DISCLAIMER: Karen Sisco and its all characters are property of Jersey Television. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to Debbie and Rachel for their unconditional support and, again, to Rachel for the lightening speed beta.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Clueless in Miami
By Ann


An elevator hummed softly as it slowly lifted from the ground floor of a building's lobby, its sole occupant cursing under her breath as she peeled a strand of wet hair from her forehead and swept it behind a cold and equally damp ear. It had been bad enough that Miami had been hit by a blast of cold air that had seemingly come out of nowhere, but the fast-moving Arctic front had been right on the heels of a torrential downpour. They'd both hit the city as quickly and efficiently as a summer hurricane, only without gale force winds or leaving behind devastating destruction in its path. Karen Sisco stared at her reflection in the elevator's mirrored wall and would be the first to disagree with local weather experts as to the amount of damages the unusually frigid storm front had caused.

"Shit," she grumbled unhappily as she took in her bedraggled appearance. "I look like a drowned rat." And she did, a five foot-five inch drowned rat. Her jet black hair was plastered against her scalp, the longer strands hanging limply across her back and shoulders like strings on a wet mop. The once sharp-looking, silk red blouse clung to her torso and arms like a second skin but, instead of shrinking in length, the sleeves stretched down past the ends of Karen's fingers. She cursed at the thought of never being able to wear the misshapen shirt again.

A loud ding signaled that the elevator had reached its destination and its doors slid opened moments later, distracting Karen from inventorying the rest of her ruined apparel. Her shoes, not willing to be left off the list of items, squeaked and squished obscenely when she stepped out of the car and walked the short distance to etched glass doors that bore the official seal of the U.S. Marshals Service. She shivered slightly as she stepped inside and took a deep breath before raising her head and striding toward her desk as confidently as she possibly could, the feat made even more difficult when her pants decided to join in on the musical comedy by adding a swishing sound whenever the wet cotton/polyester material brushed together. She kept moving forward and ignored the chuckles and occasional guffaws of her colleagues, pulling up short at spying the back of a redheaded woman who'd perched herself on the edge of Karen's desk. She instantly recognized Marley Novak as the Miami Dade detective spoke to a grinning Phil Cavanaugh. She silently cursed… again.

"Whoa, Karen!" Phil exclaimed as he caught sight of his disheveled-looking colleague. "You're supposed to put your clothes on after you take a shower, not before," he teased and laughed out loud at his inane joke.

Marley glanced over her shoulder and had to stifle a laugh when she spotted the drenched marshal who looked as if she'd been dunked way too many times in the local Spring Fair's dunking booth. Marley really hated to bypass such a golden opportunity to tease Karen unmercifully, but she didn't want to appear as if she were siding with Phil which, even in an alternate universe, would never, ever happen.

"Hey Phil, why don't you go see if you can find Karen a towel before she catches pneumonia?" Marley suggested casually as she pushed to her feet and turned to fully face the other woman. Water dripped from Karen's clothing onto the carpet and had already begun to darken the area where she stood. So focused on the soaked but still cute-as-a-bug marshal, Marley almost missed Phil's parting words to his colleague.

"Marley asked me to dinner Thursday night," Phil gloated as he passed Karen on his way to find a building custodian. "See? Perseverance really does pay off."

Karen's face paled considerably, her usually light complexion turning even lighter and appearing almost washed out, but Marley wasn't sure if it was because of Phil's news or that the other woman had already begun to get sick. She hurried to Karen's side, saving her snarkier comments for later.

"You're going on a date with Phil?" Karen asked in disbelief, her rumpled appearance temporarily forgotten as Marley drew near. "Phil Cavanaugh?" Karen wondered if the storm front had blown in gusts of craziness and insanity as well as pouring rain and freezing temperatures.

Marley opened her mouth to explain that it wasn't really a date, but she bit down on her words when she recognized something more than just an 'Ew, you're going out with Phil!' expression on Karen's face. She wasn't able to put a name on what she'd detected but, whatever it was, she wasn't going to let on just yet that her interest in Phil was purely work related; she'd exhausted all her other ideas and Phil was the only hope she had left of getting out of a jam.

