Chapter CV

Brianna was comfortably propped up in bed, sipping a cup of hot chocolate and looking over some notes from her editor when the phone rang. She couldn't stop the smile that crossed her face when Charisma's name flashed on the screen. Still she was careful to greet Charisma warmly without giving away a hint of the racing heart she could feel beating in her chest.

"Hello, Charisma."

"Hey, Brianna Brianna. You wouldn't happen to want to help me dispose of the dead bodies that will soon be occupying my house, would you?"

Brianna's brows popped into her hairline, but she couldn't halt the snort of laughter that escaped her throat. "Do I even want to ask?" hearing Charisma shut a door and wondering where she was that she was just closing everyone out.

Charisma sighed. "My brothers - you remember them right? Tall, annoying... law enforcement personnel - yes, well they decided that the family needed a little levity after the funeral and wake yesterday. So they utilized those illegal skills they have acquired as police officers to pick the lock on my office door," moaning slightly when she stretched out on the bed.

"Oh dear," Brianna murmured. "Toilet paper?" she asked sympathetically, remembering when the boys had decorated their apartment like that after having helped them move in senior year.

"If only," Charisma lamented and sighed again. "Silly string."

Brianna laughed even as she groaned aloud at the visual. "They didn't!"

"Oh yes they did. Mama is standing in the doorway with a broom as we speak, directing their clean-up of the mess. I'm pretty sure they're going to have to replace a couple pieces of furniture."

"Yea for Mama," Brianna commented, setting her cup on the bedside table and pushing her editing to the far side of the bed.

"Yes, and speaking of...."

"I'll try," Brianna cut in.

"You don't know what I was going to say."

"Sure I do, Charisma. We may be just starting to learn about one another again, but Mama hasn't changed in twenty-five years... not about some things anyway. You were going to tell me that I need to try to come over again before the family leaves."

"Too damn smart for your own good," Charisma mumbled, smiling when Brianna's chuckle came across the line. "So tell me about H.A. Fontana."

"There's not much to tell, really - I found that giving up writing was harder than I thought it would be. I was... distracted from my day job because of the stories I wanted to tell. And losing you - Fontana was a way for me to remember without it being too personal, because I could make the stories about the characters instead of us. And it fulfilled my need to write."

"So Mac was right then - you should have become a writer."

"Mac was right," Brianna agreed with a smile in her tone. "I wrote and told him about it a long time ago. He was gracious about it - he never said 'I told you so'; he just asked for a first edition of each book and tickets to the premiere when... *if* it goes beyond the book."

"Do you think they will?"

"There's been talk," Brianna admitted. "But talk is all it's been for a while. It doesn't matter right now though. I don't have time for it to be more than it already is."

"Maybe someday?" Charisma's voice a little wistful.


"And your pen name? That came from our European trip, didn't it?"

"It did indeed - some of my fondest memories are tied up in that name."

"Mine too," Charisma confessed. "Did you talk to Es?" feeling Brianna's hesitation. "I know she's a wonderful confidante, Brianna, and I'm not asking you to spill secrets. I was wondering how you thought she was doing."

Brianna tilted her head thoughtfully even though Charisma couldn't see the action. "I think... you know, I'm not really sure. Part of me wants to believe she's going to get through this despite everything, and another part of me wonders if that's even possible. I've never met two people so in tune with one another before."

"Neither have I. But I didn't get the same sense of despair I felt right after Saphira died. I just wish I knew if that meant she was dealing with her loss or if she's just numb to it all."

"This close in, I'd have to go with the numb theory myself," Brianna stated. "I don't see how she could make peace so quickly," thinking of her own experience with Charisma.

"Good point," Charisma agreed. "Well, we'll try to keep an eye on her. Would you be interested in going to Angel's after work one night this week? Maybe we could get Es to go with us - I don't think she'll ever go back there alone and Matilda's going to want to look after her as well."

"Sure," Brianna agreed. "Wednesday night, maybe? I think that is pot roast night, and Joe does a killer pot roast."

"Sounds good." Charisma yawned. "Your turn to call tomorrow night."

"You betcha," Brianna said with a laugh. "Get to bed, Charisma. Tomorrow is another day."

"Thank you, Scarlett," Charisma replied drolly before she yawned again. "Night, Brianna Brianna."

"Happy dreams, Ri."


A storm broke that night and with the falling of the rain, the cold of winter became the chill of spring, and no one was happier to see that change than Esmeralda. It gave her hope that she might one day soon get to see the blooms of home once more. She looked for Saphira in her dreams, hoping she might know when that might be, but Esmeralda drifted into a deeper sleep without ever finding their dell. She wondered when the Father would deem her need for Saphira necessary to fulfill again.

So it wasn't hard to get Esmeralda to agree to go to dinner with them - Brianna called Matilda who in turn called Esmeralda to let her know she was expected. Esmeralda wanted to be mad at the interference from both of them, but she was so lonely with the house empty and everyone gone that she accepted the mandate without argument. And Brianna and Charisma carried on so that she couldn't fault them or Matilda for being so obvious.

The first weekend, both Brianna and Esmeralda spent most of Saturday at Charisma's house at Mama's behest. The children were thrilled to have Brianna among them again, and claimed her almost as soon as she walked in the door. Mama, on the other hand, took possession of Esmeralda and the rest simply followed behind.

That day was renewing for Esmeralda, and if she couldn't find Saphira at all in her dreams, at least she had the love and caring of the human family that had adopted them. And the love and attention they lavished on her that day reminded her that there were still good things in the world to be thankful for.Seeing the looks on their faces knowing that Brianna had returned to them - watching the shy glances stolen between Brianna and Charisma when they thought no one was looking was a bonus; it made her heart glad that there was good coming from the tragedy that had befallen her.

Esmeralda had always looked forward to the evenings she worked - it meant conversation with her colleagues and the Senators she worked for. But now it was her lifeline... practically the only interaction she had with others, and she appreciated it in a way she hadn't when Saphira had been her life. The nights were the hardest because that's when she was alone, and many were the nights that she cried herself to sleep, hoping to find Saphira in her dreams, and always being disappointed when she wasn't to be found.

Still she tried to keep the faith like she had promised - wondering what was behind this whole debacle and hoping the Father had gotten whatever conclusion He had been looking for.


In the next few weeks after the Tagherty family returned to their homes, things settled into something of a routine for Charisma and Brianna. At least one of them stayed late every night to talk to Esmeralda, and some nights both of them did. Wednesdays they all went to the diner to share a late meal with Joe and Matilda and Esmeralda always hugged them all before leaving. It wasn't the same as hugging Saphira, but she craved the contact just the same and was thankful beyond measure that each of them was willing to provide her with such comfort.

Brianna and Charisma spoke on the phone every night - sometimes briefly, like Wednesdays when they were together until late. Sometimes they talked for an hour or more, gossiping and giggling about things they had seen or heard during the day. But they took turns calling - it was like their own inside joke - the only person who knew how much they both anticipated this interaction was Esmeralda.

Their days were filled with work, and though they saw one another at some point during the day several times a week, things were no longer forced between them. They had yet to share lunch, but that was due mostly to conflicting schedules than them trying to avoid one another. They were hoping to find time to schedule lunch together beforethey finished this session, but they had already determined to let it happen instead of making it.

Laura Maxwell seethed over their interaction while Scott Patterson watched with interest. Something had changed between them, and he wanted to know what it was.


"So what's the story?" Patterson asked Brianna as he sidled up to her one afternoon on the way to yet another committee meeting. Her eyebrows went into her hairline and she looked at him in confusion.

"I'm sorry - what's the story about what?" shifting the papers she'd been reading until they were clutched against her chest.

"You and Tagherty. There's a weird vibe... not like before, but just...." He let it lie, hoping she would take the hint and answer without him having to elaborate further. Brianna just shrugged.

"I don't know what to tell you, Scott. Charisma and I are friends."

He snorted. "You were friends before, but you could cut the tension with a knife. Since she and her arm candy husband separated, however...." His eyes widened and his jaw dropped and Brianna would have laughed at the picture he made had there not been a ball of dread growing in the pit of her belly. "You two are screwing around together, aren't you?" laughing aloud at the delicious irony of it all. This knowledge - true or not - would make impossibly easy to unseat Charisma from the untouchable golden throne she occupied. His laughter was cut off in conjunction with his stumble as Brianna jerked him by the arm into a quiet corridor. She sent her staffers ahead with a nod of her head, and his followed without hesitation. Patterson chanced to wonder how someone of her stature had managed such a feat, then his attention was taken by her words.

"Mr. Patterson," Brianna's voice low and deadly. "I'm not sure what your issue with Charisma Tagherty is, and I frankly don't care. Charisma and I are friends and that is all you need to know and understand. We have been friends since we were roommates in college.Anything more than that would be sheer speculation on your part and I don't like it when rumors start floating around about me." She gave him a look."Are we clear?"

"And what's to stop me from...?" he gasped out, only to choke when her hand tightened around his arm painfully and she poked him hard in the chest with her other hand, causing him to wince. He wondered how it was that there was no one in the hallway to witness this assault. At that moment, she released him unexpectedly and went about straightening his tie while he tried to read her fierce expression. Then his attention was taken by her words once more.

"Mr. Patterson, if any kind of speculation or hearsay was to come out about this from you - and believe me... I'll know where the leak comes from - I guarantee you'll never see re-election. I have tried being polite and cordial while I've been here because I don't want to make enemies I don't have time to deal with, but if you want to play hardball, bring it. Just be aware that the gloves will come off and I don't play fair - I do, however, play to win."

He looked at her askance. "Did you just threaten me??"

"Not at all, Scott," picking up the papers she'd let fall when she'd needed to make her point more forcefully. "But if you think I'm going to let you destroy something that Charisma has worked her whole life for because of your petty jealousies and insecurities, let me just remind you of Trevor Carlson," smiling in satisfaction when Patterson's face went ghastly pale.

"How do you...?"

"I told you - all bets are off. So you need to think very carefully about how important your career and your marriage and life as you know it is to you. I will ruin you."

"You're bluffing," straightening his stance until he could look down at her. She smirked at his power play and stepped right into his personal space.

"Wanna bet?" she asked with a smile. Then her phone rang. "Gotta go," she threw over her shoulder as she headed back towards the committee room. "Yes, Indi?" was the last thing Scott Patterson heard before she walked out of hearing. He leaned against the wall for a long moment trying to calm the thrumming of his heartbeat, only to jump in surprise when he felt his phone vibrate against his chest. He grabbed the device from his coat pocket and pushed off the wall to head back towards his office.

"I know I'm late, Murray. Tell them to start without me - something's come up. Take good notes for me." And he pushed the off button and jammed it back into his pocket, missing the days when he could slam a cover closed or a receiver into its cradle. It would have been a much more satisfying way to relieve some of the stress he suddenly felt.


"You're quite the celebrity," Esmeralda commented with a small smirk when she entered Brianna's office much later that evening. "I don't know what the Senators have heard, but the lower echelon is buzzing about you putting Senator Patterson in his place."

Brianna scrubbed a hand over her face and sighed. "What're they saying?" watching as Esmeralda started her cleaning routine around the office.

"Just that it was about time someone gave him his due - he's not particularly well-liked by the lower levels because of his superior attitude. Most of them are dying to know what you said to him to make him cower."

Brianna frowned. "If they don't know what was said, how do they know what happened?"

Esmeralda turned and met Brianna's eyes. "His staff and yours were both aware of the altercation that took place in the hallway this afternoon; and apparently he missed the rest of his day sitting in his office brooding. Talk is that you um... handed him his ass... is the quote I got the most."

"I told him to mind his business." Brianna swiveled to face the crystal frame, staring at the picture she had replaced the original with. It was Charisma's shot of the two of them in front of Trevi Fountain and the feelings she'd felt that night shot through her again. "Do you think I'm crazy, Es? Trying to protect her from rumors and speculation? We've only been working at being friends again for a few weeks... a couple months at most and people are already talking."

"Let them talk," Charisma instructed from the doorway, startling Brianna and Esmeralda from their conversation. Charisma pushed off from the doorjamb and sauntered into the room. Esmeralda continued working but moved to the periphery so she was only an observer. Brianna leaned back in her chair and studied Charisma as she leaned against the desk facing her.


"Brianna," Charisma replied, crossing her ankles and leaning back on her arms. "I knew when I asked for this chance with you that there was every likelihood that people would start talking about us sooner or later. They did in school for a little while too, remember? Eventually no one even thought twice about it and just assumed we came as a matched set. We're friends, and even if... *when* that changes to something more... we're not doing anything wrong, are we?"

"No... no - of course not," reaching out a hand and twining their fingers together when Charisma extended her own. "I just don't want you to resent me when... *if*… your career falls apart over this. And it's hard for me to believe that you'd be willing to give up everything you've worked for...."

"...after living in denial for twenty-some odd years?" Charisma asked with a sad smile, closing her eyes when Brianna nodded her head as tears sparkled in her eyes. "I considered this possibility, Brianna, and even though it took me twenty years to get here, I'm willing to take the risk because I want...." She paused and glanced at Esmeralda who had continued to clean. "Es?" watching the blonde head pop up and green eyes focus on her. "Do you remember when you first came back to work after your illness - right before Brianna came to town?"

"Of course, Senator. It was right before I met Adam for the first time."

"Do you remember asking me when I'd been happy last?" waiting for Esmeralda's head to nod. "What did I tell you?" Esmeralda scrunched up her face in thought before she started speaking.

"I think it was after my college graduation. I took a trip to Europe with the very best friend I had in the world," quoting Charisma word for word. Charisma nodded her agreement.

"I haven't been truly happy in such a long time, Bri. Every decision I've made since I was five has been for the advancement of my career, and for a while that was enough. But when you left - when I let you go - the most I ever found in my life was contentment. Nothing made me genuinely happy. I want to be happy again. Please don't let this give you cold feet."

"I just want you to be sure, Charisma."

"Oh Sweetheart," loosening their fingers so she could cup Brianna's face in her own. "I've had twenty years to make sure. And a family that will ensure neither of us ever doubt again."

Brianna covered the hands caressing her cheeks with her own, pulling them away so she could hold them. "Yea for the Taghertys!" Brianna replied. "I only want what's best for you, Ri."

"How lucky I'm holding it in the palm of my hands," Charisma said as she squeezed the hands she was clasping. Their eyes met and they started laughing, relieving the tension that had come from their conversation. "That was incredibly cheesy, wasn't it?" Charisma snorted through her giggles.

"Yes!" Esmeralda complained before Brianna could say a word. "Thank you for letting me be witness to that. It made me happy."

"Good!" Charisma responded emphatically. "Since it was your kick or six in the butt that got us to this place, it seems only fair that you got to see the denouement." Esmeralda shook her head and Charisma and Brianna exchanged worried glances. "No?"

"No, Charisma - this wasn't a denouement, because it's not the end of anything. This is a new beginning."

Chapter CVI

Esmeralda was right of course, when she told Charisma and Brianna that their conversation that day was a new beginning for them, though there was nothing overt about it. They were still old friends who had lost touch with one another, then been reconnected by a strange twist of fate. From the outside, no one could see the difference in their relationship - mostly because it didn't change publicly. It couldn't... not for a while yet. Brianna refused to do anything that would make her a home wrecker, and while Kent and Charisma were separated, they were still legally married. So while things did become a little more intimate between them privately, they were still slowly working their way towards rebuilding a strong foundation they would eventually be able to expound upon.

Their phone conversations became less gossip sessions about the people around them and more about who they were and where they had been in life and what they thought and felt about a vast array of subjects. That isn't to say they didn't gossip - though both of them would have denied the accusation to their graves. And they did still talk about family - Kent and Esmeralda and Kay and ALL the Taghertys, but that was to share things of interest the other may not have been privy to for whatever reason.

They did continue their Wednesday night dates with Esmeralda - for her sake as well as theirs. She needed the interaction and since Matilda had insisted she keep in touch, this was the best way to accomplish that for everyone involved. And since Brianna and Charisma were adjusting to being together again - even as simply friends - having Esmeralda as a buffer made it easier to just be.

Esmeralda, for her part, was happy to be included. She was never made to feel like a third wheel or an add-on, but felt more like a member of the family. She was able to watch their friendship slowly strengthen and blossom, and it gladdened her heart just a little... which given her circumstances was more than she expected to feel ever again.

For whatever reason, none of her angelic teammates had been back to visit... not even Amber. Esmeralda had begun to wonder if they had been forbidden to return to her or if they had been immediately reassigned to another case or if she had simply been wiped from existence as far as they were concerned. Saphira remained elusive in her dreams and it was wearing on Esmeralda in a way she couldn't explain to anyone. She didn't need to, however. Everyone could see that despite their best efforts, Esmeralda was slowly wasting away in front of them.

Charisma and Brianna tried to include her in more of their lives, but other than their Wednesday evening meals together, Esmeralda adamantly refused, citing their need to learn how to be a couple together. After spending nearly two hours on the phone discussing their options, they decided to call in reinforcements.

So Charisma placed a call to Mama and Brianna rang up Kay. And after just a few minutes of explaining their dilemma, Kay and Mama agreed to come in for the weekend to see if they could help.


Since Esmeralda wouldn't come to them, the four women decided to go to her instead. Kent was in from the City to spend some time with Adam, which Charisma believed was fortuitous timing.

She met him at the door, and led him immediately to her study where Brianna, Mama and Kay were currently ensconced with Adam. Kent looked surprised, but hid it fairly well, barely getting out his greetings before being mauled by his son.

"PA!" jumping into Kent's arms for a hug and giving his father a sloppy kiss. Kent returned the embrace fervently and laughed aloud at Adam's exuberance.

"Hey, Boy! You ready to have some fun with your old man?"

Adam frowned and shook his head. "No, Pa. Go fix Es." Kent turned and looked at Charisma.

"What's wrong with Es?"

"She's not doing well," Charisma replied, unwilling to elaborate more in front of Adam, but Kent was quick on the uptake and he nodded his understanding. "We thought we'd go visit her this morning while you and Adam were out having fun. Then maybe you could stop by to say hello."

"I think we could do that. Whaddya say, Adam?"

"Go fix Es?"

"Well, Mama and Gramma and Brianna and Kay are going to go see if they can make Es feel better first. Then in a little while, you and me can stop by to cheer her up. Sound good?"

"We bring ice cream?"

The women listening to the conversation chortled softly, but Kent nodded seriously. "I think that's a good idea, Son. Ice cream will help cheer Es up."

"'Kay! We go now," Adam replied imperiously, pointing towards the door.

"Well, how about we go see the airplanes and rocket ships for a little while? Then we'll go pick up some ice cream before we go to Es' house."

"Yes! Bye Mama!" he called out, waving as he urged his father forward. Now Kent laughed and turned towards Charisma.

"Give Mama a kiss, Son," Kent instructed, holding onto Adam's bottom half while he leaned into Charisma's embrace and kissed her. "Call me if you need anything," Kent offered to Charisma in a whisper. She nodded her thanks and walked them to the door. She waited until they were out of sight before closing the portal, then went back to her study to collect the rest so they could head out to Esmeralda's.


Esmeralda was surprised to see them on her porch when she opened the door at their knock, but her good manners held and she invited them inside.The place was spotless and smelled of cleaning fluid and each of them wondered if she did anything besides clean when she was home. Before she could lead them to the living room, Brianna headed for the kitchen, putting the bag she carried on the table and smiling when the others followed suit. Esmeralda stood in the doorway and watched bemusedly as they started unloading the groceries they'd brought with them.

