by Melissa Good
The conference room was almost full, every seat at the long table taken save the one at the head of it. Late afternoon sunlight poured into the room, resisting the valiant efforts of even the several ton air conditioning plant to alleviate it’s effects, and after a moment shading his eyes, Mark Polenti got up and walked over to the glass panel. “Son of a bitch.” He lowered the shades. “You could cook a damn egg on this thing.”
“No kidding.” Peter Prescott, one of the IT group leaders agreed. “I start sweating just thinking about going out to my car.”
With a shake of his head, Mark returned to his seat. The MIS manager picked up and flipped his pen, settling back in one of the leather chairs that ringed the table. “Long damned summer.”
Agreement chimed in from around the table full of assorted technical managers. “I wouldn’t go outside for ten minutes longer than I had to.” Peter added. “Man, I see those freaking tourists on the beach… you can just see them frying like turkeys at Thanksgiving.”
“You got that right.” Mark snorted.
The door to the conference room opened, and they all turned. Eyes opened wider as the newcomer commenced to dance inside, jiving to a song apparently audible only to her as she made her way across the room and ended up bouncing into the chair at the end of the table.
Relatively short, but sporting a lithely muscular build, the woman shrugged out of her neatly tailored blue jacket and draped it over the back of the chair, before she leaned on the padded surfaced in a jaunty finish to her dance.
“Hi, guys.” Kerry grinned at them. “Is today not an awesome day, or what?”
The operations department heads all looked at each other, then peered down the table at their blond leader. Kerry was dressed in a no nonsense business suit, with an impeccably pressed cream colored silk shirt, but her pale, summer cropped hair was so tousled it appeared that the vice president of operations had stuck her head out of some car window on the way back from lunch.
“Um.” Mark cleared his throat. “Yeah, it’s okay.” He allowed. “We got the espresso machine working again, at least.” His eyebrows quirked. “Did you.. like.. drink a couple cups to celebrate or something?”
“Nope.” Kerry laced her fingers together before her on the table. “Guess again.”
“Did… we make our numbers?” Peter hazarded.
“Yes, but that’s not why I’m jazzed.” His boss replied.
“Did.. your dog have puppies?” Ellen Jasmine chimed in from across the table, her weathered face wrinkling up in a grin.
“No, no no.” Kerry waggled her hand. “No puppies, no kittens, and neither Dar nor I are pregnant so don’t even go there.” She danced a little in her seat. “C’mon, c’mon… we’ve only been talking about this for a month.”
Mark made a face. “Don’t tell me you’re all whacked about going to the technology convention.”
Kerry grinned widely.
Her audience wasn’t sure whether to laugh or groan. “Jesus.” Mark covered his eyes. “Man, I thought I was the primo geek in this place.” He pointed at Kerry. “Not no more. You win. I give.”
The Operations VP opened her leather folder, and chuckled. “Actually.” She glanced around and lowered her voice. “I could give a gopher’s wazoo about the convention. I’ve been waiting to go back to Disney World with Dar since forever.” Her face creased into a grin again, it’s summer tan emphasizing the bleached lightness of her hair, and the vivid green of her eyes.
“Ahhhh!” Ellen laughed. “Now I get it!”
“Augh… Orlando in July? Kerry, you’re gonna regret it.” Mark objected. “Not even the Mouse could get me up there in this weather.”
“You.” Kerry pointed at him. “Have obviously never done Disney with Dar.” She pulled out her agenda. “Now. Let’s see where we are this month.” She smoothly switched gears, her voice dropping a few notes and becoming more businesslike. “Okay, I’ve got some good news, and some bad news.”
The room settled down, and became more serious. Around the table, eyes met in mild apprehension, the universal fear of skilled, valued, but ultimately powerless parts of the company machine to statements of that nature. Even though most in the room trusted Kerry, and all liked her, still they also knew exactly where her loyalties were.
“Let me get the bad news out of the way.” Kerry said. “First of all, let me make it clear that in no way do I, or Dar for that matter, hold anyone here responsible for the fact that twenty percent of our contracts up for renewal this quarter did not sign.” She looked up, meeting the eyes facing her squarely. “Our service was not in question, nor was it a factor in the signings.”
Mark exhaled. “Fuckin lowballers.”
Kerry’s expressive face twitched a little. “For the record – when sales brought the final numbers to the table, it was Dar who drew the line and said we would not counter bid them. Okay?” She gave them a moment to absorb the words. “Dar said she would not trade off our services levels for paper numbers. We decided we couldn’t provide acceptable levels of response for the dollars they were suggesting.” She paused. “I agreed wholeheartedly.”
Bodies relaxed around the room, falling back into the leather chairs with faintly audible squeaks.
“Kerry, that’s an amazing thing to hear.” Ellen said, in a serious tone. “I have a friend who works for our friends out west, and last time something like this happened, they took big time heat for it.”
Kerry rested her chin on her hands. “Dar would never let that happen.” She said. “But let me tell you, those meetings in Houston last week weren’t pretty.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Mark muttered. “But, Kerry, I saw those freakin numbers. No way in hell those guys can deliver what they said they would.”
His boss shrugged one shoulder lightly. “Time will tell. But in the meantime, we have twenty percent of our budget we need to find funding for, or else lose it. That means you all need to look vveeerrrryyy carefully at your books and see if we have slack room.” She warned “If we have a repeat next quarter, things are going to get very tight around here.”
Everyone nodded in grim understanding.
“Now, on the bright side.” Kerry changed gears again, seeing in the looks she’d studied the response she was looking for. “We did make our service numbers, in fact…” She smiled warmly. “We exceeded them. I’m very proud of that, and so’s Dar.” Her eyes twinkled just a little. “And so, even though I know you all must have heard about the salary freeze…”
Mark cleared his throat. Ellen looked away, out the window. The rest of the table found something to study that didn’t involve middling height blond women. Everyone knew how much Kerry hated office gossip, and wise people didn’t bring it up in her presence.
“It doesn’t apply to us.” Kerry finished quietly. “I’ve processed the first of this quarter’s raises and bonuses, and they should be hitting your worklists by the time you get back to your offices.” She almost smiled at the instinctive gasps at the very unexpected statement. “Please let your people know that we appreciate all the hard work they’ve put in this year, and we hope they continue along through the rest of the year the same way.”
For a very long moment there was silence around the table. Then Mark rocked forward and thumped his elbows against the table. “Holy crap, boss. My socks are still bouncing off the walls here.” He said. “Aren’t the rest of those guys gonna be pissed?”
Kerry leaned back in her chair, extending her legs and crossing them at the ankles. “Well.” She steepled her fingers and tapped the tips against her chin. “First off, no one should be talking about it.” One blond eyebrow cocked meaningfully. “But second, if someone has a problem, just direct them that way.” She jerked her thumb sideways, in the general direction of Dar’s office.
“Not to you?” Ellen asked, curiously.
Kerry’s nostrils flared just slightly. “Dar’s orders.” She replied in brief words. After another moment of silence, she nodded. “Okay, so, next on the agenda….”
Her staff shifted around the table and leaned forward, sorting their own papers and relaxing. Kerry took the opportunity to silently evaluate them, absorbing the air of surprise at her last statement. They knew her to be a fierce defender of her own prerogatives, and one of the very few people in the company not only willing, but able to stand up to their legendary CIO.
Ah well. Kerry folded her hands over her stomach, twiddling her thumbs idly. Everyone would get over it in a few days, and after all, there was Disney World to contemplate.
It wasn’t that she was making light of the company’s troubles – they weighed on her shoulders more than most. But as she’d told her staff, the troubles hadn’t been laid at their doorstep, and the best thing they all could to right now was just keep doing their job, as best as they were able.
And that meant putting on a good show at the convention. “Everyone ready for the trade show, since I mentioned it?” She asked.
“Advance team’s packed and itchin.” Mark replied, checking something off on his agenda.
“Who’s in charge?” Kerry asked. “You going?”
The MIS manager glanced up at her. “Peter. He’s buds with Eleanor’s chief whiner. They get along great.”
“He the one with the pierced eyebrows?”
“Good choice.” Kerry spun her papers. “Okay, tell me what didn’t come in on time this week.”
“I’m listening.” Dar Roberts selected a colorful dart from the case resting on her knees and let fly, grinning in triumph when it’s point buried itself in a newly wall mounted target. “I’m not hearing anything but bilge wash so far, but I’m listening.”
“Bilge wash? You been out on that boat of yours again?” Alastair McLean chuckled.
“Been around my daddy.” Dar replied, launching another dart. “Alastair, we’ve been around and around with this. We both know there’s no damn good answer.”
A long sigh issued through the phone.
“I’ve put as much pressure on every supplier we have, pushed as hard as I could, gotten everyone down to the lowest cost they can do without losing money.” Dar said.
“I know that.”
“Cut our costs to the bone. We don’t have any padding, not one area that I can point to and say, fluff.”
“Dar, I know that too.”
Dar thwacked another dart in the target, nailing the bullseye. “So why are we still on this call? What else do you want from me, Alastair? Want me to sell my desk?”
Another long sigh. “You could can those raises.”
“No.” Dar repeated firmly. “Take it out of my check if you want to. Those people deserve it.”
Her boss grunted. “Hell of a time for you to be turning into Robin Hood.”
The inner door to Dar’s office cracked open, and a shaggy blond head poked inside Dar’s face responded with a wide grin, and she twirled a dart in silence, pointing at the phone and mock aiming at it. “Me, Robin Hood? Get out of here. I just value my people like you value yours.”
Kerry snapped her fingers in silence, then pointed at Dar, biting her lip.
“Ahem.” Alastair cleared his throat. “Walked into that one, didn’t I?” He admitted. “All right, but please, Dar – try to drum up something good at the convention, will ya? I need something other than bad news for the board meeting next month.”
“Do what I can.”
“I know I can count on you Dar.” Alastair concluded. “Good luck!”
The line clicked off. Dar rolled her eyes as she waited none to patiently for Kerry to cross the carpet and arrive at her side. “Hey there.”
“Hi.” Kerry sat on the edge of Dar’s desk, dangling her feet and allowing her moderate heels to slip off. “He sounds worried.”
“He is.” Her partner agreed.
“You don’t sound worried.”
Dar flipped another dart at her board, a newly christened present from Kerry. “Wanna know the truth?’ She searched Kerry’s face intently. “I don’t know how much I really care.”
Kerry reached over and ran her fingers through Dar’s thick, dark hair, moving the slightly shaggy bangs out of her pale blue eyes. “Yeah, I know.” She murmured. Dar’s skin was a shade darker tan than her own, and there were several sun lightened streaks in the locks her hand stirred.
Dar’s lashes fluttered and she fiddled with a dart. “Ah, I still do care.” She half shrugged. “I just can’t take the whole thing so damn seriously anymore.”
“It’s okay.” Her partner said. “I have to admit I’m more excited about going back to Disney World with you than I am about the convention, so don’t feel bad.”
Dar peeked up at her. “Really?”
Kerry grinned wholeheartedly. “Yeah. I keep trying to figure out how we can run the display scenarios from our pda’s.” She scratched Dar behind the ears with her fingertips. “How’d you like to go up a little early, just to check out the convention center?”
Her tall boss slid open the flat drawer at the front of her desk and withdrew a folder, dexterously opening it with her thumb and displaying the contents.
“Mmm…. I think those are plane tickets.”
“I think you’re right.” Dar agreed. “C’mon.” She got up, curling her arm around Kerry’s waist and drawing her up as well. “Let’s go get some bags packed, Yankee.”
Kerry amiably returned the hug, resting her head against Dar’s shoulder and reflecting on her lover’s surprise at finding their bags well and truly already packed. “Hey, Dar?”
“If we get a memory upgrade for my Palm, I really think I can run the data apps.”
“While we go down the water slides?”
Dar walked her towards the door, considering the question. “You’ll need a waterproof case for it.” She finally concluded. “I think the dive shop has them in blue.”
Kerry only chuckled, as they walked through the door, and headed for the elevator.
Ahh. Kerry closed her eyes, and exhaled, enjoying the slight chill of the condo’s air conditioning against her newly showered skin. She could still faintly smell the spices of their stir fry dinner in the air, and feel the ache of their joint sparring session in her upper arms.
Life was good. Even though she wasn’t entirely sure she was going to really catch on to kickboxing, she found she loved every minute of the classes they were taking for it. It was a new skill for Dar as well, and just the learning process felt exciting and fun.
Besides, Dar looked so cute in boxing gloves.
Kerry opened one eye, and rotated it around towards Dar’s bedroom. “Yeah?” She wriggled into a more comfortable position flat on her back on the couch, and waited.
“Think a tshirt’ll be okay on the plane?”
T-shirt. Kerry considered the question with due seriousness. “Tank top.” She disagreed. “Like that nice pale blue one you had on the other day.”
The faint scuff of bare footsteps intruded into the living room, accompanied by their maker. “What?” Dar queried, putting her hands on her hips. “The damn things are air conditioned, Kerry.”
“I know.” The blond woman agreed readily. “But I really love you in that tank top, and if you get too cold, I can always warm you up.” She studied the tall, lithe figure in its worn jeans and bra. “Or you could just go like that.”
Her lover sauntered over and took a seat on the edge of the couch, draping her arm over Kerry’s hips and gazing affectionately at her. “Does that mean you’ll wear your new suit on the plane then?” She asked, with a grin.
“The gray one?” Kerry hazarded. “Dar, it’s sorta see through.”
“Hm.” Kerry slid her hand up the inside of Dar’s thigh. “Nah, let’s save it for the wave pool.” She conceded. “I am so looking forward to this trip.” Her face creased into an easy grin. “I have such cool memories of the last one.”
The blue eyes twinkled brightly. “Me too.” Dar said. “I wish we didn’t have the stupid convention to deal with, but I guess it’s as good an excuse as any to spend a week up there.” She leaned a little against Kerry. “You all packed? Dad picked Chino up while you were in the shower.”
“Yep, I’m all set. One medium sized case full of fun clothes, and a garment bag for the monkey suits. You all ready? I’ll go start up the buggy.”
“Just have to put my shirt on.” Dar leaned forward, smiling as Kerry’s arms slipped around her neck and they kissed. After a few moments of increasing intensity, she braced herself and slid around, stretching out half beside, half over Kerry’s body.
It was a good size couch, and they had a lot of practice fitting on it together. Dar kept up the kiss as she slowly eased her hand under the fabric of Kerry’s cotton shirt, tracing a path up the center of her belly and ending up curling her fingers around the curve of Kerry’s right breast.
Even after a year and a half, it still grabbed her right in the guts, the reaction of her body so strong under Dar’s gentle touch it made it hard to think straight. Kerry returned the attention, easier for her since there was nothing between her partner and herself except the thin silk of Dar’s bra.
She loved the way Dar’s body fit her hands. “We’re gonna miss the plane.” Kerry whispered, circling Dar’s navel with her index finger.
“We can drive.” Dar bit her earlobe gently. “My folks and I used to, all the time.”
Kerry lost herself in the rich scent of Dar’s skin for a little while. Then she paused, and poked her partner in the ribs very gently. “Know what?”
Dar went nose to nose with her, licking her lips with an attentive tongue. “What?”
“Let’s drive.” Kerry undid the top button on Dar’s jeans. “It’ll be fun.” She let the rest of her thoughts drift away, burned off by the heat of passion igniting in her guts. “You.. me…”
“Corn dogs on the turnpike. Yeah.” Dar laughed softly. “I’m all for it.”
Kerry laughed with her, and savored the touch of her bare skin. She loved how Dar felt; loved the silky texture of her skin, and the light twitches of her reactions as Kerry’s hands explored her.
She loved the low hum of approval when it tickled her ear, and pressure as Dar slid her thigh between Kerry’s and tugged off her shorts.
And you know, sometimes life just rocked.
Two hours later, they were sitting side by side in Dar’s Lexus, tooling down the Florida turnpike as the last of the sun disappeared behind the pines bordering the road. Kerry had the passenger seat pushed all the way back, and she had her bare feet propped up against the dashboard while Dar leaned back in a relaxed attitude with one hand on the wheel.
“Y’know, I think this really is a good idea.” Kerry commented, after they’d been companionable silent for a few minutes while she chose a new CD to listen to. “We need a car up there anyway, and with all the time getting to the airport in Miami, and from the airport up there, it’s probably a wash.”
“Uh huh.” Dar reached behind her, and removed a bottle of Yoohoo from the cooler in the back seat. “And we’ve got better inflight refreshments.”
Kerry slid a cd into the drive and leaned back, circling one knee with her arms. She watched the passing scenery, and decided most of the state of Florida had a lot in common with parts of the state of Michigan in terms of flat terrain and boring horticulture. “Is it like this all the way up?”
Dar glanced around in the twilight. “Pretty much.” She admitted. “We used to leave at… four am, I guess, to get up here. Dad always said there wasn’t nothing to look at, no sense in wasting sunlight on it.” She recalled, shifting the car into the left lane to pass a dawdling truck. “You go on road trips much?”
Kerry laid her head back against the seat. “Not with my family, no.” She replied, in a quiet tone. “But when we went to camp in the summer, yeah. All of us in the bus. That was kinda fun.” A brief flash of civilization whipped by, a lone white house facing the road with a old, half rusted bus in front of it. “It wasn’t really a wild and crazy camp – it was from my school. But Angie and I counted the days till we went there and we were always sorry to leave.”
Dar moved to the right again, and settled back. “Where was it?”
“Up in the mountains.” Her partner replied. “We had these precious little cabins, with maid service twice a day, and a valet to do our laundry. You know.” Her eyes slid sideways. “Well, no, you don’t know, but I look back on it now, and realize just how bloody damn pretentious it all was.”
“Eh.” The dark haired woman chuckled a little. “I went to the Y camp one or two summers, but when I got old enough, I went to the summer programs on base.”
Kerry’s lips twitched. “No valets, huh?”
“No.” Dar shook her head. “You had kids who grew up on a military base, who had that mindset to begin with, and who lived in that culture. We did war games, camping, hunting…” A smile appeared. “I had a blast. It was one of the few times I remember just being really…” She paused.
