride that she was still in good shape for a middle-aged woman, especially after having given birth. Not a lot of sagging and still pretty firm where it counted. Then again, Charisma acknowledged to herself wryly, she'd paid good money to that trainer and spent hours upon hours regaining her figure after Adam had been born.

A chill chased over her skin and she watched the goosebumps rise in its path. She reached down for the towel, rewrapping herself then leaning forward to look at her face. There were slight lines around her eyes and mouth that could be attributed to laughter or, in the case of the ones near her lips, considered dimples if one didn't look too closely.

Her lips were full, her eyes wide, her nose straight. There were no gray hairs - regular trips to her hairdresser ensured that her highlights remained natural looking and her grays remained hidden. She tilted her head and stared harder at herself, straining to see whatever it was that had caused Brianna to fall in love with her. Charisma wondered if after the discussion they'd had if Brianna still saw it, and if she would ever share with Charisma what it was.

Charisma sighed - she'd come up here to get away from Brianna and all thoughts of Brianna, and yet they followed her like a spectre. The box of letters sat unopened on the coffee table in her study and even from this distance she could hear them mocking her.

She scrubbed her hands over her eyes, hoping to clear her mind. She grabbed her robe from the back of the door and pushed her arms into it, belting it closed before stepping foot into her bedroom. Charisma growled when she spotted the album on the nightstand, and hastened back out of the bedroom and down the stairs. She was headed to the bar in her study, but abruptly walked into the kitchen instead. She'd told Brianna the truth... just not the whole truth. It was all about image and perception, but behind that was control. And Charisma wasn't going to relinquish her control to anyone - certainly not to alcohol.

She took the milk from the refrigerator and pulled out the smallest saucepan she could find. Then she warmed some milk and added a taste of vanilla and a hint of sugar. When it was ready, she took the mug upstairs and settled into bed.

Charisma deliberately reached over the album, sneering at it before grabbing for the latest thriller that she'd purchased on the recent trip she'd made to Mama's. She didn't get to read for pleasure very often, so she generally stuck with tried and true. This book, however - there was something about the cover that caught her eyes, and the description on the back had clinched it. And for the first time in a very long time, Charisma had been pleasantly surprised by something new.

Now she found her place and relaxed into the pillows as she sipped her milk and immersed herself in the imagination of H.A. Fontana.

It wasn't until sometime later - when her milk was finished and she was snuggled down ready to turn off the light - that Charisma realized she hadn't heard from Okasa. She knew if Brianna had made good her threat to call Okasa and cancel her holiday plans with the family, Okasa would have called her immediately to do something to rectify the situation. Charisma idly wondered if perhaps Brianna had reconsidered giving up Christmas with the family - after all, Thanksgiving had been wonderful. Surely Brianna wasn't willing to miss personal family time with the boys... and everyone else... because of business.

Satisfied that Brianna had come to her senses and would be at Mama's when Christmas Eve rolled around, Charisma clicked off the light and slowly slipped into sleep.


It was the smell of coffee that brought Charisma out of a dead sleep. She frowned and blinked her eyes open slowly, trying to remember if she'd set the coffeemaker the night before. A glance at the clock made her sit up sharply, knowing there was no way in the blue blazes of hell itself that she'd set *anything* for five o'clock in the morning. Even when Congress was in session she didn't get up this early. She certainly didn't when they were in recess... especially when Adam wasn't home.

Charisma got up soundlessly and crept to the closet, opening the safe and pulling out the handgun she kept locked inside. Though she seriously doubted an assailant would stop to make coffee, the fact remained that *someone* was in her house who hadn't been there the night before when she'd gone to bed. So she eased down the stairs silently, glad for the time she'd spent training on the range... and the black belt she could fall back on if necessary.

Charisma took a deep breath and raised the gun. Then she eased around the kitchen doorframe and nearly dropped the gun on the floor in surprise when she realized who her unexpected visitor was.

"Mama?! What are you doing sneaking into my house at five o'clock in the morning?" She latched the safety and put the gun on the counter out of sight before moving closer to Okasa's side.

Okasa gave Charisma a sardonic look. "I snuck into your house at midnight... only because you were already in bed asleep I might add. I am making coffee at five a.m. because I couldn't sleep."

Charisma frowned. "Is everything okay?" She held up a hand before Okasa could make a smart retort. "Obviously everything *isn't* okay if you're here and sneaking into my house at some ungodly hour of the night without calling first. Is it Adam?" her voice becoming more frantic. "Mama, what's wrong?? Where's my son??"

"It's not Adam," Okasa reassured Charisma immediately, smiling as she watched the tension flow out of Charisma's body "He's at home with Paddy and Ame where he's supposed to be. But something is definitely wrong. Has anything happened between you and Brianna recently?"

"How do you mean?" Charisma hedged, moving to the cabinet and reaching for a cup so she could keep her back to Okasa. Okasa grabbed her by the shoulder and forced Charisma to turn around and face her.

"Don't play games with me, Charisma Tagherty. You may be a big shot in Washington, D.C., but you're still my daughter and I won't tolerate disrespect from you."

"Mama, I wouldn't...."

"You just did. I'm not stupid. Please don't act like I am. Now," taking a deep breath and continuing only a little less severely, "what happened between you and Brianna?"

"May I ask why you're asking first?"

Okasa sighed. "She called me earlier this evening... or rather, last evening. Told me she couldn't make it for Christmas, and basically stated that we weren't going to be a family... her family... anymore." Okasa felt more than saw Charisma's swift intake of breath, but she ignored it and resumed speaking. "I know things were good at Thanksgiving - I know you two worked some things out. So what happened? What made Brianna call and remove herself from our family, Charisma?"

"Why are you asking me? Why do you assume it's my fault?"

The look Okasa shot Charisma was telling. "Now you're being deliberately stupid, Charisma, and it doesn't suit you."

"Excuse me?" the anger making her face flush a deep, dark red. Okasa held blue eyes without flinching.

"No excuse. But don't worry...." She pointed a finger at Charisma. "I'm not going to burst that bubble you're living in just yet. First I want to know what happened between you and Brianna that got me locked out of the Senate apartment building."

"Excuse me?" Charisma repeated. "What?"

Okasa blew out an impatient breath and picked up her mug. "C'mon... this is going to take a while obviously and I am too tired and too sore to stand around the kitchen at this time of the morning." They went into the family room and Charisma realized immediately that Okasa had tried sleeping on the couch. While comfortable enough for short naps, it wasn't made for long term sleeping and she turned to her mother in consternation.

"You were trying to sleep down here?? Why didn't you go upstairs to one of the guest rooms?"

"You came downstairs with a gun this morning when you smelled coffee brewing," Okasa replied wryly. "Do you really think I would chance sneaking around up there last night when the only thing that would have been announcing my presence was sound?? I like living, Charisma - I still have a number of things left to do on my bucket list before I die. I'd rather not get shot by my daughter because I was creeping around unexpectedly in her home at midnight."

"Well when you put it that way...." Charisma said drolly. Okasa gave her a tight smile. "Mama, why didn't you just call me?"

"Have a seat," motioning Charisma to one of the recliners while she reseated herself on the couch. "I'll start at the beginning of my part of this saga. Then maybe you'll fill in the beginning of yours."


"So by the time I was finished talking to the young man on duty and he roused his sergeant to explain to me what Brianna had done and why he couldn't countermand her directive and so forth and so on, it was close to midnight. I did call your cell phone, but when I got no answer I figured you were out at some party or other. It was only once I got here and saw that the house was dark that I realized you were probably in bed asleep. So I let myself in."

"She really had you banned from the building?"

"Not from the building per se - simply from her visitor's list. I couldn't even get the young man to call and find out if there had been a mistake. When the sergeant came in, he assured me that Brianna had spoken to him personally shortly after you'd left. And a short time after that, she'd left for the remainder of the holiday for parts unknown."

"I thought she understood," Charisma muttered.

"Understood what?"

"It doesn't matter - evidently I was incorrect in my supposition."

Okasa glared. "Charisma, what did you and Brianna argue about?"

"We didn't argue, Mama," keeping her gaze steady when Okasa snorted her disbelief. "We didn't," Charisma insisted. "We talked about a number of different things, including the nature of the business that is politics in this town, but we didn't argue. She gave me the letters you told me about and then I left."

"And have you read them? The letters, Charisma - have you read them?"

"Mama, I just brought the box home last night. I haven't had time...."

"Have you even opened the box yet, Charisma?"

Charisma huffed. "No, Mama... I haven't. I do have other things in my life that take precedence over some old letters that were written twenty years ago," her expression defiant. Okasa glared at Charisma with more than a hint of disgust and aggravation on her countenance and Charisma shrugged her shoulders diffidently. "What??"

"You're a coward, Charisma Tagherty, and we raised you better than that. However," she went on, ignoring Charisma's sputtered attempts at outrage, "except as it concerns Brianna's withdrawal from our family, it's not really my business, is it?" Okasa paused. "That's what you were going to say, wasn't it? " A beat. "Charisma, if the letters weren't that important to you, why did you push to get them?"

"Who says I did?"

"Charisma, I *know* what Brianna's reaction was when she found out you knew about the letters. I'm the one who had to tell her you knew!"

"That doesn't mean I demanded she give them to me!"

"She wouldn't have given them to you if you hadn't asked her for them. They were hers to give... or not... and I know for a fact she had no intention of sharing them with you right now - she TOLD me so. But then she's never really been able to deny you very much, Daughter."

"I don't see what the big deal is - they're just some old letters that are addressed to me. Wouldn't you be the least bit curious if it was you, Mama?"

"Yes, probably," Okasa admitted without hesitation. "But then I never treated anyone in my life the way you have Brianna."

"She's the one who walked away, Mama!"

"And you're the one who let her go." Okasa snorted, her mien tainted with more than a hint of sadness. "You'd like to think no one can see past the façade you've built around yourself. But the truth of the matter is - you're the only one who can't... or won't... see past it." She sighed soundlessly and rose from the couch. "Go read your letters, Charisma - or don't. It's up to you. I'm going to go take a shower and then I'm going home."


"You said you had things to do. So do I, and believe it or not, they don't involve staying here. The only reason I came down here in the first place is because Brianna refused to answer the phone after she said goodbye."

"Wait - she said goodbye to you?"

"Yes. And this time, I think she intends for it to stick."

"How dare she...!! After all this family has done for her!! I'll...."

"You'll what, Charisma??" Okasa asked kindly. "She's done as much for this family as any other member of it without any real obligation except the one in her heart. And no expectation of it lasting beyond the moment, though I blame her parents for that outlook as much as I blame...."

"As much as you blame me?" Charisma asked bitterly, shocking Okasa with her tone.

"I was going to say as much as I blame anything else in her life, Charisma. Why would you think I'd blame you for that?"

"You seem to be blaming me for everything else," her attitude almost petulant. "Why not this?" Charisma sighed and closed her eyes, willing herself to find the calm center she'd developed for dealing with crises many years prior. When she felt it slip into place, she opened her eyes and looked at Okasa. "I'm sorry, Mama. That was uncalled for."

Okasa wanted to cry. She felt like she'd been making headway, even if it had been inch by battering, bloody inch. And now Charisma's walls were back in place. She nodded and turned her back to Charisma so she could start stripping the couch of the bedding she had used. "No harm, no foul, right?"

Charisma chuckled, though it sounded strained and awkward. "You've been hanging around with the boys too much, Mama, if you're using sports idioms."

"They're the ones I see for dinner every week, Charisma. And there is always sports talk after dinner if not during." She finished folding the blanket and placed it on one end of the couch. "Even the girls get involved in a lot of it."

"That must make for some interesting meals."

"It makes for some interesting dialogue at any rate." Her smile held a hint of embarrassment. "I've already had to put a couple topics off-limits. They came perilously close to starting food fights."

"I'm sorry I missed that," Charisma offered quietly.

Okasa nodded, offering absolution. "We understand, Charisma. We always have. It's why we welcomed Brianna into our home and into our family all those years ago. And why we'll let her walk away from us now."


"You needed us to make her part of the family. She needs us to let her go."

"I don't want to," Charisma whispered, her distress evident.

Okasa smiled sadly. "Neither do I... none of us do. But it's probably for the best." She turned and faced Charisma, then lifted a hand and cupped Charisma's cheek and tenderly wiped away the tear that spilled from blue eyes.

"How can you say that, Mama?"

"Call it mother's intuition, Charisma. Brianna's lived with this knowledge for a very long time. Maybe with some space from all of us, she'll be able to find some peace for herself."

"SoI get a couple weeks to assimilate this whole thought-altering concept that by your own admission she's had years to deal with and she gets to go off to find peace?? How's that's supposed to be fair?!?" Charisma's outrage was overriding her anguish at the way her life was falling apart around her. Okasa shook her head and pulled Charisma's face towards her until she could brush a kiss over her forehead. Charisma squeezed her eyes shut tighter, recalling Brianna performing the same act of forgiveness the night before.

"Oh, Sweetheart - I never said anything about it being fair. Life generally isn't. Besides, it wasn't really that thought-altering for you, was it?? The only alteration to your thinking is that now you have confirmation of what you've always known in your heart. It's just at the forefront of your mind instead of something you can dismiss as your imagination... or wishful thinking."

Charisma's jaw dropped, but she was unable to formulate a response before Okasa kissed her again, then turned and left the room. The shower was running in the guest bath before she pulled herself together and started picking up the things in the family room. By the time Okasa returned, dressed and ready to leave, Charisma had pulled herself together and rejected Okasa's words as frivolous.

"Are you sure you need to rush off, Mama? I could take some time...."

"I'm sure. I know you have things to take care of. I expect you home in a few days," waiting for Charisma to nod. "And you think about what I said," deflating slightly when she saw Charisma had already dismissed her statements as inconsequential.

"Drive home safely, Mama," Charisma offered, giving Okasa a hug and walking her to the door.

"Goodbye, Daughter. See you soon. I love you."

"I know, Mama. I love you too." She waited for Okasa to get into her car and roll towards the gate. Then she shut the door and headed upstairs to get ready for her day, painstakingly avoiding even a glance at the study. She would deal with that later.

Chapter LXXIII

Brianna stretched out on the bed with a sigh of contentment. Notwithstanding the fact that she knew she was running away again, the only feeling she could dredge up about it this time was one of peace. She was tired and she felt as though she'd been buffeted by hurricane force winds for the last few months. At least before, tempestuous hadn't meant she got beaten black and blue on a daily basis. And that's how she felt - in the very depths of her soul. She felt like she'd been beaten with a stick every day since accepting the appointment as interim Senator. She'd expected it to be hard - she hadn't expected it to be deadly.

And despite how melodramatic that sounded, it was how she felt - like she was dying inch by slow inch. Brianna took a deep breath. She hadn't even realized she was suffocating... drowning... until she left... until she arrived in Dubai and felt everything slip from her shoulders. She'd have to remember to do something really nice for Indi - this had been a spectacular choice.

Brianna turned to look at her view and smiled when a school of fish swam past her room.Who knew you could have an underwater panorama if you chose the right resort to visit? She clicked on the flat-screen and perused the choices of activities at the resort. And for the first time in months, felt her creative juices stirring. She might be able to get a novel or two out of this adventure.

But first she needed to call Esmeralda. She had promised to keep in touch, and being half a world away wasn't going to change that.


"Brianna - you didn't have to call me from Dubai," Esmeralda said with a tiny laugh. "I can certainly understand wanting to get away from the snow and the cold for a while. I definitely would too, given the opportunity… even without the extenuating circumstances."

"You don't think I'm a coward, Es?"

"Brianna - what I think shouldn't matter. Do you think you're a coward?"

Brianna sighed. "I think I'm tired, Es. I've tried everything I know to try."

"Then take a break, Brianna. Maybe you'll come back with a fresh outlook."

"Maybe I'll finally be able to put it to rest once and for all."

"Maybe," Esmeralda said as noncommittally as she could manage. "I guess this means we won't be seeing you around Christmas though, huh?"

"Not this year, Es. But is there anything I can bring you back from here?"

"Just yourself home safely, Brianna. I'll miss having you around to talk to while you're gone."

Brianna chuckled. "I'll still call you every few days, Es. The phones work here just like they do in Washington. And you have my number if anything comes up, right?"

"I do."

