Disclaimers: Only a very, very few of the characters herein belong to me - seriously.  However I can honestly say, though, that story is all mine, so.... If you're still reading my stuff at this point, you pretty well know what you're getting into.  If you don't have an open mind, why exactly are you still reading? However, if you do read it and you find something you think needs disclaiming, you are still more than welcome to let me know.  It won't change anything, but it may make you feel better.   Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.

Thanks: To Phil, Mac and Jeanne for beta reading this for me - twice.  They've picked up all kinds of dropped letters and missed quotation marks because Pink and Fluffy tend to leave a trail of them.  Their diligence is greatly appreciated. Honestly, I couldn't ask for a better group of women to beta read for me.  All errors belong strictly to me.

And to J Crater, for taking all the pix Phil sent her and creating the massive collage so folks would know who's who in this tale. Total awesome-sauce! J

Special Thanks: To Phil for playing poker for me.  Otherwise we would have ended up playing Solitaire, and really... where's the fun in that?? And for doing all sorts of research that she's REALLY good at and which quite frankly gives me hives to do.  And for listening to me ramble while dusting on Saturday mornings – and practically every other day of the week as well as we got closer to the end of this thing.  Nothing like being able to list ‘DIVA sitting' as a job skill. :-P Oh, and especially for giving me the basis for the riddles in the poker run and for playing Dinah for me – we know who does the straight man gig when it comes to comedy shtick around here. Seriously, I couldn't have written any of the fun stuff without her input and efforts. YOU ROCK, Babe!!!

Author's Notes: This story is the result of two distinctly separate events colliding in the mother of all head-on impacts. The first was a mystery hunt we did for the third Orlando Bardcon that involved asking a desk clerk at the Grand Floridian Resort for chocolate syrup and duct tape – after informing him we were only going to be there for an hour or so. Man, the look on his face - I wish I'd had a camera!! The second came from my looking through the list of fandoms at Passion & Perfection one day and realizing how many of them I could tie together. So I decided to have a little fun – who knew I would develop writer's block before I even got started on it?? However, after 18 months of real time and almost 10 months of actual writing, this sucker is finally done. Hallelujah!!

The Halloween story being told within this tale is mine as is the story Gabrielle tells near the end. The Storyteller's Cardinal Rule is in effect.

 

A Diva's Demise

By D

 

Prologue

“I don't know about this, Xena,” Gabrielle muttered as she checked their dossier one last time. “I mean the more I think about it....”

Xena stepped into Gabrielle's personal space and removed the notebook from her hands. She dropped it onto the table and took Gabrielle's hands in hers. “It's a little late to worry about it, sweetheart. Everyone has already acknowledged their plans to attend and is already waiting to check in as we speak. Why the sudden backtracking? We've been working on this for months and you've been nothing but enthusiastic about it. So what's suddenly giving you cold feet?”

Gabrielle shrugged, though she held Xena's gaze without flinching. “I don't know. I really do think this is a good idea for your law enforcement women as well as my media ones; I just….” She hesitated then continued. “You know how sometimes you just get a bad feeling?” waiting for Xena to nod her head. “Right... well, I've got a bad feeling.”

Xena frowned. “Can you be more specific? I mean, do you know what caused it?”

Gabrielle smiled wryly. “If I knew that, there wouldn't be a problem. Or at least we could take care of whatever it was before it became one.” She snorted softly. “Maybe it's just the idea of that many female egos in that small a space. There's liable to be lots of drama.”

Xena laughed out loud. “You've got media egos – I've got law enforcement ones. Wanna trade?”

“Not in this lifetime,” Gabrielle responded. “Yours have guns and legal briefs.”

“And don't forget those honking huge needles and scalpels. Forensic experts are part of law enforcement as well you know.”

Gabrielle covered her eyes. “What were we thinking when we decided to hold two huge conventions like this at the same time?”

“We were thinking it would be a good way to combine work and pleasure?” Xena asked then shook her head. “Honestly, I'm not sure now. I know it sounded like a really good idea at the time.”

“Note to self – next time we want to go to Disney World, just take a vacation.” She looked around the room. “At least we picked a great place to hold these conferences. Nice facilities, nice accommodations and when we're done for the day, we can send them off to the Disney parks to play.”

“You really think they will?”

Now it was Gabrielle's turn to smirk. “You really think they won't? C'mon, Xena – some of these women have waited a lifetime for a legitimate reason to come to Disney World and play like a kid. You honestly think they'd pass up a golden opportunity like this? We didn't.”

“It would look a little funny if we did – seeing as how we're in charge and all.” She tilted her head. “You feeling any better about this whole thing now?”

Gabrielle shrugged. “I've still got a bad feeling, but after surviving two thousand and some of years of bad feelings, I figure we'll get through whatever it is. And you'll be right beside me?”

“Every step of the way, sweetheart.” She took Gabrielle in her arms and rested her chin on the blonde head when Gabrielle snuggled in closer. “Despite all our misgivings, I think this is going to be an interesting weekend, to say the least. I don't think there's ever been a gathering together of so many powerful women from both your sphere of influence and mine in one place before. Who knows – maybe we'll end up making this a yearly event.”

“Let's just get through this one first. Then we can worry about doing it again.”

Xena snatched up the dossier from the table and handed it to Gabrielle before retrieving her own. “C'mon then – let's go get our conventioneers checked in. It's time to get this party started,” waggling her eyebrows suggestively.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, but couldn't stop the chuckle she felt rumble up from her belly. “We're gonna have a good time?”

Xena grinned. “Count on it, my bard.”

 

 

Chapter I

“C'mon, Barbara. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can leave.” Barbara Gordon smirked, but didn't take her eyes off of the space in front of her. There were simply too many women loitering about for her to risk glancing at her companion, even though most courteously stepped aside to accommodate her wheelchair as she made her way through the crowd.

“ Helena , I can't simply up and leave. You know I am Gabrielle's co-chair for this event, and registration is part of my responsibility,” nodding towards the slim-line computer currently resting in her lap. “It's my job to check everyone in; I put the program together, remember?”

“I remember,” Helena Kyle grumbled. “But you're not gonna stay cooped up here forever, are you? C'mon, Barbara – this is Disney World. The most dangerous thing here is a Mouse that thinks everyone has a money tree in their backyard. Did you see the price of a bottle of water??” her voice outraged.

Barbara chuckled softly. “Yes, I did. Thankfully, we don't have that particular worry.”

“Not the point, Babs. Not everyone has Bruce Wayne's money to fall back on in a pinch – not that we would, but you know what I mean. I may have to do a little investigating... see if there is some sort of dark conspiracy behind this place.”

Barbara laughed. “Helena, it's Disney World. Of course there's a conspiracy. It's called free enterprise.” She wheeled to the door, taking a moment to admire the ‘Powerful Women in the Media' banner that hung neatly above the counter before keying in the code she'd been given by the convention staff. Helena held the door open, blithely ignoring the look Barbara gave her and following her into the registration area. They stopped short when they realized they were not alone, then Barbara smiled.

“Hello, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle whipped around, having been so completely involved in preparing packets she hadn't heard the two of them come in. Then she grinned and offered a hug first to Barbara and then to Helena ; both of whom despite their normal reticence towards such gestures, welcomed from Gabrielle. They had known one another for years and Gabrielle and Xena had proven to be trusted and loyal friends.

“Hello, Barbara... Helena .” She blew her bangs off her forehead and looked around at the boxes surrounding them. “Judging by the look of things, this is shaping up to be an interesting weekend.”

“Wait... weekend? You're going to be doing this all weekend?” Helena whined. “When are we gonna have time to go play together? You promised....”

Barbara turned and looked at Helena and Gabrielle hid her smile. “ Helena ,” Barbara said patiently, “we won't be conferencing all weekend; evenings are all ours unless we decide to do something with the group. I know Gabrielle and Xena have several options available for entertainment. Besides, it's not like we're not going to be here for a few days after this is over. I promise you we will have plenty of fun before we return to New Gotham.”

“Is the JLA keeping an eye on things while you're here?” Gabrielle asked curiously. Barbara nodded.

“Yes. Nightwing promised he and a few others would make sure things were taken care of until we get back.” She frowned when Helena wandered off, only to smile when she returned a moment later with Dinah in tow.

“Sorry I'm late,” she said breathlessly as she set her computer next to Barbara's and went about hooking them both up. “This place is ginormous.”

“No worries, Kid. Barbara and Gabrielle are still doing their thing.” Helena looked at both of them as Dinah finished attaching the necessary cables. “You about ready for me to open us up for business?” motioning towards the roll down that was still lowered in place. Dinah nodded her assent and Gabrielle smiled at their eagerness. One thing she liked about Helena – she was painfully honest about her likes and dislikes, but when she committed to something, she committed wholeheartedly.

“Yeah... I think we're ready. Let ‘er rip.”

With that, Helena rolled up the gate.

 

************

“Hey, Lucy... how's it coming?” Xena asked her second chair as she stepped into the registration area. Like Gabrielle, she'd been making up packets before Lucy arrived and it was only after she started setting up the equipment Scud had put together for her that Xena had taken a break so Lucy would have the space she needed to work in. “This is gonna be quite a convention. Have you seen the number of women waiting to take part in this?”

Lucy gave her the patented Reynolds' smirk. “Yeah... we knew that already from the registrations, remember? I just hope no one shows up looking for Lucy Diamond.”

“Not a problem, Luc. Everyone here knows you're part of my team and that makes you golden.”

“Even if the D.E.B.S. show up?”

“Even then. C'mon, Lucy... do you really think they're gonna screw you and Amy over like that? If they were gonna do something, Max would've ordered it done when they had you under the gun. By your own admission, they let you walk the first time they had you dead to rights because Amy was in your bed and they covered for you when you ran away from Endgame.”

Lucy shrugged. “I never did understand that.”

“Job security,” Xena joked. “Or maybe they just like you.”

Lucy scrunched up her face comically. “Okay... that's just weird, ya know?”

“I know. But it made ya stop worrying about it too.”

“True, but now I need to go wash my brain out. And what about the rest of these guys? How do you know...?”

“Lucy – stop worrying and trust me on this. No one here is going to try to arrest you. They are here to learn from you. Now, c'mon... are we ready to start checking people in? I'd like to get finished sometime today. I've got a date with Gabrielle tonight and I'd rather not be late.”

This time Lucy smiled. “God... you two remind me more of newlyweds than old marrieds the way you act some times. Are you sure you've been together long enough to actually *be * old marrieds?”

Xena chuckled soundlessly and nodded her head. “Oh yeah. I'm sure. Let's get moving. I'm doubt you want Amy coming down here later looking for you and I *know * you don't want to see Gabrielle because we're running late. Besides... I'd never live it down.”

Lucy snorted. “I take it back – you *are* old marrieds. They're the only ones who worry about shit like that.”

“Careful,” Xena warned, though her blue eyes glinted with wicked humor. “It could be you one day.”

Lucy's smile was a brilliant as the diamonds she was infamous for. “Only if I'm really lucky,” then gasped as a pair of arms slid around her neck. Amy planted a kiss beneath her ear and grinned up at Xena when Lucy sank back into her embrace.

“Somehow,” Amy whispered, though not softly enough for Xena not to hear, “I think you're gonna be real lucky.” Lucy blushed and cleared her throat before catching Xena's eyes.

“Well, c'mon then. We've got work to do.” Xena rolled up the gate with a laugh and waved to Amy as she headed back out to meet up with her old teammates. Lucy wiped her forehead and they got down to business. It was shaping up to be an interesting weekend and they hadn't even gotten started yet.

 

************

“Amy?” The blonde head whirled at the sound of a familiar voice calling her name. Then she squealed and ran into Janet's arms, hugging her briefly before embracing Max and Dominique in turn.

“It's so good to see you guys! I'm so glad you decided to come.”

Max snorted. “Like we were going to turn down the opportunity to see you again. How are you? How's Barcelona ? And where's your evil half?”

“Hey! Lucy's gone straight....” pausing when she caught the smirks the D.E.B.S. were exchanging. Amy rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean... she's legitimate now. She's at the registration desk; she's part of the staff of the conference you're attending. That's how I knew you'd all be here.”

“So you're not attending?”

“Not the ‘Women in Law Enforcement' convention, no. I don't do that anymore remember?”

“You totally came here to go to Disney World, didn't you?” Janet asked enthusiastically. “That's so cool. Can I tell you how cool I think that is? I've told these guys we should have some fun while we're here. I mean Ms Petrie wouldn't care if we had a little fun, right?”

“Janet, breathe, okay? As a matter of fact, I'm attending my own convention this weekend. There's a ‘Women in the Media' conference right next door,” motioning to the counter where Gabrielle and Barbara were working in tandem with Dinah and Helena. “And since I do design work and book illustrations....”

“How very fortunate,” Dominique said dryly in her accented speech. “It is almost as if you had planned it yourself, non?”

Amy shook her head. “Not me,” she replied chuckling. “Xena's significant other is a writer and publisher. She and Xena are the ones who did the planning for both events.”

“That explains the number of women here. I'd wondered, especially seeing such a mixed crowd,” Max said disdainfully.

“Oh, lighten up, Max,” Janet chided, only to step behind Amy when Max glowered at her. She held up her hand in surrender. “I'm just saying.”

Max held her gaze for a minute longer before looking back at Amy. “We need to go check in. We'll see you later?”

Amy nodded. “Absolutely.”

Max grabbed Janet and Dominique by the elbows and headed towards the check-in line. Janet turned and waved to Amy. Amy waved back and shook her head with a smile then headed back to her own side of the convention hall, passing not one, but three military uniforms. She wondered when the military had come to Disney, then had her attention taken by the number of bellman carts being pushed through the crowd, loaded down with book boxes. Looked like it was going to be quite a convention.

 

************

“Sam, are you sure we're supposed to be here?” Janet Fraiser asked as she surreptitiously clutched Sam's elbow to keep from being separated from her. “I don't see any uniforms except yours and mine and....” craning her neck. “What looks like a Marine over there.”

Col. Samantha Carter looked up from the paper she'd been studying and glanced down at Janet. “I think so,” motioning to the map. “According to this, we're exactly where we're supposed to be. I just....” Her head snapped up when she heard her name called.

“Sam? Samantha Carter?”

“Sarah MacKenzie?” Sam smiled and moved in the direction Janet had indicated only a moment prior. They hugged and pulled back almost in the same instant. Sam reached down and took Janet's hand in hers. “Sarah, *this* is Dr. Janet Fraiser. Janet, meet Sarah MacKenzie. We go way back.”

“*The* Janet Fraiser?? But I thought....”

“We all did,” Sam explained before Mac could finish her thought. Even though it was no longer true, it still brought back the painful memories and a hollow ache in her chest when she remembered the time after the disaster that had been the mission to P3X-666. Only Daniel's intervention as an ascended being had made things right and Sam thanked him on a regular basis in her thoughts. “Fortunately, a mutual friend discovered Janet was only MIA... not KIA... and brought her home.”

“That's wonderful, Sam! I'm so glad.”

“Me too,” Sam replied fervently.

Janet blinked and dredged up the manners that had been blown away at Sam's enthusiastic greeting of the Marine officer. They had known one another so long, Janet sometimes conveniently forgot that Sam had had a life before Janet had been a part of it. She offered Mac her hand.

“How do you do, Colonel?”

“Please, Dr. Fraiser. Call me Mac. All my friends do, except for Sam and Sam talked about you so often, I feel as if I already know you.”

Janet arched an eyebrow, casting a look between Sam and Mac and catching Sam with her head bowed, a deep blush tipping her ears blood red. She turned back to Mac. “Oh? Do tell, please. Sam hasn't mentioned you at all. And call me Janet. I think we will make great friends.”

Mac turned her head towards Sam and smirked. “I can see some interesting stories in my future.”

“I am so doomed,” Sam muttered, head still bowed. Janet and Mac exchanged glances and snickered.

“Pretty much,” Janet agreed, forcing Sam to look up at her. Mac broke the tableau by mock-punching Sam in the arm, causing Sam to turn and glower in her direction.

“What was that for?”

“How did you make full bird ahead of me? Deep Space Telemetry isn't *that* interesting.”

“Says the JAG lawyer,” Sam teased. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“Attending a conference – Women in Law Enforcement. The Admiral thought it would be a nice way to network with some of the civilian agencies we sometimes have to liaison with. I've actually had dealings with a few of the women here,” nodding to a group of well-dressed women standing a short distance from them. “How about you two?”

“Same thing – I'm representing the Air Force's interests in Homeland Security and Janet is attending the ME's portion of the convention.”

“You're a medical examiner?” Mac asked Janet.

“Not at all,” Janet responded with a smile, “though I've done my share of autopsies.”

Mac grinned. “You wanted a trip to Disney World – got it.” She turned and looked at the crowd gathering. “C'mon... let's go get checked in and then get changed out of these monkey suits. I don't know about you two, but I'm ready for a drink and a little R&R.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Sam said. “Maybe you can introduce us to some of your friends here. And I promise to fill you both in on... stuff,” with a look between Janet and Mac.

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Janet said, taking Sam's elbow once more.

“Me too,” Mac agreed. They moved as one towards the registration area, passing by the group Mac had acknowledged earlier.

“I didn't expect the military to be here,” the redhead commented to her dark-headed partner. Abbie just smiled at Casey and took her hand.

“Remind me to introduce you to Mac – she's the Marine and a damned fine JAG lawyer. Don't know about the two Air Force officers, but I bet we can get an introduction later if you want. C'mon,” tugging gently on the hand she held. “Alex and Liv are waiting for us and by the looks of things, they brought the entire Manhattan office with them. Wonder who's minding the store?”

“Guess we'll find out in a minute,” Casey said as they made their way towards their friends.

 

 

Chapter II

“Hey, guys!” Abbie called out in greeting as she opened her arms to Alex and Olivia. They obliged with hugs of their own and pulled back with smiles.

“God, it's good to see you two. How's DC treating you?” Alex asked, noting the rest of their contingent gathering closer to them. Abbie wrapped an arm around Casey's shoulder and smiled when Casey leaned into her, curling an arm around her waist. Alex grinned. “Nevermind. I think we've all got the picture.”

“C'mon, Alex,” Tracey complained. “Let them talk.”

“Yes, Counselor,” Liz said drolly. “Some of us don't have the opportunity to talk to either of them on a regular basis.” Alex rolled her eyes at Abbie and Casey who snickered.

“Not my fault you can't pick up a phone, Liz,” Alex snarked, but stepped aside to allow the judge and the rest of their contingent to move forward for their own hugs. Melinda nudged Olivia while Serena and Kelly joined the rest of the lawyers in a circle.

“Your girl likes living dangerously, Olivia.”

Liv snorted. “Tell me something I don't know. I'm still trying to figure out how she managed to get all of us off together to come to Disney World.”

“I am a woman of many skills, Detective. You of all people here should appreciate that fact.”

Olivia smiled rakishly, but couldn't stop the blush that tinged her features. “Admit it, Alex... you just wanted to come to Disney World.”

“Well however she managed to do it, I for one am glad she did,” turning to Alex. “Thank you. My family is thrilled to be here, even if I'm attending this conference while they're out playing in the parks.”

“Are you going to hang around once the weekend is over... get a little time to play too?”

Melinda smiled and nodded. “Yeah. I took an extra week so we could have a little family time.”

“So did we,” Alex commented. “I think this weekend will be good for all of us – very informative – but I am so looking forward to next week.”

“So are we,” Blair commented as she and Jo joined the small circle of friends. “We've never been here before.”

“I think that can be said for most of us.”

“Well, we're not gonna get to have any fun if we don't get the conference out of the way first. Wanna go get registered so we can get things started?” Jo asked casually.

Blair grinned and took Jo's hand in hers. “Don't let her fool you. I nearly had....” Her words were suddenly muffled when Jo's hand covered her mouth. Brown eyes glared into green and Jo smiled beguilingly at her.

“They don't want to know all the gory details, sweetheart,” Jo assured her and then scowled at them before either Alex or Olivia could comment to the contrary. “Hey,” looking at the crowd milling around them. “If that's Abbie,” nodding towards the woman still embracing Casey and surrounded by their New York friends, “then who is that?” looking at four women a short distance away.

Then they heard the Abbie look-a-like become an Abbie sound-a-like with a longer drawl. “ TEX !!”

Abbie's head whipped around before her face broke into a bright grin and she slid her hand into Casey's as they moved to greet the newcomers.

“Guess we'll find out in a minute,” Olivia commented when the whole group headed their way.

 

************

“Well, if there was any doubt before, I think it's safe to say we're in the right place,” Jill commented as Abbie and Casey headed their way. “Who's the like-a-like, Linds?”

“My cousin,” Lindsay said just as Abbie walked into her arms. She lifted the lighter woman up, knowing Abbie would squeal and demand release, but also well aware the lawyer's slight frame wasn't enough to do the same with her more muscular one. Surprisingly, instead of pulling away, Abbie wrapped her arms more fully around Lindsay's neck and held on for a long moment. Lindsay returned the hug, then set Abbie on her feet.

“Later?” she asked softly. Abbie nodded before extending her hand to Casey.

“Case? I'd like you to meet my cousin, Lindsay Boxer. Linds, meet Casey Novak – the love of my life.”

Lindsay's eyebrows went into her hairline. “I can see we're gonna have a lot to talk about,” she commented to Abbie. Then she looked at Casey and took her extended hand, pulling her into a hug. “Nice to meet you, Casey.”

“You too, Lindsay. Abbie hasn't mentioned you, so I think we may have to get together and swap stories.”

“Us too?” Cindy asked before Lindsay or Abbie could reply.

“Absolutely,” Casey answered. “I'm Casey,” she continued, offering her hand. Cindy accepted it and motioned to the rest of their little club.

“This is Jill, Claire and I'm Cindy.”

“Nice to meet you all. Would you like to join us?” motioning towards the group of women they had so recently vacated that were still watching their interaction. “I know a few people there are definitely going to be interested in meeting you.”

Lindsay wrapped an arm around Abbie's neck. “Sure. Lead the way, Tex. ”

Abbie glared, but it apparently lost something in translation since Lindsay's only response was a grin complete with dimples. Cindy caught her hand briefly. Lindsay raised an eyebrow.

“I think I see someone I know. I'll be there in a minute.”

Lindsay nodded, then she and the girls headed back the way Abbie and Casey had come. Cindy went in the opposite direction, looking for the couple she had briefly spotted in the crowd.

 

************

“Wow,” Brooke said quietly. “It's crowded.”

“Popular conventions I guess. Should we try to find Alex and Abbie?” Sam asked, looking around at the growing number of women continuing to flow into the convention area and knowing they were expected by at least a few people attending. Then she heard their names called and turned to find Cindy Thomas waving at her. She took Brooke's hand and met Cindy halfway to them. Sam accepted a brief hug, then Brooke did the same and Cindy released them both with a smile.

“Congratulations, Sam. I hear you're up for a Pulitzer.”

“You too – that Kiss-Me-Not series was incredible... like you were actually there,” wondering what about that statement that caused Cindy Thomas to blush.

“Would you like to meet the Inspector credited with closing that case?” Cindy offered. Sam and Brooke exchanged glances before nodding with excited smiles. “C'mon then... she's over there,” pointing to the growing group of women standing to one side of the registration area where Xena and Lucy were still checking people in. Sam brightened when she realized who they were.

“Alex and Abbie are with them, so that works out perfectly.”

“You know Abbie?” Cindy asked curiously. Sam nodded.

“She and Alex are the ones I wrote my series about.” Cindy shook her head.

“I didn't realize. Small world – she's Lindsay's cousin. Lindsay's the Inspector I wanted you to meet.”

“Lead on, MacDuff,” Sam said, gesturing Cindy towards the women whose attention was suddenly turned in their direction. They didn't even notice the entourage they had to maneuver around, so intent were they to reach their friends.

But the entourage certainly noticed them.

 

************

“Emily, find out who those people are,” motioning vaguely in the direction Sam, Brooke and Cindy had gone. “And I want to know what they do,” she continued without pause. “If they are part of this convention, I want to know where to find them and if they're not, I want to know that too. The girls will need someone to take them to the parks everyday and someone will need to retrieve them as well, but they're fine to wander around by themselves for now. That may change depending on how things go; they are almost fifteen after all – they should be able to manage. Make reservations at whatever restaurants they want to eat at – you'll have to ask them what they want to do. Ensure there is San Pellegrino available at my table that is refreshed every hour and *what* is SHE doing here?”

Emily looked up from her notepad to glance in the direction Miranda motioned. Her steps didn't falter but she blinked twice before she answered. “Andrea is one of the speakers, Miranda – just like you.”

Miranda's eyes grew cold. “Make certain she does not appear anywhere near me, Emily.”

“Miranda....”

“That's all.”

Emily watched Miranda stride off before turning her attention to her one time nemesis and now almost friend. She grasped Andy by the elbow and pulled her out of the melee. Andy slapped at her hand and jerked her elbow from Emily's hold.

“Emily!”

“Look, Andrea – I know why you're here. Just please, *please* stay out of her line of sight.”

“Why do you care?”

Emily rolled her eyes. “Andrea, I already had to clean up one mess you made; I do not want to be stuck again cleaning up the fallout that that particular encounter would create. And despite what you did in Paris and the resulting chaos that followed, I wouldn't really want you to endure it either.”

“Em?”

“Trust me, Andrea... it wouldn't be pretty.”

Andy nodded. “I'll do my best Em, but we are attending the same conference. We're bound to be in the same space at some point.”

“Make sure there are people between you,” then sighed when her phone rang. “Yes, Miranda. I'll be right there.” She turned her attention back to Andrea. “Stay out of her way.”

“Good luck, Em.”

Andy watched Emily dash out of sight before turning back towards the registration desk. “Oh, excuse me,” she mumbled to the two women she bumped into. “Are you all right?”

“No harm, no foul, sugar,” drawled a low, Southern voice. “You?”

“Fine, thanks. Sorry about that.”

“No problem. Excuse us.” Andy nodded and continued on her path back towards the media conference registration area. Nikki and Nora looked at one another, then motioned ahead. “I think that is where we're supposed to be heading.”

Nikki took Nora's hand, gratified when her still skittish, newly outted girlfriend clasped her hand tightly. She grinned. “I think you're right. I've got a really big sense of lawyer vibe coming from that direction.”

“What? No cop vibes?”

“Oh sure,” Nikki assured Nora as they made their way towards the registration desk. “Ours is just a lot cooler.” She cocked her eyebrow. “The lawyers definitely have some great shoes though.”

“Shoe envy, sweetheart?”

“Just appreciation. C'mon – let's get signed in. I wanna go check out that pool bar before the sun sets.” They resumed their course when suddenly Nora almost yanked Nikki to a dead halt. Nikki growled in frustration and frowned at Nora. “What?” her voice tempered by concern from the expression on Nora's face.

“Nik, I thought you were an only child.”

Nikki blinked at the complete non-sequitor. “What? I am, Nora. You know that.”

“Right. So who's that?” gesturing with her chin to keep from pointing. She watched Nikki's eyes follow her motion and felt the sudden intake of breath when Nikki found her doppleganger.

“I dunno, but I think I need to find out. C'mon.” She started to lead Nora away – or would have had the other woman not stonewalled her by maintaining her stance. Nikki looked at her in sheer aggravation. “Nora?”

“Honey, I agree that you need to talk to this woman, but look – she's obviously attending the same conference we are,” noting that she and her group were receiving their packets from Xena right then. “We have time to do a little investigating – find out who she is and what she does. Once we know that much, then we... as in you and I both together... can confront her. Just remember that she probably doesn't have a clue either and she deserves the benefit of the doubt.”

Nikki held Nora's gaze for a long moment before nodding her agreement. “All right, but c'mon. Maybe we can sneak a peek at their badges. That should give us a good idea where to start.”

And they headed to the booth just as the other party moved away, missing the curious second glance cast their way.

 

************

“Hey Wendy,” Sofia said as she looped the conference badge around her neck. “I didn't realize you had a sister.”

Wendy's brow furrowed in confusion. “What? I don't and you know it. Only child, single mother. Why would you say something like that?” Before Sofia could respond to the undercutting of anger in Wendy's voice, Catherine wrapped an arm around her shoulders and turned her just slightly.

“Probably because of the twin standing at the registration counter,” jerking her head in that direction. Wendy's brown eyes widened.

“Wow... you don't suppose....” her voice trailing off as her thoughts scattered in a hundred different directions.

“I think we can probably find out,” Sofia assured her, “if you really want to know.” Wendy blinked and swallowed hard. Coming face to face with a twin you never imagined in your wildest dreams you might have was a little unnerving. She looked at Catherine who still had an arm wrapped around her shoulder.

“You don't have to decide right now, Wendy. We've got all weekend.”

“Catherine's right,” Sofia concurred. “Besides, if we can find out who this woman is, it might tell us a few things.”

“Hey, I see a couple people I know,” Sara broke in with a hint of excitement in her voice, breaking the awkward moment. “Come on, and I'll introduce you.” The other three looked at her, trying to determine how the taciturn woman knew anyone else here besides them. It wasn't like she was known for making friends, and it only took seconds for their curiosity to overwhelm them before they were traipsing along in her wake.

Sara stepped up to her mentor and she grasped the ME's elbow. Claire swung around with her hand raised, then relaxed and broke into smiles as she returned the fervent hug she was receiving from Sara Sidle. When they separated, their friends were both looking at them in question and they went through the introductions as quickly as possible.

“Sara was the best CSI I'd ever worked with,” Claire commented. “I was pretty put out with Gil Grissom for swiping her right out from under my nose.”

“Yeah,” another voice spoke up from behind them, “but you stole her from my lab first.”

“ Jordan ,” Sara said as she turned to the woman she had worked with while she had been a student at Harvard. “God, it's good to see you again,” embracing her before turning for yet another round of introductions.

“You too, Slim. Still doing eighty hours a week though, huh?” Jordan asked as she traced the dark circles under Sara's eyes.

“Would you really expect anything less from my old roomie?” Emily asked as she, JJ and Garcia joined the ever-widening circle. “Come on, Jordan – that dedication is what put her at the top of her class.”

“Maybe,” Claire agreed with a growl, “but she needs to take care of Sara too. She always did have trouble with that particular detail.”

Sara blushed and the Vegas contingent watched in awe as these women they didn't know treated Sara like she was a special part of the family. Then Catherine stepped forward and they began introductions once more.

 

************

“I can't believe how much this is turning into old home week,” Sofia commented as Lily stepped up beside her. “I'm glad you decided to come.”

Lily smiled. “I had to when I knew you'd be here, Sofia . What would Mama have said if she found out I missed the chance to catch up with my favorite half-sister at Disney World?”

“Only half-sister, you mean. If I was you, I'd be more inclined to worry about what she's gonna do when she finds out you came down here to see me without her,” Sofia replied with a laugh.

Lily bit her lips firmly. “Mama doesn't need to know *everything*,” she assured Sofia primly.

“Uh huh, and when was the last time you had to tell her something that she didn't already know?”

“Shut up, Sofia ,” she grumbled good-naturedly. “Besides, even she thought this would be a good way to network and make a few contacts. After all, it's not everyday you get to meet the FBI's top profile team – who knows when that might be an unexpected advantage?”

“Yeah,” Sofia agreed, then frowned at the look on Emily's face. “But she looks like she's seen a ghost. Maybe we should find out what's going on. I don't want this weekend to blow up before we even get a chance to see Mickey Mouse.”

 

 

Chapter III

“Emily?” JJ asked with concern, placing a steadying hand on Emily's arm. She waited a long moment for Emily's eyes to track to hers, then had to swallow a gasp at the furious look on her face. “Emily? What's wrong?”

Emily didn't respond verbally; instead she took JJ's chin in her hand and turned her head until they were looking in the same direction. Penelope followed their gaze and her eyes widened comically behind her pink frames.

“Isn't that...?”

“It sure looks like it,” Emily growled softly. “Would you excuse me a moment?”

She moved two steps before realizing JJ was keeping pace right beside her. She turned and looked at JJ questioningly. JJ shrugged.

“I screwed up once by letting you walk away from me... or by me walking away from you. I vowed to myself that it wouldn't happen again – not for any reason... including your mother.”

Emily smiled. “Possessive much?”

“Only about the important stuff. Now c'mon... let's go see why Ambassador Elizabeth Prentiss is at a law enforcement convention.”

“Yeah,” Garcia seconded. “What she said.”

 

************

“Bre? Do you know the young woman currently headed our way?” Kelly asked as she watched Emily's determined approach. She turned to look at Sabrina, surprised to find a gobsmacked expression on her face. “Bre?” She exchanged a concerned glance with Kris who shrugged and shook her head.

“I don't believe... this can't be.” She took two steps forward only to find them matched on either side by her compatriots. She stopped walking and looked at Kris and then Kelly, waiting for an explanation.

“It's obviously important, Bre. We do this together,” tucking her hand into Sabrina's elbow and smiling when Kris did the same. Sabrina smiled and crossed her arms to pat the two hands clutching her biceps. Then Emily was standing in front of them, frowning.

“Emily?” Sabrina asked cautiously. Emily shook her head even as Sabrina reached out a shaky hand, but she allowed the tender touch. “I haven't seen you since you were a very little girl. You probably don't even remember me,” she said around a catch in her voice. Sabrina cleared her throat. “Your mother refused....” watching the recognition flare in Emily's eyes.

“Aunt Bre?”

Kelly and Kris released their hold on Sabrina's arms just as JJ put her hand on the small of Emily's back and gently urged her forward. They met halfway and Sabrina lightly rocked them together even as Emily held on for dear life.

Kelly, Kris, JJ and Garcia all exchanged curious glances before returning their attention to the tableau in front of them. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, they would be getting an explanation. For now it was enough to realize that something good was happening in front of them.

 

************

“Doesn't that look like the women from the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit?” Cameron asked Angela as they and Temperance headed towards the registration desk past the large group of women gathered in front of it. “I know they were talking about participating, but there was some doubt about whether or not their director would give them the time off they needed to come here.”

“I think so. I haven't....”

“It is,” Bones broke in. “I've had the opportunity to work with them on occasion. “

“Really? I didn't know,” Cameron said with a hint of a question in her voice.

“Um hmm,” Tempe said, though she didn't expound on it. Angela chuckled and Cameron just rolled her eyes, following Tempe towards the sign in desk.

“Well, I wonder who the other women are. I haven't seen them before.”

“I dunno,” Angela replied. “But I'd guess the two hugging are related somehow. They have the same bone structure.” She shrugged. “Maybe we'll get a chance to find out this weekend.”

“Could be. Meanwhile, I intend to take full advantage of our time here.”

“I thought this was a work seminar,” Bones commented solemnly.

“Doesn't mean we won't have some time off to have a little fun,” Angela commented with a smile that was immediately backed up by Cameron. “Maybe we can even sneak into to the other convention that seems to be here - ‘Women in the Media'. Who knows who we might run into?”

“We can if you want to,” Bones replied off-handedly. “I was invited to participate since I am a best-selling author. I just....” Brennan stopped speaking when she was surrounded on both sides and herded towards the law enforcement convention. “But....”

“Trust me, honey,” Angela assured her. “It's for the best.”

 

************

“Wonder what that's all about,” Helen commented to Nikki and they pushed through the crowd of women, passing Cam and Angela moving Bones away from them. Nikki shrugged.

“Dunno, love. But it looks like they're going to your side of the hall.”

Helen smiled and tucked her hand into Nikki's arm, squeezing lightly for emphasis. “I canna believe we're here, Nik. Who'd a thought it?”

“Great place for a second honeymoon, Helen.”

“I wasna aware we were done with our first.” She grinned in response to Nikki's unexpectedly shy smile. “I am so happy to be here with you, Nikki. So proud of you.”

“Me too,” Nikki replied cheekily. Then she cupped Helen's face tenderly. “I've always been proud to be seen with you.”

Helen captured Nikki's hand and brushed a kiss over her fingers. “Let's get you checked in, love. Anyone whose writing has won awards like yours has is bound to be expected.”

“Right, and then we'll get you done as well?”

“Sure, though I'm thinking a former warden won't be nearly as exciting as a best selling author. Say, isn't that Kate and Emma?” motioning to the two women currently approaching them.

“Think so,” Nikki replied as the two detectives greeted them with a wave.

“Isn't this just the best?” Scribbs asked with enthusiasm as they met up. “I never thought to be here, and to be able to charge it off to work....”

Nikki chuckled. Helen and Kate exchanged eye rolls and smiles. Kate reached for Emma's hand. “C'mon, then. We need to get checked in and participate in the work portion of this trip first.”

“Aw, Ash – you're taking all the fun out of this.”

“Good. That means the rules are still working. Now let's go. Helen, would you like to come with us?” Helen looked at Nikki who nodded.

“Go on then, love. I'll join you in a few minutes.” So they split up, heading for their separate registration areas to get checked in.

 

************

“I'm glad we decided to come,” Annabelle confided to Simone as they got into line behind Nikki.

Simone smiled indulgently at Annabelle and tried to ignore the crush of women around her. “Gabrielle made it really hard to say no. And besides, you ask so little of me – how could we not? Especially since your first book received such critical acclaim.”

Annabelle smiled and the excitement of the little girl she'd left behind not so long ago peeked back at Simone, reminding her again of the many reasons she loved the young woman standing in front of her.

“Be honest, Simone – you just wanted to ride the teacups and get an autograph from Peter Pan.”

Simone rolled her eyes and just managed to contain the snort she wanted to give. “Actually,” she said drolly, though she couldn't hide the twinkle in her eye. “I came to stalk princesses. I understand I can find them in all four parks if I know when and where to look.”

They had just reached the desk and Annabelle crossed her arms over her chest and frowned in thought. “I'll have to see if they have a costume in my size,” she muttered, much to Simone's delight.

“I'm pretty sure I can make some arrangements for you if you need help,” Gabrielle replied without missing a beat, having overheard the last part of their conversation. Annabelle's eyes lit up and Simone flushed a beet red. “Come see me later,” she directed. “We'll see what we can do.”

“Gabrielle!!” Simone protested in embarrassment. Gabrielle just smiled.

“Don't bother, Simone. I know better.”

“Ack... bu... how...? Nevermind,” Simone sputtered. “On that note....” They accepted their packets and Barbara turned from her computer to look at Gabrielle.

“You are a wicked woman.”

“Thank you. I've had years to perfect my technique. Are we about done?” A beat as she glanced in Barbara's direction, then looked where the redhead was looking. “Barbara... is there a problem?”

Barbara shook her head. “I don't know. She's not supposed to be here,” motioning to the woman coming towards them. “I mean she didn't register in advance.”

“Then she's not part of our conference. Everything is already set up.”

“She's trouble, Gabrielle. You're going to want to keep an eye on her.”

“Hey,” Helena cut in, “isn't she the bitch that...?” trailing off when Barbara gave her the evil eye. The woman in question stepped up to the booth moments later wearing a sickly false smile. She extended a hand that Gabrielle accepted, wincing at the limp dead fish grip she was offered.

“Gabrielle? I am Desdemona Imala Von A'Calandra of AVID Publishing, but you can call me DIVA – all my friends do. I was wondering if it was too late for me to register my company for your convention.”

“I'm sorry, Ms Von A'Calandra, but it really is. Everything has already been set up and I'm afraid there is simply no way to change it at this late date.”

“I see,” her words cold and cutting. “Perhaps you should talk to Ms Gordon. I'm sure someone as brilliant as she is would be able to help you come up with a way to make it possible.” She glared at all of them briefly before turning on her heel and stalking off. Helena looked at Barbara.

“Are you sure we can't make an exception to that killing rule?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “No killing. But let's wrap this up and head back to my suite. I want to hear more about this DIVA person. I'm sure there is quite a story there.”

Barbara sighed and nodded her head wearily, only to glance up at Dinah when she tapped her on the arm. She raised a brow in unspoken question.

“Um... isn't that Diana? What's she doing here?”

Three heads turned in the direction Dinah was indicating. Barbara nodded even as Gabrielle explained.

“She is here by my invitation... and Xena's. She's an old friend,” not feeling the need to share just exactly *how* old.

 

************

Diana looked around the convention hall carefully, noting almost absently the number of women gathered between the two registration areas. It was fairly easy to pick out who went with what group and she smiled as she watched them eye the other with a bit of trepidation and curiosity. She approached Xena's counter, watching as she came from behind and wrapped her in a hug that Diana fervently returned.

“Hello, old friend. Long time, no see,” Xena greeted.

“Yes and don't think I don't hear about that particular problem on a regular basis. The sisters miss you and Hippolyta wants to know when you and Gabrielle will be returning to Paradise Island for a visit.”

“Soon,” Xena promised. “Maybe when this is over.”

“I'll make sure to tell them you said so.”

“I'm sure you will. C'mere – I want you to meet someone. Diana, this is Lucy Reynolds, my second in command. Lucy, Diana Prince... my oldest friend in the world aside from Gabrielle.”

Xena excused herself to take a call. So Lucy and Diana exchanged greetings briefly; then Lucy took care of getting Diana registered and handed her the welcome packet. “Speaking of Gabrielle,” Diana said after a moment of awkward silence, “I'd better go say hello to her as well.”

“Hang on and I'll go with you,” Xena said. “Can you handle things here, Luce?”

“Piece of cake. We're about done anyway. I think Diana was the last person that needed to check in. I'll call Scud and have him come help me get this stuff moved into the main hall. Are you coming back tonight?”

“Yeah, we'll stroll back over after dinner. So don't stay too long. Get it moved and you and Amy go have a little fun tonight.”

Lucy smirked and nodded, but didn't say anything else. Xena took Diana's elbow and they headed over to where Gabrielle was currently disassembling her own registration area.

She paused momentarily in her work to come around and jump into Diana's arms. Fortunately, Diana was prepared as this was the normal greeting she received from Gabrielle on the rare occasions they saw one another in man's world. She kissed both cheeks before lowering Gabrielle back to the floor.

“Hippolyta sends her regards and best wishes to you both.”

Gabrielle smirked. “I'm fairly certain that's not all she sent.” She looked back at the women still sitting behind the counter. “I think you all know each other.”

“Indeed we do,” Diana assured Gabrielle. “Hello Barbara, Helena , Dinah. It's good to see you out of Gotham and Metropolis.”

Dinah smiled widely. “It's good to be out of Gotham and Metropolis.”

“Very true. I'm looking forward to exploring this whole Disney thing.”

“Me too,” Dinah replied with enthusiasm. “And I'm gonna take Barbara and Helena along with me if I have to drag them kicking and screaming.”

“HEY!” Helena protested. “I'm the one that's been trying to get out to the parks to play since we got here.”

“We'll get there, Hel... I did promise.”

“Good thing I made you do that,” Helena grumbled. “Otherwise I'm pretty sure you'd be happy to stay cooped up here all week.”

“So you are staying here after the convention?”

“Yes!” Helena replied emphatically to counter Barbara's eye roll. “And we're going to....”

While she was naming all the things they had plans to see and do, Xena took Gabrielle aside. “What's wrong, love?”

“I think I found my bad feeling.” Xena arched a brow but Gabrielle shook her head. “Not here. Barbara is coming back to the room with us. She's got the scoop.”

“Well, let's get this shut down and head out. I'm sort of interested to hear what she has to say. Besides, I'm hungry.”

“Why don't you go arrange for some snacks for us since I'm not sure how long this will take and I don't want you keeling over from hunger before we have a chance for a proper meal. We'll be there shortly. OH! Make sure you include Pop-Tarts for Helena – strawberry preferably.”

Xena blinked but nodded amiably. “You want me to bring Diana along?”

Gabrielle shrugged. “Ask her if she wants to come. She may have plans already.”

“All right,” planting a brief kiss on Gabrielle's lips. “We'll see you in a little while.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Gotta admit we're starting out with a bang.”

Xena grinned. “When don't we?” Then she excused herself and headed out with Diana at her side. It was already shaping up to be a very interesting weekend.

 

 

Chapter IV

“Hey, Xena... wait up!” Xena and Diana turned from their stroll towards the food court at Helena 's call. They stopped and waited for her to catch up, exchanging glances as she wound her way through the many remaining conference attendees still clumped together in small groups. “God, you'd think they could find somewhere else to be besides in my way,” she muttered as she reached the two waiting women. “Gabrielle said you were picking up snacks?”

Xena nodded. “She said you needed Pop Tarts.”

“Yeah... about that....” Helena scratched the back of her neck with a hint of embarrassment. “I should probably pick those up myself.”

“I don't mind,” Xena assured Helena , wondering about the odd sense of discomfiture she felt coming from the younger woman.

“Oh... I know. It's just... I have a really fast metabolism, ya know, and it makes me kinda a chow hound. I um... I eat Pop Tarts by the box.” She cleared her throat awkwardly. “I should probably talk to Barbara about investing in them, actually. Anyway, I thought I'd go pick those up – save you and Di here the trouble.”

“Well, that's very considerate of you, Helena,” Xena said with a completely serious countenance. “Could you pick up some chocolate milk as well? Diana and I can cover everything else here,” motioning to the food court behind them.

“Oh, sure... sure,” Helena acknowledged. “I'll grab a couple bottles and meet you back at your place... unless you need my help...?”

“No, I think we're good. Just let Gabrielle know we're right behind you.”

Helena nodded and turned right down the hallway towards the main gift shop while Xena and Diana went left to enter the food court. They snagged a couple trays from the front and with a minimal amount of discussion, split up to cover more territory more quickly. Xena headed to the back to order a batch of French fries while Diana moved towards bakery section to pick up a supply of cookies and pastries.

The sudden muffled exclamation of “Holy fuck!” in Helena 's voice caused her and Xena to turn towards one another simultaneously, wondering if anyone else had heard. Reassured that it was only due to their exceptional hearing that they'd heard Helena 's mumbled expletive, they exchanged smirks and continued on with their appointed tasks. The sooner they finished here, the sooner they would find out what was going on.

The cashier eyed them both warily, but made no comment on their choices or the amount of food they had. Instead, she scanned their card quickly and politely, giving them a smile as they left the food court, where they were immediately met by Lucy and Amy. Xena cocked a brow in question. Lucy shrugged.

“Gabrielle said for us to come help you guys. Scud's closing up shop as we speak,” answering both unspoken questions. Xena turned to Diana who just smirked at her.

“You'd think she thought she was the Queen of the Amazons or something the way she's ordering everybody around,” Diana quipped with a smile. Xena rolled her eyes.

“If anyone should be Queen of the Amazons, you'd think it'd be Xena,” Amy replied seriously. “After all, she's in charge of a convention full of cops – aren't they modern day warriors?”

“C'mon.” Xena cut in before any real discussion about warriors and Amazon Queens could get rolling. “I want a shot at these fries before they're stone cold and we've got to get all the way to the other side of the resort.”

“Well then,” Lucy said with a dimpled grin. “Guess it's a good thing I arranged for transportation,” as they stepped out the doors to the waiting cart. Xena grinned.

“Great work, Lucy!” Xena commented as she climbed in. The rest followed and Lucy gave their location to the driver. Xena looked at her in question.

“Gabrielle said something about accommodating Barbara,” and Xena nodded. Then they settled back to enjoy the short ride to Barbara's suite.

 

************

“Fuck, Barbara. Do you know what they charge for Pop Tarts here?? Two-fifty!! Two-fifty for two lousy Pop Tarts!! And milk... oh man – you don't even wanna get into what milk costs!! We could almost buy a whole freaking cow for what a quart of milk costs here.”

“ Helena , sweetie – calm down and take a deep breath,” Barbara said soothingly as Gabrielle and Dinah pretended to be busy outside the bedroom she and Helena were currently ensconced in. “Why is this bothering you so much, Hel? You knew when we came here it wasn't going to be cheap and it's not like we can't afford it.”

“Not the point, Barbara. We can afford it so easily because we have *his* money to fall back on in a pinch. Imagine if we were doing this on your teacher's salary... or my bartending one.”

Barbara nodded her head slowly. “All right, Hel... I see your point. What would you like me to do about it? Buy the Disney Company to make it more affordable for people to come here? Bruce might wonder, but I'm pretty sure he's got the resources to do it.”

“Don't tempt me,” Helena muttered darkly. “It might be worth it to see the look on his face to know that the Bat is the proud parent of the Mouse.”

Barbara snorted. She didn't mean to but somehow the visual Helena 's words conjured up was just too good to pass up on. The sound caused Helena to grin slyly and glance at Barbara from beneath dark lashes. She waggled her eyebrows, causing Barbara to slap at her.

“Hey!” Helena complained. “Whadja do that for? I wasn't the one snorting at the idea of....”

“Maybe we should just buy Kellogg's too and just be done with it,” Barbara interrupted, cutting Helena off before she could continue further with her line of thought. She almost laughed at the way Helena 's eyes glazed over at the thought. “We could probably take over the world,” Barbara confided in a conspiratorial whisper, though her eyes twinkled with humor.

Helena crawled into her lap, bracing her legs on either side Barbara's and tucking them into the chair to give them better stability. Barbara locked the brakes, then her arms automatically went to Helena 's hips to steady them; Helena wrapped her arms around Barbara's neck in return, relishing the gentle smile she received.

“I like the way you think, Brain – Pop Tarts for every household at every meal,” grinning when the soft surface she was ensconced upon shook with silent, gentle laughter at her tomfoolery. “It'll be a sugar revolution!”

Barbara shook her head, but that didn't dim the smile that rested on her lips. “And what are we going to do once we've taken over the world, Pinky?” she asked guilelessly with just a hint of laughter in her tone.

Helena leaned in close enough for their breaths to mingle and dropped her voice to a bare whisper. “I imagine we could come up with something.”

Barbara grinned and brushed their lips lightly together. “You think so?”

Helena nodded. “I'm clever that way you know,” she responded seriously.

This caused Barbara to laugh and Helena relished the sound as it washed over her. “I know, Pinky,” stealing another swift kiss before leaning back and patting the firm surface under her hands. “But for now we have guests, and we need to figure out what to do about Von A'Calandra.”

Helena took the hint and slid from Barbara's lap, crossing her arms over her chest defensively when Barbara pinched the bridge of her nose at the mention of their latest nemesis.

“Still think we oughtta bend that killing rule.”

“ Helena ....”

“I know, I know... doesn't mean I have to like it though,” she groused before opening the door and motioning Barbara ahead of her. Six faces looked at them expectantly and Barbara slid neatly into place at the end of the couch beside Xena while Helena dropped onto the floor at her feet. Gabrielle passed over their drinks and made sure Helena had her Pop Tarts, then cleared her throat.

“All right... now that we're all here, why don't you fill us in on this DIVA person, Barbara?” she instructed politely. Barbara didn't even open her mouth to speak before she was interrupted by Lucy's gasp.

“*She's* here?”

Xena turned to look at her. “You know her?”

“I know *of* her – she gives criminal masterminds a bad name... real slimy, if you know what I mean. Her idea of a major coup is blackmailing someone into doing her bidding.”

“Sounds charming,” Diana said drolly.

“She's a snake,” Helena hissed. “Always wants what she doesn't have and has no qualms about using any means at her disposal to take it.”

Gabrielle nodded her head in understanding, appreciating the fire in Helena 's eyes. “And blackmail is her chosen method of taking?” waiting for the nods she knew were coming. She directed her attention to Dinah. “What's your take on her, Dinah? Can you get a read on her?”

Dinah tucked a lock of hair behind her ear nervously as she considered her answer. “She's dark and manipulative and in possession of secrets she shouldn't have. Trying to read her....” She shook her head and looked beseechingly at Barbara.

“When Von A'Calandra came to us originally, Dinah tried to get a read on her. It knocked her out cold.”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. “Sounds like someone made a deal with the devil.”

“So why haven't we heard of her?”

“One of two reasons that I can think of,” Barbara offered. Xena cocked an eyebrow at her and she took the unspoken hint. “Either you don't have any secrets that she can find or... or she found something that made her afraid of you for some reason.”

“I'd be more inclined to go with the first. Otherwise she wouldn't have approached me like she did earlier.”

“The question is – what does she really want?” Amy asked. “If she really wanted to participate in the conference, it seems like she would have made more of an effort when the announcement first went out instead of waiting til the last minute and expecting some sort of preferential treatment.”

“That's just the way she is – she seems to think there is an entitlement due her.”

“Sounds like she needs an attitude adjustment,” Xena muttered. Gabrielle laid a gentle hand on her arm and Xena gave her a wry smile before speaking again. “What do we want to do about her?”

“First I want to understand who she is and what she knows,” looking back at Barbara. The redhead pinched the bridge of her nose, breathing out slowly in an effort to stave off the headache she felt building up behind her eyes.

“Get comfortable – this could take a while.”

 

************

“Blair, have you heard from Natalie or Tootie?” Jo asked, looking at her phone. “They should have been here by now.”

Blair glanced at the phone that she'd tucked into her purse hours earlier. “No, and I'm starting to get concerned. They're supposed to meet us for dinner.”

“Maybe we should try to reach them,” Jo commented, even as she put the phone to her ear. Then she shook her head. “Straight to voicemail. Did she mention who they were going to see or give you a number or anything?” as she snapped her phone shut.

“No. All I know was it was an old friend she'd met in Iraq during Desert Storm.”

“All right,” Jo sighed. “Let's go meet the rest of the guys. They should be waiting out front by now.”

“Hopefully Alex managed to snag us large enough table at the brewery.”

Jo snorted and took Blair's elbow as they exited their room. “Leave it to Cabot to find the single upscale beer joint at Disney. Where is this place anyway?”

“The Boardwalk,” Blair replied, dropping the valet ticket into Jo's outstretched hand. “I'm going to leave a note at the desk for Tootie and Nat, in case they get back soon.” Jo nodded and headed toward the lobby where the rest of their party waited.

 

************

“Nat, are you sure these directions are right?” Tootie asked as she looked around at the nothing that surrounded them. Though, in fairness, that wasn't completely accurate. There were orange groves just coming into fruit and pine trees tall and green that lined the four lane highway they were currently traveling on. Occasionally there were wide-open spaces with herds of cows spread across them.

“I printed them off exactly like she sent them to me, Tootie. Look around – the last thing she said to me was that when I was lost I'd be there. We've got to be close, because I am completely lost.”

“Well, if we're taking a vote, I vote we turn around at the next available intersection. We've been out here for hours and hours and I'm not even able to get a cell signal to call Blair and Jo and let them know we're going to miss dinner.”

Nat sighed. It hadn't been hours and hours... not really, since only a couple had passed since they'd picked up the rental car... but she was beginning to agree with Tootie. Coming out here straight from the airport had probably not been the best idea she'd had.

“All right, Tootie. I'll turn around at the next light and head back towards Disney. We probably should find a gas station and get some directions though.”

Tootie nodded and they rode another couple minutes in silence.

“Hey, look… there's a light and a gas station,” Tootie pointed. Natalie started to laugh; Tootie just looked at her with a frown. Nat gestured towards the street sign attached to light they were approaching. Tootie looked up and back down at the directions she held in her hand. She began to laugh as well.

“Guess she wasn't kidding.”

“And when you're lost, you're there,” Natalie said on a chuckle. She signaled her intent to turn and slid into the turn lane to wait for the light.

 

************

“Everything all right?” Alex asked Blair when she returned to the table.

“Yes. Apparently Natalie's friend wasn't kidding – she and Tootie were ready to turn around when they realized they'd found it.”

“Will they be back in time for the conference tomorrow?”

“Oh yes – they'll probably be back before we are,” motioning towards the pool tables that their respective detectives were occupying. Jill and Casey had joined Jo and Olivia at the table and currently it was the lawyers versus the detectives with the lawyers taking quite a beating. Claire and Cindy were laughing and although Alex and Blair couldn't hear the words being exchanged, it was clear they were all having fun.

“You realize we may not get them away from there before last call.”

“Sure we will,” Blair assured her. “Olivia doesn't know you were a hustler back in the day, does she?”

Alex blinked shocked blue eyes. “How did you…?”

“You should know by now that what one Gamma knows....”

“... all Gammas know.”

“Um... you were quite the legend.” Alex blushed but held Blair's gaze. “The question is... do you still got it?”

Alex smirked and rose from her seat. “What say we find out?” She waited for Blair to join her before she continued. “Besides, I think the twins need some time alone,” motioning to the end of the table where Abbie and Lindsay had their heads together, speaking quietly.

“Wonder what that's all about.”

“I don't know. Let's leave them to it, though. We have a couple of detectives to hustle.”

With matching chuckles, they headed over to the pool tables.

 

 

Chapter V

“So what is going on over there?” Claire asked Cindy with the barest jerk of her head towards Abbie and Lindsay. In front of them, Jo and Olivia were decimating Casey and Jill at pool, though the conversation and laughter made it apparent that they were all having a good time. She signaled the waiter to order another round of drinks while she waited for Cindy's reply. What she got was a shrug.

“I dunno.” She turned open brown eyes to meet Claire's. “I just know Linds was concerned about Abbie… she seems to think something was bothering her and you know how Lindsay is when she gets an idea about something.”

Claire smiled and nodded. “Indeed I do. Well, I hope whatever it is gets resolved. Uh oh,” she added when Alex and Blair rose and headed their way. Cindy looked at them and then back at Claire.

“What?”

Claire grinned. “Trouble, if I'm not mistaken. I've seen that particular expression on the boys' faces when they're up to something and hoping not to get caught.”

Cindy looked again and just stopped herself from giggling at the predatory expression swiftly hidden as Alex and Blair reached them.

“Ladies,” Claire greeted, then narrowed her eyes at them. “Which of you're going to tell me what you're up to? And don't deny it,” she instructed in a mom tone. “I have children – I recognize the signs.”

“We just thought we should show support for our fellow barristers,” Blair stated. Cindy stared at them both for a long moment.

“Which of you is the ringer?” smiling when they exchanged startled glances. “Been there, done that.”

“You any good?” Alex asked frankly.

“It paid all my college expenses except tuition and gave me a nice little nest egg besides.”

Alex eyed Cindy for a long moment. “All right – willing to put your money where your mouth is?”

“What are you proposing, Counselor?”

Alex glanced at Blair, who nodded. “I think it's time to take the detectives down a peg or two.”

“Aren't they your girlfriends?” Alex and Blair nodded. “And they don't know you're a ringer?” directed at Alex who shook her head. Cindy chuckled. “All right – I'm in. This could be a lot of fun.”

A groan went up from the lawyers as Jill scratched. Jo and Olivia shook hands and they all placed their sticks on the table and approached the tall table Claire and Cindy were currently ensconced at.

“Clean sweep, Joey?” Blair asked when Jo crossed over to her side, swiping the beer she held and draining it halfway. Jo shifted the bottle from her lips and gave Blair a cocky grin, though her eyes twinkled in pure delight.

“Uh huh. We still got it,” slapping hands with Liv.

“So you wouldn't mind playing me and Cindy then, right?” Alex asked coyly. Jo and Olivia exchanged glances.

“You get the feeling they're trying to set us up?”

“Probably,” Liv agreed with a smirk, giving Alex the once over. “But if getting set up means I get to see Alex wearing those jeans bent over a pool table for the next hour, I'm not gonna complain.”

“Benson, you're a dog.”

Olivia snorted. “Like you wouldn't say the same thing if it was Blair.”

Jo looked at Blair whose arms were crossed over her chest and whose eyebrow was raised in question. “Busted,” she admitted sheepishly.

Blair rolled her eyes. “Barbarian.” But she couldn't stop the smirk or the twinkle.

“And on that note,” Cindy said as she slid from her stool, “let's play some pool.”

 

************

“So what's up, cuz?” Lindsay pegged Abbie with a firm glance. “And don't try to dissimilate with all that lawyer mumbo-jumbo either. We may not have shared a womb, but I still know you better than anyone else in the world and I'm not gonna let you sidetrack me with big words and flashy litigation.” When it didn't garner her as much as a smirk or a twinkle, Lindsay frowned. Usually, she would have gotten at least a snide comment. Instead, Abbie traced the condensation down the side of her glass, staring in fascination as beads of water followed her finger down to the table top.

Lindsay covered Abbie's hand with her own, forcing her chin up with her other hand until their eyes met. Then she sucked in a silent breath at the bewilderment she found staring back at her from her eyes' twins. “Abbie?”

“Tell me about you and Cindy,” Abbie asked after an awkward moment of silence. Lindsay's brows rose to her hairline.

“Um... all right. What would you like to know?”

“Everything.”

“Ooookaaaay,” she drawled slowly. “Can I ask why first?”

“I don't suppose I could blame it on family inspired nosiness, could I?”

“You could try, but I'd still want to know what my relationship with Cindy has to do with whatever is bothering you. You never even met her before today.”

“Is what you have together real?” Abbie asked abruptly. Lindsay's eyes widened, but considering the source of the question, she stopped her impulse to rail and gave the query some thought. After all, Abbie wasn't the type to speak without thinking first. “That sounded impertinent, didn't it?” Abbie continued, breaking into Lindsay's train of thought. “It's just, you've always been a man's woman – beating him at his own game and still making him grateful to be the one going home with you at night.”

“What makes you think that has changed?” Lindsay asked seriously.

“I've seen the way she looks at you, Linds. I may not be a trained inspector, but even I recognize the signs of lust and infatuation.”

“Is that all you see?”

Abbie shrugged. “I... I'm not sure. I don't really know Cindy well enough to do more than guess at her feelings. And you've always been pretty closed off about anything personal – your passion seems to be reserved for your work.”

Lindsay sighed. What Abbie said was the truth, and Abbie knew her better than almost anyone else on earth... including Jill and Claire. But this... she sighed again.

“You're right, Abs, and that single-minded devotion has cost me a lot through the years – my marriage, my baby... almost my life.” Lindsay stopped speaking as her thoughts wandered back through her darkest memories, until a hand cupping her face brought her attention back to her surroundings. She blinked and found compassion and understanding in Abbie's eyes.

“You all right?”

Lindsay smiled. “We're quite a pair, aren't we?”

“We're something all right,” Abbie agreed.

Lindsay chuckled and sat back slightly, clasping the hand that had been cupping her cheek. “We've kind of wandered pretty far off topic. To answer your question – I really don't know yet. I know that I like spending time with her – she's fun and smart and beautiful and she sees things in a way I really never have. She has an optimism that is naïve and refreshing and completely frustrating and she is forever trying to make me see the best in people that I know just isn't there. She makes me feel....” Lindsay paused trying to formulate her thoughts. “She makes me feel,” she reiterated, “and in her eyes I am young and sexy and desirable. And she's become a good friend, despite me. Is that enough for a lasting relationship? I dunno. But I do know we are only at the beginning of whatever we have and I want the time to explore and discover the possibilities between us.”

“So it is real.”

Lindsay shook her head slowly, then nodded. “I think so. I know I wouldn't mind if it was.” A beat. “You wanna tell me what this is about now?”

Abbie looked around, her eyes settling on the tableau taking place around the pool table. Cindy and Alex were obviously winning, judging by the looks of delight on their faces. Casey, Jill, Claire and Blair were laughing and cheering and the sight brought a smile to Abbie's face. Lindsay watched her for a long moment, then tugged on the hand she still held.

“C'mon... let's go for a walk. I need some air. They can call us when they're ready to leave.”

Abbie followed Lindsay out the door. Casey watched them go with a thoughtful look on her face. Claire tapped her on the leg, bringing her attention back to her surroundings.

“Don't worry, honey. If something is bothering your girl, Lindsay'll ferret it out. It's what she's good at.”

Casey smiled sadly and nodded, patting the hand resting on hers. “I hope so.” Then she turned her attention back to the game playing out in front of her, trying to put her worries out of her mind. It was going to be a long night.

 

************

“What a nice night,” Janet said as she and Sam sat outside at the pool bar.

“Oh yeah,” Mac agreed as she returned with drinks for the three of them. “This was a great idea.”

“Disney or drinks by the pool?”

“Yes!” Mac chuckled. “And I see we're not the only ones who thought so,” motioning around at the tables filled with laughing, drinking women.

“I recognize a lot of these faces from the registration this afternoon,” Sam commented as she sipped her margarita. “Though it seems like a very mixed crowd – not all law enforcement personnel, I mean.”

“I think there is more than one convention here. I seem to recall....” Janet let her voice trail off as her eyes closed. Sam and Mac waited patiently for her to continue her thought. “I think there was some sort of publishing convention or something. Didn't we see some kind of book boxes being brought into the room next to us?”

“I think so – I know there were two separate registration desks running,” Mac replied, sipping her drink and sighing in contentment.

“That must be it then. Looks like it is catering to a female clientele as well, judging from the number of women here.”

“Yeah, ‘cause they sure stick out,” gesturing to a mixed group of tired looking individuals that had just dropped into seats two tables over from them.

“Sam!”

“What, Janet?? They do.”

“I know, sweetie. That doesn't mean we need to draw any more attention to them. It looks like they've got enough to deal with.”

“How do you know they didn't just spend too much time fighting crowds at the parks?”

“Because tired tourists, even those with kids, don't look that miserable. If I didn't know any better, I'd say they got dressed down by their commanding officer... so to speak.”

“Yeah, I think we're all familiar with that look. Wonder who could be that unhappy at Walt Disney World?”

“Hopefully, we won't have to find out.”

 

************

“What the hell are we supposed to do now, Gordon?” AVID marketing director Adelia Ryder asked CEO Gordon Reichmann. “This is going to be the event of the year and yet, Desdemona managed to completely dismiss the need to register. And from what I've heard, the woman in charge isn't one to be trifled with.”

“You think she can take on Desi?”

“According to what I can find out,” AVID's legal advisor Buster Goodfellow said softly, “she and her partner have no reason to fear her. Of course I've only had a few hours to dig anything up, but so far they're coming up clean as a whistle.”

“Aw, c'mon guys. Desi's not like that,” accountant Franklin Mint spoke up. “She's such a gentlewoman.”

“Shut up, Frank,” the group said collectively, causing him to shrivel in place and force his attention to the drink that sat in front of him in the hopes they would forget about him. Security agent Harmon Nottingham glared at him a moment longer before looking at his compatriots.

“I got nothing as well. I've got some feelers out, but....” He shrugged. “Even if we manage to dig something up, I doubt it will be of any use before tomorrow, and Desdemona expects to be able to walk into that conference tomorrow like she owns the place.”

“It's gonna suck to be her then,” editor Violet Hunter-Powers commented softly, though her lips quirked in what looked suspiciously like a grin. “Karmic payback's a bitch.”

“Yeah, but I'll be the one paying for it,” editor Graham Lacking griped. “You and Melissa always seem to fly under her radar.”

“At least you get noticed, Graham,” editor Melissa Parsons replied softly. “Sometimes it would be nice to be seen for a change.”

“All right you two... enough,” webmaster Dotty Comstock interrupted before an all out argument could start. “Rehashing your same old argument again does nothing to help us resolve the situation we've got right now.”

“Honestly, Dot, I don't think anything is going to help with that,” Desdemona's personal assistant Bailey Bonner stated plaintively. “She's already in a snit.”

“So how'd you escape?” Desdemona's half-brother Warner Godwin asked sardonically. “Don't you have a perpetual bullseye tattooed to your forehead?”

Bailey shrugged. “She wanted to be left alone. I wasn't going to miss my chance to escape.” A tall redhead walked by, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. She winked at Bailey, causing a small smile to grace Bailey's face, but the woman moved on without speaking.

Chuckles and snorts broke out across the table. “Well, I think your early release from the clutches of the evil known to the world as DIVA calls for a round of drinks,” Gordon offered.

“That sounds divine,” Bailey agreed. The rest nodded their agreement and Gordon and Franklin rose from their places after taking orders from each of their tablemates. At least their evening was shaping up better than their day had been. And when a drink arrived for Bailey with a note, it gave them fodder enough to entertain themselves about her new secret admirer.

 

************

Gabrielle pushed her bangs off her face and sighed out loud. “My gods,” she mumbled, exchanging glances with Xena. Xena held her gaze for a long moment before turning back to Barbara. The three of them had moved into the bedroom at Barbara's request, wanting to give her the privacy necessary to share the secret Desdemona had unearthed about her.

“Are you completely sure about this?”

Barbara looked at Xena askance at the question – it wasn't like killing someone... accidental or not... was something she would ever forget. She let her sigh convey her thorough frustration with the whole situation – both Desdemona's knowledge of the event as well as having to share this particular ugly secret with two people she'd come to respect and admire. “Oh yes. She showed me proof of her knowledge, although the fact that she had that particular knowledge was proof enough. It's not something I would share around – it's not something I am proud of.”

Gabrielle placed a hand on Barbara's shoulder, squeezing it gently in affectionate support. “Just know we don't think less of you, Barbara. We've seen and done much worse.” She held up a hand to halt the protest Barbara would have made. “Trust me – I would never lie about something so important just to make you feel better,” allowing Barbara to see the truth in her eyes. Barbara's eyes widened in response and she nodded her acceptance. Xena cleared her throat.

“Who else knows about this?”

“Um... Helena, my mentor Bruce Wayne and probably our butler Alfred. He always seems to know everything without being told anything.”

“People you trust then.”

“Implicitly.”

“And she has something on Helena and Dinah as well.”

Barbara nodded slowly. “I have tried to find a way to remove her from our lives or at least relieve her of the proof she has, but I have been unable to find a way to do so short of simply eliminating her from the gene pool altogether. And I can't do that – we don't kill.”

Xena nodded. “It's a good code to follow, Barbara. Becoming judge, jury and executioner is a steep slippery slope to stand on and it gets easier after consciously taking that first step.”

Barbara held Xena's eyes for a long moment. “You know that from experience, don't you?”

Xena's head dropped. “I do,” she replied softly, feeling Gabrielle's hand rub comforting circles across her back. Her head popped up when Barbara rolled forward and covered Xena's hand with her own.

“That doesn't change the person that you are now or how I think about you, Xena. Sometimes you just do what you have to and move on.”

Xena smiled. “I like you Barbara Gordon – you're good people.” She briefly clasped the hand she held tightly before releasing it and standing. “All right. Let me talk to Lucy for a minute and then... well, then we'll see what we can do about this DIVA.”

 

 

Chapter VI

Xena moved back into the main room and jerked her head at Lucy, causing the younger woman to move into the kitchenette area of the suite to assure them some privacy. Amy made to follow when a shake of Lucy's head stayed her movement. Instead, she turned her attention to watching Barbara and Gabrielle emerge from the bedroom. Barbara rolled to Helena 's side instinctively while Gabrielle's attention was claimed by her ringing cell phone.

“This is Gabrielle.”

“Gabrielle, this is Natalia Rivera – personal assistant to Blake Marler of LaCrosse Publishing.”

“Hi, Natalia. What can I do for you?”

“I realize that we missed registration this afternoon; we had some serious weather issues coming out of Chicago . Anyway, I was wondering if it would be possible to check-in tomorrow morning. ”

With a single motion from Gabrielle, Barbara had her laptop up and Gabrielle flipped through the pages of conference notes to find the registration for LaCrosse Publishing. She nodded her thanks to Barbara before turning her attention back to the phone.

“Absolutely, Natalia. Or if you'd prefer, you can pick them up this evening.”

“Oh, could I? I'd appreciate it,” sounding a little harried.

“Sure,” Gabrielle said with sympathy in her voice. “I've been in your shoes before. You'll have to give me a few minutes to get back to the convention area though. I'm at the back of the resort.”

“So am I. Would you like some company on the walk back over?”

“Sure,” Gabrielle replied with a smile and gave Natalia Barbara's suite number. She heard a palpable sigh of relief.

“Wonderful... you're just around the corner. I'll be there in a couple minutes if that's all right.”

“I'll be waiting,” Gabrielle assured her before closing her phone. Then she moved towards the kitchenette to let Xena know what was going on.

 

************

“So, you know this DIVA woman personally?” Xena asked Lucy as soon as they were out of earshot of the rest.

“No,” managing to convey disgust and trepidation at the same time. “I know her by reputation.” She blew out a frustrated breath causing her bangs to flutter a moment before they resettled themselves on her forehead. “She's not an acknowledged part of any known criminal network, but they are all aware of her. Rumor is, she's managed to get some pretty big secrets on some pretty major players.”

“So no one has taken her out... why, exactly? C'mon, Lucy – you and I both know someone like that has a way of disappearing.”

“Unless her disappearance or death would cause those secrets to be revealed?” Lucy responded with a question in her voice. “I dunno,” she shrugged. “Maybe the secrets weren't big enough for that; maybe they were just embarrassing things people didn't want to see the light of day and therefore not important enough to call for a hit on someone that would require a public investigation.”

“What does she have on you?” Xena asked abruptly.

Lucy sighed, letting her eyes drop to the ground before meeting Xena's once more. “The reason I was deported from Australia ,” shrugging nonchalantly again.

Xena smirked. She had a feeling this was going to be much more entertaining than Barbara's secret. “And that would be...?”

Lucy's lips twitched. “How was I supposed to know she was the Prime Minister's daughter? And while it's not the worst thing in the world, it isn't something I want out there, ya know? It makes me look like an idiot.”

Xena held up her hand. “Say no more,” she instructed. Then she turned to greet Gabrielle. “What's up, sweetheart?”

“I just wanted to let you know I have to go back to the con hall for a couple minutes. One of my attendees was late getting in and I told her we'd get them checked in tonight. She sounded like she was having a really bad day, and maybe this will help it end a little better.” Xena nodded, knowing Gabrielle had an uncanny sense for things like this.

“You want me to walk over with you?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “She should be here in a minute and you need to finish up here. But I wouldn't be adverse to you joining me as soon as you're done here,” smiling at her beguilingly. “We do have a date tonight, you know.”

Before Xena could answer, Lucy cut in with an almost gagging sound. “Honestly... the two of you are gonna give me diabetes with all the sappiness.”

Xena leaned down and kissed Gabrielle briefly but thoroughly. She turned to Lucy when they separated. “Jealous much?” she asked with a snicker and twinkling blue eyes. Lucy simply rolled her brown eyes and shook her head, knowing this was a discussion she had no hope of actually winning.

A knock interrupted their tableau and Helena moved to answer it even as Xena, Gabrielle and Lucy moved back into the living area. Natalia studied Helena for a long moment, then glanced around the room at the other women gathered there. “Um... I was looking for Gabrielle?”

Helena motioned her in as Gabrielle stepped forward. Natalia crossed the threshold, followed immediately by Olivia holding Emma's hand. No one even blinked as Gabrielle reached out a hand to introduce herself.

“Natalia? I'm Gabrielle. This is Xena, Lucy, Amy, Dinah, Diana, Barbara and Helena,” pointing out the rest individually as she introduced them with a smile. Natalia nodded her head at them in acknowledgement and accepted Gabrielle's hand.

“It's very nice to meet you all. I'm Natalia and this is my partner Olivia and our daughter Emma,” feeling Olivia's smile at her introduction of their family. It had been a long, hard road to get them to this point and she couldn't help the bit of pride that slipped into her voice. Gabrielle smiled, recognizing the tone for what it was, and unwilling to embarrass Natalia by drawing attention to it. Instead, she clasped Olivia's hand briefly, welcoming her as she had welcomed Natalia, then turned her attention to Emma.

“So are you attending the conference with your mom, Emma?”

“Oh no... Mama is the one attending the conference with Auntie Blake. Mom promised to take me on Pirates of the Caribbean and Soaring. Mama said she has to take me on Mission Space, Test Track, Tower of Terror and the Rockin' Roller Coaster though.”

Gabrielle grinned. “Your mama is a very brave lady.”

Emma raised her hand to cup her mouth in an effort to confide secretly in Gabrielle, although the entire room heard her stage whisper clearly. “Mom says it's ‘cause Mama's nuts, but really it's just ‘cause Mom can't do those rides ‘cause of her heart and Mama wants me to have the chance to do everything here. I've never been here before, you know. ”

“Emma!” Olivia's exclamation was nothing more than a gasp laced with laughter.

Gabrielle kept her eyes focused on Emma, though she could feel the glances Natalia and Olivia were exchanging as well as the attention of the rest of the room. “Well, I'll tell you what – I happen to know a couple daredevil types that have done everything here at least once. They would probably be willing to do all those things with you if your mama decides to keep an eye on your mom instead of being considered nuts by her. I could even provide references,” with a quick glance of reassurance at Olivia before returning her eyes to Emma.

Emma's eyes lit up and her smile grew excited at the prospect. “Really?”

“Really,” Gabrielle grinned. “But how about if we go over to the convention hall and get the papers your mama needs to come to the conference tomorrow?”

Emma nodded emphatically. “Yes! Mom promised me ice cream and a trip to the pool after we take care of business. Are there any other kids here, do you think?”

“For the conference? I don't think so, but I know there are a number of children at the hotel.”

“YES!” Emma exclaimed again, this time pumping her arm in victory. Then she grabbed Gabrielle's hand and tugged her towards the door. “Well, c'mon already. Let's get this over with so we can go have some fun.” Gabrielle followed her out the door, her laughter real and full-bodied. Natalia and Olivia exchanged disbelieving looks with one another before glancing around the room.

“Um... sorry?”

Helena snorted. “Why? She was just being honest. Besides, we're all looking forward to the same thing, we just have to pretend to be adults first.”

Natalia laughed softly. “And here I thought it was just us,” she commented before Emma's voice carried through the still open door.

“C'mon you guys – I want ice cream!”

Natalia took Olivia's hand and pulled her towards the door. “It was nice meeting you all, but we better go before Emma disappears again.”

“Not to worry,” Xena reassured them. “Gabrielle won't lose her.”

Olivia snorted. “You'd be surprised. That kid is slick - I really should have nicknamed her Houdini instead of Jellybean.” Everyone in the room chuckled at the visual Olivia's droll pronouncement gave them. Natalia and Olivia each gave a quick wave, then closed the door behind them.

The room was silent for a long moment, then they gave a simultaneous sigh, causing another chuckle to ripple through them. “Wow,” Amy commented after a deep breath. “I get the feeling that kid is a real handful.”

“I got the feeling Gabrielle volunteered her and Xena to watch her,” Diana remarked with a smile.

“Nothing we haven't done before,” Xena said with a telling look in Diana's direction. “However,” her tone serious and bringing their focus back to the situation at hand. “We need to keep an eye on this DIVA individual. I won't have her causing problems for Gabrielle... or us, for that matter. So if you hear anything, let me know immediately, all right?” Her look turned dark, and everyone in the room felt the temperature drop. “I'm sure I can convince her of the error of her ways.”

Helena turned to Xena, breaking the silence. “I'd pay good money to see that. Hell, I'd pay good money to help.”

“I think we all would,” Lucy confessed.

“All right then,” Xena said, clapping her hands together. “On that note, I'm going to go to catch up with Gabrielle. You ladies have a good night, and if anything comes up....”

“You'll be the first to know,” Diana said solemnly. Xena nodded, knowing Diana would spend a good portion of her night digging for whatever she could find out about Desdemona Imala Von A'Calandra. A tiny part of Xena almost felt sorry for the woman who had brought herself to their attention, but the larger part of her – the warrior part – was looking forward to the denouement with great relish.

 

************

“So when are we taking Jellybean to the parks with us?” Xena dryly asked Gabrielle several hours later when they were comfortably ensconced in their room - alone together at last. Their dinner date had turned into a family affair, as everyone who knew them stopped by to say hello and chat a moment. They tried not to begrudge the time, as they counted each of the women who did so as friends, but it was something of a relief to finally get back to their suite.

“We don't have to....” Gabrielle started, before grinding to a halt at Xena's upraised hand. Xena motioned with her finger and Gabrielle presented her back. Xena unzipped her and planted a kiss on the juncture between shoulder and neck, then patted her back before she responded.

“Sure we do,” she replied with a smile, kicking off her shoes and unzipping the dark trousers she wore. “You promised her we would. And to be honest with you, I think it would be kind of fun. We haven't seen this place with a newbie's eyes since it was new almost forty years ago.” She paused a moment. “I'm kinda curious as to why you did it though... aside from there being a good story between Olivia and Natalia. They kinda - they remind me of us... once upon a long time ago.”

“You got that feeling too?” Gabrielle asked, stepping out of her dress and hanging it up for dry cleaning later. She turned to face Xena and started casually unbuttoning the silk shirt she had on as Xena tried to neatly fold her pants.

Xena smirked. “When you've lived with a bard as long as I have, you learn to pick up on the subtle things.”

Gabrielle smacked the bare belly she had just exposed. “Don't go blaming me for your sixth sense, warrior. You were doing that long before you and I met. As I recall, you're the one who taught me to look for significance in the details.”

“Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe,” Xena commented, bracing herself for the second smack she knew was coming, then pouting the least little bit when it landed. “Oof! Careful there, bard of mine. You're gonna damage the goods.”

Gabrielle smirked before sliding down and leaning over to kiss the spot she had just hit. “That's all right,” she reassured. “I own these goods. Besides, you heal pretty quickly, and I'm pretty sure I can make you forget all about any residual pain you might be experiencing in the meantime,” continuing to ghost light kisses across the muscled midriff in front of her.

Xena cupped Gabrielle's chin gently, raising her face until their eyes met. “You think so, huh?” blue eyes dancing with merriment. “Can I get that in writing?”

“I have a counter offer,” waiting for the brow to spike in question like she knew it would. She stood up straight, putting her hands on Xena's shoulders and nudging her gently towards the bed and watching the raised brow become a smirking expression.

“Oh?”

“Umm... how about you take me on faith just this once?” pushing Xena to sit on the bed before straddling her lap. “If it works out in your best interests, we'll just forget all about that written guarantee, all right?”

“And if it doesn't?” Xena asked distractedly, her focus concentrated on unclasping the bra Gabrielle wore and sliding it off her body while stroking every bit of bare skin she could touch. She smiled when Gabrielle's breath caught in her chest at the light caresses. Gabrielle shook her head and cleared her throat in an effort to regain control of herself and the situation that was rapidly spiraling away from her.

“If it doesn't,” she replied breathlessly, “you can name your terms,” sucking in another deep breath when Xena tweaked both nipples hard. She felt her eyes flash red-gold at the pain and allowed them to meet Xena's as her incisors began to elongate. The warrior chuckled.

“So,” she purred, nuzzling into Gabrielle's neck and sniffing at her pulse point. “It's a win/win situation for me.” She felt the barest pinprick at her own neck and scented the coppery tang of blood in the air surrounding them.

“Um hmm,” Gabrielle agreed as she licked the drop of blood that had welled up on Xena's neck. Then without warning, she found herself on the bottom of a hot-blooded warrior pile and she smiled beguilingly into Xena's eyes. “Is there a problem?”

“Not at all, my bard. Just remember than any marks you leave on me, I will be only too happy to return in kind.”

“Promise?”

It was the last word spoken between them for the remainder of the night.

 

************

Diana blew out a frustrated breath and closed her laptop, removing her glasses and rubbing eyes that were actually aching with the strain of staring at a computer screen for too many consecutive hours. She had found some information on Von A'Calandra, but not enough to put her away for. There were a lot of rumors, some hints and clues about possibilities, but no real hard-core evidence that the woman was guilty of any real wrongdoing. Not that blackmail was a respectable occupation, but without absolute proof or someone willing to testify against her, Xena would simply want to beat the woman senseless for her implied threat of Gabrielle. And that didn't even take into account Gabrielle's reaction or that of the Amazon Nation when they got wind of the threat to their most revered Queen. No... what Diana needed were cold hard facts she could put in front of a judge – or better yet, in front of a council of elders who would punish the woman in ways she would never again think of breathing out of sync... much less anything that smacked of illegality.

Diana let her hands move down to her neck, rubbing at the stiffness there before moving from the table and crawling between the cool sheets with a sigh. She didn't think it was enough on its own, but maybe it was enough of a start that she and Xena might come up with some new ideas in the morning. At any rate, she needed some sleep. Hopefully tomorrow would bring more answers.

 

************

Meanwhile, at another resort on property, Desdemona sat propped up in bed hacking into files and search engines looking for something... anything... she could use as leverage against Gabrielle. She had the distinct feeling the woman was a force to be reckoned with judging by her polite but unflinching manner earlier. And she was determined to get into that conference by whatever means necessary.

She smiled and cracked her knuckles as the computer whizzed through the directives and parameters she had given it. Everybody had secrets. And secrets had a way of coming out if you knew where to look and what to look for. Lucky for her, she was a master at hide and seek and knew how to parley that knowledge into a profitable little side venture. She chuckled softly and resumed her searching.

Desdemona was going to be the star of this conference... one way or another.

 

 

Chapter VII

“So how was your friend, Nat?” Blair asked as they sat at breakfast in the resort's main dining room. They had contemplated eating in the food court for about half a minute before deciding to simply take the buffet option and the quieter setting.

“Good – better than I expected,” Natalie replied as she buttered her toast. “I think there is probably a story there, if she'll let me run with it.”

“There is a story there,” Tootie confirmed. “You wouldn't believe the things she shared with us last night... about this war as well as Desert Storm.”

“And does she have proof?” Jo asked as she set her coffee cup on the table.

Natalie shrugged. “That's the first thing I have to find out, but I'd be willing to bet she does.”

“So it was worth missing dinner with us?” Blair asked haughtily, but couldn't contain the twinkle in her eye.

Natalie smirked and cocked an eyebrow, but her eyes remained serious. “It would have been even without a story, Blair. I see you guys all the time. I haven't seen her for years, though we have kept in touch.” She paused, her expression sobering. “She saved my life.”

Silence fell at her statement and Jo cleared her throat awkwardly. “Maybe you'll share the story one day?” she asked quietly.

“Maybe one day,” Natalie agreed. Then they focused on breakfast, not surprised to see more conference attendees entering the restaurant.

 

************

“Are Abbie and Casey joining us this morning?” Alex asked as she and Olivia entered the restaurant foyer waiting to be seated. When Liv shrugged, Alex asked for a table for two and followed the hostess to a quiet corner in the restaurant. “I wonder what's going on there,” she said after they were seated, her voice quiet despite their relative privacy. Olivia shrugged.

“I dunno. But if I was a betting woman, I'd guess it has something to do with Abbie having commitment issues.”

“You think Casey is pushing her?”

“Not at all. I think Abbie wants it... badly, and she doesn't know how to deal with that.”

They heard a faint buzzing sound and Alex jumped slightly before reaching for her phone. She read the text message and frowned, typing in a response before tucking her phone away again. Olivia arched an eyebrow in her direction and Alex sighed.

“Mary's been held up in Albuquerque , though she's hoping to be here sometime tonight. I was really hoping she'd be here early so you could meet her. I liked her a lot better than Hammond ; she was more a little more sympathetic and much easier to deal with.”

Olivia smirked. “Not that you made it easy.” Alex glared at her briefly before giving Olivia a sheepish grin and a shrug. Then her demeanor changed and Olivia watched Alex wave someone over, not surprised to see Casey come up beside them. Olivia took one look at their friend and rose to snatch an empty chair from a nearby table, motioning Casey to a seat before she resumed her own. Alex covered Casey's hand.

“You all right, Case?”

The redhead gave a negative shake. “Not really,” she said, blowing out a breath and accepting the menu Olivia handed her. “But I will be. It's just going to take time.”

“I could just kick her ass,” Liv offered, earning her a glare from Alex and Casey simultaneously. She shrugged. “It was just a thought.”

“Put your macha back in your pants, Detective,” Alex admonished. “It's not our problem to solve.”

“I know, Alex. Is it wrong that I don't want our friends to suffer through what we did to find happiness?”

“I think it's sweet of you, Liv,” Casey said with a sad smile. “I think it's also one reason you appreciate what you have.”

Olivia and Alex exchanged a long look. “Probably,” they said together and smiled. “Still wouldn't wish it on my friends though.”

Casey smiled. “I appreciate that. And I think having her cousin here will do her a world of good. I just have to be patient,” chuckling when Olivia's head met the table.

“I *hate* that word,” she mumbled, purring when she felt Alex's nails scrape against her scalp.

“All good cops and lawyers do,” Alex assured her when her hand reached the base of Olivia's skull. “Now sit up and let's order breakfast. I have a feeling today is going to be a busy day, even without all the personal drama.”

“With any luck, the personal drama will be over before it turns into really bad melodrama.”

Casey raised her coffee cup at Liv's sentiment. “Hear! Hear!!” Then they turned to give their orders to the waiting server.

 

************

“My word, it's busy in here,” Helen commented as she and Nikki took seats in the food court next to Kate and Emma.

“It's to be expected, luv,” Emma assured her. “Remember the crush of women that were registering yesterday? On the plus side, it's likely we'll be making some good contacts on this side of the pond before all this is over,” she mentioned, just as Kelly approached them.

“Excuse me,” the light Texas drawl evident to the British quartet. “I don't mean to impose on you, but I saw you registering for the conference yesterday?” the question evident in her voice. Four heads nodded in tandem. Kelly smiled. “Right, well, could I ask you to possibly help me hold these two tables?” motioning to the tables beside them. “I need seating for six and as busy as it is in here....”

For answer, Kate shifted over to the nearest table and Kelly's smile became a genuine grin. “Thank you,” extending her hand. “I'm Kelly Garrett of Townsend and Associates.”

“We know of you,” Emma exclaimed with a smile of her own. Then the introductions began as they waited for the remainder of Kelly's party to join them.

 

************

Emily and JJ watched as Garcia charmed the man at the omelet station into creating something that vaguely resembled pizza, before they moved on to the grill station.

“So are we going to get to hear the story of you and your Aunt Sabrina soon?” JJ asked as they waited in line. Emily shrugged. Their plans the previous evening had gone up like so much smoke when a phone call from Charles Townsend had called Sabrina, Kelly and Kris from the restaurant before they could even be seated. They had just had time to make arrangements to meet for breakfast and as busy as the food court was, they were glad Kelly had volunteered to find a place for them all to sit together.

“I hope so,” Emily said sadly. “I'd really like to know....”

“So would I,” JJ agreed fiercely, bringing a smile to Emily's face.

“Thank you for being patient,” Emily commented as they reached the head of the line. “I know it's hard.” She smirked. “It's driving me nuts myself.” She turned and gave their order to the cast member waiting to take it. JJ bumped her shoulder.

“So we'll be squirrelly together. No worries.” Then Penelope caught up to them to let them know she would meet them at the table.

“Looks like Kelly made some new friends. Always a good thing in this business,” she mentioned before she headed towards the seating area. They watched her go for a moment before turning their attention back towards the food that was being prepared for them.

 

************

“I can't believe she had the nerve to show up here,” Kris commented to Sabrina as they collected breakfast for the three of them. “You'd think with the number of law enforcement personnel here....”

Sabrina smirked, one of her first since Charlie's call the previous evening. Not only had she lost an opportunity to reconnect with a niece she had sorely missed, Charlie's news had been less than welcome and they had spent a good portion of the evening going over everything they knew about the woman everyone knew as DIVA.

“I'd be willing to bet good money and tickets to Disney besides that she wasn't aware of the law enforcement conference.” She bit her lip thoughtfully. “She still may not be. Remember, according to Charlie's information, she's here for the Women in Media conference that is set up next door to ours. I imagine we're going to be something of an unpleasant surprise for her.”

“As bad as she was for us?”

Now Sabrina's smile turned feral. “Worse – she's screwing up a reunion I really want to happen.”

“And we'll get to hear about this?” Kris asked as they moved towards Kelly. Sabrina chuckled.

“You think Kelly would let it lie?” Kris laughed.

 

************

“You think Linds got her cousin straightened out last night?” Jill asked Claire as they exited their room.

“Maybe,” Cindy replied, stepping from her room in time to hear the question. She took a deep breath that became a yawn before she responded more calmly. “Abbie stayed the night with us. I think Linds may have gotten through to her, but God what a mess in the meantime.”

“What's a mess?” Catherine asked as the Las Vegas contingent exited their rooms almost simultaneously.

“Trying to get up and going this morning,” Cindy replied without missing a beat.

Sofia nodded her agreement. “No kidding. I think we were up half the night trying to figure out where Wendy picked up a doppelganger.”

“Find anything?” Sara asked as they headed towards the main building as a single unit.

“Well,” Lilly said slowly. “We know she's a New Orleans police detective named Nikki Beaumont. Otherwise...” she paused. “Wendy may just have to talk to her to get some answers.”

Jill snorted. “Figures we can't even come to a conference at Walt Disney World without running into some sort of mystery.” The rest chortled at her comment, and they made their way to the restaurant for breakfast.

 

************

“Excuse me, Jordan?” Liz asked, looking at the woman's nametag to ensure she didn't call her Claire. “Could we join you?” motioning to her fellow counselors. Jordan cocked a questioning eyebrow, but nodded, her curiosity overwhelming her caution. “Thank you.”

Serena, Tracey, Kelly and Liz all took seats and Jordon continued eating until their surreptitious glances caused her to blurt out, “What?!”

“I'm sorry,” Liz apologized. “You just remind us so much of an old friend. Did you know a woman named Claire Kincaid?”

Jordan paused thoughtfully then shook her head. “Tell me about her?”

 

************

“ Tempe ?” Mac asked as she, Janet and Sam wended their way through the restaurant. Bones waved them over and Angela and Cam made room for them to join them. Mac performed introductions and they quickly ordered from the harried-looking, though still smiling waitress. Then they glanced around the full room.

“So how did the military end up at a law enforcement convention? Or are you attending the media conference?”

“Well, you know Mac is a lawyer; Janet is a doctor who has done her share of autopsies and I was ordered here as a Homeland Security liaison.”

Angela snorted. “I just wanted the free trip to Disney World.” Janet laughed.

“Me too.”

 

************

“Emily, why am I dealing with all these people? Surely there is a way I could have peace and privacy for breakfast, especially with *her* in our vicinity,” sneering in Andrea's direction before turning her attention back to her own table. “Nevermind... the girls seem to be enjoying it,” she doted, noting the smiles on Caroline's and Cassidy's faces. “And the food is acceptable at least.” She noticed Emma and her mothers two tables over. “Find out who those women are. They are a lovely family and that child is adorable. We might be able to use something like that in an upcoming issue,” the wheels of her mind turning as Emily scribbled as quickly as she could. “Emily, for heaven's sakes... eat something before you fall over. And make sure the girls get out to the park as soon as they are done here. I will see you in the conference room in forty-five minutes,” dropping cash onto the table as she rose. She kissed both children, then made her way out the door, not noticing the stares that followed her.

 

************

“I wonder who she is,” Ziva commented as she watched Miranda leave.

“Fashion editor,” Kate commented, frowning when Abby and Ziva stared at her. “What? Just because I carry a gun doesn't mean I don't have an eclectic mix of reading material.”

“No need to get defensive,” Abby commented. “I like Runway myself, if only to try and figure out what the designers were smoking when they were drawing.”

Ziva snorted. “I never understood the fascination with pencil thin women.”

“It reminds the rest of us how good it is to be normal women with curves who can relish good food and caffeine,” Kate snarked, then deliberately took a bite of bacon and eggs.

Ziva laughed. “I can agree with that.”

“Me too,” Abby said, relishing the Caf-Pow the staff had managed to concoct to her specifications and reminding herself to leave them a good tip. “Life would be ugly without it,” raising her glass and smiled when her companions did the same in return.

“Hear! Hear!”

 

************

“Excited?” Simone asked Annabelle as they looked around the crowded food court. Annabelle bit her lip as a substitute for the fingernail she couldn't reach due to the tray she held in her hands.

“A little, maybe. Nervous mostly,” she confessed as they squeezed into an empty table for two.

Simone frowned. “Why? Annabelle, you are one of the most gifted, confident women I know. Where is all the insecurity coming from, sweetheart?”

“I don't know, but it can go away now.”

Simone smiled. “We'll get through this... just like we have everything else that's come our way. And once we're done here, we can go Princess stalking.”

Annabelle narrowed her eyes. “I'm going to give you something to stalk in a minute.”

“Promise?” Simone queried with an evil smirk.

Annabelle set her tray down and wrapped her arms around Simone's neck, previous nervousness completely forgotten. “Guaran-damn-teed.”

Simone grinned, glad her ploy had worked. They never even saw the harried individuals that passed them without a second look.

 

************

“Are you kidding me, Bailey?” Adelia asked incredulously, cringing at the force ten glare leveled her way. “Of course you're not. But what the hell does she hope to accomplish with this?”

“How the hell would I know?” Bailey ground out between clenched teeth. “I tried telling her that if Gabrielle doesn't get us tossed, Disney will do it of their own volition. You definitely get what you pay for here, but you absolutely have to pay for it. Stealing space is going to land us in jail!!”

“So while she's landing all us girls in jail, what are the boys doing?” Melissa asked as they made their way to wherever Bailey was leading them.

Bailey shook her head. “I'm not sure. I know they're bringing books over, but otherwise...?” She shrugged. “I'm sure she'll let us know when she thinks we need to know.”

“Someone's going to get fed up with her one day,” Violet smirked even as she hefted one end of the long table Bailey had scrounged from somewhere. “And then it will be bye-bye Desi.”

“I hope that day comes soon,” Graham said as he rolled up with a bellhop's cart full of boxes. “Someone needs to take that bitch down a peg or six.”

Silence fell – all of them agreeing with him, but unwilling to make that sort of commitment aloud for fear of the consequences. Instead, they returned to their task, wondering how long it would be before hell broke loose for them... again

 

.

Chapter VIII

“Morning, Sport,” Xena commented to Lucy as she clapped her shoulder, garnering a glare from her younger compatriot until Lucy started coughing. Instantly, Xena smacked Lucy sharply between the shoulder blades, causing her to dislodge whatever had caused her to choke. Lucy waved her off, catching her breath and taking a few swallows of her orange juice before hissing and glaring in Xena's direction again. Xena's brow creased. “What?”

“That burns,” Lucy croaked, reaching for the water and sighing when its coolness hit the back of her throat, soothing the rawness.

“You all right?” Xena asked sincerely. Lucy nodded.

“Yeah... I just didn't hear you sneaking up on me,” Lucy smirked. “What's up with that anyway?”

Xena blinked guileless blue eyes. “I'm not sure I know what you mean. I walked over here just like I walk everywhere else.”

“My point,” Lucy crowed though the twinkling in brown eyes belied any real upset. “Can't you stomp or wear a bell or something?”

Xena rolled her eyes and signaled the single server assigned to this room over for both her order as well as Gabrielle's. Sometimes, it was good to be in charge, and at the moment, in a private dining room that allowed the organizers of both conventions a few more minutes of peace before the melee began, it was good. She only hoped she'd feel the same at the end of the day - as well as at the end of the conference.

They watched the waiter walk back towards the kitchen area behind the conference rooms before Lucy resumed eating. “Amy having breakfast with the D.E.B.S.?”

Lucy finished chewing and swallowed carefully before nodding. “Yeah. Janet came by this morning to see if Amy would join them, you know... to give them a little chance to catch up. Since she's really not part of the staff for either conference....” Lucy trailed off and Xena nodded sagely.

“Fair enough,” then nodded again when the waiter offered her a cup of coffee. She looked around casually, noting with satisfaction all their computer equipment seemed to be set and running. “Scud's already been and gone?”

“Yeah,” Lucy replied with a laugh. “Said he needed to get out of the estrogen field before he lost his boyish figure. I'm not sure where he's gonna find a testosterone laden bingo game at the Magic Kingdom , but if it makes him happy....” She trailed off with a shrug.

“Remind me to give him a bonus. He did some really great work here... for both conferences. I know he saved Barbara and Gabrielle some effort.”

“Speaking of... where's everyone else?” Lucy asked, motioning around the empty room with her fork.

Xena looked at her watch and shrugged. “We're actually a little ahead of schedule. Gabrielle sent me ahead to take care of ordering for us because she couldn't find her glasses.” Xena watched Lucy's eyes widen comically and chuckled. “I know, but she said I was causing more problems than I was solving,” her smile just the slightest bit evil. Lucy snorted.

“No, really? Imagine that.”

“Exactly,” Xena nodded emphatically, lips protesting her innocence even as her eyes spoke of her deviltry. “I mean who would think...?”

“Anyone who knows you, sweetheart,” Gabrielle pronounced from the doorway as she led an entourage into the room. Helena shook her head in understanding.

“Glad I don't seem to be the only one with that affliction,” she remarked to Barbara. “Always being sadly misunderstood.”

A raised brow from Barbara and a snort from Dinah caused Helena to purse her lips in the smallest pout – which immediately changed to a blinding smile when Barbara took her hand and squeezed lightly.

Dinah slapped her hands over her ears. “All right, you two – stop projecting mushy stuff!!” She stomped to the table and dropped into a chair, propping her elbows on the table. “I'm gonna need therapy to recover!”

“I wouldn't recommend it – there's not enough therapy in the world to fix your issues on that particular front,” offered with a smirk that caused Dinah to stick out her tongue in Helena 's direction. “Besides, we both know from personal experience that psychs are bigger lunatics than the rest of us combined,” Helena commented roughly. “Although that makes a certain amount of sense, given that they listen to fruitcakes complain all damn day long.”

“Maybe I can take your mind off of it Dinah,” Diana said as she crossed the threshold holding her open laptop.

“Bad news?” Xena asked, her tone causing the rest to straighten and find the seats at the table.

Diana nodded and passed the notebook to Xena. “It's not good,” she confirmed. The waiter placed Xena's order in front of her and waited for Gabrielle to signal for the other plate, then patiently waited for the rest to place their orders. He scooted off quickly when they were done, and they all turned their attention to Xena, awaiting her verdict on Diana's research.

 

************

“So we can expect some sort of retaliation at this point regardless,” Xena stated flatly, directing her gaze to Diana who nodded slowly.

“I'd say it was a safe bet. She doesn't seem to be the type to let any sort of perceived slight to slide.”

Xena cocked an eyebrow. “I'll look forward to her trying.”

“Xena,” Gabrielle chided softly. Xena turned to look directly into green eyes and the rest of the world faded from their consciousness.

“No, Gabrielle. I never have, and I'm certainly not starting with this woman. She wants to be the baddest ass on the block – I'll show her what badass is.”

Gabrielle smiled gently, cupping her hand around Xena's cheek. “Still my champion?”

“Always.”

“But you do know I can handle this?” seeing the truth in the blue eyes she held even as broad shoulders lifted nonchalantly. “Xena….”

“I know; it doesn't make me want to pound her face into a fine powder any less.” She held Gabrielle's eyes a moment longer before giving a loud sigh. “Fine... we'll do it your way for now. But so help me, Gabrielle, she lifts an eyebrow in your direction....”

“... and all bets are off. I know. I have to try my way first. I doubt she's ever had to deal with someone like me before. We both know there is nothing for her to find.”

“And she won't be able to plant anything against her either,” Diana assured them, bringing their attention back to the room and the women patiently waiting for the tableau to be over. “I contacted Paula last night and she is running a program that will effectively thwart every effort Desdemona makes to take action against Gabrielle. It's quite clever, actually.”

“May I see...?” Barbara asked, holding out her hands as Diana scooped up her laptop and offered it to her. She waited until Diana keyed in a few commands, then stared at the screen with an evil smirk. She turned to Diana and laughed. “Am I reading this right?” pointing to one small portion of the screen.

“Depends,” Diana replied cautiously. “What do you think you see?”

Barbara studied the area a moment longer, then slipped her glasses from her face to chew absently on an earpiece while she remained thoughtfully still. Finally, after a few moments of contemplation she returned her eyes to meet Diana's, only absently noting that the rest seemed to be waiting for her discovery as well.

“I think it is a bot that turns her own actions against her – the more digging she does... the more action she tries to take against Gabrielle, the more the bot makes her the victim of her effort.”

“In English, please, Barbara,” Helena asked, knowing from some of the other befuddled looks in the room that she wasn't the only one having a difficult time following.

Barbara folded her hands in her lap and took a deep breath to address the gathered women just as she would a classroom full of English Lit seniors. “Correct me if I am wrong, Diana,” with a nod to the other woman, “but it looks like it's creating a loop that always leads back to her. When she tries to investigate Gabrielle, the bot will only provide Desdemona information about herself... not Gabrielle. And any attempt Desdemona makes to fabricate some sort of charge against Gabrielle – anything she could try to use as blackmail material – ends up as her ‘truth'. In other words, she can't plant any evidence of wrongdoing against Gabrielle because it makes her look guilty of whatever she's trying to accuse Gabrielle of.”

Helena nodded her approval. “That's pretty fucking cool, Red.”

