Chapter XCIII

Esmeralda let the sound of Charisma's voice and the feel of fingers combing through her hair ease her into a place she couldn't seem to find on her own anymore. She never realized when she fell asleep, and she had no way of knowing how much time had passed before she slipped into a deeper rest - one that would allow Saphira to find her... if she was able to look.

She felt the warmth on her face first and she smiled at the memories it recalled to the forefront of her mind. Esmeralda blinked her eyes and looked around carefully - things seemed so familiar, and yet she was willing to bet she had never actually been to wherever HERE was.

It reminded her a little bit of home before they'd been expelled. Not *their* home necessarily, but just HOME.

It was bright and clean and airy - noticeably so. There was no smell of gasoline; no tang of pollution; no stench of burning or mildew or garbage. There was only clean, and it made Esmeralda take a deep breath. She sighed in appreciation and took another look around, noting the green of the leaves on the trees and the scent of the flowers that covered the meadow she was currently ensconced in. She looked up and saw the blue of the sky and the puffiness of the white clouds that moved slowly across its surface, propelled by a gentle wind.

This wasn't home, however... at least not as far as she could tell. There were no other living beings from what she had observed - no animals, no Angels of any order and no Father. So where was HERE? And why was she here instead of home... or at least in the home she and Saphira had shared during their time as mortals on the human plane? Because she knew that was where she'd been - she distinctly remembered their life together there... her assignment. She even recalled Charisma and Brianna putting her to bed before she came... well, wherever here was. She wondered if she should be more concerned about where here was and how she'd found this place, and then decided to enjoy the respite for what it was. All too soon Esmeralda knew she'd have to return to the reality that was now hers... with Saphira dead and her left alone to finish a mission she no longer believed had any chance of succeeding.

Right here, right now, she could be the Esmeralda she had once been. She could be home again, an angel fully restored to her birthright and position waiting for Saphira to return from whatever errand she'd been sent on. She rolled from her side to her back, wincing a little at the brightness that momentarily blinded her but smiling again at the warmth that she could feel soaking into her bones. She felt like she hadn't been warm in so long.

Esmeralda spent some time simply watching the clouds, finding pictures and stories in the shapes that floated above her. It had been something she'd spent an endless amount of time doing in her other life when she was waiting for Saphira to return to her, and she enjoyed the opportunity to indulge herself again... even if it was only some sort of make-believe.Eventually, however, the warmth made her drowsy and she closed her eyes and turned to lay on her side. And when her reality shifted again,it was even better than the one she'd been in previously.

She felt Saphira surround her... in the most literal sense of the word - she felt the warmth of her body; the weight of her wings; the strength of her embrace. Esmeralda kept her eyes carefully closed, unwilling to lose this feeling again as she had when Amber had tried to offer her a semblance of comfort before. Esmeralda relished the sensations - unlike before, everything just felt right about this. Then she inhaled deeply... and froze.

The spicy scent that Esmeralda had always associated with Saphira filled her nostrils and she bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out... though whether it was in pain and frustration or relief and gratitude she couldn't have rightly said.

She didn't move; she didn't cry out. Instead Esmeralda squeezed her eyes shut tighter and simply concentrated on breathing. But she couldn't stop the shudders that traveled through her body and she felt the arms around her tighten in an effort to help stabilize her reaction.

After several long moments, Esmeralda felt the tremors slow and the warmth begin to radiate around her. It was only then that she heard the slow, steady pulse of a heartbeat and she couldn't stop the gasp that escaped her lips. And when the whisper of breath caressed her ears, Esmeralda couldn't stop the tears that slid down her face.

"Open your eyes for me, Es," Saphira commanded in a low tone. Esmeralda shook her head. "C'mon, baby... open those beautiful green eyes for me. I need to see them."

"No," she whispered. "If I open my eyes, the dream stops. And I don't want that to happen; I need this to be real."

"It is, Sweetheart. Trust me - open your eyes."

Again Esmeralda shook her head, biting her lip until she felt soft, warm fingers gently trace it. Then she couldn't halt her response.

Esmeralda released her lip from her teeth, sighing when Saphira continued her ministrations. Slowly, much slower than she would have allowed herself to believe possible, Esmeralda's eyes fluttered open.

At first there was nothing to see - she was still in the meadow with the flowers around her and the blue, cloud-studded sky above her. But she was turned on her side and behind her.... Behind her she could still feel Saphira's body tightly hugging her own. She could feel the calloused fingers tenderly tracing her swollen lip. But more convincing than either of those two sensations was the scent that surrounded her - one that she had only ever known to belong to Saphira.

Esmeralda took a deep breath. "Saphira?"

"Hello, love."

Esmeralda's eyes slammed shut again, not quite willing to believe her ears. Saphira sighed and gently lifted her body away from Esmeralda's just enough to roll Esmeralda onto her back. Saphira tucked her body into Esmeralda's letting one wing cover Esmeralda's body even as she started brushing light kisses up Esmeralda's neck. Only when Esmeralda's hands came up to her shoulders and pushed her away did Saphira cease her attentions and frown. This certainly wasn't the reunion she had pictured for them.

With her eyes still squeezed shut, Esmeralda took a shuddering breath. Saphira remained still, realizing her hasty actions had thrown Esmeralda's mind and body into something of aquandary. So she stayed quiet, allowing Esmeralda a chance to acclimate herself to the reality of this time and place.

"Saphira?" came the whispered word at long last.

"Yes, beloved?"

"Is it really you?" the sound tearing at Saphira's heart.

"Yes, beloved. Open your eyes for me. I promise... it'll be all right."

Esmeralda took one deep breath and then another, trying to get her thundering heartbeat under control. Saphira recognized the tactic and placed a hand over Esmeralda's heart. That touch made the tears well behind her eyelids and Esmeralda blinked rapidly to keep them from falling. When her vision finally cleared, the first thing she saw were deep blue eyes filled with love gazing back at her.

Immediately, she tucked her head into Saphira's neck and held on tightly. Saphira wrapped Esmeralda in her embrace, and for an endless time there was nothing but them.

After a while, Esmeralda looked up from the safest place she'd ever known and smiled into the blue eyes regarding her with honest, pure affection. "How...? Where...? Saphira...?"

Saphira's eyes never lost the love that shone from them, but with Esmeralda's words, they became tinged with sadness. "I'm sorry, love. I never expected... never thought...." She sighed and folded her wings back into her body before rolling over onto her back and bringing Esmeralda to lie on top of her.


Saphira sighed once more, deciding to try a different track. There were so many things she couldn't share with Esmeralda yet, but she couldn't bear the agony so plainly written on Esmeralda visage. "I'm not sure where HERE is either. It reminds me of our meadow back home and yet it's different."

"How did you find me if you don't know where here is?"

Saphira shrugged. "He allowed it. There is still work for you to do, Sweetheart. You can't mourn yourself to death."

Esmeralda stiffened in Saphira's arms, and it was only an eternity of knowledge that permitted Saphira to keep her there when Esmeralda would have bolted. "What did you say?" Esmeralda growled, the flames in her eyes searing.

"You can't mourn yourself to death, love. There is still work to do," knowing reflexively it was the wrong tack to take, but not sure what to say to make Esmeralda understand the importance of things without saying too much.

"I don't care," Esmeralda stated firmly. "He took you from me. There is nothing left."

Saphira sighed. She didn't understand *why* He'd placed the restrictions on her He had, but there was nothing to be done for it at this point in time. Things had to play out to their logical conclusion. She tenderly cupped Esmeralda's face in her hands, stroking the fine cheekbones with her thumbs and watching Esmeralda's eyelashes flutter beneath her touch.

"Es... I want you to listen to me. I know this is hard for you - I KNOW, all right? It's killing me too... here," placing a hand over her heart. "And here," touching her temple. "But I also know... KNOW, Es, beyond a shadow of a doubt that when this is over we'll be together again. But you have to finish the job first, love - you can't leave Charisma and Brianna hanging like this. They deserve better."

"Give me your sword then - I'll go knock some sense into them."

Saphira laughed and Esmeralda's eyes welled with tears again at the sound. "Oh Es - if that would work, you'd be out of a job. And frankly, I'd never get done with mine." Saphira squeezed Esmeralda tight when she felt her light chuckle turn to harsh sobs.

"I can't do this, Saphira. I can't do this alone... not without you. Not knowing you're...." She growled and pushed up and away from Saphira. "How could you do this to me?? How could you just up and die and leave me here to do this by myself??"

Saphira rose to stand behind Esmeralda, close enough to touch, but not quite doing so. "It wasn't my choice to die, love. I'd never have chosen to leave you like that." She paused briefly. "Es, you're not by yourself - not on Earth and not in your heart. I'll always be there. And when you really, really need me, I'll be here too. We can't stay here," cutting Esmeralda off before she could voice that as her chosen option, "but we can spend a little time here together when you need to until your work is done."

"And when this assignment is finished?" knowing that He would determine her need.

"We'll see what happens when the time comes, Es. But I will always be with you… never doubt that."

Esmeralda stood stock still for a very long time, able to feel Saphira's warmth behind her as a tangible thing though they weren't sharing any physical contact. "I don't think I can do this, Phira. I don't think I can go on without you."

"You won't be, Es. Think of me as *your* Guardian Angel. You won't see me; you won't always feel my presence. But I will be right beside you until the job's done. And when you really, really need me, I'll be right here," she reiterated, needing for Esmeralda to understand and accept what she was saying.

"Saphira, I've never not needed you. I tried not to need you when you were simply banished, and it nearly killed me not to have you there. How is you actually being dead going to make this easier to bear? It just means there's no way for you to come home to me... ever again."

Saphira swore she could hear her heart breaking. She hadn't realized what a crisis of faith this was going to be for Esmeralda. She took a deep breath and slowly reached forward, allowing Esmeralda the opportunity to pull away. Saphira was gratified when Esmeralda purely melted into her.

They stood together like that for a while, absorbing the love and comfort they gave to each other. "Es, I want you to listen to me, all right?" waiting for the head tucked under her chin to nod. "Good, now - I don't know what His plan is exactly," smiling when she felt Esmeralda snort against her chest. "I know, but it had to be said because in my line of work I usually have some idea of what's going on and how things are supposed to play out, right? Right," Saphira answered herself immediately. "But, I do know that I get to keep an eye on things... and on you. I really am going to be your Guardian Angel until this mission is over with. But Es... you can't quit, okay? You can't just give up."


"Es, you're not alone. You still have Ruby and all the girls helping you out on the earthly plane and I'll be on call. You should know that this case has drawn quite a bit of attention elsewhere as well."

Esmeralda pulled back far enough that she could look Saphira in the eye. "How do you know that?"

Saphira shrugged. "I've talked to a few people."

Esmeralda growled. "I wish I knew what this whole thing was really all about. There has to be more to what's going on than what I've been told. Because I've never been handed a case like this in all my years as a clean-up angel."

Saphira tilted her head. "What makes this one different?"

"Everything!" came the gruff exclamation. "Nothing has been done like it should have. And you dying...." Esmeralda's voice trailed off. "How did that happen, Phira? You were an Angel of Vengeance - how did you die?? Why did you leave me??" her voice growing louder and more frustrated.

Saphira's lips covered Esmeralda's for a long time and Esmeralda clung to the strong body that held her. When Saphira felt Esmeralda relax against her, she gently eased the intensity of the kiss until they slowly separated without losing contact with one another.


"I'm sorry, love. I know you didn't choose this. I just... I don't understand it; I don't think I understand anything anymore."

"Maybe it's not about understanding, Sweetheart - maybe it's all about faith."

Esmeralda stood so still then that Saphira scrambled for the words to say to make Esmeralda breathe again. Before she could come up with anything suitable, however, Esmeralda sucked air in on a gasp and shook her head. "Do you really think it's that simple?"

Saphira shrugged. "I think it can be... if we let it."

"And we'll be together again when this is all over?"

"Once He determines things with Charisma and Brianna have reached their conclusion... whatever that may be at this point... yes. We will be together again."

Esmeralda sighed. "I'm not going to remember any of this when I return to the earthly plane, am I?"

"Not here, I'm afraid," touching Esmeralda's forehead with her own. "But here?" covering the strong heartbeat with her hand. "I think you'll have a measure of peace in your heart even if you don't know exactly why."

"I don't suppose you have any idea how much longer this is going to take do you?" frowning when Saphira shook her head. "Or what the outcome will be?" This time Saphira chuckled, and Esmeralda growled, even though Saphira could see a slight twinkle in her eye. "It's not funny."

"No, it isn't," Saphira agreed. "Not even He knows what the outcome will be at this point. Apparently, He didn't think that whole 'free will' thing through all the way before He gave it to humanity."

"Do you know how long we have here together before you have to go?"

"Until you understand. He'll let me know when it's time."

Before Saphira knew what was happening or could formulate a protest, she found Esmeralda in her arms taking them to the ground. Bemused blue met ferocious green as Esmeralda leaned down into Saphira's body.

"I understand enough. I understand that you're here and I'm here and everything else will wait for just a little while." Then she captured Saphira's lips and there was no more talking.


Charisma and Kay stood just inside the door listening to Esmeralda's slow, shallow breathing. They exchanged glances and Kay cocked an eyebrow. Charisma shrugged.

"Her breathing is a lot more shallow and a lot slower than it was when Brianna and I were in here a little while ago. If I didn't know better, I'd say she was dying. But I'm not a medical expert - what do you think, Doc?"

"I'd guess you were right. I told Okasa something like this was likely, but I didn't expect it to happen so soon. It thought she'd at least make it through the funeral... maybe even for some time after that. But this...."

"Wait - what do you mean you told Okasa? What exactly did you say to my mother?"

"Do you remember Esmeralda telling us about her and Saphira being mates?" waiting for Charisma to nod impatiently. "Right - well, as far as Esmeralda is concerned she hasn't simply lost a spouse; her soul is broken. A large part of what kept her going everyday is no longer there. So she has very little reason to live; if the will is not there, it will only be a matter of time before the body realizes that the soul is gone and follows it."

"You're saying she'll choose to die? She'll will it?"

"I'm saying I have never seen a bond like that before. I'm not sure she can survive it broken."

"Is there anything we can do?"

Kay shrugged. "I don't know. Try talking to her. We know the unconscious can hear the world around them. Maybe knowing people love and care about her will give her a reason to endure for a while."

Charisma nodded but bit her lip. "I wonder if that is fair to her," smiling sadly when she saw the confusion cross Kay's face. "Is it fair to ask her to survive and exist, knowing that she won't really be living?"

"I don't know, but either way it'll be good for her to know that she has friends and family around who love and care about her enough to let her decide what she needs to do."

"All right," Charisma agreed. "I'll do what I can. If Mama comes back, will you send her in?"

"Absolutely," Kay agreed, then stepped from the room, giving Charisma a bit of privacy to speak to Esmeralda alone.

Chapter XCIV

"... days, Es. It took days before his skin wasn't tinted black and blue. The only saving grace was that he wasn't enrolled in daycare or school at that point as I probably would have had a hard time convincing anyone I wasn't some sort of ritualistic cultist or something. I think the only reason Ame didn't question things was because she saw the state of the study after it happened." Charisma bit her lip in thought. "I think I still have pictures."

Charisma gently pushed the hair off of Esmeralda's face, then she caressed Esmeralda's cheek before surreptitiously checking her neck for a pulse. Esmeralda's breathing had become so slow and shallow that Charisma was reassured by the steady heartbeat under her fingertips. Still, there was no other palpable response to her words or her touch and Charisma sighed and resumed speaking.

"Of course, the fact that the child *smelled* like ink... let me just say that I'll take the smell of his first birthday party over that smell any day. I haven't told you that one, have I?" waiting for a reaction that wasn't happening. She sighed again. "You never got to meet my Grammy - she died just after Adam's first birthday. But she was the one to introduce each of her great-grandchildren to the wonders of chocolate icing." Charisma chuckled. "I have video of that - I'll have to show you."

The sound of her voice was soft, and even though Kay couldn't understand the words being spoken, she appreciated the soothing cadence Charisma had adopted. She motioned Okasa inside, then jerked her head towards the kitchen. "I'll be just outside the door if either of you needs me for anything."

Okasa placed a hand on her arm and Kay hesitated, leaning down so she could hear her words without disturbing the one-sided conversation Charisma was carrying on with Esmeralda.

"Did Brianna return?" feeling the slight shake Kay gave. "Have you spoken to her?"

"Not since I let her know you were headed her way," Kay said with a hint of apology. Okasa's smile offered clemency and Kay released a breath in relief. She didn't want to lose the Taghertys from her life, but Brianna would always come first if she was forced to choose.

"I'm glad you did, Kay - she deserved the warning, and knowing that she chose to wait for me.... I can't tell you the hope that gives me that all this may still work out."


"I know I shouldn't get my hopes up, but is it wrong for me to want my family to be whole again... to be happy?"

"Wrong?" Kay asked, shaking her head. "No. Likely?" She sighed again. "Probably not. However," she continued before Okasa could protest, "your daughter is waiting for you."

Okasa looked at the tableau taking place on the bed, then turned back to Kay. "Do you think this is helping?"

"I think it can't hurt. Esmeralda needs to know that there are people around her that love and care about her. It may make things easier for her until...."

"You still think this is going to kill her?"

"I have no reason to think otherwise at the moment, but I'd dearly love to be proven wrong."

"All right," Okasa replied. "Let me see if I can do anything to help keep her with us." Okasa patted the arm under her hand, then made her way to sit opposite Charisma on the bed. Kay watched them for another long moment before turning and making her way back to the kitchen.


"BR'ANNA!!" The yell across the Mall made a number of heads turn, but only one was important as far as Adam Rockwell was concerned. He pulled loose from both his father and his Papa and hurtled in Brianna's direction. Fortunately, Kent had seen Brianna exit the Gallery at almost the exact time his son did, so Adam only ran two steps before Kent had scooped him up in his arms. "PA!!" Adam screeched in frustration. He pointed at Brianna. "GO!!"

Kent looked around, noting that the few who were paying attention were chuckling at Adam's enthusiasm and insistence. He turned towards Brianna who had stuffed her hands into her pockets, but stood waiting patiently for him to decide how he wanted to handle this encounter. Patrick as well, simply stood back and waited for things to unfold. Kent turned his attention to Adam.

"Son, you can't just run off like that."

"But Br'anna...."

"Brianna hasn't moved, Adam. But that's not the point. You CANNOT keep running off like that - I don't care who you see. You could get hurt very badly, and that would make us all... Mama, me, even Brianna... very sad. We don't want anything bad to happen to you, all right?" He paused when Adam's lower lip quivered. "You're not in trouble for wanting to see Brianna, but you can't keep running away from Mama and me like that anymore either. Do you understand?"

Adam tucked his head beneath Kent's chin and nodded solemnly. "Okay. Should we go see Brianna now? I think she's waiting for us."

Adam's head popped back up so quickly he nearly clocked his father in the chin. As it was, only Kent's swift reflexes kept him from a sore jaw or worse. But it was hard to fault Adam's smile or his eagerness when he nodded his agreement rapidly. Kent laughed and headed them towards where Brianna Walker still stood watching them. Patrick followed along docilely behind them.

"BR'ANNA!!" Adam squealed once more as they approached, leaning out of his father's embrace as he reached for Brianna. Automatically she opened her arms and accepted Adam, letting him wrap around her in a firm body hug. It only lasted a moment before he pushed back enough to put his hands on her cheeks and rub her nose with his. Then he giggled. "Love Br'anna. Br'anna good."

"I love you too, Little Man. Are you out seeing the dinosaurs today?"

"Actually, we've only made it as far as the Mall," Kent replied with a smile, causing Brianna's attention to turn to him. "Hello, Brianna."

"Kent... Paddy," nodding at each of them slightly.

"So what brings you out here?" Patrick asked bluntly. "Aren't you supposed to be working?"

"Not today, Papa - not after what happened last night."

"So why aren't you there instead of here?" not unkindly.

"I was. It just got a little crowded and I needed some air."

Kent frowned. "How is she? Esmeralda, I mean."

"About like you'd expect, I imagine," Brianna said quietly. "I've never seen anyone as devastated by something like this. It's hard to explain. I've seen people suffering with the loss of a loved one. I remember when my grandmother died... my papa was completely distraught by her death. But it didn't destroy him - he managed to live for a number of years after she was gone, and if he wasn't as fulfilled as he had been when she was still with him, he was able to find a measure of peace and happiness in his life again."

"You don't think Es will be able to do that?"

Brianna shook her head slowly. "No. It's hard to explain unless you know them... unless you see it for yourself. But something happened to her last night. It was more than heartbreak - it was as if something in her simply died with Saphira and I don't know if she can live without it."

Adam squirmed and Brianna turned her attention back to him even as Kent spoke.

"Do you think it's still crowded at Esmeralda's?" he asked cautiously.

Brianna furrowed her brow at his words even as she kissed Adam's fingers when they tickled her lips. She felt certain Charisma was still there, which made it more than crowded in her mind. This wasn't about her, however, and she wasn't going to allow herself to be selfish any longer. Esmeralda had been a friend to her from the moment they'd met, and she'd do her best to stand beside Esmeralda for as long as she'd allow it.

"I think I've had enough air if you boys would like to come back to Esmeralda's and sit Shiva with us."

Kent and Patrick exchanged glances, then turned to Brianna. "We'd like that very much." Together they walked to the Metro and headed for Esmeralda's.


Kay made her way upstairs, idly noting the number of closed doors before she reached the one Okasa had assured her was Ruby's room. She knocked lightly, not surprised to hear a tired voice beckon her inside. Kay crossed the room and took the proffered seat on the bed.

"Have you gotten any sleep?"

Ruby shook her head. "I can't. Every time I close my eyes I see Es lying on that pallet next to Saphira. It just breaks my heart."

Kay bit her lip before she spoke. "Listen, I don't normally do this, but would you like a prescription for something? I'm only offering because you seem to be Esmeralda's main support right now, and it's not going to do anyone any good if you run yourself into the ground with exhaustion."

Ruby patted Kay's hands and shook her head. "You're sweet, really, and if it continues, we may revisit this. But right now I just can't."

Kay nodded. "I understand. Just know the offer's there if you need it."

"I appreciate it." Ruby closed her eyes and swallowed hard before taking a deep breath and refocusing her stare on Kay. "How's she doing?"