"All right. I'll talk to you in a couple days then, okay?"

"Have a good time, Brianna. Take some pictures and relax."

"I will - talk to you soon."

"Be happy, Brianna."

"Bye, Es."


"Es, this is Charisma."

"Hey Charisma! How are you enjoying the break?" having a fairly good idea after hearing about things from Indi and Coral especially, but wondering what Charisma would offer as her truth.

"Staying busy - for some reason the holidays don't mean less work... just different," smiling when she got a chuckle from Esmeralda. "How about you, Es? Are you getting some rest?"

"I'm becoming a spoiled lady of leisure," Esmeralda responded lightly. "I haven't felt this good since... I'm not sure I've ever felt this good actually. I feel almost made over."

"That's wonderful, Es... just amazing. I guess Saphira is thrilled with the turnaround?"

Esmeralda laughed. "I'm pretty sure that's an understatement, Charisma. I haven't seen her this relaxed in a long time - like she's carrying a much lighter burden."

"She is, Es, and Mama will be happy to hear it for both of your sakes. She asks about you every time we talk." Charisma wavered a moment, then pushed on. "Will you be joining us for Christmas?" She almost felt Esmeralda's eyes widen in shock. "You're family now, you know."

"Oh Charisma - that's... it's wonderful of you to say so, but I don't think we can. Even if we had a way to get there, I don't see how we could go this year. Saphira is picking up as many extra shifts as Matilda will let her have, and I wouldn't leave her here by herself even if it was an option for me. But I appreciate the thought... we both do. Make sure to give the family our love, won't you?"

"You know I will," Charisma assured her with a smile that could be heard over the phone. "I expected that answer, but I promised Mama I'd ask. Don't be surprised if I come by the day after with a truckload of stuff for you both though. You know how Mama is."

"I do indeed. You're very lucky."

"Mama reminds me of that all the time," Charisma snorted. Esmeralda laughed again."Listen Es," Charisma said before the silence could become uncomfortable. "Do you by any chance... have you been in touch with Brianna lately?"

Esmeralda sighed. She'd wondered if she would get out of this unscathed, then shook her head. She should have known better. "Um... yeah - she called me yesterday. Said she'd had enough of the cold and snow and was gonna spend a little time in the sun before Congress resumed in January."

"You didn't happen to ask where she was did you?"

"No... it didn't occur to me to ask," not mentioning she hadn't needed to since Brianna had freely shared the information with her. "Why? Is something wrong, Charisma?"

"What? No - she asked me for a copy of something," looking at the picture of the two of them at Trevi Fountain. It made Charisma want to cry, but she took a deep breath to fortify her nerves - she'd promised Brianna a copy and she was damn well going to deliver despite everything. "But I haven't been able to reach her so we could plan a time for me to get it to her. I tried calling her, but...." A pause. "Do you know if she called you from her cell phone?"

"I don't know, Charisma. I didn't ask. I assumed she did." When silence met her answer, Esmeralda pushed a little, having a very good idea what Charisma was talking about. "Charisma, is it something you could send to her by email?"

"Not really... I mean, I guess I could if I had to. But at the moment it's just a hard copy item."

"Is it something you could scan in or is it like a book?"

Charisma sucked in another deep breath then covered her mouth, pressing hard against her lip to keep the tears at bay. She cleared her throat. "No... it's something I could scan in. It's a picture we had taken together - when we were in Rome years ago."

"Well, if it's important enough that it can't wait for her to return from her trip, maybe you could scan a copy in and send it to her by email. You can always give her a hard copy once she returns," knowing that it was more than important... to both of them.

Charisma slowly released the breath she'd been holding and nodded her head even though Esmeralda couldn't see her reaction. "I suppose I could do that. I may have to make a few phone calls first, though," she added as an aside.

"Charisma?" Esmeralda's voice rising almost as much as her eyebrows.

Charisma gave her a deprecating chuckle. "Es, I turn the computer on and I turn the computer off. For everything else, I have interns and personal assistants." She shook her head. "Sometimes I have interns and personal assistants for that too actually, come to think of it," she added drolly.

Esmeralda laughed. "Well, Charisma - I know your staff is supposed to be on vacation. So if you can't figure it out and you can't get ahold of someone, you let me know. I'll come by and give you a hand."

"You'd do that? Es, that's so sweet. I'll tell you what - is Saphira working tomorrow?"

"Yes, of course."

"How about if I pick you both up about nine-thirty? You can come over and share brunch with me, and if I haven't figured out how to scan this thing in by then, you can help me figure it out... or show me how to do it. Whatever works. We can drop Saphira off at the diner on our way back to your house."

"Are you sure?"

Charisma frowned. "What do you mean am I sure?? Of course I'm sure. So it's a date?"

"You bet, Charisma... it's a date."


"The house seems so quiet without Adam," Saphira commented when they were ensconced in Charisma's study after brunch the following day. Esmeralda glared at her and Saphira shrugged. "What?? It's the truth. I miss my little buddy."

Charisma laughed. "It is. And I'm sure he misses you too - my mother still hasn't cured him of streaking through the house naked yet."

"Tell her to turn the heat off," Esmeralda instructed seriously. "After about the third time, that one was cured," gesturing to Saphira who gave an incredulous looking Charisma her best sheepish grin.

"What??" she asked again. "We were all born naked - it's a perfectly natural state."

"So is snow and ice - it doesn't mean I want it parading through the house in the middle of winter. Especially when we've got people living with us... even if they are family."

Charisma blinked and shook her head. "You two continue to confound me, honestly," meeting the twin looks of disbelief that gazed back at her. "What? I'm not kidding. You're both so different from anyone I've ever met. I'm sure I've never known a couple like the two of you."

"Not even in your family?"

Charisma shook her head. "Not even - it's not that they're not all happily married and don't love each other, but you two seem like such a part of one another. It's just... it's hard to describe. But it's very different from anything I've ever known."

Saphira's eyebrows went into her hairline. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

"A little of both, I think. It's a good thing for me because I know you and have gotten to experience something... amazing. It's a bad thing that I don't really know more like you. The world could use more people like you two in it."

"Yeah," Esmeralda agreed as she met Saphira's eyes, love and mischief twinkling out of hers in equal proportions. "A little bit crazy always helps."

"Especially if the crazy fits perfectly with someone else's," Saphira added with a laugh. Charisma laughed with them and shook her head.

"We're going to miss you at Mama's table in a couple days. Are you sure you can't come? I could stay and give you a ride up and back."

Saphira shook her head. "No, Charisma. I don't get off until four on Christmas Eve and I have to be back for a lunch shift the day after Christmas. Thank you though - we appreciate the thought more than you'll ever know."

"If you're sure...."

"We are. So when are you leaving?"

"Well, since I wasn't able to talk you into changing your minds, I guess I'll leave this afternoon."

"I guess we better see if we can make this thing work, then," Esmeralda said. She motioned to the laptop sitting on the desk. "Do you mind or...?"

"Please. It's password protected, so let me know when you're ready for me to do my part." Saphira moved around Esmeralda, hooking up the to the computer and in a few moments they had Charisma set up and ready to go. She just looked at them. "Wait... that's it?"

"That's it. All we need now is the picture, and we'll scan it in. Then you can attach it to an email and send it on its merry way."

"Well, well - I've learned something new today. I guess you really can teach an old bitch new tricks." Charisma snorted at the shocked expressions on her companions' faces. "Please... like I don't know what they say about me in the halls and offices. You can't be a woman in my business and not be a bitch as far as your colleagues and most of the rest of the world are concerned... not if you're going to get somewhere. Now, show me where the picture is."

"We need to scan it in first," Esmeralda reminded her with a gentle smile that held the tiniest hint of teasing. "You haven't actually given it to us yet."

Charisma just shook her head and crossed to the coffee table where the album was resting once more. "One day," she said, looking at them pointedly as she thumbed through the album to retrieve the picture she needed. "One day, you're going to get old... just like me. And while I know I'm politely considered middle-aged by most of society, the fact is that I am getting old. The mind isn't what it once was and neither is the body."

"I don't know, Charisma - I don't think you have much to worry about on either score," Esmeralda offered honestly. "A lot of women pay good money to look as fabulous as you do."

Charisma smirked. "And what makes you think I don't?"

"I've seen your Mama."

Charisma's jaw snapped closed so quickly she almost bit her tongue. She cut her eyes at Esmeralda who returned the look with an innocent expression. Charisma turned her attention to Saphira who was struggling not to laugh.

"You better keep your eye on her, Saphira. She's sneaky."

"And very good at it," Saphira added without missing a beat. She accepted the photograph Charisma handed over. She put it on the scanner, then nodded to Esmeralda, and in another moment, the job was complete.

"There you go, Charisma - all done."

Thank you... both of you. I appreciate the help."

"We were happy to do it. It's a beautiful picture - looks like a precious memory."

"It was," Charisma replied firmly, effectively ending that line of conversation. "So where is the picture?" coming to stand behind Esmeralda.

With a click, Esmeralda showed her and in another moment, Charisma had sent the email winging towards Brianna's inbox. Then Charisma turned and looked at her friends. "C'mon - we need to get going if Saphira's not going to be late for her shift."

Saphira and Esmeralda exchanged glances, then nodded at Charisma and followed her from her study and out to the garage. Obviously they had upset her with their observations.


"Did she say anything else to you after you dropped me off at the diner?" Saphira asked Esmeralda much later that evening when they were getting ready for bed. She stepped into the bathroom to brush her teeth and Esmeralda followed her in with a hairbrush, gently pulling the tangles and snarls out of the long, dark hair. Saphira moaned in response and relaxed into the touch, garnering her a smile from Esmeralda.

"She apologized for being so curt - said she was embarrassed because she needed our help for something so obviously simple and basic."

Saphira arched a brow and snorted. "She needs to add denial to the skill section of her resume. Did she really think you would buy something that lame as an explanation?"

"She hoped I would. You didn't see the desperation in her eyes when she proffered her regret."

Saphira nodded, spitting and rinsing before she turned to ask, "Have you heard from Opal or Coral?"

"Briefly. Brianna is enjoying Dubai - she's relaxing, getting out in the sun... seems to be writing a lot."

"And Indi...?"

"Said Charisma made it safely to Mama's. Kent is supposed to be there tomorrow night, so he's there when Adam gets up on Christmas Eve."

"So things are status quo?"

"As far as I know. I haven't heard any differently from Mal."

Saphira stretched and dropped her robe at the end of the bed, then climbed naked under the covers with a sigh. The sigh became a growl when she watched Esmeralda do the same before she slid along Saphira's length.

"Have I mentioned how happy I am that you're feeling so much better?" Saphira asked as her hands began to wander over naked skin. She grinned rakishly when Esmeralda shivered at her touch, then urged her down until her mouth could take possession of Esmeralda's lips.

Esmeralda giggled when they separated for air, burying her face in Saphira's neck and nipping along the tendons until she reached the shell of Saphira's ear. "You may have mentioned it once or twice recently," she whispered, "but I never tired of you expressing your joy on the subject." She bit down lightly on the earlobe near her lips, then found herself flipped on her back with Saphira crouched over her like a predator.

"Well then," her blue eyes flashing fire and her voice causing a thrill to chase up Esmeralda's spine. "Allow me to express my joy again," she commanded, leaning down and capturing Esmeralda's lips in a passionate embrace once more.

"As often as you like, Love... as long as you remember that I get a turn too."

"In that case, Sweetheart, I may need to call in sick tomorrow. Because I plan to take my time with you... all night long." Saphira didn't give Esmeralda the chance to respond verbally, but words weren't necessary to facilitate their conversation.

Chapter LXXIV

"We probably should have slept a little," Saphira commented with a smile as sunlight started creeping into the bedroom some hours later. She and Esmeralda were cuddled up together in the middle of the bed and her hands traced random patterns over Esmeralda's sensitive skin.

"Why?" Esmeralda asked as she leaned up on one elbow to allow her to look down into twinkling blue eyes. "Are you tired?" pushing dark bangs off of Saphira's face. Saphira chuckled and cupped Esmeralda's cheek, stroking the skin with her thumb.

"I have enough energy at the moment to run a marathon," Saphira confessed. "But you...."

"... haven't felt this wonderful in forever, Phira. It's always been amazing for me to be loved by you, but last night it was like we were new all over again."

"For me too, Es. I've missed being with you like this."

"Me too. I think this break has been good for both of us."

"I know it has," Saphira countered. "And having Ruby take some of the workload and since Matilda has hired the new girl...."

"You've had an almost human schedule."

Saphira laughed. "I have indeed. It's been nice... almost restful. Now if Charisma and Brianna would just get with the plan...." Saphira tugged on Esmeralda's arm and waited until she resettled herself before she curled around her. "What did you think of that photograph Charisma sent Brianna yesterday?"

"About the picture itself? I think it's very telling. About the fact that she sent it? I think she wants things both ways, and frankly, I hope Brianna doesn't let her have it."

"Do you think Brianna's strong enough not to give in to her?"

Esmeralda sighed thoughtfully and considered her answer. "I do." She turned so she could see Saphira's profile in her periphery. "You didn't hear her when she called the other day, Love. She sounded so heart sore. And we know she said goodbye this time - to Charisma *and* Okasa."

"You know as anxious as I've been for this to be over with, I'm a little sad coming to the end."

Esmeralda crinkled her forehead and twisted until she could look into Saphira's eyes. "Why do you say that?"

"I'm sad because it looks like all your efforts and that of your team are going to have been in vain as far as Brianna and Charisma are concerned. Because I don't see Charisma leaving the land of denial - she's been there for twenty years and it's known and comfortable for her. And if Brianna has given up, then there really isn't much of anything left, is there?"

"Then why hasn't He called us home... or at least them home? Ruby and the girls are still here."

Saphira shrugged. "Maybe we have to wait until Brianna and Charisma see each other again before it's final. I dunno. What I do know is that I have to get ready for work. Wanna shower with me?"

Esmeralda grinned. "Now when have you ever known me to turn down an offer like that?"

The closing of the bathroom door cut off the sound of their banter.


"Kent... come in, come in. No need to stand on ceremony - you should know that by now." Kent ducked his head in acknowledgement of Patrick's words as he ushered him inside the study. "Did you have a good trip?"

"Mercifully short and free from stoppage," Kent said with a smile, nodding his head when Patrick held up a bottle of single malt whisky. He set his bag on one side of the room and dropped his jacket on top of it. "I didn't actually expect anyone to be up this late, but I saw your light, so I thought I'd take a chance and see if you were still awake."

"Just taking a little break," motioning around the room at the different Christmas gifts he was assembling for some of the older grandchildren. Kent winced and took a seat in the chair across from the one Patrick seated himself in

"Would you like some help?"

"I'd be delighted to accept," Patrick replied instantly. "I'm thankful the kids are spaced out enough that I don't have to do all eleven of them at once. Two or three a year is enough."

"It makes me thankful to have one child," Kent said.

"So you and Charisma aren't planning anymore then?" Patrick was well aware of what Charisma had told Okasa and the rest at Thanksgiving, but he was curious about Kent's feelings on the subject.

"No, I don't think so, Paddy. It's hard enough to find time to spend with Adam. I don't see how adding more children to the mix would help." Kent didn't mention the fact that he didn't expect to ever be that intimate with Charisma again, to say nothing of married to her, though he supposed she could surprise him by fighting for their marriage. He didn't think she would though, and he found he wasn't unduly upset by that fact. At least they would have an ending instead of continuing to live in limbo. Kent started when Patrick leaned forward and placed a hand on his arm.

"You all right, Kent? I didn't mean to throw a wrench into things by asking."

Kent chuckled. "You didn't, Paddy. I'm just tired and my mind tends to wander."

"Everything's all right then?"

"Everything's good, actually. The play's doing really well; business at the restaurant is steady." He shrugged. "No complaints, actually."

Patrick smiled. "That's good to hear." He swallowed his whisky and rose and Kent did the same. They moved back to the pile of parts Patrick still had to assemble.

"So I guess I'm the last to arrive?" Kent asked as he grabbed the frame Patrick motioned to and held it steady while Patrick slid the handlebars into place and took the lock nut Kent offered. Patrick chuckled and nodded.

"Yes - Charisma arrived yesterday afternoon and you arrived tonight, or this morning, rather. And since we don't count the boys and their families because they live here, that would definitely make you the last."

