Chapter LXXXI

The sound of movement in her outer office brought Charisma out of the haze she'd let herself fall into. Ostensibly, she was working, of course, but the truth was that her focus was much more concentrated on listening for Esmeralda than it was on actually reading what was in front of her. So as soon as she heard stirring in the front office, Charisma straightened the papers on her desk and rose, crossing to the door quickly and opening it.

Esmeralda was already engrossed in her work and with her back towards Charisma, it made it easy for Charisma to study her unobserved. Esmeralda didn't seem to be moving any slower than normal, though there was a tired droop in her overall body language. When she shifted enough to glimpse her face, Charisma was pleased not to see the exhaustion she expected to be there.

After a long moment, Esmeralda stiffened, realizing she was no longer alone. She turned slowly, unsurprised to see Charisma's eyes on her, though her sight seemed to be somewhere beyond the room they were standing in or Esmeralda herself. Esmeralda approached Charisma deliberately, recognizing the exact moment she was once again aware of her surroundings.

"Senator Tagherty?" watching Charisma frown and her eyes narrow. "Charisma... are you all right?" feeling a distinct sense of déjà vu settle over her. Charisma looked her over carefully before offering Esmeralda a wry expression.

"Isn't that supposed to be my line?" she asked drolly. "After all, I'm not the one who was getting attacked in the Metro at oh-my-God-o'clock this morning."

"Well in fairness, neither was I," Esmeralda stated plainly. "But I understand what you mean," she continued when Charisma glowered at her. "We're fine," she continued. "I think Saphira fared the worst of the three of us, and that only because she was nearly buried by the ton of paperwork they shoved at her. And then they wonder why humans are so ad]verse to getting involved when there is trouble - you'd have thought we were the criminals the way they went on there for a while."

"Do you regret it... helping Brianna, I mean?"

"Oh no... of course not. But that was easy - Brianna is our friend. But I'm sure the treatment would have been the same had it been a stranger... maybe even worse. It's very disheartening when you really stop and think about it. I know Saphira was ready to smack some heads together."

Charisma laughed. "I'd have paid to have seen that."

"You wouldn't have needed to - she'd have gladly done it for free. At least it's over with, and with a little luck, we won't have to testify. Brianna's statement combined with ours and the video footage should be enough to put the kid away for a while."

"Did he say anything? Do you know why she was the target?"

Esmeralda shook her head. "By his own admission, he thought she'd be an easy mark. He had no idea she was a Senator, and he never could have predicted Saphira's prowess."

"Well, he should have plenty of time to consider his actions." Charisma paused and cleared her throat. "Listen... are you sure you should even be here tonight? I don't want you having a relapse, Es… none of us do."

"That's sweet, Charisma. But this is my job, and I need to be here." She smiled to take any sting out of her words. "Don't worry - I promise I'm going slow enough to not needlessly tire myself out, and Rick is keeping an eye on me too. I won't overdo and as soon as I'm done, I'm going home and going straight back to bed."

"All right." Charisma nodded. "Fair enough. Help yourself to a chocolate milk or two - I don't want you falling down on my watch either," said in a scolding tone but with a glimmer of a twinkle in her eye.

Esmeralda chuckled. "Aye aye sir... ma'am," she corrected with a grin. "Trust me, Charisma. I have no desire to feel the way I felt before. I'll do what it takes to keep from feeling that way ever again. Oh... and for some reason," rolling her eyes, "I didn't get to talk to Saphira about next weekend last night. I'll try and do it tonight."

"I think I can forgive you the oversight this once," Charisma returned drolly. "Just don't let it happen again, okay?"

"I'll do my best," Esmeralda agreed.

"Good. Let me just pack up and I'll get out of your way for the evening."

Esmeralda nodded and continued on with her work. When she was ready to go, Charisma lifted the phone on her desk and called down to the drivers' room. Then she gazed thoughtfully at Esmeralda.

"I'm headed out for the evening. You get some rest, and I'll see you tomorrow night." She paused and Esmeralda waited. "I'm glad you're all right, Es... you and Saphira both. And thank you... for looking out for Brianna." She took a deep, shuddering breath and dropped her scrutiny to the floor."I know I don't have any right, but I wouldn't have… well, I can't imagine...."

Esmeralda moved so silently and swiftly that Charisma didn't realize she was there until she turned around and found Esmeralda within her personal space. She stared into green eyes, surprised to find no pity - only compassion - and she let herself relax into the embrace Esmeralda offered. Charisma sighed and soaked up the comfort.

After a long moment, she pulled away in embarrassment. Before Charisma could speak, Esmeralda cupped her cheek and shook her head. "No," she commanded quietly. "Don't apologize for your feelings... especially to me. When you're ready to talk, you know where to find me."

"How did you...?"

Esmeralda chuckled. "Charisma, I know you think I'm a kid compared to you, but trust me when I tell you that I've lived through a lot in my lifetime. And I know what it's like to have an epiphany about yourself that changes everything you ever thought about yourself. I've seen the expression in your eyes before when I've looked in the mirror."

Charisma leaned in for a second and hugged Esmeralda again before totally withdrawing and picking up her briefcase. "Thank you, Es. For so much." Then without another word, she let herself out of the office and closed the door behind her. Esmeralda watched her go, staring at the door for another long moment before she took a deep breath and got back to work.


"Wow - she really...?" Saphira set a plate in front of Esmeralda and poured them both a glass of milk before taking a seat beside her at the kitchen table. Ruby had insisted on covering her shift; Saphira had called and Matilda had agreed when she'd heard about the way their previous evening had ended, though she called in the new girl to help Ruby, so Ruby had come home earlier and gone straight to bed. Now it was just the two of them sitting together at the table while Esmeralda indulged in a rare peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

"She did. I dunno, Phira - I don't know what to think about this mission anymore. This has gone so far beyond anything I ever even considered as a possibility. I know we're not done - obviously... He hasn't called us... them... home. But I'm at a loss to know what to do anymore."

"Maybe you're not supposed to do anything at this point." Saphira sighed and wrapped her hands around her glass of milk. "If you're completely honest, this whole project has been one snafu after another. You haven't been able to access the information you need or direct things like you normally would and it's become a complete fubar, correct?"

Esmeralda sighed. "That's probably a little harsher than I would have put it, but it about sums things up, yes."

"Maybe you're... *we're*... just supposed to be here for them. Because Charisma has lived in the closet so long, she's become wallpaper. Her mindset won't change overnight, no matter what happens in her life. Things like last night might help speed her thinking along, but she's going to have to be the one that ultimately changes her life - because that's what this will be for her. Maybe we're just supposed to be there and support them while she comes to the realizations she needs to."

"Maybe," Esmeralda agreed slowly, taking another bite of her sandwich and chewing thoughtfully. "Still, I was amazed by her tonight."

"But what about Brianna?"

"I don't know. I think if Charisma wants, she's gonna have to be willing to risk everything. Brianna won't believe her otherwise." Esmeralda swallowed the last bite of her sandwich and finished her milk before she stood and took her dishes to the sink. "Well, tomorrow is another day. Maybe we'll get a few more baby steps - eventually they might add up to a step forward." She rinsed off her dishes, then did the same with Saphira's glass. "C'mon... it's past my bedtime."

Saphira accepted the hand Esmeralda extended and led them into the bedroom. Tomorrow would come soon enough for them.


The rest of the week passed rather casually for everyone. Brianna and Charisma only met in the hallway twice, and otherwise had no real interaction. Scott Patterson wondered aloud if they'd had a lovers quarrel as neither woman suddenly seemed to have the time of day for the other, but several Senators pointed out they had all been busy trying to get back into the swing of things. Another two had taken him aside privately and reminded him thatspeculation like that outside his office was likely to get him the kind of press no politician wanted. So he let it go with murmurings and grumblings - and vowed to keep an eye on both women. Tagherty especially was someone he wouldn't mind undermining. She held a chair he coveted for his own. So he sat back to wait... and watch.

For their own parts, Brianna and Charisma were both actually quite busy with work. New sessions always meant restarting from scratch on a lot of things, and they were in and out of committee meetings constantly. For Brianna, it was a relief. It allowed her to settle back into work without the pressure of resuming a more familiar friendship with Charisma. That might happen one day, but it wasn't going to be immediate.

For Charisma, it was an exercise in frustration. Her mind was being pulled in so many directions - not the least of which was her last conversation with Okasa. As predicted, Okasa had called as soon as she'd heard the news about Brianna's attack. And that phone call just kept replaying over and over in Charisma's mind.


"Charisma, it's Mama. What's going on down there? Do I need to send Hunter down there to look after you girls? What happened?? How's Brianna? And is someone looking after Saphira and Esmeralda? I'm sure they need...."

"Mama... MAMA - slow down a minute and let me get a word in edgewise, all right? Brianna's fine; I spoke to her earlier today. She came into work for a little while this morning, and then went home to get some sleep. I'll see Es before I go home tonight. She told Brianna she'd be in to work tonight."

"What?? Is she crazy?? That child needs to rest... especially after that kind of excitement. And what about Saphira? I know your brother said she should have been in law enforcement, but what on Earth was she thinking, taking on an armed thug like that?? Don't get me wrong - I'm thrilled she was able to take him out without anyone getting hurt, but my God!! What if something had happened to her... or Esmeralda... or Brianna?? Do you kids have any idea how much I worry?? There's a reason there's more salt than pepper in my hair, you know."

"Yes, Mama - I know," Charisma broke in before Okasa really got wound up. "Do you want me to ask Brianna to call you? You know she would."

"NO." The reply so sharp that Charisma expected it to draw blood. "No," Okasa repeated a second time, though much more softly than the first. "She's asked for space and I'll be damned if we don't give her that. That doesn't mean I'm going to worry any less." She took a deep breath. "You talk to Es and you call and let me know how she seems to you."

"I will, Mama."

"All right, Baby Girl - how are you holding up?"

Charisma snorted. "You know how new sessions are."

"I know I'm glad I never went into politics. You take care of yourself and my grandson. And if you need us, Paddy and I are only a phone call away."

"I know, Mama, and I appreciate it."

"I love you, Charisma."

"Love you too, Mama. Bye."


That conversation, combined with the rumors Charisma was fairly sure Scott Patterson had a hand in as well as Brianna's distinct avoidance of her combined to be running her mind in a vicious circle. She idly wondered what Patterson would think if her separation from Kent became public knowledge. Charisma made a mental note to stick around a little late tonight and talk to Esmeralda. Maybe Esmeralda could help her get things straight in her mind... so to speak.


"Charisma? Is something wrong?"

Charisma's head popped up at the sound of her name and she regarded Esmeralda with quizzical eyes. "Why would you think something was wrong, Es?"

Esmeralda smirked. "It's Friday night - you should either be home with your son or out having dinner and drinks with your colleagues. Instead, you're curled up on your office couch reading...." Esmeralda tilted her head trying to read the title of the book Charisma still had open on her lap. "Well, I'm not sure what you're reading - I'm pretty sure it's not any sort of legislation though. So either something is up in a bad way or you're waiting to talk to me."

"I want you to know that is still a little freaky to me. No one has ever been able to read me the way you can - I'll be honest... it scares me a little."

"I'm not trying...."

"I know. I'mjust thankful you use your powers for good," Charisma offered with a smile. She patted the seat beside her. "Come sit down - because you're right... I was waiting to talk to you. And I'm not sure I can wait until next Sunday."

"Sounds serious."

"It is serious. I...." Charisma bit her lip and looked down at the book still open in her lap. With single-minded focus, she marked her place precisely and closed the book with due deliberation. Once she was satisfied that her bookmark was perfectly even and the book jacket corners were seated correctly, Charisma put the book carefully on the table in front of her. Then she clasped her hands in her lap... so tightly that her knuckles turned white - quite noticeable on her olive-toned skin. She started when Esmeralda covered her fists with a gentle touch and raised confused blue eyes to meet understanding green.

"Talk to me, Charisma - it's just you and me here, and I don't bite unless your name is Saphira and you ask nicely," drawing the laugh she was looking for. Charisma nodded her head and looked down at their joined hands, then sucked in a shaky breath.

"I've messed up, and I don't know how to fix it."

"Do you know what you did wrong?"

"I think so. I think I took too much and gave too little."

"Do you know what you want your results to be?"

"I don't understand," Charisma replied, frowning in genuine bewilderment.

"Yeah... I didn't phrase that very well, did I?" Esmeralda sighed. "Let me lay this out a little and you can tell me if I'm on the right track or not, all right?" Charisma nodded and waited for Esmeralda to continue. "Since Brianna returned to your life, she's bent over backwards for you - trying to make you comfortable with her again; offering you friendship that took you a little while to accept; returning to your family with you because you asked her to. Right so far?"

"Yes, but...."

"Shh," the directive causing Charisma's mouth to snap shut so quickly, she almost bit her tongue. "You were jealous... DON'T, Charisma," before she could deny Esmeralda's words. "I was there; I know what I saw. And I wasn't the only one either. You were almost insane with jealousy. Then you realized why Brianna had said goodbye to you in Barcelona - why she'd walked out of your life. So you decided you could have it all - a husband and son for appearances and the best friend you'd missed like crazy - it was all yours for the taking. Except things didn't quite work out that way did they?" her voice gentle.

Charisma snorted. "Not even close. I don't know... hell, I don't know a damn thing, evidently. My life has gone to hell in a hand basket and I'm not sure what to do to fix it - I'm not sure what I *can* do at this point, much less what I *want* to do. My husband has filed for separation, and every reason he gave was a viable one. He even made it possible for me to have the final say on whether we stay married or not. As for Brianna...." Charisma shook her head. "I'm not sure there's anything I can do to fix the damage I've done there. I don't think she cares anymore."

"What if I told you she does?" Charisma met Esmeralda's eyes in an intense stare. "Charisma, she has done all the giving in this relationship since she returned to the forefront of your life. Don't you think it's time you offered her the same courtesy?"

"Es, you're asking me to be someone I'm not."

"No, Charisma - I'm asking you to be honest about who you are." Esmeralda paused and took a deep breath. "Let me ask you something, Charisma, and I want you to think about your answer. If you're so concerned with your image, why haven't you destroyed those separation papers? I can understand why you didn't shred them right away - if Kent took you by surprise when he served them to you, I'm sure your first reaction was one of shock. But Charisma... if I have this figured right, it's been almost a week if not longer - which tells me you're considering it as a possibility. And what about the letters Brianna wrote you - have you read them yet?"

"How did you...?"

"Don't ask - I promised not to tell. The other I guessed based on when you originally told me about Kent filing separation papers." Esmeralda shook her head to get back on track. "Charisma, I'm not trying to make you feel bad or add to your confusion. You don't like what your life is at the moment, so you need to change it, correct?" Charisma nodded. "Assume you only have this one chance to make your life over into what you want it to be from now on - what kind of result do you want to come from the changes you make? That's the first thing you need to decide. You can't really move forward until you know where you're headed."

"You're pretty smart, Es," Charisma whispered.

"Hard won experience, Senator."

Silence for several long moments. "I don't know if I can do this, Es. I don't know if I am strong enough... or unselfish enough."

"You won't be alone, Charisma, no matter what you choose to do... not if you don't want to be. Maybe you should go home and think about what's really important to you. Decide what will make you happiest. Once you figure that out, the rest should fall into place."

"You make it sound so easy."

"It's only hard if you let it be."

"Was it easy for you?"

"Once I realized what my life would be like without Saphira in it, it was the easiest decision I've ever made. I've never regretted it... even with the hardships we've experienced, because we've been together. And that's enough for me. You'll have to determine what's best for you, Charisma - but regardless of what you choose, you're going to have to learn the art of giving."

"I can't make any promises."

"I'm not asking you too."

Charisma held Esmeralda's eyes. "I have a feeling I'm going to have to learn a good many things."

Chapter LXXXII

Saturday morning Charisma called Ame and asked her to take Adam out for a while. "Anywhere," she instructed, "except the Natural History Museum. Kent is planning to take him there tomorrow."

"How about the Bounce House?"

Charisma cut her eyes at Ame, but nodded her reluctant agreement. "Call Turq. I don't want you riding out there on the Metro. And before you ask, McDonald's is fine for lunch as long as you make sure he gets milk to drink."

"What time would you like us home, Senator?"

"You can come home when you're ready Ame, but if I'm not downstairs, I'd like to ask you to stay here with Adam. Once I come downstairs, you'll be free to go."

"Of course Senator," Ame replied without inflection and Charisma felt the need to apologize.

"I'm sorry for taking so much of your personal time lately, Ame. I will try to make it up to you somehow." Ame shook her head and laid a hand on Charisma's arm lightly.

"It's all right, Senator. I don't have much use for personal time at the moment and Adam and I get along splendidly, don't we?" looking at Adam and smiling. He nodded his head enthusiastically. Charisma chuckled.

"Fair enough," Charisma replied. She knelt to look at Adam eye to eye. "You be good for Ame, okay?"

"Adam good boy," he assured his mother. She opened her arms and he jumped into them, giving Charisma a sloppy kiss and rubbing their noses together before letting go. When he stepped back, Charisma stood and turned back to Ame.

"I'll get him ready, Senator and take care of locking up when we leave. You go ahead and...." trailing off and motioning towards the stairs. "We've got it covered."

"Thanks, Ame," Charisma said. "Bye, son."

"Love Mama."

"Love you too, Adam." Then Charisma turned and headed upstairs without another word. She had one more selfish act to indulge in before she could do as Esmeralda had asked of her.


Charisma steeled herself as she crossed the threshold into her bedroom, closing the door and locking it firmly behind her. She leaned against the door and closed her eyes, breathing deeply for almost a full minute. Then she pushed away from the door and moved to her closet, flipping on the light and leaving the door open as she entered. Charisma made her way to the back and pulled out the plastic box Brianna had given her.

She knelt beside it, lifting the lid and closing her eyes as her senses were once again assaulted by memories of another lifetime. She wasn't sure how it had happened - especially considering that Okasa'd had possession of the container until just recently - but she could smell the essence of her life with Brianna in the box. Perhaps it was a lingering trace of her perfume, but there was something quintessentially Brianna in the scent that rose to Charisma's nostrils now.

Charisma let the memories wash over her - one big wave of thoughts and feelings she'd put away when Brianna had walked away from her all those years ago. There would be time and opportunity to examine them one by one later, but for now, she was a woman on a mission.

She removed the thickest packet from the box, knowing it was also the oldest, smiling sadly when she recognized the ribbon Okasa had used as one Brianna had given her. Charisma untied the silky material, rubbing it through her fingers. Then she picked up the top envelope and slit it open carefully. She took a deep breath and slid out the folded paper. Then she flipped it open and let her eyes focus on the handwriting that had once been as familiar as her own before she started to read.


Dear Charisma, (it read)

I am writing this to you because Okasa asked me to, and truthfully, I think it may be the only chance I have of purging everything that's inside of me without causing you any undo stress or upset. Here, I can be completely honest... with you, with me, with the world-at-large - because I figure no one but me will ever see these letters. I will certainly never share them with anyone else and unlike Okasa, I'm not some sort of cockeyed optimist - I know you will never ask about me, so you will never know about them. Because you will never want to admit that you know why I said goodbye.

Here Charisma stopped reading, drawing in a shuddering breath before she lay the letter carefully down on the floor and rose. When she returned to the closet, she'd already used one tissue to wipe her face and blow her nose, and she carried a box of them in one hand and a water bottle in the other. She wisely set the water in a corner away from the box, and placed the tissue beside her. Then Charisma picked up the letter and resumed her reading.

You see, I realized something recently - well, that's not completely true. The truth I realized some time ago, but I have only recently admitted it to myself. I love you. There... I said it. I love you, Charisma Tagherty and I am in love with you. There are probably a hundred reasons why, and maybe one of these days, I'll sit down and write them all out for us both here in these pages. But for now, suffice it to say that I do love you - heart and soul.

When I finally acknowledged my love for you to myself, I knew I had no choice - I had to walk away. I'm sure you're angry right now... maybe hurt that I am out of your life. But deep, deep in your heart, you know why I left and that's why I know you won't come looking for me. Because you feel the same thing I do - I've seen it. The difference is you would never be willing to love me, and I won't stay around and be a martyr... I can't. Right now the only way I can protect myself is to be away from you... to erect some walls and barriers against you, so that eventually, you won't matter to me the way I already don't matter to you.

Maybe one day, we'll run into each other again and we can be polite and civilized to one another. We can give each other those fake smiles and hugs politicians and actors are known for, then we can reminisce about the 'good old days'. You'll introduce me to the husband and children I'm sure you'll have by then, and maybe I'll be able to introduce you to my partner and our family. With any luck, though, that will be years and years from now. Because right now, all there is in my heart is you, and I can't see beyond that.

I read back over this letter and saw that I haven't really said anything yet. There is so much inside of me dying to get out, but all I can think of at the moment is how long the rest of my life is going to be without you in it... and how much that thought hurts.

I am going to wait a few days before I try this again. Maybe then, I can channel some of the anger I feel... or some of the pain... or some of the hatred. Because it's all there... in spades. Still, despite everything I know and everything I feel right now, I don't think my love for you will ever change. Maybe I should just write a book.

I love you Charisma. I just wish you could love me too.



Charisma took a deep breath and reached for her water bottle, drinking down half of it and closing her eyes against the words staring back at her from the page she'd just read. Gently she returned the first letter to its envelope and placed it face down beside her before turning her attention to the next envelope in the stack. Slicing it much as she had the first one, she removed the folded paper from inside and opened the letter and started reading Brianna's next missive.

One followed another in this fashion, and Charisma found Brianna had been very honest about the multitude of feelings and emotions contained within each epistle. Some made her heart hurt; some made her furious; some made her suck in her breath in surprise; and one or two made her smile wistfully. But despite the pain or anger or hatred that Brianna spoke about, she always reminded Charisma that she loved her before she ended each note.