"Not good," Kay responded honestly. "She seems to have withdrawn inside herself, and I don't know if there's anything we can do to keep her from staying there. Charisma and Okasa are with her at the moment, but I don't know that they're making much headway. I'm sure wherever Esmeralda's head is at right now, it's probably a much more pleasant prospect than what her reality here is. I just wish there was something...." Kay stopped talking when Ruby patted her arm.

"Kay, you're doing as much as anyone could and more than most would even bother with. I mean, it's not like you really know either of them well, do you?" smiling when Kay shook her head. "Most folks wouldn't make this kind of effort for practical strangers."

"Glad I'm not most people then," Kay muttered. Ruby chuckled.

"So am I," then she tilted her head in a listening pose. "Is someone knocking on the door?"

Kay stilled and focused her attention on listening outward. After a moment, she blinked and looked at Ruby. "I don't know how you heard that, but let me go take care of it. You try to get a little more rest, okay? I'll let you know if anything changes."

Ruby held Kay's gaze for a long moment, then nodded tiredly before closing her eyes in exhaustion. In another minute she was sleeping and Kay headed downstairs to see what was going on. Somehow she wasn't at all surprised to discover Brianna had returned, but she was more than a little stupefied to see that she'd brought Patrick, Kent and Adam with her.

Still, as the de facto hostess, Kay took it upon herself to let them know what was going on. "Charisma and Okasa are with Esmeralda," she commented for Patrick and Kent's benefit. "And Ruby is still upstairs resting," she added for Brianna.

"Has there been any change?" Brianna asked as she removed her coat. She took a squirming Adam from Kent to allow him to do the same as they waited for Kay's reply.

"Not for the better, no. Esmeralda seems to have slipped into... well, if it's not a coma, it's something of an unconscious fugue state. She doesn't appear to be aware of anything around her. Charisma has been talking to her, hoping to reach her, but the last I checked, she hadn't made a lot of progress on that front."

"Mama?" Adam asked, looking around even as Brianna struggled to remove his jacket. "Br'anna, where's Mama?"

Brianna took the chair she'd spotted next to the phone table, easing Adam into a place on her lap as she slipped his arms from the jacket sleeve. "Mama is in with Es, Little Man. Something bad happened and Es is really sad right now. Mama and Gramma are trying to help her feel better... make some of the hurt go away."

"Adam help too," he declared fiercely.

"I don't know if you can, Little Man, but I'll tell you what - you promise me you'll be gentle and loving with Es and we'll go check on her, okay? You can hug her neck real tight and tell her you love her."

Adam grinned. "Love Es. Es good." He cocked his head at Brianna. "Where's Phira?"

Tears welled in Brianna's green eyes, but she didn't allow them to spill down her face. "Saphira had to go see God, Adam. It's why Es' heart hurts so much. God needs to keep Saphira with him now."

"Phira's an angel?" he asked, brows furrowed as he tried to understand the complexities of death. Brianna just nodded.

"Yeah, Son - Saphira's an angel now."

"Good," he declared emphatically. "Phira 'tect Es."

Brianna seemed as startled as the rest of the adults in the room at his insistence, but she didn't have the heart to crush that idealism. Instead, she gave Adam a weak smile. "Yeah... Saphira can protect Es now. She'll be watching over her and all of us like a Guardian Angel."

"Good," Adam stated once more. "Love Phira."

"Well, let's go see if we can help Es feel better, okay?" She turned to Kent. "We shouldn't be too long if you want to wait in the living room. Kay can show you. I just don't think there's room for all of us in the bedroom."

"It's fine," Kent assured her. "Go on," dipping his head towards Adam who was showing signs of restlessness. Brianna just nodded and walked away. Kay waited until she and Adam entered the bedroom, then gestured towards the living room. Kent and Patrick took the silent hint and together they turned towards the living room to wait together.


"Br'anna?" Adam whispered harshly, causing Charisma and Okasa to look towards the door simultaneously. "Why's it dark in here? Where's Es?"

Okasa's hand on Charisma's kept them both in place while they waited for her answer as Brianna shut the door silently behind her.

"You remember I told you how Es' heart hurt because she missed Saphira so much?" feeling him nod against her. "Well, the dark makes Es feel closer to Saphira right now. But we're going to try and help her back to us, okay?" Adam nodded again.

During her explanation both Okasa and Charisma had silently risen from the bed, each stepping back until they were shrouded in shadows. Okasa motioned to Charisma that she was going to go check on Ruby, and that Charisma should remain. Charisma nodded absently - she had no desire to leave. Aside from her concern for Esmeralda, she was curious to see what Brianna had in mind for Adam.

"Br'anna?" putting his face right next to hers when Brianna turned in his direction. "Hug Es?" Brianna bit her lip, then sat down slowly next to Esmeralda's still body. She kept a firm arm around Adam even when he squirmed and after a moment, he understood her unspoken directive and settled on her lap. He studied her pensive expression carefully. "Br'anna?"

"Adam, you can hug Es, but remember what I told you, okay? Be very gentle because Es hurts a lot right now."

"'Kay," he agreed solemnly. Brianna set him next to Esmeralda, keeping a light hand on Adam's leg. For his part, Adam didn't notice - he was too intent on being cautious as he snuggled into Esmeralda's body. He put his head on Esmeralda's shoulder and wrapped a thin arm over her waist. "Love Es," he murmured, not even noticing Esmeralda's visceral reaction as she tenderly returned his embrace. But Brianna saw... as did Charisma. Both heaved a small sigh of relief, but kept their attention on the scene playing out in front of them. They had no way of knowing the difference Adam was making for Esmeralda.


On another plane, Esmeralda was curled up naked into Saphira's equally naked body... both of them only covered by one of Saphira's massive wings, content to simply breathe in one another's essence. Finally, though, Saphira sighed. "I need to go, Love, and so do you."

"I don't want...."

"I don't either, Es, but we don't have a choice in this now. We have to...."

"I don't *have* to do anything, Saphira. I have absolutely no compunction about staying here until we are together again for real," anger in her tone.

"No, Es... if you stay here, I won't be allowed to come back. And we don't have any assurance that we'll be together if you choose this. Wait," Saphira added, holding up a hand before Esmeralda could make a retort. "Sweetheart, I love you with all that I am and everything I have. And given the choice, I'd have never picked this for us. But it's only for a little while... and then we'll be together again, I promise. And nothing will separate us again."

"You can't know that, Phira."

"Es, if you can't trust in us, what's left? Hmm?" Saphira waited, knowing that Esmeralda wasn't fighting because she didn't believe in them; instead, she was resisting the separation she knew was necessary between them. "Besides, you've got people worried about you out there. Don't you think you need to reassure them? The adults probably understand a little of how you feel, but I doubt Adam does. And he's waiting for you."

Esmeralda glared. "You fight dirty."

Saphira chuckled. "You've known that for an eternity. Are you just now figuring out what that means?" Esmeralda slapped at her, only to have Saphira catch her hand and bring it to her lips. "Es, it's not forever."

"Do you swear?"

"Angel's honor," Saphira offered. "And until then, I'll be right beside you... even when you can't feel me there. I'll be watching over you."

"I love you, Phira."

"I love you too, Es... always."

Chapter XCV

The change was so slow it wasn't even noticeable at first. But Charisma and Brianna were both looking for it, so when Esmeralda's breathing started to deepen, they noticed. For several minutes, they kept wary eyes on her, only relaxing when her breathing settled into the steady cadence of sleep. They watched for a few more minutes, thenwhen they were satisfied that both Esmeralda and Adam were sleeping comfortably, they moved to stand next to the bedroom door together.

"Did you know...?" Charisma whispered, her breath teasing the shell of Brianna's ear when she spoke. "Did you know Adam would make a difference for her?"

Brianna pulled back slightly before she could shiver in reaction to Charisma's proximity, then shook her head. "No. How could I have known something like that? That was pure, dumb luck or the grace of God or Fate intervening... take your pick."

"Then where...?" motioning towards Adam.

Brianna sighed. "I ran into him and Kent and Paddy while I was out. They wanted to come back here and Adam wanted to make Es feel better."

"I'd feel a lot better if the two of you just kissed and made up already," Esmeralda mumbled from the bed, not awake enough to realize she could be clearly heard in the otherwise complete stillness of the room. Her words had an effect, however - causing Brianna and Charisma to flush and back away from one another as they jerked their attention to the bed. "Right now," Esmeralda continued in a slightly louder voice in an attempt to ensure they heard herwithout disturbing Adam, "I'd settle for a little peace and quiet before you wake up Saphira's little buddy."

Charisma and Brianna studiously avoided looking at each other as they moved back to their places on opposite sides of the bed. Brianna took a tentative seat on her side, combing back Adam's unruly hair before covering the hand Esmeralda was cradling him with.

"He's fine, Es... sleeping soundly. How are you... seriously? You had us all worried."

"I'm not good, Brianna, but I can almost feel Saphira watching over me now. It... it comforts me in a strange way, as much as it hurts to know she's gone from me."

"Adam said she would," Brianna offered, getting looks from both Esmeralda and Charisma. She shook her head. "I don't know where it came from, really. Sunday School, maybe?" She shrugged."I told him that God needed Saphira and he asked me if she was an angel now. When I told him she was, he said she'd protect you." Brianna bit her lip. "It was all a little bizarre...."

"Out of the mouths of babes," Charisma said softly. She looked at both Esmeralda and Brianna before turning the focus of her awareness to her son. She moved closer to the bed, only taking a seat when Esmeralda patted the narrow patch of bed that was still unclaimed. Charisma seated herself gingerly, glancing at both Brianna and Esmeralda again before running her fingers through Adam's thick hair. "Sometimes I think they're aware of things we've forgotten about - can see things we can't because we gave up believing in them."

"Well either way, I hope Saphira is looking out for you Es," Brianna said. "I know it doesn't make much difference in how you feel about her being gone, but it gives me a measure of peace to know she's watching over you. And who knows... maybe she'll be keeping an eye on the rest of us as well. I'd kinda like that... knowing she had my back."

Esmeralda didn't comment, but her watery smile spoke volumes. Brianna just squeezed the hand she held, gratified when Esmeralda returned it... however lightly.

Charisma placed her hand over Esmeralda's other hand - the one that had covered Adam's hand on her stomach - and waited for Esmeralda's eyes to track to her. Impulsively she leaned forward and brushed a kiss over Esmeralda's forehead, then pulled back enough to see into green eyes.

"Es, Mama and I would be honored to host a wake for Saphira after the service if you think you'd be up for something like that. It would give people a chance to let you know how much Saphira meant to them, and how much you still do." She paused when there was no reaction, then plowed on, determined to finish her offer to Esmeralda. "You don't have to, of course, but we'd really like to."

Esmeralda's brow furrowed. "Why?"

The question caused Charisma's brows to shoot into her hairline as she scrambled for a good answer to share with Esmeralda. Finally, she settled for simply telling the truth. "Saphira touched a lot of lives, Es - and so have you. There's nothing we can do to make this better... nothing we can do to make it go away. But at least this might give you some peace when you see just how many people really do care... about you and Saphira. And it might offer some closure as well."

"I don't want closure, Charisma. I want Saphira back with me."

"Oh Es... if I could give that to you, I would in a heartbeat." Charisma turned to meet Brianna's eyes, grateful for her immediate agreement. "Any of us would if it was in our power to do so. But Es...."

"I know," Esmeralda whispered. "Thank you both," squeezing the hands covering hers, "but please... I just need to be alone right now."

"I don't think that's true," Brianna countered, "but I think you want to be, and I don't blame you for that. Is there anything else we can do for you?" rising from the bed without releasing her hold on Esmeralda's hand.

"Should we take Adam?" Charisma cut in.

"Adam is fine for now," Esmeralda uttered faintly. Charisma nodded and stood.

"All right, Es. We'll go, but we'll be just outside the room if you need us for anything. Just remember you've got a lot of people who love you, okay?"

Esmeralda nodded and closed her eyes. Charisma and Brianna stared for a moment longer, then by mutual, unspoken consent, they walked silently to the door. Only when it was closed behind them, did either of them release a sigh. Then they turned to each other as a feeling of awkwardness fell over them for the things Esmeralda had said, and all the things between them still left unsaid.

Fortunately, they were saved from having to break the strained silence when Patrick crept into the room. He stutter-stopped, not actually expecting to see them leaning on either side of the bedroom door looking so drained. He didn't draw attention to it, however; instead, he continued towards the coffeepot that had been his original destination.

It didn't take much effort to locate the things he needed and soon Patrick had a pot of coffee brewing. Only then did he turn his attention back to the two women still leaning against the doorjamb.

"Everything all right girls?" crossing his arms over his chest and his feet at the ankles as he leaned against the counter. "How's Es?"

"She woke up for a little while, Daddy."

"But...?" waiting for a long moment for a response before he proceeded to speak again. "C'mon, lasses," his brogue coming to the fore as it always did in times of stress. "You'd not be looking quite so exhausted if somethin' troublesome hadn't happened in that room." He glanced around. "Where's Adam?"

"Adam's fine, Papa," Brianna replied. "He's taking a nap with Es. It seemed to bring her comfort and since he wanted to help her feel better...." She shrugged.

"So something happened betwixt the two of ya then?" seeing color rise in one face and drain from the other.

"Daddy!" Charisma choked out. Before he could comment further, the coffee finished making and Patrick turned his back to them to prepare a cup for himself and one for Okasa as well.

"I'm not gonna ask," he said quietly as he picked up both cups. "But maybe the two of you should figure this out before ya lose yer chance to do so." He didn't give them the chance to reply; he simply walked to the door and back towards the living room.

Almost the moment he disappeared from view, Kay stepped into the room, as though she'd been waiting just outside the door. With an effort at nonchalance, she grabbed two more coffee cups and poured them full, then looked at Brianna and Charisma.

"If you two would like to join us in the living room, we'd like an update on Esmeralda if you have one." Without giving them time to comment, she followed Patrick's footsteps back to the living room.

Charisma and Brianna spared one another a quick glance, then moved towards the coffee pot. Charisma grabbed the cups as Brianna picked up the pot, falling into a rhythm they had found with one another in a time long past. Charisma added sugar and Brianna poured the cream and in moments their coffee was ready. Only when that chore was done did they look at each other again.

"So do you want to talk to them or shall I?" Brianna asked, lifting her cup towards the people gathered in the living room. "Most of them belong to you."

Charisma snorted. "All but one belongs to me, and all but one belongs to you. I'd say it was pretty well even." She met Brianna's disbelieving stare. "Oh come on, Brianna - Mama and Daddy belong to you as much as they belong to me. However, I'll go talk to them. You'll let us know if anything changes?"

"Of course," Brianna replied as she pulled a chair out from the table. Charisma nodded and walked out of the kitchen. Brianna placed her coffee in front of her and folded her hands so she could prop her chin on top. Then she focused her gaze on the tabletop and waited.


"Es?" Adam said sleepily, yawning and stretching against her. He sat up carefully, strangely mindful of where he put his hands. Brianna had told him Es hurt, and Adam didn't want to be the one that brought more pain to her... however accidentally. He leaned over until his face was over hers, then he raised one hand and patted her cheek gently. "Es? You 'wake?"

Esmeralda blinked open heavy eyes, wondering why she still felt so exhausted. Then she met Adam's bright blue eyes and smiled even as tears flooded her eyes again. "Hi Adam," she breathed out quietly, afraid anything louder would cause the sobs to start. And as much as she may have needed that release, she refused to traumatize Adam with the depth of her grief.

Adam smiled then grew grave, reaching up to tenderly wipe the tear the spilled from Esmeralda's eye without her conscious permission. "Es hurt?" Esmeralda nodded, the motion causing even more wetness to slide down her cheeks. Adam sat up further and jerked a thumb at his chest with a determined air. "Adam kiss... make better."

"Oh Sweetie," Esmeralda replied softly. "I wish you could." She put a hand over her heart. "I hurt on the inside, Adam. I hurt in the place where Saphira was."

Adam put his hand on top of hers, closing his eyes and furrowing his brow in consternation. It would have been amusing if Esmeralda hadn't already been trying to hold herself together by sheer grit. As it was, she couldn't even appreciate how adorable he looked for fear of losing the last tether she had keeping her from simply losing control. She closed her eyes and focused on modulating her breathing. When she opened her eyes again, Adam was staring at her with a peculiar look on his face.

"Es?" he said calmly. "Phira's still there," patting the hand still resting on her heart. She blinked at him stupidly.

"Adam, how do you know that?"

"Phira told me," he responded matter-of-factly. Esmeralda sucked in a breath as though she'd been sucker punched.

"She told you?" asked in a hoarse whisper that was all that she could manage.

"YES!" he affirmed bluntly with a smile on his face, then pointed to the corner of the room closest to the head of the bed on Saphira's side. "Ask her!"

Esmeralda blinked dumbly, then turned her head. But to her dismay, there was nothing for her to see - no one in the corner Adam was indicating. Surely if Saphira was nearby, Esmeralda would be able to see her, wouldn't she? But she knew better than most that sometimes the heart and mind hide what they are unwilling or unable to acknowledge. And she also recognized that children are able to see and appreciate many things that most adults no longer accept as possible.

It occurred to her briefly that this was like a test of faith for her, and she realized if that was truly the case, she was failing miserably. Esmeralda closed her eyes again and decided to accept that as a possibility and act accordingly. She took a deep breath to center herself, feeling a peace settle over her she hadn't felt in a very long time. Now she didn't *almost* feel Saphira's presence - she truly felt Saphira beside her and within. The feeling made her eyes well with tears and this time she made no effort to stop them or the sobs that accompanied them.

Adam had been watching Esmeralda carefully, and when the tears started flowing and her shoulders started shaking, he looked to the corner for a long moment before sliding from the bed to the floor. He ran to the door and opened it with effort, then nearly ran smack into Brianna. He didn't hesitate, but took her by the hand and pulled her back into the room.

Brianna, who had heard Adam's thump when his feet hit the floor, had risen from her chair and moved towards the bedroom door. She reached it just as Adam jerked it wide, and she willingly let herself be tugged into the room at his urgent behest.

"Br'anna fix - help Es," he commanded pointing a finger towards the figure crying on the bed. Brianna felt her own eyes welling up, but she nodded and walked to Esmeralda's side, taking a seat on the bed and rubbing the other woman's back in the only gesture of comfort she could offer.

She noticed Adam move to a corner of the room and wondered what held his attention. Then without any visible cue, he came back around to stand beside her, and Brianna smiled down at him gently.

"Es okay now?" he asked with a voice full of concern.

Brianna cupped his face in her free hand. "I think she will be, Sweetie. Can you go ask Mama to come in here for a minute? I promised her...." But before Brianna could finish her explanation, Adam had taken off in a little boy run to find Charisma. Surprisingly, though, he didn't yell - he just ran.

In another moment, Charisma was being led back into Esmeralda's room by her son's hand, and they were being followed by Okasa, Patrick and Kent at a much more sedate pace. Brianna chanced to wonder where Kay was, but before she could ask, Charisma volunteered the information.

"She had to take a call."

Brianna nodded her acceptanceof Charisma's explanation and turned back to Esmeralda who was still crying. Charisma picked Adam up with a groan and walked back to where the rest waited in the doorway.

"Son, I want you to go with Daddy and Gramma and Papa for now, okay? I promise, Brianna and I will take care of Es, but ...."

"S'okay, Mama," Adam said, patting her face. "Love Es."

Charisma smiled and tilted Adam towards Kent, who immediately shifted to lift Adam into his arms. Adam went willingly, and Charisma and Kent exchanged small smiles before Kent turned and walked back towards the living room. Patrick followed him without a word. Okasa hesitated a moment.

"Is there anything...?"

"I don't think so, Mama. If there is...."

"... you know where to find us." Okasa patted Charisma's arm. "Good luck," she added before she too walked back to the living room to wait.

Charisma closed the door and turned back towards the bed, but she didn't approach it. From where she stood, she could see that Esmeralda was no longer wracked by sobs and though there still appeared to be tears sliding down her cheeks, she was talking to Brianna in quiet tones. Charisma leaned against the door and crossed her arms over her chest, content to wait.


Brianna had kept up the soothing motion on Esmeralda's back, not sure what else to do. She'd spared a glance at Charisma and the rest when they'd stopped in the doorway, tacitly recognizing Charisma's explanation of Kay's absence before turning back to Esmeralda. She felt more than saw Charisma removing Adam from the immediate area, focusing her attention on Esmeralda. Though she felt the shudders subsiding, Brianna continued to rub Esmeralda's back slowly, hoping to contribute a sense of calm to Esmeralda, if not actual peace.

When Esmeralda was able to get her hiccups under control, she rolled over just enough to meet Brianna's eyes. "Thank you," she offered quietly. "I...."

Brianna shook her head. "No need for thanks, Es. I can't begin to imagine what you're going through right now."

"You don't have to, Brianna. You've already been there... in a manner of speaking."

Brianna shook her head. "Not even close, Es. It doesn't even compare. At least I could have confronted Charisma. It wasn't like she was gone from me completely."

"But she was, Brianna. Oh, maybe not in a permanent way like death." Tears rolled down her face but Esmeralda didn't break down again. "But she was still completely out of your realm."

"Maybe... but it was my own choice, Es - she wasn't taken from me."

Esmeralda smiled sadly and shook her head. Brianna didn't want to believe what Esmeralda knew to be true and there was no way to convince her at the moment. "Well, thank you anyway, Brianna. You and Charisma have been godsends to me... but especially now."

"I for one am glad I could be, Es," Brianna said, clutching one of Esmeralda's hands in her free one and simply holding it. She turned and caught Charisma watching them from the door and motioned her over with a wrench of her head. Charisma pushed off the door and circled to the other side of the bed, taking a seat and covering the hand Brianna still held with one of her own. Brianna didn't move, but it took everything in her not to flinch or jerk away from the unexpected touch. Charisma squeezed lightly, and kept her eyes locked on Esmeralda's face.

"Thank you," Esmeralda repeated quietly. "I told Brianna - you both have been godsends in my life, but especially now. I don't know how I'll ever repay...."

Charisma shook her head. "Don't let Mama hear you say that. There's no repayment needed when it comes to family... old or new."

