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.
“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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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??”
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.
“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.
Return to the Academy