“Happy?” Kerry guessed.
“Content.” Dar amended. “Accepted, maybe.” She moved to the left again to bypass a Lincoln Town car longer than the Lexus being driven by what appeared to be an elf. “I was so damn sure that was the world I wanted.”
“Well.” Kerry swiped the bottle of Yoohoo and took a swig. “I never felt that way at camp. I was just glad to be out from under my parent’s eyes. It was all so damn fake.. they had comportment classes, for pete’s sake.”
“How to walk, talk, and greet people without tripping and dumping your bad white wine on them.” Kerry translated. “That and lanyard making. Jesus, do you know how many lanyards I made? Every damn color in the rainbow and let’s not talk about the potholders.”
Dar snickered. “You and I come from such different planets.” She said. “Only thing I made in camp was a belt from old ammo cartridges I collected on the base and rifle webbing someone’d thrown away.” She glanced at Kerry, watching the corners of her mouth curve up in a smile. “I’d have taken a potholder and used it to wipe my..”
“Hey, you know what choices you have out in the bush?” Dar said. “Now you know where I got my dislike of camping from.”
Kerry burst out laughing. “Oh my god… you have no idea how funny that is. In our camp, one summer, they got the wrong toilet paper delivered. It was that brown craft paper kind of stuff they usually have in really bad rest stops?”
“Yeah.” Kerry nodded, still chuckling. “Well, me, the little rebel that I was, stole a case of it, and led the rest of my cabin in tp’ing the lead counselor’s house so badly you couldn’t even see the door.” She did a little dance in her seat. “Oo..oo… the little bitch turned red as a tomato and didn’t talk to us for a week!”
“Angie was so pissed at me.” Kerry snickered. “But that woman already hated my guts so…”
“Why?” Dar asked, curiously.
“I have no idea. She always wanted to make a lot of me, and I… she just made me really uncomfortable. I figured she was trying to get something from my parents.” Kerry said. “She gave me the creeps.”
Dar watched the Lexus’ powerful headlights carve up the road ahead of them for a long moment, then she turned her head towards Kerry. “How old were you?”
“High school.” Kerry replied. “Why?”
“Hm.” The dark haired woman tapped her thumb against the steering wheel. “Ever think maybe she was interested in you?”
Kerry’s brow creased. “Well, yeah – I mean, I said she was, Dar.” She replied, then paused when she watched Dar’s eyebrow hike up expressively. Realization hit, and she inhaled in slight surprise. “Oh. You mean…that kind of interested? Like.. romantically?”
“Uh huh.” Dar returned her attention to the road, flicking her eyes to the passing sign and noting it’s contents. “Wouldn’t surprise me. You were cute in high school.” She drawled, with a slight smile. “I’ve seen pictures.”
Kerry remained absolutely silent for a few minutes, sucking absently on the neck of the Yoohoo bottle as she watched the shadowed trees flash by. Finally, she snorted a little, half surprised and half disgusted. “Never would have crossed my mind.” She admitted. “I think I…. Brian and I had just started to go out.. I wouldn’t even call it dating, it wasn’t that serious. I probably would have freaked out if she’d…”
“Tried to seduce you?” Dar stretched out her free arm and laid it over Kerry’s shoulders. “She’d have been an idiot, given your folks, but…” She scratched Kerry’s neck with her fingertips. “You were really an adorable kid.”
Kerry blushed, just slightly. “You know, I really never even thought anything like that. By that time, I’d learned just how far people would go to get in with my father, I just…” She exhaled. “Assumed she was more of the same.”
“Well, maybe she was.” Dar sensed her partner’s discomfort. “I was just presenting another point of view.” She tugged on Kerry’s earlobe. “Want a pit stop?” She pointed to a sign indicating a rest stop ahead. “It’s all commercial now, but I can show you where they used to sell the tackiest Florida souvenirs this side of Key Largo.”
Kerry relaxed, and finished off the chocolate soda. “Sure.” She agreed. “We’ve got plenty of time.”
Dar signaled and pulled to the left, preparing to leave the highway. After a second, she glanced at Kerry, not surprised to find herself being studied by those sea green eyes. She winked at her partner, and was rewarded by a grin, which she returned.
The ride was turning out to be a darn sight more interesting than she’d remembered it.
People were so funny. Kerry leaned against the wall and watched some of their fellow travelers walk by. They were pretty much oblivious to everything on their way to get food, or drinks, or relieve themselves, and yet just about every other one of them paused to look at the figure studying the turnpike map on the wall.
Of course, Kerry was doing the same thing, but she felt she had an innate right to, since the sleek body wrapped in faded denim and tank top cotton belonged to her partner. Dar’s jeans were the old, ripped ones Kerry had found way back when for their biker school reunion, and she had her tank top tucked in them and boy, she looked good.
She’d just gotten her second summer haircut, and it left most of her shoulders bare. The last few months of their life had been a lot of work, true, but almost every weekend spent down at the cabin and their new gym classes had given Dar a deeper tan and added a little more muscle to her tall frame.
The rest stop was an interesting combination of retail outlet and tourist hard pitch. Kerry wandered around in the main lobby, examining the racks of leaflets as she sucked on a cone full of frozen strawberry yogurt. Florida was definitely both tourist driven, and eclectic, and she riffled through advertisements for things as varied as a mystery house where things ran uphill, to Monkey Jungle, to Weeki Watchee. “Paladar?”
“Yes?” Dar’s voice erupted from right behind her, even after all this time making Kerry jump. “You rang?”
“What the heck is a Weeki Watchee?” Kerry selected the lurid pamphlet from the rack and held it up. “It looks like a mermaid farm.”
“Sorta.” Dar agreed. “It’s a place where mermaids give shows, and sell trinkets.”
Kerry stared at the advertisement. “And people go there? Really?”
“Well.” Her partner examined the ad. “They have nice gardens, too, and I think a snack bar.”
Kerry giggled, and wandered off, shaking her head. The rest stop was a relatively small place, with a central lobby that had restaurants off either side, and a set of surprisingly clean restrooms. There was also a gift shop, where you could, if you for some reason had forgotten to purchase candy oranges or bright pink flamingo Christmas lights somewhere else, obtain those last minute gifts to bring back home with you.
Hm. “Snowglobes.” Kerry selected one and shook it, amused by the white plastic flakes drifting down on the palm trees and beach. A flash of motion caught her eye and she glanced to one side, spotting her own reflection in the mirrored back of the display case.
The neatly pressed, carefully ironed and tucked prep she’d once been sure was gone. Kerry felt her eyebrows lifting as she reviewed her cutoff, ragged shorts and long, faded t-shirt.
Correction, long faded t-shirt that didn’t even belong to her. She’d also let her hair grow out longer than usual, not really out of control, but giving it a touch of shagginess she hadn’t had since she’d been small. The overall effect, given her tan and the sun bleaching of her already pale locks was that of a beach rat caught out shopping.
“So, rat… get shopping.” Kerry cheerfully directed herself, toasting her reflection with her yogurt.
She spotted a stuffed alligator and picked it up, finding herself smiling at it’s toothy cotton visage. She tucked the toy under her arm and continued browsing. To her booty, she added a package of chocolate covered orange slices and a t-shirt before she dropped it all down on the counter and removed her wallet from the back pocket of her jeans. “Hi.”
“Hi.” The cashier replied. “Yawannalotta?”
Kerry blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Yawannalotta? Big this week.”
At a total loss, Kerry instinctively looked around for her native guide, who plunked down a twenty dollar bill on the counter. “She’ll take three.” Dar pronounced. “And take the rest of this Floridiana out of that.”
“Three of what?” The blond woman whispered.
“Sure.” The cashier took the money and rang up Kerry’s purchases. She gave Dar back some change, then punched in some numbers in a black machine nearby and handed over the resulting pink and white tickets. “There ya go. Ya’ll have a great old day.”
“Thanks.” Dar took the tickets, the change, the bag, and a totally befuddled Midwesterner and hauled them all out of the gift shop and out into the lobby. “Here. Put your Lotto tickets away. If you win on em, I get ten percent.”
“My what?” Kerry took the tickets and examined them. “Oh!” She nibbled her cone. “Jesus, you know in all this time down here I never bothered to buy one of these things?” She followed Dar outside, trading the stinging chill of the air conditioning for the warm soup of the night air. “Thank you for buying my junk, sweetheart. You didn’t have to do that. I’ve got my wallet.”
Next to them, a minivan with Miami plates had just parked, and the side door slid open allowing a gaggle of children to emerge. They bolted for the doors to the building, with a harried looking woman chasing after them. In the back of the van there were Mouse droppings squeezed into every square inch.
A man got out of the driver’s side and shut the door with an air of martyred exhaustion. He glanced at Kerry and Dar and gave them a civil nod before he trudged after his family.
Dar watched him go. “Think it’d be cruel to tell him he’s going in the wrong direction?”
Kerry peered after him, then glanced at the big “Northbound” sign over the door. “What if he isn’t, and that’s all just from last time?” She pointed at the van. “And you didn’t answer me about buying my stuff.”
“Uh huh.” Dar unlocked the Lexus, tossing the booty inside on the rear seat. “You bought dinner.” She glanced at the van again. “Mom had a point.”
“Only one.” Dar pointed at her chest and slid into the driver’s seat.
“Ah. Hm. Yeah.” Kerry got in on the passenger side and settled comfortably into the big leather seat. “That new place was pretty good, wasn’t it? I really liked those spices they used.”
Dar sucked a mouthful of milkshake up and set her cup into it’s holder before she started up the car. “It was pretty good.. but yours is better.” She said. “I like those crunchy things you put in.”
“Peanuts?” Kerry chuckled. “Or do you mean the water chestnuts?”
“Whatever it is.” Dar backed carefully out of the spot she’d parked in, and navigated her way through the parking lot and past the massive truck park. “I like it.” She let an aggressively speeding Volvo pass them by, then got into the merge lane to return to the turnpike.
Once on the road, she leaned back in her seat and relaxed, enjoying Kerry’s nearby presence and the prospect of spending the long trip at her side. It was quiet, the roads were nearly empty now that they’d left the more populated part of Florida, and at the end of the drive there was some serious fun waiting for her.
Life was good. Dar tapped the side of her thumb against the wheel and nodded a little to the music coming out of the speakers. “So, what did you think about that bird theory?”
Kerry had shed her sandals, and now had her bare feet propped up on the dashboard again. “Dar, did you know that it’s pretty darn likely you’d have been tied to a tree and beaten to death by the teachers at my high school just for thinking about the bird theory?”
Dar looked at her. Both eyebrows shot up. “What did they have against birds?”
“Nothing.” Kerry neatly nibbled an exact circle around her cone. “But boy, did they have a problem with Darwin.”
“Mm.” The blond woman agreed. “You know something, it’s funny, but I think that was the first time I found myself questioning the absolute nature of my religion.” She mused. “I remember seeing something… on PBS, I guess.. about species evolution, and the way they explained it, it just made so much sense, Dar!”
“Uh huh. Always pissed me off they insisted on calling it the theory of evolution instead of the science of it.” Dar agreed. “I had this argument with someone on base about it.. the woman wanted to have me jailed for heresy.”
“Mm.” Kerry nodded. “That’s about what happened to me when I went into school the next day and started asking my teachers about it. Hoo boy.” She finished up her treat and dusted her fingertips off. “But you know… for me it never caused a problem if I bought into evolutionary science, but still believed in God, and in Jesus and the bible.” She continued. “Seeing the exquisite wonder of how life works, how could anyone not believe in a higher power?”
Dar stretched her arm across the divider and let it rest casually on Kerry’s shoulders. “It’s easy for people to get stuck in a narrow view, Ker. You know that. Even those guys, the scientists – they were practically fistfighting over the idea that dinosaurs evolved into birds… and it’s so structurally obvious.” Dar’s voice grew a touch more animated. “All you have to do is look at those carnivorous dinosaurs, and look at an ostrich, and it’s right there in your face.”
“Dinosaurs into birds, lizards into snakes, protohominids into us…” Kerry mused. “Whoops… guess I’m going to Hell for that last one. Again.” She chuckled. “Hey, what did you think about that one we saw the other night… about humans being water mammals during their evolution?”
The theory was an interesting one, Dar conceded. “Navy brat’s the wrong person to ask about that.” She joked. “I always assumed I was some kind of freak otter.” Her face grew faintly introspective. “For me, the water was always home.”
“Yeah.” Kerry agreed, with a smile. “You’re so natural underwater. I thought of you when I was watching that show. I wish I felt that comfortable.”
“Give it time.” Dar advised her. “I’ve been diving since I was two.”
Leaning back, Kerry tipped her head to one side and regarded the thick, black night sky. It was fun to just sit and talk. Dar had an active, intelligent mind and she was as curious about many things as Kerry was. Keeping your mind in a learning state, she’d realized, made you a lot better at whatever you did. You were always open to new ideas, and new ways of looking at things. “Hey Dar?”
“Wanna play ‘what is it?’”
“Okay.” Dar grinned. “You start.” She gave Kerry a few microseconds. “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”
“Would I pick a vegetable for you to guess? Give me a minute.”
Dar drummed her fingers on the wheel and waited, humming under her breath., already anticipating the game. Would it be an animal? Kerry liked animals. She’d pick a strange one though.
Platypus duck, maybe?
They arrived at the convention center late, closer to midnight than Dar had originally planned for. The building was lit on the outside, though, and there were both security guards, and a stir of motion about the place that reassured them.
Dar strolled across the front courtyard, approaching the doors and making eye contact with the guards. “Evening.” She greeted the first one cordially, as she removed her id from her back pocket and offered it up.
The man studied the card, then glanced at her. “Dock entrance is round back.” He told her politely.
One finely arched dark eyebrow lifted. “Excuse me?”
“Construction workers enter in the back.” The guard clarified, still with careful politeness.
Dar looked down at herself, then up at the guard. “Do I look like a construction worker to you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The man replied. “You can enter in the back.”
Kerry covered her mouth to keep in the laughter threatening to burst out. The expression on her lover’s face was just so priceless.
“This is not funny.” Dar told her, testily.
“C’mon.” Kerry swallowed her amusement, taking Dar’s arm and starting for the rear of the center. “No point in arguing with him, Dar. Just call the convention services group in the morning and have the entire company fired.” She let her voice raise slightly, enough to know that the guard would hear her.
“Do I look like a construction worker to you?” Dar ignored the speech, turning and giving her an indignant look.
“Absolutely not.” Kerry reassured her. “It’s just the tank top and the ripped jeans, sweetie. Orlando is obviously not ready for CIO’s in less than pin stripes.” She took Dar’s arm again and patted it. “C’mon.” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the guard’s eyes turning into round saucers. “I bet if you really tried, you could get the entire convention services company kicked out. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Dar’s eyes narrowed suddenly. “You’re having fun freaking the guard out, aren’t you?” She uttered, in a low voice.
“Yes.” Kerry smiled charmingly at her. “Give me two more minutes, and he’ll need a change of shorts.” She waggled her fingers at the man. “He deserves it for being a prick butt with the vision of a rhino in the dark.”
Dar snickered, her humor restored. She draped her arm over Kerry’s shoulders and headed towards the rear of the building, leaving the hapless guard behind them. Her ego was still stinging from the man’s remark, though, and she was self aware enough to know it.
“Jerk.” Kerry held the gate open that lead into the loading dock and waited for Dar to pass through. “What could he be thinking, Dar? Let’s just say it was true.”
“Shh. Let’s just say you were one of the setup crew.” Kerry pacified her prickly partner. “It’s nearly midnight. Who cares if you go in the front door? Who’s gonna see you, the cleaning staff?”She closed the gate behind them and followed Dar towards an open loading dock door, the sounds of hammering and banging clearly audible inside.
“I don’t know, and I don’t give a damn.” Dar grumbled, as they crossed from the warm night air into the cooler, but musty smelling building. Lit by fluorescent lights, and featuring a poured concrete floor it resembled the inside of a warehouse more than anything.
Which, of course, it basically was. Kerry’s nose wrinkled at the scent of mildew coming from a set of draperies dropped in a pile near the door. “Nice.”
“Maybe they’ll have a sledgehammer I could borrow.” Dar muttered.
“Dar.” Kerry patted her on the behind. “Would you relax? He was full of horse poots. Don’t tell me you’re getting so sensitive in your old age.”
Her partner scowled dourly.
“Okay.” Kerry could see a pile of people ahead of them, all busy. She took hold of Dar’s arm and pulled her to a halt just inside the loading area, out of sight of the main room. “Sweetheart.” It really wasn’t like Dar to be so sensitive, and Kerry sensed a moment taken here would pay off in the long run. “Did that really bother you?”
Her taller partner leaned against the wall, and scrubbed one hand through her hair. “Stupid, isn’t it?” She admitted, lifting her eyes. “Just hit me the wrong way, I guess… and I don’t even have the excuse of it being that time of the month.”
Kerry tucked her fingers into the waistband of Dar’s jeans. “Listen, I asked you to wear this because I think it’s really sexy.” She tugged a little. “And I didn’t marry a construction worker.”
Dar’s expression gentled. “I know.” She looked down. “And given I picked a pair of boots to wear that I used when we were painting the cabin, I guess he might have had a point.”
“Tank top, ripped jeans, paint splattered hiking boots.. all I need is a tattoo and I could pass as a very good butch stereotype.”
Okay, crisis over. Kerry relaxed, and smiled. “Nah, you’d need leather pants for that.”
“I have those.” Dar reminded her. “But you’d have to arrest me to get me to wear them in summer.” She bumped Kerry’s knee with her own. “C’mon. Let’s go see what the kids are doing, and get the hell out of here.”
They walked through the open garage door and into the convention center, pausing for a moment to catch their bearings. The room was huge, and it was full of nerds. The smell of new computers mixed with the scent of old coffee was almost overwhelming.
“Whoa.” Kerry rubbed her nose. “What a zoo.”