"Is this an intervention of some kind?" she asked with a hint of sad humor in her voice.

"You could call it that," Charisma replied softly. "We're worried about you, Es. You're dying in front of us, and that's not acceptable! And we're going to do whatever it takes to change that."

Esmeralda could hear the tears Charisma was biting back and she crossed the room and placed a hand on Charisma's arm. Charisma's motion stilled at the touch and the rest of the room halted their work in deference to that lack of movement. Esmeralda smiled sadly at Charisma and shook her head.

"There's nothing you can do, Charisma. Without Saphira...." She shook her head.

"C'mon, Es," Brianna begged softly. "You have to want to live... you have to try. Don't you want to see Adam grow up? Don't you want to know how our story turns out?" reaching out a hand to Charisma who took it without hesitation. "After all, you're at least partially responsible for us getting this far."

"Adam is going to become a wonderful man - he is such a precious child, and with so many brilliant adult role models, I have great faith in his future. As for you two, I have to believe that in choosing happiness, you have finally discovered that your true path in life lies in being together no matter where it takes you. The only thing I'm responsible for is calling it like I see it - you two are responsible for the rest."

"Es, is there anything we can do?" Kay asked, confident of the answer, but wanting to hear Esmeralda's explanation. It might help the others to accept the truth of what Kay knew to be true.

"I don't think so, Kay. It's not that I want to die - I just don't want to live very much. There's nothing left for me here." Esmeralda held up a hand before the protestations could start and they respected her unspoken request to remain silent. She took several deep breaths before expelling a sigh and resumed speaking. "It's not that I don't love all of you or appreciate your places in my life. I will never be able to convey what you mean to me. But Saphira and I were always a part of one another... from the very beginning. I felt what she did; she knew my pain and my happiness. We started together and we were supposed to be together forever - we were promised forever. And yet, I haven't seen her... haven't felt her near since the night before her funeral service. I thought she was going to watch over me...." Esmeralda shook her head. "It doesn't really matter what I thought. The fact is that when she died, so did I. It's just taking my body longer to catch up to that truth."

"Bullshit!!" Charisma and Brianna exploded together, drawing startled looks from two of the other women in the room. Esmeralda didn't flinch - she merely held their gaze with her own sad one. "You're choosing this, Es. You're choosing to die!" Brianna accused.

"No... I'm really not. If I was choosing death, it would already be over. And I promised Amber I would do everything in my power to not put her through this again. But my heart is broken, and the only thing... the only person... that could have fixed it is no longer around to do so... not even in my dreams."

"So you're dying from a broken heart?" Okasa queried.

"Essentially, yes," Esmeralda replied. "I felt it fracture before I got the news of Saphira's death. And when I said goodbye to her in the hospital...." She looked at the ceiling and blinked back her tears. "I felt it stop beating." Charisma and Brianna snorted.

"I don't believe that," Charisma scoffed. "I don't think it's possible."

"It *is* possible," Kay confirmed, drawing a glare from Charisma that she ignored, choosing to focus on Esmeralda instead. "It's rare, but it's completely conceivable - especially between partners who are mated and have spent a lifetime together. Can we help make it easier, Es?" taking Esmeralda's hands in her own and clasping them gently.

"I don't think so," Esmeralda returned quietly. "I'm just taking things one day at a time." She turned to look at Charisma and Brianna who were clutching one another's hands, knowing that their anger was due in large part to the guilt and helplessness they felt. Kay released her hands, and Esmeralda cupped each of their faces with one hand, forcing them to raise their eyes to meet hers. "Please don't," she pled softly. "Please don't feel guilt over this and please don't refuse to be happy now. The only thing that has given me any real joy since Saphira's death is knowing that the two of you have finally found happiness together. Please don't take that away from me."

Charisma covered the hand covering her cheek, and smiled through her tears. "You don't play very fair at all," she grumbled. Esmeralda laughed.

"Of course not. I live in a political town - I play to win," causing the other four women to snicker.

Brianna took Esmeralda's hand from her face and enfolded it between hers. "We don't want you to go, Es. What'll we do without you?"

"The same thing you've always done, Brianna - live. I promise to stay with you as long as I can, and I'll be watching over you once I'm gone."

"Like a Guardian Angel," Charisma whispered, fingers touching the pin she wore every day that Esmeralda had given her those many months ago.

Esmeralda nodded. "Exactly like a Guardian Angel. Now how about we make some lunch?"

"Good idea - especially since Kent and Adam will be by with ice cream soon." And with that, they stood and began preparing the food that had been brought.


"Es?" Brianna asked as they cleaned up the kitchen sometime later. "What happened to Amber and Ruby? I expected them to stick around for a while... especially Ruby since she came here to help you out to begin with."

"They both had other responsibilities, and Ruby being here was creating a hardship for other members of the family, I think. I couldn't justify asking either of them to stay when they had so many other obligations they were accountable for."

"That kinda sucks," Kay commented as she dried a pan and passed it to Esmeralda to put away.

Esmeralda shrugged. "Life does sometimes. We just have to appreciate the good when it happens."

Okasa put a hand on Esmeralda's arm. "Is there anyway I can convince you to stop working and come stay with us for whatever time you have left?"

Tears welled in Esmeralda's eyes, but she refused to allow them to fall. "Oh, Okasa... you have no idea how tempting that sounds, but I can't. I still have medical bills and funeral debts that have to be taken care of. I can't leave that for Amber to worry about. It's going to be hard enough for her to deal with my death."

Kay tilted her head curiously and Esmeralda proffered her full attention. "If your dying will bother her so much, why isn't she here spending time with you while you're still alive?"

Esmeralda studied Kay's expression, finding nothing but compassion and curiosity in her gaze. "I don't think she can be. For one thing, she's still trying to deal with Saphira's death - she was less prepared for that possibility than I was. For another, I don't think the Father will allow it."

"I don't understand."

"Saphira and I were banished from our home - disowned, if you will. She basically had to demand the right to attend Saphira's service with me. I think the Father has refused her permission to return."

"And she's incapable of defying Him?"

Esmeralda chuckled unexpectedly, and the sound drew smiles from everyone. "Oh no - she's quite capable of defiance. She could be a professional. I asked her not to. I won't be the cause of her being banished as well, and I'd prefer she stay in His good graces... just in case I need her."

"And I thought *my* family was screwed up," Brianna mumbled, causing the rest to laugh. Before Esmeralda could question, a knock sounded at the door, and she excused herself to answer it. Then Adam had thrown himself into her arms and Kent had entered behind him carrying yet another grocery bag. Esmeralda just squeezed Adam for all she was worth and shook her head at the amount of food that was suddenly occupying space in her house. Then she led the way to the kitchen so she could share ice cream with people she was proud to call family.


"Mama?" Adam asked hours later when Charisma was tucking him into bed. She cocked an eyebrow at him and he giggled and traced it with his finger. Then he frowned seriously and tipped his head to one side. "Es all better now?"

Charisma bit her lip and closed her eyes briefly. "I think we made Es happy today, but I don't think she's going to get better, Sweetie. She misses Saphira too much."

Adam threw his arms around her neck. "Love Es, Mama."

"I know, Son - we all love Es. But part of Es is missing with Saphira gone, and she needs that part to be all better again. None of us can fix that."

Adam considered her words carefully, then nodded and hugged her again. "Love Mama."

Charisma smiled and returned his embrace. "I love you too, Adam... so much. Sleep now with happy dreams, okay?" feeling him nod against her chest. She laid him down on his pillow and pulled the covers up over his shoulders. He yawned once and closed his eyes, nodding off before Charisma could rise from the bed. Then she made her way back downstairs where everyone else was assembled.

"He asleep already?" Kent asked. He hadn't put their son to bed because Adam had specifically requested Charisma, and though he was a little hurt by it, Kent understood that some things a boy sometimes needed his mama for. Charisma nodded and made a beeline for Brianna, curling up on the couch next to her and taking her hand without conscious thought.

"Yes. He wanted to know if Es was all better," feeling the wince that went around the room.

"I wish there was more we could do for her," Brianna said. Kay shook her head.

"The most important thing any of us can do is to share our happiness with her... especially the two of you," watching Brianna and Charisma blush and exchanging smirks with Okasa and Kent. "I know you're taking things remarkably slow, but I think knowing she played even a small role in seeing you happy together has eased her pain somewhat. Be thankful you could do that much."

The room fell silent and Charisma allowed her thumb to absently trace over the soft skin on Brianna's knuckles. Kent chuckled and rose from his chair, walking behind them and dropping a hand onto each of their shoulders. They jumped but didn't shift from their positions. Kent leaned forward until his head was on a level with theirs and took their joined hands in both of his.

"I just want to say I'm glad to see this," squeezing the clasp lightly. "I know it's only been a few months, but really, it's been a couple decades. So if you're going slow because of my feelings, please don't. I know I made the right decision. However, if you're going slow for each other, I suppose that's all right then. Just be happy, okay?"

Brianna and Charisma swapped startled glances, wondering about everyone's seemingly sudden need to ensure they were happy. Then they realized it could be much worse and decided to take whatever small blessings they could find - especially since they had be given almost unwavering support from those that meant the most to both of them. Mischief sparkled in their eyes briefly, then they both leaned forward to brush a kiss on either side of Kent's face, smiling greatly at the blush that followed their actions.

"Thank you, Kent," Charisma said sincerely as she met his eyes. He nodded and cleared his throat.

"You betcha," he replied with a smile. "Just remember you owe me an invitation to the wedding when it happens," he added as he dropped their hands and stood. "Gotta go - I'll be back tomorrow," and without another word, he saw himself out, not bothering to look back at the two flushed faces still sitting stunned at his parting words. Kay and Okasa looked at one another then immediately away in an effort to keep their laughter in check. After another moment, Okasa cleared her throat, forcing Brianna and Charisma to glance up at her. She noted they avoided each other's eyes though their hands had tightened convulsively around one another's. Kay spoke before Okasa could.

"Lighten up, you two. We all know it's going to happen eventually - but it's totally up to you when it happens though and how public it becomes."

Blue and green eyes flew to Kay's face, observing the smirk she wore. They couldn't help but chuckle at her words and demeanor, and with that, they relaxed. Okasa snorted.

"Now that we've got that settled, I need to know what you want to do about your trip to Europe in a couple months." Startled eyes jumped back to hers and she cocked an eyebrow. "Did you forget you asked me to take care of arranging that twenty years ago?"

"I didn't think...."

"I didn't expect...."

"Everything was taken care of years ago - except the flight. I decided to hold off on that in case you were both successful enough to travel first class this time." Her words garnered smiles all around and Okasa shrugged. It was the truth, if not the entire truth. "So you two need to talk and decide what you want to do."

Finally Brianna and Charisma looked at one another, holding their gazes for a long time before turning back to Okasa. "Yes, Mama," they replied in unison, knowing they would talk about it when they were alone. Okasa nodded.

"I'm going to go say goodnight to my grandson and then go to bed. It's been a long day."

Her words were like a catalyst, and everyone rose from their places and exchanged hugs, then watched Okasa head upstairs. Brianna turned back to Charisma. Charisma just covered her lips with a finger and shook her head; Brianna leaned her forehead against Charisma's and neither of them noticed when Kay slipped from the room to wait in the hall.

"Call me when you get home?"

"Of course," Brianna assured her, kissing the finger still resting lightly on her lips. Charisma shivered and closed her eyes. "Goodnight, Ri."

"Goodnight, Brianna Brianna."

Chapter CVII

When Esmeralda closed the door behind her guests, she did so with a melancholy smile on her face.It was the second time the four women had visited her as a group, and she appreciated their efforts on her behalf. Despitethe fact that the growth in Brianna's and Charisma's relationship was exceptionally slow, it was good to see they *were* making progress at last... even if it only meant they had just reached the public handholding stage. At least it was something she could recognize as genuine headway. Still, it wasn't enough to alleviate her own sense of loss.What she had said to Kay at their first visit had been the absolute truth - it wasn't that she wanted to die... it was simply that she had no will to live. And the happiness and love they had brought into her life that day couldn't begin to touch the loneliness and despair that was the gaping maw where her heart and soul had once resided - a cavity that only grew a little greater every single day she was apart from Saphira.

She glanced at the calendar, noting with a hint of surprise that this second 'intervention visit' had been four months to the day since Saphira's passing. Esmeralda felt her hands start to shake as she raised them to cover her mouth. A few slow, deep breaths and the tears were pushed hack behind her eyelids again. In some ways it had been forever, and in others it felt like it had only just happened.

She locked up the house tightly, and crossed into their bedroom... her bedroom now, she supposed idly - closing the door and moving straight to the bathroom.

Even though spring had sprung and summer was literally roaring in with both barrels, Esmeralda never felt warm anymore. And the cooler air in the evenings tended to give her a genuine chill that made her shake down to her bones.

She ran the water as hot as she could stand it, sighing in relief when she stepped under the spray. Esmeralda stood there for long moments, letting the warmth flow over and around her until she felt the shivers subside. Then she bathed as quickly as she could, drying off and dressing in the overheated little room before stepping back into the cooler bedroom….

... only to stop short when she realized she was no longer alone in the house.

"Hello, Es," Amber offered as she folded her wings neatly behind her until only the feathered arches peeked over her shoulders. She opened her arms, stunned when Esmeralda didn't immediately move into her embrace. "Es?"

"Hello, Amber," Esmeralda replied coolly, clenching her jaw to keep the tears at bay once more.

"Es? Aren't you glad to see me?"

"Of course I am, Amber. I'm just not sure you're real. Unlike my earthly family that has kept in touch with me almost daily since Saphira's death, it feels as though my heavenly family deserted me for the last four months. I'm not convinced you're more than a figment of my rather vivid imagination." Her voice wasn't accusatory - it was resigned.

"Oh Es - this is the first time I've been able to get away. I badgered Michael until he secured permission for me to come." She sighed and her wings drooped behind her. "I've been trying to do like you asked," Amber said in a near-whisper. "I've been trying to stay out of trouble so I could be here when you truly needed me to be."

"And I need you now more than I have since Saphira died?" her voice a mixture of hurt and confusion.

Amber shrugged. "I dunno. I just know the minute I got the go-ahead from Michael, I came. We've missed you, Es. Everyone has been trying get back here - Turq managed to wind up on probation from her efforts."

"Should I ask?" Esmeralda asked with a chuckle, despite the tears in her eyes.

Amber blushed. "Probably not. I'm pretty sure it's going to be a while before Heaven recovers."

The tears spilled down her cheeks and Esmeralda covered her mouth. "Oh Amber...." waiting until Amber looked up before she leaped into her arms. Amber braced herself for the impact, then hugged Esmeralda as tightly as she dared. With her enhanced senses, she could easily feel the frailty in the human form she held, and Amber felt the tears roll down her face.

"You promised me, Es - you promised me."

Esmeralda gathered her courage and took a deep breath. Then she leaned back so she could meet Amber's eyes... the gold dimmed to a washed-out brown. Esmeralda leaned forward just enough to brush her lips over Amber's forehead.

"I've been trying too, Amber. But my heart - it's broken and I just don't know how to fix it. I don't know how to make it better. I miss her, Amber - I miss her so much."

Now it was Amber's turn to lean forward, and she did so until their foreheads were touching - keeping her arms wrapped snugly around Esmeralda. "I was afraid of this," she whispered. "I told Michael...." Amber broke off and pulled away just slightly. "It doesn't matter - I didn't want to be right about this."

"If it makes you feel better - I didn't want you to be right either. I just... I can feel myself slipping away, Amber. And I don't know how to stop it - I'm not sure I really want to." Esmeralda sighed and left Amber's clasp, shivering as soon as Amber's warmth was gone. Without a word, Amber tugged Esmeralda to the bed and tucked her in, then went around to the other side and clambered under the covers to share her warmth once more, wincing only slightly at the discomfort she felt when her wings contorted slightly to accommodate her position. Esmeralda sighed contentedly and Amber smiled. It wasn't much, but given the rest, she was happy for small blessings.

There was silence for a time, then Esmeralda shifted until she could look up at Amber's face. Amber felt the movement and glanced down. "Es?"

"Amber, has anyone... has anyone located Saphira?"

Amber sighed and shook her head. "No. And that alone makes me curious. The last time someone couldn't be found, it was Moses, and He hid Moses because He willed it so. I'm beginning to wonder if something similar happened to Saphira. The only thing I don't understand is why He would feel the need to keep her away from us."

"Do you think He's afraid it would become another rebellion like Lucifer led?"

Amber shrugged. "I dunno. It's just peculiar, and you know how that grates on me."

"I know," Esmeralda offered through a yawn. "Sorry."

"Why?" Amber inquired affectionately. "I know how much sleep humans need, and it's probably worse for you with everything that's going on. Sleep. I'll stay and watch over you for as long as I can."

Esmeralda yawned again and snuggled deeper into Amber's hold. "Love you, Amber."

"Love you too, Es."


"Wake up, Es," the voice prodded gently, causing a frown to mar Esmeralda's otherwise angelic features. "C'mon, Sweetheart - wake up and let me see those beautiful eyes." Esmeralda blinked, but scrunched her eyes closed when the bright light nearly blinded her. It had just been coming on to dark when she'd lain down with Amber. Had she really been asleep that long? Then she took a deep breath and stiffened, even as she felt darkness fall around her.The warmth and scent of Saphira surrounded her and the low, husky voice was her undoing. "Es?"

"Phira?" shivering when strong arms tightened around her. She turned in Saphira's arms and tucked her head beneath her chin, greedily inhaling the smell that encompassed her. "Oh God, Love - how I have missed you so!" Then she cuddled into Saphira's embrace and just cried.

"I've been here, Sweetheart - just waiting for you," Saphira whispered.

Saphira just held Esmeralda and let her cry, praying that the sobs wracking her body would give her the relief she sought. Saphira could feel Esmeralda's pain, and it was nauseating. Tears escaped blue eyes while Esmeralda cried and Saphira let them fall unchecked as she rocked her mate.

After an incalculable span of time, Esmeralda calmed and though Saphira refused to release her hold, she did ease back just enough to determine if Esmeralda had in fact fallen asleep. What she found was a pair of green eyes swirling with pain and anger and love and devotion staring back at her. She brushed a kiss over Esmeralda's forehead, only a little surprised when Esmeralda pulled her head down until their lips met.

The kiss wasn't angry or passionate, but full of love and reassurance and they let it linger for long minutes. Finally, though, Esmeralda pulled back, sitting up and pushing Saphira over until she was laying flat on her back. Esmeralda leaned over her, studying her blue eyes and resisting the touch that was urging her to meld their bodies together and just forget everything for a while. She shook her head and Saphira blew out a frustrated breath, but relented.

"What is it, Es?" she finally asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence that had fallen. Esmeralda bit her lip, and let the anger that had been stirring fade into the background as her sadness moved to the forefront of her countenance.

"Why did you lie to me, Saphira?" seeing the shock widened blue eyes as the accusation rang in her ears. "Why did you tell me you didn't choose this? Don't," she commanded softly when Saphira looked like she was going to erupt. "You told me you had taken care of everything - that implies you made a choice to ensure I would be all right. You told me you were no longer being punished for your actions - that means you were reinstated and moved home while I was left on Earth to suffer alone without you." She took a breath and allowed resignation to underscore her tone. "What I don't understand is why - why the charade? Why rip my soul apart making me believe you were dead? Why, Saphira? What did I do that was so horrible that you couldn't be with me anymore?" Saphira wrapped her arms tighter around Esmeralda's body, forcing them together while holding on for dear life. "Saphira... I can't breathe," Esmeralda gasped. Saphira loosened her hold without giving Esmeralda an opportunity to move away.