"Wait... where's everybody else? I know Mother is overseas. She called and told me she would be in London over the holidays visiting an 'old friend'." Kent looked his understanding of just what kind of friend he suspected his mother was sharing the holiday with and Patrick nodded his understanding. "But where are the rest that were here for Thanksgiving? The new friends we met," not mentioning anyone by name.

"Different things came up, I guess. Kay and her family have never spent Christmas Eve or Christmas day with us - instead they have always come on the twenty-eighth... halfway between Christmas and New Year's. Charisma said that Saphira had to work and of course Esmeralda chose to stay with her." Patrick paused. "Mama really likes them."

"You don't?"

"What?? No, I do too. But you know the old saying, so as long as Mama's happy...." seeing Kent acknowledge the truth of his words. "They seemed like genuine people and it was funny to watch Saphira confound Hunter. Not many do that."

"That's true - I'd like to see the video of that."

"Pretty sure we can accommodate you," Patrick assured Kent with a smile. He tightened the last sprocket on the bike Kent held and sighed. Kent set the finished bike aside, and they moved on to the next one. He waited until Patrick had the handlebars in place before he spoke again.

"What about Brianna?"

Patrick shrugged. "I'm not sure. Mama said... Mama said Brianna was going out of town."

"You don't believe her?"

"No, I do. I just don't understand why Brianna left so suddenly. According to Mama it was a last-minute decision. I'm kind of curious as to what prompted it." Even as the words spilled from Patrick's lips, Kent found himself wondering the same thing. Then he brought his attention back to Patrick who was still speaking. "... hasn't been here for Christmas Eve in a long time, she's always shared part of the Christmas holiday with us."

"You don't think she'll share with you when she gets back?"

Patrick met Kent's eyes, and Kent could see the unhappiness. "I don't think she's coming back, Kent. Not here anyway. She told Mama goodbye."

"I don't understand."

"I'm not sure I do either. I just know what Mama said. And Mama is rarely wrong about this kind of stuff." Kent nodded and they fell silent and focused their attention on the task at hand.


Brianna hissed as the masseuse loosened yet another knot in her shoulders. "Dig deep, Ramon."

The big man above her smiled and added more pressure to his efforts, chuckling silently when he got a loud groan for his trouble. "Better, Ms Walker?"

"So much. I can't tell you how wonderful...."

"You do not have to - your body speaks for itself. I do not know what you have done to develop such knots of stress, but I would like to recommend that you endeavor to end such activities."

"Soon, Ramon - a year and a half or so... give or take."

"If I was you, I would give as long as I removed myself from it."

"I'll take your words under advisement."

"You do that, Miss. You will feel better for it." He shifted his attention from her shoulders to her neck and she sucked in a breath at the pain that rippled through her. Ramon lifted his hands and stepped back from the table; Brianna shifted so she could look at him. "I am sorry, Ms Walker. Would you like me to work those out or move on to something less painful for you?"

"Make them go away, Ramon. A little pain now will mean less pain later. But maybe not quite as firmly to begin with?"

He nodded and walked back to the bed, easing her with his touch and feeling her relax again under his ministrations. "So how do you like Dubai, Miss?"

"I like it very much," Brianna replied without hesitation. "It may be my first visit, but I don't think it will be my last." She chuckled and Ramon smiled in puzzlement, though he never stopped his strokes along her neck. "I may have to take you home with me, though."

"Why Miss Walker - what would my wife say?"

"Take me with you?"

This time Ramon laughed aloud and Brianna laughed as well at the joyful sound he made. When he had himself under control once more, he resumed his massage. "You have met my wife, have you?" his voice still full of mirth. "Because that sounded very much like her."

"It's what I would say to you if I was her. However, I'm not going anywhere yet. I have more than a week left here, and I plan to enjoy every single minute I've got."

"Good - you should enjoy the steamroom next. It will help keep you loose."

Brianna snorted. "Any looser and I'm going to be a puddle on the floor." She sat up and wrapped herself in the sheet Ramon had covered her with. He offered her a hand to help her stand, then motioned her towards the steam room. She bobbed her thanks. "Thank you, Ramon. I can't tell you how marvelous I feel."

"Come see me again before you leave. Perhaps it will keep your shoulders from mutating into knots again."

"I have scheduled myself with you for an hour at this time every day for the rest of my stay."

Ramon nodded. "Very good, Miss. I will see you on the morrow then." Without another word, Ramon strode from the room and Brianna took a deep breath before heading in the opposite direction for the steam bath that awaited her.


Charisma frowned at Kent when he crossed the threshold into the kitchen late Christmas Eve morning freshly showered and shaved. She hadn't heard him come in the night before, and in fact he hadn't been in the bedroom when she had woken some time earlier. He walked over and brushed a kiss over her cheek before accepting the mug of coffee Okasa held out to him. Kent kissed her as well and moved to sit at the table.

"I'm sorry I'm so late, Mama," he started, but she waved him off before he could finish.

"Don't worry about it, Kent. Paddy told me what happened last night." She glanced at the clock. "All things considered, it's not really that late. And since the boys and their families won't be here for another few hours, it's all good."

"Wait," Charisma cut in. "What happened last night?" She looked at Kent. "Why didn't you come to bed? Or are you just now arriving?"

"Take it easy, Charisma. I got in early this morning, but then I helped Paddy put the...." He looked around carefully and didn't see Adam, but he still lowered his voice before he continued. "The bikes and things together. So it was a lot closer to daylight than dark when I finally made it upstairs. I didn't want to disturb you, so I crashed in the guest room Mother usually uses when she's here."

Charisma took a moment to really look at her husband and she frowned again. "Is everything okay?" she asked suddenly. "You look tired."

Kent smiled. "I am tired, but everything is good... really. Work is keeping me busy in a good way, of course and I still haven't caught up from last night." He turned to Okasa. "I don't know how he does that every single year."

"Lots of practice," Okasa offered with a grin. "But you'll also notice he's not downstairs at the moment. He's still in bed. I'll get him up in another couple of hours and he'll be good to go until the party's over, so to speak."

"I heard we don't have quite as many here as we did at Thanksgiving." Kent looked at Charisma. "I'm sorry your friends couldn't make it. I really like them."

Charisma shrugged. "Me too. But I don't blame them for not wanting to make that quick of a turnaround either... especially not with Saphira's job." Charisma turned to Okasa. "I know Matilda is trying to help them out by giving Saphira as many hours as she can, but...."

"It's not ours to question, Daughter. And didn't you say Saphira worked doubles the entire time Es was out sick?"

"Yes, she did. But wouldn't that be a good reason to cut Saphira a little slack now?"

"They may not be able to afford it yet, Charisma. As sick as Es was purported to be, I imagine that wracked up some pretty hefty medical bills. And they don't either one strike me as the type to take charity willingly."

"No I don't think they are," Charisma agreed grudgingly. She turned back to Kent. "Where's your mother, by the way? Mama said something about London?"

Kent opened his mouth to explain and Okasa just watched them, struck by how independent of one another they appeared to be living their lives. She secretly wondered if they actually shared anything other than Adam's parentage. They did seem to care for one another, though, and enjoy each other's company. Kent said something wry and made a face, and they laughed. Charisma put her hand on his shoulder as they continued the conversation and Okasa wondered if Brianna's leaving had made Charisma decide to put more of an effort into her marriage. Then they both turned and looked at her with questioning expressions.


"That's what we were wondering," Charisma replied. "You were staring at us with the most peculiar countenance."

"I wasn't actually looking at anything specific," Okasa denied. "I was just thinking."

"About...?" Kent drawled.

Okasa sighed. At leastshe could remind them that they had asked. "I was just wondering where Brianna was. Whenever she left before, I always knew where she was going and when she'd be back, but this time...."

"You know she'll be back in time for Congress to reconvene - she has to."

"That's when she'll be back in Washington, Charisma. I don't think she's coming back here again."

"Do you know why she left?" Kent asked, curious beyond words to know what he'd missed in his absence.

"She didn't say, and I didn't have the opportunity to ask," Okasa replied truthfully - not adding she was fairly confident what lay behind the defection. Kent nodded his acceptance of her words.

"I hope she'll surprise you and come home soon, Okasa. She seemed like good people to me. And I won't forget how she always kept an eye on Adam when he was around."

About that time, Ame and Adam walked in from the backyard and Adam took off like a shot as soon as he saw Kent. "PA!" he exclaimed. Kent knelt down to receive the hug Adam offered, then swooped him up into his arms.

"Brr!!" Kent said, rubbing their noses together. "You're cold, Boy!"

"Cold outside, Pa. Come play?"

"Let me go grab my coat and you can ride the Big Wheel for me, all right?" Adam nodded wildly, causing laughter to race around the room. Ame stepped up and took him from Kent.

"I'll take him potty while you get ready, Mr. Rockwell. It's why we came in to begin with."

"All right. I'll be ready in a minute." He turned to Charisma. "You coming?"

"Maybe in a few," shaking her head. "You two should have a little father/son time first.

"Okay... you know where to find us when you're ready."

"I certainly do."

Chapter LXXV

"Hail! Hail! The gang's all here!" Ruby singsonged when Mal and Indi crossed the threshold together. They each took a mug of the hot chocolate that Ruby offered them before finding a seat on the floor in the living room where everyone else was gathered.

"Jade is keeping an eye on Kent and Charisma?" They both nodded and Esmeralda turned to Opal with a smile. "Who lost the toss?" Opal chuckled.

"Neither, actually. But since I'm with Brianna during a majority of her waking hours...."

"Fair enough. All right, the reason I called you all here is because I think you all need to be made aware of what's happened in that past few days. It's very likely this assignment will be ending soon." Gasps echoed around the room and the angels looked at one another before everyone's attention refocused on Esmeralda.

"Are you sure, Es?" Amber asked. "Have you heard from Him?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "No. But the way things have played out, I am making an educated guess." She held up her hand to stop the murmurs and muttering before it started. "Let me bring you up to date, and then you can tell me what you think."

So she told them - of Kent's filing for separation papers; of Charisma's discovery about Brianna's feelings and her possession of the letters; of Brianna's defection from the Tagherty's lives.

"So this is serious then," Ruby commented. "It really is the end. But... then why hasn't He called us home to file our reports on this case?"

Esmeralda sighed and rubbed her fingers over her forehead before pinching the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. "Well, we do still have quite a few loose ends." She turned to Amber and Indi. "I noticed the box of letters wasn't on the coffee table when Saphira and I were there the other day. What did Charisma do with them?"

Indi shrugged. "She didn't touch them when I was with her, but the box wasgone two days after she got it from Brianna. So I don't know what happened with them exactly."

"Oh no... I got to watch that bout of craziness," Amber chimed in drolly, causing laughter to ripple around the room. Esmeralda sent up another prayer of thanksgiving for Amber. No matter what they were facing, she always offered a much-appreciated respite from the seriousness that always seemed to surround them, and Esmeralda was grateful. She gave Amber an indebted smile.

"Would you like to share or would you prefer to suffer in silence?"

Saphira snorted. "When was the last time she was silent about anything... suffering or not?" Amber glared at her, then smirked.

"Pot... kettle. It's not like we didn't hear you this morning."

Saphira blushed, but returned the smirk. "Jealous, much?"

"All right, you two!" Esmeralda said, her own skin the color of a Mr. Lincoln rose. "Can we get back to the topic at hand, please?"

"Sorry, Es," Amber muttered. "I want you to know that I was really glad to hear it - aside from the ragging opportunities it gives me," leering at Saphira who promptly stuck out her tongue, "it's just really good to know you're feeling better."

"It's really good to feel better too. However, that still doesn't tell us what happened to those letters."

"Oh, that was something. You know about Okasa's visit," waiting for the nod. "Well, I guess Charisma basically ignored that box the entire day," waiting for Indi to confirm her words. "By the time I got there that night, she was back to glaring at it. She must've scowled at that box for over an hour - personally I was waiting for it to spontaneously combust. Honestly, the plastic should have at least melted she was staring at it so fiercely." Amber shook her head and took a deep breath to continue.

"Finally she crossed over to the table and walked slowly around it several times, still glaring at it. And then she opened it."

When Amber didn't resume her discourse, Esmeralda cleared her throat. "Amber?"

Amber shook her head again. "It was weird, Es. Charisma opened that box and froze. She sat there completely unmoving for the better part of five minutes. A tear slid slowly down her face - a single tear, Es... I'm not even sure she was aware of it. She bit her lip and took a deep breath, and this time when the tears fell, they did so quickly and in mass quantities.Charisma wiped her face savagely; I wouldn't have been surprised to have seen blood follow the action. She was really rough. She slammed the lid back on the box and shoved it off the table, like she was trying to make it go away.

Of course everything flew out of it - she hadn't secured the top and she screamed in reaction. Seriously, Es - Charisma screamed. Not words or invectives or epithets - it was more like a howl of frustration. Then she slammed the box back on the table and began throwing bundles of letters into it. She didn't even look at what she was doing - just threw them in haphazardly as she grabbed them from where they scattered. When she had them all, Charisma slammed the lid back on, only this time, she snatched the whole thing off the table and moved it over to the fireplace where she dropped it with such force I expected to see cracks in the brick.

She flipped on the gas - I guess she wasn't really thinking about the mess that would cause. Honestly, I don't think she would have cared had she considered it. She was really furious - I could feel the anger radiating off her in waves. When she had the flames set high enough, she threw the lid to one side and reached into the box. And then she just... stopped."

"And then?" when the silence started to drag on.

"She looked at them... really looked. She took them out carefully and examined each bundle. Okasa had bundled them together by year, and the oldest stacks were by far the thickest. They decreased considerably after Charisma's marriage, though there were still letters for each of those years as well."

"Did she open them?"

Amber shook her head. "No. She simply reorganized them back into chronological order, then replaced them neatly in the box. When she was done, Charisma took them upstairs and stashed the container in her closet. When she was satisfied with their location, she returned downstairs to shut off the fireplace and lock everything up for the night. She spent most of the rest of my shift that night shifting between glaring at the closet door and staring at the album. Not the pictures... just the album itself."

"So the letters are a definite loose end," Ruby agreed after a few minutes of silence. "What else is still unresolved? Aside from the obvious," she tacked on at the disbelieving glances her words garnered her from the others. "There has to be more."

"There is also the issue of Kent's possession of separation papers. Just the fact that he had them drawn up makes them a consideration for us. Even though he has not served them, and may never serve them...." Esmeralda broke off at the sight of Mal shaking her head. "Mal?"

"I think they are more than a consideration for us at this point, Es. I'm confident that he will be serving those documents to Charisma - if not now, then eventually."

"Even if Brianna is removed from the picture?" Saphira asked before anyone else could speak up.

"Yes." Mal paused and pinched her lip thoughtfully. Then she sighed. "It's hard to explain," holding up a hand to forestall any comments before she could continue. "Kent has changed since I've been assigned to watch over him - grown more serious... more mature, maybe. He's spent a lot of time in New York by himself, and it's brought home some hard truths."

"He shared these with you?" Ruby asked.

"In a manner of speaking," Mal replied. "He was writing a letter to Charisma."

"Wait - you're telling me he plans to break up with his wife by writing a 'Dear Jane' letter??" Opal nearly screeched. "Talk about harsh!"

"I don't think so," Mal replied, running a nervous hand through her hair. "I mean, I don't think he plans to write her a 'Dear Jane' letter. I think he was writing out a letter so he could memorize his lines, so to speak."

"So he doesn't forget anything when the time comes to actually break things off with her?"

"Exactly. He wants her to understand that it's not Brianna that brought this about - that she was just the missing piece in the puzzle." Mal sighed again. "I should have just stolen the letter and brought it with me so you could see it for yourselves," she muttered before raising her voice to a normal level again."He reminded her that they've always been friends, but rarely been lovers; that they live completely separate lives even on the occasions when they share a house; that though they love one another they are not and never have been in love with each other; and that the only real thing they have in common anymore is Adam."

"What does he say about Brianna?"

Mal shook her head. "He hadn't gotten very far on that part - only that it was her return to Charisma's life that showed him how much they were both missing by pretending. And that they all deserved better than a life of pretense. Kent wrote that pretense was fine for the stage - that was where it belonged, but life was meant to be shared and enjoyed, not simply endured."