“Uh huh.” Dar stretched to her full height, reviewing the room. It was laid out in regulation trade show fashion, with wooden frame booths stretched in orderly rows interspersed with larger displays custom built by some of the bigger companies. “Ah. There we are.” She pointed to a familiar logo banner, half hung, half draped over some metal pipe supports.
“Nice spot.” Kerry followed her between two wooden stalls, ducking as a technician struggled with a projection screen and almost clocked her in the process. They walked through piles of equipment cases, and emerged into a more open area that held ILS’s display.
Four of their techs were on ladders trying to lift up and bolt into place the steel tube framing the marketing department had designed, and as they watched, the heavy structure tilted precariously to one side. Without a word between them, Kerry and Dar reacted, leaping forward to help.
Kerry grabbed the nearer ladder, which had started to tip over, while Dar used her greater height to reach up and take hold of the steel frame, taking it’s weight as the techs fought to regain control over it. “Whoa!” The blond woman grunted, throwing her body against the ladder as it threatened to come down on top of her. “Take it easy, guys!”
“Damn it!” The tech on her ladder cursed. “This piece of shit was built by freaking Gumby!”
“All right, hang on.” Dar grabbed the ladder and climbed up several steps of it, hoisting the frame with her as she walked. “Get that end on there, Bruce.”
The tech on the next ladder blinked, only then realizing who it was addressing him. “Holy crap!” He blurted. “When’d you get here, ma’am!”
“Just in time, apparently.” Dar grunted. “You gonna bolt that into place, or are we all going to end up with our asses on the concrete?”
Kerry could hear the tension in her partner’s voice, and beneath the worn denim, she could see Dar’s legs straining to keep her load balanced. With Dar’s weight on the ladder, though, it no longer threatened to tip over and she shifted her grip to wrap her arm around Dar’s calves in a secure hold.
“Okay.. okay… almost got it!” Bruce panted, extending himself out on his ladder to put a socket wrench on the bolts that Dar was holding even. He ratcheted them quickly, muscles jumping under his skin as he tightened the grid into place on one end. “Done!”
Dar relaxed her hold cautiously, relieved when the structure seemed likely to stay in one place. She flexed her fingers and shook her arms out, glancing up at the tech still perched on the steps above her. “Why the hell are you guys doing this?”
Bruce finished bolting down the other end of the structure then scampered down the ladder. He was of middling height, and lightly built, with wide brown eyes that had a perpetual look of astonishment in them. “We gotta get the booth up ma’am.” He paused. “Don’t we?”
Dar got off her ladder, and dusted her hands off as the tech above her gingerly climbed down as well. “They don’t have a setup crew here?” She looked around, aware now that at many booths around them conspicuously corporate t-shirted crews were struggling to assemble the structures. “What the hell?”
Kerry ducked out from under the ladder and joined her, as the rest of their techs gathered around. “Hi, guys.” She greeted them with a smile, keeping an eye on Dar who started investigating their surroundings like a large, suspicious house cat.
“Hey, boss.” The one nearest her returned the smile, his tow blond head not topping her own by much. “What are you guys doing here? Mark said you’d be up in a few days.”
“Eh.” Kerry put her hands on her hips. “We decided to come up a little early… did they say why no one was here from the production company? You guys shouldn’t be doing this, Dar’s right. We pay big bucks to have someone in to do it.”
“Well.” Bruce sidled over to her. “We got here a couple hours ago, and the guy in charge told us if we wanted anything else put up, we’d have to do it. He said, with a tiny shrug. “Everyone here was bitching for sure, but what could we do?”
“Call?” Kerry eyed him, spreading her hands out in question. “It’s not like my cell phone number’s a secret.”
The blond tech next to him winced. “We didn’t want you to think we were whiners. It’s not that much to do.. just get those pipes up so we can start cabling. Not like the other guys, they’re trying to get that wood together without hardly any tools.”
“Mm.” Kerry shook her head. “The guys in charge, they still here?”
“No way.” Bruce snorted. “They took off, just left the guards out front. Bunch of…um…” He remembered who he was talking to and his voice trailed off.
“We met them.” His boss muttered. “They didn’t make a very good impression on us. Hey, Dar?”
Her partner had wandered over to the next booth, and was talking to it’s occupants. She held a hand up to acknowledge Kerry’s call, but continued her conversation. “Well, anyway, we can help you get set up.” Kerry told the techs. “What’s up next, those poles over there?” She pointed.
Dar returned before they could get started, and she didn’t look happy. “The Lucent guys say they heard the center didn’t pay their setup crew for the last convention, so they walked.” She reported. “They’re pretty torked. According to their lead tech, the center basically told them they could wait until tomorrow, when maybe they’d have some workers, or do it themselves and shut up.”
Bruce nodded. “That’s what they told us too.” He agreed. “So we talked about it, and decided to see what we could do. We didn’t want you guys to get here and have stuff not ready.”
Dar sighed. “So instead, you get to have us show up and help you haul cable. It’ll make a good story back at the office. Let’s go. Faster we do it, faster we get out of here.”
Kerry walked over and claimed a spool of cable, and a wrench. “Are those the switches over there?” She pointed at a stack of brown cardboard boxes with a familiar label on them. “Cody, why don’t you start unpacking them?”
“Speaking of.” Dar turned, then tipped her head back. “Let me guess. They didn’t pull any telco drops, did they?”
“Nope.” Bruce said. “That was going to be a real problem.” He admitted. “Mark didn’t send any WAN guys up here.”
“Not a problem any more.” Kerry tossed Dar a punchdown kit which her partner fielded with consummate grace. “I think the jack boxes are over on that pole, Dar.” She nudged Bruce towards the remaining unhung structure. “Let’s go guys – move those ladders over.”
Dar removed a pen from her pocket and scribbled down the jack numbers on the pole Kerry had spotted, then paused as she put the pen back when she spotted several people near the back entrance just standing there watching them.
None were familiar, but if she squinted, she could just make out the logo on the nearest one’s shirt. “Ahh.” Dar murmured. “Our lowballing adversaries.” The faintest twinkle appeared in her eyes, as she stuffed the bit of paper she’d written on in her back pocket, and headed for the telco room, which they’d passed on their way in.
Two of the newcomers walked on past her into the room, sparing her only cursory glances. The other three remained at the entrance, talking amongst themselves with sour looks on their faces. They absently returned Dar’s nod of greeting, then dismissed her as she walked by.
“You want to wait for tomorrow? Jackson swore they’d have a crew in.” The tallest of them said. “I’m not dragging all that gear through this place.”
“I’d love to take off, but I want to wait till ILS gets their system set up, then see what we can find out about it. Those guys look like they’ll talk our ears off.” The second replied, a well built man with thick, black hair who had the air of a manager. “Maybe we can recruit some of em… I heard they’re looking at layoffs.”
The first man laughed.
But he probably would have stopped, if he’d bothered to turn around and see the ice blue eyes drilling unseen holes in the back of his head.
“You go for the guys. I’ll take those babes with the cables.” The shorter man also laughed. “I’ll give em one thing, they hire for looks.”
Dar glanced at the kit in her hands, and opened it, selecting a pair of needle nose pliers and studying it, wondering how much jail time she’d incur if she pulled the bastard’s gonads out with the tool. Then she sighed, and put it back, turning and continuing on her way with commendable restraint.
Work before pleasure. Their time would come soon enough.
“Here you go, guys.” Kerry eased back into their booth, cradling a half dozen cans of soda in a pouch made from the long tail of her tshirt. The techs gathered around her shyly selecting their choices as Kerry stood in their midst. “C’mon, they’re cold.”
“Thanks, ma’am.” Bruce sat down on a switch, wiping his brow.
Two hours had gone by, and they’d finished the structure of the booth only to realize the center had turned off its air conditioning. It had rapidly gone from relatively comfortable to stuffy, to stifling before Dar had hoisted up her pirate’s pennant and found the a/c control room.
Now the air was sluggishly circulating again, and Dar had gone back to methodically hacking her way through the unlabeled circuits in search of the one they’d ordered.
“Okay.” Kerry sat down with her own soda and opened it, taking a long swallow before she continued. She was sweaty and covered in dust, and her knee ached where she’d banged it on the corner of a switch, but as she looked around at their progress, she was satisfied. “Once we get the line up, we’re pretty much done until the servers get here tomorrow.”
The techs looked tired, but relieved. “Think the circuit’ll be up tonight?” Bruce asked.
“Oh, I’m sure it will.” Kerry leaned back and extended her legs, crossing them at the ankles and regarding their bare length studiously. “Even if Dar has to run a fiber cable all the way to Miami, it’ll be up.” She looked up at her troops, with a grin. “I have faith.”
The four techs grinned back.
“Thanks for stopping by and giving us a hand, ma’am. That was really cool.” Cody said.
“No problem.” Kerry glanced to one side as a motion caught her attention, and stopped speaking when she spotted a pod of their competitors approaching. She watched them as they came over, observing the booth with intent eyes. “Hi.”
“Hi.” The man in front greeted her with a friendly grin. “You guys sure have been busy.”
“Hasn’t everyone?” Kerry replied. “What a mess, huh?”
“Yeah.” The man agreed. “We’re going to wait for some help tomorrow to put things up, but I guess you folks decided to do it yourself, huh?”
Kerry glanced around at their booth. “Looks like it.” She agreed. “We can take off and go to sleep in peace now.”
The man stuck his hands in his pockets and chuckled. “Yeah, I’m sure you guys have to be careful about that. I hear things are up in the air for you. You don’t want to take any chances, huh?”
The techs all looked at Kerry, who looked at the man with gently inquisitive green eyes. “Pardon me?” She asked.
“Ah, c’mon, we’ve heard about your problems.. hell, we caused some of em!” The man laughed. “No hard feelings.. in fact, you guys look pretty bright. Interested in coming over o the other side?”
Kerry’s eyebrows lifted. The rest of her troops remained prudently quiet, apparently quite satisfied to let her do the talking. “I have no beef with who pays me.” She said. “What about you folks?” Her eyes shifted to her techs.
“We’re fine.” Bruce replied. “No gripes here.” He added, as the rest of the techs shook their heads.
“Now, come on.” The man lifted both hands up. “Here you are, sweating like pigs, busting your humps to get this all running, and the guys who make the big bucks are sitting on their asses in some leather chair in a penthouse. That how you like things?”
Bruce giggled, his eyes fastened on Kerry’s disheveled figure, which had started taking on distinct lines of angry tension.
“That’s not how our company works.” The man said, apparently oblivious.
“That’s not really how our company works either.” Kerry replied in a quiet tone.
“Yeah? When was the last time your saw your boss pick up a cable?” The man countered. “I bet you never have.”
Kerry’s lips twitched into a reluctant grin. “I bet you’re wrong.” She said, as she spotted Dar’s distinctive figure approaching the group. Her lover looked harassed, but triumphant, and she brushed past the intruders as she picked up an interface cable and shoved it into place. “We up?”
“Son of a bitch piece of shit half assed infrastructure.” Dar growled, plugging in their router and booting it up. “I’m surprised the damn sixty six block wasn’t put together with grape bubble gum.”
“So, we’re up.” Kerry interpreted the cursing. The techs all clapped and whistled.
Dar studied the lights, then grunted. “Yes.” She dusted her hands off an gave the two strangers a dour look. “Excuse me.” She sat down next to Kerry and examined the palm of one hand, which was covered in dust and scraped raw. After a second, she looked back up at the men . “You want something?” She snapped.
Caught offguard, their jaws dropped. “Ah, no, just visiting. Listen, you guys take it easy, okay? Come talk if you’re interested in what I had to say.” The man in front lifted his hand and waved it. Then he stepped forward and offered it to Kerry. “My name’s Robert Caustens, and I’m the director of IT, for Telegenics.”
Kerry readily took his hand and gripped it. “Kerry.” She replied. “Nice to meet you. Hope you get things straightened out.”
The two men left.
“Jesus.” Kerry started laughing. “What a dork.”
“He pitch you?” Dar inquired, her eyes flicking to the rest of the techs in question.
“Yes, ma’am.” Cody nodded. “Said we shouldn’t work for a company where the big shots stay up in their ivory towers.” He blinked at Dar, keeping a straight face. “It was pretty funny.”
Dar extended her boots, and let her scraped hands rest on her knees. “You know, that’s just damn hilarious.” She glanced at Kerry. “Are we supposed to be in a tower? How come you didn’t tell me that? And how come he didn’t pitch me?”
“I dunno, boss. Maybe you scared him.” Kerry took Dar’s right hand and turned it over. “I think you have a splinter here. Let me get it out.”
“Thanks.” Dar relaxed. “Okay, let’s get cleaned up here, gentlemen, and get the hell out of this damn garage.”
Bruce got up and straightened the router, as the rest of the techs began tidying up the space as Kerry bent her head over her task, straining to see clearly in the annoying florescent light.
“Are those the guys who took those accounts?” Cody asked Dar, shyly. “That everyone was so pissed about?”
“Mm.” Dar nodded. “They’re an upstart company. Just came onto the scene this past year, and they targeted a bunch of contracts coming into renewal. Not just us, but we got slammed pretty bad them, though our other friends…” Dar pointed to the right, where another of their bigger rivals was setting up. “Lost a couple too.”
“Are they that good?” Bruce asked.
“They’re that cheap.” The CIO replied. “That’s their pitch – that they’re lean and mean, and they can service the contracts at a lower cost.” She regarded Kerry’s pale head. “Which on a small scale, they can, if everything runs perfectly.
“Like when does that ever happen?” Kerry muttered.
Bruce was mounting the switch they’d brought into a rolling cabinet with a locking door, as Cody helped him. “But they tell that to everyone.” He said. “So – they can do it for one company at one time, but they can’t do it for all their companies every time.”
Dar produced a warm, sexy grin. “You got it.” She complimented him. “It’s like the stock market. You can’t get hung up over the short term.”
“There.” Kerry straightened, smoothing her thumb over the roughened skin on her partner’s palm. “That wasn’t a splinter, Dar, it was metal.” She said. “And it might have been rusty. We should go get you some first aid.”
“Thanks, Dr. Kerry.” Dar gave her an affectionate look, bumping her shoulder lightly. “Well, I think we’re done here. Let the marketing wonks crawl all over this place in the morning.” She glanced at the techs. “You guys got a ride to your hotel?”
“Um.. I think there’s a shuttle..” Bruce said, hesitantly, checking his watch.
“C’mon.” Dar got up, clasping Kerry’s hand in her own and hauling her up as well. “It’s gonna be crowded, but we’ll get there.” She straightened to her full height, looking around. Most of the crews had given up and left, and they were virtually alone in the cavernous chamber, only a few other teams still making desultory attempts at completing their set ups. “Good job, everyone.”
Bruce peeked up at her. “Ma’am?” He said. “I think you all did most of it.”
“Us?” Kerry drawled in response. “Nah. We’re up in our ivory tower, remember? In our nice leathers chairs, eating…um…”
“Quiche.” Dar patted the rolling case. “Or caviar.”
“Ick.” Kerry’s nose wrinkled. “I’ll pass. How about a pizza, instead?”
The techs all chuckled, as they followed their two leaders towards the back door, after Bruce double checked the locks on the rolling cabinets. They passed a few stragglers, but didn’t see any of their friends from Telegnics, and the area they’d been setting up in was dark and quiet.
Outside was dark and quiet too. The guard at the back door watched them as they left, circling the building and heading for Dar’s lonely looking Lexus, crouching balefully in the cone of light from a security lamp. A soft buzz came from crickets in the bushes ringing the parking area, and Dar make the car chirp in response as she remotely unlocked the doors.
“Someone want to let Kerry sit on their lap?” Dar asked, as they reached the car.
Four sets of stunned eyes faced her, in such evident shock it made her smile. “Didn’t think so.” She opened the rear hatch, and shoved their bags over. “One of you in here, the rest in the back. It’s not a long trip.”
“You’re so bad.” Kerry opened the front passenger door.
Dar watched the crowd pile in, then she opened her own door, pausing when a motion across the parking lot caught her attention. A car was parked near the front door of the center, and as she watched, two figures got out and headed for the guarded front door.
Dar blinked, and leaned forward a little. Despite the distance and the darkness, she recognized them both, a knowledge that brought a faint grimace to her face.
“Dar?” Kerry called her.
“Yeah.” The taller woman slid into the driver’s seat. “See that?” She pointed to the two figures. “Recognize them?”
Kerry peered through the glass. “Um… not really… oh.” She sat up. “Isn’t that Michelle Graver?”
“Uh huh.” Dar nodded. “Sure is.”
“Didn’t she go into business on her own? You told me that, I thought.”
“Uh huh.” Dar said again. “Found herself a new partner, apparently.” Her face could have been cut in ice, the angles were so cold. “They deserve each other.” She started up the Lexus, and put it into gear. “Looks like Shari’s finally found a kindred spirit.”
Kerry’s jaw clicked shut audibly.
Dar pulled out of the parking spot and drove slowly past the parked car, which bore a blazon on the driver’s side door. She chuckled humorously as she read it, and heard a sound of mixed consternation and disgust come from Kerry. “Shoulda guessed.” She picked up speed and drove past the front door, where the guard was courteously opening the glass for the two women. “Telegenics.”
“Two lemon dykes on a stick more likely.” Kerry uttered, so under her breath it was a miracle Dar heard her. “But I guess they wouldn’t register the name.”
“Something wrong, boss?” Cody asked hesitantly, from the back seat.
“Oh, no.” Kerry leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms. “Everything’s just peachy.” Her eyes slid to Dar’s profile. “Juuuust peachy.” She repeated. “You don’t think they’d mess with our stuff, do you?”
Dar paused at the exit to the lot, leaning on the steering wheel and considering. “No.” She continued her turn, moving out onto the main road. “They don’t think they need to right now.” But her fingers drummed on the wheel pensively.
“But you’ll set up a monitor when we get to the hotel.”
Kerry sighed. “This is going to get icky.”
“Well, we’re gonna damn well make it ickier for them than for us.” Kerry decided. “To hell with them.”