"I didn't lie, Es. I didn't choose this - not to die or to be separated from you. Es, you weren't getting better... you were still dying. I was desperateto make sure that wasn't gonna happen; all I wanted to do was make sure you were gonna be okay. I didn't know this would be a consequence of my actions."

"Maybe not at first, but you knew afterwards - when I met you here right after...." She shuddered and shook her head, trying to clear it of the myriad of thoughts and feelings that rippled through her. She couldn't stop the memory, however. It was still too fresh and Esmeralda let it roll to its conclusion before she met the guilt in Saphira's eyes. This time when she tried to pull away, Saphira let her go... but only far enough that she could look Esmeralda squarely in the eye.

"I didn't lie, Es," said through gritted teeth. "I have *never* lied to you." Saphira raked a hand through her hair almost viciously, welcoming the pain as a distraction from the agony she could feel tearing them apart. "When I talked to the Father - when I accepted responsibility for the mistake that got us both tossed from home, it was with the understanding that He would make you well again. I couldn't... I can't live without you, Es and watching you continue to suffer for my actions...." Saphira shook her head."I expected it meant that He'd heal you and eventually we'd get to go home again when your mission was complete, but I never thought it would mean I had to die first... certainly not leave you behind." She bit her lip, but a single tear still rolled down one cheek, and she wiped it away savagely. "When He brought us together here, I was given strict instructions on what I was and was not allowed to reveal to you. I still don't know why - He hasn't seen fit to share much with me since my return," the last stated with more than a hint of bitterness.

"So you're alive? And you're home?"

"Not exactly," Saphira replied with a huff. "I did die - the human me did anyway. When that happened, the Angel part of me was brought here... wherever *here* is. I am waiting for you to join me before I can be truly alive again. Until we're together, I am simply existing... marking time."

"Then who were the others you talked to - to know that Brianna's and Charisma's case was so well known? Amber said no one knows where you are... and you know she's asked around."

"She probably hasn't asked the cherubs though. You know how crazy they make her just on general principle… and then you add in their dangerous target practice and all, it's not surprising she hasn't found me. They're the only ones who stop by occasionally - I think He sends them periodically to check on me because no one else has been by which indicates He doesn't want me found yet." Saphira shrugged. "And they always tend to show up when I least expect them to."

"So you're a prisoner here?" Esmeralda's voice almost screeching.

"More like a tenured guest. It was indicated to me that this is only temporary, and though I don't have any outside contact with anyone other than the sporadic cherub visit, I can still watch over you from here. That's enough for me. He promised we would be together again - I have to trust that. And until then, I get to watch over you."

Saphira reached for Esmeralda again, gratified when Esmeralda fell into her arms. THIS had been the reaction Saphira had been waiting for and the joy she felt resonated through her soul and into Esmeralda who shuddered beneath her touch.

"Oh Saphira," Esmeralda whispered, clinging to her mate's warm body and committing her faith to Saphira's strength to keep them upright. "I'm sorry...."

"No," Saphira replied fiercely. "No - I should have told you that I talked to Him. We could have talked about what it meant to both of us - maybe made a few contingency plans."

"I should have given you a chance to explain before I accused, but I was so angry when I thought about it."

"I guess we both could have done things a little bit differently, but Es, I don't blame you for being angry with me. Truth is - I was pretty furious at myself when I realized what had happened, but by then it was too late."

"I love you, Phira... so much."

"I love you too, Es," Saphira reassured her with a smile. "And nothing about that is ever gonna change... except that I'll love you more every day."

Esmeralda blushed, but couldn't stop the sly smile that crossed her face. "That was pretty corny, Phira. I think you were human too long."

"Without a doubt, Es," Saphira agreed with a snort. "But that doesn't negate the truth of the sentiment and the feelings behind it."

"Show me, Phira," Esmeralda growled aggressively. "I want to feel it - I want to feel you."

Saphira didn't need any other enticement and Esmeralda followed her to the ground. Then there was no more talking - only feeling.


"If you have been here this whole time," Esmeralda contemplated aloud sometime later, "why couldn't I find you? I've searched every night since you...." Saphira held her tighter and Esmeralda snuggled into her embrace.

"I dunno, Es," Saphira answered. "I'm sure He had a reason."

"Of course I did," a deep voice replied, and Saphira automatically shifted them so she could cover their modesty with her wings. He allowed them to settle before He stepped into view and both Angels lowered their eyes in respect. The Father took a seat beside them, in their periphery but without making them feel as if He was scrutinizing them. "It's good to see you again, Esmeralda." Esmeralda bit back the retort she wanted to make and simply nodded her acceptance of His words. He chuckled lightly. "I know you're angry, Es. I'd be worried if you weren't. I'm sorry you had to go through this, but I needed to know you were ready - both of you."

When He didn't elaborate further, Saphira blew out an impatient breath, but her tone was the epitome of patience when she spoke. "Ready for what?"

"The one request both of you have made of Me - aside from the welfare of the other." Esmeralda and Saphira looked at one another, their expressions a conundrum of confusion. Finally, they both looked back and Him. He smiled. "I think it's time for you to come home, Es. It's time you both resume your rightful place in the hierarchy." He offered with a smile. Esmeralda's eyes widened.

"What about Brianna and Charisma, Father?"

He nodded, not at all surprised by Esmeralda's compassionate nature. "You did well with them, Es. They're on their way to happiness together. But it's up to them now. They have to be willing to take the steps to claim it. If they do...." He shrugged. "I have high hopes for them."

Esmeralda sighed and Saphira hugged her tighter. "You did good, Sweetheart. I'm so proud of you."

The Father laughed, the sound a rumbling thunder in the quiet of the meadow. "I'm proud of both of you. You far surpassed my greatest expectations and you'll be well-rewarded for it."

"I'd be happy just to come home again," Esmeralda murmured. "I'm so tired."

"I know you are, Es," the Father said benevolently. "Close your eyes," noting that Saphira did the same even though He hadn't instructed her to do so. "Close your eyes and relax, Es. When you open them again, you'll be home. Your health will be restored and you will be among my Chosen again."

"And Saphira?"

"Saphira's been waiting for you, Esmeralda. When you return, so will she." With that assurance, Esmeralda closed her eyes and waited for the world to shift around her.


"NO!! No, Es! C'mon... you can't do this to me! You promised!" Amber screamed when she felt Esmeralda slump against her lifelessly. "C'mon!!" she pled. "What am I gonna tell the rest?? Don't do this!!" shaking the body leaning against her none too gently.


Her head jerked in the direction of Michael's voice, but she couldn't see him for the tears in her eyes. He stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder. She flinched, but didn't pull away; she knew he wasn't to blame, but it was hard not to react.

"Amber... it's all right. The Father called her home is all."

"She's not...?"

"No. And apparently neither is Saphira. He sent me to fetch you home." He grinned and Amber couldn't help the small smile that etched itself onto her face. Michael didn't smile often... much less grin and she wondered what could be better than to know Saphira and Esmeralda were alive. Then he spoke. "He's restoring them. They're resuming their places in the Family."

"Oh Michael - seriously?"

Michael laughed aloud. "Seriously. And He has an announcement to make as well. So c'mon. We don't want to miss this."

"What about....?" motioning to Esmeralda's lifeless body still tangled with her own.

"It's just her human shell, Amber, but we need to leave it for someone to find. It will give closure that her simply disappearing from their lives won't. He's sending someone to both Charisma and Brianna to give them the idea to check on her. When they do, they'll find that she passed in her sleep. I imagine you'll be getting a phone call shortly thereafter, so c'mon. We don't want to miss the proceedings before you have to return to being human again for a little while, right?"

Amber untangled herself from Esmeralda and reverently laid her on the bed, pulling the cover up and brushing a cheek against already cooling flesh. Then she stood and took Michael's hand. "It still hurts, you know."

"I know," he replied sympathetically. "But it's not real, I promise."

Amber nodded. "Let's go. I wanna see this for myself." And in a blink, they were gone.

Chapter CVIII

Esmeralda kept her eyes closed and her hand clasped tightly in Saphira's even when she realized they had been whisked from the meadow. Without seeing, she could tell that they had been shunted directly into their home, and she kept her eyes closed for another moment, absorbing the scents and sounds she had missed for an eternity. Then she felt Saphira's arms slide around her middle and she naturally leaned into the strong body behind hers.

"Open your eyes, Es," Saphira whispered directly into her ear. "Open your eyes - we're home."

Esmeralda sucked in a deep breath, causing a smile to settle on her lips as the combined scents of home and Saphira filled her lungs. She let her eyes blink open and meet Saphira's, unable to keep a few tears from slipping down her cheeks.

"Tears, Sweetheart?"

Esmeralda chuckled and cupped her hand around Saphira's jaw. "Happy ones, Love." They both started when the Father cleared His throat nearby, gently reminding them of His presence.

"I'll give you a little while to clean up and prepare yourselves, but reacquainting yourselves," gesturing around the home they stood in, "will have to wait until after the announcement." He waited until they nodded their understanding, then He smiled and glided to the door. "I'll send a cherub for you shortly."

"We'll be ready, Father," Saphira assured Him and Esmeralda bobbed her agreement. Without another word, He left them alone.

For another moment, they simply stood still - soaking in the change in their reality. "We're home, Es. We're really, *finally* home."

"We're together again, Saphira. Everything else is just a bonus as far as I'm concerned. An amazing bonus, but...."

"... still just a bonus. I know," Saphira confessed with a grin. She slid her arms down Esmeralda's body until she could clasp her hands. "C'mon. I don't know how much time we've got, but I don't think it's gonna be a lot. And I really don't want to attend His party naked. That might be okay for the cherubs, but it's not appropriate for an Angel of Vengeance."

Esmeralda turned and brought their bodies flush, loosening her hands from Saphira's and winding them around her neck instead. "I don't care if it's appropriate for an Angel of Vengeance or not. You're mine and I don't share."

Saphira threw her head back and laughed aloud, even as she pulled Esmeralda tighter into her. "I seem to remember that about you," Saphira stated factually. "You've always lived up to those green eyes, but then... I'm not known for sharing either. Now c'mon - before we get caught naked by a cherub." And together they disappeared to prepare for their reception.


Michael had been correct if not accurate about someone alerting Charisma and Brianna about Esmeralda's passing. Jade had been delegated to the task of ensuring they felt the need to check on her - Jade chose a more direct approach.

Knowing that Brianna and Kay were staying the night with Charisma and Okasa - they had hoped to coax Esmeralda to join them, to no avail - Jade went directly to Charisma's home and made her way into Adam's room. It only took a few minutes of strokingher fingers through the dark hair before Adam's blue eyes blinked open sleepily... then widened when he saw an Angel sitting beside him on his bed. He reached out a hesitant hand, and Jade grasped it gently.

"Are you a real Angel?" he whispered, looking her over carefully. "You look kinda like Phira."

Jade blinked, but otherwise gave no reaction to his words. Instead, she offered him a small smile. "I am indeed a real Angel; Saphira was my friend. And our Father sent me here on a special mission, but I need your help."

"I get to be a Angel?" he asked, head cocked to one side as he gave Jade a beguiling smile.

"You get to be an Angel helper."

Adam studied Jade's eyes for a long moment, then nodded, satisfied with what he found there. "'Kay."

Jade grinned. "Good boy," messing up his hair slightly. Adam just laughed and Jade laughed with him before she sobered and met his eyes seriously. "Adam, what do you think would make Es happy again?

"Phira," he replied without hesitation. "Es misses Phira."

"You're right. And Es misses Phira so much that she needs to go find her and be with her again."

"Es is going 'way?"

Jade nodded. "Es is going away so she and Phira can be together."

"And Es will be happy again?"

"Es will be happy again."

"Good. Love Es - love Phira."

"And they love you. You were a very special blessing to them, and they will always hold you very dear in their hearts." Adam frowned and Jade waited while he considered her words carefully. Only when he nodded his understanding did she speak again. "Close your eyes." He scowled and crossed his arms over his chest. "Adam, you have to close your eyes so I can tell you how to be an Angel helper. It won't work otherwise." He pouted, then relented, closing his eyes so tightly they were crunched shut. Jade smirked and began running her hands through his hair again, feeling him relax into her touch. Just before he fell back into sleep, Jade leaned down and whispered into his ear. "When you wake up, tell your mama about your Angel dream."

"'Kay," he mumbled sleepily. Jade waited another minute until she was certain he was asleep again, then she left as silently as she'd come.


"So do you think the Father's announcement is about us being restored to the Family?" Esmeralda asked as she extended her wings fully for the first time in ages. The groan she made was almost orgasmic, but Saphira understood it was simply relief in being able to unfurl a part of her that had been tucked away for so long, Esmeralda had forgotten what it felt like. She stretched them to their fullest until they shook with the effort. Only then did she let them fall naturally behind her and turn to face Saphira directly. Saphira shrugged as she adjusted her robes.

"I guess. I'm not sure what we both requested. The only thing I ever really asked for that I can think of was for you to be restored to health. As much as I wanted to come home, I never asked for it." She shrugged again. "I guess we'll find out in a few minutes."

Esmeralda tippedher head to one side. "You don't seem very excited... or very curious, for that matter."

"I'm not. Don't get me wrong - I'm glad to be home and thrilled about being restored to my place in the grand scheme of things, I guess. But I've done without both, so it's not something I HAVE to have anymore. I have you again, and as long as I never have to ever be without you again, it's all good."

Esmeralda reached up and brushed a kiss over Saphira's cheek. "I love you," she said simply.

Saphira lifted her up and Esmeralda automatically wrapped her legs around Saphira's waist. "Good thing," Saphira stated, smiling when Esmeralda tangled her hands in long, dark tresses. "I love you too," urging Esmeralda closer....

... only to freeze when an embarrassed cough sounded from the doorway. "<Ahem> If the two of you can pull yourselves away from one another long enough to join us, the Father is ready and the rest of heaven is waiting."

Saphira and Esmeralda exchanged a long glance as Esmeralda slid back to the floor. Saphira extended her hand and squeezed tightly when Esmeralda clasped hers. "Fine, Rudy," Saphira said with a smirk and a hint of exasperation in her tone... though her eyes were twinkling in merriment. "If everyone is waiting on us, I suppose we should go," shooing him ahead of them. "Lead on," she commanded when he hesitated. "We don't want to keep everyone waiting."

With a nod, the cherub scampered out in front of them, and then they were heading to the Father's throne.

It was a soundless walk - apparently Rudy hadn't been kidding when he said the rest of heaven was waiting for them. No one was out - the streets of gold were empty; the choir loft was silent; no cherubs were at practice... even the saints had apparently retired to their mansions. Saphira and Esmeralda looked at one another, but they didn't have any answers and Rudy was intent on getting them into the Father's presence as quickly as possible.

In another moment, they were standing in front of the second set of Pearly Gates - these guarded the throne room instead of the entrance to heaven. Rudy came to a stop and turned to face them. "Wait here - and no funny business. I need to announce you."

"But He knows...."

"Of course HE knows, but the rest don't. Now wait here." Then he disappeared inside the gates.

Esmeralda frowned and looked at Saphira who was scowling hard enough to peel the opalescent finish from the gates. "He's awfully bossy for a cherub."

Saphira couldn't stop the snort that escaped her and they both snickered. "This is probably the most important task he's ever been assigned. I suppose I can't blame him for taking it so seriously."

"Maybe... but a please would have gone a long way."

Saphira snickered, biting her lip to keep it from becoming full-fledged laughter. "Maybe you should ask about instituting manners training for those that don't interact with mankind like you do. I don't think they appreciate the niceties like you do."

"A little courtesy doesn't hurt."

Saphira held up her hands in surrender. "No argument from me, Love. The world would be a much nicer place if everyone felt the same."

Before Esmeralda could make any kind of retort, the gates pushed open and Rudy was beckoning them inside with a broad smile. "Welcome home, you two," he said quietly. Then they crossed the threshold and entered a cacophony of sound that was nearly deafening. Their hands tightened around one another and moved forward together. It was time to return to the Family.


Their laughter wound down and Charisma looked around. "I'm glad we did this again. I just wish we could get Es to join us. I think it would do her a world of good."

Kay sighed. "You know she's not going to get better, Charisma - right?"

"You can't know that," Charisma ground out, trying desperately not to lash out at Kay in anger. If Brianna was going to remain in her life - and Charisma was determined to make that a permanent fact sooner rather than later - then she needed to stop resenting Kay and try to be friends with her. But it was really hard... especially now when Kay was the voice of reason telling Charisma something she definitely didn't want to hear. And despite what she'd told Adam only a couple weeks before, Charisma didn't want to believe that Esmeralda was dying.

"I can... and I do," Kay said with resignation. Some days she hated her job, and today was the epitome of that emotion. "I don't want to be right, but this is what I do for a living, Charisma. And Es is so honest she's an easy read. Her will to live died when Saphira did - it's simply a matter of her body catching up with her soul."

"That's not...."

"Fair? Right?" Kay asked sympathetically. "Maybe not from our point of view. But we're selfish and want to keep Es with us for as long as possible. But from her point of view it's not right or fair that she's had to be apart from her mate for so long. The best we can do is spend as much time with her as we can manage so her last memories are of being with family who loves and cares for her."

"That's hard when most of us are in another state," Okasa commented. Kay nodded her concurrence. "We'll do the best we can... keep doing these bi-weekly get-togethers for whatever time we have left with her." She looked at Kay. "Do you have any idea...?"

Kay shook her head. "There's no way to tell. Unlike a physical ailment, there aren't any monitors we can hook her to or any reading we can take. It all depends on how strong her will is, and I don't think Es' will is very strong as far as this goes. She's been worn down by so many other things for too long."

"I wish I knew how to contact her family - Amber and Ruby. They just disappeared after the funeral, and although Es was understanding about it, I know it hurt her," Brianna said.

"Maybe we should ask for her contact information when we see her again - you know... just in case. If something happens, we need to be able to get in touch with them," Charisma remarked and the rest dipped their heads in accord.

"Do we want to go over again tomorrow?" Okasa asked. "We don't want her to feel like we're smothering her."

"Mama?" The voice from the doorway caused all four women to snap their heads around and Brianna patted Charisma's hands and rose before Charisma could move. She walked to the doorway and knelt next to him. Adam threw his arms around her neck and she lifted him into her arms and stood.

"Hey Little Man - aren't you supposed to be in bed?" He yawned and rubbed his eyes furiously. "Did you have a bad dream?" He shook his head as much as he could with it tucked under her chin and Brianna frowned. "Then what's wrong, Son?" not noticing the smiles her choice of address brought to the three faces watching in concern.

"Angel said...." He yawned again and smacked his lips. "Angel said Es with Phira now. Es happy again," he reported, snuggling deeper into Brianna's embrace. She tightened her hold, even as she turned her alarmed gaze to the others in the room. They stood almost as a single unit and approached her from all sides. She leaned her head down and whispered into Adam's ears.

"Adam? Son, can you hear me?"

"Love Br'anna," he mumbled, but didn't open his eyes. Brianna sighed, but a nod from Charisma made her whisper again.

"Adam, when did you talk to the Angel?" But the only answer they got from him was the soft, even breaths of sleep. She looked at Charisma and shook her head. Charisma looked at Kay and Okasa before returning her attention back to Brianna.