“I thought so too,” Barbara admitted. She looked back at Diana. “Do you think I could get a look at the code when this is all over – for my personal curiosity?”

Her eyes didn't leave Barbara's, but the vigilante got the distinct impression she waited for approval from Gabrielle before nodding her agreement. Barbara smiled and passed the laptop back to Diana.

“Thank you, Diana. You won't regret it.”

“I know, Barbara, and I appreciate that. Now,” closing her laptop and turning back to the others in the room, “if we're done here....” But before she could finish, the Disney convention coordinator strode quickly into the room from the back, her expression more than slightly harried.

“Rita?” Gabrielle asked.

The slim woman took a deep breath. “Gabrielle, I think we have a problem.”

 

************

“Is this the best you could do?” Desdemona asked sharply as she swept up to the beleaguered women currently putting the finishing touches on the tables they had pilfered not many minutes before. They were draped and labeled with the AVID logo. Boxes were stacked neatly under them waiting to be opened and their bounty placed on the tops – all in all, they weren't doing too badly, and Bailey exchanged a look with her hapless cohorts before looking at Desi.

“We've only had a few moments to prepare,” she started, but cut off abruptly when Desdemona sighed like a martyr while giving her a look that distinctly called her a moron without ever saying a word.

“Why are we out in the hall? We are supposed to be inside with the *rest* of the publishers! This is not some two-bit company looking for handouts. We are one of the foremost leaders in the industry of feminine publishing. Tell them, Franklyn.”

“We are one of the foremost leaders in the industry of feminine publishing,” he droned obediently. Bailey and the rest rolled their eyes at one another though they did not let Desdemona see such an action. She wasn't very tolerant of much – least of all insubordination. Bailey took a deep breath when she turned back to Desi, only to find her waiting impatiently for an explanation – hands on hips and eyebrow raised in question even as she scowled in anger.

“Be that as it may, it does not change the fact that we did not register for this convention and there is not a place inside for us.”

Brown eyes burned red with rage and Desdemona sneered. “Are you so sure?? Have you tried?” grabbing for the door handle and jerking... only to find it locked against her efforts.

“Yes, Desdemona. I am sure and I have tried,” Bailey responded calmly, wondering again why she continued working a job she had come to hate almost as much as she did the woman who employed her.

“Well, pick the lock or something,” Desi demanded.

“No,” Bailey returned shakily, though her eyes never left Desdemona's.

“What did you say?” hissing and standing straighter.

“No, Desdemona. Setting up out here is going to get us into enough trouble. I'm not going to add breaking and entering to the charges.”

Desdemona snorted. “That's ridiculous. What charges?? We're *entitled* to be here. We're a pillar in the publishing community. There should be a place for us regardless of whether we registered or not. They need us.”

“If they need us, then they will ask us to join them when they arrive. Until then, there's not much else we can do,” Bailey explained patiently.

“Actually,” a new voice broke in, “there is something you can do.” The AVID publishing contingent turned as a single body to find a slim woman approaching them wearing a Disney nametag. Bailey gave a longsuffering sigh. She had been waiting for this and knew with Desi here, it was likely to become an ugly confrontation.

“Who are you... Rita?” Desdemona sneered, hoping to intimidate the woman into leaving. “What business do you have here?”

Rita smiled pleasantly enough, but it was clear to the rest of the AVID team that she was someone of importance in this place. “I am the convention planning supervisor for the resort,” she informed Desdemona politely. “And it is my job to ensure that things run smoothly and that everything is in place for my clients.”

“Good!” Desdemona replied, oozing slimy charm. “Then you can let us into the convention hall,” motioning to the locked doors behind her. “We were late getting in and my associates thought it best to set up in the hall since we couldn't gain access to the main room. Now that you're here however....”

“Now that I'm here, I'm going to have to ask you to pack up your things and return the tables to wherever you found them. Then you need to clear the premises.”

Desdemona sputtered, her anger washing over her in white hot spots. “Clear the premises?!? Do you know who I am???” drawing herself up to her full height... a height that made little difference to Rita who stood another five inches taller than she was.

“Yes, actually I do. And I know you are not actually registered for either convention that is taking place in this hall this weekend. So I am offering you the opportunity, as a courtesy, to vacate these premises without penalty. If I have to have you removed, it will be unpleasant. You will be removed, not simply from this resort, but from Disney property.”

Desdemona narrowed her eyes. “Are you threatening me, Rita?”

“Not at all, Ms Von A'Calandra. I am simply telling you how it is going to be.”

Desi pursed her lips, then gave what was supposed to have been a charming smile. “I think there has been a misunderstanding. I am supposed to be part of the Women in Media conference. I am certain the paperwork just got lost... probably my worthless assistant,” gesturing to Bailey who turned red at the implication. “Perhaps if we were to talk to Gabrielle....”

Rita sighed. She knew what she had been told, but if it would make this... individual... leave peacefully, she would ask Gabrielle to reiterate her instructions. She nodded.

“Very well. Wait here. I'll go find Gabrielle and we'll get this settled once and for all. However, regardless of what she says, you cannot keep these tables here. They need to be dismantled and put away where you found them.”

“Of course,” Desdemona agreed sweetly. “We'll get right on it.”

Rita walked away and Desdemona turned back to her employees, fuming.

“All right! Get this mess packed up and put away. You knew better than to try something like this – I can't imagine what you were thinking!” A beat. “Oh that's right – you can't think for yourselves, can you? That's why you need me to do it for you all the time! And you,” facing Bailey who met her eyes defiantly before dropping back to the table. “If Gabrielle doesn't forgive your lack of preparedness and allow us into this convention – you're fired.”

“Of course,” Bailey mumbled under her breath. “Heaven forbid you take responsibility for your own mistakes.”

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing, Desdemona.”

“That's what I thought. Now get to work.”

Bailey bit her lip and the rest looked at her sympathetically, but no one stepped forward to interfere. Instead, they doubled their efforts, hoping to deflect Desdemona's attention from her ire. Then Gabrielle and her entourage approached with Rita leading the way and they simply stood back to watch the fallout.

 

************

“Gabrielle, I don't think you understand.” Desdemona's smile reminded Gabrielle vaguely of an alligator waiting to bite.

“I understand perfectly, Ms Von A'Calandra. The fact remains that you did not register for the conference and there is no way to make a place for you at this late date. Now, I am sorry that you cannot attend, but I cannot and will not make an exception.”

Desdemona's eyes flared in rage and she looked at the women behind Gabrielle, smirking when she caught Barbara Gordon's eye. “I guess Ms Gordon didn't explain things to you.”

Green eyes flashed fire and Desdemona forced herself not to take an instinctive step back in reflex. “Oh... Barbara made things perfectly clear, Ms Von A'Calandra. So let me make *myself* perfectly clear to *you*. I don't like you and I don't like the way you operate; therefore I have absolutely no reason to allow you into my conference. Do yourself a favor and go home.”

Desdemona snarled. “Oh Gabrielle,” she purred. “You have *no* idea who you're dealing with .”

Gabrielle's chuckle caused a flush of red to infuse Desdemona's features. “That's where you're wrong, Desdemona. I know *exactly* who and what you are. But let me assure you, you *really* don't have a clue who you're dealing with. Now go home, and leave my friends alone.”

“And if I don't?”

Before Gabrielle could say a word, Xena stepped up beside her and let her eyes flash red-gold. This time, Desdemona did step back, clutching at her throat with her hand and nodding jerkily.

“Very well,” she conceded with another sneer in Gabrielle's direction. “I'll go for now. But we're not done. This isn't over!” she proclaimed dramatically before motioning to her minions and striding off down the hall, leaving the rest to watch her departure in silence.

 

 

Chapter IX

Lucy waited a whole heartbeat after the AVID contingent disappeared around the corner before she snorted indelicately. Helena caught her eye and added a guffaw to her merriment and soon they were laughing. Rita, Dinah and Barbara joined in and even Diana chuckled quietly at the turn of events. Only Xena and Gabrielle remained unfazed, exchanging smirks and silent communication over not only the events of the past few minutes, but also the method of stress relief their cohorts were indulged in.

Finally, Rita drew a deep breath and sighed. “I know that was completely unprofessional of me, but that woman has been a thorn in my side and that of my fellow planners since she arrived two days ago.” She looked at Lucy and Helena. “Thank you for the laugh; I needed that.” She turned to Gabrielle. “Thank you for allowing me to be a witness to that. It was nice to see her get her comeuppance in a way that I am simply not allowed to give it to her.”

Gabrielle patted the hand resting lightly on her arm and gave Rita a sympathetic smile. “I do not envy you, Rita. I've been where you are and I've learned that sometimes the best art of negotiation lies in just telling it like it is.”

Rita nodded. “Is there anything else I can do for either of you at the moment?” looking between them and watching the unspoken communication in fascination before Xena and Gabrielle turned to face her once more.

“Not at the moment,” Xena replied. “I think we're all set.”

“All right.” Rita nodded again. “Well, I'll have my cell on and you know where the office is if you need anything. John will be in this morning and Shondra has the evening shift.”

“Thanks Rita,” they offered and watched her walk back towards the office area before Xena clapped her hands together.

“All right troops!” motioning the women around her to scatter. “Time to get to work.”

With that, Xena, Diana and Lucy went one direction while Gabriella, Barbara, Helena and Dinah headed another. It was time for the fun to begin.

 

************

“Casey, can we talk?” Lindsay asked as she met up with the rather large New York contingent waiting to enter the conference room. Casey studied Lindsay for a long moment before nodding her head.

“Sure.” She looked at Olivia and Alex. “Will you guys excuse me?”

“We'll save you a seat,” Alex assured her as they were herded towards the door. Casey nodded her thanks and moved off to one side with Lindsay following just behind her.

“What can I do for you, Inspector?” her tone firm.

Lindsay bit her lip. “First of all, Abbie doesn't know I'm here talking to you. If she did, she'd disown me for minding her business.”

“Which is?” Casey prodded.

“Look, I can't tell you that; it's really not my place. What I *can* tell you is that when she comes to you... and she will... and she tells you it's her and not you – she's not lying. Her problem is her right now, but if you're patient, I promise the payoff will be worth it.” When she was met with silence and a skeptically raised eyebrow, Lindsay sighed. She should have known that her cousin would pick some one who was her equal – not just in the brains and beauty departments, but in the stubbornness department as well. She scrubbed her hands over her face and rubbed the back of her neck before catching Casey's eyes and holding them with her own.

“Casey, do you love her? Really truly love her?”

“Heart and soul, Inspector,” Casey answered without hesitation. Lindsay smiled.

“Then trust me on this.”

Casey studied the brown eyes looking into her own and realized they were so like the ones she loved. She saw the same flecks of gold, the same twinkling sense of mischief peeking out at her and the same sense of earnestness and genuine concern. She wondered what caused the shadows in Lindsay's eyes and vowed to befriend this woman on her own merit as well as for Abbie's sake.

“All right, Inspector,” she said at long last. “I'll trust you; I don't think you'd lie to me about something like this.”

“Nope. I love my cousin,” Lindsay stated honestly. “We were best friends growing up.”

Casey smiled. “So you have lots of good stories to tell then.”

“Oh, you betcha.” Lindsay paused. “One condition, though.”

“Yeah?”

“You're gonna have to call me Lindsay. Inspector is just too... formal... for family.”

“You've got yourself a deal, Lindsay. Oooh,” noting the line of women going into the conference room had thinned to a trickle. “Guess we better get in there before we miss out on something.”

As a matter of course, Lindsay put her hand on Casey's back to usher them towards the door together. Then they crossed the threshold into the convention room and found their friends holding places for them as they had promised. It was starting out to be an interesting day.

 

************

“Ladies... ladies, if I could have your attention for a moment....” Xena looked out over the room and the rows and rows of chairs that were filled to capacity. The women quieted and faced the podium. “Thank you. My name is Xena and I just wanted to welcome you to the Women in Law Enforcement conference.” The women present clapped and cheered, and Xena hesitated, a bit nonplussed. “We're going to give you some time this morning to visit the many vendor booths we have set up around the room. Each of you received a schedule in your registration packet - it shows the different panels available to each of the disciplines registered here. Please take advantage of as many as your schedule allows; I think you'll find them informative regardless of your vocation. So, thank you for joining us. Feel free to move about the room and we'll see you all back here at ten o'clock.”

Before anyone could say a word, Xena stepped off of the stage area and was moving towards the breakout room where the computer equipment was currently being monitored by Lucy.

“How're we doing?”

“Everything's cool. The vendors are all well-represented and all the speakers and instructors have checked in. Attendees are still straggling in, but since it's just after eight am, that's not surprising.”

Xena nodded. “All right. I'll be walking the floor. Let me know if you need me for anything.”

“You got it, boss.”

Xena turned to head back to her side of the convention hall when she paused to look at Dinah who was manning the computers on Gabrielle's side.

“You doing all right, Dinah?”

“Yeah, thanks. It's quieter in here and I actually enjoy this part of things. Barbara's been teaching me at home.”

Xena nodded, understanding everything Dinah was saying as well as those things she wasn't able to say in front of Lucy.

“Well if you need anything....”

Dinah grinned. “I know where to find you *and* Gabrielle. Go do your ‘being in charge' thing. Lucy and I are cool in here.”

Xena shook her head and walked towards the con hall, muttering under her breath about needing a vacation. Lucy and Dinah just exchanged grins and went back to their respective monitoring.

 

************

“Ladies, if I could have your attention,” Gabrielle said with a smile, nose crinkling in excitement as all eyes in the room turned to her. It had been a long time since she had been on stage for any reason and she realized with a bit of surprise that she missed it in ways she hadn't realized until that moment. Still, this wasn't a performance and there was a lot of work to be done in the next few days.

“Please, if you could all take your seats, we'll get started,” waiting for the women to settle into place. “Thank you. Welcome to the Women in Media conference.” Applause greeted the pronouncement and she waited for it to die down before resuming her introductory speech. “My name is Gabrielle and I'm happy to see you all here today. If you had a chance to look through your packets, you'll see that the first couple hours this morning are open. This will give you a chance to visit the vendors as well as do some networking amongst yourselves. This afternoon, we'll begin the tutorials and classes that have been arranged for this weekend. I think Barbara scheduled it so that if you want to attend every panel, you'll have the opportunity to do so. Just try to have some fun this weekend as well, okay?”

More applause and Gabrielle just smiled and waited. When it was quiet again, she spoke. “So please, enjoy yourselves and if you have any questions, well... I'll be wandering around the hall, all right?”

They cheered again and Gabrielle stepped from the stage, finding Barbara at the bottom of the steps waiting for her. Green eyes met and Gabrielle smiled and arched an eyebrow, knowing Barbara would understand her unspoken question.

“Everything's on track. The vendors and publishers are excited and stocked with all sorts of goodies and giveaways; the speakers prepped and ready; and Dinah's in the monitoring room with Lucy.”

“She all right?” knowing Barbara had intended to man the computers herself.

Barbara nodded. “Yeah. As good as she's gotten at control, there are a lot of projectors in this room. And it doesn't matter how strong of a telepath you are – when people throw their thoughts out for all and sundry to hear, it's wearing. There's no need for her to suffer through this if she doesn't have to.”

“You're a good woman, Barbara Gordon.”

Barbara cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “Don't you go spreading that around. Ruins the image you know.”

Gabrielle snorted. “Barbara, as far as everyone here is concerned, you're a high school English teacher who does editing on the side. Why wouldn't they think you are a good woman?”

“Face it, Red,” Helena said as she approached stealthily from behind the stage area. “You're always gonna have a good girl rep.”

Barbara stuck out her tongue. “That sucks!” she muttered low to keep the conversation private between the three of them. “I'm a vigilante for God's sakes. I used to ride a motorcycle!”

Helena leaned forward, a teasing glint in her eye. “You'll always be my bad girl, Barbara. The rest of the world doesn't need to know that side of you.” Barbara flushed red but kept her eyes steadily locked onto Helena 's, returning the gentle smile.

Gabrielle covered her mouth to keep her chuckles silent at the exchange she was an unwitting witness to, but Helena heard them anyway, her eyes flashing gold before returning to their natural blue state. She broke Barbara's gaze briefly to smile rakishly at Gabrielle and Gabrielle just shook her head knowingly.

“You two are quite a pair,” she said with a smile. “Now go have some fun,” motioning towards the full convention hall. “I'll be around if you need me.”

Barbara caught her hand and squeezed it lightly before releasing it. “Thanks, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle didn't ask what for – she simply nodded and smiled before wandering into the crowd.

 

************

“Excuse me?” the harried looking woman reluctantly interrupted the two striking dark-haired women sitting alone in the long hall leading to the convention area. They looked up at her simultaneously and she caught her breath. “I'm sorry to intrude, but you seem to be the only ones around at the moment,” gesturing at the empty corridor. “My name is Doris Wolfe, and I was wondering if you could point me to the Women in Law Enforcement conference.

“Sure,” the younger of the two answered, standing up and moving closer to Doris . “Just go down this hall. You'll pass the first convention hall, then the hallway crooks to the right – keep going straight by the smaller halls until you reach another wide area like this one. The Law Enforcement conference is in the second large convention room in that hall.”

“Oh... thank you so much. My plane was late and I'm....” She trailed off, remembering the tableau she had interrupted. “Sorry, I'm babbling. Thank you for your help Ms...?” waiting for a name.

“Prentiss... Emily Prentiss.”

“Well, thank you for your help, Emily Prentiss.”

“My pleasure, Ms Wolfe,” watching her walk away dragging her suitcase and various other bags behind her. She returned to sit next to Sabrina who was watching her with proud, patient eyes.

“You are so not like your mother. She would have been scathingly polite, but sent the woman away with her tail between her legs for daring to interrupt us like that.”

“Did you mind?” Emily asked.

Sabrina shook her head. “Not at all. It didn't hurt either of us, and it helped her. So why not extend a bit of courtesy to someone who needed it?”

“Are you certain you and Mother are related? I mean... don't get me wrong, but you're so... different. It's hard to believe you were raised by the same parents.”

Sabrina shrugged. “We made different choices in life. We wanted different things. It's one reason we grew so far apart.”

“Is that why you disappeared from my life? Because you and Mother were different and wanted different things out of life?”

Sabrina paused, considering her words carefully. She didn't want to be the cause of any trouble between her niece and her sister. But at the same time, she felt the desire to be honest about the reasons behind their estrangement.

“Partly,” Sabrina replied. “Your mother didn't want me to be an... undue influence on your life.”

Emily frowned. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Sabrina sighed. “It means that when I told her I was gay, she was afraid I might be contagious and refused to have anything to do with me after that. And there was no way in hell she was going to let me near you.”

“Excuse me?” Emily's voice and facial expression creating a picture of confused disbelief. “You have *got* to be kidding me.”

Sabrina snorted. “Not at all – though Elizabeth did think I was kidding her when I told her. After all, as she pointed out, I had been married and divorced twice when I made the decision to become a lesbian. That's how she saw it, you know – I chose to be a lesbian... mostly because I knew how it would reflect on her and the family and I would do anything to bring shame and disgrace to her.” Sabrina's voice was laced with bitter memories and she closed her eyes.

Emily stared at the woman who, on the outside at least, resembled the mother she had struggled with and against her whole life and yet was so different. Tentatively, she raised a trembling hand, gently cupping Sabrina's cheek and watching her brown eyes flutter open slowly.

“Mother told me you died.”

Sabrina shook her head. “As far as she was concerned, I did. I tried to keep in touch, but the State Department isn't real big about releasing information about its employees – especially the ambassadors. Even Charlie couldn't get anything from his contacts.” She chuckled wryly. “It figures that Elizabeth cultivated one that could blockade Charlie.”

“So you looked for us?”

“I looked for you. I figured given how uptight your mother was, you might need an outlet. I thought I might be able to be that for you.”

“I wish you had been. I could've used a friend like you when I was growing up.”

“And now?”

“Now, I could still use a friend like you, Aunt Bre.” Emily tilted Sabrina's head forward and planted a kiss on her forehead. She dropped her hand down to clasp Sabrina's, tugging on it gently until they were both standing. “C'mon, I know your friends and mine went ahead to give us a chance to get some answers from one another, but if we don't get down there pretty soon, they're going to come back looking for us.”

“We'll sit down soon and catch up?” relishing the fact that Emily hadn't released her hand.

“Oh, you betcha. We've got years of stories and life to share. I'm not letting go now that I've got you back.”

Sabrina's grin was wide and she loosened their hands enough to allow her to wrap an arm around Emily's waist. Emily reciprocated the motion and Sabrina brushed a kiss over her niece's temple. Then they walked arm and arm down the corridor towards the convention hall, following the same path Emily had directed Doris to earlier.

It was shaping up to be a memorable conference.

 

 

Chapter X

Diana caught Xena's eye and with a subtle nod, they were both headed towards the monitoring room where Dinah and Lucy still sat, patiently watching the computers set up in front of them. They looked up to see who was joining them, then returned their attention back to their observation., offering Xena and Diana whatever measure of privacy they could in the small enclosure.

“Problem?” Though they were in a corner of the room so they couldn't be overheard, their voices were whisper soft.

Diana shrugged. “Depends on your point of view. I just got a note from Paula. She found – well, apparently Desdemona has two copies of her blackmail list. One of them is a hard copy that she keeps in a safety deposit box... and one of them is electronic.”

“Paula got in?”

“Paula got in. After looking through the electronic copy, she offered to eliminate it... before realizing that would give away the fact that someone was able to break through her firewall and put Desdemona's back up. By Paula's accounting, it appears that everyone here, except for you and Gabrielle, is on her list for something.”

“You're kidding.” Xena's voice was flat. She blew out a breath. “That would certainly explain a lot of what I've been hearing.” Before she could say more, Gabrielle stepped into the room and crossed over to where they stood. She looked at them both and shook her head.

“Let me guess... Desdemona?” Before either woman could ask, Gabrielle smirked. “You both have the same pinched expression I've been seeing in my room for the last hour.”

“You too?”

“Yeah... apparently everyone in there has a reason to fear this woman.” She turned and looked directly at Xena. “How is it we missed her? How did she stay under our radar?”

“Probably because she didn't try to blackmail us. And let's face it - no one, no matter how well they know you or how much they trust you is going to willingly share the fact that they are being blackmailed... especially by someone like her.”

“What are they saying on the law enforcement side?”

Xena bit her lip. “Lots of muttering, mostly. They can't believe she showed up here like this. A lot of them are angry. Yours?”

“Most of them are talking about me having thrown her out on her ear – they think it's funny. But none of them like the fact that she's here.”

Xena turned to Diana who was watching the conversation in silence. “What about her employees?”

“I've got Paula looking into it. After our encounter with her this morning, I figured we'd need to know. They certainly didn't look too happy to be working for her though... especially that poor, hapless assistant. Talk about a nightmare job.”

“All right,” Xena said, rubbing a hand over the back of her neck to relieve some of the tension she could feel settling there. “Let's get back out there and keep our eyes and ears open. It could get nasty if that bitch decides to try again.”

Gabrielle and Diana nodded and they quickly separated to head back to their specific responsibilities. Lucy and Dinah exchanged glances and shook their heads.

“Glad I'm not the boss,” Lucy mumbled loud enough for Dinah to hear.

“Yeah... me too.”

 

************

“Gabrielle?” Natalia called softly from her vantage point near the door Gabrielle emerged from. Gabrielle let her eyes scan the room when she heard her name before they landed on Natalia's pensive form. She nodded to show she had heard the summons and made her way slowly to stand in front of her.

“Natalia?” she returned warmly, her expression calm and comforting. “Is there a problem?”

“Aside from Desdemona you mean?” She held up her hand before Gabrielle could respond. “I just wanted to ask if you thought Jellybean was safe with her being here. No matter what she thinks she has on Olivia or me, if she's a threat to Emma, all bets are off. And I'd really like to be able to enjoy this trip – it's the first we've taken together since becoming a family.”

Despite her worry about Desdemona, Natalia couldn't hide the pride or happiness she felt about being a family with Olivia and Emma and that fact made Gabrielle smile. She remembered the early days with Xena, when they were first becoming a family and it made her just the least little bit nostalgic. She placed her hand on Natalia's arm and squeezed it in gentle reassurance.

“I don't think you have anything to worry about, Natalia. I'm fairly confident that our earlier actions managed to focus her attention on Xena and me for the time being. We're a new challenge... something she hasn't encountered in a while and I think she's going to be busy trying to dig up some dirt on us, thinking it will influence our thinking towards her. Regardless, there is no way Xena or I would stand idly by and allow her to hurt or endanger a child.”

She felt more than heard Natalia's sigh of relief. “You sound very much like an irate parent. Thank you, Gabrielle.”

“Why don't you and your family join us for dinner this evening?” Gabrielle offered impulsively. “After all, if you're going to trust us with your most precious possession at some point, you're going to want to get to know us a little better, right?”

The smile on Natalia's face made her dimples blossom in their full glory and she nodded. “Yes, thank you. We'd love to. Emma thought you were the coolest thing to come along since sliced bread, but it would make Olivia and me....”

Gabrielle held up a hand. “Say no more - I understand perfectly. Tonight around six? I'll let you know where to meet us before we break for the day.”

“I'll look forward to it.”

“So will I,” Gabrielle assured her before heading deeper into the bowels of the convention room.

 

************

“You know, Sam... there should be some steps the military or homeland security could take to eliminate the threat someone like Desdemona poses.”

“What do you want me to do, Janet? Call Jack and tell him we've got a wet ops situation on our hands? Because you know he'd come in and take care of it if I asked him to.”

Janet narrowed her eyes in Sam's direction. “I know he would, and you know that's not what I meant. We both know what happens to those secrets if she dies.”

Sam sighed. “I know. But you're right – someone ought to be able to do something without all those secrets suddenly becoming public knowledge. Because I'm betting if she is blackmailing the military and law enforcement to keep them from shutting her down, she is probably doing the same to her competition. And who knows how far her reach extends – politicians, heads of corporations.... I've heard she even has ties to the mob in that regard. If I could just figure out some way to put a worm in her system without her being able to detect it.”

“Even if you could,” Mac cut in as she came up behind them, “you know she has to have at least one failsafe to protect herself from something like that. Otherwise, she wouldn't have survived as long as she has. Now, enough worrying about something we have no control over. C'mon... I want to see what some of theses vendors are offering. I promised Harm I'd see if there were any new law enforcement toys we might want to look into.”

“Personally or professionally?” Janet said with a grin of her own, watching Mac blush at the implication. “Besides, we came here to enjoy ourselves and make some new friends and I intend to do just that. Just because I wish there was something we could do doesn't mean I think we should. Karma will pay Desdemona back in spades if we are simply patient enough to let it.”

“Atta girl. C'mon, Sarah,” Sam said taking Janet's hand in hers and tucking her other hand in the crook of Mac's elbow. “Lead the way.”

With a smile, Sarah MacKenzie headed towards the closest vendor booth.

 

************

A hand on Sara Sidle's back caused her to turn, a smile crossing her face when she met Claire Washburn's smiling countenance. Claire motioned to the booth. “Yours?” she asked quietly, noting the embarrassed flush that washed over Sara's face before her eyes dropped to the floor and she nodded. Claire put a hand under her chin and brought Sara's eyes back up to meet her own.

“Don't do that, Sara. You shouldn't be ashamed of your brilliance or your success.”

Sara nodded. “I know... and I'm not – not really. I'm just... this is all new,” motioning to the booth marked Coordinated Scientific Industries. “Even my team doesn't know about this yet.”

Claire frowned. “Why not? Sara,” looking over the different pieces of equipment. “This is all good stuff... some of it is breakthrough technology, if I'm understanding its purpose.”

“It's all still in the prototype stage, Claire. I'm not sure if it will even make it into practical application, or if it will function in the field like it's supposed to.”

“Sara,” Claire chided, taking the younger woman's face in her hands and holding her eyes steadily. “If you designed it, it's going to work. I know it's taken longer than you wanted it to, but this is your area of expertise, after all. You may have to do some tweaking or even some redesigning to make it function the way you want it to, but eventually you'll achieve whatever purpose you had in mind.”

Before Sara could reply, Wendy came up to the booth, eyes shining as she realized what was in front of her.

“Oh... this is amazing. I wonder....” She looked around for the vendor representative before her eyes caught Sara's and widened. Sara cleared her throat, taking comfort from the hand Claire still had resting on the small of her back.

“You wonder what, Wendy?”

Wendy blinked twice before her smile widened. “Is this yours, Sara?” waiting for the hesitant nod before giving Sara an impulsive hug. “That's fabulous! Wait til I tell the others.”

“Tell the others what?” Catherine asked as she approached the small group gathered in front of the booth. Then she looked down and let her eyes widen at the implications of the equipment displayed there. She let her hands trail gently over the pieces. “Oh... this is great.” She looked between Wendy and Sara. “Is this what I think it is? Where's the vendor?” caressing the gear again. “I have some questions.”

“Such as?”

“Sara, as smart as we both know you are, I don't think you're going to be able to tell me about this stuff. It looks like new technology – only the person who designed it would be able to answer my questions.”

“Exactly,” Sara replied. “So why don't you ask and let me see if I can answer them? I may as well start off with my harshest critic – if I can satisfy you, I should be able to satisfy anybody.”

“Are you saying...?”

“This is Sara's stuff, Catherine,” Wendy cut in. “Give her a chance.”

Catherine's eyebrows went into her hairline, but her blue eyes twinkled. “Why, Sara Sidle... color me impressed,” looking over the booth once more. “Now tell me about this stuff.” Before long, a crowd had gathered and Sara Sidle was holding an impromptu class about crime scene investigative work.

 

************

“Excuse me, Sam?” Natalie said as she approached the young women standing together in front of the Gold Leaf Publishing booth.

“Hey Nat!” She turned to the woman standing beside her. “I don't think the two of you got introduced yesterday. Natalie Green... Cindy Thomas.”

Cindy's eyes sparkled; Sam knew she had wanted to meet Natalie. She had long admired her work and was in fact one of the reasons Cindy had chosen journalism. Before she could say a word, Natalie held up her hand.

“Hold that thought, please. Sam, you need to go to the lobby... NOW.”

Sam's brows furrowed, but she set aside the book she had been thumbing through and headed towards the door. She had known Natalie long enough to know something had to be really wrong if she was using that tone. When she realized she was being accompanied by both Natalie and Cindy, she smiled grimly and forged ahead – turning her head to ask the question as she pushed open the door.

“Nat, why I am rushing to the lobby?”

Then her arms were full of Brooke McQueen and she simply held the trembling woman in her arms for a long moment while looking around to spot what had upset her girlfriend so badly. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, she tilted Brooke's head up until their eyes met.

“Brooke?”

Brooke took a shuddering breath and shook her head. “I'm all right, Sammy. Just a little shook up.”

“What happened, baby?”

Natalie took Cindy's arm and pulled her back towards their conference room. “C'mon. We'll leave these two to settle things and....”

“And you'll tell me what the hell is going on?”

They turned back to look at Sam still cradling Brooke in her embrace. “All I know is Brooke nearly plowed me over as I was coming out of the ladies' room. I figured whatever was wrong, she needed Sam, so I came and got Sam. Other than that...?” Natalie shrugged.

“I hope everything's all right, but I have to admit being glad for the opportunity to meet you.”

Natalie cocked an eyebrow and grinned. “You can tell me about it inside,” she said, opening the door and motioning Cindy in ahead of her. She spared a final glance at Sam and Brooke, nodding when Sam gave her a smile and wave, then she closed the door behind her, leaving Sam and Brooke alone in the shared foyer.

 

************

Sam led them over to a tiny alcove and seated them on the bench there, never losing tactile contact with Brooke. After a few more minutes, she felt Brooke relax in her embrace and take another shuddering breath. Brown eyes smiled down into hazel and Brooke smiled back in reflex, straightening so she met Sam's eyes evenly.

“You ready to talk now?”

Brooke nodded. “Yeah... sorry. It just... it kind of freaked me out a little. In fact....” She stood up and looked around the large hallway, clutching Sam's hand. Brooke tugged gently and Sam stood up beside her. “C'mon – I need to find Jordan . I'll tell you the story on the way,” answering the unspoken question so apparent in Sam's dark eyes.

Sam nodded gamely and walked beside Brooke as they moved down the hallway in search of Jordan Cavanaugh.

Strangely enough or not, they found her in the bar at the end of the hallway – not crying, not moving. She sat perfectly still, barely breathing, eyes focused on the drink in front of her. Having heard Brooke's short description of what had happened, Sam took a seat next to Jordan while Brooke stood behind her – close enough to hear the conversation without drawing attention to herself.

“Dr. Cavanaugh? Are you all right?”

Jordan shook her head without looking up, tears welling in her eyes and rolling silently down her cheeks. Impatiently, she wiped them away and blew out a breath, picking up her glass and scrutinizing the contents thereof.

“She liked a good single malt whiskey, you know,” she commented offhandedly, then turned to face Sam. Jordan narrowed her eyes and scrunched up her nose in thought. “Do I know you?” She paused. “Should I know you?”

Sam smiled sadly and shook her head. “No, doc. You don't know me – you shouldn't know me... unless you read the Washington Post.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“My name is Sam McPherson.”

“And why are you here, Sam McPherson?”

“Because you scared the crap out of my girlfriend, and when I heard why, I thought you might need a friend.” Sam looked down at her hands clenched tightly together and took a deep breath before looking up to meet Jordan 's eyes. “You see, I've been where you are,” her voice shaky. “Except I was lucky – Brooke survived,” relaxing slightly when she felt the comforting touch on the small of her back.

Jordan noticed the action and shifted to see Brooke just behind Sam. She lifted a shaky hand towards the familiar face, but even though Brooke made no attempt to move away from her, Jordan let it drop before making contact. “You really do look just like her,” her voice an unsteady whisper.

“Tell us about her,” Sam encouraged.

Jordan looked between the two of them for a long moment. “I'll share mine if you share yours.” Sam and Brooke exchanged silent glances and nodded. Jordan smiled sadly, then turned to the woman that stood in the back corner of the bar, trying to ignore the tableau playing out in front of her. Jordan motioned her over.

“Barkeep, two more glasses for my friends.” The bartender placed the bottle of whiskey on the bar with two fresh glasses. Jordan absently nodded her approval of the alcohol and the woman poured a generous portion into each glass. Jordan dropped a bill onto the wooden surface and scooped up her glass, while passing the remaining two to Sam. Then she rose from the stool and led them over to the privacy afforded by the more comfortable lounge area.

This was going to take a while.

 

 

Chapter XI

“Detective Tallulah Simmons was my friend... probably the best friend I'd ever had in the world as an adult, except maybe my dad.” She paused thoughtfully. “She was a pretty good kisser too, though we were never....” gesturing between Sam and Brooke and shook her head at their slightly disbelieving looks. “Really,” she chuckled sadly. “Not that I might not have welcomed it after I kissed her, but.... My ex-boyfriend Woody and she were dating and he was afraid I might have hard feelings towards them. So I kissed them both to show them I was okay with them, you know... being a couple.”

“So what happened?” Sam prompted when the silence started to drag on uncomfortably. Jordan cleared her throat.

“Sorry.” She glanced at Brooke before settling her eyes on Sam. “Did you hear about the young black child that was shot by police officers in Boston ... thirty-three times?”

Brooke squeezed the hand she held and Sam turned her attention to Brooke. “I did. It's become part of the curriculum at Harvard. But I never saw pictures.” She swallowed hard and looked at Jordan 's downcast head. “No wonder... I'm so sorry, Jordan .”

“You even sound like her,” Jordan commented softly.

“You wanna share?” Sam asked impatiently. Brooke allowed her thumb to caress the back of Sam's hand, the touch both comforting and reassuring. She smiled briefly when she felt Sam relax.

“The incident originally let the officers off scot-free and it caused the city to rise up in riots. Dr. Cavanaugh decided to reexamine the evidence, but the city was already in chaos. Detective Simmons was shot.”

“She died in my arms,” Jordan added softly. She met and held Brooke's eyes. “So to see her... you... alive and well – it threw me... badly. I'm sorry for freaking you out,” accepting the hand Brooke offered her, stroking the soft skin and absently noting the subtle differences between Brooke's touch and Lu's. She chuckled softly and shook her head again. “You wanna know the ironic thing?” looking between them. “Apparently I remind some of the lawyers from Manhattan of a colleague that died years ago. The difference is none of them had a come apart when they saw me.”

“Sounds like it was a little different circumstance too.”

Jordan shrugged and wiped her eyes diffidently. “Maybe. Doesn't make my reaction any less embarrassing.”

“But more understandable. I'm sorry for....” Brooke stopped speaking when Jordan shook her head.

“All you did was walk away. It could have been so much worse.” She cleared her throat again and turned back to Sam. “So what's your story?” Sam shuddered and Jordan watched the color drain from her face before feeling Brooke's hand slide from hers to clutch Sam's face between her hands.

“Breathe, Sammy. I'm right here.” She turned back to Jordan .

“During our junior year of high school, my supposed best friend got drunk and ran me over with her Jag. Sam watched it happened... watched me die... and brought me back to life. We spent a large part of our senior year in one form of therapy or another together. Sam never missed a day of physical therapy with me, and we were both in counseling for the emotional damage she did.”

Jordan turned to Sam whose eyes never left Brooke's. “That's amazing, Sam. Maybe sometime when you feel a little more comfortable, you can share more of the story. Because you obviously got a happy ending, and I'm a sucker for a happy ending.” Her voice was still shaky, but her eyes were sincere.

Sam swallowed hard and nodded jerkily before letting her eyes leave Brooke's to meet Jordan 's gaze. “Yeah,” she said as she covered the hands cupping her face. “Me too,” she agreed softly, bringing the hands she now held in her own and brushing her lips over them before putting them in her lap. “I'm sorry about your loss.”

Jordan nodded her acceptance of the proffered condolence. “Me too. She was a good person... a good friend.” She lifted her glass towards them and they released their hands to raise their own in response. “To happy endings,” she offered.

“And new friends,” Brooke replied. “If you'd be willing, I mean,” she added after seeing the stunned look on Jordan 's face.

Jordan blinked and nodded. “I think I'd like that,” raising her glass to theirs before they all downed the whiskey... with three completely different reactions. Jordan sighed in satisfaction; Brooke blinked rapidly to keep the tears from spilling onto her face; and Sam coughed, inhaling roughly against the burn it created inside her. Jordan reached a hand up and patted her on the back until Sam raised her head and motioned she was all right. Jordan cocked a brow at her.

“You sure?”

Sam nodded. “Yeah... thanks. Not much of a drinker – not after....” letting her words trail off.

“Fair enough,” Jordan agreed. “Maybe chocolate milk next time?”

“Definitely more my speed,” Sam said with a shaky grin, her voice still hoarse from her coughing spat. She rose from her seat and held out a hand – first to Brooke, then to Jordan , pulling them to stand beside her. “Um, if we're done here for now, I need to get back to my conference.”

“So do we, actually,” Jordan confirmed, gesturing them out of the bar in front of her.

“Dr. Cavanaugh? Are you going to be all right?” Brooke asked quietly, still holding onto Sam's hand.

“If we're going to be friends, you're both going to have to get past the Dr. Cavanaugh thing and call me Jordan. And yes, I'll be all right. It was more shock than anything – I mean, it's not every day you run into the doppleganger of someone who you know is dead,” her tone wry.

Sam and Brooke exchanged glances before they turned and Sam stepped in front of Jordan , placing her empty hand on Jordan 's arm. Jordan stopped and waited, trying for a look of amusement. Sam shook her head, and scowled fiercely.

“No. Not with us. You may want to keep your feelings private, and we certainly respect that, but please don't make light of them... not in front of us. It's okay to feel them – whether it was love or friendship or something else. Please don't be ashamed of having them. You never know when you might need them.”

Jordan froze. After a long, still moment, she took a deep breath. “You're a very wise woman, Sam McPherson.”

“Wisdom garnered from lessons learned the hard way.”

Jordan glanced at Sam and Brooke's still clasped hands and nodded. “Fair enough. Thanks.”

The rest of the trip back to the convention hall was made in silence.

 

************

“Hey, Bailey... you all right?” Gordon asked as he and the rest of the AVID delegation gathered around the young woman currently ensconced at one of the outdoor tables overlooking Bay Lake . They had just come from Desdemona's room at the Grand Floridian after being thoroughly dressed down and were unconsciously seeking shelter in one another's presence. They all pulled up chairs and sat down in a large circle, waiting for Bailey to answer.

She shrugged. “Oh sure... it's the third time I've been fired this week. The first time she figures out she has to do something for herself, she'll call me, and I'll be hired back again.”

“Something needs to be done about her,” Warren growled. “She's got no right treating you or any of the rest of us that way... especially for her screw-ups.”

Bailey smiled wanly. “You're sweet Warren , but as her brother, you should know by now that Desi doesn't screw-up – only those around her do.”

“Well personally, I can't wait for her karma to come around and bite her on the ass. I mean... it has to, right? No one can be like this without some sort of payback.”

“I dunno, Adelia,” Melissa replied. “There's nothing in the karmic codebook that says we'll get any sort of payback in this life cycle. We may not get to see it at all.”

“Well, *that* just sucks,” commented Harmon, lifting a hand and motioning a server out from behind the bar.

“Yeah, but considering the way *our* karma seems to be running lately, it wouldn't be all that unexpected either,” Buster mumbled.

“Some days I just wish she'd die,” Bailey stated without a single bit of inflection in her voice. “At least then *this* karmic cycle would be over with and maybe we wouldn't get caught in her next one.” No one said a word, so surprised by the utter lack of... anything... in Bailey's voice or tone. Only the waiter delivering the drinks Harmon had ordered broke the tableau and Dot cleared her throat.

“Well, I know two things for certain – when she dies, I'm going to try to find a way out of her circle. And if I figure out what I did to get into this circle to begin with, I swear I will *never* repeat it.”

“That sounds like a great idea, Dot,” Violet commented. “Too bad she has to die first.”

Whatever comment was coming next was halted by the imperious ring tone that suddenly blared from Bailey's phone. Even though she knew who was calling simply by the ring tone, she still glanced at the screen, dropping her head on the table when her suspicions were confirmed. She hit the speakerphone, motioning everyone to be quiet.

“Yes, Desdemona?”

“Bailey, where are you? Is that music I hear in the background? And ice... do I hear ice in a glass?? Are you drinking?? What's wrong with you?? This is a workday and you have a job to do! And I expect you to get to it immediately.”

“I don't have a job, remember? You fired me... again.”

“Of course I didn't, stupid girl. What's wrong with you?? Now get up here this instant. And bring Dot with you. I seem to be having a computer issue and it needs to be straightened out immediately before we lose any more time at the conference.”

“Desdemona, even if I was still working for you, and even if I could find Dot, that is still not going to get us into that conference. Gabrielle made it quite clear this morning....”

“Oh pish posh. I'm certain that was nothing more than a little misunderstanding on her part. Gabrielle simply needs the right kind of persuasion. Now... enough of your foolishness. I expect to see you here in the next five minutes!” Without allowing Bailey another word, DIVA hung up. Bailey looked around at her compatriots.

“See... I told you.”

“You oughta blow her off,” Adelia snarked, leaning back in her chair and taking a large gulp of her cocktail. Bailey just gave her a look.

“I can't afford to do that any more than the rest of you can. C'mon, Dot.”

Dot upended her drink, draining it dry before she rose and motioned Bailey ahead of her. “Lead the way my dear. And the rest of you,” she said, narrowing her eyes and pointing, “no drinking without us.”

The rest watched them go before turning back to their drinks. Harmon signaled the waiter to bring another round.

 

************

“So how are things going on your side?” Gabrielle asked as she and Xena met once more in the private room between the two conventions. Lucy and Dinah were taking a well-deserved break and Xena and Gabrielle were appreciating the relative peace of a few minutes alone together.

“Umm,” Xena replied, swallowing the mouthful of soda she'd just taken. “Not bad, actually. Once everyone got involved in looking at all the vendors, and then moved into their seminars, they kinda settled down. They seem to be a lot more focused on the conference and what's going on than in Desdemona now. I just hope it stays that way.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Me too. She was like a blip on the radar for a while, but it seems like most of the attendees are much more interested in what they can get out of the convention than they are in anything about her. Now if she'll just lay low for the remainder of our time here....”

Xena cocked an eyebrow and smirked in her direction. Gabrielle just shook her head.

“Yeah, I don't think so either, but it doesn't do any harm to hope.” She looked at her watch as Lucy and Dinah reentered the room. “Great timing. I need to go see how lunch is coming along.” She stood and Dinah slid into her seat. “See you guys back here in a while.” And with a wave, Gabrielle departed.

Xena watched her go, turning to frown at Lucy when she cleared her throat loudly. “Something wrong there, Luce? You need another glass of water or something?”

Lucy glared. “Noooo,” she drawled. “But I do need you to get out of my seat.”

“Your seat? And what if I don't wanna?”

This time Lucy smirked. “Then you can explain to *your* boss why you're hiding out in here keeping me from doing my job instead of out there doing your job,” pointing to the opposite convention hall.

Xena glared at her for a long moment before relenting. “I hate you, ya know.”

“That's okay... Gabrielle likes me.”

Xena growled, but headed back out to the law enforcement room. Dinah held her laughter until she was out of sight, then giggled at Lucy who was grinning back at her. “That was entertaining.”

“Yeah, I'll pay for it later, but it was worth it for now.”

“And on that note, I need to go get the second half of this day started. Later, guys!”

 

************

Desdemona growled in frustration. Every bot she sent out looking for information about Gabrielle or Xena simply led straight back to her. Dot didn't have an explanation for it, but regardless of what computer she used, the result was always the same. There was nothing to be found out about either woman – and no way to find it even it there was any dirt to be found. Harmon had confirmed he had been stonewalled the same way and despite his best efforts, he had no way to trace it to the source.

If she'd had more time, she might have been able to dig something up the old fashioned way, but there just wasn't time for that – not and accomplish her goal of getting into the Women in Media conference. Still there had to be something – she just needed to figure out how to find it.

For now, though, it was lunchtime. She picked up the phone and placed her room service order, then she sat back down at her computer. Surely there was something she was missing.

 

************

And somewhere nearby, a woman carefully checked over her supplies, wanting to be certain everything was taken care of correctly the first time. This had been a long time coming.

 

************

“Gabrielle? Have you seen Helena ?”

Gabrielle turned to find Barbara directly behind her and she shook her head thoughtfully. “Not since this morning. Why?” She was directing the staff as they removed the luncheon service. The first half of the day was over and except for the incident with Desdemona first thing, Gabrielle considered it a success. She had walked among the attendees as they ate, taking compliments and answering questions. Most were satisfied with their experience thus far and the little things that were causing issues could be easily solved with just minor tweaking. “Is everything okay?”

“I'm not sure,” watching the exodus of women heading towards the ladies' rooms before the second half of the day's events got underway. “I've never known Helena to miss a meal, and yet I didn't see her at lunch.”

“Maybe she ate with Dinah? Or Xena?”

Barbara shrugged. “Maybe, but then why not let me know?” She pulled her glasses off and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. “Sorry. It's not like she's accountable to me... or you. I think this whole situation with Desdemona‘s just thrown me for a loop. I never expected....”

“I don't think any of us did. I know from what I heard earlier and what Xena said she heard on her side, there were a lot of folks unhappy about her unexpected appearance.”

“She just... I feel like we're waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“And you think Helena may be the one to drop it?”

Barbara shook her head. “No. Not anymore – she's matured so much, Gabrielle... so beautifully. Sometimes she's got a better handle on herself and her temper than I ever did at her age, and considering her heritage....”

“... that's saying a lot, Barbara. It's not like you were ever out of control.”

Barbara smiled wryly. “Yes, but I never *lived* like she has either. It wasn't until she came into my life that I realized the difference between being and living.”

“It goes both ways, Red,” Helena said as she crossed the room to stand beside the two of them. She leaned down and kissed Barbara's lips chastely, not wanting to start an uproar. Barbara curled one hand into Helena 's shirt and pulled her in for a second, longer kiss. She licked her lips in satisfaction at the flash of gold she saw in Helena 's glimpse before her eyes reverted to blue once more.

“I missed you.”

“I see that. I'm going to have to go away more often if that's the kind of reception I'm going to get when I come back. Did you need something?”

“Nope. Just you,” the sentiment causing both women to blush and Gabrielle to chuckle as she turned away to give them a bit of privacy.

 

 

Chapter XII

“Gabrielle.” The soft call of her name caused her to move away from Barbara and Helena with a bare nod, knowing from their distracted waves they were already deeply involved in discussion. She walked towards the woman waiting to speak to her and cocked her head in a listening attitude that even Miranda Priestly couldn't fault. Miranda's lips twitched though her expression didn't change.

“Yes, Miranda?”

“I was simply wondering what was going to be done about....” Her lips pursed in disdain and her voice dropped even lower. “… Desdemona.”

“In what regard, Miranda? I have already made certain she knows that she is unwelcome at this conference due to her own lack of diligence.”

“Is that all?”

“What else would you like me to do? Until yesterday, I was unaware of her existence. And despite the fact that I have been made aware of what a truly despicable individual she seems to be, and though I am responsible for what happens here during the convention, I have very little control over much else that happens in the world. Short of someone coming forward and publicly pressing charges against her, there really is very little I can do that I haven't already done.”

“I see,” Miranda breathed, dissatisfaction clear in her tone. “Very well – that's all,” she added as she turned away. A hand on her arm caused her to still, but a slight shake of her head kept Emily from moving to her side. She looked at Gabrielle and raised a brow in question.

“Miranda, what would you have me do? I'm open to suggestions, if you have any to offer.”

Miranda sighed and unexpectedly patted the warm hand still resting on her forearm. “I wish I did, Gabrielle. I wish I did.” When she walked away this time, Gabrielle let her go.

“Oh boy,” Gabrielle muttered, before turning her attention to the women who were once more filling the room, ready to begin the next part of their day.

 

************

“Excuse me,” the harried looking woman inquired as she pushed her reddish hair behind her ear and hiked the strap of her bag further up her shoulder. Amy moved away from her friends to see if she could offer assistance.

“Can I help you?”

“I hope so,” the woman replied. “My name is Katie O'Donnell. I was looking for Xena or Gabrielle.”

“Of course,” flipping open her cell phone and speaking into it. A moment later, Lucy appeared beside her.

“What's up, babe?” sliding an arm around Amy's waist as she reached them.

“Lucy, this is Katie....”

“... O'Donnell,” Katie finished, extending a hand that Lucy accepted as a matter of course. “I was looking for Xena or Gabrielle? I'm one of the speakers at the Women in Law Enforcement and the Women in Media conventions.”

“Of course,” Lucy nodded. “We've been expecting you. If you'll just come with me, please.”

Amy took Lucy's hand in hers and together they led Katie into the private room. “If you'll wait right here,” Lucy indicated, “I'll let them know you've arrived.” Both Amy and Katie nodded and Lucy walked off to notify Xena and Gabrielle of their late arrival.

“So how did you end up participating in both conferences?” Amy asked as she leaned against the nearest table. Katie pulled her bag off her shoulder and placed it carefully on the table. “I only know of one or two others that might be able to do that, and I'm fairly certain they're not attending both,” not mentioning that she was one of the two she knew of with the ability to attend both.

Katie shrugged and tucked her hair behind her ear again, wondering if it hadn't been easier when she could just pull it into a bun. “Dumb luck, I guess,” she answered. “I was a sketch artist for the FBI before everything went digital, and I did some book art and scene layouts on the side.”

“Do you still sketch?” Amy inquired. Katie smiled.

“Oh yes. I don't think I could ever fully give it up. Da Vinci was my idol growing up. He was such an amazing talent.”

“I like his work,” Amy agreed, “though of the old Masters I prefer Michelangelo. His art was just that... art. Da Vinci was more than just art.”

Katie nodded, unable to argue the truth of that statement. Then Gabrielle stepped into the room from one of the side doors and Amy excused herself to rejoin her friends.

“It was nice to meet you, Katie.”

“Nice to meet you too, Amy,” Katie returned politely, then turned to greet Gabrielle like the old friend she was.

“Hey, Gabrielle!” opening up her arms for a hug. “I'm sorry I'm late. I overslept this morning – I was visiting with my cousin last night. Housekeeping actually woke me up. I forgot to charge my phone and I couldn't remember your numbers, so....”

“Katie, slow down. It's all right,” Gabrielle assured her. “You haven't missed anything but lunch, and your presentation wasn't scheduled until after then anyway, remember?” Katie nodded and heaved a sigh of relief. “Good,” Gabrielle said with a smile and a pat on the arm. “Now take a deep breath,” waiting for Katie to follow her instruction. “Better?”

Katie released the breath slowly. “Yes, actually... as ridiculous as it sounds.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Trust me... I know.”

Before Katie could question her further, Xena stepped into the room just behind Lucy. Lucy took her seat behind one set of monitors just as Dinah came in and took her place behind the others.

“What's all this?” Katie asked with a nervous giggle. “Afraid someone's going to steal the good silver?”

Xena snorted. “You've been reading too much Agatha Christie,” reaching out for her own brief hug. “No, we're recording all the seminar sessions. It will be part of the DVD package the attendees will receive at the end of the convention.”

“What a wonderful idea.”

“We thought so,” Xena replied drolly, pouting when Gabrielle mock-elbowed her in the belly.

“Be nice,” Gabrielle growled, but she couldn't hide the twinkle sparkling in her eyes.

“I'll show you nice later, bard,” she muttered sotto voce so only Gabrielle could hear her, blue eyes dancing merrily. Then she turned to Katie. “C'mon, Katie. You're with me today, and the women should all be back from their breaks and ready to start the afternoon session.” She turned back to Gabrielle. “I'll see you shortly?”

“You know where to find me, Tough Stuff,” Gabrielle said with a wink as she headed back towards her own room. “Katie, I'll see you later.” With a wave she disappeared through the doorway, then Xena and Katie slipped through theirs. Dinah and Lucy exchanged glances.

“You ever get the feeling we've got the best seats in the house?”

Lucy just grinned and wiggled her eyebrows.

 

************

On the law enforcement side of the hall, women were trickling in, heading directly for the seminar rooms their different sessions had been scheduled for. Since they had been allowed to pick and choose their participation, they were a very mixed lot – no longer separated by friendship or job skill. Instead, they were a conglomeration of law enforcement personnel brought together by common interests and desires to learn new things. It was into this that Abbie Carmichael walked into.

She entered the convention hall slowly, not wanting to disrupt anything... until she realized that only a handful of women populated the main room as they meandered around the various vendors' booths still open for their perusal.

She walked around the room as casually as possible searching for Casey, hoping her insecurities hadn't cost her everything she'd given up hoping for. She knew Casey would give her the chance to explain – that was simply the kind of woman Casey was. Whether or not she would understand? Well, that was another matter entirely.

Abbie walked the perimeter of the entire room, subtly looking for any hint of a clue where Casey might be. Finally, Xena noted the lost and defeated expression she wore and approached her.

“Can I help you, Counselor?”

Abbie blew out a frustrated breath. It wasn't Xena's fault she was in this predicament and she was offering to help. Abbie wasn't fool enough to turn away from the offer.

“I don't suppose you could tell me which room Casey Novak is in, could you?”

Xena looked at Abbie for a long moment, recognizing the lost look in her eyes though she hadn't seen it in her own in a long, long time. She looked down at an electronic pad the likes of which Abbie hadn't seen outside of science fiction television. “Sure,” she agreed casually, running a finger down the screen. “Come with me.”

Abbie trailed along obediently, stopping when Xena came to a halt as she motioned to a door. “Would you like me to get her for you or...?”

Abbie shook her head. “Is it okay for me to go in?”

Xena nodded. “I will ask that if you need to... discuss... anything, that you please come out of the room to do so. I don't want the seminar disrupted.”

Abbie nodded. “I understand. Thank you.”

“Good luck, Ms Carmichael,” Xena offered before she walked back towards the vendor area. Abbie closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then opened the door and stepped into the room.

 

************

Casey noticed Abbie step into the room as soon as she crossed the threshold. With each of the seminar rooms being an off-shoot of the main conference room, all the doors tended to be along a side wall instead of in the back and from her vantage point, Casey had a perfect view of the doorway.

The look on Abbie's face made her gasp, but she didn't move, unsure if Abbie was joining the session or.... Then dark brown eyes met hers and Casey's breath caught again. This time, however, she excused herself from her seatmates, walking silently across the back of the room until she was standing beside Abbie.

Without a word, Abbie offered Casey her hand. Casey stared into her eyes for a long moment, then she accepted Abbie's hand when she found what she was looking for. Abbie offered her a small smile, and led them from the break-out room and out of the convention hall and towards the more populated area of the resort. It was time to get some things settled.

 

************

“You must think I'm some sort of head case,” Abbie started without preamble, chuckling depreciatively and keeping her eyes firmly on the table she and Casey were currently ensconced at. When Casey didn't immediately reply, she glanced up. Casey's expression was one of patient listening and maybe even a willingness to understand, but beyond that.... She swallowed hard; this was more difficult than she'd expected. Abbie shook her dark head. “Forget it,” she said, starting to stand. A gentle hand around her wrist halted her movement and she looked up again to see compassion reflected out of jade green eyes.

“No, Abbie. No more running. You owe me an explanation.” Casey paused and took a deep breath before she hurried on. “Are you breaking up with me?”

“What?!? NO!!” nearly shouted in her intensity to chase that idea from Casey's mind. She took a look around, glad to note her outburst hadn't attracted much attention from the passers-by. It didn't hurt that they had chosen a table somewhat off the beaten path. “Why would you think that??”

Casey looked at her as if trying to discover if it was a serious question. Finally, “You're kidding me right?” her voice dry and droll. “Abbie, we finally get a chance to take a semi-vacation together – meet up with some old friends and relax a little - and suddenly you don't want to be anywhere near me. What am I supposed to think?”

“That you're in love with a total nut case?”

At this, Casey rolled her eyes. “Oh Abbie – I knew you were a nut case before we met. You worked in the Manhattan DA's office just like I did. That takes a special kind of nut and we both know it.”

Abbie snorted. “Yeah, cracked.”

Casey chuckled, knowing it for the truth. Then she sobered. “Why'd you run, Abbie?”

Abbie shrugged. “It's what I'm good at.”

“The truth, Abbie. All of it. I think I deserve that much.”

Abbie nodded slowly. “You deserve more than that, but it's the least I can do. C'mon and walk with me,” she offered, extending her hand and waiting for Casey to accept it. Casey took it and together they headed out along the walkway around the lake.

Silence reigned for a while and Casey was glad to let it, knowing Abbie was gathering her thoughts together. Finally, she drew a deep breath. “I'm not bi-polar; I need you to understand that first. I really am a stable individual.”

Casey drew them to a halt with the merest tug on their linked hands. “Abbie, I know you're stable; I also know something scared the shit out of you. And I'm pretty sure it involves me and your cousin... although I haven't figured out how exactly. I mean, I never even met Lindsay until....” She fell silent when Abbie covered her lips with the softest touch of her fingertips.

Abbie gave her a wry grin. “Shh,” she commanded. “Let me tell this.” When Casey nodded, Abbie removed her fingers and they resumed their stroll. “Growing up, Lindsay was my best friend - she still is in a lot of ways because first and foremost, she's family. And she knows things about me... lived through things with me... that no one else would. At least until I met you. I hadn't actually realized that until I saw her – until I introduced you as the love of my life, and it freaked me out.” She paused a beat and her voice lowered. “So I ran.”

“Why?”

“Because,” Abbie confessed, her voice so low Casey had to strain to hear her, “if I sabotage myself first, then you can't hurt me later. Lesson hard learned.”

“I'm liable to hurt something in a minute,” Casey muttered with a scowl. Then she tugged on Abbie's arm. “C'mon. We're going to go back to our room and you're going to start talking from the beginning. And then it's my turn.”

“And then?”

“That depends on us... both of us, together.”

“I sure do like the sound of that,” Abbie confessed wistfully. Casey squeezed the hand she held and headed back towards their room.

 

************

“Has anybody seen Casey?” Liz asked as the lectures broke for a break and everyone congregated in the main convention room. “She was supposed to take notes for me.” She huffed impatiently. “I got a call from Jack McCoy that just couldn't wait.”

“Problems?” Melinda asked as she passed the other woman a glass of water. Liz accepted it gratefully and gulped several swallows before shaking her head. “Nothing I couldn't manage, but he did make me miss the seminar I was supposed to attend. Casey knew and said she'd grab me a copy of whatever material was available.”

“Excuse me,” a Scottish brogue broke into the conversation. “The woman you're looking for – tall, reddish-blonde hair, lovely figure?” Liz's brows went to her hairline at the description, but she nodded her head. “She left,” Helen supplied.

“I beg your pardon?” Liz asked, then held up a hand to prevent Helen from speaking. “Wait, I understood what you said. When did she leave?”

“Shortly after the lecture began. A dark haired woman came to the door and your friend got up and left with her.”

“Thanks, Ms...?”

“Stewart... Helen Stewart.”

“Liz Donnelly,” Liz returned, offering her hand, then introducing her around the New York contingent that was currently grouped together. “Guess I'll just have to wait until they kiss and make up before I get my notes,” she grumbled.

Helen smirked and shook her head. “I could share mine. It might be a while otherwise. I've seen those looks before.”

Liz blew out an impatient breath, then Alex linked an arm through hers. “C'mon, Liz. You'll get your notes from Casey or we'll ask the speaker for a copy. Jack won't have made you miss anything.”

“I hope not. I'd hate to have to kill him for making me miss something good.”

The women around them, even Helen, chuckled at her pronouncement. Then they headed their separate ways again as the time for the next round of seminars approached. It was turning out to be a good day.

 

 

Chapter XIII

“Gabrielle?” Gabrielle stopped and turned back to Annabelle who nervously tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. She gave Annabelle a smile, hoping to put her at ease. In some ways Annabelle and Simone reminded Gabrielle of Xena and herself lifetimes ago, though for a long time in their relationship she had not been as brash as she knew Annabelle to be in hers. She wondered what could have possibly made the outgoing young woman so unsure of herself.

“What can I do for you, Annabelle?”

“I was wondering if you'd introduce me to Nikki Wade. I mean....”

“I'd be happy to Annabelle, but you have to know it's perfectly all right to introduce yourself. That's part of the purpose of this conference – to put women who've made media contributions to society in touch with one another. Networking makes us all stronger. I'm sure Nikki will be happy to meet you.”

“You think?”

“Annabelle, you have talent – don't doubt that. It gives you common ground with her and everyone else. And your story is as interesting as Nikki's,” seeing the slight flinch. Gabrielle frowned. “Are people making you uncomfortable?”

“Not really,” Annabelle confessed slowly. “I just feel a little out of my depth here. Everyone I've talked to is amazingly talented. I feel like a rank amateur and that is... I've never felt that way. I've always been brash and bold and gone after what I wanted without thought or hesitation. I don't think that would fly with a lot of the professionals I see.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Annabelle, everyone here has been brash or bold at some point – a lot still are. Their passion is what's made them successful. They just don't need to demonstrate that part of them at the moment. They are secure and no one here is challenging them or their place in their field of expertise. Remember that everyone that is here is here because they want to be – they're here to network and make new friends in the business just like you.”

“Really?”

“Trust me. C'mon. I'll introduce you. Then you're on your own.”

Simone looked up from her conversation with Miranda Priestly and Barbara Gordon, watching Annabelle and Gabrielle move off together arm in arm chuckling. She smiled, glad Gabrielle had given her young lover the words she needed to hear. Simone watched Nikki greet Annabelle enthusiastically before she turned her attention back to the discussion at hand, suddenly glad she'd given into Annabelle's pleas to attend this convention. It was turning out even better for them both than she hoped.

 

************

Nikki accepted Annabelle's hand with a smile, giving Gabrielle a grateful nod even as she gestured Annabelle to sit. Gabrielle watched them settle in, then moved around the room, checking in with the various groups without interfering with the dialogues being held. She was nodding her head thoughtfully when she entered the private room, causing both Dinah and Lucy to look at her with questioning expressions on their faces.

“Problem?” Dinah asked.

“No, and that disturbs me more than I want to admit,” Gabrielle confessed wryly. “Because the moment things seem to be running smooth....”

“... that's the moment all hell breaks loose,” Lucy finished for her, then shrugged when two sets of eyes turned her way. “Experience,” she said flatly.

“Understood,” Dinah and Gabrielle answered simultaneously before all three burst into laughter. It was to this scene that Xena walked in on.

“Should I be concerned?” She walked up behind Gabrielle and wrapped an arm around her waist. Gabrielle leaned into her and tilted her head back to allow their eyes to meet.

“Only if you're leery of things running smoothly.”

Blue eyes went wide and round and Xena brought a hand up to cover Gabrielle's lips. “Are you trying to jinx us ?”

Gabrielle chuckled and kissed the fingers covering her mouth. Xena smirked, knowing Gabrielle could have chosen to lick them instead. So without further prompting she removed them and waited for Gabrielle to speak.

“Not at all; why do you think I am wary at this point?”

“Well, if it makes you feel better, I'm pretty sure we have a few personal dramas going on behind the scenes as it were.”

“Problems?” Gabrielle inquired, her voice low and serious. Xena met her eyes frankly.

“I don't think so. I think some of our attendees were met with some unexpected surprises when they arrived. So far, they seem to be working them out on their own time mostly. I've got a couple of attorneys that disappeared earlier, but since I haven't gotten a call from hotel security, I'm working under the theory that whatever the issue is, they've got it under control.”

“Fair enough. We'll be among the first to know if something goes haywire.”

“Something else, you mean,” Dinah commented.

She's right,” Lucy agreed. “Desdemona is still out there plotting who knows what. You know she's gonna be a problem again at some point – unless we get lucky and she chokes on a chicken bone or something.”

“As long as she's not here, we're not gonna worry about her. We've got enough to worry about without inviting anything else.”

“Agreed,” Xena said, looking at her watch. “We've only got one more session to get through today. Then we can let everybody go to get ready for the Halloween party tonight.”

Before she could say anything else, Gabrielle looked at her own watch then scurried towards the doorway leading to her side of the convention hall. “Gotta go.” She caught Xena's eye. “Meet you back here shortly?”

Xena smiled. “You know it. Oh,” turning back to the room and waiting for Gabrielle to do the same. “Remind your crew about the buses – we need to pull out of here on time if possible.”

“Got it.”

 

************

Desdemona growled, though no one was around to hear it. Dot and Bailey had been dismissed some time earlier, once again unable to give Desdemona the satisfactory results she'd been looking for from them. Despite all her efforts, Dot couldn't break through the bot code that continued to send Desdemona's searches in circles. Bailey had been more successful in running and fetching, but an already disgruntled Desdemona was still not content with her work and Bailey was happy when Desdemona finally released them both for the day in pure frustration.

“I do not understand why I seem to constantly be surrounded by incompetence,” Desdemona muttered to herself as she paced the length of the room and back gain. “There has to be a way to get into that conference even if I can't find any dirt on that Gabrielle woman. No one is as clean as she purports herself to be. I'll make something up – it'll be my word against hers. No one will take her word over mine; my reputation is too great for her to overcome.” She nodded to herself in satisfaction. Now that she had a plan, she only needed to put it into action.

Desdemona picked up her phone, pressing Bailey's number, then growling again when the phone went straight to voice mail.

“Where the hell is that stupid girl? Doesn't she know that being at my beck and call means twenty-four/seven? Honestly, I have to do everything myself!”

She threw her phone on the bed and seated herself on the couch, pulling the laptop to her. Soon, Desdemona was engrossed in her work and a wicked smile crossed her face. If this worked out the way she planned, tomorrow would be glorious.

 

************

“Yes... yes, Sallie. It was wonderful.” A beat. “Thank you for telling me. Seeing her again was.... I love you Sallie.” A pause. “I know. I still love you. Bye.” Bailey cut the connection.

Violet looked at Bailey with admiration. “You really turned it off?”

“Oh yeah. I plan on having a good time at Halloween Horror Nights. I don't need a real monster interrupting my fun. Let's face it... nothing Universal has ever come up with is nearly as scary as Desdemona is on a daily basis.”

The women with her chuckled and nodded their agreement. “I can't believe you managed to get the time off,” Missy commented, watching Bailey apply make-up to make her look truly gruesome.

Bailey shrugged. “I didn't actually ask. She was so furious when she sent Dot and I out of her room this afternoon, I knew better than to bother. I figure she's gonna be up most of the night trying to find another way into that convention.”

“What is her deal with that anyway?”

“If she could have gotten in just by registering for it on time, why didn't she?”

“Because she figures she's special enough to not have to follow the rules the rest of us mere mortals are compelled to,” Dot snarked, adding the last touches to her own costume. “How are we getting to this shindig, by the way?”

“Harmon and Gordon took care of it,” Adelia replied, swishing her costume into place before checking her watch. “We should probably go meet up with them before they decide we're not coming.”

As a group the women rose and took a last look in the mirrors. Then with big grins firmly in place, they headed out for a night of good, scary fun.

 

************

Alex and Olivia met up in the big convention hall as soon as their last session for the day was finished. Olivia clasped Alex's hand and they headed to the food court to pick up a bite to eat, mindful of the instructions Xena had given about the night's activity.

“Do you suppose Casey and Abbie are still ‘talking'?” Olivia asked with a smirk. She was fairly certain their talking hadn't taken nearly the amount of time they'd been gone from the conference. Alex looked over the rim of her glasses.

“I suppose that they are working out whatever it was that seemed to throw Abbie for a loop. I also suppose I don't want to be the one to interrupt them if they have reached the ‘kiss and make-up' stage of their conversation.”

Olivia pulled a face. “Me either.” She paused. “Do you think they are really all right?”

“I think that since we haven't heard any emergency vehicles come screaming into the parking lot, we'll take it as a good sign and leave them alone to work it out.”

“Is it wrong that I want them to be as happy as we are without all the bumps it took us to get here?” Olivia asked as they entered the food court and made their way over to the grill. Alex turned and covered her cheek with her free hand.

“Not at all, sweetheart. But sometimes we have to go through the hard stuff to understand the preciousness of the good we have.”

“Oh for the love of God, Cabot,” Tracey Kibre whined. “Your sappiness is going to give the lot of us diabetes. Whatever happened to the fire-eating, ball-buster I used to know?”

Alex's hand slipped from Olivia's face and she turned to answer Tracey before she was forestalled by Kelly Gaffney's response.

“She fell in love, Tracey,” Kelly commented to her boss, tugging on her arm. “Leave them alone.”

“She fell in love,” Tracey repeated in a sarcastic mutter. “So the rest of us have to suffer? What exactly is fair about that?” grumbling as Kelly led her away from Alex and Olivia. Kelly shook her head in apology and Alex and Olivia smiled sympathetically before turning their attention back towards the grill just as their food was removed and passed over to them. They accepted it with a nod and made their way to the cashier, then headed back to their room.

“Well,” Olivia commented solemnly as they entered their temporary home. “I hope they get things settled soon. I expect them to have some fun with us this trip.”

Alex grinned. “I'm sure your buddy is looking forward to playing at Disney as much as you are.” Olivia blushed and ducked her head, but she didn't deny Alex's words, and they sat down to eat before preparing their costumes for the evening.

 

************

“I was popular in high school,” Abbie started softly. “Head cheerleader, president of the student body, captain of the debate team... that sort of thing,” she offered with a shrug. “I was also a Dean's list student, girlfriend of the quarterback... you get the idea,” letting her eyes meet Casey's briefly before returning to an intricate study of her clasped hands. “Cameron and I grew up together; our families were neighbors – we went to the same schools, the same church, rode the same bus – we were always together. Eventually people just expected us to be and we kind of went along with it, to the point of getting engaged after high school was over. I was so happy – I was in love with my Prince Charming and he was in love with me and we were going to have a perfect life together. Our parents were so excited. I think they had been looking forward to our wedding since we'd been born so getting their blessing was a piece of cake, even though we weren't planning to get married until after college.”

“So what happened?” Casey finally asked when the silence went on too long.

“I was raped.”

It was silent for a time after that. Casey was unsure what if anything to say and Abbie was collecting her thoughts. Finally Abbie broke the silence.

“Cameron couldn't stand the thought of someone else having touched me, and although he was smart enough not to blame me for it to my face, he still broke up with me almost as soon as I told him.”

“Jackass!”

Abbie snorted. “My daddy said the same thing.” She hesitated. “Of course, he never knew the reason behind our break-up either. Lindsay knew; she's always had a way of getting the truth out of me.” She shrugged. “However, it completely changed my focus; I went from being an English Lit major into law. My guidance counselor nearly had a come apart, but when I went to the head of my class and stayed there, she realized I had found my path.”

“Did she know...?”

“About the rape? No,” Abbie replied. “After Cameron's reaction, I didn't tell anyone else except Lindsay. I already blamed myself and I knew Cameron did as well. I didn't need people I didn't even know thinking I was some sort of slut. It was easier just to keep it to myself. But after that, I kept myself a little apart – friendly to everyone without being close to anyone. I made friends, but I was the one to walk away when they got too close or I started becoming too attached.”

“It sounds lonely.”

“It was, but it was also insulating – kept me from getting hurt again. Lindsay was the only one who wouldn't let me get away with it, but she was half a country away except when we went home for the holidays. The rest….” Abbie shrugged again. “It allowed me to graduate at the top of my class and get an ADA internship in Manhattan right out of law school.”

“And then?” Casey prompted when Abbie fell silent again.

Abbie rolled her eyes. “I'm sure you heard the rumors – I was either a frigid bitch or a fucking whore, depending on who you asked and what day of the week or time of the month it was. I decided early on that I wouldn't let it bother me... I couldn't. It would have shattered my composure. As it was....”

Casey waited, finally raising Abbie's chin enough so their eyes could meet. She cocked her head in concern when dark eyes filled with tears met her worried green ones. “Abbie?”

Abbie smiled sadly and shook her head. “The first person to befriend me when I got to the City was a woman named Toni Ricci – another ADA . She was the first person aside from Lindsay I felt comfortable enough around to let my guard down with. She was... amazing. She allowed me to be what I needed to be without pushing me for answers or reasons for my behavior. Eventually, she became my best friend, and I told her about what had happened.” Abbie sighed. “She encouraged me to see someone – a professional – but she didn't force me into anything I wasn't able to do on my own.”

“What happened?”

Tears spilled down Abbie's cheeks, but her voice was a steady whisper when she answered. “I let myself care for her, and she was gone in an instant... killed by mobsters. That was the last time I opened myself up... until you.”

“Even with Alex and Olivia?”

Abbie made a face. “They were my colleagues and then my friends. And although we're close and I'm proud to count them among my best friends, they have never been more than that. They never had the power to hurt me the way you could... the way you still can.”

“And that occurred to you....”

“... when I introduced you to Lindsay as the love of my life.”

“So why not come talk to me, Abbie?”

“I had to recover my balance.” Abbie shook her head and rose from her spot beside Casey. “I can't explain to you how thrown I was. I know it makes me sound like an idiot, but it's the truth.” She took a deep breath and stepped over to the window. “It was like going to bed in New York in the middle of a blizzard and waking up half-naked on the French Riviera.”

Casey blinked. “Wow – that's quite a visual.” Abbie shrugged again, but kept her back to the room. Casey stood up and moved to stand behind her – not quite touching, but close enough for Abbie to feel her presence. Abbie's eyes closed and Casey let her hands drop to her sides. “Abbie... Abbie, look at me.” The dark head shook and Casey sighed, this time placing her hands on Abbie's shoulders. “Abbie,” her voice soft and pleading.

It took a moment, but finally Abbie turned in the circle of Casey's arms, allowing her eyes to meet Casey's. She sucked in a startled breath, not having expected to find the love and understanding reflected back to her.

“Thank you for sharing that with me. I can't promise never to hurt you, but I can promise you that I will try. Next time, come talk to me first, huh?”

Abbie didn't answer verbally. Instead, she let Casey envelop her in a fierce embrace, which she returned fully. When they parted enough to allow their eyes to meet, Casey whispered, “I love you, Abbie – I love all of you.”

This time Abbie's response was more physical, and it wasn't long before their making up was as well.

 

 

Chapter XIV

”I don't wanna be Scooby Doo!” Helena pouted, crossing her arms over her chest in a fit of pique. “He's a *dog*, Dinah... a DOG. And I am soooo not a dog person.” She motioned to herself and let her eyes augment, revealing her obvious feline nature.

“ Helena , you lost the toss fair and square,” Dinah huffed.

Helena snorted. “Yeah – about that. How do I know you didn't TK it in your favor? Hmm?”

Outraged blue eyes met discontented blue. “Are you saying I cheated?”

“Did you?”

“All right, you two... enough,” Barbara commented as she rolled into the room, her wheelchair making motorcycle sounds as it moved. “You should have gone with Sylvester and Tweety if you wanted to be cartoon characters. At least they would have played to type. Now go get dressed; we don't want to be late meeting up with everyone.”

“Barbara!” Helena whined even as Dinah moved off to do Barbara's bidding.

Barbara reached up and wrapped a gloved fist in Helena 's shirt, pulling her down swiftly until their lips were inches apart. Helena squawked and braced her arms on the arms of Barbara's chair, then smiled ferally as she realized their positions allowed her to appreciate Barbara's costume in a whole new way. The white tank was tight – tight enough to reveal delineated abs and full cleavage that it couldn't quite contain. The temporary tattoos were colorful and the leather motorcycle jacket draped across her lap didn't hide the skin-tight jeans she wore.

“ Helena ?” Barbara's voice broke through the haze Helena had fallen into and her now golden eyes met Barbara's green ones.

“Yes?” her voice low and purring, causing Barbara's nostrils to flare in response.

“Get dressed, Scooby. The quicker we do this party thing, the quicker we can come back her and have our own private game of trick-or-treat.”

The kiss that was Helena 's answer would have gone on longer had Dinah not screamed in frustration. “Will the two of you stop it already? I don't have enough life left to get all the therapy I'm gonna need from all your projecting!”

“Deal, Kid. If I'm gonna suffer, then so are you.” Dinah stuck out her tongue, and Barbara laughed then patted Helena 's hip.

“Go get dressed, Hel. It's time to go trick-or-treating at the House of Mouse.”

 

************

“Careful there, bard,” Xena wheezed as Gabrielle pulled the laces of her corset tighter. “It's not like I have worn this in a while and leather shrinks if you don't wear it every day, you know.”

Gabrielle just gave her a knowing look and slipped the brass armor plates over Xena's head, then motioned Xena to raise her arms so she could fasten it in place. A knock on the door caused Gabrielle to stop what she was doing and Xena crossed to the door and opened it to admit Wonder Woman.

“Wow,” Diana breathed softly. “I never thought I'd see the Warrior Princess in all her ancient glory.” Blue eyes met fiery green when Gabrielle cleared her throat rather loudly. “Sorry, my Queen,” recognizing the poise and bearing even though Gabrielle still wore the robe the resort provided. Diana knelt and bowed her head.

“Diana,” Gabrielle sighed. “Rise. You know better than to stand on such formality with me.”

Diana rose smoothly with a sly smile. “I know. But how else would I know you painted your toes shades of a rainbow?” motioning to Gabrielle's bare feet. When Gabrielle's nose crinkled up in a smile before she stuck out her tongue, Diana looked at the bed where Xena's weapons lay in state. “Are those...?”

“Yep,” Xena confirmed as she snapped the sheath into place on her back armor. She slid her sword in with practiced ease and dropped the chakram onto its hook.

“Is that safe?” Diana asked even as she ran the lasso of truth through her fingers.

“As safe as yours is,” Xena replied with a significant glance towards Wonder Woman's accoutrements. “No one but us knows it's the real thing.”

Diana nodded. “Fair enough. I just don't want to get thrown out of the party before we get in the gate. I mean, really... Amazons who can't even get *into* a party before being thrown out?? What would the sisters say?”

“What happens at Disney....”

“... stays at Disney,” Diana finished, laughing. Then she saw Xena's eyes widen in appreciation and Diana turned to find the Amazon Queen of lore standing in front of her. The brown leather was soft enough to be velvet except where it was inlaid with gold swirls that highlighted full breasts. The armbands and gauntlets served to accentuate Gabrielle's sleek muscularity and her six-pack abs were clearly defined above the matching swirls adorning the brown skirt. Calf high brown boots held the sais she wore and the Queen's shoulder insignia gleamed dully in the lamplight. Gabrielle looked between two sets of blue eyes.

“What?” she asked as she grabbed her cape with her unique sigil pin and snatched up her staff. “Are you two all right?”

Xena grinned rakishly, her eyes glowing in appreciation that even after all their years together made Gabrielle blush. Diana just swallowed hard and nodded. “Yeah. It's just a little... disconcerting... watching Amazon history come to life in front of you. The stories don't do you justice.”

Xena snorted. “That's because she never let's herself be more than the observer in the background. Despite whatever role she actually played.” She and Gabrielle exchanged glares – this was a millennia old argument between them, and it wasn't going to be resolved this night either.

“Can I ask why?” Diana ventured. Xena smirked; Gabrielle sighed.

“Because it's harder to be objective when I am part of the stories.”

Diana rubbed her nose thoughtfully and cleared her throat. “Gabrielle, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but none of your stories are objective where Xena is concerned. Maybe you should visit Paradise Island soon and take a reading tour of the library... your library.”

Gabrielle tuned her glare on Diana momentarily, then sighed loudly. “We need to go before we're late meeting the Spencer-Rivera family for dinner,” with a telling look in Xena's direction.

“And I've promised to meet up with the military contingent that's here,” Diana added as they moved towards the door. Xena opened it and gestured the others out in front of her.

“Have you met them before?”

“I've talked to Col. MacKenzie a few times and I know of both Cols. Carter and Fraiser. This will be my first opportunity to sit down and talk to them though. I'm looking forward to it.” She paused a moment. “You know about them, don't you?” she finally asked.

“Probably as much or more than you do,” Xena assured her. “Dite keeps us in the loop about all kinds of things.”

“Which makes me wonder how she missed drawing a bead on Desdemona.”

“Probably because what she knows about all has to do with her love biz thing, and let's face it,” Gabrielle commented wryly. “There is nothing even vaguely associated with love as far as Desdemona is concerned.”

Both dark heads nodded their agreement and they finished the remainder of their trip to the main building in silence. As they stepped into the air-conditioned building, Diana bobbed her head in respect before separating from Xena and Gabrielle. They watched her meet up with her dinner companions – a dominatrix, a First Prime and an SGC team member.

“Wonder if she knows how accurate Sam and Janet's costumes are.”

“I doubt it. She probably knows they are involved in some sort of secret military project and that they are a couple. You know how the government works – the right hand is never aware of what the left hand is doing. And with ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell....”

“True enough,” Xena agreed before they headed into the restaurant.

 

************

“Gabrielle!” Emma called out from the table she and her mommies were already seated at. She waved, jumping excitedly when Gabrielle waved back. Gabrielle clasped Xena's hand and led them through the maze of tables before reaching the booth where Olivia, Natalia and Emma sat. Emma reached out and took Gabrielle's hand. “Can I sit with you and Xena?” she asked brightly, eyes shining in anticipation.

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances, then Xena motioned Gabrielle to slide in. She turned her back to Xena, unclasping the pin on her cape and leaving it in Xena's capable hands so she could slide into the booth with ease. Olivia's and Natalia's eyes widened at the amount of skin she revealed.

“And I thought your costume was ballsy,” Olivia muttered with a look at the French maid costume Natalia sported. Natalia blushed fiercely from both the words and the perusal.

“Oh, I don't know, Olivia. I think wearing a leash on the belt of a nun's habit instead of the traditional rosary beads is pretty much putting it right out there,” came Gabrielle's rejoinder in a teasing tone. “I'd be willing to bet there's a collar under that wimple.”

Green eyes met unflinchingly – one full of knowing and mischief, the other twinkling even as a blush stained her cheeks. Then Natalia leaned her head on Olivia's shoulder and their eyes met in silent communication. The red receded from Olivia's face, leaving her with only a light pink tinge.

“I think we're going to get along fine,” Olivia said with assurance as her eyes returned to Gabrielle's.

“I know so,” Gabrielle agreed, nodding her head to where Xena was knelt down in front of Emma. Her mothers turned to watch the warrior's interaction with their precious Jellybean.

 

************

“So this is a real warrior's sword?” Emma asked as she walked behind Xena, placing her hand on the hilt as she investigated every single part of her costume.

“Well,” Xena hedged, “it represents a real warrior's sword. It was a necessary part of a warrior's life in ancient Greece ... especially if the warrior in question served as Champion to the Amazon Queen.”

“And that's who Gabrielle is, right?”

“Right... she's the Amazon Queen and I am her Champion.”

“Is that why you have a Frisbee?” gesturing to the chakram.

Xena briefly considered explaining the weapon that had once been her signature as much as the pinch had. Then she smirked to herself – there was no way in hell and damnation itself she could do that without creating far more issues than she would ever be able to solve. She nodded in answer to Emma's question.

“That's why I have the Frisbee – only Queen's Champions get those.”

Emma's eyes sparkled. “That's so cool. I wanna be a Queen's Champion when I grow up.”

Xena smiled. “You can be anything you wanna be, Jellybean, but I have to tell you... I think you make a really nice Esmeralda.”

“She's my favorite; she's not a princess and she knows that preju... prejudice – treating people bad ‘cause they're different - hurts. That's what happened to my mommies, you know,” she confided, her voice quiet enough to actually remain private between her and Xena.

“I didn't know,” Xena replied. “But I promise that Gabrielle and I would never treat you or your mommies with disrespect like that.

“Oh, I know,” Emma said sagely. “You've got good eyes.”

Blue eyes blinked rapidly in surprise. “I do?”

“Um hmm,” the nod firm and instantaneous. “You and Gabrielle both do. I can tell.”

“Well, maybe we can talk about how you can tell sometime.”

“Oh sure. It's easy.” Emma turned to the table. “Mommy, I'm hungry. Can we eat now?”

“Waiting on you, Jellybean,” Olivia responded, watching with an indulgent smile as Emma smoothly slid into the booth between Xena and Gabrielle. Xena took her seat and they turned their attention to the menus. Their friendship was starting out on an interesting note.

 

************

“Hello, Col. MacKenzie,” Diana said as the dominatrix rose to greet her. “Interesting costume.”

“Yeah,” Sam agreed with a wicked grin. “I can't believe Harm agreed to you wearing it without him.”

Mac gave her a wicked grin in return. “Who said I asked?” She turned back to Diana. “Diana Prince, allow me to introduce you to Colonel Doctor Samantha Carter and Colonel Doctor Janet Fraiser. Sam is here as an Air Force representative in the interests of Homeland Security and Janet is part of the medical community participating in law enforcement.” They shook hands and exchanged pleasantries before Diana gestured them towards the restaurant.

“I imagine we will have plenty to talk about then,” Diana assured them. “Shall we?”

As they entered the foyer of the restaurant, they were met by a trio of superheroes headed out. Bones and Diana looked at one another for a long moment, then Bones shook her head.

“You're wearing the lasso on the wrong side,” she said bluntly, motioning to her own costume.

“I don't think so,” Diana replied coolly. “I did a lot of research on this subject.”

“How do you research a fictional character? The television show....”

“... is a television show and shouldn't be taken quite so literally, sweetie,” Angela said as she pushed her red cape off her shoulders again. “Let's just go so these ladies can eat, all right?”

Bones nodded, but not without a final look at Diana's costume. Then she allowed herself to be led from the restaurant. Cam shook her head and gave Mac the once over. Her eyebrow quirked and her lips twitched.

“Yeah, if I had to wear latex, I shoulda gone your route.”

The tension broken, the quartet chuckled their agreement as they watched Batman follow Supergirl and Wonder Woman from the room. Then they followed the hostess to their table.

 

************

“Gabrielle, are those Amazons?” Emma asked as she pointed towards the door. Following Diana and her dinner companions were three women dressed in short leather skirts, short leather tops and calf-high leather boots. With them were three more women who looked as though they belonged to a circus as performers – a clown, complete with red nose and big shoes, some kind of glitzy assistant and a bike rider of some sort. They were seated out of sight and Gabrielle turned her attention back to Emma.

“I'm not sure,” she confessed honestly. “But I think they were.”

“You don't know all the Amazons?”

Olivia and Natalia looked faintly amused at Emma's seriousness, but Gabrielle accepted the question for what it was at face value.

“Oh, I couldn't possibly. The Amazon Nation is very large, made up of a number of tribes located all over. I meet with the Regents, but it's not entirely possible for me to have met everyone. And if they are new members, they wouldn't have been added to the database yet.”

“You had databases in ancient Greece ?”

Gabrielle didn't even flinch, but simply grinned at Emma. “Yeah – except then we called them scrolls.”

“That sounds neat. Maybe we should go meet the new Amazons. They would probably love to meet the Queen.”

“How about we finish dinner first, Em?” Olivia asked. “We don't want to be late for the Halloween Party.”

Emma nodded and turned her attention back to the food.

 

************

“This is nice,” Sabrina commented as she removed her nose. Kelly set her helmet under her chair and Kris tried vainly to get the short skirt on her red dress to stop creeping up. Emily, JJ and Garcia all slipped into their seats with only minimal pushing and pulling on their costumes and soon the waitress had taken their orders and left them alone again.

“It is,” Emily agreed as she covered Sabrina's hand with her own. “I'm so glad we got this opportunity to know one another again, Aunt Bre – as well as those we call family,” indicating the others who sat at the table.

“I never would have thought,” Sabrina started, then changed her course. “It really is incredible. So,” she continued, taking a deep breath and willing away the quavers in her voice. “Why Amazons?”

“Because Garcia is an enthusiast,” JJ replied with a smile.

“Well, they're a thrilling part of history that time has pretty much forgotten about,” Garcia defended.

“I agree,” Kris affirmed. “Wish we had thought of that,” looking down at her assistant's costume with a frown. “At least that wouldn't give me nightmares.”

“Bad memories?” Emily asked.

“Rough case,” Kelly answered. “The only thing good about it was we all came out of it intact.”

“Some days, that's the best you can hope for,” JJ said somberly. Then the waitress appeared with their appetizers and the conversation turned to lighter discussion.

 

 

Chapter XV

“Oh wow,” Lilly commented to Sara as the CSI cum pirate joined her at the table. “Even without being a fortune teller with a crystal ball, I see bad things happening there,” she said with a nod towards the New York contingent that was just coming in the door. Catherine and Sofia turned simultaneously – Catherine lifting the eye patch that went with her pirate costume while Sofia shifted the dreadlocks that made up the wig of her Jack Sparrow get up.

“Uh oh,” Sofia agreed. “No kidding.”

Every New York sports team except the Jets was represented, which in and of itself was a recipe for disaster no matter how good of friends the women were. Even being on the same side professionally wouldn't forgive the rivalry between their favorite teams. Then Jordan walked in sporting a Red Sox jersey and friendly pandemonium broke loose between them. Wendy shook her head.

“I think it's a good thing they like each other,” watching all the backslapping going on at the far table.

“One can only hope,” Catherine commented wryly. “Otherwise we may end up having to process evidence for all the assault charges that will be flying instead of going to this party.”

“Oh no,” Wendy complained. “Not after getting into this costume,” motioning to the outfit she wore. “It took me an hour to get this right.”

“Speaking of... what made you decide to go as...?” gesturing to her decidedly non-pirate outfit. “I thought the Vegas crew were all going as pirates,” Sara said, motioning around the table.

Wendy shrugged. “I tried the pirate costume, but it wasn't working for me. This one just felt right.”

“Maybe you've got a dashing Southern rogue somewhere in your past,” Catherine observed with a grin.

“Maybe. I may have to talk to my mother when we get home.”

“Or maybe you could just talk to your doppleganger,” Sofia nodded towards Nikki as she and Nora headed out of the restaurant. Wendy's eyes met Nikki's briefly before they both looked away.

“Maybe,” she agreed, but turned her attention back to the meal in front of her.

 

************

“You really need to talk to her Nik,” Nora said as she shifted the full skirt of her antebellum dress out of her way again. “How did I ever let you talk me into this?” she grumbled. “I feel like an Azalea Trail maiden.”

Nikki leaned over and brushed a light kiss over Nora's lips, only to find her own caught and held for a long moment. “You look beautiful, Nora,” she said on a labored breath as they separated. She caressed Nora's cheek with the backs of her fingers. “Think of this as your private debutante ball.”

Nora snorted. “About twenty years too late. And stop avoiding the subject,” she chided as she watched the crowd part for them and wondered if it was due to her costume or Nikki's.

“I'm not avoiding anything, darlin'. I'm trying to figure out if I can use any of these voodoo things Darius let me borrow to cast a spell on her,” jangling the bits and pieces of her priestess costume.

“Nikki, just talk to her. I'll be right beside you, no matter what.”

“Maybe I should ask Queen Victoria to step in,” she said jokingly, nodding her head in Emily's direction as the red head stepped into the foyer of the main building ushering two teenagers dressed as teenagers ahead of her.

“Looks like the queen may have her hands full at the moment, lover. You might ought to take care of this one on your own.”

Nikki gave Nora a look. “I'll think about it, okay?”

Nora nodded. “That's all I can ask.”

 

************

Caroline and Cassidy slid into the car waiting under the portico for them and waved at Emily as they sped away into the night. Emily turned back towards the main entrance, only to stop when she realized she was not alone. She put a hand over her heart and glared at the woman facing her.

“Andy! Are you trying to kill me?”

“Why would I want to do that, Em? I just wanted to talk for a minute. I've hardly seen you since....”

“Andy,” Emily commanded, holding up a hand regally like the queen she currently represented. “I know we get together for drinks once in a while in New York . I know you do the same thing with Nigel as well. However, that doesn't change the fact that I cannot be seen associating with you on any level here. Miranda has already made it clear you are to be nowhere in her orbit. Given that I am her first assistant... I'm sure you can see where this is going.”

Andy sighed. “Maybe I should just speak to Miranda directly.”

“NO! No, Andy. If you value our association at all, you will stay away from Miranda.”

“But, Em... I owe her.”

“Perhaps. But if that is so, please owe her on your time – not mine or Runway's. Even being Agent 99 will not save you from her wrath.” She looked around and then continued sotto voce. “And as Julia Child, I'm fairly certain she has a plethora of knives at her disposal.”

Andy clapped a hand over her mouth. “Miranda is dressed as Julia Child?” waiting for Emily to narrow her eyes and give a curt nod. “Thanks, Em,” she said before she disappeared down the hallway. Moments later, Miranda strode up and looked around suspiciously.

“Did the girls get away all right?”

“Yes, Miranda. The car will be returning for us shortly.”

“Very well, Emily. That's all.”

 

************

“Wow,” Annabelle commented quietly as she looked around at the number of costumes milling around the large space. “I never expected....”

“Me either,” Simone agreed. “But it's quite interesting. Lots of different costumes. I wonder if anyone else's are as accurate in their portrayal as ours are,” her voice dry and holding the merest hint of derision. Annabelle reached up and covered Simone's lips with her hand, smiling when she felt Simone's lips naturally purse into a kiss that brushed over her palm.

“Simone,” Annabelle said softly. “You are not a villain – and I am certainly no damsel in distress. I chased you, remember? And I distinctly recall you running from me.” She paused a beat and dropped her hand. “Maybe I should have been the villain; you were certainly in distress for a while.”

“Only because I wanted so badly, love, and never thought I could ever have,” Simone whispered as she cupped Annabelle's face.

“Simone, if you don't want to miss this party, you're going to have to stop looking at me like that. Otherwise, I'm going to play the villain and take you back to our room to have my way with you.”

“Promise?” Simone asked with a twinkle in her eye.

For answer, Annabelle grasped Simone's hand and led them back the way they'd come.

 

************

“I canna believe prisoners in the States wear black and white stripes, Nikki,” Helen complained.

“Well, luv, it was either stripes or irons, and I thought the stripes might be easier to manage.”

“I still don't know why I let you talk me into this,” she grumbled, motioning to her outfit, then the police uniform Nikki wore. “Surely we coulda been more original than this.”

“Oh I dunno, Helen. I think you make a fantastic inmate. I'm pretty sure we could have some great fun with this scenario later,” she added with a rakish smile and waggling eyebrows.

“Keep it up, missy. I'm sure there's a room to be had somewhere on Property where you can be sleeping tonight.”

“Aw, Helen….”

“Do I detect trouble in paradise, Watson?” Ash asked as she and Scribbs walked up, tapping her lips with Holmes' trademark Meerschaum pipe. Scribbs shrugged, struggling to maintain the monocle she'd insisted be part of her costume.

“Couldn't tell ya, luv,” she replied cheekily, smiling when Ash rolled her eyes.

“Do try to stay in character, Scribbs.”

“Yeah,” Nikki agreed, cutting off any whine Scribbs might have made. “You're cute, Emma, and Watson suits you.” She leaned in a little closer. “Personally, I always felt Watson actually solved the crimes – he just gave Holmes the credit to preserve his anonymity.”

“Hey!” Ash complained. Helen just glared.

“Careful there, Nikki. You're already on my list for this costuming idea and I donna have green eyes for nothin' ya know.”

Nikki zipped her lips and moved back to stand beside Helen, wrapping an arm around her thin waist. Scribbs just grinned widely. “Could be worse, I guess,” Scribbs commented. “We could be dressed like them,” pointing out the Three Stooges that just entered the rapidly filling foyer area.

 

************

“Are you sure this is necessary?” Ziva asked as she and her compatriots meandered into the main building. “Why do we need to be ‘stooges'?”

“We don't *need* to be,” Abby replied practically. “We're doing it because it's fun, Larry.”

“My name is not Larry, Abby. My name is....”

“I know who you are, Ziva. But tonight you are Larry. Just like I'm Moe and Kate....”

“... is Curly. Be thankful, Ziva,” Kate said as she worried her bald headpiece onto her hair a little more securely. “You could have to wear this,” cutting her eyes at Abby.

“Oh, c'mon, guys. This could be a lot of fun.”

“Fun,” Ziva repeated dryly. “Aren't we here to learn as well as network with other law enforcement personnel?”

“Sure,” Abby concurred brightly. “But why shouldn't we have some fun too?”

“Maybe if we'd come dressed like they did,” Kate said wryly, motioning towards the quartet dressed as the Beatles.

 

************

“This was a great idea, Blair!” Tootie exclaimed to the woman who looked suspiciously like Paul McCartney. “I always wanted to meet Ringo Starr and now I get to be him... even if just for a Halloween party,” sticking the drumsticks she carried into her pocket.

Blair smiled. “I'm glad you approve, Tootie. Some of us aren't quite as enthusiastic,” cutting her brown eyes at Jo.

“Well, Princess, you're not the one wearing glasses, are you? Besides... the Beatles?”

“Oh c'mon, Jo,” Natalie cum George said with a smile. “Everybody likes the Beatles. It could have been a lot worse – we could have been the Monkees.”

“It could have been even worse than that, Joey,” Blair added with a twinkling smile. “And face it, you look sexy in wire rims.”

“You think so?”

“Um hmm.”

“All right, you two. You're giving me diabetes over here,” Tootie teased.

“Yeah... what she said,” Natalie agreed. “Besides, I figure it's just a matter of time before the fights start breaking out among some of our friends,” gesturing towards the sports clad New Yorkers currently exiting the restaurant. “I mean, with all those teams, and a Red Sox besides, it's just waiting to happen.”

“Maybe,” Blair commented noncommittally. “But where are the rest?”

“Of the teams?” Jo asked, wrapping her arms around Blair from behind. “Honey, that's all the majors.” She frowned. “All but one. Wonder who's representing the Jets?”

“No, silly. Where are the rest of our friends? I haven't seen Alex, Olivia, Abbie or Casey. For that matter I haven't seen Abbie's cousin and her friends either... not that I can see much in this melee.”

“We'll find them. In fact....” Jo motioned to the far door. “Isn't that Lindsay and her friends?”

Blair squinted and Jo handed Blair the glasses she was wearing. Blair snorted and pushed the glasses back towards Jo. “You're funny, Joey. Are you talking about the Marx Brothers?”

“Yeah – isn't that them?”

“Let's go find out.”

 

************

“This was a great idea, Jill... I mean, Groucho.” Lindsay enthused. Jill snorted and Cindy just glared at her. Claire chuckled.

“You just like it because being Zeppo means you can do whatever you want, Linds. It's not like anyone knows anything much about him other than that he was an agent,” Claire scoffed.

“Oh be honest, Chico ,” Jill chided Claire with a wicked twinkle in her eyes and an elbow poke to the ribs. “Linds just likes it because she's not Harpo – Cindy is,” laughing when Cindy leveled a glare at her. “C'mon Cindy – you're the one who made the bet. You quitting already?”

Cindy glared again, but said nothing as she shook her head.

“All right, then,” Jill agreed, then turned so the Marx brothers could welcome the Beatles as they approached.

 

************

“Hey, Lindsay,” Jo spoke after the initial greetings were complete. “Have you heard from Abbie or Olivia? They were going to meet us here, but with all the women in costume milling about, I'm not sure we'll be able to find one another before it's time to get on the bus,” checking the time once more.

“Not since we parted ways earlier this afternoon.”

Jo nodded, having expected the answer. “Thanks, Lindsay.” She hesitated, then continued. “Can I ask how you managed to get the reporter in your little club here to be the silent Marx brother? Seems like cruel and unusual punishment, Inspector.”

Lindsay laughed, drawing the attention of both groups of women. “I had nothing to do with it, Detective. This is a bet between Jill and Cindy. Claire and I are just along for the ride.”

Jo shook her head. “I hope it works out for you, Lindsay.”

“Me too,” the Inspector agreed in a whisper. “The doghouse is a cold, lonely place to be.”

At that moment, Blair came up on Jo's side and wrapped an arm around her waist. Cindy did the same to Lindsay, laying her head in the crook of Lindsay's neck.

“The buses are here,” Blair said, pointing out the glass doors.

“Guess we should go then,” Jo said. She looked at her watch again. “Hopefully Olivia and crew will be here shortly.”

“Maybe we should try calling them.”

“We can try, but you know how iffy signal has been here for everyone. Let's get on the bus and I'll try from there. Maybe we can ask Xena and Gabrielle to keep an eye out for them too.” With a nod, the two groups headed out the doors, the rest of the women following slowly behind them. It was time to go have some Halloween fun at the Magic Kingdom .

 

 

Chapter XVI

Elizabeth Donnelly stopped short as she approached the bus area where Gabrielle and Xena currently stood checking people in. She gave Gabrielle the once-over and raised her eyebrows. “Amazon?”

“Amazon Queen, actually,” Gabrielle answered with a grin. “And my Champion, of course.”

“I should have thought of that,” Liz complained good-naturedly. “I doubt that leather itches nearly as much as this grass skirt and coconut shells.”

“Probably not,” Gabrielle agreed. “But at least you managed not to be part of the sports phenomenon that seems to have engulfed the New York DA's office.

“I refused,” Liz stated flatly. “I have seen what sports fever does to otherwise reasonable, intelligent human beings.”

“'Civilized' war,” Xena commented dryly.

“Exactly,” Liz nodded. “Only when you get a bunch of New York lawyers involved...”

Xena held up a hand. “Say no more.”

“Hey!” Tracey broke in, Ranger jersey draping her lithe figure. “We're the good guys here, remember?”

“Yeah,” Kelly said. “Prosecuting the offenders,” straightening her Giants jersey.

“Some of us, anyway,” Knicks clad Serena added with a smirk.

Melinda shook her head. “Will all of you just get on the bus before my husband and kids decide they need to bring their Mets supporting selves with us tonight? Bad enough the Red Sox are already here,” bumping shoulders with Jordan .

“Yankee cooties!” Jordan replied, scrunching up her face. Melinda just laughed and slapped her on the back before boarding the bus behind the rest.

“Wonder what happened to the Jets representative?” Gabrielle asked as the last of the Manhattan contingent climbed aboard. Xena shrugged.

“Dunno. I've still got several who haven't checked in, including Lucy and Amy. If they're not here soon, they're gonna miss the bus... literally.” At that moment, five toga clad women rushed through the waiting area only to come to a standing halt in front of Xena and Gabrielle, breathing heavily and unable to speak. Xena winced when Gabrielle grabbed her arm tightly, but the expression on the bard's face made Xena forget about her arm and focus on Gabrielle.

“Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle loosened her grasp and cleared her throat. “Sorry... unexpected memory,” she replied softly.

Xena held her eyes for a long moment before being assured by what she saw in Gabrielle's eyes. Satisfied by what she found, Xena nodded and turned back to the women who were currently looking at the two of them with more than a trace of curiosity. When Xena took in their costumes, she blanched, understanding perfectly Gabrielle's initial reaction.

“Xena?” Lucy stepped closer, but stopped short of touching either of them. “Is everything all right? You both look like you've seen a ghost.”

Xena nodded. “We're fine. Caesar, right?” motioning to Lucy's bloodstained costume.

“Yeah... and the Senate that executed me, including my best friend Brutus,” looking towards her armor wearing first lieutenant. “Beware the Ides, ya know.”

“I know. Clever effect with the knives.”

“Thanks – that's all Amy's work. It was a bitch, but well worth the effort I think.”

“I think so too,” Gabrielle said as she moved up to stand beside Xena. “Nice work, Amy!”

“Thanks, Gabrielle.” She turned to her former teammates. “C'mon guys – let's get on the bus so we can get this show on the road.”

“I can't believe I let you talk me into this,” Max complained.

“Oh c'mon, Max,” Janet said enthusiastically. “It'll be fun,” tugging on Scud's hand. He held his helmet under his arm and kept his mouth shut, having long since learned when to speak when these women were together. Silence was usually better for him that way.

“Maybe if you are five,” Dominique snarked, though Amy saw the twinkle in her eyes. She rolled her own in response and waved them ahead of her. “Let's go... chop, chop.”

Lucy chuckled at all the posturing, watching them mount the stairs one by one. She turned to look back at Xena and Gabrielle. “You sure you two are all right? I know today was a little stressful, but I thought things went well, all things considered.”

“They did, Lucy and we're fine. Just ready to go have some fun at the Magic Kingdom .”

“So let's go,” she replied, motioning them ahead of her.

“Wait! Wait! Are we too late?”

Xena jerked her head towards the bus and Lucy got on board. Then Xena and Gabrielle turned towards the latecomers joining them at almost a full out run.

 

************

“So we're all right now?” Abbie asked Casey as she rose naked from the bed. Casey held her eyes carefully, her smile genuine but conservative.

“I think we will be. As long as you talk to me, Abbie. You can't just leave me out of things and expect everything to be all right.”

Abbie sighed and dropped her head, her hair hiding her face. “I know – I'm sorry.”

Casey sat up and took Abbie's hands in hers. “Don't be sorry, Abbie,” Casey said, ducking her head to meet deep brown eyes with bright green ones. She smiled gently. “Just improve.”

Abbie smiled. “I'm trying.”

“I know,” Casey said, leaning up capture Abbie's lips for a long moment. When she pulled back, they were both breathing heavily. “Now, as much fun as making up with you is, I think we owe it to ourselves and our friends to let them know we're going to be okay. Besides, I'm dying to see you as a Longhorn cheerleader. So move it along there, missy. We've got to take showers and before you say it – no we cannot shower together. We'd never make it.”

Abbie grinned rakishly, then pulled away slowly to strut across the room to the bathroom. “Your loss,” she proclaimed before she disappeared around the corner. Casey flopped face down on the bed and groaned aloud.

“She's going be the death of me, but what a way to go.”

 

************

Now they were racing towards the buses, knowing they were in for a boatload of teasing from their friends... especially if they were waiting specifically for Abbie and Casey to arrive. They reached Xena and Gabrielle and bent over to catch their breath. Gabrielle smiled, her eyes twinkling when they met Xena's.

“Well, we found our missing Jet,” indicating Casey's jersey. “I think your friends were about ready to put out an APB for you two.”

“Sorry... we....” Abbie stopped when Gabrielle held up her hand.

“It's all right. But since you're the last to join us, if you'll just get on board, we'll be on our way.”

Abbie took Casey's hand and they stepped into the buses to the accompanying hooting and hollering of their friends. They blushed and found their seats. Lindsay came up beside Casey and leaned down to whisper in her ear.

“One day you're gonna have to share your secret. No one else has been able to get into that cheerleading outfit since she graduated from UT.”

Casey turned Lindsay's head until her lips met Lindsay's ear. “I never kiss and tell,” she stated. Lindsay just howled in laughter and made her way back to her own seat. Then the buses pulled out, headed for the Magic Kingdom .

 

************

“Did you hear from Alex and Olivia?” Gabrielle asked Xena as they took their seats.

“Yeah – apparently they are the victims of a fashion emergency.” Gabrielle's eyebrow spiked and she grinned. Xena returned the look and chuckled. “I had the same thought, but I'm not asking. They're all adults – we don't have to be responsible for them.”

“Always a bonus for us.”

“Yep. Anyway, they should be joining us shortly.”

“Good. We've got pictures of everyone else,” holding up her digital camera. “It's going to make for a fabulous memory book when we're done. What about Sam and Brooke?”

”Sam told me they'd meet us there. Seems she has a surprise for Brooke.”

“You think...?”

“Yeah... I do.”

 

************

“You know what they're all thinking,” Olivia said as Alex re-laced the corset she wore.

“Yes, and just so we're clear, Detective, I have absolutely no problem with making them all correct in their assumptions,” leaning forward and brushing a kiss over the juncture of Olivia's neck and shoulder.

“Don't tempt me, Counselor. If the lacing hadn't broken on this thing to start with, we'd have had time to indulge on all sorts of interesting scenarios,” she added, wiggling her eyebrows.

“Well, if it had only happened once, we might have had time for indulgence. But having to replace the laces twice was a little over the top... even for us,” Alex supplied with a smirk. “Are you sure the eye isn't cutting you now?” referring to the object that had not only cut two sets of laces, but also managed to drawn blood from otherwise smooth skin.

“Yeah, it's all good,” shivering a little when Alex trailed her lips over her backbone. Olivia cleared her throat. “All done?” with only a slight squeak.

“Sure ‘nuff, ma'am,” Alex replied with an almost courtly bow, a slight drawl peeking out of her normally precise diction. Olivia chuckled.

“You've been talking to Abbie,” she teased.

“Maybe she offered me a little coaching,” Alex allowed, stomping her feet to settle her jeans around her boots before placing the Stetson on her head. She snatched up the badge she'd acquired just for her costume and pinned it on. Then Olivia cleared her throat shyly. Alex turned and her eyes widened.

“You like?” Liv asked, preening slightly under Alex's admiring gaze.

“Very much,” letting her eyes trace up Olivia's old west madam's costume. “Something to be said for a corset.”

“Other than they are an invention of the devil?”

“Yea for the devil,” Alex muttered then swept Olivia into her arms, kissing her hard and fast before taking a step back and offering her arm. Olivia blinked rapidly.

“You sure a respectable officer of the law wants to be seen in the company of the town madam, Sheriff?”

“It would be my privilege, Miss Olivia.”

“In that case,” Olivia said as she gathered her purse and took Alex's arm, “maybe you should call for our horse and buggy so we can get to this shindig before it's over.”

Alex's brows went to her hairline.. “Shindig, Liv?”

Olivia shrugged. “When in Rome ....”

“All righty then, little lady,” Alex drawled, whipping her cell phone out of her pocket and making a quick call. “Let's get to this shindig so we can have us a little fun.”

Olivia's eyes bugged from her head and Alex chuckled at her reaction. Olivia smirked and shook her head, then tugged on Alex's arm, leading them out of the room and towards the pickup area. Their night was starting out on a high note.

 

************

“Bout time you two joined the rest of us,” Jo snarked as Alex and Olivia passed through the turnstiles. The rest of the women from both conferences were milling in front of the Mickey Mouse floral portrait beneath the Main Street train station, and they cheered while Alex and Olivia blushed.

“C'mon, you two,” Casey said, motioning them over. “Gabrielle wants a group photo before we go in, and we're waiting on you.”

“Not just them,” Xena said, as she heard the slight sound of approaching horses' hooves and singing. She hoped this worked out. She'd made quite a few phone calls to lay the groundwork for Sam once she'd asked for help. She motioned to Gabrielle who in turn looked at the myriad of women waiting mostly patiently for her instructions.

“If you could all line up on the bleachers, we're awaiting the arrival of one more couple. Then I can get a couple pictures and you'll be free to go enjoy the Halloween party.” The women cheered, even as they arranged themselves on the bleachers that had been set up specifically for them. Some knelt or sat across the front and others climbed atop the stone wall, kneeling and standing until they were all positioned within the lines Gabrielle had set.

By that point, they all heard the sound of singing, and they automatically quieted to listen, turning their heads to find the source of the music. Then a horse drawn carriage stepped through the passage beneath the train station and a number of women covered their mouths in surprise as they realized what was happening.

The driver could have been part of the coach for all the notice that was taken of him. Instead, everyone's focus was on the couple dressed as Aladdin and Jasmine as they rolled to a stop in front of the large group. But what was surprising was to find that Sam, dressed as Jasmine, was singing to Brooke, who was currently sporting a blush that could be seen despite her tan.

When Brook grasped the fact that their ride had stopped moving, she looked around, understanding immediately that she and Sam were the center of attention. She rose from the carriage and pushed the steps down, alighting first, then offering her hand to Sam, who continued to sing to her as though completely unaware of their audience.

She started to lead them towards the group before being jerked to a halt. She turned sharply, ready to say something to Sam, when she saw Sam kneeling before her. She covered her mouth as comprehension of what was really going on hit her between the eyes, even as the odd thought flitted through her mind that she hoped Sam wasn't kneeling directly on the asphalt.

“Sam?” her whispered voice so quiet Sam saw more than heard her name fall from Brooke's lips. She ended her song, the silence stunning in its completeness. Then she smiled at Brooke in what she hoped was a reassuring way, though the tears in her eyes were making it hard to tell. She blinked rapidly to clear her vision, noting the matching tears in Brooke's eyes.

“Tears, Princess? I haven't said anything yet,” she teased, trying to lighten the tension in the air. Brooke tried to glare, but the smile on her face and the tears in her eyes made it a less than effective gesture. Instead, she stuck out her tongue and Sam laughed aloud.

“We've been a long time getting to this place in our lives. I imagine some here don't think so – I mean we are kinda the kids in this group of successful women. But you know and I know what we've been through just to get here.”

Brooke nodded and Sam swallowed before she continued. “And with that being the case, in front of all these witnesses, I wanted to ask you to make this permanent... with me, I mean.” She pulled a ring from her top and held it up for Brooke's inspection.

Brooke shook her head and extended her hand. Sam frowned, a little confused. Brooke leaned down slightly. “I don't want to look at it, Sammy. I want to wear it.”

Sam's face was suddenly wreathed in smiles and she slipped the ring onto Brooke's ring finger, then felt her own hand being tugged on. “Does this mean yes?” laughing when Brooke rolled her eyes and nodded emphatically. She allowed Brooke to pull her to her feet and turned to the crowd watching them with bated breath. “She said yes!”


The crowd erupted in cheers with a few exceptions and Sam took Brooke into her arms to seal the deal. The kiss was long and sweet and there were whoops and catcalls going on long before they finished. When they came up for air, Gabrielle teased them, just a little bit.

“Um, before I have to send you two back to the hotel to finish your engagement celebration privately, would you like to join the rest of us over here for a couple of pictures? I think everyone else is ready to go trick or treating and start their scavenger hunt.”

Sam and Brook blushed, but made their way to stand with the group. Gabrielle handed her camera to the Disney photographer who stood waiting patiently, then she and Xena joined their friends. Then Mickey and Donald came over to lead them to Main Street ; it was time to party.

 

 

Chapter XVII

Their closest friends had been the last to leave the front entrance area after admiring the ring Sam had given to Brooke and offering their congratulations. Now they stood alone debating their options.

“No one is going to care if we go back to our room now, Brooke. We did just get engaged, after all. They probably *expect* us to,” Sam added with a grin.

“I know, Sammy. But you really wanted to come to the Halloween party and to take part in the poker run scavenger hunt Xena and Gabrielle set up for us all to participate in; our teammates are waiting for us. And I don't mind. It looks like a lot of fun... all of it. Besides, we have all the rest of our lives to celebrate together. We should enjoy this opportunity while we're here. We can continue our private celebration when we get back to our room.”

“Promise?”

“Guaranteed, sweetheart. Appreciate every minute of every day, remember?”

Sam just pulled Brooke's head down until their lips met for a long time. When she released her, she took Brooke's hand in hers and together they walked towards the shops on Main Street .

 

************

“Barbara? How did you manage motorcycle sounds on your wheelchair?” Emma asked as they slowly made their way up Main Street collecting candy and looking for their clue giver as they went.

Barbara smiled awkwardly, not exactly sure how she'd managed to wind up close to the only child associated with either convention. Then she remembered Helena 's advice to her earlier. Just treat her like she's a mini-me, Red. You'll be fine. She hoped dearly that Helena was right, but decided that either way, she could make an effort.

“Well, I drew out the designs and built the prototype, then Scud installed it for me this afternoon.”

“Prototype?”

“Jellybean, are you bothering Barbara?” Olivia asked indulgently.

“Oh no, Mommy. She's telling me about the sounds her wheelchair can make. She built a pro... a proto....” Emma looked at Barbara for help.

“A prototype... a working model,” Barbara responded.

“Well, I like it,” Emma approved. “I think it sounds cool.”

Barbara leaned forward, stage whispering to Emma loud enough that the rest could hear her. “Me too,” she confessed with a grin.

One of the storytellers caught Emma's eye and she wandered over to hear his tale. Olivia and Natalia excused themselves to follow her and Barbara and Helena watched them go before they continued their slow track down the street.

“That was really nice of you, Red, especially teaming up with them and all. I know you're not really comfortable with kids her age.”

“While it's true I prefer my wards to be a little older and more mature, Emma seems to be quite grown-up for her age. Besides, I just remembered your advice and treated her like a mini-you.”

Helena smiled, looking insufferably pleased with herself for a long moment before she realized what Barbara had actually said. “Hey!” she objected, trying to hold a pout and a glare simultaneously. Barbara chuckled and shook her head, watching as Dinah approached them with what appeared to be their first clue.

“That Emma's a pretty smart kid – her storyteller Stan was our clue giver.” Dinah laughed. “I don't think the rest have caught on yet though.” She opened the envelope in her hand, then scrunched her brow in an annoyed frown at the printed words as Emma and her mommies rejoined them.

“Well?” Helena asked impatiently. “What's it say?”

Long ago, poor manatees

Were mistaken for these maidens of the Seas;

The song of this Maiden who lured with her voice -

Find her hideaway to make your choice.

“I think I know what it means,“ Barbara said, looking at Emma and smiling when she nodded her agreement when they headed towards Fantasyland. “Have you got our card, Emma?”

“Yes,” holding up an eight of hearts.

Barbara nodded in satisfaction. “Good girl. C'mon.” It was time to do some riding, card collecting and clue finding.

 

************

“Are we certain this is where we need to be?” Ziva asked her teammates as she looked around the insanity known as Fantasyland. Abbie and Kate exchanged glances and Emily, JJ and Garcia just grinned. Having worked with NCIS on occasion, they weren't surprised by Ziva's skepticism. Sabrina, Kelly and Kris just accepted the question at face value.

“According to the clue we got on Main Street ,” Kris answered. “Now we just have to find the clue giver here, and we can get our next card and move on to the next land.

“At least we don't have to go into ‘Small World'.” Emily commented dryly, eliciting laughter and groans from the rest of her teammates.

“I think Xena knows what a hazard that would wind up being with as many law enforcement women as are attending her conference. That's just asking for an incident.”

Sabrina nodded emphatically, though it didn't stop her eyes from twinkling with good humor. A hand on her arm caused her to look at Kelly and she raised an eyebrow in question.

“How about there?” motioning towards Ariel's Grotto.

The large group walked briskly to the back of Fantasyland, finding the Disney cast member they needed with relative ease. They collected their playing card and clue and moved to a table to open the envelope, but not before hearing the cast member radio their chosen card, the two of clubs, to another cast member.

“What was that all about?”

“I think each employee we have to talk to has their own deck, so as cards get drawn from one deck by the different teams, they have to be pulled from the rest of the decks to keep the equivalent of fifty-two cards.” A beat. “Read the clue, Bre.”

6-2-6 everyone knows -

In time, saves nine, the saying goes;

But a Mouse in outer space? Who'd have thunk

There was money to be made in selling space junk?

“So what does it mean?”

“I think it means we need to go here,” Kate said, pointing to a spot on the map she held. “I think we're supposed to go to Star Traders.”

“It means we're going to Tomorrowland,” Abby confirmed with enthusiasm.

 

************

The NY ADA team, as they had taken to calling themselves despite the presence of Liz Donnelly, Melinda Warner and Serena Southerlyn, had just succeeded in finding their second clue and next playing card in the Star Traders in Tomorrowland.

“What does it say, Tracey?” they clambered as she struggled to open the envelope.

Diamonds, rubies and Pearls of Black

Sail the waters... don't turn your back;

La Casa Del Tesora is your stop;

No map is needed, X marks the spot.

“So what does that mean?” Kelly inquired.

“And can we ride Space Mountain while we're here?” Serena asked plaintively.

“NO! No riding til we win this poker run. We only have three hours to do the scavenger hunt. Once we're done with that, we can do whatever we want with the time we have left. But if we want to win, we've got to focus,” Casey stated firmly.

“You know, I wonder what the prize is,” Melinda wondered aloud.

“I think there must be more than one,” Liz contributed thoughtfully. “With all the participants, I can't imagine there isn't enough for everyone on a team.”

“That's all well and wonderful, ladies, but it's not getting us any closer to a solution. Do we *really* want to let anyone else beat us?” Tracey posed to the rest.

“Good point!” Abbie replied. “I for one will never hear the end of it if either Olivia's or Lindsay's team does better than we do.”

“Reason enough for me,” Casey assured Abbie with a smile. “And I think I've figured this out,” looking at the rest expectantly. “We need to go to Adventureland.”

 

************

“I'm not quite sure why I decided to attend this event,” Miranda grumbled aloud, though mostly to herself. “Of all the ridiculous, childish....”

“Excuse me? Are you Miranda Priestly?” a woman dressed as the Queen of Hearts asked the woman dressed as Julia Child. “I'm Blake Marler. We've spoken several times,” she added as she offered her hand. Miranda accepted the hand firmly as she acknowledged her identity as well as Blake's. Sensing the other woman's discomfort, Blake continued speaking.

“I was wondering – I'm not really dressed for riding very much,” indicating her costume, “and since neither of us seem to be interested in playing the scavenger hunt that's going on, I thought perhaps you might like to join me for a cup of hot chocolate,” gesturing to the nearby kiosk. Cold blue eyes gazed thoughtfully at her. “Or maybe coffee, if you prefer?” Blake smiled when a spark of warmth flitter through ice at the mention of coffee.

“That would be acceptable,” Miranda agreed. “Emily,” calling to a red-headed woman Blake hadn't even noticed despite her Queen Victoria costume. “You're dismissed for the moment. Go,” Miranda waggled her hand in the general direction of the park away from her. “Have some fun or something. Just return to me when I call for you. That's all.”

“Yes, Miranda. Thank you, Miranda,” Emily replied before moving into the darkness and out of sight. Miranda nodded and then turned to Blake.

“Shall we?”

“We shall.”

 

************

Emily was just out of sight of Miranda when Andy stepped into her path. She clutched her chest dramatically and took a step back to keep from plowing into the other woman. “Andy?!? What the hell?? Are you following me?” She narrowed her eyes. “You better not be stalking me, Andy... or Miranda either one. I'll sic Serena on you.”

Andrea, who had been holding up a hand to slow Emily's diatribe, didn't know whether to look affronted or amused at Emily's outburst.

“Emily, take a deep breath before you hurt yourself or worse. I'm not stalking anyone. I just bought a piece of fudge at the confectionary shop,” holding up the box, “and saw Miranda wave you off. I thought you might want to hang out together until she calls you back,” Andy finished with a shrug.

Emily looked at her suspiciously for a long moment before nodding her head briskly. “Very well. You just insure that your fudge,” curling her lip derisively as she said it, “stays far away from me. I cannot afford to get the slightest smidge of anything on this dress. Nigel will have a come apart.”

Andy rolled her eyes. “Nigel will be fine, Em, as will your dress. I promise to keep my fudge well away from you.”

“Very well,” Emily repeated with a hint of satisfaction in her tone. “Let's go before Miranda changes her mind.” Without further ado, they moved deeper into the Magic Kingdom .

 

************

“You know, Ash, this wasn't really what I had in mind for you when I sent you to Berkeley as a journalism major,” Doris said plaintively to her daughter currently dressed as a cast member at the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.

Ashlee rolled her eyes at her almost unrecognizable mom who was decked out as the hobo clown Emmett Kelly. While it made a much better disguise than her fedora ever had, Ashlee could see why Doris had never gone for a casual look – she was much too flamboyant and dynamic and outgoing for casual... hence the reason the hobo costume was so effective in hiding her.

“Mom,” she whined. “I told you – I'm just doing this to help out during the Halloween parties. Besides, this is kinda fun... I like it.”

Doris just rolled her eyes and shook her head. “I thought I had raised you better than to be a pirate.”

This time Ashlee just snorted in laughter. “This from a politician??”

“Watch it, little girl,” Doris threatened, eyes twinkling in delight. “I am still your mother.”

“Yes... yes you are. And you should be happy I'm doing so well here. Mom, I didn't quit school; I'm here as an intern working in the PR department of a major corporation – of Disney! I'm meeting people and making contacts and getting some practical experience outside of Springfield , where I have to prove my merit to the people I work for and with.”

Doris cupped Ashlee's face gently. “I am happy for you, Ash, and so very proud of you. You've done so well for yourself in spite of me and I'm glad about that. But it also makes me a little sad. I feel like I'm still missing so much of your life.”

Ashlee held her mother's gaze for a long moment. “Let me make a phone call, then maybe we can spend the evening together.”

Doris nodded, her smile bright even though her eyes were filled with tears. Whatever else, she had been right to come here – to see for herself how her daughter was doing. She only wished it hadn't been such a last minute trip for her; then maybe they could have made some plans together. After a moment, Ashlee closed her phone and turned back to her mother.

“It's all arranged. My boss Di will be here in a few minutes to relieve me. She wants to meet you.”

Doris cocked an eyebrow. “She does? Why?”

Ashlee chuckled knowingly, but gave a shrug. “Maybe she just wants to meet the woman who raised such an incredibly bright kid.”

“Uh huh,” Doris agreed skeptically, but settled in to wait and see for herself.

 

************

The women from Las Vegas and the women from San Francisco , along with Lilly Rush, had decided to join forces to defeat their numerous east coast counterparts. Now they stood crammed into a large half-circle in the middle of Adventureland trying to figure out where they had to go from the Pirates of the Caribbean shop that the ride exited into.

“This makes no sense,” Claire grumbled, passing the clue to Jill who lost it to Lindsay when she snatched it out of her hands.

“Do you mind?” she fussed as she grabbed it back. “I was looking at that!”

“Inspector here,” Lindsay muttered loud enough for the group to hear. “I do puzzles like this every day for a living, ya know.”

“So does Sofia and Lilly and I don't see them seizing this clue like it was evidence or something. And Lilly even has a crystal ball we could consult.”

“But not a cousin from Texas she just *has* to do better than or never hear the end of it,” whining.

“All right you two... enough,” Catherine broke in before the argument could escalate. “We're supposed to be on the same side here.” Both women met her glare before having the decency to look abashed and mumble their apologies to each other and the group.

“Claire, why don't you read it aloud,” Sara asked before the silence grew too awkward.

With five to choose from, who do you seek?

Blonde or brunette, with whom do you speak?

As princesses go, she's one of the best -

Choose the correct one; go on, be our guest.

“Great – that means what exactly?”

They started mumbling among themselves, except for Cindy, who couldn't speak. Instead, she started gesticulate wildly, trying to garner some attention. Instead, they all remained focused on the clue in Claire's hand, hoping it would yield more information than she had offered.

Cindy moved around the CSI'ers, not knowing any of them well enough to force their attention. Instead, she tugged on Lindsay's arm, only to find her hand caught and held as Lindsay pulled her tighter into her body and returned her attention to the clue at hand. Frustrated, Cindy jerked her hand free from Lindsay's and stole the clue from Claire.

All eyes turned to her with varying degrees of menace in them, and she returned their baleful glances with fire, hands firmly planted on her hips. Finally, Jill caught a clue.

“She knows the answer,” waiting for Cindy to nod emphatically. “Why didn't you just blow the damn horn??”

Cindy glared at Jill until the other woman looked away.

“So tell us,” Wendy demanded impatiently.

“She can't,” Lindsay said without even the hint of a smile in her voice. “Harpo Marx never spoke, and she and Jill have a bet on.”

Catherine rolled her eyes. “I'm surrounded by five-years-olds,” she mumbled under her breath, though Claire was close enough to hear her and chuckled in sympathetic agreement. “Cindy,” Catherine said aloud, “why don't you lead us to our next destination?”

With a look of fierce pride and determination, Cindy nodded, and soon they were following her to Toon Town Fair.

Wendy put a hand on Sofia 's arm and the blonde detective paused expectantly. “I'll catch up in a few,” nodding her head in Nora's direction. “I need to take care of something first.”

Sofia nodded. “All right. Call me when you're done and I'll let you know where we are.”

“Thanks, Sofia . If I can't reach you, I'll wait on Main Street . You have to come out that way to leave.”

“Good luck,” Sofia offered, then followed her friends across the park. Wendy turned and headed towards Nora Delaney, hoping she could get a few answers.

 

 

Chapter XVIII

Nora's mumbled language under her breath would have caused the delicate Southern flower she was currently portraying to blush six shades of red in fifteen seconds when she realized Wendy was approaching her. As it was, Wendy managed almost three full shades herself, even with her darker skin tone. Nora looked around for Nikki fruitlessly once more before Wendy stopped in front of her.

“Can I help you...?” leaving it an open question as she glanced up into the face of a woman who practically mirrored her lover.

“Wendy... Simms.” She motioned to the stone bench Nora was sitting on. “May I, Miss...?”

“Delaney... Nora Delaney.” Nora sighed silently and wondered what karma god she had offended. “Please,” she offered politely. She waited a few moments for Wendy to say something, and when nothing was forthcoming, she prompted, “Was there something I could do for you, Miss Simms?”

“Tell me about your partner.”

“Um – no.”

“Excuse me?”

“Miss Simms, if you want to know about my... my partner, then you're going to have to talk to her directly. I told her that I would be by her side if the two of you decided to confront one another, but I damn sure am not gonna be some sort of conduit between you! Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal, Ms Delaney. I'm sorry to have troubled you,” Wendy added with a hint of bitterness as she rose. A hand on her arm made her pause and she looked down into Nora's green eyes.

“Miss Simms... Wendy. It's not that I don't think you're entitled to know about one another, given the circumstances. Personally, I think you both deserve some answers to the questions seeing one another has obviously raised for you both. However, it's not my place to answer them, and I will not betray her trust like that. If you really want to know her, you're going to have to speak to her.”

Wendy held Nora's gaze for a long moment before nodding her agreement. “You're right.” She paused. “Will the two of you join me for breakfast tomorrow? I know it won't give us much time before the convention starts, but we have to start somewhere.”

Nora nodded. “We'll be there.”

“Thank you, Ms Delaney,” clasping the hand briefly and lifting it to her lips in true dashing rogue fashion “I'll look forward to it.”

She disappeared without another word and Nora held up her hand before Nikki could speak as she stepped out from behind the tree she'd been hidden by. “Notta,” she said softly. “Not one word, Nikki.”

Nikki leaned over and brushed a kiss over Nora's cheek. “Thank you, Nora,” she whispered softly. She put an arm around Nora and smiled gently when the blonde head came to rest against her shoulder. Then they sat back to watch the world pass them by... just for a little while.

 

************

“Isn't there a law against princess stalking? There should be a law against princess stalking!”

Jo wrapped Blair up in a hug from behind before the irritation could grow into a full-blown rant. “Chill, Princess – no one's stalking anyone... especially not you.”

“Or you either,” Sam whispered to Brooke. Brooke just leaned over and kissed Sam softly.

“All right you two – break it up... break it up,” Olivia protested. “You're making the rest of us look bad.”

“Jealous, Detective?” Sam asked boldly with a twinkle sparkling in her brown eyes as they met her match. Before she could reply, Alex walked away from Belle holding up an envelope and their next card in a sign of success.

“Nope. I already got my girl.”

“You fooling around on me, Madam Olivia?” Alex asked, peering intently over the rim of her glasses. Olivia shook her head.

“Not at all, Sheriff; I'm a one woman woman.”

“Good thing,” Alex commented. “I'd hate to have to run you in.”

“All right, all of you – enough!” Jo roared. “Before I need insulin!”

The group snickered at her and she shrugged. Tootie nodded towards the still sealed envelope. “What's it say?”

Alex popped the seal and read the clue aloud.

Ride down the Mountain at a screaming dash,

Brave the briars that end in a Splash;

Then enter the Briar Patch just like ol' Br'er...

Tar baby's gone - c'mon, take the dare.

“Say,” Natalie spoke up for the first time in a while. “Isn't Splash Mountain based on The Song of the South ?” waiting for the heads around her to nod slowly. “And isn't that about Uncle Remus and the Br'er characters?” More nodding as Natalie opened her map. “Then I think we need to head to Frontierland.”

“Frontierland it is.”

 

************

“You're kidding me, right?” Max asked as she looked around the Br'er Rabbit store. “Who comes up with this stuff?” slamming a Br'er Rabbit plush figure back onto the shelf and crossing her arms over her chest in a fit of impatience.

“C'mon, Max. Chill a little. It's supposed to be fun,” Janet offered even as she cuddled deeper into Scud's embrace. Lucy smirked, rolling her eyes in his direction before she turned to greet Amy as she returned with Dominique, envelope in one hand and playing card in the other.

“Problem?” Amy asked Lucy quietly.

“The usual,” she said as Dominique got the envelope open. “Does Max even know how to relax and have fun?” grumbling as she buried her nose in Amy's neck.

“C'mon, Lucy... cut her a little slack. She's trying.” Amy kissed the top of the dark head, smiling when she felt lips brush a kiss over the crease of her neck. She turned her attention back to her former D.E.B.S. teammates. “So what's the verdict, guys?”

“Not far for a change, I think,” Dominique mock grumbled, though Amy could see the enjoyment she was getting out of the scavenger hunt. She read the clue aloud.

For your next clue you need to know

Where lies the object from Pass and Stow ;

Search for the Tree and find the Lights,

Thirteen in all – that shine in the night.

“I think you're right,” Max agreed grudgingly. “ Liberty Square ?”

“That was my thought as well,” Dominique confirmed.

“All right then, troops – let's move out.” The D.E.B.S. fell into line automatically. Lucy and Scud exchanged glances, then twined their finger with those of their respective girlfriends before heading out of Frontierland towards Liberty Square .

 

************

“This has been just lovely, Diana,” Ash commented as they exited the Hall of Presidents. “Thank you for inviting us to trail along with you.”

“We were glad to have you join us,” Diana assured them as Janet, Sam and Mac nodded their agreement. “It's been a lot of fun.”

“Shall we see what our last clue says?” Helen asked as she opened the envelope.

“Well, I think it's safe to say we should be headed back towards Main Street ,” Nikki said. “We've got all our cards, such as they are,” fanning them out in her hands and indicating the pair of Aces she held. “So we should be going to wherever they have us meeting to finish this thing.”

“She's right,” Janet agreed as she accepted the clue from Helen. “Listen to this.”

Take your cards and take your clues,

You played the game and paid your dues;

You seek a memento from an old Red Sox

Find a ball signed by a cunning old Foxx .

“I think that takes us back to the hot dog stand on the corner, doesn't it?” Mac asked.

“Not quite,” Sam replied. “This is some sort of memorabilia, so we should probably look for that. That should be where Xena and Gabrielle are.”

“Either way, we should be moving back towards Main Street ,” Diana said. “We can figure out the details as we go.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Scribbs said as she started towards the bridge leading back to Main Street . “Besides, I dunno about the rest of you lot, but a Coke would certainly hit the spot right about now.”

“So we'll go turn in our cards and then what?” Ash asked.

“Then I vote we go have a bit o' fun, riding the things we missed durin' our hunt,” Helen offered.

“I can get behind that plan,” Mac commented with a grin. “How ‘bout you guys?”

The rest nodded agreeably, then they stepped onto Main Street and headed to Casey's Corner. It was time to finish the game.

 

************

Xena looked at her watch. “They should start showing up here soon – it's getting close to the three hour mark. Do you want me to meet them downstairs?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “I'll go. I want some lemonade,” seeing blue eyes light up. “I'll send one up with the first two players.”

Xena leaned over and kissed Gabrielle passionately for a long moment. “Thanks, love.”

Gabrielle winked as she moved away from the window and headed for the conference room exit. “Thank me later.” Then she stepped out and closed the door behind her, leaving Xena to continue her vigil of Main Street from the second level window.

 

************

“If I didn't know any better, Diamond, I'd say you rigged this,” Max grumbled good-naturedly. She had finally relaxed and was enjoying herself, though she didn't think it would do to let anyone else know how much fun she was actually having. She looked down at the cards in her hand. “I mean really – how else did we end up with a diamond flush?”

“Considering that Lucy only pulled the last card – the Queen of Diamonds, naturally – I'd say it was mostly luck,” Amy commented. “Besides, why are you griping anyway? That's a pretty decent hand.” Then her voice dropped to a bare whisper. “It is a good hand, right?”

Lucy smiled and hugged her. “It's a great hand. The fact that it is diamonds is just a bonus in my book.”

Dominique smirked. “I am just glad the hunt is over,” nodding to a young man across the street. “I'll see you all later,” and disappeared before the rest could say another word.

“All righty then,” Janet said brightly. “Maybe we should find the memorabilia in question?”

“Actually,” Scud spoke for the first time, “I found Gabrielle,” leading them over to where Gabrielle was waiting patiently sipping on her lemonade.

“Oh, hi guys! You're the first ones here. Okay, I need two of you to go upstairs to the conference room – one with the cards and one with the clues. The rest of you can either hang around down here and wait for the results or go ahead back into the park to do whatever you like with the rest of your night. Your choice.”

The players looked at one another, then Max sighed. “Lucy and I'll go upstairs. You guys just....” She waved her hand around vaguely, then pinned Amy with a sharp look. “Just don't wander off.”

“I'll go with Lucy,” Scud volunteered. “It'll give you three a little bonding time.”

Max glared at him a long moment. “Fair enough,” she nodded her capitulation. “We'll be right over there,” motioning to the bleacher area behind the hot dog stand.

Lucy kissed Amy quickly. “Back in a few, babe. Then we can go trick or treating.”

Amy grinned, and Lucy and Scud headed upstairs with Xena's lemonade in hand.

 

************

The ADA team was the next to arrive, jubilant and excited. Gabrielle smiled at their enthusiasm, then gave them the same instructions she had given to the D.E.B.S. team. Tracy and Liz headed upstairs while the rest went to claim a couple of tables outside Casey's Corner.

“This was fun,” Casey commented to Abbie as they took a seat watching the action along Main Street .

“Doesn't hurt that we're going to win as well,” tapping the side of her Coke cup against Casey's and smiling when the red head dipped down to tuck under her chin.

“True, but even if we hadn't won, it would have been fun. We're here... together... we've had a good time with friends and more yet to come – it's all good. And as a bonus we've got the rest of the night to go trick or treating.”

Abbie laughed, the genuine sound bringing a smile to Casey's lips and tears to her eyes. “Who knew you were secretly a five-year-old posing as an ADA lawyer?”

Before Casey could comment, Emma's excited voice broke into their conversation as she passed them. “This has been so much fun, Mommy. Can we get an ice cream cone now?”

“How about we go turn in our cards first, Jellybean? Then we can go trick or treating or maybe ride a few rides. What do you think, Mama?” Olivia asked with a look at Natalia, smiling when she got a dimpled grin in return.

“I'm not your mama, but that sounds like a good idea, Emma,” Gabrielle commented as they reached her. “You don't want to miss out on the chance to win the game, do you?” smiling when the little girl shook her head emphatically. “But we only need two of you to go upstairs to show Xena your clues and cards. Small conference room,” she added for the benefit of the others.

“Can Barbara and I do that, Mommy?”

Barbara's eyes widened comically in an almost perfect mirror image of Olivia's expression. Their eyes met for a moment before both gave a subtle nod and Olivia knelt down to Emma's level. “It's okay with me, Bean. Make sure it's okay with Barbara first, though, all right?”

“Oh Mommy – of course it's okay with Barbara. She's my friend. Right, Barbara?” turning bright, happy eyes to the woman in the wheelchair.

Without missing a beat. Barbara nodded. “Right, Emma.”

Emma looked back at her mother. “So it's okay, Mommy?”

Olivia smiled tremulously. “Absolutely, sweetie. Your mama and I'll wait down here with Helena and Dinah.”

“Maybe we can find some Pop Tarts or something,” Helena muttered. “I'm starving.”

“There's a bakery across the street,” Natalia pointed out. “Maybe we can grab some cookies or something to tide us over until we can get something a little more substantial.”

“Bet they won't be as good as yours,” Olivia grumbled, nudging Natalia and smiling.

“Probably not,” Natalia agreed in a surprising show of immodesty. “But they'll do for now and we can bring some back for Barbara and Emma.”

“Sounds like we have a plan,” Dinah commented. “Good luck, you guys,” waving at Emma and Barbara before linking her elbow with Helena 's and leading the tiny group across the street to the bakery. Gabrielle led Barbara and Emma to a different door than she'd ushered the others to.

“Ooh, can I push the buttons?” Emma asked. Barbara nodded and exchanged understanding smiles with Gabrielle. She rolled onto the elevator and the doors slid shut. Then Gabrielle stepped back into the shop and went back to greeting the rest of the teams as they came in.

 

 

Chapter XIX

“So now what?” Scribbs asked after downing several large swallows of soda. “Ah, that certainly hit the spot.” She took a big bite of the hot dog she'd gotten on a whim and smiled in satisfaction. Ash just watched in disgust and shook her head.

“How you can eat that....” Scribbs just took another big bite and grinned.

“Now,” Mac said, trying to keep them all focused, “we should probably find Xena or Gabrielle. I'm guessing they will be at our ending point and it's obvious we're close,” motioning to the other players already milling around the area.

“Like over there, you mean?” Nikki asked with a jerk of her head.

Sam nodded and took Janet's hand. “Looks like,” leading the procession into the Athletic Club shop and over to where Gabrielle waited patiently for their arrival.

“Hi guys!” explaining again about the two-person team to represent them upstairs. Scribbs came running over wiping mustard from her face.

“Can I go?” The rest shrugged and Scribbs bounced lightly on her toes in an effort to contain her excitement. “Who else then?”

“I'll go,” Diana volunteered without hesitation.

“Right,” Helen agreed. “So the rest of us will wait over there, yes?” motioning to the bleachers they had just passed.

Gabrielle nodded. “That seems to be what the majority of folks waiting are doing.”

“C'mon, then Nikki. I need to sit a wee bit.”

“So do I,” Sam muttered to Janet. “How the hell did Teal'c wear this thing for so long? My feet are killing me.”

Janet grinned. “I never thought anything could be worse than Air Force issue before Hi-Tecs became the standard.”

Sam just grimaced. “Now you know.”

 

************

Emily and JJ stepped from the ladies' room between Casey's Corner and the Crystal Palace and ran into Bones, Angela and Cam ... almost literally.

“Hey, guys! How'd you do with the scavenger hunt?”

“We didn't play,” Cam replied without missing a beat. “We wanted to watch the magicians instead. They've got some pretty cool tricks. They've even managed to stump Dr. Brennan a few times, so it's all good.”

“They haven't stumped me – I just haven't figured it out yet. But I will.”

“Of course you will, sweetie,” Angela assured her best friend. “But we've still got lots to do.” She looked at JJ. “So where's Penny?”

JJ blinked – no one but Angela called Garcia Penny and it always threw her for a momentary loop. “Oh, she and Kris took our cards upstairs.” She motioned to the number of women casually relaxing in the nearby area. “We're all just waiting for the results.”

“Well, maybe we can wait with you and then go listen to the storytellers or something.”

“Sure,” Emily agreed, “as long as you're willing to trick or treat. We promised Garcia.”

“We can do that,” Cam stated, getting nod from both Angela and Bones.

“Great. C'mon. The rest of our team is waiting just over there,” motioning with her head. And just like that, the crowd grew a little bit larger.

 

************

“So whaddya think, guys?” Olivia asked as Natalie and Tootie headed through the door to go upstairs.

“I think we did all right,” Jordan said, stretching her back and looking for a place to sit. The whole area was getting rather crowded and she had to wonder how long it would take before Disney asked them all to move along and stop congesting the area. Of course, she noted wryly, they were currently making a killing on soft drinks and such as all the women waiting seemed to have a drink in their hand if nothing else.

“Yeah, two pair isn't all that shabby, especially with so many teams playing,” Jo added. “Either way, it was fun and we've still got time to do lots of stuff here.”

Blair chuckled. “You just want candy, you Neanderthal.”

“Careful, Princess... nothing says I have to share,” Jo replied, hands on her hips and mock glaring. Blair merely picked up her left hand and raised it to Jo's eye level.

“You see this ring, Joey?” smiling at the sheepish expression that sprang into green eyes, even when the face remained still and stoic. “This ring means we share... everything.”

Sam looked at Brooke. “You think we'll be this sappy when we're old?” Five sets of eyes turned and glowered at her. Brown eyes widened and she swallowed audibly. “I mean, when we're old marrieds....” Swallowing again when the expressions didn't change. “I mean....”

She stopped speaking when Brooke's fingers covered her lips. “Baby? Hush... before you dig a hole so deep we can't get out of it to go back to our room and celebrate our engagement anytime time in our near lifetimes, ‘kay?”

Sam nodded and kissed the fingers on her lips before Brooke removed them. “Sorry, guys!” she mumbled. They made her wait for another long moment before almost as one they started chuckling and Sam sighed in relief.

“And that reminds me,” Olivia's eyes sharpening dramatically, “why are you here anyway? Aren't you supposed to be off somewhere celebrating that whole engagement thing alone together?”

“Better late than never for that to dawn on you, Detective,” Sam muttered. Olivia just stuck out her tongue. Alex made a grab for it, but Olivia was too swift, causing laughter to break out at their antics. “And here I thought we were the kids,” mumbled low enough so only Brooke could hear her.

“I'm not sure you've got any room to be talking about sappiness anyway, Sam,” Alex commented wryly. “Not given your performance earlier,” she added with a grin.

“She's right,” Jordan agreed. “Seriously... a horse drawn carriage and a singing proposal? I thought we were all going to end up with diabetes,” giving them a teasing grin that made them both blush.

“Remind me again why we're not back in our room celebrating?” Sam asked Brooke.

“Because this is a night to share with our friends. We'll be celebrating for the rest of our lives.”

“All right!” Jo growled. “Enough mush! Let's find a place to sit and wait for the results.” So they headed out to sit. Gabrielle just shook her head and watched them go, waiting for her final group to arrive.

 

************

“You may as well pack it in and go home, Linds. We've got this thing locked,” Abbie bragged as her cousin and her compatriots arrived at the corner of Main Street . “You can't beat us.”

“You're so sure? You're positive you can't lose?” Casey put a hand on Abbie's arm to stop her, but Abbie simply covered Casey's hand with her own.

“Yep... absolutely. I'll bet you we not only beat you and your team, I'll bet you we win the whole thing,” sitting back smugly and crossing her arms over her chest.

“And if you don't?”

“Name it,” Abbie said with confidence.

“All right,” holding out her hand. “No spitting,” Lindsay instructed with distaste. “Pinky swear. If you don't win the whole shooting match, you owe me whatever I name.” Abbie hesitated – something about Lindsay's confidence set her hackles up, but she'd bragged her way into this situation, so there was nothing to be done for it but to see it through now. “What's the matter, Li'l Cuz? Afraid to put your money where your mouth is?”

Abbie took Lindsay's pinkie with her own and Casey just covered her eyes. This just had disaster written all over it.

“All right,” Lindsay said as she released Abbie's finger. “Let's go find this baseball and turn this stuff in.”

“Only two of you,” Casey said.

“Huh?”

“Only two of you can go upstairs. The rest have to wait down here like we're all doing,” gesturing to the myriad of woman all casually sitting around the area taking up all the tables, the bleachers inside and quite a bit of the sidewalk and concrete planter space.

“Oh... right, of course.”

“Go on, Linds,” Claire said. “You and Catherine represent us and we'll just wait around here for you trading stories.”

“Why does that sound like bad news for me?”

“Paranoid much, Inspector?” Jill asked with a hint of teasing in her voice.

“With you guys together – yes!” But she followed Catherine towards Gabrielle and soon they were ensconced upstairs in the conference room Xena had reserved.

 

************

Lindsay and Catherine entered the room, realizing they were the last of the players to arrive. Lindsay went to grab a couple cold drinks while Catherine snagged the last two seats. Then they prepared their clues and cards for Xena's inspection.

“I wish this had been a game of Go Fish,” Emma commented to Barbara in the relative silence of the room. They were at the far end of the table to where Barbara had parked her chair to keep from being bumped to death while people were entering and it just seemed prudent to remain there now. She offered Emma a Sprite and took the proffered cup of coffee from Xena with a grateful glance.

“Why's that, Jellybean?” swallowing her first sip with a sigh of relief.

“'Cause that's what we play at slumber parties and stuff,” Emma said with only a hint of ‘duh' in her tone.

Barbara had the grace to look chagrined in front of the other adults. “Sorry, Emma. It's been a long time since I went to a slumber party... or played Go Fish.”

Before Emma could invite Barbara, Helena and Dinah to the farmhouse for a slumber party, Tracey spoke up.

“I can't remember the last time I played Go Fish,” not mentioning the slumber party part of the equation. The others in the room nodded their agreement as well.

Emma shook her head sadly. Poor adults... they were always too busy working to do any of the fun stuff in life. “You are really missing out,” she proclaimed with such a grown-up air that everyone in the room smiled, though no one laughed.

“Well,” Scud offered. “I guess we could play right now with the cards we have. Whatcha lookin' for, Kid?”

Xena stood back and simply watched. She, more than the rest of them, knew the true power this little girl wielded. She had brought her mommies together, after all – despite themselves.

“Well, I think I would like a four,” she said after a long look at her hand. A momentary look at Barbara got her the barest twitch of an approving smile and she grinned. “Yes, I would like a four.”

Everyone seated around the table looked through their discards, then Liz held up a four of hearts. “How about this one? I'm betting you like hearts.”

Emma nodded vigorously. “Oh yes... they're my favorites. They stand for love and happiness and my mommies being together for always.” No one could argue much with that logic and Liz handed over the card with a smile. “What would you like in trade?” Emma asked seriously.

“Hmm,” Liz mused thoughtfully. “You wouldn't happen to have an Ace in there, would you?”

“I sure do,” Emma replied. “Here you go,” passing Liz the Ace of Spades.

“Thank you, Emma. That was very nice of you.”

“Well,” Xena broke in, “if we're all done playing Go Fish,” looking round the room carefully and nodding her head. “I need each team to lay out their clues and their top five cards beside them. Discards can go in the center of the table. You don't have to show your hand yet; I just need you to have them ready for me to see when I come around to check them.”

Slowly she padded around the room, watching each pair as they laid out their hands. She realized what Emma had done and just managed to contain her laughter as she continued her walk. When they were all done, she reached for the first set of clues, looking through them quickly to assure herself they were all correct. Xena did the same with all the sets of clues, then nodded her head in satisfaction.

“Well, everyone found our clue givers. Did you enjoy the scavenger hunt part of the game?”

Lucy cut her eyes at Xena. “You and Gabrielle are very evil women,” her dry tone causing the rest to chuckle with laughter.

“Thank you,” Xena returned drolly. “We've spent years insuring our reputation on that front.”

“I thought it was extremely clever,” Diana replied. “And I'm really glad I wasn't the one trying to come up with these things. Rhyming riddles?”

“Well, we couldn't make it too easy; you're all women who thrive on challenge.”

“And insanity, apparently,” Lucy muttered, garnering another round of laughter.

Xena rolled her eyes and shook her head, knowing her second was only grumbling because she could. Though Lucy or Barbara had been privy to all of the official con business, in the scavenger hunt and the rest of the after-hours activities, they had been left out of the planning so they could actually participate in the fun.

“Apparently,” Xena agreed. “Now ladies... and Scud,” with a mock bow in his direction to acknowledge his one male status, “if you would kindly turn over your cards. I think it's time we found out who won the poker run part of our scavenger hunt.”

“This should be a cake walk,” Tracey whispered to Liz. “Who's going to be able to beat four nines with an Ace kicker?”

 

************

Olivia looked at Natalia as they left they bakery to return to the Athletic Club. She doubted there would be a place to sit, but she wanted to be there when Emma came downstairs. Natalia caught her staring and arched a brow in question, even as the dimples peeked out again.

“What?”

“You think I should have warned them about Buzz?” At Natalia's perplexed look, she pressed on. “About the fact that he made Emma a card shark?”

“He didn't,” the response flat and the dimples disappearing as a frown overtook her expression. “Olivia!”

“Yep,” she replied smugly. “She could go pro if she wasn't nine.”

“Olivia!!”

“What?? My kid's all Spencer where it counts.”

Natalia didn't answer; she just covered her face with her hands and trusted Olivia to get her safely across the street. Olivia chuckled and guided her carefully, exchanging smirks with Helena and Dinah. It was going to be a night to remember all right.

 

 

Chapter XX

“So, Natalie,” Xena said, looking at the woman she was standing closest to. “Let's see your hand.”

Natalie turned over the cards in front of her, even as Tootie spoke up. “We've got two pair – tens and threes – with a Jack kicker.”

“No way,” Lindsay complained. “That's what we've got.” Catherine turned over the cards in front of her and sure enough... two tens, two threes and a Jack faced up from the table. Xena just blinked and nodded her head.

“Well,” she muttered, “that couldn't have been planned if we'd tried it.”

“That leaves us out,” Diana said good-naturedly, flipping her pair of Aces towards the middle of the table.

“Blimey,” Scribbs mumbled, though she didn't seem to be all that upset over it.

“Us too,” Garcia stated a little morosely, placing her two pair – eights and sixes – face up on the table. Kris just nudged her and gave her a smile and Garcia shrugged and smiled back. “It was a lot of fun though,” she admitted.

“All right,” Xena asked after a moment, “Do we have anything that beats two pair – tens over threes?”

“How about a diamond flush?” Lucy asked with a smirk. Xena gave her a droll look.

“You're kidding me, right? How did you manage that?”

Lucy grinned, charming and rakish at the same time. “Luck of the draw, my dear. You can ask Scud – I only pulled one card... the last one. It was the Queen of Diamonds.” preening just a little bit.

“Of course it was,” Xena replied dryly. “All right, I've got a diamond flush, Ace high. You guys got anything that can beat that?” looking at Liz and Tracey. Tracey grinned like the shark that she was.

“Yeah... we've got something that can beat that.” She flipped over her cards. “Four nines with an Ace kicker.” She turned to Emma. “Thanks, kid.” Emma smiled brightly at her.

“You're welcome.” Then she looked at Barbara and whispered. “What did I do?”

Barbara grinned. “Beat them at their own game,” she answered serenely. “Why don't you tell Xena what cards you have, sweetheart?”

“Oh, sure,” Emma replied with enthusiasm. “Let's see... I've got a four of hearts,” turning over her first card and smiling at Liz. “A five of hearts, a six of hearts, a seven of hearts and an eight of hearts. I really like hearts, you know.”

“Son of a bitch,” Liz muttered under her breath, then started laughing. “We got snookered by the kid.” She got up and moved around the table, extending her hand to Emma who took it with a dubious look on her face. Liz simply laughed again and knelt to Emma's level.

“Congratulations, kid! You won. And if you decide to go into law when you get older, look me up.”

Emma nodded her head enthusiastically. “So I did good?”

“Honey... you did great.”

“Yes!” Emma cheered as she pumped her fist. The rest got caught up in her enthusiasm and smiled along with her. After a moment she blinked and looked at Xena seriously. “Um... what did we win?”

“Well, that's up to you. As the winner, you get to pick your prize. Would you and Barbara like to see the list or would you like to wait until your mommy is with you?”

“We'd like to see it now, please,” Emma stated clearly before Barbara could open her mouth.

The rest of the room watched as she carefully studied the list, looking at Barbara and whispering so quietly none of them could make out her words. Finally she sat back on her heels and crooked her finger at Xena.

Xena grinned and pushed off the wall she'd been leaning against. Then she walked to the far side of the table. Before she could kneel, however, Emma shook her head and took Xena's hand, tugging her over to a private corner. She cupped her hands around her lips and whispered into Xena's ear for a long moment. When she was done, Xena pulled back and looked at her.

“You're sure?”

Emma nodded emphatically.

“And Barbara's okay with it?” Barbara nodded.

“I think it's a wonderful idea.”

“All right. Here's what Emma decided – she wants to give her mommies the night in Cinderella's Castle. So everything else on the list is in play.”

“Question?” Liz asked. Xena crooked an eyebrow and waited. “The other things – there are enough for each person on the team, correct?”

“Of course. I will be arranging another night in the Castle for Barbara, Helena and Dinah....” trailing off when Barbara shook her head no. “Barbara?”

“No, Xena,” Barbara replied so quietly even Xena had to strain to hear her. “I got something out of this I didn't expect,” with a covert glance in Emma's direction. “I don't need anything else.” She paused. “And besides, I think it's cool of Emma to want to do something special like this for her mommies.”

Xena studied her eyes and nodded in satisfaction at what she found there. She'd see about doing something else for them, privately, later. She turned back to Liz. “To answer your question, yes. Each member of the team will receive the same prize.”

“And Emma?” she asked quietly. “Whether she snookered us or not, she deserves something for winning besides giving her prize away.”

Xena smiled. It seemed like Jellybean had found quite a number of friends this night. “Don't worry, Liz. I'll take care of Jellybean.”

Liz held her gaze for a moment, then nodded. “Good enough. We'll take the spa day at the Grand.”

“Good choice. Lucy?”

“We'll take the guided tours of the parks. Anything for head of the line privileges at Soarin'.”

Xena laughed, not surprised by that logic. “What about you guys?” motioning to Lindsay, Catherine, Natalie and Tootie. They exchanged glances, and finally Catherine spoke up.

“We figured since we tied dead even... literally, we should go for the same thing. So we'd like the private dining opportunity.”

“All right,” turning her attention to Garcia and Kris.

“We'd like the private dessert boat to watch Illuminations.”

“So we can have the day at the water park then?” Scribbs asked with excitement.

“Absolutely,” Xena assured her with a smile.

“Right, then... we'll have that please.”

Xena took up the list and placed it in her folder. Then she closed it and took a deep breath. “One more thing – a favor, actually. My partner, Gabrielle,” she paused a moment. “She's a bard... a storyteller. But it's been a long time since she had the chance to tell a story in front of a live audience. So I arranged a little surprise for her tonight.”

Emma's eyes went wide.

“Gabrielle's going to tell stories for us??”

Xena smiled nervously and rubbed her hand along the back of her neck. “Yeah, only... I haven't exactly told her about it yet.”

“Oooh... can I... please?”

“Sure,” Xena said, but before she could say anything else, Emma was off like a shot, running down the stairs to find Gabrielle. Xena blew out a breath and looked around the room, noting the expressions that met hers ranged from sympathy to admiration.

“Anyway, before I go to my death, if all of you and your teams could take a few minutes to listen to her and show a little support, it would be greatly appreciated. It might make my death a little quicker.”

“You *really* didn't tell her?” Lucy and Barbara asked simultaneously.

“It was kinda last minute and then we got busy and....”

“XENA!” they heard shouted from down the hall. As one body, everyone in the room rose and swiftly made their exit. Barbara was the last and she gave Xena a wry grimace as she crossed the threshold, knowing Gabrielle would close the door behind her. The temptation to stay and listen was almost overwhelming, but they were her friends and she respected them too much to eavesdrop. Instead, she maneuvered herself into the elevator, hoping to find out what happened downstairs.

 

************

“Gabrielle! Gabrielle!” Emma shouted as she burst through the stairwell door. “Gabrielle – I won!” running into Gabrielle's arms as she knelt to catch her.

“You did? That's great, Jellybean. What prize did you pick?”

Emma looked around and noticed all the eyes focused on her, including her mommies', and she realized her entrance had brought most of the participants closer to where they stood. She shook her head. “It's a secret surprise,” she whispered loudly into Gabrielle's ear. “I'll tell you later.” Gabrielle blinked and nodded her agreement, wondering what she had chosen that she wanted to keep it a secret, especially from her mommies. Surely Xena hadn't let her choose something.... Then her attention was caught by Emma's words and she blinked again.

“Excuse me, Emma – what did you just say?”

Emma rolled her eyes, but kept her grin. Adults were the same everywhere. They were always making her repeat the good stuff... like she was making it up or something.

“I said – Xena told us you're a storyteller and that you're telling stories tonight. I wanna know where and when. Mommy promised me ice cream, and I don't want to miss the stories.”

Gabrielle drew a deep breath and released Emma from her hold. Then she stood up calmly and placed a hand on Emma's shoulder. “Well, I'll be honest, Emma. I'm not quite sure yet myself. How about if you wait here with your mommies and I'll go find out, okay?”

“You won't let me miss them, will you?”

“I promise, Emma,” knowing she was committing herself to storytelling. “I won't let you miss them.”

Emma nodded agreeably. “We'll wait right here for you,” going over to stand by her mommies.

Gabrielle excused herself from the crowd that was suddenly suffocating and took the stairs on a run. When she reached the top, she opened the door and bellowed, “XENA!!” listening in grim satisfaction at the echo it created on the stairs and the bedlam it caused to spill forth from the conference room. She stood to one side as the women exited closing the door firmly when the last one had entered the stairwell. When Barbara rolled from the room she gave her a terse nod and waited until the elevator doors closed on her before she crossed the threshold and shut the conference room door behind her.

*************

“Wonder what that was all about?” Sam asked as Barbara maneuvered her way to Helena 's side.

“That was a surprise Gabrielle wasn't quite prepared for,” she answered with candor. Emma looked up at her mother, concerned.

“Does that mean Gabrielle isn't going to tell stories? She promised she would.”

Barbara placed a hand on Olivia's arm before she could answer and Olivia nodded her permission. “Emma, if Gabrielle promised you stories, then she will be telling stories. She doesn't break her promises, okay?”

Emma studied Barbara's eyes for a long moment. “Okay,” she agreed. “But why was she so upset?”

Barbara sighed and looked at Olivia. Instead, it was Natalia who knelt in front of her.

“Do you remember how you felt when your mommy told you that you were moving out of the farmhouse... without any warning at all?” Natalia responded suddenly, waiting for the nod she knew was forthcoming. “Well, this is a little like that. I don't think Gabrielle was expecting to be telling stories tonight and I imagine that takes a little preparation.”

“Like baking cookies?”

“Exactly like baking cookies. If I suddenly find out that I have to bake dozens of cookies and I don't have anything ready to make them, it puts me a little out of sorts until I have a chance to get everything together.”

“You get out of sorts, Mama?”

“Sometimes, Jellybean. Sometimes we all do. But you know the good thing about being a family – there's always plenty of support and help around if I just remember to look for it.”

“So we should help Gabrielle?”

“Well, we can support her. So as soon as we know when and where she's telling stories, we'll make sure to be on the front row, all right?”

Emma nodded enthusiastically. She loved stories.

 

************

Gabrielle walked calmly through the door as the elevator doors closed behind Barbara and shut it quietly. She remained facing the door for a long moment – partly to calm her nerves, but partially to make Xena sweat a little bit. In truth, she wasn't really angry with Xena; but it wouldn't be an understatement to say she was feeling out of sorts. She took a deep breath.

“Why?” keeping her back to Xena.

Xena looked at her back, ramrod straight and stiff with tension. She didn't move closer; she had been with Gabrielle long enough to know when to step away and give the bard her space. Xena walked back to the window she'd been looking out not too long before, noting in a vague way the preparations that had gone into converting the stage into a performance area for Gabrielle.

“Because you miss it,” Xena finally replied. “I know you do.”

“But why not tell me?” not denying the truth of Xena's words.

“I wanted it to be a surprise,” feeling Gabrielle whip her head around and keeping her eyes steadily fastened out the window, even though she could see Gabrielle's reflection in the glass. “Not this much of a surprise. It just – I mentioned it to Rita when we started putting these conventions together, but I never heard anything back about it, so I figured it was a bust. Then I got the word yesterday just before we started registration and I was going to tell you at dinner. But then you had the run-in with Desdemona and people kept interrupting us and honestly, it slipped my mind.”

“What reminded you?”

“You remember when our Main Street clue giver Stan led us up here just before the teams started arriving?” Gabrielle nodded. “He told me they would be ready for you at eleven-thirty on the stage in front of the castle. Then we saw them and....”

“And you figured I'd take it better from Emma at that point,” flatly.

“Actually, Emma volunteered to tell you. I just asked the rest of them to get their teams together to show you some love and support.” Gabrielle stood still for a long moment before moving away from the door to approach Xena from behind. She wrapped her arms around Xena's waist, feeling her relax into the embrace almost unconsciously as the tension flowed out of her. “I'm....”

Gabrielle covered her lips. “Don't be. You're right – I do miss it. A little more warning would have been nice, but....” She shrugged. “I'm a bard by nature. There's always a story in there to tell.”

Xena turned then, finally, though she kept her head down and looked up at Gabrielle through her lashes. “So I'm not in trouble?”

Gabrielle grinned. “I didn't say that, but we can work that out later privately.” She looked at her watch. “Right now we've got to go downstairs to let people know when and where to be for this little event. I promised Emma I wouldn't let her miss them.”

“I did good then,” Xena stated firmly.

Gabrielle stood on tiptoes and brushed her lips across Xena's, smiling into the kiss when Xena pulled her in closer for a hug as well. She moved her lips to Xena's ear. “You did good. But we can talk about that later too. Right now, we need to get downstairs before Emma decides you need rescuing or something.”

Xena chuckled and hand in hand they walked out the door and down the stairs.

 

 

Chapter XXI

They walked over as a group, following where Xena and Gabrielle led. Emma was tucked safely between her two mommies, having foregone her ice cream in favor of holding both their hands. When they reached the edge of a roped off area near the stage, Xena turned to the crowd.

“Well, this is where we get off for now.” She glanced at her watch. “There's about forty-five minutes before the storytelling starts, so you've got time to....”

“If you'll have them move the rope, we can take our seats,” Olivia commented dryly.

“Um... okay, but....” Xena nodded to Stan who unhooked the rope on one side to allow them entrance into the seating area. Almost as a singular entity, the women started filing into the rows of seats that had been set up specifically for Gabrielle's storytelling. Gabrielle had to wonder just what Xena had told them for Disney to make such a concession and offer that courtesy – it certainly wasn't the norm. Usually, folks just stood around the hub watching the show from whatever space they could find.

Now, women she barely knew – who barely knew her – were filling in the rows with almost military precision like there was nothing else they would rather be doing than waiting for her to tell stories. They'd made sure Emma was sitting front and center, but otherwise they'd just seated themselves one after the other as a matter of course without thought to location. Gabrielle smiled to hide the tears it brought to her eyes.

Xena watched with a smile, noting the air of suppressed excitement. For whatever reason, these women were going above and beyond what she'd asked of them and seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic about having stories told for them. She felt a shift of emotion from Gabrielle and turned, frowning when she saw the tears. Gabrielle waved off the question she wanted to ask.

“They're happy tears, Xe. It reminds me just a little bit of Greece ... back in the day.” She blinked rapidly to clear the wetness from her eyes and took a deep breath. “However, I need you to go sit so I can prepare myself for this.” She held up a hand. “I'm all right... really. I just need a few minutes to get things straight in my head.”

“Do you know what stories you're going to tell?”

“Yeah, I do. Not one of yours, I promise. I wouldn't do that to either of us.”

Xena nodded slowly. “If you're sure....”

“I'm sure,” patting her on the ass.

“All right then.”

Gabrielle watched her move around to the back of the seating area, studying it carefully from a warrior's perspective before nodding her head in satisfaction. Then she walked over to stand beside Stan next to the stage, but on the side opposite Gabrielle. Gabrielle shook her head. The more things change.... she thought, then turned her back to the group and let her gaze go inward for several long minutes.

When she had the story she had chosen firmly in her head, she spent some time in quiet meditation, slowly blocking out the sounds around her until only her heartbeat remained. With that as her only music, she slowed her breathing, willing herself to calm until she felt it envelop her like a cloak. Only then did she turn around again, absently noting that not only had the seating area filled, but that the hub was a sea of people as far as she could see.

Gabrielle turned her gaze to Emma and crooked a finger at her, beckoning her closer. Emma pointed to herself in question, and at Gabrielle's nod, she started to rise from her seat. Olivia put a hand on her arm to stop her and though Gabrielle could not hear the words, it was clear Emma was trying to make her mother understand that Gabrielle actually called for her.

Finally, Emma pointed in Gabrielle's direction, rolling her eyes and shrugging her shoulders exaggeratedly so Gabrielle knew what the issue was. In response, Gabrielle simply crooked her finger again, and this time Olivia rose and took Emma's hand, leading her to Gabrielle. Gabrielle kept her eyes focused on Emma.

“Would you like to sit on stage with me if it's okay with your mom?”

“Oh yes!” Emma said with distinct enthusiasm. “Can I, Mommy?”

“Are you sure, Gabrielle?”

Now Gabrielle looked at Olivia. “Absolutely.”

“Can I, Mommy? Please??”

Olivia looked at Emma's excited face and gave Gabrielle a droll expression. “How do you say no to that?” she asked dryly.

“So that means yes?” Emma asked, trembling with excitement.

Olivia let go of Emma's hand and nudged her towards Gabrielle. ”That means yes.” Emma pumped her arm in victory and Olivia rolled her eyes, though she couldn't keep the smile from her face. “Your mama and I will be right down front if you....”

“Mom,” Emma cut in with a dry voice that resembled Olivia's so much, she started. “I'm not a baby.”

Olivia leaned down and kissed her forehead. “I know, Jellybean. I'm just gonna go sit with your mama now.”

“I love you, Mommy.”

“I love you too, Bean.”

Gabrielle waited until Olivia was sitting in Natalia's comforting embrace before she extended her hand to Emma. “Shall we?”

For answer, Emma slipped her hand into Gabrielle's. “Yes!”

With a smile, Gabrielle nodded and they headed for the ramp.

 

************

It took a little doing, of course. Stan lifted the rope for them and accompanied them up the ramp onto the stage, whispering instructions to Gabrielle as they walked up. They remained in the back corner while he set the stage. A comfortable chair was brought out – wing-backed and well padded and wide enough for Gabrielle to sit comfortably with Emma on her lap. Next, Stan brought out a table and placed two bottles of water and a small box of popcorn on top. A tall lamp was the final touch, battery operated so it would actually give off a bit of light.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle was being wired... quite a feat considering her Amazon Queen costume, but she was ready to go by the time Stan finished putting the lamp into place. The lights went out, including those on the castle and Stan started his introduction. Gabrielle felt Emma clutch her hand tightly in reflex. She leaned down to whisper into Emma's ear, covering her mic just in case the sound tech had activated the device on his end.

“It's okay, Emma. It's just a little Halloween theatrics, for show. I can see perfectly well at night.”

“Can you really? All I see is darkness.”

Gabrielle smiled and tugged her closer. “Stick with me, kid,” leading her right to the chair and seating herself, then allowing Emma to crawl into her lap. “All set?” she asked when Emma finally stilled. Emma nodded emphatically, then leaned over to whisper.

“This is great!”

Gabrielle chuckled in sympathy and passed Emma the box of popcorn. She could feel the vibes of anticipation and excitement running through the crowd and without warning, flipped the switch on the lamp, flooding the area around the chair with the only visible light.

The crown gasped in reaction and flashes went off around them, but Gabrielle was already focused on the little girl in her lap, so it barely registered in her mind.

“Emma? Have you ever heard the story of the very first Halloween?”

Emma's eyes widened in response to the whispered question, shaking her head slowly as she stuffed a few kernels of popcorn in her mouth.

“This was a long, long time ago – Once upon a time, back when the world was new and Chronos and Rhea were still in their infancy, life existed in perfect balance and harmony – yin had yang, strength had weakness, good had evil – but they only touched one another at the fringes of their existence. They never melded... never blended into a single reality.  Light ruled the day and darkness ruled the night and ne'er did the twain meet.  Only at dawn and at twilight did either get a glimpse into a life not their own.  It is during one of these twilight sightings that our story begins.”

Slowly, methodically, Gabrielle told the story of Zephyr and Tuwa - how the Children of Darkness introduced Chaos into the world and brought heartache to the Children of Light; of how the favored were turned to hunter and prey in an effort to destroy the one and bring the other to the side of Darkness; of how their bond protected them from turning on one another despite their animal natures; of Gaia's gift of immortality and her promise that a way would be found to release them from the curse that kept them in animal form on all but the night of All Hallow's Eve. She told of Aphrodite's actions that finally allowed them to return to their human form.

“So, they're human now?” Emma asked, having long since forgotten the audience that was listening with the same rapt attention she had been.

“Mostly, yes,” Gabrielle replied. “Aphrodite was unable to completely undo the curse; she simply transmuted it. So now when Halloween comes, Zephyr and Tuwa revert to the panther and the fox they were for so many centuries and on that night, they hunt and feed like Bacchae.”

Emma's brow furrowed. “What are Bacchae?”

Gabrielle grimaced, being far more intimately acquainted with them than she had ever wanted to be. “Do you know what vampires are?”

Emma shook her head and Gabrielle sighed. She wasn't sure she wanted to be the one to introduce this particular concept to a child like Emma. Despite her knowledge of the world due to the things she had already been through with all her parents, she still maintained a bright, optimistic outlook of the world around her.

“Well, according to myth and legend, vampires are creatures of the night that suck the lifeblood out of those beings weaker than they are. They live in darkness and survive on the blood of humans or other vampires.”

Emma scrunched up her face. “EW – that sounds gross.”

Gabrielle nodded her head. “Yeah, it does,” taking a swallow of water while Emma thought about Gabrielle's description.

“So are Bacchae like vampires?”

“A little bit. They are like the predecessors of vampires, but they evolved very differently because of Bacchus' destruction millennia ago.”

“How?”

“Well, Bacchae became creatures of light, mostly. They live in the light and only hunt for need... not for sport. And mostly when they hunt, they prey on animals... not human beings.”

“It still sounds kind of scary.”

“Yes, but that nature is what makes them immortal, and immortality is what allowed Zephyr and Tuwa to return to their human forms again.”

“So they lived happily ever after?”

Gabrielle nodded. “They did – they lived happily ever after.”

Emma's small cry of ‘Yea' was overshadowed in the cheers and applause that broke out across the darkness. Gabrielle jumped, and Emma leaned into her embrace, knowing instinctively it was one of the safest places in the world to be.

For a long moment they snuggled together, then Gabrielle whispered into Emma's ear. Emma leaned forward and kissed Gabrielle's cheek, then jumped from her lap negligently. Emma extended her hand and Gabrielle graciously accepted it, rising to her feet and acknowledging the applause that rang out around the hub area.

Without warning, the lamp went dark and Gabrielle moved from her spot towards the back corner to be de-wired even as the strokes of midnight began to toll from the castle tower. By the time the echo of the last chime faded, the stage setting had been removed and Emma and Gabrielle had made their way down the ramp to rejoin their group.

“Mommy! Mama! Did you see me? Wasn't that awesome??”

Natalia intercepted the little girl as she ran towards them, lifting Emma up into her arms and smiling when Olivia put her arms around them both briefly before pushing the hair out of Emma's eyes and behind her ear.

“I did see you, Bean. And that was totally awesome,” Olivia answered affecting her best Valley Girl drawl. Natalia rolled her eyes and Olivia smacked her lightly on the ass. She jumped and glared, but Emma didn't notice the byplay in her excitement.

“What did you think, Mama?” turning her attention to Natalia.

“I thought it was a very beautiful story, and I think you should go thank Gabrielle for telling it to you.” She put Emma back on the ground and watched as she rocked impatiently back and forth trying to get to Gabrielle who was currently surrounded by a plethora of admirers.

The motion caught Xena's attention, and before Emma could get too impatient, she scooped her up and placed her on her shoulders so Gabrielle could see her. It garnered Gabrielle's attention, just as Xena had known it would and she held up her hand a moment and watched the women around her grow quiet and follow her gaze. Indulgently, they turned to face Emma, smiling reflexively at the wide grin she sported.

“Yes, Emma?” Gabrielle asked softly, cocking her head and smiling.

“Thank you, Gabrielle. That was wonderful!”

Gabrielle's smile grew to a grin. “Thank you, Emma. I enjoyed it very much.”

“We all did,” Helena piped up, followed by a rousing assent from the rest. “Now,” motioning to Emma as Xena slowly lowered her to the ground once more. “Emma and I are going trick-or-treating. Anybody wanna join us?”

Emma reached out her hands and took Xena by one and Helena by the other before leading them through the Magic Kingdom , collecting candy as they went. Barbara and Gabrielle just watched them go, shaking their heads in tandem.

It had been a very good Halloween already, and their fun was just beginning.

 

 

Chapter XXII

“She went out like a light,” Natalia commented as she closed the door to Emma's room just as Olivia stepped from the bathroom in their room. She had been anxious to take a shower; the heat from her wool habit had caused her to sweat excessively for someone not participating in some sort of physical activity. Natalia, on the other hand, was looking forward to a hot shower simply for the warmth it was going to provide; her French maid costume may have been sexy as hell, but it certainly wasn't warm by any stretch of the imagination.

“Kinda surprising considering all the candy she collected,” Olivia replied as she dropped the towel she'd been drying her hair with around her neck. She smiled when Natalia stepped closer to her and grasped the towel in both hands, pulling them into contact along their lengths.

“Not really. It's not like she ate any. And Helena is just a grown-up playmate as far as our daughter is concerned.”

Olivia leaned her head back just enough to meet Natalia's eyes. “Yeah... what's up with that anyway? Suddenly our daughter has made adult friends all over the place. I think Barbara Gordon is her new best friend - a best friend who is apparently sharing some sort of secret with my kid. And Liz Donnelly was trying to convince me to pre-enroll her in Harvard Law!” her expression somewhat outraged. “Natalia... she's nine!”

Natalia gazed in Olivia's eyes, moving one hand to cup her cheek tenderly when Olivia's eyes threatened to lose Natalia's. “Olivia? Sweetheart, are you jealous?”

“No! I mean... no. I mean... not really. It's just....” This time her eyes dropped. Natalia shifted her grip from the towel to Olivia's neck, letting her hand trail through the still damp locks before starting a gentle kneading of the muscles of Olivia's neck. Olivia moaned in appreciation as she felt tension she hadn't realized she was holding melt under Natalia's attention. Her head fell forward and her eyes closed. Natalia smiled while her other hand slid around to join the first. Olivia let her body fall forward until her forehead met Natalia's shoulder.

“Oh God... I love that.” She sighed softly. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Olivia. And there's no reason for you to be jealous of Jellybean's new friends. Her ability to make friends like she does is a direct result of how you raised her.” Natalia smiled when she felt Olivia twist her head enough to peer at her with one eye. “Think about it, love. From what Dinah told us, Barbara has *never* been a ‘kid person'. And yet, Emma pushed right through that and made a friend out of her anyway.” Olivia sighed again. “Sweetie, no matter what, Emma will always be your baby girl. Nothing and no one will ever change that.”

One more big sigh, and Olivia curled her face into Natalia's neck. Natalia's chuckled softly, and Olivia smiled, knowing she was tickling. “I know; she's just growing up so fast.”

Natalia kissed the brow tucked under her chin. “They always do. At least she is growing up with love. And the way she's making friends here, she'll be taking over the world at least five years ahead of schedule.”

Olivia couldn't stop the laugh that bubbled up and she wrapped Natalia in a firm embrace, conveying the depth of her emotion in the hug. Natalia returned the hug and kissed Olivia's temple before easing back just slightly and stepping out of Olivia's clasp.

“Hey! Where ya going?”

“You had your shower to cool off,” watching a frown cross Olivia's face as she nodded. Natalia gestured to her costume. “I need to take a shower to warm up.”

Olivia let her eyes travel up Natalia's slim form, noting with interest the goosebumps that seemed to travel the same path her eyes followed. When green eyes met brown, a lecherous smile formed on Olivia's face, causing a flush to spread across Natalia's chest and face. Olivia's grin broadened exponentially and she sauntered back into Natalia's personal space.

“I could probably help with that,” she purred as she walked around Natalia, grinning when she felt the shiver travel through Natalia's body. “If you're interested in working with me, that is.” Olivia stepped close enough to Natalia to feel her warmth without touching.

“Well,” Natalia began without moving, her eyes closed to keep her senses focused on Olivia. “We worked together really well before. What are you proposing?”

Olivia slid her arms around Natalia's waist, hugging her close for a long moment before stepping back and tugging on the apron Natalia still wore. Natalia turned in her arms and allowed Olivia to lead her to the bed. Olivia lay down and pulled Natalia to her. Then Olivia moved their negotiations forward and Natalia grinned as warmth flowed through her. Her shower could wait.

It never even dawned on them that they still didn't know what prize Emma had chosen.

 

************

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph – I'm wiped!!” Helena complained as she dramatically fell into the middle of the bed. Barbara rolled her eyes at the theatrics then put on a sympathetic face. Before she could articulate any sort of empathy for Helena 's plight, Dinah's sarcastic voice cut into the conversation.

“You mean you finally met your match in a nine year old ki... child? Good thing the villains of New Gotham don't know how easily you can be defeated,” laughing as she headed into her room. Helena sat up on her elbows and glared in Dinah's general direction before narrowing her gaze at Barbara, who was making a valiant effort to keep her laughter silent.

“I know where the two of you live, you know. And you have to sleep some time,” she grumbled before flopping back down on the bed in a huff.

Barbara stopped laughing, though she couldn't keep the amused smile off her lips or out of her eyes. “Yes,” she agreed, letting her voice drop to a husky whisper as she slid from her wheelchair to sit on the bed. Barbara smiled when Helena automatically adjusted her position to give Barbara the room and support she required to recline comfortably. Barbara closed her eyes when Helena 's fingers started lightly tracing random patterns on her skin. “But since we usually sleep together, I figure I am pretty safe from any sort of retribution,” the smile on her face apparent in her voice.

“You really liked her, didn't you?” Helena asked seriously. “Emma, I mean,” when a frown furrowed Barbara's forehead. Green eyes studied blue at a range close enough to see any hint of deceit. Barbara nodded slowly.

“I did. She's an amazing little girl. She reminds me of you, actually,” Barbara confessed with a tiny smile. She looked up at Helena , whose brow was cocked in question. Her expression sobered. “She's a lot like you were....”

“... before Mom died,” Helena concurred softly, watching Barbara nod her agreement. “It's okay, Barbara – I like her too. She's a good kid. And her moms are pretty cool too.” She curled her body more into Barbara's, grinning when Barbara almost purred in reaction. “I wonder if she's told them about her prize yet.”

Barbara yawned and shook her head. “I don't think so. She wants to surprise them with it.”

Helena nodded, thinking of the secret Emma had shared with her earlier and made a mental note to talk to Xena about it first thing. She stretched and settled in more comfortably, knowing sleep was not long off. Then she felt a poke in her ribs and Helena frowned before opening one eye to peer balefully at the redhead looking at her with an amused expression.

“I thought you might want to at least take the make-up off your face before you fell asleep,” Barbara commented with affection. Helena grumbled but rolled from the bed. Without warning, she scooped Barbara up into her arms and headed towards the bathroom. Barbara automatically wound her arms around Helena 's neck, and simultaneously glared at her.

“ Helena !” her voice outraged.

Helena gave Barbara her most charming smile. “Yes, Barbara?” she queried even as she gently place her on the shower bench. Then she knelt at Barbara's feet and began removing her boots. Barbara cupped Helena 's face and lifted her chin until their eyes met.

“C'mon, Scooby. I think my back needs scrubbing.”

Helena just grinned and redoubled her efforts.

 

************

“Oh, man... am I glad to be out of that thing,” Sam commented as she removed the last part of her First Prime costume. “Teal'c is a much better soldier than I am. I'd die if I had to wear that all the time.”

Janet Frasier rolled her eyes and rubbed her feet. “I dunno, Sam – it's not like your regular gear is all that lightweight.”

Sam rolled her neck to relieve some of the ache and peered at Janet through her bangs. “I know, but I'm used to it. This....” motioning to the gear neatly piled into one corner of their room waiting to be cleaned and put away.

Janet smiled and shook her head; she knew Samantha wasn't being deliberately obtuse – it just didn't register the same for her and it wasn't worth arguing about. Instead she extended her hand.

“C'mon, Sam. A rubdown will make you feel better.”

Sam grinned and swept Janet into a tight hug. “You're the doc,” chuckling when Janet rolled her eyes, then groaned as her spine aligned.

“I love you,” Janet moaned, kissing Sam's neck.

“I know,” Sam said with a smirk as she lowered Janet until she was standing once more. Janet rolled her eyes again and pushed Sam back onto the bed, signaling her to turn onto her stomach. Janet followed her, straddling Sam's hips before digging her capable hands into muscles that had seen more than their fair share of hard duty.

Sam whimpered in appreciation as knots loosened under Janet's ministrations. “God, I love you,” she muttered when she was finally able to draw breath enough to speak. Janet smiled, but never stopped her massage. Instead, she leaned down to whisper into Sam's ear.

“I know.”

Sam just closed her eyes... and smiled.

 

************

Mac sighed in relief as she wrapped herself in a thick terrycloth rode. Latex had its place, but spending six hours outdoors in relatively cool temperatures was probably not it. However, it wasn't really an issue while she sipped her hot toddy after a long shower. Tomorrow she would call Harm and catch him up on the conference so far, but tonight, Mac was going to sleep well. Who knew trick-or-treating was such an exhausting activity for people older than nine.

 

************

“Who knew trick-or-treating was such an exhausting activity for people older than nine?” Sabrina complained as she slid under the covers of her bed and dropped her head onto the pillow with a tired sigh. She closed her eyes, opening one a mere slit when she heard Kelly's soft chuckle.

“Imagine how her mothers feel,” Kelly replied, watching Sabrina in the mirror as she continued to brush her hair. “They deal with all that energy on a daily basis.”

Kris stuck her head in the adjoining door. “I had fun, but I'm glad they pushed tomorrow's conference back an hour... today,” she corrected herself as she glance at the clock. “Night, guys.”

Sabrina and Kelly called out their goodnights, and Kelly doused the lights before climbing into bed. She yawned and snuggled under the covers, asleep when her head hit the pillow. Sabrina smirked, then followed Kelly into the land of dreams with a smile on her face.

 

************

“Wait'll the boys hear about this,” Garcia said as she crawled into bed. “They're gonna be pissed they missed all the fun.”

Emily laughed. “What do you want to bet they try to do something similar next year... you know – just for the guys?”

JJ shook her head. “No bet. But I don't think they could manage to have as much fun as we did. And just think... we still have two days of conference left.”

Garcia propped her hand on her head. “The conference has been fun - I mean, I've learned a lot already and I've made a couple of good contacts as well. But I've gotta admit that the after-hours stuff has already been fabulous. Personally, I'm looking forward to the talent show tomorrow night,” her grin smug. JJ hitched a brow at her.

“Are you scheduled to perform?”

Garcia smirked. “Guess you'll just have to show up to find out.”

“Oh we'll be there.” Emily assured her. “I'm hoping to hear Sam sing again. That young woman has quite a voice.”

“And a romantic streak a mile wide. That was a pretty gutsy thing she did tonight.”

“I bet there's a good story behind that.” Garcia nodded as she lowered her head to her pillow and flipped the lights off, allowing darkness to fall in the room.

 

************

“Sam?” Brooke asked quietly as Sam curled up into her body. The darkness of their room made her want to whisper and the sated feeling flowing through her limbs made her reluctant to expend any real effort to speak louder.

“Mmm?” Sam hummed into Brooke's neck, causing her to chuckle silently. “'S'up?” she muttered.

“I was just wondering why... I mean, you went to a lot of effort tonight, and some time I'd like to hear how you pulled it off. But mostly right now, I want to know why.”

Sam shifted until she could sit up slightly, leaning on her elbow to look Brooke in the eye as much as the darkness in the room allowed them to see. Her brow furrowed and Brooke automatically lifted a hand to smooth it away.

“Why what, Brooke? Why I proposed when it's still not legal everywhere?”

Brooke shook her head as her fingertips lightly touched Sam's lips. “No, honey. I think I got that part,” letting her fingers trace the soft skin under them. “I was more curious about why here and why now and why so much effort – because I am pretty sure quite a bit of planning went into that whole carriage ride part. And I have to admit that I never thought we'd have an audience for something so intimate and personal.”

“Does it bother you that we did?” Sam asked as her fingers plucked at the covers restlessly.

“Not at all,” Brooke quickly reassured her. “I'd be willing to bet good money that someone got video of it. We'll be watching it for years.”

Sam snorted. “We're probably already up on YouTube.”

Brooke covered her face and shook her head. “I hope not. It would be nice if we got the chance to tell Dad and Jane about our engagement before CNN picks it up.”

Sam's eyes widened comically. “Oh, shit.... I didn't even... you think we should call them?”

Brooke looked at the clock. “We could, though we'd probably send my dad into cardiac arrest if we called this late. Even with the three hour time difference, it's still past their normal bedtime. We can call in the morning. However, you still haven't answered my original question.”

Sam sighed; she should have known Brooke wouldn't just let it go. “I wanted it to be special... to be memorable for you. And I thought that having the support of some of our friends might be helpful as well – for both of us.”

“Did they know...?”

Sam shook her head. “No. Only Xena knew. She had to before I could convince her to help me pull it off. Gabrielle probably knew too. I don't think she and Xena keep many secrets from each other.”

“Except for that storytelling thing tonight. Wonder if Xena got in trouble for that.

“I hope not – Gabrielle is an incredible storyteller. I can't believe I've never heard of her as a writer.”

“Maybe she doesn't write?”

Sam shook her head. “If she doesn't, she damn well should. That story she told... it was almost like she was part of it – like she was there when it happened.”

Brooke smiled. “Maybe you can talk to her about it tomorrow. Tonight we still have some celebrating to do,” drawing Sam's mouth to hers and effectively ending the conversation for the time being.

 

************

“So didja have fun?” Xena asked as she spooned Gabrielle from behind. She smiled when Gabrielle's fingers tracked lightly up and down her arm.

“You know I did,” knowing Xena would hear the smile in her voice. “But next time? Try to give me more than ten minutes warning,” aware that she was exaggerating slightly, but also knowing that Xena knew what she meant. “I know I did it with about that much warning beforehand back in the day, but I also spent all day practicing those same stories on you and Argo... over and over and over again.”

“I miss that sometimes,” Xena commented.

Gabrielle shifted until she was lying on her back able to see Xena's expression. “You miss hearing me practice the same story over and over for hours and days on end?”

Xena smirked. “Well, maybe not that so much, but I do miss you telling stories.” She paused a moment. “It's been a long time for me too,” she added softly.

“I'll have to work on it,” Gabrielle replied, touching Xena's face. “Who knows? Maybe with all the friends we're making here, we can spend a little time traveling again.”

“I like that idea. Lucy has already invited us to Barcelona .”

“That could be fun. It's been a while since we went to the Continent.”

“We'll talk to her and Amy tomorrow. Maybe we can set something up.”

“I like the sound of that.”

 

 

Chapter XXIII

“Did you have fun tonight?” Amy asked as she snuggled into Lucy's warmth. She smiled when Lucy's arms pulled her closer. “Even though we didn't win?”

“You know I did, but I still think Xena and Gabrielle are evil, EVIL women.” She laughed lightly when Amy trailed her hand up her side in a gentle tickling motion. “Stop that. Besides, we got the best prize of the bunch if you ask me.”

Amy snorted and shifted to look into Lucy's brown eyes. “You just don't want to be stuck in line with Max and Dom.”

“That's just a bonus,” Lucy teased. “I like being able to cut the line AND they can't interrogate me.”

“Hey, they were good tonight.”

“Yeah, they were and I really did have fun with them tonight. We could probably be friends if we weren't on opposite sides of every question.”

Amy snorted. “Max wouldn't know how to act.”

“True. It'd almost be worth it to....” She stopped talking when Amy lips covered hers for a long moment.

“Enough about them,” Amy chided as she leaned down for another kiss....

... only to reach for a gun that was no longer there when something hit the door. Amy slid away from Lucy and Lucy followed her up. Together they opened the door and looked at the couple standing there huddled closely by the door. Lucy tapped the closest one on the shoulder and jumped back when the woman started violently.

“Hey... you okay? Did you get lost or something?”

“What? No... sorry. We, um....”

The shorter woman chuckled nervously. “It's all right, Nik.” She turned her attention to Lucy and extended her hand. “Helen Stewart... my partner Nikki Wade. We, um… were na paying attention and a wee bunny jumped out at us unexpectedly.”

“So you...?” Lucy managed without laughing, though her grin was broad.

“Jumped into the door,” Nikki finished with a roll of her eyes. “Sorry about disturbing you.”

“Not a problem,” Amy assured them as she tugged Lucy back into the room. “Goodnight.”

Helen and Nikki waited until the door closed again before moving towards their room again. “Well, that was embarrassing.”

“Could have been worse,” Nikki assured Helen, nodding towards the small group approaching them. “There could have been witnesses with cameras.”

Helen chuckled again and took Nikki's arm, tugging them towards their room without further delay.

 

************

“Mom, did you see that?”

“I did indeed, Caroline. Did you get your picture, Cassidy?” Miranda asked, turning to her other daughter. Cassidy grinned and nodded, shedding her teenage indifference in her excitement.

“Yes,” showing Miranda the image she had captured.

“That's wonderful, Bobbsie. Shall I have Emily get it printed up for you?” reaching for her phone.

“No, mom. It's okay. I can do it myself.”

“Very well,” Miranda commented coolly. “I'm sure Emily will appreciate the chance to rest a bit before tomorrow.”

 

************

Emily sighed in relief as she put away the last of her costume. As marvelous as it was to have been Queen Victoria for a bit, she was more than grateful to be able to remove the heavy period costume. She hadn't realized how difficult it would be to wear it for hours on end as she trolled around the Magic Kingdom . If she'd given it more thought, she might have gone the same route Andy had. Then again, I got a lot more candy being the Queen , smirking as she crawled into bed. She sent Andy a snarky text before turning off the light and settling down to sleep.

 

************

Why that little... Andy thought as she set her phone aside, then shook her head. Despite everything, Emily was her friend. And they'd managed to have a good time together in spite of Miranda's close proximity. She hoped they'd get the chance to do it again before the weekend was over.

With that thought, Andy turned over and went to sleep.

 

************

Nikki and Nora walked by Andy's room just as the light went out. “Guess we're about the last ones in, huh?”

“I don't think so, sugar. Just depends on how quick folks were getting back to their rooms.”

“And if they stopped at the bar for a nightcap,” Nora added as she hefted her beer bottle and clinked it gently against Nikki's. “You nervous about breakfast?”

Nikki shrugged, then reluctantly nodded. “A little bit maybe. I mean, it's just weird, ya know?”

“I know how weird it was for me to see someone who looked just like you, but obviously wasn't. I can only imagine how you felt.”

“I will admit it's probably one of the more bizarre experiences of my life. And considering I've always called New Orleans home....” Nikki slipped her key in the lock and opened the door, holding it for Nora to enter in front of her, before turning and locking up for the night.

“At least tomorrow we should have some answers.”

Nikki looked at the clock. “Later today, you mean.”

Nora rolled her eyes. “Semantics.”

Nikki grinned rakishly. “We could just stay up and test that theory.”

Nora cocked an eyebrow. “You think you can keep up?”

The answering squeal was heard by the group of women passing by on their way to their rooms. They blushed and hurried their steps along.

 

************

“Sounds like someone is having a good night,” Sofia commented as they headed up the stairs to the second floor. “Glad my room isn't next door.”

“Mine too,” Lilly agreed. “It's going to be a short enough night as it is.”

“It's not that bad,” Sara commented. “We've certainly spent longer days at work.”

“Says the professional workaholic,” Catherine sniped, though she softened her words with a smile in Sara's direction. “She's right though. We've done it before.”

“Yeah, but this is supposed to be a mini-vacation. I'm going to need a week off to recover,” Lilly said laughingly, keying her room open.

“At least we'll be able to rub the guys' noses in it,” Sofia said as she opened the door in front of her, holding it open for Wendy to follow her inside.

“My stop as well,” Wendy said. Catherine looked at her closely and put a hand on her arm to keep her from entering the room.

“Hey... you all right?”

“Yeah,” Sara added softly. “You seem a little....”

“... shaken up,” Catherine said. “You still thinking about your twin?”

“I'm supposed to have breakfast with her and her partner tomorrow.”

“You need us to be there?”

Wendy shook her head. “I think this is something I need to do by myself. But I wouldn't mind if you guys were close by – like say the next table over.”

Catherine reached around and gave Wendy a brief hug she was happy to reciprocate. “We'll be there,” she assured, then they said their good nights and headed towards their room.

“Did you ever get a hold of Lindsay?” Sara asked, referring to Catherine's daughter. Catherine shook her head.

“No. Her roommate promised to give her the message, but she may not be speaking to me when she finds out I came to Disney World without her.”

“Not your fault she's in school.”

“No, but most kids think their parents aren't supposed to have fun without them,” Catherine replied sardonically just as they reached their room. They arrived in front of the door just as Lindsay and Cindy approached from the other direction. Cindy was talking rapidly and Sara and Catherine exchanged smiles before turning their attention back to their teammates.

“I guess you won the bet, huh?” Sara asked. Cindy grinned triumphantly.

“You bet I did. Jill has to stay silent the rest of the weekend too,” she added sweetly as Jill and Claire passed them. Jill glared in her direction, but said nothing. Claire shook her head, though she couldn't quite contain her smile. Catherine shook her head as well and slid her key card into the slot and listened to the door click open. They bid one another goodnight and entered their rooms, Cindy still talking when the door closed behind her.

 

************

“So Abbie and Casey are really okay?” Cindy asked as she crawled into bed. Lindsay spit out her toothpaste and wiped her mouth.

“I'd say so, given what we saw tonight.”

“I'm glad. I like Casey.”

Lindsay nodded thoughtfully as she brushed through her hair. “So do I. She seems to be good for Abbie. And they seem to have some pretty good friends too,” smiling at the fun they'd had in the Magic Kingdom and the bar they'd recently left.

“Yeah.” Cindy snickered. “I have a feeling they're going to have a good time at Abbie's expense at the talent show Sunday night.”

“Yeah, well... she asked for it.”

“And you weren't going to let an opportunity like this go by.”

Lindsay grinned. “Absolutely not.”

 

************

Olivia clapped Abbie on the back as the entire New York contingent exited the bar as a single entity. “So... you're gonna belly dance at the talent show tomorrow night, huh? I don't recall ever being privy to that particular ability.”

“I'm going to kill Lindsay,” Abbie muttered under her breath. She frowned and crossed her arms over her chest, trying to ignore the smiles and snickers of the rest of the group. When that didn't work, she glared, but that simply garnered her wider grins from everyone. Casey stepped closer and wrapped an arm around Abbie's shoulder, gratified when Abbie immediately leaned into her embrace.

“You may get to watch, Detective, but just remember she's going home with me at the end of the day.”

“Besides,” Alex added, the chill in her voice causing a shiver to chase up Olivia's spine as she straightened. “You're going to have your hands full trying to keep up.”

The hoots and catcalls caused Olivia's face to flush a lovely shade of red and she was grateful for the cool night air as they exited the building and headed towards their rooms.

“Now, sweetheart,” Olivia started.

Alex held up a finger and Olivia's jaw snapped shut.

“Olivia's in trouble... Olivia's in trouble,” they started singsong-ing together as they crossed the bridge. Abbie stayed quiet, not wanting to redraw their attention to her. She was still fuming over getting caught by Lindsay like this. One day there would be paybacks, but for now....

As they finished crossing the bridge, Melinda Warner shushed them. “I hate to be the adult here, but it is late and some people are probably trying to sleep.” She glared around the bunch when the whining started. “Including *my* children,” added for good measure which made all of them clamp their mouths closed.

“She's got a good point,” Liz added. “We don't want to get thrown out of here before the talent show Sunday night, do we?” with a sly look around the circle before letting her eyes come to rest on Abbie Carmichael once more. “I for one don't plan to miss a minute of it.”

“Just for the record,” Abbie stated firmly, though there was the tiniest hint of a twinkle in her eye, “I hate you all.” Chuckles tittered through the whole group and as dignified as she could manage, Abbie took Casey's hand and together they took the path towards their room.

Tracey looked at her watch. “As much fun this has been, Abbie's actually got the right idea if we're going to get anything out of tomorrow's sessions. Goodnight ladies,” she offered before she, Kelly, Liz and Serena split off and headed for their rooms. Melinda nodded and went in another direction. That left Alex and Olivia alone. Olivia swallowed hard when steely blue eyes met hers, but she never lost Alex's gaze.

“So, um... how much trouble am I in?” Alex crooked an eyebrow. Olivia shook her head, but couldn't stop the grin from forming. “I figured as much.” She held up her hands, keeping her wrists close together. “You gonna lock me up, Sheriff?”

Alex grinned and tipped her hat back off her forehead before pulling Olivia closer by wrapping an arm around her waist. “Oh Miss Olivia, I've got all kinds of plans for you.”

Without another word, they resumed their trek towards their room, not even pausing when they passed Wonder Woman, Batman and Supergirl headed in the opposite direction.

 

************

“Did you at least have fun, sweetie?” Angela asked Bones as they entered the room they were sharing.

“You know she did,” Cam called out from her room, glad they'd managed to get connecting rooms. She hadn't had this kind of fun since her college days and she was enjoying it. And she was almost certain Angela and Brennan were enjoying it as well. Cam stepped into the doorway between their rooms. “I know I saw her smile more than once tonight.”

Bones shook her head, but that didn't stop the smile from crossing her lips. “I will admit that it was an interesting evening and I really enjoyed Gabrielle's storytelling.”

“And you liked being able to trick-or-treat,” Angela added with a smile.

“The chocolate was a bonus,” Brennan said with a straight face... then allowed a broad grin to grace her features. “I had fun, all right? I had fun.”

“Good,” Cam said, and without further edification she turned back to her own room. Brennan shook her head and Angela just laughed – a sound echoed by the quartet walking past their room, followed by loud shushing. Brennan's eyebrows went into her hairline.

“Sounds like we're not the only ones who had fun tonight.”

 

************

“You're going to get us thrown off Property for disturbing the peace if you don't quiet down,” Blair said haughtily, trying to get her own giggles under control. Jo rolled her eyes and took Blair's hand in her own.

“Chill out, Princess. We're not being that loud and if you'll notice, most of the rooms still have their lights on. Probably convention attendees coming back from the Halloween party like us.”

“Here's where we get off,” Natalie said, motioning to hers and Tootie's room. “Breakfast tomorrow?”

“Eight o'clock?” Jo asked, watching Tootie‘s and Blair's heads drop.

“We'll be there with bells on,” Natalie said as she tugged Tootie into their room. “Night guys.”

Blair and Jo gave a wave before heading further back into the resort. “Eight o'clock, Jo?” Blair whined even as she tucked her hand into the crook of Jo's arm. “You know how I need my beauty sleep,” said lightly, but Jo felt the tension in the hand around her bicep.

“Princess,” Jo said sincerely as she turned to cup Blair's face in her hand. “You're always beautiful. A little less sleep for a day or two is not going to detract from that.” Jo watched the unease fade from Blair's eyes and felt a wave of sadness pass through her that Blair could still be so unsure of herself even as she made her trademark head toss.

“This is true,” she agreed blithely, understanding immediately she'd given too much away.

“Blair....”

“Oh, I'm sorry,” Annabelle said as she rounded the corner too quickly and nearly plowed into them. “I was looking for the ice machine,” holding up the empty bucket in her hands before realizing she was interrupting something. “Excuse me,” she mumbled, and hurried on her way.

 

 

Chapter XXIV

Annabelle rounded another corner, coming face to face with Jordan Cavanaugh who stood patiently waiting for the elevator to arrive. “Jesus!” she exclaimed, taking a step back. Jordan gave her an embarrassed grin.

“Hate the Red Sox that much?” she asked.

“What? Oh, um... no. You're just the second person I've almost literally run into in the space of thirty seconds.”

“You in that big a hurry?”

“Kinda – Simone's waiting for me,” holding up the ice bucket again.

Jordan nodded and pointed. “It's around the corner.”

“Thanks,” Annabelle nodded as she disappeared. The lift bell chimed and Jordan entered the elevator, only to hold the door when several voices called out. It only took a few seconds, but soon the elevator was full and headed up.

 

************

“Thank you,” Blake commented with a sigh. “I don't know how much more walking I can do in these shoes. I think the stairs would have killed me.”

“You should have worn the Kathy Bates version of the Queen instead of the Disney one,” Abby commented practically. “I think it would have been easier to manage.”

“Abby!” Cate chided. “Maybe she's a big fan of Disney's Alice in Wonderland.”

“I am actually,” Blake agreed with a laugh. “But the truth is I had the costume before the new version of ‘ Alice ' came out. Otherwise, I would have been mightily tempted.”

Ziva examined the heavy costume with a critical eye. “You are very lucky it was cool; you might have suffered with heat stroke otherwise.”

“This is true,” Blake agreed ruefully. Then the bell chimed again, and as a singular body, they exited the lift. “Goodnight ladies,” she offered as she turned to go to her room. The rest headed in other directions to do the same.

 

************

Annabelle was almost back to her room when she had her third near headlong encounter of the evening. She jumped back, careful to keep the lid on the ice bucket and not lose any of the precious cargo she had struggled so hard to maintain.

“Jesus!”

“Not here, luv,” Scribbs replied cheekily, a smile on her face. “Just me and Ash.”

Ash cut her eyes over at Scribbs before she looked at Annabelle. “Sorry, Miss...?”

“Tillman... Annabelle Tillman.”

“Sorry, Miss Tillman. We had no intent to frighten you. We're just trying to get back to our room.”

“Oh, you didn't... not really. I just seem to keep running into people... literally. It's a little unnerving.”

“I can see that,” Scribbs agreed. “C'mon then, Ash. Let's let the young lady get back before her ice melts. I'm ready to be done with this costume.”

“As am I,” Ash agreed as she removed the hat from her head and swiped at her sweaty bangs. “Good evening, Miss Tillman.”

Annabelle nodded. “Good evening.”

She watched them out of sight, then returned to her room and her waiting lover.

***********

“Ashlee?” Doris queried. “Are you sure this is okay?”

Ashlee rolled her eyes and opened the door wider. “Yes, mom. I'm sure. I live alone... there's no one to bother.” She closed the door behind them and locked it securely. “Besides, even if I had a roommate, I'd still want you here.”

“Really?” Doris asked, sadly vulnerable.

Ashlee nodded and opened up her arms for a hug. Doris stepped into her daughter's embrace, holding on tightly for a long moment. Tears welled up in both sets of eyes and Ashlee brushed a kiss across her mother's temple.

“Really,” Ashlee agreed. “I miss you, mom. Email and skyping just aren't the same. And we still have a lifetime of catching up to do.”

Doris pulled back and cupped her hands around Ashlee's face. “You are such an awesome human being. How did I get lucky enough to have you in my life?”

“I think we're both pretty lucky. Now c'mon. I don't know about you, but I need some hot chocolate.”

Doris smiled. “I think that sounds wonderful.” She motioned towards what she hoped was the kitchen. “Lead the way.”