"Wow. He could be a writer with that insight."

"So what changed?" Turq asked. "Wait... I get that Brianna returning to make him *admit* this stuff, but the fact is that all the things Mal mentioned have been part of their relationship from the start. He knew going in that Charisma saw him as more friend than lover and that a big part of the reason they were getting married was to give her a child and him an heir, right?" seeing heads nod thoughtfully around her. "Okay, so what made him decide to do something about it now?"

Everyone looked at Mal and she shrugged. "I don't know... honestly. Maybe he's found someone else, but I haven't seen any evidence of that. Since I've been assigned to him, most of his time has been spent at the theatre getting this play off the ground, or going back and forth to spy on Charisma. He hasn't really given any indication of an affair."

"Perhaps his paramour refuses to play second fiddle," Saphira offered, looking at Esmeralda. "It would make sense that anyone wanting to really make a life with him would want Kent to resolve things with Charisma first. Or Kent could even have insisted it be that way," watching Esmeralda nod her agreement. "We know he cares for her - I doubt, especially given the letter that Mal overheard him rehearsing, that Kent wants to destroy Charisma's career with public embarrassment and humiliation."

"They're all good possibilities," Esmeralda agreed, giving Saphira a thankful smile. She turned to Mal. "Try to keep a lookout; I'm gonna send Jade back with you when you go back to the City with Kent. I think things are gonna pick up fairly quickly, and it'll be good for you to have some help there. Maybe between you both you'll be able to discover if he has an angle beyond Charisma's welfare."

Mal nodded. "Thanks, Es."

"Is there anything else that could be considered a loose end?" Amber asked, slumping a little when Esmeralda nodded solemnly.

"Yes, but they are smaller concerns. We have the Taghertys' reaction to Brianna's terminating her contact with them; Kay's response to Charisma; Charisma's and Brianna's return to work...." She trailed off and the rest sat waiting for her to finish. When it became apparent that Esmeralda had ended the thought in her head, Saphira prodded her gently.

"Es? You wanna share with the rest of us?"

"I'm not even sure it's viable," Esmeralda confessed, and Saphira waited knowing that Esmeralda was now processing out loud. Saphira held up a hand to keep the rest from interrupting. "But I was just thinking... what about those tickets?"

"Tickets?" Saphira repeated. "I'm not sure I'm following, Es. What tickets?"

"Six months from now, give or take a week or so, there should be a special delivery made to both Charisma Tagherty and Brianna Walker. Charisma, unwilling to admit that Brianna's departure in Barcelona was really goodbye, told Okasa about their plans to revisit Europe together. Despite her doubts, Okasa made the arrangements - the trip is paid for and the tickets purchased. So unless Okasa has actually canceled things since Brianna's return to Charisma's life...."

"I wonder if that's our deadline," Ruby mused aloud. "It would make sense."

"But we have no real way of knowing," Jas pointed out. "So we just...."

"We just keep doing what we've been doing. This is so far out of our hands anymore it's all we can do."


"Kay... Lee... come in, come in," Patrick welcomed several days later as he opened the door to his home. "Everyone else is already here," motioning them towards the large family room that the children gravitated to naturally. The kids raced off to join the rest of the crew that were currently bundling up and preparing to head outside to take advantage of the new snow. Kay looked around carefully, then made sure her brood were well protected against the cold before letting them head outdoors again. She smiled when Harley naturally took Adam's hand with a word of reassurance to Charisma, and thrilled when Michelle automatically took Adam's other hand instead of Harley's.

When the children were outside, Kay turned to Patrick, though her eyes never left Charisma's back as she keep her eyes focused on the children outside the window. Kay lowered her voice. "Paddy, where's Brianna?" Even from the distance, Kay felt Charisma's body stiffen at her low question.

Patrick cleared his throat. "You may want to talk to Mama about that," cutting his eyes in Charisma's direction, but keeping his tone level. Kay drew in a sharp breath and let it out slowly. Then she nodded her understanding and moved around the room saying her hellos, bypassing Charisma as she made her way out the door and towards the kitchen to find Okasa.

Okasa wasn't surprised when Kay crossed the threshold - it was why she'd asked the girls to wait until she called them to come into the kitchen. She took a deep breath and met Kay's eyes sorrowfully.

"What happened?"

Okasa shook her head. "I don't have the details. You'll have to ask Brianna or Charisma to share them. All I know is that Brianna called me a few days ago and said goodbye," tears flooding her eyes, though she blinked rapidly to prevent them from spilling over.

"Whaddya mean - she said goodbye?? Like...."

"Like she was leaving and wouldn't be back."

"Do you know where she went?"

Okasa shook her head again. "She didn't say. She basically indicated that she was severing all ties with us, and that we needed to let her go. She even removed me from her visitor's list at her apartment building."

"Wow... okay. So why didn't you call me immediately??"

"And ruin your holiday too? Kay, there's nothing you could have done... nothing you can do now. Brianna would have called you if she'd wanted you to do something, and I'm guessing that she didn't. Charisma told me she had been in touch with Esmeralda, but apparently she needs some space from the rest of us. Because she hasn't taken any of our calls."

Kay bit her lip. "She didn't take mine either, come to think of it. She returned it, but she didn't answer when I called her."

"At least she returned yours," Okasa said painfully. "She's basically excised the entire Tagherty clan from her life."

"You're wrong, you know," Kay said fiercely as she stood a little straighter. "There is something I can do now."

"Please don't," Okasa asked. "She's been through enough."

Kay snorted. "She hasn't been through anything she didn't bring on herself, Mama O. And this time she's dragging us all along with her. It's time everyone stops pandering to her and someone sets her straight... so to speak."

"You really think she'll take it well from you, Kay?"

"Okasa, I don't think she's going to take it *well* from anyone. But the fact is, I'm about the only one both willing and able to speak on the subject. I'm not particularly worried about the fallout and I warned her to be careful with Brianna."

"You did? When?" Okasa shook her head. "I mean obviously it must have been at Thanksgiving, but how did I miss it?"

"Things were a little hectic around here, Mama O."

"I guess. I just...." Okasa met Kay's eyes and held them, wanting her to see the truth. "Kay, I love Brianna like my own, you know that. But Charisma...."

"Charisma what?" queried a voice from the doorway. Blue eyes looked between them and flashed anger and something much deeper before she pinned Kay with her stare. "Charisma what, Mama?"


"I think you and I should take this outside, Charisma," Kay said without missing a beat. "Get your things and we'll take a walk."

"Is that an order?"

"More like a forceful invitation... unless you'd prefer to air your dirty laundry to all and sundry here. And somehow, I don't think you're ready for that - even if your husband isn't among those present."

"Leave him out of this!" Charisma said softly from between clenched teeth.

"But of course. It's not like he's a part of much where you're concerned, is he? Now fetch your coat. It's time we talked."

Chapter LXXVI

"So I'm guessing this is another one of those traditions that I haven't been privy to," Charisma commented once she and Kay were well away from the Tagherty house. They had left by the front door and made their way down the street towards the neighborhood park in silence. Charisma had used that time to collect herself. She released a deep breath and forced herself to relax.

"You could say that," Kay said as they stepped onto the playground. "I'll admit I was a little surprised to see you here," her voice calm and level."I mean, for the better part of twenty years you've never been anywhere near here after Christmas. So why are you here now, Charisma? Shouldn't you be somewhere putting in an appearance or...?"

Charisma shrugged. As furious as she was at Kay for her presumption, she really couldn't fault her for her concern. And she appreciated that Kay had the foresight to remove them from the house before beginning their discussion. Because judging by the look on Kay's face and the gnawing in Charisma's belly, this had the potential to get very ugly. "Kent had to get back to the city - the theatre never stops, you know.So I decided to take a few days off to spend with the family here. I've been so busy running the circuit this recess that I've had very little time to just sit and regroup." She chuckled lightly. "Despite everything, I miss time with my brothers and their families."

"So it's just coincidence that you're here when Brianna usually joins your family for the holiday?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" bitingly.

"It's a simple question, Senator. Why are you getting so defensive about it?"

Charisma stopped walking and whirled to face Kay, her eyes blazing with a myriad of emotions. "Excuse me?? Just who exactly do you think you are?" feeling her composure fly right out the proverbial window."What gives you the right...?"

"I'll tell you who I am, Senator. I am the woman who loved Brianna Walker... even though it was never enough to exorcise your ghost. Part of me will always love her, and that part recognizes the importance of your place in her heart and life. That gives me the right! The fact that you've caused Brianna to leave*my* family...HER family... gives me the right!"

"MY family."

"Hers as well, Charisma. You made her part of it, remember? And now you've taken it away again."

"Wait just a damn minute!"

"For what, Senator??" Kay's voice was a calm, cool counterpoint to Charisma's heat."Are you going to stand there and tell me her leaving wasn't the direct result of her interaction with you? Because I know better. For twenty years you've been out of her immediate circle and she's been part of all of our lives," motioning around her. "Then suddenly you're back and she walks away from everyone... EVERYONE!" Kay huffed impatiently, then took a deep breath."She would never have said goodbye to Mama O if she hadn't been pushed into it. She's called the Taghertys family for nearly a quarter century, Charisma - that isn't something she would have walked away from voluntarily."

"So of course it has to be my fault! She bears no responsibility at all for her actions - is that what you're telling me??"

"Of course she bears responsibility for her actions... but only some of it. Some of the responsibility and blame for this fiasco lies squarely on your shoulders, Senator, and it's high time you faced up to that fact! You're both culpable here!"

Charisma narrowed her eyes. "You've got a lot of nerve."

Kay shoved her clenched hands into her pockets to keep from doing something monumentally stupid... like shake some sense into a deliberately obtuse United States Senator. She couldn't remember the last time she had struggled so hard to maintain her sense of self-control. Another deep breath, and she spoke calmly again. "I'm going to say something to you, Charisma, and you're going to listen. What you do with the information after that is your own business, but I'm going to tell you something that no one else... not even Brianna... is willing to say to you, because no one wants to put you on the spot or make you uncomfortable or hurt your feelings." Kay cocked her head and regarded Charisma steadily, not surprised to see anger and contempt as the chief emotions reflected back at her.

But it was Kay's job to read people, and she could see so much more in Charisma's eyes. She saw pain and fear and longing, and Kay had to wonder how Charisma could deny such strong emotions. Brown eyes held blue for a long moment and Kay could see Charisma's desire to squirm, but she held firm.

"But you'd take great delight in that wouldn't you, Dr. Williams?" Charisma's words and tone were biting and she steadfastly refused to refer to Kay more familiarly. Kay tilted her head and regarded Charisma thoughtfully.

"Why do you think that, Senator?" offering Charisma the same professional courtesy that had been extended to her, though for different reasons. "Wait," holding up a hand. "I want you to really think about your answer. I want to know why you believe I would get some sort of perverse pleasure out of seeing you in pain."

"Not just seeing," Charisma spat.

Kay's eyes widened. "You think I like *causing* you pain?"

"You already said as much," Charisma said, her timbre suddenly flat and without the slightest hint of inflection.

"No," Kay disputed. "That's not what I said at all." She looked around and spotted a snow-covered bench set under some denuded trees. She gestured with her head. "Would you like to walk around the park or shall we sit for this conversation? I think it's safe to say we're not going to be overheard or interrupted either way," holding her hand out to catch the snowflakes that had just begun to fall.

"I'm fairly certain my wants aren't going to figure into this at all. We might as well walk - at least we'll be warmer." Kay nodded and they set off across the cleared path.

Silence reigned again for a few moments as Kay gathered her thoughts once more. Charisma stayed quiet, refusing to start a discussion she didn't even want to have. The only reason she hadn't left was because she was confident that this woman... this doctor... would follow her to Washington to have this conversation if need be. And as much as she had no desire to hear or interest in hearing what Kay had to say, she wanted her saying it in Washington even less. That town had ears everywhere, and Charisma had the distinct impression that whatever Kay had to say, it was not meant for public consumption. Finally Kay took a deep breath and started to speak.

"First of all - my goal here is not to cause you pain, Charisma. My goal is to be completely honest with you... something everyone around you is afraid to do because they want to protect you... even if it's from yourself. Please let me finish," Kay requested. "I promise I will listen to any rebuttal you would like to make or answer whatever questions you have when I'm done." Charisma clamped her lips together and nodded, crossing her arms over her chest and waiting.

"Thank you. Charisma - you're already in pain. You have been for a very long time... probably since Brianna first left and you realized she wasn't coming back to you." Kay shook her head. "You've been in pain so long, it's become the norm for you - it's one reason you're holding onto it so tightly. It's been your most faithful companion."

"What would you know about it?" Charisma grumbled quietly, as though to herself. Kay smiled sadly.

"I do this for a living, Charisma; I see other peoples' pain every day. But your pain is familiar to me - for as long as I've known her I've seen your pain reflected in the eyes of one I love." Kay waited, but Charisma remained silent and she recognized that Charisma was making an effort to abide by their earlier pact."Charisma, I want you to be honest with yourself and honest with me. There's no one here to hear us, and everything you say to me will be held in the strictest confidence of doctor/patient privilege. No one - not Okasa, not Kent and not Brianna - no one will know what is said between us unless you decide to share it."

"Even though you're not actually my doctor?"

"Even then - I take my oath very seriously, Charisma." Charisma held Kay's eyes a long moment, then nodded and gestured for her to continue. "How do you feel about Brianna Walker, Charisma?"

"I love her," through clenched teeth. "She's my best friend."

"That's all?"

"Isn't that enough?"

"Completely honest, Charisma.You hate her a little bit too, don't you? For putting you into this position - for leaving you alone and forcing you to live without her... despite everything."

"NO!" A beat. "Yes," in a much more subdued tone. "I just...." Charisma uncrossed her arms and jammed her hands into her pockets so hard Kay fully expected to see them come clean through the material. She waited, but Charisma didn't say anything else. She merely compressed her lips together a little tighter than before. Kay sighed.

"I'm going to tell you some things, Charisma - some truths that I think you know but are unwilling to face. It's probably going to hurt you to hear them, but they need to be said."


"Excuse me?"

"No, they don't need to be said."

"I think they do. The only way you're going to purge the pain you've carried with you for twenty years... the only way you're going to find real happiness and a measure of peace... is to lance the wound that is still festering in your heart."

"You can't make me listen."

Kay shook her head. "No, I really can't. But I think you know how much you need to, and part of you wants to believe I can do something... anything... to make things better."

"Why do you care?"

"Excuse me?" Kay repeated, wondering how she'd lost control of the conversation again. Her mental lips twitched. It reminded her very much of some discussions she and Brianna had shared - some of them about the woman now glaring at her like she was a two-headed gorgon.

"I said...."

"I heard you, Charisma. Why would you think I wouldn't care? Despite the fact that you and I started on the wrong foot because of who I am and who I've been in Brianna's life, I really don't get off on inflicting pain or watching people around me suffer if I can do something about it. And I care about you by extension because you're important to Brianna."

"So you're doing this for Brianna."

"I'm doing this for you," Kay replied with a hint of exasperation. "If it helps Brianna, that's a bonus I can live with."

"I really don't like you very much."

"I know. Jealousy's a hard thing to overcome."

"I'm not...."

"Yes, you are, Charisma. Complete honesty, remember? You don't just love her... you're *in love* with her, and it galls you that Brianna and I were lovers; it just incenses you to know that I have touched her in ecstasy, tasted her passion, heard her cry out her pleasure...."


"Why?" Kay asked reasonably. "It's the truth, Charisma. You can't stand that I've had what you so desperately want. That red-hot burning you feel in your veins right now? That's pure, unadulterated jealousy."

Charisma scoffed, though her eyes told a different story as did her clenched fists. Kay wondered how much more she'd have to push before Charisma took a swing. "Why would I be jealous of you and Brianna as a couple? All I ever wanted for her was happiness."

"LIAR!" wanting to snort when Charisma's eyes widened. "You wanted her happiness WITH YOU."

Wide blue eyes narrowed until Charisma was glaring. "Excuse me?? Just because you couldn't make Brianna happy...."

"I did," Kay stated unequivocally. "We were happy; but neither of us was willing to live with your ghost in the middle of our relationship. However, this isn't about me making Brianna happy except as it infuriates you. Because it does, doesn't it? It's driving you crazy to stand there and pretend indifference to the fact that I've had the one thing in life you really want - the one you could have had if you hadn't denied the truth of your heart...."