"I think we should go check... just in case. How about if Kay and I go?" Brianna started to object, then realized Charisma might want to talk to Kay privately. And as nervous as that made Brianna, she knew they needed to form their own friendship outside of her if they were ever to become truly comfortable together - something she and Kent were going to have to work on as well.

"All right," she acquiesced. "Okasa and I will tuck Adam back into bed. Call when you get there?"

Charisma leaned over and brushed their lips together without thought, then froze. She hadn't intended their first kiss to be so casual... or in front of an audience. "Um...."

"Go," Brianna commanded. "We'll talk about that when you get home."


Kay snickered and turned Charisma towards the door. "C'mon, Senator. I'm pretty sure you want to have that conversation as soon as possible - in great length and with enthusiasm. The sooner we get your brain cells back on track and see about Es, the sooner you can come home and try that again without your son between you and an audience around."

"Kay," Brianna said sternly. "Stop teasing Charisma and go check on Es. One of you call us once you know something."

Kay frowned but bobbed her head as she and Charisma made their way to the garage. "I'd forgotten how bossy she gets," she muttered as she climbed into the passenger seat. Charisma chuckled.

"It's good to know some things never change." Then she pulled out of the garage and turned the SUV towards Esmeralda's house.


The house was dark and silent when they arrived, and they stared at one another with apprehension before exiting the SUV and walking to the door. Charisma knocked and rang the bell, but there was no response. Kay took her phone out - they could hear the phone inside ringing, but there was no sound to indicate anyone was home to answer it. They looked at one another before Charisma lifted the potted plant neat the door to swipe the extra key.

"Are you sure, Charisma?"

Charisma nodded. "Yes. Something's not right - we both know that. If Es is just sleeping deep, she'll forgive us; if not, we need to know."

"All right," Kay said, stepping aside. "You want me to...?" Charisma shook her head.

"No. I think this is something I need to do," sliding the key into the lock and opening the door. "Es?" she called out. "Es? It's Charisma. It's Charisma and Kay." They poked their heads into the living room and the kitchen before reaching the bedroom. The minute Charisma opened that door, they knew. But they crossed to the bed so they could check to be sure, tears welling when they saw the smile that graced Esmeralda's face in death.

"I think she found Saphira," Kay commented as she put the phone to her ear. Charisma nodded but didn't answer, then Kay's attention was taken explaining the situation to Brianna. "Don't speed," Kay cautioned Brianna. "We'll be here, but you need to get here safely, all right?" nodding when Brianna replied in the affirmative. Kay hung up and turned to Charisma. "Okasa is going to call the authorities in a few minutes and she's going to stay with Adam. Brianna is on her way over, and I'll head out when she arrives. I figure the two of you would like to say goodbye alone."

"Thank you," Charisma said quietly. "Thank you for understanding, and for.... I want you to know that I'm trying, Kay. I know you're important to Bri and that makes you important to me. I would like to try to be friends, but you're going to have to be patient with me. I'm selfish sometimes and I don't share very well - I never have. And I don't always like being told the truth... even if it's something I need to hear."

Kay smiled. "Do you love her, Charisma?"

"Heart and soul, Kay."

"That's all I need to know. The rest we can figure out as we go along." She saw bright lights turn into the drive. "Gotta go." She walked down the steps and intercepted Brianna, taking her keys and whispering something before getting into Brianna's vehicle and leaving. Brianna met Charisma in the doorway, and they embraced for a long moment before Brianna stepped back slightly and grasped Charisma hand.

"C'mon. Time to say our goodbyes before this place becomes a circus."

Chapter CIX

They walked to Esmeralda's bedside still holding hands, then Brianna dropped to her knees and Charisma released her hand, though she kept a hand on one shoulder. Brianna put both hands over Esmeralda's cooling ones, shivering when the reality of her death settled in the pit of her stomach. A tear rolled down her cheek, and Brianna let it fall, keeping her focus on the happiness and peace so clear on Esmeralda's face.

"Hey, Es," she said softly. "I know you're with Saphira - I can tell by the expression on your face. You look really happy to be wherever you are, so I hope we're not interrupting anything, but we wanted to say goodbye privately." Brianna paused and inhaled slowly. "You and Saphira were good friends, Es, and I'm not really sure I would have survived very long in this place without your friendship in my life. So thank you - thank you both so much. You were amazing, and I'm glad I got the chance to know you both." She sniffed and blew out a shaky breath. "Be happy, Es. We'll miss you."

"Thank you, Es," Charisma whispered before Brianna could shift from her position on the floor. She clenched the shoulder under her hand slightly, feeling Brianna cover that hand with one of hers and smiling at the warmth that followed."For everything - your friendship; your faith; your encouragement and your love. You'll never know the true difference you made in my life - in the lives of everyone you touched. But we will, and we'll never forget. God bless you, Es. I hope you and Saphira enjoy happiness together in whatever eternity you share."

Brianna stood slowly and Charisma slipped behind her and slid her arms around her waist. Brianna didn't hesitate, but leaned into Charisma and covered her arms in a kind of reverse hug, sighing silently at just how right this felt. And she wondered if Esmeralda could see them - if she was happy for them. She looked at the smile again that Esmeralda wore and knew it for the truth.

"Kay thought Es must have found Saphira too," Charisma whispered into Brianna's ear. "Despite everything, that makes me happy... knowing they're together again. Because I know how wonderful that feels - to be reunited with the one you're meant to be with forever."

Brianna stiffened slightly, but before Charisma could react to her response, Brianna turned in Charisma's arms, and Charisma locked her arms around Brianna's waist. Not tightly, but enough to prevent her from leaving Charisma's embrace prematurely. To Charisma's surprise, Brianna didn't hesitate or try to pull away - instead, she wrapped her hands together behind Charisma's neck.

"Do you mean that, Charisma?"

Blue eyes studied green intently and the gaze was returned stare for stare. Charisma leaned their foreheads together so their eyes were forced to cross to keep one another in focus. "So much, Bri. I know it's taken me forever to get here, but the last few months have shown me so much I refused to see before - how much I missed you when you were out of my life; how glad I am to have you back... even as just my best friend again; how amazing you are and how much we have both grown while still remaining at our cores the women we were in college. But mostly I've learned how very much I love you, and just how right that feeling is." She lifted her head and looked in the direction of the bed where Esmeralda still rested in the peace she'd found in death. "If it was anyone else, I'd probably feel very weird about making this kind of confession by their deathbed, but it seems right that Es be witness to this. After all, she bears some of the responsibility for bringing us back together." Charisma looked back at Brianna, and wondered how she could ever have missed the look of love and devotion staring back at her. "I love you, Brianna Walker... so much. I'm sorry it took me so long to get to this point, but thank you for being patient with me. Thank you for giving me another chance."

She leaned her head down as Brianna tilted her head up, letting their lips come into full contact this time. It remained chaste - just a light touching of lips over and over as they made promises in front of the one witness who deserved to see them. And it was so new that they wanted to savor the sensations flowing between them with just the barest of connections. They understood... and knew Esmeralda would too.

After a moment, they eased their lips away from each other, chests heaving until one would have believed their interaction had been much more promiscuous. They met one another's gaze and grinned.

"Wow," Charisma whispered, unwilling to break the momentary peace that had settled over them. "That was...."

"It was," Brianna agreed. "And it's only going to get better, but not now. Right now we need to see if we can find a way to contact Ruby or Amber. And the police should be here...." The sound of cars pulling into the drive caught their attention and they stepped back, automatically straightening their attire. "Right on schedule," Brianna grumbled. Charisma smiled and took Brianna's hand.

"C'mon. Let's go let the police in and see what we can do about the other. We'll talk more about this later?"

"Of that you can be sure," Brianna promised, and they left Esmeralda lying in state with the smile still etched on her visage.


"Welcome home, my children," the Father's booming voice echoed across the throne room above the raucous cheers of heaven's inhabitants. Saphira and Esmeralda glanced around in awe - they had never expected such a grandiose celebration. Naturally, their hands tightened around each other's and they soaked in the happiness that was apparent on every face before looking at one another with questions writ large over their expressive countenances. The Father just chuckled and the sound brought their attention back to Him.

When they reached the bottom of the throne, they stopped and bowed their heads, waiting for whatever the Father had planned for them. They were more than a little surprised when they felt his gentle hands raise their eyes to meet His and realized He had left His throne and moved down the steps to greet them. His actions garnered even louder applause, and He let it roll for several moments before signaling for silence. Only then did He begin to speak.

"Before we get started with the official proceedings," He stated in a loud, clear voice over the soft hum that remained, "I think you should be aware that heaven almost had another uprising because of you two." The hum dropped to utter stillness and He rolled His eyes before He looked out at the gathered assembly. "People... hello? Omniscient here, remember?" shaking His head at Saphira and Esmeralda who simply bit their lips. He cleared His throat.

"Anyway, once everyone recalled how poorly the last revolt turned out, things settled down and we watched and waited. I want you to understand - the choices and decisions you made were all your own, as were the consequences that came with them. But there was a reason for everything that happened."

"Father?" Esmeralda interrupted quietly. "Brianna and Charisma - were they a real assignment?"

The Father smiled and nodded. "They were indeed. But they were also part of your testing, and you far exceeded every expectation," He added, lifting His hand and revealing a massive screen that showed their conversation with her and each other by her deathbed. "They still have things to work out and obstacles to overcome, but they got their second chance together. And from the sounds of it, they could actually make it work this time."

A buzzing sound interrupted His speech and He looked directly at Amber and motioned for her to answer the call. Saphira looked at Esmeralda. "When did we start getting cell reception up here?" asked out of the side of her mouth. Esmeralda shrugged; then her eyes grew wider when the Father beckoned Amber forward. She bobbed her head in respect, then put her hands on her hips and glared at both Saphira and Esmeralda.

"I am so angry with the two of you...." holding up a hand to cut off their outbursts. "I don't have time to deal with this at the moment. I have to return to Earth and take care of *your* final arrangements," poking her finger at Esmeralda. "But I'll be back, and when I am, we're going to sit down and discuss just what is and is not pertinent information."


"Not a word," Amber cautioned. "We'll discuss this later." She looked at the Father. "If you'll excuse me," jerking her head in affirmation when He nodded once. Then Amber disappeared and He turned his attention back to a shell-shocked Saphira and Esmeralda.

"Perhaps we should get back to what brought us all together here today," He proposed with a smile, and was once more met with cheers and applause.


"Did you reach her?" Charisma asked as she dropped onto the couch beside Brianna. They had decided that Charisma would deal with the authorities, as she had actually been the one to find Esmeralda's body. So Brianna took responsibility for contacting Amber. She nodded.

"Yes. She didn't sound upset, though. It was weird."

"It's very possible that she was expecting this," Charisma responded. "Maybe she's like Kay and can see that kind of thing. And even though we know she hasn't been here, per se, it's entirely possible that she's been in touch with Es daily."

"Still, it was a little strange that she wasn't shaken up by this."

"Why?" Charisma asked reasonably. "We weren't. If anything we're sad for ourselves, but happy for Es... because she's finally regained peace."

Brianna narrowed her eyes. "Have you always been this... oh wait - I remember now. You have. It was one of the things that used to drive me crazy about you."

"And now?" asked coyly.

Brianna smirked. "Now, I'm just crazy about you period." She looked around at the quiet comings and goings of the various personnel that had been called to the scene. "How long do you think they need us to stay?"

Charisma shrugged. "I think it's mostly a formality - so there's someone here who can take responsibility for the house and all until Amber arrives. Once they've moved Es to the morgue, we should be able to go."

Brianna nodded and they settled in to wait.


Amber had jerked her head at Ruby as she left and without hesitation Ruby rose and followed her from the throne room. "Will you come with me? As far as the humans know, we are all the family that Es had. I think it might be best if we came together. Especially since they think we kinda suck forleaving her alone in the first place."

"We had no choice!" Ruby hissed in irritation. "He called and she insisted."

"I know that and you know that. But I'm pretty sure they don't know that and wouldn't understand the implications of it if they *did* know. I'd just like a little back-up if they're gonna jump on me."

Ruby nodded. "I've got your back, Amber. C'mon - the sooner we finish there, the sooner we can come back here. I want to know what His big announcement is."

"You mean there's more than them being restored to the Family?"

"I think so, because that was making the rounds as soon as Es' human form died and her spirit left the Earthly plane.But we won't know for certain until He says - you know how He likes the theatrics of a grand production. Remember creation? So I can't believe there's not something more to all this," motioning behind them, "than simply bringing them home again." Ruby shrugged. "My two cents, anyway. C'mon," she urged again, taking Amber's hand in her own and tugging her down the golden streets towards the entry gates. "Let's go lay Es' human body to rest. Then I think I'm gonna ask for a vacation."

Amber chuckled. Ruby had been using that threat for eternity and had yet to actually act on it. They waved to Peter as he managed the Book at the front of the gates, and headed back to Earth one more time.


"Thank you, Senator Tagherty, Senator Walker. I'm sorry it took so long."

"It's all right, Sergeant Archer," Brianna said. "Will someone let us know when the body is released?"

"Are you the next of kin?"

"No, but we've contacted her. She should be here shortly."

"Someone will contact her, then. I'm sorry. If she doesn't show up to claim the bod... um, her... I'll leave your contact information with the ME so he can get in touch with you."

"Thank you, Sergeant," Charisma said as she offered her hand. He accepted a handshake from both of them and with a tip of his hat, strolled out into the darkness. Brianna and Charisma looked around, then met each other's glance.

"Do you want to wait here?"

Brianna shook her head. "If we knew when to expect Amber, I'd say yes. But I feel like we're intruding now, and Amber didn't say when she'd be arriving. I think we should leave her a note with our phone numbers on it and wait for her to call. She may want a little time alone with Es first."

Charisma nodded. "You write it up - I'll go lock everything up. Then we'll go home and wait with Mama and Kay." They separated to take care of their tasks, and in a few minutes, they were walking out the door. Amber and Ruby remained hidden out of sight until the SUV disappeared down the road, then they entered the house that had been Saphira's and Esmeralda's.

Ruby turned and looked at Amber as soon as they crossed the threshold and had locked the door securely behind them. "You wanna tell me why we waited until they left to come inside?"

Amber sighed. "Because I don't want to deal with them tonight, Ruby. I'm sure the next few days are going to be filled with mortals again... and those two in particular. I'm not quite ready to deal with the questions and accusations that are going to be flying about where we've been and how we neglected her." She looked at Ruby, and Ruby could see the exhaustion in those golden eyes.

"This is really bothering you, isn't it?"

Amber dropped onto the couch that Charisma and Brianna had so recently shared and let her head fall into her hands. "Ruby, I was with Es when her soul left her body today. And for a few minutes, I thought Esmeralda was truly dead and I was never going to see her again... just like Saphira. I just need a night of peace before storming the lion's den, okay?"

Ruby sank onto the couch beside Amber and wrapped a strong arm around her shoulders. "Oh Sweetheart -I'm so sorry. I had no idea...."

"I know, Ruby. It's okay. Let's just... let's just get some sleep and see what we can see in the morning, all right?"

"Sounds like a plan," Ruby agreed as the stood and pulled Amber up along with her. "C'mon."

"I'm coming." Amber grumbled. "I hate this part of being human. What a waste of time."

"Maybe," Ruby said nonchalantly. "But we need it worse than they do at this point. I don't know about you, but I've been going non-stop since He called us back home. At least this should put paid to the assignment once and for all."

"I hope so," Amber replied, and followed Ruby upstairs. Tomorrow would come soon enough.


"We should call Matilda," Brianna commented as they pulled through the iron gates that guarded Charisma's home. She nodded.

"We will... as well as letting our fellow Senators know. But not tonight. Tonight I just want to spend a little time being thankful."


"Esmeralda and what she meant to us... what she changed for us." Charisma pulled into the garage and shut off the engine. "I can safely say she played a large part in forcing me to take a good look at my life and recognize a number of truths about myself. Between her and Kay...." Charisma shook her head. "I'm glad we had friends looking out for us. I would never have found you again without them - at least... not in this sense," lifting their linked hands to eye level and brushing a kiss over Brianna's knuckles. "I would have settled for contentment and in doing so made sure at least three people never found real happiness."

"And now?"

"Now? Now I'm happy." Charisma held up her free hand even though Brianna hadn't made any attempt to speak. "Oh, I know we're going to have to work at this, and it's not going to be all moonlight and roses - we've lived together before, and this time there is the added element of being in love with one another and physical intimacy. It's going to be hard and I'm sure sometimes it's going to be ugly because we're both strong, dominant personalities, but I want this, Bri. I *want* to work on this... to see what we can be together."

"And your campaign? Despite Maxwell's claims, I don't have any direct ties to the Mob, but I am still going to be a liability."

"I don't see that," Charisma retorted. "But we should discuss it. If it's going to make you uncomfortable, I won't run."

"Charisma - this has been your dream since you were five. I can't be the reason you give it up. I don't want you to resent me five or ten or twenty years from now when you discover...." Fingertips on her lips made her stop speaking and Charisma leaned their foreheads together and blinked a tear into her lashes. She hadn't understood until this very moment how very fragile her friend... her lover... really was - especially about anything concerning *her*. She slid her free hand from soft lips and laced it into Brianna 's blonde hair.

"I want you to listen to me, Brianna - I want you to understand and believe everything I am going to tell you," waiting for Brianna to nod. "Good. Brianna... dreams change. And although my entire life has been geared towards becoming the first woman President, it's not my only focus anymore - it hasn't been for a while. Now, while I would be absolutely thrilled if at some point we decide to pursue a Presidential campaign with you at my side, it's not the be-all and end-all for me anymore."

"How can you know that?"

Charisma chuckled. "Because I've had years to realize what that single-mindedness cost me, and I'm not willing to settle for contentment anymore." She tilted her head enough to capture Brianna's lips, and this kiss wasn't chaste. It was hot and passionate and Charisma used her lips and tongue to convey every bit of feeling she possessed. Brianna responded as though she'd been granted her greatest wish - fervently and aggressively. Charisma smiled at the reverence Brianna managed to radiate within her desire and eased back until they could look into one another's eyes again. "Got it?"

Brianna smiled shyly. "You might have to remind me from time to time."

"It'll be my pleasure. Now let's go inside before Mama comes looking for us. It's not that I'm discomfited about making out, but being caught in the car by my mother would just be embarrassing."

Brianna laughed and they exited the car. "Is it wrong to feel happy... considering Es, I mean?" squeezing Charisma's hand when it captured hers.

"I don't think so. Es would understand, and she'd be the first to congratulate us. I just wish she'd lived to see it."

"I'd like to think she still can."

Chapter CX

"Senator Tagherty? This is Amber. You left a note for me to contact you...?"

"Yes, Amber. Thank you for getting back to me so quickly. Hang on while I put you on speakerphone." A beat. "How are you?"

Amber scrubbed a hand over her face and sighed. "Surprisingly, I'm okay. I'm angry at Es for dying, but at the same time, I know she's happy again, and it's hard to blame her for wanting that... even if it meant she had to die to find it again."

"So you think she's happy?"

Amber smiled, and although they couldn't see her expression through the phone line, they could definitely hear the truth in her voice. "Oh Senator... I *know* she is. She and Saphira have been together since their inception practically, and I know the first thing Es did was hunt Saphira up." She chuckled, and the sound caused Charisma to smile even without knowing the reason for it. "I kinda wish I'd been there at the beginning of that reunion. I'm betting Es gave Saphira an earful."