As the letters went on, Brianna started sharing a little more about what was happening in her life and less about what she felt. It was almost as though Charisma became her pen pal - or her diary - though there was very little personal in anything Brianna said. She wrote nothing about Kay or any of the other love affairs she'd been involved in. Mostly she wrote about interesting things that happened or about the cases she was immersed in... almost as though they were college confidantes again. And Charisma found herself laughing aloud at some of the things Brianna deemed fit to share.

Then she reached the letter that was written after her engagement to Kent was announced to the family, and she realized how few letters Brianna had written since then. Slowly, Charisma cut the envelope open and removed the paper from it. Then she steadied herself and began reading.


Dear Charisma, (it read)

Okasa called me today - she wanted to tell me about your engagement before it made the news. I'm not quite sure what to say here. I'd like to say congratulations, but I wouldn't really mean it. It's not that I wish you ill, Charisma - it's because I know that you're settling.

Okasa tells me your fiancé is a nice guy that you like and someone you feel will be a good father to whatever children you have together. Oh my God, Charisma… are you kidding me?? Is he aware that all you feel for him is 'like', Charisma? Is he willing to settle for being second, third or fourth place in your line of priorities behind your job, your children and the rest your family? Whatever happened to love, Charisma? What happened to the passionate woman I knew in college... the one who wouldn't compromise what she wanted for anything??

However, I hope you find happiness with Kent Rockwell, Charisma... I really do. But I also think you're a fool for conforming to what you think is expected of you instead of simply being who you are. More fool me for thinking you ever could.

I don't think I'll be writing you many more letters, Charisma. It's been obvious to me for years that you never thought of me as anything more than someone to fill a gap that leaving your family for the first time created in your life. And that time has long since passed both of us by.

I will always love you, Charisma, but I won't allow you to be more than a memory anymore.



Charisma started to clench her hands before she realized she still held the letter. Prudently, she folded the paper and tucked it back into its envelope, and gently set it back on the pile of untied notes. Then she shifted until she could lean against the wall and wrapped her arms around her knees... and simply cried.

She had no idea how much time had passed, but when the tears slowed, Charisma's face was swollen and her eyes burned. She grabbed a handful of tissues and dabbed at her face, hissing at the tenderness of her skin. Charisma pushed herself upright and eased out of the closet, the pounding in her head from crying so hard making it a difficult process at best.

She made it to the bathroom and ran cool water over her face until she couldn't feel the cold from it any longer. Then she leaned her arms on the counter and stared at the reflection gazing back at her. Charisma flinched slightly - there was no way to hide the crying spell she'd just subjected herself to, and eventually she was going to have to go downstairs if only so Ame could go home and get some rest.

She blew out a breath, weighing her options, then she moved back to the closet. With only a couple more letters to read, Charisma decided to finish them before she took a shower. Maybe that would make her a little more presentable.

Charisma sat back down and picked up the first of the last three letters and realized it had been written shortly after Adam's birth.


Dear Charisma, (it read)

I saw a picture of your son today - Okasa couldn't wait to show me her newest grandson... not that I blame her. He's a beautiful baby, Charisma... reminds me very much of his mama. I hope he brings you all the happiness in the world.



Charisma wondered at the shortness of the letter - surely there was more Brianna had wanted to say about the birth of Charisma's child, wasn't there? After all, it had been the most momentous event in Charisma's life, with the possible exception of meeting Brianna Walker for the first time. Then Charisma bit her lip - of course, Brianna had no way of knowing that... at least not when this note was written. Charisma wondered what Brianna would have said if she had been there at Adam's birth. Would she have cooed over him? Doted on him? Held him and rocked him to sleep? Charisma closed her eyes in silent acknowledgment of the truth of all of those options - of course she would have... she had done as much for each of her brother's children, and all of them held Brianna in as high a regard as Adam did.

Charisma blew out a shaky, frustrated breath and reached for the next letter. She opened it, then froze as the words on the page started to make sense in her mind.


Dear Charisma, (it read)

I was in an accident today. Nothing too damaging - after all, I'm sitting here writing to you about it, right? Still, it was enough to freak me out pretty good... it actually scared the bejesus out of me - I'm still shaking. It wasn't actually my fault this time - I wasn't even driving. But some moron ran a red light and crashed into the passenger side of the car I was riding in. Thank God for airbags.

Pretty sure the airbag impact knocked me out for a few minutes, because I remember coming back to myself wondering what the hell had happened and why the hell my head felt like it was being used as a punching bag. My ears are still ringing in point of fact. But aside from some achies and some owies, I'm okay. I'm going to be bruised and sore in the morning, but I'm walking on two good legs and there are no broken bones or a concussion in sight. So really - things could be a lot worse than they are. I'm counting my blessings at this juncture.

I supposed you wonder why I'm writing now... after so much time away, since I don't really count the short note of congratulations I wrote just after Adam's birth as writing to you. While I was trapped in that car trying to get my bearings and praying that I didn't puke all over myself from the nauseating headache that was pounding in my brain, I realized that I kind of missed talking to you like this. After all, here you are still my best friend. Here, you still listen to what I have to say and care about who I am. And since you're never going to see these little missives, the only person missing out if I don't write these letters to you is me.

So I may try writing you again. I have a lot less time than I used to have - working in the DA's office cut into my free time considerably, but nothing like becoming the DA did. What the hell was I thinking when I decided that was a good idea?? I've a good mind to chuck the whole business and just write full-time, but I think I would miss the challenge if I did that.

Still, it's something to think about.

I was on my way to a meeting with the Governor when the accident happened. Guess he'll have to wait until the ringing in my ears stops before we get together. Hopefully it wasn't too pressing.



Charisma shook her head and noticed her hand was shaking. She wondered how long it had taken Brianna to recover from the achies and owies and if she still felt occasional twinges from the impact. She offered up a small prayer of thanks for the fact that Brianna had not been severely injured or worse, feeling a tremor of terror settle in her guts when sheconsidered how much worse it easily could have been. Then she turned her attention to the final letter in the pile and slowly opened it.


Dear Charisma, (it read)

This will be my last letter for a while. That meeting with the Governor? He wants me be a placeholder for a Senate seat. Seems Senator Whitman is in need of some recovery time and he and Michael think I'm the perfect candidate to keep his seat while he does so.

I tried to make them both understand that I'm not interested in politics - apparently *that* is why they chose me for the job. This way, if Richard is able to run again in two years, he won't be running against me... only the candidate from the other party.

Whatever - it's shaping up to be a clusterfuck if you ask me. However, it's only for two years - I should be able to stay out of your sphere for the most part, and I think we could both manage to be cordial to one another if we have to.

Okasa - hell, your whole damn family - seem to think this is a sign from God or something... that I should take this opportunity and make sure you know the whole truth. That would be a big hell to the no!

I will take this assignment because I want to see you again one more time, and I know that the only way that's ever going to happen will be in a professional setting. I can do two years... at least I hope I can do two years. I will see you and talk to you and no one will ever have a reason to question my professionalism as far as you are concerned. They will never know we knew one another before my arrival in Washington from me.

And when my two years is up, I will retire from politics and the law and find somewhere else to be. Because I know as surely as I am writing this letter that you will let me go again, and when I do, it will be for good... mine as well as yours.

I wish things had been different - I wish they would be different than I know they will, but I just don't have that kind of faith anymore. Maybe if I'm lucky, you'll be kind and we can be friendly for the next two years.

But I'm not holding my breath on that possibility either.



Charisma folded up the last letter and tied the batch back together with that yarn she recognized as being part of a baby blanket Okasa had made for Adam. Without a sound she neatly replaced the bundles in order and closed the lid before tucking the box away and grabbing her things. Then she shut off the light and closed the closet door.

With a deep breath, she moved towards the bathroom. Maybe a shower would help her relax and help her put her thoughts in order.


Charisma's shower turned into a bath, and as she slowly relaxed into the hot water, she turned her mind to the letters she'd read. She realized that many of Brianna's shared memories came from time she'd spent with the Tagherty clan and Charisma knew regardless of anything else, she had to give Brianna back the family she'd had with the Taghertys. Too much of their life and too many of their memories were shared and no one else should have to suffer for her foolishness.

Her mind made up, Charisma bathed quickly in the cooling water, then wrapped herself in the fluffiest robe she owned and left the bathroom in search of Adam and Ame.

The house was dark when she exited her bedroom, and she wondered. Swiftly, she crossed the hall to Adam's room, breathing a sigh of relief to find him curled in his bed sound asleep. Then she frowned - how late was it that he was already in bed? And where was Ame?

Charisma closed the door softly behind her and looked around, noting that the door of one of the guest rooms was closed. She bit her lip thoughtfully, then shook her head and went downstairs.

It was dark down there as well with the exception of a few strategically located nightlights. Charisma looked around carefully, noting everything was locked up tight and the alarm had been set. She walked into the kitchen, her eyes nearly bugging out of her head when she realized the clock really did read one forty-seven. Charisma blinked rapidly, trying to reconcile what her eyes were telling her with what she'd thought was reality.

She flipped the light switch, not surprised to find a note on the table.

Senator Tagherty, (it read)

It's eleven o'clock and Adam's been fed, bathed and put to bed. I knocked on your door earlier, but you didn't answer, so I've taken the monitor and gone into the guest room next to Adam's room. If that is not acceptable, please wake me. Otherwise, I will be happy to keep an ear out for him tonight.


Charisma blinked - she really was going to have to find something amazing to do for Ame soon. God knew the woman had been going above and beyond for some time. However - she covered her mouth as she yawned and felt the weight of her exhaustion suddenly pressing down on her. Anything she decided was going to have to wait until tomorrow - suddenly all she wanted was to close her eyes and let oblivion take over for just a little while. Charisma debated the merits of getting something to eat, then decided she was too tired to chew. With a sigh, she turned off the light and trudged slowly back upstairs. Tomorrow was going to come far too soon, even if she didn't show up until lunch.

Speaking of - she made a mental note to call Opal first thing to arrange lunch with Brianna. Sighing again, she dropped the robe she wore onto the floor and climbed into bed naked. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.


Opal closed her cell phone and looked around the kitchen before focusing her gaze on Indi. "That was Ame. Apparently Charisma asked her to call me - she would like me to set up lunch between her and Brianna immediately. Can you...?"

"She does know today is Sunday morning, right? Very early on Sunday morning - I may not even be able to reach Brianna."

"I don't know. You heard my side of the conversation -Ame was just delivering a message."

Indi sighed, not really liking where this was going. "Personal or professional?"

"Personal," Opal said with a grimace that Indi matched. "But she said it was urgent."

"All I can do is try and set it up. Time?"

"One-thirty. According to Ame,Charisma will probably be running late this morning. She was up late last night reading the letters Brianna wrote her."

"Well hallelujah - progress," Ruby said with a hint of snark. She looked around at the others who were staring at her in disbelief. "What?" she whined plaintively. "Everyone of you were thinking it as well, and since Saphira isn't awake yet to say it aloud, I figured someone needed to."

"Speaking of... do you think we need to wake them - let Es know what's going on?"

"No," Ruby replied instantly. "Nothing is going to change what's already happened, so we can wait until they get up on their own. We'll all still be here when they do - it's not like we have to be in a rush to be anywhere this morning."

"Who's rushing where?" Amber asked as she stepped into the kitchen. "What?" she asked when everyone turned and looked at her. "I didn't do anything."

"But you did have an interesting evening, didn't you?" Ruby queried, even as she eased Amber into her chair. "Did Ame send you home?"

"Pretty much. Since she stayed the night, I made sure she slept; so we decided I'd come home now to let Es know what happened last night," acceptingthe coffee cup Ruby put in front of her with a smile and a grateful nod. "Are they still...?" jerking her head towards the bedroom door.


"Well, I'm gonna wake them - Es needs to know... what?" looking at Ruby when the older woman put a restraining hand on her arm. "Ruby?"

"Amber, don't you think it can wait a little while?"

"What can wait?" Esmeralda asked as she rubbed her eyes. "Good morning," she greeted as she made a beeline for the coffeepot. "What are we waiting on?"

Amber smirked. "You," she teased. "It's been busy since you went to bed."

"Seriously?" Esmeralda looked at the clock. "Is that why you're home so early? Where's Coral? And Ame?"

"That's part of the story, Es. Pull up a chair and I'll bringyou up to date on what happened last night."

"And we'll tell you about the phone call this morning," Opal added.

Esmeralda dropped into the chair Amber held for her and looked around expectantly. "All right," she conceded with a nod. "Let's hear it."


They all sat silently when Amber finished recounting the events of the previous day at Charisma's home. Esmeralda held her gaze for a moment longer, then turned to Opal who shared the details of Ame's phone call earlier. When she was done, Esmeralda closed her eyes and ran her hands through her hair. After a few minutes of silence, Esmeralda looked up.

"I thought I'd call Brianna about nine," Indi offered. "It's not so early that she'd resent being woken up if she's still in bed but it's not so late that she can't make plans to meet Charisma if she wants to do so." Indi met Esmeralda's eyes. "Would you like to listen in?"

"If you wouldn't mind, yes. I'd like to hear her reaction and her tone as much as what's being said. Sometimes those are more telling than the actual words that are being used." Esmeralda looked around the table. "Thank you, ladies. I know this mission has gone well beyond the scope of anything we've ever done before. Just keep me posted as things happen - I'd hate to be caught unaware if we were suddenly called home."

"Do you think you'll get called, Es?" Ruby asked.

Esmeralda shrugged. "I dunno - I've learned not to try and second-guess Him. But I'd like to be prepared... just in case."

"I don't blame you there," Ruby replied with a smile. "There's nothing worse than being blindsided by something." She turned to Amber. "I'm sorry about earlier. I know you usually function as Es' second, but I... I guess I'm still in mothering mode."

Amber's lips twitched and she wrapped an arm around Ruby's shoulders. "You're *always* in mothering mode, Ruby - it's what you do. That's not a bad thing. Heaven knows we all need it from time to time, and it's probably a big part of what helped Es get back on her feet. We're square, okay?"


"Now that *that's* all settled, I think we all have things to take care of. I'm going to wake up Saphira; Indi, I'll meet you back here just before nine." Without another word, Esmeralda stood and went to the sink to rinse out her coffee cup. Then she moved back to the bedroom and entered it without a backwards glance, closing the door firmly behind her.

Everyone waited until the door was shut, then they moved off to get their day started.


"Problems?" Saphira mumbled from her spot with her face still half-buried in her pillow. Esmeralda shook her head and crossed to the bed, crawling to lean against the headboard as she sat beside Saphira. Saphira immediately took advantage and slid her head from the pillow to Esmeralda's lap, sighing in contentment when Esmeralda' started combing her hands through long, dark locks. Saphira purred and Esmeralda gazed down on her fondly.

"Comfortable?" she asked with an indulgent smile.

"Perfect," Saphira rumbled. "No place else I'd rather be," squeezing the thigh her arm was wrapped around before allowing her fingertips to stroke the smooth skin beneath them. "So... problems?" she asked again.

"Progress, actually," Esmeralda replied wryly. "Charisma finally read Brianna's letters."

Saphira went perfectly still for a long moment before she turned enough to look up into Esmeralda's eyes. "Did she?" waiting for Esmeralda to nod. "And...? C'mon, Es... that might be considered progress, but I can't believe that's all that happened."

Esmeralda chuckled and ruffled Saphira's bangs, pushingthem out of her eyes. "Actually, that's significant progress, all things considered. Baby steps, remember? But Charisma came to some sort of decision - she had Ame call Opal to set up lunch with Brianna." Esmeralda held up her hand. "All we know is that it's for personal reasons and Charisma deemed it urgent."

"And Brianna?"

"Indi hasn't called her yet. It's still early."

"But if it's urgent...?"

"I think Brianna's definition of urgent is going to differ greatly from Charisma's. Besides, if it was truly urgent, Charisma would have called Brianna directly... or gone to see her. She wouldn't be trying to set up lunch."

"Do you think Brianna will be receptive?"

Esmeralda shrugged. "It's hard to say at this point. If this had happened even a week or two ago, I would have said absolutely. Now?" She shrugged again and absently began combingher fingers through Saphira's hair once more. "I think she's pulled away sufficiently to allow her to begin rebuilding the defenses she set up against Charisma so long ago. Only this time, I'm not sure she'll let them come down... even if it's Charisma doing the breaking."

Saphira held Esmeralda's eyes for another long moment, but instead of making a smart remark, she simply closed her eyes and rolled back over, butting her head against Esmeralda's stomach until she felt the light scraping of fingernails against her scalp. Saphira brushed her lips over Esmeralda's thigh. "I hope they figure it out. I can't imagine choosing to be without you."

"Neither can I," Esmeralda whispered. Then there was no more talking as they simply absorbed the peace surrounding them, appreciating the fact that they were alone together. Both knew their day would have to start for real very soon and that circumstance would change, so they enjoyed it while they could.

Sure enough, sometime later a knock sounded at the door and Esmeralda blinked open eyes that had unexpectedly closed in sleep during their peaceful interlude. She shifted when she felt Saphira do the same, biting her lip to keep from giggling. Saphira turned her head and frowned.

"You were tickling me," Esmeralda replied to the unspoken question. Saphira grinned evilly and returned her head to its previous position, this time deliberately using her eyes and lips to good effect. Esmeralda jumped and swatted at her just as a second knock sounded at the door. "Be good!" Esmeralda hissed with a gentle swat on Saphira's hip. Saphira just huffed and scowled, crossing her arms over her chest but refusing to move from her current position.

"Es? It's Indi. Um... it's nine o'clock and I was about to call Brianna."

"Give me five minutes, Indi, and I'll be right out." Indi could hear scrambling from the bed and a muffled squeal from Esmeralda. She bit her lips to keep from laughing aloud, then cleared her throat.

"I'll be in the living room, Es. Take your time."

Esmeralda glared at Saphira, who leaned back into the pillows with a smug grin on her face. "We will finish what you started later. I've got work to do."

Saphira reached for Esmeralda and pulled her onto the bed before Esmeralda could dart away. Without hesitation, Saphira claimed Esmeralda's lips for a long, passionate moment before sheeased back enough for them both to breathe. "I love you, Es. Never forget that."

Esmeralda's gaze softened and she offered Saphira a tender smile. "I love you too, Phira... so much."

Saphira stole another kiss, then patted Esmeralda on the behind. "All right - you've got work to do, and I'm pretty sure there are things I need to take care of as well. Meet you back here later?"

Esmeralda grinned. "You've got yourself a date, lover."

Saphira growled and Esmeralda laughed aloud. Their day was off to a fabulous start.


"Senator Walker, this is Indi. I'm sorry to bother you at home on your day off, but I received a call from Senator Tagherty's PA earlier. Senator Tagherty would like to set up a luncheon meeting with you at your earliest possible convenience."

Brianna rubbed her eyes and sighed. Though she hadn't been asleep when the phone rang, she hadn't been awake for very long either - she hadn't even had her first cup of coffee, which was just finishing up its brewing cycle. She stretched and rose, shuffling slowly to the coffeepot, then reached for a cup and poured her first cup of the day. All this was done in silence while she thought over Indi's words, and she waited until she had her coffee prepared and had downed her first swallow before she deigned to reply. Indi, who could hear all the noise in the background, simply waited for Brianna to decide she was ready to answer.

"Did she tell you what it was about, Indi?" Brianna asked, closing her eyes and she savored the next bit of coffee.

"No ma'am - only that it was personal and that it was urgent."

Brianna sighed again. If it had been urgent, Charisma would have taken care of this directly... personally. As it was....

"Okay, here's what I want you to do. When you call Charisma's assistant back, you tell her you were unable to reach me today. Then set up a meeting between us for tomorrow some time. It doesn't have to be lunch, but it can be if that's what's available. If tomorrow doesn't work, try for later this week."

"Yes ma'am."

"Thanks, Indi."

"Not a problem, Senator. It's my job, after all."

"Yeah, maybe, but what time did your phone ring this morning?" Brianna asked with a lilt in her voice. Indigo cleared her throat.

"Let's just say it was dark and I was still sleeping."

Brianna laughed briefly, then covered her mouth with her hand. "I'm sorry, Indi. It's really not funny, but it *is* very typical of the woman I remember Charisma Tagherty to be. Thank you for waiting to call me."

"Yes ma'am. Would you like me to call you back with the details, or should I just let you know when I see you in the morning?"

"Unless it's a breakfast meeting, just give me the details when I see you in the office tomorrow."

"Will do, Senator. Is there anything else I can do for you today?"

"Yes - go do something fun, will you? I'll see you tomorrow, Indi."

"Goodbye, Senator Walker."

"Bye, Indi."

The line went dead and Indi and Esmeralda looked at one another, then turned their attention to Opal who had been waiting in the room with them expectantly. Now she had to call Charisma and break the news to her. She picked up her phone and dialed, then pressed speaker so they could all hear. Then it was simply a matter of waiting for Charisma to pick it up.

Chapter LXXXIV

Charisma came down the stairs putting her earrings on, nearly dropping one of the studs when Kent stepped from the kitchen. She hesitated and frowned. "Kent? What are you doing here? Where's Ame?"

Kent's eyebrows flew into his hairline - Charisma's tone wasn't accusatory, but it was honestly confused. He looked at her carefully and recognized that she was dressed for work and not a casual Sunday at home. "Charisma, it's Sunday. I came down so we could work out a visitation schedule and to take Adam to the Natural History Museum. I sent Ame home when I got here - she said you had a late night. It's why Adam and I haven't left yet."

"It's Sunday?" looking down at herself with a frown.

"Yes, Charisma," Kent offered with a smirk. "I'm not sure how you lost a day - especially one where you don't have to go into work, but...." His voice trailed off and he looked at her closer. "Are you okay, Charisma?"

Charisma pinched the bridge of her nose. "Yeah... I think so. I'm not sure how...." She took a deep breath and met Kent's eyes. "Are you in a hurry?"

He motioned her back up the stairs. "Go change into your Sunday 'relaxing-around-the-house' clothes. We have plenty of time. Adam should be up from his nap in a few minutes."


Kent chuckled. "We ate brunch, so I decided to let him catch a few zzz's while we waited for you. Maybe we'll actually get to go through the museum today."

Charisma smiled. "You're really excited about this aren't you?"