Whatever else Kay was going to say was cut off by the stinging slap across her face that Charisma delivered with the flat of her palm.

"That's enough." Charisma's voice was pure ice now.

"That was your one free shot, Charisma. Do you feel better now?" Kay asked calmly as she wiped a drop of blood from the corner of her lip. "Hitting me doesn't change the fact that you are as in love with Brianna Walker as she is with you and always have been."

"That's enough."

"Nor does it change the fact that you are too much of a coward to do anything about it."

"That's. Enough." This time the sound was emitted through clenched teeth and was as sharp as glass. Kay was tempted to look for bleeding wounds, but she refused to give Charisma any quarter - not when she was this close to a breakthrough.

"How does it feel, Charisma? Knowing you could have everything you ever wanted - knowing you could be truly happy - and being unwilling to make it happen. You're a selfish woman, Charisma, and nothing but a coward. Personally, I think Brianna is better off without you in her life."


Kay was ready when Charisma swung this time, catching her arm in the palm of her hand and using Charisma's own momentum to turn her until she was standing with her back to Kay's front.

"Let me go," Charisma growled, struggling to free herself from Kay's grasp.

"No." Kay shook her head firmly.

"I am a United States Senator! I demand you release me at once."

"You could get free if you really wanted me to let you go." Kay felt the fight flow out of Charisma's body, but she made no effort to pull away from Charisma and noticed Charisma was doing nothing to escape her clasp either. "You're a woman in pain, Charisma. There's no shame in needing someone... even if that person is someone you really don't want to need."

"I don't need you, Kay Williams," Charisma whispered. "And I can't need her."

Finally, Kay thought. Finally we're getting somewhere."Why, Charisma? Why can't you need her?"

Kay felt Charisma slump a little further, and she tightened her grip to keep them from sinking to the snow-covered ground. The paths that had been shoveled already had a light dusting of new snow and she had no desire to try and melt it.

"Please let me go."

Kay relaxed her arms and Charisma stepped out of her embrace and wrapped her arms around herself. She kept her back to Kay, and Kay tried to respect that to a degree. It didn't mean she was going to stop pushing.

"Talk to me, Charisma. Why can't you need Brianna?"

Charisma snorted. "I know my family seems to think a lot of you, so you can't possibly be as stupid as you sound like right now. But just in case you needa refresher, let me spell it out for you, okay? I am a United States Senator, and because of that, people expect certain things from me. Like a husband and children - though in my case it will only be one child... singular. They expect...."

"Well, that's your first problem, Charisma - you probably need to come out of that ivory tower you're living in. Maybe you should stop trying to live to other peoples' expectations - none of your colleagues do, or are you really that naïve?? Stop," Kay commanded with an upraised hand when Charisma whirled around to respond to her. "You know the kind of bullshit that goes on in those 'hallowed halls'," her tone mocking and derisive. "It's good to have standards, Charisma. Just make sure they're your own and not everyone else's expectations."

"And what about my family?" facing away from Kay again.

Kay shrugged, even though Charisma couldn't see it. "What about them? C'mon, Charisma... do you really think they don't know... that they haven't known for years? They knew before you did... certainly long before you ever considered it to be more than a passing fancy. It's one reason they welcomed Brianna into the fold so easily -then they did it because they liked her for herself. Even Kent...."

Charisma whirled and raised clenched fists before slamming them toher sides. "Even Kent what??"

"Charisma, Kent is not a stupid man. If he doesn't already know, I'd be amazed. You weren't exactly subtle at Thanksgiving."

"We didn't DO anything at Thanksgiving."

"You didn't have to, Charisma. It's simply part and parcel of who you are together." Kay hesitated, then straightened. "You don't have to accept it, Charisma - you can spend the next twenty years in the same kindof denial and uber contentment that you've lived the last twenty years in. No one but me is going to call you on your behavior and I won't bring it up again. Because it's your choice and your life." She took a deep breath. "But you have a chance for real, genuine happiness - and more than just you would benefit if you choose correctly. You just have to be brave enough to love the one who holds your heart and always has." Kay walked towards Charisma until they were standing side by side, though they both kept their focus distant."Question is - can you live with yourself if you choose to be happy instead of keeping a code that you don't even really believe in?"

Without another word, Kay walked off the playground and headed back towards the Taghertys. She stopped when she reached the tree where Hunter was waiting.

"Are you all right?" he asked. "I saw her swing, but you shook your head so I...."

"You did the right thing. I'm fine. But you may want to stay here and keep an eye on her... just in case. I'll send someone down to give you a break in a few minutes."

Hunter shook his head. "Just send some coffee. I'll be all right. It'll be like a stakeout." Kay smiled and nodded, and turned to walk away. Hunter clasped her hand. "Thanks, Kay. Thanks for caring enough to say something to her."

"I was the only one that could," she reminded him, then walked back to the warmth of the house.

Chapter LXXVII

"So what happened after Kay said her piece, Indi?" Esmeralda asked. Indi had requested to speak to her alone, and Esmeralda had to wonder what had caused her to make such an unusual demand. One of the things the other angels seemed to appreciate about Esmeralda's management style was her willingness to share information and let everyone see the big picture. It had made her one of the most successful guardians to date. So she was more than a little intrigued by Indigo's petition.

Indi shook her head and sighed. "I'm not... I mean... Charisma's acting weird."

Esmeralda blinked. "I'm going to guess that's not a good thing."

Indi shrugged. "You tell me. After Kay left the playground, Hunter kept an eye on Charisma until Forrest arrived. She was just sitting there... not moving - I'm still not sure what she was focused on. I'm not even sure she noticed her brothers until they actually made physical contact with her. Together they got Charisma wrapped in the blanket Okasa sent and got her back to the Tagherty homestead. The only people still there were Rocky, Okasa and Patrick. Even Adam was gone as Ame had gone with the wives and the Williams' and taken all the kids to Chuck E. Cheese."

"Okay, so what happened?"

"Nothing," Indi growled in disgust. "Okasa took Charisma upstairs - settled her into a bath to warm her up and when she went in to check on her, Charisma was tucked into bed asleep. This morning Charisma was gone - left a note for Ame telling her to bring Adam home tomorrow - he's been having so much fun playing with his cousins that Charisma didn't want to take him away from that any sooner than necessary."

"Did she speak to Okasa before she left?"

Indi shook her head. "She wrote her a note as well. But it was kind of vague and... awkward... almost stilted. Like she really didn't know what to say anymore or how to say it. She thanked her for the holiday and for looking after Adam and expressed a desire to see them again in the near future."

Esmeralda's brows rose into her hairline. "Are you serious? She wrote a perfunctory, polite hostess note to her mother??"

"Pretty much. Okasa was cool about it; she just picked up the phone and called Charisma. When the call went to voicemail, she called Kay to find out about what happenedwith Charisma in the park.She wasn't happy with the fact the Kay refused to share what her conversation with Charisma entailed, but Okasa stopped badgering her when Kay claimed confidentiality. Okasa then explained her concern over Charisma's discombobulation and Kay assured her it was to be expected."

Esmeralda nodded her head slowly. "So why'd you want to tell me this in private, Indi? You know my policy on keeping everyone in the loop."

"I do, but I thought you might want a chance to digest this alone first. I know everyone basically thinks this mission is over and that we failed our task to bring them together."

"But you don't."

"After yesterday, I think we've just gotten to the beginning of the end. There's so much in play right now... especially after everything that Kay said to Charisma. I think Kay may be the key to this thing getting resolved positively, because she's pushed Charisma out of her comfort zone in Egypt and right into a state of awareness that Charisma is completely unfamiliar with." Indi sighed. "I just don't think we're going to get called home straight away."

"I'm inclined to agree," Esmeralda said with a slow nod. "Thanks, Indi. I appreciate the consideration. I will probably ask you to share everything you just shared with me again.

"I know," Indi smiled. "But at least you won't be taken by surprise by it." A knock on the door brought their heads around just as Saphira stuck her head in.

"Everything all right?" looking between them before meeting Esmeralda's eyes. Esmeralda smiled and nodded, even as she held out a hand to Saphira. Saphira accepted it and lifted it to her lips to brush a kiss over the knuckles. "Opal's here - Brianna just got back into town."

"I'll just...." Indi motioned towards the living room and headed out, closing the door behind her softly. Saphira cocked an eyebrow in Esmeralda's direction.

"Was it something I said?"

"I think our loose ends have started tying up a lot faster than we expected." Before she could elaborate, a knock sounded on the door again, and Ruby poked her head in.

"Es? You're gonna wanna come out here. Mal just arrived."

Saphira and Esmeralda exchanged glances. "Never rains but it pours," Saphira muttered and tugged Esmeralda to her feet so they could go hear the next part of the saga they were enmeshed in.


"Well, Brianna's demeanor is in complete contrast to Charisma's," Opal offered when Indi was done sharing Charisma's story. "She spent her holiday relaxing - daily massages, meditation, relaxation therapy even. She did some writing as well. Otherwise, she took advantage of the fact that she was in Dubai sightseeing and such." Opal turned and looked at Esmeralda with a smile. "I'm pretty sure you'll be seeing new pictures grace her walls in the next few weeks. She took a lot of them."

"Do you think she's over Charisma?"

Opal snorted. "I don't think Brianna will ever be *over* Charisma. But I do think she's moved beyond her - not far, but she's taken the first step to putting Charisma in her past."

"Of course," Saphira griped. "Somebody finally switches on a light in the darkness of denial that Charisma's been walking around in for years, and Brianna decides to move on." She looked at Opal. "Can I ask what her step was?" At Opal's confounded look, Saphira sighed and rubbed her forehead. "You said she took the first step to putting Charisma in her past," waiting for Opal to nod. "What did she do that you considered her first step?"

"She deleted the email Charisma sent her, then purged her computer of all the pictures she had of her and Charisma together."

"Does she still have the album?"

"To my knowledge."

"Still, that's a pretty big first step. She's had those pictures on every computer she's had the last twenty years. And we know she wanted a copy of that photograph Charisma sent her - she specifically asked for it." Esmeralda turned her head to one side and let her eyes center on nothing in particular while she pinched her bottom lip thoughtfully. Everyone else remained respectfully silent, waiting for her focus to return to them. Finally, Esmeralda sighed and looked at Mal. "Talk to me, Mal. What brings you back to DC again so soon?"

"Kent." She turned to Indi. "Are you sure he wasn't at the Tagherty's when Kay confronted Charisma? Maybe he snuck back when Jade and I weren't looking??"

"Absolutely. He left on Christmas night - he was there just short of two days. You know that - you left when he did. There is no way the three of us could have missed him coming back to the Tagherty's for any reason."

"Why? What happened?" Esmeralda broke the tableau between Indi and Mal.

"I don't know... honestly. That's what makes me think I missed something significant." Mal scrubbed a hand over her face and into her hair. "This morning Kent called his lawyer and requested those papers. Then he called to ask Charisma to give him some time on Sunday."

"You think he knows what went down between Charisma and Kay the other day?"

"Not unless he's more clairvoyant than all of us combined," Mal said with a shake of her head. "And unless he's got some sort of undercover operative we know nothing about, I'm not sure how he could have heard about it either."

"He may not have needed to."


Esmeralda's comment and Saphira's follow-up question turned all heads in Esmeralda's direction. She bit her lip, then took a deep breath. "I think we can all agree that Kent Rockwell isn't a stupid man, correct? Despite his easy going attitude, he's a pretty sensitive guy, right?" She waited for everyone to nod their agreement. "So why is it so hard to believe that he couldn't pick up the difference in Charisma's behavior from Thanksgiving to Christmas?"

"You think...?"

"Let's consider the things we know - he's been coming back to Washington to spy on Charisma, for lack of a better term, because he recognized something different about her when Brianna Walker came back into her life. He's seen them together in Charisma's home here and he's seen them at the Tagherty's with the entire family. While nothing inappropriate has happened at either location, Kent has identified a distinct difference in Charisma's attitude and behavior in the last few months... especially where Brianna is concerned. And he's also been made aware of just how integral to the entire Tagherty clan Brianna has been... for years." Esmeralda paused and took a deep breath.

"Now, put that together with the woman he's always known - the woman he agreed to marry and have a child with. The same woman who was at the Tagherty's for Christmas because she knew Brianna was essentially lost to her again. It doesn't take a genius to come up with the correct answer."

"So Charisma's life is falling down around her ears?"

"Basically yes. The moment Brianna Walker stepped back into her life, everything started unraveling for Charisma Tagherty. All that remains to be seen is if it's going to be too little, too late."

"I hate this job," Saphira muttered, though it was loud enough for everyone in the room to hear it.

Esmeralda gently squeezed her hand. "Sometimes we all do, love." She turned back to the waiting angels. "All right - everyone back to their posts for now. If and when things change again...."

"We'll just sit back and watch it happen," Saphira said with little inflection in her voice. She met Esmeralda's chiding eyes. "It's the truth and you know it. We're observers at this point. There's not much that you or anyone else can do to influence the way things go."

"Perhaps," Esmeralda conceded. "But that doesn't mean we can be lax in our vigilance. So keep your eyes peeled, ladies. Things should be moving fairly quickly from here on out."

"I guess that means I better get to bed," Ruby stated with a groan. "If we're still working here, I have to be up early to be at the diner tomorrow."

"Us too," Opal said, motioning between her and Indi. "Not for the diner, but the Senators are working through the weekend, so we are too. Everyone wants to greet the new session running apparently." She looked at Indi. "Are you going to be at the office or...?"

Indi shrugged. "We're starting out in the apartment. That's where we're meeting anyway. After that? I guess it depends on how work goes. You?"

"We'll be working from Charisma's house. We've done it enough that we've got it down to a science... even with Adam there. We won't go into the office in the Senate Building until Congress recommences after the weekend."

With that, the meeting broke up and goodnights were bidden as angels scattered to resume their duties... and in some cases, their beds. They all had a feeling they were going to need the rest to get through the upcoming days.


They worked for several straight days - just like they would in Senate office, but with the added benefit of casual clothes. Neither Charisma nor Brianna objected to their staff adopting a more informal mode of dress while working the last few days of the holiday. Brianna was as relaxed as she had ever been with her staff, but Indi could clearly see the shadows and shutters in green eyes that had once been clear and open. Still, Brianna was brisk and professional, so Indi had no opportunity to ask after her boss in more than a cursory manner.

Even Esmeralda was unsuccessful in prying much from the brief conversations she shared with Brianna. She was desperately hoping that a return to the office might also mean a return to more personal and friendly discussion. For now, Esmeralda counted her blessings that both of her friends had deemed staying in touch with herwas a priority for them. At least she had contact with them on an almost daily basis, and in another few days, it would be daily as well as face-to-face.

Charisma, on the other hand, was at times short and at others longsuffering. Her staff didn't know from minute to minute which boss they might encounter. It made work difficult at best and Opal came home so exhausted, she simply fell into bed face first. Esmeralda recognized the signs and putting those with the brief conversations she was having with Charisma, let Opal sleep for a while before waking her for dinner and a short debriefing before tucking her back into bed.

By the time Sunday arrived, Esmeralda decided to give Opal the chance to sleep in a bit, and Amber, Mal and Jade stayed with Charisma and Kent to watch the drama unfold between them.


Charisma frowned when the doorbell rang. She hadn't opened the gates yet this morning because she wasn't expecting anyone but Kent this early. And of course, Kent had a key. Still, it was possible he'd forgotten it;hence she rose from her desk and walked into the foyer. She wasn't surprised to see him standing on the steps when she looked through the peephole and therefore had the alarm shut off before she'd hardly stopped walking.

She opened the door with a smile - which wavered when she realized Kent wasn't smiling back at her. She motioned him in with a question. "Kent? Is something wrong? Did you forget your key?"

"Yes," he replied calmly. "And no."

Charisma frowned. It was too damned early in the morning for riddles and games. She'd promised to give Kent the morning, but there was still work to be done before the day was done. She didn't want to start off being confused by vagueness.

"I'm sorry... yes and no what?"

"Yes, there is something wrong. I think there has been for a while. And no, I didn't forget my key."

"Then why were you knocking?"