Now Charisma and Brianna laughed, having both been on the receiving end of getting an earful from Esmeralda. Kay and Okasa were a little more perplexed, but let it slide in the interest of moving things along. "I'll just bet she did. Saphira's ears are probably still ringing," causing Amber to snort. Charisma cleared her throat. "Amber, have you made any arrangements?"

Amber looked at Ruby who had remained silent during the whole exchange. Ruby shrugged and Amber sighed. "Not yet, Senator. I'm still waiting to hear back from the medical examiner saying they're releasing her body." She cleared her throat awkwardly - even though she knew the truth of both Esmeralda's and Saphira's deaths now, the terror she'd felt in those first few moments after Esmeralda's passing was still fresh in her mind. "I know she wanted to be cremated."

"Are you planning to have a service?" Brianna asked quietly.

"Um... no? I haven't really given it much thought. We just got back into town late last night."


"Ruby's here with me."

Brianna nodded, even though Amber couldn't see the motion. "Well, if you don't feel comfortable planning something, would you allow us to? I know she was your family, but there are a lot of people on the Hill that called her friend and they'd probably like the chance to say goodbye."

"Will this be like Saphira's service was?"

"Similar," Charisma offered, "except that we won't hold the wake afterward unless you want to accept condolences from folks. We did it for Es because we wanted her to know how much support she had here."

"Would you excuse us for just a moment?" Amber queried and Charisma gave her affirmation. The line went silent for a few minutes except for some rustling background noises, and Charisma and Brianna stayed quiet while Amber and Ruby had a bit of private dialogue. When they were done, the rustling disappeared and was replaced with Amber's voice.

"We'd be happy to have your help planning a service like Saphira's - if you could get the word to those who you think need to know, we'll let you know as soon as we can make the arrangements. We'd rather not do the wake thing - although it's great to know that Es was appreciated by the people she worked for and with, it really doesn't make much difference to us in the long run," Amber stated bluntly. Okasa opened her mouth to retort, but a shake of Charisma's head made her jaw snap shut before she could comment on what she perceived to be Amber's rudeness. "I don't mean to sound harsh," Amber continued as though she sensed Okasa's objection, "but we're on a very tight schedule. The Father expects us to wrap things up quickly and return home."

"I'm not sure I like the sound of your Father," Brianna commented candidly. "Why exactly isn't He here? I mean... He's partially responsible for what happened to Saphira and Es since He's the one who disowned them and all."

Amber pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger while Ruby rubbed her back in an effort to alleviate the stress she could feel building. "It's not quite that simple," Amber replied with a sigh. "And Es and Saphira would be the first to understand why He was unable to be here."

"Explain it to me," Brianna demanded. "I'd like to understand."

"I can't," Amber said simply. "We don't have that kind of time."

"Make the time!"

"Brianna," said Charisma softly.

"Senator," Amber responded at the same time, her tone a plea. Brianna sighed.

"I'm sorry, Amber. I know it's none of my business, really, but you know...?"

"It's all right, Senator. I do understand how you feel. I wish there was a simple way for me to explain it so that you'd know what I know. But it's just not possible."

"You'll call us as soon as you hear something?" Charisma asked when the silence threatened to drag on too long.

"Of course, Senator. If you could call the funeral home...."

"Absolutely," Charisma assured Amber. "We'll be in touch."

"Thank you, Senator," Amber said and hung up without another word. She turned back to Ruby and blew out a breath, making her bangs flutter in the aftermath. "Well, I think the hard part is done. They will feel better being able to be a part of saying goodbye, and we have time to take care of the rest of the stuff that needs to be done."

"We can't just dispose of stuff like we normally do, I suppose."

"You know better. Unlike the rest of us, Es and Phira were human beings... not stand-ins like everyone else and not non-corporeal like Coral and I were. They existed as themselves on this plane - so we need to pack up their things and pay the remaining bills and whatever else needs taken care of so we can go home."

"All right," Ruby agreed. "Where do you want to start?"

"Let's start at the top and work down. We can clean as we go." Ruby nodded and they walked up the stairs and fell to work with a will.


Charisma called the funeral parlor and spoke to Mr. Prescott while Brianna took the responsibility for speaking to Matilda. Matilda was upset of course... especially as it seemed there would be no one to cook for, and cooking was her panacea for everything. Still, she knew she needed to respect the wishes of the family, and was glad she had been notified of Esmeralda's passing... regardless of the sadness it brought to her heart.

Once those two calls were completed, Brianna contacted Indi and Charisma called Opal and both Senators gave instructions for their assistants to inform the other Senators on their floor of what was going on. Then they leaned back with a sigh of relief and waited for Kay and Okasa to finish the phone calls to their respective families. Into this stepped Adam, rubbing his eyes and yawning as he crawled in Charisma's lap.

"Good morning, Son," she greeted with a brush of her lips over his forehead. He hugged her neck and held on tightly. Charisma looked down in concern. "Adam?"

"Why did Es go 'way, Mama?" he asked, tilting his head back to look into her eyes. She glanced at Brianna in shock. Brianna shook her head. No one had told him of Esmeralda's death.

"How do you know Es is gone, Adam?" Brianna asked.

"Angel," he replied succinctly, snuggling back into Charisma's neck. "She said Es went to Phira and Phira went away. Why did Es go?"

"Because she needed Saphira, Son. But remember... you told us Es was happy again. That's a good thing, right?"

"Miss Es," he grumbled.

"Oh Sweetie... we'll all miss Es. We just have to remember she's in a much happier place with Saphira now. And you know something else?" feeling him shake his head against her. "I'll bet Es and Phira both will be keeping an eye on you - you know... like Guardian Angels."

Adam's eyes widened and he craned his head back again so he could look Charisma in the eye. "Really?"

Charisma and Brianna both nodded seriously. "Really. It just seems like an Es kind of thing to do."

"'Kay," he agreed. "I hungry, Mama."

Ah, the resilience of children, Charisma thought, chuckling when she met Brianna's eyes. "Well... let's get you fed. I have it on good authority that your daddy will be here in a little while."

"We go see 'saurs?"

"Maybe," Charisma hedged. "We can ask Daddy when he gets here, okay?"

"'Kay!" he agreed enthusiastically, then pointed towards the kitchen. "Bre'fast?"

"Sounds like a plan, Little Man."


"Thanks for coming early, Kent," Charisma said as she invited him into her home. He crossed the threshold and nodded, clapping his hands together in an effort to keep from touching her. On the one hand, she was his almost-ex and it would just be awkward... at least for a little while. On the other, she was the mother of his son and had just lost someone she counted as a dear friend.

"Of course, Charisma," turning as she closed the door behind him. "Thank you for calling me." She led him into her study where they could talk privately for a moment. Brianna was with Adam in the kitchen and Okasa and Kay had left to meet their families at the train station. "What's up?" he asked with only a hint of surprise in his voice at being admitted into her private sanctuary.

Charisma sighed and motioned him to take a seat on one couch while she sat across from him on the other. "I wanted to let you know what was going on with Adam, so you don't get blindsided by things if he brings them up." He looked concerned, but just nodded for her to continue. So she told him of Adam's recent 'Angel' experiences, and when he looked at her skeptically, she sighed. "I wouldn't have believed it either, Kent... but he's the reason we went to check on Es last night. Somehow - whether it was divine interference or whatever, he *knew* Es was dead."

Kent held up his hands in surrender. "All right, Charisma... all right. I believe you. Do you think he's okay?"

"He seems to be." She cleared her throat. "You should also know that he and Brianna seem to be bonding... more than before, I mean," seeing him smirk. "He went right to her when he got up last night to tell us about Es. And she called him 'Son'."

"Good," Kent replied emphatically. "So he'll have three parents that love him... maybe four."


"Look, I was going to give these to you the next time I saw you - I didn't think it was going to be before another funeral. I thought about saving them, but after what you said, I think you're probably ready for them," placing a stack of legal papers on the table between them. Charisma glanced at them and then back at Kent before reaching for them, absently noting that she wasn't particularly surprised to be holding a decree of divorce in her hands.

"I thought you were going to wait for me to decide...." trailing off when he cut in.

"I was. But I've seen you and Brianna together, and you just assuaged my last real concern - Adam obviously idolizes her and she's already been so good for you. I don't want you to miss an opportunity because we're still legally together."

"Is there someone new in your life, Kent?"

"Maybe," he replied honestly. "But we've done nothing more than share a cup of coffee once or twice. I won't embarrass you, Charisma - I promised that. But I would not be averse to pursuing something more once I am unattached."

"I appreciate your candor," Charisma said, rising from her spot and moving to her desk. She flipped through the paperwork, glad she understood legalese. "Are you sure about this, Kent? That's a very generous settlement for Adam. I don't need...."

"I know, but he's my son and I want to do my part in supporting him. Start another college fund for him - who knows... maybe he'll find someone to travel the world with after school and he'll be able to travel in style."

Charisma snorted, but couldn't stop the tears that welled in her eyes. "Only if he's really lucky," she murmured. "Are you sure every other weekend is enough?"

"I thought we could be flexible - if I can spend more time and you're willing to let me have it...."

"He's your son too, Kent - whenever you want to spend time with him is a good thing... as long as it doesn't interfere with his school schedule."

"Of course. And if you need someone to look after him when it's not my turn to have him, you only have to ask. I'll be on the next flight down. I would like him for at least one whole month in the summer."

Charisma nodded. "How would you feel about taking him for the whole summer this year... or at least most of it?" signing her name to the documents with a flourish.

"Are you campaigning?" rising to take his copy of the papers and tucking them back into his pocket.

"I don't think so," Charisma said, shaking her head slowly. "Laura is more than a little put out with me about this whole business, and she was furious that I refused to remove Brianna from my life."

"Okaaaay," Kent drawled in obvious confusion. "So why...?"

Charisma sighed. "Twenty years ago, Brianna and I made our epic trip to Europe - it was the last time we spent together until she came to Washington last summer." Kent nodded and waited for her to continue. "On that trip, we agreed to do it again in twenty years... unless I was already the President. I was so far in denial about her having walked out of my life for good then, I even had Mama arrange things. We haven't really talked about it yet, but if she's willing...."

Kent smiled. "Good for you, Charisma. Consider Adam taken care of for the summer."

"She hasn't said yes, yet."

"Maybe," Kent shrugged. "But she hasn't said no either. Have a little faith."

"I still don't get why you're being so cool about all of this."

"Because I want you to be happy, and Brianna does that for you just being in the same room. And I'd like to find that for myself."

"Keep reminding me," Charisma said as they exited the study and she pulled the door shut behind them. "One day it might sink in."

Kent snorted. "We'll all be in the nursing home by then," ducking her swat with a laugh, "but I'll do my part. Make sure you pay attention, okay?" Charisma just gave him a dirty look, and his laughter preceded them into the kitchen. Adam looked up from the matching game he'd been playing with Brianna.

"PA!" standing on his chair and jumping into Kent's arms. Kent caught him and swung him around, making his giggles echo throughout the kitchen.

"Hey, Boy!" Kent exclaimed when they stopped spinning.

"Pa, we go see 'saurs?"

Kent looked at Charisma, who just shrugged and nodded. He looked back at his son with a grin. "I think that sounds like a fine idea, Son." He set Adam down on the floor, keeping a hand on his shoulder so Adam wouldn't run off. "Why don't you tell Mama and Brianna goodbye, and then you and me'll go see some dinosaurs - ROAR!"

Adam laughed again. "Funny Daddy," he snickered, but turned dutifully to the two women in the room. He ran to Charisma first, wrapping his arms around her legs and waiting for her to pick him up with a groan.

"You're getting so big, Son. You're going to have to start picking Mama up instead." He laughed and threw his arms around her neck, leaning forward to plant a big kiss on her cheek.

"Love Mama," he exclaimed. Charisma grinned.

"I love you too, Adam. Be a good boy for your daddy, all right?"

"'Kay!" came his emphatic agreement. Charisma set him on his feet and he ran and crawled into Brianna's lap just as she set the memory cards aside. He put his hands on either side of her face and leaned forward until their noses brushed together. "Love Br'anna."

She hugged him tightly. "Love you too, Little Man. Have a good time with your daddy."

"Yes!" he agreed, before scrambling off her lap and running to Kent to take his hand. "We go see 'saurs now?"

"We go see 'saurs now," Kent said. "Bye ladies," he offered with a wave, then turned and walked out of the kitchen with Adam in tow. Then Charisma turned to Brianna.

"C'mon," she said, extending her hand and pulling Brianna from her seat at the table. "I want to talk to you before the family gets here. Or before Amber or Mr. Prescott call back."

"Sounds serious," Brianna replied.

"It is... a little. But only because it's about us and our future. It's nothing bad, I promise. But if we're going to do this, we have to communicate - we have to be able to talk about everything."

"That sounds eerily familiar," Brianna said with a small smile.

"It should. Now c'mon. It's a beautiful day - will you walk with me?"

"Anytime, anywhere," Brianna answered without hesitation. Charisma just beamed as she led her out the door into the backyard gardens.

Chapter CXI

"So Kent and I just signed our divorce decree," Charisma volunteered without preamble when they were some distance from the house. "He did it for himself as well as us. He indicated there might be someone new in his future soon as well."

"Are you okay with it?"

Charisma squeezed the hand she held and gave Brianna a blinding grin. "I'm more than okay with it. Now he can look for the happiness he so richly deserves. And we can move forward and start making plans for us." She was met with silence and a furrowed brow."I mean... if you want to," Charisma hastened on."Brianna, you've been very subdued about everything since offering me another chance - letting me make all the decisions for us. I don't want to do that. I want *us* to make decisions... together.This is*our* life... not just mine."

"Maybe," Brianna agreed with a shrug, "but your future will be the most affected by us... no matter what kind of us we are."

"That's enough!" Charisma roared, though she never raised her voice. "I won't do this on my own, Brianna - I can't! So you need to decide whether you're in or out... because I need you all the way committed to this."

Brianna inclined her head until she could look into Charisma's eyes. They stood perfectly still while green studied blue... searching for any hint of doubt or hesitancy. When she was satisfied with what she found, she nodded her head and smiled.

"All right, so..." Brianna said as she started walking again, pulling Charisma along with her. "I know that your plans called for you to be running for President in the next election," seeing Charisma smile softly and nod her agreement. "Right. Would you be opposed to postponing them just a little while?"

"What are you proposing?"

"If you'd be willing to wait until the next election cycle, it would give us time - time to become an us; time to get our footing; time to formulate a strategy that doesn't strictly focus on your perceived lack of family values... meaning your recent divorce from Kent or our involvement with one another. I know both of those things will be a consideration no matter when you run, but at least we will have been a family for a while by then, and there will be less for your critics and opponents to mock."

"You really have been thinking about this."

"I have. I don't want you to give up your dream, Charisma - I believe you could make one hell of a difference in that seat of power. And I think you'd have a much better chance of winning the election if we weren't so new together. Right now - it will be all they'll want to talk about. You'll never get to talk about the issues or your platform. In a few years, though...."

"Would it surprise you to know I've been thinking along those very same lines?" chuckling when Brianna smirked and shook her head. "Okay, so we've decided what to do about the Presidential election. What do you want to do about our European trip? Kent has already assured me he'd love to have Adam for the summer. I think he wants to get him into the City to show him there is more in the world than dinosaurs."

Brianna laughed. "I remember there being dinosaurs there too."

"I haven't pointed that out to Kent. Adam will figure it out soon enough."

"As far as Europe goes, since I'm not running for re-election, I don't have to get out and campaign and glad hand during the summer break. I'd like to go back and see how different it is with you as a real adult."

"Hey! We were adults when we went. We got drunk on more than one occasion, as I recall."

"Since the legal drinking age in some of the countries we visited starts at sixteen, you're really not making much of a case for yourself, Ri."

"Not the lawyer here, Brianna Brianna. Still, I say we do it. We only live once, and I feel like we've lost too much time and too many opportunities already. So I'll tell Mama."

"I don't think she'll be surprised."

Charisma smirked. "I know she won't."


Amber and Ruby slowed to a stop outside the attic, clearly able to hear sound coming from within, but unable to distinguish what was making it. Amber shrugged as nonchalantly as she could manage. "Whatever it is, it's not like it can really hurt us, right? I mean, we're still full-fledged Angels." Ruby nodded and gestured towards the door. "Right," Amber agreed. "Let's do this."

So saying, she opened the door forcefully, causing the noise to drop into stunned silence. Eyes met and jaws dropped, but before either Amber or Ruby could formulate a question, Opal spoke up. "The Father asked us to come. Es wants you to be there for His big announcement and we all know that it will take some time to get this done. So when He asked, we all said yes," motioning around to the rest of the crew that has been part of this mission. "We felt we owed it to Es."

"Wait," Amber said, holding up one hand as the other pinched the bridge of her nose. "He *asked*?"

"He asked," Indi assured with a nod from the rest.

"Well, I'll be," she muttered under her breath, though it was loud enough to draw smiles from the entire contingent of Angels currently ensconced in the attic. "Will wonders never cease." Amber shook her head to clear it, then looked around the room. "Right - so where are you at?"

"We just arrived. We were trying to decide if we should work as a group top to bottom or spilt up and try to do it all at once. The middle levels will only need cursory cleaning - there are no personal effects in the rooms we used."

Amber nodded and glanced around, glad to see these women - her friends - together again... even for something as mundane as mission wrap-up. In the months they had been reassigned after this case, they had been isolated from one another except for the barest of greetings in passing. And the Father had kept them so busy, even that was hard to manage some days. Amber wondered again if He'd had a purpose behind His method - figuring He likely did, but knowing she'd never truly understand unless He deigned to explain Himself to them. Not that He was obliged to, of course, but it did occasionally get frustrating to be left out of the loop on things like this.

"Well," she said after a moment of silence, "I think with this many bodies we'd probably be better served if we split up. We'd avoid running into one another and could probably get done before the end of the day. I'm waiting for a call letting me know that they've...." Amber paused to clear her throat, feeling it tighten at the memory of how real it had been. "Sorry," glad for Ruby's steadying presence. "I'm waiting to hear that the hospital has released the body to the funeral home. Once that's done, Charisma and Brianna have offered to help set up a service. It'll be similar to what we did for Phira without the wake."

"So cremation again?"


"Okay," they acknowledged, then turned and started dividing up the work seamlessly. Amber was sent downstairs and accompanied by most of the others as the ground floor was the one that would require the most work. They did drop off a couple on the middle levels to ensure that nothing got missed and everything was clean when they left.

They spread out downstairs - living room and kitchen, leaving the bedroom to Amber. She stood in front of the closed door for a long moment, hesitant to enter the room that had been Esmeralda's and Saphira's private retreat from the rest of the world while they had been sequestered on Earth. Even when she'd shared living space with them, her room had been upstairs away from them, offering them whatever privacy she could as a human. She'd rarely entered this room with an invitation, much less without one. And knowing Esmeralda had died here in her arms was not making her task any easier.

Amber was so lost in thought she jumped when Ruby's hand slid to the small of her back. She turned to offer the older woman a glare, but only managed a sigh when she found compassion in Ruby's eyes.

"Sorry, hon - I thought you heard me walk up behind you. You all right?"

"Honestly, Ruby, I think I'm a little freaked out. I know Es is alive. I just saw her. But I saw her die... felt her die in my arms. And being here again...." She shook her head, curls bouncing everywhere. "This was theirs, you know? We all respected that."