Kent blushed but held her eyes with his when he nodded. "I am. No matter what you decide about us, Charisma, Adam is a blessing that we will always share. I will never regret our decision to be a couple if only for his sake."

"Neither will I," she agreed, then turned and went upstairs without another word.


"MA!" Adam greeted some minutes later when Charisma returned downstairs and joined the rest of her family in the den. He scrambled off of Kent's lap and ran to wrap his arms around Charisma's legs, knowing she would lift him into her arms. He brushed their noses together with a laugh, then threw his arms around her neck. "Love Mama!"

Charisma held Adam to her and kissed his head. "I love you too, son." She loosened her grip and Adam squirmed to get down. Charisma rolled her eyes but released him and Adam ran to the table and picked up a pamphlet. "Look, Mama - 'saurs!"

She took the brochure from Adam's hand and realized it was for the Natural History Museum. "Dinosaurs, huh?" grinning when he nodded enthusiastically. "You ready to go see some dinosaurs with Daddy?"


Charisma's eyes twinkled and when she looked at Kent, she saw the same expression on his face. "Well then... let's go get your coat on so you can go see some dinosaurs with Daddy. It's still winter and just because it's not freezing at the moment doesn't mean that won't change and change again before you boys are done today."

"Mama come?"

"Not today, Sweetie. Today is just for you and Daddy."

"You're welcome to...." Kent started then trailed off when Charisma adamantly shook her head.

"No. You said it yourself - if we're going to do this... be separated, we need to do this right from the beginning. Besides, you need some time with Adam and I'm waiting on a phone call," her eyes skittering away from his at the last. Kent cocked an eyebrow.

"Oh? Anyone I know?" he asked with an understanding smile.

Charisma shrugged. "I'm hoping to have lunch with Brianna, but...." The phone rang at that moment and Charisma looked at the display with a frown. "Excuse me." Kent nodded though she was already moving away from him. He watched her go, then extended his hand to Adam.

"C'mon Boy... let's go get your coat and go see some dinosaurs."

"And Br'anna?" Adam asked guilelessly.

Kent looked in Charisma's direction. "I don't know about that, Son. I don't know if Brianna will be at the Mall today. But we'll go see the dinosaurs - that'll be fun, right?"

"YES!" Adam declared vehemently, then he took Kent's proffered hand and together they headed upstairs to Adam's room. Kent chanced to look back just as they reached the landing, and saw Charisma's shoulders slump slightly before she straightened and nodded. When she hung up the phone, she went into her office without a backwards glance and Kent and Adam continued on to Adam's room.

Within minutes Adam was kitted out and ready to go, and he dashed down the stairs to find Charisma. Kent followed at a much more leisurely pace, not surprised to see Charisma step from her office and close the door behind her before Adam reached her.

She reached down and lifted him off the ground with a groan. "You're soon going to be too big for Mama to pick you up like this anymore, Son. You go have a good time with Daddy, and I'll see you boys later, all right?"

Adam hugged her tightly, then used her body as a catapult to launch himself in Kent's direction. Only good reflexes kept it from being a disaster, and Kent scooped Adam out of mid-air even as Charisma tried to catch her breath. Kent turned concerned eyes on her.

"You all right?"

She grimaced and nodded. "It's been a while since he stepped there; I think he was still on the inside then and he wasn't quite as heavy as he is now. You boys go have a good time; I'll be here when you get ho... back."

"I take it lunch is a no-go then," Kent spoke as he set Adam down to retrieve his outerwear.

"You'd be right," Charisma replied, not meeting his eyes.


"I need to get ready, Boy, then we'll go all right? I need to put on my coat and things so we match."

"Kay." Kent looked back at Charisma, and noted her attention was focused on Adam. Kent finished adjusting his coat over his body and flattened his collar, then stepped into Charisma's personal space and lifted her chin.

"You wanna talk about it?"

Charisma shook her head emphatically, driving him to free her chin from his grasp. "No! That would just be... weird. I can't talk to you about this."

He buttoned his coat and pulled a hat from his pocket, pulling it low over his ears, but not so low as to inhibit conversation.

"Why?" He held up his hand to keep her from answering. "Charisma, we were friends first and you are still one of my very best friends, remember? Friends are there for each other and I don't think there are going to be many other people you can really talk to about this - not that will try to understand and support you. I mean, there's Brianna of course, but I don't think it's a good idea to talk to her until you've got things clear in your own heart and mind. There's Okasa, but that could get awkward considering she loves you both like her own. I suppose you could talk to your friend Esmeralda - she does have the advantage of being a lesbian in a long-term relationship. I don't really know her well enough to know if she could offer the kind of support you need though. We won't even go into your political colleagues and acquaintances," smirking when Charisma shivered delicately. "So as I see it, I'm your best bet." He paused when a flash of honest confusion washed over Charisma features.

"Why? Why would you want her to take your place?"

This time he took her face in both hands and forced her to look at him when he spoke. He wanted her to see his sincerity and to know he meant what he was saying. He also wanted her to recognize the truth of his words.

"Charisma, Brianna Walker will never take my place. For years she's had a place in your heart and your mind that I will never touch - she doesn't need mine. So when you get ready to talk and you need someone to talk to, call me. I'll be there for you."

"Why?" she asked again.

"Because you deserve to find real happiness, and you need Brianna Walker to do that."

Kent leaned forward and brushed a kiss over Charisma's forehead, noting her stiffening that melted almost immediately. She covered the hands that cupped her face and pressed them with her fingers gently before releasing it and stepping through the kitchen towards the back door. Kent took her cue and turned to the alarm, keying in the code, then nodding at her. She opened the door, and Kent grasped Adam's hand and together they walked to the SUV. Kent got Adam secured into his car seat, then he pulled out of the garage as they headed out to hunt dinosaurs. Adam turned and waved, and Charisma stood at the door and waved back. Kent just gave her a crooked smile, and it reminded her why she'd married him.

She waited until Kent closed the garage door behind them, then she shut the door and moved back towards her study. It was going to be a long day.


One of the nicest things about having a politically-minded wife, Kent Rockwell decided, was having access to a parking garage within the city limits of Washington, D.C. proper. He pulled the SUV into Charisma's space, then removed Adam from all the belts and buckles holding him fast in his car seat. Adam knew to wait for Kent, so he clutched Kent's pant leg until he could take his daddy's hand. Then together they crossed the garage to the elevator and headed out towards the Mall.

The day was cold, but not biting and it was a nice walk across the street to the Mall. Adam held Kent's hand tightly and looked around with wide eyes.

"Br'anna?" he finally asked, recognizing the place where they'd run into her the week before. Kent looked around carefully and shook his head.

"I don't see her, Boy," his shoulders dropping just the least bit. He'd been hoping for luck today - he wanted totalk to her and Kent had the distinct feeling that Adam's presence might be the icebreaker they needed. Still, he wasn't going to go traipsing through the National Gallery looking for her. If he was to stumble upon her here, it was going to have to happen like it did before. Otherwise, he would make it a point to seek her out privately... either at her apartment or in her Senate office.

Kent looked down at Adam. "C'mon, Son." He pointed to another museum down from the gallery. "That's where we're going. That's where the dinosaurs are." Adam grinned and started tugging on Kent's hand, laughing infectiously when Kent scooped him up and spun them around. Then Kent set Adam back on his feet and they raced off across the Mall for the museum.


Brianna stood on the steps of the National Gallery, hidden behind a column but still able to see the tableau taking place just below her. She smiled wistfully at the happiness she was witnessing. Then she turned her back and made her way into the gallery itself. Maybe a few more minutes spent looking at Diana would restore a measure of her peace.


Charisma seated herself at her desk and pulled her work forward, determined to get something productive done while she waited for Kent and Adam to return from their outing. She assumed it wouldn't be a problem - many were the Sundays when she'd buried herself in her study to work while Kent and Adam were elsewhere. But today she couldn't seem to settle down and concentrate on much of anything. She blew out an impatient breath when she realized she'd checked the clock six times in five minutes.

With a frustrated sigh, Charisma pushed the papers away from her and stood, crossing to the window to stare sightlessly across the yard that still held snow in the shady spots. She glanced at the clock again - despite what Kent had implied earlier, there was actually something she could talk to Okasa about regarding the whole situation. She just had to wait until her parents were back from Mass.

Thankfully, they tended to go to early service, which meant they should be home shortly. Patrick and Okasa always went out to brunch with friends after church, but they were still usually home in the very earliest part of the afternoon.

Charisma decided to go fix herself a cup of coffee to pass a bit of time, and when she returned to her office, she decided to chance a phone call.

The phone rang three times before it was answered and when it was picked up, Patrick was on the other end. "Hello?"

"Hi Daddy."

"Hi Princess," he replied and Charisma could hear the smile in his voice. "How's my baby girl today?" Patrick wondered what was going on. Charisma never called at this time of day... even on Sunday - she was always working.

"Not much. Kent took Adam to the Natural History Museum a little while ago."

"That's nice," wondering any number of things, but mostly why Charisma was indulging in small talk. "Is everything okay, Charisma?"

"Yes, Daddy. I just... is Mama there?"

"She's getting changed out of her Sunday clothes. Hang on a second."

Charisma could hear the rustle of material as Patrick moved, and then there was a low murmur of voices. It seemed like only a minute passed before Okasa spoke into the receiver. "Charisma? What's wrong, Baby Girl?"

Charisma took a deep breath, and Okasa waited patiently. They had a fairly regular schedule that they followed and had for years - it meant they knew when to expect visits and phone calls so they could plan accordingly. So for Charisma to call unexpectedly out of the blue meant something was up.

Okasa suddenly realized that had happened... especially the phone calls... with much greater frequency since Brianna had crashed back into Charisma's life, and she wondered fleetingly if that was what this was about as well. Then Charisma was speaking and she didn't have time to wonder anything except how honest to be.

"Mama, how did you respond when Brianna told you how she felt... about me, I mean?"

There was silence for a moment while Okasa considered her answer. "She never told me, Charisma. I knew. Just as I knew...." Okasa trailed off, not willing to start down that road with Charisma... especially over the phone.

"You knew what, Mama?"

"I knew that Brianna loved you, Charisma."

"That wasn't what you were going to say, Mama," Charisma accused but Okasa remained silent, waiting for Charisma to pursue that line of thought. Instead, Charisma took a deep breath. "Tell me what your reaction was when you discovered Brianna was in love with me?"

"What do you want to know, Charisma? I had a long time to understand what was happening - I watched it take place in front of me over the course of years. It didn't change how I felt about either of you - you're still my children... both of you."

"And how did you reconcile that with the teachings of the Church?"

Okasa blinked. Whatever she'd expected, this hadn't been on the list of possibilities. She was well aware that Charisma only attended church with the family when she was home because it was expected of her. But Okasa didn't know what Charisma really believed or what had turned her away from the Church in the first place. Okasa bit her lips as she considered her words carefully.

"Over the years, there has been more than one occasion when the Church's doctrine and my personal faith haven't meshed for any number of reasons. This would be one of those instances. I cannot believe that the God who loved the world so much He gave His Son for it would condemn love of any kind. Do you remember your Catechism - I Corinthians thirteen?"

"The love chapter," Charisma whispered.

"Yes... the love chapter. Love never fails - so the Church and I go our separate ways on this issue. For me it's a matter of faith... what I believe in my heart."

"And it never bothered you that Brianna was a woman?"

"I never quite understood the desire to be with another woman that way myself. But did it bother me?" Okasa pinched her lip between her fingers while she pondered Charisma's question. "No... I can honestly say it didn't bother me. I know Brianna's heart - she is a wonderful, caring human being. And frankly speaking, she's a beautiful woman. What's not to love?"

Charisma smiled at the truth of her mother's words, then the smile faded and her expression grew pensive. The silence grew so large Okasa was finally compelled to break it.

"Charisma? Are you still there, Daughter?"

"When did you know about me, Mama?" the query so quiet that Okasa had to strain to make out the words.

"Oh, Sweetheart - I told you... I watched it happen over the course of years. I don't know if I could pinpoint a moment when I realized just exactly what Brianna was to you. But I knew Brianna was someone special to you the first time you brought her home. Paddy had told me about her when he got back from the university, and I honestly couldn't wait to meet her."

"Mama, I wasn't in love with Brianna when I brought her home with me the first time. I just... I just couldn't leave her to fend for herself... not after I met her parents," cringing at the memory her words conjured. "She deserved better than them for a family, and I knew that we could give that to her."

"When did you realize you were in love with Brianna, Daughter?"

"I don't... I'm not...."

"Charisma... take a deep breath and let it out slowly. The only one who refuses to see or acknowledge who and what Brianna Walker is to you is you."

"Mama, it's not that simple."

"Sweetheart, you're the one making it hard. Maybe you should sit down and figure out what is important to you."

"What about Kent... and Adam?"

"Sweetheart, we love Kent and he will always be a part of this family no matter what - just like Brianna has always been. I have a feeling when you figure out what is best and right for you, everything else will fall into place... for them and for you."

Silence as Charisma absorbed Okasa's words. Then, "I need to go, Mama. I love you."

"We love you, Charisma. That will never change."

The sound of a dial tone was Charisma's only response. Okasa turned to Patrick who had been standing close enough to overhear the entire conversation. "You think...?"

"I can only hope."

Chapter LXXXV

Charisma sat at her desk the following morning... eyes focused on the work she had to do while her mind remained on the events of the previous day. Opal had informed her that Brianna's personal assistant had returned her call with the news that Brianna was apparently incommunicado, but that they had scheduled lunch for the two of them the following afternoon. Though disheartening, it hadn't been an outright refusal, and that has spurred her into making the phone call to speak to Okasa.

And hadn't *that* been quite the eye opener?? It had also been most distracting, and Charisma had been hard-pressed to get her mind back on track by the time Kent and Adam had returned from the museum. She smiled wistfully - that had been very entertaining, as Adam had felt the need to recount every single moment of his experience.

Like a wind-up toy, though, the moment he'd wound down, Adam crashed and was tucked into bed to sleep the night away. Only once that was done did they sit down and work out a schedule between them. Then Charisma gave Kent back the signed papers, and he looked his question at her. Because while he'd absolutely expected her to sign them eventually, Kent hadn't actually expected eventually to be as quick as this. Charisma had clasped her hands together tightly and kept her eyes focused on them as they rested in her lap. She sighed.

"I think it's for the best... for now," she'd elaborated, not meeting his eyes. "I do love you, Kent, but you're right - I'm not in love with you, and you shouldn't be held back from finding the happiness you deserve because I can't seem to get my act together. This will give you the legal right to start looking without either of us having to worry about the ramifications of infidelity. And it will force me to really examine my life... decide what I want out of it and how best to go about it."

"You've given this some serious thought," he replied as he tucked the papers into his coat pocket.

"I have," Charisma had agreed without hesitation. "It's about all I've thought of this week when I haven't been worried out of my mind about criminals trying to mug my friends. But please don't tell my constituents," she'd added with a hint of a smile.

"Scout's honor," Kent had replied with a grin, holding up three fingers. Then his expression turned serious. "I want you to know that I won't do anything to embarrass you, Charisma. So even if I find someone else to share happiness with, I won't bring it into our home. You'll know first, and then we'll go from there."

Charisma hadn't answered, simply nodded her head, and Kent gave her a brief embrace and brushed her cheek with his lips before he'd left without another word.

Now Charisma sat staring at the documents on her desk, not seeing them. She wondered what she had done to have found a man like Kent. With almost anyone else, there would have been fights and recriminations and scandal. Instead, there was kindness and understanding and thoughtfulness.

A knock on her door brought her out of her brown study, and Charisma jerked to attention and straightened the various bits of legislation on her desk before she slipped her glasses from her face and placed them on the pile. Then she called out, "Come in."

"Senator Tagherty?" Opal greeted as she stepped into the inner sanctum. "Senator Maxwell is here to see you."

"Thank you, Opal. Please show her in. And will you please confirm lunch with Senator Walker and my two o'clock with Senator Phillips?"

"Yes ma'am," opening the door wider for Laura Maxwell to enter Charisma's office. Laura waited for Opal to shut the door behind her before she peered at Charisma through narrowed eyes. Charisma returned the look with an arched eyebrow and Laura smirked before taking the proffered seat in front of Charisma's desk.

"For someone who's doddering, you're looking quite well, my dear," Laura greeted with a smirk.

Both eyebrows shot into Charisma's dark hairline. "Excuse me?"

Laura snorted. "Scott Patterson is making loud noises about becoming the chair of your committee."

"Excuse me?" Charisma leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. "Why? It's not like it's a major committee. And how is it I'm just now hearing about this?"

"Because it's something he doesn't have and it took it this long to make it to me," Laura replied. "Besides, it's more of the same for most of us as far as he's concerned - not worth noticing. Especially for someone like you, Chari - you're as untouchable as anyone I've ever seen."

"And if I wasn't?" Seeing the confusion in Laura's eyes, Charisma sighed and elaborated. "If I wasn't untouchable... if I wasn't squeaky clean - what would happen then, Laura? Would Scott Patterson be noticeable then? Would I still enjoy the backing I have now?"

Laura frowned. "Stop talking in riddles, Charisma and spill."

Charisma uncrossed her arms and folded her hands on her desk. "Kent and I are legally separated.

He filed for separation several weeks ago - I signed the papers yesterday."

"What? Why?"

"Let's just say he had his reasons and I agreed."

"Is it anything that could be detrimental to you as a candidate?"

Charisma gave Laura a droll look. "Is there anything that couldn't be twisted in one fashion or another to make it a detriment, Laura? The real question is do I care of it does."

"And do you?"

"I don't think so," Charisma replied slowly. "It's nothing I would be ashamed of if it came out, but not something I want to share with the rest of the world, either."

"Charisma - you know nothing stays private in the world of politics for long. If you want this to work out in your favor, then you need to make a choice to share it with the world sooner rather than later. I'm not saying it would be career suicide to let someone else break the story, but your hopes for the White House will pretty much go up in smoke. If you get ahead of the curve, however...." Laura shrugged her shoulders and let the silence speak for her.

"So you think my constituents will be more forgiving of a perceived lapse in family values if I am upfront and honest about it?"

"I think your record will speak for itself and putting the news out there yourself means you're willing to accept responsibility for your mistakes."

"And if I don't believe it's a mistake?"

"The public doesn't have to know that." The pause that followed was thoughtful, and Laura watched Charisma as she considered the words that had been spoken. Finally, Charisma bridged the silence.

"Aren't you going to ask me what Kent's reasons were?"

"Why? They have no bearing on the strategy you need to overcome them and put them behind you."

"How can you know that if you don't know what they are?"

"Because with the right people in your corner, anything can be spun to make you out to be a hero... or a paragon... or the wronged party - whatever it takes to keep you in office."

"You really think it's that easy?"

"It can be - it just depends on how we spin it. As interesting as all this is, however, it's not the reason I'm here. Let's get down to work. We can come back to this later."

"Or never," Charisma offered with a fake smile of interest. Laura just raised an eyebrow.

"Oh no - we're going to come back to this. We're not losing a strong, viable candidate to bad politics." Laura gave Charisma a sharp look. "We're too close to making this dream a reality."

Charisma had to wonder just when her dreams had changed.


Brianna looked at her daily schedule and sighed again when she saw that it was time for her to head to the dining room to meet Charisma for lunch. Yesterday this had seemed like a much better idea - and while she still took comfort in the fact that they would be in a professional setting surrounded by their colleagues, she still felt a twinge of distress at meeting with Charisma at all.

Still, Indi had followed her directives to the letter, so with a hint of trepidation stirring in her belly, Brianna rose from behind her desk, and readied herself for luncheon with Charisma.Besides, she reminded herself firmly, it wasn't anything I hadn't already determined to do before I came to this God-forsaken place, with a grim smile on her lips. Of course, that had been before the up and down debacle that renewing her acquaintance with Charisma had become.

However, she had determined this course when she accepted the appointment, so Brianna straightened her shoulders and exited into the public area of her office. Her staff looked up briefly, then most returned to the work they had in front of them. Only Indi stood and accompanied Brianna to the door, waiting for instructions.

"I should be back shortly," Brianna said. "What's on tap after lunch?"

"You have a committee meeting at one-thirty and another at four. And Senator Maxwell has asked for a few minutes of your time as has Senator Patterson."

Brianna grimaced. Though she'd been introduced to Laura Maxwell, she really didn't know her particularly well. However, she had no real reason to turn down her request, and it never hurt to know people. Scott Patterson, on the other hand - he was becoming a thorn in her side and Brianna was loathe to give him the time of day, much less anything of substance.

"Tell Senator Patterson my schedule is full today, but if he'd like to meet me in the dining room when lunch is over, I can give him a few minutes on my way back from there. As for Senator Maxwell, see if she's available to meet after my second committee meeting. I'd like to actually have time to offer her a drink."

"Will do, Senator," Indi said. "Enjoy your lunch."

Brianna rolled her eyes and smirked, but Indi could see the hesitation in her eyes. But before she could comment, Brianna opened the door and headed out towards the Senate Dining Room.

Charisma was walking down the hallway ahead of Brianna, and she didn't slow down or turn around when she heard the door close behind her. Instead, she continued down the hall, almost slumping in relief when Brianna called out to her. Turning, she stopped and waited for Brianna to join her.

"How are you?" Brianna asked casually, and Charisma could have cried at the awkwardness that was so thick between them. She took a deep breath and shrugged.

"I'm not sure, honestly. Ask me again sometime - maybe I'll have an answer by then."

Brianna's brow furrowed. Despite everything - despite herself - it hurt to hear the lost tone in Charisma's voice. She wondered what had happened... besides the obvious that she had been a part of... to have beaten Charisma until she admitted defeat, even in the tenor of her voice.

"Is everything all right?"

Charisma sighed. She supposed it would be better to tell Brianna herself than having her find out through the grapevine or worse - though Charisma knew from experience that the grapevine could be bad enough. Still.... "Kent and I have separated."