"Phil? Seriously?" Karen asked again, seemingly stuck on the preposterous claim by her fellow marshal that Marley had not only agreed to go out with him, but that she'd instigated the supposed date. Marley's hesitation at denying the accusation was especially troubling to Karen. "Marley?" her voice turned raspy and was quickly followed by a stifled sneeze. She began to question if perhaps she shouldn't have been so pigheaded and left her jacket in the car when she'd walked those three blocks to the office – against a cold and gusty wind – when she hadn't been able to find a parking spot any closer to the building.

"Okay, that's it. As soon as Phil gets back with that towel, I'm taking you home to get out of those wet clothes," Marley said in a tone that should've brooked no argument had the recipient of the tone been anyone other than a tough as nails US marshal with the last name of Sisco.

"I've got a case to crack," Karen snapped back and stifled another sneeze. She was on the verge of catching a fugitive that had eluded the Marshals Service for the past three years. There was no way she was going home sick, not until Roger Farley had been locked behind a thick set of bars and the key thrown away.

"Karen..." Marley started but was interrupted when a triumphant Phil returned with a white fluffy towel. He threw it toward Karen and she snatched it from the air with one hand.

"Thanks, Phil," Karen said as she wrapped the body towel around her shoulders just as another shiver coursed through her. She had no idea where Phil had found such a large towel but she wasn't about to turn it down. "If you'll excuse me, I think I'll head to the ladies room to dry off properly. You two have fun on your date." Her voice held something besides hoarseness and sounded more akin to irritation as she turned and walked away.

Marley stared after the other woman and ignored Phil's attempt to start up a conversation. She still couldn't tell if Karen was angry about getting caught in the rain or because she wasn't happy about the whole dating thing. Best Marley could hope for was a little of both.

"Karen, don't make me have to call your father," Amos threatened his top marshal with the one person who had a shot of talking some sense into the stubborn and very sick woman. "You're going to end up in the hospital if you don't go home and take care of yourself." She already looked like she had walking pneumonia.

"Amos… *sniffle*... there is nothing… *Achoo!*… wrong with me," Karen finally managed to get out. Her head felt like the size of the Goodyear blimp and every joint in her body screamed bloody murder, but she'd gotten a really good tip earlier that morning and was one step closer to nailing Farley. All she had to do was make it through the night, arrest Farley, and then she could go home and stay in bed for however long was necessary for her to feel halfway normal again.

Amos shook his head. "And just how do you think you're going to blend in at the benefit dinner tonight? People are going to avoid you like the plague, probably because they'll think you have it, and Farley, if he's even there, will suspect something and take off the minute you let loose with one of those monster sneezes."

"I'll take some stronger medication before I go," Karen replied right before she sneezed so hard she almost got whiplash. She snatched a Kleenex from the box she carried and lifted it to her nose.

"Oh yeah, that's a great idea. If you don't accidentally shoot an innocent bystander when an unexpected sneeze crops up, you'll probably fall asleep in your dinner salad," Amos said and pointed to the box of tissues. "That going as your purse?"

Karen sniffled and looked down at the decorative box as if considering Amos's outlandish suggestion. It was rather fancy-looking, but she could just as well stuff most of the tissues from the box into her purse. Plus, her purse could hold her gun and it had a shoulder strap, making it much easier to carry.

"No, I think it might clash with my outfit," Karen finally said trying for a bit of humor to distract Amos, although she hadn't actually thought about what she would wear to the dinner. She did know that her red silk blouse was no longer an option.

Amos studied his marshal a little more carefully. Karen was definitely sick as a dog but she was still able to stand on her own two feet, and she did have the best chance of any of the other U.S. marshals working the case to catch Farley.

"Okay, you've got tonight, but Karen…" Amos paused long enough to shoot his toughest, most intimidating expression toward the waiting marshal. "If you're not able to get Farley, I don't want to see you back in this office until you're well." Another steely gaze. "You got that?"