Somewhere in that, Dar found a true smile. She relaxed, and leaned back, the knots in her gut easing. “Yeah, wait till they see the wreck their booth’s in.” She agreed.
“And the wreck ours isn’t in.” Kerry grinned.
It would almost be worth being there to see it. Dar acknowledged, glad of the car’s cold air conditioning against her, and looking forward to the shower she knew was at the end of the ride. Kerry reached over the seat divider and laid a hand on her knee, the green eyes full of a promise she knew as also waiting there.
To hell with them. “Let em sweat. I turned off the a/c before we left.”
Kerry muffled a laugh. The techs joined in, not really sure what was going on, but willing to follow Kerry’s lead anyway.
They drove on into the night, leaving the blazing lights of the convention center behind them.
“Thanks.” Dar passed the valet a tip, shaking her head when he went to remove her luggage and Kerry’s from the back. “No, that stays with us.” She shut the hatch and walked around to the driver’s side door.
“Aren’t we staying here?” Kerry laid one hand on the frame of the car door, giving Dar an inquisitive look. “I thought we had reservations.” She glanced up at the tall, respectable looking hotel they were parked in front of, having let the techs out.
“No.” Dar got in and closed the door, waiting for Kerry to do likewise. “I have other plans.”
“Ah. Okay.” Kerry got in and leaned her elbow on the seat arm, watching her partner’s profile as Dar pulled out of the Marriott’s driveway, and headed back out onto the mostly empty roads. “I see.” She evaluated the half hidden smirk, and decided whatever Dar’s plan was, she’d appreciate it. “Telegenics. Big surprise, huh?”
Dar snorted. “You’d have thought the detail analysis Mark did would have tossed THAT little bit of intelligence up to the top. Did we miss it?” She wondered. “No way. He’d have flagged it, at the least.”
“I’m sure.” Kerry reached idly over and pushed a bit of Dar’s hair back behind one well shaped ear. “I’d say they targeted us, but you know, they didn’t. There’ve been other companies hit by them too.”
“Exactly.” Dar nibbled her lower lip a she thought. “Didn’t think Shari had any interest in the IT field.”
One of Kerry’s blond eyebrows lifted. “I’d say she had a very significant interest in a specific part of the IT field.” She remarked dryly. “Maybe she saw an opportunity to poach two eggs in one cup.”
Dar looked at her. “You calling me an egghead?”
They both laughed, relieving the tension. “Ah.” Dar shrugged. “So it’ll make it interesting. Helps, sort of. At least I know some of their motives and more than one of their tactics.” She wrapped her hands around the steering wheel and flexed her fingers. “A tisket a tasket…”
“Pair of bitches in a basket.” Kerry warbled back at her, joining Dar in another round of pretty darn close to giddy laughter. “Jesus, it’s late.” She finally sighed. “I’m losing it. We’re losing it.” Her fingers curled around Dar’s bicep, and she leaned her head against her shoulder. “So, where are we going?”
“Same place we went last time.” Dar said. “For a lot of reasons.” She went on, evidently realizing Kerry was staring at her. “First off, if I want to ravish you on the balcony, I really don’t to worry about someone whose paycheck I sign watching from the next one.” She cleared her throat. “Second..”
“Ahahahaha.” Kerry reached over and covered her mouth. “Whoa. One’s enough for me.”
Dar smiled, feeling the pressure as Kerry’s fingers gently tweaked her skin. After a moment, she was released. “I wanted to wake up with you wrapped around me, and not have you almost pass out from the horror of it all.”
“Ahhh.” Kerry chuckled softly under her breath. “Oh, do I remember that.” She half covered her face with one hand. “If I could have crawled through the floor of that room, I would have.” She remininced wryly. “You have no idea how I almost levitated off the bed when I woke up – only thing that kept me from freaking out was knowing I’d wake *you* up if I did.”
Dar turned onto the access road that led to their destination. “I think I knew, even in my sleep.” She said. “I was dreaming about snuggling.”
Kerry peered at her from the corner of her eye. “Did you really?”
Her partner nodded. “It felt great. Then I woke up, and it was gone. I was pissed.”
“I remember.” A slow smile crossed Kerry’s face. “You said it was a hangover.” She paused. “Wait a minute – how did you know? I never did ask you that.. was it just a lucky guess?”
Dar reached out and riffled her fingers through Kerry’s pale hair. “You left evidence.” She replied. “But yeah, it was half a guess. You were acting like you’d gotten caught in the cookie jar.”
“Hmph.” The blond woman managed a dignified look, which swiftly dissolved into a sheepish grin. “I felt really, really stupid.”
“No, not…” Kerry drew her knee up and wrapped her arms around it as she watched the quiet streetlights whisk by. “I felt like I was out of control.. like I had my heart pinned on my jacket lapel or something.”
“So… “ Her partner drawled. “My hoodwinking you into sleeping in my bed didn’t clue you in that I was in any better shape?”
Kerry thought about that for a while as they drove through the vast Disney property, towards the large, white, spread out Grand Floridian hotel. How had she ended up in Dar’s bed, anyway? They’d been watching the news, and she’d gotten sleepy… she remembered the sweet taste of hot chocolate on her lips… and then the cup had been taken from her. “I could have gotten up and gone to my own room.”
“But I didn’t want to.” The memory surged sweetly over her. “I didn’t want to be alone.”
“Me, either.” Dar skillfully navigated the big Lexus into the driveway of the hotel, pulling up at the stately Victorian styled portico and putting the car in park. A valet trotted alertly out to meet them. “So I wanted to come back here, and revel in the fact that what I felt that morning..” She opened the door and gave the valet a slight smile, then ducked her head back inside the car. “Was dead on real.”
Kerry felt, and suspected she looked, slightly wide eyed at Dar’s sudden and somewhat unexpected headlong dive into rampant romanticism. “Okay, honey.” She agreed. “I’m all for it!’
Dar’s face split into a grin, and her eyes twinkled before she disappeared again and went to open the trunk for the valet. Kerry sat for a moment, and then she simply shook her head, opening the door and hopping out.
The hotel hadn’t changed. Kerry drew in a breath of warm air scented with night jasmine as she joined Dar in walking towards the door. This late, it was very quiet, a soft hint of music from the speakers and the clatter of cleaning crews was all the accompanied them to the door.
A blast of chilled air met them as they entered, and they strolled across the beautiful lobby that almost succeeded in bringing them right into another world. Kerry allowed herself to be entranced, and she spent a few minutes simply looking around at the soaring ceilings as Dar worked out the details of their room.
“Let’s go.” Dar put a hand on her shoulder, and smiled.
Kerry took her hand and held it as they walked from the front desk, and strolled across a silver ribbon of their own memories.
“Mm. Pretty.” Kerry gazed outside, watching the small, blinking lights as a boat crossed the lake towards the pier in front of the hotel.
Or maybe it was the back of the hotel. It was hard to tell, though the views on this side had it all over the ones on the other side. Kerry leaned against the chilled glass, her breath fogging it slightly as she exhaled. Below them, she could see a few, lone figures walking down the paths, and on the end of the pier two figures sat together, apparently simply enjoying the view as she was.
She watched them lean together, against each other, and it made her smile because she knew just exactly how good that felt.
Her shoulders ached, and she felt tired, from the long day and their active evening, but she wasn’t sleepy. Behind her, she could hear Dar rattling around in the bathroom and she spent a moment contrasting the reality of her now, with the memories of the past.
It was almost too disparate to compare. Then, Dar’s every motion, every sound had flicked against her unsure awareness, making her heart jump.
Now, they made other parts of her jump, and her heart merely beat calmly, waiting for it’s other half to finish fussing and come to join her. Kerry could already feel the warmth of Dar’s touch and she divided her attention – half to the glistening castle seen in the distance past the glass, and half in the reflection of the room behind her, waiting.
Dar finished arranging their toiletries and re-entered the room, watching Kerry press her nose against the glass sliding door. “”I think I remember being suckered into those pretty lights last time I was here.” She flexed her bare toes against the carpet. “By that same look, too.”
Kerry had turned and was grinning at her. She was draped in her old, worn Pooh t-shirt, her hair damp from the shower they’d just shared. “You didn’t take much suckering.” She said. “It was just a tiny appeal to your pride, and presto.” She snapped her fingers. “Instant monorail ride.”
“Oh yeah.” The blond woman cheerfully nodded. “Although I did keep trying to convince myself I was doing it to help you relax, and it was for your own good.”
“Mm.” Dar stretched her body out, popping her shoulders into place. “It was.”
“For your own good?”
“Oh yeah.” Dar joined her at the glass and slid an arm around her as Kerry turned and they gazed out over the dark water, to the brightly lit theme parks beyond. “I’m damn ticked.”
“At those stupid pieces of horse manure.” Dar’s eyes narrowed. “They’re putting a damper on my fun plans, and I don’t like it.”
Kerry reached over and gave her a rub on the belly. “We can still have fun. We got our stuff done tonight, didn’t we?” She asked. “Any reason why we need to be there tomorrow for them to put the froo froo up?”
Dar considered. Then she grunted. “No.” She answered. “We’re not supposed to be here for another day and a half.”
“Exactly.” Kerry agreed. “So you, me, and a pair of Florida resident park hopper passes are going to go have a wild and crazy time tomorrow.”
“Hm. Do we have those?”
“Yeees.” Kerry smirked. “Since I knew you weren’t going to let me put this place on *my* card.” She batted her fair lashes at her partner. “So get your bathing suit ready, Dardar.”
For an answer, Dar moved a bit of Kerry’s hair out of the way and gently kissed her neck. “Want some hot chocolate?” She uttered into the smaller woman’s ear.
“No.” Kerry’s eyes closed. “I want you.” She let her hand slowly glide up Dar’s thigh. “I wanted you the last time I was here, but I couldn’t have you.”
Dar laughed softly into her ear. “Kerrison, you had me from day one.” She slipped her arms around Kerry, and guided her towards the bed, turning in lazy circles as they smiled into each other’s eyes.
“We could really recreate this, and turn the news on.” Kerry suggested, between light kisses across Dar’s collarbone.
“Try it, and I’ll bite your fingers off.” Her partner replied.
They both woke at the same time. Kerry heard Dar take a sudden, irregular breath, just as she opened her eyes to see the early morning sun pouring through the window. Once again, she was sleeping half on her side, half on her stomach, and once again, she was snuggled tightly up against Dar’s body.
Oh, but what a difference. Kerry smiled. This time she had no urgent desire to levitate herself off the bed in pure shock, and her heart didn’t attempt to emerge from her ears with its hammering. This time her welcome was sure, and the shoulder her cheek was resting on was as familiar to her as her own pillow.
Well, it often was her own pillow. Kerry slid one thigh up over Dar’s and gave her a squeeze, humming low in her throat as sleep slowly cleared from her eyes. “Morning, sweetheart.”
“Eeurrgh.” Dar made a purring noise in return. “Morning to you too.” She rubbed Kerry’s back with her fingertips. “And what a pretty one it is.” She turned her head and watched the sunlight creep across the floor, still tinted coral instead of the bright white yet to come.
It would be yet another in an almost endless series of summer days, hot and sticky, the morning fair with the everpresent possibility of thunderstorms in the afternoon as the earth struggled to throw off the sun’s heat.
Water parks in the morning, Dar decided. Then maybe a visit to Epcot in the afternoon, since the technology park offered up lots of indoor attractions to escape the heat, and possibly the rain as well. “You up for dinner at the Living Seas?” She inquired. “I love that tank.”
The sea green eyes brightened. “Oo.. yeah.” A nod. “Good idea.”
Dar smiled contentedly. “I think that sounds like a plan.” She said, as she arched her back to stretch it out, lifting Kerry a little with her before she relaxed again under the covers. “Damn, I’m glad we got all that crap squared away last night. If I’d had walked in there today with nothing done, heads woulda rolled.”
Kerry traced an idle pattern on Dar’s ribcage. “So the only reason you didn’t was because there were no heads to roll?”
“Hm.” Her partner grunted after a moment’s silence. “You know something? I really don’t know.” She lifted one arm and settled her hand behind her head. After another short, pensive silence, she shrugged. “Ah.. probably faster if I did it myself anyway.”
Kerry nodded slightly. “I had the neatest dream last night.” She related, changing the subject. “You and I were getting married.”
Dar’s eyebrows twitched. “Um..”
“Yeah, I know we are married, but not… I mean, it was this whole ceremony with rice, and flowers..” Kerry felt Dar start to laugh. “You and me in pretty gowns..”
“Don’t tell me white ones.”
“Sure.” Kerry cheerfully agreed. “You looked gorgeous… you had this lace sheer neckline thing on and…”
“Kerry.” Dar tapped her on the shoulder. “You need some coffee or something?”
“Anyway. We were in this beautiful cathedral, with stained glass windows, and everyone was throwing bags of rice at us..”
Dar half sat up, bringing Kerry up with her and displaying the considerable strength of her abdominal muscles. “What?”
Kerry tumbled and rolled into Dar’s lap, ending up peering up at her as she lay on her back across her partner’s legs. “What?”
“Bags of rice? What was this, a Cuban wedding? Were there bags of beans too?” Dar queried, tossing her head back to clear the disordered hair from her eyes. “Five pound bags? Ten? Fifty?”
Kerry folded her hands over her bare stomach. “Sweetheart.” She twiddled her thumbs. “Yankees don’t like to whip out their dustpans during a wedding. We wrap a *pinch* of rice into a cloth bag and toss that at newlyweds.” She informed her lover. “It’s supposed to be good luck.”
Dar put a fingertip against her nose. “It’s supposed to be for fertility, so you’ll have lots of babies.” She corrected her in a wry tone. “Leave it to Yankees to conveniently forget *that*.”
“Mm… we didn’t forget it.” Softly glinting green eyes peered up at Dar. “It was just so nice. All our friends were there, and Chino had a hat on… your dad was in a tux.”
Her partner smiled in reflex. “You have cute dreams.”
“I had one the first time we stayed here too.” Kerry admitted. “Remember you were saying you did? Before we woke up? So did I.” She sat up and pulled her legs up crossed under her, pushing her hair back with one hand.
“It didn’t have rice in it, did it?” Dar leaned on one elbow, facing her. The sheets draped loosely over her body, exposing roughly half of her torso and all of the length of one long leg.
“No.” Kerry leaned her elbows on her knees. “I didn’t remember it until way after we left Orlando. It was you and I up in a tree.”
“A tree.” Dar sniffed reflectively. “I like trees.” She allowed. “What kind of tree?”
A shrug. “I have no idea. But we were up in it, looking at the sky.” Kerry glanced at the sheets, drawing her finger over the soft surface. “I remember just being happy, and that was such a strange feeling for me back then.”
Dar laid her hand on Kerry’s knee. “And now?”
“And now?” Kerry laughed, a light, joyous sound. “Oh, my god, Dar. Now I have that dream when I’m awake.” She peeked up into her partner’s eyes. “Do I sound like a babbling idiot this morning or what?”
The blue orbs twinkled. “Wanna have breakfast here, or go find some hapless characters to harass?” Dar rubbed the skin under her hand gently.
“Here.” Kerry rolled over onto her side and stretched out on the bed. “Banana stuffed French toast?” She suggested. “Then we can grab our swimsuits and go look for trouble.” With a quick twitch, she yanked the covers off Dar and scrambled back off the bed with them as her partner rose to the challenge and chased her.
She almost got away, when her feet got tangled up in the sheets and she hopped madly to free them, bouncing all over the room and nearly causing Dar to cough up an eyeball laughing. At the last hop, the taller woman got an arm around her and they both fell, hitting the carpet and thrashing around with the sheet winding itself around them.
“Ee!” Kerry squirmed, as long, ticklish fingers attacked her bare ribs. “You punk!”
“Yeah? Takes one to know one!” Dar grappled with her, the fabric tangling around them both and winding them tighter together. “Auarrgguhhh!!”
“Ooooo…gotcha!” Kerry wrapped her arm around Dar’s calf and attacked the inside of her knee, feeling the powerful limb jerk in response to her tickling. “Ahahahahahah!!!!”
Dar’s head popped out from under it’s wrapping of cotton as she glared so intently at her cell phone the leather cover visible shriveled.
One long arm snaked out and snatched the instrument, but then paused as Dar took a moment to catch her breath before she opened the phone. “What?” She snarled into it.
“Oo.” Kerry wriggled up between Dar’s legs and poked her head out into the open to listen. “
“Well, good morning to you too, Dar. Always such a pleasure to talk to you.” Eleanor’s voice held equal parts sarcasm and amusement. “Were you up?”
Dar’s pale blue eyes slitted. “Yes.” She said. “You get assigned wake up call duty this week? I though Alastair was gonna invest in software to do that.”
The VP of Marketing chuckled. “Oh, there’s just parts of you that never change, aren’t there? It’s a relief really… like death, taxes.. you know.”
“Is Kerry there?” Eleanor asked, giving up on her torment.
Dar gave her cell phone another evil look. “It’s quarter to seven in the morning, I’m in my hotel room, and I’m not dressed. What do you think?”
A pause. “Well wouldja put her on the phone, please? She’s at least civil before coffee.”
Kerry fell forward against Dar’s chest, laughing helplessly, covering her mouth to keep Eleanor from hearing.
“She’s occupied at the moment.” Dar gazed down at the blond woman draped over her. “What do you want?”
Eleanor sighed audibly. “Okay, okay – there are a lot of really ticked off people here, Dar.” She said. “I’m about to head into a meeting with ten of our fellow exhibitors.”
“And?” Dar nuzzled Kerry’s hair, nibbling it’s softness. “If the hall’s screwed up, what do you want from me? It’s not my fault.” She leaned back against the bed, sliding her free hand around Kerry’s now still form. “And it sure as hell isn’t Kerry’s fault.”
“No.. Jesus, all right! I’m coming!” Eleanor sounded more than exasperated. “Listen, Dar.. bottom line, these guys want to know who you paid off to get our booth up. Nothing fancy. They’re frustrated, and out of time, and they just want to get it all done so… who gets the check?”