Brianna blinked. Of all the things she'd expected Charisma to say, that hadn't even been a consideration. "I'm sorry?" she replied. At that moment, they reached the maître d stand and were shown their table without delay. Only when they were seated and their orders given to the server did Charisma resume their conversation.

"Were you asking me or telling me?" Charisma asked drolly. Brianna scowled, having already put her response out of her mind as she wondered what had happened to cause Charisma and Kent to split... even if it was only separation and not divorce. Charisma smirked at Brianna's lost expression. "You said you were sorry, but it sounded more like a question than a statement."

"Oh." Brianna bit her lips and thought about her response. "I guess a little bit of both. I am sorry about your separation - unless it's something you wanted?"

"I didn't ask for it, but I can't disagree with Kent's reasons for wanting one."

"And is that why you wanted to meet for lunch - to tell me about your separation from your husband?" Brianna's confusion was self-evident.

"Not at all - it just occurred to me as we walked over that you deserved to know the truth before it goes viral so to speak, and I wanted to be the one to tell you. I know what happens to the truth when it comes through the grapevine around here and eventually, this will make its way through the grapevine. The Senate is filled with a bunch of nosy old hens and it's a wonder they can get any work done with the amount of time they spend gossiping with each other."

"Bitter experience?"

"Something like that," Charisma replied with a grimace. "Maybe I'll tell you about it some day."

"Sounds like something that might have to be put in that tell-all book," Brianna said with a wry twinkle in her eyes.

Charisma snorted. "People would never believe most of it wasn't made up out of whole cloth."

"Yeah... there does seem to be an abundance of BS around here."

"Too bad it's not as useful as real cow manure - at least *that* serves a purpose."

Brianna laughed, startling a smile out of Charisma. She covered her mouth when she realized she was attracting attention. "I'm sorry, but that was funny."

"And unfortunately true."

Brianna waited for the server to put their plates in front of them before she looked at Charisma again. "So what did you need to discuss, Charisma? From what Indi told me, you felt it was urgent."

"Why am I not surprised to see the two of you having lunch together?" Senator Patterson commented loudly as he approached the table they were seated at. "I was going to see if you'd be willing to make our appointment a working lunch, but obviously I'm too late. When you finish your business with Senator Tagherty, please feel free to join me." Before either Charisma or Brianna could comment, he sketched a slight bow in their direction and moved to his own table. They watched him go and then exchanged glances.

"Would you rather...?"

"NO! No," a little less forcefully, lowering her volume as well. "As awkward and uncomfortable as this is," motioning between them,"it's not painful. If I have to sit through a meal, things are liable to turn painful... for him." Brianna smirked at Charisma's raised eyebrow. "You know how I feel about politics," waiting for Charisma to nod. Brianna jerked her head in Patterson's direction. "He refuses to understand that. And if he continues to try and schmooze me, bad things are going to happen." She stabbed her fork into her food and began to eat. Charisma raised her eyebrows, but attacked her food with far less vigor.

"Fair enough; he's managed to piss off a better part of his colleagues in the Senate - why not you?"

"Why me? Even if I was *interested* in politics, I am the absolute most junior individual here. The only reason I'm on the committees I am is because of Richard Whitman's seniority status. Even if I was to run for re-election, I wouldn't be on those same committees when I came up for assignment."

"He's trying to bring you onto his side."

"He's a moron, and I don't have time for morons." Brianna focused on her plate for a long moment, chewing slowly as she brought her breathing under control. Finally she looked back at Charisma. "Sorry... I must be PMSing." She blew out an impatient breath. "You want to tell me what was so urgent that we needed to have lunch together?"

Charisma frowned, wondering what had happened to change Brianna's attitude. On the other hand, she'd gotten more friendliness than she'd expected. She pushed her plate away and took a deep breath before speaking.

"First of all, I want you to know that this is coming from me - not Mama, not Paddy and not the boys. They don't know anything about this."

Brianna's eyes widened, but all she said was, "Okay." She nodded her understanding.

Charisma nodded as well. "Good," breathing deeply. "I would like you to reconsider your decision to cut yourself off from the family... or to keep the family out of your life." She held up her hand before Brianna could say anything. "Let me finish please," waiting for Brianna to nod. "My family... our family...." motioning between them. "My family *is* your family, Brianna - don't pull away from them because of me. None of you deserve to suffer through a separation like that."


"Why what?"

"Why would you do this? Why would you care?"

"I know what it's like to not have you in my life - I don't want my family to have to learn that lesson... especially because of me. You've always been a part of them... even when I didn't know it. That shouldn't have to change because of my issues." She paused and Brianna continued to wait, wanting Charisma to have her full say before she spoke. Eventually, Charisma looked up from the table and met Brianna's eyes again.

"This is going to sound... hokey, for lack of a better word. Mama understands - she understands better than I do actually. She's hurt and upset about it, but she understands and she'd never do anything to change your mind. In fact, if she finds out about this conversation, I'm liable to be in for a dressing down of epic proportions." Brianna snickered and Charisma gave her a wry smile. "You know it's true."

Brianna nodded her head in concession. "I'm not sure I think that sounds hokey though."

"I'm not to the hokey part yet."

"Oh," motioning for Charisma to continue.

"So Mama understands and I'm sure she's made sure Daddy and the boys understand too. I know they're not happy about it, and Kay is simply furious, but they're all adults and they 'get it' even if they don't like it. The kids on the other hand... Brianna, you've been part of their lives since before they were born. How do you think they feel about the fact that you've simply disappeared from their lives?" She paused to clear her throat. "Even my son - Adam has only known you very briefly... just a few short months. And already he thinks the sun rises and sets with you. When he and Kent ran into you the other day outside the Gallery, I heard about it for days. And when they went to the Natural History Museum, all he could talk about was getting the chance to see you again."

Brianna pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger and sighed. "Charisma, what's your point?"

"My point," Charisma replied with a hint of impatience, "is that if you mean so much to my son, who has only known you for a few months of his life, how much more do you mean to our nieces and nephews who have grown up with you and known you their whole lives? I understand why you feel the need to separate yourself from me, and by extension, the family. I am asking you to reconsider the family part of the equation. They don't deserve to be abandoned by you in your effort to avoid me. You can continue to see them like you always did."

There was silence for a long moment. Brianna kept her eyes closed and the bridge of her nose pinched. Finally she rubbed her eyes and looked up at Charisma. "Is that it?"

"That's all I had to say, yes."

"Thank you for lunch then," Brianna said as she stood and pushed her chair in. "If it wasn't all pleasant, at least it wasn't all uncomfortable either. Give Adam a kiss for me and tell him...,." Brianna shook her head. "Nevermind - goodbye, Charisma."

Charisma was torn between the desire to follow Brianna and demand to know what she was going to say, and the need to keep the fragile truce they currently had in place between them. Before she could give either course of action much thought one way or the other, Scott Patterson had jumped up from his chair and had joined Brianna in exiting the dining hall. Charisma sighed. She'd done the best she knew to do - the rest was up to Brianna.

Chapter LXXXVI

"Brianna?" Esmeralda asked as she poked her head into the inner office. "Is everything all right?"

Brianna glanced back at Esmeralda just briefly before she returned her attention to darkness of the world outside her window. "Are you a native of this area, Esmeralda?"

Esmeralda frowned, but shook her head. "No. Saphira and I had a friend who was in trouble, so we moved here to help out. But we've been here for a while - why do you ask?"

"What did you think of this place when you first moved here? Were you in awe of its beauty or were you mostly disgusted by the waste? Did you like it or was it barely tolerable? And has your opinion changed the longer you've lived here?"

All Brianna's questions were asked while she still faced the window and Esmeralda studied her stiffened back. She began cleaning and Brianna continued to face the window, knowing Esmeralda was considering her response. After some minutes had passed, Esmeralda took a deep breath to speak.

"Well, I can't say that we were thrilled to be here - except that our friend really did need us and we were able to find employment fairly easily. And we needed that after having given up everything to be together." She paused. "I do like the monuments and museums - they're nice to look at and it doesn't hurt that they are free as well," she added honestly.

"What else?"

"Don't take this the wrong way, because I really do enjoy my job, and I like the Senators I work for. But I don't like the game playing and I don't like the politics. There's too much self-interest here and the people who get hurt by it aren't the ones playing the games."

"What would you do if... if you hadn't come here to help your friend, where would you be? What would you be doing?"

Esmeralda actually stopped cleaning and scratched her head in thought. "I dunno - I never really gave it much deliberation. It wasn't how things panned out so...." She shrugged. "I really don't know."

Brianna turned from the window and uncrossed her arms as she moved behind her desk once more. She seated herself and folded her hands on the desk then stared at Esmeralda intently.

"I want you to think about it... really give it some consideration. If you and Saphira hadn't moved here to help your friend out, what would you have done instead?"

Esmeralda held Brianna's eyes for a long moment, then resumed her work. "What about you, Brianna?"

"Hmm? What about me?"

"Would you still be in the DA's office? You know it's just as political as Washington."

Briana chuckled. "Well, it certainly can be."

"Were you happy?"

"As the District Attorney?" shrugging when Esmeralda nodded. "It had its moments, but I was much happier as a prosecutor in the courtroom."

"Will you go backto it when you're done here?"

"I don't think so," Brianna replied, shaking her head. "I think I'm going to retire from public service and move into the private sector. Maybe I'll teach."

"Would you enjoy teaching?"

"Probably not as much as other things, but I think I'd do all right."

"I'm sure you would," Esmeralda offered with a smile. "You seem to be one of those lucky individuals who always tend to land on their feet."

"Better that than my ass," Brianna smirked. She watched as Esmeralda began to pack up her cart. "So still no answer for me?"

"Well, I really can't say for sure what we would have done. I think it would have depended on our opportunities.I probably would have ended up as a cashier at the local discount store because of my lack of education. But," she added, holding up her hands before Brianna could speak, "if we'd been given the chance, I think Saphira would have gone into law enforcement. Hunter wasn't that far off the mark where she's concerned."

"And you?"

"Me? I... I don't think I have any...."

"C'mon, Es," Brianna cut in. "You had to have wanted to do something when you were a kid - doctor, lawyer, Indian chief?" Esmeralda raised an eyebrow at the last and Brianna smirked in response. "Okay, maybe not the Indian chief. Teacher, writer, astronaut?"

"Now you're just being ridiculous," Esmeralda offered, but she gave Brianna a smile so she'd know there were no hard feelings. "I really didn't think about it much. My life was pretty well set from the time I was a child - I wanted to be Saphira's mate. Everything else?" She shook her head. "It is what it is, and I can't regret it as long as I have Saphira."

"I'm not sure I understand your thinking, Es, but as long as you're happy, I guess it's all good."

"It is," Esmeralda agreed. "What brought all this up anyway, if you don't mind my asking?"

Brianna turned her attention to her desk and started shutting things down and gathering things up in preparation of leaving for the night. "Any number of factors," she answered. "I'm sure you heard about my luncheon with Charisma today," looking up to see Esmeralda nod. "And I know you've heard about Scott Patterson's ambitions." Another nod. "Then we have Laura Maxwell who appears to be grooming Charisma for her run for the White House - I don't know really. It all just converged and got me to thinking."

"Does it bother you?"

"Excuse me? Does what bother me?" Brianna gathered her belongings and walked to the door. She opened it and motioned Esmeralda to go through ahead of her even as she waited for Esmeralda to clarify what she was asking. Esmeralda continued pushing her cart to the outer office door, leaning against it as she spoke.

"Charisma running for the White House? Or Laura Maxwell being the one to propel her there?"

"Es, Charisma Tagherty has had her eye on the Presidency for longer than either you or I have known her. She had already been working for it for years by the time that I met her. I can't really comment about Laura Maxwell - tonight was the first time I've exchanged more than passing platitudes with her. But if she's able to make Charisma's dream of being the first female President a reality, then I say more power to her. Maybe government would work better if it was run like a household instead of a country club."

"So you don't mind...?"

"Es, I appreciate that you understand the real situation between Charisma and me more than almost anyone else in the world. I love her... I always will. But you need to let go of the idea that I have any sort of undue influence on her actions or that whatever Charisma does has the least bit of impact on my lifeany more. I have, and that's not going to change."

"You really believe that? No matter what?"

Brianna motioned her to back up just slightly so she could get between the cart and the door. Then she pulled the door wide and waived Esmeralda out ahead of her.

"I know it to be true, Es. No matter what. I can't pretend anymore. Coming here taught me that."

Esmeralda shook her head slowly. "I'm sorry to hear that, Brianna - I truly am." She cleared her throat and looked back at Brianna who had started down the hall towards the elevator. "Goodnight, Senator Walker. Have a good evening."

Brianna turned and gave her a jaunty little wave. "You too, Es. I'll see you tomorrow."

Esmeralda continued back up the hall, wondering what Charisma thought of the whole situation, but a knock on her office door showed her to already be gone, so Esmeralda finished up her work so she could go talk to Saphira.


"How's it going, Joe?" Esmeralda asked when he poked his head into the window opening separating the kitchen from the counter.

"Can't complain, Essie. You're looking better."

She smiled. "I'm feeling better every day." She leaned against Saphira when she wrapped an arm around Esmeralda's waist from behind. "Hey, love."

Saphira gave her a light squeeze and brushed her lips across Esmeralda's cheek. Then she patted Esmeralda on the behind and nodded her head towards the counter stool. Esmeralda frowned at the lack of vocal response.

"Everything all right?" she asked quietly, catching Saphira's hand in her own. Joe peeked out from the opening again when Saphira padded into sight.

"She's all right, Es. Some kid clocked her across the throat earlier, and this is the first chance she's had to really rest her throat." He chuckled and Esmeralda cocked a questioning eyebrow in his direction. Saphira just glared and shook her head. "I wish you could have seen it, Es - one minute this kid was screaming bloody murder and the next he'd popped Saphira rightin the voice box. I don't know what she said to him and his parents, but that brat didn't make another sound the rest of the time they were here. And not only did they not try to skip out on their bill, I'm pretty sure they left a hefty little tip."

Esmeralda turned a look on Saphira, who had the decency to look sheepish. Esmeralda just shook her head. "What am I gonna do with you?" she asked with a wry smile.

"Love me for the rest of your life?" whispered.

"How about forever?"

"I like the sound of that," Saphira replied, brushing a kiss across the knuckles of the hand she still held in her own.

"All right you too... enough mush. A man could drown in it around here if he wasn't careful, and I got plans with my girl tonight. Now grab your food and sit up to the table and eat. I'm almost done back here, and it's getting on to time for you girls to head home."

"Thank you, Joe," Esmeralda said prettily. Saphira just rolled her eyes and took the plate, releasing Esmeralda's hand and grabbing two empty glasses and filling them with milk. Soon they were digging in and Joe smiled as he watched them from the kitchen. Neither of them was speaking, but plenty seemed to be getting said anyway.

It didn't take long for them to finish up and Saphira passed him the dirty dishes. Then he walked them to the door to lock up behind them, and they were on their way home.

Esmeralda shared her conversation with Brianna as well as the gossip she'd heard about Charisma. Saphira didn't really have any comment to make on either issue - even if it hadn't bothered her to talk - though she winced when Esmeralda shared Brianna's renewed determination to keep herself out of Charisma's orbit.

"I know there's nothing else we can do at this point, but honestly, all it feels like we're doing is marking time," Esmeralda said plainly. "I wish I knew what He was waiting for. The sense of impending doom is hanging over everything like a pall at this point, and the stress of it is gonna drive me crazy."

"You're already crazy," Amber stated with a rakish grin as they entered the house. Saphira reached out and smacked her in the back of the head. "Hey!" glaring, but stopping her retaliation when Esmeralda stepped between them.

"That's enough... both of you," she commanded, looking back and forth between them. Her gaze settled on Saphira. "Go get a hot shower, Sweetheart. Maybe that will help relax your throat. And you," turning to Amber. "What are you doing home this time of night?"

Amber looked closely at Saphira, noting a slight bruise mark on her neck. "You okay?" Saphira nodded, but moved to follow Esmeralda's directive. The truth was, it hurt a lot and she was tired on top of everything else. Amber made a grab for her arm, but Esmeralda intercepted it.

"I'll tell you all about it," she told Amber. "Go on, love. I'll just be a minute."

Saphira went into their bedroom and closed the door. Amber put her hands on her hips. "All right... so?" Esmeralda gave Amber a brief overview of Joe's accounting of events. Amber laughed. Esmeralda crossed her arms and waited for Amber to take a deep breath and shake her head.

"I'm not laughing that Saphira got hurt, but I do wish I had been there to see her in action. It's been a long time since I've seen that part of her."

"I know. I miss it too. Now - why are you here instead of keeping an eye on Charisma?"

"She's still with Opal and Turq... apparently she's resumed some of her after-hours schmoozing."

Esmeralda's eyebrows went into her hairline. "Well, that explains why I didn't see her tonight. I wonder if this was already on her agenda."

"I don't think so. I went to the house earlier when Ame was putting Adam to bed. Opal had called to let her know they were going to be late. Ame's supposed to call me as soon as Charisma gets home. Because she's gonna need to sleep even if she stays at the Tagherty house."

"Right... of course," glancing at her watch. "Although maybe you should go on over there - as late as it is, she should already be in bed. Otherwise, she'll never be able to keep up with Adam tomorrow, even with a half-day of school." Amber's eyes widened when she checked the time and nodded frantically. Esmeralda smiled. "Okay, I'm gonna go take care of Saphira. Let me know if...."

"I will, Es, but you know we're so far out of this all we're doing is babysitting at this point."

"I know; it doesn't lessen our responsibility, though."

"I suppose," Amber shrugged. "Now go look after Saphira before she comes looking for you." Esmeralda nodded and turned, entering the bedroom without a backwards glance. Amber waited until she closed the door behind her before scrubbing her hands over her face and heading out towards Charisma's house. With a little luck, Ame was already in bed asleep and all Amber would have to do would be wait for Charisma to arrive home.


Saphira was already curled up in bed with her eyes closed when Esmeralda finally entered the bedroom to stay. Saphira had still been in the shower when she'd originally stepped inside the room, so Esmeralda had decided to fix Saphira a cup of hot tea with plenty of lemon and honey. She didn't think it had taken *that* long, but....

"You gonna bring that over here?" Saphira whispered hoarsely into the dark, "or you gonna make me get up and get it myself?" Saphira gave Esmeralda a crooked half-smile and Esmeralda grinned back as she moved towards Saphira's side of the bed.

"I thought you might be asleep already. You didn't stay in the shower very long."

"Too tired."

Esmeralda frowned and set the mug on the bedside table, then leaned forward and brushed her lips over Saphira's forehead. "You don't feel feverish. You sure you're all right?"

"Just tired... and sore."

"All right," kissing her lips softly before standing and moving to the other side of the bed. "Well, if you think you can drink the tea, it should help with the pain and the swelling. Otherwise, give me five minutes and I'll join you. Sleep is probably the best thing for you," shaking her head when she heard the deep, rhythmic breathing that signified that Saphira was already asleep.

Esmeralda quickly went through her nightly routine, absently giving thanks that she was once more able to provide help and comfort when it was needed as opposed to being the one constantly in need of it. She eased her side of the covers down and slipped into bed next to Saphira, smiling when Saphira naturally turned and tucked herself into Esmeralda's embrace.

Then she closed her eyes and joined her mate in the land of Morpheus.


The next couple weeks followed the same pattern - except for the luncheon meeting between Charisma and Brianna. There were committee meetings and legislation and votes, but Charisma and Brianna managed to remain off each other's radar. It wasn't hard, really - there was so much work to do, and since Charisma had returned to making connections in the evenings at least once or twice a week, they had very little opportunity to run into each other.

Brianna still hadn't called Okasa. It wasn't the fact that she didn't believe Charisma - she did. Charisma had never been able to lie to Brianna, even when they had first met. No, it was more that Brianna wasn't certain she was willing to risk everything again. She missed the Tagherty family, but she was adjusting to life without them in it. She didn't want to have to get used to it again.

So things went along as they had been, until one evening when they both happened to be in the Senate office building when Rick came upstairs looking for Esmeralda.


Brianna's day started the same way they had since coming back from the holiday break - early into the office to read over whatever legislation was on tap for the day, followed by committee meetings and personal meetings and voting rollcalls.... The list went on and on. She always tried to wait for Esmeralda to show up, though. There was always something of interest to discuss, whether it had to do with what Brianna was currently engaged in or their past histories or their plans for their little bit of leisure time.

Charisma was also on a routine very similar to Brianna's, though she did not always remain in the office in the evenings anymore. Laura had convinced her to get out and mingle with her colleagues more often, for although Charisma had the backing of several of the major players in the Senate, if she was serious about making a run for the White House, she was going to need more movers and shakers in her corner when the time came. Still, she made time to be on hand two or three nights a week to talk to Esmeralda. She found her days and weeks tended to go much smoother when they shared a bit of girl talk together. It wasn't as though they talked about anything pressing or important, but just having that time with one another gave Charisma immeasurable comfort.

So it was that several weeks after Charisma's talk with Brianna in regards to her involvement with the Tagherty family, both Senator Walker and Senator Tagherty were waiting in their offices for Esmeralda to arrive. Though Esmeralda was quiet, she could be heard making her way along the hallway slowly if you knew what to listen for, and both Brianna and Charisma did. And they were both in their offices, patiently waiting, when the sound of a ruckus brought them out into the hallway.

Esmeralda had completed almost half the offices on the floor, when Rick emerged from the elevator almost running, and calling out her name far louder than the decorum of this place demanded. Esmeralda turned to shush him, but one glimpse at his face made the blood drain from her own face and her legs shake. She grabbed the cleaning cart for support and waited for Rick to reach her.

By that point, not only had Brianna and Charisma made it to their hall doors, but so had the other few Senators who were also working late. They all stood back waiting to see what had brought Rick, who up to that moment had been a quiet, by-the-book individual, running and yelling through the halls of the Senate office building. He didn't even notice them he was so focused on Esmeralda.

When he reached her, she clutched at his arm with one hand, knowing whatever he had to say didn't bode well for her. Then the words came out of his mouth, and only his grip on her kept her from falling to the floor.