"Then as family, I'm gonna say something, and I want you both to let me have my say without interruption. Then I want the two of you to go and take the rest of the family and go home for today. I promise you'll all be welcome to come over again tomorrow, but I need to be alone for the rest of the day... please."

Brianna and Charisma exchanged looks, then turned to Esmeralda and nodded simultaneously. "Would you like us to ask Ruby to come with us as well?"

"Is she sleeping?"

"She was."

"Then no. As long as she's resting, she's fine here. But I may ask her to call you if she starts stirring around."

"She'll be more than welcomed, Es," Charisma said, and Esmeralda nodded her acceptance. Then she took a deep breath and spoke softly.

"Brianna, I know you're angry - you're angry about the situation you and Charisma are in; you're angry at Charisma for allowing it, but you're mostly angry at yourself." She held up a hand and shook her head before Brianna could interject. "Charisma, you're scared - you're scared of what people will think... of what this will do to your career.... But mostly you're scared you can't be what Brianna needs you to be." She paused for breath. "I want you both to think about something - I want you to understand one thing regardless of what you do with your anger and your fear." Esmeralda tilted her head up to look at the ceiling, blinking rapidly to keep the tears from spilling down her face once more. She took another deep breath and shook her head. "As badly as I hurt right now... as much as I miss Saphira, the only regret I have is the time we spent apart. Not that it was my choice or hers to be separated, but the time we missed together is my one regret in sharing my life with her. I didn't have all of her that should have been mine. Don't let anger and fear rob you of what you should have - it will only leave regret in its wake."

Esmeralda closed her eyes when she finished speaking. Brianna gently withdrew her hand from beneath Charisma's and stood, and Charisma slowly followed her from the room. Esmeralda sighed. She'd done what she could and far more than she should, and she imagined there'd be hell to pay for it eventually. But she couldn't make herself care about the possible consequences, and at least she'd given them their best chance... finally. It would be up to them to take it... or not.

Chapter XCVI

"Ruby? What are we doing here?" Opal asked for the rest, looking around at the waiting room they'd been placed in as soon as they'd arrived home. The call had been unexpected and without warning had jerked all of them out of their attempts to make themselves scarce from the house they shared with Esmeralda and Saphira. They knew they couldn't stay while Brianna and Charisma et al were there trying to offer Esmeralda support as she grieved her loss of Saphira. Ruby shook her head and scrubbed a hand over her tired face before running it through her hair.

"I don't know, Opal. I was sound asleep when I got yanked, so you know as much as I do at the moment." She glanced around at the other Angels currently quarantined with her, noting they were still dressed in their earthly garments and not their heavenly robes."If I was to guess, though, I'd say it has something to do with our assignment. Was anyone with either Charisma or Brianna while they were at the house?"

Indi was the first to speak. "No - we didn't expect to be needed there... not with you and Amber there, Ruby. Especially since they were there to be with Es."

Brows furrowed, then Turq uncrossed her arms and pushed off the wall she'd been leaning against. "You don't suppose this is about her instead, do you? I mean, we've all seen how this is affecting her; maybe we're gonna get some directives on how to help her cope with all this or something."

Amber shook her head. "The only thing that's gonna help Es cope with this is for Saphira to not be dead anymore, and I'm pretty sure there's nothing we can do to change that particular situation."

"So then why are we here?" Mal asked. "I don't know about the rest of you, but things still aren't resolved that I can tell."

"Why don't you let me be the judge of that?" Michael asked as he strode pompously into the room.

"How about you tell us why we're here first and then we'll decide what you get to be the judge of?" Amber snapped. Michael frowned. Amber had never been so short with him before, not even before they'd become involved with one another. He couldn't fathom a reason for her to do so now. Slowly, he let his gaze wander around the room, meeting each Angels' eyes before moving on to the next, and what he found there was startling.

Every woman in the room met his eyes squarely... unflinchingly - a surprise in itself. Generally speaking, all Angels - male or female - briefly lowered their eyes out of respect for the office he held, but not this time. Yet beyond that lack of respect was a weariness... a frustration and anger that he had never witnessed singly - much less in a group so large and diverse. He silently questioned what he had not been told about what was going on.

"Amber?" he finally replied, choosing to direct his comments to her in an effort to show her that he wasn't the enemy.

"Why are we here, Michael?" she asked resignedly, losing all traces of venom in both her voice and her posture. Instead, she dropped into a chair with her head down and her hands clasped loosely between her knees - the textbook picture of defeat. Michael tilted his head and looked around the room again, seeing discouragement and disillusionment reflected back at him. He carefully eased into a seat and folded his hands on the table in front of him.

"Tell me about Esmeralda," he instructed softly, keeping his eyes on his hands. He felt Amber's head pop up, but he kept his eyes down, wanting to hear what she had to say without reacting to what he was sure was anger. Most had been unhappy about the Father's decision to cast Esmeralda and Saphira from heaven, but only Amber had actually said so to Him at the time despite Michael's admonition that she'd be wiser to hold her tongue. Her rash actions had caused them to be separated for months and Michael had missed her. This certainly wasn't how he'd pictured their reunion.

"What do you want to know?" Amber replied, her voice a whisper, but the bile in it burning into his heart. He didn't answer and Amber took that as her cue to continue. "She's dying, Michael!!" ignoring the gasp her words drew from Michael as well as the way his gaze wrenched up to meet hers. "Saphira is dead and the rending is going to kill Es as well. So you tell me exactly what it is you need to know."

"Wait... WHAT?? Saphira is.... No. What??" He looked around the room. "Saphira's dead?? Is this true?"

Amber sighed and scrubbed a hand through her hair. "Guess they don't tell you anything either, huh?" She met his eyes again. "Michael, I've never lied... to you or anyone else. That's what got me into trouble in the first place, remember? I couldn't keep my mouth shut. Why would I make something like that up? By earth time, Saphira died late last night. Her funeral is the day after tomorrow."

Michael covered his face with his hands and breathed in deeply, holding it in until he could blink away the unexpected tears. Then he released it in a shuddering stream before looking back at Amber. "That explains a lot," he muttered. "Can you fill me in... bring me up to speed on what happened? Then I'll tell you why you all were called home so unceremoniously."

"As long as it's quick, Michael," Ruby supplied. "We have to get back to Es."

Michael shook his head. "I'm not sure that's going to be possible." He held up his hands to silence their protests. "It's not up to me, and you know that."

"We'll give up our wings, Michael," Amber said with confidence. "Every last one of us," seeing every head in the room nod in agreement. Michael's jaw dropped and he looked stunned.

"Now, ladies... let's not be hasty."

"This isn't hasty, Mike," Turq replied, smirking at the riled up expression in Michael's eyes at her address of him. "This is us being sick and tired of the politics and bureaucracy that has been constantly thrown at us during this cluster of a mission. Nothing about this whole cock-up has been handled right, and this was the last straw."

"So you're staging a coup... like Lucifer did?"

"Not at all," Opal said. "We don't want to take over the place," gesturing around them vaguely. "We simply want to support a friend who needs us, and if we can't do it as Angels, we'll do it as humans."

"Okay, wait... all of you stop! Just hold on a minute!" Michael clutched his hair for a moment, the ephemeral pain giving him something else to focus on briefly. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and meditated, and only when he felt a sense of calm return did he open his eyes. "All right. Amber, start from the beginning, and don't leave anything out. I can't help you if I don't know what the whole story is, can I?"

Amber blew out a frustrated breath and nodded. Maybe telling the story to Michael would help them to see something they missed.


Michael sat slack-jawed for several long minutes before finally closing his mouth with an audible click. He took a deep breath and released it slowly, trying to organize his thoughts into something more coherent than the chaos that was currently swirling through his brain at an alarming rate. The rest just sat back and took in his reaction, wondering what was going on. Eventually, Michael pulled himself together and cleared his throat.

"Well, that explains... so much." He looked down at his linked hands a moment before bringing his eyes up to meet each and every pair now focused solely on him. "This morning, by human standards, Esmeralda told Brianna and Charisma to do something," he paused, shaking his head. "She told them to make a choice concerning one another, and that their best choice WAS each other." He felt the other Angels' jaws swing open and he wanted to laugh. He didn't - this was serious. But he was more than a little gratified to know that he wasn't the only one who reacted so gobsmacked by the whole situation.

"So," Ruby started slowly, bringing all eyes to focus on her. "We were brought here because Esmeralda finally gave Brianna and Charisma a shove in the right direction?"

"She broke protocol," Michael responded, not thrilled with the looks of disgust that followed his accusation. He sighed. "You were brought here so we could find out if she acted on her own."

"It doesn't matter, Michael. We're standing with her on this." This from Amber.

"All of you?"

Amber let her eyes study each of her comrades in turn, saving Ruby for last. Ruby merely nodded and Amber turned back to Michael. "Yes, Michael. All of us."

He sighed again and rose from his seat, keeping his eyes on something beyond normal sight. "I can't really blame you, I suppose - not given what you've shared here. I'll make sure you are sent back to give Esmeralda the support she needs, but I don't know how long it will last."

"Make sure He understands we'll be there for as long as Es needs us, Michael. She didn't deserve what's happened and her reaction to Charisma and Brianna shouldn't have been unexpected."

"I'll do what I can," he offered without looking at them again. "Take care of her... and yourselves. I'm sure I'll see you all again soon." And without another word he walked off in the direction he'd come from, disappearing into the mist.

They waited for him to be swallowed up and remained silent for several minutes beyond that. At Amber's nod, they took seats around the table and settled in to wait.


"I don't like it," Kay said above the protests that were given by the rest of the family gathered in Esmeralda's living room when Charisma finished explaining Esmeralda's request to them. "She's too unstable - this is a very dangerous time for her to be left alone."

"We don't have to like it, Doc," Charisma said with barely a bite in her tone. "But we should respect her wishes."

"Even if it puts her in harm's way?" Kay ground out.

"Even then," Brianna suddenly spoke, causing all eyes to turn towards her. "Es is going to have to find her own strength... her own will to live. We can't do that for her. If she really wants to die, she'll find a way." She felt Charisma's indrawn breath, but refused to meet her eyes. Instead, Brianna stared at Kay and willed her to see what she was unable to say aloud. Finally Kay nodded.

"All right. I'm not happy about it, but Brianna's right." She turned to Charisma. "Should we try to rouse Ruby... let her know what's going on?"

"I don't think so. Es was fine with her staying in the house as long as she was sleeping. Maybe we could leave her a note to call one of us...?" looking at Brianna.

"I think that's a good idea," writing a brief note and adding both their numbers at the bottom. Then Kay snatched the missive out of her hand. Brianna glared. "Kay! What the he...?" cutting herself off abruptly when she remembered Adam was still in the room and listening.

"I know where Ruby's room is. Be right back," she added, heading up the stairs.

Meanwhile, Patrick and Okasa had gathered everyone's outerwear together and brought it into the living room, and they started sorting it out so they could leave as soon as Kay was ready.

When Kay reached Ruby's room, she hesitated, then quietly opened the door and let her eyes adjust to the dimness she was surrounded by. She guessed the older woman had finally fallen asleep, so she tiptoed across the floor and propped the note in front of the clock, sure it was the best way for it to be noticed. Then without making a sound, she retraced her steps and closed the door silently behind her. When she arrived back in the living room, it only took a moment for her to don her outerwear, and then they left Esmeralda to her grief.


"Oh Es," Amber said as she gently pushed the blonde hair away from Esmeralda's swollen face. "What have you gone and done, hmm?" Esmeralda didn't respond at all and Amber surreptitiously checked to assure herself that Esmeralda was still breathing. When she found a faint pulse, she released the breath she'd been holding and sighed. This was a lot harder than she'd expected it to be, and she'd expected the worst. She looked around at the other Angels who were in the room as well. Ruby gestured for her to continue talking, and Amber rolled her eyes, but resumed her one-sided conversation as a single tear escaped its confines and slid down her cheek.

"You know you put heaven into quite a tizzy - I know you knocked Michael for a loop with what you said to Brianna and Charisma. He was scandalized by it." Amber chuckled. "It was kinda funny to see, actually." She gazed around the room again, then jerked her head, waiting for the others to join her.

One by one the Angels stepped close, until they were right beside the bed, and they reached out to one another and held hands. Amber remained sitting on the bed beside Esmeralda, but she offered one hand into the circle. Ruby and Opal, one on either side of her, took it so the chain would stay unbroken. And they waited for Amber to continue.

"We're all here for you, Es, and we're not going anywhere. We told Michael we'd give up our wings before letting you go through this alone." She paused and swallowed hard - Amber had never realized how difficult it was to keep up a running discussion by yourself. She took another deep breath.

"I know you're hurt, Es. I know you're dying inside. It's killing me, and she was just my sister. And I know that us being here doesn't really help take the pain away, but we're at a loss to know what to do - for you... for us... for them. So we need you, Es. We need you to wake up and give us some sort of direction - to tell us what we can do for you." A pause. "Please, Es."

Esmeralda's eyelids fluttered and slowly her eyes blinked open. She looked at each Angel and they met her eyes unflinchingly, despite the depth of sorrow in them that made them ache for her. Finally, she let her eyes hold Amber's eyes, not closing them even when Amber gently cupped her face.

"What are you doing here, Amber?" Esmeralda asked. Amber frowned.

"Where else would we be, Es?" She tilted her head. "You really think we'd leave you alone at a time like this?"

"I expected you to have been called home," Esmeralda replied quietly. She had anticipated that ending, anyway. She had wanted nothing more than to return to sleep in the hope that she would once more find Saphira in her dreams. Less than twenty-four hours had passed since Saphira had left and all Esmeralda wanted to do was join her. And she was honest enough to know that the women currently surrounding her and offering her their unwavering strength and support would do their damnedest to make sure that didn't happen.

"We did. And we told Michael we weren't staying." Esmeralda couldn't stop her involuntary reaction - her eyes widened and her brows went into her hairline. Amber gave her a tiny smirk and nodded. "It's true. We told Michael we'd give up our wings before we stayed there."


Amber glared. "Because I'm selfish, Es. Because I can't watch you just give up and die... no matter how much you want to right now!" She took a deep breath and lowered her voice. "Because I promised Saphira I'd keep an eye on you."

Eyes that had been a flat gray suddenly burned with a fire that made the green flash. "You promised Saphira?? You knew...? She knew...?" Esmeralda jerked away from Amber's touch and scooted up until she was partially sitting against the headboard.

As glad as Amber was to see the spark back in Esmeralda's eyes, she was a little afraid to see that kind of anger turned in her direction. She felt Ruby and Opal squeeze the hand they held in support, and she forced herself not to flinch under the weight of the accusing stare Esmeralda was directing at her.

"No, Es - I didn't know about this." She blew out an unsteady breath. "I made my promise to Saphira a long time ago."

Now Esmeralda sucked in air, clenching her hands together until the knuckles turned white. "When?" her voice soft and broken.

Amber placed a gentle hand on Esmeralda's foot - the only place she could reach in their current positions - and didn't move even when she felt the shudder tremble through Esmeralda's frame. "When she left the first time... when she was banished."

"This isn't the same thing, Amber."

"I know, Es," Amber agreed with a nod. "This is so much worse. But that promise didn't have a time limit, and it's my privilege to look after you."

"I'm not a child, Amber! I don't need 'looking after'!" Her voice dropped to a bare whisper and Amber had to focus on Esmeralda's lips to hear her words. "I just need Saphira."

Amber tugged her hand from Ruby's and Opal's grip and they clasped their hands together when Amber slipped from them. She crawled up the bed and took Esmeralda in her arms, holding tight when she struggled against Amber's embrace. It went on for several minutes before Esmeralda collapsed into the warm body holding her and Amber just held her as she cried.

"I can't do this, Amber."

"Es, you don't have to do this alone. We're all gonna be here for you for as long as you need us. And when the time comes...." She shrugged and Esmeralda tilted her head back to look into Amber's golden eyes. Amber met Esmeralda's eyes seriously. "When the time comes, I promise to let you go," drawing a gasp from the Angels still stationed around the bed. Amber and Esmeralda didn't take any notice of the rest. "But until then, take the strength you need from us, all right? Let us help you get through this so we can go home knowing we did everything we could do."

Esmeralda studied Amber's eyes, then nodded her head. "I'll try, Amber. It's the best I can promise."

"I'll take it, Es. You've never broken a promise to me." Amber looked around the room. "Now, let us tell you about our morning, and then you can tell us what you said to Brianna and Charisma and why. After that...." She shrugged her shoulders.

Esmeralda looked around the room and frowned. "Who's watching them?"

"No one. This was more important."

For once, Esmeralda didn't argue. She simply nodded and closed her eyes as she leaned into Amber's shoulder. "So what happened this morning?"

Amber looked at Ruby, and she started telling their tale.

Chapter XCVII

Amber sat at the table, coffee cup lifted to her lips though she wasn't drinking. Instead, she was simply breathing in the scent as she let her mind wander over the events of the previous two days. The rest of the household was scattered about - some back to watching their charges; the others elsewhere in the house. So for the moment, she had the kitchen and the coffee to herself.

She let her thoughts slide by the announcement of Saphira's death and their subsequent encounter with Michael and focus on the talk with Esmeralda that came after.

Esmeralda had by turn, appeared distant, resigned, angry and depressed, but Amber felt somewhat confident that Esmeralda would at least make an effort to finish their assignment. She did have to question what Esmeralda's methods would be like, however. Given what she had done the day before, Amber figured pretty much everything was going to be fair game in an effort to get Charisma and Brianna to make whatever choice was necessary to wrap things up soon.

A hand on her shoulder startled her, and Amber hissed as hot coffee splattered her hand. She set the cup on the table forcefully, though not hard enough to allow spillage again. She turned baleful golden eyes at the intruder, then accepted the ice that Esmeralda handed her with a gracious nod.

"You all right?" Esmeralda asked with concern, though her voice was a bare whisper.

"Yeah. I was just thinking and you caught me by surprise." She cleared her throat. "How are you?"

Esmeralda shrugged. "Numb, I think. If I think about this too long, I'm gonna get angry, and that's not gonna do any of us any good at the moment." She shrugged again. "Maybe when this is all over...." She poured herself a cup of coffee despite Amber's scowl and took a seat at the table. "Let me see," she demanded, tugging lightly on Amber's injured hand.

Amber rolled her eyes, but released her hand to Esmeralda's tender care. She waited until she was done, then gave Esmeralda a droll smile. "Everything okay, doctor?"

Esmeralda cut her eyes at Amber, but couldn't stop the slight twitch of her lip. "I think you'll be all right, Amber, but you should probably be a little more aware. It's not like I was being particularly quiet." She took a deep breath. "What were you thinking about so hard anyway?"

Amber gave Esmeralda an unbelieving look, but when Esmeralda didn't look away, she shrugged. "I was thinking about all the angles."

Esmeralda cocked an eyebrow and Amber snickered at the familiar expression to keep the tears at bay. "The angles?"

"Yeah. Trying to see if there's something we've missed - because it's obvious that we're not getting all the information we should have." She looked down at her coffee, studying the steam as it rose. "None of us are, Es. Even Michael's not in the loop on everything."

"Maybe it's a test," Esmeralda offered with a vague hand motion.

"Maybe," Amber agreed after she'd finally taken a sip of her coffee. "But of what? And whom? And why?" She sighed. "I dunno, Es. Seems like a selfish thing to do." She shook her head and took another swallow from her mug before she dragged her eyes up to meet Esmeralda's. "Is there anything you'd like to do today? Or would you prefer to stay home and rest up for tomorrow?"

The sigh Esmeralda released was shaky, but her eyes were steady. "I would prefer any number of things that just aren't going to happen," she replied wearily. "But I think we will probably have visitors sooner or later." Amber's eyebrows climbed into her hairline, and Esmeralda snickered just the tiniest bit. "When I sent everyone home yesterday before you guys showed up, they said they'd be back today. I doubt they're going to wait too long to make good on that threat."

Amber's eyes widened. "Is that what you see it as... a threat?"

Esmeralda rolled her eyes. "It *was* a threat, Amber - no matter how politely worded it was." She lifted her mug to her lips and grimaced slightly as the bitter taste hit her tongue. "Who's watching?" she asked.

"Coral and Indi are still assigned to Brianna; Mal and Jade are trading off with Opal since Charisma and Kent are currently sharing household space." Esmeralda blinked and Amber nodded slowly. "Yeah. They decided it would just be easier on everyone if they were together for the next couple days. I think Jade said something about them breaking the separation news to the family after the wake."

Esmeralda shook her head. "I know I should be glad that something positive is coming out of this whole fiasco. But I can honestly say I just don't care. Don't get me wrong," she continued when Amber opened her mouth to speak. "I do hope it works out well for them. After all, we've invested a lot into this mission, and they deserve to find happiness together after all this time. On the other hand - it's cost me everything. I just want it to be over now." Esmeralda took a deep breath and blinked rapidly to keep the tears from spilling. Amber remained silent. "I'm gonna go get cleaned up."

Amber nodded. "I'll wait down here until you're done in case someone shows up while you're gone."

Esmeralda rose and put her half-full cup into the sink. She passed behind Amber, squeezing her shoulder briefly before she disappeared back into her bedroom. Amber watched her go and sighed, rubbing her eyes to rid them of the harsh stinging. She couldn't wait for this to be over.


Ruby wandered into the kitchen a few minutes later, stopping at the threshold when the sound of running water caught her attention. Amber looked up and waited for Ruby's eyes to find hers, then she motioned towards the coffee pot.

"I think there's enough for one more cup," she offered.

Ruby nodded her thanks and crossed to the coffeemaker, pouring out a cup and starting a new pot. She noticed the half-full cup in the sink, and turned to look at Amber.

"How is she?" straight and to the point. Amber shrugged.

"I'm not sure. I'd almost call her unfeeling at this point - except you and I both know the entire problem is she feels too much." A knock sounded on the door before Amber could elaborate and Amber motioned for Ruby to stay put. "I'll go," she offered. "Es is expecting them."

A moment later and Amber returned with Charisma trailing behind her. Ruby offered her a cup of coffee that was accepted, then they all took a seat at the table. Before the silence could grow too awkward, Charisma cleared her throat to speak.

"How is she?" looking between Amber and Ruby. Ruby gestured to Amber and Charisma focused her attention in that direction.