Karen sneezed.

"Wow, this is some shindig," Phil said as he and Marley stepped inside the Grand Ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel. He straightened his holiday tie – silk, green-colored, and decorated with mermaids wearing red bikini tops and Santa hats – and wore a goofy grin as he glanced around at the festive decorations. "What did you say this is for again?"

"Miami County Foster Children's Fund," Marley replied, her eyes scanning the guests who'd already arrived. She hoped to spot her suspect, John Clary – one of the listed hosts of the evening – but it appeared that he hadn't yet arrived, if he showed at all. He was a bit of an enigma in social circles, known for donating big bucks to various causes but rarely showing up to bask in the limelight that celebrated those who'd contributed to the majority of the collected funds.

Phil nodded. "Yeah, okay. Sounds good," he said distractedly. His eyes had lit on one of the three bars that had been set up for the evening. "Hey, I'm going to get something to drink. You want anything?"

"No, you go on ahead. I'll wait for you here," Marley answered and offered a fake smile to her fake date. She wasn't too keen on the idea of Phil starting to drink so early in the evening but at least she'd be free of him for a few minutes. He really was a pompous ass.

"Okay, don't go away." He winked and gave Marley the once over and then the twice over before turning to go. She waited until he was halfway to the bar before she grimaced. The low-cut, sexy red dress she wore had been chosen specifically to catch Clary's eye, not to be ogled all evening by a horny Phil.

On the other side of the ballroom, a red-nosed Karen clutched her tissue-filled purse against her hip and eased past a rather large gentleman who'd stopped just inside the doorway to read the evening's menu from a placard that rested on a decorated easel.

"Excuse me," Karen said as she accidentally brushed against the man; although, had he not leaned over and adjusted his glasses so that he could better read the list of desserts that would be served, she'd have missed him completely.

An irritated 'harrumph' sounded from the man and Karen quickly moved away, edging against the wall as she turned an eye on the guests in attendance. The room was filling up quickly but there was no sign of anyone who came close to matching the description of Roger Farley. Granted, she only had the sketchy word of her informant to go on, plus an outdated photo of Farley taken five years earlier, but Karen had hoped to spot at least a couple of possibilities early on. Unless Farley had put on a couple of hundred pounds, the only person coming close to his approximate age, height, and hair coloring was the guy who'd been more interested in what his next meal would include than eluding a federal marshal.

A flash of red caught her eye as she reached into her purse for another Kleenex and Karen zeroed in on the doorway directly across from the one she'd just entered. She felt her breath catch and mentally added an upper respiratory infection to her list of ailments. It had to be the reason for her sudden shortness of breath. It just had to be.

Marley's eyes had settled on the brunette in the smokin' hot black dress just as recognition lit in both women's eyes. She smiled and raised a hand, wiggling a few fingers in greeting, while Karen lifted the hand that held her Kleenex and gave the appearance that she was waving a white flag in surrender. Marley really wished that were the case.

"Find someone you know?" Phil interrupted Marley's wishful thoughts as he sidled up to his 'date.' Taking a big swig from his glass, he glanced across the room and followed Marley's line of sight. "Wonder what Karen's doing here? She doesn't date even when she's feeling well and, besides, she hates this kind of affair. I can't imagine who managed to drag her to a benefit dinner, especially when she looks and probably sounds as if she's at death's door." He stuck his finger in his glass and swirled the ice around in tight circles. "Have you heard her sneeze? It registers an 8 on the Richter scale."

"Actually, Phil, the Richter scale doesn't measure sound; it measures seismic energy," Marley replied, having actually been in San Francisco when a 5.1 earthquake had been registered. She couldn't imagine the damage caused by an 8, and she was certain Phil, as usual, hadn't a clue at to what he was talking about. "I'm going to go over and say hello."