"Would you rather someone else do their room, Amber? We left it for you because you're even more their family than we are, despite the role I played while I was here. But if it's going to make you uncomfortable... or miserable...."

"No, Ruby - it's my privilege and my responsibility. I just... it's weird."

Ruby snorted indelicately, causing Amber to snicker and relax slightly. "Amber, this entire mission was weird from the get-go. C'mon," she said, patting Amber's back lightly. "I'll help with this bit, and then we can go find out what the big news is. I am curious to know if it's actually worth the weirdness we put up with on this case."

"Ruby, I can't think of a single, solitary thing that valuable."

"Guess we'll find out soon enough." She reached for the doorknob. "C'mon - sooner started, sooner finished."

Amber rolled her eyes, but covered Ruby's hand so they turned the knob together. "That was one of my least favorite of your teaching expressions, you know."

"Of course," Ruby grinned. "Why do you think I used it?" pushing the door open and urging Amber inside with the hand still resting on her back. She snickered when Amber cut her eyes over in a glare, then followed her into the room. The hard part was over.


"So what do you think about all this, Mama?" Patrick asked hours later when he and Okasa were getting ready for bed. After he and the boys and their families had arrived in the city, they'd gone directly to Charisma's house to be met with the news of her divorce and her decision not to run for President in the next election. The family had been quietly supportive, knowing that Charisma and Brianna did need time to become a couple privately before their relationship was thrust into the public limelight.

Still, something about the whole situation niggled at Paddy, and he turned to the woman who for almost fifty years had been his confidante, lover and friend. Okasa frowned at him and climbed into the bed, scooting up to lean against the headboard and smoothing the covers around her. She tipped her head to one side.

"What part of all this, Paddy? The divorce? Charisma and Brianna as a couple? Charisma postponing her dream?"

"Is that what you think she's doing... postponing it? You don't think she's giving it up?"

Okasa slid her fingers under her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose, feeling her shoulders tighten in reaction. She knew Patrick was trying not to be difficult, but she wondered where the hell this was coming from all of a sudden and decided to ask. She removed her glasses and set them carefully on the bedside table, then turned to give Patrick her full attention.

"What are you thinking, Paddy? Where's this coming from?"

He set down the cup of water on his nightstand and sat down on the edge of the bed, rubbing his hands over his face before sighing and slipping under the sheet beside his wife. "I'm not concerned about the divorce - it doesn't actually affect us personally, and both Kent and Charisma seem happier now than they've been in a long time. And you know how I feel about Charisma and Brianna as a couple - she's been a daughter of my heart almost since the day I met her in Charisma's dorm room. We've waited a long, long time for them to reach this point together."

"So it's the Presidential thing?" Okasa asked when Patrick stopped talking. "Paddy, you heard your daughter - she and Brianna agreed that it would be better for them to wait until they've had a little time together first. They're right... and you know it." Okasa paused when she saw Patrick's shoulders sag. "You heard what they said - it's not never... just not now."

"I know... and I want to believe that. Okasa, this has been Charisma's dream her whole life. I just don't want to see her give it up in case...." His words ceased when Okasa held up a hand while glaring fiercely at him.

"Don't you dare finish that sentence, Patrick Tagherty. She deserves happiness, and if Brianna makes her happy, that should be enough for you."

"It is, Okasa," he chastised with a hint of hurt in his tone. "I just don't want regret over this decision to be an issue for them later. They've waited so long to be happy."

"Do you *really* think they haven't thought of that... discussed it? Paddy, Brianna and I talked about it when Charisma and Kay went to check on Es. She'll make sure Charisma doesn't regret it, because Brianna is prepared to do what it takes to ensure Charisma follows that dream if that's what Charisma wants. But they've made a good choice in deciding to wait. This will let them be stronger together."

Patrick chuckled and Okasa twitched an eyebrow at him. He smiled and patted her hand. "Charisma should hire you to be her campaign manager. Between you and Brianna, anyone she runs against doesn't stand a chance."

Okasa laughed aloud and squeezed his hand. "Flatterer," smiling when he waggled his eyebrows at her. "Feel better?"

"Yep," he said, sliding down until he was mostly reclined on the bed. "I just wanted to make sure I wasn't misreading things."

"Rest easy there, Papa. Your princess still has her eye on the prize. HER princess won't let her lose sight of it as long as they're chasing the dream together."

Patrick reached over and turned out his lamp, shifting a little until he was facing Okasa who looked down at him with a smile. "I wonder how Senator Maxwell feels about that," he commented innocuously. Okasa snorted.

"If she's smart, she'll keep any less than complimentary thoughts to herself. Pretty sure she won't survive the evisceration that will follow any unfavorable commentary she makes." Okasa flipped off her light, then sank down onto the mattress with a sigh. "I just wish Es could have lived to see this."

"Why?" Patrick asked softly. "I mean... I would much rather she and Saphira both were here to witness what's finally happening, but because it would mean they were here with us more than for any other reason. But it's not like they've been waiting decades for this to happen - not like we have."

Okasa shrugged and turned to face him in the darkness that was just highlighted by the moonlight peeking through the curtains that weren't completely closed. "Maybe. But Es did have more to do with them coming together again than all the rest of us combined." She reached up a hand to cover his mouth when she felt him draw breath to speak. "I'll tell you one day, but not tonight. Tonight I just want to sleep for a while so we can go say goodbye to Es tomorrow."

Patrick nodded and kissed her fingertips, and Okasa removed her hand from his lips. "Do you think Brianna and Charisma were right? Do you think Es found Saphira and is happy again?"

"I'd like to think so. It gives me a little peace, especially knowing what they were to one another in life."

Patrick didn't respond verbally. Instead he scooted over until he could embrace her and Okasa sank into his arms with a contented sigh. It wasn't long until they were entwined together in sleep.


"That was a little surprising," Brianna said as she and Charisma sat together on the small couch in her study. The wine they had poured sat practically untouched on the coffee table in front of them, and though touching along their lengths, only their hands were tangled together. Gentle fingertips of their unattached hands traced paths along smooth skin, even though neither woman was conscious of their actions. Charisma nodded.

"I certainly didn't expect it. I thought Amber had kind of written us off, given how curt we were earlier." She noticed Brianna's furrowed brow. "Something wrong, Bri?"

Brianna bit her lip as she shook her head slowly. "I'm not sure how to say what I want to convey tomorrow. Es was an amazing woman, Ri - she helped bring us together despite ourselves," garnering a small chuckle from Charisma and smiling in response. "I'm not sure ... the writer in me wants to find the perfect words to say about her, but so much of what I feel seems too personal to share... especially with people who didn't know Es like we did."

Charisma shifted so she could wrap an arm around Brianna's shoulders, smiling when Brianna snuggled closer and the blonde head tucked itself under her chin. She took Brianna's hands in her other hand, rubbing her thumb along the length of hand she could reach. "What's to say they don't, Bri? It's not like any of us have really shared what Es was to us beyond her job title. It's very likely she was the same person to everyone else that she was to us... a friend. Besides, you only have to share what you're comfortable with. Es would understand that."

"I just want to do her justice, Ri. I feel like I owe that to her."

"Speak from your heart, Bri. That's what I'm going to do," frowning when her cell phone started ringing. She sighed when she saw who it was from, then rolled her eyes in Brianna's direction as she answered the call on speakerphone. "Hello, Laura."

"Good evening, Charisma. I didn't catch you at a bad time, did I?"

"Of course not," Charisma replied when Brianna shook her head. "What can I do for you?"

"I wanted to speak to you about your campaign. I might have been a little hasty in dismissing your words the other day. I've been considering what you said, and I think we can work the Brianna Walker angle to your advantage."


"Just give me a chance, Charisma - hear me out."

"Laura, I'm not going to run."

"Now here's what I was thin.... excuse me??"

"I'm not running this election. Brianna and I are going to take some time to be a couple... to become a family."

"You can't do that!"

"I can and I am. The Presidency isn't going anywhere, Laura, and I'd actually have a better shot in the campaign following this one. It's not up for discussion, Laura. I appreciate the time and effort you've put into this, and if you don't want to back me when I *do* run, I'll understand. But this isn't going to happen now."

"I knew that woman...."

"Before you say anything else, you should know Brianna is sitting right here listening to every word. Laura, I think we make a formidable team, and if we work together when I'm ready, I know we can win. But I need to do this... for me. Brianna's right - if I run now, it won't be about the issues or my platform or even politics. It will be about us... her and me. Not running this time means it should be a non-issue by the time the election rolls around again."

They could almost hear Maxwell thinking over the phone, and neither was surprised when she agreed. "All right," she accepted grudgingly. "Perhaps we can get together sometime soon and lay out some long-term plans and goals. Your... friend seems to have a good head on her shoulders, Charisma. Perhaps it's time I got to know her as more than simply Senator Walker or that woman."

Brianna and Charisma both laughed and Laura couldn't help but join them. "I'll have Opal call Indi and Jess - we'll see what we can arrange. Goodnight, Laura."

"Goodnight, ladies."

"And on that note, I think I'll head home," Brianna said. "Tomorrow's going to be a busy day."

Chapter CXII

"Are you ready?" Ruby asked Amber as they stepped from the empty house and closed the door solidly behind them. They and the others had spent the entire night cleaning and packing away the few items that had actually been part of Esmeralda's and Saphira's earthly home. Jas had volunteered to drive the truck containing them to the local shelter for donation, and the rest had gone ahead to thefuneral parlor. Despite knowing the truth, they would be there just as they had for Saphira's service. Then they would all return home together.

Amber glanced around at the building and tiny yard that had been her home for so many months and sighed. "Yeah," she replied tiredly. "Let's go give these mortals the closure they need. I'm ready to go home."

Ruby frowned. "Amber? Are you all right?"

Amber huffed. "I'm still a little ticked off with the whole mess, if you must know. Thinking that they were dead… there better be some seriously good payoff for putting us through that." She drew a shaky breath and Ruby just waited. "Sorry, Ruby. I think my exhaustion is getting the better of me."

Ruby took her arm and they walked towards the road, knowing the taxi they had called would be arriving shortly. "Amber? Why did you ask Charisma and Brianna to offer a eulogy? Isn't that your place to do so?"

Amber shrugged. "Perhaps. And if it was true... if Es was really dead, I would probably be the only one speaking at her service. But she did so much for these two - I'd like to hear what they have to say about her."

"Then let's go," Ruby commented as the cab pulled up in front of them.


"I look around this room," Charisma said with a soft smile, "and it says so much to me about the kind of person Esmeralda was. Much of society overlooked her... or looked down on her because of who she was and what she did. And yet I'd be willing to bet that every single person in this room considered her a friend. Because that was just who Es was - she was a friend to everyone," meeting eyes and seeing every head nod its agreement with her assessment. She smiled again."It didn't matter to her if you were a Senator or a personal assistant or a colleague... rich or poor... young or old. All Esmeralda saw were friends." Charisma looked down and cleared her throat. "I can't speak for the rest of you, but I know having Es for a friend made an impact in my life. And unlike the musical, knowing her did change me for the better... and for good."

Charisma let her eyes meet Brianna's and she paused again to blink away the tears. When she was certain she could speak again, Charisma took a deep breath and let her gaze rove over the entire room. "I saw Esmeralda shortly after she died. And as much as it pained me to know I... we," motioning around the room, "would never again know the wisdom of her counsel or the warmth of her understanding, I couldn't be unhappy that she'd finally found peace."

Charisma took another breath and looked up at the ceiling with a smile. "Thank you, Es. I know you're happy in whatever reality you're in now, and try not to be too hard on Saphira, okay? Remember everyone deserves a second chance... just like the one you helped make sure I got."

She took her seat next to Brianna, and Brianna took her hand for a brief moment and whispered something that drew a smile from Charisma even as she wiped the tears from her eyes. Then Brianna stood and made her way to the podium.

"Most of you know who I am, although many of you don't like me... or at least don't know how to take me. Because when I came here, I didn't come to make friends or influence people. I didn't seek this job; I came here as a favor - to hold the seat until the next election. I figured I could do two years here... no sweat." Brianna snorted. "And I got lost the minute I got into town," reaping quiet chuckles from all over the room. Most of them had been in the same situation once upon a time.

"But you know something? I have blessed the day that I came to this pompous, overblown city and gotten lost. Because that little bump in my road caused me to find Esmeralda and Saphira and be reminded that there are real, caring people still left in the world." Brianna bit her lip and looked around the room. "They reminded me of the Good Samaritan parable I heard in Sunday School as a child - taking care of a stranger for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. And the only thing they asked in return was my friendship."

Brianna looked around the room again, letting her eyes linger on those people she recognized until she finally met Charisma's and held there. "I will never be able to repay the kindness shown to me by them, but I would like to think that I'll be better than I was because of what they gave to me." She too leaned her head back to stare at the ceiling with a smile. "Es, I know you can hear me, and I know you're with Saphira again. Be happy, my friends, and thank you. Thank you for making my world a better place to be in. God bless you both."

Brianna kept her eyes riveted on the ceiling for several moments, before Adam's voice rang out in the stillness. "Bye, Es." Then as if on cue, Luke and Kay started harmonizing 'Amazing Grace', and it wasn't long until the entire congregation was singing as well. When the first verse was done, people rose from their seats, slowly taking their leave as they continued to sing. Amber and Ruby stood at the door, accepting hugs from these strangers who had known Esmeralda enough to want to say goodbye.

By the fourth verse, only the Taghertys, Kay's family and Brianna were left in the chapel and they finished the song as they exited the building, leaving only Brianna and Charisma to say goodbye to Amber and Ruby.

"Thank you," Brianna said quietly. "For letting us say goodbye. The words were inadequate to the feelings, but I'd like to think that maybe somewhere out there, Es heard them and smiled."

Amber nodded, tears shining in her eyes. She'd been glad to know that Esmeralda had been as highly thought of by so many as she had, but hearing them all sing together, as if they had been easing her spirit into the next life.... That had moved Amber in ways she hadn't been touched in centuries.

"I'm willing to bet she did, Senator. I'm willing to bet she did."

"Will you two be okay getting back...?" Charisma trailed off, not sure exactly where they were headed. Ruby took up the question and nodded with a sad smile.

"We'll be fine, Senator Tagherty. I know you don't think much of the Father, but he's taking care of things now. We'll be all right."

"If you're sure...?" Brianna queried.

"We are. Go on now. Go live your lives and be happy together. You know that's what Es would have wanted." Charisma and Brianna exchanged startled looks, then turned wide eyes on Ruby who nodded.

"Thank you, Ruby," Brianna finally said. "Godspeed your journeys home." And without another word, they walked down the steps hand in hand and entered the limousine that was waiting for the two of them. Amber and Ruby watched it out of sight before turning to the rest of the Angels who were waiting for them.

"Let's go home, ladies."


"Are you all right, Love?" Saphira asked as they turned away from the monitor. They had asked the Father to postpone His announcement until the team returned home to hear the news firsthand with the rest of Heaven. He had granted their request, starting their 'Welcome Home' banquet instead - that would keep those gathered happy and busy until such time as the rest were home once more.

In the midst of all the gaiety and celebration, Esmeralda had approached the Father, and at His nod, taken Saphira's hand and led her to the viewing room. Saphira looked around, then back at Esmeralda in question, wondering what had brought them here in the middle of their own gala. "Es?" coming up behind her and wrapping her in strong arms. "What's going on?" Esmeralda turned in Saphira's embrace, laying her head on Saphira's shoulder and smiling into her neck when Saphira tightened her hold. Saphira brushed a kiss over blonde hair and whispered, "Es?"

"I'm okay, Phira. I asked the Father if we could watch my funeral. I know it sounds kind of morbid, but I'm curious." Saphira cocked an eyebrow, but didn't release her grip, merely waiting for Esmeralda to continue. "Charisma and Brianna planned your service - they spoke about you, and it made my heart glad to hear what they had to say about you."

"You think they'll speak again?"

"If Amber doesn't, yes."

Saphira nodded. "All right then... turn it up," gesturing to the screen that was currently showing the small chapel where Esmeralda's ashes had been placed. Esmeralda put her back to Saphira's front once again, and triggered the volume so they could hear.Saphira watched with interest the number of people that were already seated, even as more slowly trickled in behind. "That's a lot of people."

"It was the same for yours, Saphira."


"Yes, now shh...." seeing Matilda approach Charisma and Brianna after she'd spoken to Amber and Ruby.

"I'll still expect to see you two girls every Wednesday night for dinner," Matilda scolded without preamble. "No excuses."

Brianna and Charisma communicated with one another silently for a long moment, then covered each of Matilda's hands with one of their own. "We wouldn't dream of missing, Matilda. Es would probably come back and kick our collective butts if we let something that important slide. You don't treat friends and family like that, you know.We may bring Adam from time to time if that's okay," Charisma stated, seeing a twinkle flash in Matilda's sad eyes.

"Joe and I would like that."

"Good. We'll plan on it then." Matilda moved away then and Esmeralda and Saphira continued to watch the proceedings with interest. Saphira held Esmeralda when Charisma and Brianna spoke, but they both cried when Adam said goodbye. When the assembly began singing, Esmeralda turned back to Saphira and simply held on.

"That was remarkable," Saphira whispered in her ear as the sound from the screen tapered off into silence. "Do you think the Father would understand if we took a few minutes before the girls get back to collect ourselves?"

"I think He'd be surprised if we didn't - omniscient, remember?"

Saphira chuckled and Esmeralda laughed, and with that, a weight was lifted from them and they sighed in relief, as a burden they hadn't known they were carrying was suddenly gone from their shoulders.

"Good - c'mon. I'm sure He'll send Rudy to fetch us back if we take too long." She extended her hand to Esmeralda who accepted it with alacrity, then pulled Saphira towards the doorway. Then they were racing for their home, a lightness in their steps causing them to laugh in pure, unadulterated joy.

The Father smiled from the head of the table and continued to bask in the celebration going on around Him.


"Brianna? This is Scott Patterson. Look - I don't really like you, and I certainly don't owe you anything, but I do think you're more than capable of carrying out your threat against me.I want you to know that none of this is my doing. So I'd appreciate it if you don't mention Trevor Carlson in retaliation for the bevy of reporters that are waiting to speak to you and Tagherty. I didn't call them."

Brianna frowned when the message tone beeped at her, effectively ending the call. She hit 'replay' and listened to it twice more before dialing Charisma.

"Ri... I think we have a problem."


"Senator Tagherty! Senator Tagherty!! Is it true that you divorced your husband so you could 'go gay' for Senator Walker?"

"Senator Walker! Did you come to Washington for the express purpose of breaking up Senator Tagherty's marriage?"

"How long have you been having an affair?"

"What was your family's reaction to you outing yourself as a lesbian?"

"Does this mean you won't be running for President?"

"What does Adam think about having two mommies?"

"Okay!!! That's enough!!" Brianna roared, causing an almost instantaneous hush to fall over the crowd blocking their way into the Senate Building. "You can ask whatever questions you like - we don't have to answer anything, but freedom of the press and all that. But you bring a child into this and all bets are off, understood?? You leave him out of this."

The reporters blinked - stunned by the outburst and the one who had spoken. They had been so sure Senator Tagherty would be the one to react. And by the time they had shaken off their surprise, Charisma and Brianna were inside the building.