"She's up," glancing at the clock. "She should be out here shortly. Other than that...." Amber shrugged. It was hard to explain what Esmeralda was going through - not only had she lost her mate; she had lost the mate she'd had every expectation of sharing eternity with.

"And how are you?" Charisma asked compassionately.

"I'm fine," Amber replied brusquely. "Saphira was only my sister - she was EVERYTHING to Es."

Charisma cleared her throat again. "I can only imagine how devastated Es is because I have never seen two people as much a part of each other as they were; they had something amazing together. But I know that if something like this happened to one of my brothers, I'd still feel the loss very sharply. So please don't feel you need to downplay your own loss in this situation." She hesitated, then took a deep breath to continue. "I know we really don't know one another, but I counted your sister as a friend, and if you want to talk...."

Amber nodded rapidly. "If you'll excuse me," rising from her seat, "I'll go check on Es." She spun around and knocked on the door behind her before letting herself in. Charisma turned to Ruby who patted her hand.

"Don't worry about it, Sen... Charisma. She's trying to deal with something she never expected to. I'm sure she'll appreciate the offer once she has the chance to think about it."

"It's fine, Ruby," Charisma offered with a wave. "It's not like we actually know one another. I just... feel so helpless. I wish there was something I could do."

Ruby stared into her coffee cup and shook her head. "We'll be there for them, Charisma - it's all we can do... sad as that is to say."

"Will it be enough, Ruby?"

This time Ruby shrugged. "I don't know," she replied honestly, lifting the mug to her lips. Before she could take a sip, there was another knock on the door and Ruby set her cup on the table and rose with a quiet excuse. Charisma frowned as she glanced at her watch. Surely her time wasn't up already. Then she heard two sets of steps headed towards the kitchen and turned to find Matilda walking in behind Ruby carrying a box. Charisma immediately rose and took the box from Matilda when Esmeralda crossed the threshold into the kitchen. Matilda opened her arms and Esmeralda stepped into her embrace, though she made no effort to do more than give Matilda a polite hug. Matilda frowned and released her, but before she could comment on Esmeralda's lack of participation, Charisma had maneuvered around her to offer Esmeralda the same. After only a moment, Charisma eased back as well, her expression confused.

"Es?" wondering where the grief-stricken woman of the day before had gone. She almost preferred the outpouring of emotion - even crippling grief - to the apathy she and Matilda were facing now.

"Charisma," Esmeralda answered softly. "It's nice of you to come. You too, Matilda, though you needn't have brought anything with you. I'm sure we have plenty."

Matilda cocked her head. "Es? Honey, I had to do something, and this is what I'm good at," motioning to the food Ruby had emptied from the box. "I promised Saphira...."

Esmeralda's eyes blazed. "You promised Saphira?? What the hell does that mean??" her profanity causing eyes to widen as much as her anger. "She promised me forever!!" She gulped in air and her eyes flashed fire."Promises are just empty words - they don't mean anything!!"


"NO!!" Esmeralda closed her eyes; when she opened them, they were once more flat and gray. "No, I appreciate that you feel some sort of obligation to be here, and you're certainly welcome to stay. But we're not going to talk about Saphira... at all."


"I mean it, Charisma. As far as I'm concerned, we can sit quietly. After all, silence is my new companion; I suppose I should get used to it."

Matilda and Charisma exchanged glances, and without another word, they took a seat at the table, hoping to think of something Esmeralda might be willing to talk about. Unfortunately, with Saphira off limits as a topic, there wasn't much they had in common to talk about and it didn't take long for the weather to be exhausted.

As the silence lengthened and became uncomfortable, Charisma looked between Ruby and Matilda. "Matilda, Ruby - would you mind if Es and I excused ourselves for a few minutes?" Ruby and Matilda both answered in the negative, and Charisma rose, holding out her hand to Esmeralda. Esmeralda studied her for a long moment, then accepted the proffered hand, allowing Charisma to pull her to her feet. Together they walked out of the kitchen and into the living room, unaware of the drama already playing out in that room.


Amber had done as she'd said - she had checked on Esmeralda and let her know that Charisma had arrived and was waiting for her in the kitchen. But when she left the bedroom, she'd gone out the hall door with the intent of going up the back stairs to her room. Instead, she'd run straight into Michael, and it was only his hand over her lips that kept her from crying out. She glared and jerked her elbow out of his grasp, eyes widening and jaw dropping when she realized just who stood in front of her.

He held out his arms, wings spread wide behind him and she clasped his hand, pulled him into the living room and closed the door behind them. Whatever had brought him here, it was a good bet no one else was supposed to be aware of his angelic presence.

"Michael?? Is this the start of a coup or something?? I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to be here."

"I'm pretty sure you're right."

"Then why...? Why risk? Weren't you the one that told me...?"

"Yes," he said with a long-suffering sigh. "But this is important." He took a deep breath and met Amber's eyes. "Amber, it's Saphira's fault she died."

Amber instantly frowned. "Michael, Saphira's death was an accident caused by a child."

"The circumstances of her death may be accidental, but her death itself isn't."

"Michael, you're not making any sense."

Michael ran his hand through his hair and sighed deeply. "Can we sit? This may take a few minutes, and I feel like I'm running on empty." Amber took a good look at his face and nodded. She hadn't seen him this exhausted since Lucifer had been tossed. Michael sighed again in relief as he sat, feeling his body relax a little. Amber sat down beside him and covered his hand with her own.

"Michael, what's going on?"

"Do you remember when He cast Saphira and Esmeralda from Heaven? Do you remember His conditions to allow them to come home again?"

"Of course - Saphira had to admit that her actions were wrong and she had to sincerely mean it," Amber replied without hesitation. Michael nodded, but didn't elaborate and Amber frowned again. "Michael, what does that have to do with anything??" Michael continued to remain silent and Amber gasped. "She didn't!"

"From what I have been able to find out, Saphira went to the Father several months ago."

"Then why...?"

Michael placed a finger over her lips and Amber quieted, though she gave him a look that should have turned him to cinder. "Let me finish. Apparently Saphira went to the Father and confessed her wrongdoing with the understanding that Esmeralda be healed from whatever was plaguing her. She was dying, Amber." Amber parted her lips and Michael glared. Amber sighed and crossed her arms over her chest, motioning for him to get on with it. "In asking for forgiveness, Saphira's punishment was over. But Es still has a job to finish."

She waited, and when he didn't continue, she jumped from the couch. "Are you telling me Saphira has been called back home? That her death is a hoax??"

Michael shook his head. "I don't know where Saphira is. There's no trace of her in Heaven, Hell or on Earth. It's like she no longer exists."

"This just gets better and better," Amber mumbled. "Michael, do you understand how detrimental Saphira's death has been to Es? She's dying, Michael... AGAIN. Whatever bargain Saphira made was useless, because this is killing Es just as surely as before." She dropped her head into her hands and propped her elbows on her knees. "Even if she survives long enough to finish this assignment, she's not going to live... she's going to exist. And I wouldn't put odds on her existing much beyond the conclusion of the mission. Es is broken, Michael, and if she finds out that Saphira's actions are what caused this...." Amber let her thoughts trail off and silence reigned for several moments. "Do you think Saphira knew about this? Do you think she expected this outcome when she capitulated?"

Michael shook his head. "I can't believe she did, Amber. For as many volatile run-ins as we've had, she's never neglected to do what it took to take care of Es."

Amber nodded, knowing it for the truth. Before she could reply, she heard Charisma and Esmeralda just outside the doors. Taking Michael's hand, she closed her eyes, and with that blink, they disappeared upstairs to her room.


Charisma had held her tongue, wanting to speak to Esmeralda privately. Just as they reached the doors to the living room, the phone rang, and Esmeralda excused herself to answer it. In a moment she was back.

"I'm sorry, Charisma. That was the funeral home. I need to go, but if you'd like to wait here...."

"Let me take you, Es. We can wait to talk until we return if you'd be more comfortable, but I have my car here. I would feel better if you'd let me take you. Don't say no," she added when it looked as if Esmeralda was going to refuse. "I can go in with you or I can wait in the car; just let me get you there and back safely."

Esmeralda shook her head, but didn't object aloud; she merely went to the closet to don her coat. Charisma followed suit and in minutes, they were headed for the funeral home.

The ride was quiet as Charisma had promised and when they arrived, Esmeralda turned to face her. "Thank you, Charisma. If you don't mind...?"

"I'll be right here when you get out," Charisma promised, cupping Esmeralda's face and brushing a kiss over her forehead. Esmeralda nodded and slipped from the car like a ghost, and Charisma pulled her phone out to let the others know where they had gone, then she settled in to wait.


She gave her name to the receptionist, and the woman immediately put a call in to the director. It only took a few seconds, and he was cradling Esmeralda's small hands between his much larger ones. "I'm so sorry for your loss," he offered, and Esmeralda acknowledged the platitude with a nod. She didn't want his words - they meant nothing to her. Seeing her reaction, the director cleared his throat and continued speaking. "Saphira has been prepared for cremation; I thought you might want an opportunity to say your final goodbye."

He winced when her hands tightened painfully around his, and he strained to hear her reply. "Thank you," she replied in a whisper. He nodded and released her hands to motion towards a short hallway to one side of the chapel.

"This way, please." Esmeralda walked beside him and he stopped at a thick wooden door and opened it. "Take all the time you need, Esmeralda. Just let Ms Ross know when you're ready to leave."

"Thank you, Mr. Prescott." The man watched her a moment longer, but she wasn't looking at him and he left quietly. Esmeralda kept her eyes focused on the still face in the wooden casket, unaware of the steps that brought her to Saphira's side.

For several long moments she stared, as though memorizing Saphira's features. Finally she raised her hands to gently touch Saphira's cold skin, shivering instinctively, but refusing to remove her hands from Saphira's face. Only when the cold began to seep into her bones did Esmeralda shift her hands, brushing the dark hair from Saphira's face then tucking her hands into her coat pockets once more.

"I'm not sure what to say, Saphira. We were never supposed to be here. And I really don't think dreams and wishful thinking will bring you back to me." She sighed, her breath shuddering as she struggled to keep the tears from falling again. "I hope the Father forgave you, Phira - I hope you'll find peace in whatever afterlife fallen Angels get. I love you, Phira."

Esmeralda stared amoment longer, hoping that her words would engender a response... just like they always had between them from the moment they'd recognized their bond in their youth. When Saphira remained still and silent, Esmeralda turned on her heel and walked out without a backwards glance.

Chapter XCVIII

"Everything all right?" Charisma asked when Esmeralda climbed back in her SUV. "I mean besides...."

"About like you'd expect," Esmeralda answered wearily. "Thank you for the ride, Charisma."

"Thank you for letting me help, Es. I know it's not much, but I can't not try to do *something*," glancing over to offer Esmeralda a smile, only to find her focus was completely taken by something outside the window. "Es?"

Esmeralda didn't move her gaze, but she responded, "What did you want to talk about, Charisma?"

"Huh?" trying to catch up to Esmeralda's thought process. "Oh!" just as Esmeralda opened her mouth to reply. "You mean when I pulled you away from Matilda and Ruby?" seeing Esmeralda nod. "I was wondering," feeling herself blush. "Why did you say what you did yesterday... to Brianna and me? How did you know?"

"Which do you want to know?" Esmeralda asked, her eyes never moving from the widow.

"I can't know both?" receiving silence as an answer. Charisma sighed. "All right... why?"

"Because you're both acting like jackasses and I'm tired of it."

Charisma pulled to the side of the road and turned the vehicle off. "Excuse me?" more than a little put out with Esmeralda's bluntness. She was a United States Senator - no one spoke to her with such total disregard of who she was... not even her family.

Esmeralda never moved her eyes from whatever they were focused on beyond her sight. "What part do you need me to explain to you, Charisma?" Charisma didn't respond and Esmeralda sighed. "I'm not trying to disrespect you, Senator Tagherty. You asked why - I gave you the truth. If you're completely honest with yourself, you'll see that I'm right."

Charisma sighed loudly and crossed her arms over her chest. "How did you know?" she finally asked, not refuting Esmeralda's previous words, but unwilling to acknowledge the truth of them of the either. "And why do you care... really?" Esmeralda was quiet so long, Charisma sighed again. "Es? Please?"

"I know because you both talk to me... you talk to me when you should be talking to each other." She grew quiet again, but this time Charisma waited, instinctively understanding that whatever Esmeralda had to share was harder... because it probably involved Saphira in some way. After a bit, Esmeralda took a deep breath and continued, though her voice was so low, Charisma was forced to concentrate to understand her words.

"I told you our story - Saphira's and mine," angling her head to so she could see Charisma's agreement. "Your story is similar to ours - including your reactions to the pain you're going through, and it kills me that you're choosing to be miserable."

"Do you understand what you're asking us to risk?"

"Do you understand the rewardis worth the risk?"

"You're assuming everything's just going to work out... like it was some kind of freaking faery tale that always has a happy ending!"

"And you're so afraid to be happy that you won't even try!"

There was no more conversation the remainder of the ride back to Esmeralda's.


Charisma dropped Esmeralda at home, innately understanding that a little space would be appreciated, and still prickly over Esmeralda's accusations. Besides, it wasn't like there wouldn't be a steady influx of visitors during the day; everyone had sat down together the evening before and worked out a schedule between them to ensure that Esmeralda would have a stream of company throughout the day. So Charisma waited for Esmeralda to close the door behind her after she entered the house, then turned her vehicle towards her home, knowing no one was expecting her back so early, but unable to stay any longer with Esmeralda's words echoing in her ears.

Esmeralda wasn't surprised to find Matilda and Ruby still ensconced in the kitchen when she finally made her way into the room, but she was a bit startled by Amber's presence. Not that Amber didn't have every right to be there or that Esmeralda didn't appreciate it more than she could say, but Amber tended to shy away from interacting with mortals on the Earthly plane. She said it messed with her Guardian mojo, but Esmeralda knew it had more to do with making their punishment too real.

So she smiled slightly when she saw Amber sitting at the table, making small talk with Ruby and Matilda. She walked up behind her and slipped her arms around Amber's neck, whispering "Thank you," softly into her ear. Amber pulled away just enough to look into Esmeralda's eyes, gently cupping her cheek and studying the myriad of emotions swirling through the flat gray.

"Everything okay?" she asked, knowing Esmeralda would understand what she was really asking. Nothing was even close to okay in their lives anymore, but Amber needed to know if something more had happened, or if Esmeralda had somehow overheard Michael's news. Frankly, Amber didn't want to be anywhere near ground zero when Esmeralda made that particular discovery. No one and nothing would be safe.

"Mr. Prescott called. Charisma drove me over to say goodbye," Esmeralda answered without emotion as she slipped into her chair at the head of the table. Amber's brow furrowed.

"Why didn't you say something, Es? I'd have gone with you."

"I know, Amber, but I needed to do this by myself. I needed to say goodbye... without an audience."

"Charisma didn't go in with you?" Matilda queried.

Esmeralda shook her head. "I asked her to wait in her truck."

"Speaking of... where is the good Senator?"

Esmeralda shrugged, not willing to disclose in front of Matilda the words she and Charisma had exchanged. "I dunno - to work, I guess. The government doesn't stop just because my world came to an end, Amber."

Ruby held up a hand before Amber could open her lips. "I'll bet she headed home so someone else could visit," giving Amber a significant glance, implying knowledge of fact. "People were tripping over one another here yesterday, and she came by herself this morning. I wouldn't be surprised if we had a steady trickle of visitors all day."

As if to confirm her words, there wasa quiet knock on the front door, and Ruby excused herself to answer it. Matilda turned her attention to Esmeralda. "I know you don't want to talk about Saphira and I'm going to respect that; but I would like to stay a while longer."

Esmeralda gave Matilda a sad smile. "Matilda, you're welcome to stay as long as you'd like to."

"You realize I'm gonna feed you, right?"

Esmeralda chuckled lightly. "I wouldn't expect anything less of you, Matilda. You've been feeding me almost since we met."

"Well, I have to do something, honey. You were so thin...." She gave Esmeralda the once-over, even though half of her body was hidden by the table at which she was seated. Matilda cocked an eyebrow. "You still are, despite my best efforts, but we'll just keep working at it," she continued without giving Esmeralda a chance to protest. "Joe will be here around lunchtime with apot roast, and I expect you to make a good effort," she instructed.

Before Esmeralda could response, Patrick crossed the threshold and walked directly to Esmeralda, kneeling in front of her and taking her hands in his. He didn't speak, having been instructed by Ruby about Saphira being off-limits - instead, he simply gazed at her, conveying all the love and sorrow he felt. Esmeralda loosened a hand and cupped his cheek, giving him a small smile.

"Thank you, Patrick," she offered softly.

He nodded. "Anything we can do to help," he stated unequivocally. He squeezed the hand he still held before releasing it. Then he stood and took a seat between Esmeralda and Amber and began to fill her in on when the boys and their families would be arriving in town.

Before he was done, there was another knock on the front door, and once more Ruby excused herself to answer it. And so it went throughout the day - as she had predicted, there was a steady stream of visitors that came to offer their condolences, and though no one stayed long, Esmeralda was exhausted by the time the last one was ushered out hours later.

Amber had long since given up and Esmeralda had nodded her blessing - she understood only too well how overwhelmed Amber felt having to maintain her mortal, human state for so long... especially around so many Earth-born humans.

Ruby, on the other hand, had been a rock. She'd been in the business for longer than Esmeralda, and was well used to dealing with all types of humanity while in her corporeal form. Still, she was more than a little happy to be ushering Okasa out and locking the door behind her. She returned to the kitchen to find Esmeralda with her head resting on the arms she'd folded on top of the table.

"Es? Sweetheart?" frowning when Esmeralda visibly flinched.

"Please don't call me that, Ruby," she asked in a hushed tone. "It hurts."

"Oh Es..." Ruby said, shaking her head. "I'm so sorry. I didn't even think...."

Esmeralda gave her a weak smile. "It's okay, Ruby. I didn't either... until I heard it." She sat up slightly and ran her hands through messy hair. "I'm so tired, Ruby, and we haven't even gotten to the hard part yet."

"I know, Es, but we'll all be here for you, and we'll support you as long as you need us," leaving unspoken the fact that they could already see Esmeralda withering away from them. "I wonder where Brianna was?" she mentioned, changing the subject.

"Kay said something about her trying to put out some kind of fire on the Hill. I think she's still angry because I called her and Charisma out yesterday," Esmeralda added casually.

"So you think Kay was lying?"

"Not at all. I'm sure that's what Brianna told her. Whether Brianna was telling Kay the truth, though...." Esmeralda shrugged. "I'm sure if something really did go down on Capitol Hill we'll hear about it in the news... or one of the others will tell us about it," she added, scrubbing her face with hands that ached from the tension in them. "Where is everyone, by the way? I know they're not all watching now."

"Mal is watching Charisma and Kent, and Jade is watching Brianna. Mal is going to watch through the night and Coral will be taking her regular shift with Brianna. Opal and Indi will be with us tomorrow. After that...? It will depend on our needs."

Ruby watched as Esmeralda ran her hands over her face again, and reached out a tentative hand to offer support. "Es, why don't you go on to bed? It's already been such a long day, and tomorrow is going to be another just like it."

"Only worse," Esmeralda muttered. Ruby nodded her agreement.

"Only worse. Jade will be in soon, and we'll know if Brianna was telling Kay the truth or if she's still put out with you. But somehow, I don't think that would have kept her away from you. She's never struck me as petty like that."

Esmeralda sighed. "Me either, but you didn't see how angry she was yesterday. It may have been too much." She pushed her hair from her face once more, and leaned her shaking arms on the table to help her to rise from her chair. When she was certain that the floor was going to remain beneath her like it was supposed to, she turned to Ruby. "You'll let me know...?"

"If it's something important, Es, you'll be the first. But I'm inclined to let you sleep - you need the rest, and I don't think anything is gonna happen between them tonight or tomorrow at any rate. They love and respect you too much for that. However," Ruby hastened on before Esmeralda could speak, "if it's important, I'll wake you, all right? Trust me... I've been doing this a long time, kiddo."

That address got Ruby the barest sliver of a smile, but it was enough for her to feel a measure of success. She gave Esmeralda a tiny smirk in return and offered her an arm of support. Esmeralda grabbed it and squeezed lightly, then leaned forward and brushed a light kiss over Ruby's cheek.

"Thanks, Ruby. I don't know what I'd do without you."

Ruby patted Esmeralda's hand and opened the door to the bedroom before nudging Esmeralda inside. No words were necessary between them, and Esmeralda was tucked into bed in minutes. Ruby swept the blonde hair off Esmeralda's face, carding her hands through it gently in an effort to relax the tension she could see and feel. Only when Esmeralda's eyes remained closed and her breathing evened out did Ruby halt her ministrations and return to the kitchen. She hoped Jade would report in soon... with news.


Brianna had spent the day at the office - part of it anyway - but it wasn't for something that was going to make the news or be read about in the papers. And if Laura Maxwell had her way, none of what had transpired would ever see the light of day.

Brianna's phone had rung early - not that it was an issue. She'd been up for a while thinking about a lot of things... Esmeralda's words rolling round and round again in her head, until Brianna had decided that sleep was an elusive commodity she wasn't going to see that night. Instead, she slid from the bed she was sharing with Kay and pulled on her thick robe before leaving the room. Once the door was closed behind her, Brianna moved straight to the kitchen and heated up water for tea, letting it steep a good long time before she took it to the living room.

She couldn't have said how long she sat there curled under the afghan her grandmother had made staring into the flames made possible by the gas fireplace when she felt Kay tugging at a corner of the cover. Without a word, Brianna opened the blanket and Kay crawled in beside her and waited for Brianna to snuggle into her for warmth. After a long moment, they both sighed and Kay gently hugged Brianna to her.

"You all right?" she asked sleepily. "I know you haven't actually slept yet."

Brianna shrugged. "I keep thinking about what Es said. Part of me is angry and part of me is sad and a little of me is even afraid." She stopped and Kay just waited. "But the biggest part of me just hurts, Kay."

"Why?" Brianna blinked and turned her head to look at Kay disbelievingly. Kay just arched an eyebrow. "It's a legitimate question Bri. Why do you feel the way you feel?"