Phil looked down at his glass and frowned at finding it empty. "You go on ahead. I'm going to get a refill." He raised his tumbler to Marley's eye-level and jiggled the liquid-free ice cubes. "There's nothing like good booze, especially when the first few rounds are free." With another wink that reminded Marley of a pre-pubescent teen, he turned and headed back for the bar. Beginning to rethink her idea to ask Phil to accompany her, Marley took a step forward, but her progress came to a full and sudden stop when an amused voice sounded from over her shoulder.

"Hello, gorgeous, had I known you'd be in attendance, I'd have arranged for you to join me at the head table."

Marley schooled her expression and slowly turned. A few feet away stood the elusive John Clary, impeccably dressed in a smart-looking tux, his blue eyes shining with the cockiness of someone who'd gotten away with murder. They'd never had the opportunity to meet face-to-face and, to Clary, Marley was just another pretty face. His snake of a lawyer had run interference and had even provided a solid alibi for the night of his girlfriend's murder – or ex-girlfriend according to William Davis, Clary's attorney. The higher-ups in the department had stepped in and hadn't even allowed Marley to properly interview the lawyer. She'd practically been told to find another suspect and that Clary was off-limits.

"I'm sorry, do I know you?" Marley asked innocently and with as much charm as she could muster. She couldn't very well let on that she'd recognized Clary from the photo she'd seen at the crime scene, a photo that had mysteriously disappeared from Marley's desk the day after the murder.

"I'm one of the hosts for this evening," Clary said smoothly while showcasing a pair of dimples that Marley was certain provided the perfect distraction to almost every woman he'd met.

"Oh, well, this is certainly a spectacular event," Marley replied impressively, pretending she was a card-carrying member of the every woman society. "And what a worthy cause." She smiled sweetly. At least that part had been true.

Clary deepened both his grin and his dimples. "Yes, the foster children program has always been near and dear to my heart. It's the only benefit I actually attend." His tone started out sounding sincere but quickly changed to one of arrogance, as if the Miami chapter of the foster children organization should bow down to show their gratefulness for his presence.

"Marley, care to introduce me to your friend?" The voice Marley had feared she'd hear before she could ingratiate herself with Clary sounded different, very hoarse but still very familiar. She turned to find Karen standing just behind her, looking like she felt less than stellar but still looking damned fine to the detective.

"Karen," Marley said and winked at the other woman, hoping the marshal would go along with her charade. "This is…" she was just able to stop herself from blurting out her suspect's name. "Um, you never did say what your name is." She angled toward Clary so that Karen could step closer.

"Who cares who I am," Clary said flirtingly. "Who is this lovely creature?"

"This is Karen, we're in the same line of work, just different agencies," Marley quickly replied before Karen had a chance to possibly blow her cover. She had to smile at her non-lie.

"Really? What do you two do?" Clary seemed genuinely interested, although Marley was certain it was only because he wanted to be seated between the two of them at the head table. Nothing like a huge male ego to work right into her plans.

"Karen!" Phil called from the bar as he waited for his third drink of the evening to be served; he'd already downed his second one, figuring he'd save time if he drank one at the bar. He frowned slightly at the good-looking guy standing close to his colleague and his date, very close, in fact.

Clary reluctantly turned his attention on the uncouth man who'd yelled across the ballroom. "Your date, I presume?" He directed his question toward Karen.

"What? No way!" Karen's response was immediate. She didn't care if the guy did turn out to be Farley, she wasn't about to allow him or anyone else to believe that she was associated with Phil Cavanaugh in the dating sort of way.

"Phil's my cousin," Marley supplied, drawing a glare from a glassy-eyed Karen. "He's visiting from Iowa and Karen and I thought he'd enjoy a night rubbing shoulders with the bigwigs, so we asked him to join us." Marley waited for the recognition and Clary didn't disappoint as his dimples threatened to cave in his cheekbones. Men were so easy.

"You and Karen are together?" he asked and gestured between the two of them just in case they didn't get his meaning. Marley slipped an arm around a satiny waist.

"Two years tonight. We were doing some last minute Christmas shopping and both grabbed the same tie," Marley said, grasping for the first thing that came to mind. She hugged Karen close. "We've been together ever since."