"Es, it's Saphira. She's...." He stopped and shook his head, willing the tears not to come. She gripped his arm tighter and he struggled not to wince at the pain. Instead he focused on what he needed to say. "I don't have any details - all I know is she was just rushed to the hospital at Georgetown. Es... they don't expect her to make it."

Esmeralda stared at Rick like he was speaking a foreign language - a fact that should have been funny given the number of languages she was fluent in. But it wasn't funny and it didn't change the fact that she was having trouble processing what he had said.

Fortunately, Charisma and Brianna recognized the signs of shock and took charge as a team much in the same manner they had done during their college years. Charisma called Turq to pick them up immediately while Brianna called for a police escort to get them to the hospital as quickly as possible. One of the other Senators had gotten Esmeralda a glass of water and another brought out a chair for her to sit in. Charisma called Matilda and Brianna called the hospital and as soon as Turq beeped that the car was out front, they got one on either side of Esmeralda and headed for the elevator. "Rick, you'll take care ofthings here?"

"You don't be worrying none about that, Senator Tagherty. We'll take care of this business. You just look out for Es and let us know...."

"We will," Brianna assured him as the doors closed.

They were seated in the back of Charisma's limousine with Esmeralda between them when the startling sound of sirens brought Esmeralda's head up. There were no tears - there was nothing at all. And that look scared both Charisma and Brianna, causing them to exchange worried glances.

"What did Matilda say?" Brianna asked.

"Not much - it was hard to make sense of what she was saying. Apparently Saphira just collapsed... no warning, no nothing. Joe called the paramedics while Matilda called Rick. What did the hospital say?"

"Only that things looked grave."

"Why this?" Esmeralda whispered, so softly both Charisma and Brianna nearly missed her words. "Why now?" She looked up, eyes unseeing on the roof of the car. "You can't need her more than I do - You don't love her like I love her!!! WHY??" almost screaming. "Why are you doing this??"

Brianna grasped Esmeralda's hands and Charisma cupped her face. "Es... ES... ESMERALDA!" blowing lightly into Esmeralda's face to force her to take a deep breath. "C'mon now - you need to stay with us here. We'll be with you every step of the way... no matter what. But you need to stay here with us now, all right?"

Esmeralda looked between them and blinked, then looked between them again, actually seeing them this time. Brianna gently chafed some warmth back into her ice-cold hands and Charisma's thumbs gently traced over her cheekbones. Esmeralda looked at them a final time before closing her eyes and swallowing hard. "All right," she whispered.

Then they were pulling up into the emergency room entrance, and that started a whole new commotion.

Their arrival, precipitated by the police escort, caused an immense amount of confusion and upset and angered a number of medical personnel. That in turn caused the nurse at the desk to refuseto give Esmeralda any information, claiming her right to be recognized as Saphira's mate was irrelevant. Even protestations from both Brianna and Charisma did nothing to get them the information they needed.

In something of a daze, Esmeralda left them arguing with the desk nurse while she went to sit in the waiting room. The charge nurse had just come out from the back and noticed the lost, forlorn look Esmeralda wore and put the chart she was looking at in its appropriate spot before walking around the commotion at the desk and wandering over to take a seat beside Esmeralda on one of the hard chairs.

"You okay?" knowing it was a stupid question, but needing something to open the conversation with.

"No," Esmeralda replied starkly. "She's gone and they won't even let me see her to say goodbye."

The charge nurse covered Esmeralda's cold hands and turned to face her more directly. "Who?"

Esmeralda turned and met the nurse's compassionate brown eyes with empty green ones. It was all the nurse could do to contain her gasp. "My mate... Saphira."

"Are you Esmeralda?" The blonde head nodded. The nurse made a decision. "Come with me," rising and offering Esmeralda her hand. Esmeralda looked at her a long moment before comprehension dawned. She took the nurse's hand and let her lead her to the back.

Meanwhile, Charisma and Brianna had tired of dealing with the bigotry of the desk nurse and they'd each placed a phone call that caused the hospital switchboard to light up like a Christmas tree. Only once they were off the phone did they realized they had somehow lost Esmeralda, but before they could cause even more of a disturbance, the charge nurse returned and took them both by the elbows... despite their protests.

"Do you know...?"

"Who do you think...?"

"Before either of you finish those thoughts, Senators," the nurse said firmly, "I'd like to remind you that this is a hospital and there is such a thing as bad publicity in politics." They exchanged glances and immediately deflated. "Thank you."

"I'm sorry, Nurse...." Charisma paused and looked at the woman's nametag. "I'm sorry, Nurse Walters," Charisma apologized with Brianna nodding her affirmation. "Nurse Ratched over there is being impossible about letting Esmeralda back to see Saphira and on top of that, we seem to have lost Esmeralda as well." Charisma pushed her hands through her hair and took a deep breath in an effort to bring herself under control. Brianna reflexively placed a calming hand on Charisma's back and the effect was instantaneous as both women perceptibly relaxed. Nurse Walters noticed but didn't comment, focusing instead on easing their minds in her own way. But first....

"May I ask how you two are related to either Esmeralda or Saphira?"

Brianna and Charisma looked at one another before Brianna said, "They are very dear friends... almost like family."

"They ARE family, if you ask my mother," Charisma added when Nurse Walters frowned.

"Then perhaps you should be making phone calls instead of upsetting the entire trauma department." Walters held up her hands before they could object. "I understand you're just looking out for Esmeralda, but she's already in the back with Saphira... saying her goodbyes," she added when they opened their mouths to speak. "So maybe you might want to start taking care of the things that need to be done... to ease Esmeralda's burden a little." And with those parting words, Nurse Walters turned and headed to the desk, ready to remind the nurse there what being a caring professional entailed.

Brianna and Charisma stared at one another, equally ashamed of the uproar they'd caused and dismayed at the fact that Esmeralda was suddenly without her other half. Still, the charge nurse had made an excellent point - there were others that needed to be called and made aware of the situation and there were any number of things that could be taken care of without Esmeralda's input.

"I'll call Mama," Charisma offered quietly. Brianna nodded.

"I'll try to get in touch with Ruby, then see if I can locate Matilda and Joe. I thought they'd have been here by now." Brianna looked around. "C'mon... we're really not supposed to use these in here and there's not really a reason to upset the applecart any more than we've done already. Besides, I'm sure Nurse Walters will come find us if Es comes out before we're done and I need some air."

Charisma nodded. "I'm with you." They turned and together walked out the emergency room doors. Charisma took a deep breath, then winced at the scent of oil and gasoline and stale cigarettes. "Do you really think she will?"

Brianna looked up, frowning. She'd been engrossedtrying to figure out where to call next if Ruby didn't answer at Esmeralda's home. "Do I think who really will what?" she finally asked, shifting her attention back to Charisma and the conversation at hand.

"Do you really think Esmeralda will really leave Saphira's side before she's made to - even if she's already... you know, gone?"

"I think when the time comes, we're going to need every ounce of persuasiveness to get her to leave, so make your call. We're going to need everyone on our side we can get."

Charisma nodded her agreement and pressed a button before lifting the phone to her ear. This was one phone call she'd never expected to make. Then Okasa was picking up the receiver and Charisma turned away from Brianna to relay the wretched news to her family.

Brianna meanwhile had dialed Esmeralda's, hoping beyond hope that Ruby was home and awake... or at least close enough to a phone to answer it. She still had no idea where else to try if Ruby wasn't home. Then all her worries were invalidated when a sleepy voice picked up the receiver.


"Hello, Ruby? This is Brianna Walker."

The change in Ruby's voice was abrupt and Brianna could hear her throwing the covers back and rising from the bed. "Senator Walker?" her voice was calm, though Brianna detected the slightest hint of a tremor. "What's wrong? Has something happened to Esmeralda?"

"Es is fine," Brianna assured Ruby, hearing her sigh of relief. "Ruby... it's Saphira. We're here with Es at Georgetown University. I don't have any answers yet, but it doesn't look very good at all. I thought you'd want to know, since you're their family."

"You're right... I would," wondering why Turq hadn't called. "It's going to take me a little while to get there, but I'll be there as soon as I can."

"I'll have Jas come and pick you up, Ruby; don't you worry about that."

"Thank you, Senator. I'll see you soon." And the line went dead before Brianna could respond. Ruby looked around her room, filled to its tiny brim with nosy, concerned Angels.

"Ruby?" Indi asked. The older Angel held up a hand and shook her head, silently asking for a moment. Jas' phone rang and she answered it, her replies brief to the barked out instructions on the other end. When she was done, she hung up and all eyes turned back to Ruby.

"You wanna tell me what *that* was all about?" Jas asked looking at Ruby.

Ruby shook her head. "I'm as in the dark as to what's happening as the rest of you. Apparently something has happened to Saphira."

"That was Brianna," Jas continued, pointing to her phone. "I'm supposed to take Ruby to the hospital as soon as she's ready." She looked down at herself. "I better go get dressed," said as she left the room.

"What about the rest of us?" Opal asked.

"I think it would be perfectly acceptable if you all showed up," Ruby offered as she stripped out of her pajamas and slid into some of her rare 'civilian' clothes. "I mean, it would be natural for Turq and Jas to have placed a call to Brianna's and Charisma's personal assistants to let them know that something was going on, right? Just use the Metro or a cab and don't show up together."

"Speaking of...." Opal growled. "Why didn't Turq call us? Or why didn't Amber or Coral...?"

Ruby glowered as she stepped into her shoes. "I dunno," she bit off fiercely as she finished buttoning her coat. "But I certainly intend to find out!"

Jas reappeared at the door just then and Ruby nodded approvingly. Then the two of them made their way downstairs and outside. It was only when they heard the outer door close behind them that Opal and Indi exchanged glances.

"I'm a little confused," Indi said as they headed back towards their rooms to get dressed.

Opal laughed, though there was no humor in the sound at all. "Only a little?"

"For now," Indi replied seriously. "Does this mean the Father really made them mortal when he took everything away from them?"

"It certainly looks like it," Opal said grimly. "I wonder what happens to Angels when they die."

"Opal, what's going to happen to Es? Being separated from Saphira briefly nearly killed her. This will...."

"I know. C'mon... let's get there. I'm sure we'll be sorting this out for days."


Matilda and Joe came rushing towards the emergency room exit, slowing when both Brianna and Charisma extended an arm, signally them to wait until the Senators were no longer on the phone. Matilda saw the tears beneath the surface on their faces and automatically reached for Joe who clutched her outstretched hand in support.

"No," she whispered brokenly. Charisma and Brianna both nodded. "Oh no... no. What happened?"

Brianna shrugged. "We don't know yet. It's only due to the compassion of the charge nurse that Es was even allowed into the back to say her goodbyes."

Matilda's eyes hardened. "Excuse me?"

"Let it go, Matilda," Charisma instructed firmly. "Nurse Walters made sure she got back there and we have other things to concern ourselves with at the moment."

"What's more important than making sure...?"

"She's right, Mama," Joe replied before Matilda could finish her question. "We need to do what we can for Essie right now. We can worry about the bigots later."

Matilda let out a frustrated sigh - she knew they were right, but it did nothing to dim the righteous indignation she felt. She made a mental note to find out what had happened and have a word with somebody later. For now though....

"Okay... you're all right," taking a deep breath and pushing the tears she felt burning to the back of her throat. "What can we do?"

"Wait," Charisma said. "I've called Mama and she's going to inform the rest of the family, but it will take some time for them to get here."

"Jas is on her way with Ruby, and I called Rick and let him know that Esmeralda would be out on bereavement leave. The only thing we can do right this minute is wait for Es to come out from the back and be here to support her when she does. If we're lucky, maybe someone will tell us what happened to Saphira, but it's not like we're actually entitled to any answers."

"And tomorrow we'll do what we can to ease Es' burden," Charisma added.

"I don't think that's gonna be possible," Ruby spoke as she approached the small group. "The only time Es has been without Saphira, it nearly killed her, and that was simply banishment... an enforced separation, not something as permanent as death." She sighed. "I'm gonna go in and see what I can find out," she added with little hesitation. As one body, the rest turned and followed her in.

No one was particularly surprised when Nurse Walters appeared at the desk when Ruby asked for information. Walters motioned her around the desk and through the double doors she'd taken Esmeralda beyond some time earlier. They had just disappeared when Turq and Jas entered the waiting room, each taking a seat with the small contingent. In another few minutes, Opal stepped in from the emergency entrance and then Indi came around the corner from the direction of the main doors. Rick was the last to arrive while Ruby was still in the back with Esmeralda and the nurse, andhe took his place within the silent group.

Then they waited.


"I think she's still in shock," Nurse Walters told Ruby in a hushed voice as they approached the small alcove Saphira's body had been placed in to wait its trip down to the morgue. "She hasn't said a word or shed a tear that I can tell, and we're going to have to move Saphira's body to the morgue soon. The ME still has to do an autopsy to determine the cause of death."

"Must you?" Ruby asked with distaste and a hint of apprehension.

Walters nodded. "Unfortunately, yes - it's the law in sudden death cases like this. I've tried to give Esmeralda time to say goodbye, but...."

Ruby shook her head. "I don't know if she can, but I'll do my best." Then they reached the alcove and stopped at the sight that met their gaze. Esmeralda had crawled onto the gurney and curled herself around Saphira's body, gently tracing her features. Nurse Walters and Ruby exchanged alarmed looks, then walked swiftly towards the heartbreaking tableau, knowing the next few minutes were going to be extremely hard and hoping to be the support Esmeralda would need to get through them.


"Es?" Ruby asked quietly. "Es," she repeated a little more firmly. "It's time to say goodbye to Saphira so she can rest."

"She's already resting, Ruby," Esmeralda replied, her eyes never leaving Saphira's still face. "See? I'm just gonna stay here with her."

Ruby bit her lip. This was going to be harder than she'd expected, and she'd expected damned near impossible. "Honey, you can't stay with Saphira now," she offered gently. "She's gone to see the Father and you can't go with her. You have work to do here, remember?"

Nurse Walters frowned at the words passing Ruby's lips. As comfort went, they left a lot to be desired. And they didn't seem to have the necessary effect either; Esmeralda simply closed her eyes and clasped Saphira's cold hand tighter.

"I'm done, Ruby. There's nothing left for me to do." She flinched when Ruby laid a warm hand on her chilled skin, but there was no way to pull away from the touch without disturbing Saphira. And Esmeralda was loath to do that - it would make this whole situation all too real.


"No, Ruby. Just leave me alone. Please - just leave me alone," the last a bare whisper.

"Oh honey... I can't. We have to let the doctors take Saphira to find out what happened, and you need to come with me so...."

Esmeralda opened her eyes and Ruby felt the flames sear her even as she strove not to flinch away from the raw fury she could feel emanating from them. She'd never seen Esmeralda truly angry before... not even when she and Saphira had been separated the first time. So she held on and met Esmeralda's stare, hoping beyond hope she could keep Esmeralda grounded.

"I *know* what happened, Ruby. He took her from me - He took her from me and now she's gone!!"

"Don't you want to know why?"

"No," the voice dead. Ruby watched the fire in the green eyes extinguish itself, leaving only emptiness behind. "It doesn't matter why; it only matters that she's not here anymore." Without another word, Esmeralda closed her eyes and turned her face back into Saphira's neck. She didn't even have a chance to register the pinprick as Nurse Walters administered a sedative. And she never felt them move her to another gurney. They got her settled, and the nurse motioned to the interns who had been standing down the hallway waiting for her signal. One took charge of rolling Saphira's body to the elevator to take her to the morgue; the other started pushing Esmeralda towards a cubicle in the emergency room area. Nurse Walters took Ruby by the arm.

"C'mon - let's go tell your friends what's going on, then you can come back and sit with Esmeralda until she wakes up if you like."

"What happens then?"

"Well, once Esmeralda is awake, you can take her home. As soon as the autopsy is complete, someone will be in touch to find out where you'd like the body to be delivered in preparation for burial or cremation."

"Will we be told what happened? What the cause of death was?" Ruby clarified at Walters' frown.

"Yes. In fact, the attending should be out to talk to everyone before you leave. I think she had some questions."

Ruby nodded. "All right. I'll wait with the rest to talk to the doctor, then I'll come back and sit with Es. Can any of the rest come?"

"They're not supposed to - family only, you know. But I'll see about giving them a minute to look in on her. I think she's gonna need all the love and support she can get to make it through this."

"I'm not sure even that will help," Ruby mumbled, but before Nurse Walters could question her further, they were stepping through the double doors into the waiting room. As soon as they appeared, one whole section of the waiting area rose to their feet as though propelled by springs. Walters patted Ruby on the arm.

"I'll go find the doctor for you."

"Thank you, Nurse Walters - you've been a treasure."

Walters gave Ruby a smile and headed over to the nurses' station. Ruby took a deep breath and walked towards the small knot of people clustered together for moral support.

"Es had to be sedated and she's currently in one of the little rooms in the back. The nurse said when it wears off we can take her home. They've taken Saphira's body down to the morgue for autopsy," seeing every Angels' eyes widened with a number of unhappy emotions. "Apparently it's the law in circumstances like this. The doctor is supposed to come out and talk to us briefly as soon as the nurse locates her."

"Can we go back and see Es?" Matilda asked, wiping her eyes.

"The nurse is gonna try to give everyone a chance to, but no promises," Ruby said. "We've already created quite a stir here tonight and it's not fair to the other patients and their families. Truthfully, I'm not sure Es is in a place to recognize anyone, much less acknowledge them."

"Is she going to be all right, Ruby?" Brianna asked softly.

Ruby shook her head. "I don't know, Senator... I really don't know."

"And if you were to guess?" Charisma inquired.

Ruby sighed. She didn't want to get into this, but.... "Senator Tagherty, just being separated from Saphira made her so sick, she nearly died from it because Es thought it was going to be a permanent situation. But at least she had the assurance that Saphira was alive -she had a sliver of hope and it still nearly destroyed her. What do you think knowing Saphira is never coming back will do to her?"

"I think we'll be keeping an eye on her," blinking the tears from her eyes.Heads nodded all around, then a throat clearing behind them caused them all to turn. Standing behind them was a petite brunette woman, compassion plain in her tired brown eyes. She looked at the group of people standing in front of her, noting the disparity of social classes represented. It made her wonder, but she tucked the thought into the recesses of her mind to consider later. For now, she needed to talk to the family of the woman who had died so suddenly in her emergency room.

"Is one of you family to either Saphira or Esmeralda?" she asked, a slight drawl evident in her soft voice. Ruby stepped forward.

"I am," extending her hand. "Ruby Angelo. You're the doctor that took care of Saphira?"

"I'm Dr. Terrell," nodding as she took Ruby's hand and briefly covered it with her left one in a gesture of sympathy and comfort. "I'm so sorry for your loss."

"Thank you, Dr. Terrell. Do you know what...?

"We're not sure, but.... Did Saphira fall recently? Or take a blow to the head?"

Ruby frowned. "No - she got hit in the throat several weeks ago...."

"She hit her head then," Matilda broke in. "When that little boy hit her, she stumbled and slipped... hit her head pretty hard, but she said she was fine. There wasn't any blood, so I took her word. Are you saying...?" covering her mouth in dread at the implications.

"We're not sure at this point - we won't know for certain until the autopsy report is done - but I suspect she suffered from a brain hemorrhage." The doctor watched the horror dawn in Matilda's eyes and continued. "There was nothing you could have done - you wouldn't have necessarily even noticed that there was anything wrong. As I said, we're not even sure that's what happened."

"But you believe it is, don't you, Doctor?"

Dr. Terrell nodded her head. "Yes, I do." She gently squeezed Ruby's hand and released it. "Are you going to sit with Esmeralda?" Ruby nodded. Dr. Terrell looked at everyone else. "The rest of you need to go home. There's nothing else you can do here tonight, and I don't need you filling up my waiting room. Esmeralda will probably be out of it until much later today, and she'll need you to be there for her then. So go get some rest." No one moved and Dr. Terrell put her hands on her hips. "It wasn't a suggestion, ladies and gentlemen. Ruby can stay, but the rest of you need to go home."

Brianna and Charisma looked at one another a long moment, then turned to the others. "You heard the doctor," Charisma instructed. "Everyone out. Make sure Brianna or I have your contact numbers and as soon as we hear something, we'll make sure everyone else is notified." She turned to Ruby. "You'll call one of us first." Not quite a command, but not a polite request either. Ruby nodded her acquiescence.

"Of course, Senator."

"Jas, you remain here to take Ruby and Es home whenever they are ready to go," Brianna instructed. Jas nodded and moved back to take a seat in a quiet corner of the waiting room.

"All right," Charisma said. "Does anyone need a ride home? It might be a tight squeeze, but I think we could all fit."

"Joe and I drove over," Matilda said with a shake of her head. "But thank you for the offer. You'll keep us apprised?"

"As soon as we know, Matilda, so will you."

"Thank you, Senator." She turned to Ruby. "You'll tell Es...?"

"I will," Ruby promised. Matilda nodded, then she and Joe headed for the exit. Rick offered Ruby his hand briefly, then followed Matilda and Joe out the door. Charisma motioned to Turq.

"Will you bring the car around, please?" she asked wearily, then looked at Brianna, Opal and Indi. "Can I offer you ladies a lift?"

"Thank you, Senator," Opal replied. "Is there anything you need for us to take care of?"

"Nothing that won't wait until tomorrow. Brianna, would you like a ride?"

"I'd appreciate it, Charisma; thank you," her voice beyond exhausted. She turned to Ruby. "Go be with Es, and if there's anything we can do... anything you need...."

"Thank you, Senator... Brianna. Thank you all. I'll be in touch as soon as I can."

They nodded and Ruby turned and followed the doctor back to where Esmeralda was ensconced. Then they made their way out of the emergency room and into the limousine that Turq had pulled to the door. A moment later they were leaving the hospital parking lot.

It was silent in the vehicle; everyone was too drained to do much more than stare out the window or swipe at the occasional errant tear. Turq dropped Indi off first, then Opal. Neither Brianna nor Charisma had the presence of mind to notice that Opal and Indi didn't enter the buildings they were dropped in front of and Turq pulled away as soon as the car door was closed. When the car was out of sight of the building, they disappeared completely.