Dar grinned at her cell phone. “Me.”
The tall CIO smirked. “I didn’t pay anyone off, Eleanor. I went… sorry… we went in there last night and just made it happen.”
“Me.” Dar confirmed. “Tell them I take credit cards. What do you think, three, four thousand a minute? What’s my time worth?” She chuckled. “I tell you what, it’s gonna take them the whole god damned day to pull the circuits, because the nitwits who installed them didn’t label the damn things; I had to check them one by one and let me tell you, I was raising the roof in that telco room cursing.”
“Oh, my god.” Eleanor muffled a laugh. “Everyone thinks you bribed the management company.”
“Hah.” Dar looked down into Kerry’s expressive eyes. “We don’t need to bribe anyone to execute the technology we’re responsible for implementing.”
“Can I quote you?” Eleanor sounded gleeful. “Please?”
“Sure.” Dar lowered her head and brushed Kerry’s lips with her own. “Just don’t raffle me off. I’m busy.”
“Rats. I could have recouped the outlay for the damn convention.” The VP of Marketing mock sighed. “When are you coming over?”
“We’re not.” Kerry neatly captured the phone. “Hi, Eleanor.” She cleared her throat. “We got you guys all set up, so its your turn now. Dar and I will be reachable on our cells, but we’re spending the day elsewhere.”
“Uh.” Eleanor was caught offguard, and it showed. “Well, all right, Kerry. Sure.” She responded. “We’ll.. ah.. call you if we need you.”
“Thanks. Bye!” Kerry closed the cell and tossed it on the bed. “C’mon nerdmeister. I hear a banana calling my name.” She got a last tickle in, laughing as Dar rocked backwards with her in her arms. “Score one for the geek squad.”
The sun poured into the room, painting it silver, splashing across the carpet and catching on tan skin and tangled dark and light hair.
Dar broke off for air, rubbing Kerry’s nose gently with her own. “Score two.”
Kerry clipped her cell phone to the waistband of her shorts, and slid her sunglasses by one ear next to them. She studied the result in the mirror and decided that, plus the tucked in tropical fish t-shirt was acceptable.
She had her bathing suit on underneath, a relatively sedate aqua green one piece, with a racing neckline that she’d just gotten the week before. Shopping for bathing suits had gotten a lot easier since she’d started purchasing them for function, rather than the form her family had always insisted on, that was definitely for sure.
She remembered the first time she ‘d gone shopping for the beach with her mother, after she’d gotten old enough to really be conscious of her body, and her figure. What a horror show that had been. She’d wanted a two piece like all her friends, and she’d been treated to a hour of critique on why she couldn’t possibly wear one because of what the press would say about her not quite shed layer of baby fat.
Jesus. Kerry met her own eyes in the mirror and winked at herself wryly. So even now, she stayed away from bikinis even though she knew she could pull one off in rather grand style these days.
Besides, Dar said she looked sexier in the sleek, one piece solid color functional ones she tended to wear, so who needed a bikini anyway? Dar only laughed when she suggested to her partner than she wear one herself.
“Right.” She gave herself a nod, then looked up as Dar appeared behind her in the mirror, already decked out in her wraparound shades and sleeveless cotton shirt and shorts. “Would you mind?” Kerry handed back the sunscreen.
“Never.” Dar sprayed some of the tanning lotion on her hands and started working it into the exposed portion of Kerry’s skin. “Want to pull your hair back?”
Kerry moved her pale locks out of the way, so Dar could get the oil all the way up the back of her neck. “You think it’ll stick?”
“For a while.” Dar glanced at the bottle. “Theoretically waterproof, but we’ll take it with us. I don’t want to get toasted, and I know you don’t either.”
“Nuh uh.” Kerry simply stood in place, enjoying the strong hands giving her a massage in the process of protecting her hide. “Dar, can I ask you something?”
“Aren’t you at all curious as to what those two are up to?”
Kerry looked up into the mirror, watching her partner’s face as she worked. Dar’s expression was relaxed and calm, and when the blue eyes lifted and met hers, there was no evasiveness in them. “Really?”
“Nah.” Dar shook her head. Then she half shrugged one shoulder. “I mean, I guess I don’t want to see them run us out of town, and I guess we’re going to have to sit down and really analyze what they’re doing… what their plan is… if they’ve really got something different that we can’t compete with, that sort of thing.”
“But you don’t care that it’s them?”
“Do you?” Dar studied her for a moment. Kerry’s face twitched a little, her jaw muscles bunching as she considered. “You think it’s personal?”
Kerry took the oil and capped it, She gestured for Dar to turn and precede her from the bathroom, and didn’t speak until she’d tucked the bottle into the small pack she’d planned on carrying and fastened it around her. “I think it might be, yeah.” She admitted, as they walked to the door and exited into the hallway. “But maybe that’s just my green eyes talking.”
Dar touched the button for the elevator, maintaining a thoughtful silence.
They walked through the lobby, and out to the bus stop, Kerry removing her sunglasses as they walked outside and settling them firmly onto her nose. They took a seat together to wait for the correct bus, wincing a little as their bodies had to adapt from the air conditioned comfort of the hotel to the sauna like heat outside.
“I think I just realized somewhere along the way the past year I grew up.” Dar said, out of the blue. “Maybe they do have personal motives, but I don’t give a crap. I don’t have time in my life for their dramas.”
Kerry flicked an adventurous love bug away from her bare knee. She could already feel sweat gathering under her light clothing, and she was looking forward to the cool kiss of the water at their current destination. She’d realized herself the past year that though she chose to live in the subtropics, she didn’t much like breathing swamp air most of the time and saved her excursions in the summer for the early morning and late evening hours. “That’s an interesting point of view.”
Dar shrugged. “Would you rather go to the convention center and mess with them?” She asked bluntly. “You having second thoughts about our being out today?”
“No.” Kerry shook her head. “That’s not it at all, Dar.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
Did she have a problem? Kerry frowned, feeling the edges of her own temper prickle. “Did I say I had a problem?” She asked, half turning to face her partner.
Dar merely raised her eyebrows, folding her arms across her chest in mute eloquence.
Kerry exhaled, looking up as the bus approached with their destination on it. “I don’t have a problem. I just want to make sure my job is covered.” She got up and started for the door. “We get paid a lot of money to do what we do. I just don’t want to think I’m blowing that responsibility off.”
Dar climbed up after her, and they took seats near the middle of the bus. The taller woman stretched her legs out and studied the neatly folded half socks peeking over the edge of her sneakers, “Hmph.”
Several other guests filed in behind them including a family with three or four children, all wide eyed and excited as their parents corralled them in the back. Dar watched them for a few minutes, then she glanced at Kerry’s profile.
Kerry looked back at her at the same time. “If it is personal, and they are gunning for us, it’s going to sting them like hell if we don’t show up.”
Dar grinned like a pirate.
“It’s like we don’t consider them a worthwhile threat.” Kerry went on, giving her taller companion a poke in the shoulder. “You’re too freaking smart for your own good, Paladar.”
“You’re not so bad yourself.” Dar leaned back. “If it makes you feel any better, yeah, my gut instincts were to go over there and just run roughshod over everyone, micromanaging every detail like a concierge on steroids.” She admitted. “But strategically, since we’re already a jump ahead of them, it makes sense to steer clear and let them all scramble.”
Dar gazed at the roof of the bus. “And it’s a great rationalization for me to just do what I want to do anyway.” She cleared her throat. “Which is spend the day having fun with you.”
“Ah.” Kerry surrendered with a wry chuckle. “Is this a case of the action plan having two parallel goals?” She asked. “Or are we just coming up with a good excuse for ourselves?” After reviewing her words, and the stillness of Dar’s face, she held a hand up. “Okay.”
The bus trundled over a myriad of bumps in the road, and eventually pulled into the water park. The door opened, and through the heat Kerry caught a whiff of sun warmed concrete and chlorine. She followed Dar down the steps and stayed behind her a step as they walked towards the entrance.
Well, screw it. With a shake of her head, Kerry increased the length of her strides and caught up to her partner, deliberately bumping her with her shoulder.
Dar looked at her, then bumped her back. “Done wrestling?”
“Mm.” Kerry patted her cell phone. “If they need us, we’re here.” She concluded. “Besides, what the heck could happen at a trade show?”
They showed their passes at the gate and were admitted, the sounds of splashing and laughter already beginning to surround them much as the scent of the water did. They secured a locker and Kerry stripped off her shirt and shorts, stuffing them and the rest of her gear into the small space. Save the phone which she snapped into a waterproof housing before looping the lanyan on the case around her neck. Then she picked up her towel, and joined her now swim suited companion as they headed out into the sun.
Dar hoisted herself out of the wave pool for the nth time, shaking herself free of a spray of chlorinated water as she waited for Kerry to join her. The blond woman was heading her way, towing a body board behind her with a big grin on her face. “Nice one.” Dar complimented her.
“Yeah.” Kerry exhaled, raking her fingers through her drenched hair. “Next stop, Hawaii.” She sat down on the edge of the pool to catch her breath, tipping her head back to observe the sun’s slant in the sky. “Know what?”
“It’s lunchtime.” Dar responded. “Want to do the big slide one more time before we grab something?”
Kerry accepted the offered hand up and stood, looking around at their surroundings. The park wasn’t busy at all, not nearly as much as it had been the last time they were there. It was the heat of summer now, though, so that wasn’t unexpected. However, it had made it all the more pleasant to not have to fight the crowds and stand in long lines. “Sure.” She concluded. “Let me just get a towel and wipe my eyes, though. The water’s killing them.”
Dar lead the way back to the chair they’d taken possession of, picking up Kerry’s towel and handing it to her as she lifted her own and dried the largest of the water droplets off with it. Now, instead of being oppressive, the sun felt good and warm on her back, and she felt pleasantly tired from all the activity.
Out of habit, she checked her phone. No calls. With a grin, she checked Kerry’s, which was also devoid of any missed calls. She admitted to herself that curiosity was beginning to prick her softly, wondering what, if anything was gong on in the trade show.
“Why don’t you call?” Kerry had been watching her, and now she produced a knowing grin.
“Would it make you feel better if I did?” Dar countered.
Kerry took a seat on the beach lounger, and extended her bare legs out, crossing them casually at the ankles. “Yes.” She waggled her fingers “Dial, your Nerdiness.” She arranged herself more comfortably on the lounger and put her sunglasses on, then folded her hands over her stomach.
Dar chuckled, but unzipped the case and flipped the phone open. She dialed Eleanor’s number and waited. It rang twice, then was answered.
“Is it a convention yet?” Dar asked.
Eleanor just chuckled nastily.
“That’s what I thought. Need us for anything?”
“Dar, did you know who the principals were in Telegenics?” The Marketing VP asked suddenly. “The big movers, I mean? Not the money people?”
Dar exhaled. “Yes.” She answered evenly. “Always nice to have .. old friends… in the business.”
“Mm.” Eleanor grunted. “Well, I think they figured to have a little competition with us here. My sources tell me they were involved in why we had no staff here last night.”
“Ah.” Dar smiled humorlessly. “That would explain why they showed up to the offices as we were leaving.” She said. “So they thought they’d throw a wrench in, eh?”
“Apparently.” Eleanor sounded so very smug. “They were looking to be the big shots and come riding to the rescue this morning. Terribly disappointed, apparently, when they discovered we were already providing that role by generously lending out our resources to help all our prospective clients get their gear running.”
“Terribly disappointed to not find you here.”
“Double awww.” Dar chuckled. “They can kiss my ass.”
“That would be playing right into it, no?” Eleanor quipped. “But just so you know, they left, and one of the boys heard them saying they were going to go looking for you. The short bitchy one apparently had some idea of where you might be.”
Dar’s ears pricked up and she very slowly turned her head to scan her surroundings. She didn’t see anyone she knew, but there were a lot of areas she couldn’t see, either. “Nice.” She muttered.
“You do make charming enemies, Dar.” Eleanor sighed. “Anyway, they left us alone, so thank God for that. You will stop by tonight to make sure everything’s a go for tomorrow, right?”
“We’ll be there.” Dar responded quietly.
“Good. Later!” Eleanor hung up, her voice already raising to talk to someone as it vanished into the cellular ether.
“You were right. There they are.” Shari leaned on the balcony of the restaurant, gazing pensively down across the forest of chaise lounges.
“Seem to have an affinity for water.” Michelle Graver commented, biting off the words with sharp precision. “I remembered they spent time here last time.”
“During the Vista bid?” Shari asked.
“Mm.” The bigger woman turned her attention back to their subjects. As she watched, Dar wrapped her towel around her neck and took a seat on the lounge next to where her blond companion was lying, but instead of joining her, the tall woman remained upright, just looking around her.
“She always been that good looking?” Michelle asked, curiously.
Shari thought about it. “Eh.” She shrugged one linen covered shoulder. “The potential was always there, but there was so much crap covering it you’d never have guessed.” She snorted slightly. “She sure kept herself in shape though. Damn sight better than I did.”
“Mm.” Michelle nodded. “She’s into karate, or so I hear.”
“Not karate.” Shari shook her head. “Some other weird thing. Not surprising. She grew up on that navy base and it screwed her head up royally. Half the time I thought she was psycho.”
“Doesn’t look it now.” Graver observed, noting the elegant lines of Dar’s profile. “If you hadn’t told me what her background was, I’d never have guessed it.”
“No.” Shari conceded. “She cleans up all right. Now, at least.” Her eyes drifted over to the other chair’s occupant. “So she’s still with the little blond rat, huh?” She mused. “Wonder how she’s managed to get her to stay around.”
Michelle turned her head to give her companion a look. “Don’t sell our young blond wasp short. She’s got brains.” She said. “And from what I hear, she’s got a set of well taken care of, exquisitely dentured fangs beneath all that sweet Midwestern bullshit.” She added. “The few times I had to deal with her, I respected what she did for me.”
A shrug. “Whatever.” Shari stared down at the two with an almost obsessive look. “Never thought it would last, especially if she’s got brains. Who could live with an animal like Dar?”
“She could have changed.” Michelle suggested. “I never got the sense that she was anything but sharp, and damn ruthless. When she took that bid group apart it just made my heart go pitapat, that’s for sure.” She considered. “Her reputation’s not built on bs, Shari. I know you’ve been on the sales and development side, but I haven’t.”
“Leopards don’t change spots. “ Shari shook her head. . “But she’s the key to ILS all right. She’s the cornerstone. You see what she did last night? Busted my ass, but that’s Dar all over.” She snorted in disgust. “Here I figured we’d make a little stir, and get a face off this morning between her and us.”
“It was a good plan.” Her companion allowed. “Let the clients see our style differences, head to head. I just never figured on her showing up last night.”
“No.” Shari’s lips wrinkled. “Or her turning grease monkey on us. Though I should have remembered that side of her. Used to drive me nuts. “
“Mm.” Michelle nodded thoughtfully. “She makes things happen. I said that when I met her and nothing I’ve seen since contradicts that. So.” She watched their subjects. “Now she’s going to be gunning for us. We lost our surprise.”
“So.” Shari watched Dar draw one leg up and circle it with both arms, the muscles under her tan skin rippling visibly even at this distance. “So, okay, maybe we need to rethink our strategy. Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way. “She turned to look at Michelle. “Maybe we don’t need to beat her.”
The shorter woman raised a ginger colored eyebrow at her.
“We need to seduce her.” Shari smiled. “Maybe it’s not smart to go head to head. She expects that. But maybe there’s a way to get her where she’s vulnerable, and.. you know… I just might know how.”
Michelle looked doubtful, but intrigued. “Go on.”
“Let’s go have lunch.” Shari suggested. “Get out of this damn heat. I’d forgotten just how much I hated it.”
They turned and strolled towards the door. As they reached it, Shari paused and glanced back over her shoulder. By design or chance, Dar’s head was turned, and she was staring right at her from behind silvered shades.
Though she was far away enough to know the dark haired woman couldn’t see her, Shari shivered anyway, and hastily ducked inside. “Psycho.” She muttered, closing the door behind her.
“I love Epcot.” Kerry said, as they strolled through the main entrance to the park. “I think it’s my favorite place here.”
“Me too.” Dar agreed. “Not just because it’s nerd heaven, either. I just find my interest held more than at the other parks.”
That was significant, Kerry decided. Dar had a surprisingly limited attention span, something that she’d found out over time much to her bemusement. If you wanted her help, you condensed your problem down into it’s essentials, and got it in front of her in squarely black and white terms. Then she would review it, decide, and give it back to you sometimes in a matter of minutes.
Anything longer than that, or heaven forbid, if someone chose to do a Powerpoint presentation to make their case, and you lost her. Kerry had seen it happen more than once. Her lover would let her head rest on one hand, and start sketching, occupying her restless mind with something more interesting than whatever the person presenting was saying.
Which brought up an interesting question. “Hey, Dar? Were you hyperactive when you were a kid?”
Dar turned her head and focused on Kerry, away from the dancing fountains they were walking towards. “Was I?” She mused. “I don’t know. I was a pain in the ass child, that’s for sure. Just ask my mother.”
The scent of pastry distracted them both and Dar steered Kerry towards a bakery shop in the central plaza. They walked up the steps and into the shop, getting in line as they reviewed their options. “Mm.” Kerry eyed a chocolate mousse. “Another reason I like Epcot. Good food.”
“Uh huh.” Dar agreed, making eye contact with the cashier and pointing at the mousse. “Two, and two cappuccinos, please.” She said. “Yeah, I think I was.”
“Huh?” Kerry had her mind on the pastries. “Think you were mousse, hon?”
“Hyperactive.” Dar deftly evaded Kerry’s attempts to pay for their treat and plunked down a handful of bills instead. “Probably my parents had no clue, but when I look back now and think of how I was, yeah. Why?”
“Just curious.” Kerry answered. “I noticed you’re so restless a lot of the time when you’re at work, so I wondered.”