"A tie? But I thought…" Clary let his sentence trail off and his thoughts run amok. He could think of several reasons why the two women would each be shopping for a male present but chose to believe that it had everything to do with a male relative. His confidence grew. "Why don't I find Phil a date for the rest of the evening and you two lovely ladies can join me for dinner?"

"Oh, that would be wonderful," Marley replied, giving a light squeeze to Karen's waist. "Is that okay with you, sweetheart?" She smiled and Karen got lost in the comforting warmth of blue eyes that were much closer than they'd ever been. She could only nod and wonder if her fever had returned and stolen her speech.

Clary glanced toward the bar where Phil sat on a barstool, watching as the bartender mixed him another drink. Clary grinned; maybe he wouldn't need to entice the other man with a girl, after all. Focusing on the bartender, he realized he could kill two birds with one stone. Yes, the shapely blonde bartender would do nicely.

Karen leaned over a marble sink and cupped her hands under the running water. Closing her eyes, she sunk her face into her hands and sighed at the coolness against her skin. She definitely had a raging fever and it couldn't have come at a worse time.

"Karen?" Marley called out as she knocked softly on the bathroom door. She spared a glance over her shoulder before slipping into the room and locking the door behind her. "How are you feeling?"

"Can you just shoot me?" Karen groaned and scooped up more water to toss on her face. "I don't want to live anymore."

Marley eased closer and surreptitiously scanned the room, looking for possible surveillance equipment. She felt certain that Clary wouldn't overlook a single opportunity to keep on eye on every single room of his house. She stepped behind Karen and pressed against the other woman's back. Karen didn't hesitate to sink into the welcomed comfort.

"Karen," Marley whispered softly into the marshal's ear. "I believe that John Clary murdered his girlfriend last week, but he had an airtight alibi – a lying airtight alibi, but one nonetheless. I was hoping to catch him doing something illegal."

Karen instinctively turned her face into Marley's neck, more for the soothing, cool sensation against her warm skin than to lower her voice or appear to be in a loving embrace, although the embrace felt like she'd died and gone to heaven. "Like running an illegal gambling operation?" she murmured against soft, smooth skin. "He may be John Clary to you, Marley, but I'm almost certain that he's Roger Farley, the Black Fox. I just don't know how to prove it."

Marley wrapped her arms around Karen's middle. "The Black Fox?"

Karen just closed her eyes and nodded, trusting Marley to keep her upright. "He's wanted for assault, robbery, illegal gambling, and prostitution in at least a dozen states. My source tells me he's running an illegal gambling operation here in Miami." Her voice was low and husky, sounding more like a lover speaking in hushed tones than a marshal reporting on a fugitive.

"Can't you arrest him on suspicion of being Farley?" Marley breathed her suggestion into Karen's silky hair. She could just picture the image they were portraying should Farley be watching: two bodies pressed closely together, sharing a quiet and loving conversation, too low for a listener to make out clearly.

"I suppose, but I'd really like to have something definitive to go on," Karen said tiredly. The strong meds she'd taken earlier were wearing off, leaving her feeling more exhausted than before she'd tossed the pills back with a glass of water. She snuggled closer to Marley, craving the warmth the other woman was so freely offering. "If I could just get a good look at his back."

"Why?" Marley asked curiously, enjoying their position just a little too much.

"He's got a small tattoo of a black fox just below his right shoulder blade."

The corners of full lips turned up into a smile as Marley laid a gentle kiss on the crown of Karen's head. She knew just how they could get a very good look at Clary's tattoo.

In a hidden room, just off the master bedroom, Clary smiled broadly. He couldn't hear what the two women were saying, but there really wasn't any need. It was perfectly clear to him that Marley had been successful in talking her lover into the ménage à trios he'd casually suggested over the cherry cheesecake they'd shared for dessert.