 

************

“Oh man,” Harmon gushed as the entire AVID contingent headed towards their rooms. “That was so much fun. And you were right Bailey – nothing Universal has produced is nearly as scary and horrifying as Desi.”

“Hey!” Franklin objected. “That's not very nice. I mean she really isn't all *that* bad.”

“Shut up, Frank,” the group chorused. He frowned deeply, but closed his mouth obediently.

“She's worse,” Walter snarked and this time no one spoke up in Desdemona's defense.

“It was amazing,” Graham agreed, changing the subject back to the fun they'd had. “We should plan to do that again.”

“Like an annual pilgrimage?” Buster asked. “Do you think Desi would go for it?”

“Why does Desi need to be involved?” Violet asked. “We're capable of having fun on our own. In fact....”

“In fact, we only have fun when she's not around,” Melissa contributed.

“I still think we'd all be better off with her out of our karmic circle,” Dot muttered. “Why couldn't she die from carpet cleaner poisoning or something?”

“None of us are that lucky,” Bailey griped. She looked at her watch. “C'mon... I've gotta get to bed. Who knows what Desi has in mind for tomorrow and how early she'll start calling asking for the impossible?” she added with a groan, pulling understanding sympathy from most of her compatriots. Without another word, they separated, heading for their rooms.

 

************

Diana watched them go as she made her way around the compound again. Something had set her senses screaming off the scale, but she was loath to disturb anyone this late who might actually understand her feelings. It was nothing she could put her finger on, but something wasn't right.

She was thankful she could openly make her way around in her Wonder Woman attire as it heightened her awareness and added even more depth to her perceptions. There was something to be said for the customs of Halloween – no one even gave her a second glance.

Scud and Janet exited the convention hall and Diana went to investigate, but found nothing untoward in either room. Everything appeared to be as it had been left hours before and she wondered briefly what their business had been before deciding that she could simply ask in the morning. Undoubtedly, he was doing something for Xena or Gabrielle, but it wouldn't hurt to be sure.

Diana continued to walk the perimeter, watching as many of the convention attendees made their way around the property as they steadily trickled towards their rooms. Diana could tell by the banter and happy expressions that most if not all were enjoying themselves and she knew Xena and Gabrielle would be gratified to know their efforts were so successful. It also brought to her attention the fact that she seemed to be the only one touched by whatever it was that made her feel so unsettled.

Diana came around the back side of the resort, noting how quiet it had become in the interim. Then her attention was caught by two figures standing in the shadows. She stepped closer, careful to remain hidden - not wanting to disrupt the tableau, but needing to know this wasn't what was causing her upset.

 

************

“Blair....” Jo started as she pulled them to a stop in the shadows of the villa where their room was.

“Joey, it's okay. I'll be ready for breakfast at eight,” tugging on their still joined hands in an effort to move them indoors. “You know I'm not good with mornings even when I get all the sleep I need to function,” tugging again when Jo steadfastly refused to move.

“Blair, that's not what this is about and you know it.”

Blair tossed her head again, raising her chin defiantly. “I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Jo.”

“Don't,” Jo commanded fiercely. “Don't play games with me, Blair, and don't pretend.” Her anger made her green eyes flash and Blair couldn't help but appreciate the fire that was such a part of Jo. She watched amazed as Jo took a deep breath, willing the fire to embers. When Jo opened her eyes again, the fire was gone and in its place was an aching sadness that made Blair's heart clench.

“Joey?” reaching up a hand to cup Jo's face.

Jo covered Blair's hand with her own. “Talk to me, Princess.”

Blair shrugged and looked down at the ground, though she kept her hand against Jo's face, not willing to risk pulling away for fear of physically hurting Jo or emotionally damaging one another further. Jo's free hand came up and gently grasped her chin, lifting it until their eyes were level.

“Blair, look at me.” Slowly, brown eyes rose until the met green and Jo bit her lip at the tears she saw resting on Blair's eyelashes. “Princess?”

“Jo, I'm not twenty-five anymore!”

Jo's eyebrows went into her hairline. “God, Princess! I sure hope not. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing at twenty-five? I do, and I damn sure don't want to go back to that part of my life. You weren't in it!” Jo paused and took Blair's hand off her face, clutching the fingers tightly in her own while being careful not to hurt Blair. Then she let her other hand slide around the back of Blair's neck and she gently pulled them together until they were touching along their lengths.

“I like my life a lot better with you in it, sweetheart.”

“Oh, Joey!” Blair curled into Jo's body and let the tears flow. Jo allowed her to cry unabated for several minutes before trying to calm her with soothing touches and words. Finally, Blair eased back enough to look Jo in the eye. Jo tenderly wiped the traces of tears from Blair's face and cocked a questioning eyebrow at her.

“Better?” At Blair's shy nod, she continued. “What brought that on? Do you not know how beautiful I find you? How sexy and amazing I think you are? Am I not doing enough...?”

“Oh no, Jo – this wasn't about you. You're such a wonderful, thoughtful lover. I always feel beautiful and sexy and loved when I'm with you.”

Jo frowned. “What then?”

Blair flushed in embarrassment. “You're going to think I'm shallow.”

Jo smirked. “Princess, remember who you're talking to. I've seen you be shallow and petty and hurt and generous and forgiving. Talk to me, Blair.”

Blair took a deep breath. “It was watching Sam and Brooke tonight. It brought back so many memories... made me realize how many years together we missed. And it reminded me that I'm not as young as I once was.”

Jo smiled indulgently. “In case it's escaped your notice, Princess, neither am I. And except for cold, wet mornings, I'm okay with that.” She slipped an arm around Blair's waist, happy when Blair curled into her again and returned the embrace. “Instead of looking at what we missed, focus on all the years we have left together. I promise I will always find you more beautiful today than I did yesterday.”

Blair smiled, tossing her head again as some of the arrogant self-confidence Jo found so annoyingly attractive swept across her features.

“Will you really?”

Jo grinned. “I always have,” then accepted the kiss she knew was coming at her declaration.

After a long moment, they separated and Blair pulled back to look at Jo with adoring eyes. “I love you.”

Jo held Blair's eyes, letting her see the sincerity of her reply even as her eyes twinkled. “I know. What's not to love?” cringing when Blair slapped her arm.

“Oh, turn blue!” she growled and moved out of Jo's arms to resume her trek to their room. She hadn't moved two steps before she felt Jo's arms wrap around her from behind, and without her conscious permission her body melted into Jo's warmth.

“Do you really want me to turn blue, Princess? Or do you want me to spend the rest of the night showing you how beautiful I find you?”

“Take me to bed, Jo or lose me forever,” the smile on her face betraying the falseness of her claim.

“Your wish, Princess... my command.” Jo took Blair hand and led them the remaining distance to their room.

 

************

Diana remained in her hiding place until she heard the door close and lock behind them. Then she emerged from her hiding place. “Well, at least that got straightened out,” she muttered as she started walking again, still unable to exorcise her discomfort.

She made another loop around the perimeter before deciding to call it a night. The only people stirring at that point were janitorial and housekeeping cast members taking care of work Disney preferred their guests not be exposed to during the light of day.

With a frustrated sigh, she gave a final glance around the property before finally entering her room. She sat down at her laptop and sent off a message to Paula, hoping the scientist could do something to ease her niggling fear. Having done all she knew to do for the moment, Diana carefully removed her Wonder Woman outfit and changed into her pajamas. Then she partially closed the top of her laptop and turned it slightly away. Though she would hear it chime if Paula responded, at least the glare was now facing away from her and should allow her the chance to get some sleep.

She climbed into bed and switched off the light, settling down for what remained of the night.

 

************

Desdemona was tempted to slam her laptop closed and throw it from the balcony as it continued to thwart and hamper every effort she made at discovering who Xena and Gabrielle really were. It didn't help matters that her entire staff seemed to have disappeared without a word – something she would correct as soon as daylight peeked over the horizon. How dare they presume to think... at all?? But especially how dare they presume to be unavailable to her when she needed them?? They were here to do a job after all, and that job involved catering to her every whim.

With a grunt of dissatisfaction, Desdemona stood up and paced the room. She sneered at the leftover bits of her earlier meal, wondering why someone hadn't been up to remove the dishes before now. Surely a resort like the Grand Floridian should be able to manage a simple detail like timely removal of room service dishes. DIVA made a mental note to speak to the manager about the obvious slovenliness of his employees and establishment. For the price she was paying, she expected premium, timely service and she meant to ensure that she received such.

She huffed impatiently and glared at her cell phone before resuming her place at the table. She still had a few ideas on how to get into that conference tomorrow and there were a few more hours of night left in which to bring them to fruition.

Tomorrow would definitely be a new day... for everyone.

 

 

Chapter XXV

“One day down,” Xena commented as they snuggled together a few hours later. “Two more to go.”

“Well, so far so good. Despite Desdemona's interference, we can mark the day as a success. The convention went well and I think it's safe to say everyone enjoyed the Halloween party.”

“Yeah, I heard you got another act for your talent show.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Yeah – apparently Abbie Carmichael lost a wager with Lindsay Boxer and it cost her a belly dancing gig. She certainly wasn't very happy about it.”

Xena shifted until she could prop her head on her elbow and let her eyes travel up and down Gabrielle's body. “I seem to recall you being something of a belly dancing master. You could give her some pointers; it's not like she's performing for her life.”

“You first,” Gabrielle replied drolly. Xena cocked a brow at her.

“Excuse me?”

“Don't play dumb with me, Miss ‘I don't dance... I have sex to music'. I was there, remember?”

“I remember you didn't watch,” Xena said with the faintest hint of a pout.

“Honey, I'm pretty sure we'd have blown the entire plan to kingdom come if I had jumped your bones in front of Gurkhan. And you took quite a beating from him as it was.”

“Yeah... not one of my finer moments.”

“I dunno, love. We survived and we were still together at the end of it. Those are all good moments in my book. And since I'm the bard here....”

“Who's not even performing in her own talent show.”

“Xena, I explained that to you. I can't... it's just too weird.”

Xena sighed. “I know; it's one reason I arranged for your performance last night.”

“And I appreciated it, even with the lack of warning,” Gabrielle added with a smile. “Honestly.”

Xena looked at her wryly. “You've added me to the talent show, haven't you?”

“Would I do that to you?”

“In a heartbeat,” Xena smirked. “But that's okay. I figure I owe you. And I can probably get Diana to sing with me.”

Gabrielle's eyes lit up. “Oh, that would be beyond fabulous.”

“Yeah, but first we've gotta get up and get this day started.”

Gabrielle sighed dramatically. “I suppose if we must,” sliding from beneath the covers. “I just hope today is less frantic and drama-filled than yesterday was.”

“From your lips,” Xena agreed. Then they headed to the bathroom to begin their morning ablutions.

 

************

“Natalia, it's Blake.”

Olivia rolled her eyes at the obvious, wondering what could be so important this early in the morning but remained quiet knowing Blake would hear any comment she made as long as Natalia kept her on speakerphone. Natalia swatted at her, the smile on her face causing an echoing one on Olivia's face, even as she pulled the pillow over her head in an effort to return to the sleep she had been so rudely pulled from when the phone had chirped for attention.

“Hey, Blake. What's up?”

“You, obviously,” Blake grumbled. Natalia's early morning alertness was disconcerting... even for someone who did mornings.

Natalia's brows went into her hairline. “You too, apparently. You're the one who called me, after all.”

“True. Sorry. I feel like I got hit by a ton of bricks,” Blake added grudgingly.

“Are you all right? I mean, is there anything I can do?”

“Yes. I need you to represent us today... at least until I feel well enough to get there.”

“Sure, Blake... of course. Do you need anything? You want me to call a doctor or...?”

“No, I'll be all right. I've taken something for the aches, and I'm gonna go sit in the tub for a little while and see if that helps.”

“All right – well, I hope you feel better.”

“Thanks.” And Blake hung up without another word.

“Does this mean I can't sneak you away for a little lunchtime nookie?” Olivia asked without removing the pillow from her head. Of course, she didn't have to since Natalia did it for her the instant her words registered. She blinked against the light coming in from the slit in the curtains and grinned in feigned innocence when she noticed Natalia's expression. “What?”

“Don't even try it with me, missy. Lunchtime nookie, indeed. But maybe you and Emma could come have lunch with me,” batting her eyelashes and flashing her dimples.

“I don't know, honey. Wouldn't that cause a problem with Gabrielle? I mean, we're not really part of your convention. I don't want to cause a problem. I kinda like them and so did Emma. Don't want to screw that up. ”

Natalia cupped Olivia's face, rubbing their noses together before capturing her lips for a timeless moment. “You're so good to me. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“Mommy,” came Emma's voice from the other room. “What's lunchtime nookie?” Olivia plopped the pillow back over her face even as Natalia slid back down and pulled the covers over her head. “Mommy?”

 

************

“Nikki, you've gotta get up if we're gonna be ready to meet Miss Simms... Wendy... for breakfast.” Nora pulled the blankets away from Nikki's face, smiling when she saw Nikki had screwed her eyes up tightly. “Nikki....”

“LALALALALA. I can't hear you, Nora. LALALALALA.”

“Nik....” her tone warning.

“You're gonna make me do this, aren't you?” cracking one brown eye open at Nora. Nora gently brushed the hair out of Nikki's eyes, gratified when Nikki leaned into her touch.

“No, baby... but I think you should.” A beat. “I think you need to, if only for your peace of mind.”

Nikki sighed, turning her head away from Nora so she couldn't see her face but allowing her lips to brush Nora's palm. She smiled when she felt Nora tremble at the touch. “You're right,” Nikki admitted quietly. “But that doesn't make it any easier.”

“Does my being beside you help at all?”

“Sugar, it's the only thing keeping me from running the other direction. Share a shower?”

“You betcha, beautiful. It'll have to be quick though,” glancing at the clock. Nora extended her hands, rising from the bed and stepping backwards as she drew Nikki up with her. “No dawdling.”

“Now Nora... really – when was the last time you knew me to dawdle? I'm just... thorough.”

Nora glared. “No thoroughness. And no teasing either,” she added, seeing the glint in Nikki's eyes. “We will have plenty of time later. For now, we have to get to breakfast.”

“Fine,” Nikki huffed. “I'm holding you to later though.”

“Oh baby... I'm counting on it.”

 

************

Wendy took a deep breath and smoothed her hands down her pants legs before moving to the door to answer the knock. She pasted on a nervous smile and opened the door to find Catherine, Sara, Sofia and Lilly all waiting on the other side.

“You ready?”

“I don't suppose saying no would get me out of this?”

“Do you really want it to?” Sara asked, her voice surprisingly soft.

Wendy sighed. “No... not really. I'm the one who asked for this after all.”

“Well, c'mon then,” Sofia invited rather forcefully, tugging Wendy out the door until she resisted with a squeal.

“Wait! Sofia , I need to grab my purse. Otherwise, I'm gonna be locked out of my room.”

Sofia relented and Wendy stepped back into the room. Catherine caught the door with her arm, then gave a nod to the others. She waited for them to start walking away before she followed Wendy inside, closing the door behind her and leaning against it. Wendy looked up in surprise and cocked an eyebrow at Catherine.

“Something I can do for you, Catherine?”

Catherine crossed her arms over her chest. “I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”

Wendy smiled wanly. “I'm good; just a little nervous.”

“Yeah... I can see why you would be. But we won't be far away.”

“That helps... more than you know.”

Catherine pushed off the door and stepped forward until she could link their arms together. “Good. Now c'mon. I'm starving.”

Wendy chuckled, feeling better. Then together, they headed out for breakfast.

 

************

“Where the hell are the Pop Tarts? Barbara, have you seen my Pop Tarts?” She looked up to find Dinah glaring at her while leaning against the doorjamb of her room. “Sorry, Kid. Have you seen my Pop Tarts?”

Dinah rolled her eyes and huffed. “Shouldn't you still be sleeping?”

Helena smirked. “That would imply I was sleeping to begin with.”

“ HELENA !!! God, you're trying to just squick me the hell out, aren't you?”

“ Helena , stop annoying Dinah. We can pick up more Pop Tarts while we're getting breakfast. Dinah, you need to get a move on. We're running behind this morning.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dinah grumbled. But she turned around and headed for the shower in her room.

Barbara rolled into the main room, not terribly surprised to suddenly find herself with a lapful of Helena . She cocked a brow at Helena who simply batted her eyelashes in Barbara's direction. Barbara cleared her throat.

“Something I can do for you, Ms Kyle?”

“I can think of any number of things, Ms Gordon,” snuggling into Barbara's neck and scenting her.

“Uh huh,” Barbara agreed, turning Helena 's face to the clock. “Unfortunately, we don't have time for any of them at them moment. But let me grab my stuff and we can go get breakfast.”

Helena huffed. “So not what I meant, Barbara.”

“Best we can do for now, Kitten.” She looked over towards Dinah's room. “Dinah, we're heading out to breakfast. Join us when you get done.”

“'Kay....”

“C'mon, Hel,” Barbara invited as she headed to the door. “Let's give Dinah a little peace.”

“Later, Kid.”

 

************

Scud was already in the private dining room when Lucy walked in. He jerked his head at her. “Lost your girl too, I see.”

“Yeah... not that I blame her. It's not like she gets to see these guys that often. And I am kinda busy with being Xena's second and all.”

“How are things going? With the convention, I mean.”

“Well, except with the whole BS with Desdemona, everything seems to be going pretty well on both sides of the hall from what I've heard. The women appear to be enjoying themselves and I know Xena and Gabrielle are happy with the way things are going.”

“That's good, right?” Scud asked, shoveling in a forkful of eggs and taking a bite of his toast. Lucy nodded, a frown marring her otherwise lovely features. “Okay, so why the long face then?”

She picked up her orange juice and took a deep draught, holding it in her mouth for a moment before using several small swallows to get rid of it before shrugging. She swirled the remaining juice in her glass, watching the mini-funnel she was creating before bringing her eyes up to meet Scud's.

“You ever get a feeling up the back of your spine that makes the hair on your neck stand up straight?”

“Yeah, it used to happen every time I tried to get you out on a date,” Scud joked. Then he held his hands up in surrender when she leveled a laser look in his direction.

“I'm serious, Scud.”

“Okay... okay. What's sending your meter off the scale?”

“I dunno, Scud. That's what's making me nuts.”

“What is?” Diana asked as she walked into the room.

“Oh hey, Diana. What is what?”

“I thought you said something about something making you nuts.”

“Oh,” Lucy said, leaning back to allow the server a chance to put her plate down. “I've just got a feeling....”

“Tell me about it. I had one of those last night.”

“And on that note,” Scud said as he swallowed the last of his coffee. “I need to get out of here before the estrogen starts flying. The Rockin' Roller Coaster is calling my name. And with that head of the line pass....”

“Go have fun, Scud.”

“You too, ladies.” He turned and left them, passing Xena and Gabrielle as they came in the door. They watched him rush by with equally bemused expressions, then turned back to Diana and Lucy.

“Somebody set his shorts on fire?”

“He's afraid of an estrogen overload,” Diana replied dryly.

“Ah,” Xena replied. “Fair enough... all things considered. Any problems?” she asked after the server took their order and filled their glasses with fresh juice.

“Nothing tangible,” Diana replied. “Just a feeling.”

Gabrielle sighed. “I knew things were going along too well.”

 

 

Chapter XXVI

Nikki and Nora were already seated when Wendy and Catherine walked into the restaurant together. They watched Catherine say something to Wendy and pat her arm before turning to join another group of women a few tables over. They saw Wendy take a deep breath and then head towards them with determined steps.

Nikki stood and wiped her hands on her pants, relishing Nora's touch on the back of her knee before she stepped forward and offered her hand to Wendy. “Miss Simms? I'm Nikki Beaumont. Won't you please have a seat?” gesturing her to a chair with one hand while the other beckoned a server to their table and reseated herself.

Catherine and Sara exchanged impressed glances before returning their eyes to observing the tableau in front of them.

“Please, Miss Beaumont – under the circumstances do you think you could call me Wendy?” looking into eyes that were disconcertingly familiar.

“Sure... Wendy. I'm Nikki, and you've already met my partner Nora.” Conversation stopped long enough for the server to take their orders and fill their coffee cups. Then Nikki smoothed the napkin in her lap before turning her attention to her twin. “So, Wendy... where would you like to start?”

Wendy cleared her throat. “I thought maybe we could start with the basics and go from there. There's got to be a connection somewhere; I for one would like to know what it is.”

Nikki glanced at Nora who held her gaze for a long moment. Then she gave a subtle nod and turned her attention back to Wendy. “All right, sugar. That's fair enough, I suppose. But it's probably gonna take longer than we have,” looking at her watch. “But we'll do what we can, right?”

“Right. And what we can't we'll get to eventually, right?”

“Right. So, you want to go first?”

“Um... okay. My name is Wendy Simms. I was born and raised in San Francisco to a single mother... not that *that* is particularly unusual. Um... I went to Stanford University and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in biology in nineteen ninety-three. And I'm currently a CSI DNA technician at the number two lab in the country. You?”

“I'm Nikki Beaumont, special crimes detective for the New Orleans Police Department and daughter of Councilman Arthur Beaumont. My mama died shortly after I was born in nineteen seventy and it's just been me and Daddy since then – or it was until Nora became part of my life.” She reached over and took Nora's hand in hers. “I went to Tulane and graduated with a degree in criminal justice.” Nikki turned back to Nora. “Am I forgetting anything?”

“Plenty,” Nora replied instantly, rolling her eyes before giving Nikki a teasing smile. “How many secrets would you like to share?”

Nikki looked properly scandalized and Wendy just grinned. This was going better than she had hoped.

 

************

“Should I ask what the four of you are concentrating so hard on?” Claire asked leaning down beside Sara so the whole table could hear her without needing to raise her voice. “It must be fascinating, whatever it is,” she added when they all jumped at the sound of her voice.

“We're just keeping an eye on Wendy; kinda like moral support,” Sara answered, nodding her head in the direction of the trio several tables over. Claire glanced that direction briefly, cocking an eyebrow in surprise.

“That must be some story?” more a question than a statement.

“We'll let you know as soon as we do,” Catherine said drolly.

“Please do,” Claire requested. “Now if you'll excuse me....”

“Would you like to join us?” Catherine offered. Claire shook her head.

“No, thank you. You four are almost done and I was actually on my way to the food court to pick up something quick. I just stopped in when I saw you sitting here so focused on something other than your meal and the company. Sara can confirm – I am innately curious, which is generally a good thing in our line of work.” She looked at them and saw confirming expressions on each of their faces. “I'll see you all shortly.” Then Claire gave them all a little wave and walked out of the restaurant and down towards the food court.

They blinked when she was out of sight, then Catherine spoke. “Well, that was interesting. Wonder if we missed anything good in the meantime?”

“If we did, we should find out in about thirty seconds. Wendy is headed this way.”

Sure enough, Wendy was standing beside the table thirty seconds later. Her friends looked at her expectantly and she shrugged. “Nothing to tell yet. There hasn't been time to learn a lot and we're just starting to know one another.”

“It's a shame we're not at the lab,” Catherine commented. “We could run some tests... see if you two are long lost sisters or something. I mean, there's gotta be some shared DNA in there somewhere or something. People don't just have exact look-alikes without being related somehow.”

“Yeah, I don't think Nikki would go for something like that, Catherine. Besides, once I got over my nerves, I actually enjoyed talking to her and Nora. They're lovely people and obviously happy together.”

“Maybe we can all share lunch today,” Lilly said. Wendy smiled.

“I'd like that and I don't think they would mind either. Nikki mentioned wanting to meet you all.”

“All right,” Catherine agreed. “But for now, we've got to get moving so we don't miss today's opening sessions.”

Four heads looked at their watches and as one body, they rose from their chairs. Catherine gave the server her keycard and in moments the charge was taken care of and they were moving down the hall towards the convention center.

 

************

Annabelle tugged gently on the hand she held and Simone obediently followed where she led. After a moment, they were standing beside Nikki and Helen and Annabelle was introducing them.

“It's a pleasure, Ms Wade. Annabelle and I enjoyed your book immensely. And Ms Stewart... how lovely to meet you both.”

“It's our pleasure as well, Ms Bradley,” Nikki assured Simone as they shook hands. “Annabelle tells me you do photography as well as editing,” stated, but with a hint of question in its depths.

Simone looked at Annabelle quizzically before returning her gaze to Nikki's. “Yes. I consider it a hobby, but it's a serious hobby.”

“So you have all the fancy equipment?”

“Yes. I even have a darkroom for developing prints.”

Nikki and Helen exchanged glances and Helen nodded briefly before Nikki spoke again. “How would you like to turn it into something more professional?”

“What did you have in mind?” Simone asked, her curiosity overcoming her natural shyness.

Nikki motioned towards the convention hall. “Shall we walk and talk? We don't want to be late.” Helen took Nikki's hand and Simone grasped Annabelle's as they made their way down the hall. She turned to look at Simone. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

 

************

Natalie set down her phone and picked up her coffee cup.

“Still no answer?” Tootie griped around a yawn. Natalie shook her head.

“Straight to voice mail. If it was anybody but Jo and Blair, I'd be worried.”

“If it were anybody but Jo and Blair we wouldn't have agreed to have breakfast at oh-my-God o'clock in the morning in the first place.”

Natalie rolled her eyes. “Eight o'clock is not that early, Tootie. Just because you usually don't have to crawl out of bed before noon doesn't mean the rest of us have that luxury.” She laughed when Tootie slapped her arm. “Best friend abuse!” she ribbed, knowing Tootie would laugh and roll her eyes. “I know you work hard, Tootie, and you're good at what you do, but most of the rest of the world doesn't function like that.” She blew out a breath. “God... the stories I could tell you.” Her face was teasing, but the look in her eyes was grave.

Tootie's expression changed, eyes wide and serious. “Tell me.”

Natalie covered Tootie's hand. “Not here... not today.”

“Soon then?”

“One day,” Natalie promised. She grinned impishly and her eyes regained their twinkle. “Actually, probably more like a week... or two. There are a lot of them, you know.” She propped her chin in her hand, her countenance one of contemplation. “Maybe I should just write my memoirs. You could read them. Or hey... maybe I could write a screenplay and you could star in it.”

“Read them? Girlfriend, I better be getting to hear them first-hand before you ever put pen to paper. Or fingers to the keyboard. Or whatever your preferred method of writing is these days.” She pointed her finger at Natalie. “Are we clear on this, Ms Green?”

“We're clear, Ms Ramsey.”

“Good.” Tootie turned serious. “I really do want to hear, Nat. And I think you need to share. Your eyes....” Natalie cocked her head in question, but she didn't ask. “Your eyes are old – like they've seen things....”

“I promise I'll tell you all about it. But for now,” glancing at her watch, “we need to go.”

“What about Jo and Blair?”

“They're big girls, Tootie. They can explain it to Xena.”

With a laugh, they headed out to the convention hall.

 

************

“Hey Sam, Brooke... wait up.” Both heads turned when Jordan called out to them, and they stopped and waited for her to catch up.

“What, no coffee this morning?” Sam asked jokingly as she held up her own cup. “I thought all you legal and medical types lived on the stuff.”

Jordan smiled. “And generally you'd be right. But since this is my breakfast as well as my morning go juice,” holding up the chocolate milk, “I figured I might as well enjoy it.”

“Gotta love a woman who loves chocolate milk,” Brooke said with a grin. She tugged on the hand she held. “C'mon, you two. We're going to be late.”

 

************

Most of the legal team from New York had already gathered in the conference room, sipping from their coffee cups and talking quietly among themselves. The women from San Francisco joined them and invariably the talk turned to the poker run game they had all participated in the previous evening.

“I still can't believe that kid snookered us,” Tracey grumbled good-naturedly. “I'll bet you she was a ringer.” Her declaration fell into a well of silence and the women all exchanged speculative, thoughtful looks for a long moment. Then they all chuckled at the ridiculousness of the idea that a nine-year-old could be that sort of subterfuge.

“Nah,” they all agreed with a laugh.

Liz looked at her watch, then glanced around the mostly full room. “I wonder what's going on. We should be starting, but I don't see Xena or Lucy anywhere around.”

“Relax, Liz. We're at Disney – they run on a different time than the rest of the world.”

“And you know this how?” Liz asked, cocking an eyebrow at Melinda, who just smiled.

“Because my husband and kids have been complaining about it already. It seems if a show is supposed to start at noon, it actually starts at twelve-oh-five by everyone's watches. Apparently, it's a Disney quirk.”

“I guess when you're a multi-billion dollar corporation even the laws of time and space will bend to accommodate you.”

“Must be nice,” Alex muttered.

“Oh, please Counselor – like you don't bend laws to suit you anytime you think you can get away with it.”

Alex's professional response – sticking out her tongue – garnered a round of laughter. Then they noticed Xena standing in the side door with what they presumed was their first guest speaker. Automatically, people started finding their seats, ready to begin their next session.

 

************

“Gabrielle?”

She and Xena looked up at the hail. “We don't have time for this,” Xena commented. She hushed when Gabrielle's hand touched her belly.

“It's all right, Xe. It won't take but a minute.” Gabrielle turned and found Bailey standing in the doorway outside the small monitoring room. She sighed and looked at Xena, then motioned her to go ahead. Xena held her gaze a moment longer, then nodded and turned back to Lucy and Diana. It didn't escape Gabrielle's notice that not only did Xena not leave the room to start the law enforcement conference, but she had positioned herself to keep an eye on them. She smiled fondly, then focused her attention back on the nervous woman standing in front of her.

“Is there something I can do for you Ms...?”

“Bonner... Bailey Bonner.”

“Well, Ms Bonner, aside from allowing AVID Publishing into my media conference, is there something I can do for you?”

“No ma'am... not really. I just wanted you to be aware that Desdemona is not going to stop going after you. You're a challenge like she's never come up against before and I think it's making her more than a little crazy.” At Gabrielle's skeptical look, Bailey pushed on. “She called me forty-seven times last night – the first twenty-eight, she left increasingly frantic messages for me to call her back. Then she started leaving me.... Well, hear – listen for yourself.”

Gabrielle took the phone and listened, her face a cross between amusement and disgust. When she finished, she handed the cell back to Bailey, who took it and waited. Finally, Gabrielle looked at her seriously.

“Why?”

Bailey blinked. “Um... why what?”

“Why tell me about this? Why would you care? And if you do care, why do you continue to work for this woman? She's more than a few slices short of a loaf. Surely you can do better.” Bailey snorted at Gabrielle's description of Desdemona and Gabrielle smiled sympathetically.

“I warned you because I really think Desdemona has lost it this time. I've never heard her so... vitriolic... so passionate about anything before. I think she may actually be capable of some of those threats she made. And no one deserves not to have some kind of warning if a lunatic is gunning for them. As for why I continue to work for her....” Bailey shrugged. “Maybe someday when you have an inordinate amount of free time, I'll share with you – if you're still interested, that is.”

Gabrielle placed a gentle hand on Bailey's arm, pleased when she didn't back away. “When you're ready to share, Ms Bonner, I'll be here ready to listen.” She reached her free hand back to take the business card she knew Xena had ready to hand her. She accepted the card and signaled for Xena to remain, then she handed the card to Bailey. “When you're ready to talk.”

Bailey took the card with a nod of thanks. “I should get going. Desi hasn't called yet this morning, but I'm sure she will soon. Good luck with....” motioning around the room.

“You too,” Gabrielle returned, watching Bailey leave until she was out of sight. “Well, that was interesting. You think maybe that was the bad feeling Lucy and Diana were having?”

“I don't think so,” Barbara replied as she rolled in from the other room.

Gabrielle turned at Barbara's words, then crossed the small room to meet with her second. “Good morning, Barbara.” She took a second look at Barbara's face, then noticed the look was mirrored on Helena's and Dinah's face as well. She sighed. “It's not a good morning, is it?”

Barbara shook her head. “I don't think so,” she said again. “There are a couple of detectives waiting outside. They want to speak to you and Xena.”

Gabrielle and Xena exchanged looks. Now what?

 

 

Chapter XXVII

A short brunette woman stepped into the room followed by a taller blonde. Before they could speak, another woman walked in right behind them, juggling several tubes and folders. “Xena... am I late?”

Dinah crossed to her side immediately, relieving her of part of her load and keeping her from scattering the papers she carried. “You're actually a little early; we're running a little behind this morning after all the trick-or-treating we did last night in the Magic Kingdom,” Dinah babbled.

“That sounds like fun. I wish I had been there, but....” The sound of a throat clearing stopped their conversation. They looked at the two women who had entered just ahead of the woman Dinah was currently standing beside.

The brunette woman looked carefully around the room before glancing at her notebook. “Excuse me... we're looking for a Ms Xena or a Ms Gabrielle?” She turned and looked at her taller companion, dropping her voice to a whisper. “Did we get last names for these two?”

“Just Xena and Gabrielle, Miss...?” Xena broke in before the blonde stranger could respond to her partner's question.

“Detective, actually,” the brunette answered. “Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan. This is my partner, Detective Shana Kennian.”

“Sergeant... Detective,” Gabrielle greeted as she stepped up beside Xena. “I'm Gabrielle; this is my partner Xena. What can we do for you?”

“You can tell us about your association with one Desdemona... Desdemona Imala Von A'Calandra.”

“Dinah, could you please take Dana to get a cup of coffee?” Gabrielle gestured slightly towards the back area where the kitchen was located. “We should be ready to start her seminar in a couple minutes, but no one should be expected to work without breakfast.”

“Thank you, Gabrielle,” Dana replied graciously. “If I could leave these here...?” setting her presentation materials down at Xena's nod. “Please, Dinah... lead the way.”

Everyone in the room watched their exit before Detective Sergeant Bornlan cleared her throat. “So, you were going to tell us about your association with Ms Von A'Calandra.”

Xena frowned. “There is no association,” she replied firmly. “We only met her two days ago – when she tried to insist that Gabrielle include her in her conference. What's this about?”

“Can you tell us why you refused to include her, Gabrielle?”

They were silent. The detectives exchanged glances and Kennian nodded her head. Bornlan gritted her teeth and blew out a breath. “Fine. Ms Von A'Calandra was reported dead this morning.”

“I'm sorry, but what has that to do with us exactly? As I said, we only met her two days ago.”

“All right,” Bornlan replied. “But will you tell us why you refused to include her, Gabrielle?”

“Certainly – she wasn't registered.”

“And you couldn't make room?”

“Actually, I *wouldn't* make room.”

Bornlan's brows went to her hairline. “Can I ask why?”

“I had no reason to.”

“Will you excuse us a moment?” Bornlan asked perfunctorily even as she turned and took Kennian by the arm and led her to a secluded spot by the door. Xena and Gabrielle shrugged and moved back to where their own compatriots waited.

 

************

“You get the feeling we're being stonewalled, Shana?”

“Actually I got the distinct impression they simply did not care.”

Bornlan sighed. “Great. All right. Let's get back to it.”

 

************

“Problem?” Barbara asked as Xena and Gabrielle joined them.

Xena shrugged. “Depends on your point of view. That DIVA person is dead.”

“Guess there is justice in the world,” Helena snarked.

“ Helena ,” Barbara chided.

“Let her be, Barbara. She's just being honest,” Xena said.

“Xena....”

“Gabrielle, no one here is going to miss her; I don't think we should pretend otherwise.”

“In the meantime, let's see what the good detectives want from us, shall we?” turning back to address the two women who were currently re-approaching them.

 

************

“How can we help you, Detectives?”

Detective Bornlan blinked and exchanged glances with her partner before speaking. “At the moment? Stay here and keep your attendees in their convention rooms. We need to return to the crime scene and then we'll be back here to begin our interviews.”

“Wait,” Diana cut in. “You were at the crime scene and you left it to come here because...?”

“And you are...?” Detective Kennian cut in deftly, arching an eyebrow in a superior sort of way.

“Diana Prince – Office of Homeland Security.”

“Not that we actually owe you an explanation at this point, Ms Prince, but given what we found there initially, we judged it best to come here straightaway. And no, at this time you may not ask what exactly it was we found.”

Gabrielle stepped forward, feeling the tensions rise in every single person in the room at Kennian's statement. “Detective Kennian, we realize that you're just beginning your investigation and there will be a number of questions you won't be able to answer to begin with... if ever. Please remember that most of us in this room are involved in law enforcement in one capacity or another and we are well acquainted with policies and procedures. That being said, would it really do any harm to you or your investigation for the two of you to practice a little common courtesy?”

“I am not sure I understand.”

“You obviously feel that we have something to contribute to your investigation. We will do our best to accommodate you; all we ask in return is that you treat us as adults and professionals.”

Bornlan and Kennian looked at one another for a long moment before reaching a silent agreement. “We will comply.”

“Thank you,” Gabrielle offered sincerely. “We will continue our seminars – that will be the easiest way to keep us occupied while you're gone. There's no reason to screw up everyone's plans for this. When you return, we will be available to you. Will that be satisfactory?”

“Very much so,” the sergeant agreed. “Thank you, Gabrielle... ladies,” nodding to the rest around the room before jerking her head towards the door. Kennian took the hint and together they exited the monitoring room. The women watched them leave before exhaling almost simultaneously.

“Now what?” Lucy asked.

“We do what Gabrielle said – we continue the seminars as though nothing has happened. If and when the time comes to tell everyone about DIVA's demise, we will. Until then, it's on a need to know basis, and the only ones that need to know at the moment are the people in this room. No sense upsetting both conferences for this.”

“You really think people would be upset?” from Helena .

“About the fact that Von A‘Calandra is dead? Probably not. About the fact that they are all potential suspects? Probably so.” Xena looked around the room. “C'mon, ladies. We've got work to do. Helena would you please let Dinah know it's time to begin?”

“Hey, Kid!” Helena bellowed, drawing a glare from Xena and a backhand on the stomach from Barbara. She scowled. “What? You said to let her know... not to go get her.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “She's got you there, love.”

Xena tried not to smirk, but it was truly a losing battle... especially since she really *liked* Helena . It didn't help that Lucy and Diana were covering up smirks of their own. Before she could formulate a reply, Dinah and Dana re-entered the room. Dana was wiping her lips on a napkin, though she still carried a partially full cup of coffee.

“Thank you, Gabrielle. That hit the spot. And thank you, Dinah.”

“It was my pleasure, Agent Scully.” She crossed over and took her seat behind her side of monitors. Lucy took her cue and her seat, and the rest began making their way to their respective rooms to get the day underway.

 

************

Gabrielle crossed into the media convention room, glad to see the women taking their places as soon as they saw her enter. She walked onto the stage and stepped behind the podium, and almost immediately the room quieted.

“Good morning, ladies. I hope you've all recovered from the Halloween party last night.”

“I'm never eating chocolate again,” came an anonymous voice from the back, causing the room to erupt in laughter.

“I'd say I was sorry to hear that,” Gabrielle confessed, “but if it means more chocolate for me....” She broke off with a grin and let the continued laughter roll around her as the implication of her words sank in. When it quieted again, she resumed speaking. “I apologize for our late start; I think we were all having one of those mornings. However, we have plenty to do, so let's get started, shall we?”

“Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle looked out into the audience and Sam stood up to be recognized. Gabrielle smiled and nodded. “Yes, Ms McPherson? You have a question?” She cocked her head in a listening position.

“Yeah, actually. Um... I was just wondering, um... well....” Sam rubbed her hands down her jeans and scratched the back of her neck before dropping her eyes to the floor.

“Sam,” Gabrielle said softly, though her voice held a hint of a smile. “I don't bite – unless your name is Xena or you ask me *really* nicely, okay?” causing another round of chuckles to skitter around the room.

Sam blushed beet red, but gamely cleared her throat and started again. “I was just wondering – after last night's performance – is there any chance you might be willing to do a seminar yourself? You know... on the art of storytelling?”

Dead silence in the room – so quiet Gabrielle could hear the light tapping on the keyboards in the monitoring room. She blinked, trying to kick-start her mind. Whatever she'd expected Sam's question to be, that obviously hadn't been in her top one hundred of possibilities.

When the silence dragged on, Sam cleared her throat and resumed speaking. “It's just that... well, we have editing seminars and submission seminars and selling yourself seminars and even networking seminars. And I know all those things are important... I really do. It's just that....” She paused, not wanting to ramble and feeling as though she sounded like an idiot. Sam looked around and realized everyone was listening to her words with interest and she returned her eyes to Gabrielle who still stood behind the podium waiting patiently for her to finish.

“I've never heard anyone *tell* stories before. I've heard them read to me or read them myself, of course, but I've never seen anyone simply be able to tell a story like you did last night – with no notes or research or very little prep time.” Sam looked around the room again and this time motioned to the women surrounding her. “I don't know about everyone else here, but before I can tell a story, I have to do interviews and research and take notes and write and rewrite and....” She trailed off and gazed at Gabrielle again. “I'd just like to know your secret, because I've never seen or heard anything as amazing as what you did last night.”

Gabrielle smiled gently, touched by the request. It had been a long time since she'd been a teacher of any kind and even longer since she'd been a student at the Athens Academy of Bards. She cleared her throat. “Sam, I'm not sure there's a call for storytellers like myself anymore – not in this day and age where everything is digital and instant. However,” she continued, surprised to see the disappointment on a large portion of her audience. “Today's seminars are scheduled to end at five. If any of you would be interested in a storytelling seminar instead of going to the parks or the clubs, we could plan something for after dinner – say like from seven to ten?”

Applause rang out across the room, causing Gabrielle to jump at the unexpected reaction to her suggestion. She couldn't stop the grin that spread over her face, especially when Xena showed up at the side door with an inscrutable expression on her face. She looked over the room now buzzing with excitement, then cocked an eyebrow at Gabrielle. Gabrielle just smiled at her.

“I guess we'll plan on it then. No need to sign up or whatever – just show up back here at seven tonight if you're interested. For now though,” she added, raising her voice in an effort to temper the excitement, “we need to get our days activities underway. So if you're ready....”

Without further instruction, the women started breaking off into their seminar groups and head to the smaller break-out rooms to begin the day's sessions. Gabrielle waited until the last of them had entered their room before she jumped from the stage and sauntered over to meet a waiting Xena.

“So what just happened here?” Xena asked when Gabrielle reached her. “We could hear the cheering in the other convention room.”

Gabrielle stepped into Xena's embrace, wrapping her arms around Xena's neck and feeling Xena's wrap around her waist. Xena held on, lifting Gabrielle up and feeling the bones of her spine slip back into place. Gabrielle moaned and leaned her forehead on Xena's shoulder. Xena brushed a kiss over Gabrielle's temple and smiled.

“Better?”

“You have no idea.”

“So you wanna tell me now what the cheering was about? Because I'm pretty sure it had nothing to do with our friends' visit this morning.”

“Not at all.” Gabrielle leaned back and looked into Xena's eyes. “I'm teaching a storytelling seminar this evening... by special request.”

“Guess this means the Food & Wine Festival will have to wait, huh?”

“Yeah... a little bit. Do you mind? I mean, this is kinda your fault and all.”

“My fault? How do you figure, bard?”

“Because you're the one who made me a storyteller on the fly last night.”

Xena set Gabrielle on her feet but didn't release her hold completely. “Fair enough,” she agreed. “And yeah, the Food & Wine Fest can wait. We're on our own schedule here. Besides, I don't know if those detectives are gonna be too keen on letting folks out of here.”

“Xena, they can't keep us all prisoner in these convention rooms.”

“No, but they can make it impossible to have any fun.”

“Well, let's hope they solve this mystery sooner rather than later. Figures she'd die just to screw everything up,” Gabrielle muttered, eliciting a silent chuckle from Xena.

“You think she did it on purpose then? That there was no foul play involved.”

“It wouldn't surprise me,” Gabrielle griped, stepping back and taking Xena's hand. “Wonder how soon we can expect them back.”

“Lunch,” Xena replied succinctly. “They're police officers. They have a sixth sense for things like that.” Gabrielle just groaned.

 

************

“So what did you find?” Sergeant Bornlan asked the ME as she and Detective Kennian crossed back into the crime scene room. She was amazed at the discreteness of the hotel staff – if she hadn't known there was a dead body in this room, she never would have guessed it. There were no reporters, no loitering guests and all the techs and equipment had been brought in through ‘cast member only' access points. All in all it had been a very quiet scene so far.

“Well, she'd been dead since some time between one and four o'clock this morning. I still haven't determined a cause of death.”

“Best guess?”

“Take your pick. There's evidence of possible poisoning, blunt force trauma, drugs. There also seems to be an inordinate amount of blood considering I haven't found a cause for it; I can't even be sure it belongs to the victim at this point.”

Teresa nodded. “Has anyone been able to break into her computer yet?”

“Other than to discover she was looking up that Gabrielle woman? No,” the tech replied. “She's got several encrypted files on here, though. It may give us some more to work with once we break them. Until then...?” She shrugged.

Bornlan nodded again. “All right. Get it back to the lab and let me know as soon as you find something. Shana and I will go back to the convention center and see what we can shake loose from the folks over there. Doc?”

“I'll let you know, Terry... probably fours hours minimum. It's the best I can promise at the moment.”

“Good enough. You've all got our numbers,” waiting for the nods from various people around the room. “Thanks, people.” Then Detectives Bornlan and Kennian exited the room at the Grand Floridian to head back to the convention center at the Coronado Springs Resort. It was going to be a long day.

 

 

Chapter XXVIII

“Why are we stopping here, Teresa? Surely we need to get back to the convention center,“ Shana commented as Bornlan stopped in the lobby of the Grand Floridian. Teresa walked to the atrium area and took a seat, then motioned for Kennian to do the same. Shana frowned, but did as she was asked, perching stiffly on the edge of the chair until Bornlan's glare caused her to sigh deeply and slide back.

“Thank you,” Teresa said, leaning forward until her elbows rested on her knees.

“Will you answer my question now? Why did we stop here? Would it not be to our advantage to return to speak to Gabrielle before she and the rest have an opportunity to correlate their stories?”

“Shana, you're assuming guilt.” Bornlan held up her hand before Kennian could retort. “Gabrielle is our best and only real lead at the moment; however, I think there is more to this than that. Otherwise, why was this DIVA woman looking for dirt on Gabrielle... dirt she obviously hadn't found yet judging by what we found. Why did she have encrypted files on her computer... files Jackie hasn't already hacked? Jackie's the best at what she does – so why did this woman have things locked up tighter than Fort Knox ? Also, she's a publisher, right?” Shana nodded. “So why wasn't she at the conference? From what we've seen so far, it's a pretty massive convention, so why was she left out?”

“So we have more questions than answers,” Shana stated briefly. “That is normal at the beginning of a criminal investigation.”

“Yes, it is. I just want to take a few minutes to get down the facts as we know them, then write down all the questions we have as well. I would prefer to go in with all our ducks in a row, ready to ask our questions and get the answers we need. Remember that Gabrielle told us that most of the people in that room this morning were law enforcement officers of one kind or the other... which means they know how the game is played.”

Her phone rang. “Bornlan,” she answered without any further greeting.

“Hey, boss. It's Jackie.”

“You broke the code?”

“Not exactly. We've got a woman up here... says she's the dead woman's assistant. Whatcha want us to do with her?”

Teresa tapped her fingers on the chair for a moment. “How does she seem to you, Jackie?”

The tech sighed. “C'mon, boss – you know that's not my gig. But if I was to hazard a guess,” she continued, hearing Bornlan's impatient intake of breath, “I'd say she was upset, but not unduly so. Apparently she came over at the behest of the rest of her fellow employees when none of them could reach their boss lady this morning.”

Bornlan pinched the bridge of her nose, then brushed the dark hair away from her face. “Kennian and I'll be there in a few minutes.”

“Thanks, boss,” Jackie replied. Bornlan clicked off her phone and stood. Kennian followed her example, arching an eyebrow in silent question.

“Another piece of puzzle just walked in upstairs.”

“Lead the way.”

 

************

They stepped from the elevator a second time and walked the length of the hall until they reached the crime scene again. Jackie was standing just outside the door with another woman and Bornlan gravitated towards them. Kennian nodded her intention to Bornlan, then entered the room when Teresa stopped in front of the small blonde woman who seemed a little shell-shocked.

“Thanks, Jackie. I'll take it from here,” freeing the other woman to return to her work. The blonde turned to her and held out her hand, which Jackie accepted perfunctorily.

“Thank you, Jackie.”

Jackie squeezed her hand briefly and nodded, then without a word, released her and headed back into the room to finish collecting evidence to take back to the lab. Teresa lightly touched the blonde's arm and waited until their eyes met. “I'm Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan, Miss...?”

“Bonner... Bailey Bonner.”

Bornlan nodded and gestured down the hall, knowing full well it wouldn't be long before the ME and tech team was ready to leave. Bailey took her cue and moved down the hallway with Bornlan walking beside her.

“Ms Bonner, you seem a little surprised by this, but not unduly upset. Can I ask why? I mean, she was your boss after all... correct?”

“I don't think anyone expects to find someone dead when they go to their hotel room, Detective,” Bailey replied a little drolly. “The fact that it is being treated as a crime scene just makes it that much more bizarre for me. I mean... no one liked Desi, but I can't imagine anyone killing her either. It's not worth the bad karma.”

Teresa tilted her head. “What do you mean?”

Bailey blinked at her. “What part needs explaining?”

“You said no one liked her. How do you know that?”

“I was her assistant, Detective. I just knew. Not to speak ill of the dead, but Desi was a mean, manipulative bitch. You'll find a lot of people are glad that she's gone... no matter how it was accomplished.”

“You realize you're putting yourself at the top of my suspect list?”

“Detective, I have nothing to hide. I didn't kill her. But I'm not going to pretend I care or mourn her either. All that will do is make you look at me even closer... especially when you find out I'm telling you the truth about how most people will react to the news of her demise.”

Teresa blinked. “That seems harsh.”

Bailey shrugged. “Maybe. But it's also true.”

“All right, Ms Bonner. I want you to remain available for further questioning. Where are you staying?”

“All of us except Desi are at the Coronado Springs. She wanted us nearby for the convention.”

“A convention you weren't even attending, correct?”

“Yeah. Desi was sure she could convince Gabrielle to include her and AVID Publishing. It must have been quite a blow to find someone in the world she couldn't bend.”

“What do you mean?” turning Bailey to face her as she noted the techs emerging from Desdemona's room.

“Gabrielle,” Bailey replied. “Gabrielle told her no and didn't back down when Desi threatened her.”

“And that was unusual?”

“I think your investigation will show you that not very many people told Desi no. And the few who did generally found their lives became a living hell.”

“Would you care to elaborate, Ms Bonner?”

“Not really, Detective. I'm already at the top of your suspect list.”

“And you don't think helping my investigation would change that?”

“That all depends on what you found now, wouldn't it?” Before Bornlan could formulate her next question, Bailey plowed ahead. “Are we done for now, Detective? I really need to let my friends know what is going on.”

“I can't let you do that, Ms Bonner.”

“Excuse me?”

“Ms Bonner, until the Medical Examiner tells me otherwise, we are treating this as a homicide investigation.”

“All right. I understand that, but what does that have to do with me talking to the people I work with. They have the right to know.”

“And we'll tell them. But for the moment, they would be considered persons of interest.”

Bailey sighed. “All right,” but before she could continue, Teresa's phone rang again and she held up a hand and opened it.

“Bornlan.”

“Boss, it's me again.”

“Yeah, Jackie,” she replied, turning her back to Bailey and walking a few steps away from her before stopping. “What's up?”

“Couple things, actually. We're about ready to leave so if you don't want the cute blonde to see anything, you're gonna want to make sure she's out of the hallway.” Bornlan smirked at the tech's description of Bailey Bonner. Not that Jackie was wrong, but she was usually a little more detached when it came to first impressions of possible suspects.

“And the second?” Bornlan prompted when Jackie hesitated too long.

“I got through some of the encryption.”

“And?”

“You're gonna wanna see this for yourself.”

Bornlan absorbed this knowledge – hearing as much what Jackie *wasn't* saying as well as what she *was*. “All right – send Shana out here. I need her to go back to the Coronado with Ms Bonner. Then I'll be in to see what you've got.”

“You got it, boss. You're gonna love this.”

 

************

“You're sure about this, Diana?”

Diana nodded. “It's a done deal. I contacted Paula as soon as you told us about Desdemona. Even if they manage to get through her encryption codes and firewalls, there's not going to be anything for them to find.”

“And they won't be able to trace her tampering?”

Diana just gave Xena a look. “Consort, we've been doing this for a long, LONG time and no one is even aware that we exist.”

“Do I even want to know?”

“Probably not,” Diana answered honestly and Xena nodded her acceptance.

“All right. We'll talk about this later?” Diana bowed slightly and walked away just as Gabrielle approached them.

“Was it something I said?” Gabrielle asked. Xena just shook her head and took Gabrielle's hand.

“What's up?”

Gabrielle's eyes returned to Diana's retreating form once more before she directed her gaze at Xena. “Oh, um... I need to run back to our room for a few minutes to snag my laptop. Detective Bornlan just called and asked for a list of our attendees. Can you keep an eye on things for me til I get back? Barbara's teaching a class at the moment.”

“She did?” Gabrielle nodded. “Guess we'll hear about it eventually. But yeah, I can.”

Gabrielle smiled. “I'll come and find you. Thanks, Xe.”

Xena leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “Anything for you, my bard. Now go get your laptop. Time's a-wastin' and our detective friends will be back soon, probably with your list in hand.” Gabrielle rolled her eyes and smirked in response, but dutifully turned and headed back to their room.

 

************

“Ms Bonner? I'm Detective Shana Kennian. Sergeant Bornlan has asked that I accompany you back to the Coronado Springs Resort.”

“Am I under arrest, Detective?”

“No, Ms Bonner. We are just trying to maintain a professional demeanor in this investigation.”

“I see. And you returning with me accomplishes that how?”

Instead of answering, ice blue eyes turned cold and Kennian straightened stiffly. “Would you prefer I arrest you, Ms Bonner? Would that ensure your compliance in this matter?”

Bailey huffed. “Fine. Let's go.” Together they entered the elevator. Bornlan waited until she heard the doors close behind them before she nodded and opened the doors.

“It's clear, guys. Let's move.” The ME went first, followed by two techs with the gurney. Then came another tech – this one pushing a cart with several cases of evidence. Jackie was the last out, holding onto a laptop. She stopped and looked around the room before nodding at Bornlan. Bornlan pulled the crime tape over the doorway, then shut the door carefully.

“Thanks for the list, Jackie. Keep working – see if you can find out why all these names were in an encrypted file. I have a feeling it's important.”

“Will do, boss. You going back over to the other resort?”

“Yeah. My best leads are there at the moment. You'll call if you find anything?”

“You know it, boss. Good luck.”

Teresa sighed. “I have a feeling I'm gonna need more than that before this is over with.” She saluted slightly and headed towards the main elevator while Jackie went to the ‘cast members only' elevator where the tech with the cart stood waiting for her to join him. They had a lot of work to do.

Teresa waited until the elevator door closed behind them, then entered her own. She looked at the papers she held in her hand. She was missing something important – the question was... could she figure it out. Then she stepped from the elevator back into the lobby, only this time she headed straight out the front doors. Time to get back to work, and if she timed it right, she would be able to get in a couple good hours work before the conventioneers broke for lunch. She could only hope.

 

************

“Hey,” Xena said approaching Gabrielle several hours later. “Time for lunch?” Gabrielle had been sitting in the media convention room since she'd returned with her laptop. She'd immediately sent the lists Bornlan had requested, then spent the better part of the morning writing furiously and Xena couldn't help but smile at the look of supreme satisfaction on her face.

Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah, if we can talk Rita into starting a few minutes early. Despite everything, I think our attendees are starting to figure out something is going on and I expect our detective friends will be returning soon. Everything just feels... twitchy. Or maybe it's just me knowing what I know reading too much into things. God knows I have the imagination for it.”

“I've learned never to discount your feelings, Gabrielle. If you say everything feels twitchy, it probably does. I haven't noticed any odd behavior, but most of my people have been in different seminars all morning. Did you get a lot done?”

Gabrielle smiled. “Yes, thank you.” They crossed to the back room and motioned Rita over.

“Ladies,” she said by way of greeting.

“Hey, Rita. Are we about ready for lunch service?”

Rita looked at her watch and cocked an eyebrow at them, noting it was a little early, but not significantly so. She nodded and motioned to the servers who were discretely watching them. “We can get everything set up and ready to go in fifteen minutes. Good enough?”

“Perfect, Rita. Thanks.”

Rita bowed her head slightly. “I live to serve.”

They headed back into the law enforcement conference room. “Well, this should get our police friends back here,” Xena commented with a smirk.

“As long as we can get this over with. I have to tell you – I'm a little put out about this. Do you really think one of us could have done this?”

Xena shrugged. “Human nature being what it is and knowing what we know about her now? Yeah, I think it's entirely possible someone here could have killed her. I don't think anyone did, though.”

“Why?”

Xena shrugged again. “It would make it a crime of opportunity instead of a crime of passion or planning. No one knew she was going to be here – she wasn't supposed to be. And if that was the case, why wait til now? Surely there have been other opportunities – discrete opportunities. However, until we have some cold, hard facts, it's just speculation on my part.”

“Do you think they'll give us any? Cold, hard facts, I mean.”

“They're gonna have to give us something. The people in this room won't let them get away with not.”

Gabrielle grinned. “Neither will the ones in mine. They are journalists, after all.”

Xena chuckled. “I'd almost feel sorry for the detectives if this whole thing wasn't going to make life such a pain in the ass for us.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “You'd think we'd be used to it by now.” They watched the servers scurrying around the room a moment longer before Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm. “I'm gonna go check on my side of the hall. Meet you back in the monitoring room?”

Xena squeezed her hand. “See you in a few.”

 

 

Chapter XXIX

While Detective Bornlan waited for her car to be brought around, she placed a call to the manager at the Coronado Springs, then a second, brief call to her partner. So when Detective Kennian and Bailey arrived back at the resort, they were immediately met by a manager who escorted them to a small break-out room not far from the two conventions. Kennian looked around and gave the manager a small nod of her head.

“This is acceptable. Thank you.”

“Is there anything else I can do for you, Detective?” Shana looked around again, noting the carafes of coffee and a covered platter that she assumed was some sort of snack food.

“I believe this will be satisfactory.”

The manager bowed slightly. “If you need anything else, there is a house phone just outside this room. You simply need to dial the front desk and ask for me.”

“Thank you, James. We will.”

Taking the subtle hint, James nodded and exited the room, carefully closing the door behind him. Bailey looked around, then back at Kennian.

“Now what?”

“Detective Bornlan and I would like to speak to you and your compatriots. Would you prefer to invite them to join us or would you rather I had a uniformed officer escort them here?”

Bailey blinked. “You're serious?” Shana maintained her rigid stance, merely turning her head to meet Bailey's green eyes. “You are... unreal. I'll call them.” She pulled her phone from her purse, then paused. “What do you want me to tell them?”

“Simply notify them that you need to see them and tell them to meet you in this location.” Kennian hesitated and crossed to the door. She opened it and stuck her head out for a second, then turned back to Bailey. “We are in the Cancun room.”

“And if they ask why?”

“Put them off and insist you cannot give them further information over the phone. If they become insistent, hang up. They will arrive simply to ensure themselves of your safety.”

Bailey stared at her. “And you know this how? You've never even met these people.”

“I am a police detective and there are certain aspects of human nature that remain fairly consistent. You have displayed concern and friendship towards these individuals. It follows that they will do the same to some degree.” Shana smirked. “Besides which, human curiosity is not to be underestimated. Even if these people do not consider you worthy of their concern or friendship, they will want to know what the mystery is. Therefore, they will come if you call.”

Bailey blinked again – this time to keep the tears from falling at the painful sensation Kennian's harsh words and cold tone produced in her chest. Shana caught the aching expression on Bailey's face and stepped forward hesitantly, placing a surprisingly gentle hand on her shoulder and looking at her with tender understanding.

“I apologize, Ms Bonner. It was not my intention to upset you. I am only speaking from my observations as a detective. My partner blames it on too many episodes of Dragnet on Nick at Nite,” hoping to add a little levity to the conversation. Seeing Bailey smile slightly, she stepped back, and removed her hand, resuming the detective's mask she wore. “Please make your phone call.”

Bailey nodded, not wanting to embarrass Detective Kennian for her lapse. “Thank you,” she said quietly, even as she lifted the phone to her ear. Unexpectedly, she felt a little better.

 

************

Detective Bornlan walked into the room with two uniformed officers just as Bailey hung up her phone. She sent them to stand discretely in the back corners of the room. “Dot said she would get everyone together and they would be here in a few minutes.” Both detectives nodded. “Do you really think one of us killed her?”

“Ms Bonner, until I have evidence to the contrary, her death is suspicious and every one who knew her is a suspect.”

Bailey's brows went into her hairline. “Detective, do you realize how many people that is?”

Bornlan nodded wearily. “Probably better than you do.”

At that moment, there was a knock on the door. “Bailey?” Kennian crossed the narrow space to admit the AVID people who brushed right by her without seeing her in their anxiousness to reach their friend. Harmon reached her first.

“Bailey? Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Franklyn cut in. “What's going on?” Buster leaned against the door and took in the scene around him, noting the two strangers in their midst. He looked at Detective Kennian who merely arched an eyebrow in his direction. He understood the subtle hint and moved from the door, crossing to pour himself a cup of coffee.

When the melee died down to a buzz, Buster stepped forward. “Would you like to introduce us to your friends, Bailey?” causing the rest to notice the two detectives for the first time. All eyes turned back to Bailey, waiting for her answer.

Bornlan walked to the front of the room. “If you'll all take a seat....” They looked at her, then at Bailey, finally moving when Bailey nodded her head. When they were settled, Bornlan cleared her throat, drawing all eyes back to her immediately. “I am Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan and my partner in the back there is Detective Shana Kennian.” As a group they turned to look at the blonde woman standing by the door, then refocused their attention on Bornlan.

“I am sorry to have to inform you all of this, but your employer, Desdemona Imala Von A'Calandra, was found dead in her hotel room this morning.” She watched their faces carefully, curious to see if Bailey had been correct in her summation of what reactions would be like. Most of them didn't do more than bat an eyelash or two in surprise – just as Bailey had said. Two of them, however.... Bornlan looked at Kennian who nodded her agreement. Bornlan cleared her throat again.

“Until we hear differently from our Medical Examiner, we are treating this as a homicide investigation. As such, you are all persons of interest. I'm going to ask that you separate yourselves from one another and don't speak until we've had an opportunity to speak to each of you?”

“And if we don't?“ asked a disgruntled male voice. Bornlan looked into the face of the man who had shown a sense of relief when she'd given the news.

“And you are?”

“Warner Godwin... Desi's brother.”

Bornlan looked at her notes. “Ah yes... the disgruntled brother. The one who felt that Desdemona owed him something when Daddy left him nothing.” Shock and surprise was clearly evident on every face in the room at her pronouncement. “Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen – we're already well aware of a number of things about all of you... and your former employer. And if you feel the need to make things difficult, the nice officers in the back of the room will be happy to handcuff you and give you a ride down to the station. I promise you the accommodations aren't nearly as comfortable as these.”

Without a word, the small group stood and moved around until there was space between them. Bornlan jerked her head at Warner. “You come with me,“ she ordered, motioning him to the front of the room on one side. “You,” nodding to Franklyn, “go with Detective Kennian.”

Franklyn rose slowly and waited for Shana to reach his side before following her to the opposite side of the room where Warner already sat. Bornlan looked at the rest who were currently sitting stock-still. “One more thing,” she commanded. “No cell phones, no texting and no emailing. Just sit, all right?”

Everyone nodded their understanding, but before she could move, Buster stood up. Teresa cocked a dark brow at him and waited.

“Detective, what about our right to counsel?”

“Mr.?”

“Goodfellow... Buster Goodfellow.”

“The lawyer... of course,” she muttered before giving him a piranha-like smile. “Mr. Goodfellow, this isn't an interrogation and no one here is under arrest. We're simply asking a few questions in an informal, comfortable setting in an effort to ascertain where everyone was at the time of death. However, if you'd like to make this official, we can take it downtown.”

“Buster, sit down and shut up. We don't have anything to hide, and I for one would just like to get this over with,” Bailey said, pushing her hair off of her face. “I've got to work on my resume. We're all out of a job now.”

Several pairs of eyes flew to Bailey's face as her words sunk in and Buster blanched. However he sat down and remained quiet. Bornlan watched them for a moment longer before stepping back to where Warner waited with his arms crossed over his chest and a tiny smirk on his face.

“Now, Mr. Godwin... why don't you start with where you were this morning between the hours of midnight and six? And tell me who can vouch for your whereabouts while you're at it.” She snickered privately as she watched the smirk slide off his face and fear creep into his eyes.

 

************

Kennian rubbed her eyes briefly before pinching the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. Bornlan scrubbed her hands through her hair and sighed loudly. The uniformed officers had been dismissed and it was just the two of them at the moment.

“You all right, Shana?”

“Yes, Teresa. That was less than informative.”

“Well, I'll admit that in a perfect world, we'd already have this wrapped up. After all, we've been on this case for what...?” Bornlan looked at her watch. “Close to four hours. It only takes forty-two minutes on television.” Kennian smirked and Bornlan echoed her expression. “However, since this is the real world, it's gonna take a little longer. My luck, it will be all day.” She glanced out the curtained windows. “After all, it's a beautiful Saturday.”

“Naturally,” Kennian lamented.

Bornlan blew out a breath. “So what did you get?”

“Other than the beginnings of a headache?” Kennian asked. Bornlan stood and went to the snack table, pouring them each a cup of coffee. She put one in front of Shana and set the other beside it before she went back and snagged the nearly full tray. Setting it between them, she took a seat across from her partner and waited.

“Let me see,” Shana started, looking briefly at her note and shaking her head. “It appears Franklyn Mint had some sort of crush on the victim. He seemed almost genuinely upset about her death. The rest…?” She shrugged. “It is as Ms Bonner said it would be.”

Teresa grunted. “Same here. I didn't get a sense of remorse or regret from anyone.” She took a sip of coffee and picked up a sandwich from the tray. She took a bite and chewed slowly. They were a little dry, but they were still better than the stale donuts they usually got in the squad room. She swallowed again. “No one appears to have liked this woman, but I have yet to find any evidence of anyone hating her enough to off her.” Kennian raised her eyebrow and Bornlan smirked.

“Okay,” Bornlan admitted. “Every one of them had a *reason* to want this woman dead, but who benefited from it?”

Kennian shook her head. “I do not know. Perhaps we should....” Bornlan's phone ringing halted her thought and Shana sat back while Teresa answered her phone.

“Bornlan.”

“Boss, it's Jackie. You're not gonna like it,” she said without preamble. “Whoever wiped it is better than I am. It's clean. No ghosting and no trace.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah, that was about my first thought. Sorry about that.”

“Thanks, Jackie. Guess we'll just have to do this the hard way.”

“Sorry boss. Oh, before I forget, the ME wants a conference ASAP.”

“I'll call her. Thanks, Jackie.”

“Later, boss.”

Kennian looked at Bornlan, who just shook her head and put the phone back to her ear as it started ringing. “Yes?” came a detached voice after one full ring.

“Doc? It's Bornlan. Jackie said you wanted to talk to me?”

“Yeah. I've gotta tell you, Terry - I'm not liking this at all.”

“That bad?”

“I'm going to go ahead and rule it a homicide.” She paused.

“Why do I hear a ‘but' in there waiting to come out?”

“Because there is one. But I'm not ready yet to give you a cause of death.”

“Not even a preliminary one?” Bornlan heard the aggrieved sigh. “C'mon, Doc... you've got to have *some* idea of what killed this woman.”

“Detective....”

“Look, Doc – I know you've had to rush this case to the top of your load because of the logistics involved and that even rushing the lab work it's still going to take time to get the results. On the other hand, I'm willing to bet good money against a steak dinner that you didn't want to talk to me just to tell me you were calling it a homicide. We were already working it that way and you knew that. So what gives?”

Kennian leaned forward, putting her elbows on the table. Bornlan held up a finger.

“Doc, hang on. I'm putting you on speaker so Shana can hear this as well.” A beat and the phone came to rest between them on the table. “All right, Doc... go ahead.”

“Of course, without all the results I cannot say with utmost confidence that my deduction is completely accurate....”

“But...?” Bornlan encouraged.

“But, I am leaning towards the conclusion that this woman's death was the result of a professional.” Dead silence met her pronouncement and the doctor felt compelled to speak again. “Detectives? Did I lose you?”

Bornlan cleared her throat though her dark eyes never left Kennian's blue ones. “No, Doc. We're still here. You're sure?”

“As sure as I can be given the facts as I know them at the moment.”

“All right. Thanks, Doc.”

“Anytime, Terry. I'll call you when I know more.” She didn't say another word before the line went dead. Teresa and Shana looked at one another for another full minute before Bornlan blinked and shut her phone before snatching it from the table and replacing it in her pocket.

“You know what this means?”

Kennian nodded and stood, watching Bornlan do the same.

“Yes – we now have a convention full of possible suspects to interrogate. Teresa... they are all professionals.”

“Better? They were all listed in the victim's encrypted files.”

“Why?”

“We find the answer to that, we will probably find our killer.” Shana cocked her brow again. “C'mon,” Bornlan invited. “Let me show you what Jackie found. Then we can decide how to play this.”

 

 

Chapter XXX

They walked back from the business center silently. A call to James had emptied the place out long enough for them to print out the files that both Gabrielle and Jackie had sent them. Once they re-entered the Cancun room, Shana turned to Teresa with a sheaf of papers in her hand.

“So everyone on Gabrielle's list,” holding up the papers in her hand, “is going to match up with everyone from the victims?” gesturing to the files Teresa was holding.

“At first glance, it seemed that way,” Bornlan agreed as she started spreading the papers out across the table. “The only way we're gonna know for sure is to sit here and go through them name by name.” She looked over the pages. “It shouldn't take too long... though I think my list is longer than yours.”

“I know it is,” Kennian stated plainly. Bornlan cocked a brow at her. Shana smirked. “Teresa, it took two more pages to print that list than it did this one. Common sense.”

“Smart ass,” Bornlan grumbled, but it didn't stop the smile from crossing her face when Shana chuckled at her frustration. “C'mon, let's get started. I think I smelled lunch being prepared. If we're quick, we can catch them at lunch.”

A blonde brow arched. “You are hungry?”

“Not really,” motioning to the nearly empty tray. “Okay... maybe a little bit,” when Kennian's second eyebrow rose to meet the first. “Mostly, I figure that will be the easiest time to catch everyone in the convention rooms. They actually do have good food here.”

“Come,” Kennian stated. “Let us get through these lists. If our victim was as organized as Gabrielle seems to be,” looking through the papers in her hand, “it shouldn't take very long. What does this woman do again?”

Bornlan wrinkled her forehead. “That's a good question. We're gonna need a secure computer.” She put her hands on her hips. “I'd love to get my hands on those computers they're using in that monitoring room. They looked pretty state-of-the-art.”

“We should go through these first, then I will see about setting something up.”

Bornlan nodded. And they turned their attention to the lists in front of them.

 

************

“Olivia! Emma!” Gabrielle greeted as Olivia tentatively stuck her head in the convention room door. Emma had no such compunction and ran to where Gabrielle stood just outside the monitoring room. Gabrielle had just left Xena and was currently watching the servers dash around her con room setting up for lunch. She caught Emma just as she wrapped her arms around her. Gabrielle returned the embrace and looked at Olivia who just shrugged.

“Gabrielle!”

“Emma? Is something wrong, honey?” pulling back just slightly to look into the child's eyes.

“No way!” she exclaimed. “I'm having the best time. Is it okay that we came to have lunch with Mama? She said it would be okay, but Mommy thought we should ask you. It's the polite thing to do, you know since we're not really s'posed to be here and this is your party.”

“I appreciate that. You and your mommy are more than welcome to join us for lunch. We're just getting set up,” gesturing to the activity around the room. “Everyone is still in their seminars for a few more minutes. Why don't you tell me what you've been up to today?” She took Emma's hand and led her to the table a few feet away.

Olivia crossed to stand at the door where Gabrielle had been when they entered the convention room, watching Gabrielle and Emma with a charmed expression on her face. Xena stepped out a moment later, stopping short when she realized the woman standing beside the doorway was Olivia and not her partner. She opened her mouth to speak, then followed Olivia's gaze to the lovely tableau taking place in front of them.

“She's amazing,” Olivia said quietly.

“Gabrielle or your daughter?”

“Yes,” Olivia agreed, turning her head slightly so Xena could see the happiness that shined beyond the hint of tears that glistened on the surface. “I was actually talking about Gabrielle. Don't get me wrong – Emma is an incredible child. She brought so much into my life and she makes happiness everywhere she goes. But watching Gabrielle with her... I don't know. It's like she blossoms.”

Xena nodded. “It's just part of who Gabrielle is. She brings out the best in everyone she meets. I'm a better person because of her.”

“That sounds a lot like Natalia and me. She makes me want to be a better person.”

“Those are the best kind – because they know us and they love us anyway.”

“Xena!” Emma cried when she saw her standing next to Olivia. “We've come to have lunch with Mama.”

“That sounds wonderful, Jellybean,” picking Emma up in her arms. “Looks like she's pretty happy about it too.” Xena turned so Emma could see Natalia approaching with her dimples on full display.

“Mama!” Heads swiveled in her direction and smiles followed. Emma had captivated them all the night before and they watched as Xena put her down so Emma could greet Natalia. Natalia knelt and engulfed Emma in a firm hug.

“I missed you, Bean.”

“Mommy and I missed you too, but Gabrielle said it was okay if we had lunch with you.”

“She did? Well, that was very nice of her. How about we go get your mommy and you can come sit with me until the line shortens a little bit? You can tell me all about your day in the meantime.” Natalia smiled directly at Olivia as she stood and took Emma's hand. Olivia couldn't stop the smile of supreme satisfaction that crossed her face.

“Go to her,” Gabrielle said softly, stepping up beside Xena. Olivia didn't hesitate, but moved to join her family. Xena and Gabrielle gave them a brief wave before walking back into the monitoring room.

 

************

“How are things, guys?” Xena asked as they approached Dinah and Lucy. The two younger women exchanged glances and shrugged.

“It's been quiet so far,” Lucy replied. “No cops and nothing really out of the ordinary.”

Dinah nodded. “What she said,” but her eyes told a different story. Xena turned to Lucy and jerked her head. Lucy obediently crossed to a secluded corner. Xena stood between her and the rest of the room, keeping Dinah and Gabrielle out of her sight while maintaining the privacy of their conversation.

“Can you reach Scud?”

“Probably. Why?”

“Because I figure our detective friends are going to need a secure internet connection and I don't want them on our computers. But if we set up a connection they can use....”

“Gotcha. I'll put the call in. Can you let Amy know I'm probably gonna miss lunch?”

“Sure. Thanks, Lucy.”

“Anytime, boss.” She pulled her phone from her pocket. “It may take a few, but it should go fairly quickly once he gets here.”

“If you can't reach him, talk to Barbara and Diana. But try him first. Most of this is his handiwork, and I respect most artists don't want anyone else messing with their art.”

Lucy smirked. “You're pretty smart for an old chick.”

“Watch it, kid. I can still kick your ass. Besides, I'm married to an artist, remember? And she can kick your ass too.”

Lucy's eyes widened. “Good point.” Then she stepped into the hall to make her call.

 

************

“Dinah?” Gabrielle queried, putting a comforting hand on Dinah's shoulder.

Dinah sighed and closed her eyes, covering her face with her hands for a moment before scrubbing them through her hair. “I'm all right, Gabrielle. Desdemona being here put everyone on edge and knowing she's dead.... I think people can sense things like that, even if they don't know what's making them edgy, you know? So they start projecting their discomfort.”

“It's going to get worse, Dinah. Because they're going to have to know the truth sooner or later. Are you going to be all right?”

“Hey, Kid! What's wrong?” Helena asked as she crossed the threshold into the room. She immediately went to Dinah's side and cupped her face in one hand. Barbara rolled in behind her but stopped short of the two young women, wanting to make sure her girls were okay without interfering with whatever was going on between them. She looked at Gabrielle.

Seeing Helena had things well under control, Gabrielle moved to Barbara's side. “What's going on?” Barbara asked without preamble.

“Dinah's getting some of the residual restlessness that seems to be permeating our attendees. I was just making sure she was all right when you and Helena came in and Helena took over.”

Barbara nodded. “I can teach her the techniques, but sometimes she needs to borrow some of Helena 's strength to fortify her walls.”

“Is that what they're doing?” turning to see Dinah's face cupped gently in Helena 's hands. They had leaned their foreheads together and Dinah's hands rested on Helena 's slim hips.

Barbara nodded. “It made me so jealous the first time I saw it,” she confessed softly. “I didn't know that kind of sharing was possible at the time and I don't have green eyes and red hair for nothing.”

Gabrielle smiled. “I can relate,” she admitted wryly. “How did they discover this?”

Before Barbara could reply, Dinah and Helena separated just slightly. Helena 's knees buckled a little bit and Dinah tightened her hands on Helena 's hips until she nodded just slightly. Helena arched a brow and Dinah crooked her lips in a tiny grin. Then without a word, Dinah wrapped an arm around Helena 's waist and Helena 's arm dropped to Dinah's shoulders. Then they slowly went back into the kitchen area, leaving Gabrielle to look at Barbara in question.

“Time to refuel. Sharing like that takes a lot out of Helena and she's going to need more faster than the serving staff could keep up with. Dinah will make sure she gets what she needs until she is able to sit and eat like the rest of us.”

“How did they discover this again?”

“I'll tell you, I promise, but I need to go check on them first.”

Gabrielle patted Barbara's hand. “Please. Let me know if there's anything we can do.”

Barbara smiled. “Thanks, Gabrielle. That means....”

“I know, sweetie,” Gabrielle said with a smile. “Now go check on your girls. It's not like we won't be here when you get back.” Barbara just nodded and rolled off in the direction Dinah and Helena had just disappeared in. Gabrielle watched her go before turning back to Xena.

“Problems?”

“Later,” Gabrielle promised as Lucy came back in the room.

“Scud was already on his way back over. Should be here in a few minutes. Apparently he ended up as one of the extras on the Backstage Tour and he didn't heed the attendant's warning to secure his rain gear properly.”

Xena snorted. “Soaking wet, huh?”

“He said even his shoes squished.”

“Well, EW,” Gabrielle laughed, scrunching up her nose in disgust.

“Would you like to share what is so funny, Gabrielle?” Detective Bornlan asked from the doorway. “Because I'm pretty sure murder is a serious business.”

Xena and Gabrielle turned simultaneously, but a hand on Xena's belly kept her silent. Gabrielle stepped forward just slightly, feeling Xena slide into place behind her and put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders.

“Are you accusing me of something, Sergeant Bornlan?”

Teresa Bornlan rubbed a hand over her face then held up her hands. “No... I'm sorry. It's just been a long day already and I've got more questions now than I had earlier.”

Xena cocked a brow. “Would you both like to join us for lunch?” Bornlan tilted her head at the unexpected invitation. “Despite my earlier aggravation, I do understand your position. If we can make things run smoother and faster, even just by giving you a decent meal, we will. The sooner you wrap this up, the better for all of us.”

“That's true,” Bornlan agreed. “I don't mean to offend, but would it be possible for just the four of us to share this room? There are some confidential matters we need to discuss.”

“I can semi-clear the room, but we have someone coming in to set up a secure line for you.” She chuckled at the twin looks of surprise she received. “The sooner you find your criminal, the sooner you get out of our hair. And no offense, but the sooner you go away, the sooner we can go back to what we were doing.”

“Which was?”

“We're at Disney,” Gabrielle replied, like it was self-explanatory.

“Of course,” Bornlan replied as though she couldn't understand what difference that made in the bigger scheme of things. At that moment, Scud walked in the door. Both detectives cocked an eyebrow at him, then looked at Xena.

“He's one of my people,” Xena assured them. “He's the one going to set up your secure line... if you want one.”

“I am not certain....” Kennian started, before Bornlan cut in.

“That'd be great, thanks.” She turned to her partner who appeared to be fuming though her eyes were ice cold. “Will you excuse us for a minute, ladies?” Xena and Gabrielle both nodded, and Kennian and Bornlan walked towards the door without actually leaving the room.

“I'm gonna go check on the Birds,” Gabrielle said sotto voce. Xena just squeezed her hand and tilted her head in Scud's direction. Gabrielle nodded her understanding. “Be right back.”

Xena watched her go, keeping an eye on the quietly bickering women near the door before shaking her head and padding over to where Scud was getting some razzing from Lucy over his wet head.

“Hey, at least my shoes are dry now!” He jerked his chin past Xena's approaching figure. “What's going on there?”

Xena shrugged. “Guess we'll find out in a minute,” as the two approached them.

 

************

“Teresa, I do not think that is the most prudent course of action,” Shana complained the minute they were out of earshot. She crossed her arms over her chest and stood rigidly straight. Bornlan opened her mouth to make an angry retort, but drew in a deep breath and blew it out instead. Then she ran a frustrated hand through her hair. “After their attitude this morning....”

“Look, Shana... I understand why we should be cautious here, but I also know that phone call was pretty clear. If they're not suspects and they're willing to help us, why shouldn't we let them? Especially if it will help us solve this case.”

“You do not think we can do this without them?”

“I think we've got a hell of a logistics problem here. Most of the people on the victim's list are attending one of these two conventions. And none of them actually live here. Keeping that many people here for an undetermined amount of time is simply not possible. They all have lives and jobs elsewhere. I'm afraid if we don't solve this case before they are ready to leave, we may never solve it. Or we at least will never be able to put our hands on the perpetrator.”

Kennian nodded slowly and uncrossed her arms to let them fall to her sides. “Very well, Teresa. I see your point. I will follow your lead in this matter.”

“Thanks, Shana. Let's go tell them to hook us up.”

 

************

Gabrielle met the two detectives in front of Xena and her crew at the same time. Xena cocked a brow and Gabrielle motioned for Bornlan to speak first. Bornlan bobbed her head in acknowledgement.

“We'd be grateful to accept your offer, Xena... both of them.” Xena turned and nodded to Lucy and Scud, who immediately began running new wire. She looked at Gabrielle and smirked.

“Rita set up a place in the green room for them to recover. Barbara said they'd eat lunch in there to give us the time we needed to get things settled here. Works out well for everyone.”

“In that case,” turning to the two detectives and motioning to the empty table, “shall we eat?”

 

 

Chapter XXXI

“So, Sergeant Bornlan, what's on your mind?” Xena asked as soon as the servers moved away from the table. Bornlan glanced at Scud and Lucy tucked into the far corner of the room running wires to and through equipment she really couldn't put a name to. Then she looked back at Xena with a question clearly written in her expression. “They've got to stay if you want your secure connection, Detective. They're not listening – if you look closely, you'll see they're both wired for sound.”

Both Bornlan and Kennian intently studied Lucy and Scud, earbuds securely in place as they moved in a rhythm unheard by anyone else in the room. The fact that neither hesitated nor seemingly paid any attention to the conversation convinced the two detectives that neither of them could hear what was being said. After exchanging glances, they turned back to Xena and Gabrielle who were waiting patiently for them to decide to trust.

“We got an interesting phone call a few minutes ago,” Bornlan said as she put her napkin in her lap and picked up her fork. “A phone call directing us to focus our attention on suspects other than yourselves. A phone call from someone high enough up in the government that my captain felt compelled to inform me that if I continued to pursue you as suspects, I would do so without backup or support from my department or any other law enforcement agency on the planet apparently.”

Teresa watched them closely for a reaction, knowing Shana was doing the same thing. Two sets of eyes – one blue, one green – widened perceptibly before they slowly blinked in tandem. Kennian looked between them before asking, “Did you practice such a response?”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. Xena cocked an eyebrow at Gabrielle and Gabrielle barely shrugged in reply. They turned back to the two police officers with the same intrigued expression on their faces. Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak.

Before Gabrielle could answer Shana's question, Teresa spoke. “You've been a couple for a very long time haven't you? Relatively speaking, of course... I mean considering your comparative youth,” she added in deference to what appeared to be their approximate age.

“A lifetime,” Gabrielle confirmed. A beat. “Why do you ask?”

“Because you're so in tune with one another. That takes a lot of time... and practice.” Bornlan cleared her throat. “However, we're getting off track. Can you tell me why someone in the government feels the need to protect you? Do you have something to hide?”

Xena smirked. “Now really, Sergeant – if we had something to hide, do you really think we'd make it easy by simply telling you?”

“Xena!” Gabrielle sighed with exasperation. Xena smiled at her fondly before redirecting their attention towards the two police officers and gesturing to Gabrielle.

“No, Detectives,” Gabrielle replied. “We're not hiding anything; we didn't kill her. We don't know who would call you or why they would deliver such instructions to your superiors. We welcome your questions and are happy to offer our assistance to you in any way we can.”

“Why?” When silence met her blunt question, Kennian continued a little more thoughtfully. “Why are you so eager to help us? This morning....”

“This morning you blindsided us with raw conjecture and thinly-veiled accusations. Most people do not respond well to attack, Detective Kennian... justified or not.” Gabrielle took a deep breath and sighed. “I didn't know Ms Von A'Calandra; I was only introduced to the woman two days ago when she attempted to crash my convention. However, what I discovered about her in those two days did not impress me nor did it inspire feelings of kindness towards her. Still, that doesn't mean I killed her, does it? It simply means I didn't like the little of her that I was exposed to.”

“What was your impression of her Gabrielle?” Bornlan asked.

Gabrielle bit her lip thoughtfully. “She was a cold, manipulative bitch who felt the world owed her something because of who she thought she was.”

“All that from your brief interaction with her? That's a little harsh, isn't it?” Bornlan probed. “I mean isn't there some unwritten law about not speaking ill of the dead?”

Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose. “That was the nicest thing I could think to say about her, Sergeant.”

“Ouch,” Bornlan said with a grimace.

“Yeah, she wasn't real likeable,” Xena concurred. “I wanted to pound her into the pavement for giving Gabrielle grief.”

“But you didn't,” Kennian stated with conviction. “Why?”

“Because that's not Gabrielle's way. And I promised to let her handle things in her own way and her own time.”

Bornlan set her fork down and sat back, her gaze shifting between the two of them curiously. They bore her stare with stoicism, continuing to methodically clear their plates. Finally, she exchanged glances with Kennian and they nodded their agreement.

“All right... so neither of you are guilty of her murder.” She chuckled softly at the twin, raised eyebrows she received at her pronouncement. “Call it going with my gut,” she told them with a shrug. “But I'd be willing to bet my pension that if you *had* killed this woman, her body wouldn't have been missed until you were both long gone from here.” She rubbed a hand over her face.

“You'd be right,” Xena assured her seriously, causing both officers to look at her for a long moment. “I wouldn't risk prison for the likes of her.”

“Right,” Bornlan said uneasily, feeling the core of truth in Xena's statement. “Would you want to see justice done for her?”

“Everyone deserves justice, Sergeant,” Gabrielle stated quietly.

“So you'll help us?”

“She already told you we would,” Xena growled impatiently.

Bornlan flushed and cleared her throat. “Of course. So can either of you tell us why our victim had the names of your conference attendees encrypted in her computer?”

Xena and Gabrielle froze, then turned to look at each other. Teresa watched their silent communication in fascination, wishing she could hear what wasn't being said. Finally, they turned away from one another and back to the two detectives observing them so closely.

“Are you sure?” Gabrielle asked.

“Absolutely,” Kennian replied. “We compared the lists you sent with the list our technician was able to unlock from her encrypted program. Although a few of the names on her lists – most of those men, by the way – are not on either of your lists, ALL the names on your lists were on hers... with the exception of the two of you and Diana Prince. Why is that, do you suppose?”

“Because she had an unnatural fixation with successful women?” Gabrielle replied. “Of course that is mere speculation on my part – you did say she had included some men as well, correct?” She waited for their nods. “It is really hard to say, Detectives, considering we didn't even know of the woman's existence until two days ago. Perhaps they are people she had met? Or people she wished to? We do have a number of incredibly successful women on both sides of the hallway.”

“I suppose those are all viable answers,” Bornlan acknowledged. “But why was she looking you up, Gabrielle?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“And something else,” Teresa added, ignoring Gabrielle's query. “Her employees – she had something on every one of them... a reason for them not to leave her employ, despite any animosity they felt towards her.”

“You mean like blackmail?”

“I mean exactly blackmail.” She pulled a sheaf of papers from her pocket and flipped through them until she found what she was looking for. “It was interesting, actually. They were part of the encrypted files – they were listed just like everyone else... just like your attendees. Except they were in their own little subsection or whatever – they weren't part of the main list. Even more interesting - there was information about each of her employees – personal information, her thoughts about them, every single infraction she found them guilty of. All kinds of details that she could use against them.”

“Not that this isn't interesting, Sergeant Bornlan, but we're due to start the afternoon sessions of the conference in a few minutes. Do you think we could cut to the chase?” Xena had a very good idea exactly where Bornlan was headed, but she wanted to hear her state it plainly. Then maybe they could make some progress.

Bornlan glared at her, but was met with The Look. She sighed. “If she had this kind of information on her employees, what do you want to bet she had something on all those other people... all of your convention attendees and those others besides?”

“That's a pretty big leap there, Sergeant,” Gabrielle commented.

“Is it? I think it makes as much sense as anything else we've got right now. In fact, it makes more – because that gives me motives for all of them. We just have to figure out what those motives are.”

“Teresa, may I have a moment?” Shana cut in before Bornlan could speculate any further. Brown eyes met blue and Teresa rose and moved away from the table with Shana right behind her. Xena and Gabrielle watched them leave, but remained silent. Scud and Lucy exchanged looks and kept working.

 

************

Teresa blew out an impatient breath. “What, Shana?”

“I believe you are sharing too much information with these individuals, Teresa. Just because we have been instructed to no longer consider them suspects, it does not mean that we should trust them. I have to believe that at least some of the people on the victim's lists they would count as friends. Consider your theory of blackmail as the reason behind the murder - how do we know how far these two would go to protect those they consider friends... or family? We know nothing about them beyond the information we received when we were told to stand down concerning them. That was very little, Teresa.”

Bornlan nodded at Shana's argument and pinched her bottom lip thoughtfully. “Those are valid points, Shana,” causing the blue eyes to sparkle in delight. “But,” watching the frown return to Kennian's face, “think about what we *do* know about them. We know they are important enough to someone to get us a phone call from some mucky-muck in the government. We know that Xena at least has some sort of background in law enforcement and I have to tell you, Shana – I believe her when she said we wouldn't have known anything about a murder until they were long gone if she'd done it.” She sighed and held up her hand when Shana's lips parted to speak.

“Shana, I know you work with cold hard facts; you're not big on going with your gut.”

“I do not have a ‘gut', Teresa. I only have the facts.”

“But we don't have very many of those – at least not at the moment. We're going to have to put my instinct and your mind together on this thing if we're going to have any hope of solving it.” Kennian reluctantly nodded her agreement.

“Very well, Teresa. I will endeavor to trust your ‘gut'.”

“Thank you, Shana. Let's get back. Despite their patience, I think our hosts would like to get back to their other guests. And we need to see if we can get some answers.”

 

************

“Hey boss,” Lucy called softly across the room, earning her a scowl from Xena that she returned with a charming smile. Lucy jerked her head and Gabrielle stifled a snicker at Xena's exaggerated sigh. She patted the leg closest to her and rose, pulling Xena up with her.

“Go see what your second wants, Xe. I'm gonna go check on mine.”

Xena glanced at the two detectives involved in what appeared to be a heated conversation, then turned back to Gabrielle and nodded once sharply. “Let me know if there's anything....”

Gabrielle leaned forward and brushed their lips together. “I love you.”

Xena smiled genuinely. “I love you too.” Gabrielle turned and walked to the back of the room and out of sight. Xena moved to where Lucy and Scud stood waiting for her, making a valiant effort at studying the ceiling tiles. She rolled her eyes and cleared her throat.

“Something I can do for the two of you?”

“Notta thing,” Lucy smirked. “I've gotten my sugar fill for today.”

Xena's lips quirked. “I'll make sure Amy knows that.”

Lucy's jaw dropped. “WHAT?!?” Her voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “No... you can't do that. That's not what I meant!”

“It's what you said,” Xena deadpanned.

Lucy glared at her. “I hate you.” Then she turned and punched Scud in the arm.

“OW!” he grumbled, glaring at her. She returned his glare. “What'd I do?” he whined. She growled at him and he stepped behind Xena.

“Your secure connection is done. Can I go now?”

Xena nodded and Scud scooted backwards towards the door Gabrielle had disappeared behind. Lucy kept her glare on him, causing him to turn tail and run. Xena just snickered and arched an eyebrow.

“I'm gonna go find Amy,” she said, kicking the ground with the toe of her boot. Xena smiled.

“You do that. And Lucy,” waiting for Lucy to turn and look at her. “Thanks.”

Lucy nodded, allowing her dimples to show. “Let me know when we're ready to start.” Then she vanished through the side door that led into the law enforcement conference room. Xena remained where she was, waiting for the detectives to finish their conversation and Gabrielle to return from hers.

 

************

Gabrielle was nearly overrun by a harried server as she crossed into the back area. She backed into the wall to avoid being hit just as the waiter jerked to a stop to avoid hitting her. He looked at her with alarm. “Are you all right, Gabrielle?”

“I'm fine, Devon . You?”

“I'm good. Say, are the ladies in the green room all right? We've been taking almost as much food in for the three of them as we have for the entire rest of your convention.”

“Is that where you were headed?” motioning to the full tray he carried.

“Yes ma'am. Sorry,” he added when she shook her head chidingly at him. “You can't take the polite out of the boy, I guess.”

She smiled. “I guess not. I'm just not used to hearing it much anymore.” She held out her hands for the tray and he gave it to her without a second thought. “I'll take this in. I was coming to check on them anyway.”

Devon followed and opened the door for her. “Let me know if there's anything else we can do or something more they need, all right?”

“Thank you, Devon . I'd like to meet your mama someday. She did a good job with you.”

“Yes ma'am,” he agreed, though he couldn't stop the blush that climbed up his neck. He waited until she was greeted by her friends, then he closed the door soundly behind her.

“Hey, guys!” setting the tray of sweets in front of Helena . “I just came....”

“... to check on us. I'm good, Gabrielle. Honestly,” Helena responded, looking into Gabrielle's eyes so she could see the truth. She nodded in satisfaction, then turned to Dinah.

“And you, Dinah?”

“I'm great. I was able to completely block everything. I don't know how long it will hold – I've never taken so much from Helena before. But for now, it's all good.”

“It'll stay good, Kid. I promise.”

“ Helena ....” Helena dropped to one knee in front of Barbara and cupped her face in one hand.

“It's all right, sweetheart. I know how much I can give her without killing myself. And I know how long it takes me to recover from sharing like that. But I'm not going to let her suffer if I don't have to. I can't. Not after what she did.”

Barbara covered Helena 's hand on her face with one hand while the other cupped Helena 's face as well. “I know, love. Doesn't mean I'm going to stop worrying about both of you when it happens either.”

Gabrielle looked at the three of them. “One day I would like to hear this story – if it's something you can share. But for now, I just needed to see how you were.”

Barbara smiled. “We're good.” She looked at her watch. “Are we about ready to start the afternoon sessions?”

Gabrielle nodded. “Can you take care of that for me? Our detective friends were still sorting some things out when I left to come in here.”

Barbara nodded. “Sure. Dinah, you ready?” Dinah nodded and turned to Helena, who stretched and yawned. She shook her dark head.

“I'm just gonna stretch out here and catch a little cat nap. You know where to find me if you need me.” Then without another word, she curled up on the comfortable couch and promptly fell asleep. The three women watched her a moment longer before Gabrielle and Dinah left the room. Barbara rolled over and kissed Helena 's forehead. Then with a final glance, she shut off the lights and quietly shut the door. It was time to get back to work.

 

 

Chapter XXXII

Xena had escorted Dana into the law enforcement convention and gave her a brief introduction before turning the attendees loose to begin their morning sessions. Most of the women started moving to the smaller rooms where their seminars were scheduled to take place, but before Dana could move from the stage, she heard a squeal that made her smile. She and Xena exchanged looks then Xena gave her a single nod and left her to wait for her friend.

“Dana!” Garcia exclaimed as she moved through people who turned to follow her progress towards the stage. Scully stood still and waited for Penelope to join her on the platform. Then Garcia embraced the other FBI agent, lifting her completely off her feet and causing Scully to shriek.

“Penelope! Put me down before you hurt yourself!” Garcia did so, and the two of them turned at the sound of laughter coming from the floor.

“Hey, Dana,” JJ greeted with a grin.

“JJ, Em... I didn't know you guys were going to be here.”

“We could say the same thing, Dana,” was Emily's rejoinder as Scully and Garcia walked off the stage. The small group exchanged brief hugs. “I think it's a shame we have to come to Florida to run into you... considering we work in the same building.”

”Um, Emily? Why is your mother at a law enforcement conference?” glancing to where Sabrina Duncan had stopped momentarily to watch the tableau before she gave Emily a small wave and ducked into her seminar room. “I thought she hated....”

“Yeah, she does although I think she's resigned to it at this point more than anything. But that's not my mother. That's my Aunt Bre.”

Dana's eyes widened. “Wow.”

Emily smiled. “Yeah. Long story.”

“All right.” Dana nodded her head and glanced at her watch. “Look, I need to get to my session. Can we...?”

“Join us for lunch,” JJ invited.

“Yes!” Garcia enthusiastically seconded. Dana grinned.

“It's settled, then. See you all shortly.”

Then they separated and the day was officially underway.

 

************

“May I ask what you thought you were doing... attending my lecture, Andrea?” Miranda inquired coldly as she stepped up behind Andy. The media conference had just broken up after the morning sessions and Andy was currently in the food service line choosing the things she wanted for lunch. Andy didn't flinch or turn around, though her spine stiffened involuntarily at the venom and accusation apparent in Miranda's voice.

“I thought I was learning something,” she replied softly. “Miranda....”

“No!” Miranda bit off quickly. “No! You don't get to... not after you left! Not after the way you left!”

“Miranda, if you're going to be angry, that's fine. But maybe you should examine *why* you're still so mad at me. After all, you could have just as easily torpedoed my career by blackballing me. Instead, you gave me a recommendation – a recommendation Greg not only read to me word for word, but part of which he used in his own recommendation when I went to the Times .”

“Perhaps I should bring him up on plagiarism charges.”

“Miranda,” Andy said with a hint of exaggeration, turning to look at her former boss. “I don't think you can sue someone for plagiarism of a letter of recommendation.”

“Pity. Yet another disappointment.”

Before Miranda could move away, Andy placed a restraining hand on her arm. Miranda looked down at the warm hand, then up into Andy's equally warm eyes. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Emily having a mild conniption, and she nodded her head slightly.

“Thank you, Miranda. I behaved very unprofessionally at the end, and you repaid my childishness with not simply kindness, but respect... far more than I had any right to expect.”

Miranda didn't answer, but she studied Andy's eyes and face for a long moment. Then she nodded her head sharply and awkwardly patted the hand on her arm once before feeling Andy release her grasp. Miranda turned and went back to her table and Andy watched her go....

... then found herself nearly accosted by Emily as Miranda's first assistant came barreling over to her. Emily grabbed her elbow, and Andy only kept herself from jerking away because of the plate of food she held. Instead she glared at Emily.

“EM! What the hell? Let go of me!”

“Andy! What the hell were you thinking?? I told you to stay away from her.”

“I did. She approached me, Em.” Emily looked at Andy like she'd grown a second head. Andy scowled. “Don't look at me like that.”

“You're sure.”

“Pretty sure, Em. I've been trying to get my lunch and sit down to eat for the last ten minutes. I'm not one to miss many meals if I can help it, you know.”

Emily gave her a once-over and smirked. “I know, Six. Nigel and I still haven't figured out how you managed to get down to a four.”

“Good genes.”

Emily rolled her eyes. “I hate you, you know.”

“I know. I love you too, Em.” Emily shook her head and returned to her table. Andy snickered and walked towards her seat.

 

************

“So what did you think of Nikki's offer this morning, Annabelle?” Simone asked as they walked down the convention hallway in pursuit of chocolate milk. Simone had a craving and since there was none to be had on the lunch buffet, Annabelle decided a quiet walk would be a welcome distraction from the controlled chaos and information overload the conference was producing. She rubbed her forehead thoughtfully.

“I thought it was interesting. It might... give us a new start.” She felt Simone stiffen and pulled them to a stop by their joined hands. “I know there's still talk, Simone. And I know that bothers you far more than you let on.”

“I wouldn't trade it, sweetheart. Not if it meant you weren't in my life anymore.”

Annabelle reached up a hand and cupped Simone's face, bringing their foreheads together when Simone's eyes closed. “I believe you, ya know. But Simone... all the fault and responsibility for that part of our lives isn't yours and I won't let you carry the guilt like it's solely your burden to bear.”

“But....” Soft fingers covered Simone's lips and she stopped speaking and opened her eyes.

“Shh... no, Simone. It was us... together. Don't try to take that away from me.”

Simone's mouth curved into a smile under Annabelle's touch and she clasped Annabelle's hand in hers. “All right, sweetheart... all right. But we're pretty far afield of the original question. Is it something you want to do? Not what you think I want,” Simone cautioned, holding up her hand before Annabelle could interrupt. “But is it something you'd want to make a commitment to? Because I think we're looking at a year or more, depending on what we find when we start working.”

Annabelle held Simone's eyes for a moment longer before tugging them forward again, resuming their trek towards the resort's single retail store. Simone remained silent, giving Annabelle a chance to consider all sides of the question.

They reached the store and went to the coolers in the back, snatching up a quart of chocolate milk and paying for it before exiting once more and heading back towards the convention hall. Simone cracked it open and took a deep draught, feeling the headache she'd felt at the base of her skull for the better part of the morning start to fade.

“Natalie and Tootie are gonna *kill* us,” a brunette grumbled as she strode past them with a blonde woman in tow.

“Actually, Tootie's going to kill *you* for making her get up so early,” the blonde corrected before they were out of earshot once more. Simone shook her head and swallowed another mouthful of milk.

“You feeling any better?” Annabelle asked when Simone's attention returned to her again.

Simone smiled. “Much, and glad I'm not them,” indicating the rapidly retreating backs of Jo and Blair, who by the looks of it were still arguing.

“Yeah, I have to wonder why this Tootie person wants to kill them for making her get up early.” Annabelle quirked an eyebrow. “Might make for an interesting story to work on while we're in Great Britain when we need a break from the ghosts.”

Simone looked at her carefully. “So you want to go?”

“I think we should. The book idea has serious possibilities and it would be nice to be able to see Europe as an adult with my lover instead of as a child with a chaperone.”

“Good,” Simone replied, but it was enough.

 

************

“All right, ladies,” Dana said some hours later as she noted how close the law enforcement seminar was running to lunchtime. “We're about out of time for this morning's session, so are there any more questions?”

The morning had been very successful as far as she was concerned. Aside from the forensic people she knew from the Jeffersonian Institute, most of the other women were unknown to her. Yet they were all quite brilliant in their own right and Dana was certain she'd leave here glad to have met each of them. There were a few she might even keep in contact with, given the opportunity.

They were chatting amongst themselves when they opened the door and as a group they stopped short, seeing the buffet was already set up and a number of folks already eating. Janet was at the front and she smiled when Sam and Mac waved her over. She was the first over the threshold and the rest followed her example, exiting quickly and finding the others in their party.

“Are we late?” she asked as she put a hand on Sam's shoulder and leaned over to put down her briefcase. She smiled when Sam's hand covered hers and squeezed gently.

“Not at all. I think they set things up a little early today.”

“Hmm... wonder why?”

Mac shrugged. “I don't care. I was starving and this is good.”

Sam nodded. “It really is,” holding up her fork so Janet could have a taste. “How was your seminar?”

Janet closed her eyes. “I'll tell you in a minute. I'm gonna go get some lunch before it's gone.”

Mac and Sam chuckled and turned their attention back to eating, only to be brought up short when Abbie and Casey stopped at their table. “May we join you?” Abbie asked.

“Please,” Mac offered even as Janet rejoined them and Diana took her seat.