Dar picked up the tray with their treats and nudged Kerry towards a table. “Either that or it was all the damn chocolate I ate.” She sat down and handed over Kerry’s mousse, taking her own and commencing a methodical attack on it. “Okay. Let’s grab some dinner reservations, then we can wander around in this part for a while.”
“Okay.” Kerry licked her spoon. “First stop, Test Track. Vroom, Vroom.”
“Vroom vroom.” Dar agreed with a smile, daubing a bit of mousse on Kerry’s nose. “You got it.”
It was getting on to evening, and the raw heat of the day was moderating slightly as the breeze picked up. Kerry plucked at the front of her shirt, glad to feel the cool touch of the air and she was wishing the sun would drop faster and bring on the twilight’s relief. “Whew.”
“Yeah.” Dar ambled into the path of a mist gun, letting it spray her with a fine fog of water. “Let’s go find something indoors.”
They stopped in front of a reservations kiosk, and Dar poked at the touch screen looking for what she wanted. “Reservations.. reservations… World Showcase, no…Ah. Living Seas. Here.” She reviewed her choices. “Time.. what do you think, seven? If we can get it?”
“Oo.” Kerry put a hand out and grabbed her partner’s wrist. “Hang on.. what’s that?” She pointed. “Scuba reservations?”
Dar’s eyebrows shot up. She punched the required button and leaned forward, with Kerry pressed against her side in curiousity. “Whoa.” She said. “Never saw that before.” She studied the announcement. “Dive in the Living Seas. Tropical fish, turtles, sharks..hm.” Her eyes turned to Kerry. “Wanna do it?”
“You need to ask?” Kerry said. “Scuba diving in the gazillion gallon aquarium? Sign me up!” She watched as Dar indicated their interest. After a moment, a real person appeared on the screen. “Hi.”
“Hello!” The face smiled back at them. “How can I help you?”
Having punched a specific button, Dar had more or less expected the operator to know what she wanted. However. “We want to go dive on the Living Seas.”
“Great!’ The woman replied. “Would that be for today?”
The woman did something on her end that involved typing. “Great.” She said again. “We have spaces available at five thirty. How’s that?”
Kerry checked her watch. “It’s five now.” She said. “Sounds perfect.”
Dar bounced up and down on the balls of her feet happily. “Do it.” She instructed the woman. “What do we need?”
The woman typed for a while, then she looked up. “Okay, you’ll need bathing suits, and of course, you do have your certification cards?”
Dar nodded. “Yep, we do.”
“Terrific! Just go to the customer service center at five fifteen, and they’ll take it from there.” The woman smiled broadly. “Excited?”
“Yes.” Kerry forstalled Dar’s answer. “Thanks!’ She watched the woman sign off, then she turned to Dar. “Oh, this is going to be so cool.”
Dar grinned, as she requested their dinner reservations. “Yeah.” She said. “It’s not like we haven’t been diving in more exotic places, but this’ll be different all right.” Finishing, she put her hands on Kerry’s shoulders and directed her towards the service center. “Let’s go.”
There were six others in their group of eight, Dar discovered, a diverse bunch ranging from resort certified divers with very limited experience, to two others like Dar herself, experienced divemasters just out for some fun.
After a solemn introductory session, and the paying of the fee, they all trooped through an unmarked gate, going from the public part of the theme park, into the work area guests mostly never saw. Dar more or less ignored the chattering around her and spent time looking around at the facilities, which were well kept and spotless though far less ornate than the theme park areas themselves.
They walked past administrative offices, and across a service roadway to the rear part of the Seas exhibit, which featured a huge marine system serviced by entire buildings full of pumps and water treatment equipment.
Inside the exhibit, they moved carefully around huge pipes and up several flights of narrow stairs to a small classroom, where they were given release forms and refreshments while they filled them out. “When was the last time we dove, Dar?” Kerry chewed the end of her pen. “Tuesday or was it last Thursday?”
“Thursday.” Dar was busy scribbling. “You nearly got bitten by that cranky parrot fish you kept chasing down.”
“Ah. Yeah.” Kerry finished writing and signed her name to the bottom of the release, dating it neatly. “I was just trying to take his picture. You’d think he was a tv star in LA or something.”
“Maybe that barracuda that kept following me was his agent.” Dar slid Kerry’s form out from under her hands and gave both to the khaki clad man giving them directions. “Here you go.” She sat back and regarded their fellow divers as the guide collected all his paperwork, and checked off sizes for their gear.
“Okay, guys.” The man finished and gave them a sunny grin. “Next, we go down to the locker rooms and suit up. Your gear bags are on the benches, and when you’re done, just walk out into the hallway and I’ll meet you there to take you up to the dive platform. Okay?”
“Good deal.” Kerry stood and followed Dar as they left the room, traveling down a short flight of stairs to another in a seemingly endless series of pale blue corridors. Touching the wall, she could feel a distinct vibration, and the scent of water seemed to penetrate even the thick concrete. The air was also damp, and combined with the chill of the conditioners, rather refreshing after being outside.
The locker rooms were surprisingly plush. Kerry’s eyebrows rose as she noted the well equipped showers, complete with shampoo and soap. “Hey. Nice.” She complimented them, as Dar sorted out their respective wetsuits. “Almost like home.”
“Here.” Dar tossed Kerry a suit, moving forward as one of the two other women walked past her to the changing booths. The other woman followed, leaving Dar and Kerry in the main room together.
They exchanged looks, then Kerry pointed to one of the changing booths. “After you, little fishie. Give me a hand getting this thing on?”
Dar grinned knowingly. “Sure.” She answered in an offhand tone. They entered the same space and closed the door, as Dar draped the two wetsuits over the partition wall. “We don’t use these much.”
“Nope.” Kerry removed her shorts, and her t-shirt, leaning forward and giving Dar a kiss on the navel as she did the same. “Too hot most of the time.” She removed her still dampish swimsuit and slid it on, grimacing at it’s clammy touch. “Someone’s going to invent instant suit dryers some day. Brr.”
Dar adjusted the strap on Kerry’s suit, then ducked her head and nibbled her neck, running her hands over the sheer fabric lightly to warm it. “That better?” She inquired, into Kerry’s now bright pink ear.
“Much.” Kerry rubbed the bridge of her nose, as the surge of heat from her guts felt like it was going to produce steam off the dampness. “Thanks.”
“Anytime.” Dar put on her own suit and adjusted it, then she picked up Kerry’s wetsuit and held it up for her. “Squiggle.”
Kerry stepped into the shortie suit and tugged it up over her thighs and past her hips before she stuck her arms into it and straightened. “I always feel like a penguin in one of these.” She remarked, as Dar pulled the neoprene into place and zipped the back. The suit was restrictive, and she spent a moment moving her arms and adjusting the half sleeves as Dar got into hers. “I ever tell you that you look really good in a wetsuit?”
Dar paused in the process of pulling on a sleeve and peered at her. “I look good as a penguin? Thanks, Ker.. you’re a peach.” She tugged the neoprene over her muscular shoulders and stretched her arms out, grimacing as the stubborn fabric pulled overly taut before it grudgingly inched into place.
Kerry pulled her zipper up and gave her a pat on the side. The thick rubber outlined Dar’s body sleekly, and despite the overwhelming scent of carbon, she did find it kind of sexy looking. “You don’t look like a penguin, sweetie. You look like a superhero.”
Dar looked down at herself, then up at Kerry. “I think you’re the one who needs glasses, Kerry.” She laughed. “C’mon. Let’s go see some fish.” She picked up their clothing and opened the booth door, waiting for Kerry to exit before she moved towards a set of lockers where they’d been assigned a top one for their things.
The two other women had already exited, and when Dar and Kerry opened the door they found most of the rest of the group waiting. They joined their guide, now also suited up, and stood quietly as the last of the group finally ducked out of the men’s locker room.
“Okay, let’s go up.” The guide turned and lead the way, past anonymous blue doors and up another set of stairs before he reached a door marked “Stage Entrance”. “Okay, we’re going into the Living Seas now, so everyone suck it up and look good.”
Before anyone could react, the guide opened the door and they were greeted with a blast of chilly air. Past the entrance, they could see the inside of the public pavilion, filled with guests some of which were now glancing their way curiously. “Oh… hm.” Kerry murmured, as they filed out and started across the carpeted floor. “Boy, that could be embarrassing.”
Dar merely kept walking, wryly hoping she didn’t bump into anyone she knew.
They traversed the main floor and got to the central area, where a huge tube with Plexiglas windows showed a diver’s lock in area. For a moment Dar wondered if they were really going to lock through, then the guide took them to a door in the rear and they disappeared into a stairwell leading up.
The scent of water was much stronger here, to the point that Dar could almost feel the salt collecting on the back of her tongue as they walked upwards. At the top of the circular stairs a door opened, and they walked out onto a steel platform.
The aquarium was laid out below them, the entrance to it a huge circular room criss crossed with steel catwalks to give access to the water’s surface. There were huge slings and cranes over the water, and equipment for servicing the giant tank was clamped everywhere. Here, rather than the public viewpoint of an entertaining, safe, cheerful show was instead the rig of a professional marine habitat and an air of scientific matter of factness.
Dar found out fascinating. But they were being herded down to the launch area, so she dismissed it and followed Kerry down to the lower platform where the divers would enter the water. Already, eight sets of gear were perched on the side, neatly arranged. Very professional, she noted approvingly.
“Okay.” The guide faced them. “We’re going to gear up, and get in the water. I’ll lead you around in the tank, and let you know when it’s time to interact with the guests. Now, you know a big part of this is being part of the show, so make sure you have fun with it.”
Kerry swiveled her head and looked up at her partner, whose eyebrows were crawling almost into her hairline. “Uh oh.”
“Part of the show?” Dar mouthed in outrage.
“You’ll get to interact with our guests in the observation bubbles, and at the restaurant! Isn’t that great? The guests love it. They’ think you’re one of us, so let’s get going!” The guide took the first woman’s arm and started moving her towards the gear.
“Wait a minute.” Dar started to protest, but fell silent when Kerry put a hand on her arm. She turned a glower on her partner, but found herself pinned by warm green eyes, and a gently entreating expression and knew she was going to dissolve under it the moment she saw it. “Kerrrryy…”
“It’ll be fun.” Kerry insisted, taking her arm and tugging her towards the gear. “C’mon, Dar, didn’t you always want to work at Disney World?”
“No.” The taller woman scowled. “I don’t do the Walmart greeter, Kerrison.”
“Just pretend they’re just more fish to look at.” Kerry soothed her. “It’ll be fun.”
Dar snorted, but reluctantly followed her down onto the platform, blinking a little as the cold water hit her feet. “If I kiss you underwater, think they’ll throw us out?” She muttered.
Kerry slowly sank into the water, letting herself submerge as she looked around her at the inside of the tank. Beside her, the still visibly glowering even through her mask Dar was doing the same, her hands folded over her stomach as she remained at the vertical beside Kerry.
Kerry poked her. Dar turned her head and waited, her eyes fastened on Kerry from behind the glass panels.
I love you. Kerry signed with her hands, watching intently until she saw the flow of bubbles change as Dar smiled around her regulator. After a glance at the guide, Dar signed back the same message, then she appeared to relax, tilting back and finning lazily around in a circle as the rest of the group descended.
That left Kerry free to simply float and watch the fish surround her, an explosion of sea life greater than any she’d experienced so far even in the prolific Caribbean. The water was crystal clear, and though the corals were fake, the colors made the fish stand out in vivid waves.
It was very different than ocean diving. For that, you needed to take into account the waves, and the currents, and the visibility was often not that great due to floating debris. This was a complete departure – like having the best parts of a dive set before you without the nasty parts you had to live with.
How Disney. Kerry mused, as she put a hand out curiously towards a large parrot fish circling near by. It drifted closer and nibbled her skin, a ticklish sensation that made her nose wrinkle. She felt a tug on her arm, and turned to see the guide motioning them all on towards the main part of the tank.
The water was cold, but the shortie wetsuit kept her warm enough until her body started adjusting to it. Kerry gently bled some of the air from her bc and sank a bit, moving down towards the bottom. She stayed back a little then, watching the rest of the group as they explored the first large fake coral structure.
Dar had relaxed enough to take up her usual diving posture, her buoyancy completely balanced, her arms clasped lightly in front of her as she dolphin kicked in a slow circle around the coral. She slowed, and a cloud of fish surrounded her, coming closer than they ever would in the wild. Dar went still, only her head moving as the silvery bodies brushed hers and behind the glass Kerry could see those pale blue eyes widening.
Cool. Kerry smiled, wishing she had her underwater camera with her. A motion caught her attention, and she turned her head, her own eyes widening as a long, sleek gray form swam towards her. She stayed completely still as the small shark nosed at her fins, then moved on with a negligent flick of his tail. She watched it swim off, then she turned to find Dar gazing at her, one hand lifted with it’s thumb up.
Kerry responded positively, and swam over to join her partner as they followed the group towards a large circular rock. The guide had all the divers swimming up through it, she realized, emerging at the top where there was a cameraman filming each one as they popped up. Ah. She got into line amiably. A videotape offering must be in the near future.
Dar was in front of her, so she put her hand on the taller woman’s hip, holding herself in place as Dar started forward, towing her along. They both reached the circular hole together, and she pressed close to her partner as they slid through, their gear just barely clearing the rocks. On the other side, the cameraman caught them, giving them a big thumbs up as they both swam free of the enclosure and tumbled into somersaults in front of him.
Heh. Kerry took the lead now, heading downward to where the guide was pointing out something behind a rock. When she got closer, she saw it was a huge turtle, and she settled down cautiously next to it to get a better look.
Dar hovered above her, studying the reptile with interest, then motion caught her eye and she looked up to see faces pressed against the Plexiglas wall next to them.
Several people waved at her. Dar lifted a hand and hesitantly waved back, surprised when the smallest faces started moving as their owners jumped up and down. Curiously, she drifted closer, and watched the children point at her.
She pointed back. They squealed, their mouths opening and closing. With one eyebrow raised, Dar decided to try something more interesting, and she inverted herself neatly, flipping her body over and hanging in the water upside down with bubbles trailing up the length of her.
A crowd had gathered now, and she was apparently the center of attention. Dar glanced down, to find Kerry sprawled over the floor of the tank, flippers crossed at the ankles, watching her with great amusement.
The turtle decided he was being upstaged, and lifted up, his flippers clawing through the water as he drifted past Dar and nudged her with his foot.
Dar drew her knees up and somersaulted over him, then she dove for the tank bottom as the rest of the group came wandering over. Kerry caught up with her and gave a playful tug on her weight belt, and she found a school of yellow reef fish to focus her attention on.
Another tug. Dar sighed, a plume of bubbles rushing up towards the surface, but then she looked over at her partner and lifted her hand in question.
Kerry pointed at her, then closed her fist, then she held both hands together and rocked them.
Dar removed her regulator and stuck her tongue out, then pulled it hastily back in as the cold water surprised her with its sting. She put her regulator back into her mouth and bit down on the mouthpiece, sucking in a breath of cool, dry, rubber scented air. Gathering the remaining shreds of her dignity, she rolled over in the water, looking around as the guide motioned them on.
Ahead of them were more floor to ceiling plate glass windows, with people behind them. Dar edged closer, realizing it was the interior of the restaurant they would be eating dinner in that she was looking at.
As she floated down past the first window, her eyes focused on the people beyond it and she found a shock going up and down her spine as she recognized the faces. She half turned to find where Kerry was, only to have warm fingers clamp down on her wrist as Kerry eased in next to her.
Inside the glass, outlined in the eerie aqua shadows from the water, were Shari and Michelle. Seated in one of the best viewing tables, neither was paying attention to the sights. Instead, they were talking animatedly over full plates of dinner, as Michelle pointed her fork at Shari to make a point.
Shari put her glass down and shook a finger playfully at her, and they both laughed.
Dar made a hand sign. Kerry nodded. They both turned and swam a little ways off, floating in mid tank as they watched the rest of the group wander past the main windows. After a moment, Kerry pointed to the tank floor, then lifted her hands suddenly, pushing them upwards in a rush.
Behind the mask, her partner’s blue eyes twinkled mischeviously. Dar glanced around, then she and Kerry swam slowly down to the bottom of the tank, drifting just off the surface as they made their way to the wall. At the base of the wall they paused, neither breathing. Dar held up one finger, then two, then three.
At the third, they both shot up past the window, exhaling a huge exhaust of bubbles that sounded like thunder around them.
Dar heard, even through the window, faintly, the clattering sound of dishes being dropped. She angled up and over with Kerry next to her like a limpet, diving down to another part of the exhibit and exchanging friendly waves with two small boys in identical Mickey Mouse ears.
After a few moments, Dar peeked over her shoulder, watching as two waiters hastily tried to clean up the two tumbled plates of food, while Shari tried frantically to wipe the red wine off her jacket. A snicker escaped her, causing a cloud of bubbles to emerged from her regulator, and she mouthed her regulator, biting down on the rubber as she tried to control her laughter.
It was childish, she acknowledged to herself, as she saw Michelle throw her soiled napkin from her in disgust.
But it was fun. Dar resolutely turned her head towards her waiting audience, and proceeded to make a face at them, blowing bubbles as they pressed their faces against the glass.
Kerry rolled onto her back and rested her hands on her belly, twiddling her thumbs as she grinned. Then she hastily rolled back over and paid attention to the little boys, as the two women suddenly turned and looked out the viewing port, pointing and yammering at the harried looking waiter.
Dar drifted down to her knees in the shell bottom holding out her hands and playing pat a cake with the smaller of the two boys. He was squealing in delight, his eyes sparkling with excitement as he slapped the Plexiglas from his side, as his mother looked on with a smile.
Kerry peeked past Dar’s shoulder, hoping her features were obscured enough by her gear as she spotted the figures in the window peering at them. For a moment, she thought her eyes met Michelle’s and she was busted, but after a split second the figures looked elsewhere, finally pointing towards two of the men divers who were chasing each other in and out of the coral.