Kent sighed. Leave it to Charisma to jump right into things before they even said hello to one another. "Can we go into the kitchen? This will probably take a few minutes, and I'd like a cup of coffee."

"Of course!" Charisma exclaimed, mentally thumping herself on the head. "Let me take your coat, and we'll get you squared away."

Kent handed over his overcoat, though he kept his sports coat on. Charisma shooed him towards the kitchen and he hesitated just long enough to see her head to her office to close the door before he disappeared across the threshold. She was only a minute behind him and she walked into the kitchen carrying a half-empty cup of coffee.

"Did you get your coffee?" frowning again when she realized he didn't have a cup in front of him.

"I thought I'd wait for you," Kent responded, though that was only a half-truth. Charisma nodded and pulled out his usual mug, and his smile was melancholy as he grasped she knew at least that much about him. She prepared his coffee and set it in front of him, then took a seat next to him at the table.

"So what's going on?" Charisma asked bluntly. "I know something is bothering you."

"Do you, Charisma? How can you be sure?" This time her frown was more of a glower as she tried to make sense of what Kent was implying. Coming up empty, she shook her head and Kent sighed. "You're right, Charisma - something is bothering me, and has been for a while. And since we're heading into a new year and all...."

"Kent, we've already started the New Year... several days ago."

"I'm well aware, Charisma," Kent replied wryly. "I was standing above Times' Square when the ball dropped. However, this was the first time this year that you and I could be in the same place together, so work with me here, all right?" with just a hint of exasperation. Charisma nodded, wondering at his vehemence. "Thank you," he muttered. "I wanted to give these to you myself personally," he added, pulling a sheaf of legal papers from the inside of his jacket. Charisma hesitated, then took them from him gingerly, as though gentle handling would change the contents of the documents themselves.

She opened them slowly and let her eyes read though them twice. When she looked up to meet his eyes, she found Kent looking at her - not with pity or hatred or anger but with love and respect and she felt her anger drain away leaving only confusion in its wake.


Kent cleared his throat, but held her gaze without flinching. "When we married, I knew you didn't love me like you could. But you did love me after a fashion and we were good together. And since we were friends and we both wanted a child, I didn't see any reason for us not to get married. It fit into your career goals and it made your mother happy, so what could be wrong with it, right? And I didn't mind because it gave me the opportunity to have a child and made my mother happy as well, with the added bonus that she stopped bugging me about needing a legal heir once Adam was born."

"What changed?"

"You did - or perhaps I should say that we didn't. We never became more than good friends - we've never really shared our lives... only our living space. The truth is that we've never been much more than roommates with occasional and very rare conjugal visits. You're still one of my very best friends, Charisma, and I still love you. But I'm not in love with you anymore than you're in love with me." Kent paused. "If I'd known the truth of your heart years ago when you asked me to marry you, I'd have never said yes. It's not fair to you; it's not fair to me; and it's not fair to her."

"Who?" Charisma asked in a hoarse voice, unable to meet his eyes now. Kent reached across the table and tilted Charisma's chin up until she met his eyes.

"I'm not stupid, Charisma - please don't insult my intelligence. Even a blind man can see that Brianna Walker is the person in your heart - still, I'd say, because if I was a betting man, I'd say she's been there for a long, long time."

"So why a separation?" Charisma asked, shaking the papers slightly. "Why not a divorce?"

"I want you to make the final decision - whether this is a trial separation that will see us together as a couple at the end of it or whether we will go our separate ways on a permanent basis. I want you to take this time and think about things, Charisma... about everything. If I'm wrong, then when this trial separation is over, we need to figure out how to become a real husband and wife... a real family. But if I'm right, I want you to use this time to be honest with everyone concerned - yourself, Brianna and me. The only thing I ask is that you don't restrict my access to Adam. He's the best part of us, and I don't want to miss any time with him that I can have."

"Of course not," Charisma agreed immediately. "You are and will always be his father." She took a deep breath but kept her eyes on the papers as she refolded them neatly. Then she met his eyes. "May I ask why you are so calm and rational about this?"

Kent chuckled, though it was tinged with a hint of sadness. "I've had a while to come to terms with this, Charisma. Besides, like I said - you're one of my best friends and the mother of my son. I'd like to see you happy. And I think Brianna Walker can do that."

"And will it make you happy, Kent? If we're no longer together?"

Kent hesitated, then nodded. "It will give me the chance to find a love like you have with her. Who knows? Maybe I'll get lucky too."

Charisma nodded and rose to refill her coffee cup. "Stay a little while. Ame will be back with Adam shortly, and he's anxious to see you. We'll be working in my office, so you can have the whole afternoon with him if you like."

"I'd like very much," Kent said. "Thank you, Charisma."

She whirled on him. "For what?"

"Understanding." She frowned at him, but nodded. Then they settled in to wait for Adam's return.


"PA!!!" Adam squealed and the sound brought up the heads of everyone working in Charisma's study and a sorrowful smile to Charisma's face, though no one commented. Instead, after a brief moment, they returned to their work, and Charisma nodded her head in approval as she refocused herself. In another moment, there was a knock at the door of the study, and Kent and Adam poked their heads in gingerly. "Charisma?"

Again everyone glanced up, but this time it was so brief Charisma barely had time to notice before they had once more been occupied with other things. Charisma rose from her seat, and motioned them back out of her office. "Sorry," she offered. "We've got paper scattered everywhere. I'd really rather not...." motioning to Adam currently ensconced in his father's arms. Kent waved away her explanation.

"Don't worry about it, Charisma. That room has always been sacred - I know that. Listen, would you mind if Adam and I went over to the Mall for a bit? Maybe took in a museum?"

"Kent, he's your son too - you don't need my permission."

Kent shrugged. "Maybe. But I didn't want you to worry when it got quiet around here. We won't be too long. It's still pretty cold out and we don't want Adam catching a chill, do we Boy?" chuckling when Adam vigorously shook his head no. "I thought maybe I could bring pizza back for dinner before I headed off too?" his offer sounding more like a question than a statement.

Charisma nodded. "That would be fine but only get enough for the three of us. I'm going to let these guys go home in a little while."

"Okay - I'll call you before we head back. You can call the pizza order in."

Charisma smirked. "I should have known there'd be a catch. All right - you let me know and I'll make the call." Without another word, she turned and re-entered her study and Kent and Adam got dressed to spend sometime in the frigid outdoors.


Brianna was sitting on a bench outside the National Gallery when she heard the voice, and she dropped her head and took a deep breath to prepare herself for what was coming. She was more than a little surprised when she looked up and met Kent Rockwell's eyes briefly before finding herself with an armful of Adam Rockwell as he shouted her name.

"BR'ANNA!!" patting her face gently. "Love Br'anna... Br'anna good."

"Hey, Little Man," she greeted with a sad smile, glad for the wind that was blowing. She could blame the tears stinging her eyes on that. Adam cradled her face in his hands and rubbed their noses together even as he laughed aloud.

"Love Br'anna," he said again, then snuggled up under her chin. Brianna kissed the top of his head.

"Love you too, Little Man." She turned her attention to Kent, who stood by with his hands shoved in his pockets, rocking on his heels awkwardly. She nodded to the empty space on the bench beside her even as he spoke.

"May I join you?"

"Please," Brianna responded immediately, waiting until he was settled before speaking again. "This was quite a surprise. I didn't expect to see anyone out here today."

Kent snickered. "There are always tourists... except in the very rare event when the museums are closed. I have to admit that I was equally stunned to see you here. I thought everyone was working today in preparation for the new session."

"I worked most of the last four days - that's enough."

Kent held up his hands in surrender. "No argument from me. I just know how most of the people in your position tend to work. There are only two speeds - really fast and not at all." He snorted. "Most of them wouldn't be caught dead going to the Smithsonian - even if it wasn't the dead of winter."

"I'm not remotely like most of the people who work in this business," with a wry smile."Remember, this is a temporary assignment for me. I'm not making plans to do this long-term."

"That's true," Kent conceded, marveling at her stage presence. He *knew* she was uncomfortable with him and yet, aside from a bit of stiffness that could be marked down to the fact that Adam was wrapped around her like an octopus, he never would have guessed from her demeanor. Before he could pursue his line of thinking, however, Brianna's voice broke into his thoughts.

"So what brings you boys out to the Mall on this bright, blustery winter's day?"

"The dinosaurs," nodding his head in the direction of the Natural History Museum. "You?"

"The sculpture of Diana. I find it inspiring."

"So you were out here instead of in there because...?"

"It was a little warm in the Gallery," Brianna admitted after a moment's hesitation. "The heat is turned up because it's so cold out here. But when you're dressed for the weather out here, it doesn't take long to become overheated in there."

Kent nodded seriously. "I can see how that could quickly become something of an issue. Just don't catch a chill sitting out here too long. That would be the same problem in reverse." He drew a deep breath. "Speaking of... I'd better get us indoors. I don't want Adam getting sick out here."

"There's just one problem," Brianna responded softly. Kent cocked his head and waited. "He's asleep."

"Oh. Oh dear. I didn't... I'm so sorry."

"Why?" Brianna asked with a hint of amusement in her tone. "He was tired. Obviously you've already had a busy day together. I'm flattered he feels comfortable enough with me to fall asleep when I'm holding him."

"You must have a special kind of magic," Kent commented with a smile. "He really doesn't trust very many to do that on," not mentioning his own difficulties right after Adam's birth. He rose and turned to Brianna, tilting his head trying to figure out the best way to take his son out of her arms without being inappropriate. Brianna returned his look and held up a finger.

Without much effort, she stood and waited for Kent to extend his arms. She deposited Adam gently into the cradle Kent formed for him, then leaned forward and kissed Adam's cheek. Adam sighed and cuddled deeper into his father's embrace. Brianna gave Kent a lopsided smile.

"You may want to rethink that visit to the museum," she suggested with a twinkle. "Not sure how much he'd get out of it in his current condition."

Kent chuckled. "You could be right. It was nice seeing you again, Brianna."

"You too, Kent. Take care," she said as she turned and walked away without a backwards glance.


"Thank you for coming, Turq," Kent said as she settled in behind the wheel of the big car. She met his eyes in the rearview mirror.

"It's not a problem, Mr. Rockwell."

"Just for the record, I normally don't do this. But I wasn't sure how I was going to get home on the Metro carrying Adam *and* pizza."

"I know, sir. It's really not a problem. Would you like me to fetch the pizza or watch Adam for you?"

He glanced down at Adam who was still sleeping with his head in Kent's lap, then jerked his head at the pizza joint. "Would you mind?"

"Not at all, sir," accepting the money he passed her. "Be right back."

True to her word, it only took a few minutes and she was back asking for more money. "I'm sorry, sir. Evidently the Senator ordered more than one because of your unexpectedly early return." Kent simply nodded and handed over a wad of bills. In short order, they were headed back to Charisma's house with the pizzas in hand.

Charisma had the gate opened waiting on them, and Turq pulled into the driveway without hesitation. When she reached the portico, she pulled up to the door before shutting the car off. Then she raced around to open the door for Kent who had scooped Adam into his arms once more. Before Turq could ask Kent for his keys to unlock the door for him, Charisma pulled the door open wide and motioned him in.

"Kent? Is everything all right?

"Br'anna?" Adam murmured. Charisma met Kent's eyes with a cross between fear and consternation in her own. She turned her attention to Turq, who had grabbed the stack of pizza boxes from the car.

"Let's get those into the kitchen," Charisma instructed. Kent took Adam and walked upstairs; Turq just nodded and followed Charisma, placing them on the table before stepping back.

"Will there be anything else, Senator?"

"Would you like to stay and share lunch with us Turq?"

"Oh no ma'am... thank you. I had already eaten by the time Mr. Rockwell called."

"Well, thank you for picking him and my son up. I know you're supposed to be off today."

"It wasn't a problem ma'am... really. I'll pick you up at the regular time tomorrow?" Charisma nodded. "See you in the morning then, Senator."

"Thank you Turq - drive safely."

Turq touched her fingertips to her hair in salute and fled back down the steps to the warmth of the big car. In another moment, she and it were disappearing down the drive and out the gates. Charisma's shiver brought her back to an awareness of her surroundings, and she shut the door and remotely closed the gates. Then she went to retrieve her staff from her office.


They were almost done with their impromptu lunch when Adam wandered downstairs rubbing his eyes. Kent, being closest to the door and only peripherally involved in the conversation, heard him first. He stood without ceremony and moved into the hallway to pick Adam up. Adam wrapped his arms around Kent's neck and held on tightly. Kent hugged him back and kissed his head, then headed back into the kitchen.

"You want some pizza, Boy?" Kent asked as they crossed the threshold, only just noticing Adam tightening his grip even as he looked around the room.

"There's Mama's big boy," Charisma smiled even as she signaled to her staff to leave the room. They took the hint, being long schooled in reading Charisma's nonverbal cues, and in less than a minute of Adam's arrival, the kitchen was cleared of everyone but him and his parental units.

Adam reached for Charisma and she took him as a matter of course when Kent released him. Then Kent went to pour Adam some milk while Charisma put a slice of pizza on a plate and set it in front of him. Adam grabbed the slice in both hands and lifted it to his mouth. When he had a mouthful, he looked at Charisma.

"Mammma, 'ere's Bana?"

She frowned as she tried to filter out the food in his speech, even as she chided, "Don't talk with your mouth full, son."

He glowered and spit out the half-chewed bite of pizza, then poked out his lip. "Where's Br'anna?" he asked again before shoving the bite back into his mouth. Charisma and Kentmade grossed out faces at one another, then turned back to Adam when he screeched, "MAMA!"

"Adam Rockwell!! That's enough from you... now settle down," biting her lip when he teared up at her severe tone. Charisma took a deep breath and softened her voice. "We don't act that way at the table, son. Now I don't know where Brianna is; I haven't seen her."

"Adam saw. And Pa."

"Well that at least explains why he's asking about her," Charisma muttered to herself, though Kent heard her words clearly. She took a deep breath and looked at him. "Should I even ask?"

"It was all perfectly innocent, Charisma. We were walking down the Mall towards the Natural History Museum when Adam spotted her sitting on a bench outside the National Gallery. He took off like a shot." Kent frowned. "We may have to reconsider that whole leash idea - honestly, Charisma... he was gone before I realized what had happened."

"Have you noticed it mostly happens when Brianna is around - specifically when he is trying to get to her?"

"BR'ANNA!!" Adam yelled with a giggle, continuing to stuff pizza into his mouth. Charisma pinched her nose between her thumb and forefinger to avoid looking at his chipmunk-cheeked face. Kent just shook his head and tried to wipe Adam's face while the child squirmed to get away from him.

"I can't say that I have, although now that you mention it...." He let his voice trail off as his mind traced back the times he'd seen Adam run away from him or Charisma in recent days. "I think you're right," he agreed. "I wonder what is so fascinating about her to him."

"Love Br'anna," Adam stated with an emphatic nod of her head. "Br'anna good."

Kent and Charisma exchanged a look. "Well... I guess that explains that." Kent sighed. "I know she's got some kind of powerful magic - he climbed right up into her lap and fell asleep. It's why we ended up back here so early. After discussing mundane things like the museums and the weather, Brianna pointed out that a visit to see the dinosaurs would have been a wasted effort while he was asleep."

"That was the extent of your conversation?"

"Pretty much. She must've been an actor in another life, though."

"What makes you say that?"

"Because I know she's uneasy around me, but I don't think anyone else would be able to pick it up from her actions or her attitude." A beat. "I don't think *I* would be able to tell if I didn't already know."

"Well, she did double major in theatre and the law." Kent's eyebrows went into his hairline and he whistled low in his throat at Charisma's words.

"That would explain a lot. I'd like to hear about it some day. I'd like to hear about a lot of things, actually. Maybe one day we can sit down and talk about some of the things we've missed in each other's lives along the way. In the meantime," he continued before she could formulate a response, "I'll take Adam upstairs and get him cleaned up so you can get back to work."

Charisma sighed. "Thanks. You wouldn't believe the work I should really get done before going back to work tomorrow."

"Yes I would. I've seen this every time you get ready to start a new session."

"Yes, I guess you have," Charisma chuckled. "But I'm about done for the day. Everything else can wait until tomorrow at this point. What time is your train back?"