"Detective Novak, I want to thank you for your assistance in capturing Roger Farley. I have to admit being surprised, but pleased, that Karen asked for your help. She can be a bit stubborn," Amos said as he extended his hand in thanks. "She never mentioned that you two were working the same case."

"A bit stubborn?" Marley questioned teasingly and took hold of Amos's hand. "More like a mule, if you ask me." She smiled warmly and released the marshal's hand.

Amos laughed and shook his head. "A mule is less stubborn than Karen." He leaned back against his desk and rested his crutches against its edge. "So, Phil was just a decoy in case Karen was too sick to attend?"

"Something like that," Marley replied, although Phil had definitely been a bit player from the start. She'd initially planned to come on to Clary and dump the clueless marshal, hoping it would make the situation appear more spur of the moment and less calculated as it would have actually been.

"Well, regardless, good work, Marley," Amos complimented the detective. "And even better work on getting Karen to finally go home and rest."

"I think knowing that Farley has been taken into custody was the real reason Karen agreed to let me take her home, but I'll take partial credit for talking her into staying there," Marley said with a slight smile. Karen had literally been about to collapse when they'd turned Farley over to the marshal who'd been spearheading the case from the very beginning. The home office had flown him down to personally take Farley into custody and, by the time the helicopter had lifted from the building's helipad, Karen was leaning against Marley heavily, once again trusting the other woman to keep her from slipping to the ground.

"If you talked her into staying home, you deserve more than partial credit," Amos remarked, knowing how difficult it must have been for Marley to have persuaded Karen to stay in bed.

"Yeah, well," Marley said with an almost embarrassed shrug, her usual easy communication skills lost amid a vivid memory of, in her estimation, the perfect payback. After tucking a pajama-clad Karen into bed, Marley had leaned over to smooth the covers when a pair of soft, fevered lips brushed against her own. Karen had mumbled a thank you and then promptly fell into a deep sleep. Marley had stood at the edge of the bed and stared down at the sleeping woman, her lips still tingling from the gentle kiss.

"I don't suppose," Amos hesitated in asking Marley for a favor, especially as the detective had already gone above and beyond the call of duty.

"What?" Marley asked curiously as her thoughts of the kiss slowly faded into the background but readily able to be called back at a moment's notice.

Amos uncharacteristically fidgeted. "Marshall Sisco is out of town for the holidays and Karen was supposed to have dinner with my family. With her being sick and all, I don't know if it's wise for her to go out."

"You need me to look in on her?" Marley connected the dots. She didn't wait for Amos's answer. "Sure, I can do that." She'd need to call in a few favors to get the time off, but she felt sure that it wouldn't be a problem with the number of individuals who owed her.

"That would be great," Amos said with a grateful smile. "She really likes that Chinese soup over at PF Chang's."

"Yeah, I know," Marley replied. She'd once had an in-depth discussion with Karen about the best Chinese food in Miami and the marshal had gone on and on about the soup at Chang's. "Okay, let me get out of here and see about taking a few days vacation. I need to go to the store, too. I can just imagine how bare Karen's refrigerator and cabinets are."

Amos chuckled. "You know her well." Pushing off his desk, he resettled his weight on his crutches as he moved toward the door. "Tell Karen not to step foot in this office until she's one hundred percent."

"I will," Marley promised and allowed Amos time to open the door for her to pass through. "Have a Merry Christmas, Amos."

"You, too, Marley, you, too," Amos repeated as he watched Marley walk away. He grinned at seeing Phil pretend not to notice the shapely redhead, while desperately trying to watch her. Phil never stood a chance with the detective.

"Okay, Marshall, here's hoping your plan works," Amos whispered as he pushed the door closed and returned to his desk. He'd done his part; the rest was up to Karen and Marley.

The sound of someone hammering pulled Karen from a sound sleep and she groaned and tugged her pillow over her head. The hammering persisted.