Turq turned the car towards Brianna's apartment building, knowing Opal and Indi were back at the hospital with Ruby keeping an eye on Esmeralda. She was headed there herself as soon as she got the Senators home.

Brianna and Charisma didn't say a word until Turq pulled up in front of Brianna's building. Then Brianna turned to Charisma and patted her hand for just a moment before drawing away and gathering her things. "Thank you for the ride, Charisma."

"It was my pleasure, Brianna, though I wish the circumstances were different."


"Brianna, I hope we can be real best friends again one day, but not at this sort of cost.I would never have had this happen to anyone - especially Esmeralda and Saphira - not even if it meant it would make things right between us. That's not what this was about."

Brianna blew out a shaky breath. "I know, Charisma. You'll call me if you hear from Ruby?"

"First thing - you'll do the same?"

"Of course." Brianna stepped from the car, leaning down into the door Turq kept open for her. "See you later today, Charisma."

"Goodnight, Brianna."


Charisma walked in the door to her silent house, closing the door and setting the alarm before trudging up the stairs. She paused for several long minutes in Adam's room, letting the peaceful rhythm of his breathing soothe her aching soul. When she finally got her tears under control, she crossed the room and pulled the covers up over him and kissed him goodnight. Then she left his room and headed to her own, only to be stopped by the sight of a disheveled Ame standing in the doorway of what was quickly becoming her room in Charisma's house.

"Everything okay, Senator?"

Charisma shook her head. "No - rough night, and the next few days will probably be equally as bad."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No, Ame - you're doing enough already. Just keep looking out for my son."

Ame smiled. "It's my pleasure, Senator... most of the time, at least," garnering her a tragic smile. "I'll let you get back to...." Ame motioned vaguely around. "Whatever you were headed for. Goodnight, Senator."

"Goodnight, Ame," Charisma said, turning as Ame closed the door again. She glanced at her watch. She could probably reach Kent now, knowing it would have been a futile effort before. Besides, her family should be arriving soon - no point in trying to sleep before they did. Charisma grabbed her phone and started dialing Kent's number, wondering if she'd get to see the bed before the sun came up in just a few, short hours.


"So what's the story?" Ruby asked as Turq finally made her appearance in Esmeralda's tiny enclosure. Opal, Indi and Jas were already there, though only Ruby was noticeable to the human eyes that periodically checked on her and her charge. As far as they knew, Ruby was talking to Esmeralda in an effort to provide comfort.

"None of us knew what was going on until we got here, Ruby. I got bits and pieces in the limo, but nothing I could really report on. I tried to call to see if you could find out what was going on, but I couldn't get through."

"I was supposed to be waiting for a call to pick Brianna up," Jas chimed in. "She sent me out on some errands earlier, then told me to go home and wait for her to call. It's why I was at home instead of at the Senate Building. I think she'd been planning to go with Es to the diner."

"What about Coral and Amber? Surely they knew...."

Turq shook her head. "Amber said they found out when Es did, but they were forbidden to notify any of us. They were physically unable to do anything but stay with Brianna and Charisma."

"That means that Ame, Mal and Jade are probably out of the loop as well."

"Well that just sucks!" Opal snarled, and the rest looked at her wide-eyed. "Oh, don't any of you look at me like that and pretend that you don't think the same thing." She focused her attention on Ruby. "So what are we supposed to do now?"

Ruby shook her head. "I don't know, Opal. First we have to get through the next few days."

"You think she'll survive it?" Jas asked quietly.

"She'll survive for a little while," Ruby said confidently. "She'll get through the funeral. After that...?"

"What about the autopsy, Ruby?" This from Indi. "Won't that show the anomalies of Saphira's angelic nature?"

"Indi, you know nothing will show up that He doesn't will first. But why are you assuming there would be any evidence of anything that wasn't human? Angels don't die, and yet, Saphira is dead... just as though she had beenborn a human mortal. I'd say that points to the sheer humanity of her nature."

"I thought one reason Esmeralda refused continued medical treatment was a fear of someone discovering she was... well, for lack of a better description, abnormal."

"That's true - until today we had no reason to believe that He had removed their immortality when He banished them from home - especially since Es did survive her illness. We all know that could have easily killed her," watching heads nod."But a big reason for her refusal was the cost involved; they simply did not have the means to pay for more than she had already received. As it was, a majority of the therapy Esmeralda took was provided free of charge by a friend."

"What a cluster," Turq offered with disgust.

"Worse than before," Ruby confirmed, "and it was completely snarled before this."

"So we're right back where we started, which is... what now?"

Turq snorted. "I think if we knew the answer to that, we'd have gotten our happily ever after ending already." She looked around at the assorted machines standing quietly waiting to be called into service. "Had anyone else here wondered if maybe Brianna and Charisma weren't actually the real clients in this case? After all, it's not like they've been treated like any case *I've* ever worked on, and I'm betting the rest of you would say the same."

"You think Esmeralda and Saphira...?"

"I think He's got a lot to answer for at this point."

"Careful, Turq," Ruby warned. "That is dangerously close to insubordination. Lucifer was kicked out for less."

"I'm not sure I care anymore, Ruby. I'm not sure I can keep doing this... not sure I want to - not if He's going to play games with people's lives like this."

Before Ruby could formulate a reply, Esmeralda blinked her eyes open. She didn't move or speak, but she couldn't stop the silent tears from rolling down her face. One by one, each of the Angels in the room with her kissed her forehead, then shimmered out of sight until only Ruby remained.

"What say we get out of here, Es?" Esmeralda sat up without a word while Ruby rang for the charge nurse. The sooner they left the hospital, the better for all involved.

Chapter LXXXIX

The house was silent when they entered and Ruby chanced to wonder if the others had gone straight to bed when they arrived home. She wasn't concerned, however; she was much more focused on getting Esmeralda to her room and settled before she collapsed. Because that is exactly what Ruby expected to happen - she'd seen what separation had done to them before. Ruby sighed and walked beside Esmeralda until they reached the bedroom door. Then Esmeralda stopped and Ruby was forced to stop as well... waiting for Esmeralda to give some indication of what was going on.

When she didn't move... didn't speak... for several minutes, Ruby finally took the bull by the horns and gently grasped Esmeralda's jaw in her hand, urging Esmeralda's eyes up until she could look into them. Ruby bit the inside of her lip to keep her reaction from becoming visible. Instead, she took a deep breath, then whispered softly, "Es? C'mon, honey... let's get you tucked into bed."

"No, Ruby," her voice so low Ruby had to focus on the movements of her lips. "I have to do this by myself. Don't... please," cutting Ruby off before she could begin to formulate a response. "Nothing is going to make this better. Please... just leave me alone."

Ruby stared into dead, gray eyes - the color sucked out of them when Esmeralda's inner light was snuffed out - and it took all she had not to shiver against the chill that set into her bones. "All right, Es. We'll be here if you need us. We'll talk about the arrangements later?"

Esmeralda just shrugged and opened the door to the bedroom she had shared with Saphira since their exile in this place had begun. It more than anywhere else had been their home and Ruby watched as Esmeralda stiffened her shoulders before crossing the threshold. Then she closed the door behind her without a backwards glance and Ruby shook her head. She turned and headed towards the kitchen - despite her exhaustion, she needed a few minutes to recoup before heading upstairs to try and get a few minutes of rest before starting what promised to be one of the hardest days she had ever known. And she knew they were going to get worse before they got better.

She wasn't completely surprised to find the rest of the household there ahead of her - what did surprise her was the utter silence they were sitting in as well as the fact that *everyone* was there... including those on watch duty as well as Ame, who had been woken out of a sound sleep by Amber as soon as Charisma had gotten her family settled and crawled into bed herself. Now all eyes turned to Ruby, but before anyone could speak, she held up a hand.

"I know we need to talk; I just need a few minutes...please."

In answer, the rest turned back to their coffee. Amber poured Ruby a cup and set it down in front of her, squeezing her shoulder in support and understanding. Then she took her place leaning against the counter once more and waited for Ruby to speak.


Esmeralda leaned against the door, her hand over her mouth... though whether it was to keep from screaming or throwing up, she couldn't have rightly said. She breathed in, a sob settling in her chest as the aroma that was them settled into her lungs and on the back of her tongue. She wanted to rail and rage and scream at the unfairness... at the injustice of His action in taking Saphira away from her again despite everything. Instead, she shed her shoes and climbed into their bed, covering herself in Saphira's robe and wrapping herself around Saphira's pillow. Then Esmeralda closed her eyes and let the tears flow, never realizing when she fell asleep.


Okasa wasn't surprised to find Charisma in the kitchen when they finally arrived in Washington an hour or so before daybreak. It only took a glance to know that Charisma hadn't been to bed yet, but no amount of coaxing from Okasa was able to convince Charisma to lie down for just a little while. Finally, Patrick stepped in.

"Princess," garnering a small smile at the memories that moniker invoked. "You need some rest if you're going to be any good to anyone. Mama and I will be here if Adam gets up before Ame gets here and…. What?" asking when Charisma shook her head.

"Ame is already here."

"Of course... of course," Patrick agreed. "I wasn't thinking. However, we'll still be here when Adam and Ame get up. I'm pretty sure we can handle things for a little while so you can get some rest."


"Charisma, please don't be difficult about this. Mama and I will catch a little nap later today - while Adam is at school or when he gets a nap here... whatever," waving his hand dismissively. "Let us do this. We'll be there for you so you can be there for Esmeralda."

"Kent should be here shortly."

"And he knows how to find his way around, I'm sure," Patrick said with a teasing smile that Charisma couldn't begin to return. He wondered, but not enough to push at the moment. Instead, he put a hand on her back and gently guided her out of the kitchen and towards the stairs. "Go. We'll call you if we hear anything."

"What about the boys?"

"They'll be here for the service... as soon as we know when it is. Now go."

Charisma gave them one last look before she nodded, heading back upstairs to at least take a shower. Maybe that would help her feel a little more like a human being. She wondered how Esmeralda was doing and if Brianna had heard anything. She shook her head, knowing that if Brianna had heard something... anything, she'd have called. Despite their falling out - for lack of a better description - Charisma knew Brianna well enough to be sure of that.

Then she stripped down and stepped into the streaming water and put everything out of her mind for just a few minutes. Maybe it would make more sense if she just stopped thinking about it for a little while.


"Are you okay?" Kay asked Brianna as soon as the door was closed behind them. Brianna nodded and rubbed her itchy eyes. Every time she closed them, all she could see was the deadness she'd witnessed in Esmeralda's. It made her shiver again and Kay caught the slight movement. Without a word, she wrapped her arms around Brianna and held her while she cried.

Kay maneuvered them to the couch and they collapsed on it in a tangle of limbs. It was nothing they hadn't done before, but it wasn't anything they'd shared once they were no longer intimate. And though it felt a little strange and kind of awkward, it was also comfortable and familiar and Brianna took solace in the gesture.

In a few minutes, her tears slowed, and Brianna and Kay shifted until Kay held Brianna much as she would one of her children. She brushed a kiss over Brianna's brow and murmured, "You ready to talk about it now?"

Brianna snuggled her head under Kay's chin, and Kay tightened her arms reflexively. Brianna played with the tissue Kay had given her. "I'm not sure what there is to talk about, Kay - Saphira's dead."

"I know. And as sad as that fact is, I'm not sure I understand why this has made you as upset as it seems to. Is there something about you and Saphira that I should know?" Brianna jerked upright, nearly taking Kay's head off with her own in her haste. She glared at Kay, who visibly flinched at the fire being directed out her from Brianna's green eyes.

"You know me better than that, Kay - or at least you should. I don't date other peoples' wives. I'm not a home wrecker!!"

Kay held up a hand in surrender. "Hey! It was just a question; you're reacting pretty strongly for someone who was just a casual acquaintance. I'm trying to figure out how to help."

"She wasn't just a casual acquaintance, Kay - she was my friend... she and Esmeralda both. They treated me like family from the moment I met them." Brianna took a deep breath and the fire in her eyes was extinguished. "I think I'm mostly crying for Esmeralda. They were everything to one another, Kay. You didn't see how dead her eyes went when we discovered that Saphira was already gone."

"We'll be there for her as much as we can, Bri. But there's nothing we can do to make this better for her. This is something Esmeralda is going to have to learn to live without for the rest of her life... unless she decides that she is willing to settle for less than her mate."

Brianna shook her head. "She won't, Kay - you know that as well as I do after Thanksgiving. I'm not even sure she will live without this for very long."

"You think she's suicidal?" Kay asked with alarm.

"Not like you mean, no," Brianna responded sadly. "But I don't think the will to live will last for very long either. You haven't seen her, Kay - something in Esmeralda died when she got the news... and we didn't even know Saphira was dead yet."

"But Esmeralda did."

Brianna nodded. "It certainly seemed that way."

Kay bit her lips thoughtfully, then finally shifted until she and Brianna were standing side by side in front of the couch. "Lee and the kids will be here as soon as we know when the service is. But for now, I'm gonna tuck you into bed so you can get a little rest. Work will wait," Kay assured Brianna when Brianna opened her mouth to speak. "It's not like it's going to go anywhere and if it's urgent, someone will call. I'm perfectly capable of explaining there's been a death in the family."

They entered Brianna's bedroom and Kay tucked her in tenderly, brushing a kiss over her forehead before reaching to turn out the bedside lamp. Brianna stayed her action with a gentle grasp on her wrist and Kay looked at her with a question in her glance.

"Will you stay? Just until I fall asleep?" Brianna hated to appear so weak, but more than anything, she didn't want to be left alone. Without thought, Kay slipped off her shoes and lay down next to Brianna. She wrapped Brianna in a spooning embrace, then leaned forward to whisper in her ear.

"Go to sleep, Bri. I'll keep the bad dreams away."

"Thanks, Kay," Brianna answered on a sigh, and fell into sleep. Kay lay slightly beside her... keeping watch.


Ruby kept her eyes focused on her coffee cup as though it held the answers to all the questions she'd ever had about anything. Finally, though she blew out a breath and began to speak quietly. "I know everyone here is angry and frustrated and in mourning. So right here, right now, I'm offering every one of you the chance to speak without censure or prejudice. Once each of you has had your say, I'll say what I need to say and we'll move on. We have to," Ruby continued when she sensed their desire to argue. "Despite what we want or believe or feel at the moment, we still have a job to do. And there is NO WAY," looking up and pinning each of the others with a glare before she returned her gaze to her coffee cup, "Es is gonna suffer through this and us not finish what we started out to do."

"You really think we can?" Amber asked wearily, scrubbing at her eyes with the heels of her hands.

"I think we're so close, I can see it."

"Ruby, no offense, but we been this close for a while, and nothing has happened except one or the other of them walking away. Why do you think anything's going to change at this point?"

"I don't know that it will, Opal. But I can't just quit now. If I do... if *we* do, everything we've done, everything we've been through has all been for naught. And despite everything I'm feeling at the moment - and believe me, there's as much anger as there is sorrow - I have to believe it's got to count for something."

"And what about free will - *their* free will? They're the ones who've chosen this path. They don't want to be together! We can't MAKE them choose otherwise."

"No, we can't, Turq. But we can stay and do our jobs here until He calls us home. At least we'll be able to say we did everything we were supposed to... everything we could."

Amber chuckled sadly. "I can't believe I'm gonna say this, but Saphira was right - we should have just smacked their heads together to put some sense into them and been done with this months ago." The rest smiled wryly and nodded their agreement. "But Ruby is also right, much as it pains me to admit it. If we quit now, everything we've put up with will be wasted effort. Saphira will still be dead, Es will...." Amber looked down at the table and sucked in a shuddering breath. "I don't expect Es to survive this... I don't think any of us do." She looked up and met the eyes of each Angel gathered in the kitchen, seeing the truth of her words reflected back at her. "But even if she can't finish this assignment, it somehow feels like we'd be letting her down if we just quit now." She held up her hands before anyone could comment. "I know everyone here is frustrated beyond belief. And I know everyone would have preferred any number of things to have been handled differently... including His handling of Es and Saphira. Wanting doesn't change what is or what has already happened."

"So we just go on like what, Amber?" Turq asked with more than a hint of ire in her tone.

"We mourn Saphira - we remain steadfast for Es. We go on just like we have been - you keep driving; I'll keep watching; Opal will keep assisting and so on. When all is said and done, we'll be able to say we did our jobs. He won't be able to find fault with us."

"I'm not finding a lot of comfort in that right now."

"None of us are, Turq," Mal returned quietly. "But Es won't be able to find us lacking either, and for me, that's pretty important."

Ruby looked around the room and saw the silent agreement. She cleared her throat and waited until everyone was focused on her. "Well, Amber covered about everything I had to say. Does anyone else have anything they want or need to get off their chest about this?" Silence followed her query and Ruby nodded in satisfaction. "All right then - we've all got work to do. Amber, Coral and Mal - I think you should get back to your charges for now. I doubt anyone's going to be going anywhere this morning. The rest of you - go on upstairs and get some rest. If your bosses call, I'll let you know."

"What about you, Ruby?" Jade asked.

Ruby passed a hand over her eyes and shook her head. "I'm gonna stay down here and keep an ear out for Es. Matilda said the diner would remain closed until after the funeral."

"Wow," Jas commented softly. "Can they afford to do that?"

Ruby shrugged. "I wasn't gonna ask. She said they would do it for any death in the family." She sighed. "C'mon, you lot. Nothing is going to make this better. To bed with you," gesturing to one half of the Angels, "and back to work with the rest of you. Ame, are you...?"

Ame nodded. "I have to, since ostensibly I am already there. You'll let me know...?"

"Yes. The only reason I didn't call last night is I had no real information to share and Adam had to come first."

"I know, but finding out the way I did - I could live with never being caught flatfooted like that again."

"I think we all could agree with that. I certainly never expected...."

"Ruby? What are we going to do about Saphira?" Amber asked, causing everyone on their way out of the kitchen to stop in the doorway and wait for Ruby's reply. But before she could answer, Amber continued her question. "I mean... is Es gonna be able to plan a service for her?"

Ruby sighed. "I don't know, Amber. It's one of the things I need to talk to her about. If she can't, would you want to...?"

"Yes," the answer quiet but emphatically stated. "Saphira was my sister and that makes Es my family even beyond this," motioning around the room. "Even though I never expected to have to think about something like this, I would be honored to accept the responsibility if Es can't bring herself to say goodbye. We won't leave folks hanging, Ruby."

"All right. Come see me when you get back from Charisma's and we'll start making some decisions if Es can't."

"She can stay," Jade offered. "I'll go in her place."

"Would you...?"

"Are you sure?"

Jade nodded and smiled sadly. "Yes, I would and yes, I'm sure. I haven't done much during this mission except pick up the slack when I can, which hasn't always been a lot. This, however... this I can do, and make a difference."

"Thank you, Jade," Amber said sincerely. "I can't tell you...."

"You don't have to." She looked at Mal, Coral and Ame. "C'mon, guys... we've got work to do." They waved to the rest and disappeared from sight. Turq, Jas, Opal and Indi watched them go, then bid goodnight to Amber and Ruby, leaving them alone in the kitchen. They turned to the process of cleaning up, using the time to give them some semblance of peace. They'd shoulder their burdens directly, but it was nice to have a few minutes to settle themselves for the tasks ahead.


Kent wasn't at all surprised to find Okasa in the kitchen with Patrick when he crossed the threshold into Charisma's home. He was a little more surprised when he was directed upstairs to get some rest, but figured he could at least take the opportunity to check on Adam and get a hot shower.

He looked in on Adam, smiling when he saw his son sprawled in the abandoned sleep of the innocent. Kent pulled the blanket up over him a little higher and kissed Adam's cheek before letting himself back out of the room. He started towards his suite, then decided to check on Charisma as well.

A knock at her door went unanswered and he pushed the door open silently before crossing the room to stand beside the bed. He noted how young Charisma appeared when she was asleep and felt a wash of love for her sweep through him. He pushed her hair off her face, and Charisma blinked open sleepy blue eyes at him.

"Hi," Kent said softly.

"Hi. How was your trip down?" Charisma asked, blinking her eyes and unsuccessfully trying to stifle a yawn.

"Long. I just wanted to see how you were doing."

Charisma teared up, but refused to let them fall. She shook her head. "Ask me again when I've had more than an hour of sleep."

Kent nodded. "I'll let you get back to it then. I'm sorry this happened, Charisma. They seemed like such a lovely couple."

"They were. All I can think about is how Es is going to get through this. What I would do if...." Charisma broke off, realizing what she was saying and to whom she was saying it. "I'm sorry, Kent. I shouldn't... I mean I...."

He gave her a wry smile. "Why? Charisma, I knew the truth before you did, remember? Maybe you should take this as a sign... maybe you both should. We only have this day... this moment... this breath - what gives us the right to waste it as though we were entitled to the next one?"

Charisma took his hand in hers and squeezed it. "You would have been a great lawyer, Kent. Maybe I should have you plead my case to Brianna," closing her eyes and rubbing her forehead. The action caused her to miss the speculative gleam in Kent's eyes.

"Maybe you should go back to sleep for a little while. Government business will wait a few more hours. Do you know if any arrangements have been made?"

Charisma shook her head and snuggled further into the covers. "Ruby promised to call when she knew something."

"All right. Go back to sleep. I'll be downstairs with your parents when you get up, okay?" She nodded, her breathing deepening. He brushed a light kiss over her hair and stood up. "Goodnight, Charisma," he offered, then he slipped out the door and closed it silently behind him.


It was close to noon when Brianna stumbled from her bedroom in search of Kay and food. Fortunately, she found them together in the kitchen and she smiled at the happy memories the scents wafting through the small room brought to her mind.

"Is that really...?"

"Yes," Kay said without turning from her task at the stove. "And we need to seriously discuss your food situation here, Bri. Fig Newtons, milk and wilted celery - are you kidding me?"