Aww. Kerry felt a sense of guilty enjoyment. That’ll teach you to mess with us, huh? She turned her back on the window and fastened her eyes on her partner instead, who was now swimming slowly away from the restaurant panes, coming alongside one of the small gray sharks.
Kerry followed her, falling into her usual position at Dar’s shoulder as they came alongside the next big coral formation, settling slowly to the bottom on their knees as an entire school of brightly colored fish swirled around them.
She tipped her head back and spread her arms, feeling the fins brush her fingertips. Ahead of them, most of the group was clustered near the clear Plexiglas tube, amusing a host of guests snapping photos. Kerry decided it was their turn to be on stage, and she stayed where she was, playing with a curious, small angelfish nibbling at the side of her mask.
Her heart was still beating fast from their prank. She wondered if Dar’s was, noticing her partner was merely drifting around the rock formation, turning slowly along her length as she took in the inside of the tank. Casually, she reached up and closed her hand around Dar’s bare ankle, feeling the steady flutter of her pulse beneath her fingertips.
Dar looked over at her, and waggled her flipper, giving Kerry a thumbs up and a wink clearly visible even behind her mask.
Heh. Kerry released her and undulated her body, diving down towards the bottom of the tank to have an up close and personal introduction to another big turtle plodding along.
This was fun. She touched the turtle’s shell, drifting back a little as it stopped it’s methodical chewing of algae and peered at her with it’s fathomless black eyes. Had the turtle seen their joke?
Did he think it was funny, too? Kerry scratched him on the side of his neck, charmed by the creature’s gentle regard.
Then the turtle winked at her, and swam on, searching for new patches of algae to consume. Kerry leaned on her elbow, then turned her head as something nudged her expecting to see Dar there.
Instead, a shark was. But since it was a Disney shark, instead of eating her, the animal merely bumped her with it’s nose, and slid past her, letting her trail her fingers over it’s sandpaper skin.
Incredible. Kerry grinned. Just an incredible day.
“That was amazing.” Kerry wiped her face with a towel, wishing for a glass of anything to clean the taste of rubber out of her mouth. “Dar, can you believe we got afrrff.” Suddenly the taste of rubber was made irrelevant as Dar swung the door shut on their changing cubicle and kissed her, effectively cutting off what she’d intended on saying. “Mm.”
“Shh.” Dar whispered into her ear, jerking her head towards the next cubicles where they two other women on the dive were getting out of their gear. “Yeah, I can’t believe we got so close to those fish either.” She added, in a louder tone. “Incredible.”
Kerry made a twirling motion with her fingers, unzipping Dar’s wetsuit when her partner complied and peeling the neoprene off to reveal Dar’s tanned shoulders. “Did you see that shark?”
“Mmhm.” Dar stripped off the suit and stepped out of it, hanging it over the wall of the cubby and leaning in to start the shower running. “We’ve seen most of those things before, but never in one place, and never so damn clearly.”
“Yup.” Kerry peeled out of her own suit and added it to Dar’s, then removed her swimsuit and hung it up as well. She stepped into the shower as Dar got naked and joined her, and bowing to the close confines of the small space, she made the most of it by putting her arms around Dar and hugging her.
Dar pressed the button on the shampoo dispenser, and used a handful to lather Kerry’s hair for her. She scrubbed the thick, pale strands as Kerry simply stood quietly, her fingertips running up and down Dar’s back in a lazy rhythm.
The water pounded down on them, warming them after the long immersion in the cold tank, and the chilly walk down from the diver’s lock. Dar rinsed the soap out of Kerry’s hair, and knelt, resting her chin against Kerry’s thigh as Kerry returned the favor.
Her skin felt a little tender, and the long day’s exertions had started to spread a slight ache through her body. She was looking forward to a nice dinner with Kerry, and then sliding under the covers with her back in their comfortable room. Then a thought occurred. “Oh, crap.”
“Something wrong?” Kerry leaned towards her. “Did I hit sunburn on your neck?”
Dar sighed. “No. I just remembered I promised Eleanor I’d stop by the convention tonight and just make sure everything’s all right for the opening of the show tomorrow.”
“Oh.” Kerry ran her fingers through Dar’s hair, removing the soap from it as her partner tipped her head back and looked up at her. “Well, that won’t take long. We can… oh, crap.”
“Mmhm. We have to go back and get the car.” Dar said. “We took the bus and monorail.” She sighed again. “Oh well. We’ll just have to go do it.” With that, she rested her hand on Kerry’s tensed thigh and stood, reaching for the shower controls to turn them off. “After dinner.”
“Absolutely. I’m hungry enough to have started chewing on those turtles down there.” Kerry agreed, as she followed Dar out of the shower and handed her partner one of the two large towels they’d left waiting. The other two women had already finished dressing, and they heard the door close as they dried off. “Not real friendly, huh?”
Dar lifted herself up on her tip toes and peered over the partition, making sure they were alone in the room. “No.” She nipped Kerry’s ear playfully. “Did you see the crosses? They’re from a Kansas seminary.”
Kerry stood quite still, enjoying the tingles brought on by Dar’s teeth. “And?” She patted her partner’s body dry with her towel, removing impudent droplets from between her breasts. “Did they guess we’re gay or something? What clued them?”
“Beat’s me.” Dar watched Kerry lean closer and kiss a few more droplets away. “Maybe it’s our haircuts.”
Kerry looked up at her, one eyebrow arching sharply.
“More likely it’s the way we look at each other.” Dar grinned. “Or the fact that we spend more time dressing and undressing each other than all the rest of them combined.” She ruffled Kerry’s wet hair. “C’mon. Let’s get our t-shirts and our certificates, and go eat.”
Kerry toweled her head vigorously, and reached for her clothing, dismissing their unfriendly neighbors with a shrug. Not everyone, she reminded herself, accepted their lifestyle as easily as their friends or Dar’s parents did.
In fact, she mused, as she pulled on her shorts and fastened them, most people who were not gay really didn’t seem to be comfortable with the idea, at least at first. What she’d discovered, however, was that after a while, even the most wary generally got used to it, and then they forgot about it. That was pretty much what happened with her and Dar and work – in the beginning, there had been many people who had avoided her like the plague unless they had to come to her for something.
Now, however, she very seldom got what she referred to as the ‘ew – gay cooties!’ response. People generally just treated her like anyone else, and that really was all she’d ever could have asked for.
With a satisfied sigh, she shouldered her small bag and followed Dar out of the changing room, setting down both of their wetsuits in the marked hamper. She ran her fingers through her hair to put it in some kind of order, and rubbed a little remaining water from her eyes as Dar opened the door into the hallway and they joined the rest of the group.
“Okay.” The guide reappeared, with two of his buddies carrying a clipboard and a pile of bags. “I’ve got your shirts and your guaranteed frameable certificates here… anyone interested in getting the video? We’ve got it inside, and it’s just twenty bucks. The money goes towards the marine sciences institute here, so we can keep doing these kinds of services.”
“We’ll take one.” Kerry spoke up, just ahead of the others, who also agreed and nodded.
“Great.” The man smiled at her. “Hey listen, did any of you see anything weird happen in the tank? Like around the windows to the restaurant?”
Kerry felt Dar inhale, and she instinctively took a step closer to her, caught flatfooted by this new danger of revelation. Had any of the others seen them? And if they had, would they tell? She let her eyes slowly drift around the group, then fastened them back on the guide.
Everyone had a puzzled look. Even Dar had manufactured a nice one, cocking her dark head to one side and lowering her eyebrows.
“Okay, well, I didn’t see anything either, but somebody inside the restaurant swears they had someone scare the poo out of a couple of people at one of the window tables, so.. I had to ask. Probably was a fish.” The guide dismissed the entire affair, and went about passing out their goodie bags.
“Whew.” Kerry muttered under her breath.
“Mm.” Dar returned the guide’s smile and took her booty. “Thanks.. that was great.”
“Hey, thanks yourself! You were great.” The guide responded. “You were a real trooper with the kids, they loved ya! Got any yourself?”
“Just a dog.” Dar responded. “Glad I was a hit.”
Kerry took her bag. “It was really fantastic.” She complimented the guide. “I had a great time.”
“You’re a good diver.” The man responded. “You’ve got great buoyancy control, you dive a lot, huh?”
“I do, yes.” Kerry agreed. “Mostly in the Caribbean and South Atlantic.” She smiled at him. “This was really cool.”
“Thanks! Tell all your friends!” The man smiled back, and moved on. “Your tapes’ll be out in a minute, and after that, my buddy John here will take you back out to the lobby. Hope you all had a great time!”
“Yes!” The group responded in a chorus.
Dar rested her forearm on Kerry’s shoulder, and they both relaxed as the guide left and the rest of the group milled around waiting for their videos. “This was nice.” She remarked. “Totally Disneyfied, but nice.”
“Uh huh.” Kerry agreed. “And at least they don’t pipe ‘It’s a Small World” at you through underwater speakers.” She guided Dar towards the doors, where a new staffer had appeared with a stack of plastic video tape cases. “C’mon, let’s go.”
Dar took the tape from the woman and they escaped into the Living Seas, blending into the sparse crowd and heading for the exit. As they passed through the doors, Shari and Michelle entered from the other direction, pausing to look around intently before moving on.
Dar didn’t even bother with the front door this time. She pulled the Lexus around to the back and parked in the loading dock, hopping out and slamming the door as Kerry did the same. They strolled over to the entrance in companionable silence and ducked inside.
It was much less chaotic, and much more organized, Dar noticed at once. She paced slowly down the aisles of now completed booths, giving the odd security guard now on duty an amiable look as she passed them.
Their booth was relatively in the center of the room, and she circled it entirely once before she entered the neatly made up space. “Nice.” She commented to Kerry, who was checking out the locked case full of routers and switches. “Everything look good?”
Kerry walked to one of the sets and brought it up, coding in her password and running a few quick commands. “Looks very good.” She said. “Decent throughput.”
Dar leaned against the center column with her hands in her shorts pockets, admiring the contrast of Kerry’s sun gilded skin against the white cotton of her shirt. The sleeves were rolled up, and the shirt was tucked into her worn denim shorts and Dar found the whole picture quite appealing. “Know what?” She drawled.
“What?” Kerry looked up inquisitively.
Kerry’s sunburn deepened several shades, and she glanced around the room before she produced a grin. “Um.. thanks.” She murmured. “What brought that on?”
Dar shrugged. “Just an observation. Are we getting a two meg download?”
Kerry blinked. “What?” Her brows creased for a long moment before she realized what Dar was talking about. “Oh… um.” She looked back at the screen in confusion, then punched a few more keys. “One point eight.”
“Good enough.” Her partner decided. “We’re streaming locally anyway. At least I hope we are. Check to see if the marketing nitwits downloaded the mpegs.” She wandered over to the far side of the booth, examining the colorful brochures curiously as Kerry bent over the console again.
A door slammed, and Dar lifted her head at the sound, turning and peering across the center towards the front of the room. She spotted the two figures entering and only just stifled the impulse to grab Kerry and disappear, reasoning that they’d have to face off against their two adversaries sooner or later.
But there was no point in rushing the confrontation, so she merely went back to examining the marketing literature.
“Dar?” Kerry’s low voice reached her.
“I know.” Dar answered calmly. “Just do your thing.”
Kerry sat down in the nearest seat and continued her parsing, examining the file structures of the presentations they’d sent out from the office earlier that day. Her ears were perked, though, as she listened to the footsteps wandering through the hall which would, she knew, eventually end up right where they were.
She grinned, just a little, and cracked her knuckles.
Michelle stopped as she reached the edge of the booth and waited for the two women inside it to look up.
When they didn’t, she cleared her throat. “Well, well.”
Kerry glanced up from her screen. “Oh, hi.” She greeted their guest cordially. “C’mon in.”
Michelle availed herself of the invitation and stepped inside the booth, circling the desk Kerry was at and taking a seat on the edge of the console. “Hello, Dar.” She peered at the booth’s second occupant and paused.
“Hi.” Dar rested her chin on her fist and looked up briefly, then went back to studying the settings she had been investigating. “How’s it going?”
Somehow, it wasn’t the reception Michelle had been expecting. “Damned good, actually. Bet you’re surprised to see me here.”
“Not really.” Kerry finished checking her screen, and moved to another one. “You guys get everything taken care of? We heard there were some problems last night… I thought your booth looked pretty well together.”
“Mmhm..” Kerry indicated the Telegenics display a few rows down. “I like the lcd scrolling – it’s nice.” She tapped a few keys, and clicked twice with her mouse, reviewing the results. “There, that’s better. Did you adjust that, Dar?”
“Uh huh.” Dar responded. “Put prioritization in and filtered out some of Mark’s crap.”
“So you liked our stuff, huh?” Michelle decided to go with the flow of the conversation. “Glad to hear that. We worked hard on it, just like we’ve been working hard on getting new accounts around here. You must have noticed that too.”
Kerry sat back and gazed thoughtfully at Michelle, then she turned her eyes to Dar, who had looked up and was now twiddling her thumbs at her workstation. Dar shrugged. “Are you? Well, congrats, then.” She replied.
“So, you didn’t noticed we took eight of your accounts from here?” Shari stepped around the pylon and confronted them, leaning on the counter right above where Dar was sitting. “Hello, Dar.”
“Hi.” Dar responded, without budging an inch. “Business is business, I figure. You win some, you lose some.” She tipped her head back, meeting Shari’s eyes evenly, feeling an inward sense of embarrassed relief when her guts didn’t clench even a little.
After a long moment, Shari looked away first, ostensibly turning her attention to Kerry. “That the way you see it too, Ms. Stuart?”
“Is there any other way?” Kerry queried. “We’ve got lots of competitors.”
Michelle and Shari exchanged quick glances. “Well, that’s great.” Michelle said. “Frankly, we were hoping you’d feel that way. I mean, yes, we’re competitors, but we’ve all got a lot in common, don’t we? It’d be nice to do some friendly networking for a change.” She smiled at them. “Matter of fact, we were hoping you both would be here today. We checked in a few times, but didn’t see you around.”
“Nah.” Dar leaned back and extended her long legs, crossing them casually at the ankles. “We came in and did our part last night. We’ve been relaxing all day.”
“At the parks?” Michelle smiled again.
“Like you were, huh?” Kerry indicated the Goofy shirts they were wearing. “It was a beautiful day, wasn’t it?”
Shari glanced down at herself, and her face twisted into a half grimace. “Yeah, well, we love shopping.” She muttered. “Never can have too many of these.”
Dar slid her hand up, covering the grin that threatened to appear on her face. It was hard for her to bring back up that feeling that she’d always gotten when she’d thought of Shari, those nightmares that had chased her for so long until she’d met Kerry and they’d fallen in love with each other.
“Listen.” Michelle wrested control of the conversation back. “We just dropped by to make sure things were ready before we headed back to our hotel. You two free for breakfast tomorrow? Maybe we can chat then.”
I’d rather eat Donald Duck jello eggs on toast with a pack of mimes. Kerry hesitated, trying to recall what their schedule was for the following day. The convention started at ten, so… She looked at Dar, reading the resigned set of her eyebrows and the faint twitch on either side of her mouth.
Kerry wrinkled her nose slightly, and saw the wry twinkle appear in Dar’s eyes. “I think we’re free for breakfast, aren’t we? Unless you promised Marketing we’d meet with them.” She gracefully gave Dar an out anyway, and waited for her decision.
“I can’t take Eleanor before coffee.” Dar replied. “Yeah, we’re free.” She glanced up at Shari. “Where are you staying?”
“The Sheraton across from here.” Shari answered warily. “But their restaurant is pitiful.”
“Ours isn’t.” Kerry said. “Why don’t’ you meet us there? It’s the Grand Floridian.” She flipped off the monitor she’d been working at and stood up. “They’ve got great banana stuffed French toast.” She let her hands come to rest on her hips and cocked her head at them. “Eight all right? We get up early.”
Dar folded her arms over her chest, content to let Kerry hack and slash her way through with her charmingly piratical good manners. “Yeah, that’s early enough to miss the characters. I don’t want to scare Pluto again.” She remarked with an easy grin.
Michelle appeared as though she’d sucked on a sour orange. “Sure.” She finally agreed. “We’ll meet you there.” She got up and stepped out of the booth, giving Shari a backhanded slap on the arm. “C’mon. Let’s get out of here.”
Kerry perched next to Dar’s seat and watched them leave, casually leaning her wrist on her partner’s shoulder. “I think we scored.” She remarked as they walked through the entrance and out of sight. “You were right, Dar. That was exactly how to handle them. Good call.”
“Oh yeah.” Dar closed down her connection and stood, stretching her body out. “Round one to Roberts and Stuart, Ding ding.” She added. “But now we’ve got round two at eight am tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” Kerry sighed. “What a way to ruin perfectly good French toast. “ She slipped her arm around Dar’s waist as they walked together towards the rear door. “You know, Dar, I really don’t like Shari.”
“Oh, really?” Dar opened the back door and held it as they exited.
“Really.” Kerry took a breath of the warm, humid night air. “In fact, I’d like to take a set of cat five crimpers and clamp the end of her nose with them.”
Dar looked at her. One eyebrow lifted. “What would that do?”
“Make her scream like a cat in a blender.” Kerry replied, with a firm nod. “Start my day off just right.”
Dar’s nostrils flared. “Remind me not to piss you off, okay?” She draped an arm over Kerry’s shoulders. “You just made my nose want to run off to Denver.”
Kerry just chuckled, and shook her head.
“Thanks.” Kerry scribbled her name on the room service check and handed it back to the waiter, then closed the door after him as he slipped out into the hallway. On the table near the window he’d left a tray, which had a large white china pot, two cups, and a plate full of chocolate dipped strawberries.
Kerry inspected the tray, lifting the lid on the pot and sniffing appreciatively. “Mm.” She put the lid back down and dusted her hands off, turning her back on it and heading for the bathroom.
Dar was inside, applying aloe to her shoulders which were a deep, burnished color half tan and half sunburn. Kerry took the bottle from her and smeared the stuff across her back, rubbing it gently on the patches between the straps of her swimsuit. “You got toasted, honey.”