"Damn it," she cursed, throwing the covers off and instantly feeling the chilled air. "Shit, I forgot to turn on the heat." The unseasonably cold temperatures had stayed around much longer than usual and her older house felt damp and chilly. "Brrr," she complained as she hopped out of bed and crossed the room to her dresser. Pulling out a pair of worn sweat pants, a torn sweatshirt, and thick socks, she shimmied into the clothing, not bothering to remove her pajamas as the hammering grew louder.

"What the hell is…" She slipped her hands into her warm-up pockets and turned her ear to the noise. Someone was knocking on her door. Careful not to slip on her sock-covered feet, she headed for the front of the house.

"Stop the knocking! I'm coming! I'm coming, already," Karen groused as she finally reached the door and flipped the locks.

On the other side, Marley shifted bags of groceries in her arms and couldn't help but grin. She wondered if Karen was this loud or yelled the same thing when she was engaged in another, more pleasurable activity than coming to the door, such as coming to…

"Marley? What are you doing here?" Karen asked, her voice suddenly sounding faint and whispery. Great, she thought, just what I need: laryngitis. She wondered if she'd used up the last of her voice yelling at Marley to stop her knocking.

"I brought you some groceries," Marley replied, her less than pure thoughts washing down the gutter at hearing how sick Karen sounded. She lifted a smaller bag that she held loosely in her right hand. "Here, take this; it's some soup from that Chinese restaurant you like so well."

A small smile worked its way across Karen's face and she gently took the bag from Marley. She watched as the other woman re-shifted her load before she realized that she needed to act quickly if she didn't want groceries all over her front porch. "Please, come in," she said as she opened the door wider and stepped back to allow Marley to step through the door.

Marley didn't hesitate to jump at the invitation and hurried across the threshold and toward the kitchen. She hadn't realized how much she'd bought until she'd had to hold the bags while she waited for Karen to answer the door. Her toes ached slightly at having to knock her foot against the base of the door.

"What did you bring?" Karen forced the words out, her weak tone sounding like a little girl, filled with wonder, as she asked Santa what he was going to bring her for Christmas. She eased closer to the counter and peered into the top of the bag nearest the door.

"Ginger ale, crackers, orange juice, hot chocolate, marshmallows," Marley rattled off the list of items as she removed them, one by one, from the larger of the two bags. "Ice cream, chocolate bars, and ewww…"

"That doesn't sound good," Karen said, moving closer to the other woman. "Eww," she echoed as she watched Marley remove a smashed loaf of bread from the bottom of the sack. "They don't make sackers like they used to," Karen remarked, every other word coming out weaker.

"Okay, stop talking," Marley ordered and opened a nearby cabinet, pleased when she found Karen's glasses on her first try. Unscrewing the lid on the orange juice, she poured some in a glass. "Here, drink this." Surprisingly, Karen did and Marley began to worry that the other woman was sicker than she thought. She reached up and rested her palm against Karen's forehead. "When was the last time you had some Tylenol?"

"When you gave them to me," Karen answered and closed her eyes. She leaned into Marley's hand and sighed. The other woman really did give off comforting vibes.

"Well, it's time for more," Marley said, reluctantly removing her hand from Karen's hot skin. She started for the door but stopped when Karen managed to call her name and rather loudly, at that.

"Marley, wait!" Karen sounded insistent and looked serious as she moved to where Marley stood in the doorway. A mischievous look entered glassy eyes and Karen stepped even closer. She pointed above their heads and watched as Marley gazed upward. There, in the center of the doorway, was a sprig of mistletoe Marshall Sisco had insisted on hanging, stating that it was traditional and, besides, it might actually come in handy. Karen, in her fevered and, apparently, uninhibited state, thought it quite handy at the moment as she inched closer and closer and pressed her lips against Marley's.

Momentarily stunned, Marley stood frozen, not even reacting properly when Karen eased her hands to her hips. Her mind moved at warp speed. Did Karen have the first clue as to what she was doing? Was she showing her gratitude to Marley for helping her capture Farley? Was it a Sisco tradition to lay one on whoever happened to stop underneath the mistletoe? Or was Karen simply delirious? Her questions gave way to raging hormones as Marley finally received the kiss in the spirit in which it was given: completely free and hot, very hot and that wasn't factoring in the fever that was radiating from Karen. Marley couldn't possibly care less if she caught whatever it was Karen had. It was definitely worth the risk.