Brianna laughed and Kay shifted just enough to give her the stink eye. Brianna held up her hands in surrender and tried to get her emotions under control. "I'm sorry, Kay, but you sounded just like Okasa then... all 'Mama Bear'."

Kay raised an eyebrow. "That would probably be the 'Mama Bear' personality that I've been working on since Michelle was born. How'm I doing?"

"I'd say you were well on your way to becoming a professional. A little more practice and you could be an All-American." Brianna smiled at Kay's rolled eyes. "Thank you for coming down, by the way," she added seriously. "You didn't have to, but I'm glad you did."

"When I got your call last night, I wanted to be here for you and for Esmeralda if I could. Lee and I talked about it and we decided it was the right thing to do. My secretary isn't particularly thrilled, but when has she ever been?" asked with a knowing smirk that caused Brianna to shake her head.

"I can't believe Roscoe hasn't left you for greener pastures," Brianna commented as she moved to set the table.

"You calling her Roscoe always used to drive Lisa crazy, you know," Kay commented with a huff.

"Of course... that's why I did it," filling two glasses with ice and water. She put them on the table, then moved out if the way for Kay to set the hot skillet between them. Then they took their seats and began serving themselves.

"How are you?" Kay finally asked when the first of their hunger was sated. "You look more rested, but.... What's bothering you, Bri? I get that you're upset about a dear friend dying... that's perfectly natural, after all. But this is something else... something beyond that." Brianna glared and Kay covered her hand. "This is your friend and ex-lover asking, Bri - not Dr. Williams."

"Kay, you will *always* be Dr. Williams - you can't help but. She's as much a part of you as Fontana is a part of me. But I understand what you mean and I appreciate the concern."

"Then talk to me, Bri. I want to help if I can."

Brianna sighed. This really wasn't something she wanted to get into with her ex-lover, but Kay was probably the only person in the world in a position to understand. "I don't think there's anything you can do, Kay. I just... I keep seeing the expression on Es' face... the deadness in her eyes... hearing the anguish in her voice." She took a deep, shuddering breath and let her green eyes meet Kay's brown ones, the tears shimmering. "I can't imagine, Kay - if something like that happened to Cha...." Brianna broke off and shook her head. She would have stood and walked away, but Kay's hand kept her in place. She kept her focus on the table and chuckled mirthlessly. "I don't even have the right to think that way."

"Why? Why don't you have the right to wonder, Bri? When death hits close to home like this, it causes us all to rethink and wonder - to put ourselves in Esmeralda's place." Kay waited a minute, and when Brianna didn't reply, she took a deep breath and resumed her line of thought aloud. "Brianna, even though you and Charisma have never consummated the love between you, it doesn't mean that you love her less. If anything, Esmeralda's loss simply highlights what you've never been allowed to share with her. It certainly doesn't change the fact that you've loved her for half your life."

"It doesn't change the fact that I walked away from her either." This time when Brianna tugged on her hand, Kay let her go, understanding the anxiety Brianna felt. She watched as Brianna walked out of the kitchen and moved to stand in front of the windows in the living room. Kay took her time cleaning up the kitchen, noting Brianna kept her attention on what was going on outside, though Kay would have bet good money Brianna's thoughts were much closer to home.

When the kitchen was spotless, Kay walked out of the tiny room, crossing to stand just behind Brianna without touching her. "It doesn't have to stay that way, Bri."

Brianna was quiet for so long Kay wondered if Brianna had even heard her speak. She opened her mouth to reiterate her words when Brianna's soft whisper cut her off. "I don't know, Kay." She swiped at her face and turned back to meet Kay's eyes. "I'm going to go check on Es. Would you like to come with me?"

"Yeah. You want to shower first?"

"Go ahead. I'm going to call Ruby and let her know we're coming - see if there's anything we can bring."

"All right. I won't be but a minute." Then Kay headed for the bathroom and Brianna walked to the phone to make her call.


"MAMA!!" Adam greeted Charisma when she stepped into the family room where they were all gathered. She set her coffee cup down quickly to catch him in her arms and hug him close - so close that Adam started to squirm. "Mama... too tight!" pushing to loosen her grip.

Charisma loosened her hold and kissed Adam. "Sorry, son." Adam rewrapped his arms around her Charisma's neck and kissed her.

"Love Mama... Mama good."

"I love you too, son. Did you go to school today?" watching him shake his head. Charisma turned and met Ame's eyes, then looked at Kent for an explanation.

"We decided to keep him home today since his grandparents were in town," Kent replied. "I thought maybe he and Paddy and I could go out for a little while this afternoon." Charisma just nodded.

"Has anyone heard anything?" seeing negative shakes from every other adult in the room. "All right. I'm going to call Ruby and see what I can find out. Mama, would you like to go with me if Ruby thinks we could check on Es?"

"Yes, absolutely." Charisma nodded.

"Okay... let me make my call and we can go."

"You need to eat something first," Okasa chided. "And don't stand there and even think about arguing with me. It won't take but a minute to make you up a plate from lunch."

"Fine," Charisma grumbled, knowing any debate would be met with more aggravation than she was in the mood to tolerate today. Okasa headed to the kitchen and Charisma set Adam down. He ran back to Ame, taking the controller from her and returning his attention to the learning game she'd put in for him to play.

Charisma watched him for a moment, then turned and headed for her office to make her call. Patrick and Kent watched her go, then looked at one another. Patrick cocked an eyebrow. "Would you like to take that walk now?"

"I think that's a good idea."


Esmeralda felt the bed dip, but she kept her eyes closed. She assumed she was still dreaming, and saw no reason to leave a place where she could still feel Saphira's warmth surrounding her. Then the arms around her tightened and she felt the weight of Saphira's wings drape over them. Esmeralda released a trembling breath and shivered when she felt lips ghost over her neck.

"Where do Angels go when they die, love? Did the Father let you go home?"

There was no answer, but Esmeralda hadn't expected one. Instead, she willed herself to slip back into deeper sleep - into a place where she and Saphira were home together again. She never felt the bed shift when Amber stood, nor did she hear the door close gently behind her.

Amber looked up when Ruby cleared her throat; she crossed the threshold, then let her body slump and shook her head when Ruby cocked an eyebrow at her in question. Before either woman could speak, the phone rang and Ruby picked up the receiver. She shared a very brief conversation with Brianna and hung up the phone. Then she turned to Amber.

"That was Brianna - she asked if she could come by for a few minutes."

"Why? It's not like there's anything she can do."

"She wants to check on Es... see for herself how she's doing."

"She's dying, Ruby! What's to see?"

"Amber, it's how humans mourn - you should know that. How many years have you been doing this job?"

"Ruby, don't. Don't act like there is some sort of protocol involved here that we're supposed to be following. This is nothing like anything we've ever dealt with - Angels don't die and we've only ever had one other occasion to mourn."

"I know, honey, but this is something we have been witness to for years."

"Somehow witnessing didn't prepare us for the reality of how this feels."

"You're right, Amber... it didn't. So maybe we should let the mortals show us how to bear this... how to grieve. Maybe we can help each other."

The phone rang again and Ruby snatched it from the hook before it could ring twice. Another brief conversation and she was hanging up the second time, this time rubbing her forehead and releasing a long breath.

"Let me guess - Charisma is coming over too?"

"Yes. She and Okasa will be here shortly." Ruby paused and tilted her head towards the stairs. Amber frowned.

"Something wrong?"

"I don't hear anyone moving around upstairs. I'd have thought Jas and Turq would be getting a phone call... you know, to go pick up their respective Senators."

"It's not official business, Ruby."

"Not like that's always made any difference." Ruby waved her hands in dismissal and shook her head. "It doesn't matter - we need to get the rest of the girls up. They can't be wandering around here in corporal form."

"I'll take care of it," Amber said. "I need to get a little rest." She took a good look at Ruby. "So do you," gently cupping Ruby's face.

"I will, Amber. As soon as Brianna and Charisma have had their visit, I'll go lay down. I'm sure one of the girls not covering Brianna or Charisma will be willing to sit Shiva with Esmeralda for a little while."

"Any of us will, Ruby," Indi said from the doorway. "We heard the phone ring; figured we better come down and see what was going on."

Ruby quickly filled them in, and in only moments they had scattered to get dressed. Shortly after that, the house was empty, save Ruby in the kitchen, Esmeralda in the bedroom and Amber tucked away upstairs.


Brianna and Kay arrived first, scant minutes after the Angels disappeared around the corner. Ruby accepted the hug that Brianna offered and took Kay's hand when they were introduced. She led them into the kitchen and Brianna set down the sandwiches she'd brought with her.

"How are you, Ruby?" she asked solicitously. "I have a very good idea how Es is doing," she stated,"and I intend to check on her as well in just a few minutes. But you're the one that's going to have to be her rock until she can't do this without Saphira anymore. And knowing what's coming doesn't make it any easier. So... how are you?"

Kay blinked, clamping her jaw shut to keep her mouth from swinging open. She was amazed to see this rarely exposed side of Brianna's personality knowing Brianna didn't like the vulnerability this kind of caringplaced on her. Kay watched silently and let Brianna comfort Ruby, knowing it was something Brianna needed to do for her sake as much as Ruby's.

"I'm tired," Ruby stated plainly. "I'm tired and I'm angry and I hurt. I hurt for myself because I'll miss Saphira, but I'm aching for Esmeralda too, and that makes the hurt worse." Both Brianna and Ruby were so focused on their conversation that they didn't hear the light rapping on the front door, but Kay did. She moved through the hall, knowing that anyone coming by today was either a friend come to offer comfort or someone that would need to be turned away until a later time. Either way, it was something she could do while Ruby cried a little of her distress out on Brianna's shoulder.

Kay reached the front door and recognized Okasa and Charisma immediately. She would have cursed under her breath but Charisma raised her hand to knock again, so she yanked the door open instead, putting her finger to her lips.

A flash of surprise followed by a look of resentmentcrossed Charisma's countenance for the split second it took for her to get her political mask in place. Kay idly hoped one day they could work past that, but now wasn't the time. Kay gestured them inside, and motioned towards the kitchen.

"Ruby is in there with Brianna. We haven't seen Esmeralda yet."

Charisma and Okasa nodded silently, then followed Kay into the kitchen. They removed their coats and placed them on an empty chair; Kay and Okasa stood back in unspoken support, even as Charisma moved forward to embrace Ruby on the side opposite Brianna.

For a few moments, there was just the sound of Ruby weeping; then she straightened and wiped her eyes. Charisma accepted the tissues Kay passed her with a grateful nod, and gave them to Ruby. Ruby wiped her eyes and reached a hand out to cover first Brianna's, then Charisma's. At that gesture, both women took a seat at the table again, one on either side of her. When Ruby remembered there were others in the room with them, she cocked an eyebrow at Brianna in question.

Brianna introduced Okasa, and Ruby invited them to sit. The stillness was awkward and unnerving and Charisma cleared her throat to break it.

"How is Es, Ruby?"

"Not well. She went straight to bed when we arrived home this morning, and she hasn't moved since then. I've been in several times to check on her, but she's still sleeping."

"Have any arrangements been made?" Brianna asked softly.

"I've spoken to Saphira's sister, Amber," seeing Brianna nod in recognition. "We're still waiting to hear from the hospital about the autopsy results, but she called them earlier. They should be able to release Saphira's body to us by tomorrow morning at the latest. I have already been in touch with the local funeral home. Saphira will be cremated, and we'll have a small service in two days."

"We'll let people know on our end," Charisma said. "I know there are a number of Senators who will want to be there for Es' sake. They were there when Rick came up to tell her the news." She paused thoughtfully. "I never realized so many on our floor stayed late - I never saw them."

"I doubt they saw you either, Charisma," Brianna offered with a smile. "After all, you were in the inner office working out of sight and sound of the rest. They were probably doing the same thing. I know I did. It's the best time of day to work and actually get things done - no schmoozing."

"And it's the only time of day to sit and chat with Es."

"This is true," Brianna agreed, then turned back to Ruby. "Is there anything we can do? Phone calls? Arrangements? A wake? Sitting with Es?"

"Oh Brianna - you don't know how much the offer means... all of it. But I wouldn't know who to call, and the arrangements won't take too long. The service is mostly so people can say their goodbyes to Saphira and speak to Es. As for a wake...."

"Let us do something, Ruby," Okasa piped in. "We would be honored if you'd let us take care of the wake."

"It's not that I don't appreciate the offer," Ruby replied slowly. "It's just that I'm not sure Esmeralda would attend."

"Ruby, if you'd like to have a wake, we'll get Esmeralda there and stand by her for as long as necessary," Charisma said. "But it's totally up to you; we're here to help... not to make things harder."

"I am grateful to all of you - you didn't have to be there last night and you certainly didn't have to come over here today. I can't ask you to stop your lives for this."

"What if we want to, Ruby? What if we choose to be here to support Es the only way we know how?"

"I won't say no," Ruby answered. "But I have to tell you not to expect much - I don't think she's said a dozen words to me since she woke up in the hospital earlier today."

"I don't think anyone here is expecting to exchange banter and dialogue, Ruby. It would be enough to be there for her... so she knows she's not alone," Kay said. "This is the hardest time to grieve - when it starts to set in that this is reality now. If we can make her burden easier to bear...."

Ruby smiled sadly. "Have you been through this yourself, Kay?" she asked. Kay shook her head and the sadness deepened. "Then you have some sort of training - a doctor or healer?" Kay nodded.

"I'm a psychiatrist."

"No offense, Doctor, but you have no idea what you're talking about. She is alone now - her mate is gone. There is no way to make that fact any easier to bear. That being said, I don't think there is any harm in keeping her company for a little while. Maybe she'll respond to one of you in a way she doesn't seem to be able to respond to me."

"How about if you go get some rest?" Brianna offered Ruby after an uneasy pause. "There are enough of us here to keep an eye on Es and answer the phone if it's needed. You need some sleep, and you've got friends here willing to help."

"Yes," Okasa said, jumping on the bandwagon. She stood and extended her hand. "C'mon. I'll make sure you get tucked in comfortably. Kay can go sit with Es for a little while and Brianna and Charisma will take care of notifying the people they need to contact. After that, we'll take turns keeping an eye on Es until you get back up again, all right?"

Ruby blinked. She was sure she should be arguing about this, but at the moment she was simply too tired to think clearly. Instead, she caught Okasa's hand in hers and let the other woman pull her to her feet. "I appreciate this," she admitted softly. "You don't know how much."

"I do," Okasa confessed. "Now let's get to it." She turned and looked at Kay. "I'll join you shortly. You two," motioning to Brianna and Charisma, "go into the living room to make your calls. No reason to disturb everyone with your talking. C'mon, Ruby - let's get you settled."

Brianna, Charisma and Kay watched them go then traded bemused smiles at the way they'd been maneuvered by Okasa. But without argument they split up to follow Okasa's directives. At least it was a positive contribution they could make while they waited.

Chapter XCI

Charisma and Brianna stepped into the living room and pulled the heavy door to without shutting it completely. Then they went to opposite corners to keep from disturbing one another as they began making their calls.

Brianna called Matilda first thing, wanting her to be the first to get the news. Then she called Indi followed by Jas, keeping the promise they had made to everyone at the hospital. When she was done with those three calls, she waited for Charisma to finish hers before she interrupted. Charisma simply cocked her head and waited and Brianna felt a bittersweet wave of memory wash over her.

"Brianna?" Charisma finally called softly when it appeared as though she wasn't going to speak. Brianna blinked and her focus sharpened as she returned to the present.

"What can I do for you, Charisma?"

"Well, that's what I was wondering actually. You seemed to want my attention, but then yours just kind of wandered off somewhere."

Brianna blushed slightly. "Oh... sorry. I was just trying to figure out whom to call next. I thought you might have a list of the Senators we needed to notify."

While Charisma believed Brianna was telling her the truth, she wasn't convinced it was the whole truth. Still, there were things to take care of before they could delve into anything else, so she merely nodded her head and looked at her phone.

"Do you have the numbers of the Senators on our floor in your phone?"

Brianna's eyes widened and she shook her head vehemently. "Are you kidding? I only have the numbers of those Senators that I deal with in committee and those only under duress. To be perfectly honest, I'm still not quite sure which Senators are *on* our floor."

Charisma laughed, and though it seemed a little out of place in the sepulcher quiet of the house, it didn't feel at all disrespectful. Instead, it was more of an emotional release, and they both knew that Es more than anyone would understand the need for that.

"Don't feel bad. I *do* know who is on our floor, but I've had years to learn. On the other hand, I don't have most of them programmed in to my phone either. So let me give Opal another call. She'll have to go to the house, but I do have a complete phone book there."

Charisma made her call, then it was just a matter of waiting for Opal to get to her home and call her back with the information they needed. The silence was a little bit awkward, so when Charisma cleared her throat, it caused Brianna's head to snap up. Charisma's blue eyes met Brianna's reticent green ones, holding them momentarily before she allowed hers to drop to her clasped hands.

"I read the letters you wrote," Charisma said softly. "I never thought... I never understood...."

Brianna shrugged, her discomfort acute. She moved to the window, feeling the cold of the glass as a welcome touch on her overheated skin. "Now you do," she finally replied when it became clear that Charisma was waiting for some sort of rejoinder from her.

"Now I do," Charisma conceded without hesitation. "If I had known - no, that's not fair. If I had been strong enough to acknowledge what I knew... or at least what I strongly suspected...." She sighed. "So much would be different, Bri." She saw Brianna's back stiffen in response, and Charisma bit her lips to keep the tears from spilling over onto her cheeks. Brianna never moved from her spot by the window, and Charisma took a deep breath. "I read your letters and they broke my heart, Bri - to know I was so close to having ev...." She broke off and shook her head. "And then to watch Es literally start to die in front of my eyes... knowing that Saphira's death is going to destroy her." Charisma paused, then decided she had nothing to lose by gambling everything. "All I've been able to think of is what if it had been you? What would I do if you were gone?"

Brianna sighed, her voice a bare whisper when she spoke. "You'd be all right, Charisma. You've lived without me before."

"But I was never happy, Bri, and I wouldn't want to - I don't want to ever again."

The ringing of Charisma's phone cut off the silence that dragged on with Brianna's lack of response. And by the time Charisma hung up, the moment was over and Brianna had reverted back to her polite, professional persona. It made Charisma want to cry; instead, she handed Brianna half the list and they set about making the necessary phone calls.


Kay took a moment to lean against the door and take in the room in front of her. There was a certain amount of natural curiosity, but much of it was in a professional capacity. It might give her some clue on a way to help Esmeralda. Because she couldn't dismiss the fact that everyone seemed convinced that Saphira's death would devastate Esmeralda, and if Kay could manage it, she would love to find a way to prevent that. So she looked around her, eager to find something she could use to relate to Esmeralda, because the closest she could come was her break-up with Brianna, and she knew that wasn't even in the same league as far as heartache went.

So she was caught completely by surprise when the bed emitted a raspy sounding voice.

"Would you like to come in or are you just gonna hover in the doorway?"

Kay's eyes immediately latched onto the green eyes just visible in the light of the afternoon sun that squeezed into the room via cracks in the curtains and blinds. Only years of practice and schooling allowed Kay to maintain the façade of polite interest and not reveal the sympathetic pain she felt at the agony Esmeralda's eyes revealed. She pushed off the door and broached the bed, stopping beside Esmeralda without touching her.

"How are you, Esmeralda?"

Esmeralda studied Kay for a long moment before she shifted and patted the space she'd just made. Kay cocked an eyebrow and Esmeralda just patted the space again. Kay took the hint and took a seat, waiting for Esmeralda to speak.

"You are Brianna's best friend, aren't you?" When Esmeralda spoke again, her words were unexpected, and Kay frowned hard as she processed them. Then she tilted her head, wondering why Esmeralda wanted to know such a thing now. Surely she had other things on her mind... things she'd rather talk about and remember. Kay jerked out of her brown study when she felt soft, warm fingers massage away the wrinkles on her forehead. She returned her eyes to Esmeralda's who managed to give her a sad smirk. "I'm not asking you to cure cancer," Esmeralda reassured Kay quietly. "I just want to know if you're Brianna's best friend - if you're someone who looks out for her best interests despite herself."

"I try," Kay sputtered. "I'm not always successful."

"No one is," Esmeralda informed her. "Not even Saphira and I could manage that all the time."

"Would you like to talk about Saphira, Esmeralda?" Kay asked compassionately when she was silent for a few minutes. Esmeralda shook her head.

"There's nothing to talk about, Kay. She's gone, and this time there's no possibility of her coming back to me." She smiled weakly. "I appreciate the offer though... even if it was done from a professional perspective."

"Maybe a little," Kay shrugged. "It is what I do after all. But mostly it was done as a friendly gesture. I know we don't know one another all that well, but Brianna loves you and considers you to be a good friend, and we take care of our friends... just like they were family. So if you ever want to talk and need someone to listen...."

"I won't," Esmeralda said so softly that Kay had to lean down to catch her words. "But thank you."

Another few minutes passed and Kay cleared her throat, waiting for Esmeralda to meet her eyes. "Why did you ask about Brianna? About my friendship with her?"

"You know the story - about her and Charisma?" Kay nodded her head. "Don't let her miss an opportunity to be happy, Kay." That was all Esmeralda said, then she closed her eyes and rolled over to put her back to Kay. Kay sat there for a few minutes longer without moving; only when the door opened did she shift and only enough to see Okasa poke her head in the door.

Kay rose from her seat and trod lightly to the door, gesturing with her chin and following Okasa back out to the kitchen.

"How is she?" Okasa inquired softly. Kay shook her head.

"It's hard to say, Mama O. She seems to have already accepted Saphira's death, but the depth of her sorrow is staggering. I can practically feel it emanating from her very being." Kay paused and pinched her lip while she contemplated her words. "I don't think she is suicidal, but I now understand why everyone is so concerned with Esmeralda surviving this loss. There's no will to live there."

"Can I see her? Can I talk to her?"

Kay nodded slowly. "You can try." She placed a hand on Okasa's arm. "Don't be surprised if she doesn't really respond well, Mama. She's withdrawing into herself. I've never seen grief like this before... so all-consuming."