Abbie introduced herself and Casey and Mac did the same for herself and the two Air Force officers and Diana.

“It's nice to meet you all,” Casey said graciously with a smile on her lips. “Abbie's told me a little about working with you, Mac.” She looked at Janet and Sam. “Are the three of you part of the JAG Corps as well?”

“Oh no,” Janet denied. “Diana is with Homeland Security. I'm a doctor and Sam is involved in deep space telemetry. She's here as an Air Force liaison from the Department of Homeland Security and I've been participating in the pathology seminars.”

Two sets of eyebrows rose into dark and red hairlines. “You do a lot of autopsies in the Air Force?”

Janet laughed gently. “Not at all, though I've certainly done my share. And I have extensive knowledge in biological warfare, which is something our law enforcement communities need to be more and more aware of these days. Mostly, it was an excuse to come to Disney World with Sam, though I'm not sure our daughter is going to forgive us for coming here without her.”

“She's an adult,” Sam whined.

“Not the point, Sam – you know that.” Diana and Mac snickered; Abbie and Casey blinked.

“You two have a daughter... together??” Casey asked. “Isn't that....?”

“Normally,” Sam confirmed. “Extenuating circumstances.”

“I'd like to hear that story if you can share it,” Abbie stated with a confirming nod from Casey.

Sam and Janet exchanged glances – Sam shrugged and Janet nodded. Mac watched in fascination, knowing her friends were sharing a side of themselves very few were permitted to witness. She cut her eyes at Abbie and Casey, seeing the same realization dawn on them. Before either Sam or Janet could speak, Casey spoke up again.

“Anything you share with us would be held in confidence.” She looked between the two of them. “But please don't feel that you have to tell us anything. We simply wanted to meet you.”

Sam blinked. “Why?” she asked pointedly. “Not to be rude, but why would you be interested in us?”

Abbie smiled. “Straightforward – I like that. Mac is a good friend. And since you are her friends, we thought perhaps you could be our friends as well.”

“We'd like that,” Janet replied. “It's hard to find female friends or colleagues at our level.” Diana and Mac nodded their agreement to that statement, and Abbie and Casey smiled.

“So... friends then?”

Sam and Janet looked at one another, then turned to Abbie and Casey with equally bright smiles. “Friends,” they agreed. “Now let me tell you about our daughter. Would you like to see pictures?”

Casey nodded. “Absolutely.” Janet proceeded to pull out her wallet and started telling their story.

 

************

“I can't believe we overslept so late,” Blair commented as they entered the main building. They hadn't eaten yet and were hoping to make it into the conference room before lunch was over. She clutched Jo's arm. “It was worth it, though.”

Jo grinned at Blair and covered the warm hand wrapped around her bicep. “I know,” her grin cocky. Blair frowned and slapped Jo's belly with her free hand. Jo scowled. “What?”

“Barbarian,” Blair muttered.

“You should worry. Natalie and Tootie are gonna *kill* us.”

“Actually, Tootie's going to kill *you* for making her get up so early.”

“Time she joins the rest of us in the real world.”

Blair made a show of looking at her watch before cocking an eyebrow in Jo's direction. “I don't think we've got much of a leg to stand on, Joey.”

Jo snorted. “Unlike Tootie, it's not like we do this often.”

Blair looked at her thoughtfully. “Perhaps we should.” Jo turned and met Blair's brown eyes and Blair smiled. “Just something to think about.” Then they reached the conference rooms and crossed to the media room, hoping to find Natalie and Tootie.

 

Chapter XXXIII

“Would you like to invite your friends to join us?” Catherine asked Wendy as they stood in line for lunch. Nikki and Nora had already served themselves and were seated together talking quietly. Wendy glanced at them before looking back at Catherine and shook her head.

“No, not yet. I know I said they'd like to meet all of you – and they would; I'd just like a little more time to get to know them on my own first, I think.”

Catherine smiled and patted Wendy's arm comfortingly. “It's all right, Wendy. Take your time. Just don't forget you've got friends here who've got your back.”

“Thanks, Catherine. I appreciate that more than you know. If things go well, I'll see if maybe they'll join us for dinner.”

“Sounds good,” Catherine agreed. “Besides, Sofia and Lilly are networking, and you know they wouldn't want to miss out on meeting them,” she added with a knowing smirk. Then she took her plate and moved to the table Sara and Claire were already sitting at. Sara cocked an eyebrow at her and Catherine shook her head, placing her food on the table before pulling out her chair and taking a seat.

“She wants a chance to talk to them alone a little more. Can't really blame her.”

Sara shook her head. “No, not really.”

Claire turned back to the conversation at that point. “I asked Melinda to join us.” Catherine and Sara both nodded their agreement as Melinda Warner took a seat beside Claire. Then their conversation turned to the seminars each had attended that morning.

 

************

“May I join you?” Wendy asked as she approached Nikki and Nora. As one, the two women looked up at her before nodding simultaneously. Wendy smiled and took a seat. “Thanks. I thought maybe we could talk some more.”

“Before we get the third degree from your friends?” Nikki asked with a hint of a smile on her lips and a glance in Catherine's direction.

“Yeah, exactly,” Wendy answered with a chuckle. “I know they mean well, and they're only concerned, but I'd kind of like us to figure this out first.”

Nikki nodded. “Me too.”

“Would you like me to leave?” Nora offered.

“No!” the word exploding from two identical pairs of lips causing their eyes to meet in surprise. Nikki cocked a brow at Wendy.

“It's a little different situation – Nora is your partner, your family... not just your friend.” Wendy's matter-of-fact statement caused Nikki's eyes to shine brightly and Nora covered her hand. “Besides,” Wendy continued impishly, “how else am I going to find out about shoe fetishes and other important stuff?”

Nikki glared at Wendy, then turned to her snickering partner. “It's not a fetish,” she declared pompously. “It's....”

“It's an obsession, baby,” Nora cut in. “But I love you anyway.”

Nikki tried pouting, but could only smile at Nora's public declaration. It had been a long road getting to that point in their relationship and she reveled in it. It was only Nora tapping on her hand that brought her thoughts back to the present.

“Sorry,” she apologized. “What'd I miss?”

“I just asked if you'd tell me more about your childhood,” Wendy replied. “You said you lost your mother shortly after childbirth – do you have any memories of her at all?”

Nikki bit her lip and looked down at the table as she shook her head. “Only those that my Daddy and Grandmere shared with me. It was complications from my birth that caused her death.”

“Oh God, Nikki... I'm sorry. I didn't realize....”

Nikki shook her head briskly. “It's all right, sugar. How could you? I know she and Daddy were devoted to one another. He never remarried, and he spoke of her often. He still does.”

“Wow – that's amazing. You don't see a lot of that kind of love these days. Tell me about them?”

So Nikki did, relaying bits of her family history in the process. She told of the dashing young man her father had been and how he had swept her mother off her feet at her debutante ball. “Grandmere wasn't too sure about Arthur Beaumont as a prospective suitor for her only daughter.”

“Wild man, huh?”

Nikki rolled her eyes and chuckled. “Aren't they all?”

Wendy laughed. “Good point. So what changed her mind?”

“Mama did... at least Mama convinced Grandmere to give Daddy a chance.”

“And she did?”

“Grandmere is a brilliant woman – she knew Mama was already in love. And Daddy came from good solid New Orleans stock – that counted for a little in his favor. According to Daddy, when he went to pick Mama up for their first date, Grandmere laid down the law to him.”

“And that was enough?”

“Oh yes. Grandmere is also very... formidable and she has the power and connections to back up any threat she makes.”

“She sounds like an interesting woman. I‘d like to meet her.”

“Come to New Orleans , sugar. I'll introduce you.”

“Did she raise you?” Wendy blurted out, then covered her reddening face. “Sorry, that was kinda rude, huh? I just.... You said it was just you and your dad, but you don't strike me as someone raised by a man, no matter how well-bred he was.”

Nikki grinned. “Grandmere will be thrilled. She helped raise me, yes. Since Daddy had no desire to remarry and there were no other female role models in my life, Grandmere stepped in with Daddy's blessing to fill that place. He knew I'd need that in my life, but she was always my Grandmother and my friend. She never tried to be my mama, although Grandmere is the one who did all the ‘mom' things with me – you know, took me shopping and to the beauty parlor and to ballet class and gymnastics. She gave me my coming out party.”

Wendy's eyes widened and her eyes darted rapidly between Nikki and Nora. Nikki laughed genuinely at her reaction. Even Nora chuckled, glad to see her lover laugh so wholeheartedly. Nikki held up her hand before Wendy could speak.

“Not that kind of coming out – my debutante ball... introducing me to society.”

“I can't imagine that. It's so different from the way I grew up.”

“How so?” Nora asked, knowing Nikki wouldn't.

“Single moms in the seventies weren't highly regarded, even in a place as progressive and open-minded as San Francisco . Especially one who had no idea who the father of her baby was.”

Nikki winced. “That's harsh.”

Wendy shrugged. “It was what it was. Apparently some ‘dashing Southern gentleman' breezed into town on business. She was quite taken with him, and she thought he felt the same way. Obviously, he didn't, but their courtship was whirlwind enough that she got pregnant with me and he never knew.”

“And she didn't try to find him?”

Wendy shrugged. “I think she tried, but I'm not even sure she knew his real name. On my birth certificate, she wrote ‘father unknown'.”

“Have you looked for him? Since you went into criminal science?” Nora asked when it became apparent that neither Nikki nor Wendy was going to say anything else.

“I've run a few traces on the name she gave me, but nothing else.”

“Afraid of what you might find?” Nora asked gently.

“Something like that. I'm really not sure how I'd react if I did find him at this point in time. I just know that I can't find a Beauregard Butler anywhere that even remotely fits the description my mom gave me,” stabbing her fork at the food on her plate.

Nikki barely flinched, but Nora recognized the sign without seeing the brown eyes widen. She slipped her hand underneath the table and stroked Nikki's knee comfortingly. Nikki's only acknowledgment of her touch was to cover Nora's hand with her own. She smiled weakly at Nora then turned her attention back to Wendy who had missed the byplay due to her focus on her lunch.

“So tell us about your mom, Wendy. She sounds like a gutsy lady.”

“She is. I'll never forget this one time....”

 

************

“Guess Abbie is still upset with us,” Olivia commented as she watched Abbie and Casey take seats at what they'd dubbed as the military table with Mac, Sam, Janet and Diana.

“Or maybe Casey wanted to meet them. You know she's a big military supporter, though I think her dad was an Army man.”

“I think that only matters on the football field.”

“You've never been on a military base much, have you?” Liz Donnelly broke in. “It doesn't matter much when you're fighting and bleeding together, but any other time.... Let's just say that most military people are supremely loyal to their branch of service.”

“How on earth did a Marine make friends with the Air Force then?” Serena asked. “Jarheads tend to be the most gung-ho servicemen there are; they regard the Air Force as pretenders.” She stopped speaking when everyone turned and looked at her. “What?” she questioned. “My brother's a Marine.”

Both tables nodded their acceptance of her explanation. “Either way, it's good to see them networking,” Liz stated. “We should all be doing the same thing,” with a pointed look around the table.

“I think Melinda's got the right idea as well,” Olivia said, tilting her head in the direction of their medical examiner. Dr. Warner was sitting with Claire Washburn and the CSI crew from Las Vegas .

“Maybe we should,” Olivia said as she rose and extended her hand to Alex who accepted it with alacrity.

“Detective?”

“I've got some folks I'd like for you to meet,” and together they left to make some new friends.

 

************

Melinda and Claire listened carefully as Catherine filled them in on the little they knew about the tableau taking place at the table next to them – the table where Wendy Simms, Nikki Beaumont and Nora Delaney sat eating lunch.

“So they don't know if they're related or just a weird sort of anomaly?” Melinda asked. “Makes you wish for a lab.”

“Actually, we have one,” Catherine commented as Sara blushed a deep red. “It's just in the experimental stages; it hasn't been approved for testing or use yet. Besides, they both need to be willing to be guinea pigs before we can do anything.” Claire turned to Sara.

“This is your doing, isn't it?” Sara nodded but wouldn't meet her eyes. Claire put an arm around the younger woman's shoulders and pulled her chin up until their eyes met. “Don't be ashamed of your brilliance, Sara Sidle.”

“I'm not, Claire. I just....” She froze when Catherine's hand covered hers.

“Sara, despite all of our run-ins and head-butting, I have never doubted the value of your mind and I've seen the stuff in your booth over there. Have a little faith in yourself. Who knows? Maybe Wendy or the other woman will ask for a DNA test.”

“You think they're kin,” Claire stated.

“You don't?”

“I try not to jump to conclusions without the facts to back them up....”

“But...?” Melinda prompted.

“But it's very hard to deny a resemblance that's *that* dead-on. They've got to share at least a common throw-back relative.”

“It would certainly make for an interesting study if they're *not* actually related.”

“It certainly would,” Claire agreed. “Now,” with another look at Sara, “tell us about these things you've developed.”

“Yes, please,” Melinda seconded, vaguely aware of Alex and Olivia passing their table as they moved towards the table that held the FBI complement.

 

************

“Excuse me?” A voice breaking into her description of the prototypes she had developed for CSIs and forensic tech caused Sara to stop speaking and turn around.

“Yes?”

Abby stuck out her hand. “Abby Sciuto. Dr. Saroyan and I were sitting at the next table over when you started talking about the prototypes you've developed,” motioning to Cam briefly. “We were wondering if we could just sit in on the discussion instead of trying to eavesdrop.”

Sara smiled, appreciating Abby's forthrightness and honesty. She slid her chair back from the table so she was facing both tables. “Sure,” she offered. “Pull up a chair.”

Abby clapped her hands together, and gestured Cam over. The rest of her table smiled at her enthusiasm, glad to know she was enjoying herself. They idly noted Dana Scully's passage by their table as she headed to the back of the room. Then Kate, Ziva, Bones and Angela turned back to discussing the trials and tribulations of living and working near the Nation's capital, happy to table the discussion of anything related to law enforcement for the moment.

 

************

“I thought it was an interesting seminar,” Jordan commented to Brooke as they sat down to eat. Brooke shook her head.

“I am happy to be involved in the law side of things. I'm pretty sure I couldn't handle being on that side of a case.” She looked at the petite redhead who was already seated. “What about you, Helen?”

“The live ones give me issues enough. Don't think I want the dead ones to be doing the same.”

Scribbs laughed heartily. “Ain't that the truth? I'm glad I missed that session then, though I imagine Ash rather enjoyed it, didn't you?”

Ash glared at her partner momentarily, before nodding curtly. “Yes, Emma, I did. I found it to be enlightening.”

“So did I,” Jordan agreed, her face lighting up in response. “I may go talk to Agent Scully once she's done with lunch.” Olivia and Alex passed by the table, stopping when they stood beside Garcia. “Or maybe when they're done with the folks from New York ,” she added prosaically. Then she and her tablemates turned their attention to lunch, until Sam came in the door looking for Brooke.

“Brooke, did you hear?”

“Sammy....” reminding Sam of her manners. Sam had the grace to look abashed at the chiding tone and ducked her head in apology. It didn't temper the sparkle in her eyes though.

“Sorry,” she muttered. “Hi everyone,” giving them a cursory wave before turning back to Brooke. “Did you hear?”

Brooke pulled Sam down to sit in the empty chair beside her and took both hands in hers. “No, Sam. I haven't heard anything about anything. What's going on?”

Sam's legs jumped up and down in her excitement and Brooke smiled at the tension that sung through her. Whatever Sam's news was, it was of the good variety.

“I asked and she said yes, Brooke.” not understanding the frown that crossed Brooke's face for a long moment. Then she brought their joined hands to her lips and brushed a kiss across Brooke's knuckles. “Oh no, sweetheart... nothing like that. I've already got my one and only,” kissing the ring she'd put on Brooke's finger the night before. Brooke's grin got an answering one from Sam before Brooke's expression turned solemn again.

“Okay... then what are you talking about?”

“I asked Gabrielle... about teaching the art of storytelling.”

“And she agreed?” starting to catch some of Sam's excitement. Sam bobbed her head up and down.

“Uh huh. She'd going to do a seminar for us tonight.”

“I wouldn't mind hearing that,” Helen commented.

“Neither would I,” agreed Jordan . “Wonder if she would object if some of us came as well.”

“I don't see why she would,” Sam said slowly. “Though it might be better to ask her first.”

“Maybe I'll do that now while I'm thinking about it,” Jordan replied. “I think Alex and Olivia may be a while.” She excused herself and left the room. The rest turned back to their discussion.

 

************

“Excuse me, Penelope?” Garcia turned and found Olivia standing behind her. She jumped up and gave the detective a hug, grinning when it was fully returned.

“Olivia! How good to see you! I wasn't sure, I mean....”

“It's all right, Penelope. I understand. I wasn't either til I got over here.” Olivia looked at the others watching their interaction. “I'm Detective Olivia Benson. This is ADA Alexandra Cabot.”

“It's nice to meet you, Detective, Counselor.” Dana squinted her eyes at Olivia. “Have we met?”

“I don't think so, although I did work for the FBI for a short time.”

“That's where I've seen you. That's how you know Garcia!” Emily said as she rose and offered her hand. “Emily Prentiss – It's nice to meet you both. Let me introduce you,” motioning around the table at each woman as she gave their name, saving her aunt and her friends for last.

“It's nice to meet you all,” Olivia said sincerely. “We didn't mean to interrupt your lunch, but I wanted to know if I had actually been right in my recognition of Penelope. We just haven't had much time to socialize until now.”

“That's true,” Garcia commented with a frown. “Everything's run like clockwork until now.”

“Wonder what's up?” JJ asked rhetorically as Lucy stepped into the room and unerringly found Amy, indulging in a few minutes of having no responsibilities.

Dana wiped her mouth then set her napkin on the table as she stood. “I'll go find out.” The rest followed her with their eyes, hoping she might get some answers.

 

 

Chapter XXXIV

“Well, well,” Tootie commented to Natalie as the door opened and Blair and Jo stood hesitantly in the doorway. “Look who finally made it out of bed,” she smirked then rose from her seat and waved them over. They showed their badges to the doorkeeper and motioned towards Natalie and Tootie. The woman nodded and let them in and Blair and Jo crossed the room to join their friends.

“Nice of the two of you finally join us,” Tootie teased with a smile. “Must've been some night.”

Jo smiled rakishly. “You have no idea,” she stated with firmness as she ushered Blair to a chair. “I'll go get us some lunch?” she offered, her voice and tone completely different. Blair nodded.

“Thank you, Joey.”

Jo headed to the buffet and Blair turned her attention back to her friends. “Everything okay?” Natalie asked quietly. Blair gave her a blinding smile.

“Everything is wonderful. I'm sorry we missed breakfast. That was actually my fault.”

“You just didn't want to be up before daylight,” Tootie said gravely, though her eyes twinkled.

Blair rolled her eyes and Natalie snorted at them. “D'uh, Tootie. Even perfection takes time. You should know that,” Blair added wryly. Tootie started laughing and soon the entire table had joined her. It was this scene to which Jo returned. She set a plate in front of Blair and another in the place next to her before she took a seat.

“What's so funny?”

Blair clasped her hand warmly. “Memories, Joey.”

“Oh... speaking of – did you hear? Oh wait... of course you didn't. How could you? You weren't in here.” Natalie would have rambled a little longer, but Jo put a hand out.

“Nat? Take a breath and then spill it.”

“Right. Gabrielle is teaching a seminar tonight.”

Blair and Jo looked at one another and blinked. Then they turned back to their tablemates. “Um… okay,” Blair said slowly. She shrugged. “What's the big deal?”

Natalie and Tootie exchanged glances then looked back at Jo and Blair. “Really? Are you kidding me? Did you miss her performance last night??”

“Nat!”

Jo's impatient tone cut Natalie's incredulous reaction and Natalie took a deep breath. “Sorry. This is just really exciting.”

“We understand that, Nat. What we're not clear about is why.”

Natalie huffed. “It would be like Clarence Darrow teaching you law personally, or William Shakespeare giving you his secrets for writing plays that would survive and flourish for hundreds of years.”

“Oh. We didn't realize....”

“What she did last night is a lost art. No one tells stories like that anymore.”

“Okay,” Jo said, wiping her mouth before taking a long swallow of water. “If it's a dead art, why is she teaching it?”

“Not a dead art – a lost art. There are still storytellers in the world – only now they write books and make movies and produce theatre. But to actually be able to hold people in the palm of your hand, to touch their hearts with only your words – no props, no aids, no preparation or notes except for what's in your mind – that's something you don't see anymore. I think it would be amazing to learn how to do that, if only for myself.”

“So can anyone attend this seminar?”

Natalie shrugged. “I dunno. I suppose you could ask Gabrielle.” She looked at her watch. “We should be restarting....” She frowned. “A few minutes ago, actually. Wonder what's going on.”

Blair looked around. “I don't see Gabrielle.”

“Neither do I,” Tootie concurred. “I don't see Barbara either,” she added with a frown.

Jo rose. “I'll see what I can find out.” She headed towards the side door, knowing it led to the private area that had been set aside for the convention planners. Just as she reached the wall, Jo saw Barbara enter from one of the doors hidden by the stage area. She shifted her angle to meet Barbara before she got to the main part of the room.

Barbara frowned in confusion when she realized Jo was headed directly towards her, but she stopped her wheelchair and waited. It was obvious Jo had something on her mind and if Barbara was going to have to deal with something else on top of all the other stuff already going on, she preferred to do so with as small an audience as could be managed under the circumstances.

Jo recognized immediately that Barbara was expecting trouble, so she offered her hand and a smile as she knelt to be at Barbara's level. Barbara accepted the hand with a smile of her own and cocked an eyebrow in question with a pointed glance at Jo's convention badge.

“Are you lost, Detective?”

Jo chuckled and shook her head. “No, not at all. My partner and I were supposed to meet our friends for breakfast, but we overslept. So we decided we'd try for lunch, ya know.... I mean, since these two conventions are kinda working together and all, we figured it wouldn't be much of a problem.”

Barbara held up her hand. “It's fine, Detective.”

“Jo, please. I'm not at work.”

Barbara smiled. “Fair enough, Jo. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yeah, actually. Nat and Tootie were telling me and Blair about some storytelling session Gabrielle is gonna do tonight. We were wondering if it was open to us as well.”

Barbara blinked, not having expected the question. “Um....”

“Look, I know you probably have to ask Gabrielle and all, but if you don't mind, I know Blair and I would like the opportunity to hear what she has to say.”

Before Barbara could respond, Jordan walked up and noting Jo's position, knelt on the other side of Barbara's chair. Barbara blinked rapidly and turned her attention to Jordan , suddenly feeling uncomfortably surrounded. She took a deep breath.

“Dr. Cavanaugh?”

“Ms Gordon, some of us just heard that Gabrielle is doing a special symposium tonight. Is it true?”

“Um... yes?” shaking her head slightly. She cleared her throat. “Yes, she is actually. Let me guess,” she continued wryly before Jordan could continue. “You'd like to attend.”

“Can we?” Jordan asked, her eyes lighting up as she smiled in anticipation.

Barbara pinched the bridge of her nose and blew out a breath, but she couldn't help the smile that crossed her face. “Let me check with Gabrielle. I'll make sure you get an answer as soon as she makes a decision, all right?”

“All right,” the two kneeling women agreed simultaneously. “Thank you, Ms Gordon.”

Barbara nodded her agreement. “One thing – my name is Barbara, please. I am only Ms Gordon in the classroom,” watching Jo and Jordan nod their acceptance. Then she looked pointedly at her watch. “Now I suggest you return to your side of the convention hall,” said with a smirk. “We're ready to get underway again, and I would imagine they are as well.”

“Thanks, Barbara,” Jo said as she rose. She waited for Jordan to stand then together they collected Blair and headed back to the law enforcement conference. Barbara waited until the trio exited the room, then she made her way to the stage to get the afternoon sessions started.

 

************

“Hey, babe!” Lucy greeted as she walked over to the table where her girlfriend was currently ensconced. Amy grinned and rose, embracing Lucy enthusiastically. Max rolled her eyes in mock-disgust while Janet just looked on and sighed.

“You two need a room,” Max muttered. “Oh wait... you have one,” snarking.

“Max!” Amy sighed, pulling back slightly from Lucy to glare at her friend.

“All right! All right!” holding up her hands in a conciliatory manner and stood up. “I'm gonna go find Dom since we should be starting soon.” She looked at Lucy. “Right?”

Lucy nodded. “Yeah. I'm just waiting on the word from the boss.” She gave Amy an Eskimo kiss.

“What's the hold-up?”

Lucy shrugged and turned enough to look at Max. “I dunno – I didn't ask. I just figured I'd take advantage while I had the chance.”

“Right,” Max said drolly. “You coming, Janet?” sounding more like an order than a question. Janet looked between her friends before sighing and nodding. She stood slowly.

“We'll be back,” she said as she reluctantly followed Max out of the room.

“I don't get them sometimes,” Lucy admitted while they watched them go. Amy grinned.

“That's okay – they really don't get you either.” She looked around. “Why is everybody looking at us?”

Lucy looked at the room. No one was overtly staring, but she noticed a number of eyes glance in their direction before skittering away followed by low conversation among tablemates. Then she saw their guest speaker making her way over. “I dunno, but I bet we're going to find out.”

 

************

Lucy eased away from Amy so they were standing side by side instead of next to one another as Dana reached them. “Agent Scully?”

“Hi, Lucy. I was just wondering if there was a problem. We seem to be running behind,” she added with a pointed glance at her watch.

“I'm just waiting for the boss to let me know she's ready to start the afternoon sessions.” Lucy pushed off the table she was leaning against. “I'll go see if I can find her.” She leaned over and pecked Amy's cheek, then headed back into the monitoring room. The other two watched her go, then Dana turned to Amy who just shrugged. Dana shook her head and turned to stand beside Amy while they waited for developments.

 

************

“Hey, boss,” Lucy greeted as she re-entered the private room. Xena was alone, and Lucy looked around pointedly before cocking an eyebrow in her direction.

“Gabrielle is checking on Barbara and her girls and the detectives got a call and left out of here pretty quickly,” Xena said as Gabrielle and Dinah crossed into the room from the back.

“Everything all right?” Gabrielle's question was directed at Xena.

Xena shrugged. “They didn't say. I expect if it's about DIVA's case, we'll find out soon enough.”

“In the meantime,” Lucy cut in, “people are getting antsy over there,” jerking her thumb towards the law enforcement room. “You think we can get things started soon?”

“Sure, junior,” Xena said with a grin at the glare Lucy gave her. “I'll take care of it.” She headed to the door, then looked back at Gabrielle who hadn't moved. “You gonna...?”

“Barbara's taking care of it for me. Can you ask Diana to come see me, please?” Xena nodded, then stepped over the threshold. Lucy and Dinah took their places behind the computers, checking the equipment as a matter of course and readying things to record the afternoon seminars.

“Hey, Dinah,” Lucy said as she got comfortable at the computer table again. Blue eyes met hers with a question. “Where's your Catwoman friend?” noting the startlement that Dinah swiftly hid. “Is everything all right?”

“Catwoman friend?” Dinah repeated, hoping Lucy couldn't hear the nervousness in her voice. “Oh,” she added more naturally, “you mean Helena ?”

“Of course I mean Helena ... who else? C'mon, doesn't she remind you of Halle Berry as Catwoman? Kind of slick and predatory in all that leather?”

“Are you talking about Helena ?” Barbara asked as she rolled into the room. Dinah nodded.

“Lucy was just mentioning how much Helena reminded her of Catwoman... like Halle Berry ,” Dinah added when she saw Barbara's eyes widen perceptibly, though that was the only indication Barbara gave to show her surprise. She tilted her head as of in thought.

“Now that you mention it, I guess she does a little bit. Although it may be her penchant for leather,” Barbara said, brushing off further questions by continuing. “ Helena can only tolerate being closed in with crowds like this for a limited amount of time. So she's taking a break.”

Lucy nodded. “I can understand that. I'm glad she's all right.” turning her attention to her monitors as the women broke into smaller groups for their sessions to begin again.

 

************

“So?” Blair asked as soon as Jo reached the table. She had already said her goodbyes to Natalie and Tootie and risen, knowing their time was short.

“She's going to talk to Gabrielle. We'll have an answer as soon as she does.”

Blair nodded. “Very well.” She turned to Jordan . “Did we miss anything interesting this morning, Jordan ?”

Jordan smirked. “Depends on what you consider interesting, Blair.” She held up her hand. “It's been a good morning; it's been a good conference.” They stepped back into the law enforcement room. “I think a lot of the women here are making friends they will keep long after this is over.”

Before either Jo or Blair could comment, they saw Xena enter the room and their focus turned to preparing for the afternoon seminars.

 

************

“Gabrielle, have you got a minute?” Barbara asked. Gabrielle motioned her over to the table and took a seat, waiting for Barbara to join her.

“What's up?”

Barbara pinched the bridge of her nose. “Apparently word of your teaching seminar has reached the law enforcement room. I've already had a couple of attendees approach me to ask if they would be allowed to join us.”

Gabrielle's eyebrows hiked up to her forehead. “Excuse me?!” She waved off Barbara's words when she started to repeat what she'd said. “I'm sorry – I did understand what you said, I'm just a little surprised by it. Why would they want to?”

Barbara just leveled a look at Gabrielle. “Seriously?? Um, Gabrielle... do you realize the talent you have? Or how it touches people?” Just then, Xena and Diana walked into the room together and Xena arched an eyebrow in Gabrielle's direction. This time, it was her pinching the bridge of her nose and shaking her head. Xena transferred her attention to Barbara and waited for her unspoken question to get a response.

Barbara smiled. “Nothing bad, Xena. Your law enforcement types have gotten wind of Gabrielle's impromptu storytelling seminar tonight, and they want to be included.” Diana immediately went and knelt at Gabrielle's side.

“Your Ma....” She stopped, recognizing she couldn't address her queen as such in this company. “You're going to tell stories, Gabrielle? You have to let us come too,” her blue eyes pleading. She more than anyone but Xena missed the storyteller that Gabrielle had been before modern technology had changed the way stories were told and histories were passed down, and Xena had but to ask for a story to have Gabrielle tell one.

Gabrielle gently cupped Diana's face. “I'm not telling stories, my friend. I'm going to try and teach them how to do so.” Diana tilted her head and Gabrielle smiled softly. “It means so much?”

Diana nodded. “Because I have seen you teach. You will be telling stories to teach them.”

Gabrielle sighed. Diana was right. She looked at Xena, who returned her look with one full of love and support, then glanced at Barbara who nodded slightly in encouragement. Gabrielle turned back to Diana and nodded. “All right,” she replied, smiling when she saw the grin that lit Diana's features. She looked back at Xena who was smiling in satisfaction. “Will you let them know?”

Xena sketched a half-bow in her direction. “Your wish,” she replied with a quirk of her lips. Then she turned to re-enter the conference room, knowing she would have to visit each of the break-out rooms and interrupt the ongoing seminars in order to get the word out. However, if the rest of the attendees were half as enthusiastic as Diana had been, it would be worth it. She smiled. Despite everything, she was glad they had done this, if for no other reason than having the opportunity to see Gabrielle return to her roots for just a little while. With a hint of jauntiness in her step, Xena entered the first room to make her announcement, anxious to see a good response.

 

************

“Was there something else, Gabrielle?” Diana asked as Xena left the room. Gabrielle nodded.

“We have a slight problem.” Diana arched an eyebrow and Gabrielle's lips twitched. “Beyond that. It seems Paula was not able to finish erasing everything from DIVA's files before the police got into them.” Even though she wondered how Gabrielle knew of Paula's actions, Diana didn't even blink at Gabrielle's knowledge of what had been done.

“Isn't that tampering with evidence, Gabrielle?” Barbara asked quietly, glad Lucy and Dinah were too fully engrossed in their work to overhear the whispered conversation.

“Only if you get caught, Oracle,” Diana stated, knowing Barbara would appreciate the irony. Barbara inclined her head in acknowledgement.

“So you need to know what they got?” Diana asked. Gabrielle shook her head.

“Not exactly. I know all they got on our people were their names. The problem is Desdemona also had blackmail material on her own employees in a separate section, and Paula didn't catch those. So the detectives have assumed the other files were tampered with and everyone here was being blackmailed. Everyone is still a suspect at this point... except for you, Xena and I.”

“So...?”

“So, I want to know what she had on her people. And have Paula send you what she found on everyone else. I don't think anyone here did it, but….”

“But someone did,” Barbara said grimly.

“Exactly,” Gabrielle concurred. “And the sooner we find out who did this, the better for all of us.

 

 

Chapter XXXV

Gabrielle looked around the room as Diana walked out and headed to the green room where Helena was currently resting. She knew Diana would take pains not to disturb Helena , but she needed the privacy the green room would afford her for however long she could get it. Gabrielle turned her eyes back to Barbara and sighed. Barbara cocked an eyebrow at her.

“I just realized – if we're doing a joint session tonight instead of waiting for the talent show tomorrow night, we're gonna have to reset the rooms now instead of waiting until after lunch tomorrow.”

Barbara's eyes widened, then she nodded. “All right. Well, we don't have to move Lucy and Dinah – they're behind the stage,” motioning to the platform that was already in place. “I'll contact Rita and let her know our plans have changed, then I'll relieve Lucy and Dinah. I can watch both sets of computers and they can help you get started in here.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Sounds good, especially since we don't know where our detective friends went or how long it will be until they get back.”

“What sounds good?” Xena asked as she stepped back into the room. “Where's Diana?”

“I'll explain that while you help me take the table down and start rearranging the room.”

It was to this controlled chaos that Detectives Bornlan and Kennian returned. They looked at one another then crossed to the front of the room, hoping to attract the attention of either Xena or Gabrielle.

Rita was the first to notice them and motioned towards them, then she gave Xena and Gabrielle a nod of understanding and went back to directing her set-up team. Xena and Gabrielle turned to the waiting detectives.

Both heads tilted in question. When neither Xena nor Gabrielle seemed compelled to offer an explanation, Bornlan gestured around them.

“You wanna tell us what's going on?”

“We're resetting the rooms.”

“For what purpose?”

“I am giving a storytelling seminar tonight and we need to be able to accommodate both conventions. The only real way to do that is to reset this room. We had already planned to do that tomorrow after lunch for the talent show tomorrow night. We've just adjusted our schedule to accommodate the change.”

“Is that prudent? We are investigating a murder after all.”

Xena and Gabrielle looked at Kennian for a moment before Gabrielle responded. “Detective Kennian, we realize that you're investigating a murder. And if you and Detective Bornlan decide you need to interview any or all of our convention attendees, we will of course give you the access you need to do so. However, in the meantime, these women have paid to be here and attend the lectures and seminars we've put together. We're not going to simply put everything on hold because of a murder that may or may not have anything to do with the women here.”

Bornlan nodded and held out her hand before Kennian could speak. “She's right, Shana. The world doesn't stop because we have work to do. Go set up the access we need,” motioning to the lone computer that Scud and Lucy had set up for them in the back corner of the room. Blue eyes bore into brown then Kennian jerked her head once and stalked off. Bornlan held up her hand before either Xena or Gabrielle could speak.

“I'm sorry. We're getting a lot of pressure to clear this case quickly.”

“Why?”

Bornlan frowned at Xena's terse question, so Xena reiterated it. “Why are you getting pressure to clear this case so quickly? What's so special about that DIVA person that it requires you to solve this crime immediately?”

“We know we need to solve it quickly simply from a logistics standpoint. Your attendees are only here for a few days, and unless we have a motive or murder weapon or a probable cause to tie someone directly into this crime, we're not going to be able to keep people here indefinitely. Our captain didn't appreciate the call he got exonerating you with no explanation, so I suspect he's getting some heat from someone pretty high up the chain to just make this go away quickly. That means....”

“Shit rolls downhill?” Xena offered deadpan.

Bornlan chuckled. “Something like that, yeah.”

“All right, Detective. Where do you want to start?”

Bornlan blew out a breath. “Do the women here know what's happened?”

“Only the people that were in this room when you told us this morning.”

“All right. Shana should be about done setting up our connection to Jackie. As soon as she's done, we'll go make the announcement to your con goers. Maybe you should go ahead and gather them all together in the main rooms. It will make things easier and a lot quicker for us.”

“Okay. I'll have Barbara keep an eye on things in here,” Gabrielle said, excusing herself. Xena looked at Bornlan.

“Would you like to come with me, Detective?” gesturing towards the law enforcement room. Teresa scratched the side of her neck and shook her head.

“Actually, would you take Shana with you?” She continued without verbal prompting, the query clear in Xena's blue eyes. “We're going to have to split up to interview people as quickly as possible; and since the law enforcement conference is your responsibility, I assume you'd want to be there,” waiting for Xena's confirmation. “So you'd be watching the crowd when the announcement was made.”

“Detective Bornlan, Gabrielle is....”

“Gabrielle is a lovely woman and I'm sure very capable in her capacity as a convention planner as well as whatever her day job is. But even without any details on the two of you, I know in my gut that the reason you are running a law enforcement conference is because that is what your background is in. You are naturally an observer of those around you.”

“And you're willing to risk your investigation on your gut, Detective?”

“It's all I've got at the moment, Xena; I'm running out of time and I'm running out of options.”

Xena held Teresa's brown eyes for a moment longer, then nodded sharply. “All right, Detective. I'll do what I can to help.”

“Thank you. If you can just get your people together on that side of the hall....” Xena nodded and motioned to Gabrielle, who took her cue and headed directly into the media room. The afternoon sessions were fixing to take an interesting turn.

 

************

Now what? Blake wondered as Gabrielle stuck her head into the room after knocking. She had just gotten rid of her headache and had made it into the conference room in time for Barbara to dismiss them from lunch and into their afternoon sessions. She sincerely hoped it wasn't anything bad, but the solemn look on Gabrielle's face told her that hope was going to be in vain.

However, Gabrielle simply asked them all to return to the main room without further explanation before she closed the door and moved to the next seminar room.

Blake and the rest looked around at one another, then as one body, rose and made their way out the door. Then they took their seats and waited for the rest of the attendees to join them... and for Gabrielle to tell them what was going on.

 

************

Xena sighed when she stepped into the convention room again. The instructors had been very forgiving of her first interruption – after all, it wasn't every day that people who routinely dealt with the baser side of man's depravity were included in something as astounding as storytelling. Especially by someone as gifted as Gabrielle. This, however, went right back to their jobs... their careers and livelihoods.

Still, she knocked on each door, stepping inside long enough to ask them all to gather in the main room for an announcement. They exchanged glances and sighed, knowing instinctively none of them was going to like what was coming.

 

************

Alex's phone buzzed once as she and Casey rose from their seats and she frowned when she glanced at the message. Casey placed a hand on her arm and asked softly, “Everything all right?”

Alex bit her lip. “I'm not sure,” she replied as they made their way slowly out of the small room and into the main one. “When I went back into Witness Protection, after the Conner's trial, I was sent to Albuquerque , New Mexico , and the Federal Marshal in charge of my case was a woman by the name of Mary Shannon.”

Casey nodded. “Right, so?” guiding Alex to a seat beside Olivia before she took Alex's other side and motioned for Abbie to come sit beside her. She held up a hand before anyone could interrupt. Alex kept her eyes on her screen, her brow still furrowed.

“Mary and I became friends... well, as much as a charge can be with their handler,” she added, then smirked. “She was much better than Hammond was, and I was nicer to her because of it. Anyway,” turning her attention to Casey and only then realizing they were seated at the table with their friends and colleagues. “Oh... hi.”

Olivia put a hand on Alex's arm. “What's wrong, honey?” Alex handed her phone to Olivia, whose expression mirrored hers almost exactly.

“Would you care to clue the rest of us in, please?” Abbie said a little impatiently.

Alex cleared her throat. “Mary Shannon was my Marshal liaison when I left New York the second time... after the Conner's trial. She was supposed to be attending this convention, but got held up in Albuquerque because of some last minute business. However, she contacted me this morning, saying she had made it into town after all and asking if we could get together for dinner. She and Olivia wanted to meet each other and I figured this would be the perfect opportunity without having to go back to Albuquerque .”

“Okay, so?” Liz prompted when Alex stopped to take a breath. Alex just gave her a smirk and an arched eyebrow. “Sorry. Go on.”

“Right, well – she just texted me that she'd need a raincheck for dinner. It appears that she has to escort someone out of Orlando immediately.”

“Well, with any luck, you'll get another chance soon,” Tracey offered.

Alex nodded. “Maybe. In the meantime, I wonder what's.... Hey, isn't that Pa...?” She trailed off as she endeavored to twist in her seat, eyes following the blonde currently accompanying Xena towards the front of the room. She shook her head. Olivia wrapped an arm around Alex's shoulders and leaned in to whisper in her ear.

“You all right, Alex?”

Alex nodded. “Yes. Overactive imagination, I guess,” she added when Xena called for their attention then introduced Detective Shana Kennian.

“Ladies, it is my duty to inform you that a woman known to you all, Desdemona Imala Von A'Calandra, was found dead in her hotel room this morning.” No one blinked, but Kennian felt the air suck out of the room. “At this time her death has been ruled a homicide, and you are all considered persons of interest.”

“Why?”

“Who asked that?”

“I did,” Doris said as she rose from her seat. “We have a right to know why we're being considered persons of interest.”

“At the moment I am not at liberty to disclose that information. However, it is substantial enough that I am going to ask that you all remain here until otherwise instructed. We will be questioning each of you as quickly as we can. Thank you.”

Kennian stepped from the platform and Xena took the microphone.

“I can assure you that this is mostly a formality, ladies, but you all know that the easier you make it for the authorities, the better it will go for you and the quicker we can be done with this business. I'd like you to return to your seminars and focus on them instead of this. I know it's asking a lot,” hearing the mutters at her words. “But it'll be better than sitting out here waiting. Besides, you paid for them,” she said with a crooked smile. “May as well get your money's worth, right?”

“She's right,” Catherine agreed unexpectedly as she stood up. “I'm not going to let the death of someone like that mess up a conference I've enjoyed a great deal.”

The air flooded back in the room and the women started murmuring to one another as they got up and slowly returned to their seminar rooms.

“That was unnecessary,” Kennian admonished Xena as she joined the blonde at the door. “Someone here is guilty, Xena. And we will find them.”

“Someone is guilty,” Xena agreed placidly. “I just don't think they're attending either conference.”

“And what is the basis for your theory?” her tone scathing.

“Years of studying human behavior.”

“I believe you are incorrect.”

Xena just smiled. “We'll see.”

 

************

“Olivia?”

“Natalia? What's wrong, baby?”

“Can you come back to the convention room?”

“Right now? We just got to EPCOT.” Olivia took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Natalia, what's wrong?”

Natalia raked her hands through her long hair and let out a nervous breath. “Desdemona was found murdered in her room this morning. And everyone here is considered a person of interest.”

“Excuse me? Are you serious?”

“Olivia, I wouldn't joke about something like this.”

“I'm sorry, sweetheart. I know you wouldn't.” Olivia ran a frustrated hand through her own hair. “It's just not something you expect to hear outside of Springfield ,” mocking the quirks of their hometown. “All right. We'll be there in a few minutes, okay?”

“Thank you, sweetie. I just... I need....”

“I know. Em will understand,” watching as her daughter's eyes turned towards her. She gave Emma a tremulous smile and put the car in gear, pulling out of the space they had just recently filled. “I love you, Natalia.”

“I love you more.”

“Not fair, Rivera. You know I've gotta hang up.”

The last thing Olivia heard was Natalia's soft chuckle before the line went dead. She edged back onto the road headed towards the resort, feeling Emma's eyes on her. “C'mon, Jellybean. Your mama needs us. EPCOT will be here later.”

“Is Mama all right?”

“I think so, but let's go make sure, okay?”

“Okay, Mommy.” A beat. “Mommy, do we get to go to Gabrielle's storytelling tonight?”

“Do you want to, Jellybean?”

“YES!”

Olivia laughed aloud at Emma's enthusiasm. “Then I guess we're going to storytelling tonight... as long as it's all right with Gabrielle.”

“Oh, it's all right with Gabrielle. I already asked.”

Olivia's eyes went into her hairline, but she just shook her head. “All right, Jellybean. I guess we've got plans for the night. Does that make it a date?”

“Mommy!” Emma said with laughter in her voice and rolling her eyes. Then they pulled back into the resort parking lot and headed in to find Natalia, wondering what else awaited them.

 

 

Chapter XXXVI

“Shana, you need to calm down,” Teresa instructed firmly. Blue eyes glared at her balefully, but Kennian stopped slamming things around. She took a deep breath and put her hands in her pockets to remove the temptation to resume her slamming.

“You do not understand, Teresa. Xena was mocking me.”

“No, she wasn't. She was stating her opinion.”

“She was patronizing – assuming she knows better than a police detective because of years of supposedly observing human behavior.”

Bornlan shrugged. “She may. We have no way of knowing what circumstances have given her the knowledge she has or how long she's had to acquire that experience. For all we know, she is some kind of government spook – which would explain why we can't find anything about her, why she would have that kind of knowledge and why someone very high up is looking out for her.”

“You agree with her,” Shana stated flatly.

Teresa shrugged again, this time with a sheepish expression on her face, then nodded succinctly. “I do actually. I think our best bet for suspects is going to be among the victim's own employees. However, we have an obligation to follow all the leads we have, and at the moment that means we need to speak to each and every woman in both conventions and see if we can discover what the victim had on each of them – even if it is only to eliminate them from the suspect list. Who knows... maybe we have a version of Murder on the Orient Express playing out here.”

Kennian just glared at her again. Bornlan returned the look stare for stare. Kennian looked away first.

“Look... we're doing all we can do. You've got the computer secured and set to ring you with any alerts and updates we might get. We've got unis standing by in case we need them and the Captain is trying to get a couple more detectives assigned to us to speed things along. Considering the constraints we are working under, we're not doing too badly at the moment.”

“I suppose. I am simply... frustrated by this entire process. I feel as though we are being played by someone, though as yet I could not say for certain who that might be.”

“Then I suggest we get to work and try to figure it out, because we're running out of time.”

 

************

“Gabrielle?” Gabrielle looked up at Helena as she approached. “Whoa,” she added, giving the busy room the once-over. “What'd I miss?”

Gabrielle smirked. “My class on storytelling has been extended to include the law enforcement conference as well.” Helena 's brows went to her forehead and Gabrielle smiled. “Diana asked... I couldn't tell her no.”

“All right,” Helena agreed. “And speaking of Diana,” she added in a lower voice, “she needs to see you,” jerking her head towards the back room she'd just vacated.

Gabrielle looked at her closely, seeing the residual exhaustion around her eyes. “C'mon,” she said, taking Helena 's elbow and guiding her back towards the green room. “You need a longer nap.”

“But....”

“But nothing,” Gabrielle replied firmly, giving Barbara a reassuring nod before they crossed the threshold out of the monitoring room. “You and I both know you would be able to hear anything Diana and I said from here if you really wanted to. I trust you, and I promised Barbara....”

Helena stopped walking and pulled away from Gabrielle, crossing her arms over her chest defensively. “You promised Barbara what?”

Gabrielle stepped back to Helena , tugging on her arm gently until Helena relented and allowed Gabrielle to lock arms with her and move them along. “Nothing bad, Helena . I just promised Barbara I'd help keep an eye on you... you know, when she couldn't.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Yes, you can... and you do, most of the time. But you have been known to be reckless with yourself more than once in your life.” Gabrielle sighed. “ Helena , you're the most precious thing in the whole world to Barbara Gordon, and if me making sure you get enough rest helps give her a little peace, then I will damn well make sure you get enough rest. Are we clear?”

Helena blinked, the augmentation disappearing as rapidly as it had appeared at Gabrielle's commanding tone. “Yeah... we're clear.” She let Gabrielle get them to the door before she pulled them both to a stop once more. Gabrielle looked at her with a questioning expression. “Can I ask why?”

“Why what? Why I promised?” watching Helena nod her head. Gabrielle dropped her chin to her chest briefly and blew out a thick, heavy breath. Even now, the memories of Mt. Fugi had the ability to steal the very air from her lungs and make her heart clench in remembered agony. She felt Helena 's hand cup her chin with a gentleness she had only known from one other. “Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle allowed her head to be brought up, but she kept her eyes closed until she felt Xena's arms wrap around her from behind. She relaxed into the strong body while bringing her hand up to cover Helena's that still rested on her face.

“You all right?” Xena murmured into her ear. Gabrielle nodded even as a tear trickled from her closed eyes. Then she opened watery green eyes and held Helena 's questioning gaze.

“This, Helena ... this is why I promised Barbara. I know what it's like to live without this.”

Helena inhaled sharply, feeling a little of Gabrielle's pain through the physical connection of their hands. It was a residual effect of her helping Dinah - and thankfully for her a temporary one – that she could briefly feel strong emotion in others. That had been what had woken her originally – the announcement of DIVA's murder had created enough of a stir in the air around her that it had jolted Helena from a sound sleep. Diana's entrance into the green room had actually been a calming thing as she had helped ground Helena until she could wake up completely.

Helena 's eyes augmented sharply and she met Gabrielle's pained ones squarely. “Now do you understand?”

Helena simply pulled Gabrielle's head towards her own until she could brush her lips over Gabrielle's forehead in apology. Then without a word, she slipped her hand from Gabrielle's grasp and walked into the green room.

Gabrielle let out a deep breath, and Xena let her hands draw soothing patterns on Gabrielle's belly. She felt Gabrielle relax further into her and pressed her lips to the juncture of her neck and shoulder. Gabrielle turned in her embrace, letting Xena see the flash of her eyes from green to red-rimmed yellow before forcing them back to their natural state.

“I'm all right, love. She just caught me by surprise... and so did the memory.”

Xena didn't have to ask which memory – there was only one memory that still caused this kind of reaction in Gabrielle. Before she could open her mouth to speak, Gabrielle covered her lips and shook her head.

“Don't... please?”

Xena nodded and leaned down to catch Gabrielle's lips....

... before a throat clearing behind Gabrielle made Xena look up and glare into sheepish blue eyes. Still, Diana didn't look away and Xena sighed, pulling back reluctantly. She motioned to Gabrielle with her eyes and Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed Xena quickly and thoroughly, causing Xena's eyes to widen briefly before slamming shut and clenching her hands into Gabrielle's waist.

When it was over, Gabrielle eased away from Xena still licking her lips. Xena took a deep breath and forced her hands open. Gabrielle grinned and winked at her, then turned to face Diana with her Queen's mask firmly in place. She cocked an eyebrow, smiling big when she felt Xena's hands come to rest on her hips again. Diana cleared her throat and dipped her head, but didn't drop her eyes.

“My Queen?”

“Yes, Diana; speak, my friend.”

“I'm sorry to interrupt – is everything all right? Helena came back into the room without a word, curled back on the couch and is either deep in meditation or sound asleep again. When you didn't follow, I came out to see....”

“Diana, it's all right,” Gabrielle said gently. Diana nodded uncertainly, but straightened when the tone of Gabrielle's voice changed. “Now, what did you find?”

Diana jerked her head towards the green room. “C'mon... you're going to want to see this for yourselves.”

 

************

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances before turning to Diana simultaneously. “Is this for real?” Xena finally queried.

“Oh yes,” Diana affirmed. “Paula ran the checks twice to be certain. Every single employee she had was being blackmailed by her in some way or another, so all of them had a motive for wanting her dead. Some of them should be in jail for the stuff she had on them.” She hesitated, then drew a deep breath and continued. “In fairness, some of what she has on the people attending both conventions is just as bad... or worse. The question is – do we share with the police or do we make them work for it?” looking back and forth between Xena and Gabrielle.

Xena and Gabrielle looked at one another again. Xena arched an eyebrow and Gabrielle shrugged. Then Xena nodded and Gabrielle sighed.

“Have Paula send you the specs on everyone... even the ones who aren't here – men, women, corporations, whatever. If we're going to give the detectives a hand solving this, then we're going to be thorough.”

Diana reached behind her and picked up another sheaf of papers. “I thought you might say that.”

Xena accepted the pile of papers and straightened them, then passed them to Gabrielle. Within a few minutes, Gabrielle had them organized in the order Desdemona had placed them on her list. She gave them back to Xena and turned to Diana.

“Do we have any idea who did this yet?”

Diana shook her head. “Having looked through the list, I'd say there are a few likely suspects.”

“But...?”

“But what? If I was Bornlan and Kennian, I'd be looking a lot closer at those employees. There's only so much the human mind can take before it breaks and who's to say what form that breaking would take.” Diana shrugged. “On the other hand, we all know that what's on those pages doesn't necessarily reflect the whole truth.”

“So we let the detectives dig through this themselves?”

Xena smirked. “You really think they will accept more help from us? Detective Kennian is convinced I am plotting against them.”

Gabrielle's brows flew into her hairline. “Excuse me?”

Xena waved away her question. “Nothing to worry about.” She smiled when Gabrielle gave her a look of patented disbelief. “Trust me, Sweetheart. I'm not letting them mess this up.” She looked at Diana. “So we're good to go with this stuff.”

“Absolutely, Consort.”

“All right. Let's go find Detective Sergeant Bornlan. I have a feeling she will be more gracious about accepting our help than Detective Kennian.”

“You and Diana go ahead, Xe. I'm gonna check on Helena and then go see how things are going in the monitoring room.” She smiled at the skeptical look Xena gave her and smiled softly. “I'm all right, love. I just don't want to get into something with Detective Kennian, and if I see her right now, I just might.”

“My defender,” Xena murmured and Gabrielle nodded.

“Always.”

“All right, you two – enough... before I need a shot of insulin.”

Xena snickered, even as she rose and grabbed the papers. “Jealous much?”

“You know it,” Diana agreed instantly as they headed towards the door. “Every Amazon wants what you have... together, I mean,” seeing the look in Xena's eyes when she glanced at Gabrielle and back to Diana.

“Xena, leave Diana alone.”

“Yes, my Queen,” sketching a half-bow in Gabrielle's direction before jerking her head at Diana. “C'mon, Princess. Sooner we get this done, the sooner the rest of this can be over with.”

“You really think they'll figure this out in time?” Gabrielle heard Diana ask before the door closed behind them. Though she was interested in Xena's response, she was more concerned about Helena , and she rose and crossed to the room Helena was currently ensconced in. She allowed her Bacchae instincts to come to the fore, seeing the rise and fall of Helena 's chest and hearing the even breaths that indicated the deep level of her sleep. Gabrielle noted how tightly Helena was curled and walked silently to the door, motioning Devon over with a slight motion of her head.

“Yes, Miss Gabrielle?”

“ Devon , could you bring me a blanket?”

He blinked twice before swallowing and nodding his head. “Sure, Miss Gabrielle,” tapping the phone he carried and putting in a request to housekeeping. “All done. Is everything all right? Do we need to adjust the temperature?”

“No, the temperature is fine, especially with all the people and the activities we've got going on. But Helena ... you remember, from earlier?” He nodded again. “She's resting right now and she's a little cold, so I thought a blanket might help.”

Just then a woman from housekeeping came around the corner with a perplexed look on her face. “Thank you, Stella,” Devon said as he took the blanket from her.

“Yes... thank you, Stella,” giving the woman a smile. “And thank you, Devon ,” Gabrielle added, accepting the blanket from him. The two cast members watched her disappear back into the green room, then returned to their current assignments.

Gabrielle studied Helena for a long moment. She knew from having talked to Barbara that Helena was hot-blooded by nature... a virtual furnace. Gabrielle wondered if Helena 's current temperature was tied into helping Dinah and figured it probably was. She carefully covered Helena , seeing the younger woman relax almost immediately. Then she left Helena to her rest and returned to the converted monitoring room to reassure Barbara.

 

************

Xena and Diana crossed the hall, intent on finding Detectives Bornlan and Kennian before they started their interrogations. Hopefully the information they currently held would help narrow down the suspect list. Xena had the distinct feeling if the two detectives tried to take on a roomful of law enforcement specialists OR a room full of reporters, things would go badly rather quickly... for everyone involved.

They could hear the raised voices as they approached the room and Xena and Diana exchanged glances, glad when it became silent. Diana lifted her hand and knocked on the door, then opened the door to allow Xena to enter in front of her. Kennian stiffened; Bornlan sighed quietly and beckoned them into the room.

“What can we do for you ladies?”

Xena arched an eyebrow. “It's actually more what we can do for you,” she replied as she passed the papers to Bornlan. The detective took a look at them, unable to keep the shock out of her expression. She handed the sheaf over to her partner, even as she pinned Xena with a look.

“Where did you get these?”

Xena shrugged. “I know people.”

Bornlan glared. “I'm sure you do. But that's not what I asked. Where did you get these, Xena? I have experts that couldn't pull this stuff up... and they're the best at what they do.”

“They're the best at what they do *that you know* - I just know better people.”

“What is to keep us from arresting you for obstruction of justice?” Kennian asked in an irritated tone.

“Aside from the fact I'm not obstructing anything?” Xena replied mildly. “Probably the fact that you've been told I am untouchable if you want to do more than write parking tickets for the rest of your career,” smirking just slightly when Kennian clenched her jaw. “Look, Detectives – doesn't it make sense that if I know people who can call off the dogs as it were, I also know people who can make things happen? Appreciate small favors and realize I'm doing this for myself and all the women here as much as I am for you.”

“You really do think they're all completely innocent, don't you?”

Xena snorted. “Detective Bornlan, no one is completely innocent and we've all got secrets we'd rather keep hidden. But I don't believe any of the women attending either my conference or Gabrielle's committed this particular crime.”

“And you, Agent Prince?”

“I believe Xena is correct, but I also know it is your job to investigate all avenues of interest.”

“So you think talking to all the women here is a waste of time.”

“I don't think you'll find your killer here.”

Bornlan motioned them to chairs. “Please,” she invited. “I'd like to hear what you have to say.”

“This ought to be interesting,” Kennian said before taking a seat and crossing her arms, waiting for the discussion to begin.

 

 

Chapter XXXVII

“So exactly how long are we expected to hang around here?” Warren asked, his tone petulant and whiny. “Desdemona's dead and we're free of her machinations. Can't we just get on with our lives now? I've got other things I'd rather be doing.”

Melissa cut her eyes in his direction. “We all do,” she huffed. “You'd like it to be that simple, wouldn't you, Warren ? You figure you can step into Desi's shoes and life will be just peachy.”

Graham frowned. “He's not stepping into anything. *I'm* still the President of AVID; if anything, this should move me up into the role of chairman.”

“Careful, Graham,” Harmon cautioned, leaning forward and lifting his drink from the table and bringing it to his lips for a long moment. “Your attitude could be construed as one of over-eagerness... something akin to joy. That kind of thing will make the police look longer and harder at you.”

Graham rolled his eyes. “Whatever... I didn't do it, so I really don't care. Desi's dead and that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned. I'm not going to pretend otherwise.”

Bailey nodded her head. “That's exactly what I told the detectives this morning.” Every member of the AVID team turned and looked at her with astonishment and she returned their regard in equal measure. Then she shrugged. “What? I wasn't going to pretend upset when I felt exactly none. We already know these detectives are worth their salt; they know at least part of the truth about Desdemona... and about our relationships with her.”

“So do you think one of us did it?” Adelia asked Bailey. Bailey looked at her and held her gaze for a long moment. Then she shook her head.

“I don't think so. I mean... if one of us were going to try to kill her, why would we wait til here... and now? Why not do it when we were actually somewhere we were familiar with... somewhere we could dispose of the body without anyone being the wiser to the fact that she was gone?”

“Given this some thought, have you?” Graham chuckled wickedly. Bailey just gave him a look.

“So who do you think killed her?” Dot asked, bringing attention to herself. “Because someone obviously did, and if it wasn't one of us....”

“Maybe it was one of those police people. God knows they would have the knowledge to kill Desi... or any of us,” Franklyn offered petulantly. All eyes turned to him, and Buster sneered.

“Are you trying to be that stupid or is it just a natural talent?” Before Franklyn could sputter out a retort, Buster continued. “They would also have the knowledge to keep from being found out.”

“What difference does it make?” Warren asked. “She's dead. We should be celebrating or something.” They all turned to him with something akin to disbelief in their eyes. He rolled his eyes at them and shook his head. “Look... all I'm saying is I didn't do it. And if the rest of you claim to be equally as innocent, we have nothing to worry about. We should be making plans for our futures.”

Bailey gazed at Warren with pity for a long moment. Then she sighed. “If they don't figure out who did this, we may not even have a future.”

Everyone stared at the table thoughtfully, then Harmon signaled for their waitress. Given the way their weekend was shaping up, a little fortification was in order. The rest smiled their thanks at him and the conversation turned to other avenues of discussion.

 

************

Barbara removed her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. “I know for a fact my IQ is supposedly above the dim light bulb level, but I'm not sure I understand what you're saying, Gabrielle. If you had already erased the records of all the convention attendees, why did you feel the need to go back and share those records now?”

Gabrielle sighed. “Since Paula didn't catch the file that held the list of AVID employees and Desdemona's reasons for blackmailing them, it made the detectives especially suspicious of the listing of our attendees. By giving them the full list, Xena and I are hoping it will eliminate our guests as suspects.”

“Gabrielle, I'm guilty of murder!” Her voice was a bare whisper in deference to the set-up crew that was putting the finishing touches on the room, even though they were far enough away from everyone not to be overheard.

“No, Barbara. What happened to Shiva's sister was an accident.”

“But....”

“No, Barbara. No buts.” Gabrielle took Barbara's hand. “Trust me; I know the difference. Besides, no one is going to believe that an award-winning English teacher with ties to law enforcement is going to commit murder... especially of someone she has never met.”

Barbara looked up and cut her eyes in Gabrielle's direction. “I'm over-thinking this, aren't I?”

“Pretty much, Brain,” Gabrielle responded compassionately, though there was a distinct twinkle in her eyes. “Does this mean it's time to take over the world?”

Barbara snorted. “Not tonight, Pinky. One of my dearest friends is giving a command performance and I wouldn't miss that for any amount world domination.” She smiled at Gabrielle's almost bashful reaction. “ Helena will be thrilled, you know,” her tone dry. Gabrielle arched an eyebrow in mute question. Barbara shook her head. “She's been telling me that for years.”

Gabrielle smiled gently. “Sometimes it's easier to believe someone who isn't quite as, um... invested. Especially if that someone has personal experience from which to speak.”

Barbara cocked her head to one side and studied Gabrielle for a moment. Gabrielle held her gaze unflinching, allowing Barbara to read everything Gabrielle wanted her to see and making her wonder once again at the depths of experience and agelessness of the woman who stood before her. Despite their friendship, she knew there was so much more to Gabrielle than she let on and Barbara wondered if she'd ever be able to get past the first few layers.

Two blonde brows went into an equally blonde hairline and Barbara blushed slightly and dropped her chin to her chest in embarrassment for being caught staring. Gabrielle smiled.

“Go check on Helena . I can finish up whatever needs doing in here.”

“You're sure.”

“Go,” Gabrielle intoned. “Before I change my mind and find some serious grunt work for you to do.”

Barbara smirked and headed out the back towards the green room. Gabrielle watched her go, turning only when she felt Dinah come up beside her.

“Everything all right?” Dinah asked, looking at the empty doorway.

Gabrielle nodded wearily. “Of the things we have control over... absolutely. The rest?” She shrugged. “No sense worrying about it.”

“Do you think I should offer...?”

“No, Dinah,” Gabrielle stated emphatically. “The power you have is used to protect so many, and it works so well in that capacity because no one realizes it's real. If people found out that it was...” She shuddered slightly and shook head. “Besides, do you really think they'd believe you?” asked gently.

Dinah blew out a breath and shook her head. “No, probably not.” She nudged Gabrielle out of the way and took her seat behind the monitors once more. “I've got this if there is somewhere else you need to be,” making a shooing motion with her hands.

“Are you trying to get rid of me Dinah?”

Dinah blushed but held Gabrielle's eyes. “Nah... I know you and Xena sent everyone back to their seminars. I figure there's some responsibility for that.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Yeah, there is. You doing all right?”

“I'm fine. I'll be glad when this is over though.”

“Me too,” Gabrielle agreed as she headed for the door, only to turn back towards Dinah when the younger woman called out her name. She tilted her head to one side and waited.

“Do you think they'll find who did it?”

Gabrielle bit her lip. “Honestly? No. There are just too many variables in play, and they're running on a tight schedule.”

“Does that bother you?”

“I'll let you know,” Gabrielle replied, then headed into the media conference to check on how things were progressing.

 

************

“All right, Agent Prince. The floor is yours. Convince us that none of the women who are on your list could possibly commit murder.” Bornlan leaned back in her chair and motioned Diana to speak before she crossed her arms over her chest and waited.

“Would you like me to do so woman by woman or would you simply like a general statement?”

Kennian rose from her seat, blue eyes flashing as she clenched her fists at her side. Diana returned her look calmly and watched curiously as Shana forced herself to relax. When she spoke, Kennian's voice was low and controlled.

“Agent Prince, the courtesy that has been extended to Xena and Gabrielle in this investigation does not automatically translate to you simply because Detective Sergeant Bornlan asked for your input. Please treat this seriously.”

Diana returned her look evenly. “Detective Kennian, I have never treated this situation as anything other than serious and I resent your implication that I have. I was merely asking for clarification of what Detective Bornlan was looking for before replying.”

Shana held her gaze another moment before nodding her acceptance. “Very well – I can appreciate that. I... apologize... for the interruption.” She turned her attention to Bornlan. “Teresa?”

“Do you know any of these women personally... well enough that you would vouch for them in a court of law if called upon to do so?”

“A few, but I ran cursory background checks on everyone attending both conferences, so I can speak confidently on everyone from that standpoint.”

“Wait... you ran background checks on everyone, and it didn't occur to you to be concerned about some of these things?” Bornlan asked with more than a hint of disbelief in her voice.

Diana smiled patiently. “Taken out of context, Detective, everything can seem bad... horrible, even. But sometimes, when you know the full story, your perspective tends to change. And sometimes, it's just something so personal, you'd like to keep it private.”

“For example?”

“Simone Tillman. All she did to aid her first partner's suicide was to not prevent Amanda from taking her own life and holding her hand as she died.” Diana held up a hand to keep Teresa from interrupting and Bornlan bit her tongue and motioned for Diana to continue. “Amanda was in excruciating pain... both physically and mentally. She'd recently had a miscarriage of the baby she and Simone had planned to have together, and the reason for the miscarriage was cancer that by the time they found it was inoperable. Simone simply allowed her partner to die by her own choice with dignity.”

“And you agree with this, Agent Prince?” Shana asked quietly. Diana shook her head.

“It's not my place to agree or disagree, but I can't say I blame either Simone or Amanda for the choices they made. I can also understand why Simone wouldn't want something like that to become common knowledge; she knows what it's like to live under the scrutiny of the press and public.”

“All right,” Teresa conceded. “What about this Nikki Wade? She committed murder of a police officer.”

“Not exactly,” Diana returned, smiling slightly at the disbelieving looks the words garnered her. “Nikki did kill a police officer,” she acknowledged. “A police officer who was trying to rape her then partner. She was released on appeal with an apology from the courts for the injustice of her imprisonment.”

“Hmm,” was Bornlan's noncommittal response. “Lucy Reynolds – she's a criminal for God's sakes.”

“A reformed criminal, Detective,” Xena stated emphatically. “I trust her implicitly.”

“And Barbara Gordon?”

Diana smirked, knowing Barbara would kick her ass, figuratively speaking, if she got wind of Diana's reply, but knowing it was the quickest way to end this line of questioning. “Detective Bornlan, do you know who Barbara Gordon is?”

Teresa shook her head. “Can't say that I do.”

“You should – she's the woman in the wheelchair that's been running around the monitoring room all morning.”

“And?”

“And do you really think a disabled woman could physically commit a murder that wouldn't leave a body to be found or a mark on her own?” Diana waited a beat then continued. “Detective, no matter how physically capable you are, a physical altercation of that nature would leave marks, correct?” waiting for Bornlan to nod her agreement. “Now look at the reports.”

“I don't see any reports.”

“Exactly. And that type of fight would generate police reports, hospital reports, even eye-witness reports.” She sat back and let the two detectives mull over her words.

“Then why would Desdemona have murder listed beside Barbara Gordon's name? Surely there isn't smoke without *some* fire?” Kennian looked at Bornlan who nodded and they both turned to Xena and Diana. Xena raised an eyebrow and Diana gestured for her to take over.

“I think you're considering this from the wrong angle, Detectives,” Xena replied evenly. “Instead of what Desdemona had to gain, what did these women... these people on her lists have to lose from her accusations?” She paused. “Think about it. It takes years to establish a good reputation, and only minutes to lose it to mere whispers that hint of impropriety. And all of these women had something to lose if Desdemona's accusations got out... true or not.”

“So some of these things are true?”

“Some of them are... yes. Others I doubt the veracity of, but the fact remains that any of the people on these lists could have been hurt by these things getting out, whether they were true or not.”

“In what way?” Kennina queried.

“I know for a fact that Olivia Benson is the product of a rape. But if that fact became common knowledge, especially among defense attorneys, some might question her ability to separate herself enough to do her job without prejudice. Colonel Samantha Carter is one of the brightest scientific minds in the world, and yet if it was found out that she was gay, she'd be dishonorably discharged and shunned by many of her peers. Sara Sidle's mother murdered Sara's father because she couldn't stand the abuse he meted out to both of them on a regular basis and that tends to make her more vigorous when those kinds of cases come her way. Again, a reason for defense attorneys to cry foul.”

Bornlan blew out an impatient breath. “All right! I get your point, since I'm pretty sure you could make a case for each and every name on this list. And yet I still have a dead body on my hands that my ME insists was murdered.”

“Has she determined the actual cause of death yet?”

“Not that we've heard. But she does believe it's the work of a professional,” a little surprised when neither Xena nor Diana blinked twice about that revelation. “Which would imply that pretty much the people from Gabrielle's convention could be cleared, because I'm fairly certain the Doc didn't mean someone interviewed her to death.

Xena cocked her head. “Did she say what kind of professional?”

“Excuse me?”

Xena sighed. “Detective Bornlan, there is more than one type of professional hit. There's the assassin, the sniper, the mercenary....”

“Stop, please. I get the point. I'll see what I can find out,” pausing when Kennian rose and put a hand on her shoulder.

“I will go check the computer. Perhaps I did not set the alert correctly. Otherwise, I will call the doctor and let you know what she says.”

“Thanks, Shana,” watching the woman exit the room. “In the meantime, do you have any other suggestions? Is absolutely everyone in both conventions accounted for?”

“Last night or right this moment?”

Bornlan scrubbed a hand across her face. “Either,” she answered wearily. “Both.”

“Almost everyone was with us last night at the Halloween party at the Magic Kingdom . Those who weren't.... I'll get you the list. All of our attendees are present today.”

“All right. Can you start sending them in one at a time? I need to make it look like I am at least trying to do this by the book.”

Xena gave Diana a look and Diana gave a brisk nod and left the room. “So I take it you no longer believe you're gonna find your killer among my convention attendees?”

Bornlan sighed and scratched her head. “I don't know what I believe anymore. I just know I'm running out of time.”

 

 

Chapter XXXVIII

Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan blew out a frustrated breath and scrubbed her hands over her eyes. It was just early evening and still she felt like this day had been years long already. All afternoon she and Shana had separately interviewed the women from both conferences. None had taken long and nothing extraordinary had been revealed as far as Bornlan's interviews were concerned. As she had expected, no one had shown significant remorse over Desdemona's death, and most, though not happy to discuss the things on Desdemona's list, gave no indication of being more than aggravated at being forced to do so. At least some of what Desdemona considered ‘secrets' were less ‘secret' and more ‘not for public consumption'.

Bornlan chewed on her lip while she let her mind run over some of the things she had learned – things that like Diana had told her, changed her thoughts about once she had at least part of the story and not just the accusation behind it.

She started slightly when her phone chirped and she snatched it from her hip. “Bornlan,” she growled, a little agitated to have had her train of thought so neatly derailed.

“Teresa, it's Shana,” she heard her partner say quietly into the phone. “The women have been dismissed from their conferences for the day and are making their way out of the convention rooms. That gives us about two hours before they return to this room,” cluing Bornlan in to just where Kennian was.

“Have you heard from the Doc?”

“She is on video conference now – we are simply waiting for you to join us.”

Bornlan scowled. “Why the hell didn't you say so?” she fumed. “I'll be right there.”

Kennian blinked at the dial tone suddenly humming in her ear and she closed her phone carefully before meeting the coroner's expectant gaze. “She is on her way.”

Just then, Bornlan stepped in through the unlocked back door, stepping to the side where Scud had placed their secure line access and sliding slickly into the seat next to Kennian. She gave her partner a cursory nod before turning her attention to the Medical Examiner.

“What's the word, Doc?”

“Well, the word from this end is it was definitely a professional that caused her death. I found a small puncture wound on her neck... just at the base of her skull. I am still analyzing the substance that entered her body, but I'm fairly certain it's a neuro-toxin. I can't say for sure what the neuro-toxin itself was or where it came from, but I have samples being rushed through the lab as we speak.”

“If you don't actually know anything for certain, why do you believe it was a neuro-toxin?” Bornlan asked, flinching back from the monitor at the look the ME directed at her.

“I don't ask how you do your job, do I, Detective?” the woman growled. Then she let out a sigh and pushed her hair back behind her ears. “Look Terry... just trust me when I tell you that the blood work is going to show some sort of neuro-toxin present in her system. I will let you know exactly what drug compound it is as soon as I know, all right?”

“Okay, Doc. But what about all that other evidence you told us about this morning – you know... the possible poisoning, blunt force trauma and blood? Why have all those possibilities been eliminated?”

The doc leaned forward and reached beyond the monitor, then sat back with a glass in her hand. She took a deep draught and released the breath she'd been holding. “I'm not saying that those things weren't intended to contribute to her demise, but they didn't kill her.” She took another sip of water and swallowed slowly before she continued speaking. “The food may have been poisoned, but she simply didn't eat enough of it to die from ingesting it. As for the blood....” The ME shrugged. “There was a lot considering there were no gunshots or stab wounds present on the body. But there wasn't enough for it to have been the cause of death. Part of it was from the blow on her head, but all indications are she did that to herself.”

Blue eyes met brown and two sets of brows flew equally high into blonde and brown hair. Bornlan gave a tiny shrug and Kennian turned back to the screen first. “Excuse me, Doctor, but why would she have given herself blunt force trauma to the head? It seems a less than efficient method to employ if she was intent on committing suicide.”

The Medical Examiner smiled, though she didn't laugh at the seriousness of the question. Given her own wording and the fact that Kennian was the most factual individual she knew, she basically set herself up for such a query. She waved her hand.

“I'm sorry, Detective – I worded that poorly. The blow on her head was a result of her falling and hitting her head on the corner of the nightstand and not someone hitting her with something.”

Kennian nodded. “Thank you for clarifying that, Doctor.”

“I wish the rest of it was as easy to explain.”

“So do I,” Bornlan agreed as she stretched. “But then what would we do with all that free time?”

“I dunno, Terry, but I for one wouldn't mind finding out,” the doctor commented wryly. She tilted her cup up and drained the last of its contents before leaning forward and placing it beside the monitor once more. “I don't know what to tell you guys. I'll give you the rest of the results as soon as I have them, but my personal belief is you're not going to find your killer.”

Teresa nodded. “Thanks, Doc. We'll be in touch.”

The ME returned the nod before reaching forward and cutting the connection. Teresa and Shana sat still for another minute before Bornlan sighed and stood up. “C'mon. I'm starving. Let's go grab a bite to eat and some fresh air. Maybe that will give us some insight into what we know so far.”

Kennian stood and together they walked out the door and down the hallway towards the food court. The investigation would wait for just a little while. And who knew – maybe a judicious time out would cause someone to give them the break they needed.

 

************

“Lucy! Calm down and take a deep breath,” Xena commanded.

Lucy snorted. “Easy for you to say. You're not the one with a target suddenly painted on your back.”

“Been there, done that... more than once.”

Lucy whirled and Xena met her eyes unflinchingly. Lucy cocked her head and her eyes widened as she recognized the truth of Xena's words in her expression. She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “You really have, haven't you?”

“Yeah,” Xena admitted, “and under much worse circumstances than this.” She held Lucy's eyes. “Did you do it – did you kill Desdemona?”

“NO! I'm a thief, not a murderer! I can't believe you'd even ask me that. I thought you trus....”

“I do,” Xena cutting off Lucy's accusation with serious intent. “But it got you to stop doubting yourself, didn't it?” chuckling at the comical bulging of Lucy's eyes. “Lucy, I told the police you weren't a viable suspect... that I trusted you completely.” She quirked her lips into a crooked grin. “Besides... killing her now because you were thrown out of Australia years ago? It's a stretch.”

Lucy nodded. “True. I hope Amy will understand that.”

“She will, Luce. She loves you.”

This time Lucy's smile was blinding. “Uh huh.” She blew her bangs out of her face. “So now what?”

Xena shrugged. “Now you go find your girlfriend and have some dinner.”

Lucy arched a brow at her. “What about you?”

Xena glanced at her watch. “Our dinner should be ready for me to pick up. Gabrielle and I will have a quiet meal in our room before we come back here for her storytelling seminar.”

“How do you feel about that?” Lucy asked as they left the green room where they'd gone as soon as the day's activities were over. “I mean,” stumbling to get the words out when Xena gave her a version of ‘the Look'. “How do you feel about Gabrielle doing a seminar tonight? Didn't you have plans?”

“Storytelling makes her happy, Lucy. The fact that people who are respected in their fields not only asked for it but are excited about it is a bonus. Our other plans will wait.”

“Whipped,” Lucy muttered as they walked into the hallway where Amy and her cohorts were leaning against the wall. With a word, Max, Dom and Janet turned and headed up the hall towards the food court while Amy sauntered in Lucy's direction with deliberate concentration. When she was less than ten yards from Lucy, she squealed and ran, causing Lucy to drop what was in her hands to catch the blonde bombshell headed in her direction.

“We'll discuss that whipped comment later,” Xena promised, then made her way around them to go to the Maya Grill. She had a bard to feed.

 

************

“That was uncalled for, Diana,” Barbara said flatly. Green eyes glared into blue before Diana glanced at Helena and Dinah who were watching the proceedings with interest. Diana pinched the bridge of her nose in an oddly familiar gesture before bringing her eyes back to meet Barbara's.

“Oracle... Barbara – it was necessary. You know and I know that what I told them was the truth... at least as far as they can see it. There were no marks... no reports... nothing to implicate you in the crime you stood accused of. Just as you know that letting them think otherwise is counterproductive – to their investigation as well as to your... other pursuits.” She hesitated, then resumed her speech. “You know how important it is for your opponents to underestimate you; you know the advantage that gives you. The fact that they can't see you past this chair is their loss.”

Barbara nodded reluctantly, recognizing the truth in Diana's words as much as she hated it.

“I don't....”

“Red, lay off Diana,” Helena said, watching the green eyes flare with anger. “She was protecting you and shouldn't be faulted for that. I'd have said the same thing if they'd asked me.”

Diana cocked her head. “What did you tell them, Helena?”

“That killing's really not my style – I'd have just beaten the crap out of her.”

Dinah snorted and Diana chuckled. Even Barbara couldn't stop a small smile from gracing her face at the droll reply. “So why didn't you?” Dark brows flew into an equally dark hairline and Helena 's eyes asked her question silently. Diana cleared her throat before clarifying. “Why didn't you beat the crap out of her?”

“Because to beat out that much crap, I would've had to kill her. And that would have made Barbara unhappy. Besides,” not seeing green eyes widen at her admission. “Her death might have triggered that list to go public, right? And no one wanted that.”

They all halted as the implication of Helena 's words sank into their consciousness. “This is bad, isn't it?” Dinah asked as she tucked her hair behind her ear.

“You've got a talent for understatement, Kid.”

 

************

“This is highly unusual, Ms....”

“I understand, Marshal Shannon,” the redhead said, smoothly cutting off her keeper's objection. “However, it has to be taken care of, and it's my responsibility to take care of it.”

Mary Shannon screwed up her face in a frustrated frown. “Can I ask what the hell is so important you're willing to risk your life for it?”

The other woman's smile was big and predatory. “I'm not risking my life, Marshal. You're simply ensuring I made it out ahead of the dogs.”

Blonde brows went into her hairline and Mary's frown deepened. “Excuse me?”

The redhead chuckled throatily. “I promise to fill you in... as soon as I take care of my business in here,” indicating the large bank building they were currently standing in front of.

“Not without me,” Mary stated firmly, opening the door and gesturing her charge in front of her. The woman sighed but acquiesced and immediately made her way to the safety deposit boxes. Mary shook her head, wondering not for the first time what the hell she'd gotten into getting this woman out of Orlando .

 

************

“Everything all right here ladies?” Mac asked as she approached the table in the bar where Sam and Janet were having a drink. “You look like you got your feet taken out from under you.”

The two Air Force officers exchanged glances before turning their eyes to the Marine. Then Janet gestured to an empty chair and Mac took the proffered seat.

“We were just discussing the merits of retirement.”

“Was your police interview that bad?”

Sam and Janet looked at one another again and Sam took Janet's hand in hers as Janet answered. “Not bad, necessarily... just wearing. It gets old having to pretend, especially when you've given so much....” Mac held up her hand and nodded her understanding.

“I'm sorry. I can't begin to understand,” knowing both women had seen combat action. “But I hate that you feel like you're being forced to choose.”

Sam shrugged. “We've always known it was a possibility; this just sort of brought it all home to us I guess. At least we could both still find work in our chosen fields as civilians.”

“And probably with a lot higher salary,” Janet continued wryly.

All three officers chuckled. “Boy, that's the truth,” Mac concurred. Makes you wonder about us military types sometimes, doesn't it?” She paused then continued. “At least it's not something we have to decide today,” motioning the waitress over. “Next round's on me,” hiking her brows into her hairline when both of her companions ordered straight juice.

“We're going to hear Gabrielle shortly. We'd actually like to be sober.”

Mac nodded her agreement and soon they were sharing a pitcher of orange juice while talk turned to other things.

 

************

“I think the military has the right idea,” Liz said as the New York contingent filed into the bar and took over a large seating area in the back.

“We came to the bar to drink orange juice?” Tracey asked with a hint of disbelief in her voice.

“I didn't say that,” not surprised when Abbie and Casey stopped by the table where Sam, Janet and Mac were ensconced to extend an invitation to join them. Liz watched as the three turned to glance at them and then rose as one body to make their way to the back of the bar. Abbie took over the introductions and they quickly rearranged chairs so they were all sitting in a large circle.

“What can I get you ladies?” the perky waitress asked. Liz turned to Sam.

“Is that orange juice straight up or with a twist?”

Sam chuckled and blushed, ducking her head. Janet took pity on her partner and met Liz's eyes. “Straight up. We want to be sober to hear Gabrielle tonight and figured one drink was enough for now.”

“Right. I'll have what they're having... on the rocks, please. And some nachos... and some wings and – just bring one of everything on the menu. I'm pretty sure we can make it all disappear,” noting the number of people gathered together seemed to be growing. Alex and Olivia had motioned Jo and her friends over, while Abbie had made sure Lindsay and her crew were among them. That had brought the two young women who had gotten engaged the night before as well as Claire's doppleganger and the CSI group from Las Vegas . Together with the NCIS and FBI agents, Liz figured that a good percentage of the Law enforcement conference was now located in Rix.

Liz let her attention focus on the conversation that had immediately turned to the demise of the DIVA and their implication in it, not wanting to miss a thing. She wondered how long it would be before the rest of the women involved decided to join them, figuring it would be sooner rather than later. There was pride at stake here if nothing else.

She looked around in amusement, wondering if this group of individuals would be able to solve the mystery of Desdemona's murder before the police could. Given the minds involved, she wouldn't be a bit surprised if they did.

It was shaping up to be a most interesting evening.

 

 

Chapter XXXIX

“It's gonna be REAL embarrassing if they figure out the solution to this murder before we do,” Bornlan commented to Kennian as they passed the bar currently filled with a number of the women they had just finished interviewing. Kennian gave them a cursory glance, but her attention was focused inwardly and Bornlan decided to leave her alone.

She took Shana's elbow and guided her through the press of people making their way to the food court. It took a few minutes before Kennian realized that they had reached their destination and she looked around cautiously. Bornlan chuckled.

“Nice of you to rejoin us, Shana.”

“How did we arrive here, Teresa?”

“We walked,” snickered Bornlan. When Kennian arched a blonde brow, she made an effort to get her laughter under control, but she couldn't completely wipe the smile from her face.

“Thank you. Teresa. I believe I could have reached that conclusion on my own as I am fairly certain you could not have carried me such a distance.”

Teresa arched her brow in response. “Would you like to put that theory to the test?”

“No, thank you. I do not wish to become a public spectacle,” allowing her second brow to join her first when Teresa chuckled again. Bornlan raised her hands in surrender.

“Fair enough. We're close enough to becoming a public spectacle with this case as it is. C'mon. Let's grab something to eat and find a table outside before everyone here discovers it's nice out.”

“And what of them?” motioning to the full bar across the hall.

“Well,” Bornlan said as she accepted the loaded burger from the woman behind the counter. “If they figure it out, we won't have to,” earning herself a glare from Kennian.

“That is not very ambitious of you. Besides, do you really think they would share if they reached a reasonable solution?”

“This isn't about ambition, Shana. It's about realism. You heard what the Doc said – it's very likely that this case will remain unsolved. And given what we have and what we know, I am inclined to agree with her assessment... especially given the time constraints we're working under. As for them sharing – they are law enforcement personnel under suspicion of murder. Do you really think they *won't*?”

“Excellent point,” Kennian conceded, removing a salad and a fruit cup from the refrigerator unit. She placed them on the tray she carried and motioned for Teresa to lead the way.

“Nothing to drink, ladies?” the cashier asked as they reached the register. Bornlan gave a heavy sigh even as she reached for her wallet, causing the young woman to see the badge she carried. Without blinking, she held up a hand and motioned a manager over.

With a few whispered words and a slide of her card, the manager waved them out of the food court. “It's been taken care of, Detectives. If you'll tell me what you'd like to drink and where you're headed, I'll be happy to accommodate you.”

“But....”

“Boss' orders.”

The two police officers exchanged glances, then Bornlan shrugged. “Well, thank you. We appreciate it. We'll take whatever you have on hand that's non-alcoholic and contains a significant amount of caffeine.”

The manager chuckled. “One of those days, is it?” recognizing the look in their eyes. “Don't worry, Detectives. We'll take care of you. Where will you be?”

“We're going out for some fresh air,” Teresa said with a nod towards the door just beyond them.

“Good choice,” the manager said with a smile. “Go grab a seat; I'll be right there.”

“That was unexpected,” Shana commented as she set her tray down on the table Teresa had selected. Teresa put her food on the table and dropped the tray to the ground beside her.

“Yes, but I can't say it's unwelcome. Especially given how the rest of our day has gone.”

Kennian nodded thoughtfully even as she dressed her salad. “So what are we going to do now?”

Bornlan picked up her burger and took a large bite, chewing with undisguised relish. “Well,” she started, only to stop speaking when the manager came out of the building with a tray of drinks – drinks, plural – as in several choices for each of them. There were two Cokes, two Red Bulls, two what appeared to be cappuccinos and two chocolate milks. Brown eyes met blue in surprise and they turned simultaneously to thank the manager. She waved them off.

“I just wanted to make sure I had all the bases covered. Now is there anything else...?”

“No, thank you. This is more than enough... thanks.”

“Good. The Market is open til ten and the Café is open until midnight, in case you change your minds.” And with a nod, the woman left them in peace to eat.

They ate in silence for a few minutes, allowing themselves a bit of a respite from the case and everything surrounding it. When they were mostly done, their eating slowed to nibbling, Shana asked Teresa once more, “Now what?”

Bornlan swallowed the last of her milk, then she scrubbed a hand over her face and blew out a breath. “I think our best bet is to go over everything we learned today. Maybe between us we'll see something the other missed.”

Kennian nodded her head and carefully wiped her hands and mouth on her napkin before setting her garbage on her tray and looking around for a trash can. Bornlan clearing her throat caused her to look up, realizing the other detective had already risen from her chair and now had a hand out to take her tray. Kennian handed it over without hesitation and sat back to wait for Bornlan to return.

“So what do you have?” Teresa asked, resuming her seat.

Shana blew out a breath. “Not much,” she confessed, eyes on the table. “A lot of the secrets are as Xena indicated – things one would not want made public. However, I did not get an indication from anyone I interviewed that they felt their secret was worth killing for. Some of them....”

“Yes?” Bornlan prompted when Kennian hesitated too long for her liking. “Some of them, what?”

Shana gave her head a frustrated shake. “It is all so ridiculous, Teresa. We have several suspects who, by all accounts, should have criminal records and yet they do not. There are even more who have been caught in moral ambiguities to say nothing of legal ones and yet aside from the listing of these charges that the victim maintained, there is not one word to be found against them except in cases where they have been found to be too passionate in their work. And that brings us to something else.”

“Would you like to share? Or should I try reading your mind?”

Shana glared before she relented. “Why is there no record of Xena or Gabrielle?”

“I'm not sure I'm following you.”

Shana allowed her eyes to meet Teresa's and hold them. “There is no record of anyone named Xena in any way, shape or form – none. As though she does not exist and never has. As for Gabrielle... even running the bots that Desdemona tried, we cannot get a hit. It simply comes back to Desdemona herself. And Gabrielle, though not a common name by any means is still a very broad search parameter. The fact that their last names are purported to be Smith-Jones, you can see why we are having a bit of a problem pinning anything down.”

“So neither Jackie...?”

“... or anyone else can find a word on either of them. And since we are no longer allowed to investigate them, we have absolutely nothing on them... good or bad.”

“Well, let's put Xena and Gabrielle aside for the moment. We can't do anything about them regardless, and frankly, I don't think they had anything to do with this.”

“Do you have your eyes on someone, Teresa?”

Bornlan shook her head. “No. There are women whose secrets should have landed them in an interrogation room at the least if not a jail cell. But none of them tried to hide anything when questioned directly about them. Even the ones who weren't with the group last night had alibis of one sort or another.”

“And your... ‘gut'? What does it say about them?”

Bornlan sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. “It says we're on a wild goose chase.”

“Would it be better if they were tame water fowl instead?”

The question was asked so calmly and with such a straight face that Bornlan blinked slowly twice before recognizing the twinkle sparkling back at her from shining blue eyes. She chuckled. “Somehow I don't think so, smartass.”

Kennian smirked. “All right. Where does that leave us?”

“We still have DIVA's employees. And we still have the list of guest speakers.”

“Do we even need to concern ourselves with them? After all, they were not part of Desdemona's list.”

“But they were present at the conferences – we need to check on their whereabouts... just in case.”

“And the rest? Those that were on Desdemona's list who were not present at either conference?”

“Someone is checking on them on their end. But so far, everyone checks out clean.”

“Did you ever stop to wonder if perhaps we were being set up to fail?”

Bornlan cocked her head in question. “In what way?”

“You yourself have stated several times that this case is practically unsolvable given the constraints we are working under. The Doctor has concurred in this opinion. The Captain has made it entirely clear he is unhappy with the interference and restriction placed upon him by authorities higher up than he is and though our team is as crackerjack as can be found, we seem to be hitting walls every time we try to take a step forward in this case. So it does appear that we have been set up to fail.”

“Except we were given this case *before* any restrictions were put into place or before any higher-ups felt the need to step in and interfere. I think it's mostly luck of the draw... even if it's only bad luck. The fact is, I think we would have been brought in regardless of who had caught the case originally; because I have a feeling we are better tolerated than any of our male colleagues would be.”

“Those are excellent points,” Kennian admitted with a defeated shrug of her shoulders.

“Then why are you still upset?”

“Because I do not like to be outsmarted by anyone.”

“Then I suggest we get back to work,” Bornlan said as she rose to her feet and grabbed their remaining drinks. “Who knows – we may get lucky.”

Kennian grinned wryly. “At this point, I'll take anything.”

 

************

“So what do they have... really?” Alex asked calmly, having managed to become the moderator of the conversation to keep things from becoming too heated or too personal.

“Well,” Lindsay drawled slowly. “It appears they have a number of theories and a lot of conjecture.”

“But as far as we can see, no physical evidence,” Catherine added.

“So in other words....”

“It's all speculation,” Garcia stated.

“And without evidence,” Abby said.

“They can't file charges,” Brooke finished.

“I don't know if I should find it scary or not that we're starting to finish one another's sentences. It's not like I have known most of you that long,” Emily said dryly, causing laughter to titter around the barroom.

“All right,” Liz spoke up. “Assuming that everyone here is telling the truth, and we're all equally innocent of killing that vile creature,” shuddering dramatically and causing laughter to ripple around the gathering again, “then where does that leave us?”

“In a hell of a mess,” Jo commented, seeing the other police officers nod in agreement, even as the lawyer and media types waited for further elucidation. “Because someone, somewhere *is* guilty of her murder, and until that person is caught people are always gonna wonder about us.”

“So her death caused what her blackmailing didn't,” came the flat statement from Sabrina.

“That depends,” Olivia replied.

“On?”

“Whether or not our secrets go public now.”

“And that brings us to another point. Did Desdemona have a cache of these secrets stored somewhere?” Janet asked. “I know that's what we were told when she first approached us,” seeing others nod their heads in agreement. “Not that I don't think she couldn't have been lying – hell, she probably was. But we couldn't risk it... not and keep our careers.”

“None of us could,” Helen commented. “And some, like Nikki here, coulda lost more than that.”

“So we're just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Kate commented.

“No,” Max stated unequivocally. “We figure out who did this first. Then we can decide what to do from there.”

“In the meantime,” Sam said, pointedly looking at her watch. “Gabrielle should be starting her seminar in about half an hour. I think I'm gonna head back down to the con room and get me a good seat.”

Her words had the effect of lighting a fire under everyone, and as a single body, they rose and headed out of the bar.

 

************

“Uncle Sal?”

“Yes, my dear? I take it you were successful?”

“Completely, Uncle. The book has been left in your safety deposit box.”

“Excellent, my dear. And you got away safely?”

“Not a problem. By the time they figure out I'm gone, I won't even be me anymore.”

“You're sure about this?”

“A little late for me to decide otherwise, Uncle Sal.”

“I know sweetheart. I just wish....”

“It had to be done, Uncle. And we both know I was the best qualified to do it.”

“Perhaps,” was Sal's only concession to the truth of her words. “Has Marshal Shannon given you any trouble?”

“No more than I expected. I'm afraid she's never had a charge like me before.”

“Actually, that's not true,” Mary broke in, loudly enough that Sal could hear her voice over his niece's cell phone. “I was in charge of Alexandra Cabot once upon a time. She was probably my most difficult client, though you're running a real close second, Ms....” trailing off when the other woman held up her hand.

“Uncle Sal could hear you. He'd like to speak to you directly.”

Mary Shannon looked at the woman, then at her phone for a long moment before she sighed and accepted the device. “Hello? Yes sir... yes sir. I understand. All right, I will.” She nodded her head even though the man on the other end couldn't see her. “Yes sir... we'll call you when we reach Albuquerque .” Without another word, she handed the red head back her phone and moved away. She covered her face with her hands briefly, before allowing them to scratch through her hair.

It was shaping up to be one of *those* assignments.

The other woman finished her conversation with ‘Uncle Sal' and without another word took Mary's arm. “C'mon, Marshal. I need a cup of coffee and I owe you an explanation.”

“This ought to be a hell of a story.”

The red head laughed and the sound caused Mary to smile despite herself. “Oh Marshal... you have NO idea.”

 

 

Chapter XL

“How you doing, Kid?” Helena asked as she fluffed her hair in the living room mirror, keeping a surreptitious eye on Dinah. Dinah met her eyes in the mirror.

“I'm good, Hel... honestly. The walls are still strong.” She tucked a bit of blonde hair behind her ear. “Whoever killed Desdemona isn't at either conference now... if they ever were. All I got from anyone when they were leaving was some residual anger about someone messing up their weekend and curiosity to know who did it. A majority of them think they can figure out who did it before the police do.”

“Really? That's it?”

Dinah shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Hope they're smarter than Reese ever was.”

“I um... I don't think that would be a real stretch, Hel. Most of them are decorated officers in their fields.”

“And you know this how?”

“The same way I know they think they can solve it first – they were broadcasting loud and clear. “

“Wait... I thought you said the walls were holding.”

“They are, Helena . I opened myself up to test things. I knew you would be worried and would want to know if we needed to do another session before Gabrielle's seminar. So I checked.”

Helena shook her head. “All right, D. If you're sure....” waiting for Dinah to smile and nod. She clapped Dinah on the shoulder, then she looked over towards the bedroom. “C'mon, Barbara... we're gonna be late.”

Barbara's voice came from around the corner. “Give me another minute, Hel. Some of us didn't get to nap all afternoon and we need more than a fluff of our hair to put ourselves together.”

Dinah and Helena looked at one another, eyebrows furrowed. Dinah motioned to the door, mouthing, I'll meet you two there. Helena nodded and jerked her head at the door, waiting until Dinah closed the door behind her silently before Helena moved to lean on the bedroom doorjamb. She watched in concern as Barbara slumped against the back of her chair. Without hesitation, Helena pushed off the door and knelt down in front of Barbara.

“I'm sorry, Helena . That was mean and uncalled for.”

“What's wrong, Red?”

Barbara closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Nothing, Hel... really. I think I'm just tired,” knowing without looking exactly what kind of disbelieving expression Helena was giving her. Barbara kept her eyes closed. “Why don't you go ahead without me, sweetie? I think I'm just going to stay here and go to bed early,” finally meeting Helena's eyes and drawing a deep breath at what she found gazing back at her.

“No.”

One crimson brow popped into an equally red hairline. “Excuse me?”

“I don't think I stuttered, Barbara.”

“ Helena ....” her voice holding a note of frustration.

“Barbara, if I thought for one minute you were gonna actually tuck yourself into bed this early and get some sleep, I'd clear out for the duration.” Helena captured Barbara's hands in her own before Barbara could use them to hide behind again. “But I know you, Barbara. What gives?”

“Let it alone, Helena ... please.”

“No, Red. Now talk to me.”

“Dammit, Helena ! Don't you start treating me like some sort of cripple too!” realizing she'd pushed too far when she saw Helena's eye flicker to cat's eye yellow briefly before Helena rose to her feet and stepped out of Barbara's reach.

“That's not fair, Barbara! I have *never* - not once - treated you like a cripple!”

“Then why did you take Diana's side??”

Helena put her hands on her hips. “Barbara, I didn't take anyone's side,” throwing her hands out before letting them slap her thighs. “There were no sides!”

Barbara sighed and clenched her jaw. “Of course there weren't. Just give me a moment and I'll be ready to join you.”

“I don't think so, Red. We're not going anywhere until we get this settled.”

“Jesus, Helena... what in the hell do you want from me??”

“I want everything, Red... including honesty.”

Barbara didn't reply vocally, but Helena waited patiently, knowing the precise moment Barbara surrendered. She knelt and lifted Barbara into her arms, relying on her meta-human strength and balance to keep from hurting either of them.

“Put me down, Helena . Put me down now.” Barbara's voice was sharp but held a note of weariness Helena could easily detect.

“No, Barbara. This isn't about your supposed handicap or....”

“Supposed?? What... now I'm imagining...???”

“Supposed,” Helena confirmed, cutting in smoothly. “These,” hefting Barbara's lower body enough for Barbara to recognize the movement, “aren't where your strength is – it never was.” Helena took a seat on the edge of the living room couch, loosening her hold on Barbara's legs long enough to make a point. “Your strength is here,” touching her fingers to Barbara's head, then moving them to cover Barbara's heart. “And here. So not being able to use your legs like everyone else does is only a handicap if you let it be,” encircling Barbara's legs one again.

“You don't know....” Barbara's voice was full of anger and tears.

“No, I don't,” Helena agreed softly. “I don't know what it's like to lose something that is part of my very make-up – or to have it put out there to people who don't know better as being all that I am. But Barbara, I do know about loss.” Barbara shook her head and Helena stopped talking, arching an eyebrow at Barbara, who sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, shaking her head again.

Helena tightened her hold and rocked them slowly back and forth. To her astonishment, Barbara didn't flinch or push her away; instead she held herself stiffly. Helena continued to hold and rock, not pushing, not speaking, until finally, Barbara curled into her embrace. Only then did Helena rise and move them to the bed, confident Barbara was ready to talk. Not that Helena needed to hear – she wasn't stupid by any means and knew exactly what was troubling her partner. But she also knew Barbara needed to share it if they were to move beyond it.

She placed Barbara against the headboard, allowing her to situate herself comfortably before Helena flopped onto the bed and put her head in Barbara's lap. Then she settled in to wait, knowing Barbara needed to relax and gather her thoughts together before she spoke. And knowing when Barbara started combing through her hair absently, they were going to be there a while.

 

************

“Mommy?” Emma asked as she looked up from her cup of grapes.

“Yes, baby?” Olivia replied, glancing across the food court at all the law enforcement personnel gathered together at the bar for what looked suspiciously like a brainstorming session.

“What kinds of stories do you suppose Gabrielle will tell tonight?”

Olivia blinked and returned her attention back to Emma. “Well,” she replied thoughtfully, biting off the end of a fry, “I really don't know, Em. I don't know what kinds of stories she knows.”

“I liked the story she told last night. I thought that was kinda cool. I'd never heard of anything called Bacchae before. How do you think she came up with that idea?”

“I don't....”

“They sounded way cooler than vampires. Didn't you think they sounded way cooler than vampires, Mommy?”

“I....”

“I wonder if she knows any princess stories. Or maybe some detective stories. Or maybe....”

“Or maybe we can wait and see what she's gonna talk about,” Natalie cut in when she recognized the overwhelmed look on Olivia's face. “But Emma, you have to remember that she's been asked to *teach* how to tell stories like she did last night. I don't know if that means that Gabrielle will actually be telling stories.”

Emma frowned. “Why wouldn't she? My teacher uses stories to teach us things.”

“I don't know that she won't, sweetie. I just don't know that she will either.”

“She will,” Emma stated confidently. “You just watch.”

 

************

“Gods, that feels good,” Gabrielle moaned into the pillow her head was currently resting on.

“Me or the massage?” Xena teased, leaning forward until the front of her naked body was just touching Gabrielle's.

She turned her head to meet Xena's eyes, her own twinkling in response.

“Yes,” she stated unequivocally. She turned over, taking Xena's hands in her own and raising them over her head, tugging gently until she and Xena were nose to nose. “This is wonderful.”

Xena put their lips together, claiming Gabrielle thoroughly for long, passionate moments. “Yes, it is,” she agreed with a smile as she pulled away.

“So what's the occasion?”

Xena cocked an eyebrow and smirked. “Do I need one?”

Gabrielle wrinkled her nose when she smiled in response. “Of course not.”

“Good,” Xena replied, releasing Gabrielle's hands and sitting up straighter. “I'm glad we're agreed on that point. Although this time, I do have a reason.”

“Oh?”

“Um hmm. See, I thought you could do with a bit of pampering.” She slid from Gabrielle's hips and curled around her back, embracing her from behind. Gabrielle melted into her and Xena let her hands trace up and down the soft skin. “This weekend hasn't really been very relaxing for you so far.”

“I dunno - I'm feeling pretty loose at the moment,” feeling Xena smile against her skin. “Besides, it hasn't been a cakewalk for you either,” Gabrielle returned humorously.

Xena chuckled. “Sure it has... different circumstances. I didn't get thrown into an impromptu storytelling session followed by a request for a lesson on storytelling AFTER finding out that a murder had been committed that caused the local police to look at me as a suspect because the victim was running a search bot on me. I thought a little pampering might help you relax – a little dinner, a little massage, a little lovemaking....” She kissed Gabrielle's shoulder.

“Well, I'm feeling very decadent – pampered and well-loved.”

Xena grinned. “Good. Mission accomplished then.”

“Definitely.”

Xena shifted just enough to glance at the clock. “I hate to be the one to bust the bubble we've got going here, but if we don't get cleaned up, we're gonna be late for your storytelling seminar.”

