“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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“C’mon, Hel,” Barbara invited as she headed to the door. “Let’s give Dinah a little peace.”
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.”
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