Okasa bit her lip. "I wonder if that's because of the way they saw themselves."

Kay angled her head to one side. "Because they saw themselves as mates and not merely partners?" seeing Okasa nod. "You may be right. Esmeralda is behaving like part of her is missing... the part that kept her going throughout her sickness... a part she needs to be able to survive, much less live." Kay held up her hands. "I know that when half of a couple dies, the other half suffers. When you've been part of someone's life for that long, something *is* missing." She shook her head. "But this is more - like when the soul has left the body and only the shell remains... not even realizing that it's already dead and just waiting to catch up."


"I know. I know it sounds weird, all right? Trust me... I'm not real comfortable trying to articulate this out loud... even to you, Mama. But you need to understand how serious I think this is." Kay took a deep breath and swallowed hard. "If something was to happen to Lee or Brianna or you, I would be heartbroken because you've all been a part of my heart and life for nearly twenty years - and for Lee it would be even more true because he is my husband and the father of my children."

"As it would be for me, Kay. What's your point?"

Kay glared. "My point," she complained with a growl, "is that while I would be heartbroken... devastated, even... I would survive. First I would do it for my kids, but then I would do it for me. I don't think Esmeralda has any desire to do that. The will to live is gone, replaced by unfathomable pain."

"And yet you don't think she is suicidal," Okasa commented flatly.

"No, I really don't. I don't think she needs to be - her soul is already gone, Mama. She just needs for her body to recognize that fact."

Okasa rubbed her fingers over her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose as she blew out a frustrated breath. "For mercy's sake - that is simply wretched. And there's nothing we can do to make a difference?"

Kay shrugged and shook her head. "I don't think so. But it can't hurt to give it our best effort either. Talk to her, Mama. Maybe she'll listen to you."

"What did you say to her, Kay?"

"Nothing, really," blowing out an impatient breath. "She didn't really give me a chance to. She told me not to let Brianna miss an opportunity to be happy, then she turned her back."

"That's it?"

"That's it," Kay confirmed.

Okasa blew out a breath. "All right. Let me see if I can do something to help. If Charisma and Brianna get done with their phone calls...."

"I'll ask them to wait until you come back out," Kay offered.

"Thank you," Okasa said, and tapped lightly on Esmeralda's door before letting herself into the room.


Charisma finished up the last of her phone calls before Brianna did, so she sat quietly in her corner while Brianna shared the news with the last Senator on her list. When she was done, she leaned back and closed her eyes as she blew out an exhausted breath.

"That's everyone on my list. Everyone is planning to be at the service. They were asking what they could do."

Charisma leaned back in her chair and stretched. "What did you tell them?"

"I started to tell them to talk to you about it, since you're the senior here and all," Brianna replied as she sat up and focused her gaze on Charisma."Then I figured since Okasa was planning to host the wake at your home, maybe I shouldn't add any more responsibility to your load. So I asked Stephen and Elizabeth to take up a collection. We'll have an arrangement sent and give the rest to Es. If she feels it's too close to charity to accept it for herself, we'll donate it in her name and Saphira's to whatever charity she chooses."

"That seems reasonable."

"I can be, on occasion."

"I seem to remember that," Charisma offered with a smile. Brianna averted her eyes and gathered up the paper she'd been using, folding it carefully and sticking it into her back pocket to dispose of later. She was confident none of the Senators listed there wanted their private information floating around and Esmeralda didn't have a shredder she could run it through. Not that she expected Esmeralda to use them of course, but she couldn't simply throw them away either. All this was running through her mind as she rose and started to make her way out of the living room. A hand on her elbow caused Brianna to jerk out of her inner thoughts and nearly clock Charisma in the head.

Brianna blinked. "Hey... you all right?"

Charisma blew out a shaky breath. "I'm going to hope that was a reflex and not directed at me specifically," she said with a smile, though Brianna could clearly read the doubt in her gaze.

"Yeah... sorry. I was thinking." She shook her head, though she didn't say anything else. "Should we go see if we can talk to Esmeralda?

Charisma frowned. "Are you avoiding the question, Brianna?"

Brianna's brows shot into her hairline. "Um... what question?"

"Do you think we could...?" Charisma looked down at her clenched hands, then back at Brianna."Look, Bri - all this has really thrown me for a loop. Seeing what Saphira's death has done to Esmeralda in just the few short hours since she died; all that keeps running through my brain is what if it had been you? What would I do if something like this happened to you?" She held up her hands to keep Brianna from interrupting."I know what you said - that I've lived without you before and I could do it again. But the truth is, I wouldn't want to... I *don't* want to. I just... I'd love if we could just let bygones be bygones and start over," seeing the walls coming up in Brianna's dulledgreen eyes. Charisma paused and looked at the ground before taking a deep breath and forcing herself to meet Brianna's shuttered expression. "I know this whole situation is my fault - I'm willing to accept the blame for our entire separation. Can't we be friends again?"

"I told you, Charisma... we will always be friends...."

"You lied!" Charisma accused, and Brianna flushed as anger swept through her body.

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me - you lied. You said we would always be friends, but you pulled away from the family... not just ME, but the entire family! Do you know how upset the kids were when they found out Auntie Bri wasn't coming for Christmas?? Do you know the riot act I got read by your ex-lover for upsetting everyone because I caused your disappearance from the family??"


"No, Brianna - you weren't there. You didn't see the kids' disappointment or have to try and explain to your brothers why someone whom they'd treated as family for nearly twenty-five years had simply tossed them away like yesterday's garbage!! You didn't have to see Mama act like her heart wasn't broken by someone she considered to be another daughter to her. So no, Brianna - you don't get to stand there and try to take the moral high ground with me!"

"This is how you win friends and influence people, Charisma?" Brianna snorted and Charisma refused to give her the satisfaction of responding. "You should probably work on your technique."

"You think this is funny?" Charisma asked, the pain apparent in her voice. Brianna's features hardened.

"This was never funny to me, Charisma. Don't you dare make light of what this is to me - what it was to me for almost twenty years. And regardless of the nobility," said with more than a hint of a sneer in her tone, "of your actions in trying to accept responsibility for the fiasco our interaction has become, the fact is we share the blame equally. I was the one that bolted, Charisma; you were the one that let me go. And no amount of wishing and hoping is going to change those two little facts. I'm not finished," Brianna said fiercely when Charisma opened her mouth to interrupt.

"I can't just forget that, Charisma - I can't forget that I fell in love with you and you fell in love with me and still we couldn't be together because of your need to adhere to the moral code of people I don't know and couldn't care less about! I can't forget that even now you can't admit that you love me... not even to yourself! And I certainly can't forget that you refuse to be honest with both of us." Brianna paused for a breath. "I could live with the fact that we can't be together, Ri... I already have for almost half my life, and I told you before that I'm not a home wrecker. But I can't and I won't pretend what I feel for you isn't real. And that's basically what you're asking me to do. NO. I won't do it. You don't get to have it both ways any more, Charisma."

"Would you two like to tone it down before you wake up Ruby and Esmeralda?" Kay asked, sticking her head through the narrow opening of the door. "I know you've got things to settle, but here and now may not be the best option available. Don't," she commanded. "Either one of you. Right now, you should be focused on what you can do for Esmeralda. The rest you can worry about when she's taken care of, all right?" Kay held their eyes impassively when they both glared in her direction. "Don't bother - I have teenagers. AND I have Mama on my side." She almost chuckled when their eyeballs widened comically. "Now, settle down, and go see Esmeralda. We'll talk about the rest later," holding up a hand and pointing when they would have argued.

Brianna and Charisma exchanged looks, then moved as one into Esmeralda's room. Kay waited until the door was closed before she allowed herself to slump just slightly. Okasa walked up behind her and patted her back.

"Good job, Kay."

Kay shrugged. "Jury's still out on that. C'mon... let's go check on Ruby."

Chapter XCII

Charisma walked around to the side of the bed that Esmeralda was facing and knelt down beside her. Brianna followed at a slower pace, but chose to stand behind and to one side of Charisma. Charisma reached out a tentative hand towards Esmeralda, lightly brushing the hair away from her face. To their mutual surprise, Esmeralda didn't even react to the touch. Charisma turned her head until blue eyes met green, and she took comfort in the wash of emotions she found there.

"Es?" Charisma whispered, wondering if Esmeralda had finally gone to sleep and found a measure of peace. That thought was dismissed, however, when Esmeralda blinked open her eyes... revealing a depth of pain Charisma could hardly comprehend. "Oh, Sweetheart," she murmured, cupping Esmeralda's face gently.

Esmeralda covered her hand but offered nothing else. Brianna stepped forward and placed her hand on Esmeralda's. "I know there's nothing we can do or say to make this better for you, Es. But we're here."

The smile Esmeralda tendered was achingly sad, but it was far preferable to the dead expression that had resided on her countenance previously. "That means everything," she replied, her voice so low that they had to strain to understand her words. When they did, it brought tears to their eyes.

"Would you like us to stay?" Charisma asked. "At least until you go to sleep?"

"That might be a very long time," Esmeralda answered honestly. "I close my eyes and all I see is emptiness. She's not in my dreams, and she promised me forever. She should be in my dreams."

Esmeralda's vehemence was astonishing and it stunned Brianna and Charisma into utter stillness. They exchanged glances, silently debating which of them was going to tackle the minefield Esmeralda had just laid out in front of them. Finally, Charisma turned back to Esmeralda, stroking her thumb over the planed cheekbone beneath her hand.

"Why do you think that, Es? Once we die, the soul moves on - it doesn't have a choice."

"Not Saphira," Esmeralda insisted. "She promised," her voice hard and firm.

"Even if she promised, Es, she still has to figure out how to find you. You need to give her a little while," Brianna said. "This is all new for her too, and I imagine she's got a lot to learn before she can visit your dreams."

"You really think so?"

"I really do."

"I hope so, Brianna. I miss her so much."

"I know you do, Es. I miss her too, and she was only my friend." Charisma tilted her head and motioned with her eyes, and after a moment, Brianna took the hint she was fairly certain Esmeralda hadn't seen. Brianna lifted the hand on Esmeralda's and pulled Esmeralda's hand into her own. Charisma smiled her thanks and began to gently scratch Esmeralda's scalp. Involuntarily, Esmeralda's eyes closed and Brianna nodded her approval. "Go to sleep, Es. Maybe the reason she can't find you is because you're not really sleeping."

"I s'pose," Esmeralda mumbled, forcing her eyes to open briefly despite the low melody she could hear buzzing in the background of her hearing. "Do you really think she'll come, Brianna?" eyes closing again against her conscious wishes.

"I really do, Es... but you've got to go sleep first. I'm not saying anything will seem better when you wake up, but at least sleep will give you a respite." Esmeralda didn't answer and Brianna turned her gaze to Charisma, who was still combing through Esmeralda's hair as she hummed a soft lullaby. "Is she sleeping?"

Charisma didn't stop the sound of her voice or the motion of her hands, but simply nodded her head. Her agreement notwithstanding, Charisma kept up her activities for another few minutes and Brianna remained still, holding Esmeralda's hand lightly. When they were both assured by her deep, measured breathing that Esmeralda had truly fallen asleep, they eased away from her and moved silently to the door. Only once they were standing outside the bedroom did they speak.

"You're really good at that," Brianna commented softly. Charisma shrugged.

"Lots of practice with Adam. Sometimes he gets so wound up by the day he's having that getting him to sleep can be challenging."

Brianna's eyebrows arched into her forehead. "Really? I thought he just kind of dropped off when the excitement stopped."

"Usually he does, but some days he just can't seem to wind down fast enough. Those days, when I'm home, I tuck him in and sing to him while I rub his back or scratch his head." She shrugged again. "It's what Mama always did for us when we were kids. I figure if it worked on a pistol like me, it would probably do the same for my son." She paused. "What about you? You seemed to know just what to say to Es to give her some comfort... however briefly."

Brianna shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe it's the conversations I've had with the nieces and nephews over the years. Or maybe it's justthe writer in me coming out."

"Have you given any more thought to that, by the way?" Charisma pressed. "About our nieces and nephews, I mean." Brianna growled.


"Brianna, please. You don't have to do it for me or Mama or you even. But the kids...."

"Charisma...." Brianna blew out an impatient breath to keep her voice from rising in anger. Charisma remained prudently silenced by the ire that Brianna turned in her direction. After another moment of contemplation, Brianna's gaze softened and she resumed her quiet modulated tone. "What about the kids, Charisma... especially Adam? Have you thought about what any of this would mean to him?"

"In what way, Brianna? The only difference is you'd be in his life more - he'd have another adult in his immediate family that loved him to distraction. I'm not really sure where you think there's a downside to that particular situation."

"That's not what I meant, Charisma. Please don't play stupid - it doesn't suit you."

Charisma glared at her. "Spell it out for me, Brianna... so I'm perfectly clear."

"Fine. With you and Kent separated, even on a trial basis, you've left yourself wide open for all kinds of rumors and innuendo. You know the things that Scott Patterson was saying when we were simply trying to be friends on the Hill - lunch together was enough to start conspiracy theoriesrunning rampant. Now, if I was to step forward and become a more prominent part of Adam's life, if only in a friendly capacity, what do you think would get said then, Charisma? I'm not exactly in the closet."

"I don't...."

"And what of Laura Maxwell, Ri?" Brianna continued as though Charisma hadn't even spoken. "You know and I know that she's heading the team that is grooming you for your run for the White House in a couple years. She told me as much without actually committing to anything. Are you seriously ready to give up that dream forever? Because you're the one who told me image is everything."

"I'm not sure I'd have to," Charisma said slowly, though Brianna couldn't tell if it was because she was unsure or simply thoughtful in her answer. Brianna gave Charisma a look of complete disbelief.

"Charisma, I don't know what has gotten into you, but in case you've forgotten, down here on good old planet Earth? In your world, even a hint of impropriety could cost you everything you've worked your whole life for. As far as your constituents and the country at large are concerned, there can't be a hint of scandal near you or you're out. It doesn't matter if it's true or not, and you and I both know that. And I refuse to get back into the closet, Charisma... even for you." Brianna paused, then asked in a quieter tone, "Does Maxwell even know the truth about us?"

"Yours or mine?" Charisma replied bitingly, still stinging from Brianna's words. Brianna just shook her head, and stepped back and around Charisma.

"That right there pretty much says it all," she commented. "Please tell Kay I needed some air. She'll know where to find me," and without another word, Brianna left the house, ensuring she closed the door silently behind her.

Charisma sat stock still, torn between fury at Brianna's presumption and veneration at Brianna's consideration. It was a long time before she moved into the living room to wait.


Kay and Okasa stood on the stairway listening to the harsh whispers that emanated from just outside Esmeralda's door. Neither of them could make out the words, though both knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Brianna and Charisma were at it again. They traded looks, wondering what the hell had set them off *this* time. When they heard the front door close softly behind Brianna's retreating form, Okasa turned inquisitive eyes to Kay.

"Where would she go?"

Kay shrugged. "Here? Any number of places are possible. She's spent a lot of her off time exploring the sights around town. But," holding up a hand when Okasa's lips parted to speak, "if she didn't go home, she's probably at the National Gallery. She's particularly fond of the representation of Diana that's housed there."

"Well, if she went home, I can't get in to talk to her anyway. But if she went to the Gallery...."

"Okasa, are you sure this is a good idea? Maybe I should...."

"Kay, please. I can't reach her any other way. She's shut me out of her life and I'm trying to respect that... really. But at least if we meet in a public place, she might let me say goodbye properly."

Kay pinched her nose between her thumb and forefinger. She wasn't completely convinced that letting Okasa do this was a good idea, but she understood the older woman's need for closure. She nodded her head slowly. "All right, Mama. I'll try to find her and let you know where she is. Just...."

"I know, Kay. Thank you." She squeezed Kay's arm and bundled up, then headed out to find her wayward daughter. Kay shook her head and picked up her phone, hoping she was doing the right thing for everyone.


"Where are you?" Kay asked brusquely as soon as Brianna answered her call. Brianna had debated for several very long seconds before deciding it would be prudent to answer, if only to put Kay's mind at ease. Now she was questioning the wisdom of that decision. She sighed loudly.

"I told Charisma to tell you - I needed some air."

"So you went to the Gallery?"

Brianna frowned. "Yes, I went to the Gallery. Kay, I know you mean well, but I just need a little time to myself at the moment. Can I call you back in a few?"

"Let me say my piece, Bri, and then you can call me back when you're ready." Kay waited, then took Brianna's silence for the acquiescence it was. Kay mutely gave thanks for the years of trust and understanding they had between them that allowed them to appreciate one another like they did. She sighed and then blurted, "Okasa is on her way to you," wincing when she felt Brianna's gasp. "We saw you storm out the door and she asked for a chance to say goodbye to you... get some form of closure to the snarl your relationship has become. I told her where I suspected you would go - either home, where you couldn't be reached, or the Gallery. I called to let you know so you could make a decision."

"I see," Brianna replied flatly. "Thank you, Kay. I have to go." And then all Kay heard was dial tone.

"Well, I've done all I can do at the moment. Maybe I should go check on the people still under this roof in need of care." She closed her phone and headed back towards Esmeralda's bedroom.


Brianna debated for several very long minutes on the information Kay had shared with her. Her finger was actually poised over the speed dial key for Jas when she instead locked her phone and shoved it into her pocket. Despite her desire for a clean break from the Taghertys, it seemed she was destined to keep encountering them... at least casually. There was no reason not to allow Okasa the chance to say goodbye if that was truly what she desired to do. And if it wasn't, Jas was just a phone call away.

Brianna moved to stand in front of Diana, marveling as she always did at the strength and beauty the artist had infused into the sculpture. Even as she stared, she felt a peacefulness roll through her - her shoulders relaxed and she could feel her tension dissolving. She only had to do this for another year and some months and then it wouldn't matter. And until then, she had Diana when she needed a little strength.

Brianna heard the footsteps approaching her, but she didn't take her eyes from the statue or turn to face the sound. The steps became hesitant, but they didn't stop until Okasa was standing by her side.

They stood together looking at the art, and Brianna found it didn't bother her to share this private space with a woman who had been more mother to her than her own had ever been. Just as she was ready to break the surprisingly comfortable silence, Okasa spoke.

"What do you see... when you look at her?" never taking her eyes off the sculpture.

"I see strength and beauty and possibilities." Brianna turned her head and looked at Okasa. "What about you?"

Okasa chuckled mirthlessly. "I see what men wishes she was. She has no flaws - a mere human woman could never compete."


Now Okasa turned and met Brianna's eyes, shaking her head even as she laid a hand on Brianna's arm. "Don't, Brianna... please. I know how impossible this situation has become for you, and I don't blame you for needing to create a place without Taghertys in it," giving Brianna a sad smile."Despite what I would like to see happen...." Okasa broke off and shook her head again, dropping her gaze to the ground. Brianna didn't interrupt. "That doesn't matter. What does matter is that I wanted you to know that we all understand your reasons for saying goodbye, and if circumstances ever change that allow you to come back to the family, we will always welcome you with open arms."

"Mama...." tears pooling in Brianna's eyes.

"Shh, Sweetheart. I know. Just know that we love you, all right?" squeezing the arm beneath her hand before attempting to remove it. Okasa froze when Brianna covered her hand with her own, and she looked into green eyes again, catching her breath at the depth of sadness that was revealed to her. It reminded her very much of Esmeralda's and when Brianna opened her arms for a hug, Okasa stepped forward with alacrity... thrilled at the opportunity being offered.

For a while they just stood together, gently rocking back and forth. Finally, Brianna loosened her grip and took a step back. She raised a hand to Okasa's face, tenderly wiping away the tears that had escaped from Okasa's eyes before swiping her own away hastily.

"I love you, Mama. I love all of you. I just... I can't."

"I know, Sweetie... we all do." Okasa sighed. "I think we spoiled Charisma when she was growing up," chuckling at Brianna's smirk. "Okay... so I *know* we spoiled Charisma when she was growing up. Unfortunately, now she thinks she's entitled - that if she wants, she can find a way to have."

"Not this time, Okasa."

"I know, Brianna... not this time. It's well past time she was honest with herself... with you... with us." Okasa bit her lips momentarily, then sighed. "However, that is neither here nor there, and really isn't of any concern to you any longer. Thank you."

Brianna frowned. "For...?" when Okasa didn't continue.

"In part for not running away when you knew I was coming to find you, because I am fairly confident that Kay called you the minute I left the house. But mostly, thank you for allowing us to be your family… to be in your life for the last quarter-century. You're an amazing woman, Brianna Walker, and I'm proud to say that I know you... and that I knew you when."

Brianna leaned forward and brushed her lips across Okasa's cheek and Okasa did the same in return. Then without another word, Okasa spun on her heel and walked away... never looking back.

Brianna watched her go until even the clack of Okasa's shoes could no longer be heard ringing over the marble floor. Then she headed out the opposite door without so much as a glance in Diana's direction.


Kay found Charisma staring sightlessly out the window when she entered the living room some time later. Ruby was still sleeping peacefully, but Esmeralda had her a little concerned. And though loath to disturb whatever thought process Charisma seemed to be focused on, Kay needed to ask her a few questions. So she stepped closer to Charisma, only to find herself pinned by lost blue eyes before she was within touching distance.

"Something I can do for you, Doc?" her exhaustion clear in her tone.

"I wanted to ask you about Esmeralda," Kay replied after a long hesitation. Though that had been her original intent, she now wondered what had happened to make Charisma's defeat so apparent. However, she could only tackle one issue at a time, and Esmeralda had to be the priority. Once she was taken care of, though....

Charisma's eyes sharpened. "What about her?"

"Did she go to sleep when you were with her?"

"Yes... why?"

"Because I think she has gone beyond sleep now, and I'm concerned."

"You checked on her?"

"Just now. And if I didn't know better, I'd swear she was in a coma."

Charisma sucked in a breath and grabbed Kay's hand, pulling her unceremoniously towards Esmeralda's room. "Come on. It's up to us to do something. I don't know what, before you ask, but we've got to try."

"All right," Kay agreed. "Lead the way."

To be continued

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