Gabrielle frowned, the looked at the clock and sighed mightily. “Fine,” she huffed, though she never lost her relaxed smile. “Since I did promise.”

“Yes, you did,” Xena agreed solemnly.

“All right,” Gabrielle agreed as she slipped from the bed. She held out her hand to Xena. “Wash my back?”

“Like I've ever said no to *that* offer.”

Gabrielle's laughter could be heard long after they closed the door behind them.

 

************

“Boss?” Lucy looked up at the sound of Scud's voice. “You got a minute?”

“Have a seat,” motioning her to a seat across from her. He let his eyes cut to Amy and Lucy just arched an eyebrow at him. “Have a seat, Scud. What's on your mind?”

“Everything all right?”

Lucy cocked her head to one side and gave him a crooked grin. “Sure... why wouldn't it be?” Scud just held her gaze until a pat on her arm from Amy caused Lucy to change her focus. She looked at Amy who cupped her cheek and gave her a smile. Lucy covered the hand on her face before she returned her attention to Scud.

“I'm fine.”

“So you don't think the cops are looking at us?”

“No.”

Scud's eyebrows popped to his forehead. “Really?”

“Really,” turning back to Amy. When she didn't add anything else, Scud nodded briskly and rose from his seat.

“Well, then. Good... that's good. It is good, right?” seeing them both nod. “Good. I'll go let Janet know.” They waited for Scud to walk out of sight before they chuckled.

“That wasn't very nice,” Amy said, trying to hide her smile behind her hand.

Lucy captured the hand and held in it hers, keeping their other hands trapped against her face. “He'll live,” she said with a smile and a shrug. “And I'll give him the whole story later, but right now I'm enjoying the fact that I have no responsibilities and I've been cleared of suspicion.”

“Are we going to hear Gabrielle tonight?”

Lucy's grin turned rakish. “Do you have a better offer?”

Amy slipped her hand from Lucy's face and tugged on the hands she still held. “I think,” she said as she rose from her chair, “I could come up with something.”

“Do tell.”

Amy tugged again, and this time Lucy didn't ask. She simply rose and willingly followed where Amy led her.

 

************

“So where's your partner, Nikki?” Andy asked as a group of writers made their way towards the otherwise empty convention room. They were early, wanting to get good seats, but were surprised to find themselves the first to arrive. They tried the doors and found them locked, so they settled in front of it to wait for someone to open it.

“She and some of the other law types have decided to solve this mess for themselves, I think.”

Blake's eyebrows went to her hairline. “Do they really think they can? I mean, they don't have the resources of the local police. Can they figure it out without access to all the facts?”

“I don't see why not,” Annabelle commented. “As long as they are equally willing to share what Desdemona was holding over them.”

“Why should that matter?” Emily asked. Everyone turned back to Annabelle, curious to hear the younger woman's thoughts.

“It seems to me that would help eliminate each other as suspects,” Annabelle said with a shrug. “And wouldn't they need to do that first?” Everyone sat silently for a few minutes, before Nikki spoke again.

“I'll just be happy to have it done with.”

Before the rest could agree, a bedlam coming down the hall caused them to glance at each other and rise from their places on the floor. When they realized it was a good portion of both conventions, they chuckled and waited for the rest to join them.

From the sounds of it, it was going to be a fun and relaxing evening.

 

 

Chapter XLI

Dinah sat alone at the monitoring table behind the stage area when Xena and Gabrielle walked in through the back door. Xena frowned.

“Everything all right?”

Dinah turned and nodded her head. “Yeah. I didn't know if you wanted me to let people in before you got here so I kept the door locked.”

Xena nodded but didn't say anything, knowing if there was a problem, Gabrielle would let her know. Instead she crossed to the other side of the room and opened the doors to allow the seminar participants to stream in and find seats. When Diana crossed the threshold, Xena jerked her head towards the back. Diana accepted the wordless directive and headed towards the empty chair beside Dinah.

She got everything on her side situated to her satisfaction, then she turned to Dinah. “Barbara's pissed, isn't she?” watching Dinah's face flush with color. “Yeah, I thought as much. I knew she would be if she heard about it. I had just hoped....” She shrugged. “You all right?”

Dinah nodded her head. “Yeah – Barbara's really focused; she's good at compartmentalizing things. And Helena sent me over here before she tackled her.”

“If anyone can get Barbara to open up, Helena will,” Gabrielle said with a knowing smile.

“Which is why they're not here now,” Diana commented.

Dinah glanced at her watch. “Pretty much. I doubt they'll be here if you want to get started,” she added sparing a look in Gabrielle's direction. Gabrielle looked at her own watch.

“We have a few more minutes. Are you all right to be here, Dinah?”

“Yeah, I'm good. Helena 's block seems to have done the trick.”

Gabrielle nodded. “I'm going to go find some water. You ladies need anything?”

Dinah and Diana shook their heads and Gabrielle headed towards the back. In a few minutes she returned, a bottle in her hand and an ice bucket with another couple bottles tucked into it. Xena swooped in and relieved Gabrielle of the bucket, slipping it onto the stage without raising an eyebrow from the women in the audience. Then she came back and quickly wired Gabrielle up, leaving her alone once she was done.

The murmur of the crowd was level and Gabrielle moved to a quiet corner to center herself. When she was ready, she gave Xena a wink. Xena nodded and took to the stage.

“Ladies, you know why you're here. So without further delay, allow me to present Gabrielle.”

The applause was loud, though not raucous by any means, and Gabriele smiled as she took the stage. “Good evenings, ladies.”

“Good evening,” came the unexpected response from the audience. Gabrielle chuckled.

“Well, I have to admit I never expected such a turnout.” She looked around the room. “You do realize I'm going to be teaching storytelling this evening, not telling stories, right?” No one moved and Gabrielle shook her head with a smile. “All right – just don't say I didn't warn you. Now, Ms McPherson – since you requested this session, you volunteered to be my accomplice by default. So please... come up here and join me on stage.”

Sam swallowed hard, but rose gamely when Brooke patted her leg. The women in the audience encouraged her by their applause and she made her way onto the stage, standing stiffly to one side as soon as she stepped onto the stage. Gabrielle tilted her head and chuckled before shaking her head and making her way to Sam's side.

“Okay – first things first,” Gabrielle said, crossing the platform and taking Sam by the arm to lead her to the center of the stage. “You need to relax, Sam. As uptight as you are, you're not going to be able to remember your name... much less the story you want to tell.”

“Huh?” Sam questioned after a long moment, drawing laughter from both Gabrielle and the audience. She blushed and shook her head. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I'm probably not the best choice for this.”

Gabrielle smiled and signaled to Xena, who hooked Sam up with sound even as Diana brought two stools to the stage. Gabrielle nodded her thanks, motioning Sam to one stool while she took the other. “Give the mic a test, Sam.”

“'Kay... what should I say?”

Gabrielle looked at Dinah who nodded her approval. “That was good enough, Sam. Now... how about we get on with the business of learning how to tell stories?”

“Is it really something you can learn, Gabrielle? I mean... I've been writing stories all my life. But I don't know that I've ever *told* a story before.”

“Sam, if you can *write* a story, you can *tell* a story. The difference is all in presentation.”

“But....”

Gabrielle smiled. “Tell me your story, Sam.” Sam looked nervously out at the expectantly waiting crowd. Gabrielle put a hand on her arm. “Don't worry about them,” gesturing to the audience that sat in partial darkness. “It's just you and me here,” removing her hand. “Tell me your story.”

“What story would you like me to tell?”

“It's your story, Sam. What story would you like to share with me?”

Sam sat quietly thinking, undisturbed by the eyes on her; she no longer saw them. For her, Gabrielle was her audience and it was only peripherally that she was aware of anyone else in the room. Sam started unexpectedly when Gabrielle's hand landed on her arm again.

“Sam, you're thinking too hard. Start off with something you know – something familiar... comfortable. It can be something that makes you laugh or cry, but it should be a memory – something that happened to you that you feel is important or worth sharing for whatever reason.”

Sam blinked, then scowled at Gabrielle. “Wait... what?”

Gabrielle chuckled. “The first rule of storytelling is that you stick with what you know.”

“Okay, so you knew about gods and Bacchae and immortals because you are all those things?”

“No,” glad she could reply truthfully because of the exactness of the parameters set in Sam's question. “Stories like the one I told last night fall into the second rule of storytelling.”

“Which is?”

“If you're gonna tell tall tales, sweat the details. And then practice, practice, practice.”

Sam looked out at the audience and unerringly zoned onto Brooke's eyes. “Remind me again why I thought this was gonna be a great idea?”

Brooke met her gaze unflinchingly. “Because you're a born storyteller, Sammie. And having a master teach you can only make you better.”

Sam scratched the back of her neck. “Oh yeah.” She turned back to Gabrielle. “Sorry. Sometimes I need a reminder.”

Gabrielle patted the arm she still held. “Sometimes we all do. Now... tell me a story, Sam.”

 

************

“That was amazing,” Alex commented as the New York contingent slowly filed out of the convention room at the end of Gabrielle's seminar. “I feel like I could be a storyteller now.”

“I think that's one of Gabrielle's gifts *as* a storyteller – she can make you believe anything,” Abbie said, ducking a swat from Alex. “Hey! Watch it, Cabot! You'll damage the merchandise!”

“Well then Casey can pick you up at a discounted price then, can't she?” Alex snarked, causing laughter to titter through the rest of the group. Abbie pouted; Casey wrapped an arm around her waist.

“I'd pay full price,” she assured Abbie. Alex wrapped an arm around Abbie's shoulders and brushed a kiss over her temple.

“Yeah, we still love you, Carmichael.” Tracey gagged at Alex's words.

“Is it getting deep in here?”

“This coming from a lawyer,” Olivia snorted, then skittered away from all of them when they all raised their hands to swing at her. “I'm gonna go walk over there now,” pointing towards Lindsay.

“Better stay and take your medicine, Detective,” Jo said with a grin on her face.

“Is that your professional opinion, Detective, or are you just whipped?”

“Oh no you didn't.”

Olivia took off running, with Jo hot on her heels. Alex and Blair exchanged glances and shook their heads, though they couldn't hide the smiles they sported. The rest of their comrades didn't even try to pretend indifference – they simply laughed aloud at the antics of the two police officers. Melinda sighed.

“And here I thought my kids were the children of the group.”

“Your kids *are* the children of the group,” Alex assured her drolly. “These are simply five-year-old adults with driver's licenses and credit cards.” Jo and Olivia stopped chasing each other and turned to glare at Alex. The look she gave them caused them to exchange glances and shrug sheepishly, then turn back to join their friends on the walk back to their rooms.

 

************

“You know,” Ziva said as the NCIS team exited the convention room, “despite everything, I am very glad we came to this conference.”

“Why is that, Ziva?” Catherine asked. The CSI team was walking just ahead of the group from DC, and Catherine was naturally curious.

“I am having a good time,” was Ziva's answer. Everyone was somewhat nonplussed by her statement and it took them a moment to respond.

“You didn't expect to? Ziva, this is Disney World,” JJ replied.

“Yes, but I did not know much of Disney World and I certainly never thought I would meet so many women with so many things in common with me. I was... hesitant... when it was first suggested we attend this event.”

“That's true,” Abby piped up. “Kate and I had to do some serious fast-talking to get her to agree.”

“Well, that and Gibbs insisted.”

“No one had to insist for us to come,” Garcia confessed. “In fact, we were the ones who had to do the fast-talking to convince The Powers That Be that it would be advantageous for us to be here.”

“Well, I for one am thrilled you girls insisted,” Sabrina said. “I wouldn't have missed the opportunity to get reacquainted with my niece again. Even Desdemona's death can't dampen that experience,” wrapping an arm around Emily's waist and smiling when the affectionate gesture was returned.

“Do you think the police will solve it?” Sara asked.

The groups looked at each other and finally lifted their shoulders in a unified shrug. “It's hard to say,” Kelly eventually commented. “Especially since we don't have access to their data or the facts and theories in the case. I personally don't think anyone here did it and I'm not sure they will ever find who did.”

“Can I ask why?” Lilly questioned.

“To which part?”

“Both.”

“Well, I don't think anyone here did it because doing so brought to light things most of us would prefer remained secret for one reason or another. But by killing her and making all of us viable suspects for however briefly, the waters were muddled long enough for the guilty party to get away. I don't think they will find the killer because they aren't looking in the right direction.”

“Do you know what the right direction is?” from Sophia.

“No,” Kelly replied calmly. “I just don't think it's among us.”

 

************

“Sam, that was amazing,” Jordan commented. The rest nodded their agreement vigorously.

“I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised. I really didn't think I could do it.”

“Why not, Sammie?” Brooke queried. “You're a natural.”

“I didn't expect to be... not in this. This was closer to acting than writing.”

Tootie nodded. “She's right – it really is. You have to put yourself out there. The difference is an actor puts themselves out there as someone else... for someone else. With a storyteller, it's all them.”

“Well, I thought it was fabulous,” Natalie said with a grin. “Thank you for asking for the seminar, Sam. I really enjoyed it.”

“We all did,” Cindy commented. “I think even the law enforcement types did,” squeezing Lindsay's hand and returning the smile she got.

“So, Ms McPherson,” Andy said with mock seriousness, holding up her pencil like it was a microphone. “When can we expect your first performance?”

“Andrea,” Miranda chided. “Don't put Ms McPherson on the spot like that. I'm sure she'll remember to invite us all to her debut.” Her tone was serious, but her blue eyes twinkled. The corner of her lip twitched when Sam's startled eyes met hers and Sam recognized Miranda's hidden sense of humor. She chuckled and shook her head.

“I'm certainly looking forward it,” Simone said. “I wonder if we could possibly teach this... add it to the curriculum in our schools.”

“Perhaps,” Miranda mulled, “though considering how the arts are disappearing from our school system, we might be better served to do something more along these lines,” motioning around her, “at our colleges and universities.” She shrugged. “Something to think about.”

“I think it's a wonderful idea, mom,” Caroline spoke up for the first time. “The question is could you sell the idea to them?”

“The bigger question is would Gabrielle be willing to do it?” Cassidy added.

“I think Gabrielle could be convinced,” Brooke said. “And with all the influential people on both sides of these conferences, I think we could open some doors to institutes of higher learning.”

Caroline and Cassidy exchanged glances. “Lawyer, right?” they snickered. Brooke just laughed and nodded, and the rest were happy to join in.

“So long as we can get some of those visits on the other side of the pond,” Nikki said.

“Absolutely,” Scribbs agreed. “I'd pay to see her in concert.”

“I think we all would, Emma,” Helen stated and the rest nodded their agreement.

 

************

“So what did you think, Sweetie?” Angela asked as they made their way back to the other side of the resort. Bones shook her head.

“I'm not sure that I can agree with her methods. After all, my work is nothing like that. My books are very factual and Gabrielle seems to deal in flights of fancy.

“That's what makes her so amazing,” Cameron said. “That she can take a thread of an idea and spin it into whole cloth... it's a gift. That she can teach others to do the same is extraordinary.”

“I don't understand that. How does it make her better?”

“I didn't say it did,” Cameron objected.

“Are you jealous, Sweetie?” Angela asked softly.

“I'm not jealous! I'm not!” Bones stated forcefully. “I am a genius after all. That makes me better than gifted.”

“And people relate to her naturally. She makes it look effortless.” Angela took Bones hand in hers. “It's all right to be jealous, Brennan. It makes you human like the rest of us, all right?” waiting for Tempe to slowly nod her head. “Now, did you enjoy the stories?”

Brennan nodded. “I did. That's part of what I don't understand. I really didn't want to be impressed, but I was.”

Angela and Cameron exchanged smiles. “It's okay, Dr. Brennan,” Cameron offered. “People in our field feel the same way about you. You've found your place – don't be so anxious to give it up for something that may not satisfy your scientific curiosity or your search for the truth.”

“There's nothing that says you can't enjoy something just because it's new to you, Sweetie. How else do we grow as people if we don't try new things?”

Bones puzzled silently as they reached their rooms. “Maybe she'll perform again tomorrow night. I would like to hear her again,” she confessed.

Angela and Cameron nodded. “So would I,” they chorused as they crossed the thresholds into their rooms.

 

 

Chapter XLII

“Did you enjoy yourself, Jellybean?” Gabrielle asked Emma as Diana and Dinah were wrapping things up for the night. Emma had insisted that they say goodnight to Gabrielle and Xena, so the Spencer-Rivera family were among the last to leave the big hall.

Emma grinned and nodded enthusiastically. “Oh yes! That was awesome! You helped Sam tell some good stories. You told some good stories too.”

Xena put an arm around Gabrielle's waist. “It's what she does best, Jellybean,” not even drawing snickers from the rest. Gabrielle leaned into her, accepting it for the compliment it was meant to be.

“Well, I really liked it.” She looked at Gabrielle seriously. “You should go on tour or something. I'll bet lots of people would pay to hear you tell stories like that.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Maybe. But I'm glad you had a good time tonight. Are you coming to the talent show tomorrow night?”

“Are you telling stories again?”

“No, but Xena is going to sing.” Emma's eyes went round.

“You can sing?” Xena nodded. “Wow... I didn't know a Queen's Champion had to do so much stuff.” Emma turned and looked straight at Gabrielle. “I'll make you a deal,” waiting for Gabrielle to nod. “I'll tell a story if you'll tell a story.”

Xena chuckled silently, knowing Emma had just put Gabrielle up on the stage again, because there was no way Gabrielle would say no to that. Gabrielle held Emma's gaze a long moment, but Emma didn't even blink.

“Are you sure, Emma?” Emma nodded. “All right. You tell a story and I'll tell a story.” Emma pumped her arm in victory, causing a chuckle to run through the assembled adults.

“Too cool – I'll be a Queen's Champion yet. Queen's Champions can tell stories instead of sing, can't they?”

“Absolutely,” Gabrielle agreed. “You do know that some songs tell stories too right?”

“Wow!”

“And on that note,” Olivia said, taking Emma by the hand on one side and Natalia by the hand on the other, “we'll see you ladies in the morning.”

“Goodnight, guys,” grinning when Emma turned around and waved enthusiastically as they walked out the door. Gabrielle leaned more heavily into Xena's body. Xena brushed her lips over Gabrielle's forehead.

“You all right?” she whispered, smiling when she felt Gabrielle nod against her.

“Yeah,” Gabrielle replied. “Just tired. Been a REALLY long day.”

“Well, Diana and Dinah are almost done. We should be able to leave soon.”

At that moment, Diana and Dinah walked over to them. “Everything's saved and backed up and we're ready to go for tomorrow's sessions,” Diana informed them. “Dinah's going to stay with me tonight.”

“Yeah, I think Helena and Barbara need a little time alone and Diana offered, so....” tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

“I think that's a great idea,” Gabrielle agreed. “ Helena will put Barbara in a better frame of mind and tomorrow, her anger will have turned into something less volatile. Maybe by then the detectives will have some other leads to follow.”

“That'd be nice,” Dinah said. “Though I have to tell you guys, I don't think the guilty party is here.”

“Really?” from Diana.

Dinah nodded and tucked her hair again. “Yeah. Everyone is projecting and when I dropped my walls earlier, all I got was frustration and confusion. I think if our killer was here I would have gotten something different.”

Xena nodded. “I think you're probably right. But I don't think we can do much about it tonight. C'mon,” she said, tangling her fingers with Gabrielle's and motioning Diana and Dinah to walk ahead of them. “Let the police worry about it.”

Three sets of eyebrows rose to three different hairlines. “That's it?” Diana asked incredulously.

“For tonight – yes,” Xena replied. “As Dinah pointed out, our killer isn't here and we've all had a very long day today already.” She waited for the other three to walk out the door in front of her, then pulled it shut behind her, making sure it was locked.

“You two go get some rest,” Gabrielle instructed before they could ask any more questions. “We'll meet you back here first thing in the morning?”

Both women nodded and Gabrielle gave them a sincere smile. “Thank you both for your help tonight.”

“I had a blast,” Dinah proclaimed with a smile.

“As did I,” Diana agreed with a nod of her head. “Thank you for allowing us to attend. You do realize Mother is going to be inconsolable when she learns she missed this.”

“How fortunate that you got everything on disc.”

“No kidding – Barbara's gonna be even more pissed when she finds out what she missed,” Dinah chirped.

“She'll get over it,” Gabrielle promised. “She's got Helena and for now, that's enough.” She crinkled her nose up when she smiled. “Besides, she can watch it later.”

“This is our stop,” Diana said, motioning to her room. She slid the key in the lock. “Goodnight, ladies.”

“Night,” Xena and Gabrielle chimed together as they turned and headed out towards the suite they were staying in.

“You know who killed Desdemona, don't you?” Gabrielle asked when she was certain they were alone.

“I know who killed Desdemona; I'm not certain why yet, though I have my suspicions.”

“I see. And how did you figure it out?”

Xena just gave her a look. “A little research... a little reading. I'm actually pretty good at putting these things together when I make an effort,” Xena replied wryly.

“Yeah, I've heard rumors to that effect, though I'd been told by someone in the know,” giving Xena a smirk, “that it was all just natural talent. I'm actually inclined to go with that natural talent theory, having seen it in action on more than one occasion about any number of skills you seem to possess,” drawing a smile from Xena.

“Hey! I work at some of them too,” she protested with the slightest pout.

“Oh, I know,” Gabrielle concurred. “You're all about practicing and improving. I benefit from that a lot,” she added with a grin that widened at Xena's cocky smirk. “So, would you like to share this particular bit of natural brilliance with me or are you gonna make me figure it out for myself?” asked with another smile.

“In the spirit of good time management and considering the fact that I have far more important things to do with you tonight than discuss this murder, I might be willing to share with you this one time. Next time, however....”

Gabrielle's eyes widened. “You expect us to do this again??”

“The convention... yes. The murder? Not so much.”

“Thank the gods. Once of that circumstance is enough, though I'm still not convinced Desdemona didn't do this deliberately... just to cause us all kinds of issues.”

Xena snorted. “I doubt she's that talented. Besides, it's a hell of a long way to go to make a point, and for most people, death is kinda permanent.”

“I guess we should count ourselves lucky she wasn't our kind,” Gabrielle commented drolly. “But that doesn't get me any closer to knowing who killed her.”

“What's it worth to you to know?” Xena asked as she unlocked the door.

“What's it worth to you to keep it a secret?” Gabrielle countered with a smirk as she crossed the threshold. Xena just dropped her chin to her chest knowing it was the one argument she would never win. Gabrielle chuckled. “Never try to out-barter a bard – especially one with my years of experience.”

“You'd think I'd remember that after a while,” shaking her head as she followed Gabrielle inside. They exchanged looks.

“Nah,” they commented together as they closed door on their laughter.

 

************

“You're amazing,” Barbara commented with a smile as she ran her hands over Helena 's smooth skin, still slick with sweat. She realized her error immediately as Helena reared up and leaned over her sporting a cocky smirk on her face.

“You were pretty amazing yourself. Wanna go again?”

Barbara chuckled and shook her head, drawing Helena 's lips to hers and allowing Helena to deepen it for long moments. She pulled back slowly, smiling at the golden cat's eyes that stared back at her hungrily. “That's not what I meant,” brushing the dark bangs away from Helena 's eyes, “and you know it.”

“Hey, can I help it if you spoke the truth and it sounded like an offer?” said teasingly... lightly.

“Why do you do that? Why do you downplay how important you are to me?” Gold eyes went deep blue and widened. Helena opened her mouth to respond, but no sound came out. She dropped her head back to Barbara's shoulder and replaced her arm on Barbara's torso.

“ Helena , you do so much for me – make such a difference in my life just by being you. That's one reason....” Barbara trailed off and Helena tilted her head up, bringing Barbara's profile into view. She watched Barbara bite her lip and sat up again, keeping her eyes on Barbara's face even though the green eyes were closed to her.

Helena 's brow furrowed. “This isn't about what happened with Diana earlier is it?” feeling Barbara's heartbeat skip before going into overdrive. “Barbara, look at me.” Barbara scrunched up her eyes tighter, allowing a tear to leak out from one corner. Helena leaned up and kissed it away, the lightest touch of her tongue pulling a shiver out of Barbara. “Baaaaar-barrrrra,” she drawled slowly, the tiniest hint of laughter in her tone. “Look at me, Barbara.”

“Please don't make me,” came the barest whisper from Barbara's nearly unmoving lips.

Helena stroked the side of Barbara's face tenderly before cupping Barbara's cheek. “Barbara... when have I *ever* been able to *make* you do anything? Open your eyes for me... please? I wanna see those beautiful green eyes looking back at me with love that's all mine.”

Barbara couldn't resist that quiet plea any more than she could stop breathing and live. She blinked her eyes open, and felt another tear slide down her face at the look of loving adoration that was shining from Helena 's very blue eyes.

“Barbara,” Helena said softly. “You have nothing to worry about. There's no reason for you to be jealous. I love Dinah and I'm proud that she trusts me to protect her like that, but I'm *in love* with you. I think I always have been.”

“I know that in my mind,” Barbara admitted, pushing her hair off her face, then covering Helena 's hand with her own. “I know that in my heart too – really, I do. But sometimes... seeing it – it's incredibly intimate, Hel - and then being so forcibly reminded of my physical challenges....” Helena 's hand slid from beneath hers and Barbara felt the slightest soft touch on her lips when Helena 's fingers covered her lips to stem the tide of her words.

“Barbara, if you would like to experience what we share when Dinah and I do an energy transfer, we'd be glad to show you.”

“No, Helena... no. I would never put either of you in danger like that. It was just everything and at the end of the day....”

“At the end of the day, even superheroes need some down time. But Barbara, I need you to remember something for me.”

“What's that, Sweetheart?”

“I want everything.”

Barbara nodded. “Then you have to remember something as well, Helena . So do I. Please don't discount your importance in my life anymore. Or pretend you're not the romantic I know you are.”

“You're gonna ruin my rep, Oracle.”

“Don't worry, Huntress – your secret's safe with me.” Then Barbara pulled Helena to her again and they stopped talking.

 

************

“I was kinda surprised Wendy decided we should go to that storytelling seminar tonight,” Nikki commented to Nora as they made their way back towards their room. “I mean, I enjoyed Gabrielle's presentation and all – she should really come to New Orleans ... they'd love her there – but I wouldn't have had a problem giving it a miss to talk to Wendy a little more.”

“I asked her to,” Nora confessed, holding tight to the hand she was clasping. Nikki snapped her head around swiftly, meeting Nora's eyes and holding them while silently demanding an explanation with her own. Nora sighed, but didn't look away.

“I know what you suspect, Nikki. I felt the tremor that ran through you when she mentioned the name of the man her mother dated.” Nora blew out a breath, never dropping the outraged brown eyes now burning into hers. “I wanted to give you a chance to come to grips with it before we talked to her again. You deserved the chance to do that privately.”

“You mean before I have to tell her she's my bastard half-sister? That the man I've idolized and looked up to my whole life is nothing but a cheat and a liar??” Her voice never rose above a harsh whisper, but the tears slid down her face in rivulets. Nora pulled them to a halt and cupped Nikki's face, only to stiffen when Nikki jerked away from her touch. She grabbed on a second time... a little more forcefully, but only enough to get Nikki's attention.

“Oh no, Nikki – you don't get to hide from me. We're a couple... as legal as we can make it in the state of Louisiana . We may not get to be married, much to my mama's disappointment, but that doesn't lessen our responsibility to or for one another. You don't get to carry this by yourself – I won't let you!” Nikki blinked at the ferocity in Nora's voice. “Are we perfectly clear?” Nora asked. Nikki just nodded.

“Good. Now, let's go back to our room and crawl into that soft bed and snuggle for a while. This day has been forever long and I want a little time to just be with you. We can worry about what to tell Wendy tomorrow.”

Nikki wiped her eyes and nodded, taking Nora's hand in hers once more and holding onto it like it was a lifeline. “That sounds wonderful. I love you, Nora.”

“And I love you Nikki... so much. Who knows – you may grow to like the idea of having a sister.”

“As long as I've got you, Sugar, it's all good.”

They didn't even notice the local detectives pass them on their way out.

 

************

“Wow,” Bornlan commented. “Wonder what that was all about.”

“Given the way these women have responded to the death of our victim, I believe it is safe to say it had nothing to do with our case,” Kennian replied.

“I'd be inclined to agree with that.” Teresa stretched and yawned. “God, I'm tired. It's been a long time since I had to work round the clock like this.”

“Would you prefer to return home for the night and resume our investigation in the morning?”

“I would prefer this investigation be over and we have our murderer in custody. However, since that is unlikely to happen in the next five minutes....” Bornlan glanced at her watch. “Damn! When did it get so late?”

Kennian suspected it was a rhetorical question, so she chose not to answer it, instead continuing down the hallway that led back to the convention rooms. “Where are we setting up?”

“Let's check the computer... see if anything new came in. Then we can go over to the other room. I feel better about spreading out in there. I don't think anyone will bother us.”

Kennian looked around at the empty hall, deserted by everyone but themselves and a couple custodians. Still she nodded her head and headed for the main room, only to discover it was locked. Bornlan banged her head against the wall.

“Of course it's locked. There's a lot of equipment and gadgets in those rooms.” She blew out a frustrated breath. “Look, I'll go see if I can find someone to open this up for us and you go on and get started on my list. I'll be as quick as I can. Then I'll start going over your list while you check the computer.”

Shana nodded. “That seems to be the wisest course of action. You will call...?”

“... if anything comes up – yes.”

“Very well,” Kennian agreed and slipped across the hall to the room that had been set aside for them. Bornlan waited until Shana opened the door, then she turned and headed back the way she'd come from.

 

 

Chapter XLIII

“My brain hurts,” Bornlan complained as she dropped her head down onto the table. Her actions knocked over a Red Bull can, but she couldn't bring herself to care enough to pick it up. Kennian ran a hand through her disheveled hair, wondering absently if she'd be able to find enough pins to put it up again.

“Perhaps we should quit for the night, Teresa, and pick it up fresh in the morning. A few hours of sleep would do us both a world of good and might give us a different perspective on things.”

Bornlan groaned. “I know you're right, Shana, but it feels like we're soooo close. Have we gone over everything?”

“At least twice,” Kennian replied cuttingly, rubbing her eyes with her fingertips. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I believe I have hit a wall.”

“I think we both probably have,” Bornlan confessed as she lifted her head off the desk. She reached forward and rescued the can, tossing it into a nearby trashcan before beginning to straighten the stacks of papers on the table. Kennian tilted her head in question.

“Let's go see if they've got a place we can crash in for a few hours. All these rooms... there's bound to be something, right? And if not, we can probably at least get a nice hot shower somewhere. That would probably help wake us up if nothing else.”

Kennian stretched, then flinched as she heard her vertebrae pop back into place. Bornlan cut her eyes in Shana's direction.

“That sounded evil.”

“Yes, but surprisingly I feel better,” rising to her feet. “Come. Let us find somewhere to get some rest. We can start again in a few hours.”

“I like the sound of that.”

 

************

“I have to tell you – this is highly unusual,” Mary Shannon confided in her charge as she sipped from a fresh cup of piping hot coffee. The truck stop was clean and was a welcome respite from the driving they'd been doing for the past several hours.

“I'm aware, Marshal. But it's necessary.”

“So you wanna tell me how I got involved?”

“Because eventually the police will figure out that I'm missing and will start looking for me. They're not gonna be looking for you or someone traveling with you.”

“But with your obvious resources....”

The redhead smiled. “You're legitimate, Marshal. *If* they get as far as you in their search for me, they'll have to stop looking at that point.”

Mary frowned. “I'm not sure I like that.”

“Marshal, I assure you that both you and your job are perfectly safe.”

“Why do I get the feeling that the less I know in this situation, the better off I am?”

“Because you're a really smart cookie,” the other woman said with a smile. Mary just shook her head.

“C'mon,” she said as she rose and dropped a few bills on the table. “We need to get on the road and I need to make a phone call.” The other woman nodded and stood as well.

“You want me to drive for a while?”

Mary looked at her for a long moment. “This is just so weird,” handing over the keys. “Most people just aren't this accommodating.”

“Yeah, but most people don't want to be where I am at the moment.” She popped the locks and opened the driver's side door. “Make your call, Marshal. Your partner's probably wondering what the hell by now.”

Mary dialed the number and turned on the speakerphone. She figured introducing this woman to her partner, even via phone, would be partial payback for the psychedelic hallucination her life had suddenly become.

“House of Pie... Marshal Marshall Mann speaking.”

“Hey, Marshall – it's me,” Mary replied, trying desperately not to snicker at the expression on her companion's face. It was going to be an interesting ride to the airport.

 

************

“You know, Ash... I never expected our first trip to America to be quite so....”

“Convoluted?” Kate offered as she slid into bed.

“I was going to say exciting,” Emma stated drolly as she rinsed her toothbrush and dropped it into the cup. She shook her head and crawled into bed, shifting the covers until Kate sat up and glared at her.

“Will you *please* stop that this instant? It's most annoying.”

Scribbs pouted just the least little bit. “I'm just trying to get comfortable.”

“Well do so quickly. You're keeping me awake with all your fidgeting.”

“I could keep you awake with conversation if you'd rather,” Emma answered cheekily. Ash just gave her a baleful stare. “Oh c'mon Ash - can you honestly say you aren't having fun here?”

“I am learning some useful information and making some good contacts,” Kate conceded, watching a frown crease Emma's forehead. “And I did enjoy the scavenger hunt we participated in last night.”

“That was great fun. Too bad we can't do something like that at home.”

Ash chuckled. “The boys would never stand for it – too much effort,” she added. Emma shrugged.

“You're probably right,” she agreed, sliding down until her head hit the pillow. “Wonder what they'd think about Gabrielle.”

“Oh... that would be bad,” Kate said seriously. Emma rose up to catch the look on Ash's face and didn't see even the hint of a twinkle in her eyes. She frowned again.

“Why'd you say that? I thought she was amazing.”

“Oh she was,” Kate confirmed instantly. “But despite their apparent easygoing nature, I don't think she or her partner would put up with lewd comments. And you know there would be some,” thinking of some of their personal experiences.

Scribbs bit her lip. “I'd pay good money to see that,” she stated plainly. “It'd be nice to see someone give them their comeuppance. And I got the feeling they'd be just the ones to do it.”

Ash smiled, letting her mind daydream about it for a moment. “C'mon then,” she said, turning over on her side and pulling the covers up over her shoulder. “Shut off the light and let's get some sleep. We have another full day tomorrow.”

“Hopefully without any more murders.”

“Bite your tongue, Emma,” Ash commanded sharply. Emma smirked, having clearly heard the glare behind her words.

“What?” she asked innocently. “I want to see the talent show tomorrow night. I hear it's going to be very entertaining. I don't want anything else interfering in our weekend.”

“I think it's safe to say no one does, Emma. Now go to sleep.”

“Yes, mom,” Scribbs grumbled, but the room fell into silence and soon only the sound of two women breathing the deep breaths of sleep could be heard in the room.

 

************

“That was fun, mom. Thanks for inviting me along,” Ashlee said as they pulled back into the parking lot of her apartment building. Doris smiled and turned to face her daughter.

“It really was, wasn't it? I have to admit I was kind of surprised you wanted to come along.”

Ashlee tilted her head at Doris . “Why?”

“C'mon, Ashlee... hanging with your old mom on a Saturday night? You've gotta have better things to do. Don't you?”

Ashlee shrugged. “Sometimes,” she replied honestly. “Don't worry, mom. I've got friends here – we go out and do things. But I am here to work, so it's not like I go out every night... or even every weekend. Geez... I didn't do that at home with people I grew up knowing.”

Doris tucked a loose strand of blonde hair behind Ashlee's ear. “I know. I just worry.”

“Don't. I'm all right.”

“I know. But I'll always worry. It's my job.”

Ashlee rolled her eyes and reached for the door handle. “C'mon. It's late and I've got to work tomorrow while you're conventioning.”

They exited the car and headed to Ashlee's apartment. “But you're coming tomorrow night, right? I made sure it was okay.”

“Yes, mom. I'll be there tomorrow night,” Ashlee agreed as she opened the door and ushered her mom inside. “Are you participating?”

“As a performer?” Doris asked, shaking her head. “No. But if the rumors I've heard going around are true, it should be a lot of fun.”

“Really?” Ashlee cringed, recognizing the disbelief in her voice. “I mean... I'm sure it will be. But anything has to be better than that whole murder thing, right?”

Doris sighed and dropped onto the couch. “God, yes. What an utter disaster that has been,” smiling wryly when she heard Ashlee giggle. “You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I do,” snagging a couple water bottles and passing one to Doris . “Do you think they'll catch the guy who did it?”

Doris swallowed the mouthful of water she'd taken and tilted her head at Ashlee thoughtfully. “Honestly, I don't know. And I really can't claim to care very much either. Desdemona was an ass, and personally, I'm glad to see her dead.”

“MOM!”

“Ashlee, I'm not going to pretend to feel remorse or upset because she's dead. And I doubt many of the others will either. She was a leech.”

“Don't you think your attitude might make the police scrutinize you a little more closely?”

Doris shook her head. “No, because everyone else feels the same way.”

Ashlee thought about that statement a long moment and shook her head. “You know... that's a really sad commentary to have made about your life.”

“Yeah, it really is. C'mon,” Doris added as she stood. “It's late and I'm tired.”

“Me too,” Ashlee agreed, “but I'm glad you're here.”

“Me too, baby girl. Me too.”

 

************

“So did you all get it solved then, love?” Nikki asked as she wrapped her length around Helen's. Helen scooted back until they fit perfectly.

“What's that, swee'heart?” snuggling close and smiling when Nikki tucked her head into the crook of Helen's neck. Nikki brushed a kiss over the juncture of Helen's neck and shoulder, grinning and doing it a second time when she felt Helen shiver in her arms.

“What's what?” trailing her lips up Helen's neck to her ear as her hand skittered up and down Helen's torso.

Helen closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Nik, what're you talking about?” feeling Nikki smile against her skin. “You know I canna think when you do that.”

Nikki nodded and propped her head on her arm so she could look down at the woman cradled by her body. “I know, but it's fun to make you lose focus so easily now that I can without fear of reprisals or worrying that you might pull away from me. Do you know how many times I held myself back from you?”

Helen shifted until she was laying flat on her back, causing Nikki to frown until she cupped Nikki's face in her hand and tenderly stroked away the expression. “Yes,” she replied simply. “I canna tell you how glad I am that you were as damned persistent as you were. I wouldna have wanted to miss this, Nikki... not for anything.”

“So you don't miss it then? Being a Governor? Working in the prison system like before?”

“Not at all, Nik.” Helen shifted again until they were facing one another, her head propped on her hand mirroring Nikki's position though they still were not equal in height. “Nikki, I've learned a lot at this conference; I've made some good contacts that might be useful for me down the road. But working in the system... that's not for me anymore. I truly believe that I was there for one reason and one reason alone.”

Helen waited for Nikki to look up at her from under her lashes. “Nikki, I was there to find you. “

Nikki couldn't stop the grin that started curling the edges of her mouth until it widened to show sparkling white teeth even as a blush crawled up her face. “Really?” she asked softly, her eyes dropping to the bed again. Helen slid her hand from Nikki's cheek until it was under her chin. Then she gently urged Nikki's face up until their eyes met.

“Really.”

Nikki leaned forward until their lips met. Their verbal conversation was over for the night.

 

************

“So what do you think?” Amy asked while tucked naked into bed with Lucy sharing a snack.

“I think I feel really relaxed,” Lucy said with a smirk. “This was a great idea.” She leaned over for a kiss that Amy was more than happy to provide. They separated after a moment and Amy leaned back slightly to remove the tray of food from between them. She placed it on the floor and twisted until she was facing Lucy again.

“Yeah, it was. But that wasn't what I was talking about.”

“I know,” Lucy said, giving Amy a rakish grin. “But this really was a good idea.” She cupped Amy's face. “I missed you today. It seems like....”

“... today was years long?” watching Lucy nod her agreement. “I know, but at least at the end of it we're together.”

Lucy's smile grew impossibly brighter and Amy leaned in for yet another kiss. “I love you, ya know?”

“I know - and I love you... so much. What happened with Desdemona just brings it home.” Lucy frowned and Amy smoothed the lines out with a gentle smile. “Not the Desi part so much. She got what she deserved,” she declared with more than a hint of force. “But knowing that things can change in an instant....”

“Yeah.”

“But that still didn't answer my original question,” Amy said and cuddled into Lucy's body. Lucy smiled and wrapped an arm around her, brushing a kiss over slightly sweaty blonde hair. “What do you think?”

“About?” Amy shifted enough to look at Lucy, poking her in the side, then wrapping an arm over her stomach when she tried to squirm away. “What?” she added with a hint of laughter. “Stop that!” when Amy started tickling up her ribs. “All right! All right! I surrender!”

“Heh.”

“I think I don't care who killed her. I know I didn't and you didn't and Xena made sure the cops understood I didn't kill her. That's enough for me.”

“Really?”

“Really.

“I hope they figure it out, just so a cloud doesn't hang over all the folks here. Most of them seem like decent sorts and it'd suck to have this following them around for the rest of their lives.”

“Do you think they figured it out – the law enforcement people that were all sitting around the bar earlier, I mean?”

Lucy shrugged. “I dunno. Guess we'll hear tomorrow if they did,” she added with a smile. “But we have lots of time before tomorrow comes.”

Amy simply reached over and turned out the light.

 

 

Chapter XLIV

“Polniaczek,” Jo whispered into her phone as she squinted in the direction of the clock. She slid out from under Blair's body, slipping her pillow into Blair's arms as a substitute and sitting up on the edge of the bed. “Jamie, is everything okay?”

“You went to Disney World without me,” came the flat answer. Jo yanked the phone from her ear and glared at it before she glanced at the clock again.

“You're calling me from Europe at five o'clock in the morning to complain that I came to Disney World without you?”

“Yes!” A beat. “No... well, sorta,” she added with a semi-whine. Jo scrubbed a hand through her hair.

“Jamie....” impatience apparent even in her whisper.

“I heard about the murder.”

“WHAT?!” Jo's voice was hushed, but still harsh enough to convey her dismay. Blair stirred behind her and she dropped her voice back to the merest whisper. “What did you hear? *How* did you hear?”

“There was a blurb about Desdemona's demise in one of the papers.” Jo frowned. Jamie didn't know anything about Desdemona, so what would she care enough to read an article about her? Then Jamie was speaking again. “Actually, it wasn't about her specifically. It was an article about this massive media convention at Walt Disney World that she had supposedly been attending when she was murdered. Then it mentioned that there was a sister law enforcement convention that several prominent members of the NYPD as well as the New York bar were attending. It didn't take me long to figure it out – you went to Disney World without me,” finishing on a petulant note.

“And you're in Europe – I'm not seeing the problem.” Jo jumped when Blair wrapped her arms around her belly and leaned into her back, brushing a kiss on the back of her neck.

“The problem,” Blair growled in a sleep-laden voice as she took the phone from Jo's hand, “is that her moms went to Disney World without her. Hey Jamie,” she greeted without missing a beat as she lifted the phone to her ear.

“Good morning, Mother. Are you both all right? Seriously?”

Blair smiled and pushed her hair off her face. Then she shifted to accommodate Jo's moving form, lying back and putting her free arm around Jo's back when Jo snuggled up into her body and buried her nose in her neck. “We're fine, Sweetie,” Blair said with complete assurance. “It didn't involve any of us directly.”

“So why didn't you tell me you were going to Disney World?”

Blair's eyes widened. She didn't think Jamie was angry; instead, she had the distinct impression that despite Jamie's age and adult status, her feelings were really hurt by the fact that her moms hadn't included her.

“We didn't realize it would matter to you, honey. Your mom and I have done a lot of things without you since you went away to college – just like you have done any number of things without us. We didn't know this was any different.”

“Of course it's different – it's *Disney World*,” like Blair should understand that it made all the difference. “I've never been to Disney World,” she added in a much softer voice.

And finally, they were at the crux of the problem. “Oh Sweetie,” Blair cooed, making Jo sit up and glare at her. “You know... the conference is over tonight and your mom and I are going to be here all week. Would you like to join us?”

“Really?” tone cautiously hopeful.

“Really. You'd have to fly commercial, but I bet you could get a ticket out tonight that would get you here in the morning.”

“What does mom say about it?”

Blair tilted her head awkwardly to meet Jo's eyes. “Our daughter wants to know how you feel about her joining us for the rest of the week,” handing her back the phone. Jo looked at it in confusion for a moment before putting it up to her ear once more.

“Jamie, you're a grown up. If you wanna see Disney World with me and Blair, then I suggest you get your ass on a plane today.”

“JO!” Jo just shrugged and gave the phone back to Blair. She snuggled back down into Blair's neck, closing her eyes and humming in contentment. Blair glared at her, even as she hugged her close and raised the phone back to her ear. She heard Jamie laughing.

“Jamie?”

Jamie took a deep breath and then spoke, though Blair could still hear traces of laughter in her speech. “I see she's still your barbarian, Mother.”

Blair sighed dramatically. “Yes – there are some things I've actually given up hope of ever changing. Your mom's barbarianism is at the top of that list,” biting her lips to keep from squealing when Jo pinched her in a delicate place. Jamie snorted.

“I can hear she's bent on making things difficult for you this morning, so I'm going to go and find me a flight to Orlando and a room there at the Coronado.”

“You can stay with us, honey.”

“I don't think....”

“Don't think,” Jo instructed as she snatched the phone from Blair's hand. “We have a suite. Now get your ass on that plane and call us when you land.”

“Love you, Mom. Love you too, Mother,” in a much louder voice, causing Jo to wince and jerk the phone from her ear.

“Love you, baby girl.”

“Love you, Jamie.”

Dual answers made them smile at each other and they could hear Jamie's laughter before Jo flipped off the phone and placed it on the nightstand. Then she rolled back over to face Blair again.

“Well, Princess, it looks like this will be our last day here alone. And since our kid woke us up at the ungodly butt crack of dawn, I think we should make wise use of the time we have left alone together.”

“What did you have in mind, Grease Monkey?” asked as she wrapped her arms around Jo's neck and urged her down until their lips were nearly touching.

Jo simply grinned and surrendered.

 

************

“'Lo?” Janet growled as she tried to force her eyes open.

“Mom?” Janet removed the phone from her ear and glanced at the caller ID before she spoke again.

“Cassandra? Honey, what's wrong?”

“Are you and Sam all right?”

Janet frowned, but nodded her head before realizing her daughter couldn't see the action. “We're fine, Sweetie. Why? What's wrong?”

“General Landry called – said someone had been murdered at the convention you were attending together.”

Janet's eyebrows flew into her hairline. She hadn't known Desdemona's death would make nationwide news like that. “No, honey – we're both fine,” smiling when Sam shifted over in her sleep and wrapped her arm around Janet's middle before settling down once more. “It wasn't anyone from our conference or anything. Didn't he tell you that?”

“He didn't tell me much of anything,” Cassandra groused. “He told me that you were in Orlando for a convention and that there had been a murder. He said you two were all right, but he didn't have any other details at the moment. So I thought I'd better call and check for myself.”

“We're fine, Sweetie... honestly.”

“Who'sit?” Sam mumbled, pressing her lips to the back of Janet's neck.

“Our daughter,” Janet replied. “Hang on a second, Cass,” passing the phone into Sam's outstretched hand.

“Cassandra? Everything okay?” sitting up on an elbow and pushing her hair behind her ears. Janet rolled over and pushed Sam back into a fully reclined position, then tucked her head under Sam's chin and sighed. Sam grinned and brushed a kiss over the top of her head.

“Yeah,” Cassandra was saying. “I just wanted to check on you and Mom... since you went to Disney World without me,” she added in a mock-irate tone.

“Whoops – gotta go,” Sam blurted, shoving the phone back into Janet's hands. Janet looked between the phone and Sam stupidly for a moment, watching Sam bury her face with a pillow before putting the phone to her ear once more.

“Cassie?” hearing snickering coming from the other end of the line. “Cassandra?”

“Sorry, Mom. I was teasing Sam about the two of you going to Disney World without me.” Another snicker. “I think she sometimes forgets that I'm all grown up now... not that twelve-year-old kid she rescued so many years ago.”

“Probably,” Janet agreed. “Would you like to join us?” feeling Sam remove the pillow from her face and hearing Cassandra's sharp intake of breath simultaneously. “You'd have to get your own room,” Janet cautioned, looking at the king-sized bed she and Sam were currently sharing, “but we'd love to have you join us if you can get the time off.”

“Are you sure?” Cassandra asked. “This is like the first time you've taken a trip together since Daniel brought you back to us and Sam came home from Atlantis,” said with only a hint of tears in her voice. “I don't want to butt in.”

Janet chuckled and wiped a stray tear from her eye, hugging Sam fiercely when she felt the strong arms tighten around her. “We're sure, Cass. You're family... *we're* a family. And you've been so busy lately... it'd be nice to spend some quality time together. Besides, I know you're as anxious to visit Disney World as we were. I'm your mom, remember?” Janet added before Cassandra could ask.

Cassandra laughed. “All right – you talked me into it. I'd love to. I'll see what I can arrange on this end and let you know the details when I have them.”

“You do that. Love you, Cass.”

“Love you too, Mom. Give Sam a hug and kiss for me.”

“Will do. Bye, honey.”

Janet tapped off the phone and snuggled deeper into Sam's embrace. “So,” Sam asked casually. “Is she coming?”

“I think so. She's seeing what she can arrange and will let us know.” Janet tilted her head until she could just see Sam's profile. “You don't mind, do you?”

Sam chuckled. “Not at all. I'm kinda surprised we didn't do this before... like when she was still a kid.”

“We were a little busy – and our priorities were a lot different then too.”

“Hmm,” Sam hummed in agreement. “Speaking of that – after everything that's happened lately, do you want to stay with the Stargate Program?”

Janet shifted again – this time so she could lean over Sam and look into her eyes. “Sam, the Stargate Program is not the be all and end all for me... it never was. I love my job and the work I do there. And some of what I do can only be done in that environment. But I can be a doctor anywhere and I can be a civilian and still be part of the Stargate Program. So it's not really up to me – leaving the Air Force isn't gonna change that much of my life... except for the clothes I wear,” she added impishly.

Sam nodded and smiled but didn't speak, her eyes focused somewhat distantly. Janet watched her for a long moment before she spoke again.

“What do you want to do, Sam?”

“I really don't know,” Sam responded honestly. “But I think we should talk about it... think we should consider all the possibilities.”

Janet nodded and chastely kissed the soft lips below hers, drawing a sparkle from the depths of blue eyes that looked back at her full of love. “All right,” she agreed. “Whenever you're ready, Sam.” Then she slid back down and tucked herself into Sam.

Sam cocked an eyebrow. “You've made up your mind?”

Janet nodded. “I don't need the Air Force or Cheyenne Mountain to be able to do my job. But I'll do whatever it takes to stay with you... even if that means staying in the Air Force and in the Stargate Program for another twenty years.”

Sam chuckled. “They won't let us stay that long.” She brushed a kiss over dark hair, just beginning to show a few strands of gray. “At least we have choices,” she added. And the conversation languished as they took comfort in simply being together, watching the sky lighten as the rising sun signaled the start of another beautiful day.

 

************

“Hello?”

“Mom? Is everything okay?”

“Lindsey?” Catherine said, trying to shake the cobwebs from her sleep-addled brain. “Is everything all right, honey?”

“I dunno... that's why I called. I just saw the news.”

Catherine blinked and pushed the hair out of her eyes, sitting up slowly and pressing her body into the headboard. “Um... what news, honey? And why are you up at...?” She glanced at the clock. “Lindsey Willows! It's two in the morning where you are! What the...?” Catherine broke off and took a calming breath. Lindsey took the opportunity to cut in.

“You went to Disney World without me and you're worried because it's two a.m. here? Really, mom... c'mon.”

“Lindsey, you are eighteen years old and in college now. Did you really want to come to Disney World with your old mom?”

“YES!” was the resounding answer. Then she took a deep breath and spoke a little softer. “But that's not why I called. We had a late football game and went out afterwards. When I got back a little while ago, I turned on the news to help me wind down and they were talking about the murder of some woman at Walt Disney World.” She frowned and Catherine could hear it in her voice. “It was kinda weird, actually. But anyway,” she added after a moment, “I wanted to call and make sure you were okay.”

“I'm good baby – we're all fine, actually.”

“If you're sure....”

Catherine smiled. “I am, honey... thanks. So I guess you're settling in pretty well now?”

“It's all right. It was really nice of Sara to pull some strings to make sure I got a good place here. And my roommate and I get along pretty well. Oh, did I tell you...?” Catherine leaned back deeper into her pillows and listened to the sound of her daughter's voice as they caught up on things they had missed in each other's lives in the past few weeks. Even at this ungodly hour of the morning, it was nice to be able to reconnect.

“So when are you coming home?” Lindsey asked as the conversation wound down.

“Next week. We decided we might as well have a little fun as long as we're here.”

“Yeah, well don't have too much. I wanna visit Disney World soon.” Catherine chuckled.

“I'll do my best. I love you, Lindsey,” hearing Lindsey yawn in her ear for the third time in three minutes. “You go get some sleep, young lady.”

Lindsey rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mom.”

“Don't roll your eyes at me, Lindsey Willows. I am still your mother.”

“I know... and I'm glad. Love you, Mom.”

“Love you too, honey. Night.”

Catherine set the phone on the nightstand, then jumped slightly when she heard Sara's voice coming from the other bed. “Everything all right?”

“Yeah,” she said, sliding down under the cover and closing her eyes again. “She was just checking on us. Seems Desdemona's murder made national news.”

Sara frowned. “That's kinda weird. I didn't think she was that important.”

Catherine shrugged. “Slow news day, maybe. I suppose we need to get up,” glancing at the clock.

“Probably. At least today is a short day and tonight is the talent show. That should be fun.”

“It should,” Catherine agreed. “And at least this conference has been enjoyable... murder aside, of course. I'd do it again.”

Sara snickered. “Wonder if the local cops feel that way.”

 

 

Chapter XLV

“I needed that,” Bornlan commented as she stretched beneath the sheet that covered her body. The sound of her bones popping into place made her flinch and she grimaced.

“That sounded evil as well, Teresa,” Shana commented as she gently released the tension in her muscles. She turned her head and blue eyes met brown. Bornlan chuckled.

“Yeah, it did. But I feel a lot better.” She threw the bedding from her body and rose, reaching her hands up towards the ceiling before bending to touch her toes. “Ah,” she commented.

“I feel better myself,” Kennian said. “Perhaps we simply needed some rest.”

Bornlan shrugged. “Maybe. At least we can go at things with clearer heads this morning.” She grabbed her bag from the dresser across from her bed and took out her hairbrush. “Do you want the shower first?”

“That will be fine,” Kennian replied as she slipped from the bed. “I will be quick,” she added before she stepped into the shower area, leaving the sinks free for Bornlan's use.

It seemed to take a little while, but in reality, less than thirty minutes passed before they were both showered and dressed and walking out the door. Kennian turned to Bornlan with a frown.

“I know it is a little late to be thinking about this, but do you suppose our reports are where we left them?” Shana pinched the bridge of her nose. “I cannot believe I did not think of this last night. I was obviously exhausted to have been so remiss....”

Teresa put a hand on Shana's arm, stopping her speech as well as her steps and bringing her attention to the other detective. Kennian arched a blonde eyebrow, but waited silently for Bornlan to speak.

“It's all right, Shana. The manager last night gave me a key; he just asked we return it when we're done with the room today.”

“Do you think we'll be done with it today?”

“We pretty much have to be. The conventions wrap up at three this afternoon. If we don't have a viable suspect by then, we really don't have a legitimate reason to stay on property. As it is, the captain's liable to give us grief about staying here last night.”

“Do we have anyone left to question?”

Bornlan shook her head. “I don't think so. We got all of the convention goers and all of Desdemona's employees. I want to take a look at those lists again and see if we missed anyone or anything. My eyes were crossing towards the end last night, so I might have overlooked something.”

“Myself as well,” Kennian agreed.

“Hell of a case to be cutting your teeth on, huh?” Bornlan asked with a smile. Then held up her hand before Kennian could reply. She pulled her buzzing phone from her pocket. “It's the Doc. Hey, Doc,” she answered, putting the device on speaker so Shana could also hear as they slowly resumed their steps towards their vehicle.

“Morning, Terry. I've got news.”

“Make it good, Doc, ‘cause we're running on empty over here.”

“Well, I'm not sure how much help this is gonna be. I've got the preliminary tox screens back.” They reached the car and threw their bags in the back before sitting and closing the doors to afford them a bit of privacy for the doctor's report.

“Yeah... and?” Bornlan prompted when the silence dragged on too long for her comfort.

“She was killed with a poison extracted from a stonefish.” Silence for a long moment.

“Excuse me?”

“She was killed with a poison extracted from a stonefish,” the doctor repeated. “It's the deadliest fish in the world.” Kennian nodded her head in agreement. Bornlan shook her head.

“Wait... both of you,” cutting the doctor off before she could speak again and holding up a hand to Kennian. “Doc, are you saying someone milked a fish??”

“Essentially, yes. There was enough toxin in her system to ensure a prolonged, painful death.”

Bornlan blew out a frustrated breath. “All right, Doc... thanks. Anything else?”

“Not at the moment. We're still looking at all the other evidence, but it's gonna be a while.”

“Okay... thanks, Doc.”

“Anytime Terry. I'll let you know if we get anything else on this end.” Before Bornlan or Kennian could respond, they heard a dial tone. They exchanged a brief glance, then Bornlan shut off her phone and started the car. They'd drive back to the convention center and get some breakfast before starting their day of investigation.

 

************

“So what's your professional opinion?” Sofia asked Lilly as they sat down to breakfast together. Lilly took a swallow of her juice, then set it down and turned her attention to her half-sister.

“Of the murder, you mean?” watching Sofia raise an eyebrow and smirk at her slightly. She slapped her forehead lightly and shook her head with a grin. “Of course you mean the murder. I've never been much of a storyteller, have I?”

Sofia chuckled. “Oh, I don't know. I seem to remember you told some pretty scary stories during our sleepovers as a kid.” A beat. “God that's been a long time ago.”

“Yeah, it has, but those were some good times... some of the best of my life.”

“Mine too,” Sofia concurred. “Who'd have ever thought we'd both wind up as police detectives working on opposite sides of the country? Especially caught in the middle of an unsolved murder in which we are implicated.”

“Yeah – us and several hundred other people.”

“That really is a huge field to narrow it down from.”

“Which is why I think ultimately, there will be no true resolution unless someone decides to confess.” Sofia tilted her head and Lilly shook her head. “C'mon, Sofie... you're a detective. What we got yesterday was cursory questioning. The convention ends today and unless they make an arrest, they can't really compel anyone to stay. They can't make an arrest without evidence, and they can't get evidence without having something to go on in the first place.”

“So you think it's headed down to cold cases.”

Lilly nodded. “It's the kind of case I see on a daily basis.”

“I don't know how you can stand it, Lils. I mean, that would drive me nuts.”

“It's all in your point of view, Sofie. I give people a second chance for justice. Sometimes, I even manage to find it for them. And there is nothing on earth quite like that feeling.”

“Fair enough,” Sofia agreed. “I know how I feel when we finally catch the bad guy. Hey,” changing the subject unexpectedly. “You're staying for a couple days after this thing is over today, right?” waiting for Lilly to nod her agreement. “Good! You got anything special planned?”

“Not really – I was hoping to see a launch from Kennedy while we're here, but there's nothing scheduled. I wouldn't mind going to see the new Harry Potter attraction at Islands of Adventure, or riding Test Track and Soarin' at Epcot, but nothing's set in stone for me. Why? Whatcha got in mind?”

“Well, I'd been thinking about seeing that Harry Potter thing too, and I'd love to go to the Food & Wine Festival over at Epcot.”

“Ooh... I'd forgotten about that. I'd definitely be up for that.”

“Good. So we've got a plan?”

Lilly snickered. “As much of one as we've ever managed anyway. Mama would be proud of us.”

“She already is and you know it. Have you heard anything more about the talent show tonight?”

“You mean aside from Abbie Carmichael belly dancing to pay off a bet?” shaking her head at Sofia 's nod. “Not really. I'm looking forward to it, though, ya know? It should be an interesting evening, and who knows... maybe Gabrielle will tell another story.”

“Oh, she's going to,” Emma said as she took a seat at the empty table next to Lilly in the crowded restaurant. “We made a deal last night.”

“You did?” Sofia questioned. “What was the deal?”

Emma had popped a grape in her mouth and held up a finger while she finished chewing. “I told her I'd tell a story if she'd tell one.”

“That was very clever,” Lilly commended. Emma's grin was contagious.

“I know,” she said with absolutely no hint of humility in her voice.

“That's my girl!” Olivia cheered. Natalia covered her eyes and shook her head, and the table exploded into laughter.

 

************

“Can I just say how much fun I've had this weekend... murder aside of course?” Sabrina asked as she took another sip of her coffee. The rest of the table - save Kelly - stared at her with varying expressions of disbelief. Kelly simply smiled into her coffee cup. Sabrina looked around the table. “What?” she whined.

“Aunt Bre... you're kidding me right? C'mon... this is Disney World. How did you expect *not* to have fun here?”

Sabrina just looked at Emily, fighting the blush that wanted to come. Kris, however, laughed aloud. “No... she's not kidding. We had to practically bribe her just to get her on the plane. She figured it was Disneyland all over again and that makes it a kids' place to her. She even had a bet going that the conference wouldn't be particularly enlightening either.”

Emily's eyes went to her hairline. “What on earth was your bribe?” noting the wideness of Sabrina's brown eyes.

Kelly shook her head and cut in before Kris could answer. “Um... no. That would be telling, and we promised.”

Emily gazed at Sabrina. “Not even for your favorite niece,” batting her lashes. Sabrina snorted.

“*Especially* for my favorite niece,” she confirmed.

Emily pouted, but before she could up the ante again, JJ spoke up. “Well, whatever the reason, we're glad you came too. We wouldn't have met otherwise, and I'm really glad we did.”

“Hear! Hear!” Garcia agreed, raising her glass of orange juice in a toast. The others grinned, but gamely lifted their cups and glasses, joining her. “And just think,” she added as they set the beverages down again, “we haven't even gotten to the real fun yet.”

“Oh, I don't know,” Kelly argued. “I thought that Halloween thing Friday night was fun.”

“It was,” Garcia said. “But there's the talent show tonight and then we've got a few days to do nothing but play in the parks.”

“That's right – you're performing in the talent show, aren't you?” JJ asked with a smile.

“Yeah – it's gonna be awesome.”

“Modesty, thy name is Garcia,” Emily snarked, though her smile was teasing. Garcia stuck out her tongue, causing laughter to ripple around the table.

 

************

“Well, it looks like Disney's put something in the water this morning,” Serena commented as she stepped into the food court seeing the groups of laughing conventioneers scattered throughout the seating area. Her companions looked around and nodded their agreement.

“Yeah, you kind of expect it from the people that work here,” Kelly replied, “but it's a little unusual from some of these guys. Especially with this whole murder business.” She reached for a bagel, but both Serena and Tracey shook their heads no. “But...?”

“They're not New York bagels, hon. Do you really want to chance it?”

Kelly grimaced. “Thanks, ‘Rena,” she said, moving over to the station that was making omelets. Serena snagged a couple Danishes and then followed. Tracey moved over to the waffle making station. In just a few minutes, they were searching for a table.

“Crowded this morning,” Serena said as she weaved her way to an open seat on the far side of the restaurant. She put her tray down and grabbed an empty chair from a nearby table. Kelly took the seat beside her and Tracey sat across from them both.

“Wow – that's better for a workout than taking the stairs at Hogan Place,” Tracey commented. “Aren't all these people supposed to be out playing tourist or something similar?”

“They are,” Serena returned with a smile. “Why do you think all these families are eating breakfast together this early?”

Tracey scowled. “Well, they need to be out somewhere... away from here.”

Serena turned towards Kelly who just shook her head. “Don't mind her,” she instructed. “She's just nervous.”

“About...?”

“Nothing... it's nothing,” Tracey instructed fiercely, glaring at Kelly who studiously avoided her gaze.

“About performing in the talent show tonight. Apparently she was bragging about her many skills before this convention and was pointedly told to put her money where her mouth is.”

“And do you have the skills to back up your mouth?” Serena asked without a hint of laughter or apology in her tone.

“Yes,” Tracey bit off. Serena reached over and patted her hand.

“Then you have nothing to worry about. I for one am looking forward to your performance.”

“You don't even know what I'm doing.”

“Doesn't mean I can't appreciate the beautiful woman doing it, does it?”

Completely flummoxed, Tracey's jaw dropped wide before she snapped it shut. Then she turned her attention to the food in front of her, methodically decimating Mickey's ears. Kelly's eyes met Serena's and she mouthed ‘thank you' before turning her focus to her own breakfast. Serena just smiled.

“So,” she asked a few minutes later when they had sated their first pangs of hunger, “what are your thoughts on the conference... murder notwithstanding?”

Kelly and Tracey exchanged glances and Tracey shrugged, motioning for Kelly to speak first. “I've enjoyed it,” she replied honestly. “I've met some new people and made some contacts; learned some things I don't think I'd have had the opportunity to otherwise; and even had the chance to get to know some of my colleagues a little better. God knows there's not much time for socialization in the DA's office.”

“Yeah, I have to say I don't miss that part of it,” Serena commented.

“That reminds me,” Tracey said, suddenly looking for all the world like a cobra with its prey in sight. “Why are you here? Or rather... *how* are you here? You don't work in the DA's office anymore.”

“That doesn't mean I'm not associated with law enforcement, Tracey,” holding the eyes that met hers across the table squarely. “I'm actually teaching now.”

“Prosecutors?”

“I'm teaching at a law enforcement academy.”

“Do you miss it?” Kelly cut in, hating the sudden rise in tension at the table. “Prosecuting, I mean.”

Serena held Tracey's eyes for another moment before she turned to face Kelly. “Sometimes,” she answered truthfully. “Other times... not so much. But I do enjoy what I'm doing now, so it's all good. And that's what counts, right?”

“I think it's wonderful,” Kelly offered.

“So do I,” Tracey agreed unexpectedly. “God knows we've all had moments when we wondered whether this job was worth it at the end of the day.”

“Even you, Tracey?” Serena asked kindly.

“Especially me – you know those days when you can hear your mother nagging in your ear?” getting nods from her tablemates. “Sometimes all I have to do is answer the phone to hear that.” The other two women cringed, knowing exactly what Tracey was referencing. “And given that my mother is a typical New York Jewish mother,” she added, letting the thought trail off when she saw the dawning understanding in the eyes across from her. “Exactly,” she confirmed. “So even me.”

“Well,” Serena said as she stood, “we have one more day of convention then the talent show tonight which should be fun. Are either of you staying on after today?”

“We all are, actually. Somehow everyone managed to get time off for a few days.” Serena's eyes widened.

“I'd love to know the blackmail that pulled *that* off,” causing her companions to laugh. And it was to that sound that they left the food court and headed towards their final day of conventioning.

 

 

Chapter XLVI

“House of Pie – Marshal Marshall Mann speaking.”

Click.

“House of Pie – Marshal Marshall Mann speaking.”

Detective Sergeant Bornlan pulled the phone from her ear and stared at the screen with a frown. Then she slid it back into place and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I'm sorry. I'm trying to reach the Albuquerque office of the US Marshal Service.”

“Well, you've hit the jackpot. It's your dime – what can we do for you?” Bornlan blinked. She didn't know what she expected, but she was pretty sure this wasn't it. Before she could speak, she heard the voice on the other end speak again. “Hello? You still there?”

“Yes – sorry. I'm trying to reach Marshal Mary Shannon.”

“She's not in the office at the moment. I'm her partner - can I take a message for her?”

Bornlan blew out an impatient breath. “This is Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan from the Orange County Sheriff's Department. I believe she might be in possession of some information pertaining to a murder investigation I'm currently conducting. I really need to talk to her. Can you have her call me as soon she comes in?”

Marshall sighed deeply and Bornlan slumped, pretty sure she wasn't going to like what was going to come out of his mouth.

“Detective, she's on assignment. It could be a day or two before she'd able to contact you.”

“Dammit! Listen, Marshal... what did you say your name was?”

“ Marshall ... Marshal Marshall Mann.”

“Seriously?”

“Would you make something like that up?”

“Um... not even close.”

“Yeah – trust me... neither would I.”

“Fair enough. Listen, Marshall , it's incredibly important I reach her.”

“Look, Detective – I understand that. I promise the next time I hear from her, I'll pass along your message. Let me have your number and I'll have her get in touch with you. It's the best I can do for you at the moment.”

Bornlan closed her eyes and blew her bangs off her forehead. “Thanks, Marshall . If that's the best you can do, I guess it'll have to do.” She rattled off her number.

“Got it. With any luck she'll be checking in the next hour or so and I'll pass this on.”

“I appreciate it, Marshall .” And without another word, Bornlan hung up the phone and slumped deeper into her chair.

“No luck?”

Teresa opened her eyes and met the blue gaze fixed on her. She straightened, only to lean forward with her elbows on her thighs and her hands dangling between her knees. “Not the kind we need,” she sighed. “Marshal Shannon is on assignment. I got in touch with her partner in Albuquerque , but of course he wouldn't give me any information. He's going to pass on the message to her as soon as she checks in with him, so hopefully we'll hear from her soon.”

“Do you think she is the guilty party?”

Bornlan bit her lip thoughtfully, closing her eyes and raking her free hand through her hair as she lifted the other to put her phone away. After several moments of contemplation, Bornlan opened her eyes again and shook her head.

“You know, Shana – I don't think she is.”

“Then...?”

“I think she may have taken the murderer into custody.”

Kennian frowned. “I am not certain I understand. How did you reach this conclusion?”

Bornlan rose and jerked her head towards the stacks of paper they had been going through for the past hour. “C'mere,” pulling out the sheets she'd been reading over just before she'd started frantically making phone calls – ending with her call to Albuquerque . Bornlan laid out the sheets in front of Kennian and then stepped back, allowing her partner to reach her own conclusions.

Kennian looked over each page slowly. Finally she put them back on the table in a neat stack and looked at Bornlan. “I still do not understand. I do not see why you do not believe Mary Shannon is a viable candidate as a murder suspect. After all, the doctor told us it was a professional hit – is a Federal Marshal not a professional?”

“Of course she is a professional – practically everyone on the law enforcement side of the house could be considered a professional if you look at it that way.”

“You are not looking at it that way.” The statement was flat.

“No. Not now. Look,” moving the papers around and spreading them out in front of Kennian. “Mary Shannon never checked in to the convention. According to Jackie, she didn't even get to Orlando until yesterday afternoon - *after* the murder was committed. AND,” stressing the word and holding up a hand to keep Shana from cutting in, “she did an almost immediate turn around departure to Washington , D.C. ”

“All right – she's not our murderer, but she knows who is.”

“I think so, yes.”

“Why?”

Bornlan sighed. She hadn't realized Kennian was as green as she seemed to be. Nevertheless, it was her job to teach the rookie to the best of her ability, so she sighed and pulled another sheet forward. “Okay, look – everyone... *everyone* on these lists except Mary Shannon was checked into to their conventions before they started Friday morning, correct?” Kennian nodded. “And everyone from these lists is still here, right?” waiting for Shana to agree again. “All right, we know Mary is missing, but if we eliminate her as a suspect, who does that leave us?”

“No one!!” Kennian said in a frustrated tone.

“What about the instructors... those who were brought in to teach the professionals? They didn't check into the convention. They simply showed up to do their presentations.”

Kennian's eyes started to sparkle. “One of them is missing?”

“One of them is missing. AND she was on the same plane headed to Washington , D.C. as our missing Marshal.”

“You think she was placed under arrest?”

Bornlan shook her head. “I think she's been placed into protective custody.”

“Why?”

“I don't have all the answers yet – including why the government would protect her or what her motive was. Her name's not on the list.”

“This just gets curiouser and curiouser.”

“C'mon, Alice ,” Bornlan invited with a chuckle. “Let's see if we can find out what's on the other side of the rabbit hole before Marshal Shannon calls back.” Together they headed across the hall to access the computer, hoping Jackie had dug up more information they could use.

 

************

“So,” Gabrielle asked as she and Xena entered the back area of the main convention room, “are you gonna share your theory with Detectives Bornlan and Kennian?” They waved to Devon as they crossed the hallway. Xena paused with her hand on the door and shrugged.

“If they ask. Kennian already has a problem with me. I don't think she'll be thrilled to know I solved their murder before they did.” She pulled the door open. “Shit,” she muttered as realization sank in. Gabrielle frowned, then glanced at the room and understood Xena's comment immediately. The room was still set for the storytelling lecture she'd given the previous evening. And while it was perfect for the coming talent show, it wasn't really what they needed for the day's seminars.

“Damn... I forgot about that.”

Xena rubbed her forehead. “It should be all right. The breakout rooms are still set for the seminars. I'll just ask Rita to move lunch in here.”

Gabrielle nodded. “I'll go see about letting everyone know.”

“I'll take care of breakfast too,” Xena said as they headed in opposite directions. “Be right back.”

Gabrielle nodded and went in search of their associates.

 

************

“I have to admit I kinda like this, Sammie. It's nice being able to have lunch together,” Brooke said as Sam took a seat beside her.

“Yeah, but I kinda miss having a table to eat at.”

Olivia, sitting nearby, chuckled. “It's better than a stakeout. No steering wheel or gear shift to work around.”

Lindsay nodded. “That's true,” licking some butter from her thumb. “And the food is much better.”

“Not a hot dog fan, Inspector?” Andy asked, laughing when Lindsay and Olivia both shook their heads.

“You can only eat so many hot dogs,” Jo commented with a grimace.

“Speaking for the doctors present, I'm sure we all appreciate your high regard for your health,” Melinda said dryly.

Mac snickered. “It could be worse – you could all have to subsist on the MRE's the military gets stuck with out in the field,” laughing at the faces Sam and Janet made.

“I have to agree,” Natalie said with a shudder. “I remember those.”

“Did you serve?” Annabelle asked curiously.

“Only as a journalist,” Nat responded with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. “I couldn't hack the food,” she added before the moment grew too solemn, garnering her the laughter she expected.

“You know what I want to know,” Blake said before silence could settle over them. “I want to know if we're ever gonna find out who really killed Desdemona. I think I could turn it into a best seller if we just knew who the killer was.”

Scribbs snorted. “Only if the police have more information than we do.”

“You could always make it a fictional work,” Bones commented. “Then the killer can be anyone you want it to be.”

“That doesn't keep us from wanting to know who the actual killer is though,” from Kris.

“Well, all I know is if they don't figure it out soon, it's gonna be a moot point. We won't any of us be here for a denouement,” Nikki stated as Helen took her hand, earning her nods from the assembled women. Then their discussion turned to their plans for the week following the convention.

 

************

“Detective Bornlan? This is Marshal Mary Shannon. My partner said....”

“Yes, Marshal Shannon . Thank you for responding so quickly,” she said, though it had been the better part of three hours since she'd spoken to Marshal Mann in Albuquerque . Bornlan knew she'd been lucky to have caught him in the office so early and suspected it had a lot to do with her current case. “Listen, Marshal – I'm investigating a murder here in Orlando and I need to ask you some questions.”

“Detective, I was barely in Orlando long enough to get my luggage from baggage claim before I was put on assignment out of there. I'm not sure I can help you.”

“I think you can, Marshal. I believe your latest assignment has something to do with my primary suspect.”

“Detective, do you know what my job entails?”

“Of course.”

“Then you have to know that I can't help you if it puts someone in my charge in danger.”

“Marshal, if she is in your custody, I'm not gonna come looking for her. It just means I can close the case. That way, no one else will come looking for her later either. It won't be a *cold* case – it will be a *closed* one.”

Mary sighed. Just as her charge had intimated, the detectives had followed her trail right to Mary, and there her trail would stop. It made her shake her head in aggravation, but she didn't get to pick and choose who went into witness protection. In fairness, the other woman hadn't been a problem. And if what Marshall told her was true, they didn't even have to bother setting anything up for her once they got to Albuquerque . Mary simply had to get her there; after that, she would disappear.

“What would you like to know, Detective?”

“I need to know who you're protecting.”

“Detective....”

“Marshal, please.”

“Detective, if I give you the information you need – you swear you're going to close the investigation?”

“Absolutely.”

“All right. Let me put you on speaker. But Detective? Make sure you get everything you need. This is the only phone call you're going to get.”

Bornlan nodded, though Shannon couldn't see her response. She put her own phone on speaker and waved Kennian over. It was time to get their answers.

 

************

Bailey's phone, which had been ominously silent since Desdemona's death, rang – startling everyone at the table. The AVID people had been trying to figure out what they were going to do and had as yet to come to a consensus.

“This is Bailey,” she answered.

“It'd better be,” the voice on the other end joked. “It's who I was calling.”

“Sallie!” her exclamation drawing looks from the rest of her compatriots.

“Listen, sweetheart. I just wanted to let you know that everything at AVID will remain the same at the moment... except you'll be able to focus on your writing now.”

“Sallie?”

Sallie laughed. “It's all right, Bailey. I own AVID now.” There was silence for a long moment. “I love you, Bailey.”

“I love you too, Sallie… so much. I can't tell you....”

“I know, sweetheart. I love you too. I just wanted to let you know. See you soon, all right?”

“All right, Sallie. Bye.”

“Bye, honey.”

When Bailey hung up her phone, all eyes turned her way. She shook her head and rose. “I need some air. I'll be back.”

“Actually,” Detective Kennian objected, taking Bailey by the elbow, “you all need to come with us. “We know who killed Desdemona and how and why.”

“Sounds like a game of Clue,” Frank chattered. “Miss Scarlet in the library with the candlestick.”

“Shut up, Frank.” And as a group, they rose to follow Kennian and Bailey to the main con room.

 

 

Chapter XLVII

Barbara wheeled herself over to where Gabrielle stood talking quietly to Xena and Diana. She waited for a break in the conversation before clearing her throat and watching their attention shift to her immediately. She gave them a weak smile.

“I'm sorry to interrupt, but do you have a minute, Gabrielle?”

“Of course, Barbara,” Gabrielle replied with her own gentle smile. She whirled back towards Xena and Diana. “Excuse us a minute?” seeing the minutest nod of Xena's head. Then Gabrielle turned back to Barbara. “Walk with me?” knowing her friend would understand the spirit of her request.

They moved away from the monitoring table and headed out the door towards the green room. Helena came up beside Xena and Diana as they disappeared. Xena cocked an eyebrow at her.

“Everything all right?”

Helena shrugged. “Yeah. Red just wanted to apologize to Gabrielle for missing her thing last night, ya know?”

“Yeah – is everything all right?” Xena repeated and this time Helena grinned, recognizing the difference in the question.

“Yeah... everything's great. We... we talked some stuff out. It was good.”

“So I didn't make things worse?” Diana asked wryly.

“Only to start with,” Helena stated truthfully. “But at least it got things started.”

“Maybe I should go talk to her.”

“She wants to talk to you too... especially about letting Dinah hang with you last night. But wait til she's done talking to Gabrielle, okay? She really is embarrassed about missing Gabrielle's performance last night.”

“I loved having her. Dinah's a delightful young woman. She's welcome to hang with me anytime.”

“Who's being hung from what?” Dinah asked as she walked up on the conversation.

“Nobody,” Helena said succinctly. “How you doing, Kid? Shields still holding?”

“I'm good. And the energy in here isn't really that negative. I honestly don't think the killer is here.”

“Interesting observation, Miss... Dinah,” Bornlan corrected with a swift look at the nametag Dinah wore as she approached the small group. “May I ask what brought you to that conclusion?”

Dinah nervously tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and glanced around at the expressionless faces of her companions before meeting the detective's eyes squarely. “It's just... the vibe in here is all wrong, you know?” she said with a feeble smile and a shrug. She tucked her hair again, twirling the end around her finger. “I mean... no one seems nervous or upset – just kind of frustrated with the whole thing. Like this DIVA person got killed just to mess up their plans more than anything else.” She noticed the odd look Bornlan was giving her and tucked her hair behind her ear once more. “What?” looking around. “Did I say something wrong?”

Bornlan crossed her arms over her chest and cocked her head up to peer carefully at Dinah. “That's very astute for someone your age.”

“College psych course,” she answered, nodding her head for emphasis. Bornlan held her gaze for a moment longer before she turned brown eyes towards Xena and jerked her head for privacy.

 

************

“So we're okay?” Barbara asked softly as she and Gabrielle lurked on the loading dock just outside the kitchen doors. Gabrielle brushed an errant lock of red hair from Barbara's face and Barbara closed her eyes as the tender hand came around to cup her face. Though she was certain Gabrielle was closer to Helena's age than her own, there was something so soothing... so maternal in her caring and in her touch. For a moment, Barbara was content to simply breathe it in.

“Barbara,” Gabrielle coaxed, causing green eyes to meet. “We're fine. You and Helena needed the time, and gods know I of anyone in the world understand needing some time alone with your warrior,” smiling when Barbara blushed. “Especially after a fight. Besides, Dinah and Diana got it all for you on DVD. You can watch it later.” She paused. “Is everything all right?”

This time Barbara smiled. “Everything is... amazing.” She held out her hand and Gabrielle accepted it without hesitation. “C'mon... I still need to talk to Diana. I owe her an apology.”

“You probably don't, but it never hurts to offer one.”

They returned to the convention room and Barbara took Diana aside even as Xena jerked her head towards Gabrielle. Dinah and Helena moved to the monitoring table to wait.

 

************

Xena padded up onto the platform and whistled loudly, instantly silencing the room and drawing every eye to her. She didn't speak – instead she simply motioned towards the audience and waited for Gabrielle to step in front of her.

“Ladies... thank you for your attention. The police have asked that everyone remain in the main room for a few more minutes. They have an announcement to make.”

The murmurs started immediately, but they were happy to see that most of the women who had been seated remained so, and those who had been standing began looking for a place to sit. Those who had gotten up seemed intent on returning their dishes to the service table where they were being collected, then marched immediately back to their seats. Soon the whole room was in a state of quiet anticipation.

Helena casually lifted a hand to Dinah's shoulder, causing the younger woman to glance up. Blue eyes met and Helena cocked a dark brow in question. Dinah smiled and patted her hand, then allowed her attention to float across the room as the second detective entered with a new group of people. It only took a moment for them to be recognized as Desdemona's crew from AVID. They filed into the room, and the door closed noisily behind them, causing everyone in the room to jump at the sound.

Kennian lined the AVID people up against the wall, then nodded to Bornlan who was waiting casually by the monitoring table. Bornlan casually stepped onto the stage and accepted the microphone Gabrielle handed her.

“Thank you,” she muttered quietly, though most understood her words since the room had gone completely silent the moment she set foot on the stage. She turned her attention to the myriad of people staring back at her and cleared her throat.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” giving a cursory nod to the AVID employees ensconced along the wall by Kennian. “For those of you who do not recognize me, I am Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan and I'm the lead detective on the Von A'Calandra murder case. I just wanted to let you know that you have all been exonerated of any charges in the case and that you're all free to go about your business.” She handed the mic back to Gabrielle and started to exit the stage.

Silence in the room for several seconds as they contemplated her statement. Then....

“That's it? That's all you're going to tell us?” from a voice in the crowd. Bornlan's head whipped around to see who had spoken, but it was quiet by the time she got back to center stage and looked around.

“Who said that?”

“Does it really matter?” Lucy asked, stepping around the monitoring table and leaning against it with her arms crossed. “We all have the right to a few answers.”

Bornlan cocked an eyebrow. “How do you figure? I've just told you you're all in the clear. Isn't that enough?”

Lucy shook her head and snorted. “Would it be enough for you, Detective? Can you read a mystery novel and just stop before you find out whodunit? C'mon, Detective... cut us a little slack here.”

Bornlan held Lucy's gaze for a long moment, then her frown morphed into a reluctant smile. “All right – I see your point. I can't go into details, but I can give you the bare essentials.” Bornlan took a deep breath and looked around the room – honestly, this was almost worse than a press conference.

“First of all, let me assure you that the things that Detective Kennian and I have learned about you... the secrets that Desdemona held over each of you – they no longer exist. My tech team couldn't pull them up, so as far as we're concerned, they never did. They won't be part of the official report.” She felt as well as heard the sigh of relief flow throughout the room.

“Let me also add that I know no one in this room is mourning this woman's death. Give what we've learned about her, I can't say I blame any of you. However, she's as entitled to justice as much as the next person. Unfortunately, the most justice she's gonna get is for us to say her case is closed. Her killer has been placed into protective custody by US Marshals. She's going into the Witness Protection Program.”

Alex blinked and clutched Olivia's hand tighter, drawing concerned brown eyes to her. “At least we know why Mary was called away,” she murmured. Then their attention was called back to the detective standing casually on the stage.

“I don't know why,” Bornlan was responding to a question from the assembled women. “I was simply told that she was in custody and my investigation was over.”

“So who did it? Who's the murderer?”

“Katie O'Donnell.”

Dead silence, then.... “Who? What? The artist? Who? Why? Is this some kind of joke?” and other mutterings. Only one set of eyes widened in astonished recognition and she remained silent. Bornlan let the rumbling continue for another moment, then held up her hand for quiet.

“I really can't tell you more than that. My orders come from pretty high up.” She turned and looked directly at Xena. “Government high up,” she added. Xena didn't even blink and Bornlan turned back to the audience. “If you'll excuse me, ladies and gentlemen....” She stepped back and passed the microphone back to Gabrielle.

“Wait,” Graham called from the side where he and the other AVID people had been standing. “What about us?” motioning along the line of them.

Bornlan shrugged and accepted the mic from Gabrielle once more to keep from having to yell across the hall. “I suppose that's up to your new owners. I'm sure you'll hear from them sooner or later,” holding Bailey's eyes for a moment. “Or check with her lawyer – he should have her papers.” Then she handed the mic back to Gabrielle and left the stage.

“So that's it?” Gabrielle asked as she turned the mic off before holding it out for Diana to retrieve, nodding her thanks when it was taken.

“That's it. Case closed,” Bornlan agreed. She looked at Xena again a knowing twinkle in her eye. “You knew, didn't you?”

“I figured out the who yesterday. I think I know why. Not sure about the how, but I really don't have enough facts without hacking into the police computers to get the autopsy details.”

“Could you?” Bornlan asked, then snickered at the level look Xena gave her. “Never mind.” She cleared her throat. “If you had it figured out, why didn't you tell us? Why let your attendees wonder?” She paused a moment, then continued. “Would you have told us if we hadn't figured it out or just left it as an open case?”

“I would've given you my suspicions, though I don't think Detective Kennian would have appreciated it.”

Bornlan smirked. “She's young. She has yet to learn that you take your help where you can find it. So tell me how you figured it out – because Katie's name wasn't on the list of people being blackmailed.”

“You first,” Xena countered. Bornlan just rolled her eyes.

 

************

“But why?” Mary asked as they got off the plane in Albuquerque. “Why give up your whole life for your cousin? And why wait til now? I mean all that did was cause all kinds of grief for a whole lot of people who didn't really deserve it.” They headed down to baggage claim while Katie thought about her answer.

“Why now?” Katie finally replied. “It was the perfect opportunity. The sheer number of suspects made it easy for me to get it done without casting suspicion on myself or my cousin. And by the time the police started putting things together, the book was taken care of and I was long gone. Given what was in that book, they would all have been suspects regardless – I just worked it to my advantage... and theirs.” She grabbed her suitcase from the belt, then resumed her place beside the marshal.

“And was it worth it?”

Katie smiled. “Since this makes things right for Bailey, Uncle Sal will make sure I'm well taken care of. The fact that it will make the world a little better place for a lot of people is just a bonus.”

Mary studied Katie quizzically. “It really doesn't bother you that not only did you kill this woman in cold blood, but that she suffered horrifically for several hours before she died does it?” She stepped forward and recovered her luggage. Together they headed out of the airport.

“Not at all, Marshal. I have done much worse to many more for much less. This was personal – a debt to be paid.”

Mary shook her head. “I'm not sure I understand. But then, I'm still not clear on why you needed me.” She held up her hand before Katie could speak. “I get that the trail ends here. I just don't see why that was necessary; you obviously could have simply disappeared.”

“Yes, but then the case would have remained open. And despite the fact that I was happy to use all those women to cover my tracks long enough to get away, I wouldn't leave murder hanging over anyone's head. This way there's an ending – they have a killer that will allow them to close the case. No strings left hanging – problem solved.”

Mary shook her head again, but didn't argue. At this point she didn't care if she understood – she just needed to get Katie on her way as someone else. Then her job here... however twisted... would be done.

 

************

“It was fairly straightforward,” Xena said to Bornlan as they watched the slow exodus of people from the room. Gabrielle, having already heard Xena's story, had taken charge of getting the last of the seminars underway and was busy getting folks herded towards their proper breakout rooms.

“I noticed Katie's absence, but I didn't take much note of it at first – even when you and Detective Kennian informed us of Desdemona's murder. After all, she'd only been contracted to be here on Friday to teach her seminars. The instructors were given the option of staying, but there's nothing to compel them to stay for the weekend.”

“Except for a free weekend at Disney.”

“There is that,” Xena replied drolly. “However, when I realized she was missing, I went looking. It threw me briefly when she wasn't on Desdemona's list. So I went looking for a connection to someone who was.”

“And you found it.”

“I found it.” Xena looked out at the now empty convention room. “Have you talked to her?”

“Not yet. You wanna come along?” pushing off the wall she was leaning against.

For answer, Xena gestured her to lead the way. Diana, Lucy and Dinah watched them go. “Wonder if we'll ever know the full story,” Dinah thought aloud.

Lucy snorted. “I'm not holding my breath.”

Diana grinned. “Me either.”

 

************

They found Shana Kennian sitting in the room the police officers had been using as an office. Bornlan acknowledged her with a nod, then turned her attention to the woman sitting with her. “Do you know why you're here, Ms Bonner?”

“I can only assume that you believe I had something to do with Desdemona's murder, but I assure you I had nothing to do with it. I didn't know what Katie was doing.”

“We believe you, Ms Bonner,” Teresa assured her as she motioned to herself and the other two women in the room. “Do you have any idea why she did this?” Bailey shook her head.

“No... I mean, she knew I was unhappy at AVID because we talked about it. But she just encouraged me to get out – to find something that would make me happy.”

“And what about your step-father?”

“Sallie? I didn't talk to him about it at all. He has enough responsibilities in his life without worrying about my screw-ups. I wasn't going to ask him to fix my mistakes.”

“Would he have... do you think? If he'd known, I mean.”

Bailey nodded. “Absolutely. He's always looked out for me from the time I was little and he became my dad.” The three exchanged looks and Bailey looked at each of them. “Is it all right if I go now? I... we... the AVID folks are getting together to figure out where we go from here – if there is anything left for us at AVID or if we should make a fresh start somewhere else.” Bornlan nodded and Bailey rose from her seat. “Detective?” she asked as she reached the door. “Do you know where my cousin is?” Bornlan shook her head no and Bailey's shoulders slumped. “All right – thanks.” Then she left without a backwards glance.

“Well that pretty much fills in the rest of the blanks we had. And knowing exactly who Sallie is means this investigation is officially closed.” Bornlan held out her hand to Xena. “I'd say it's been fun, but....”

Xena accepted the hand and squeezed it briefly. “If you two want fun, stay for the talent show tonight. It's gonna be something else.”

Bornlan smiled. “We might just take you up on that.”

“Good,” Xena answered, releasing the hand she held. “We'll look forward to it.” Then she followed Bailey out the door. Kennian just tilted her head in Bornlan's direction.

“So we are planning to observe this talent event?”

“If we can lock this stuff up quickly enough, you betcha! Given the BS this case was from beginning to end, I think we deserve a little entertainment.”

“As long as we do not become part of it,” Kennian stated flatly. Then they turned their attention to wrapping things up.

 

 

Chapter XLVIII

“Well, ladies – what did you think?” Gabrielle asked as both conferences resumed their places in the big room. Although this hadn't been the ending either she or Xena had foreseen, Gabrielle had to admit that she was pretty happy with how things had turned out. It was nice to see women from both conventions making friends across the aisle as it were. She had a feeling there would be some interesting alliances coming out of this.

A loud cheer greeted her words and she smiled, exchanging looks with Xena. Xena nodded her agreement and Gabrielle turned back to the large audience. “So maybe we should do this again some time... without the murder, of course?” Another raucous shout of approval went up and Gabrielle let it run for a long minute before she held up her hands for quiet. The sound died down and the women sat back expectantly, waiting for Gabrielle to speak again. She didn't disappoint.

“All right... so – you've all gotten the information from the seminars you each participated in, and we'll be sending each of you a DVD of the all the activities that took place on your side of the hall. And before you ask, it will include the storytelling seminar we had last night as well as tonight's talent show. However, before that happens, we have to *have* the talent show,” garnering more laughter and applause. “So with that in mind, I'm gonna bring the first Women in Law Enforcement and Women in Media conventions to a close with the reminder that the talent show starts at eight o'clock. And trust me, ladies… this is something you don't want to miss.”

“So please – go get something to eat and relax for the next few hours. Doors will open at seven-thirty. Performers, we need you here by seven o'clock.” Gabrielle cast a glance in Xena's direction and Xena shrugged at her in return. “That's it... that's all we've got. Now shoo... out. We've got work to do. We'll see you back here in a little while.”

Taking their cue, the women rose almost as a singular body, applauding politely before the buzz of their conversation escalated to make a comforting background noise as they exited the room. Soon only the core few remained in the room – and Xena looked around in satisfaction.

“Well ladies – I think we could call this a success.” She turned to Lucy. “Is Scud coming in to do the sound tonight?”

Lucy glanced at her watch and nodded. “Yeah... he should be here in the next fifteen minutes or so. Then we'll get started setting up stuff for tonight.”

“You got all the help you'll need?”

“I think so. The DEBS offered to give us a hand and most of our work is gonna be adding the curtain.”

“All right. You know how to find us if….” Lucy cut her off, shooing her off much as Gabrielle had done to the attendees only a few minutes earlier.

“We've got it under control, boss. Now get outta here, will ya? Rumor has it you and Diana here are supposed to be singing; Barbara and Dinah are juggling and Gabrielle is telling stories. So go get ready... or whatever it is you creative types need to do. We've got things covered.”

Xena looked a little flummoxed at the speech. Gabrielle just took her arm and said, “Thank you, Lucy. Let's go, troops,” motioning the rest ahead of her and they dutifully headed out the door. Helena hung back for a moment.

“I'll be back in to do the camera set up. It shouldn't take much, but....”

“Take your time. We won't be back here for at least an hour,” Lucy assured her. “We're gonna grab a bite to eat.” Helena nodded her thanks and moved to catch up to Barbara. Barbara extended her free hand and Helena took it as a matter of course.

“Everything all right?” Barbara asked, bringing Helena's knuckles to her lips briefly.

“Yeah – I'm on camera duty tonight since you and Dinah are doing your thing, remember? I just wanted to let Lucy know I'd be back soon to help set things up.”

Barbara nodded. “Gabrielle's had snacks delivered to their suite and invited us to join them.”

“Sounds good,” Helena agreed. “The way I hear it, you still owe her a story.”

“Yeah, I do. You okay with that?”

Helena gave Barbara a fond look that bordered on amusement. “Red, if we can't trust them,” gesturing to Xena, Gabrielle and Diana, “who in the world *can* we trust?”

“Good point. I just know how personal that story is for you and Dinah and I told her I needed to ask you two first.”

“And of course Dinah said yes.”

“I said yes to what, exactly? What am I being accused of now?”

“Being perky,” Helena replied flatly. Dinah narrowed her eyes in Helena's direction.

“That's not a crime, ya know. Especially here.”

“She does have a point,” Diana agreed solemnly.

“No kidding,” Helena mock-groaned. “It's fucking disturbing really... when you think about it. I mean, c'mon... it's not natural. Normal people... people who live outside of Gotham and Metropolis... don't act this happy all the time. It's just not natural,” Helena repeated and looked at Barbara who was doing her best not to laugh. “You should probably run some tests on the water around here – or check into whatever they're offering in the employee kitchen. It's got to be some sort of drug therapy regimen or something.”

“Really?” Barbara asked, her grin wide and infectious. Helena was having a hard time holding onto her scowl and Barbara could see the blue eyes twinkling.

“Yes,” Helena replied emphatically, drawing chuckles for the rest of the group. “It's probably the next great criminal plot to take over the world.”

Barbara lifted her free hand and patted Helena's, glad they had reached Xena's and Gabrielle's suite. “I'll look into it, Pinky. But first, we have a talent show to enjoy.”

Helena cut her eyes at Barbara and removed her hand from Barbara's grip so she could cross her arms over her chest. “You're pandering to me, Barbara.” Helena pouted and green eyes widened in an innocent expression.

“Not at all, Kitten. We can run all the tests you like... after the talent show.”

“Speaking of,” Xena cut in, seeing both Barbara and Helena start chuckling at the ridiculousness of their conversation. “How did you manage to escape performing?” pinning Helena in place. Helena simply offered her a wry expression.

“Probably because I don't have a creative bone in my body.”

Barbara frowned. “That's not true, Hel. Your particular talents simply do not lend themselves well to the stage,” causing Helena's eyes to pop open before she started laughing, followed immediately by the rest. Barbara reconsidered her words and couldn't stop the furious blush that started at her toenails when the implication of what she said occurred to her. “That's not what I meant,” she muttered.

Helena swooped over and dropped into Barbara's lap, wrapping her arms around Barbara's neck and nuzzling her like a cat. Barbara gripped the arms of her chair to keep from embracing Helena in return. “It may not have been what you meant,” Helena whispered in a voice so low Barbara almost missed it, even as close as she was. “But we both know it's true.”

Barbara's facial muscles didn't twitch, but she couldn't keep the twinkle out of her eye. “Maybe,” she responded without hesitation. “But if you don't be nice to me, it's gonna be a long, LONG time before you get to demonstrate them to me again.”

Helena captured Barbara's mouth with her own, kissing her with increasing passion until Barbara's hands left the arms of the chair and wrapped themselves around Helena's body of their own accord. Helena smiled into the kiss, easing down the intensity until they were slowly pulling away from one another with gentle, chaste kisses. Then she leaned forward and breathed into Barbara's ear. “I'm always nice.”

Barbara traced her face tenderly and smiled. “Yes... you are.” After another moment, they remembered they were in a room with four of their closest friends, and Barbara ducked her head into Helena's chest. Helena looked around, then whispered into Barbara's ear.

“They're not paying attention to us. We're alone.”

And it was true. The minute Helena had fallen into Barbara's lap the rest had removed themselves from the living area and into the master bedroom. Helena looked around again and chuckled, then removed herself from Barbara's lap.

“I'll go find them. It's not like they'll have gone very far.”

“We just went into the next room to retrieve the food. Devon laid the snacks out in our room and bathroom,” Xena commented as she opened the door so everyone else could exit in front of her carrying a laden tray before she crossed to the fridge and started removing beverages. “Coke okay for everyone? Or we've got milk. I don't think alcohol is a good choice before a performance.”

Dinah snorted. “Alcohol's never a good choice for me. Even Helena couldn't strengthen my walls enough for that.”

“What's that all about anyway?” Diana asked curiously. “I've never seen you do that before.”

Gabrielle squeezed Barbara's shoulder lightly as she handed her a drink, then made her way to sit beside Xena without a word. Barbara sighed, appreciating everyone's efforts to keep things casual. She wasn't much for PDAs, but the weekend had pushed her until she was glad for Helena's reassurance, and for friends who understood her need without making her feel more uncomfortable about it.

“It's....” Helena sighed and turned to Barbara who nodded her encouragement. “Did you read about the Gladiatrix incident – where meta-women were being kidnapped and forced to fight to the death for paying spectators?”

“I read the report,” Diana confessed, “but I don't remember....”

“I didn't put everything in the report,” Barbara muttered, causing all eyes to turn to her and Helena to take her hand.

“Let me tell it,” Dinah commanded, forcing their attention to her. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “When the women got taken, they were injected with a substance that brought their meta-skills to the fore. In Helena's case it made her more feral... and much more dangerous. She didn't recognize me at all, except as a familiar scent. Unfortunately, the feral part of her only remembered my scent as a threat to her security and she went on the attack as soon as I was put into the cell with her.”

“Was this for the paying customers?” Diana broke in to ask. Dinah shook her head.

“No – one of the ‘trainers' saw how she reacted to me and wanted to have a little fun. He wasn't happy with the ass kicking I'd handed him getting into the dungeon where the women were being kept and decided I needed to learn a lesson.”

Helena kept her eyes on the floor, trying to remember that the women Dinah was sharing her humiliation with were her friends – women who would not see or treat her any differently once they knew the truth. Barbara's hand in hers kept her grounded and the light scratching of her skull forced her to relax, especially when Dinah leaned forward and took her other hand, forcing Helena to look up and meet her smile.

“Go on, Kid,” she finally said. “Tell the rest.”

Dinah nodded and turned back to her audience, still holding Helena's hand. “I don't know how the drug worked, but it made her impervious to my TK and she was beating the crap out of me. When she had me down on the floor, I finally managed to break through the drug haze enough that Helena recognized who I was. She stopped fighting and backed away, curling into a corner.”

“I was pretty messed up physically – I suddenly understood just how easy she'd been going on me in sparring practice,” Dinah added with a smile. She turned to look at Helena who gave her a timid smile. “Mentally I was drowning in all the emotions I could feel coming from all those women and I didn't have the strength left to shield myself from it.” She drew a breath and let her eyes go distant. “I'm still not sure what triggered it, but after just a few minutes, Helena inched over beside me. Her eyes were still feral and I could hear a rumbling purr coming from her chest, but her hands were incredibly gentle... so different from what they'd been mere moments before. She nuzzled me softly – like a mama cat does to its babies – checking to see how much damage I had. My hands rested on her hips – not for any reason other than it was the easiest place for me to touch her and I needed the grounding that gave me. She wiped the blood off my face, cupping my cheeks tenderly as she looked into my eyes. Then she placed her forehead on mine and closed her eyes.

I still don't understand exactly what she did or how she did it, but in that moment, I felt like her strength was flowing through me. It was amazing, because though I was still hurt, I hurt less. Then she collapsed on top of me and I realized that what I'd felt from her was real, and she was in serious danger... again.”

“But you learned to control it?” Gabrielle asked, breaking the silence as Dinah tried to figure out how to end her story.

“Not right then,” Helena answered with a crooked smile. “When the jackass with the collar device came in and saw us together, he nearly had a shit fit. He ordered us separated and had Dinah treated, then he put the trainer into the ring in the next bout and gave Dinah and me a chance to recover. We were supposed to be his main event,” she added with a smirk. “What it did, besides give us time to recover physically, was to give Dinah a chance to get through to me psychically. So when we went into the ring, I was able to hold back long enough for Reese to get to me with the antidote.”

“That's astonishing,” Diana commented on a low whistle. “Does it work for anyone else?”

“We haven't tried it. It bothers Barbara that we do it at all.”

“That's not true,” Barbara broke in. “I don't want to see you suffer needlessly, Dinah... especially if there's something that can be done to make things better for you in a situation like this.”

“I know, Barbara,” shifting her body to kneel in front of Barbara and using her free hand to cover the clasp of Helena's and Barbara's hands. “But you don't like that Helena risks herself in ways that you don't understand and that you can't do anything about it other than sit by and watch,” Dinah stated gently. “And we're both aware of that, Barbara. It's why we only use this sparingly and only when there isn't another option.”

“If I can arrange a way to study it safely, would you be willing to give us a chance to do so? I believe Paula and I could remove most of the risk involved to both of you, and with the state-of-the-art equipment we have it might give Barbara some peace of mind by giving her an opportunity to at least monitor it. The scientist in her would probably appreciate the effort to understand it even if the lover wouldn't.”

“Please don't talk about me as if I'm not even here,” Barbara requested, though her voice was not sharp... just tired. “Where exactly could you find anything more state-of-the-art than the Delphi?”