"Not til late. I wasn't sure how the day was going to turn out, so I gave myself plenty of time to cover all kinds of possibilities."

"Would you... you're welcome to stay in your room."

"No," came the whip shot answer. "Not that I don't appreciate the offer, but we're not going to fall into old patterns if we're going to do this right. I would like to try and spend more time with Adam, but I'm not going to share living space with you when we're separated. It just wouldn't be right."

"If you think it's best...."

"Charisma, I know it is, and so do you. Everything is going to be pretty much like it has been, except that I will be living in Manhattan and visiting DC occasionally, and not the other way around. Oh... that reminds me - I need to get some movers in here to pack up and move the rest of my stuff from upstairs. So if I could keep my key until that's done...?"

"Absolutely. Just let me know when and I'll make sure to be out of your way that day."

"PA!" Adam hollered, breaking the tableau and making them both jump at his volume level. Charisma cleared her throat and rose.

"Just leave everything. I'll take care of it when I'm done working."

"Adam and I'll go get cleaned up, then we'll be in the family room playing... I dunno - something I'm sure he will kick my a... butt at."

With that, Kent picked Adam up out of his chair and held him at arms' length as he made is way back upstairs. Charisma followed them out.

"You may want to lock the bathroom door. Remember he's something of an exhibitionist given half a chance."

Kent snorted. "Good idea," turning into Adam's bathroom. "We'll be out in a few," closing the door firmly behind them. Charisma waited until she heard the snick of the lock, then she smirked and headed back into her office. It was time to wrap things up for the day.

Chapter LXXIX

It had taken longer than she anticipated for Charisma to get all the loose ends taken care of before she was able to send her staff home for the rest of the day. So it was mid-afternoon by the time she was able to lock her study and go into the family room where her son was currently playing some game while Kent sat beside him pointing out various parts that might be helpful. Charisma stood in the doorway just watching them until Kent caught her profile out of the corner of his eye. He leaned down and whispered something to Adam. Adam dropped the controller and ran pell-mell towards Charisma. She leaned down and scooped him into her arms.

"Look Mama! I winning!" pointing to the television.

"I see that," Charisma chuckled. "Good job son!"

"Mama's big boy."

"You sure are." She set him down and he ran back to take his spot in front of the big screen. Kent got to his feet slowly and moved to sit in one of the recliners with a barely contained groan. Charisma smirked. "You sound like you're getting old."

Kent snorted. "There's no 'getting' to it. I'm already there and I should know better than to get down on the floor like that. I have to get back up and that gets harder everyday," shaking his head in disgust. Charisma laughed lightly, though she didn't make any effort to dispute his claim. Instead, she took a seat in the other recliner, and they sat silently watching Adam play his video game - a silence only broken by Adam himself once in a while when he got excited enough to cheer or point things out to them.

This lasted for a few minutes, before Adam's attention shifted to one of his favorite storybooks. Then Kent turned and tapped Charisma on the hand as the silence lengthened and started to become awkward. She started with the touch, then faced him with an eyebrow arched in question.

"I was just thinking," he said without preamble. "When was the last time we just sat together like this? Was it the Christmas after Adam was born?"

Charisma bit her lip and scrunched her forehead in thought. "I think it might have been. We've always been busy, on-the-go people. We've never slowed down for much."

Kent nodded his head in acknowledgement of the truth of her words. Even when they had been dating, very little time had been devoted to just being. When they'd gone out, it was to be seen together and that had lasted until Adam had been born. After that event they'd rarely gone out together in an effort to keep Adam's face out of the press. He glanced to see that their son was completely preoccupied with his book, then lowered his voice and spoke.

"Do you think we'd still be together if Adam hadn't been born?"

"Do you?" Charisma responded instantly. "You're the one that filed for the separation, Kent, so you tell me."

He held her eyes and slowly shrugged his shoulders after a moment's consideration. "I think probably we would, since one of our major reasons for getting married was to produce a child." He paused. "I don't think we'd be any better of a couple though - so probably no happier under the circumstances."

"That's the second time you've mentioned happiness as being a reason for this separation. Are you that unhappy, Kent?"

"I don't think I'm unhappy at all," he replied honestly. "But I'm not happy either. I am...." He hesitated while he searched for the right word. "I'm content - I think we both are. But I'd like to be happy, and I'd like to see you happy too."Charisma nodded slowly. "Not to change the subject," he continued before she could speak, "but why are you still here anyway?" looking pointedly at his watch.

Her eyebrows flew into her hairline and Charisma gave him and incredulous look. "Excuse me?? I *live* here, Kent. This is my home - where else would I be?"

Kent snorted. "Yeah... that didn't come out right. What I meant was - isn't there some sort of party or cocktail hour or dinner you should be attending this evening? There usually is a social mixeryou attend this time of day - especially with Congress reconvening tomorrow."

"There are several, actually - two cocktail parties, a dinner party and at least one gathering for after-dinner drinks."

"Okay," Kent finally said when he realized she wasn't going to add anything else. "So you're not going out because...?"

"I didn't make plans to go to any of them. I wasn't sure when I'd be back in town, and I wasn't going to rush my visit with my family. I see them so little as it is." Then she noticed the sad expression in Kent's eyes. "What is it?" she asked, tilting her head.

"We've never done that," Kent replied, taking as much blame as he was placing. "We've never made any kind of extra effort to spend time with one another. That should have clued me in to reality long before Brianna Walker stepped back into your sphere. I guess it was too easy to ignore it just to maintain the status quo."

"So I should blame her for all this?" motioning around the room vaguely, a hint of heat in her tone.

"NO." Kent's answer was firm and vehement. "WE are to blame for what has transpired between us... for better or for worse. Her reappearance was just the catalyst I needed to face the truth of what we are... what we have always been - friends... co-parents... roommates. I want more, Charisma! I want the brass ring - I want everything! Don't you??"

"Mama?" Adam queried from the floor, looking at her with a frown. Charisma opened her arms and he ran into them, cuddling into her just like he'd done earlier with Brianna. Kent sighed. He felt he'd been on the verge of a breakthrough with her, but of course Adam's needs came first. Kent reached for Adam, and Charisma tightened her grip for a moment before reluctantly releasing Adam to his father.

"C'mon, Boy. Pa's gotta go catch the train so I can get back to work. You can walk me to the door, okay?"

"Mama come too?"

"Yeah, Mama can come too," holding out his hand to Charisma and helping her rise from her seat before letting go. Then they headed out of the family room towards the front door. Kent hugged Adam and savored the joy of being hugged back. Then Adam cradled his face and leaned their foreheads together, laughing aloud when Kent crossed his eyes.

"You sure you don't want to stay a little longer?" Charisma invited as she witnessed their interaction. Despite everything, and no matter what happened between them from here on out, she was glad she and Kent had shared enough of their lives together to have been blessed with Adam. She had a feeling he might be their saving grace. "I thought you didn't have to go back until late tonight."

Kent smiled and gave Adam a kiss that he returned wholeheartedly. Then Kent leaned him in Charisma's direction, and Adam shifted into her arms without hesitation.

"I'm sure. We'll set up some kind of schedule for me to visit soon, but I think it's time for me to go for tonight. You've got a lot of things to think about and consider and work starts up again full steam for you tomorrow. Besides, by the time I get to the station and get squared away, it should be about time for my train to leave. Call me if you need me, all right?"

"I will," though they both knew something drastic would have to happen to Adam before Charisma would make that particular call. "And I'll let you know," gesturing in the direction of the study where the separation papers were safely tucked away.

"Take your time and think about it, Charisma. I want you to make the right decision... for everyone involved."

She nodded but didn't answer him verbally. Instead she held the door when he opened it, then whispered in Adam's ear. Adam waved goodbye frantically. "Bye Pa!!" his enthusiasm bringing a smile to both adult countenances.

"Bye Boy... be a good boy for Mama, all right? I'll be back again before you know it."

"Love Pa!" This time the words brought tears to Kent's eyes, but he smiled and traded glances with Charisma.

"Love you too, Boy." Then he was out the door and back in the rental car. Charisma opened the gate for him, and waited for his taillights to disappear out of the drive before she closed it and locked up the house for the night. There was much to consider, but as Kent had pointed out, they had time. And tonight she planned to spend that time with her son. She could worry about the future tomorrow.


The knock on the door brought Charisma's head up with a jerk. The first day back at work after the extended holiday was always something of a strain, and this year it was compounded by a number of other factors all pressing into her consciousness for consideration. Still, she and her staff had been kept remarkably busy taking care of the business of the Senate; even now she was engrossed in reading the amendments to several bills that had been presented in chambers that day. So the sound of a knock on her door this late in the evening startled her out of the bubble she'd encapsulated herself in.

"Come in?" blinking rapidly as she tried to orient her vision to the lights that were suddenly flipped on, then smiling in genuine welcome when Esmeralda stuck her head in the door. "ES!!" she exclaimed, rising from her seat and moving around the desk to give Esmeralda a hug. Though they'd spoken on the phone regularly during the holidays, nothing was quite as reassuring as seeing one another face-to-face. Charisma gently grasped Esmeralda's arms when the hug was over, and checked her over carefully from head to toe and back again. When she met Esmeralda's eyes, she grinned in response to the one she was getting. "You look wonderful," Charisma offered. "I guess your time off was exactly what you needed. How do you feel?"

Esmeralda smiled. "I feel really good... like a new woman almost. Maybe whatever was hanging on before is finally gone."

"We'll hope so," Charisma added fervently. "It stayed around long past its welcome. And how is Saphira?"

Now Esmeralda's smile became radiant and her eyes glowed with an almost heavenly light. "She's amazing, as always. Even though she was working hard during most of the holiday season, there's a joy to her now... a peace I haven't seen in her for a very long time."

"A lot of that has to do with you feeling better, I'll bet."

Esmeralda chuckled. "No bet from me. Pretty sure I watched that particular burden slide from her shoulders a little more each day as I've gotten noticeably better." She turned to her cart and began gathering her supplies. "And how are things with you?"

"Kent filed for separation."

The statement was so calm and matter-of-fact that Esmeralda had to reign in the impulse to whirl around. Instead, she finished collecting the things she needed and setting them out in the order they would be used, before clutching her duster and turning to face Charisma. "Okay, then," she offered slowly. "And how do you feel about it?"

Charisma walked around her desk and resumed her seat, propping her elbow on the chair arm and her chin on her fingers as she studied Esmeralda thoughtfully. Esmeralda remained quiet, continuing her work around the office while Charisma pondered the question.

"You know something? I don't think I do... feel anything about it, I mean. I'm mostly ambivalent about the whole thing at this point. I thought about getting angry, but why? Kent made some good points, and as unsettling for me as this is, I'd like him to find happiness. He's a good man and a good father - he deserves to be happy."

"And you?"

Charisma shook her head and though tears flooded her eyes, she refused to let them fall. She took a cleansing breath before she spoke. "I missed my chance for happiness... both times it was offered to me. I don't think there'll be a third opportunity."

"And if there was?"

"I'd grab it with both hands and never let go."

"Just remember you said that, Charisma."

Charisma snorted. "Your faith is far greater than mine, my friend."

"Perhaps. But being optimistic can't hurt, right?"

"I love you, Es. Don't you ever go changing. Oh... before I forget, let's plan to get together again soon. I think Adam misses you both. I know I do."

"You give us a time and place and we'll be there."

"Not this weekend, because Kent is coming back to town so we can work out a schedule for him to visit Adam. He wants to take him to the Natural History Museum. How about the following weekend?"

"As far as I know, we're free. I'll talk to Saphira and let you know tomorrow, all right?"

"Sounds good," Charisma agreed. "Let me get out of your hair so you can get done and go meet her. I'm sure she's anxiously waiting to hear how your first day back was."

Esmeralda laughed. "Actually, she's less anxious now than she was when I returned a few months ago. She can see the difference in my health. But I imagine she is a little less than patient in her waiting. Poor Matilda."

Charisma smiled. "I don't know - I think Matilda probably has a pretty good handle on things."

Esmeralda smirked. "You're probably right." She continued working as Charisma shut down her computer and gathered up the stacks of paper the day's session had earned her. Charisma made a quick call, then picked up her briefcase.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Es?"

"I should be here," she commented with a smile. "Have a good night, Senator."

Charisma stuck out her tongue at the formal address. "You too." She left the office and Esmeralda finished up her work in short order. Then she moved down the hall to Brianna's office. It was completely dark, and Esmeralda moved swiftly through the outer office in the hope that Brianna was simply waiting in the dark for her arrival. When her knock wasn't answered, however, she figured that she was wishing in vain - a fact that was confirmed when she opened the door to an empty office.

Esmeralda turned on the lights and looked around slowly. Everything was in place, except.... Esmeralda frowned. The pictures had been rearranged slightly, as though Brianna was making room for a new set. Esmeralda nodded to herself - Opal had mentioned there should be new pictures from Brianna's trip to Dubai. Otherwise, everything seemed pretty much the same.

She got out the tools of her trade and slowly made her way around the room, straightening as she dusted. It was only when she got to Brianna's desk that she realized what was different.

Aside from the note that rested prominently in the middle of the otherwise empty blotter, the Waterford frame that held the picture of Brianna and Charisma at the Trevi Fountain was gone. Esmeralda found it interesting that she hadn't replaced the picture with something else - instead, Brianna had simply removed the entire memory.

She wondered if Brianna had simply removed it from public view and tucked it into one of the desk drawers. She made a mental note to ask Indi and Coral when she saw them, because she was unwilling to risk the trust and friendship she had established with Brianna to rummage through her desk.

Esmeralda turned her attention to the sheet of paper that had her name across the top in big, bold letters. Obviously, Brianna was eager to make sure Esmeralda found the note. Esmeralda tilted her head and picked the letter up to read it, then smiled.

Esmeralda, (it read)

I'm not here - clearly - but not because I am trying to avoid you. I missed lunch today and decided I needed a piece of Matilda's chocolate cake to fill the gaping chasm my empty belly has become in the intervening hours since dinner last night. And before you start scolding... yes, I will actually have some dinner to go with my dessert. Do you really think Matilda - or Saphira for that matter - would let me get away with anything else? Honestly, sometimes it's like having another Okasa or two in my life - not that that's a bad thing. For a kid who grew up with no real parental interest, having so many at this point in my life is something I consider a blessing... mostly.

I did try holding out until you arrived, but when I felt my blood sugar drop unexpectedly, I decided it would be in my best interest to go ahead and call the day done... especially since I know you'll go straight to the diner when you're done here.

Anyway, I'll be at Angel's when you get there. I have some great new pictures to share with you and Saphira.


Esmeralda chuckled and tucked the note into her pocket. Then she resumed her work, ready to get to the diner.


When the bell jingled, Saphira looked at the door as a matter of course... only to rush to Brianna's side when she recognized her face and saw the pallor lurking beneath the new tan she sported. Without a word she led Brianna to a place at the counter and immediately poured her a glass of milk.

"Drink," she instructed, and Brianna did so with alacrity, sighing when the cold milk hit her empty stomach. Then she winced and clutched her head.

"Brain freeze," she mumbled, waiting for it to pass before raising the glass to her lips again and finishing off her milk. Then she sighed in satisfaction again and smiled at Saphira. "That hit the spot. Thank you."

"Good... so what can I get you to eat?"

Brianna frowned. "How did you know?"

"You've got that same hungry look in your eye as you had the night you stumbled in here lost." Brianna narrowed her eyes and Saphira chuckled and held up her hands. "I'm a waitress, Brianna. I know what hungry looks like."

"Smartass," Brianna grumbled, but gave Saphira a smile. "I'll have the special.... wait," she qualified, looking around the small restaurant. "It's not liver and onions is it? I hate liver and onions."

Saphira wrinkled up her nose in disgust. "EW... doesn't everyone?? No, it's not liver and onions - I don't think that's been on the menu since I started working here. Tonight's meatloaf."

Brianna smiled and nodded. "I like meatloaf. I'll have the special and a BIG slice of Matilda's chocolate cake."

"And to drink?"

"I'll stick with milk."

Saphira nodded and slid the order to Joe, then refilled Brianna's glass. "Won't be but a couple minutes," she promised. "And in the meantime, you can tell me why you're really here. I figured you'd wait to see Es tonight."