"I'm angry...." Brianna took a deep breath, closing her eyes as she released it slowly, then breathed in again slowly as she opened her eyes and met Kay's. "I'm angry because she called me out in front of Charisma - and because she was right. I'm sad because seeing Esmeralda like this... Kay, I've seen death - you know that. I've seen what happens when half of a couple is gone. I'm sad because I know what this means for Es... even if it doesn't kill her. She'll always been lonely, even when she's surrounded by people she loves." Brianna paused and Kay just waited, knowing there was more.

"I'm afraid because she was right, Kay; Es was right. I'm furious at Charisma, and I don't know if I can get past that. Sometimes, I'm not sure I even want to try anymore." Kay nodded, but she didn't speak, and Brianna tilted her head in question. "No comment?"

"They're your feelings, Bri. What would you like me to say?" Kay held Brianna's gaze, and after a moment, Brianna just shook her head. "Tell me the rest, Bri."

"I hurt, Kay - I've hurt for a very long time, but I've always been able to keep it in the background, you know? Something I was aware of, but not really conscious of, if that makes any sense. Like I knew there was always a place that belonged to Charisma, but as long as we were out of each other's lives, it was just a dull ache... something I didn't notice unless it got poked."

"And now?"

"Now it's harsh and burning and... I don't know how to describe it, Kay. It just hurts." She laughed grimly. "Funny, huh? A writer with no words."

Kay cupped Brianna's face tenderly. "I have never thought it funny to see you in pain."

Brianna closed her eyes and leaned into the touch; she sighed softly. "What am I going to do, Kay? Everything I've tried has been an abject failure. I can't ignore her anymore; I can't just be friends; I refuse to be the other woman. What's left?"

"Maybe you should try talking together."

Brianna's eyebrows flew into her hairline. "Are you kidding me?!? That's it?? That's all you've got?"

Kay's brown eyes flashed fire and Brianna's widened in response. "Brianna, like it or not, you've been all over the place about her... with her... since you arrived here. You need to sit down and decide what's best for you." Kay sighed and looked at the fire that still crackled merrily along. "As I see it, you've got two basic choices - you either sit down together and talk this out from the beginning until you reach a resolution you both want and can live with...."

"Or?" when the pause went on too long.

"Or you call Michael and tell him to appoint someone else in your place and you walk out of her life - out of *their* lives - forever." Kay took another deep breath. "It's not fair to either of you otherwise, and you can't keep living like this - neither of you can. I know that you've lived with this pain for a long time, lover - it's time to let it go."

Brianna smiled sadly. "Been a long time since you called me that."

"Been a long time since we've been that, but I do still love you, Bri. A part of me always will, remember?" She yawned and stretched, then stood so she could stretch again. Then she turned and tucked the afghan around Brianna's shoulders once more. "I'm going back to bed. It's still dark out, and I need all the sleep I can get before my brood shows up this morning."

"Thanks, Kay," Brianna whispered as Kay walked around the couch. Kay leaned down and brushed a kiss over the top of Brianna's head.

"Anytime, Sweetie. I'll even give you the family discount," she added with a smirk. Brianna snorted.

"Good thing - it's the only way I can afford you." Kay chuckled and continued her trek back to the bedroom, closing the door, but not shutting it completely. Brianna remained on the couch, though her thoughts were a million miles away. It was only when her phone rang a couple hours later that she was pulled from her brown study, only to frown when she saw the name on her screen

What on Earth could Laura Maxwell want with her at six o'clock in the morning??

Chapter XCIX

Brianna had glared at her phone once the call was over, as if it had instigated the entire fiasco she could feel brewing like a hurricane. Instead of tossing it into the nearest wall, however, Brianna merely turned it off and placed in on the nearby table. Then she stretched out, enjoying the sensationof relaxtion as it stole over the length of her body. She closed her eyes, but Laura Maxwell's words continued to echo in her mind until Brianna was growling out loud.

"Who does that bitch think she is?"

"Which bitch?" Kay asked through a yawn. "And why the hell is the phone ringing at six a.m.?" Brianna sat up, smiling sympathetically at the petulant expression Kay was giving her as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Brianna extended her arm and Kay sat down next to her, pulling the afghan around her shoulders to help retain the warmth Brianna had created.

"Laura Maxwell."

Kay waited patiently, but when all Brianna did was frown, she poked her in the ribs. Brianna squealed and glared at her, but Kay simply returned the glare and shrugged her shoulders. Brianna huffed.

"The phone ringing was Laura Maxwell. It seems she has decided she has an issue with me after all."

"I don't understand."

"I'm not sure I do yet either," Brianna stated. "We don't serve on any committees together, so I've only met the woman once that wasn't in passing, and she didn't appear to have a problem with me then. But if she feels the need to call me before God and the birds are awake for the day, I'd be willing to wager she's found something to bitch at me about... especially since she *demanded* my presence in her office this morning."


Brianna snorted. "Oh yes - it was definitely an order. I think she's under the impression that she's a general in the great war of life, and we are just lowly foot soldiers awaiting her bidding."

"So are you going to acquiesce to her demand?"

"I am going to meet with her at the time I told her I was available to be there, but only because I am going to explain a few things to her."

Kay laughed. "I'd love to be able to sit in on that meeting - what time is it scheduled?"

"This morning at eleven. She wanted to meet me at eight; I refused. I want to be here to at least say hi to your family when they arrive, and I've got a couple things to take care of before I'm supposed to be at Es'."

"Are you still planning to go?" Briana looked at Kay like she'd grown a second head. "You said last night...."

"Kay, I would never let something like Es' honesty keep me from standing by her as her friend at a time like this... especially after what she and Saphira did for me when I first got here." She sighed. "Either way, I'd rather she be honest... however embarrassing and painful it is - there is usually less drama in the end. So unless Laura Maxwell keeps me tied up for several hours talking about God knows what in this stinking town, I'll be at Es' this afternoon."

"You don't know what she wants?"

"She refused to say over the phone. But I'll give you a guess."


"That's my thought."


It was still early when Lee and the kids arrived in town, but Brianna and Kay were waiting for them in the lobby of the hotel they were staying at for the remainder of their time in Washington. After exchanging hugs and salutations, they made their way upstairs to the rooms Kay had already secured for them. The kids followed Kay directly to their room to take care of their things and Lee turned a judicious eye towards Brianna as they walked into the second room. He immediately began to unpack.

"Who pissed you off so early?" he asked without a hint of apology in his voice for either his nosiness or his tone as he hung his suit in the closet. Brianna just smirked.

"That obvious?"

Lee snickered. "Bri, I've known you long enough to see through the political façade bullshit." He stared at her a long moment. "So the question remains - who pissed you off so early?"

Brianna shook her head. "Ask me later. Then I'll know if I have more reason to be angry than simply being woken up before daybreak this morning."

Lee winced. "Ouch." He turned to Kay as she crossed the threshold into their room. How's Es?"

Kay shook her head. "I don't know, honestly. She seems to accept what's happened, but there is something in her eyes.... It's…." She shook her head again. "I don't know," she repeated.

"Are we going to see her today? Or is there some sort of viewing...?"

Kay shook her head. "No viewing - Saphira is supposed to be cremated today. The service is tomorrow morning at ten, and then there will be a gathering at Charisma's for folks to offer their condolences." She glanced at her watch. "Charisma should be with Es right now - we set up a schedule last night so someone would be with her at all times today. You're welcome to go with me, if you'd like." Kay turned her attention to Brianna. "Are the boys going?" Brianna shrugged and Kay shrugged back before looking back at Lee. "It's up to you, sweetie. Whatever you're most comfortable with."

Lee nodded. It wasn't like he knew Esmeralda well. "Let's just play it by ear. A lot depends on the kids."

"I'll try to get back here to watch them if you want to go, Lee," Brianna offered as she glanced at her watch. "I need to get going though. I've got some things I need to do before it's my turn to stay with Es, and some of them can't wait apparently," she added with a growl. Lee's eyes widened and he cocked a brow at Kay who simply shook her head at him. He nodded his understanding and turned back to Brianna as she picked up her purse.

"You have my number if you need me," she reminded them.

"You have mine as well," Kay replied, knowing Brianna understood what she was saying.

"Yes, thank God. Because I'm pretty sure killing stupid people is still considered murder and I really don't look good in orange," Brianna added with a wry grin. She stepped forward and claimed a hug. "Thank you, Kay. You don't know...."

"Yes, I do. Give me a call later - just to let me know how things go. We can talk about it or not as you feel like it."

Brianna kissed her cheek. "Thanks," she whispered again as she pulled back from their embrace. Then she turned to Lee and opened her arms. Without a word, he lifted her up and squeezed her tightly, but with a gentleness belied by his frame. "Thank you for sharing her, Lee," kissing him as well.

He didn't answer except to kiss her back, then he gently put her on her feet. "I want the whole story later," he instructed. Brianna gave him a shaky smile.

"As soon as I can," she promised. Then she called out to the other room. "I need some goodbye hugs," causing a commotion of stomping feet as the kids ran as a group to bury her in hugs and kisses. Then Brianna was out the door and headed to the Mall to meet her first appointment of the day.


Charisma was still seething over Esmeralda's words as she pulled back into the garage of her home. But if she was completely honest, she wasn't as angry at Esmeralda as she was at herself. Everything Esmeralda had said - had *accused* her of - was completely true, and that rankled as much as being called out on her behavior. She shut off the SUV and leaned her head on the steering wheel and closed her eyes. The rapping on the window made her jump, and Charisma turned to glare at the disturbance. Kent gazed back at her with concern. She sighed and rolled down the window.

"You all right?"

She thought about the myriad of replies she could give to that question and shrugged. "I will be," she finally offered. "What's up?"

"That's what I was going to ask. You're back early, and you've been sitting here for almost ten minutes."

Charisma shook her head. "I'm trying to figure out if I'm the windshield or the bug."

Kent's eyes went into his hairline. "It's kind of early to be having that kind of a day."

Charisma smirked. "I know," opening the door as she rolled up the window. Kent stepped back to allow her to exit the vehicle. "And yet all indications are it's going to be a bug kind of day."

Kent winced. "Ow. Oh, did you turn your cell phone off?"

Charisma slumped. "Yes. I turned it off when I got to Es'. I guess I forgot to turn it back on. Why?"

"Laura Maxwell's been trying to reach you for the last couple hours. She said it wasn't an emergency, and she refused to leave a message other than that she called, but the phone was ringing every twenty minutes like clockwork. If it wasn't for the fact that your brothers were coming into town today, I would have unplugged it."

Charisma frowned. "Was she rude?"

"Not really rude, per se... but definitely annoying. I realize you need her backing if you want to make a run for the White House, but her people skills leave a lot to be desired."

"You do understand she's one of the most powerful women in America right now?" Charisma asked as she headed towards the house.

"You do understand that doesn't make her any less annoying."

Charisma chuckled and Kent smirked. "It probably makes her moreso."

"Well, whatever - please call her back before you do whatever else is on your schedule today. She already woke Adam up early, so she's not among my favorite people at the moment."

"Where is he now?" Charisma asked as she crossed to the coffee machine.

"In the family room with Okasa. She's going to keep an eye on him for a little while, and then try to put him down for a nap before his cousins arrive."

"Are you going somewhere?"

"Yes. I have an appointment. Bad timing, I know, but it couldn't be helped. I'm going to go straight to Es' from there."

Charisma nodded slowly, hoping Kent would elaborate. When he didn't, she sighed silently and pulled the phone from her purse. "Well, I've turned the phone back on if anything comes up."

"I will. Go take care of your business; I'll be back later." He headed towards the garage, then faced Charisma again as she pulled the fresh coffee from its spot. "Is there anything you need me to pick up on the way back?"

Charisma sipped slowly, letting the air cool her tongue as she savored the taste. "Call me when you leave Es' house. We'll see who's here and what's going on."

"All right," Kent nodded. "Now go call that infernal woman before I have to take out a restraining order," he said with a grin. "Oh! And make sure you call her private line - she was adamant about that." Charisma just stuck out her tongue and waved him off. She waited for Kent to crank the SUV before she headed to her home office, determined to discover what Laura Maxwell needed from her.


"Where have you been??" Laura practically screeched in Charisma's ear as soon as she picked up the call. "I've been trying to reach you all morning!"

"I heard," Charisma replied drolly. "Did we declare war somewhere?"

"No... why would you...?"

"Is the threat of nuclear destruction any greater than it normally is?"

"No," sounding a little more impatient.

"Is there a crisis that has shifted us into a Def-Con one status?"

"Well, no, but...."

"Then whatever you're calling about could have waited until a later hour, Laura."

"Even if it's going to affect your Presidential campaign?" Dead silence, and Charisma could hear Laura's smirk in her tone when she spoke again. "That's what I thought."

Charisma pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger as she blew out a frustrated breath. "Laura, I have a friend who passed away and left a distraught wife behind, and you woke up my son with your incessant phone calls this morning. I can honestly say that any type of campaign is pretty much the last thing on my mind right now."

"I heard about the custodian's... partner," Laura enunciated with a hint of hesitancy. "I understand it was unexpected, but we can't let it derail years of work and planning."

"Laura, if taking a couple of days to take care of a friend in her time of need is enough to wipe out all the work I've done andoverturn the years of time and effort I have put in serving the constituents of my state, there isn't any amount of power or influence that will make a difference in my campaign for the Presidency."

"Charisma, please don't be stupid. This isn't about you being friends with a custodian - on the contrary, that is something we could easily spin...."

"NO!!" The word wasn't shouted, but the whisper was biting enough to cause complete silence for thirty full seconds. Charisma took a deep breath. "No, Laura. This is not something we're going to spin; this isn't something that is going to be brought up at all. Are we clear?"

"All right, Charisma," Laura replied calmly. "I never said we were *going* to; I simply said that we *could*. However, that is not the reason I've been trying to reach you this morning."

"Which is...?"

"Your rather innocuous announcement of your separation from Kent is stirring up talk and speculation. We need to get out there and be aggressive about this, Charisma."



"Why, Laura? What exactly do you expect me to say that I haven't already said? Kent and I have amicably separated by mutual agreement."

"Is that the only reason, Charisma? Are you certain there isn't more to this than an amicable separation?"

Charisma frowned and her voice took on a sharper tone. "What are you implying, Laura?"

"Nothing, Charisma. I'm asking a question."

Charisma frowned and bit her lip. "Laura, Kent and I did agree to separate and we have done so without losing the friendship we've always had. I'm not going to say anything more than that. I refuse to share what are private matters between my husband and myself. And I'm not going to allow Kent to accept sole blame for this situation because it's not his fault." She paused a moment. "It's no one's fault, Laura. It's just something that happened."

Laura blew out a frustrated breath. She knew there was a lot more to this story than Charisma was telling her, but she also understood they had hit an impasse. Charisma wasn't going to tell her anything more than she had already shared. It was fortunate for Laura Maxwell that she had long ago learned to plan for any number of contingencies. She felt positive she would get a better result from the appointment she had scheduled with Brianna Walker. Some days, it paid to keep a private investigator on your personal payroll.

"All right, Charisma," Laura acquiesced quietly. "You know I'm just looking out for your best interests here, right? We can't have anything coming back to bite us in the ass about this later."

"I understand you're doing what you think is best, Laura. But I refuse to deal with any of this until after the service and the wake tomorrow. If it can't wait until Monday, I'll just have to deal with the fallout as it happens."

"I think we can probably release a statement to buy us some time until then, Charisma, but you're going to have to meet with me so we can release a statement to the press as soon as possible. We've worked too hard to get to this point just to let it go due to a lack of diligence on our part. There are too many people counting on us to make this happen."

"I know, Laura... I know. But it's going to have to wait until after tomorrow."

"I understand, Charisma. Oh," Laura added quickly, "I don't really understand *why* you feel this is more important, but I get that you *do*. So let's plan to get together first thing Monday morning, and we'll work up what we need for a press conference."

Charisma sighed. "Fine. That sounds reasonable. I'm going to go check on my son."

"About that - I'm sorry for waking him up. I didn't even consider the fact that he would be home sleeping."

"Fortunately, he's resilient, Laura. He won't even remember it by the time his cousins arrive. I'll talk to you Monday."

"Goodbye, Charisma."

Charisma hung up the phone and sat at the desk for a long moment staring at it before heading out of her office and towards the family room to see Adam.


Kent parked the SUV in Charisma's reserved spot, locking it securely then slid into his jacket. The wind blew across him as he stepped out into the open was cold and he spared a moment to shiver as he searched for his appointment. When he found what he was looking for exactly where he expected her, Kent strode forward without hesitation. He reached the bench in front of the National Gallery quickly, and gestured to the empty space.

"May I join you or would you prefer to walk?"

Brianna looked up and nodded towards the seat. Kent sat down and clasped his hands between his knees. Then he took a deep breath, and started to speak.

Chapter C

"Charisma and I go back a long time," he began quietly, "though not as far as the two of you. We met when she was still in the House, so probably three or four years after you...." He felt her nod her understanding and he cleared his throat. "It was casual at first... our acquaintanceship, I mean. We were in some of the same circles because of some of our shared charity interests, so we'd see one another at various dinners and fundraisers and we'd share a bit of casual conversation. But that was the extent of our contact for the first couple years we knew one another."

Kent spared a moment to look at Brianna, but she didn't return his gaze and she didn't speak, so he breathed out slowly and resumed his narrative.

"It wasn't until after Charisma became a Senator that things changed between us, and I have to admit to being a little surprised by it all. Don't get me wrong - we had developed a good, solid friendship by that point. We could talk to each other about practically everything, and we were pretty honest about things." He paused and shook his head. "Most things, anyway." Kent turned and faced Brianna, waiting for her to turn and meet his eyes. "I want you to understand that I didn't know about you, Brianna. If I had...."

She smiled sadly at him. "If you had, it wouldn't have made a difference, Kent."

"I'm not so sure about that."

"I am. Besides, whatever else has happened, you got Adam out of your union with Charisma, and even I can't fault either of you for that. He's a great kid."

Kent chuckled. "He's a handful all right. He's also the reason we decided to get married."

"I don't understand. I thought you got married for Charisma's image."

"We got married because we both wanted a child, and for Charisma's sake, we needed to be married to share that. We cared about one another... still do, actually - but we never loved one another passionately or completely. We loved each other without ever actually being in love." He sighed."It was a mutually satisfying arrangement whose time is over."

"How can you say that? You still have a child to raise together, and if Charisma wants to make a bid for the White House...."

"Brianna, we can still raise a child together without being married."

"Kent, I'm going to ask you something, and I want you to be honest with me." Kent nodded and Brianna nodded back before looking back over the Mall. "If I hadn't come back into Charisma's life... however peripherally... would you and Charisma have separated?"

Kent offered her a small smile. "Brianna, we were separated long before you came back into her life. We've been living different lives for most of the time we've known one another. Except for a few months when we first married, Charisma and I have been roommates more than husband and wife."

"Why are you telling me all this?"

Kent gave her an embarrassed smile, then dropped his eyes to the ground beneath his feet. "Charisma and I have always been good together - we're friends and enjoy a lot of the same things when we actually spend any quality time with each other. And we learned to be content with what we had together, because it meant we had someone on the occasions we needed them."He paused and Brianna waited. Kent looked out at the Mall, the ghost of a smile crossing his face. "But I had never seen her genuinely happy... until I saw her with you."

Silence reigned for several long moments while Brianna considered his words. Finally... "Why are you so willing to give up everything, Kent?"

Kent shook his head. "You're looking at this the wrong way, Brianna. I'm not giving anything up... except the pretense of a relationship that has served its purpose." He hesitated."Think of this as coming full circle. The difference is now we're part of one another's circle as well."

"You're assuming I'm willing to do something."

Kent growled and clapped his hands together. "Women!" he muttered, runninghis hands through his hair before turning his head to look at her. "Brianna, I can't force you to do anything - I wouldn't dream of trying. But Charisma and I are separated, and nothing you do or don't do is going to change that fact. Would it really be so bad to be happy?"Brianna didn't answer and after a few minutes, Kent slapped his knees and rose. "I need to get going. I'm supposed to be at Es' in about fifteen minutes." He gave her a look. "Are you going to be all right?"

Brianna nodded her head, but she refused to speak. Kent watched her a moment longer, then made his way back to his truck. He had places to be.


"I'm sorry Brianna wasn't able to come by," Kay offered as she wrapped her scarf around her neck. "I know she was going to try; I guess her meeting with Senator Maxwell ran long."

"Did she really call at six o'clock this morning?" Ruby asked.

Kay nodded and pushed her hair out of her eyes. "Yes. Woke me out of a somewhat sound sleep."

"Any idea what she wanted?"

"She wouldn't tell Bri, but I know that Brianna wanted to be here. She wanted Es to know that her friendship and her honesty were more important to Brianna than Brianna's own anger was. Because that anger is purely self-directed, you know."

Ruby smiled gently and patted Kay's shoulder. "Oh, I know. I've seen a lot in my lifetime. We'll see you at the service tomorrow?"

"Yes. The family arrived this morning. We'll all be there."

"Thank you, Kay. It means a lot."

Kay squeezed Ruby's hand briefly before exiting the house and closing the door behind her. Ruby waited until she heard the car pull out of the drive, and then headed back into the kitchen where they had been receiving people all day.

"Well," she said slowly. "That's everyone except for Brianna and Okasa." A knock sounded on the door and Ruby's head dropped just slightly before she moved back to the door to admit Okasa into their midst. At least this should be the last for the day, and Ruby would be able to send Esmeralda to bed, and find out what was going on with everyone else.


Brianna had remained on the bench outside of the National Gallery for a number of minutes after Kent's departure before realizing she was starting to freeze into place with the lack of activity. A glance at her watch told her that she had a few minutes before she needed to leave for the Hill and her appointment with Laura Maxwell. So she mounted the steps and made her way to the Sculpture Galleries, walking briskly until she was standing in front of Diana. She idly wondered if the goddess had ever given up someone she wanted because it was the best choice for the one she loved.

The angle she stood at made Diana's features resemble Saphira and her thoughts turned to what Esmeralda had said to her. And she understood that as far as her friends were concerned anything was worth losing as long as they had one another. Brianna offered up a short prayer for Esmeralda, then turned her footsteps towards the door. She had a meeting to attend.


"Senator Walker... please come in. Can I offer you some refreshment?"