Diana glanced at Gabrielle who gave her the barest of nods before she turned back to Barbara. “Home,” she responded softly. “Paradise Island.”

“Wait,” Dinah said, holding her hands up and rising to her feet. “That's real? There's really an island home full of immortal Amazon warriors?”

“Yep,” Diana said with a smile. “And we would be honored to have you as our guests.”

“Cool!” Dinah exclaimed. “I'd be a lab rat for the chance to visit... especially if it made us Amazons. Could we actually become Amazons?”

“Um... not to rain on your parade or anything, Kid, but don't you think you oughtta clear this with someone first, Diana? I mean I know it's supposed to be a secret and all. I'm pretty sure the people in charge are not gonna be real happy with you inviting five mortal women to join you, even if you can justify it by calling it scientific research.”

“Well, one of the nice things about being Wonder Woman is that I do have a little bit of leeway, especially in regards to bringing home amazing women who might possibly have something to contribute to our society. But even if that wasn't true, I'm still an Amazon Princess and that gives me special consideration as well.”

“So as Queen, your mother wouldn't mind having us basically sprung on her?”

Diana smiled and caught the slight motion from the corner of her eye. “My mother is Regent to the queen and if you decide you'd like to do this, I'll contact her tonight and let her know we should expect guests. Trust me – they'd know all about you before you even stepped foot on the plane.”

Barbara narrowed her eyes thoughtfully and cocked her head in question. “If your mother is the regent, how does that make you a princess?”

“For all intents and purposes, my mother is the queen, though she refuses to accept the title of anything other than Regent. She rules in the queen's stead, overseeing the Nation and its day-to-day operations as our queen prefers to live in the world of men. Therefore, as her daughter, the title of Princess falls to me – even when I'm not there.”

Helena's brow furrowed. “Why does your queen prefer to live here? I don't understand.”

Gabrielle stepped forward and smiled, her hands on Diana's shoulders keeping her from speaking. “It's all right, Helena. Most of the Amazons don't understand it either. They have simply learned to accept it for the truth that it is.”

Barbara straightened in her chair and bowed her head towards Gabrielle. “You're the Amazon Queen,” she stated flatly. Helena and Dinah exchanged startled glances, trying to figure out how they were supposed to act now, because Barbara's voice held complete conviction in its tone. Gabrielle held up a hand to Helena and Dinah, causing them to cease all movement. Then she tucked her hand under Barbara's chin and raised it until they were looking eye to eye again.

“I am. And we'd be happy to welcome you all into the Nation if you'd like to be a part of us.”

“Why didn't you tell me?” hurt coloring her tone.

“For the same reason you didn't share about Shiva's sister. It's just not something I go around announcing. I knew you'd find out when the time was right.”

Barbra smiled. “Fair enough. Can we...?”

“You don't have to make a decision today,” Gabrielle assured her. “But the sooner you let Diana know, the sooner arrangements can be made for your visit.”

“And you'll both be there?”

Gabrielle nodded with a smile. “We'll be there. We owe the sisters a visit soon.”

Barbara looked at Helena and Dinah for a long moment, then turned back to Diana. “Guess you better let your mother know to expect company soon.”

 

 

Chapter XLIX

“You sure you're all right with this, Max?” Amy asked as she and the DEBS made their way back down the hallway to the convention room.

Max nodded. “Sure... I mean, what the hell, right? We've actually gotten a lot out of this conference, and it's cool to be able to give a little back.”

“Besides,” Dom added with a smirk, “we'll have the best seats in the house, no?”

Amy chuckled. “Yeah, you probably will.” She knocked on the door and it opened almost immediately, showing Scud in the doorway with a finger over his lips. They exchanged glances and nodded their agreement, then followed him silently into the room....

... only to bite their lips to keep from laughing out when they caught sight of Lucy lip-synching and dancing her way across the stage. Scud had put Erasure's A Little Respect on the sound system and it filled the room. Another knock caused him to turn away from Lucy's performance to let Helena in and she raised her eyebrows at the tableau playing out in front of them.

“What the hell?” she whispered directly into Scud's ear, knowing he would understand the gist of her growl even if he couldn't make out the words. He shrugged.

“This is kinda of Lucy's redemption song. When she started making amends to try and win Amy back, this was the song she did it to. She doesn't know you guys are here yet.”

Helena shrugged. “All right. It's not like we don't have some time before the performers get here. Besides, I don't think she's unaware of us,” Helena commented with a nod towards the front of the room.

Scud looked up just to see Amy go flying down the aisle. Lucy had activated her “Amy, Be Mine” device and had thrown the image up on the large wall that formed the back of the stage. Max and Dom just exchanged eye rolls and headed towards the front at a much more sedate pace. Janet leaned into Scud's embrace with a smile and Helena just shook her head and got to work on the camera set up.

Already it was shaping up to be one hell of a party.

 

************

The woman hesitated in the doorway of the restaurant, removing her cover and tucking it under her arm as she scanned the room. Mac noticed the uniform as she walked in and wondered; she and Sam and Janet had shed their uniforms after they'd checked in for the convention. Even though she had yet to see any uniforms... until this one... she found it fairly easy to pick out the military people who had come for vacation. They just had a certain bearing about them. Still, there was something about being at Disney that caused even the staunchest military member to relax and dress like a civilian. So seeing a uniform now – worn with such precision and stiffness – made her hesitate.

“Excuse me, Soldier?” causing the woman to turn and allowed Mac her first good look at the woman's face.

“Ma'am? Can I help you?”

Mac smiled and shook her head, holding the woman's dark eyes and pointedly ignoring the scarring down one whole cheek. “I wondered if I could help you. You look a little lost.”

“Oh... I was looking for a friend. She invited me to dinner to meet some of her friends; they're here for some sort of meeting or something.” The woman shrugged. “I'm not really sure, but Natalie said it was important, so here I am.”

Mac's brows rose into her hairline. “Natalie... Natalie Green?”

“Yes – do you know her?”

“I do indeed. I had the opportunity to meet her this weekend as a matter of fact. C'mon... let's see if we can find her. I'm Mac, by the way,” extending her hand.

The woman held up her hand a moment; first she shifted the walking stick Mac hadn't noticed she was using then tucked her cover under her other arm before accepting the hand Mac offered. “Rory... Sergeant Rory Talbot.”

“Well, c'mon, Sergeant. Let's see if we can find our friends.”

“I wouldn't want to keep you from something important, ma'am.”

“I think *this* is important, Sergeant. And please call me Mac.”

“All right, Mac. I'm Rory, then.”

They walked slowly in deference to Rory's pronounced limp and looked around the room. When they didn't see Natalie, Rory risked a quick look at her watch. “I thought she asked me to meet her here at six. Perhaps I misunderstood.”

“My friends and I would be happy to have you join us, Rory, and in the meantime, I'll see if we can contact Natalie through the hotel.”

“I don't want to impose, ma.... Mac.”

“It's not an imposition if you're being invited,” leading her to a table where several of her compatriots were already seated. “Hey guys... this is Rory Talbot. Rory, please meet Sam Carter, Janet Fraiser, Sam McPherson, Brooke McQueen and Jordan Cavanaugh. Rory was supposed to meet Natalie Green for dinner, but she's a no-show at the moment, so I invited her to join us.”

“Yes, please do,” they invited, shifting closer together to add another chair to the table.

“I'm going to go make a phone call... see if we can find Natalie for you. Sam, will you please order me the scallops and the steak salad – medium – if the server comes before I get back?”

“Oh ma'am, I can't....”

“Sergeant, I respect the awards you're wearing, but please don't make me pull rank. I haven't had to be an officer all weekend and it's been *really* nice.”

Rory had the grace to look chagrined. “I've stepped into it, haven't I?”

“Not yet,” Sam Carter assured her with a grin, “but you've gotta be careful with that one,” jerking her head in Mac's direction. “She's JAG.”

“Naturally,” Rory muttered, causing the rest to laugh. “I appreciate it, Mac. Thanks.”

Mac nodded and walked away from the table, making her way back to the restaurant's foyer area. A quick call to the main desk connected her to Natalie's room, and Mac was reassured that Natalie and her friends were headed to the main building. She spoke to the maitre`d and she motioned a waiter to move another table to the one where Mac and her friends were seated.

“They're on their way over,” Mac stated. “I figured we may as well have them join us,” getting agreement from the rest of the party.

“So how do ya'll know each other?” Rory asked. “Are the rest of you journalists too?”

Sam McPherson chuckled. “I'm the only journalist here,” she confessed. “Everyone else at this table is some kind of legal beagle.”

“HEY!” came retorts from three tablemates.

Brooke laughed. “Really, Sammie. You of all people should know better than to generalize like that.” She turned to Rory. “Mac and I are lawyers, Jordan and Janet are both doctors and the blonde Sam is with Homeland Security.”

Rory's eyes went wide. “Wow! That's um... pretty diverse.”

“How about you, Rory? What do you do?”

Before she could answer, Natalie spotted her and squealed, leading the way to the table. Rory stood up slowly, just in time to meet Natalie's fervent hug.

“Thank you for coming,” Natalie whispered.

“You knew I would.”

Natalie squeezed her one last time, then withdrew slightly. “I think everyone knows everyone here,” she started, waiting for heads to nod, “except for you three,” motioning with her hand. “Rory Talbot, meet Jo Polniaczek and Blair Warner. Guys, this is my friend, Rory Talbot.”

“Nice to meet ya,” Jo said, liking the firm handshake she got.

“Charmed,” Blair commented with a sincere smile. “I'm sorry we're late. It's my fault. The marionette that was supposed to be part of my talent show act tonight is having an issue and well.... It doesn't matter. Suffice it to say that we lost track of time trying to fix it. I really am very sorry.”

“Don't apologize, ma'am. These lovely ladies have been very kind... made me feel welcome.”

“So how do you know one another?” Mac asked after the latecomers had given their orders to the hovering waiter.

Natalie met Rory's gaze and Rory shrugged minutely. Natalie turned back to the table and took a deep breath. “We met overseas during Desert Storm. Rory saved my life.”

Janet leaned forward. “Can you share?”

Natalie looked around the table, seeing nothing but curiosity and friendly interest. “As long as it stays ‘eyes only' for now – it doesn't go beyond this table,” stating her case plainly. “Some of this story is deeply personal for me.”

Janet reached over and covered the hands that rested on the tabletop. “Natalie, if it makes you uncomfortable, you don't have to share.”

Natalie and Rory exchanged another glance and Natalie shook her head. “No... I think this story deserves to be told and I need to be the one to share it.” She waited for the waiter to place their drinks and appetizers on the table. “You're gonna want to get comfortable, though. This story isn't short, and it's not very pretty.”

The rest settled in and focused their attention on Natalie, anxious to hear what she had to say.

 

************

“Tell me, Blake... have you enjoyed the conference? Do you feel like it was a good use of your resources?” Miranda asked as they were seated with her daughters, Doris and Ashley. Emily had been dismissed for the evening and she was enjoying the brief respite before the talent show. Caroline, Cassidy and Ashley were talking quietly at one end of the table, leaving the three adults on the other end on their own for conversation.

Blake bit her lip thoughtfully and nodded her head. “I have really. I've made some new friends and found some new contacts, including a couple of distributors and some independent publishers. It's given me some ideas... things I want to think about as a possible direction for me to take my business in the future. What about you, Miranda?”

“Well, not a lot of what I learned from our seminars can be applied to the day to day operations of Runway, but I have made a number of contacts that I believe will prove most useful down the line. I also found a couple of ideas that will no doubt make their way into some future issues. What about you, Ms Wolfe? Did you find the law enforcement agenda enlightening?”

“I did, actually. We weren't limited to merely the aspects of law enforcement that we're a part of. So I was able to learn about other avenues in the broader outlook of the field of law enforcement. I found it very interesting.”

“And the murder?” Miranda smirked. Doris snorted.

“I found that damned inconvenient,” she replied wryly, causing Miranda's lips to twitch again and Blake to nearly choke on her wine. Doris shrugged, ignoring the glare Blake was sending her way. “What?” she asked. “I was just being honest. It was irritating.”

“I'll agree with that assessment. Otherwise, though, I've had a most enjoyable experience.”

Blake blinked. “You say that as if it's a surprise.”

“It was,” Caroline answered unexpectedly. “For all of us, actually. Mom generally doesn't do this, and on the occasions that she's forced to attend this sort of thing....” She shrugged.

“Caroline....”

“It's true, Mom, and you know it.” Miranda shook her head but smiled fondly, waiting until her daughter turned back to her conversation with Cassidy and Ashley.

“Kids,” she muttered, drawing grins from the other two women.

“S'all right, Miranda,” Doris assured her. “We've all got ‘em. They keep things interesting anyway.”

“That they do,” Miranda agreed solemnly, though there was a twinkle in her blue eyes. “That they most certainly do.”

 

************

“So do you know what story you're gonna tell, Jellybean?” Olivia asked as she brushed out her daughter's thick hair. “Bean?” she said a second time when Emma didn't answer her immediately. Olivia tugged gently on the hair she held. “Hey... you all right, Sweetie?”

“Mommy! What'd you do that for?” frowning briefly before breaking into a smile.

“Everything all right, Bean? I was talking to you, but you weren't answering.” She turned Emma's head away from her and resumed her brushing.

“Oh... sorry, Mommy; I was thinking.”

“About...?”

“The story I'm going to tell. Do you think Gabrielle will be disappointed if I tell a story everyone already knows?”

“I don't think she'd mind at all, Bean. I'm pretty sure she's just happy you want to tell a story.” She pulled Emma's hair up into a tight ponytail and fastened it up before pulling the brush through the long locks again. “I know I'm pretty proud of you, Bean.”

“Emma?” Natalia spoke up, passing Olivia the bow she'd been preparing and taking the brush Olivia traded for it. Emma turned her head to look at Natalia; Olivia sighed and shook her head, then gently turned her head back so she could attach the bow.

“Yes, Mama?”

“Why did you decide to tell a story tonight?”

Emma scrunched up her forehead in thought. “Well, you know that Gabrielle is an Amazon Queen and that Xena is her champion.”

Olivia and Natalia exchanged smiling glances and responded, “Uh huh.”

“Right... so Xena told me that a Queen's Champion had to earn her place. She had to be the best warrior, the best tracker, the best hunter – she had to be able to take care of the queen no matter what kind of trouble the queen managed to get herself into.” Emma turned her head again and crinkled her nose up when she smiled. “Xena made a really funny face when she said that; I think Gabrielle gets into more trouble than I do,” she offered seriously. Olivia and Natalia studiously avoided looking at one another in an effort not to laugh aloud.

Finally Natalia nodded. “All right. But I still don't understand....”

“Well, Xena told me that a Queen's Champion has to be well-rounded. I didn't think she was very round and told her so. She told me it meant she had to be more than a fighter. Xena sings,” she finished, as if that explained everything.

“Okay... so?”

Emma rolled her eyes. “So I can learn to fight and track and hunt – Amazons teach all those things. But I can't sing.” She made a face. “And all Amazons can dance. But not too many Amazons tell stories. So if I can tell stories, it will make me well-rounded and I can be a Queen's Champion.” She paused then gave a devious little smirk. “Besides, I wanted to hear Gabrielle tell another story.”

“And you knew she would tell one if you did?”

“No. But I knew if we made a deal, she'd keep her promise. Amazon Queens always keep their promises – Xena said so.”

“You really like them, don't you, Bean?”

“I do, Mommy. They've been really nice. And Gabrielle let me pick the prize I wanted for winning the scavenger hunt.”

“Oh that's right... we still don't know what you got,” reaching up to run tickling fingers along Emma's ribs. She squirmed and slid out of Olivia's grasp.

“No fair tickling,” Emma protested. “You'll mess up my hair. Besides, you'll find out soon enough.”

Olivia arched an eyebrow and traded glances with Natalia. “I'll find out soon enough?? When is soon enough? I'm not real patient, you know,” flexing her fingers and edging closer to Emma. Natalia just watched the tableau with a fond smile.

“Tonight! After the talent show tonight!” Emma huffed.

Olivia shifted her stance, bringing her fingers to her face to examine the nails before lightly buffing them on her shirt. “All right, Bean. You've got yourself a reprieve. But if I don't find out tonight,” wiggling her fingers and grinning wickedly, “you're mine.”

Emma flung herself into Olivia's arms and squeezed her neck tightly before leaning back to catch Olivia's gaze. “Oh Mommy… I'm already yours – yours and Mama's.”

Olivia grinned through the tears that suddenly flooded her green eyes. “You sure are, Bean,” leaning back into Natalia's body when she wrapped them both in her embrace. “Now let's get going – we've got a talent show to attend.”

 

 

Chapter L

“Lucy?” Xena asked with a marked look at the ceiling above the stage area as she stepped into the convention room. “Something you want to share?”

Lucy tilted her head, noting the ease with which Max and Dom sat in their swing chairs manning the curtains currently hiding the stage. “Nope,” she said with a smirk.

Xena returned the smirk and shook her head. “All right. I guess you know what you're doing.”

“Giving them the best seats in the house,” Lucy snarked.

Xena just chuckled and shook her head again, then followed Gabrielle into the green room where most of the performers were patiently waiting for their arrival. Xena checked her watch and nodded at Gabrielle. “C'mon,” Gabrielle invited as she held the door open. “We have seats set to one side of the stage for us. Let's get our seats and then we'll run through our sound checks before we start letting the rest of the women in so we can get this show on the road,” causing a titter of nervous laughter to run through the assembled women.

Xena gestured the performers out ahead of her and noticed Abbie sitting quietly in her chair, arms crossed defensively over her chest. Xena motioned Gabrielle to lead the rest to their seats and Xena knelt down next to Abbie. “You all right?”

“I think I'm gonna be sick.”

Xena smiled sympathetically. “Been there, done that. Can I get someone for you? Ms Novak, perhaps?” having witnessed Casey's reluctance to leave Abbie alone and Abbie's insistence that she go.

“No... she's actually excited about this – well, as much as she can be without gloating.” Brown eyes met blue and Abbie gave Xena a weak smile. “After all... she did try to warn me to keep my big mouth shut.” She narrowed her eyes. “Could you let Alex back here? Alex Cabot.”

“Um... sure. You wanna call her and let her know to meet me at the door?”

Abbie smiled, already lifting her phone to her ear.

 

************

“What do you think?” Bornlan asked Kennian as she put the rest of the paperwork into a file and dropped it into her outbox. “We've still got time to get back for that talent show tonight.”

Kennian shrugged. “I do not know how welcome we would really be. I am certain a number of people would be happy not to see us again.”

“Maybe,” Teresa agreed with a shrug of her own. “On the other hand, it might be nice to see some of these women as more than just suspects in a murder investigation. I think we would have enjoyed being part of the conference.”

Shana ducked her head in acknowledgement. “I believe we might have made some useful contacts.” She paused. “I would like to go.”

“You're sure?”

“Yes... but you are paying for dinner.”

Bornlan chuckled. “Fair enough. Let's go.”

 

************

“Have I mentioned how wonderful it is to be able to talk again?” Jill asked Claire as they made their way back towards the convention center. Claire rolled her eyes, but gave Jill an indulgent smile.

“Several times, actually. But if you don't shake a leg, we're not gonna get a good seat. And if Lindsay doesn't have a good view of her cousin paying up on her bet, being silent for two days is gonna seem like a cakewalk to what Lindsay will do.”

Jill grimaced, but sped her steps appreciably. Then her expression became petulant. “Why do we have to be the ones saving the seats?”

“Because Natalie invited Cindy to meet the friend who saved her life.”

“I wouldn't have minded meeting a hero,” Jill pouted.

“Jill....”

“All right, all right – let's just get there. With any luck, everyone else is still at dinner and we'll be first in line.”

Claire chuckled. “You just keep thinking those good thoughts.” And they continued to make their way to the convention hall.

 

************

“Hey, Gabrielle!” Emma greeted as she entered the large room, turning to shoo her moms away before closing the door soundly and running down the aisle. Despite the disruption, her enthusiasm brought smiles to the faces of everyone present. “I'm sorry I'm late.” She rolled her eyes. “Mommy wanted to take pictures.”

Gabrielle put an arm around Emma's shoulders and hugged her briefly. “Of course she did, Jellybean. She's your mom. Now c'mon... you need to do a check for Scud so we can get a level on you,” leading her up the steps to the microphone. “Do you know what story you're going to tell?” Gabrielle asked, smiling at the eager excitement conveyed in Emma's nod. “Good girl... now, do you want to sit or stand while you tell it?”

Emma frowned and tilted her head to look up at Gabrielle. “What do you do?”

“Well, it depends on the situation, but usually I stand so I can walk around.”

“Then I'll stand too,” Emma responded with a smile. Gabrielle grinned and nodded.

“All right. Then you need to take this,” loosening the mic from its stand and handing it Emma. “Now just start telling your story like you're going to tell it in a little bit.”

“But I want it to be a surprise.”

Gabrielle blinked. “Um... okay. Just tell me a story then – tell me about your friends at school.” Emma smiled and started talking. She never even noticed when Gabrielle took the microphone away and led her from the stage until they were sitting together in the performer's area.

 

************

“How's everybody doing tonight?” Lucy asked, a huge grin on her face as the cheering and shouts erupted across the room. “Excellent!! Are you ready to have a little fun?” More screams and whistles and she let it go on for another minute before she held up her hand for quiet. “I have to tell you - you ladies are in for a real treat tonight. We've got something for everyone – singing, dancing, magic....” She looked at the list she held that gave her the artists and their acts in order of appearance. “Puppets, a mentalist, a mimic and, of course, storytelling.”

Lucy smiled. The energy in the room was electric, and the performers – most of them – were sitting to one side of the stage eagerly awaiting their turn to go on. Only the first act was hidden behind the curtain, waiting for their cue to perform. A motion at the back of the stage drew her attention, and she made her way over to where Xena was standing, leaning down to hear her words.

Liz, sitting next to Olivia, leaned over and whispered, “Where's Alex?” Olivia shook her head and shrugged.

“I dunno. She got a call from Abbie about an hour ago and I haven't seen her since. She promised she'd been here as soon as she could, but.... She's not answering her phone, so I'm stuck here until I can reach her since this is where she'll come looking for me first.”

“I hope she gets here soon,” Liz stated. “I don't think she's going to want to miss this.”

“That's true,” Lindsay agreed with a grin. “Especially since Abbie is paying up on her bet.”

Cindy mock punched her. “You're enjoying this a little too much.”

Lindsay snorted. “Of course I am. She set herself up for this. Besides, I didn't hear Casey complaining.” Cindy rolled her eyes and shook her head, turning her attention back to the platform where Lucy was walking back towards center stage.

“Okay – so who's ready to get this show started?” Lucy asked, her smile growing exponentially as the sound in the room grew. “All right then! Give it up and welcome our first act – Abbie and Alex rockin' the Kasbah!”

Alex and Abbie shimmied from behind the curtain, undulating to sensuous music that poured from the speakers. Olivia's mouth dropped open at the sight of Alex belly dancing and Liz reached over and pushed her jaw closed.

“Well... at least we know where Alex went now.” Olivia nodded, but her eyes never left the stage. She tugged on the collar she wore though it wasn't tight. It occurred to her to wonder when and how Alex and Abbie had managed to put their act together, and then Olivia decided it didn't matter. She leaned back with a big smile and settled in to enjoy it.

Casey, meanwhile, was sitting with the performers and was watching with an enthralled smile on her face. Like Olivia, she couldn't take her eyes from the stage. She'd known Abbie had been nervous about belly dancing in front of everyone, and she'd been a little upset with Lindsay for putting Abbie into such an uncomfortable position. Now she was trying to find a way to thank Lindsay and convince Abbie to do a private performance later.

Alex and Abbie wiggled and twirled as though they had been dancing together forever and just before they ran out of removable veils, the music ended and the dancing stopped. They stood still, chests heaving as they tried to catch their breaths while applause rang out long and loud. Lucy let it roll around the room for a long moment before she returned to the stage. Alex and Abbie took their cue and stepped from the stage, disappearing backstage before Casey or Olivia could protest. Then the point was moot as Lucy spoke again.

“Holy crap! Is it hot in here or what?” She looked towards the back of the stage. “I have *got* to learn how to do that.” She turned to Amy. “Remind me to look for lessons, babe.” Amy covered her face to hide her blush but laughed and nodded.

“Good – so our next act also hails from New York....” She paused and turned to look at Xena with a hand on her hip. “You know... seems like half of our conference was from Manhattan.” She looked back to the audience then turned back to Xena. “Okay – so if every female law enforcement agent from Manhattan is here, who's working in New York City?” Her question brought cheers from the whole room and Lucy smiled again.

“I'm just saying.... Now please put your hands together for Ms Tracey Kibre.”

The applause was polite and Tracey stepped out from the curtain wearing dark pants and a white shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal the top of her cleavage, waiting for the room to grow quiet. Then she folded her hands together and cleared her throat. “First I would like to say that like Abbie, my big mouth got me into this. So please bear with me. It's been a very long time since I've danced... and even longer since I performed like this.” She looked towards the back of the room and nodded to Scud. “Maestro if you please....”

The music for ‘Tea For Two' started playing and Tracey started tap dancing slowly across the wooden floor. Without warning, Liz Donnelly stood up and walked over to Lucy, taking her microphone before she stepped to the stage with one hand on her hip. “Tea For Two, Tracey? Really? That was the best that you could do?”

Tracey smirked, the twinkle in her eye barely visible to the woman in front of her. “This from a woman wearing a granny dress,” she snarked, motioning to the high-necked, calf-length dress Liz wore. “You think you could do better?”

“Oh honey... you don't even want to play that game with me.”

“Sure I do,” Tracey replied with an evil grin. Then she looked at the audience. “Whaddya say, ladies? Should we give Liz here a chance to put her money where her mouth is?”

The cheers were loud and Tracey stepped back and gestured for Liz to join her. Liz held out the mic and Gabrielle took it as a matter of course. Then Liz walked onto the platform and took her place center stage. “Maestro....” with a gracious nod of her head.

The music started and soon Liz was tapping to ‘Jeepers Creepers'. Tracey let it go one for a long moment, then she signaled to Scud to cut the music. Liz stopped dancing and glared at her.

“Excuse me... I wasn't done.”

“Yeah, you really were,” Tracey argued. “I don't care how flawless your footwork is, that granny dress is just too distracting for words.”

Liz put her hands on her hips. “Oh really? And what do you propose I do?”

Without warning, Tracey yanked at the shoulders of Liz's dress, ripping it from her body and leaving her dressed in a black leotard and tights. She nodded approvingly.

“Better,” she stated succinctly.

“Allow me,” Liz offered, unexpectedly stripping Tracey of her breakaway pants and tossing them behind the curtain as Tracey tied her shirt into a halter. Then they grinned at one another and in tandem turned towards the soundman in the back of the room and gave him big grins.

“Hit it, Scud!” And as ‘Hot Honey Rag' started playing over the sound system, they started dancing together, much to the delight of the audience who had enjoyed their antics. When they were finished, posed together in the backlight, applause once again burst forth. And they hugged one another while laughing, then exited the stage while Lucy claimed the microphone from Gabrielle before taking the stage again.

“All righty then,” Lucy said with a chuckle as she resumed her place onstage again. She turned back to Xena and tugged at her collar jokingly. “We are at Disney, aren't we? We don't have PG guidelines to follow or something?”

Xena quirked an eyebrow. “We told our participants no blood, no fire and no lion-taming.”

Lucy made a show of looking at her list. “Well, I guess we're safe, then.”

Xena smirked. “We've still got a ways to go,” motioning Lucy to continue.

“Right....” She cleared her throat. “Well, we've already heard our next performer singing a Disney ballad as she proposed to her girl. So let's hear it for Sam McPherson!”

Sam waited for the curtains to part to admit her to the stage, then walked forward and took the mic from the stand on one side of the stage. She dropped her head bashfully and sighed before raising her eyes to look out into the darkened room.

“Wow... um, okay. So believe it or not, I normally don't sing in public. I mean until the other night, the last song I sang publicly was an STD warning song in eleventh grade.” Laughter greeted her announcement and she smiled and tucked a lock of dark hair behind her ear as her eyes focused on the ground again. “Yeah,” scratching her head. “We had a science teacher that was just....” She shuddered dramatically, then glanced up with a grin. “I did pass,” she added with a chuckle, causing an impromptu round of applause.

“So I was thinking... trying to decide what to sing. I mean, after the other night and all – you've already heard me do a ballad. I realize that most of you probably don't know who the Animaniacs are, but I hope you'll enjoy the song anyway.” Sam composed herself, allowing her expression to become serious, then nodded her head for Scud to start the music.

After very little introduction, Sam started singing ‘Yakko's Universe'. Brooke covered her eyes and shook her head the minute she recognized the song. Lucy and Amy exchanged grins and Helena chuckled to herself, mindful of the camera she was operating. The rest waited politely, as Sam had been correct in suggesting that most of them were unfamiliar with the song she'd chosen.

Everybody lives on a street in a city
Or a village or a town for what it's worth.
And they're all inside a country which is part of a continent
That sits upon a planet known as Earth.
And the Earth is a ball full of oceans and some mountains
Which is out there spinning silently in space.
And living on that Earth are the plants and the animals
And also the entire human race.

It's a great big universe
And we're all really puny
We're just tiny little specks
About the size of Mickey Rooney.
It's big and black and inky
And we are small and dinky
It's a big universe and we're not.

By this point the entire room was in stitches, understanding the absolute non-seriousness of the song and the singer. They were laughing, cheering and clapping along, having almost as much fun learning about the Animaniacs point of view in regards to human beings as Sam was having sharing it. Then she got down to the end and the entire room simply howled at that appropriateness of the lines.

You might think that you're essential
Try inconsequential
It's a small world after all!

At that, they just rose to their feet and hollered. Sam grinned and blushed, taking a bow before she scooted from the stage and took a seat next to Brooke – who promptly backhanded her in the belly before rubbing it gently.

Lucy just laughed as she approached center stage once more. “Well, what do you think so far?” laughing again as the audience continued to cheer and clap. She turned back towards Xena once more. “You do realize,” she said casually, listening to the applause die down so they could hear her words. “You do realize we're gonna have to do this again... just so we can have another talent show right?”

Xena just smiled and shook her head. The women in the room roared their agreement.

 

 

Chapter LI

“All right, ladies! Make some noise and welcome Blair Warner and Charlie!”

Blair stepped from the partially open curtain and pulled forward the stool that had been put there for her use, taking a seat before looking out at the expectant audience. “Hey, everyone. I um... I suppose you're wondering where Charlie is.” She bit her lip and grimaced. “There's a story there actually, and it's really not pretty.”

Jo walked out from behind the curtain. “Blair, Chucky was never pretty.”

“Not helping, Jo.”

“Hey, it's not my fault he looks like he got hit in the face by a tree.”

Blair crossed her arms over her chest. “You're really not helping, Joanna.”

“And it's not my fault he's got splinters up his....”

“Joanna Marie Polniaczek!!” Blair glared at her. “Just... turn blue!”

Jo smirked and cut her eyes at the audience. “This is serious; that's the most powerful response in her arsenal.” By now the audience was tittering. Blair straightened and smiled devilishly.

“How about this – keep it up and Natalie and Tootie are going to have another roommate tonight?”

“Oh no....” Natalie called out from the audience over all the catcalls and laughter. “Don't put us in the middle of this! We already spent years rooming with the two of you! We don't wanna be in the middle of yet another domestic squabble!” causing the laughter to grow even louder.

Jo huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Damn - all right... fine.”

“You are so whipped, Polniaczek,” drawing howls from the rest of the New York contingent. Jo glared.

“Pot... kettle, Benson,” sticking out her tongue before she looked more generally at the audience. “The fact is that Chuck, for all his ugliness is a puppet....”

“Marionette,” Blair corrected regally. Jo rolled her eyes but dutifully changed her wording.

“Marionette that has been a part of Blair's life for a long time. Unfortunately, his trip to Disney World was a little more traumatic than ours and we weren't able to make him... presentable for you this evening. And not for lack of trying either,” she muttered almost under her breath then cleared her throat. “So yeah... anyway, um....” Jo clapped her hands together. “Since the tree... um, marionette doctor is in New York and we've gone green - meaning no cutting down another tree for a new puppet - we had to come up with something on the fly.”

Blair cleared her throat and all eyes went back to her. “What we came up with was our take on Sid Caesar's skit Argument to Beethoven's Fifth which we've renamed ‘A Day in Our Life That Was'. Natalie and Too... Dorothy can vouch for the accuracy of what you're about to see.” She nodded to Scud. “Maestro, if you please....” setting the mic back on the stand and moving the stool to one side of the stage.

Without another word, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony started playing over the speakers and Jo and Blair started storytelling an argument with no words... miming a typical day's disputes during their growing-up years with only the feel of music and their own actions to speak for them.

It started with them trying to share space at a make-believe sink – pushing and shoving one another out of the way. Sam and Brooke exchanged fond looks, recognizing all-too-well the antics playing out before them. When the music mellowed, they took a deep breath and visibly tried to calm the anger that was so apparent between them, only to have it ratchet up again.

As the music crescendo'd, Jo and Blair slammed their way out of the bathroom and into the bedroom. Blair stomped into the closet while Jo jerked open the drawers of her dresser and started throwing clothes on the bed. Then she took a deep breath and stepped back into the bathroom. Blair meanwhile came out of the closet and placed her clothes on her bed... and then on top of Jo's – and when Jo walked back into the room, the argument started again.

Natalie and Tootie exchanged looks, eyes wide and mouths open in disbelief. The scene was so familiar to them it was spooky, especially in light of the fact that no words were being spoken. Mock clothes went flying and a make-believe door slammed. “Oh God... I remember THAT argument.”

Tootie nodded frantically. “Me too. Wasn't that...?” leaning in and whispering in Natalie's ear.

“Oh yeah. I wasn't sure any of us were gonna survive it.”

Across the room, women were marveling at how much was being said without words and as the music crashed to its finale, Jo and Blair made up – wrapping their arms around each other and leaning their foreheads together... before turning to smile at the audience.

The crowd roared its approval and Jo and Blair laughed and took a bow before disappearing behind the curtain Max and Dom had parted for them. Lucy watched them go before she marched back onto the stage.

“Holy shit!” Lucy exclaimed as she approached center stage. She looked back at the curtain, then turned back to the audience. “That must have been some household.” She scanned the room, smiling when she located Natalie and Tootie whispering to one another. “So how accurate was it?”

“Dead spot on,” Natalie said flatly.

“Yeah... we actually recognized the exact fight they were having,” Tootie added.

Lucy's brows went to her hairline. “You two should probably write a book. It'd be a best seller,” drawing laughs from the crowd. Lucy smiled and cleared her throat. “All righty then. Let's give a warm welcome to Annabelle Tillman,” shifting the stool back to center stage before she walked off.

Annabelle leaned her guitar carefully against the legs of the stool, then she grabbed the mic stand and lowered it to belly level. She took the mic from the stand and walked to the edge of the stage. “Hi,” smiling when she got a good response from the audience. “Um, I'm afraid what I have for you tonight isn't nearly as exciting as what you've already seen or probably what's coming later either. I'm simply a musician and I would like to play for you one of my favorite pieces for the classical guitar called. ‘Canon in D'. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I do.”

Annabelle placed the microphone back on the stand and grabbed her guitar before seating herself. She bowed her head and took a deep breath, then simply started playing.

The hush throughout the room was profound... almost as though the air had been sucked out in anticipation and then remained that way as the beautiful melody wafted flawlessly around the ears of the stunned listeners.

Annabelle kept her focus tight on the guitar itself, eyes on the slim neck as her fingers trailed up and down the strings with ease. She didn't see a number of women surreptitiously wipe wetness from their eyes, nor did she notice the few who let the tears roll down their cheeks. But Simone did and her smile was proud, even as goosebumps covered her arms in reaction.

When Annabelle finished, she dropped her head and drew a deep breath in the silence that followed the fading of her last note. She'd done her best. Then without warning, applause erupted across the room. Annabelle's head flew up, surprise and then joy flitting across her features as every woman in the room rose to her feet.

Olivia clasped Alex's hand. “That was my mom's favorite piece,” she confided through her tears. Alex lifted her free hand and wiped the wetness from Olivia's face.

“Mine too,” she replied with a smile. Their attention was drawn back to the stage as Annabelle took a final bow and left the platform. Lucy simply shook her head.

“Wow,” she said reverently. “That was... I don't have words. I've never heard that done with a solo instrument before; there's always been a full orchestra involved.” She took a deep breath. “All right. Our next act....” She frowned and turned to look at Xena. “Our next act is Julia Child?” Xena shrugged and motioned for Lucy to simply go with it. “Well then, ladies – please welcome Julia Child.”

The clapping was polite but bewildered... until the moment Miranda Priestly stepped from the open curtain dressed in her Halloween costume. “Good evening, everyone,” she greeted in that distinct, soprano voice, grinning when the crowd returned her salutation. “You know, in France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport. And I have to tell you – I think that's just a marvelous thing. Because let's face it... they know their business, don't they?”

She bowed her head slightly at the smattering of applause and laughter that followed her pronouncement. “Thank you,” reverting to Miranda Priestly's more whispered tone briefly before her expression and mannerisms changed once again. Then she swiftly became Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ( You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if the room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. ) ; Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice ( When the train arrived at Auschwitz... the Germans made the selection.  Who would live and who would die. ) ; Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump ( My momma always said, "Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. ”); and George C. Scott as General George S. Patton ( Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. ) This time the applause was strong and went on for several minutes before it quieted down and Miranda resumed her own voice and personality to speak again.

“So here's the deal,” she said quietly. “I had considered just sliding from one famous impersonation to the next, but that is somewhat boring, really, and boring just doesn't have a place in my business. So what I'd like to do instead is ask for some audience participation. You tell me who you'd like to hear and I'll make it happen. And to make it interesting – you have to tell me privately and we'll see if I can do it well enough for the rest here to figure it out.”

Before the silence could go on too long, Xena walked up to the stage and Miranda leaned down carefully to hear her whispered words. Matching grins crossed their faces as Xena's words registered and Miranda nodded before she straightened.

"I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya punk?"

Dead silence was all she heard and Miranda turned to Xena with a look of bemused consternation on her face. Whatever response she'd expected, as sheer lack of reaction wasn't even remotely on her list. Finally Andy stood up cautiously. “That was simply incredible, Miranda. That was spot on to one of my favorites - Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry.”

Miranda grinned again and beckoned her forward. “Yes, it was. And of course you'd know that, Andrea,” her tone wry but not biting. “Do you have someone you'd like me to try?”

“Actually, I have something. It's a favorite passage, but you may wanna choose a line or....” Miranda held up her hand and Andy stopped speaking. Then Miranda leaned down and waited for Andrea to give her the quote. Miranda narrowed her eyes thoughtfully, then nodded.

“It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It's a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”

“Hey, isn't that William Shatner as Captain Kirk in The Wrath of Khan ?” Ziva asked quietly into the murmuring that could be heard around the room as women tried to identify the piece and player Miranda had done. Her movie tutorials with Tony had actually covered this bit of Americana. Bones, whom she was sitting next to, leaned over and shook her head.

“I don't think so. The quote is, but the voice inflection is wrong.”

Before Ziva could form a retort, someone in the audience gave her answer – William Shatner from The Wrath of Khan . Miranda shook her head.

“I can honestly say I have never seen that movie although my daughters' reaction tells me that you could be correct. However, that was not who I was impersonating. Go further back – think classic American movie.” She turned to Andrea. “I think we may have stumped them.”

Kelly stood after a long moment of whispering throughout the room. “I think that's Ronald... um, Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in Tale of Two Cities .”

Miranda chuckled. “You would be absolutely correct.” She motioned Kelly forward. “Who would you like me to try?” Kelly's eyes twinkled and Miranda leaned down to hear her whispered request. When she stood, she gave Kelly an evil smirk. “You are a very wicked woman.” Kelly curtsied.

“Ratt, what brings you to Terra?”

“You, you vixen you. Starlet, I love you. That gown is gorgeous.”

“Thank you. I saw it in the window and I just couldn't resist it.”

Squeals and laughter went up around the room as Miranda, with only the inflection of her voice and her posture gave the appearance of wearing a curtain rod across her shoulders. Answers were called out across the room; it was obvious Carol Burnett's Went With the Wind skit was a huge favorite of all the convention attendees.

From there, it only got more hysterical. Miranda mimicked Eddie Murphy as Donkey from Shrek ( You might have seen a housefly, maybe even a superfly, but I bet you ain't never seen a donkey fly! Ha, ha! ); gave a plausible imitation of Gabrielle as a storyteller; became Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men ( You can't handle the truth! ) ; John Wayne in McLintock's Mud Brawl ( I haven't lost my temper in forty years, but Pilgrim, you caused a lot of trouble this morning, might have got somebody killed... and somebody oughta belt you in the mouth. But I won't, I won't. The *hell* I won't! ); and Sandra Bullock in The Blindside ( Michael, I want you to have a good time but if you get a girl pregnant out of wedlock, I will crawl into the car, drive up to Oxford and cut off your penis. ). For her finale, she played both parts in Abbott and Costello's famous baseball skit, leaving the women howling in laughter as she turned into Julia Child once more by admonishing them.

“In department stores, so much kitchen equipment is bought indiscriminately by people who just come in for men's underwear.”

Then she gave a brief bow and with a smile and a wave, Miranda Priestly left the stage. Lucy walked slowly back towards center stage, frantically waving the clipboard she held in an effort to get more oxygen to her brain.

“Oh my God... has anyone tested that woman for multiple-personality disorder?” she asked with a glance back towards the curtains that were thankfully still closed. “That was amazing... and a little bit terrifying,” she added with a grin. The women in the room chuckled.

“All right,” Lucy said again, consulting her clipboard. “Next up we have Ms Emma Spaulding who's going to tell us a story. C'mon out, Emma.”

Max and Dom parted the curtain just enough to allow Emma to step through and she walked onto the stage with a huge grin on her face.

“Hi, Emma,” Lucy welcomed. “I hear you made a deal with Gabrielle.”

“Uh huh.” Emma nodded enthusiastically, accepting the microphone from Lucy. “I promised I would tell a story if she would tell a story. Besides, this could help me become a Queen's Champion,” she added as an aside, though the entire room heard her.

“That sounds like a good goal. How about a round of applause to get her started, ladies?”

Emma bowed as the applause sounded throughout the room. Then she straightened and started her story.

 

 

Chapter LII

“When I told Gabrielle I'd tell a story tonight, I kinda wondered, um... what kind of story I could tell. I mean, she said last night to tell what you know, but I didn't think that meant I could tell Hannah Montana or A to Z Mysteries stories. ‘Cuz even though you guys have probably never heard of them before, those stories belong to someone else and that's kind of like cheating.”

Emma blew out a frustrated breath and tried to tuck a non-existent lock of hair behind her ear. Gabrielle grinned privately, recognizing one of her own nervous habits. Emma scuffed the toe of her shoe against the floor and looked back out at her audience.

“Then I remembered - ya know... this is Disney World. I mean... Walt Disney took all kinds of faerie tales and told them his way, right? So I thought maybe I'd try that. Now,” she added as she stuck a hand in her pocket and walked towards one end of the stage. “This isn't actually *my* story... I mean, it didn't happen to me. But I watched it,” rolling her eyes. “Oh boy, did I – at least the good stuff. Honestly, sometimes adults can be so dumb.”

 

************

Her sentiment drew laughter as much as her demeanor did. However, Natalia's eyes widened and she covered her mouth to keep from saying anything. In contrast, Olivia's eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips momentarily before she muttered, “Oh no she isn't.” She took the hand that was searching for hers and clasped it on her lap. Then they both turned their attention back to their daughter.

 

************

“Okay, so… um, first I had to talk to my daddy this morning. See, I know a little bit of this story, cuz, you know... I was there when it happened. But lots of it happened before I was even born or anything. Not the most important parts, but I wanted to know why Mommy didn't stay with Daddy if he was her prince.

And Daddy told me that Mommy didn't have a prince because she was waiting for her princess.

So I was thinking about what faerie tale this story was most like – I mean, it's kinda like Sleeping Beauty cuz there was a princess that needed to be woken up by a kiss. And it's a little like Cinderella cuz there was a hard-working princess who was swept off her feet by Charming. And it's sorta like Beauty and the Beast because there's dusting and cleaning and a grouch.”

 

************

More laughter and this time it was all Natalia could do to keep from letting a squeak escape. Olivia cut her eyes in Natalia's direction, noting the dimples she was trying to disguise and the tears she couldn't possibly hide. She switched her handhold, taking Natalia's right hand in her right hand and wrapping her left arm around Natalia's shoulders. She was gratified when Natalia immediately leaned into her, snuggling down into Olivia's shoulder and covering their hands with her left one. Then they turned their focus back to Emma who had wandered over to the other side of the stage.

 

************

“Now what was I gonna call this story? Sleeping Cinder Beast was the best I could come up with and that just wasn't working for me,” eliciting more snorts of laughter. “So I just decided to call this story, My Two Mommies and How We Got To Be A Family. ”

Laughter and applause greeted her words and Emma smiled.

“Once upon a time there was a beautiful wicked queen named Olivia.”

 

************

“Oh no she didn't,” Olivia grumbled. “She did not just make me the villain in this story.”

“No, Sweetie... she made you the beautiful wicked queen. Now hush and listen.” Natalia chided. Olivia glared and stuck out her lip the tiniest bit, then looked back at Emma who was rocking on her heels.

 

************

“And although Wicked Queen Olivia was a wonderful mommy to Little Princess Emma, she was a very unhappy wicked queen. She didn't *want* to be wicked, but she didn't know any other way to be. See, Olivia had heart problems and it made her real cranky with almost everyone.

Wicked Queen Olivia wanted to have someone love her and to love someone in return. She was very lonely. But she, um... wasn't looking with her heart – she didn't know how to. Still, she tried... over and over again she tried. She tried by making lots of money... only to discover it was just money. She tried by being a successful business mongrel, but that was just a lot of hard work. She even tried to find her prince, but that only got her heart broken over and over and it made her angrier inside.”

 

************

“Mogul, honey... business mogul.”

“That's what I said, Mommy... business mongrel,” Emma replied adamantly, drawing quiet chuckles all over the room.

“The puppy didn't fall far from the mongrel, Sweetie,” getting a look in response.

 

************

“So finally, Wicked Queen Olivia decided it would just be her and Little Princess Emma because Big Princess Ava wanted to go off and find her own prince. And for a little while, that was okay because Wicked Queen Olivia was never a wicked queen to Emma. She was just Mommy and they were happy... or as happy as they could be when Wicked Queen Olivia could be while still looking for the part of her heart that was missing.

And then she found out that not only was part of her heart missing – the whole thing had gone bad. Wicked Queen Olivia needed a new heart. But who would give up their heart so a wicked queen could live? And who would share their heart so the wicked queen wouldn't be unhappy any more?

Right before Wicked Queen Olivia found out about her heart, there was a new princess that came to town... only no one knew she was a princess because, like Cinderella, she was a maid. She actually worked for the wicked queen. See, the wicked queen owned the hotel where she and Little Princess Emma lived, and Princess Natalia had been hired to be a housekeeper there.”

 

************

Natalia squeezed Olivia's hand as she chuckled lightly. “She made me a princess.”

Olivia growled. “It's the dimples. Besides,” she smirked superiorly, “I still outrank you.”

She felt Natalia's brow go up against her neck. “How do you figure?”

Olivia snorted. “Natalia, like it or not, a queen is always more powerful than a princess.”

“Sweetie, as your wife, that makes me more powerful than anyone throughout the land.”

Olivia opened her mouth to retort, then snapped it closed, knowing Natalia spoke the truth. “Dammit!” she muttered and resolutely turned back to Emma, trying to ignore the gentle shaking of the shoulders she was embracing.

 

************

“Princess Natalia didn't wear rags and she didn't scrub the floors on her hands and knees like Cinderella did. Instead, she wore a uniform and she made beds and folded towels and dusted... a lot.

Princess Natalia had come looking for her prince – the man who was her son's daddy. And she found him, so they started making plans to become a family. But the wicked queen decided she wanted him for her prince, because Gus had been kind to her and that made the wicked queen happy. See, the wicked queen didn't have many real friends. She didn't know how important it was to have friends in her life. And Wicked Queen Olivia's action put her and Princess Natalia against each other. It made them enemies.”

Emma rolled her eyes and shook her head. “They thought they were hiding it from me, but it was hard to miss all the yelling they did... about everything... especially when they stopped the minute I walked into the room.”

She looked out into the audience. “For those of you who haven't been a kid for a while, please don't think you can hide the important things from us. We're not stupid – just like you weren't when you were young. ‘Kay?”

She changed her cadence and shifted smoothly back into her story. “So Princess Natalia and Prince Gus got married. Wicked Queen Olivia found out that she had missed her chance at a new heart and they only expected her old, broken one to last a few more days.”

 

************

Olivia drew in a deep breath, feeling the hopelessness and rage she had felt then flow through her once more. Only this time, Natalia was beside her and she seamlessly altered their positions so that she cradled Olivia. Natalia brushed a kiss over Olivia's forehead and felt Olivia marginally relax against her.

“Shh....” she chided. “I'm sorry, Olivia... so sorry. But we got through this, remember? It's what got us where we are today.”

“Yeah, but God in the meantime....”

Natalia chuckled soundlessly against her and Olivia smiled against her neck. “Listen to our daughter, Sweetheart. She tells a good story.”

 

************

“Big Princess Ava had come to stay with Little Princess Emma while the wicked queen was in the hospital. At the same time, Prince Gus had a really bad motorcycle accident and he was dying. So Princess Natalia was at the hospital when Big Princess Ava brought Little Princess Emma in to see Wicked Queen Olivia who was waiting on her new heart.

Little Princess Emma and Princess Natalia met in the hallway and Little Princess Emma saw that Princess Natalia had been crying. Wanting to make her feel better, Little Princess Emma offered Princess Natalia one of the flowers she had been taking to her mommy. It made Princess Natalia smile, but Little Princess Emma could see it didn't take away her sadness.

Prince Gus died, and his heart was given to Wicked Queen Olivia. It made the wicked queen unhappy, but Princess Natalia, who had made the decision to give her prince's heart to the wicked queen, got angry and told the wicked queen she didn't get to die now – she had a responsibility to live... if only to honor Prince Gus' memory.

That made the wicked queen mad, but Princess Natalia kept on her case. They still yelled and argued with each other, but that seemed to be helping Olivia get better more than babying her would. It was how she talked to everyone except, you know... Little Princess Emma. So slowly, the wicked queen started to recover.

In the meantime, Princess Natalia had troubles of her own and she and the wicked queen started moving from enemies to kinda friends but boy... did it take a loooong time. I mean, it was *really*slow,” Emma added, rolling her eyes once more and getting some scattered chuckles across the room. She smiled.

“It was... really. Princess Natalia made sure Wicked Queen Olivia lived, then the wicked queen rescued the princess when she got into trouble.

The princess had to cover for the wicked queen when the queen was too sick to work and then she became the queen's assistant when the wicked queen's new heart stopped working. That scared the princess very much, and she realized she didn't think of Wicked Queen Olivia as wicked anymore. She simply thought of her as Olivia.

When Princess Natalia took the job as Queen Olivia's assistant, she included taking care of the queen and the little princess as part of her duties, and this time, the queen accepted the help like she was s'posed to... or she tried to anyway. Most people still saw her as a wicked queen, and the queen didn't know how to change that image... but Princess Natalia did.

Wicked Queen Olivia helped Prince Rafe get better living conditions, even though they *really* didn't like each other. See, Prince Rafe felt that the wicked queen was taking advantage of his mommy Princess Natalia and it made him really mad. The wicked queen thought Rafe was a childish brat who needed to grow the fu....” Emma stopped and cleared her throat. “She wanted him to grow up and act like a man. Still, she helped him because he was Natalia's son, and it bothered her to see Natalia upset for any reason, but especially because of Rafe.”

 

************

Natalia slapped Olivia's leg, holding sparking green eyes when they met equally fierce brown. “Don't think I don't know where she got THAT word!!” Olivia frowned but looked back at the stage. “You owe the swear jar for her!” Olivia just smirked.

 

************

“When Princess Natalia, with a little help from the queen, became proud owner of a farmhouse, she was very happy... until she realized she would need to rent some rooms to be able to make the payments on it. Reluctantly, Queen Olivia agreed to live there, if only so Natalia could continue to look out for her and Little Princess Emma.

Now Emma really loved the farmhouse. The farmhouse had ducks, and Little Princess Emma liked the ducks very much. But mostly Emma liked having a real home – it was the first real home she had ever known and she knew it made her mommy very happy to be there.

Except, of course, the wicked queen and Princess Natalia still continued to bicker and fight. It seemed to be the only way they could talk to one another sometimes. And the wicked queen decided she and Little Princess Emma couldn't stay there because they were just too different from Princess Natalia in every way to make anything work. That made Little Princess Emma *very* unhappy and she ran away, hoping to make a point.”

 

************

“She damn sure did that,” Olivia muttered, earning her a smack in the belly from Natalia.

“Olivia!”

“Well, she did,” Olivia mumbled, rubbing the spot Natalia had hit.

Natalia rolled her eyes and took over the rubbing. “Hush,” she commanded and nudged Olivia's attention back towards the stage.

 

************

“About this time, Little Princess Emma had a family project at school, and her presentation was called ‘My Two Mommies'. Everybody liked her presentation, but it made things at the farmhouse weird. The wicked queen decided it was time for her and Little Princess Emma to move back to their rooms at the queen's hotel.

She explained to the little princess that Princess Natalia had found a new prince and that he would be moving into the farmhouse to live with the princess. The queen swore it would make Natalia happy and that was what was important. The little princess didn't believe Princess Natalia would be happy without her and her mommy, but she could tell her mommy needed to believe it.

So one day they were a family living at the farmhouse with Princess Natalia and the ducks, and the next day they were back in their royal rooms at the queen's hotel. And the wicked queen was very unhappy, but she continued to help Princess Natalia, convinced that Prince Frank would make Princess Natalia happy because he would love her and give her the family she wanted.

Princess Natalia didn't really think she wanted Prince Frank. After all, she had been very happy when Queen Olivia and Princess Emma had lived with her and been her family. But Queen Olivia insisted and Princess Natalia, sure that what she'd thought was the queen's love for her was only friendship, went along with the queen's statement that Prince Frank was what Princess Natalia needed to be happy.

Princess Natalia liked Prince Frank as a friend. He was nice and he had been a good friend to Prince Rafe. And agreeing to marry him seemed to make his whole family happy. Even Little Princess Emma was happy, because she got to wear a pretty dress and drop rose petals on the ground before Princess Natalia walked down the aisle.

But at the wedding, Princess Natalia couldn't make her promises to Prince Frank. She knew that she liked him, but she loved Queen Olivia. And she knew the queen loved her too. Now she had to convince the queen that they could be together. But it wouldn't be easy because the wicked queen believed that Princess Natalia would never accept what loving her really meant. And more than anything, the wicked queen didn't want the princess to hate her.

Things went from really weird to really bad, and for a while Little Princess Emma wasn't sure what was going to happen. She knew the queen loved the princess and that the princess loved the queen. Slowly... waaaaay slower than the little princess wanted, Princess Natalia and Queen Olivia allowed themselves to be a couple and show the world that they loved one another and they were a family.

It didn't make everyone happy – Prince Frank was a toad about it and Prince Rafe was a frog. Father Ray was an as... he was just mean. But mostly, people were happy for the wicked queen and the princess.”

 

************

Olivia snorted at Emma's description of Frank and Rafe, but she bit her lips to keep from smiling when Natalia raised her head slightly and glared. Olivia shrugged.

“It's the truth.”

“I know,” Natalia sighed. “But it doesn't make me happy to remember the way they acted then.”

“Maybe not, but we're here together now and they're both okay with that,” leaning up and claiming a kiss that Natalia was happy to return. Emma stomped her foot and cleared her throat loudly, causing the audience to titter.

“Mommy!! I'm not to that part yet!”

Olivia chuckled and Natalia blushed, but couldn't hide her dimples. “Sorry, Jellybean,” motioning with her hand. “Please continue.”

“Thank you,” Emma replied regally.

 

************

“Queen Olivia discovered that she didn't need to be a wicked queen all the time anymore – that people could like her because of who she was and wouldn't see her as weak because she was nice to them. Suddenly, she realized she had friends and this made her happy.

Princess Natalia figured out that God wasn't gonna turn his back on her just ‘cause. And this made Princess Natalia happy because God was very important to her.

So finally, one day in the fall, Princess Natalia insisted it was time for the queen and the little princess to come home to the farmhouse.

That was a very happy day for Queen Olivia, Princess Natalia and Little Princess Emma. Even the frog and the toad helped them move back home.

And so far, they're living happily ever after.” Emma looked back at her parents. “All right, Mommy - *now* you can kiss her,” drawing hoots and cheers from the audience, and then wild applause for Emma as she took her bow to a standing ovation.

 

 

Chapter LIII

The applause made Emma blush and she took another bow before replacing the microphone on the stand and running off the stage with a wave. Lucy watched her go before turning back towards the audience and looking at Emma's moms.

“You two need to think about getting that kid an agent. That was incredible.” Drawing another round of cheers and applause from the women present. Lucy turned to Gabrielle. “What did you think?”

Gabrielle wrapped an arm around Emma's shoulders and squeezed lightly. They shared a huge smile. “I think Little Princess Emma has a natural gift.” A beat. “And I hope her moms loved the way she told their story as much as I did.”

Lucy turned back to the audience once more. “And let me just add that I think the next few years are gonna be real interesting for the two of you, judging by what we heard tonight,” garnering more chuckles. “Okay... moving on – our next act is all about mystery and magic. Please welcome the Great Garcia.”

Garcia was posed as the curtains opened wide for her and she took a bow before she and Lucy moved her table of props closer to the edge of the stage. Then Lucy resumed her seat off to one side of the stage and Garcia took the mic from the stand.

“So whaddya think? Should we make this a yearly event?” smiling when the crowd roared their approval. She turned towards Xena and Gabrielle. “All right, ladies – the masses have spoken,” grinning at them impishly.

“However, first I have to do my act, so just sit back, hold on tight, and watch the Goddess of Love do her thing.”

They exchanged glances and rolled their eyes in tandem, then turned their attention to the performance in front of them.

Garcia pulled the top hat from her head and showed it was empty. Then she pulled a string of colorful scarves from inside and turned it into confetti as she showered the crowd of spectators with it. This was followed by several card tricks involving different, random members of the audience.

She offered a coin trick and a rope trick, drawing laughter and applause for her showmanship and entertainment. Garcia grinned and bowed with aplomb.

“Okay, so... for my next trick, well... seeing is believing.” She showed them her empty hat again, then waved her magic wand over the top. Suddenly, a flock of butterflies flew out of the hat and over the group of women who gasped as the butterflies flew over them and simply disappeared.

This time the applause went on for a long moment and Garcia accepted it with a curtsy and a smile. “For my final trick... well, actually, I was gonna swallow fire – then I found out that fire wasn't allowed. Then I was gonna juggle knives – and I found out that wasn't allowed either.” She huffed. “So, I guess that *was* my final trick.“

Garcia bowed again and blew kisses as the women clapped and cheered. And with a final curtsy, she started off the stage. Lucy rose and motioned to the prop table. Garcia shook her head and held up a hand, stopping Lucy from coming closer. Instead, Garcia focused on the table and lifted her hand, raising it off the ground.

The audience grew silent... stunned by what they were seeing. Slowly, the table rose from the stage and floated towards Garcia until it and she were behind the curtains - which dropped to roaring cheers.

“Well, that was pretty impressive,” Lucy commented with admiration in her voice. Then her brow furrowed into a frown. “Wait a minute! If she could do that before, why'd I have to help carry it out?? That table was damn heavy!”

Snorts of laughter followed her pronouncement and she frowned harder. “Maybe Amy'll offer you a rub down tonight,” Xena commented with a straight face, drawing hoots and hollers of her own. Lucy brightened and waggled her eyebrows in Amy's direction.

“What say, babe? Sound like a plan?”

Amy just covered her face and shook her head.

Lucy scowled and muttered under her breath before bringing the mic back to her mouth. “It's time to make some noise for Ms Casey Novak!”

“Good evening ladies! And thank you for letting me be part of this fantastic show tonight. It's been a long, long time since I was on stage like this. Actually, stand-up comedy helped pay my way through college – yeah... no kidding. And somehow, going up in front of a judge and jury on a regular basis isn't nearly as nerve-racking. I mean, they teach that in law school – stand-up comedy... not so much.

So anyway, first off I need to thank whoever was in charge of scheduling. I'm pretty sure if I'd have been the one following Abbie and Alex dancing, I'd have been a blithering idiot. As it is, I'm not sure that still won't happen.” Casey cleared her throat.

“All right, so I've got to ask – how many of you believe in God? C'mon... raise your hands. I'm not passing an offering plate or anything. I'm just nosey.” A number of women raised their hands and Casey nodded.

“Okay... now of those of you that believe in God, how many of you believe that God is a man?” Most of the hands stayed up, but a few dropped. Casey nodded her head.

“Congratulations, ladies... you're right. You can put your hands down, thanks. God is a man, and despite the lovely Ms Garcia's assurance that she's the Goddess of Love, there's divine proof showing there is no Goddess... of love or otherwise.”

Another glance was exchanged, but otherwise, there was nothing in anyone's expression to give away any thoughts to Casey's pronouncements.

“Are you sure?”

Casey chuckled. “Absolutely – divine proof, remember? Any of you ladies ever hang clothes out on the line at sometime in your life?” watching as a number of hands went up in acknowledgment. “Me too. Now, especially for those of you that lived in the Southeastern part of the United States – how many times did it rain? Either just after you got everything on the line and up to your elbows in something else or just before you went out to take them in once they were dry?”

“That didn't just happen here in the States,” Helen commented. “Have you ever been in the highlands of Scotland?”

“Who said that?” Casey asked, then nodded in acceptance when Helen stood up. “Exactly – and how many times did it rain detergent and fabric softener in the highlands of Scotland?”

“Um... never?”

“My point – if God was a woman, it would rain detergent and fabric softener just so the clothes would come off the line ready to go instead of needing to be washed again. And think of how clean the yard would be, right?” smiling at the laughter. “It's a win/win.

And then there are the children – I know we have a few moms in the audience. How many of you have ever wished for a manual to know how to handle certain situations or attitudes? Especially once the kids hit puberty??”

Casey chuckled at the cheers and clapping she got in response to that question. “I know I heard my mother mumbling more than once about wishing my brothers and I had come with operating instructions. If God was a woman, kids would come with an off button and babies would come out of the womb with an information booklet strapped to their bellies.

And let's be completely honest – if God was a woman, childbirth would be a *much* different process. I don't think men would be doing it because let's face it... if men had to carry a child for nine months and then give birth, the human race would've become extinct a long time ago,” grinning when there was hooting and hollering around the room.

“But if God was a woman, pregnancy would come without swollen ankles and lower back problems and when it was time to give birth, there'd be a hidden zipper that could just be opened and boom! Out pops the kid!” letting the women cheer for a long moment before she began to speak again.

“Or how about full-grown responsible adult children? Couldn't they just be born ready to move out? I think if God was a woman, we'd have been given a choice about that as well... or at least given a button to make them grown after they pop out from that zippered compartment.

And speaking of buttons – what about an opt-out button? Is there a reason a woman should suffer with cramps and bloating and bleeding to death for days on end every single month - unless of course she's *pregnant* - for thirty or forty years of her life?? I mean seriously... what kind of Divine Being would come up with that?? I'm pretty sure it wasn't a woman!” More cheering and clapping.

“And really, if God was a woman, we could get out of bed looking like a million dollars every morning. No bed head, no morning breath, no ridiculous amounts of make-up to put on to cover the lines and sags and circles we seem to find more of everyday. If God was a woman, we'd be the ones who aged gracefully and got more distinguished looking with age.” This time she got the women to their feet.

“Finally, let me ask – how many of you have had a mother figure in your life? Not all of us are lucky like Emma in that we have two moms, but most of us have had at least one mom in their life, right? If not our actual mother, there's been a step-mom or a favorite auntie or even an older sibling that somehow filled that role in our lives, right?” waiting for a smattering of applause in recognition of the truth of her words.

“All right, for those of you that've had a mom – the kind of mom that makes you clean your room and eat your peas and wash behind your ears – answer me this. Do you really think if God was a woman that she'd have let the world get in the shape it's in?? I don't know about you guys, but if God was a woman like my mom, she'd have already stepped in and done some head smacking.

I mean, seriously? ‘What the hell do you think you're doing?' SMACK!! ‘I give you something nice and this is what you do with it?!' SMACK!! ‘What have I told you about picking up after yourself??' SMACK!! ‘Clean up this mess!!' SMACK!!

Honestly, if God was a woman, the earth would be a much nicer place to live, but we'd all be walking around with brain damage.” Laughter greeted her words followed by applause when Casey put the mic back on stand and waved as she exited the stage.

Lucy walked back towards center stage gently rubbing the back of her head. “That explains so much,” she muttered, garnering more laughter. “Okay, our next up is an accidental duet.” Lucy turned and looked at Xena. “Really?” Xena nodded. Lucy just shook her head. “All righty then – put your hands together for our dueling Divas – Ziva David and Temperance Brennan!”

The two stepped out from the semi-open curtain dressed in glamorous finery and bowed slightly in acknowledgement of the clapping and wolf-whistles that greeted them.

“So first I should tell you why we're up here together,” Bones started, accepting Lucy's microphone.

“Why should you tell them?” Ziva asked as she removed the mic from the stand. “Why not me?”

“Oh,” Bones gestured towards the audience. “By all means.”

“Well, you see, we were each going to sing separately... only we discovered....”

“... we were going to be singing the same song. So instead, we decided....”

“... to do a different song together. We hope you'll enjoy it.”

The music from “Annie Get Your Gun” blared through the speakers and the audience grinned and clapped their approval of the Dueling Divas' choice. Bones started them off.

Anything you can do,
I can do better.

I can do anything

Better than you.


No, you can't.

Yes, I can. No, you can't.

Yes, I can. No, you can't.

Yes, I can,

Yes, I can!

Then Ziva took a turn.


Anything you can be

I can be greater.

Sooner or later,

I'm greater than you.


No, you're not. Yes, I am.

No, you're not. Yes, I am.

No, you're NOT! Yes, I am.

Yes, I am

This was followed by Bones.

Any note you can reach
I can go higher.

I can sing anything

Higher than you.


No, you can't. (High)

Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can't. (Higher)

Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can't. (Higher)

Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can't. (Higher)

Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can't. (Higher)

Yes, I CAN! (Highest)

Ziva started on the next verse even as Bones coughed to clear her throat.

Anything you can say
I can say softer.

I can say anything

Softer than you.


No, you can't. (Softly)

Yes, I can. (Softer) No, you can't. (Softer)

Yes, I can. (Softer) No, you can't. (Softer)

Yes, I can. (Softer)

YES, I CAN! (Full volume)

Bones took a deep breath before beginning the next set.

Any note you can hold
I can hold longer.

I can hold any note

Longer than you.


No, you can't.

Yes, I can No, you can't.

Yes, I can No, you can't.

Yes, I can

Yes, I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I No, you C-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-N'T--

CA-A-A-A-N! (Cough, cough!)

Yes, you ca-a-a-an!

Ziva licked her lips and started the next stanza.

Anything you say

I can say faster.

I can say anything

Faster than you.

No, you can't. (Fast)

Yes, I can. (Faster) No, you can't. (Faster)

Yes, I can. (Faster) No you can't. (Faster)

Yes I can! (Fastest)

They both grew haughty as they entered the final verse.


Anything you can sing

I can sing sweeter.

I can sing anything

Sweeter than you.

No, you can't. (Sweetly)

Yes, I can. (Sweeter) No, you can't. (Sweeter)

Yes, I can. (Sweeter) No, you can't. (Sweeter)

Yes, I can. (Sweeter) No, you can't, can't, can't (sweeter)

Yes, I can, can, can (Sugary)


Yes, I can! No, you can't!

Together, they belted out the tag line – “YES I CAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!” and immediately leaned against one another, laughing as applause and cheers rang out across the room. They accepted their due with a bow, then replaced the mics and turned to leave the stage with a backwards glance and a wave before disappearing behind the curtains.


Chapter LIV

“I gotta say – if Divas gotta duel, they need to duel like that. That was pretty fantastic! Whaddya say, ladies?” Applause rose across the room and Lucy smiled. “So, let's welcome our next act, the Mystic Mentalists – Barbara Gordon and Dinah Lance!”

The response was good – everyone was having fun and enjoying themselves. Still, Barbara found herself putting on her teaching persona as she wheeled onto the stage, followed by Dinah. “Good evening, everyone!” smiling when the crowd answered as a group. “I'm Barbara; this is Dinah,” pulling the younger woman up beside her. “And tonight we'd like to amaze you with a little bit of mind reading,” waiting until the applause died down again.

“Now since it will be easier for Dinah to walk among you for obvious reasons,” she added wryly gesturing to her chair, “I'll be attempting the mind reading part of this act. So before we get started....” She pulled a long length of cloth from the side pocket of her chair and handed it to Dinah. “I'll need to be blindfolded.”

Dinah took the cloth and went down into the audience, allowing a number of women to see and feel the material, determining that it was thick and non-see-through.

“So is everyone satisfied?” she asked, waiting for an affirmative before returning to the stage. She motioned Lucy over and handed her the blindfold.

“You *do* know how to use one of these, right?” Barbara asked with a smirk. The blush that ran up Lucy's and consequently Amy's face couldn't be missed. Lucy tied it tight, careful not to catch Barbara's hair in the knot. She bent to check that there were no peeking spots, then nodded to Dinah.

“She's all set.”

“All right, ladies – this is how this works. Dinah's going to wander around the room. If you've got an object you'd like me to do a little mind reading about, let Dinah know. And we'll see what we can do with it, all right?”

Dinah stepped off the stage again and before she could go very far, Kate Ashurst walked up beside her and offered her a small article. Dinah nodded enthusiastically and turned Kate to face the stage, keeping a hand on her shoulder.

”Oh All-Knowing Oracle, I hold in my hand an object.” Dinah watched the blindfold shift as Barbara arched her brow beneath it. In the back, Helena just shook her head, knowing the Kid was in trouble.

“Is it an elephant?”

Dinah looked at her hand and rolled her eyes, then mentally slapped herself for even looking. The women watching her chuckled at her reaction. “No... no elephant.”

“Lions, tigers, bears?”

“Oh my. NO, of course. No, it isn't.”

“Just checking…. Our contract with Disney doesn't cover that in our deposit.”

“Among a number of other things, I'm sure. Now concentrate, Oracle, and I'm sure you'll be able to *unlock* the mystery of this object.”

Barbara put two fingers on one side of her temple. “Um... I'm getting a lot of interference, Dinah.”

“Concentrate, Oracle – you can *unlock* the identity of this item if you concentrate.”

Barbara paused thoughtfully. “You hold in your hand a key.”

“Can you be more specific?”

Barbara furrowed her brow. “The key you hold unlocks a safe – the safe in room... 2314.” She hesitated. “The safe contains two police badges.”

From her spot in the audience, Scribbs snarked. “No effing way! What are the badge numbers?”

“Middleford Police Detective Inspector 426 and Middleford Police Detective Sergeant 841.”

Scribbs shook her head. “Blimey! She's exactly right!” The crowd burst into amazed applause.

 

************

It didn't take but a minute and Dinah had her next willing volunteer. Mac held up her hand and Dinah took the small item, remaining next to Mac and keeping in contact with her.

“Oracle, I hold in my hand an object.”

“Is it an elephant?”

“No.”

“It's never an elephant.”

“Focus, Oracle. This one's a bit of a *challenge*, but a good *toss* will give you the right answer.”

“You're sure about that, Dinah?”

“I am.”

“I've got something but it's still really fuzzy. It's round and....” She paused and tilted her head. “It's a coin.” Barbara held up her hand before Dinah could prod her again, then pressed two fingers to her temple again. “It is in fact a coin from Col. Sarah MacKenzie – a coin that you absconded with, Colonel, after Lt. Cmdr. Bud Roberts loaned it to you and your partner Harmon Rabb to determine which of you would remain in the service and which of you would follow the other when you were being sent to San Diego and Harm was going to London. The top reads Judge Advocate General and the bottom has the dates 1995-2005, indicating the 10 years Admiral Albert J. Chegwidden was the Judge Advocate General of the United States Navy.”

“Son of a bitch,” Mac muttered. “That's absolutely right.”

“Nice going, Oracle,” Dinah cheered. The women cheered loudly as well.

 

************

Abby waved her hand to get Dinah's attention this time, but it was Kate who offered the next piece to challenge Barbara's ability. Dinah stood beside her, holding Kate's wrist. She pulled the microphone away from her mouth. “Can you take it off for me?” waiting for Kate to comply and getting a good read on her in the meantime. “Thanks,” she muttered before returning the mic to her lips.

“All-Seeing Oracle, I hold in my hand an object.”

“Still not an elephant, right?”

“Correct.”

“All righty then.”

“Concentrate, Oracle – you're running out of *time* on this object.”

Barbara took a deep breath. “I'm running out of time to find that freaking elephant,” she muttered.

“Focus, Oracle. *Time* is moving right along here.”

“Of course it is... time is a constant, Dinah.” She rubbed her temple again. “It's a watch, but I can't see.... Wait – it's starting to come in a little more clearly.” She paused a moment. You're holding a very special watch. This watch is engraved on the back and was given to Caitlin Todd for her service on behalf of the President of the United States – dated September 23, 2003.”

“I'll be damned,” Kate said aloud. “How the hell did you know that?” Barbara simply smiled and the crowd went wild.

 

************

Emma had been signaling her mother and finally Olivia held up the item Emma wanted her buddy Barbara to guess. With a whispered word from Gabrielle, Emma ran over to join Olivia and Natalia just as Dinah reached them. She grinned and Emma nodded her head enthusiastically.

“Oracle, I hold in my hand an object.”

“Is it...?”

“Why yes... yes it is.”

“I didn't even ask yet.”

“Aren't you gonna ask if it's an elephant?”

“Why? I've guessed that three times already and it's been wrong every time. I think the elephant – like Elvis - has left the building.”

“Try again.”

“All right... is it an elephant?”

“It is, in fact, an elephant.”

“Oh man… that was too easy,” Emma broke in, giggling. “I knew you were gonna say that. Tell me, Bar... Oracle - what's my elephant's name?”

Barbara's eyebrows went into her hairline. “Emma, why did you name your stuffed elephant?”

“Because everyone needs a name.”

“That's a good reason,” Barbara agreed with a succinct nod of her head. She furrowed her brow in thought “Your elephant's name is... Frank??” Emma giggled and nodded her head enthusiastically.

“Emma!” Natalia exclaimed. Olivia just snorted.

“Okay, Emma,” Barbara offered. “Since you thought that was too easy, go ahead and ask me something else.”

“Kay. Um.. Bar... Oracle, what color underwear is Mommy wearing?”

“EMMA!!!” both her mothers shouted.

“Emma, whisper the color to Dinah,” Barbara instructed after delicately clearing her throat. Dinah leaned down and heard Emma's answer and frowned. Then she deliberately leaned on the back of Olivia's chair and promptly turned a disturbing shade of red. She cleared her throat and spoke directly to Emma, keeping her eyes away from Olivia's and Natalia's.

“Okay Emma... think of the color and concentrate. You got it?” waiting for Emma to nod. “All right, Oracle – she's concentrating really hard. What d'you think?”

“I'm getting the image,” rubbing her forehead thoughtfully. “It's... it's... coming in really weird. It looks like....” She paused and tilted her head as though trying to make sense of what she was seeing. “It's... camo? Olivia, you're wearing camouflage underwear??” Barbara shook her head before Dinah could speak. “Wait... not camo... COMMANDO!”

Olivia covered her eyes and hissed, “Emma!!!”

Natalia slapped her hand over Olivia's belly. “Olivia!!!”

In the midst of the mayhem, Emma looked between her two mommies trying to figure out why Natalia just hit her mommy. But that didn't dampen her curiosity and she met Olivia's eyes when she asked, “Mommy, what color is commando? Is that like pink?”

The entire room burst into hysterical laughter. Olivia covered her eyes; Natalia buried her entire face in her hands. Emma just looked at Dinah and shrugged her shoulders. Dinah sent Barbara a silent message – I'm really glad Helena is getting this on camera... THAT was priceless.

 

************

It took a few minutes for the room to settle down again, but even once the laughter had receded Dinah still didn't speak. There was some shuffling around the room that Barbara could hear and she tilted her head to try and determine what was going on.

“Dinah?”

“Sorry, Oracle. I hold in my hand….”

“Yada yada....” Barbara broke in.

“And no, it's not an elephant.”

“I wasn't going to guess that.”

“Why not? You've guessed that every other time.”

“Because what are the chances of two people packing an elephant in the same room?”

Dinah snorted. “And people think I'm a blonde.”

“Hey! I know where you live and you have to sleep sometime.”

“And back to the object before I end up sleeping by the pool tonight” smiling when the crowd laughed. “Try to *restrain* yourself from making outrageous guesses on this, Oracle.”

A pause.

“Oh no she didn't,” Barbara muttered, face flushing almost the color of her hair.

“C'mon, Red,” Helena encouraged. Barbara just shook her head.

“Of course she did,” causing laughter to ripple around the room. “Is the object yours, Helena?”

“Yes.”

Barbara cocked her head thoughtfully and rubber her temples, willing away the flush she could still feel. Then she smiled slyly. “No it isn't... those aren't ours.” She pursed her lips and crinkled her forehead thoughtfully. “They're standard police issue,” pausing again briefly, “from here in Orlando, no less.” She tilted her head. “Besides, ours are fur-lined and they don't make noise. Where did you get those and why did you give them to Annabelle?” drawing gasps from the amazed crowd. She smirked. “Did you *really* think you could get one over on me like that?”

Helena held out her hand in frustration and Annabelle chuckled as she dropped the handcuffs in Helena's outstretched palm. Helena nodded her thanks... only to turn and find Detective Shana Kennian standing behind her scowling fiercely at her.

“I would appreciate the return of my property.” Helena smiled sheepishly and handed them over to Kennian with a flourish. Kennian nodded briskly and resumed her seat next to Bornlan.

“That was unexpected,” Teresa whispered to her partner. Shana frowned.

“I did not realize that was her intent.”

“I'm kinda afraid to ask what you thought her intent was,” Bornlan commented, then turned her attention back to Barbara.

Barbara tsked at Helena. “Oh, Sweetheart – you should know better. I'm not the All-Knowing Oracle for nothing. I expect there'll be hell for you to pay later.”

“I should be so lucky,” Helena said with a grin as ooohs and applause followed Barbra's pronouncement.

 

************

“M'kay,” Dinah said. “We have time for one more object.”

Janet looked at Sam, who nodded her agreement. Then she rose and offered a slip of an article to Dinah, who accepted it with a smile and a hand on Janet's shoulder.

“Oracle, I hold in my hand the final object.” A beat. “You know you're dying to ask,” Dinah teased.

“No I'm not. We already had our elephant, remember?

“Fine,” Dinah huffed theatrically. “I'm sure if you just *focus*, Oracle, all will become *clear* and you will have the answer in a *flash*.”

“I'm going to have wrinkles from all the focusing I've done tonight,” trying to smooth out the lines on her forehead before pressing her fingers to her temple once more.

“And I'm sure Helena will be glad to rub them out for you, Oracle. Now concentrate.”

“I am concentrating, Dinah. All I'm getting is ‘Printed on Kodak Paper.”

“Okay, so what does that tell you?”

“I can only see the back?” causing a ripple of laughter across the room. Barbara smiled in response, then pressed her fingers to her temple and bit her lips in contemplation.

“You hold in your hand a photograph... A very special photograph.” Barbara cocked her head and looked in Janet's direction even though her eyes were still hidden by the blindfold. “Are you certain you want me to share this with the audience? Dinah, can you bring Dr. Fraiser to the platform please?”

Dinah frowned but nodded and took Janet by the arm. Janet didn't pull away, allowing the touch as it grounded her after the unexpected shock of Barbara's question. She reached the stage and Barbara motioned her closer, handing the microphone to Dinah. Then Barbara whispered to Janet what she had read. Janet's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.

“My God,” she said loud enough for the room to hear. “That's exactly right!! How did you...?” She shook her head. “No wonder Dinah calls you Oracle – it's true.”

Barbara shook her head, but gave her a heartening smile. “The question is – can I share it with the audience?”

Janet looked directly at Sam, who smiled her encouragement, but left the decision to Janet. “Sure,” she finally agreed. “I don't think anyone here is going to go running to the Air Force with this... I hope.”

“I think we can all keep a secret – right, ladies?” Barbara asked as she brought the mic back up and turned her head towards the audience. Loud cheers greeted her question.

“So,” Barbara continued without missing a beat. “Dinah is holding a very special photograph. It's a picture taken a few weeks ago at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. It's of you and Samantha Carter with your daughter Cassandra on the day she told the two of you that you were going to become grandparents for the first time.” Barbara didn't reveal the secret of Cassandra's alien origins, but there was no need nor did she want to. That particular knowledge would be something to contemplate later. For now, the women were whooping and cheering their excitement over what she had seen and shared with them that evening.

She removed the blindfold and took Dinah's hand in her own, allowing the accolades to wash over them. Janet leaned over and hugged her and Barbara stiffened momentarily before briefly returning the embrace. “Thank you,” Janet whispered. “You don't know how wonderful it is to be allowed to share our excitement like this. Thank you.”

Barbara patted her hand, passing her microphone to Dinah to reset. “I'm glad. It was wonderful news to be able to share. Thank you for letting us.” Then Janet led the way down the stage, followed by Dinah and Barbara.

“Well done, ladies,” Gabrielle murmured sotto voce as they reached her. “Excellent job!”

“That was astounding. One day, you're gonna have to share your secret,” Lucy enthused from the stage as they resettled themselves. “And in the meantime, it's time for Xena to pay the piper. At least Gabrielle gave her more than an hour to prepare, and she gets help besides. So give it up for our singing warriors – Xena and Diana Prince!”

The room was filled with clapping and cheering as Xena and Diana took the stage. This promised to be entertaining at the very least.

 

 

Chapter LV

This time the curtains opened fully, revealing the presence of a baby grand piano. Diana, dressed in jeans and an untucked white dress shirt, took her seat on the bench, adjusting the microphone stand Xena had slipped into place. Xena, in jeans and an untucked black dress shirt, then walked over to Lucy and simply extended her hand, smiling when Lucy shook her head. The audience couldn't hear the words they exchanged, but they got the reference when Xena motioned to Gabrielle, then crossed her arms over her chest with a smirk.

Lucy blew her bangs out of her face, then stuck out her tongue at Xena before extending the microphone to her. The crowd laughed and cheered, enjoying the pantomimed action as much as it had the rest of the evening. Xena took the mic, then took a bow; Lucy crossed her arms over her chest and stuck her nose in the air... for the all of five seconds it took for her to join in the laughter. Then she headed back to her seat and waited for the next act to begin.

Xena stepped to the front of the stage, clearing her throat before bringing the mic to her lips. “So, um... Lucy was right – Gabrielle did give me more than an hour to prepare for this performance,” her smile garnering her light laughter from the crowd. “Yeah,” she added, scratching the back of her neck, “I'm even luckier in that Diana was nice enough to agree to accompany me and we've actually sung together before. However, it's been a really long time since we did, so....” trailing off, not mentioning how long that really long time was or the fact that it had been among the Amazons.

“But, as Emma can tell you, an Amazon Queen is entitled to a Champion, but a Queen's Champion has to be well-rounded and can never shirk her duty to the queen. In my case, that means on the rare occasion that Gabrielle asks for me to sing for her, I do.” Xena turned to face Gabrielle and bowed deeply before meeting her eyes. “With your permission, your majesty....” knowing no one would think it was more than a simple bit of theatrics and showmanship for Emma's benefit.

Gabrielle nodded regally and waved her hand. Xena smiled and moved back to stand behind the piano, still facing the audience and close enough that she and Diana could see and hear one another easily.

“Whenever you're ready,” Xena said softly, nodding her head. Diana smiled and riffed her fingers across the keys before smoothly segueing into the introduction of the medley they'd prepared. Xena returned the smile and began singing alone.

When you're down and troubled
And you need some love and care

And nothing, nothing is goin' right,

Close your eyes and think of me

And soon I will be there

To brighten up even your darkest night

You just call out my name

And you know wherever I am

I'll come runnin' to see you again

Then Diana harmonized with her on the chorus.


Winter, spring, summer or fall
All ya have to do is call

And I'll be there,

You've got a friend, you've got a friend.

Diana took over the melody on the next bit.

You've got a friend in me
You've got a friend in me

When the road looks rough ahead

And you're miles and miles

From your nice warm bed

You just remember what your old pal said

Boy, you've got a friend in me

Yeah, you've got a friend in me

Then Xena resumed the lead and Diana dropped back to harmonizing.

You've got a friend in me

You've got a friend in me

If you've got troubles, I've got 'em too

There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you

We stick together and can see it through

Cause you've got a friend in me

You've got a friend in me.

By this point, the room was singing along on the bits they recognized and swaying to the parts they didn't know. Xena signaled to Diana who nodded her agreement and extended the transition into the next piece, giving time for Xena to kneel in front of Gabrielle before she started singing again.

Ooh you make me live
Whatever this world can give to me

It's you - you're all I see

Ooo you make me live now honey

Ooo you make me live


Ooh you're the best friend that I ever had

I've been with you such a long time

You're my sunshine and I want you to know

That my feelings are true

I really love you

Oh you're my best friend
.

Gabrielle blushed, but she held Xena's gaze and smiled, tenderly cupping Xena's cheek. Xena's free hand covered it briefly, then took it in her hand and lifted it to her lips while Diana let the music evolve from one song to the next. Xena let the words flow from her lips without letting her eyes leave Gabrielle's.

But of all these friends and lovers,
There is no one compares with you.

And these memories lose their meaning

When I think of love as something new.


Though I know I'll never ever lose affection

For people and things that went before,

I know I'll often stop and think about them.

In my life I love you more.

Xena tugged on the hand she held, pulling Gabrielle to her feet and swaying with her gently on the floor beside the stage. Diana played a nice long interlude, then took over the singing. She'd seen the queen and her consort forget the world existed before when they got lost together like this.

Keep smiling, keep shining,
Knowing you can always count on me

For sure

That's what friends are for


For good times and bad times

I'll be on your side forever more.

That's what friends are for.

The room continued to sway with the music, watching Xena and Gabrielle sway with them, yet apart. Diana allowed the music to speed up so she could shift into the next tune, knowing it would pull Xena and Gabrielle back into the act. She waited for Xena to look up and nod her head, then started singing the next song grinning when the audience started clapping in time.

Oh, you got to have friends,
The feeling's oh so strong.

You got to have friends

To make that day last long.

Had some friends, but they're gone,

Somethin' came and took them away,

And from the dusk 'til the dawn

Here's where I will stay.

Xena led Gabrielle to the stage, joining Diana's singing about halfway through the song. When they were done, Diana kept up music in the background at Xena's signal. Xena handed Gabrielle the microphone, then put her hands on Gabrielle's hips and lifted her up onto the piano. Gabrielle laughed and crossed her legs as she handed the mic back to Xena.

“All right,” she said over the music. “Before we let Gabrielle do her thing and close us out for the night, Diana and I have one more bit of musical brilliance to leave you with. Pretty sure most of you'll appreciate the humor,” nodding her head at Diana one more time. Laughter and applause started almost immediately – most of the women did, in fact, recognize the music that Diana played leading up to the chorus. Then everyone started singing along.

'Cause I've got friends
In low places

Where the whiskey drowns

And the beer chases

My blues away

And I'll be okay

I'm not big on social graces

Think I'll slip on

Down to the oasis

Oh, I've got friends

In low places


I guess I was wrong

I just don't belong

But then, I've

Been there before

And everything is all right

I'll just say goodnight

And I'll show myself

To the door

I didn't mean to

Cause a big scene

Just wait 'til I

Finish this glass

Then sweet little lady

I'll head back to the bar

And you can kiss my....

Gabrielle gave Diana a pointed look and simply leaned forward and covered Xena's mouth with her hand before they could utter the final word. The crowd went crazy, cheering and whooping loudly in both approval and pleasure of the entertainment they'd been given.

Xena cocked her head in Gabrielle's direction and Gabrielle kissed her nose as she removed her hand. Xena smiled at her, then extended her hand to Diana, helping her from the bench. Together they walked to the front of the stage, bowing first simultaneously, then separately before wrapping their arms around one another and laughing.

After a moment, they pulled apart and Diana headed off the stage. Xena looked at Lucy, but she simply shook her head and gestured for Xena to continue. In anticipation, the women grew silent. Xena let her eyebrows go into her hairline.

“You guys expecting something else?” grinning when the audience went a little bit wild. That reaction, pure and honest, made everything they had done to get to this point more than worth it. She turned and looked at Gabrielle, not surprised to see a hint of tears in the green eyes she knew so well. Xena looked back out at the audience.

“Then without further ado... please welcome – Bard Gabrielle!!”

This time everyone jumped to their feet clapping, whistling and stomping enthusiastically. Xena turned back to Gabrielle and walked back to the piano. She handed her the microphone and leaned their foreheads together, putting her hands on Gabrielle's waist.

“You all right?” she whispered.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and nodded, swallowing hard before she spoke. “Yeah... it's just....” She shrugged. “I'm still a little overwhelmed. I never expected....”

Xena grinned. “Yeah, but it's nice, right?”

“Yeah, it is. Now put me down so I can tell my story.”

Xena bowed low, drawing screams from the still cheering crowd. “As you wish, my queen,” lifting Gabrielle from the piano and setting her gently on her feet before releasing her hips. “Go get ‘em, baby!” Xena whispered, then turned and somersaulted from the stage. Gabrielle grinned fondly at her and shook her head. Xena simply bowed again and took her seat, not surprised to find Emma next to her again.

“This is so exciting!” Emma whispered loudly to Xena to be heard over all the noise in the room, even as she bounced up and down in her seat. Xena smiled and nodded.

“Yes, it is. It's been a long time since the queen has told stories like she has this weekend.”

“Why? She's really good at it.”

“Yes, she is. But there isn't really a call for it anymore. People have television and movies and books.”

Emma narrowed her eyes. “I'll talk to my mommy. She can fix that. She can fix anything, you know,” Emma confided confidently.

Xena smiled and nodded. She had no doubt if Emma got involved, all kinds of things would be possible. She only hoped Emma's mother was ready for everything that meant. Then she realized the room was settling down and directed Emma's attention back to the stage.

“Thank you, everyone... thank you so much,” Gabrielle said as she wiped the corner of her eye and chuckled, causing more applause. She held up her hand. “Thank you ladies. Please... please be seated. Please... thank you.”

Gabrielle smiled and waited for them to calm down and settle back into their seats.

“Thank you – I can't tell you how amazing this weekend has been for me. Aside from all the wonderful seminars and networking we've done; besides all the new friendships we've made - your welcome for me... for this....” pausing when they cheered again.

“Now,” Gabrielle continued when the room quieted again. “I'm gonna tell you something... gods' honest truth,” she added, holding up her hand as if taking a pledge. “Xena and I didn't discuss what we were gonna do here tonight. Aside from knowing that she was singing and I was storytelling, we didn't talk about this at all. So the fact that she and Diana did a song medley about friendship and I'm telling a story about two best friends is simply karma.”

The women clapped their approval and Gabrielle took that moment to look at Xena. Without hesitation, she tapped Emma on the shoulder and handed her a bottle of water, then leaned forward and whispered in her ear. Emma took the bottle and nodded eagerly. Then she ran up the stairs onto the stage and gave Gabrielle the bottle. Gabrielle accepted the bottle and offered a hug that Emma gladly returned before she ran back to sit beside Xena once more.

“So sit back, ladies, and let me tell you the story of Nolie and Rysa.”

 

 

Chapter LVI

Gabrielle tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and looked out at the audience. “This is a beautiful story of love and friendship that takes place during one of the darkest parts of US history, and it begins in the waning days of peace before the Civil War tore this country apart….”

 

************

Nolie walked slowly down the cobbled streets, her head bent lost in thought. It was the fall of 1860, and the countryside was rumbling with the rumors of war. She found the talk unsettling, and she made her way to the bank at the corner of Franklyn & Rhodes to visit her papa. The walk made her introspective, and she thought back over her life, and what had brought her to the decision she'd come to that morning ---

 

************

Gabrielle smiled out at the quiet audience. “Now you need to know what Nolie was thinking about as she walked down that road towards the bank. It lays the foundation for this entire tale.”

 

************

Cyrus Brighton was the president of the First National Bank, and had guided it into prosperity in the years since its founding. He was well thought of in the community, and his plantation, though not large, was a thriving success. His house slaves were mostly devoted, as he was not a hard master to serve.

One was particularly faithful. Rysa was a mulatto who'd been brought into the house as a youngster to be a companion to his newborn daughter. The eight-year-old stared at the new baby with wide hazel eyes not realizing the difference the little brown-eyed child would make in her life.

It was 1844 when Magnolia Brighton was born, the only child of Cyrus and Rebecca Brighton. They'd been married for twelve years when she made her appearance, and never were two people so happy to welcome a baby into their home. Complications set in for Rebecca though, and before Nolie was two weeks old, her mother passed into God's arms, leaving Cyrus to raise their baby girl alone.

Cyrus was distraught, so his housekeeper slave who went by the name Twiggy took little Nolie in to Cyrus and laid her in his arms. He continued to look out the window, though his arms tightened convulsively around the tiny bundle.

“Massa Cyrus? Massa Cy? Ah knows ya don' wanna hears dis from me, sah, but Miz Nolie, she still needs ya, sah.”

He sat still so long that Twiggy wondered if he'd even heard her, but finally his attention turned to the sleeping baby, then his eyes tracked to Twiggy. “I do not know anything about babies, Twiggy. What am I going to do without Rebecca?”

Twiggy couldn't stop the tears that rolled down her face. “Massa Cy, if'n ya'd like sah, Ah'll take care of de baby, sah. I knows of someones I kin git to hep wif her....”

Nolie started fussing, and Cyrus awkwardly patted her behind. “You do what you think is best for her, Twiggy. I leave her in your capable hands.”

Rysa became Nolie's friend and companion, and they'd never questioned their right to be together. Rysa changed Nolie's diapers, fed her and rocked her when she cried. As Nolie grew older, Rysa taught Nolie how to climb trees and fish and swim, and Nolie in turn taught Rysa how to read and write. Though Rysa was eight years older, the two girls grew up together, and Rysa was mostly able to put the fact of her slavery out of her mind.

On the eve of Nolie's tenth birthday, Rysa's slavery was brought home to them both in a very real way.

 

************

“Xena?” Emma asked, tugging on Xena's dark sleeve and forcing Xena to lean down to hear her. Xena cocked an eyebrow and waited. Emma leaned up to she could whisper in Xena's ear. “Why's Gabrielle talking so funny?”

Xena smiled. Gabrielle had spent a long time getting Twiggy's inflection right – something Xena had appreciated more when she'd finally met the elderly woman in person.

“Because that's the way Twiggy talked, Jellybean. She didn't have the chance to go to school and learn better.”

Emma held her eyes for a moment, judging her honesty. Then she nodded her head and turned back to listen to Gabrielle.

 

************

Rysa was accompanying Nolie downtown to see her father at the bank. It wasn't something she particularly enjoyed because of the attention it got her. But Nolie wanted to see her father, and she could not, would not allow the precocious child to walk into town alone.

When they arrived at the bank, Rysa was stopped at the door by the doorman, who was unnecessarily rude and condescending. “Whaddya want here, nigger? Yer kind don't have business here.”

 

************

“That's a bad word,” Emma hissed, though this time, it was loud enough for Gabrielle to hear her. Gabrielle turned to the side of the stage, then walked over and knelt down.

“You're right, Emma – it is a bad word. But in that time and that place, it was commonly used in reference to everyone of color.”

Emma nodded. “All right. Go ahead. I like this story.”

Gabrielle smiled. “So do I,” remembering how glad she'd been when Nolie and Rysa had shared it with her the first time. She rose and went back to the middle of the stage, switching the hand that held the microphone and tucking yet another stray lock of hair behind her ear.

 

************

Nolie didn't understand the man's ugliness, but even as a child she knew she didn't like his tone in addressing her friend. She stepped in front of Rysa and pointed at the man, glaring up into his face.

“You don't talk to her like that, mister. She's my friend!”

The man sneered at her and tried to push the child away from him. “Watch it....” was all he managed before finding his hand caught in a vice grip and blazing hazel eyes burning into him.

“Why do you not go tell...?”

“I'm gonna tell my papa on you, you bad man.”

“Problem, Mr. Fulton?” Cyrus Brighton's quiet voice cut into the melee, effectively silencing everyone. One of his tellers had heard the disturbance and fetched him from his office in time to hear Nolie's youthful voice raised in anger.

“Yes, sir. This nigger was trying to get in the front door. We do not let her kind do business here.”

“I see. Perhaps you should know the facts before you start passing judgment, Mr. Fulton. Rysa is my daughter's governess, and as such is allowed in with my daughter when she accompanies her to town. If that is going to be a problem for you, perhaps you should find other employment, because I will not sacrifice Magnolia's safety for your petty bigotry. Do I make myself clear?” he asked, not understanding how bigoted he himself sounded.

“Yes sir. I didn't realize....”

“Very well, Mr. Fulton. Don't let it happen again.”

“Yes sir,” the young man said grudgingly, just moving out of the way to allow Rysa to pass by him into the building.

That night, Nolie went into Rysa's room without knocking, and for the first time noticed the scars on Rysa's back. Rysa quickly pulled on her nightshirt when she heard Nolie's gasp. “Rysa? What happened to your back?”

It was a little awkward between them now - Rysa was an adult while Nolie remained a child, and Rysa never lost sight of the fact that she was a slave, though she managed to put the fact aside most of the time. She silently mourned this day, knowing it would put a gulf between them that they would never be able to bridge.

She sat down on her bed, and Nolie crawled up beside her. Trusting brown eyes looked into hazel and asked again. “Rysa?”

Rysa looked down into Nolie's eyes, the shrugged as if it were of no great consequence. “I'm a slave, Nolie,” she answered quietly. “I was taken from the fields as a child, and brought in to be a companion to you. It's something I've always been thankful for; at first because it got me out of the fields. But later it was because we became friends. I never expected that. But I am still a slave.”

Rysa stopped talking, as though afraid to reveal too much, and Nolie sat quietly pondering her words. Finally, Nolie looked up into Rysa's eyes. “I don't care. You are my best friend, and nothin' is goin' to change that.” She jutted out her chin diffidently. “I will not let it.”

Rysa brushed a light kiss over the child's light brown hair, and they sat quietly for a time after that. Rysa began to think Nolie had fallen asleep she was silent so long, then her young friend spoke again.

“Rysa? Who hit you? Who left the marks on your back?”

“It does not matter, Nolie. It was a long time ago.”

“It matters to me, Ry. Please tell me.”

Rysa sighed, wondering how they'd gotten into this bizarre conversation of times and events she tried very hard not to remember. “It was Master Wilkes.”?

“Wilkes? The plantation foreman?” Nolie's childish brow knotted in thought. “I knew there was a reason I didn't like him. He's just mean.” Nolie scrambled from the bed and headed towards the door. “I'll ask Papa to fire him.”

Rysa rushed from the bed to stand in front of the door. “You cannot do that, Nolie, please.” She knelt down to be at eye level and went on quickly when the small face scrunched in confusion. “Please... it will only make things worse if you do.”

Nolie stared into the hazel eyes she had trusted since birth and saw truth and terror and sorrow. She nodded her head slowly. “Okay, Rysa. But I'm not letting the fact that you are a slave change things between us. You are still my best friend and always will be.” She clasped her arms around Rysa's neck and kissed her smooth cheek goodnight. “Maybe if I ask Papa to free you....” she mumbled mostly to herself, not seeing the eyes behind her widen in alarm. She slipped out of the room, closing the door behind her, then just as suddenly reopened it and stuck her head in.

“Good night, Ry.”

“Good night, Nolie,” Rysa whispered, still overwhelmed by what had just happened.

 

************

“Now keep in mind that all this happened when the rumblings of civil war were merely that... rumblings. Talk that happened around the dinner table and in libraries and studies in homes across the nation. Nolie grew up in this volatile environment and even as sheltered as she was kept, she still heard things, and considering the day and age, she was quite an independent young woman. It didn't make things easy, but it certainly kept them interesting.”

 

************

Nolie shook her head remembering that day six years prior as she walked up the short steps to the bank. She had been so young and so naïve, but she hadn't let it change their friendship. Even when her father refused to free Rysa and she'd been angry with him for weeks, her friendship with Rysa had remained steady.

“Good mornin', Charles,” she said politely to the doorman. Fulton had left shortly after the incident with Rysa, and Nolie for one was glad to see him go. His rudeness to her friend had marked him as unacceptable in her child's mind and she'd never gotten past it.

Now that she stood on the cusp of adulthood, she was even more adamant in her feelings and was coming to break the news to her father before he could send out invitations to her cotillion.

She stepped through the portal, nodding to the men who though busy with work took the time to greet her. She walked to the back area where Cyrus maintained his office, and waited for his assistant to announce her. Then she crossed the threshold and closed the door softly behind her.

Her father rose from behind the desk, and came around to meet her, arms extended for a hug. When the embrace ended, Cyrus stepped back with a smile and motioned her to a seat. “Nolie, what a nice surprise! Are you so excited about your coming out party that you came down to make sure I sent the invitations out today?” He gestured to the stack of thick, cream colored envelopes on his desk and grinned. “I was just finishing up the last of them. General is supposed to pick them up and deliver them round this afternoon.”

Nolie took a deep breath before looking up into his eyes. “I don't want a party, Papa. Ry cannot come, and I will not have one without her.”

Cyrus looked at his daughter in consternation. “Nolie, this has been the talk of the town for weeks. Why are you deciding this now? Folks expect this.”

“Well, folks will just have to lower their expectations. I will not have a party if Rysa cannot come, and I will not have her be shunned because of her skin color if she was able to come. There is no way to win, so I will simply not have a party.”

“And if I go ahead and give you one? There are a number of eligible young men who have been looking forward to this, Nolie. Rysa is just a slave. Is it fair not to give them the opportunity t....” Cyrus didn't finish, stopped by the fire in her almost black eyes.

“If you go ahead with the cotillion, Papa, I will not be there. You will have it without me.”

He looked at her in silence, the stubborn set of her jaw reminding him so much of her mother it almost hurt to see it. “You're serious.”

“Yes, I am,” she answered quietly, but with conviction. Her glance never wavered, and in that moment Cyrus Brighton had never been more proud of his willful, determined daughter. He sighed audibly though. She was making a statement he wasn't sure he wanted the world to know about in these turbulent times.

Cyrus was considered a fair and just man, but he still owned slaves and honestly saw no problem with it. He wasn't a cruel master and could not understand his daughter's attitude.

“I am not going to convince you otherwise, am I?”

“No sir, and I do not want you to take this out on Rysa. She knows nothin' about this; it is completely my decision.”

Cyrus had the grace to blush at Magnolia's intuition. He had been thinking exactly that, wondering in the back of his mind if Rysa had somehow influenced Nolie's decision. “Promise me, Papa. Promise me you will not take this out on Rysa.”

He looked at her sheepishly. “You have your mother's strength of will, Nolie. I promise I will do nothing to Rysa for your decision. But you are going to have to explain to the neighbors. They have been waiting for this occasion - some of them for years.”

She rose from the chair. “It's my choice, Papa and not their business. Thank you for allowin' me to choose.”

“I have never denied you much of anything, daughter, and if you do not want a cotillion, I certainly will not make you suffer through one.” He stroked her cheek gently. “You have such a tender heart. I hope you do not get hurt by this.”

“I won't, Papa. Rysa means more to me than our gossipy neighbors,” she assured him blithely. But she had no idea of the things that were to come.