"That was the original plan, but sometimes plans change," Brianna offered with a sad smile. "Besides, I thought I'd share my latest pictures with both of you together. That way, I don't have to bore Es twice."

Saphira laughed. "Fair enough," turning to grab Brianna's plate as Joe passed it to her. She set it in front of Brianna with the admonishment, "You get started, and I'll be back." Then she moved to check on her other customers, willing Esmeralda to hurry with her work and get to the diner.

Chapter LXXX

"So Dubai was a good choice, then?" Esmeralda asked as she accepted another glass of milk from Saphira. She covered Saphira's hand with her own and squeezed lightly; Saphira lifted their clasped hands to her lips and brushed Esmeralda's knuckles with a kiss. All this was done unconsciously as far as Brianna could tell - they never broke eye contact with her. She cleared her throat to remove any trace of tears from her voice.

"It was a fantastic choice," she enthused. "I don't know what made Indi choose it, but it was fabulous. I tried to bring my masseuse Ramon back with me, but his wife strenuously objected... mostly because she couldn't get away to come with him," Brianna added with a little laugh. Esmeralda and Saphira both chuckled. "I figured he could make a mint with all the tension in this town."

"The town would probably fall apart without it," Saphira mumbled, then yelped when Esmeralda pinched her. "Whaaaaaat?" she added in a whine. "I'm just saying."

"Yes, well *don't* just saying. It would be nice if the world could live without stress and tension for a week - maybe they'd figure out how to play nicer together."

"It's a nice dream, Es, but I don't think real life works that way," Brianna said. "But it's so good to see you're feeling better. You really had us worried there for a while. Guess you just needed some extended rest, huh?"

"I guess," Esmeralda agreed slowly. "Personally, I was beginning to think it might take a miracle, soif that's not what this is, then He providedgrace in His own way and His own time."

"I'm glad your faith proved out, my friend. Even though you've been in my life just a short time, you'd have left a big hole if something had happened to you. And what would that have done to Saphira?" seeing the blood drain from both faces. Before she could say anything to make things better, however, Matilda came in from the back, cheering enthusiastically.

"Oh, Esmeralda... when Joe called, I wanted to rush right over. But I was helping my grandson make cookies to take to his school tomorrow - it's his birthday, you know. Stand up... let me look at you," Matilda commanded without missing a beat, spinning Esmeralda around slowly, then circling her again while she studied her up and down. "Look at me - how are you feeling? And don't lie to me - I'll know."

"I feel good, Matilda. Better than I have in a long time."

"So the rest did you good then?"

"The rest did me great, Matilda. I feel made over."

"You look it too. And you," turning her attention to Brianna, "where did the tan come from in the middle of all this cold and snow?"

"The beach," Brianna replied with a teasing smirk. "There are these really cool inventions called airplanes - they'll take you away from the cold and snow and into the warmth of the sun. They'll also bring you back to the cold and snow, but I'm working on changing that."

Matilda laughed. "You, young missy, are nothing but a genuine troublemaker. Now," looking around at the three younger women, "have you three had dinner?" Seeing everyone nod she smiled. "Good - then it's time for all of you to get on home and get to bed... you especially," pointing a finger in Esmeralda's direction. "It's only Monday, and you've got the rest of the week to go before you get another day off. So let's go...." shooing them in the direction of the door. "There's always tomorrow if you want to continue your conversation."

They couldn't really argue - the diner was closed and had been for a while. And no one, including Esmeralda wanted to see her health fail again. So they slowly donned their cold weather clothing and walked towards the door. Matilda took Esmeralda aside for a moment, and Brianna and Saphira moved ahead to give them privacy. Brianna held out a folded bill to Saphira who recoiled sharply from it. Brianna calmly intercepted her hand and curled the money into her palm.

"Saphira, I know we're friends, and I appreciate that facet of my life more than you could possibly understand right now. But I also know that a majority of your income is derived from the tips you make working in this diner as a waitress. Please don't turn down money you've earned because of your pride - if Es is right and He is watching, I don't want there to be a mark against either of us because of something like this."

Saphira frowned. "Why would there be a mark against you? It's my pride."

"And isn't there a Bible verse somewhere that compels us to not be beholden to anyone... to pay our debts? You took care of me again, Saphira - let me make some sort of contribution towards the time and effort that took. The friendship part I can only repay with my own."

Saphira took a deep breath. "That was very sneaky and underhanded," she commented with a wry grin. "We are happy to have your friendship, Brianna - your acceptance of us means so much. As for the money... well, I certainly wouldn't want to be responsible for a black mark on your record, so I will just say thank you and add it to the jar that is going towards paying off Esmeralda's medical bills."

"Are there many?"

"Many what?" Esmeralda asked as she joined them in the doorway. They waved goodbye to Matilda and walked out of the diner together. Brianna had dismissed her car, so they all headed towards the closest Metro station. Esmeralda and Saphira silently agreed to see Brianna home before they went to their own.

"Cousins," Brianna said without missing a beat. "You've mentioned large families, but no siblings."

Esmeralda blinked. She didn't really think they had been discussing their families, but it was a legitimate question. If something else was going on, Saphira would share the details with her when they got home. She cleared her throat.

"Oh... well, yes - there are quite a few actually, although Saphira does have a sister."

"Oh that's right - I had forgotten." She closed her eyes in thought. "Amber, wasn't it?"

Saphira wrinkled her nose. "That'd be her," gently guiding the two smaller women towards the correct platform. Brianna stopped walking and looked at them in bemusement when she realized they were accompanying her instead of going to their own train.

"You know, guys... I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."

Saphira just held her eyes. "You remember those marks we were talking about earlier? Do you know how big and black the one I'd get would be if we let you go wandering around down here by yourself when it would only take a few minutes of our time to see you safely home??"

"That was very sneaky and underhanded," Brianna commented with a wry grin.

Saphira chuckled. "I know - I learned from the best," sketching a half-bow in Brianna's direction.

"So the two of you are going to share with me exactly what I am missing here, right?" Esmeralda growled....

... only to suck in a breath when a stranger seemed to deliberately run into Brianna. He knocked her off-balance and it was only Esmeralda's swift action in reachingout that kept Brianna from hitting the concrete face first.That was about all he had time to do as Esmeralda's gasp had spurred Saphira to action. Before he could open his mouth to say a word, he was face down on the ground with his arms wrenched so far up his back he couldn't whimper without causing himself excruciating pain. Brianna immediately found a law enforcement officer, and then the real circus began.


It was closer to daylight than dark when Esmeralda and Saphira dragged themselves into the house... to be met by every member of their household except for those on duty. They looked at each other and then at the rest, before Esmeralda turned her attention to Ruby.

"Ruby?? Is everything okay?"

Ruby blew out an unsteady breath. "That was going to be our question - are you two all right? Coral gave us a quick rundown, but...."

"She did? When?"

"Just a little while ago - probably right before you left the police station because it was right after Brianna called Jas to come pick you all up from there. I'm still not completely clear on what happened tonight... only that there was some kind of trouble."

"Were you up all night?"

"I started to be," Ruby answered honestly. "When you were late, I considered staying up to wait for you. Then I realized that if something was wrong and you weren't late taking care of Angel business, I could do more good if I got some sleep last night and covered for Saphira today. Don't even," she added fiercely with a look in Saphira's direction. Saphira held up her hands in surrender and Ruby knew whatever had happened, it had been hellacious for Saphira to capitulate so easily. She turned back to Esmeralda with concerned eyes. "So?"

"So, it should already be on the news and in the early edition of the paper. Some punk kid tried to mug Brianna - Saphira put a stop to it."

"Then why does she look like she just ran a marathon in her mortal body carrying a sack of gold bars in each hand?" Opal asked, ignoring the glare she got from Saphira.

"Because the rescue was easy. The paperwork, on the other hand...."

"Hell is not fire and brimstone," Saphira growled, drawing surprised looks from all the Angels who had indeed witnessed the fire and brimstone of Hell. They waited for her to continue. "It's drowning in government paperwork that has to be filled out in triplicate." She looked at Esmeralda. "I'm glad I didn't go with my first instinct and kill that idiot. I'd *still* be doing the paperwork to get out of that place while I suffocated under the weight of it."

The rest laughed at her description and Saphira stuck out her tongue. Esmeralda looked around at them with tired eyes. "Brianna is safe - she refused to stay here saying we needed to sleep and she needed to get ready for work."

Indi snorted. "Is she crazy??"

"We prefer to think of her as dedicated, no matter how nuts we consider her to be at the moment. However, she is going to work for at least part of the day today, so you all will need to be there as well. If you will excuse Saphira and me, we're going to bed as well. I'd hate to undo all that recuperation with one night of excitement, and I'm really tired. I don't need to tell you to keep your eyes peeled and your ears open."

Everyone shook their heads and waited for Esmeralda and Saphira to enter their room and close the door behind them before they stirred... ready to start another day.


"Senator? Senator Walker has entered the building." Opal's voice was calm as it came over the speakerphone in Charisma's office. Charisma jerked her head in the direction of her desk and scowled.

"Are you certain, Opal?" Surely Brianna had needed to sleep after the night she'd had.

"Yes ma'am," Opal replied without hesitation. "Turq just called me and said her car had just pulled up. Apparently Senator Walker's driver called ahead and asked for some help to get through the press presence that's gathered around outside."

Charisma closed her eyes and breathed deeply to will herself to calmness. When she had heard the news that morning, Charisma's first instinct had been to rush over to Brianna's to check on her personally. Then she realized that she had lost the right to be so familiar, and she determined to wait until Brianna contacted her. She decided this was close enough to contact for her to show a concerned interest without being accused of hawking over or mothering. God knew the last impression Charisma wanted to make was that of a mother.

Not that she hadn't had her staff do some checking - Charisma knew more than any of the news agencies did at this point... and probably almost as much as the parties involved in the incident did. But it didn't lessen her need to assure herself that her friends were all right. The only reason she hadn't called yet was that she fully expected them all to be sleeping soundly. She wondered what had caused Brianna to choose to come to work instead of getting a little rest. Then she shook her head - that wasn't as important as the fact that she was here and Charisma could now go see how she was doing personally.

"Thank you, Opal," Charisma said and she stood and straightened her clothing. She took a deep breath and walked to the door, opening it with confidence before passing through her outer office without a word. The staff exchanged glances, then simply got on with their day's work. If and when Charisma Tagherty needed their input, they'd be the first to know - until then, they would do their assigned tasks and be thankful for the respite from a moody boss.

Charisma paused outside the door, hearing the cacophony of noise that indicated Brianna and her entourage were headed towards her. So Charisma determined to wait for their arrival.

She watched as Brianna came up the hallway. It was obvious - to her at least - that Brianna was running on adrenaline and sheer grit, and part of her admired Brianna for that. It reminded her greatly of their college days, when they'd been able to stay up for thirty-six or forty-eight hours straight... especially around exam time. On the other hand, Charisma felt more than a twinge of anger at Brianna's lackadaisicalattitude towards herself. It took her the intervening time of Brianna's closing the distance between them for her to swallow that feeling and put on a calm façade.

"Brianna?" she asked quietly as the group surrounding Brianna reached her. Charisma saw Brianna's eyes flutter closed for the merest second, then those green eyes met hers for a beat before turning back to her staff.

"You guys go ahead and get started with what I've already given you. I'll catch up to you in a minute." Every member of her team met her look and nodded sharply before they turned as a singular body and headed further up the hallway into their office. Only once the door was closed behind them did Brianna turn back to Charisma and meet her eyes. "Charisma," she greeted cordially, though the smile on her lips never reached her eyes. "What can I do for you?"

"Nothing. I squandered my chances and I know that. I just wanted to see for myself that you were all right."

"You could have called," Brianna chided gently. Charisma just shook her head.

"Not the same thing. Besides, I expected all of you to be sleeping this morning."

"Well, I certainly hope Esmeralda and Saphira are. I have a lunch meeting that I couldn't miss, or believe me... I'd have called in sick today."

Charisma chuckled. "I'm pretty sure your lunch meeting would have understood. After all, you made the paper *and* the news." She paused and searched Brianna's face carefully. "Are you certain you're all right? You know Mama is going to ask me if she doesn't ask you first."

Brianna smiled, though it was as tired and sad as any Charisma had ever seen. "I'm sure she will, regardless of what I told her. I'm fine," she continued without allowing Charisma to comment. "I was never in any danger - Saphira and Esmeralda saw to that. Esmeralda caught me before I could kiss the ground and Saphira had the assailant down and disarmed before Esmeralda and I could even straighten up from the near fall the kid caused. It was over before it got started. I'm fine, Charisma," Brianna reiterated. "Really."

Charisma nodded slowly. "I won't even ask what you were thinking riding the Metro that time of night," holding up her hands before Brianna could say a word. "I'm just glad you had Saphira and Esmeralda with you. Are they all right?"

"Everyone is okay - the worst thing that happened to any of us was the mountain of paperwork we had to deal with at the police station. Honestly, you'd have thought *we* were the criminals the way the cops were acting for a while."

Charisma nodded. "I'm glad you're all right, Brianna." She let her hand rest briefly on Brianna's arm and gave it a slight squeeze before removing it. "I'll...." She motioned in the general direction of Brianna's office before dropping her hand to rest on the doorknob of her own. "I'll let you get to work. The sooner you get done, the sooner you can go home and get some sleep."

"Yeah... don't think I'm not counting the minutes for that little phenomenon to occur either." She turned and headed up the hallway a couple steps, then whirled back around to catch Charisma's eyes following her retreat. "Thanks for asking, Charisma. I think Esmeralda plans to be here tonight if you want to stick around and check on her."

Charisma frowned hard. "Are you kidding me?"

"Not at all. She told me she didn't have any time left on the books - I think part of her time off during her illness was unpaid leave. The only reason she didn't lose her job is because she's well-liked and trusted by the Senators she works for, and she does exceptional work besides."

"That's not right!"

"No, but I suspect it's the truth. I just know she said they can't afford for her to miss any more work for a while."

"I may have to look into that," Charisma grumbled, looking at the ground for a long moment. Brianna watched in silent fascination as Charisma turned her focus inward. Finally, Charisma seemed to come to a decision within herself and when that was settled, she met Brianna's eyes once more. "Thank you, Brianna. I appreciate you stopping to talk to me. I know we're not supposed to be friends anymore...."

"Charisma, we will never be best friends again, but I think we will always be friends - even if it's only casually. And it's all right for casual friends to be interested in each others' lives, especially when something scary like last night happens to one of them. Thanks for being interested enough to check up on me."

Before Charisma could find words to respond, Brianna turned away from her again and made her way down the hall to her office. When the door closed behind her, Charisma released the lip she'd been biting and shook her head while blinking furiously to clear the tears from her eyes before they started rolling down her cheeks unchecked. Then she took a deep breath and opened the door to her office, calling out orders as she made her way back into her inner sanctum. Opal and Luke just exchanged looks - she scrambled to keep up with Charisma's voice and he started making phone calls.

Down the hall, it was much more subdued. Though they all observed Brianna surreptitiously, her staff didn't need any more directives from her. So they watched her sail through the outer office and into her inner one, wondering what Charisma had said to their boss to put the slump in her shoulders. They didn't ask - they knew Brianna would blame it on her fatigue, though the slump hadn't been present before her rendezvous with Charisma in the hallway.

Brianna closed the door softly behind her and crossed to the refrigerator, confidently removing a pint of milk before walking to her desk. Once seated and assured of at least a few minutes of privacy, she shook the milk and popped it open, guzzling half of it before opening the bottom right-hand drawer where she usually stashed her purse. There, face down, was the Waterford frame that had been prominently placed on the desk of every office she had worked in... until now.

She glared at the back of it, as though willing it to get up out of the drawer and walk away from her. She didn't really care where - she just couldn't keep the reminder out anymore and she knew she wasn't strong enough to get rid of it on her own. Without a word, Brianna dropped her purse on top of the crystal, then closed and locked the drawer.

Maybe if she was lucky a good fairy would dispose of it on their own, and she wouldn't have to worry about it. Then she snorted and shook her head. She'd stopped believing in magic a long time ago, and recent events had only reinforced that. Brianna finished her milk and tossed the bottle in the recycle bin. Then she pulled forward the papers she needed to work on before her lunch meeting. Maybe then she could go home and sleep.

To be continued

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