In what seemed like endless moments later, Karen pulled away, totally spent, and melted into Marley, resting her head on the other woman's shoulder. She could die happy now and, with the speed in which her strength was waning, she wondered if the end would come soon, like right this second.

"Um, Karen?" Marley asked, having taken time to regroup. "Not that I didn't thoroughly enjoy that, but do you mind telling me where that came from?" That, of course, referenced a kiss that was far from platonic or the regular under-the-mistletoe obligatory kind of kiss. That had been a kiss reserved for the stage when two people moved past the nervous, unsure beginning of a relationship and steamrolled into the heavy-petting stage.

Karen stared at the clock on the wall and watched as the second-hand slowly ticked off time; seconds lost that could never again be regained. She knew she became philosophical when she was sick, but it didn't take away from the fact that her life was passing her by and so were the chances at happiness that she'd blown or had simply been too afraid to grab onto over the years.

"I'm tired of being scared," she whispered into the soft cotton of Marley's shirt. "I'm tired of being alone. I'm tired of not having someone to share the holidays with, of not having someone to come home to when I've had a bad day."

Marley remained quiet and didn't mention that Karen had her dad. She knew exactly what Karen had meant, but there was also a bit of doubt in her mind as to why Karen had decided to take a chance on her.

"Why me, Karen?"

Lifting her head from its warm and comfortable position, Karen gazed into clear blue eyes. She knew she looked like death warmed over, but she wasn't about to blow this chance. "You're a good person, Marley Novak; you're kind and gentle, you're caring and smart, you're funny and snarky, you're loyal."

"And?" Marley added and waited for Karen to address the obvious, the really big stumbling block that had stopped Karen from going out with Marley when she'd asked her all those months ago.

"And you're a beautiful woman," Karen smiled. "I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong. I didn't kiss you because I was curious, although I think I might have last night when you tucked me into bed. I mean, there you were, right there, so close. I couldn't resist."

"And then you fell fast asleep. What does that say about my kissing ability?"

"I think it was more because I couldn't keep my eyes open a second longer. You could've been standing there stark naked and I'd have fallen asleep."

Marley tilted her head and lifted an eyebrow in question, a gleam in her eye belying her surprised expression. "That's supposed to make me feel better?"

"Hey, I was wide awake when you stripped off your shirt for Farley's benefit," Karen said truthfully. "I almost forgot why we were there in the first place."

"That's because you'd taken more of those pills," Marley countered. "I'm not sure you knew much of anything."

"I saw the fox tattoo, didn't I?" Karen defended herself.

"Yeah, you did." Marley chuckled in memory. "I think Farley thought you were trying to ride him when you jumped on his back. I wish you could have seen the look on his face when you yelled, 'U.S. Marshal, you're under arrest!'"

The two women broke into laughter, Karen's laughs giving way to a coughing fit. Marley cradled the other woman and gently ran her hand up and down Karen's spine until the coughing finally drew to an end.

"Okay, that's it. Let's get you some meds and then you need to rest," Marley ordered as she turned and led the other woman toward the bedroom. Karen just followed along quietly and leaned her weight fully against Marley, once again trusting the other woman to keep her safe.

Crawling into bed without so much as a peep of a complaint, Karen dutifully took the offered pills and downed them with a gulp of water. She scrunched down under the covers and smiled when Marley smoothed out the worst of the lumps.

"Sleep," Marley said, leaning down to kiss Karen on the forehead. She rose up and smiled as she tucked a stray strand of hair behind Karen's ear. "We'll talk after you've rested."

Karen looked up at the other woman and blinked sleepily a few times before finally giving in to exhaustion. Marley stared down at the sleeping woman and smiled.

This story was so much better than the one she'd given Farley about fighting over a tie but, hopefully, it would come to the same satisfying conclusion.

The End

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