 

************

Rysa noticed that fewer and fewer of Nolie's friends came around when Nolie refused to have a cotillion, and she did her best to step away from the younger woman and let her become the belle her father wanted her to be. Nolie was having none of it, however, and continued to cling to her friendship with Rysa. She didn't flaunt their friendship, but she did nothing to hide it.

Eventually, their attention turned towards the ever-increasing threat of war, and they lost interest in scorning Nolie for choosing a slave's company over their own. Instead they became more and more adamant in the vocal outcries for war, and stopped by frequently to talk about why war was becoming more necessary, and how it would change the country for the better and....

 

************

Gabrielle paused a moment and took a long pull of the water Emma had given her, then let her glance drop to her feet for a long moment. Then she looked back out into the silent audience. “Have you ever noticed that when it comes along, talk about war is always essentially the same?” She sighed. “And so are the results.” She shook her head and blew out a breath, then resumed her story.

 

************

Nolie got sick and tired of hearing the incessant chatter, and took to escaping out the back with Rysa when she heard General headed her way. They had worked out a signal, and when General cleared his throat upon receiving callers, Nolie grabbed Rysa by the hand and ran out into the gardens so as to be unavailable.

The first time it happened, Rysa was stunned. She sat in the gazebo catching her breath and looking at Nolie. Finally, she opened her mouth and spoke quietly. “Do you want to explain to me why two grown women just went flying out of the house as though the hounds of hell and damnation itself were giving chase, especially when you have company?” Her tone wasn't accusing, but merely curious. She'd long ago given up trying to understand Nolie; Rysa simply loved her and accepted Nolie as she was.

Nolie stretched out along the length of the bench where Rysa sat, laying her head in the older woman's lap and enjoying her rather unladylike position. It reminded her a lot of the many times they'd sat here just like this during her growing up years, and for a moment she wished she could reclaim that time and go back to when things were so much simpler.

She closed her eyes and sighed when she felt Rysa's long fingers gently begin to comb through her hair. “I am tired of the singular focus of their conversation, Ry, and I know it gets to you. They are deliberately nettling you, and I don't like it. So General and I have worked out a signal, and when they stop by, I am conveniently not in to receive them.”

Rysa sat silently absorbing the information Nolie had just imparted, gently massaging through the light brown hair, marveling at its softness. She felt Nolie unwind and smiled. Always, since Nolie had been a small child, this had been one of the best ways to calm and relax the tiny whirlwind the young woman had been. Rysa smirked to herself - and obviously still was. She sat a while longer in noiseless contemplation.

“Nolie?” Rysa said softly, finally. She did not want to disturb the younger woman if Nolie was asleep. One light brown eye peeked up at her.

“Hmm?” came the drowsy answer.

“Why?”

“Hmm?” came the sleepy response again. “Why what, Ry?”

“Nothin'... never mind.” Rysa's shoulder's dropped. Both of Nolie's eyes popped open at the dropped ‘g'. Since learning to read, Rysa had always taken great care with her language, and Nolie could count on her hands the number of times she had let her speech slide. It always coincided with upset or distress, and Nolie wondered what had happened. She turned her head to look directly at Rysa, and caught the tears glistening on the smooth skin.

Nolie reached a hand up and gently removed the traces of wetness. “This is not nothing, Ry. What's wrong?” It was times like this that Nolie was reminded of Rysa's fragility, and she felt the more grown up of the two of them.

Rysa clasped the fingers on her face and kissed the tips lightly before smiling through watery eyes. “You have always put me... put our friendship before everything, no matter the cost to yourself. I just sometimes wonder why. How can the life and friendship of a slave be worth so much?”

Nolie sat up so fast she nearly caught Rysa in the chin with her head. She grabbed Rysa's face firmly between her hands, making sure the hazel eyes were focused on her completely before she continued. “I know that it has been very hard for you, especially lately with all the rude and snide comments. But I only want to have to explain this to you once, and I want you to understand and accept that I mean every word that I say.”

Rysa's eyes searched Nolie's and she nodded. Nolie looked back at her intently. “You were a child, and yet you raised me and taught me. You gave me everything you had Rysa, even when you had nothing left to give. Now as a slave, I am sure you did what was expected of you. But you went beyond that. More than that, more than anything, you loved me. You loved me and cared for me, and that *wasn't* expected.”

Nolie took a deep breath. “So even if I did not love you, and even if you were not my very best friend, I would still look out for you, Rysa. But the fact is I *do* love you and you *are* my very best friend in the whole world. And friends, especially best friends, stick together... no matter what.”

Rysa didn't answer, but laid her head on Nolie's shoulder and wept tears of joy and sorrow and relief. In all her years, though she'd known Twiggy and General cared for her and Master Cyrus liked her well enough, not once had anyone aside from Nolie ever expressed love for her, and never had Nolie put it so succinctly.

Nolie just held onto her and let her cry.

 

 

Chapter LVII

After their conversation in the gazebo, things seemed to calm down for a while. Winter settled into the land and Rysa and Nolie fell into a normal winter routine. At sixteen, Nolie was considered a grown woman now, so days were spent quietly and the evenings were even more so. Cyrus had tried, subtly for him, to encourage Nolie to dismiss Rysa from her service. He argued that now that she was grown up, she no longer needed a governess. She agreed and immediately made Rysa her companion. Cyrus gave in quietly, knowing in his heart that he could never separate them unless Nolie willed it so.

Though she cherished the time she and Rysa got to spend together, never was anyone so happy to see spring come as Nolie was. She was looking forward to getting out and seeing sun and green grass. The first nice day, she cajoled Rysa into a buggy ride, and they headed out into the still cool, muddy world to visit Cyrus at the bank.

The ride in was nice, relatively speaking, and both women were glad to be out in the fresh air and sunshine. The buggy slowed as they reached town, as most of the countryside seemed to have the same desire to get out.

Just as they came to the intersection of Franklyn & Rhodes, there was a horrendous crash and Nolie felt the carriage go flying as a heavy weight plowed into the side of it. She remembered Rysa's body covering her own protectively before her head slammed into the floor and everything went mercifully black.

When she came to, Nolie moaned and lifted her free hand to her throbbing head. She blinked her eyes opened, then slammed them shut again as pain lanced through her head at the brightness she encountered. “Ouch,” she whimpered.

“Magnolia? Sweetheart, are you all right?”

“Papa? Papa, where is Rysa? And why does my head hurt?”

Cyrus knelt right next to the couch and cupped his hands around Nolie's face. “Nolie, can you open your eyes for me?” He waited as she blinked them open furiously, tears sliding down her face. “Good girl. Now, what's the last thing you remember?”

Nolie was confused. “Papa, where's Rysa??” She focused on that solitary thought. She clutched at his coat. “Papa, you're scaring me. Where is she, Papa??”

“Magnolia, Nolie... listen to me, honey. I want you to focus on the sound of my voice.” Nolie tried to nod, but groaned at the motion instead. Her eyes closed again reflexively. “That's good, sweetheart. Just lie still, and tell me the last thing you remember.”

She licked dry lips, forcing herself to think back. “Uh, we were coming into town to um... we were coming to see you. I... I... we slowed down, and....” Nolie started shaking. “Papa where is Rysa?”

Cyrus glanced at his desk where the woman was laid out as the doctor worked feverishly to staunch her bleeding. The doctor, something of a white supremacist had been somewhat surprised at Cyrus' vehemence that the mulatto be treated first, especially knowing Cyrus' own leanings. But he did so, knowing that the woman had saved Nolie's life and that she had practically raised the younger woman. For Nolie's sake, they both hoped Rysa survived.

“Nolie, when the accident happened, Rysa moved to cover you, to protect you like she has always done. She got somewhat injured in the process, and Dr. Smithers is working on her now. We need you to lie here quietly until he gets done and can take a look at you, all right?”

Nolie blinked her eyes opened again slowly, peering into her father's face with an intensity he found disturbing. She processed what he'd said and clutched his coat again. “Don't let her die, Papa,” was all she said before closing her eyes and drifting off.

It was sometime later when Nolie opened her eyes again, wincing at the pain in her head and lifting a hand to find a bandage in place. She blinked, wondering if her sight had been affected or if she'd simply slept the day away. She sat up slowly, noting her father sitting in one of the chairs by the fireplace talking quietly to the doctor. Both men turned to look at her at the noise she made.

Nolie had caught sight of the body stretched out on Cyrus' desk, and muffled a small cry of distress. She rose on shaky legs and walked slowly towards it. Cyrus stood and rapidly headed for her. He intercepted her in two steps and took her firmly by the elbow.

“Magnolia? Look at me, daughter.” Cyrus waited until he had her full attention. “Rysa is resting, sweetheart.”

Brown eyes filled with tears stared into his own, making his heart break at the pain he saw in them. “She's not dead?” came the whispered question. Cyrus looked up at the doctor who'd come up on Nolie's other side.

“No, Miss Magnolia. Your friend is not dead. But she is going to need rest and quiet for the next little while.”

Nolie moved her head around slowly to meet the doctor's eyes. “Thank you, Dr. Smithers. When can we take her home?”

“I would like to keep her here overnight, but when she wakes up, she should be able to travel the short distance home as long as you go very slowly and carefully.” At that moment, a soft groan came from the desk, and Nolie swiveled toward the sound, clutching her head at the pain the sudden movement caused. “Easy, Miss Magnolia,” the doctor advised. “You still have quite a big bump on your noggin.”

Nolie nodded slowly, then resumed her slow walk towards her father's desk. Cyrus stayed at her side, a hand steadying her at the elbow. Then he seated her in his large leather chair and stepped away. Nolie slowly reached up and clasped Rysa's hand in her own.

Their conversation was too low to be heard, but the two men watched their interaction for a long moment before turning back to the fire.

“Thank you, George,” Cyrus said softly. “I know it was a lot to ask of you.”

The doctor shrugged. “I did it for Magnolia, Cyrus. The nigger is the only mama she's ever had, and whatever else you can or cannot say about the woman, she did a damn fine job raising her. I could not ask Magnolia to lose more, especially when that nigger risked her life to make sure your little girl was safe.” He looked directly into Cyrus' eyes. “Magnolia would have been killed.”

Cyrus swallowed hard and nodded. “I know. I saw the wreckage right after it happened. We were very lucky.”

They both turned to look at the two women, and despite themselves found the tableau before them touching. Nolie's head rested on Rysa's hip, and their hands were tangled together. The look of peace on both faces caused an unexpected smile to form on both men's faces.

“You really think she will be all right?” Cyrus asked softly, referring to Rysa.

“I do not think Magnolia will permit anything less.” Then they turned their attention back to contemplating the fire, and the silence of the night kept them company.

 

************

Gabrielle shook her head again, then pushed her hair back out of her eyes. “Rysa did make a slow recovery under Nolie's watchful eye, and that was the last bit of peace they would know for a long while. Because several weeks later, war broke out and split the Union and everything changed. It was a very dark period in history, but nothing compared to the darkness Nolie fell into, and all because of hatred and greed.”

She looked out into the audience. “I know we have some distinguished members of the military in our ranks tonight, but speaking to the majority of you – have you ever lived through war? Where that is your only existence day in and day out?”

“I have,” Ziva commented softly, not expecting Gabrielle to hear her. She was surprised when Gabrielle stepped to the stage directly in front of her.

“Tell me about it,” Gabrielle asked. Ziva tilted her head thoughtfully.

“It's... draining – very wearing on your mind and spirit as well as your body,” she replied quietly.

“Thank you, Ziva,” Gabrielle said before she repeated Ziva's words to the rest of the room. “And this was worse than what most Americans have experienced, because there was nowhere to go to escape it. And you watched your neighbors and friends die around you... or turn into animals trying to survive. Rest assured, ladies... there is nothing civil about war, and there was nothing civil about what this did to people.”

 

************

The winter of 1863 had been a very hard time for everyone, but especially Nolie who came down with a bout of coughing sickness so bad Twiggy and Rysa stayed by her side for three days fending off fever and chills. Twice they feared they'd lost her, but she fought back with a tenacity that brought happy tears to everyone in the house. It was the same fighting spirit that led to the confrontation in the spring the following year.

By the early part of 1864, the country was weary of war, but especially in the South where the way of life had been destroyed. Many slaves had run off when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and fields had been left to fallow.

For her part, Nolie considered herself very lucky. She had lost a majority of her field hands, but she still had the household slaves and a few of the outdoor ones. She had tried to encourage them to leave, but following Cyrus' premature death they had decided to stay with Nolie. She had promptly turned around and freed those that stayed.

Nolie had learned a lot since war had broken out, and even more since Cyrus had died. She had learned about washing, gardening, cooking, cleaning and just scraping along to get by. She had learned about loyalty and true friendship. She had seen the ugly business war was, and what it did to men whom she'd always considered upstanding gentlemen in the community. Nolie felt tired to her very soul.

Rysa had watched with pride as Nolie grew and matured through the trials that the war had brought to her door. The household had become her family and friends, and together they had survived.

Soldiers, both blue and gray, had preyed upon the house and its occupants. Nolie had hidden as many of the valuables as she could, but she couldn't hide herself or Rysa, and advances were made that made them both furious. Rysa had come into her own and had no problem standing up to those who wanted to take advantage of her for whatever reason. But there came a time when it caused Rysa and Nolie to separate from necessity.

The morning was warm and the sounds of the war were distant, though there were still troops wandering through the area. Nolie was out back, hanging the washing on the line when she heard Rysa's raised voice.

“NO!! Take your hands off of me!!” There was a male roar, then a female scream and then silence. Nolie dropped the laundry in her hands, gathered her skirts, and took off at a run around the house. What she saw caused a red wash to flood her senses, and time slowed as she allowed the fury to take over.

Rysa lay on the ground unconscious, bleeding from her nose and mouth. Her dress was ripped and torn, and all Nolie saw were two figures grabbing and mauling Rysa's body beneath them with dirty, anxious hands.

Nolie let out a guttural growl and ran towards them. The men were so involved with their assault that they didn't hear her approach or see the murderous intent in her eyes until it was too late.

Nolie snatched up the bayonet that lay to one side, having been cast aside by one of men in his haste to violate Rysa. Without hesitation, she rammed it into his back, feeling the warm blood coat her hands and arms as it spewed forth from his body. His compatriot didn't even have time to stand before Nolie yanked the blade from the fallen man's body and swung the weapon around in club fashion. The contact with the back of his skull sent shockwaves up her arms, but she swung twice more before he crumpled.

With a sob, she dropped the gun and cradled Rysa's upper body in her arms, jerking her out from under the two fallen soldiers. How long they lay tangled together, Nolie couldn't say. But when her tears stopped flowing and allowed her to see, she noticed Twiggy and General kneeling beside them.

“Miz Nolie? Ya bein' a' right ma'am? Kin we'uns hep ya and Miz Rysa inside?” Twiggy eased her arms around Nolie's small frame. “C'mon now, Miz Nolie,” she coaxed when Nolie's arms tightened around Rysa's still form. “Gen'r'l take Miz Rysa, an' he'll be real easy. C'mon, Miz Nolie... ya gots ta let us hep ya now.”

Twiggy continued to talk and coax until Nolie finally let loose of Rysa and General could lift her into his arms. There was a twin groan as he straightened and Rysa was shifted. Twiggy kept a firm hold on Nolie until they could get into the house.

General headed for the small spare bedroom just behind the kitchen, not wanting to take the chance of dropping Rysa on the stairs. He placed her gently on the bed, and moved back outside to dispose of the bodies before they brought down more problems than they could handle.

Nolie knelt down by the bedside and took one of Rysa's hands in her own. “Don't you die on me, Rysa! Don't you dare leave me like this, you hear me?? You fight this!”

Twiggy put a bowl of warmed water down beside her and put a cloth into Nolie's hands. “Here, chile, ya needs ta clean her up... lessen ya wants me to do it.”

Nolie shook her head slowly. “I'll do it, Twiggy. Will you please fetch a nightgown for her? She needs somethin' more than this,” indicating the torn dress.

“Yes'm. Ah'll brings sumpin' fo' ya too.”

Nolie started to protest, then caught sight of the blood all over herself. “Thank you, Twiggy. I appreciate that.”

She wet the rag, and winced as the red slid off her hands. Nolie put that fact and the reason for it out of her mind and concentrated her energies on Rysa. She spoke softly as she wiped blood and dirt off Rysa's face. Several times Nolie had to bite her lip to keep from crying. The bruises across Rysa's upper body were already becoming a lurid shade of purple, and Nolie winced to touch them.

Nolie moved the hair off Rysa's forehead, and brushed her lips across it. Then she put her head down on the bed and cried.

There was the slightest touch on her head and it just made the tears flow faster. Then Twiggy was reaching for her hands and pulling Nolie to her feet. “C'mon, Miz Nolie. Let Twiggy gets ya cleaned up so's we kin get Miz Rysa dressed.”

Nolie nodded slightly and rose to her feet unsteadily. She stood passively while Twiggy wiped the blood from her hands, arms and neck. “Lif' ya ahms, chile, so's Ah kin get dis dress off'n ya an' git ya into sumpin' clean.”

Nolie shivered when the clean linen slid over her skin, and she sighed in sheer reaction. “Thank you, Twiggy.”

“Pawsh,” the slave answered. “Ain't nuthin' we'uns roun' here wouldn' do fo' ya, Miz Nolie. Ya's always been one ta look out fo' us real good.” She brushed the light brown hair out of Nolie's eyes. “Now, c'mon an' hep Twiggy git Miz Rysa into her nightie.”

Nolie straightened then and moved back to the bedside. “What do you need me to do, Twiggy?”

“Ya set right dere behin' her and lif her up real gen'le like. Let her res' on ya. Twiggy'll do the res'.”

Nolie slipped into the bed and eased herself behind her injured friend, tenderly lifting her and cradling Rysa's bruised and battered face and torso in her arms. She helped Twiggy ease the torn and ripped clothing away from Rysa's body, startled at the low moan and tight grip she found her wrist suddenly wrapped in.

Nolie looked down, pleasantly surprised to see hazel eyes looking back at her. They were pain-filled and slightly glazed over, and she brushed a light kiss over the now clean forehead. Rysa tried to smile, but the movement of her swollen lips caused another groan to emerge from her throat.

“Shh... easy. Just rest easy, Rysa. Twiggy and I'll take care of you. Close your eyes now.”

Rysa gave the smallest nod and obeyed the command. Twiggy finished dressing her and moved to put a hand on Nolie's shoulder. “Miz Nolie? Why don' ya close ya eyes too? Ya need to res' and Ah'll wake ya up in a bit. Ah needs ta go fix sum broth fo' de bof ob ya. C'mon, now,” she coaxed softly, watching as Nolie's eyelids fluttered and finally closed.

Twiggy stood in the doorway for a long moment and shook her head. “Sumpin's gonna haf ta be done,” she muttered to herself, then turned her steps to the kitchen.

 

 

Chapter LVIII

Day turned into night before either body stirred from sleep. Nolie blinked open brown eyes at a muffled moan from Rysa. Twiggy appeared at the door at the identical moment as though she had been waiting there for them to awaken, which of course she had.

“Miz Nolie? I's gonna bring ya'll some suppah. Kin ya hep me move Miz Rysa so's ya'll kin eat a bite?”

Nolie's stomach rebelled at the thought of having food put in it, but she knew Rysa would need something to help her get better. Before she could move though, Rysa mumbled, “Help me up, Nolie. I think I can manage with help.”

Nolie slid out from behind Rysa, gently propping her up and waiting beside the bed until Rysa swung her legs over the side and slowly stood.

“Are you doin' all right, Ry?”

“Mostly. My face and my head hurt and my chest is a little sore.”

“Hmm,” Nolie acknowledged. She could only imagine how Rysa hurt, given the lurid bruises she sported. “Let's see what Twiggy fixed us for supper. Bet it's somethin' good.”

Twiggy chuckled softly as she stepped into the room, subtly guiding Rysa to the table. “Ya jus' be bettin' right, Miz Nolie. I done fixed chi'k'n ‘n' dumplin's fo ya bof. I ‘spect ya bof to sit up to table an' eat now.”

Rysa tried to smile, though with her swollen face, it was more of a grimace. “Thank you, Twiggy. My mouth and my stomach appreciate that.”

Rysa did a credible job eating a decent portion of what was on her plate, but Nolie pushed her food around until Twiggy took it away from her with a snort of disgust. Rysa rose and patted the elderly woman's hand. “Thank you Twiggy. It was very good.”

“Leas'wise yo'd know, Miz Rysa, unlike sum pussons in dis house,” with a glance in Nolie's direction. Nolie didn't answer, but simply turned on her heel and walked out the door, not even minding the fact that she was in a robe and nightgown. Rysa's eyes followed her in concern, then tracked back to Twiggy.

“What happened to upset, Miss Nolie, Twiggy?”

“I ‘spect yo'd bes' be askin' her ‘bout that, Miz Rysa. But give de chile a chance to think a while. She's done had a hard day. Now, why don' yo' let Twiggy draw yo' a warm baf? It'll make yo' hurt less.”

Rysa's eyes followed the small figure pacing through the neglected gardens, and her heart ached at the defeated attitude so painfully apparent in the slumped shoulders and drooping head. She took a step towards the screen door before Twiggy latched onto her arm in a gentle but firm grip.

“C'mon, Miz Rysa. Yo' gif Miz Nolie sum time. She'll be comin' to fin' yo' ‘fore too long. Gen'r'l keep a eye on her meantime. C'mon, now.”

Rysa allowed herself to be gently led upstairs, then she was left to undress and climb into the warm water. She restrained a groan, but sank back into the warmth with a tiniest sigh of relief. She didn't allow herself the luxury of a long soak. She was still concerned over whatever was troubling Nolie.

She heard the sound of soft footfalls come up the stairs, then a door closing down the hall. Rysa eased from the tub, shaking her head at her bruised reflection. She dressed slowly, then eased into the hall and walked to stand in front of Nolie's door.

She raised her hand to knock, then hesitated until she heard the soft sound of sobbing emanating from inside. Rysa opened the door and crossed to Nolie's bedside, sitting down next to the younger woman who was curled into a tiny ball. Nolie reached a hand out and tugged gently, forcing Rysa to lie down beside her. Rysa wrapped her arms around Nolie, and simply held her until the tears passed.

“You ready to talk now?” Rysa asked softly when Nolie's crying had finally abated. She was quiet so long Rysa checked to see if Nolie had fallen asleep. She smiled into the sleepy brown eyes that gazed back at her, concerned when she didn't get an answering one in return. “Nolie?”

Nolie sat up and wiped her eyes, accepting the cool, wet rag that Rysa had gotten and now offered her. She looked at Rysa a long moment before smiling sadly, her eyes lingering on the bruises that marred her face.

“I think the time has come, Ry,” Nolie said softly.

Rysa frowned, wincing in reaction to the pain that motion caused her. “What time has come, Nolie?” asked in honest confusion. “What are you referring to?”

“The Underground Railroad, Rysa. I think it's time for you to use it.”

“You're sendin' me away, Nolie?”

“No, Rysa, No! I just think the time has come for you to decide to leave. It's getting' too dangerous around here for you to stay.”

Rysa got off the bed and walked to the window, turning her back towards Nolie. “What makes me so special, Nolie? Why are you not sending Twiggy, General... anyone else, everyone else away as well?” Hurt confusion and not a little anger were clearly apparent in her voice.

Nolie twisted the rag in her hands in sheer frustration, not wanting to go into specifics. She could still feel the warmth of the soldiers' blood as it sprayed over her and the images continued to make her stomach roil.

The silence made Rysa's temper flare and she stalked back to the bed, reaching out and forcing Nolie's eyes to meet her own. “Why, Nolie? WHY??”

Now Nolie's own temper flared and she jerked her chin away from Rysa's touch. She stood, forcing Rysa to back up. She poked a finger into Rysa's chest, forcing the older woman to continue to step back. “Because I love you, Rysa. Because I cannot stand to have what happened to you today continue to happen. Because I killed two men today, and I don't know if I can do that again!!!”

Rysa's mouth dropped as Nolie's words penetrated her consciousness. For her part, Nolie rushed for the washbasin as the implications of what she had said washed over her. Rysa moved to comfort her, holding Nolie up as she retched.

When Nolie was down to shivering and shaking in reaction, Rysa eased Nolie the short distance to the bed, then snatched a blanket from the end and covered her. She moved and re-wet the cloth Nolie had dropped on the bed and gently cleaned Nolie up. Nolie fell asleep and Rysa got up and cleaned up the water bowl, then moved a chair to the window and sat down to stare out into the darkness.

Sometime in the darkest part of the night, Nolie cried out and Rysa crawled into bed next to her, reassuring Nolie until the younger woman settled back into a deep sleep. Near daybreak, Rysa came to a decision and waited for Nolie to awaken.

 

************

Gabrielle stopped here, wiping a tear from her cheek and closing her eyes as she tried to bring her breathing back under control. This was the hardest part of the story for her to tell as she knew all too well the despair Nolie and Rysa had suffered.

The audience remained so still, Gabrielle's sigh could be heard throughout the room. Then she raised her head and resumed her story once more.

 

************

When night returned to the land again, Nolie and Rysa made one final trip to the old bank building together – it had become a stop for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. For hours they sat curled up together reminiscing, remembering the good times in their lives together.

In the darkest part of the night, a bare touch on Rysa's arm awakened her and Nolie from the light doze they had drifted into. An older man stood in front of them, cap held in his gloved hands. He gestured for silence and motioned for Rysa to follow him. With a look, she asked him to give them a minute of privacy and he nodded and moved to wait by the door.

Nolie and Rysa stood together and embraced in silence for a long moment. Then Nolie stepped back a pace and looked into Rysa's face, memorizing what she knew she would never see again. She took a deep breath and spoke so softly Rysa had to strain to hear the words.

“I'm not sure what I'm goin' to do without you, Rysa. You've been my devoted friend and confidant since I was born.” Nolie's voice shook slightly and she swallowed hard. “You will always have a place in my heart, but I want you to go and find better than what you can have here now. I....” She turned away to keep Rysa from seeing the tears spill down her face.

Rysa's hands clenched, and she stepped up behind Nolie. “I will never find better than what you've given me here, Nolie, and I will come home again.” She brushed a light kiss across the top of the brown hair and stepped away. Nolie caught Rysa's hand and kissed her knuckles, then pressed her cheek against them before gently pushing Rysa towards the door.

“Go with God, my friend.” Then she watched until Rysa disappeared into the night.

Nolie sat until dawn began breaking over the horizon absorbing the sudden loneliness before she turned to make her way out the door silently... only to run into another obstacle before she was completely outside.

She felt the breeze go by her head as the blade plunged into the wood. Her eyes widened as the man towered over her, and reached a hand toward her throat. Nolie pushed him away and stomped on his foot. He growled at her and lunged and was stopped by an unexpected barrier.

“I believe that you'd best look elsewhere for your entertainment. Miss Nolie isn't, nor never has been available to the likes of you. Now leave, before I give you the thrashin' you so richly deserve.”

Nolie looked up in surprise as Mr. Fulton seemed to grow larger as he defended her. She still remembered him harshly from her childhood and the day he was hateful to Rysa. It was odd to see him represented to her so differently after all this time. Then her attention turned back to the soldier who tried to reach around Fulton , only to find his hand caught and twisted at a painful angle.

“Perhaps I didn't make myself clear.” Fulton twisted harder until the man's legs crumpled under him. Then he shoved the soldier back and watched impassively as he fell onto his back.

“That was a stupid thing to do, old man. Two of my buddies disappeared after visiting that bitch and her nigger friend two days ago. And I saw them sneaking ‘round last night... figure she sent that nigger out of here. I'll have my revenge one way or t'other.”

“Well, goin' by your behavior, I'd say they got what was coming to them... if they didn't desert. Now git on out of here before I have to do somethin' you'll regret.”

“You'd take action against a soldier?”

“Yer trying to do harm to a lady; I most certainly would.”

The soldier stood then and came at Fulton , knocking the older man against the door. Fulton reached for the knife and yanked, pushing the soldier away from him simultaneously. The soldier changed directions slightly and headed for Nolie, but never reached her as he found his own blade embedded to the hilt in his chest. He looked over at Fulton who gazed back at him coolly.

“I did warn you,” Fulton said calmly as the soldier sank to the ground. He turned and looked at Nolie. “Best if you head home, Miss Nolie. Robert here will see you home safely. I'll clean up the mess and check in on you later.”

Nolie nodded absently and turned to allow Robert to help her up into the small wagon. Then she leaned back and closed her eyes, suddenly overcome with weariness.

 

************

Gabrielle paused long enough to take another drink of water, then plunged right back into her story.

 

************

Time passed even slower for Nolie with Rysa gone. She became more withdrawn and quiet, and Twiggy and General kept a close eye on her. The war made things harder and harder and they struggled from day to day to hang on to what precious little they had left. Nolie and Twiggy turned the conservatory into a garden that supplied many of their basic needs. Most of what they raised in the fields was stolen by one group of soldiers or another.

Still, they managed to get by and Mr. Fulton, surprisingly enough, became a good friend to them. He couldn't stop the looting and plundering that went on, but he did manage to divert a lot of attention from Nolie and her household. And with both Rysa and her father gone, Nolie took to wearing mourning and found thankfully that even the basest of human beings tended to respect that. The fact that her grief was palpable lent credence to the effect.

However, the war did finally end and a concerted effort towards rebuilding began. It was then that society saw what changes time and war had wrought on humanity and many of them weren't good. New people were moving in and Nolie was able to sell the old bank building at Franklyn & Rhodes for a nice little sum to a young couple looking to establish a mercantile.

In 1866, some sixteen months after the end of the war, Sanders Dry Goods opened to the public in what had once been the bank building owned by Nolie's papa, and life settled into a new routine. Then the unexpected happened....

It was early summer in 1867 when Nolie ventured into town for one of her rare visits. She had been luckier than many of her neighbors and had managed to hang onto her home and a bit of her land by sheer grit and determination. But she was no longer the pampered young lady she had once been, and even with help her days were long and hard.

She'd come to an arrangement with the Negroes who'd remained with her, and they worked the land for her in return for small wages and a percentage of the crop. But that still left the house, yards and garden as Nolie's responsibility, and she worked side by side with the help she had left to get things back in order after the war.

On this morning though, Nora Sanders had cajoled her into coming into the store for tea. The fact that she needed to come to town for supplies pushed her into agreeing and Nolie found herself preparing for a trip into town.

Twiggy smiled as she watched her young mistress dress in one of the few nice dresses she'd kept from the days before the war, knowing it had been reworked to fit into the fashion of the day. Nolie had done a very credible job with it and looked very much like the belle she'd once been. Then General brought the buggy around to the front of the house, and whisked Nolie away.

They went around to the back of the building where Nora and Sam kept a private entrance to their home. Nora welcomed Nolie into her home and immediately ushered her upstairs into the sitting room. Nolie looked around in honest curiosity, Nora's home not even vaguely resembling the bank building Nolie remembered.

The second floor was the kitchen and dining area, and held Nora's large sewing room where she tailored the shirts and dresses customers ordered in the store. The third floor held two bedrooms and the parlor and it was here that the two women sat down to take tea.

Nora fussed and puttered about, making sure things were just right. She kept up a running dialogue, so all Nolie had to do was nod her head occasionally. When she finally settled down, Nora found Nolie to be a very quiet young woman whose eyes belied her youthful features.

Talk ran the gamut of topics, and Nolie and Nora found they had many opinions and philosophies in common. After an hour of tea and conversation, Nolie made a move to leave. Nora understood and accompanied her new friend downstairs and into the store to take care of her shopping.

Nolie looked around in fascination, still able to see in her mind's eye the way the building had looked under her father's keeping as a bank. The marble floors seemed incongruously out of place with the groceries and cloth and other supplies. She shrugged and turned her attention towards gathering up her purchases. As much as she had enjoyed her outing, Nolie found that sharing tea and conversation simply made her miss Rysa that much more and she felt the tears building up in the back of her throat.

It had been more than three years since Rysa had left and everyday Nolie wondered what had become of her. She'd never heard anything else from nor about her and every night she offered up a prayer for Rysa's safety.

Nolie moved slowly around the shop, picking up the items she needed and placing them in her basket. The jingling of the doorbell didn't even catch her attention as she walked over to examine the bolts of cloth set to one side of the back.

Nora came round to help Nolie with the different types of material and they were deep in conversation about dress patterns when the door jingled a second time. The third time it rang, Nora and Nolie had moved behind the screen to lay out the pattern and measure it against Nolie's small frame.

“You're quite busy,” Nolie commented as the door opened yet again to admit someone out of their line of sight.

“Yes,” Nora answered with a smile as she held up the pattern. “We've been very fortunate in that business has been steady for us.”

Nolie smiled softly in return. “I am glad. You have been very kind to me.”

“Pure selfishness on my part, I'm afraid, my dear. I enjoy having a large circle of friends and I'm happy you're a part of it. Now,” she added smartly, “let's see how much material you'll need for this.”

In the meantime, business had picked up briskly as the end of the day arrived, and folks made a stop on their way home. Nolie finished choosing her material and was just finishing up her shopping when the door jingled again. It wasn't until the voice spoke though that she looked up in shock.

“Excuse me, sir,” the voice said gently. “I was wondering what happened to the bank.”

Sam smiled. Occasionally he still ran into the old-timer who remembered the building as the barrister's or the bank. He figured the young woman in front of him had probably left because of the war and had come home to find so many things changed from what she remembered. He wasn't far from the truth. He opened his mouth to answer, but was forestalled when Nolie came around the corner.

Neither woman noticed when Nolie's basket slipped to the floor but the hug went on forever as things scattered at their feet.

Finally Nolie pulled back from the embrace just enough to look at Rysa with a critical eye. Standing before her was a cultured young woman in a fashionable new gown whose bearing spoke of money. She stepped back and dropped her head, suddenly ashamed of her appearance.

Rysa stepped right into Nolie's personal space and lifted her chin with gloved fingertips. She waited until brown eyes lifted to meet her hazel. “No ‘Welcome home, Rysa' for me, Nolie?”

Rysa watched as a myriad of emotion crossed Nolie's face before two tears welled up and spilled down her face, then she gently wrapped her arms around Nolie again, holding on tightly for dear life.

“Welcome home, Rysa,” Nolie whispered into the hug.

“C'mon, Nolie. Let's go home. We've got a lot to talk about.”

 

************

Rysa's homecoming changed everything for Nolie and there was happiness in her smile again... especially when she would look up and meet Rysa's eyes across the table or the garden or the barn. Their happiness was felt throughout the household and though the manor never regained its former glory, it was a good place to live again.

Nolie and Rysa were delighted to be together again, despite the stares and whispers they drew from certain corners for their devotion to one another as well as their spinster status. They had one another and for them, it was more than enough. Still, they found friends in unexpected places and they rejoiced in those as well. But until the day that they passed away, Rysa and Nolie were beautiful women who loved and took care of each other. And isn't that what counts the most when all is said and done?

 

 

Chapter LIX

Dead silence for a full ten seconds after Gabrielle finished speaking before the crowd rose as a singular entity and applauded. There were no whistles or hooting or foot stomping. Instead, they merely stood and clapped for several long minutes, and more than one woman was seen wiping her eyes even as she smiled. Gabrielle simply allowed her tears to roll silently down her cheeks while she grinned and nodded and bowed in deference to the ovation she was receiving.

Emma climbed on her chair and tugged on Xena's arm again, recognizing there was no way she'd be heard otherwise. When Xena turned her head in Emma's direction, Emma held up her arms and Xena lifted her immediately, locking her arms under Emma's bottom even as Emma locked her legs firmly around Xena's waist and her arms around Xena's neck.

With just a tiny tug to encourage her, Xena ducked her head until Emma's lips were next to her ear. “You're her champion... can't you do something to make Gabrielle better?”

Xena frowned, then realized that Emma only saw tears and didn't realize they were happy ones. As the applause around them continued, Xena nodded and carried Emma to the backstage area with her. Xena jerked her chin at the item she wanted Emma to grab, and as soon as she had it in hand, they stepped back into the main room. Xena used one hand to grab the stool that had been used off and on during the night and climbed the stairs. When the crowd's noise grew exponentially louder and they added whistling and hollering back into their repertoire, Gabrielle recognized something had changed and she turned to find Xena and Emma joining her on the stage.

Her smile turned to laughter and she reached up a hand to wipe the wetness from her cheek. She stopped at the minutest shake of Xena's head, waited for Emma to extend the box of tissues she held. She took one and dabbed at her eyes. Xena, in the meantime, set the stool down and put Emma on it, then nodded her head in Gabrielle's direction. Emma nodded emphatically and waited.

Xena simply turned and opened her arms and Gabrielle moved into them with gratifying alacrity, causing an outcry of wolf-whistles to follow her action. She buried her head into Xena's shoulder, laughing in release even as Xena rocked them back and forth.

After a moment, Gabrielle pulled back though she kept a hand on Xena's hip. “What are you two doing up here?” she asked, bringing the microphone to her mouth so the room could hear the discussion. The women quieted their applause and settled down for the unexpected interlude.

“Emma insisted. You were crying and she reminded me it was my responsibility to make it better.”

Gabrielle chuckled and shifted until she was between Xena and Emma. She smiled when Xena shifted with her, transferring her hold on Gabrielle to allow Gabrielle to drop an arm around Emma's shoulders.

“Oh she did, huh?”

“Um hmm... seems likes she's figured out that's part of my job.”

Green eyes twinkled in tandem with the blue she was gazing into before they both turned to look at Emma who was watching them with a big grin. “Well, she's right, ya know. It is part of your job.” Gabrielle turned back to Xena. “As a matter of fact, we still owe her. Her team did win the poker run Friday night and she gave her prize to her moms.”

“Wait... excuse me?” Olivia said from the audience, causing all three of the females on the stage to look at her as she rose from her seat. “What did she win?”

Xena and Gabrielle turned back to Emma. “You didn't tell them?”

Emma shrugged. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”

Olivia crossed her arms over her chest and arched an eyebrow. “Somebody wanna clue the rest of us in?” motioning around the room.

Gabrielle looked at Emma and waited for Emma to nod her head. Then Gabrielle handed the mic to Xena who met Olivia's eyes. “Emma told us you and Natalia hadn't had a honeymoon, so she chose to give the two of you a night in the apartment in Cinderella's Castle.”

Olivia's eyes watered and she reached back her hand to Natalia who grasped it tightly as she moved to embrace Olivia from behind. The rest of the room broke into applause and Xena handed the mic back to Gabrielle.

“So,” Gabrielle said to Emma, “Xena and I arranged for a special day at the Magic Kingdom for you tomorrow. You'll get private time with each of the princesses, including a special lunch and then you'll get to be Grand Master at the parades tomorrow.”

“Really?” Emma asked, eyes wide and unbelieving.

“Really,” Gabrielle promised with a smile. “There'll even be a photographer there to record everything for your moms so they won't miss out on anything that happens if they decide they want a little longer honeymoon together. I mean – you'd be cool hanging out with Xena and me for the day, wouldn't you, if your moms wanted to spend a little time alone together?”

Emma nodded excitedly. Gabrielle grinned.

“And to make sure you get to see all of the park, you'll get head of the line privileges all day.”

“Awesome!” Emma cheered enthusiastically, causing a chuckle to ripple around the room.

“However,” Gabrielle continued, “if you're gonna do all that tomorrow, you probably need to get some sleep tonight. Besides,” she added, gesturing to where Olivia and Natalia still stood wrapped together. “I'm pretty sure your moms are waiting for you to join them so they can say thank you,” watching the grins spread across both faces. Emma jumped down and headed for the stairs, only to turn back and hug first Xena, then Gabrielle.

“Thank you,” she whispered, then raced to her mommies.

Gabrielle and Xena waited until Emma was engulfed in a hug before turning to the audience once more. “Ladies, this has been a fantastic ending to one of the most interesting weekends we've had in a very long time. We hope this is something you'll take with you as a treasured memory. We certainly will.”

She paused when applause broke out at her words. “That being said, we're going to have to bid you all goodnight now. Our Disney clock strikes midnight very soon and we have to be out of here before then. So thank you all for coming - for being such eager participants and for making both conventions such successes. We look forward to seeing you all again soon. Goodnight,” cuing Scud to start the music.

The cheering went on for another long moment before the women started collecting their things and exiting the room. Xena and Gabrielle separated as soon as they left the stage, going to opposite corners while Max and Dom lowered themselves far enough to help them begin to disassemble the curtains. Helena and Dinah started removing cameras while Barbara wound cords and Lucy, Amy, Diana and Janet began to pack up their electronics.

Sooner than they expected, all their equipment was packed and ready to be stored. About that time, the Disney convention crew came in and started removing chairs, tables and other sundry items. They watched for a moment before Gabrielle turned to look at their crew... their friends.

“Thank you ladies. We couldn't have done it without you.”

“It was worth it,” Barbara assured her. “I think we'd all agree to that,” seeing everyone nodding their heads in accord. “We'd do it again,” motioning around to Dinah and Helena.

“So would we,” Max replied unexpectedly, then scowled when all eyes went her way. “What?”

“Everyone is staying a couple days, yes?” Gabrielle asked to draw attention from Max before she got defensive. All heads nodded. “All right. We have Jellybean's day out tomorrow, but we'd like to take you all out for dinner, so let's plan on Tuesday? Xena and I will let you all know when and where sometime tomorrow. Now please – go have some fun. And again... thank you.”

In response, each of them took a moment to thank Gabrielle and Xena before trailing out one at time. Finally, only Xena and Gabrielle were left.

“Well, I'd have to say that was a success.”

“Yeah... despite my misgivings. BUT... I don't want to hear ONE WORD about doing this again for at least a month. I need some time to decompress.”

Xena smiled even as she dropped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. “I can get onboard with that idea. In fact,” she added with a wicked twinkle, “I can probably help with that decompression thing,” steering them away from the bar where all the convention attendees had gathered.

“Oh really?” twining their hands together and letting Xena direct them towards their suite.

“Uh huh,” Xena agreed. “Many skills, remember?”

The door closed on Gabrielle's reply.

 

************

“This is highly unusual, Katie,” Mary complained even as she pushed the prepaid cell phone across the desk. “Of course,” she added, waving an impatient hand, “this whole situation is highly unusual.”

Katie laughed and shook her head. “I know, Marshal, and I am actually sorry you had to be involved. I'm sure you'd have much rather been attending the conference than escorting me here.” Mary didn't dispute her words and Katie reached for the phone, accepting the paper Mary had placed under it.

It rang twice before it was answered. “Hello?”

“Bailey? It's Katie.”

“Katie?! What happened?? Why did you...?? Where are you?? Are you all right??”

Katie smiled, having expected the reaction. “Bailey, take a deep breath and slow down, okay? I'm fine... I promise. I'm on my way out of Albuquerque ,” turning away slightly when Mary slapped her forehead in frustration. “I just wanted to call and say goodbye, Sweetie.”

Bailey blew out a breath, trying to stave off the tears she felt forming in her eyes. “I'm gonna miss you.”

“I'll miss you too, Little Cousin, but it's better this way. Uncle Sal will make sure I'm taken care of.”

“Why did Sallie do this, Katie?”

Katie shook her head, but knowing Bailey couldn't see her, she was compelled to answer audibly. “He called in a marker. Ask him about it one day. But I want you to know something, honey – it was worth it. I'd do it again.” She sighed when Mary gestured to her watch. “Bailey, I've got to go now, okay? I expect to see your name in print really soon though, all right?”

Bailey bit her lip and shook her head. “You're crazy – you know that right?” said with a sad chuckle.

Katie snorted. “Why do you think I've survived as long as I have? I love you, Cuz.”

“Love you back, Katie. Be safe.”

“See ya in the funny papers, Bailey,” Katie replied and hung up the phone. She turned to Mary. “Thanks, Marshal. I'm ready to go.”

Mary took the proffered phone and slid it into her pocket. Then she stood and opened the door of the conference room, leading Katie out and towards the plane that was waiting to take her away.

“Good luck,” she tendered sincerely as they reached the gate. Katie accepted her hand and gave her a smile.

“I'm like a cat, Ms Shannon. I've got nine lives and I always land on my feet.” Then she turned and entered the jetway without a backwards glance. Mary waited until Katie disappeared, then took her phone from her belt and pressed the speed dial to let her partner know she was done for the day and idling wondering if she could catch a flight back to Orlando .

Then she turned and made her way out of the terminal.

 

************

“Emma?” Olivia asked as she and Natalia tucked their daughter in for the night. “Why'd you do it? Why'd you give away your prize? And what about the rest, honey? What about your buddy Barbara and her friends?”

Emma looked between her moms, sitting on either side of the bed putting her to bed together as they had done since she and Olivia had moved back to the farmhouse.

“I asked Barbara about it first – I mean, Xena said she'd get them a chance to stay there too.”

“Okay, but why give it to your mama and me? Don't you want to stay with us?” stopping when Emma shook her head vehemently. A frown crossed Olivia's face, but before she could open her mouth to speak again, Natalia reached a hand over Emma's body and covered hers. Green eyes looked up to meet brown and Olivia drew a deep breath and nodded.

“Sweetie, why did you think your mommy and I needed a honeymoon?”

“Cuz you didn't get one. I mean, I know you can't get married for real in a church yet, but you gave each other rings and said things to each other and that should count. And I know when people get married, they go away to be alone together... ‘cept you really can't do that cuz of me.”

Natalia brushed the bangs off of Emma's forehead. “Oh, honey... we love having you with us. We're family, remember? Besides, you're a big part of the reason your mommy and I are together. You saw what we were afraid to, and you made it a beautiful thing for us.”

Emma crossed her arms over her chest, a fierceness in her countenance that was greatly diminished by the yawn that followed the action. “You still should get a honeymoon,” she said defiantly.

Olivia squeezed the hand covering hers, bringing Natalia's eyes back to hers as she smoothly resumed the reins of the conversation.

“Are you sure, honey?”

“I'm sure, Mommy. Xena and Gabrielle promised to look out for me and I really do want to be a princess. Gabrielle told me they'll even teach me the princess wave.”

“They have a special wave? I mean it's different from the queen thing?” twisting her wrist in an approximate imitation of the wave she'd seen Queen Elizabeth do on several televised occasions. Emma laughed and yawned again.

“You're silly, Mommy. Of course they have a special wave – they're Disney Princesses.”

Olivia put her hand over her chest and widened her eyes. “Of course they do... what was I thinking?” She pulled the covers up under Emma's arms. “So in the meantime, young lady, you need to get some sleep so you'll be all rested for your big day tomorrow.”

“'Kay, Mommy. Love you.”

“Love you too, Bean,” Olivia replied as she kissed Emma goodnight.

“Love you, Sweetie,” Natalia offered as she leaned forward and kissed Emma as well. Emma smiled.

“Love you too, Mama.” She was asleep before darkness blanketed the room. Olivia and Natalia rose and exited, leaving Emma to sleep in peace. They pulled the door to, but not shut and took a seat in the tiny living room.

“She's a pretty amazing kid,” Natalia commented after a few prolonged moments of silence. “You've done a great job with her.”

Olivia just shook her head. “She's something all right. And *we've* done a great job with her. She's doing this for us, you know.”

“I know. It's just....”

Olivia smiled and tipped her head at Natalia. “Um hmm. So what do you say...?” standing and holding out her hand in invitation. “That we take advantage....” tugging lightly on the hand in hers and urging Natalia to her feet. “Of the opportunity we've been given....” leading Natalia towards the master bedroom. “And start our honeymoon early?” pulling Natalia's body into her own.

Natalia released the hand she held to wrap her hands around Olivia's waist, spinning them around until Olivia's back was to the door before pinning her in place. Green eyes widened at the unexpected reaction, especially when Natalia growled at her just before she grinned wickedly.

“I wasn't aware,” she responded, leaning in and nipping Olivia's neck sharply. Natalia relished the gasp and subsequent arching which afforded her more flesh to tease. She did so, biting then laving each mark before moving on, until she reached Olivia's ear. “I wasn't aware,” she repeated, “that we'd ever stopped having a honeymoon,” licking around the ear before sucking on the lobe. “Did I miss a memo or something?” smiling as she moved forward to claim Olivia's lips.

“Or something,” Olivia mumbled, then gave in to the sensations cascading through her body, trusting Natalia to get them to the bed. It was shaping up to be a hell of a night.

 

 

Chapter LX

“You're sure about this, Bailey?” Buster asked dubiously. Not only did she appear upset about something – odd, considering none of them had shown any real remorse over Desdemona's death - but this was simply beyond his purview of reality. She sighed and looked at him with red-rimmed eyes.

“Yes, Buster. I'm sure. All of our jobs with AVID are safe.”

“Even yours?” from Dot. “After all....”

“After all, I'm a writer and will finally be able to be a published writer instead of being at Desdemona's beck and call,” Bailey ground out from behind clenched teeth before taking a deep breath. “Sorry, Dot.” She sighed again. “Look... all I know is what I was told. We're still employed by AVID.”

“Are things going to change? I mean, obviously some things will change, but....”

“I'm sure things will change, Gordon, but for now can we just be glad we still have jobs?” Bailey asked tiredly. “Maybe things will be better than they were before.”

“She's right,” Graham replied. “We're rid of Desdemona. That makes it better already.”

“And besides,” Melissa offered, “I'm sure we'll hear from the new boss sooner rather than later.”

“She really wasn't that bad,” Franklyn jumped in.

“Shut up, Frank.”

“C'mon,” Harmon said after a moment of silence. “This has been a long damn weekend for all of us and Bailey looks about out on her feet. Let's table this discussion for now and go get some sleep. Things will probably look different tomorrow.”

Violet nodded. “I agree,” seeing the crush of women headed their way. “Besides, I think we wanna be gone before they take over.” The rest rose and moved out of the bar just as the conventioneers swarmed in.

 

************

There wasn't any real division between the two groups of women anymore – instead, they were mixed and mingled together, reliving favorite moments of the talent show and making plans for the morrow. A few, however, had eschewed the opportunity for further socializing with others, preferring to give the bar a miss and heading towards their rooms.

“You're sure?” Wendy asked Nikki carefully, although truthfully, she knew the answer before Nikki opened her mouth to speak.

“As sure as I can be without DNA testing,” Nikki confirmed.

Wendy blew out a shaky breath. “That's... a lot to take in.”

“You all right?” Nora asked softly after a beat. “I mean... all things considered?”

Wendy blinked and jerked her head in a hard nod. “Yeah, um... yeah,” surrendering to the hug when Nikki wrapped her in a firm embrace. She held on tightly and smiled through her tears when she felt Nora put her arms around both of them. Wendy drew a shuddering breath and pulled back just enough to look into eyes that were so much like her own.

“Sisters, huh?”

“Yeah,” Nikki replied, putting a gentle hand on Wendy's cheek. Wendy covered that hand with her own.

“That's cool,” Wendy said with a tremulous smile.

“Yeah – yeah, sugar... it is.”

“So does this mean you two'll join me and the gang for breakfast tomorrow morning so I can introduce you all? They're really kinda curious about all this... and you.”

“That sounds great,” Nora answered when Nikki simply bobbed her head. “And maybe sometime soon you can come visit us in New Orleans ?”

“I'd like that... I'd really like that.”

 

************

“So what did you think, darlings?” Miranda asked her daughters as a small group of them walked back towards their rooms together. Emily bit her lips, still stunned by what she'd seen her boss do... publicly. Miranda was never so... relaxed or... undone or... something. It had definitely been something *she'd* never seen – or thought to see from her boss – *ever *in her lifetime.

“You were....”

“... fantastic, Mom,” the twins said together, drawing a smile from Miranda. She extended her arms and Caroline and Cassidy tucked themselves into either side of her body. It made walking more difficult, but they were loath to give up the shared embrace.

“They're right, Miranda,” Ashlee agreed enthusiastically. “You were astounding... truly.”

Miranda smiled and Emily nearly fainted dead away. She was certainly seeing a side of her boss she'd never imagined being witness too. It made her wonder if the world was ending and she'd missed the memo.

“Thank you, Ashlee. I'm not certain where the talent came from, but I will admit – it was great fun.”

“Well,” Blake commented. “At least you know you have a skill to fall back on if something happens to Runway ,” causing a look of horror to spring forth on five different faces and a gasp to be ripped from deep within Emily's chest. “What? What did I say?”

“Sacrilege,” Andy contributed succinctly. “Miranda IS Runway .”

“I... I didn't realize....”

“It's all right, Blake,” Miranda replied. “So many people don't.”

“So,” Doris said when the silence had begun to grow uncomfortable. “What's everyone doing tomorrow?”

Miranda nodded her thanks and replied, “Emily and I head back to the City in the morning. As interesting as this weekend has been, it's time to get back to work. The girls' dad arrived this afternoon and he will be staying with them a few more days before they return home as well.”

“I actually have the week off,” Andy said. “Some of the other writers and I are going over to the coast tomorrow. We're getting a behind-the-scenes look at NASA.”

“For a story or....?” Blake asked.

Andy shook her head. “Not deliberately,” she replied with a smile. “But we are reporters.” That got her a small chuckle from the group and the tension seemed to dissipate.

“I haven't decided what I'm doing,” Blake offered. “I'm supposed to fly back to Springfield tomorrow afternoon. I kind of decided to come last minute.” Doris nodded.

“For me as well, though Ashlee and I are going to Sea World before my flight out tomorrow night.” She looked around the group. “Should we get together for breakfast tomorrow before we head our separate ways?”

Agreement was swift in coming, so plans were made, then the group split up for the night.

 

************

“So are you glad we came?” Annabelle asked Simone as they reached their room. Simone waited until they had crossed the threshold and closed the door behind them before she answered.

“I am, actually... yes. We met some remarkable women; made some new friends....”

“And even had a good time.”

Simone nodded. “Yes, and I'm looking forward to spending the next few days here with you. Did I hear you making plans for breakfast for us?”

“Yep. Penelope Garcia asked if we could join her in the morning. She mentioned my poetry,” Annabelle offered bashfully. Simone smiled and cupped Annabelle's cheek before kissing her softly.

“I've told you that you're amazing, love, but it's nice to hear that from someone else, isn't it?” watching Annabelle's eyes drop to the ground briefly before meeting Simone's again.

“Yes, it is.”

Simone slid her hand from Annabelle's cheek down her arm to clasp her hand, tugging her gently towards the bed. “C'mon, then... morning's going to come early.”

Annabelle chuckled and used her free hand to creep under Simone's shirt, pushing it up as she went. When she reached Simone's breast, she tweaked the hardened nipple forcefully, then bent her head to capture the exclamation and turn it into a passionate kiss.

She and Simone separated to breathe and Annabelle chuckled as she finished removing Simone's shirt and fell into the bed, pulling Simone's body on top of hers. “Night's not over yet, baby,” was all she said. No more words were needed.

 

************

“Wow, that was a short night,” Garcia complained good-naturedly when Emily knocked on the connecting door just as daylight started creeping over the horizon. “Why did I want to get up at the butt-crack of dawn again?” she asked as she pulled a pillow over her head.

JJ opened the door and stuck her head in just far enough to see the bump in the bed that was Penelope. “Because, Sweetie – you wanted to have breakfast with Annabelle Tillman at oh-my-God o'clock in the morning so you could still get in a full day at Epcot.”

“Yeah, Great Garcia. If we can get up, so do you,” Emily said around a yawn.

“I hate you both so much,” Garcia grumbled, her words muffled by the pillow still over her face. “OOF!” she grunted, jerking the pillow from herself and squinting up to glare at JJ when she landed on the bed beside her.

“C'mon, Garcia,” tugging on an arm. “We've only got a couple more days here before we have to go home to be BAU agents again. You know what Morgan says.”

Garcia held her glare for another moment, then she smiled. “You don't play very fair, you know.”

“Of course not,” JJ agreed around a yawn. “I play to win.” She accepted a cup of coffee Emily offered her, inhaling deeply before taking her first sip. Then she blinked hard and allowed her blue eyes to widen and cross slowly. “Good God!”

“That bad?” Garcia asked with a smirk.

JJ cleared her throat and still squeaked. “Like rocket fuel.” She was glad Emily was already in the shower. She set the coffee on the bedside table and stood, then offered Penelope her hand. Garcia threw off the covers and sat up before allowing JJ to help her up. “Can I ask you something?”

Garcia smirked. “As long as you're not looking for the secrets of my magic.”

JJ chuckled and shook her head. “Nah – I know the rules, Maestro. I was just wondering what made you decide to have breakfast with Annabelle. It's not like we had a lot of time to meet the people from Gabrielle's side of the hall.”

“Exactly,” Garcia agreed as she put toothpaste on her toothbrush. “And I liked her book. She's got a depth to her that... I dunno... I just thought I'd like the opportunity to meet her... them. Would you like to join us?”

“Actually, Em and I made plans to meet with Lilly and Sofia , but we could probably share a table.” She glanced at the clock as she heard Emily shut off the shower. “However, if I don't get out of here and start getting ready, we're going to be late.”

Garcia nodded. “Me too. Let me know when you're ready to walk over.”

JJ smiled and headed back over the threshold. “You betcha,” she agreed and hustled to get her morning started.

 

************

“Good morning,” Sofia greeted Lilly when she reached the table Lilly had already been seated at. “Am I late?”

Lilly shook her head. “Nope. I was up early this morning.”

Sofia frowned. “Problem?”

Lilly chuckled and shook her head. “Not at all. I was watching the sunrise.”

“You still do that?”

“It helps me center myself for the day.”

“And do you need to be centered today?” Sofia asked with a smirk.

Lilly gave her a wry look. “I'm spending the day with my crazy sister at Islands of Adventure,” she answered drolly. “What do you think?”

“I think your crazy sister is gonna have to do something about you in a minute,” holding Lilly's gaze for a long moment before they both started laughing. And though they weren't loud, they did manage to draw the attention of other patrons in the otherwise quiet restaurant.

 

************

“Someone seems to be having a good morning,” Nikki commented to Helen as they were seated a few tables away from Sofia and Lilly.

Helen returned her smile. “Glad we're not the only ones, though isn't everyone that comes here?” Almost on cue, a screaming child was heard. “Okay,” Helen conceded. “Maybe not quite *everyone*.”

Nikki laughed. “Judging by the way the parents look, the kid's probably tired. Hell, I'm a bit knackered myself, and we haven't even done much here yet.”

“Oh, I dunno, Nikki. We've had a pretty busy weekend.”

“Yeah, but I'm looking forward to just having a little fun with you for a few days.”

Helen took the hand that Nikki offered and twined their hands together. “Me too, love. Whaddya wanna do first?”

“After breakfast?” Nikki asked with a smile. “I dunno. I thought maybe we could go over to the Animal Kingdom. I'd like to try that roller coaster,” pulling the brochure from the collection they'd gotten from the concierge a few minutes before.

Helen bit her pinky nail and nodded her head. “That sounds like good fun. What d'you think?” she asked the waitress that had just reached their table. The girl's eyes widened, but she didn't miss a beat.

“I think you can't really go wrong with much of anything around here, but I could probably be more specific if I knew what we were talking about.”

Nikki and Helen both laughed and the girl grinned in response. Then she started giving them their breakfast options, shifting out of the way as the hostess brushed by her with patrons to be seated at the table next to them.

When the waitress finished with Nikki and Helen, she turned to the table behind her. “Coffee for everyone?” and smiling when she got three affirmative answers. “Be right back,” she promised.

Kris looked at their neighboring table and cleared her throat. “Excuse me... are you Nikki Wade, by any chance?”

Nikki smiled. “By birth, actually.” She extended her hand. “But I'm afraid you have me at a distinct disadvantage, Ms...?”

“Munroe... Kris Munroe. And these are my friends Kelly Garrett and Sabrina Duncan.”

“Nice to meet you, ladies,” as she retrieved her hand. “And this lovely lady is my partner, Helen Stewart,” waiting for them to murmur their greetings again. “So what can I do for you, Ms Kris Munroe?”

Kris cleared her throat. “Well, when we all ended up together in the big room yesterday, I saw your book for sale and I... well, I bought it. I was wondering if you'd mind signing it for me.”

“Please don't be embarrassed, Ms Munroe. I'm flattered. And I'd be delighted. Um... do you...?”

“Oh yes,” sliding it from the big bag she'd set down beside her. “I was planning to read it out by the pool today,” putting the book on the table. “But I don't have a pen.”

Nikki smiled. “That's okay. I'm betting our server does and she's perky – she'll probably let me use it for a minute.”

“They're all perky here,” Sabrina grumbled, looking at her empty cup, only to have it filled as their waitress returned to the table with a full pot.

“Job requirement,” the girl confessed as she filled all five cups and passed Nikki her pen. She waited until Nikki was done and took their orders, moving away again to leave the women to continue their discussion.

“That was a little unreal,” Helen commented as Kris thanked Nikki and put her book away. “You didn't even ask for her pen.” Then she looked at the women seated next to her. “So you're not going out to Disney World then? The parks, I mean?”

Kelly smiled. “Maybe later. We're gonna relax first though.”

“That's not a bad plan. Wonder how many others will try that,” Nikki mused, then sat back to allow their server to put their food in front of them. Then their attention was focused on eating, and conversation, when it resumed had moved on to other things as the restaurant continued to fill with their compatriots.

 

 

Chapter LXI

“Are you sure about this, Sweetie?” Angela asked as she and Cameron took a seat beside Bones in the food court.

Bones looked at her with a frown on her face. “Of course I'm sure. Angela, I thought you'd be glad about this.”

“Oh I am, Sweetie – you don't know how much. It just took me a little by surprise, that's all.”

“Me too,” Cameron offered just as they were joined by their impromptu companions. “Good morning,” she greeted as the women of NCIS took their seats at the table. They returned the salutation and everyone tucked into their food for a few minutes before Kate decided to take the initiative.

“We appreciated the invitation this morning.”

“Well, Angela has been after me to ‘loosen up', and I had a good time singing with Ziva last night, so....”

“Either way,” Abby cut in, “we're glad you asked.”

“Um... excuse me,” a lightly accented voiced interrupted. “I'm sorry to intrude, but would you mind if we took the two chairs on the end of the table here? It's fairly crowded in here and you're at least familiar looking faces.”

“Sure,” Angela offered before anyone else could speak. “Please join us.”

“Thanks. I'm not sure with everything going on that we were ever introduced during the conference - I'm Kate... this is Emma, by the way.” Introductions were made around the table.

“I thought the two of you were absolutely brill last night,” Emma commented. Bones and Ziva exchanged grins.

“It was... fun,” Ziva commented without cracking a smile.

“Oh, c'mon Ziva; you enjoyed yourself,” Kate said with a sly grin.

“I admit nothing,” causing smiles to ripple around the table.

“Well, I thought the whole thing was outstanding. I'd sit through being a murder suspect again just for that,” from Angela.

“Except next time, we just turn the forensics experts loose to start with,” Bones said wryly.

“I'd vote for there to be no next time,” Scribbs spoke up. “At least so far as the whole murder thing goes. The rest was fantastic, and I certainly wouldn't mind another trip to Disney World,” added with a genuine smile. “That's the best!”

“Speaking of - what are we going to do today?” Cameron asked, glancing around.

“I'd like to go to Epcot,” Abby replied instantly. “Although Sea World's a good choice too. Or maybe....” She looked around the table. “What do you guys think?” directing her question at Ash and Scribbs.

“Um... dunno that we should have an opinion on where you all are going,” Scribbs said after a moment of stunned silence. Abby blinked.

“Why not? Aren't you going to join us? Oh sure... why not? It'll be fun!”

And before they knew what had hit them, it was all arranged – the going all-together part anyway. The where was still up for debate when the CSI crew entered the food court just a few minutes later.

 

************

“You're sure?” Catherine asked as they made their way through the maze that was the food court's seating area towards the registers. Wendy nodded as she handed the cashier her room key to pay for breakfast.

“As sure as we can be without DNA testing. It makes sense, anyway.” She crossed the threshold and waited for Sara and Catherine to join her. “I invited them to breakfast this morning.”

Catherine's brows went into her hairline. “Will they be able to find us in all this?” as they stepped outside to find a table that overlooked the small lake.

Wendy chuckled. “I think they already have,” motioning to the couple who was waving them over. “C'mon... I wanna introduce you to my sister and her partner.”

They made their way over to the table and Wendy performed the introductions before they all resumed their seats. It was a little awkward for a few minutes as they each tried to find something to break the silence. Then Sara jumped in with both feet.

“We could do a DNA test if you wanted... I mean, just to make things official.”

Catherine snorted. “Sara,” she said dryly. “Look at them,” motioning to Nikki and Wendy who were sporting identical blushes. “I think it's pretty official.” She saw Sara's shoulder's slump and narrowed her eyes. “This is about testing that new field kit of yours isn't it?”

Sara shrugged but kept her eyes on her plate. “Figured we could kill two birds with one stone – kind of a win/win.”

“I think it's a great idea, actually,” Nora piped up. “It would give us irrefutable proof to show to Arthur when we introduce Wendy to him.”

“Intro...” Wendy sputtered. “Wait... WHAT??” snapping her head around to look at Nora.

Nikki chuckled and covered Wendy's hand. “Sugar, that's one reason we want you to come visit us in NOLA. You need to meet Daddy.”

“Meet Da... holy shit! I hadn't thought about... shit,” she muttered again, causing light laughter to run around the table. She jumped when she felt an arm land on her shoulder, then looked up into Claire's compassionate eyes.

“What are you doing to this poor woman? I heard her squeak when I stepped out the door.”

“Long story,” Catherine replied. “Would you like to join us?”

Claire let her glance encompass everyone and nodded. “If you're sure I won't be intruding.”

“Not at all,” Nora assured her, seeing Nikki nod her head in agreement. She looked over the patio area. “Where's the rest of your group?” Claire laughed.

“Jill finally got her voice back last night, so she also got a date. I haven't seen her since the talent show ended. The other two I'm not as sure about. I'm sure I'll hear from them eventually,” shaking her cell phone before placing it on the table in front of her. “Now tell me what caused you to flush such an interesting a shade of eggplant.”

Not even the noise of a bunch of boisterous DEBS and their significant others headed out for Epcot could distract them from their discussion.

 

************

“Who's got the passes?” Max asked as they crossed the foyer area of the lobby headed towards the front parking lot.

“I do,” Scud replied, pulling his wallet from his pocket. “I've been the only one able to use them til today, remember?” holding Max's eyes until she shrugged.

“Whatever,” she answered, taking her card from him without quite snatching it out of his hand. He rolled his eyes. “It is just way too weird not to be wearing plaid,” motioning to the atypical shorts and t-shirts she, Janet and Dom were wearing. Amy narrowed her eyes at the outfit.

“Max, you're not carrying, are you?” biting her bottom lip when Max glared at her. “MAX! You can't go around Disney World carrying a gun. It's *Disney World*!”

“And your point?” said dryly.

“My point is you can't carry a gun around Disney World. Pretty sure those two lovely detectives who were asking questions all weekend would be more than happy to come out here *again* and explain to you *exactly* why you can't carry a gun here – right before they took it away from you.”

Max glared. “Nobody touches my gun.”

“Then I suggest you go put it away,” Janet spouted. “I mean if you want to.” Max held her eyes for another minute before turning on her heel and back the way she'd come.

Dom checked her watch and huffed. “I have a date, so if you'll excuse me....” heading out the door before anyone else could make an objection.

“Okay, so...” Lucy said, clapping her hands together and giving a sly smile. “We can scoot out of here with no one the wiser, right?” she asked, her eyes twinkling.

“Lucy!”

“What? I'm just saying....”

“LUCY!!”

“All right, all right – Jesus! We'll wait.” She cut her eyes at Amy. “You're taking all the fun out of this ya know.”

“S'okay,” Amy said with a grin. “I'll make it up to you later.”

“Promise?”

“Oh will you two get a room already?” Max complained as she came around the corner to catch them in an embrace. “Well, c'mon already. We're running behind already and I wanna ride Test Track. So let's go, people! Move it!” snatching the keys out of Scud's hands and heading out the door.

“Hey! Hey, waitaminute....” he called, clambering after her and pulling Janet along with him.

Lucy and Amy just watched their antics, exchanging grins and enjoying the hug they'd never broken, despite Max's caustic words. Then the door slid open and Max stuck her head in again. “Will you two hurry the hell up?” rolling her eyes and dramatically flopping her arms as she turned back towards the car. Lucy and Amy just smirked and loosened their embrace until they were holding hands, then they followed Max out to the car, not noticing Melinda Warner and her family followed out behind them.

 

************

“Okay, so whose idea was it to have tear-away clothes?” Serena asked Liz and Tracey as they rode the bus towards the Hollywood Studios. Kelly tentatively raised her hand. Serena's brows jumped into her hairline. “Excuse me?? Really?”

Kelly glared. “Yes, really,” her tentativeness lost in the belief that she wasn't smart enough to think of something like that. “When Tracey backed herself into the proverbial corner, I volunteered to help, but honestly, I can't dance if the steps are laid out for me. Jud... Liz overheard us and offered to help, but only if we kept it a secret. So....” Kelly shrugged.

“So it was pretty clever,” Serena confessed. “I enjoyed it a lot.”

“I thought the whole night was a hoot,” Liz said.

“Yeah, but I gotta tell you – I'm glad I don't have to keep up with that Emma kid. I have a feeling she keeps her moms on their toes.” The rest chuckled and nodded their agreement to Tracey's words.

“I want to know how Barbara did that mentalist thing. That was uncanny.” This from Kelly.

“Maybe she could tell us where the rest of our little entourage disappeared to this morning,” Serena commented. Tracey just snorted. “What?” in an aggrieved tone.

“Oh honey... do you *really* think we'll see Cabot and her detective or Carmichael and Novak after that performance last night?? And Doc Warner was headed out to the Magic Kingdom with her family this morning.”

“All right... fair enough,” Serena said, turning the shade of a pomegranate. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I forgot about that.”

“Been a while, has it?” Tracey teased.

“I'm not gonna answer that,” Serena growled.

Liz bumped her shoulder. “If it makes you feel better, I'd forgotten about it too until Tracey mentioned it,” giving Tracey a look before she could offer a retort. Before anyone else could make another comment, she looked around the bus and discovered several faces she recognized.

The bus came to a stop and slowly they departed and headed for the gates. “So,” Liz said, causing three dark heads to whip around in her direction before they gave her tentative smiles. “Are any of you trying American Idol today?” chuckling when three heads shook vehemently.

“Are you two?” Jordan asked, pointing at Liz and Tracey.

“Heaven forbid!” Tracey exclaimed. “Once of that was more than enough for me, thank you. I prefer to limit my appearances to a courtroom.”

“Me too,” Mac agreed, “though I'm pretty sure they'd be jerking me off the stage with a hook if I even thought about trying to perform.”

“That bad?” Diana asked.

Mac snorted. “Some people should never be anything other than an audience member. I accepted a long time ago I was one of those people.”

“Me too,” Kelly concurred.

“We all have to be good at something,” Mac smirked. They walked through the turnstiles and grabbed a map. Serena just kept on walking, and the rest followed as a matter of course.

“Where are we headed?” Jordan asked.

“Toy Story Mania,” Serena said. “Fast passes there first, then we can go ride Rockin' Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror.”

“You sound like a woman with a plan.”

“Best way to get things done,” Serena replied with a smile.

 

************

“I'm not sure this is the best way to get this done, Nat,” Tootie offered as they walked up Main Street. “It's not that I don't like her, but....”

“But she hasn't been one of us for our whole lives?” Natalie asked with a wan smile. “That's one of the things that makes her perfect for this, Tootie. She's an award-winning journalist....”

“So are you!!” said with a hint of angry confusion. “Nat, you've been doing this since before she was born. I don't understand why you think you need a kid like Cindy Thomas to help you write your own story.”

“For that reason exactly, Tootie. I'm too close to this and it's very likely I'd screw this up by making it too personal. Cindy's not gonna write it *for* me – we're collaborating. She'll help keep me on track. This story is too important for me to do less than the best I can for it.”

“And you think collaborating with Cindy Thomas will make it the best it can be.”

“I really do.”

Tootie sighed. “All right. I do still get to proof the whole thing, right?”

Natalie grinned. “Absolutely. That hasn't changed in twenty-five years. I'm not starting now. Now come on. I wanna go ride Space Mountain before the line gets too long.”

 

************

“Are you sure about this Cindy?” Lindsay asked as they made their way towards Big Thunder Mountain. They were going to meet the rest of their party for lunch, but they had the morning to themselves to play. “It's a big commitment.”

“It's a huge commitment,” Cindy agreed, “but I want to do it. I *need* to do it, Lindsay. It's important.” She paused and cracked open the water bottle Lindsay handed her and took a deep draught. “You heard the story.”

Lindsay nodded. “I did, and you're right... it *is* important. I'm just not sure I understand why she wants YOU to help her tell it.” Seeing storm clouds darken brown eyes to almost black, Lindsay stumbled on. “Not that you're not fantastic at your job – I mean, you are... I KNOW you are. But so is she. So why does Natalie Green need you to help her do something she's been doing since you were in diapers?”

Cindy held Lindsay's eyes - not seeing condescension or mockery, but sincere confusion. She took a deep breath. “She needs me to keep her honest... kinda like the club does for each other sometimes.”

“For me, you mean,” Lindsay said without blinking. Cindy smiled.

“Usually, yes... but not always.”

“Fair enough,” Lindsay finally breathed as they got into line and started wending their way uphill. “Do you think I could read it as well? Just for curiosity's sake?”

Cindy blinked. “We can ask; the worst thing she can do is say no. But I don't think she will. You were there when she told the story last night.” She took Lindsay's hand in hers and tugged on it lightly. “Now c'mon, Inspector. There's fun to be had around here before lunch, and I for one don't intend to miss out on anything.”

 

 

Chapter LXII

“I'm so glad you're here, Cass,” Janet said as they waited together for Sam to ride Splash Mountain. She'd really been looking forward to it, and Janet and Cassandra assured her they were happy to wait for her to do so. So they now sat on a bench near the ride's exit, listening to the trains roll by periodically and people watching. They had both been highly entertained so far.

“So am I, Mom. This place is... why haven't we been here before?”

“That's a good question, honey. I guess saving the world every week kinda got in the way before.”

Cassie snorted. “Yeah... I can see where that could screw up your plans.”

“I don't think that's gonna be a problem for us any more, though,” Janet confided, watching another couple emerge soaking wet from the ride. Then their conversation got her attention when they stopped right beside them to try and dry off a little.

“Delusional much?” the brunette asked sarcastically. “C'mon... there is no way that's a hidden Mickey. I've been coming here for years – I would have noticed it before now.”

“The nice cast member confirmed it, and you know he wouldn't lie about it. I mean, really… why would he? There's no reason to.”

“Sure there is – dead brain cells. Acting happy all the time kills them exponentially.” She cocked an eyebrow when the blonde woman glared at her. “Besides, have you looked in the mirror?? He thought you were cute and agreeing with you meant he got to see your dimples again.”

Blue eyes narrowed at her. “Oh no you didn't.”

The brunette snorted. “Sure I did.”

The blonde held the darker woman's gaze for another long moment before she shrugged. “It doesn't matter. I told you so. I was right, and I am awesome.”

“No... you were lucky.”

“And if you want to be lucky again in this lifetime....”

“I hate you.”

“No you don't.” A beat. “Say it.”

“No.”

“Say it,” the blonde asked in a wheedling tone of voice.

The brunette huffed mightily and stuffed the wet towel into the backpack she'd been carrying. “Fine – you were right.”

“And...?”

“You were awesome,” she mumbled.

“Yep,” the blonde agreed as they walked away from the bench. “But not as awesome as I'm gonna be later,” tucking her hand in the crook of the other woman's elbow before they moved out of sight. Cassandra and Janet exchanged glances before bursting into laughter.

“All righty then,” Janet said once they got themselves under control. “That was pretty darn funny. Actually, the whole day has been a lot of fun so far, and we just got here.”

“Yeah,” Cass agreed. “I'm glad you invited me along.”

“If we'd even been thinking, we'd have planned it all ahead of time. It's just... it's still all so new for us. But we'll do better. We just need more practice at being a real family again. We wanna be ready by the time your little one makes an appearance.”

There was silence for a moment, then green eyes met brown and held them. “Are you giving up the Air Force?” Cassandra asked bluntly. Janet blinked in shock and felt her jaw drop before she snapped her mouth closed.

“How did you...?” She shook her head. “What makes you say that?”

“A lot of little things,” Cassandra stated, “which we can talk about later,” motioning to a soaking wet Sam who was headed their way. “But I want you to know that I think this baby,” covering her belly protectively, “is already pretty lucky. Its grandmothers are amazing women and the rest of the family is pretty incredible too.”

Sam arrived right about then and was astonished when Janet turned into her despite her waterlogged state. She looked at Cass with eyebrows raised into her hairline. “You made your mother cry... at Disney World?”

Janet slapped Sam's belly gently. “They're happy tears, baby.” Then she opened her eyes and pulled her head back, frowning up at Sam. “You're all wet.”

“Yeah – they do call it SPLASH Mountain for a reason. Now c'mon you two. Let's go find something we can all do together.”

 

************

“Dad! Dad!! DAD!!!” Brooke finally raised her voice loud enough that Sam took her hand and pulled them over into a tiny alcove off of Main Street where she'd be able to hear Mike without feeling the need to yell back to be heard. Then she realized that Brooke was simply trying to shut Mike up to get a word in edgewise. Sam took the phone from Brooke before she could protest and brought it to her lips.

“MIKE!” she said without putting the phone to her ear to hear whatever he was going on about. “Be quiet and let Brooke talk,” she commanded and handed the phone back to Brooke. Brooke stared at it and Sam for a long minute before lifting the now silent device back to her ear.

“Yes, Dad... we're fine. The murder has already been solved and.... No. I mean not at all. Um hmm,” holding out her hand to study the ring that graced her left ring finger. “Other than that, um....” Brooke bit her lip and Sam wondered what Mike was saying. Then Brooke's eyes met hers and her expression softened. “No... no. Yes, I'm sure. I love her.”

Sam captured Brooke's hand in her own and lifted it to her lips. Brooke opened her hand to allow her palm to cradle Sam's cheek, pleased when she nuzzled into the touch.

“Listen Dad, we're at the Magic Kingdom, so we're gonna go have some fun now,” clearing her throat when her voice started to rise when Sam began to nibble at the center of her hand. “We can talk about this later, but nothing except marriage is gonna change the fact that we're engaged to one another. Try to be happy for us... please?” sighing before she ended the call.

“Is my phone gonna ring now?” Sam asked sadly, taking Brooke's hand in hers and leading her from the alcove back into the flow of Main Street once more. Brooke shook her head.

“I think Mom will talk to him first... *then* she'll talk to you. I think he's actually more upset that we didn't talk to them *before* it hit YouTube, but only time will tell.” Brooke shrugged and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “However, I don't want to worry about them today. I don't want to worry about anything. I wanna spend the day having fun with my gorgeous fiancée.”

Sam grinned. “I love the sound of that. I love you.”

Brooke couldn't help the smile that split her face at Sam's words and expression. “Not as much as I love you,” knowing it would get a playful response back and laughing when Sam's brows went into her hairline.

“Do you really want to get into THAT debate, McQueen? Remember, I'm the writer here.”

“Yes, but I'm the lawyer. I can draw it up iron clad.”

Sam snorted. “Guess we're pretty evenly matched.” She jerked her head. “You wanna ride Pirates of the Caribbean with me?”

Brooke smiled. “Love too.”

 

************

“Are you sure about this, Xena?” Olivia asked as they made their way into the castle. Emma was between them, eyes darting everywhere as she took in all the activity around them. “I mean....”

“Olivia, if you'd feel more comfortable staying with us today, or even the three of you going off by yourselves, that's perfectly okay,” Gabrielle said from just behind them. “We can arrange to have a Disney Ambassador escort you to ensure you get the VIP treatment that is part of Emma's prize.”

Xena flashed a badge and the cast member nodded her through and in a moment they had all entered the elevator. A swipe of the card Xena still held and the doors closed and it started to move up.

“We just thought you and Natalia might appreciate a little more time to yourselves to honeymoon,” Xena said as the elevator doors opened into the suite. Emma let go of Olivia's hand and pushed her forward when she seemed frozen in place. In reflex, Olivia reached for Natalia's hand and they walked off the elevator into the center of the room and simply stood still, gawking at the accommodations around them. Neither of them had ever seen anything like this.

Emma dropped Xena's hand and crossed the threshold into the room. Xena and Gabrielle stayed in the elevator watching the tableau.

“Do you like it, Mommy? Mama?”

Simultaneously, Olivia and Natalia turned and Natalia opened her arms for Emma to jump into. Then Olivia embraced them both. “We love it, Jellybean, but not as much as we love you,” Olivia said with a tickle, causing Emma to laugh. Natalia leaned forward and brushed a kiss over Emma's cheek.

“This is fabulous, Sweetie. Are you sure you don't want to stay here with us?” Emma clapped her hands over her ears.

“Mushy stuff!!” she yelled, then squealed when both Olivia and Natalia tickled her again. Xena and Gabrielle just snickered.

After a minute of giggles and laughter, things settled down again. “Now Bean,” Olivia said seriously, motioning Natalia to put Emma down and dropping to one knee to bring them to eye level. “What do you want to do? Do you want Natalia and me to go with you or would you rather go with Xena and Gabrielle?”

Emma looked between her parents. “Would it hurt your feelings if I said I'd like to go with them?”

Olivia swallowed and shook her head. “Not at all, Bean.”

“Awesome!” she exclaimed, pumping her fist in victory and causing chuckles to ripple around the room. Emma hugged Olivia, then Natalia and kissed them both. “Have a nice honeymoon, you guys,” she wished them as she ran back towards the elevator. Gabrielle stepped off just as Emma reached her and Xena and she simply nodded her head. Xena held out her hand and Emma took it without compunction while they waited for Gabrielle.

“Naturally, you can go out into the park today if you want, though once you get a good look around the room I doubt you're going to want to leave. The restaurant downstairs will provide your meals today unless you request otherwise, and they'll be waiting for your order – so you can have what you want... within reason, of course,” grinning at their flummoxed expressions. “Oh... um, we'll bring Emma by to say goodnight before we leave the park – we'll let you know when we'll be by so you can let us know if that works for you or not. And you have our numbers if anything comes up and visa versa.” Gabrielle paused and bit her lip. “Did I forget anything?”

“Yes!” Emma said from the elevator, jumping up and down in place just a little bit. “We need to go before we miss the Princesses!”

Everyone laughed and Gabrielle turned back to the elevator, only to be stopped by a hand on her arm before she could move towards it. She looked at Natalia who squeezed once before she released her hold.

“Thank you, Gabrielle... for everything.”

Gabrielle nodded and grinned at the two of them. “It's our pleasure, Natalia. We expect this to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Olivia slipped an arm around Natalia's waist as Gabrielle got back onto the elevator, gratified when Natalia naturally leaned into her. She smiled. “It already is, Gabrielle,” she assured them as the doors closed. Then Xena, Gabrielle and Emma headed out into the Magic Kingdom in search of some fairy tale princesses of their own.

 

************

“So what's the wire for?” Dinah asked as they crossed the hub area and turned towards Tomorrowland.

“Tinkerbell,” Helena stated succinctly, though she was literally vibrating with excitement. “Will you two hurry up? I wanna go ride Space Mountain and play Buzz Lightyear.”

Dinah smirked. “What are you – five?” watching Helena's eyes flash gold before they narrowed at her. “We're getting there.”

“Girls,” Barbara cut in before Helena could snipe back. “Do you think we could get a couple pictures?” motioning to the photographer waiting patiently just off the beaten path. Helena and Dinah exchanged surprised glances, then shrugged together and followed Barbara's lead.

They exchanged greetings with Jo and Blair and were introduced to Jo's daughter, then the photographer was positioning them for pictures. Jo, Blair and Jamie headed across the hub towards Liberty Square and the Haunted Mansion.

“I can't believe we've never been here before,” Jamie said, her eyes wide as she tried not to miss anything around her.

“Your dad and I never really talked about it,” Jo confessed as they walked. “We never seemed to have much time off together and when we did....” She shrugged. “There's always been so much to do at home that the subject never really came up.”

Jamie nodded. She knew that much was true. The farthest her family had ever traveled together had been to Atlantic City, and both her parents had seemed content with that. She turned to Blair. “What about you, Mother? Have you ever been here before?”

Blair shook her head. “No. It's one of the few places in the world I hadn't visited. First it was because it was a family place, and my family... well,” shrugging her shoulders, then leaning into the embrace when Jo wrapped a solid arm around them. She straightened and smiled. “Then of course, I was simply too cool and too worldly for something as childish as Disney.”

Jamie's green eyes widened. “And now?”

Blair took the arm from around her shoulders and clasped Jo's hand in hers instead. “Now, I'm at a place in my life where I can appreciate the wonder and beauty found here.”

Jo snickered. “Don't let her fool ya, kiddo. When we heard about this conference being held here, Blair couldn't get us signed up quick enough. She was like a kid in a candy store with a credit card without a limit.”

“Oh... turn blue, Jo!” Blair said, dropping the hand she held and picking up her pace to move away from Jo. Jo rolled her eyes and stepped a little livelier to catch up and Jamie just rolled her eyes. Some things just never changed.

Jo caught up with Blair as they reached the line entrance and reached for her hand, only to have Blair cross her arms over her chest. Unfazed, she slid her hands to Blair's hips and stepped into her personal space, pressing her front to Blair's back.

“Jo!” Blair hissed. “You're making a spectacle of us,” trying to pull away and realizing almost immediately her struggling brought more attention to them than Jo's initial actions. She froze.

“Nah, Princess. It's still early. There's nobody much here yet to care, and those that do don't know us from Adam's housecat. Besides, it's not like we'll ever see most of these people again in our lives anyway, so why should we care?”

Blair leaned her head back just enough to catch Jo's eyes. “You really think I'm some sort of kid?”

“What?? Aw, hell no! I think your eagerness to come here was a lot like a kid's would be. And that's a good thing. The world could use more of that sort of enthusiasm and vision.”

“All right, you two,” Jamie growled though she couldn't hide the twinkle in her eyes. “Can you try to control the mushy stuff for a while? Young, impressionable mind here and I wanna have some fun!” pushing them forward just enough to get them moving into the line. Blair and Jo traded looks.

“Why did we ask her to come here with us again?”

“Beats the hell out of me, but it shouldn't be too late to send her back. Pretty sure she came with a warranty.”

Jamie glared. “No refunds. Now move it before I hafta get tough with both a you broads,” doing a credible ‘tough guy' imitation.

The three looked at one another for another long moment before they couldn't hold their laughter any longer. Then Jamie took Blair's hand and tugged. Blair caught Jo's hand and pulled her along as well.

“Besides,” Blair teased as they passed through the turnstiles. “I know you were as happy to be coming here as I was. I saw you surfing the net.”

Jo glowered, though her eyes still twinkled in merriment. “Move it, Blondie. There's fun to be had.”

Blair just grinned and held tighter to the hand she held as they passed into the cool darkness of the Haunted Mansion.

 

 

Chapter LXIII

“So was it worth it?” Casey asked Abbie as they got into line to have a photograph taken with Pluto. The indolent smile Abbie gave was its own answer, but Abbie took a deep breath to reply.

“Oh yeah,” she said as they took their places on either side of the silent Disney dog. When the photographer was done snapping the picture, Casey accepted the card they offered her and they moved on to wait for a turn with Minnie Mouse. However,” Abbie continued unexpectedly, “next time remind me to keep my mouth shut around my cousin. I love Lindsay, but....”

“But I'd rather keep that private between us,” Casey offered with a squeeze to Abbie's bicep. Abbie's grin was brilliant.

“Yeah... me too.”

Meanwhile, Olivia and Alex finished their picture with Goofy and were moving on to the next character. “Can I ask you something?” Olivia asked as she and Alex found the line to have a picture made with Daisy Duck. Alex pulled her sunglasses down just enough for Olivia to see the incredulous look in her eyes before shoving them back into place. Given what they shared, Olivia had to smile. “Why did you dance with Abbie last night?”

Alex smiled. “I wondered when you were going to get around to that question,” she admitted. “I'm a little surprised it took as long as it did.”

Now it was Olivia's turn to give Alex a skeptical glance. She snorted. “You're kidding, right?”

Alex grinned. “Maybe a little,” chuckling when Olivia's eyes narrowed. The attendant motioned them forward and they stood on either side of Daisy and smiled for the camera. Then they spotted Casey and Abbie in Minnie's line and headed that way.

“So...?” Olivia prodded when Alex didn't answer immediately.

“Hmm...? Oh... um, when I first came to the DA's office, Abbie was the first person to reach out to me... to be a friend. We actually went out a few times after work and after one particularly bad day, we ended up at this Moroccan place for dinner. We had just enough alcohol in us that we decided to play along when the dancer invited us up on stage.”

Olivia shook her head. “That tells me how you learned to belly dance. It doesn't tell me why you decided to dance with Abbie last night.”

Alex chuckled. “Actually, that's *why* we decided to learn to belly dance – we never wanted to be that embarrassed again. Liv, we were BAD. Of course being slightly drunk and completely uncoordinated didn't help, although it would have made for some funny video.”

Olivia grinned at the visual Alex's words had given her. “Okay,” waving at Casey and Abbie who gestured towards the Emporium. “So why?”

Alex shrugged. “She asked.”

“Really? That's it?”

“That's it.”

“So if I asked....”

Alex grinned. “Only if it's a private dance,” she replied and moved forward to hug Minnie before tucking herself into one side while Olivia took the other. Then they accepted their photo card from the photographer and moved off to find Casey and Abbie.

 

************

“This was a good idea, cuz,” Lindsay said as their waiter left their table after taking their orders. “I kinda like being in the John Paul Jones room.”

Abbie snickered. “That's because you were a Navy man in another life.”

Lindsay narrowed her eyes, but before she could comment, Alex cut in. “So what are we going to do after this?”

Casey gave her a grateful glance and picked up the ball. “We have fast passes for Splash Mountain , but I'd also like to see the Country Bear Jamboree.”

“And don't forget we wanna see Emma in the parade,” Cindy reminded them, getting affirmative nods from around the table.

“Did any of you get tickets to the dessert party over in Tomorrowland?” Olivia asked. The waiter brought their drinks and disappeared almost as quickly.

“I think most of our group that came here is going to be there,” Cindy answered. “I know Natalie mentioned it.”

Olivia nodded. “So did Jo. Maybe we can get a big group picture together,” waving her photo pass around before dropping it back into her pocket and leaning back so their server could put her food down in front of her.

“You're really enjoying that, aren't you?” Lindsay asked without a hint of mockery in her tone. Olivia nodded.

“Yeah... I really am. I've never been here before... never had this kind of opportunity. I wanna make sure I remember every single minute.”

Lindsay smiled. “I don't think this trip is something any of us will *ever* forget.”

“Me either,” Cindy agreed. “Now eat up. We still have rides to ride and a parade to watch.”

 

************

“Wow, Emma! You look like a fairy tale princess,” Gabrielle said as Emma exited the boutique. “Are you ready for your ride down Main Street ?” grinning when Emma rapidly nodded her head before remembering the piece that had been clipped into her own hair. Without warning, first Gabrielle and then Xena found themselves the recipient of a crushing hug.

“This has just been the best day ever!” she said enthusiastically.

“C'mon,” Xena said, extending her hand. “Day's not over with yet.”

 

************

“She looks like she's having a great time,” Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan commented to Detective Shana Kennian as Emma rode down the street in the parade. Kennian cut blue eyes towards brown without actually moving her head.

“Everyone here looks like they are having a great time... well, except for the parents of small children. They look rather miserable,” nodding her head in the direction of a bedraggled looking family. “I believe they need to return home at this time.”

Bornlan chuckled. “Or at least back to the hotel.” She took a deep breath. “This is nice though.”

Kennian turned and pinned Bornlan with her eyes. “Yes, but why are we here?”

Teresa let her brows go into her hairline. “Why not? It's a beautiful day; we have the day off and we've been working here all weekend. Why shouldn't we have a little fun here instead? It is ‘the happiest place on earth' after all.”

“You do not think the women we dealt with all weekend might feel we are stalking them for some reason?”

“I sincerely doubt they'll even notice we're here, Shana. Besides, even if they do see us, why would they care? Case closed, remember? They're no longer suspects and we're no longer investigating.” She watched as Kennian processed her words, and knew the moment she accepted them as truth. “Right,” taking her partner by the elbow. “So let's go have some fun,” directing them farther up Main Street . “Where to first?” Bornlan asked as they disappeared into the crowd.

 

************

Diana snapped her phone shut and looked around at the women she had spent a surprisingly fun day with. “I hate to break up a good party,” she apologized, “but I've got to go.”

“Problem?” Mac asked, concerned immediately. Diana smiled and shook her head.

“Not like you're thinking. Gabrielle asked me to come over to the Magic Kingdom. Apparently there's something going on she doesn't want me to miss.” The rest exchanged looks and then Mac took Diana's elbow on one side and Jordan linked arms with her on the other.

“So what are we waiting for?” Jordan asked as they started walking towards the front gate of the Studios. “Let's go.”

Diana laughed, but didn't shrug them off. “You do realize it may not be anything that interesting.” Six pairs of eyes cut her way in a patented look of disbelief and she held up her hands in surrender. “All right,” she conceded. “Just don't say I didn't warn you.”

 

************

“Helena, where's Dinah?” Barbara asked as she kept her hands folded in her lap trying desperately not to clench them together. Helena had asked to steer her chair and Barbara had graciously acceded control, though it was becoming increasingly difficult not to restrain her impulse to demand to know what was going on.

“Hmm? Oh... she went ahead to get us a good place to watch the fireworks from. I told her there was something I needed to show you first.”

A frown creased Barbara's forehead. “I thought our seats were reserved... you know, with the dessert party and all?”

“Oh, they are,” Helena granted with a nod, glad Barbara's attention was focused on her and not on their surroundings. “But there are still some places there that the view is better from than others.” Barbara nodded thoughtfully as she slowly turned her head back to the front. Only then did she notice the actual environment they had somehow managed to find themselves in.

“Helena?”

But Helena didn't speak. She simply gave Barbara a wicked smile and pressed the button for the elevator.

 

************

Gabrielle was busy checking in the women of their group as they arrived. Thankfully, they had reserved the whole area in Tomorrowland Terrace, which was a blessing as more women arrived with Diana than she had expected. Diana gave her an apologetic look and shrugged her shoulders. Gabrielle just smiled and motioned them in. The space was filling up fast and she was glad they'd been able to accommodate all the extras that had decided to join them last minute.

Emma spotted Dinah off to one side near the front and looked around, scowling when she realized Barbara and Helena weren't with her. Before she could decide the best way to approach Dinah, Olivia Benson stopped beside her and dropped down to one knee. Emma wasn't scared exactly, but she waited for Olivia to speak.

“You're Emma, right?” getting a confirming nod. “My name's Olivia and I'm a police officer,” offering her badge. “I heard you tell your moms' story at the talent show last night.”

Emma smiled. “You have the same name as my mommy,” studying the badge and shield intently before handing it back to Olivia.

“Well, I kinda like it,” Olivia confessed with a smile. “Um, listen... I was wondering something. Would you mind taking a picture with me and my friends over there?” pointing to a rather large group of women. “I'm going to make a memory book of my trip here, and I'm trying to include as many new friends as I've met here that I can.”

Emma held her gaze for a long moment, and Olivia just let her look. Satisfied, Emma nodded. “You have good eyes,” she finally replied. “But I gotta ask Gabrielle first. Is that okay?”

Olivia nodded and stood. “I think that's an excellent idea.”

“Gabrielle,” Emma called as they approached, coaxing Gabrielle around to greet them. “This is my new friend Olivia – she's a police officer. She wants to do a group picture for her memory book and she wants me to be in it with them. Can I? Please?”

Gabrielle contemplated Olivia for a long moment, then nodded her head. “I'll go you one better,” gesturing to the Disney photographer that had been assigned to Emma for the day. “How about we have Arturo take the pictures for you? Then you can be in them as well, Detective.”

“Thanks,” was all Olivia said, but it was enough. Then they started herding people together to get the pictures done before Tinkerbell arrived to start the fireworks.

 

************

Cassandra looked around at all the women gathered on the terrace as she rejoined them. It took a moment to find her mom and Sam, but when she did, the sight of them made her smile. They had found something here – something they had been missing ever since Janet had returned from the dead, as it were. She made her way over to them and took a seat.

“I'm glad you came here,” she said sincerely. “It looks like this is a good group of women to call friends.”

Sam and Janet looked around and nodded. “It is. And it's the beginning of a new start for us.”

Cassie nodded, not surprised by the statement. “Well, I for one am looking forward to the next chapter in all our lives. Going by this, it should still be interesting.”

Sam laughed. “Isn't it always?”

 

************

Dinah stood at the rail with her back turned to the castle as she searched the people lining up for the fireworks show that was due to start in the next few minutes. She knew Helena and Barbara knew where to meet her, but the way things looked, they weren't going to make it before the show started. She wished, not for the first time, that their comms worked here... especially since Barbara wasn't picking up her cell.

“Gabrielle?” Gabrielle moved closer at Dinah's beckoning and bent her head down to hear over the noise that seemed to be growing as the hour approached. “Have you heard from Barbara or Helena? They were supposed to meet me here in time for the fireworks, but....” She trailed off. “And I can't reach either of them on their cell.”

Gabrielle glanced at her watch to hide the twinkle in her eyes. “I'm sure they'll be here directly,” she responded, just as the lights dimmed and the announcer's voice boomed over the PA system. The women crowded closer so the could get a better look at Tinkerbell as she flew from the castle to start the fireworks.

Only this time, instead of being in green, Tinkerbell was in black leather. Dinah's eyes narrowed.

“Oh. No. She. Didn't.” watching the figure slide down the wire to the roof of the building just above and behind them. “Barbara's gonna kill her,” pushing her way out of the crowd to see if she could find a way to the roof.

“Barbara's gonna kill who, D?” Helena asked as she swooped in beside her from where she'd obviously been standing leaning next to a support pole. Dinah blinked and looked at her; then the roof; then Helena – then she shook her head.

“How'd you do that?” pointing to the wire. “And where's Barbara?”

Helena grinned. “Relax, Kid. I didn't do anything. And Barbara should be here any minute.”

“Wait... you mean that was... you weren't... how'd you *do* that??”

Helena laughed. “Many skills, D. I have many skills.”

“And a friend named Xena who knows people,” Gabrielle added with a chuckle. Helena crossed her arms and frowned, though she couldn't keep the twinkle out of her eyes.

“Well yeah... there's that too.”

 

************

Xena caught Barbara around the waist and eased her to a stop before she could hit the wall. Unexpectedly, Barbara threw her arms around Xena's neck and hugged her for all she was worth. Xena just held her and let her cry even as she removed the line attaching Barbara to the wire.

The moment didn't last more than a few seconds, and Barbara pulled away and wiped her eyes with embarrassment. “I'm sorry. That was....” stopping when Xena shook her head.

“Did you enjoy it?” The expression on Barbara's face was answer enough. “Then make sure you tell Helena. This was her idea; I just made the arrangements.” Xena lifted Barbara up just a little higher to give her room to work off the harness she had on.

“Why did she let me think otherwise?”

“You'll have to ask her, but I'm glad she thought to do it for you.”

“So am I... for so many reasons. This has been the perfect end to a wonderful day.”

Xena smiled. “I think it's a perfect end to any number of things, and it'll be something I'll never forget,” she added as she set Barbara in her chair and motioned them to the edge of the roof to watch the rest of the fireworks show going on around them.

“I don't think any of us will, Xena. This has been the trip of a lifetime.”

“It's certainly has.”

 

 

Epilogue

“Computer – end holodeck simulation,” Xena called out and watched as the Magic Kingdom faded around her and became the yellow and black grid she was familiar with. Blue eyes met green, recognizing the residual sadness she found there. Before it could cement into something identifiable, her attention was drawn to the others in the room.

Teresa Bornlan became B'Elanna Torres and Shana Kennian resumed the attributes of Seven of Nine. Katie O'Donnell shifted until she was Kathryn Janeway. B'Elanna's brows flew into her ridges and she exchanged glances with Seven to find her as flummoxed by the admiral's presence as she was.

“Admiral?? You were playing with us?” Janeway cracked a smile and pushed off the wall she was leaning against.

“Sure. You didn't think I was gonna let the two of you have all the fun, did you?” She smirked. “I was your murderer, Detective.”

Seven looked between the two of them stoically, then asked deadpan, “Should we arrest her?”

Kathryn and B'Elanna looked at her for a long moment before noting the wicked twinkle in blue eyes sparkling back at them. They burst into laughter, then turned their attention back to Xena and Gabrielle... only to realize there was someone else on the holodeck with them.

“Emma?” B'Elanna asked, recognizing the child from their adventure. “Um... how....? I mean, who...?” She looked between Xena and Gabrielle. “How'd she get here? Who is she?” knowing that while the admiral could certainly enter the holodeck while a program was in progress, there was no way an unauthorized human child could access the facility... much less get into an on-going simulation without setting off a number of safeguards and alarms.

“Oh, Sweet Cheeks,” Emma cut in before B'Elanna could trip over her tongue anymore than she already had. “Take a chill pill and relax, babe. It's all good.” Emma shimmered causing B'Elanna, Seven and Kathryn to blink. When they opened their eyes, in Emma's place stood a voluptuous, scantily-clad blonde woman.

Kathryn opened her mouth to call for security, but a motion from Xena kept her still. Instead, she cocked an eyebrow and crossed her arms over her chest, obviously waiting for an answer to her unspoken question. Gabrielle stepped forward.

“Kate, B'Elanna, Seven – allow me to present Aphrodite. Dite, these are some of our friends from the twenty-fourth century.”

Dite gazed at the women who were staring at her with expressions of disbelief. Then she turned back to Gabrielle. “I think there's something radically wrong with these gnarly babes. They look, you know... totally gobsmacked.”

Kathryn cleared her throat. “It's not everyday you meet the Goddess of Love.” She paused while Dite preened. “You really are the Goddess of Love aren't you?”

“Live and in the flesh.”

“And lots of flesh,” B'Elanna muttered, garnering her a glare from Seven and a scowl from Kathryn. “What?” she shrugged. “It's true.”

“Yeah,” Dite agreed without blinking an eye. “But it's luscious flesh,” giving her a grin and causing a flush of red to color B'Elanna's features. “And you,” she said, turning to Xena who had rolled her eyes behind Dite's back. “Not a word.”

Xena held up her hands in surrender, but couldn't keep the smile from crossing her face. Gabrielle shook her head – the two of them had been going at each other like that forever. She tucked herself under Xena's arm, relishing the strength wrapping around her naturally.

“Behave... both of you,” she admonished. She looked back at the three women who *had* become dear friends in this time and place. “Did you enjoy yourselves?”

“It was fabulous, Gabrielle. I'd like to do it again some time.”

“It's all there, Admiral... whenever you'd like to go again.”

“And will you be able to join us?”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances, then they turned back to Kathryn. “Not for a little while. I think we're gonna go home for a bit.”

“I can understand that... we all can,” seeing B'Elanna and Seven nod their agreement. “Be safe in your travels, and let us know when you return.”

“We will, Kate – thank you.”

They turned at the holodeck doors and waved, then stepped across the threshold with Aphrodite right behind them. Kathryn, B'Elanna and Seven blinked at one another, and with a grin and a shake of their heads followed them out... only to discover all three of them were nowhere to be seen.

“Do you think we will see them again?” Seven asked as they made their way down the corridor. “They have been very good friends. I would not like to lose them as such.”

“I think we'll see Xena and Gabrielle again,” Kathryn stated unequivocally. “It may be a little while, but they'll be back. Aphrodite on the other hand...?” She shrugged.

“Do you really think that was the Goddess of Love?” B'Elanna asked skeptically.

Kathryn stared at her as she thought about the question. Just before B'Elanna felt the need to squirm, Kathryn sighed and nodded.

“I really do. After all, stranger things have happened.”

 

************

“So I totally let Diana and her Amazon babes know you two are heading her way. Make sure you give Barbara a hug from me, right? I miss those guys,” Aphrodite said somewhat