Brianna looked at Laura as if she'd grown two heads. "Senator Maxwell, can we please cut to the chase here? You called me at six o'clock this morning DEMANDING I meet with you immediately, so I'm assuming you felt some sense of urgency."

Laura gave Brianna a look of bare tolerance as she gestured for her to take a seat. "It doesn't mean we can't at least attempt an effort at civilization," pouring herself out two fingers of malt whisky before seating herself behind her desk.

"You probably should have thought of that before you called me at oh-dark-thirty this morning. Now, do you want to tell me what was so urgent it couldn't wait or shall I go? I actually do have more important things to do today than sit here and play politics with you."

Laura studied Brianna for a long moment, tapping her fingers against the crystal tumbler. She took a sip and wrapped her hands around it protectively, then leaned forward. "Why are you here?"

Brianna blinked. Whatever else she'd been expecting to hear, this wasn't even a possibility. Her eyebrows rose into hairline. "Are you kidding me?? *This* was your emergency??" She stood up. "I don't have time for this."

"Sit down, Senator Walker."

"Or what, Laura?" dropping the honorific, and smirking at the surprise on Maxwell's face. "What exactly do you think you're going to do to me? I am here by an appointment of the governor of my state because he asked me for a favor. I'm not running for re-election. The only thing ofrelevance in my being here is doing the best I can for the time I've been assigned. I'm going home when this is over - I have no interest in dealing with the nest of vipers that inhabit this place!" She paused for breath and modulated her tone. "So what exactly do you think you can threaten me with?"

"Charisma Tagherty."

Brianna didn't even blink, and Laura had to give her kudos for her poise. Obviously those acting classes had given her a good foundation, and years in the courtroom had only perfected her technique. Still, Brianna didn't move away from the door, but she was no longer threatening to walk out of it. Shetilted her head and cocked an eyebrow.

"How exactly is Charisma Tagherty a threat to me?"

"She's not. You, on the other hand, are an enormous threat to her."

"You might want to ease off on the Scotch, Senator. It's starting to impair your judgment. Charisma Tagherty and I are nothing but old college roommates who fell out of touch years ago. We're merely acquaintances these day."

"I don't think that's true. And I want you to stay away from her."

"Strangely, I'm not particularly concerned with what you do or don't think, Laura. And I'm not going to change my relationship or lack of one with Charisma Tagherty because of your wants."

Laura Maxwell carefully set her glass in the center of her blotter on her desk before using both hands to push her up from her plush desk chair. She glared at Brianna, infuriated at the smirk she was receiving in return. She leaned forward and hissed, "Do you know who I am?"

Brianna grinned widely. "As a matter of fact, Senator Maxwell, I do. But I'm pretty sure you have no idea who *I* am. So before you get your panties so far in a bunch that shit starts running out your nose, I'd suggest you take a real good look at that file your private dick gave you. It might help you find a little respect."

"Why you...!" Brianna held up a finger and Laura Maxwell stopped speaking.

"Don't say anything you can't spin your way out of later, Senator. I'm just a guest on your turf at the moment, but I won't be nearly as forgiving of your attitude once I leave here and return to mine.As far as Charisma Tagherty is concerned, she's a grown woman and she makes her own decisions. I'd suggest you leave her to it. But I promise you I have no influence over anything she says or does. I haven't even offered an opinion to her in years."

"So I'm just supposed to trust that you'll stay off the radar. Senator Walker... she can't afford to have a liability like you around."

"It's funny how she's never mentioned me as a liability."

"Please, Brianna," trying to appeal to her sympathetically. "This is for the good of her campaign."

"Senator Maxwell, I've never interfered with her campaigns before. I have no reason to start now. What Charisma Tagherty does is her business."

"So you'll stay away from her? Brianna, I know what she means to you... or what she meant at one time. Do you really want the world to know?"

"Do you?" Brianna snapped back. "Because if they find out about me, they will certainly find out about Charisma. And without her, your dreams of getting anywhere near the White House go up like so much smoke. It's not like I'm in the closet, Laura, and if you can dig it up, how many others do you think will do the same thing? Maybe instead of trying to intimidate me, you should be more concerned on formulating a campaign strategy so that whatever friendship Charisma and I once had isn't even part of the platform."

"You make it sound so easy."

"You're making it into something impossible. Charisma and I have a history - we were best friends once. But we are merely acquaintance friends now." Brianna sighed and turned back towards the door. "Your detective should have done his homework better." She opened the door, then turned to look at Laura once more. "Don't call me again."

The door behind her shut with a firm click before Laura Maxwell could even think to make a response.


Brianna strode from Maxwell's office, and though she knew she was supposed to go see Esmeralda, she recognized she was in no state to visit someone in mourning. The fury that was coursing through her veins at the woman's presumption was making her blood boil, and Brianna knew she needed to calm down. A phone call to her massage therapist got her an immediate appointment, and it wasn't long before she was lying naked on the massage table.

Michelle poured the warm oil into her hands before she started, cringing when she touched the rock hard planes of Brianna's back.

"Should I even ask?" she queried softly as her hands dug into tight, tense muscles. Brianna flinched at the amount of force that was being wielded against her, but shook her head.

"No. But go as hard and deep as you can. I need to be a good friend tomorrow, and right now I'm angry enough to...."

"Hey... relax," Michelle instructed as she ran her fingertips gently over Brianna's bare back. "I'll get you there, but you need to do your part. Focus on your breathing, all right? Put everything else out of your mind."

Brianna nodded and closed her eyes. "Okay, Michelle. And thanks."

"It's what I'm good at, Senator. Now listen to the music, and slow your breathing down to match. Then let me take care of that hard part."

Brianna closed her eyes and hoped Esmeralda would understand why Brianna needed to be in a good place herself before she could be strong for anyone else.


Coral had been gone for some time before Jade finally arrived back at the house and Opal, Turq, Jas and Indi were downstairs in the living room with Amber and Ruby when she arrived. She had only just gotten her plate from the warming oven and was sitting down to eat when Michael arrived... sans wings and fanfare. The women in the room just looked at him. He sighed.

"I wanted to let you know - you're all going to be called home tomorrow after the service is over. Your assignment's been completed."

They all looked at him stupefied, the silence ringing loudly in the interim. Finally Amber spoke, "Excuse me? Michael, we told you we were staying with Es for the duration... for however long she needed us. Why are we being recalled again?"

"The mission is over. He's satisfied with the results apparently. You're done here."


Michael blinked. "You don't get to say no," he stated, though there was a hint of confusion in his tone. "He's the one who decides when an assignment is complete."

"Oh, I'll agree about the assignment - whatever it really was. We've been over that whole concept for a while now. But we're not leaving Es here alone with no support and no family. You can have my wings if you think I'm going to leave her here to fend for herself."

"And do what, Amber? The only person here that has a human job that is hers is Es. You, Coral, Mal and Jade are all non-corporeal entities here. These guys," motioning to the other women seated around the room, "are all holding jobs that will go back to their real life counterparts on Monday. Turq becomes an Amazon woman, and Jasper becomes a large black man. Opal goes back to being a fifty-five year old grandmother and the rest revert to their original states as well! Even Ruby loses her status. How exactly are you planning to manage??" the frustration clear in his voice.

Ruby cleared her throat and all eyes whipped in her direction. "Michael, what happened to cause Him to mark this case as closed?"

Michael shrugged. "He didn't tell me. I was just there when it happened?"

"How long ago was it?"

"A few hours by your time - why?"

"It must have been Brianna," Jade said. "She had talks with both Kent Rockwell and Laura Maxwell today. She took Maxwell down like a dog." Jade's brows furrowed, "I'm still not clear on what either of them were trying to accomplish there, to be honest. But Kent gave her his blessing."


"For Brianna and Charisma to be together."

Silence for a few moments as each of them considered the implications of Jade's words, then Amber turned to Michael once more. "Have you found Saphira?" The rest looked at her like she was crazy, but they waited for an answer. Amber never did anything without a reason.

"Do you really think we need to discuss this now?"

"They're gonna find out sooner or later, Michael.

"Find out what?" from Jas.

"Saphira is missing. She's not in heaven or in hell or in any afterlife I can find. It's like she's simply vanished."

"Did you ever consider that she might have? Angels don't have souls."

"Angels don't die. And humans have souls."

"I'm beginning to think we've all been played," Turq said. "And I don't really like that feeling."

"But to what end?" Opal asked. "What good has any of this done?"

"I bet if we figure that out, we'll know the secret to life," Indi offered with a smirk. "But in the meantime, we need to get to bed. Tomorrow's going to be a hellishly long day."

"Only Monday will be worse if we have to fight to stay here," Amber offered. Everyone nodded. "All right then... everyone off to bed," watching as they waved their goodnights as they headed upstairs. She turned back to Michael. "Thank you, Michael. I know you took a real risk coming here again."

"Maybe. But it was worth it. Take care of each other okay?"

"You too," brushing his lips with hers before he vanished from sight. Then she finished locking up and stretched out on the couch. Tonight she was watching over her own household.

Chapter CI

Esmeralda was glad to take Ruby's advice and escape to the privacy of her bedroom. Even with all the memories of Saphira that permeated the space, it still gave her a measure of comfort. Besides, she was beyond exhausted with the events of the past few days and wanted nothing more than to simply close her eyes and not be for just a little while.

She could hear the rest of her team moving quietly around the kitchen; she was even fairly sure she heard Amber's voice among them. The disturbance didn't last too long, and she figured they had moved into the living room. Just as she finally felt herself slipping into sleep, she thought she heard Michael, but she was too far beyond caring to bother to check. Instead, Esmeralda slid back into the private dell where she'd found Saphira once before, and let herself try to relax.

Esmeralda looked around slowly, surprised to be back in this place so soon. As much as she knew she needed Saphira in her life like she needed air, she honestly hadn't expected that the Father would see things the same way. It made her wonder what was behind her presence here now. But then she caught a whiff of Saphira's distinct scent, and she let her concerns roll to the wayside. There would be time for them soon enough again.

Saphira didn't speak; she simply spooned up behind Esmeralda and covered them with one massive wing. For the longest time they simply lay there curled into one another while Saphira's hand gently stroked Esmeralda's smooth skin. Eventually, however, Saphira broke the silence.

"How are you, love?"

Esmeralda chuckled, but tears leaked from her eyes at the absurdity of the question Saphira posed. She shook her head, refusing to face Saphira while she answered.

"You were cremated today. It was...."

"I can't begin to imagine," was the whispered reply. "You're doing remarkably well, Es. I don't think I would have managed half as much if I was in your place." Saphira snorted. "I'm *not* doing half as well, and all I'm doing at the moment is sitting around marking time. You're still getting things done in the mortal realm." She hugged the body in front of her tightly, feeling Esmeralda return the embrace as much as she could. "I'm proud of you, Es - I love you so much."

"How much longer, Phira?"

"Oh Sweetheart... I wish I knew. It'd be now if it was left up to me; you have to know that." Saphira reached up a hand and brushed some wayward hair out of Esmeralda's eyes. "I do know He closed the books on your mission today. He's pulling the girls off the assignment. He says their job is complete and it's time for them to come home." She paused. "You need to make sure they do."

Esmeralda moved away from Saphira's embrace, rolling until she could stand up and look down at her mate. "Excuse me? Shh...." she cautioned before Saphira could respond. "Let me rephrase - why?"

"I don't know," Saphira offered honestly. "He just gave me time with you in exchange for delivering the message. And I wasn't about to turn that down."

"So you really don't know anything?"

"I know that He closed the file on Brianna and Charisma this morning; that He wants the girls home; that He expects you to make sure they return... even though this is going to be nothing more than a pleasant dream as far as you're concerned.Other than that...."

"So what happened?" Esmeralda asked quietly as she reseated herself next to Saphira. Saphira reached up a hand to help her, and proceeded to pull Esmeralda into her lap. Esmeralda went with the motion, wrapping herself around Saphira's body and simply holding on. She tucked her head into Saphira's neck and relished the light touch that traced up and down her back. Finally, Saphira blew out a breath, though the motion never ceased.

"I dunno, honestly. I'm not sure anyone but He knows to tell you the truth. No one else has His access, and I'm so far out of the loop, I don't even register on the radar at the moment. You probably have a better chance of finding out from whoever's been watching them lately."

"I wonder if they're together then."

Saphira shrugged. "Hard to say anymore, but it seems a little rushed if they are... I mean given Charisma's reluctance to be gay and Brianna's reluctance to trust."

Esmeralda brushed a kiss over the skin of Saphira's neck and smiled when she shuddered against the action. "Well, we can hope for the best while we prepare for the worst again." A sigh. "Does this mean I'll be going home soon as well?"

"I hope so, Es. The only reason you were cast out was to be with me. Since I'm no longer being punished, you shouldn't be either."

There was something about that statement that tickled uncomfortably at the back of Esmeralda's mind, but before she could analyze it, Saphira's touch changed from teasing to something much more intimate. And they put aside their concerns and questions to revel in being together again.


When Esmeralda woke she felt comforted, and she smiled, knowing in her heart that Saphira was watching over her. Then her smile fell, because she knew today they would lay Saphira's ashes to rest, and she couldn't fathom anything beyond that.

She stepped from her room to find the kitchen full but silent, and she accepted the cup of coffee Amber handed her without a word. Everyone kept their eyes fastened on the table, and finally Esmeralda cleared her throat, drawing all eyes to her.

"What did I miss?" looking around the table and finding anger and sadness in every pair of eyes that met hers. When she reached Ruby, Esmeralda closed her eyes and sighed. "He's called you home, hasn't He?" wondering why she was so sure about this.

"How did you...?"

"It doesn't matter," Amber cut in. "We're not going. Not without you."

Esmeralda smiled gently, the sadness in her eyes cutting deeply into each of them. "Yes, you are, Amber. When He calls, you go. No," she said, holding up a hand to keep Amber from commenting. "I am still in charge of you until He releases you from my supervision. He can't do that until you go home. So you're going to go home and make your reports and whatever else He asks of you, because I'd like to know you'll all be there if I ever need you again."

"You need us now."

"Amber, Saphira is dead, and nothing you or I can do is gonna change that. I have to learn to be alone. You have to continue to do His work so you can keep an eye on me now and then. If you give up your place, then who's gonna keep an eye on me, hmm?"

Amber scowled fiercely and crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't like you very much right now. You cheat."

"And she's right," Ruby stated softly. "We can do more for her from there than we can from here. As much as we'd all like to stay, if Es wants us to go, we should respect that - it's her call. And it's not like we can't come visit, right?"

"Right," Esmeralda agreed with a watery smile. "Please, Amber. Do this for me if you won't do it for yourself."

Amber continued to glare at Esmeralda. "You don't play fair at all."

"I'm not playing, Amber. This is my life now... my reality. There's not much you can do for me on the mortal plane, but if you're on the heavenly one.... Who knows?"

Amber sighed deeply. "Fine. But I expect you to make some serious effort into surviving here... into living. You have to take care of yourself, Es. No starving yourself or giving up and dying. I will haunt your afterlife if you put me through something like this again."

"I'll do my best, Amber, but remember... I'm human now. And I will die."

"Me first," Amber muttered. "No more coffee then - milk and water only."

"Chocolate milk?" Esmeralda bartered.

"Fine. But no adding extra syrup to the ready-made stuff." She glared. "I know you. I've seen what happens to the chocolate syrup when you think no one else is looking," attempting to lighten the atmosphere with her levity.

"Deal," Esmeralda said solemnly. Then she looked around the table. "Thank you... all of you... for the time and effort you've each put in on this project. I can't say it was worth it...." She looked at Ruby. "Was it worth it?"

Ruby shook her head. "We can't tell. Jade said there was conversation, but none of us can figure out if it actually means anything or made any kind of difference in the outcome. As far as we know, they are still not together."

Esmeralda nodded. "Still, I appreciate everything you've all done to bring this mission to whatever conclusion that's been reached. I know it's not the kind of ending we like, but...." She shrugged."I'll make sure to commend each of you for your efforts in my report. You're proficiencies shouldn't suffer because of this assignment."

Turq snorted. "Pretty sure none of us are worried about our proficiency ratings, Boss. You sure some of us can't stay here and...?"

"No, Turq. I appreciate it - more than I can express to you. I'm hoping after you all make your reports, He'll call me home. ButI'm confident He won't let me go home before then."

"She's got a point," Ruby commented softly. "But the fact remains that if Es wants us to go home now that we've been called, we have an obligation to go." She looked at her watch. "However, if we're all going to go to the service, we need to start preparing. Jas and Turq first, as I'm sure they'll be called upon to drive today."

The two nodded and rose, each pausing behind Esmeralda to offer a silent condolence, then they headed upstairs to their bathrooms. It was time to start what promised to be a very long day.


The service itself was rather short-both Charisma and Brianna spoke briefly, and Amber gave a beautiful eulogy. What caught Esmeralda by surprise was the number of Very Important People that attended. Every Senator from her floor was there, as were many of their staffers and drivers. Combined with Charisma's extended family, Kay's family, Matilda and Joe, her entire team and a few Angels who'd descended just to offer her their unspoken support, the chapel was full to standing room only capacity. She was certain she'd even seen Michael in the back once, but when she turned to look for him again, he was gone.

When the service was over, Brianna took Esmeralda, Amber and Ruby in her car, and they followed Charisma's car in what became a massive processional to Charisma's home. Then it was a matter of greeting everyone and accepting their condolences. For Esmeralda, this was actually harder than sitting through the service had been. The only thing harder that she'd experienced to date was actually being forced away from Saphira's body the night she had died. Like then, it simply brought home the fact that Saphira was permanently gone from her life. And though she knew Saphira would watch over her when she was able, that fact offered little comfort to Esmeralda.

Still, she bore everyone's words with good grace. She knew they meant well, and in the mortal scheme of things, many of these people were considered above her. So she accepted their condolences with a sad smile and either a handshake or a brief embrace, knowing that most of them would never understand what this loss felt like to her.

Once she was done receiving everyone, Esmeralda looked at Charisma who flanked her on one side due to her hostess status. Charisma's eyes wandered over Esmeralda's face, taking in the exhaustion and sadness. Without a word, she took Esmeralda's hand and tucked it into the crook of her elbow, finding Okasa's concerned gaze and nodding towards the stairway. Okasa nodded her agreement and assumed the hostess reins. Charisma led Esmeralda upstairs.

They reached the master bedroom, and Charisma went in first, flicking on a light and crossing to close the curtains. Then she went to the closet and pulled a blanket and pillow from the shelf before turning back to Esmeralda who was now regarding her warily. Charisma gave her a small smile.

"I'm playing the 'mom' card, Es. You're exhausted," motioning to the bed. Esmeralda sat down automatically, but looked at Charisma with confusion.

"But...?" gesturing to the floor and the downstairs area where so many people were still socializing.

"But you need some rest." She knelt and removed Esmeralda's shoes before lifting her feet onto the bed; she smiled when Esmeralda lay down as a matter of course. "I can handle the people downstairs for a little while, and I promise to come wake you before the mass exodus," pulling the cover up to Esmeralda's chin and rubbing her shoulders carefully until the green eyelids fluttered shut. "Trust me to take care of things, Es. It's my job - I'm really good at it." Charisma brushed the back of her hand over Esmeralda's soft cheek. Esmeralda caught the hand in her own.


"I'll keep an eye on her as well, Es. Or do you want me to send her to you?"

"Thank you, Charisma."

Charisma squeezed the hand she held, then released it and left to find Amber.


It wasn't hard - with Esmeralda's departure, the gathering had broken along expected lines. The Senators, except Brianna and Charisma were gathered in Charisma's study. The drivers and office personnel, aside from those who were part of Esmeralda's team, had assembled in the formal living room. Charisma's adult members of extended family and Kay's family were ensconced in the kitchen and Amber and the Angels were in the family room with the kids.

Charisma didn't garner the first ounce of attention when she crossed the threshold; even Adam didn't look up from where he sat on Amber's lap. Charisma chanced to wonder what sort of magic Esmeralda's and Saphira's family had that they could mesmerize those around them so easily. Then Amber saw her and her words ground to a halt as she turned to look at Charisma.

"Senator Tagherty?"

"Charisma please, Amber. Es has asked for you." Amber frowned, and Charisma continued. "She's upstairs laying down. She was so tired...." Amber nodded.

"Thank you, Sen... Charisma." Amber set Adam on his feet, and he ran straight to Charisma.

"Mama? Go see Es?"

Charisma lifted him with a groan. "Maybe you can help me wake her up after she has a little bit of a nap, Sweetie. Es is having a really bad day and we need to let her rest for a little while, okay?"

Adam stared at her for a long moment before nodding his agreement. "'Kay! Can we go find Br'anna?"

"I think Senator Walker went outside for some air," Opal offered. "Maybe Adam and I could go look for her while you and Amber take care of Es?"

Charisma and Adam exchanged a look and then Charisma set him on the floor so he could run to take Opal's hand. "C'mon, Op. Let's go find Br'anna," tugging her towards the door. Then without warning he dropped her hand and ran back to Amber, who knelt down to meet him at his level. Adam threw his arms around her neck. "Love Amber - love Es."

Amber hugged him back gently. "I'll make sure to tell her, Adam." He grinned and ran back to Opal, taking her hand and pulling her from the room. Amber and Charisma turned to leave the room when Harley spoke up.

"Is there anything we can do Aunt Chari?"

Charisma motioned around the room that was filled with behaving, quiet children. "You're doing it, Harley. Thank you." Then she and Amber left the room and headed upstairs.


Charisma led Amber to her room and then excused herself to tend to the rest of her guests. Amber waited until she was down the stairs before she opened the door, glad her vision allowed her to see in the near dark. She walked swiftly towards the bed, sitting on the edge and letting her hand rest on Esmeralda's back. Then she settled herself in to wait.


Opal had to slow Adam down long enough to put a coat on him before they left the house, but as soon as that chore was accomplished, they headed out into the backyard. The pool was covered, and the garden was only partially visible - the greenery was in place, but much of the color that was so obvious throughout the spring and summer months was yet unplanted. It made it easy to see that Brianna wasn't in the immediate vicinity. It made the poolhouse the most logical choice of locations, but Opal hesitated to trespass. Then Adam took the decision out of her hands.

"BR'ANNA!!" yelled at the top of his lungs.