They looked at one another in stunned silence for a moment, then burst into nervous giggles. "I'm not sure that helped our case any," Charisma said through her laughter, "but that was fabulous. I don't think I've seen anything that funny in a long time. It was nice to see them get back some of what they give all the time."

"Yes, well... I probably shouldn't have spoken out of turn like that, but I really do not like reporters. And when they went after Adam...." The ringing of their cell phones simultaneously cut off her words. When Brianna answered, it was Kay on the other end and Kent was on the other side of Charisma's call. The next few minutes were spent chatting and laughing - Kay congratulating Brianna on her biting witticism that kept the press at bay; Kent ensuring both Brianna and Charisma were all right. When their calls were over, Brianna and Charisma exchanged glances and entered the lift, clasping their hands together as they headed upstairs.

"I guess we need to sit down and formulate some sort of press release. Because we both know this news has gone viral already."

"I might have something," Brianna offered. "I drafted it this morning so it's a little rough. But I think it says what we want it to." The elevator stopped and they released each other's hands as the doors opened, maintaining a sense of propriety in the workplace despite their desire to cling to one another for support. They exited together, ignoring the stares and the whispers they were getting from their colleagues and the numerous staffers apparently scattered randomly down the hallway. Brianna tugged Charisma into her office, nodding to Indi as they passed directing into the inner sanctum. Indi nodded back and continued to answer the phone that never stopped ringing.

Brianna closed the door behind them, then led Charisma directly to the couch, seating her and plopping into the cushion beside her. She popped the locks on her briefcase, and withdrew a yellow legal pad. Charisma's eyes widened in delight, recognizing the handwriting she had missed. Brianna chuckled at her expression.


"You still...." holding up the pad. "I missed this. I missed reading your raw stuff. I used to love it when you'd come in and pass me one of these. I never knew what I was going to get, but I always knew it would be good." She frowned. "Is this how Fontana writes?"

Brianna laughed. "Depends on my mood, actually - and whatever's available to me when inspiration hits. But yes... sometimes this is still the way Fontana writes."

"Good," Charisma muttered, and turned her attention to the page in front of her.


"And in a joint statement from the offices of Senator Charisma Tagherty and Senator Brianna Walker about the rumors flying around the capital about their illicit affair, the two had this to say...." The reporter glanced down at the screen set into her desk - though it was completely unnecessary with the teleprompter that was positioned next to the camera - before she faced the lens squarely. "While it is true that we are together in a very new romantic relationship, we have been in love for a very long time. Senator Walker recognized it in college - Senator Tagherty refused to. It is what caused us to be apart from one another for twenty years.Though we realize people want to hear the dirty laundry being aired, there is simply nothing inappropriate between us to share - no illicit affair; no secret liaisons; no hidden funny business - just two people finally acknowledging something that had been true for years.That being said, the divorce between Senator Tagherty and her husband Kent Rockwell was both mutual and amicable, and was in fact instigated at Mr. Rockwell's behest."

The reported glanced down, then back up at the camera. "Mr. Rockwell had this to say," as a monitor started rolling footage of Kent Rockwell. "Charisma and I were friends long before we decided to marry - we were content as a married couple, but we were never happy like she is now. Brianna Walker makes her happy and as her friend, I want her to be happy." He shrugged. "Who knows - maybe I'll find that kind of happiness myself."

The screen came back to the news anchor and she spoke again. "The Senators' statement continues - At some time in the near future, we will have a press conference to allow questions. Until then, we won't be answering any inquiries - please try to respect that and keep in mind that Adam Tagherty is completely off limits in all aspects. Those who have difficulty with either of those concepts will not be permitted to attend the press conference."

The reported cleared her throat. "Several of the Senators colleagues were approached by various news agencies and were basically stonewalled. We're not sure what caused this unprecedented closing of the ranks, but we'll keep digging."


"So what happened?" Charisma asked as she leaned forward to accept the drink from Laura. Brianna sipped on hers as she leaned back to watch the other two Senators. Laura walked from the bar and took a seat on the couch across from the one Brianna and Charisma were settled in. She studied them and shook her head even as she chuckled.

"I'm not sure - I didn't send out any instructions." She snorted. "I'm a little surprised to tell you the truth. You know how cutthroat some of the people in this business are. I'd have thought...."

"... that they'd take advantage of a perceived weakness?"

"Yes... exactly. Although," Laura turned to Brianna, "you were exceptionally forceful this morning with the press, and not many can hold their own against those vultures without the benefit of security and a written speech. Guess that being a writer thing helps you think on your feet, huh?"

"Sometimes," Brianna conceded. "Do you know who they talked to? The reporters, I mean."

"I can find out. Why?"

Brianna shrugged. "Just curious. I wonder how many of them were at Es' service."

Laura rubbed her forehead. "Why would that matter?"

"Because we both spoke about the value of friendship - it was something Es was especially good at. And everyone who was at her funeral knew that."

Laura sighed. "I wish I had known her. She sounds like she was a truly remarkable woman."

"She was, Laura. She really was."

Chapter CXIII

The knock on the door startled both of them out of their reverie. It wasn't that they had been doing anything that would cause them to be caught in a compromising position yet again - once of that was bad enough, and it had already happened twice to them.It was simply that most of the rest of heaven tended to use the celestial chimes... except for Rudy, of course. But since they had taken care to close the door completely, there was no way to be disturbed by the clearing of a throat.Still, though they were expecting arequestto return to the banquet - they were the guests of honor, after all - Saphira and Esmeralda traded confused glances. They certainly hadn't anticipated a knock at their door to call them back to the festivities.

Saphira extended her hand as Esmeralda did the same and they held hands as they moved in tandem to the doorway of their home. Saphira looked at Esmeralda with a question in her eyes and Esmeralda just nodded her head. Saphira opened the door....

... and was nearly punched in the face when Amber went to bang on the door again. Only Saphira's quick reflexes kept her from harm - which only lasted until Amber could twist out of her grip and shove Saphira out of her path as she stomped in the door. Saphira's expression contorted into something less than welcoming, and it was only Esmeralda's hand on her arm that kept her from lashing out. Instead, she wrapped her body around Esmeralda's from behind and simply waited. Esmeralda covered Saphira's arms with her hands and spoke softly.

"Hello, Amber. Please come in and make yourself at home," seeing Amber was still standing in the foyer, arms crossed over her chest glowering at both of them. "What can we do for you?" Esmeralda asked, stepping forward out of Saphira's embrace and approaching Amber cautiously when the silence started to grow uncomfortable.

Amber snorted. "You're kidding me, right?" backing away from Esmeralda before she could touch her. "Do you have any idea how furious I am at the moment??" She turned her gaze to Saphira. "I can forgive Es - she was dying because we thought you were DEAD, Saphira!!! How could you do that to her, huh? How could you do that to us??" moving in close enough to take a swing and wincing when it actually connected. She had fully expected Saphira to stop the blow... just as she had at the door. Instead, Saphira just let it make contact, warning Esmeralda back with her eyes and the tiniest shake of her head. Esmeralda sighed unhappily and crossed her arms as she watched the tableau play out in front of her. She knew it needed to happen, but it didn't make her any happier to witness.

Saphira lifted a hand to her face, casually wiping blood from her nose and split lip. She stared at her hand, then glanced down at her robe, realizing she didn't really have anywhere she could wipe it. Esmeralda sighed loudly and left the foyer, confident that Amber's anger had been tempered by her action enough that nothing else crucial would happen in the few moments she would be gone. She was correct - when Esmeralda returned, neither Amber nor Saphira had moved from the spot she'd left them in.

Esmeralda slipped between them, taking care *not* to push Amber away as she tended to Saphira. She gently wiped the blood from Saphira's face and hand with a wet cloth, wincing in reflex when Saphira flinched. She patted it dry, pleased to see her ministrations were successful in stemming the blood flow. Esmeralda lightly kissed first the nose then the lips, smiling when the injuries began to heal. Then she stepped back away from the confrontation, understanding they needed to finish what had been started long before Amber had come crashing into their home.

Saphira kept her arms at her sides, looking at Amber with sadness in her eyes. "Do you feel better, Amber?" she asked with concern, no trace of anger or sarcasm in her tone. Amber studied Saphira's countenance for a minute, then dropped her gaze to the floor.

"I think your face broke my hand," she muttered. Saphira sighed and looked at Esmeralda. As a clean-up Guardian, she was much better equipped to heal than an Angel of Vengeance such as Saphira was. Esmeralda shook her head and walked between them again, catching Amber's wrist in her hands and tenderly lifting it enough to examine it.

"I think you're right," Esmeralda replied, gently manipulating the bones back into place. Amber clamped her jaw tight, grinding her teeth hard enough that Esmeralda could hear the squeak."I'm sorry, Amber; I'm not trying to hurt you."

"I know, Es. And it's my own fault, so nothing for you to be sorry for. Can you kiss it and make it better like you did for Phira?" not seeing Saphira relax when she heard the familiarity roll from Amber's lips. But Esmeralda felt it and smiled.

"I can kiss and make it start healing - it's going to be a little uncomfortable for a bit, though. The bones still have to re-knit themselves whole again."

"I know," watching as Esmeralda ghosted her lips over her knuckles. "Thanks, Es."

"Anytime, Amber," Esmeralda offered, cupping Amber's cheek with her free hand. "Are you ready to go sit down and talk about this rationally?"

"Not really," she mumbled. "I'm still very angry." She sighed and carefully removed her hand from Esmeralda grasp. "On the other hand, we need to get this settled before the Father sends someone after us to return to the banquet. He seems kind of anxious to make His announcement... whatever it is."

Esmeralda gestured towards one side of the house, then reached back and took Saphira's hand, and together they joined Amber in the living room. They seated themselves across from her and waited for Amber to speak. Finally, Amber looked right at Saphira, staring into her eyes as though to divine the truth without speaking. When Saphira held her gaze without flinching, Amber nodded and spoke.

"Why, Phira? Why did you let us think you were dead? Why... how...?" She ran her fingers through her hair and groaned. "What were you thinking??"

Saphira waited another moment, wanting to be sure Amber was done before she started to speak. When she was satisfied, she nodded slowly and clasped Esmeralda's hand a little tighter. Then she cleared her throat and replied.

"I had very little choice once a course of action had been decided on," Saphira said. She held up her free hand before Amber could interrupt. "Es was dying, Amber; being kicked out of our home was killing her - I know you could see it," watching as Amber nodded her reluctant agreement. "I did what I needed to do to make her healthy again. I had no way of knowing I was going to die as a result... or that Es would follow because our bond was broken." Saphira drew a shuddering breath. "That wasn't actually something I was made aware of until after I was gone."

"And after? Phira, I know she couldn't find you in her dreams."

"My situation and yours were very similar, Amber. Just as you could not contact her without the Father's permissiononce you returned home, I was not allowed contact with anyone except Rudy and a couple other cherubs who occasionally stopped by the holding place where I was waiting. I was allowed to watch, but I couldn't interfere."

"To what purpose?"

Saphira shrugged. "We haven't been told."

"I still think it was a test of faith," Esmeralda chimed in.

"Whose?" Amber asked plaintively. "Because if that's the case, I think there was a lot more testing being done than just the two of you."

"I don't know," Esmeralda responded honestly. "I don't think we'll ever know if He decides not to share."

Amber sighed. "Did you really not know you were going to die?"

Saphira shook her head. "I had no idea. I sincerely apologized for the actions that got us banished, and acknowledged that I could have looked for other ways to handle the situation. The only thing I expected was to be offered forgiveness and a chance to come home. I knew Es would heal here."

"You admitted you were wrong?!?"

"Sort of, I guess... but not exactly," Saphira answered.

Amber chuckled. "It kills you to admit you made a mistake doesn't it?" ignoring the glare Saphira was sending her way. She laughed, but held up her hands in surrender when she felt Saphira shifting in frustration. She knew what that meant, and they were so close to putting this whole debacle behind them - she didn't want there to be more trouble. No amount of teasing was worth going through another mission like this one had been… EVER. "I'm glad it worked out, regardless of what you had to do to get it done. Next time, though - ask for a few more details and try to share them. I can speak for the whole team when I tell you none of us was thrilled to be left in the dark."

"If it makes you feel better, Amber, I was in the dark too until I got here, and even then, I didn't know everything. I still don't."

"Is your bond back?" Amber asked bluntly as she looked between the two of them, having little doubt of the answer, but wanting to hear it from them directly.

"From the moment I took my last breath on the Earthly plane," Esmeralda replied, her expression one of such joy, Amber couldn't doubt her words. "It's the reason I was smiling, Amber."

Amber snorted. "Yeah, you did seem suspiciously content. I, on the other hand...."

Esmeralda leaned forward and took Amber's undamaged hand in hers. "I'm sorry Amber. I didn't know...."

"I know. How could you?" She squeezed the hand covering hers lightly before releasing it. Then she slapped it on her leg and stood. "Now, what do you two say to us going back to that banquet? I'm pretty sure you're expected, andeveryone is waiting for you to return before the Father makes his announcement." Her stomach growled, and she smiled sheepishly. "Besides, I'm starving. I haven't eaten in a while." She turned to Saphira. "We all right?"

Saphira gave her a cocky half-smile. "Aren't we always?"

Amber smirked and headed towards the door. "I dunno about you, Phira, but I'm usually spectacular."

"And modest," Saphira mumbled, though it was loud enough for Amber to understand her. Amber snickered.

"I don't need to be modest - I'm just that good." They laughed together and the tension fell away, then they headed back to the banquet.


The cheer that went up when they re-entered the banquet hall was deafening, and it caused the Father to leave His throne again to greet them once more. "Welcome back, ladies!" He said with His arms outstretched, garnering another round of cheers. "I trust everything is settled now?" giving Amber a significant look.

"Yes, Father," they replied together.

"Very good," gracing them all with an indulgent smile."Come then - it is time for you to feast. Then I will tell you all a little story."


The Father had risen from His throne, but remained on the dais looking out at the vast company of Angels seated around as far as the eye could see. Saphira and Esmeralda had taken seats on the top step, but the rest had spread out on the golden floor, not wanting to impinge on whatever it was that the Father had in mind for Esmeralda and Saphira. The Father maintained His vigil for long moments, meeting the eyes of each and every individual in the room, grateful beyond measure for their unfailing loyalty in spite of everything. They watched the proceedings with interest, and as His eyes moved on to the next, the silence in the room grew to absolute stillness. Nevertheless, they were all thankful for the outstanding acoustics in the room when the Father began to speak in His normal, soft tone.

"My children," He began. "I know there has been a lot of confusion and hurt and even anger in your midst in recent days. And though none of you spoke out to Me about it, I am aware of the resentment and frustration many of you have felt. I assure you it was necessary.

When you have been a society for as long as we have, you reach a place where stagnancy and complacency become the way of life, and that will destroy you. For us, it has the tendency to destroy those that we are supposed to care for - not just each other... but our mortal charges as well.

"What happened between Brianna and Charisma should never have occurred. Their watcher grew lazy, and by the time he saw fit to notify us, it was too late." The Father took a deep breath. "I knew what was happening of course - that omniscient thing again - but given the rules we operate under, there was little I could do to change it... at least immediately.

When Saphira took matters into her own hands - when she broke the rules because she felt it was the right thing to do - she provided the opportunity that allowed us to send a team in to help Brianna and Charisma. However, since she was being punished for her rash actions, there had to be some consequence - she and Esmeralda were cut off from us and made human. I didn't do it to be cruel - I wanted to know how they would cope, living as humanity does."

He strode back and forth on the platform, aware that every eye in the room was following his movement. "I had a reason - actually, I had several reasons. Esmeralda believes it was a test of faith." He nodded. "I suppose you could look at it like that. A few of the Angels that served on this mission think it was some sort of experiment." He shrugged. "Perhaps, but not in the way any of you envisioned. I wanted to know how they would function with the unexpected - no real resources... able to count only on one another." He looked down at Esmeralda and Saphira and smiled.

"You two passed my wildest expectations, because it wasn't just the two of you for very long. You went out and made friends and found people who cared because you cared first. It was quite amazing to watch you create another family - one you hadn't been born to but that loved you just the same. And when you helped Brianna Walker that first time, with no thought of yourselves... providing for a stranger from what little you had because it was the right thing to do - that's when I sent the rest of the team in. I was confident you could pull off a victory with those two."

"But why didn't you give us the support we needed, Father? This all could have ended so much quicker with the same results if we'd just had...."

"Would it, Es?" the Father queried kindly. "Charisma Tagherty possesses a stubbornness to rival your mate's. And Brianna Walker was tired in her very soul. Do you think you would have achieved the same success any faster with more support... knowing what you do about them?" He waited patiently for her answer as did the rest of heaven.

"Perhaps... not," she conceded.

"Besides," the Father reminded her gently, "there was still Saphira's punishment to be gotten through. And you chose to share that with her. As much as I love you, I wasn't going to negate your choice by forcing anything. Had you elected to leave her to return home, you would have had access to every resource available. But we both know that would have been an epic fail for everyone involved," looking around when snickering broke out across the room. "What??" He asked plaintively. "It's not like I'm not aware of this stuff, and I get tired of everything being a disaster." He turned back to Esmeralda.

"No - despite all the grumbling and frustration, things played out the way they should."

"So we were supposed to die? You couldn't have just brought us home?"

"Your deaths were to give closure to those left on the human plane. You had become so integral in the lives of those you were mentoring that simply disappearing would have been intolerable; it would have undone all your hard work to get them together because they would have been focused on finding you instead of working on becoming a couple. Unacceptable. Keeping you alive and moving you would have caused... complications." He turned His attention to Amber. "And before you ask, it needed to be real - they needed to be convinced that it was real to be able to say goodbye. So I kept it as real as I could."

"Can I ask why?" Amber replied. "What was so important that You needed to cause so much chaos for so many of us here? I understand the human element - I do work with them on a regular basis. But why the elaborate scheming? Why couldn't we know the truth? What could possibly be worth...?"

The Father held up His hands and Amber trailed off. "When Esmeralda and Saphira were first mated to one another, it wasn't a surprise for anyone here was it?" listening to the negative murmurings all over the room. "Of course not - even though it happened much sooner for them than it has for most of you, it was unmistakable. There's an aura around them that everyone can feel even if they can't see it -humanity is sensitive to it as well. All of you have one to some extent and when you meet your mate, it blends and becomes stronger.

When Saphira and Esmeralda merged, they became more than mates - they became a family. And over time, they wanted more. Each of them - separately and unknown to the other - came to me and made a request. They wanted a child... their child." Excited rumblings ran around the room and the Father stood perfectly still waiting for it to die down. Saphira and Esmeralda gripped one another's hands, stunned to realize what their shared appeal to the Father had been.

When it was quiet again, the Father looked out at the multitude, smiling benignly at the excitement he could feel throughout the room. "Saphira once commented about my regretting giving humanity free will." He smirked at the blush that traveled up her face. "I don't regret it as much as I wish I had been a little more selective about some things. And this assignment gave Me a second chance to do that - itgave Me the opportunity to see how Saphira and Esmeralda responded to the unfair and the unexpected and the unknown. It was very enlightening and you far exceeded any expectations I had for you. And it made Me realize that it was time to reward the depth of your love for one another."

The Father looked between the two of them and smiled, then offered them His hands to pull them up on the dais beside Him. "If you both still desire to add to your family by having a child together, you have my blessing."