“I feel it.” Dar seemed embarrassed. “Next time remind me to put my damn sunscreen on after I get out of the water, willya?”
“Sorry. Thought you had.” Kerry winced at the red marks. “My fault. I should have checked when I had you put some on me.”
“Your fault?” Dar chuckled softly. “I could have remembered when I was putting some on you.” She flexed her arms and turned, taking the bottle and putting a little on her fingers. Then she carefully painted Kerry’s face with it, tracing the pink skin over her rounded cheekbones. “You got a little toasted too.”
“I sure did.” Kerry let her hands rest on Dar’s hips. “But you know what? I had a great day. The dive was stupendous, and scaring the poo out of those two was so choice.”
Dar grinned. “Yeah, it was.” She admitted. “A little juvenile, though.”
“So was their trying to make trouble last night.” Kerry stated. “So there.”
“So there.” Dar leaned over and kissed her, tasting a hint of lip balm as she explored Kerry’s mouth. “I am starting to wonder now what they’re up to, though.” She added. “The bitchiness I understand. Them being nice is scary.”
Kerry took her hand and tugged. “Well, let’s give em the benefit of the doubt, Dar. You never know – maybe they decided to grow up too.”
“Mm.” Dar followed her willingly. “Like us, you mean?”
“Exactly.” Kerry paused and indicated the tray. “So, grownup. Wanna share some hot chocolate and berries with me?”
They walked to the table hand in hand. Dar gazed down at the treats with a smile, picking up a piece of apple garnish and taking a bite of it. “What more could any woman ask for?” She inquired, around her mouthful of apple.
“Share.” Kerry stood on her tiptoes and closed her teeth around the apple slice, and they both nibbled towards the center, giggling as their noses bumped and they fought over the last scrap of it.
“Whoops..” Dar rolled her tongue around a small, hard point. “Seed.”
“Where?” Kerry caught the pink appendage in her teeth, surprising Dar into releasing the seed into her mouth. “Ah! Got it!” She pulled back and swallowed the seed, sticking her tongue out a few times like a lizard. “Mm.”
Dar laughed. “Did you just swallow that?”
“Yup.” Kerry picked up a strawberry chaser and bit into its chocolate shell ruthlessly. “I heard a story once that if you swallow an apple seed it makes the tree of knowledge grow inside you.”
“Here. Don’t think about it. Just eat.” Kerry offered her half a strawberry. “It was a goofy story, but it’s better than the other one I heard.”
Dar chewed her berry contentedly. “That it makes you healthy, wealthy and wise?” She hazarded a guess.
“That it makes you pregnant.”
Dar spit a bit of berry halfway across the table and nearly inhaled the rest of it. She covered her mouth as a laugh erupted from her.
Kerry patted her back solicitously. “Told you it was goofy. You’d be surprised at what you end up being taught in Sunday school that far north, honey.”
“Jesus… remind me to throw some of our education budget up there, will you?” Dar buried her face into Kerry’s shoulder. “Before they start teaching Cabbage Patch creationist theory.”
Kerry gave her a kiss on the head, and exhaled happily, patting Dar’s cheek when she lifted her head up. “Will do.” She brushed Dar’s cheek with her lips. “But they threw the book away when they came up with you.”
Dar poured out two cups of hot chocolate, lifted hers, and clinked it’s edge against Kerry’s when she picked her own up. “Here’s to us.” She looked into Kerry’s eyes. “To hell with everyone else.”
Kerry took a sip, and gave a kiss. “I’ll drink to that anytime.”
Dar settled her balance, gripping the bar on the weights with both hands at shoulder width and pressing her back against the weight bench. Slowly, she lifted the barbell clear, and lowered it, pushing it away from her with the same deliberation until her arms were straight.
It was very quiet in the hotel’s gym, not surprising since it was before dawn. Dar lowered the bar and pressed it up again, keeping an even rhythm until she’d done it ten times. Then she set the weight back on the bar and let her arms drop.
“Ouch.” She flexed her shoulder carefully, reaching over to probe the tightness she could feel still in the joint. It had mostly healed after her injury, but getting a full range of motion back and evening out the strength between her two arms was proving a long and to her tedious process.
But a process it was, and she slid down, fitting her legs under the leg press and flexing her thigh muscles to lift the weights she’d set on it up steadily. Aside from their new kickboxing classes, she’d felt the need lately to reaffirm the power she’d taken years to build into her body and she’d started doing a little more weightlifting than she had been for a while.
Wasn’t any real reason for it. Dar folded her hands across her stomach and counted silently. Just a phase she was going through, apparently, maybe her running and other efforts getting her bored at the moment.
Breakfast was also on her mind. As she exercised, Dar went over the possible tacks she could take in their next fencing match with Shari and Michelle. Should she give them the benefit of the doubt and assume maybe they did just want to bury the hatchet? Maybe Kerry was right.
Dar slid up on the bench and switched back to the chest presses. Maybe she was letting the personal side of the issue get in the way a little too much. After all, Shari wasn’t anything she needed to worry about now. She’d past her years back in the business strategy arena, she was a successful corporate executive, and she had the stable loving relationship Shari had been so sure she hadn’t been capable of.
So it was her game, match, and goal, and she had nothing to fear from either her ex lover, her ex lover’s company, or the breakfast they were going to have in just a few hours.
Right. Dar let the bar drop again, and braced her legs, beginning a set of sit ups, contracting her torso muscles in a more rapid rhythm. So why did she have knots in her guts?
For a few long moments she turned the thoughts off, concentrating on the exercise instead. Then her eyes lifted and met her reflection’s gaze from the mirrors on the wall and she saw the wry lift of her own lips. “I think that whole ‘grown up’ crap wasn’t a hundred percent now, was it Paladar?” She addressed herself in a mocking tone. “Still smarting from that first blow off, huh?”
Just the articulation seemed to help. The knotted feeling inside her stomach eased, and she felt her body relax in response to it. “Redneck squirt fraud.” She stuck her tongue out and slowed her motion, turning the last crunch into a rise to her feet as she ambled over to the leg press with a sigh. “Turn off the hormones, turn on the synapses. Think about what you’ve got right now.”
She loaded an extra plate onto the bar and got under it, lifting it up onto her shoulders carefully and pausing to set her feet. With a deep breath, she went down with the weight, then straightened her legs and eased back up.
She did it again, reveling in the reassuring sense of control as her body responded smoothly. You are the energy in this, Dar. She reminded herself silently. They want something from you. That means you have to drive the situation to your advantage.
I can do that. Her inner confidence responded. We can do that. Dar corrected herself, with a smile. They are out of their league but they just don’t know it yet.
The next morning started off charmingly enough, Kerry reasoned, as she surveyed the chocolate kiss resting squarely on her navel. Dar was no where to be seen, but she concluded the kiss could not have come from a Disney waiter, so she unwrapped it and popped it into her mouth as she slid from under the covers and got out of bed.
A rumble of thunder caught her attention, and she glanced outside the window, where a gray, drizzly day met her eyes. “Hm.” She lifted her tshirt from the back of the chair and slipped into it, turning to check the clock by the bed. “Six thirty.”
She poked her head into the bathroom, and deducted by the one neatly hung, but still damp towel over the shower bar and the distinct, lingering scent of their body wash that Dar had taken her morning scrub and gone out to do…
To do what? Kerry scrubbed her teeth and ruminated on that for a while. Dar hadn’t mentioned going out before meeting their unwelcome breakfast guests, so what was her partner up to?
The answer came quite unexpectedly when the door to the room opened. Kerry stuck her head out and spotted Dar entering, dressed in a pair of sweatpants and a cutoff cotton shirt. “Hmph.”
“Morning.” Dar greeted her with a cheerful grin. “Ready for breakfast.”
“Nph,” Kerry pointed her toothbrush at Dar. “Wherf yof gop?”
“Gym.” Dar replied. “I got up at five, and couldn’t go back to sleep.”
“Hmph.” Kerry disappeared, going to the sink and rinsing the toothpaste out of her mouth. “You could have woken me up. I’d have gone with you.” She wiped her lips and returned to the doorway.
Dar was stripping out of her sweatpants and slipped past her, giving her a kiss on the back of the neck. “I know. But I was doing heavy presses, and I know you hate those.”
“Mm.” Kerry wrapped her fingers in the fabric of Dar’s half shirt and followed her like a puppy towards the shower. “That’s true, but I didn’t have to do them.”
“You looked too cute to wake up.” Dar removed her shirt and sports bra, then tugged on Kerry’s tshirt. “Share a shower with me?”
Mollified, Kerry removed her shirt and stepped into the shower as Dar adjusted the spray. “Thanks for the kiss, by the way.” She picked up the scrubber, still damp from it’s earlier use, and squeezed some gel onto it.
Dar joined her. “No problem.” She stretched both arms out and flexed her hands. “I just thought you’d want to get as much sleep in as you could, since we’re starting early, and it’s gonna be a long day.”
Kerry stifled a yawn, and managed to not quiet suppress a rueful grin. “Yeah.” She admitted. “Now I wish I hadn’t been such a smart mouth and suggested breakfast at the crack of dawn.” She scrubbed Dar’s chest industriously. “Though, it was worth it to see their sour pusses.”
Dar slid her arms around Kerry and just held her for a brief moment, giving her a hug before she released her again. “You know what?”
Cautiously, green eyes peered up from between a few wet strands of pale hair. “ Are you going to make me blush again?” Kerry asked. “Not that I minded the compliment.” She added.
“It was true.” Dar exhaled contentedly. “But what I was going to say was that I’m sort of looking forward to this damn breakfast.”
Kerry gave her a light scrub around the belly button. “Why?”
“I just am.” Dar replied, stroking Kerry’s cheek with the backs of her knuckles. “We may even have fun at it.”
We just may. Kerry chuckled silently to herself. She freely admitted that her dislike of Shari had it’s roots in the cruel treatment the woman had given her partner, and if Michelle had bought into that kind of mentality, she didn’t deserve much respect either, especially given the dirty tricks she’d tried to play with the pictures of them from their first visit to the parks.
She had always fiercely defended Dar, even from the first. Now, faced with someone who had quite deliberately hurt her beloved friend and lover, Kerry found a very unexpectedly fierce protective instinct rearing it’s head inside her.
She wanted to kick her ass. Kerry finished her washing, and they stepped out to dry each other off. She wanted to kick Shari’s ass, and the violence of the thought almost surprised her.
Dar relaxed on the bench in the lobby, stretching her legs out and leaning back as she watched Kerry circle the pretty atrium examining the birds. Arriving a little early, they settled in to wait for their guests, as the rain continued to drum on the plate glass windows.
She hitched one denim covered knee up and rested her ankle on it’s mate, examining the little blue and white cross stitches on one side of her sneaker. It was cool in the lobby, and she briefly wished she’d put on a long sleeve t-shirt instead of a short sleeved one, but considered that the writing on the front of it was probably worth a little chill.
Kerry returned from her impromptu bird watching and took a seat next to Dar, kicking her heels out a little as listening as her sneakers squeaked a bit on the newly polished floor. “Nice weather.” She commented.
“Mm.” Dar agreed, with a nod.
“Hope they got caught in it.” Kerry went on, in a mild voice.
“Your wish to the god of thunder’s ears.” Dar pointed through the window. “Nice work.”
Kerry peered through the rain streaked glass to see Shari and Michelle running awkwardly through the rain to get to the door from the parking lot. “Heh.” She chuckled. “Must be tough running in those heels.”
“Mmhm.” Her partner agreed. “Must be.”
The two reached the doors and entered, their smart and well fitted business suits spotted with rain, which also glistened in droplets on every square inch of them. Both shook their hands in disgust as they looked around.
“Hi.” Kerry waved. “Over here!”
Dar waited for them to walk over before she uncrossed her legs and stood. “Morning.” She greeted them briefly. “Dining room’s that way.” She turned and headed for the steps, clearly expecting them to follow.
“Good morning.” Michelle greeted Kerry in a polite tone. “Lovely weather.” She glanced at Shari, who merely started off after Dar. After a second, she started walking as well, and Kerry fell into step next to her. ‘So, is this where you start the good cop, bad cop routine?”
“Hm?” Kerry cocked her head. “What routine?”
Michelle shook her head and snorted. “Never mind.” She exhaled. “Looks like the convention’s going to start on time, if anyone comes in this mess, that is.”
“I think they will.” Kerry said. “But in any case, the people who we really want there are already here, and with this weather, they’re really more likely to attend the con than skip out and go to the parks. So it works in our favor.”
Michelle glanced at her, then made a small sound of grudging agreement. “So how are things otherwise?” She asked. “We tried to get into Vista, but I heard they resigned a long term with you this year.”
“True.” Kerry indicated Michelle forward as they reached the restaurant. Dar and Shari were already at the server’s stand, waiting for them so they could be seated. “We were able to put most of their stuff up on our new net, and it meant a good cost savings for them if they signed now. So they did.” She continued, as they followed a uniformed woman to a table near the front.
They sat down across from each other, Kerry neatly slipping in next to Dar as the woman handed them their menus. “Thanks.” She let hers sit, already knowing what she was going to order.
And what Dar was going to order, for that matter. She watched Dar fiddle with her fork, then she shifted and leaned forward, bringing her knee into contact with her partner’s. “So, how are things with you?” She asked Michelle. “Are you having fun doing this start up?”
“It’s been a blast.” Michelle responded amiably. “Until this week, that is.” She took her napkin and attempted to dry herself. “We’ve got a lot of plans for the future.”
The waiter arrived and stood poised, a look of polite inquiry on his face. “Ma’am?” He addressed Michelle first. “Would you like to order?”
“I’d like to be put through the spin dry cycle.” The short red-head answered. “But I’ll take a continental, please.” She added. “Coffee, wheat toast.”
The waiter scribbled for a moment, then shifted his gaze to Shari. “Ma’am?”
“Juice and a bowl of whatever dry cereal you have.” The woman answered shortly. “Skim milk.”
Kerry folded her hands together on the table and made eye contact with the waiter as he looked inquiringly at her. She shifted her gaze to Dar’s profile, then looked back at him. “Two orders of French toast with crispy bacon, coffee, and two large glasses of milk, please.”
The man beamed at her, and took the menus she handed over. “Be right back.”
Dar leaned back and rested her elbows on her chair arms, steepling her fingers together, then folding them inward. “We have plans for the future as well.” She allowed. “We’ve just started development work on G2 of our net.”
Shari frowned, but Michelle blinked and sat forward. “But you just put it up last year.” She objected. “You can hardly have a baseline yet.”
“We’ve got one.” Dar replied. “I’ve projected out five years, and with current trends in applications development, I’ll need a G2 in twenty four months at the very latest. We short wired some whole development cycles in firmware.”
“Impressive.” Michelle nodded, with a serious expression. “But if your projections come short, it could be an expensive white elephant.”
Dar’s expression remained relaxed. She flexed her fingers a little, the lights catching on the ring she wore on her third finger as they moved. “It’s circular.” She shook her head. “Right now, we’ve provided a pipe for some companies that allows them to triple their production cycles. That’s speeding up their demand, which they’ll come back to us for. No one else can do it right now.”
“So your marketing hype says.” Shari interjected. “But there’s more to it than expensive hardware.”
“The system capabilities aren’t hype.” Kerry said. “Or else the accounts of ours you targeted for conversion wouldn’t have been the external and programming services ones. You didn’t go after anyone with our infrastructure.”
Shari looked over at Kerry, her eyebrows lifting slightly. Kerry gazed back at her with a mild expression. “Contracts are contracts.” She countered. “We only started with those.”
Dar chuckled. “And service is service. What’s gonna happen the first time one of them calls you up and wants their contract expanded on the spot to new coverage, or they move to a different system that you don’t have?”
“We can handle that.” Shari answered quickly. “We’ve got the best people in the business… some of them were damn glad to come over from you, in fact.”
Michelle took a breath and gave her companion a look. “Hey. We’re supposed to be networking. Not boxing.” She said. “Of course we picked certain arenas to compete in. We’re not stupid.” She added. “But we are in an expansion mode.”
The waiter returned and poured their coffee, giving them all a moment’s break. When he finished and left again, Shari leaned back. “Michelle’s right.” She conceded. “It’s just that it’s been a tough startup, and we’re damn proud of the progress we’ve made.”
Kerry stirred her coffee and took a sip. “Well, you can thank us for making it easier than it might have been.” She spoke up. “A lot of accounts that I go in on the bid teams for, who’ve never worked with us are still not sure if women can handle IT, y’know. The accounts you worked with already know we can.”
Michelle and Shari exchanged glances. Shari tilted her head to one side, and her lips quirked. “Never really considered that.” She allowed.
“Mm.” Michelle nodded briefly. “That’s a good point. I was on the other side for a long time, and I never had any doubts myself…” She chuckled self deprecatingly “But I remember sitting at inter company seminars with lots of old boys who did.”
“Yes.” Kerry’s lips tensed into a half smile. “I lived with one for many years.” She rested her hand on the table, her wrist brushing Dar’s crossed knee. “We’ve worked hard for what we achieved too.”
The waiter came back again, this time with a big tray. He placed their breakfasts down, then came to the front of the table and straightened up. “Anything else I can get for you right now?” He inquired. “Everything all right?”
Kerry inspected her plate of French toast, while Dar picked up her glass of milk and took a long swallow. “Looks great.” She complimented the man. “Thanks.” She picked up her fork and knife, cutting off a piece of the fragrant toast and dipping it neatly into some syrup before she put it into her mouth.
It was quiet for a few minutes, as everyone concentrated on eating. Dar typically sliced her toast into manageable squares then put her knife down, and selected the closest square to liberally drown in syrup. “So.” The dark haired woman finally spoke again, glancing up across the table. “Now that we’ve exhausted all the small talk we’re all probably capable of, what the hell do you two want?”
The noise of cutlery ceased entirely from the other side of the table.
Kerry paused in mid bite, then went on chewing. So much, she sighed inwardly, for a peaceful morning.
Continued in Part 3