Brianna stuck her head out of the pool house door and looked first at Adam, then Opal, before turning her attention back to Adam again.

"Adam? Is there a problem, Sweetheart?"

He shook his head. "Found Br'anna. Love Br'anna."

Brianna smiled. "I love you too, Adam." She looked at Opal. "Was there something...?"

Opal shook her head. "No, Senator Walker. Adam wanted to visit Es, but she's resting, so he decided we needed to find you. I volunteered to help him." She paused a moment, then spoke again. "Is everything all right, Senator? Is there something I can do?"

"No, Opal - thank you. I just needed a little air. I'll be in to say goodbye shortly."

"NO!" Adam exclaimed. "Br'anna come now."


"Br'anna come," he pleaded, tugging on her hand. "Please?" giving her a beguiling smile. Brianna and Opal swapped eyerolls, then turned their attention to Adam.

"How do you say no to that?" she asked, extending a hand to Adam who took it with alacrity, bouncing on his toes in excitement. "Come on, Adam. Let's go see if Gramma has any hot chocolate on the stove. It's cold enough out here to need some, don't you think?"

He nodded vigorously and took Opal's hand as well. And together they made their way back into the warmth of Charisma's home.

Chapter CII

Amber wasn't sitting by Esmeralda's side for very long before the green eyes fluttered open. Esmeralda remained still for a long moment while Amber continued to gently rub her back; when she was coherent enough to recognize the touch, she deflated just slightly, then turned on her side to meet golden eyes with her own. Amber let her hand fall to the curve of Esmeralda's waist, only her thumb stroking the flesh beneath it.

They held one another's gaze for a number of minutes - silently communicating so many things. Finally, Esmeralda lifted a hand to cover the one resting at her hip and Amber looked down at the warmth enveloping her hand. She sighed.

"I suppose it's time?" a question, but said more like a statement.

Esmeralda nodded although Amber was no longer looking at her to see the motion. "I think so. You know you're gonna have to go first; the rest won't go otherwise."

"This sucks."

Esmeralda gave her a miserable smile and nodded. "It does." No platitudes and no gilding of the truth - just plain, unvarnished facts.

Amber clutched Esmeralda's hand in hers and just held it tightly for a moment. "I want you to know - I'm going to ask to be assigned to you for a while... either as your Guardian or in human form."


"Es, I can't not do *something*. Please don't ask me to."

Esmeralda sighed and shook her head. "I won't Amber - it would be akin to trying to stop a flood with a bucket and paper towel. But," she added more forcefully, causing Amber to look at her, "if He says no, I expect you to abide by His answer."

Amber huffed, but nodded her head. "All right."

Esmeralda studied her expression, seeing the resignation that meant Amber would keep her word despite her desire to do otherwise. She nodded. "Thank you," she offered quietly, tugging gently on the hand she still held. Amber frowned and put her other hand on the bed to keep from being pulled off-balance.


"Amber, I want a hug before you go."

Amber's eyes went to her hairline. "Oh. In that case...." She offered Esmeralda her other hand and pulled her into a sitting position. Then she pulled her into a tight hug and held on for dear life for a long time. Eventually, though, Esmeralda pulled back enough to brush a kiss over Amber's cheek. Amber released her hold around Esmeralda's waist to shift her hands to cup her face instead. She kissed her forehead then leaned their foreheads together.

"I know I'm not Saphira, Es, but I love you, okay? So please don't make me have to go through this again for a really long time, all right?"

Esmeralda smiled tenderly. "I'll do my best, Amber... promise."

"Best I can ask then, I guess." She pressed her lips to Esmeralda's forehead once more, then sighed and stood. "I'm sure the girls will stop by to say goodbye before they leave." Esmeralda nodded. Amber looked around the room awkwardly and ran a hand through her hair. "Right," she mumbled and straightened her shoulders. Esmeralda watched as Amber's human clothing melted away to be replaced by her angelic garb. Once the robing was in place, Amber stretched out the wings that had been put away for the short duration she had appeared as a human after Saphira's death. "Ahhh...."

Esmeralda chuckled. "Better?"

Amber snorted. "I'd say you have no idea, but that wouldn't be true. I don't know how the rest of you endure that like you do. The only happy part of it is when it's over."

"True, but in fairness, I think our wings work a little different."

"Ow," Amber grumbled when something popped she wasn't entirely sure was supposed to. "I certainly hope so. One more hug before I go?" she asked, opening her arms and spreading her wings to their maximum reach. Esmeralda nodded and stood.

"I'm gonna miss you, Amber."

"Same here, Little Sister. Love you."

"Love you too. Now go home." And with that, Amber disappeared from sight and was gone.

Esmeralda stood still for another long moment, then drew in a deep breath. She couldn't say it didn't hurt to have to send her family home with no indication of being able to return herself in the near future. But she knew she was right about them leaving her behind. She'd manage - she just wasn't sure what she expected her outcome to be... and she wasn't sure it mattered anymore.

She crossed back over to the bed and folded up the blankets she'd been using, then took it and the pillow and placed them neatly on the chair near the bed. Esmeralda stepped into her shoes, and headed downstairs.


"GRAMMA!" Adam cheered as they crossed the threshold into the kitchen from the backyard. It caused every family member in the kitchen to look in their direction and smile when they realized that Adam had managed to reclaim their lost sheep. Brianna tried to appear nonchalant about the whole business, but it was difficult when she was surrounded by the family she felt she had abandoned for the sake of her sanity. And then Okasa was approaching her and Brianna offered a tentative smile. Okasa squeezed her arm briefly before turning to Adam.

"So what brings you to the kitchen?" knowing she would need to go check on the plates of hors d'oeuvres and finger foods that had been set out for the numerous guests still occupying Charisma's home, but glad to be out of the melee for the moment.

"Hot chocolate," Adam said with a grin. "S'cold outside."

Okasa chuckled lightly. "I'd heard rumors to that effect, actually. All right, but you're going to have to be my helper - I don't have any ready."

"Adam good helper," he assured her as he started pulling at the buttons of his coat. Brianna took pity on him and knelt in front of him to remove his outerwear. Almost as if that was some sort of sign, several people started moving around the kitchen. The girls went to take more plates of food into the dining room and two of the boys and Paddy went to check on their various guests. Only Brianna, Okasa, Adam, Opal and Hunter were left in the kitchen. Opal immediately excused herself, citing a need to check with Charisma before she took her leave.

Brianna rose from her knees as Adam took Okasa's hand and walked to the big stove to start preparing enough hot chocolate for the entire family. She watched for a moment before deciding that having Adam's coat in her hand was reason enough to leave the kitchen; from there she could either slip upstairs and keep an eye on Es or simply leave. Brianna knew that was the coward's way, but she was so tired.

Before she could move, however, Hunter stepped up beside her to gain her attention, then waited for her eyes to meet his. He could see so many things swirling around in the depths of her gaze, but he was counting on twenty years of being friend and family to her to outweigh all the negative things he could literally feel her struggling with. When her shoulders slumped, he knew he'd been offered a reprieve, and motioned towards the foyer.

"May I walk with you?" asked politely.

"Br'anna?" Adam asked, cocking his head curiously and nearly enveloped by the apron Okasa had swathed him in. "Hot chocolate?" She gave him a weak smile.

"I'll be back, Little Man. I need to hang up your coat and check on Es, okay?"

"'Kay!" he agreed emphatically, turning his attention back to stirring the milk. Just then, Harley entered the kitchen holding Michelle's hand, and Adam's attention was immediately directed towards them. Hunter and Brianna escaped out the other door, seeing the rest of the grandchildren start streaming in from the family room.

Brianna slowly walked up the stairs towards Adam's room, and Hunter kept pace right beside her though neither of them spoke a word. They entered the bedroom and Brianna smiled in reflex at how perfectly 'Adam' it was. She crossed to the closet, giving Hunter a look.

"Can you please say whatever it is you need to say, Hunter? I don't mean to be rude, but this weekend has already been years long, and I'm not sure how much more I can take."

He gazed at her thoughtfully, though he maintained his respectful attitude. As much as he wanted to offer her comfort, Mama had given them all strict instructions about keeping their distance and allowing Brianna to instigate any familiarity between them.

"Is there anything I can do to make it better?" he finally asked. Brianna's chuckle was weary.

"I wish a hug would make it better, Hunter. I really do. But I gave up believing in faerie tales a long time ago." She shook her head and sighed. "I'm sure that's not what you were going to ask."

"I wasn't going to ask anything, actually. I was elected to reiterate what Mama said to you the other day." He held up a hand. "Mama sat all of us kids down and told us what you did and why. She asked us to respect your decision. We talked about it and just wanted you to know that we'll do our best to abide by your wishes. But if you should ever change your mind...."

"I... thank you, Hunter. I wish it didn't have to be like this, but I don't know what else to do at this point. I can't keep...."

This time, he opened his arms, and Brianna stepped willingly into his embrace. "We understand, Bri - probably as much or better than you do. That's why we agreed to do as you asked."

She nodded her head against his chest and gave another brief squeeze before pulling out of the hug. It was harder than she'd ever expected. "I'm going to go check on Es, and then Ill be back in the kitchen. I promised Adam, and I'd like to say goodbye to everyone since they're all here."

Hunter smiled and wiped at his eyes unashamedly. "They'd like that - they all would." He motioned her out of the room in front of him and closed the door behind them. "Would you like some company or should I wait for you downstairs?"

But before Brianna could give him an answer, the door to the master bedroom opened, and Esmeralda exited. Immediately they flanked her on either side.

"Es?" Brianna asked as she looked her over carefully. Esmeralda didn't appear any more rested than she had before Charisma had brought her upstairs, but there was a calm resignation in her demeanor that made Brianna and Hunter frown.

"I need to get downstairs so everyone will leave Charisma's home, and you can all get back to your normal lives."

"Es, if you need to rest a while longer, Charisma is perfectly capable of dismissing everyone here without twitching an eyelash."

"It's okay, Brianna," Esmeralda replied, giving her a small smile. "I need to do this. I need to say goodbye."

Brianna and Hunter exchanged alarmed glances, then Brianna took Esmeralda's hand in hers. "All right, Es... all right. We'll go downstairs together, then Hunter will let everyone know you want to say goodbye, okay?"

Esmeralda nodded jerkily, and Hunter headed downstairs instantly. A whistle brought his brothers running, and in another minute, the family had scattered throughout the house to let everyone know that Esmeralda wanted to say goodbye to them.

For most, the pleasantry was perfunctory at best, and they were glad to be done with it so they could return to normalcy tomorrow. Though they liked Esmeralda and appreciated her efforts on their behalf, none of them really knew her beyond greetings and casual talk at work. And though they were all glad they had taken the time to offer their support of her in her hour of need, they couldn't fathom the sense of loss sheradiated from the depths of her soul. So it was with a great sense of relief that they bid her adieu and left Charisma's home to go back to their lives.

Only the Angels were different. And they were different for so many reasons beyond human, though no one but they and Esmeralda knew the truth about that, of course. But they chose to be the last to go, and they took a little more time to say goodbye, knowing it was going to be the last interaction they had with Esmeralda for the foreseeable future.

She watched as they changed from human to Angel, and wondered that no one commented on the differences in either their appearance or their demeanor. Only Turq and Jas remained as they still had responsibilities to fulfill that evening. They would transform once they had been dismissed at the end of the day.Still, the lack of reaction left Esmeralda a little confused; it was only when Ruby leaned forward and reminded her that no one could see what they didn't want seen, that Esmeralda realized she was beyond much lucid thought.

Then Adam scooted from the kitchen and stopped short, gaping at the sight in front of him. "Angels," he commented, reaching out a hand to brush against Ruby's robe. "Br'anna... Angels," speaking to the woman who had stayed by Esmeralda's side. She looked at him even as the Angels exchanged exasperated glances. They had forgotten they could hide from everyone except the innocents and Adam was still young enough to be such.

Fortunately, Brianna simply agreed with his assessment of the group of women saying their goodbyes to Esmeralda and she turned to them with a tired smile. "I think we should probably go find Mama and see how that hot chocolate's coming along. Es, will you be all right for a few minutes?" not wanting to leave her alone, but confident that Esmeralda wasn't up to Adam's energetic enthusiasm either. Esmeralda nodded.

"I'll be okay, Brianna. Thank you for keeping me company."

Brianna nodded. "Come to the kitchen if you get done before I get back. I promised I'd have hot chocolate and say goodbye to everyone before I left, and I'm giving you a ride home," her tone brooking no argument. Esmeralda simply bobbed her head in acknowledgement and Brianna sighed in relief. Then she lifted Adam into her arms with a groan and turned back towards the kitchen. The Angels waited until they were gone, then Ruby stepped forward and wrapped Esmeralda in a hug.

"Amber already gone?" she asked, tucking a stray strand of hair behind Esmeralda's ear.

"Yes. I sent her first. I knew she'd be the hardest." The rest smiled.

"We'll miss you Es," Opal chimed in, claiming a hug for herself.

"You know where to find me if He lets you visit."

"We do indeed," Indi agreed.

"We'll be watching," Mal offered. Jade and Coral didn't say anything - just took their hugs behind Mal. When each Angel had had her turn, Esmeralda stepped back slightly.

"Go now. And thank you all... for everything."

They bowed their heads to her for a brief minute, and then they were gone. Esmeralda stood in the foyer for another long moment gathering her strength, then she turned and headed in the direction Brianna had gone.


Charisma stood in her empty study, appreciating the silent respite even while she knew it couldn't last but a minute. She and Kent had decided to tell the family about their separation, and she was fairly confident that it was going to create an uproar... even if it was only of miniscule proportions. Because while she knew her family would support whatever decision she made... especially if it brought Brianna back to them... she wouldn't have them blaming Kent for ruining her career. And she knew as well as she knew she was a United States Senator that they would try to blame him.

So she stood in the silence simply breathing, trying to muster her courage for the upcoming ordeal. She jumped when a hand landed on her arm and she cut her eyes at the intruder. Then Charisma chuckled when she realized it was Kent standing by her side.

"You all right?" asked with concern.

"Yes. Just trying to prepare myself for the inevitable fallout."

"Charisma, I think you're overestimating their reaction - I mean, if I figured out about you and Brianna in just a few months, do you really think the people who have known you both for twenty-five years are really going to be surprised?"

"It's not that - well... not *just* that." Kent smiled at her.

"I don't mind being the scapegoat, Charisma. After all, I *did* have the papers drawn up."

"NO!" Charisma replied forcefully. "I'm not going to lie about this, Kent. You may have drawn up the papers, but this is on me. I was the one who wasn't totally honest."

"And tomorrow? When you talk to Senator Maxwell?"

Charisma sighed. "She's not going to like it, but she's going to need to know the truth."

"If it makes you feel better, Charisma, I think you might actually find real happiness with Brianna."

"Only if I get another chance, Kent, and I'm not sure she's willing to give me one," shaking her head to hide the tears even as she smiled for him. "You, on the other hand, should definitely be able to find your heart's desire now."

"Yee-eah," he drawled, scratching his chin idly. "It might help if I knew what that was."

Charisma laughed. "At least you have the opportunity to figure it out. C'mon," she sighed, tangling her fingers lightly through his. "Let's go do this." And together they left the office and moved towards the kitchen... united in purpose one more time.

Chapter CIII

The entire Tagherty clan was in the kitchen when they entered - even the children. It was obvious they were all bidding Esmeralda and Brianna goodbye, and though loath to interrupt their limited time with Brianna especially, Charisma knew she would regret not seizing this opportunity if she let it pass her by. Besides, if it worked out the way she hoped it might, Brianna would be back in their lives on a more permanent basis, so saying goodbye would become a moot point.

Charisma felt Kent squeeze her hand fleetingly before releasing it and urging her forward gently. Charisma stepped further into the room and cleared her throat, drawing all eyes to her. Kent stayed just behind her, offering his support while maintaining his distance.

Charisma looked around the room slowly, meeting the eyes that were staring back at her. The kids - all of them - were mostly confused; her brothers and their wives questioning; her parents hopeful. She chanced to wonder about that reaction, curious to know if Kent had spoken to them privately beforehand, but before she could settle into that line of thought, her eyes caught Esmeralda's and she flinched at the loneliness and pain reflected back at her. She took a deep breath and finally looked at Brianna, who was courteous enough to hold her gaze, even though her eyes were shuttered against Charisma's. She winced at the pain that lanced through her at that truth, but she kept her eyes firmly focused on Brianna and stayed the course of action she had chosen.

"Kent and I have something to say, and I want all of you to understand that he is not to blame for this. This was a mutual decision, but I bear the responsibility for the outcome." She paused and sucked in a nervous breath, never breaking her stare with Brianna. "Kent and I have decided to separate, and will in all likelihood be proceeding to divorce in the near future. It is completely amicable." Here her eyes left Brianna's and traveled around the room to meet with each adult member of the family. "I don't want him treated like some sort of pariah - he is still Adam's father and part of this family."

"And what about your career?" Kay asked and Charisma smirked. She'd expected the doctor to be the one to bring that up no matter how much the rest wanted to know. Though they had only known one another very short time, Kay had never been one to pull her punches, and Charisma appreciated the honesty that came with that approach. She shrugged, eyes locking on Brianna's once more.

"I am learning that some things are worth fighting for and that others aren't as important as I once believed." Brianna finally dropped her eyes to the floor and Charisma shifted her gaze to Kay. "If the voters I have worked twenty years serving cannot accept my honesty with myself despite everything...?" She shrugged again. "I guess I'll be looking for another job when this term is over."

"Does that bother you?" Esmeralda asked quietly.

Charisma looked at her thoughtfully, and the rest waited to hear what she had to say. After all, the Presidency had been her dream for as long as any of them could remember and she'd worked her whole life towards that singular goal. "Not like you'd expect it to. Laura's probably going to have a fit - we've been working together towards this for years. But at the end of the day...? I'm not sure it's all been worth it."

"And what of you, Son?" Patrick queried, shifting everyone's attention to Kent. "How do you feel about all this?"

Kent cleared his throat. "I think it's a good thing. I believe Charisma will eventually find happiness," giving Brianna a pointed look,"and I couldn't ask for more than that."

His words seemed to be a catalyst and the room was suddenly alive with a cacophony of sound and movement as most of the family began shifting their attention away from Charisma and Kent and back to what they had been engaged in beforehand. Patrick claimed Kent and Okasa collected Charisma and without realizing what had happened, Charisma looked up to find Brianna gone and Esmeralda on her way out. She looked at Mama, who just nodded her permission. Charisma clenched Okasa's hands, then scooted towards the kitchen door as rapidly as she could manage. She didn't notice how the room quieted behind her when she crossed the threshold into the foyer.

Brianna was just opening the door for Esmeralda when Charisma caught up to them.

"Brianna!!" seeing the slight slump of shoulders when she called out and feeling pain of that reaction cut into her again. Steeling herself, she took a deep breath and lowered her voice. "Wait... please."

Esmeralda and Brianna traded stares for a moment, then Brianna nodded to her once. Esmeralda put a comforting hand on her arm and squeezed it affectionately, then she turned to face Charisma. Charisma forced herself to look away from Brianna, knowing Esmeralda would recognize the naked longing in her eyes and not caring. More than anyone, Esmeralda would understand and forgive her for it. She opened her arms and Esmeralda stepped into her embrace.

"Thank you, Charisma... for everything. I would have said something earlier, but you and Mama were so deep in conversation, I hated to interrupt. I just figured I'd tell you tomorrow."

Charisma pulled back enough to cup one hand around Esmeralda's cheek. "Thank you for letting us do something for you, Es. Though we'd rather there never have been a reason, you know?"

Esmeralda nodded and whispered, "I know."

"As for interrupting... you wouldn't have been. And if you need someone to talk to or you need to get out of the house for a little while - day or night, you call me, okay? You're always welcome."

"Thank you, Charisma." They hugged again once more, then Esmeralda was out the door and into the waiting limo, leaving Brianna and Charisma standing awkwardly alone in the foyer. Brianna finally broke the uneasy silence.

"Was there something you needed, Charisma?"

Charisma studied Brianna, seeing so much swirling in the depths of her eyes. She bit her lip and nodded. "I need you to know that what happened between Kent and me was not your fault. Your coming here may have been the catalyst that spurred us to actually take action on the situation, but you did nothing to influence the decision we reached. Our marriage as an intimate relationship was over long before you ever stepped foot in Washington, D.C.."

Brianna blinked slowly and sighed. "Why are you telling me this, Charisma?" an underlying hint of sadness in her tone.

"I know I've made a complete mess of everything between us - from letting you walk out of my life twenty years ago to being an ass towards you when you got here to thinking nothing had to change between us once I knew your truth to rushing the pretense of a friendship that we both managed to ignore until it was gone. So many things I've done wrong where you and I are concerned." She dropped her eyes to the ground and shook her head, hoping to clear her eyes of tears before she looked up again. "If I could go back...."

"If wishes were horses," Brianna muttered.

"Beggars would ride - exactly," Charisma finished with a soft chuckle. "However, I know the only way through is straight ahead... no reset button, right?"

Brianna snorted, knowing Charisma knew that reference strictly due to Adam. "Right," she agreed.

"Right," Charisma repeated. "So, um... I know that you've already given me a couple chances to get this right, and I keep screwing things up left and right and sideways. But I've spent the last few months trying to come to terms with things about myself that I've spent a lifetime denying. I still haven't gotten through most of my issues - it may take me the rest of my life to work through them all. But I am trying now and I was wondering if you might be willing to offer me one more chance... because as much as I don't want you and the family to break-up, I'm self-aware enough to acknowledge that I don't want to give you up either... not again. I'm selfish that way." She paused and Brianna waited, recognizing the signs that indicated that Charisma wasn't finished.

"Esmeralda was right, you know - at least as far as I'm concerned. I AM scared - not so much of what people will think... or even of what this could do to my career." She saw Brianna's brow cock derisively and shook her head. "I am a little scared - politics is all I've ever known... all I've ever been a part of my entire adult life; I'm not sure what I would do instead, but I imagine the family is already working on ideas," seeing Brianna reflect the smirk that crossed her face, "and knowing they'll be behind me regardless...." She drew in a breath. "But I AM scared of letting you down... of not being what you need me to be... because my track record where you're involved is abysmal."