Saphira and Esmeralda didn't hear the cheers and applause that rang out around them. They only had eyes for each other. The Father stepped just out of their view and they met in a long embrace - Saphira had set herself immediately, knowing Esmeralda was going to jump into her arms and Esmeralda didn't disappoint. For long moments they remained wrapped up in one another, heads buried in each other's necks as they trembled with excitement and joy.

Finally, Saphira felt Esmeralda mumbling against her skin and pulled back just enough to look into sparkling green eyes. "Es?"

"We're gonna have a baby, Phira. We're gonna have a baby!!" Her eyes widened and she turned her head to look at the Father. He had returned to His throne and was watching them with a contented smile resting on His lips. She tugged gently on Saphira's neck, and Saphira released her to stand on her own once more. Esmeralda caught Saphira's hand in hers and walked to the throne, dropping to her knees when she reached it.

"Thank you, Father. We couldn't have asked for a greater honor."

"You've earned it, Esmeralda. You both have. And it will be nice to have some fresh blood here; we could use it." He looked around and saw the team that had served with Esmeralda on so many occasions waiting for them at the base of the stairs and jerked His head in their direction. "I think you have some people waiting to congratulate you. Go. We will talk soon and iron out the details."

They bowed their heads. "Thank you, Father," they offered together. Then they rose and walked towards their friends. For the first time in a very long time, heaven was alive with excitement, and they were ready to celebrate. Tomorrow would be the beginning of a new era, but tonight was all about being home again. It was good to be home... at last.

Chapter CXIV

Of course, the temporary injunction surrounding Brianna's and Charisma's personal life didn't last too long - the press took their statement as a challenge to dig up everything they could find and try to turn it into story fodder. Strangely, there was little for them to sensationalize. Brianna had never been outspoken about her sexuality, but she'd never made an effort to hide it either. That made for very little to find out that wasn't already public knowledge. And her friends and colleagues mostly closed ranks - offering either no comment or words of praise for her work ethic and congratulations on the personal front.

Digging into Charisma's life had nearly the same result - she had been planning her political career almost since she could speak, and definitely since she could read and write and there was simply nothing there for them to find - no dirt to dig up... no scandal to embellish upon. In fact, despite the press' best efforts and their frustration with their inability to produce any sort of ignominy they could exploit, there was a grudging admiration for Charisma's strong ethics. That in and of itself was story worthy at a time when shame and disgrace seemed to be the norm and not the exception.

The only action she had taken that could be considered morally questionable was her divorce from Kent and her subsequent liaison with Brianna Walker, and even that was progressing so slowly in public that Victorian standards would be considered loose by comparison. So far, the most anyone had seen was them holding hands and staring to the point where the action became serious eye sex. Once they had beenwitnessed leaning into one another, wrapping their arms around each other for support. Charisma had actually brushed a kiss against Brianna's temple, but otherwise things between them publicly remained almost Puritan in nature.

That isn't to say they didn't indulge in some heavy petting and long make-out sessions when they were alone together, because they certainly did. As soon as the divorce decree had been signed they had stepped up their physical intimacy by mutual, unspoken consent, though they had yet to completely consummate their union. Not from lack of desire, but rather a longing to make it special for each other, and rushing for a lack of time or privacy wasn't especially romantic. It did make for a lot of frustration and grumpy mornings though. They were both secretly counting the days until their European trip.

Still, their public decorum was, in point of fact, very maddening for members of the fifth estate - there was nothing for them to dramatize. The public, however, was quite fascinated. It was like watching a faery tale come to life and surprisingly, most weren't concerned that the two principal players were women. They were more enamored with the story being told in front of them.

Of course, as the saying goes - into every life a little rain must fall - and Brianna and Charisma were no exception to that... especially as there was a small minority whose entire political platforms focused on hatred and bigotry towards anything that varied from their own very public moral code. Even though their colleagues had originally rebuffed any inquiries made about them, those select few felt they could further their own righteousness by focusing attention on the perceived moral ambiguity that Charisma's and Brianna's actions had caused in an otherwise stellar career.

Thus, only two weeks after their statement to the press, and only a month before their scheduled trip to Europe, the Ethics committee convened with the intent of removing what some wanted to view as an embarrassment to the office. It was unfortunate for them that they chose not to let sleeping dogs lie, because things would have blown over on their own had they been left to do so. But then... hindsight is such a wonderful thing.


"Senator Walker, do you know why you're here this morning?" the Chairman asked as she seated herself behind the microphone. Brianna had not risen to show her respect for the Chairman's position when she entered the room, and she was more than a little put out by the lack of deference to her office. It was definitely time to put this woman in her place - show her how things were intended to run here. One couldn't get ahead if they didn't play by the rules like everyone else and after almost a year here, Brianna Walker should understand that fact. The Chairman peered over her glasses and frowned, hoping to intimidate her with her glare. Instead, Brianna snorted to keep from laughing aloud at her posturing, leaning back in her seat to regard the Chairman with humor.

"Of course. I am here because you have a stick up your ass and need to pick at something that is actually none of your business to keep your mind off it."

"Excuse me?!? You will not speak to me or anyone else involved in these proceedings with such disrespect, Senator. We have rules and processes that we follow and respect is key to that."

"Bullshit!" Brianna snapped with a vengeance, causing every person in the room to flinch. "You think because you were elected to office to SERVE," her emphasis on the word so strong, those listening could hear the capital letters in her voice, "that you're ENTITLED. Let me tell you something, Senator," sneering, "you're not *entitled* to anything. And you certainly haven't earned MY respect. You want me to excuse you?? There's no excuse for any of you, and trust me... I've looked."

"Senator Walker...."

"Nono... you don't get to talk now," holding up a hand and standing, walking around the table so she could lean against it to regard her accusers. Suddenly, the committee was thankful for two things - that they had decided to keep these actions closed and away from the press and that they had never faced Brianna Walker in court. It already felt as though she had eviscerated them thoroughly, and it was obvious from her stance that she hadn't even gotten started yet.

"You asked me a question - I'm quite willing to give you an answer. You brought me here with the intention of putting me in my place - making sure I towed a moral line *you* determined. You really think you can do that, Senator Gilbert? Rhetorical question," she instructed when the Chairman opened her lips to respond. "You don't want to answer yet. Because if you choose the wrong answer, there will be consequences."

"Are you threatening us, Senator Walker?"

"Not at all, Senator Gilbert. I'm simply explaining the truth to you. Surely you're acquainted with Newton's law - for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I think you should be aware of what that reaction will be if you decide to pursue this course of action."

Gilbert held Brianna's eyes for a long moment, searching them for any hint of falsehood. When she found none, she leaned back in her chair as nonchalantly as she could manage and reached for the glass of water. When she noticed her shaking hand, she simply motioned for Brianna to continue instead.

"Thank you, Senator Gilbert," Brianna nodded graciously, her tone quite civil. "Before you start flinging spears and arrows at either me or Senator Tagherty for some sort of perceived moral shortcoming, let me suggest that you worry about your own business. You see, Charisma Tagherty is one in a lifetime - she's the real deal. Honest, forthright, stands by her convictions. Can the rest of you say the same? Don't answer - I already know. Every single one of you sold out a long time ago, and you're just *dying* to bring Senator Tagherty down to your level - it justifies your own actions.

But you can't - she's worked hard for the people of our state and it shows in the latest polls. Most of her constituents aren't concerned with us being a couple now - she was faithful to her husband for the duration of their marriage. In fact, despite the fact that she discovered her feelings for me, neither of us acted on that while she and Kent were married nor would we have. Because unlike you, Senator Danvers," pinning the woman with an intense stare, "I'm not a homewrecker. I was fully prepared to walk out of her life again. And unlike you, Senator York," watching the man flinch,"Charisma Tagherty believed that fidelity was part of the marriage vows she took."

Brianna smirked as she watched the faces that had entered the room with so much righteous indignation and accusation on their features, pale and turn ashen with each casually revealed secret.

"Should we talk about the dominatrix sessions you attend every Wednesday night, Senator Gilbert? With a woman who looks nothing like the husband you claim to have been faithful to for thirty-five years? Would you like to discuss Senator Morris' son's drug problems and the illegal strings he's pulled to keep him out of jail?"

She glanced around the room. "Would you like me to continue?" looking at the three committee members she hadn't yet called out and watching them shake their heads frantically in the negative. Brianna smirked again, and dropped her eyes to the floor in an effort to contain her laughter. If she'd been them, she wouldn't have wanted those particular bits of dirty laundry aired either. "I have files upon files filled with items like these - and not just for the people in this room." Brianna locked eyes with each of them one at a time, smiling in such a way that they were reminded of any number of Disney villains. Only this time, it was readily apparent that the villain was going to win any encounter they instigated. "It's amazing what you can find out about people when you know the right people."

"You have no proof."

"Are you sure? Are you willing to bet your career... risk jail time on that possibility? I assure you, Senator Thomas, I have proof that would destroy each and every one of you, and it would certainly be my pleasure to do so," the fire in her eyes lending credence to the truth of her words.

"What do you want, Senator Walker?" Gilbert finally asked resignedly.

"Aside from each of you becoming the leaders you were elected to be?" Brianna snorted. "You leave us alone. I don't care if you support Charisma or not, but you don't get to question her ethics or her morals anymore. Not one of you is in a position to do so - none of you has a moral leg to stand on, and if you think I'm going to stand by and let you persecute and obliterate her...."

"Anything else?"

"Yeah," Brianna replied. "If you try to isolate or undermine her or make things personal, I will ruin you - each and every one of you... one at a time. And I promise - you won't see it coming and each blow will be worse than the last. Not a threat - just a statement of fact. I don't like most of you - you are lower than the dirt on my shoes... wheeling and dealing and forgetting why you're really supposed to be here. Does that make me naïve?? Probably, but at least I sleep nights. Can you say the same?" Everyone reacted to that, no matter how minutely, and Brianna knew she'd made her point.

"I won't let you ruin what could be one of the brightest promises for the future of this great country with your petty bigotry and hatred. So drop your agendas against Senator Tagherty. I won't let you try to damage her further - she deserves better. She's actually earned the respect you demand."

The Chairman looked to her left, then her right before turning her attention back to Brianna. "We accept your terms, Senator Walker. Can we trust that you'll do nothing with the information you have?"

"Lady, I haven't given you a single reason *not* to trust me."

"Perhaps," Gilbert conceded, "but trust is something that is earned as well. Can you see why we might have a bit of difficulty doing so? Despite what you call it, you have threatened us all."

Brianna shrugged. "I suppose you could see it that way. But the fact remains that I have had this information in my possession since shortly after I arrived here and I haven't made it public - that should count for something." A pause as they absorbed the evidence she had just given them. "As long as you behave, so will I. I play to win, but I play fair... relatively speaking, of course," sneering at their disbelieving stares. Brianna gathered her papers together and slipped them back into her briefcase, then turned her attention back to the committee members that were watching her every move.

"A word of caution, ladies and gentlemen - do not test me, and don't think you can destroy the evidence I have on you. There are numerous copies of the charges I have laid before you today, and any sort of retaliatory action against me or Senator Tagherty will trigger the accusations to go public. Are we perfectly clear?" Every head bobbed slowly in acknowledgment. "Very well. If we're done here, I have a lunch date. Have a pleasant day."

Then Brianna turned and made her way out the door without pause. Only when she was gone and the portal closed completely behind her did the committee exhale and look at one another.

"Now what?" Senator Lopez asked. "Do we...?"

"We do nothing," Senator Gilbert announced as she straightened the papers in front of her.

"But...." from Senator Zimmerman.

"No buts," Gilbert bit out. "Can any of you afford to have your constituents know those kinds of things about you? Because I certainly can't. I'm just barely holding onto my seat as it is. And somehow, I believe Walker when she says there's evidence. We all know what kind of shadows lurk in her past, and even though we can't use it against her because she's maintained her distance from those connections, there is still every possibility that those connections work well for her when the need arises." Gilbert's pointed glances garnered her reluctant agreement from the rest. "Very well. This meeting is adjourned. I need a drink."

"Me too," piped up several of the others. Then they rose from their seats and headed out of the room.


The sky was clear and the air was hot as they walked hand in hand down the narrow, cobbled streets of the Old City towards Trevi Fountain. The first part of their holiday had gone so smoothly, and they had filled up several memory cards with pictures of the many places that they had already visited on their trip thus far. And of course, there were those instances that weren't captured by anything more than their memories - things too private to share with anyone beside one another.

The first time they'd made love in a Scottish castle that still bore the smudge marks of a thousand years worth of torchlight. Watching the sunrise wrapped around one another inside a blanket in a field as green as Brianna's eyes. Making love under the stars in a meadow in the Alps. Skinny dipping in a private cove they'd discovered while sailing around the islands in the Mediterranean. Dancing naked in the rain beneath the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius.

It had been all they had hoped for and more than they had dreamed and for the first time, Brianna felt whole. She turned to stare at Charisma as they neared the fountain, and cocked her head at the odd expression on Charisma's face. Charisma caught her and smiled bashfully. Brianna blushed, but grinned back at her.

"What?" Charisma demanded, her voice playful and husky.

"That's what I was going to ask. You had a strange look on your face."

"Did I?" chuckling when Brianna nodded pointedly. "I was thinking about how amazing this trip has been; about how the similarities make it seem familiar while the differences," squeezing Brianna's hand for emphasis, "make it feel new all over again. I was thinking how grateful I am that you were willing to give me one more chance, because I wouldn't have missed this for anything." They rounded the corner, and the noise from the fountain was almost overwhelming, so they hesitated for a moment to allow them time to adjust. Charisma loosened her hand from Brianna's, so she could cup her face and look into her eyes. "I was thinking how wonderful it is to be whole again. I love you, Brianna Walker."

Brianna clasped a hand around one of Charisma's and eased it from her face. She slipped a coin into it, and Charisma's face lit up in comprehension. They turned their backs to the fountain, then kissed the coins and tossed them over their shoulders, laughing while snapping pictures that they hoped would come out later. A kindly older man asked if they'd like him to take a picture of them together, and they nodded and handed him their cameras. He grinned and stepped back, and they turned towards one another with the fountain in the background. Brianna laced her fingers behind Charisma's head, threading them into the dark hair that hung loose. Charisma's hands naturally fell to Brianna's waist and they moved together until there was no space left between them.

"For the record," Brianna whispered as she tugged Charisma's head down, "I love you too." Then their lips met, and everything else became ambient noise. They didn't even notice the man taking pictures until he cleared his throat to separate them long enough to return their cameras. They blushed, but only pulled apart enough to receive them. He smiled and shook his head when they offered him money.

"Complimenti, bella signores," he said. "It was my pleasure," spoken in halting English. "Vi augurotanto amoree felicitàinsiemesì?"

"Grazie," they answered simultaneously, leaning forward and kissing him on either cheek. He blushed but his smile grew, and with a wave of his hand, he disappeared back into the crowd of people wandering around the fountain. Brianna and Charisma stared after him for a moment, then turned back to each other with a smile. Charisma shifted her arms from Brianna's waist, and Brianna loosened her hold until they could clasp one another's hands.

"What do you say," Charisma asked as they slowly headed back down a narrow road, "to us going back to our hotel room for a bit?" She glanced at her watch. "It's late enough in the City that Kent and Adam will be up at least, if not actually awake," garnering a chuckle from Brianna. It was a running joke that every time they called home, it seemed to be meal time, bath time or 'God we just got out of bed' time. Even Kent had taken to laughing about it. "We could make our call, then maybe order a little room service?" leaning down to nuzzle Brianna's neck. Brianna responded by nipping at Charisma's earlobe and Charisma shivered. "A little food, a little wine, an afternoon of passionate sex?"

Brianna dropped Charisma hands and started walking briskly towards their hotel. Charisma frowned and halted, tilting her head and wondering what she'd said to make Brianna pull away from her. Just then, Brianna stopped moving away from her and turned to face Charisma with her hands on her hips and a wicked twinkle in her eye.

"Well??" she questioned, throwing her arms out. "Are you coming or do I have to start without you?" Charisma's eyes widened when she realized exactly what Brianna meant and she ran to catch up, snagging Brianna's hand as she ran by and pulling her along as they ran giggling towards their room. The natives just watched them go and shook their heads while their lips creased into little smiles. Americans were crazy without a doubt, but real love was always beautiful to see and they were glad for the glimpse into that kind of genuine happiness.

Brianna and Charisma never noticed - their focus was solely on one another. As it should have been... as it would always be.


"Wait," Charisma said as she leaned back into the pillows piled up behind her on the couch. "That's it?? THAT'S where you're ending our story??"

"Yep," Brianna drawled, that mischievous twinkle shining out of those pretty green eyes again.

"You can't stop there, Brianna Brianna. That wasn't our story ending... it was just the beginning, just like Es said it was."

"Who's the writer here?" Brianna challenged.

"Who's the President here?" Charisma retorted. "Pretty sure I outrank you."

"Out there, maybe," pointing towards the bedroom door. "In here, no, and here," holding up a familiar yellow tablet, "I'm the boss." Brianna laughed and Charisma crossed her arms over her chest and pouted.

"That's not fair," Charisma mumbled. "I'm the President," she reiterated.

"Maybe, but it is life and life is not always fair. This is just the introductoryinstallment, Ri," Brianna told her with a tender smile. "I have more writing to do - you have more history to make. We have a life to continue living together, and I can't write about it until we do that."

"That was mean," Charisma grumbled.

"You still love me," Brianna insisted as she leaned forward to claim Charisma's lips. A knock on the door caused them to stop millimeters apart and they sighed and settled for a quick peck before Charisma called out, "Come in."

Adam poked his head in the door, shaking it as soon as he realized he'd interrupted them... again. For as long as he could remember, his moms had been in love, and though they tried to be prudent about sharing too much of their intimate life with the world outside the family and closest friends, they were naturally demonstrative and affectionate in the privacy of their home. More than once he'd caught them together in the middle of a kiss... or a hug... or very intimate conversation.

"Sorry," he murmured automatically. "I just wanted to let you know that Ame put Dadupstairs - he wanted to be close to the gym. He dropped his luggage off and headed out to an appointment." Adam shrugged to indicate he didn't know anything else. "Gramma called a few minutes ago - something about Es' hot chocolate recipe?" Adam shrugged. "You'll probably want to call her back... she wasn't real clear. Anyway, I'm headed out to pick up Jenna so we can get to the Natural History Museum on time. Do you need anything before I go?"

Charisma rose from the couch she been snuggled up on with Brianna and wrapped her arms around her nearly grown son. Where had the time gone? she wondered as she straightened his bowtie and brushed at the sleeve of his tuxedo. He hugged her gently, then did the same with Brianna. "Just be careful and ask the Andrews for copies of their pictures please since I can't go take my own without causing a national incident apparently," Charisma instructed slightly aggrieved. "And be home early - you know how your Gramma is during the holidays and she'll be here soon. She'll expect to see you first thing tomorrow regardless of how long your winter formal goes on tonight."

"Yes ma'am," he acknowledged, then slipped out of the room before she could caution him any more. Charisma turned back to Brianna.

"Well, well," she drawled softly. "It seems we have the house to ourselves at the moment. And what do you know? My work is done for the day. If you're really finished for the moment," nodding her head at the legal pad currently discarded on the table, "what do you say to calling the kitchen? A little food, a little wine and an evening of wild lovemaking?"

Brianna smirked and began undressing Charisma as she urged her gently towards the massive bed. "I think, Madame President, you've made me an offer I can't refuse."

And from somewhere above two Angels smiled in satisfaction as theystood sentinelwhile Brianna and Charisma consecrated their love once more.




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