"Brianna, please," she pleaded, tilting her head towards the ceiling so Brianna wouldn't see the tears slide down her face.

"Charisma, look at me." Charisma closed her eyes and released a shaky breath before bringing her hands to her face to wipe her tears. Only then did she turn her gaze to Brianna. Brianna sucked in a breath of her own and bit her lip - she'd never been able to stand to see Charisma cry, and to know she was ultimately the cause of this particular breakdown....

"What exactly are you proposing?"

Charisma couldn't stop the hope that flared in her eyes, but she replied calmly, "I'd like us to start over... really start over. I know we can't actually unlearn the things we know about each other, but it seems like maybe if we go back to how we were in the beginning... when we were getting to know one another, that perhaps we could learn about the people we are now."

"And the fact that I love you...."

Charisma took an uneven breath. "I am still trying to understand that about us, because I'm pretty sure I...." She stopped speaking when Brianna's fingers covered her lips.

"No," she instructed with a shake of her head, rushing forward when she saw the tears flood Charisma's eyes once more. "No, I don't want you to say it until you're sure - until you absolutely mean what you're saying and are prepared to live with all the consequencesand commitments it brings." Brianna removed her fingers and Charisma stared at her momentarily before clearing her throat.

"Are you saying...?"

Brianna held up a hand and Charisma stopped. "Did you know Laura Maxwell called me into her office yesterday?" seeing Charisma's eyes widen in shock. Brianna nodded. "Mmhmm - she told me to stay away from you... said I would be detrimental to your Presidential campaign." Now the blue eyes darkened in anger.

"Oh no she didn't," Charisma growled. Brianna nodded again.

"She did, in fact." Brianna chuckled. "It was almost entertaining, actually. Made me feel like I was in the middle of a badly written soap opera." Charisma snorted. "I told her you were a big girl who had been making decisions on your own for years and you could take care of yourself."

"You're probably the only person to stand up to her in forever."

"Yes, well... she needed a little comeuppance. I was just the one lucky enough to be able to give it to her," Brianna said, making a little face. "Still, I know however misguided her intentions were, she is your friend and councilor... especially in regards to your future ambitions concerning the Presidency. Maybe before we make any decisions here, you should talk to her."

Charisma glared at Brianna, blue eyes almost glowing in her irritation. "Did you not just two minutes ago tell me I could make my own decisions? I will talk to Laura - we already have a meeting scheduled for first thing in the morning to put together a more detailed press release regarding my separation from Kent. But *she* has nothing to do with *us*. *I* want you here... in my life. I want to know if you want that enough to give me one more chance to get it right."


"Brianna, I can't not try.... not after seeing what Es has gone through these last few days. I don't want to have any more regrets than I already do. I don't want to waste any of the time we have left together."

Brianna scrutinized Charisma for what felt like forever before she nodded once. "I'm willing to try, Charisma, but...."

"Brianna, all I'm asking for is a chance."

"All right," Brianna agreed with a sigh. "But I need to go. I need to get Esmeralda home."

Charisma nodded. "Go. And call me when you get home... please?"

Brianna nodded and put her left hand on the doorknob before turning back and extending her right to Charisma. "It was nice to meet you, Charisma."

"You too, Brianna Brianna," Charisma assured her as she clasped the smaller hand in hers. Then they released one another and Brianna opened the door and was gone. Charisma waited until she heard the car pull away and head down the drive. Then she blew out a nervous breath and braced herself to return to her family in the kitchen.


Jas opened the door for Esmeralda when she reached the bottom of the steps. "Thank you, Jasper," she acknowledged in a faint whisper, then slid into the seat. Jas looked at the front door that had closed again as soon as Esmeralda exited, then she climbed into the back to sit beside her for a minute. Esmeralda turned tired, questioning eyes towards her and Jas shrugged.

"Everybody but me got to say their goodbyes inside before they left. I figure I should grab my chance now."

Esmeralda smiled and clutched the fingers resting on Jas' knee. "I'm glad you did."

Jas used the hold Esmeralda had on her hand to pull Esmeralda into her, and they hugged for several minutes. When she finally eased back, she brushed a light kiss over the blonde hair, not quite surprised to see some silver threads woven into it now.

"I'm gonna miss you, Es."

"I'll miss you, Jas. Thank you...." stopping when Jas shook her head.

"We were glad to do it, Es. We volunteered, you know? We weren't going to leave you stranded with just anybody."

Esmeralda smiled. "Well, I was glad it was you guys... despite how screwy the assignment went."

"Speaking of," Jas segued with a frown, jerking her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the door. "What's going on?" Esmeralda shrugged.

"Best guess? I think Charisma might be finally stepping out of the closet… or at least peeking out of an open door. The real question is if Brianna will be willing to give them the opportunity to be happy together."

Jas shook her head. "I don't know why anyone would choose to be miserable, but even after centuries of working among mortals I have to admit that I still don't understand them."

"I don't think they understand themselves most of the time, Jas - I think that's part of the problem."

"That would certainly explain a lot. Oh," pulling out of her loose embrace with Esmeralda and sliding to the door. "I think the boss is headed this way. Time to play chauffer one more time." Jas opened the door and stepped from the vehicle, then bent down so she could say goodbye. "Love you, Es."

Esmeralda gave her a small smile. "Love you too, Jas." Then Brianna was approaching and looking between the two of them with concern.

"Is everything okay?" Esmeralda nodded.

"I just wanted to offer Es my condolences," Jas spoke before Esmeralda could. Brianna saw Esmeralda's agreement and bobbed her head.

"Thank you, Jas. Let's get Es home, all right?"

"Yes ma'am." Jas closed the door behind her, then climbed in behind the wheel, and they headed away from Charisma's home. Brianna was pensively quiet, and Esmeralda sighed. Despite the fact that her job here was finished, she couldn't stop caring about the two women who had become friends to her. She moved her gaze from the window to Brianna's troubled countenance.

"Brianna?" wincing when her neck popped as she jerked her head around to face Esmeralda. Brianna tilted her head in question. "Are you okay?"

Brianna chuckled wryly. "Pretty sure I should be the one asking you that, Es. I'm... I'm not really sure what I am, actually. Did I understand you correctly when you spoke to Charisma - that you plan to be at work tomorrow?" Esmeralda nodded and Brianna shook her head though she didn't make any comments as to her thoughts on that particular subject. "Ask me again tomorrow. I'll have the chocolate milk chilled and waiting."

"I'd like that," Esmeralda agreed. The two were silent for the rest of the ride home.


Charisma steadied herself as she approached the kitchen, easily noting the relative silence throughout the room. When she reached the threshold, she realized that at least part of that was due to the fact that the kids had once more left the building - quite literally from the sounds of it. If she didn't know better, she'd swear they were all running around in her back yard. The adults, however, still sat gathered around the table and all eyes turned her way as she walked into the room. Kent was the first to break the silence.

"Everything okay?"

Charisma looked at him and saw the hopeful twinkle in his eyes and the tremulous smile on his face. She smiled back at him.

"I think so. She's agreed to give me one more chance to see if I can get things right." She felt the release of tension in the room as a palpable thing and chuckled.

"Does this mean she's part of the family again?" Forrest asked hopefully.

"That will be up to her, Orrie. She and I are going to start from the beginning again - try to learn about the people we are now and be friends again. So it may be a little while before she's comfortable being part of the family again... I don't know. Just be ready to welcome her back when she's ready."

"Not a problem," he assured her. "The kids wouldn't stand for anything else anyway." Hunter laughed.

"God that's the truth. That's all we've heard about since she missed Christmas."

"If it makes you feel better," Kay cut in, "She's missed you all terribly. But don't pressure her... please. There are things she has to make peace with too." They nodded their agreement and let their attention turn to figuring out what they were going to do for dinner. Kay approached Charisma, who simply waited for her with a sardonic smirk.

"What's up, Doc?" she asked when Kay was close enough to hear her without Charisma needing to raise her voice. Kay rolled her eyes, but let a smile cross her face even as she examined Charisma's body language. She nodded in satisfaction.

"You've changed," watching a dark brow shoot into an equally dark hairline. "You're more settled... more at peace with yourself - even since yesterday."

"I am. I realized Es was right, and I was a coward to choose misery."

Kay nodded. "I hope it all works out, Charisma. It would be nice to see you both happy."

"You mean that."

"I really do. Just take things slow - I think you'll be fine." Charisma inclined her head, but before she could respond, Kent wrapped an arm around both of them.

"C'mon, ladies. Mama's calling and reserving an entire section of Outback for us. She figured they deserved some warning."

Kay looked down at her funeral garb and frowned. "Are we going like this?"

Kent shook his head. "Everybody's headed upstairs to change. Theresa said she's about your size if you want to borrow something - first door on the right at the top of the stairs. Just meet back here in fifteen minutes." Kay nodded and headed upstairs and Charisma realized she and Kent were the only ones left in the kitchen. He extended his hand, and tugged on hers briefly when she caught his. "C'mon, Charisma. Harley's watching Adam until we can get upstairs to change him." A beat. "I'm pretty proud of you, Charisma," releasing her hand to guide her up the stairs ahead of him. She smiled.

"I'm pretty proud of you too."

Chapter CIV

"Charisma, please... have a seat," Laura Maxwell commanded as soon as Charisma stepped into her office. "That's all, Jess," dismissing her assistant with a negligent wave. Jess nodded and closed the door. Charisma continued on until she was sitting across the desk from Laura. She had the distinct impression this was not going to go well and sighed. It was too damn early in the morning for DRAH-MAH, but better that they get this overwith now.

Laura leaned her weight on her hands against the desk as she studied Charisma silently. Charisma didn't squirm or appear uncomfortable - she simply returned Laura's gaze with an arched eyebrow and the slightest hint of a smirk.

Laura sighed - she wasn't looking forward to this, but it needed to be done, so without a word, she took her seat and folded her hands on top of the desk. "It has come to my attention that we have a serious problem that needs addressing." Charisma cocked her head, but didn't speak. "Brianna Walker needs to be removed from your life."

Both eyebrows flew into Charisma's hairline. "Excuse me?" her voice calm, but Laura could see the fury stirring in the back of those blue eyes. She cleared her throat delicately.

"Brianna Walker could easily become an issue in your campaign... especially with your separation from Kent. We need to make sure she stays at the periphery of your life if not completely outside of it."


"Good. Next order of... wait - what?? What do you mean, no?"

"What part of no is not clear, Laura? I'll be happy to explain either the 'N' or the 'O' to you. I've become quite adept with Adam."

Laura could feel her blood pressure rising, and took a deep breath before saying something she could not possibly take back. Because unlike her meeting with Brianna, she and Charisma were on the same page about a good many things - all she needed to do was remind Charisma of that.

"Charisma, I'm quite serious. Need I remind you of how long and hard we've worked to get to this place? I can spin the separation from Kent - the voters won't be thrilled, mind you, but they'll accept the fact that you have outgrown one another... especially since you've indicated that you'll still be raising Adam together. Spinning your past with Senator Walker won't be that difficult either... as long as she stays in your past, Charisma."


Laura slapped her hands on the top of the desk and huffed out a breath. Charisma flinched, but held her ground. Laura ground her teeth together before leaning back with a grimace, crossing her arms over her chest and sighing.

"Why are you being so difficult about this? Do you know anything about who this woman is now?"

"I know what I need to know, Laura."

"Oh really? You know she's a lesbian."

"Old news, and not even news worthy to be honest. I don't think the world cares if my best friend is gay," not seeing Laura flinch at her slip of the tongue."And frankly, if that's all they've got to worry about, then I'm going to be out of a job anyway - we'll be living in Paradise. There are far more important issues to be concerned with."

"And if she's gay for you?"

"That's between her and me."

"Are you really that naïve, Charisma?? It may not be news, but it will certainly derail your campaign... especially if people believe you're gay for her as well."

"If that's all it takes to stop this campaign from moving forward, then it's not really going anywhere to begin with, is it? Laura, I'm not removing Brianna Walker from my life. As long as she's willing to be a part of my life again, and let me be a part of hers, she's staying. End of discussion."

Laura growled. "Why the hell did she have to come back now, anyway? Why couldn't she have just stayed the hell away from you?"

Charisma narrowed her eyes at Laura for a long moment, then rose from her seat. "I think we're done here. If you decide that we actually need to work on an expanded press release about my separation from Kent, let me know and I'll put something together. But stay away from Brianna Walker, Laura. She's off limits to you."

"You're serious."

"As a fucking heart attack," her words causing Laura to cringe noticeably. Charisma walked to the door, stopping when she heard Laura's voice again.

"Did you know she's a writer? Or has ties to the Mob?"

Charisma sighed. "She was a writer in college, Laura. She could have made a living at it if she'd chosen to go that route. As for the Mob... I met her family. She can't help what she was born into, but she can be damned proud of who she became in spite of them."

"She did."

"Excuse me? She did what?"

"Made a career out of being a writer." Charisma turned and met Laura's eyes, which were smug with confidence in her knowledge.

"I beg your pardon."

"You don't have to beg, Charisma - just ask. Or better yet, go ask your supposed best friend why you never knew she's the writer known asHeather Athena Fontana. And when you're ready to get serious about this campaign again, call me."

Charisma didn't respond - she simply left Laura's office and headed for her own.


Charisma's day passed quickly enough - there was always something going on and it was enough tokeep her busy and her mind off the conversation she'd shared with Laura. So when Esmeralda knocked on the door much later that evening, she was startled to realize just how late it had gotten. She glanced up as Esmeralda stuck her head in the door, then waved her forward.

"Come in, Es," standing and crossing from behind her desk to offer Esmeralda a hug. The embrace was strong but brief, and Charisma leaned back to look into tired green eyes. "Can I interest you in chocolate milk?"

Esmeralda bit her lip. "I'm supposed to have some with Brianna in a little while, but I don't suppose a little more will hurt me, will it?"

"Well, it hasn't messed me up yet," Charisma offered with a smile, "though I think Kent was expecting Adam to come out that color I drank so much of it when I was pregnant."

Esmeralda snickered. "Because, of course, chocolate cows give chocolate milk so chocolate milk drinkers give birth to chocolate colored babies."

"Of course," Charisma agreed drolly as she passed a bottle to Esmeralda and took one for herself. "How are you doing, Es?" sitting next to her on the couch.

Esmeralda released a shuddering breath and slowly shook up her milk. "I'm... I'm taking it one day at a time - sometimes one minute at a time. Sometimes I feel her so close to me that I think...." She sucked down a mouthful of milk and shook her head. Charisma moved closer and put an arm around Esmeralda, smiling sadly when the blonde head came to rest on her shoulder for a moment.

"Have you received her ashes yet?"

"Mr. Prescott delivered them first thing this morning."

"Would you... are you planning to scatter them? Do you need...?" trailing off when Esmeralda shook her head vehemently.

"No... thank you, Charisma. I'm not planning to scatter them. I'm pretty sure the Father is not happy about the fact that I... I had... that I had Saphira cremated, but I couldn't bear to put her in the ground. She was too much of a free spirit to be so confined."

"She really was, wasn't she?" Charisma asked with a smile, chuckling when Esmeralda nodded her head. They stayed that way for another minute before Esmeralda sat up and met Charisma's eyes.

"I supposed I should get to work, and I'm sure you probably have other things you need to be doing as well." She paused. "Thank you, Charisma." Charisma's brow furrowed.

"For what, Es?"

"Being a friend," Esmeralda replied. Charisma brushed a kiss over her forehead and stood, offering her hand to Esmeralda and pulling her up as well.

"You were a friend first, Es. And you were a friend when I needed one the most."

"I'm glad."

"Me too... even when I was angry with you," smiling when Esmeralda's eyes widened. "I was angry because you were right, and because you had the guts to say something to us about it in front of each other."

"And now?"

"Now I'm wishing you had kicked us in the backsides a long time ago - because she gave me that other chance, and I'm determined to try."

"I think you might just succeed," Esmeralda said as she moved back to her cart and began removing her supplies and tools.

"I hope so," Charisma replied softly. "I would like to be happy again, and I would love to be the one that makes her smile for the rest of her life."

Esmeralda's eyes widened, but she kept them on the duster as she moved around the room. "That um... that sounds pretty serious, Charisma."

"Especially from someone who's been living in Narnia for twenty years?"

"Well... yeah - exactly."

"I'm not ready to say the 'L' word yet - either of them. I'm pretty sure that's going to take me a while... just like looking into a career that isn't politics is going to be a slow-moving process for me. But I've had time to regret a number of things in my life, and in the past few months, I've come to accept a few hard truths as well. I don't want to be the cause of her pain anymore, Es."

"If it makes you feel any better, Charisma, I think this is gonna be a good thing for both of you. And of course I'm willing to listen any time you need to talk."

"That goes both ways, my friend," Charisma answered. "Now let me get out of your way. I need to get home and make sure the family hasn't toilet papered the inside of my house," laughing aloud at the expression on Esmeralda's face. "Trust me... they've done it before - it's not pretty."

"I'm not even gonna ask."

"Good choice. OH - before I forget - Mama said to tell you that she expects to see you this week before everyone heads home. They're leaving Sunday afternoon."

"I'll try."

"Hard, Es," Charisma warned with a finger pointed at her. "You don't want to know what will happen if Mama has to come looking for you."

"Probably not," putting the dusting materials away and unwinding the cord on the vacuum. "Go check on your family. And I want pictures if they've redecorated the interior of your home."

Charisma rolled her eyes. "I'll see what I can do." She packed away her laptop and shouldered her briefcase, then gave Esmeralda a wave and left her to her work.


Brianna glanced at the clock when a knock sounded on her door, a little surprised. Esmeralda must be ahead of schedule tonight she thought, and called out, "C'mon in, Es." She was therefore more than a little surprised to see a dark head and blue eyes peer around the doorframe.

"I'm not Es - can I come in anyway?"

Brianna chuckled and shook her head at Charisma's playfulness - this, like the phone call they had shared the night before, reminded her so much of why she and Charisma had become friends in the first place. She motioned Charisma in.

"What can I do for you, Charisma?" Brianna asked, the smile lingering on her lips.

"I won't stay but a minute, Brianna, because I know you're waiting to talk to Es. I was just wondering if you'd give me a call when you got home tonight."

"Didn't I do the calling last night? Isn't it your turn to call?" her voice alight with a hint of laughter.

"It would be... if I wasn't going to be home well ahead of you with no idea of when you will be arriving."

Brianna nodded slowly and looked at her watch. "How about you call around eleven-thirty? I'll be home and we should both be winding down by then."

"Fair enough," Charisma agreed. "I want to talk to you about H.A. Fontana."

Brianna winced and scratched the back of her neck. "Oh you've heard about that, have you?"

"Laura was quick to inform me this morning. I'm not mad - except at myself for not catching on to it sooner. She's one of my favorite authors, you know."


"Um hmm - she's always made me feel like part of her stories."

Brianna couldn't stop the smile that crossed her face. ""Mission accomplished then."

Charisma couldn't stop the slight blush that crept up her cheeks and she cleared the throat. "I'll just let you get back to it," she said, motioning around Brianna's office. "Expect the phone to ring at eleven-thirty." Then she was out the door and closing it behind her before Brianna could say a word.

"Well... all righty then," Brianna offered to the empty room, then turned her attention back to the work on her desk.


"So how are you doing, Brianna?" Esmeralda asked as she accepted the bottle of chocolate milk Brianna offered. Brianna drank a deep draught of milk, swishing it around in her mouth before swallowing. Then she shrugged.

"I'm trying to decide if I'm an idiot or just a fool," smiling slightly when Esmeralda frowned. "Despite my best intentions - despite myself... despite everything - I agreed to trying again with her... to starting over and seeing what that could be for us. Do I love her so much that I'm willing to do anything to see that she's happy?

"Isn't that part of loving someone, Brianna? Doing what's best for them even if it's not what's best for us?"

"This will break me, Es - if it doesn't work, it will... I'm not sure...." Brianna sighed.

"Do you think it won't?"

"Do you think it will? Es, I don't know what to think anymore. I'm not sure I can trust my judgment because I want this so... so much. I thought I could walk away again... that things would be like they were before and I'd adjust to her not being in my life once more. But I couldn't stay mad and now...."

"Can I tell you something?" waiting for Brianna to nod. "It's okay to be scared, Brianna. You've been on the wrong end of a bad situation for a long time. But I've seen how she looks at you - it's the same way you look at her - the same way Saphira and I looked at one another." She paused to draw a shaky breath and she sipped on her milk so she wouldn't choke when she tried to swallow down a swollen throat. "The fact that she wants to start over from the beginning... to get to know the person you are instead of who she remembers or imagines you to be - that's significant progress. I think it will lead to happiness for both of you if you'll let it."

Brianna smiled. "Always the optimist, Es?"

"It makes my day better than if I focus on the negatives, Brianna. Besides," she added as she glanced around the room until her eyes landed on the crystal frame that was once again displayed prominently on the desk. "I'm pretty sure you're an optimist too."

Brianna chuckled deprecatingly. "Maybe a little. Maybe I just want... a lot."

"It's okay to want, Brianna. And if it helps, I'm wanting for you too."

"I'll take all the good vibes I can get at this point."

"And if you want to talk...."

"That goes both ways, Es. I'm pretty sure I would have gone screaming back home before I even got settled here if not for you and Saphira, so don't hesitate to ask if you need anything, all right? I'd like to think I can be the kind of friend that doesn't forget about their friends no matter what else is happening in my life."

"Thank you, Brianna. You'll never know how much...."

"That's okay - I'm pretty sure you won't either. But I'll always appreciate it. Now c'mon. It's time to get out of here."

"But my work...."

"... will wait until tomorrow. It's not like I'm an exceptionally messy person, and you've done enough for one day. I'm sure it will all be here tomorrow for you to take care of, and if it makes you feel better...." Brianna lifted the shredded trash and dropped it into Esmeralda's cart. "There - all done."

Esmeralda laughed and shook her head. "All right, Senator. I can take a hint. You must have a hot date tonight."

Brianna flushed. "Not quite, but I am looking forward to a phone call," matching Esmeralda's smile with one of her own. "And I'm not leaving you here alone tonight. So let's go... chop, chop."

Esmeralda couldn't argue, so she laughed and put things away, then together they walked out of Brianna's office. Tomorrow would definitely be another day.

To be continued

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