Chapter XLV

“I needed that,” Bornlan commented as she stretched beneath the sheet that covered her body. The sound of her bones popping into place made her flinch and she grimaced.

“That sounded evil as well, Teresa,” Shana commented as she gently released the tension in her muscles. She turned her head and blue eyes met brown. Bornlan chuckled.

“Yeah, it did. But I feel a lot better.” She threw the bedding from her body and rose, reaching her hands up towards the ceiling before bending to touch her toes. “Ah,” she commented.

“I feel better myself,” Kennian said. “Perhaps we simply needed some rest.”

Bornlan shrugged. “Maybe. At least we can go at things with clearer heads this morning.” She grabbed her bag from the dresser across from her bed and took out her hairbrush. “Do you want the shower first?”

“That will be fine,” Kennian replied as she slipped from the bed. “I will be quick,” she added before she stepped into the shower area, leaving the sinks free for Bornlan's use.

It seemed to take a little while, but in reality, less than thirty minutes passed before they were both showered and dressed and walking out the door. Kennian turned to Bornlan with a frown.

“I know it is a little late to be thinking about this, but do you suppose our reports are where we left them?” Shana pinched the bridge of her nose. “I cannot believe I did not think of this last night. I was obviously exhausted to have been so remiss....”

Teresa put a hand on Shana's arm, stopping her speech as well as her steps and bringing her attention to the other detective. Kennian arched a blonde eyebrow, but waited silently for Bornlan to speak.

“It's all right, Shana. The manager last night gave me a key; he just asked we return it when we're done with the room today.”

“Do you think we'll be done with it today?”

“We pretty much have to be. The conventions wrap up at three this afternoon. If we don't have a viable suspect by then, we really don't have a legitimate reason to stay on property. As it is, the captain's liable to give us grief about staying here last night.”

“Do we have anyone left to question?”

Bornlan shook her head. “I don't think so. We got all of the convention goers and all of Desdemona's employees. I want to take a look at those lists again and see if we missed anyone or anything. My eyes were crossing towards the end last night, so I might have overlooked something.”

“Myself as well,” Kennian agreed.

“Hell of a case to be cutting your teeth on, huh?” Bornlan asked with a smile. Then held up her hand before Kennian could reply. She pulled her buzzing phone from her pocket. “It's the Doc. Hey, Doc,” she answered, putting the device on speaker so Shana could also hear as they slowly resumed their steps towards their vehicle.

“Morning, Terry. I've got news.”

“Make it good, Doc, ‘cause we're running on empty over here.”

“Well, I'm not sure how much help this is gonna be. I've got the preliminary tox screens back.” They reached the car and threw their bags in the back before sitting and closing the doors to afford them a bit of privacy for the doctor's report.

“Yeah... and?” Bornlan prompted when the silence dragged on too long for her comfort.

“She was killed with a poison extracted from a stonefish.” Silence for a long moment.

“Excuse me?”

“She was killed with a poison extracted from a stonefish,” the doctor repeated. “It's the deadliest fish in the world.” Kennian nodded her head in agreement. Bornlan shook her head.

“Wait... both of you,” cutting the doctor off before she could speak again and holding up a hand to Kennian. “Doc, are you saying someone milked a fish??”

“Essentially, yes. There was enough toxin in her system to ensure a prolonged, painful death.”

Bornlan blew out a frustrated breath. “All right, Doc... thanks. Anything else?”

“Not at the moment. We're still looking at all the other evidence, but it's gonna be a while.”

“Okay... thanks, Doc.”

“Anytime Terry. I'll let you know if we get anything else on this end.” Before Bornlan or Kennian could respond, they heard a dial tone. They exchanged a brief glance, then Bornlan shut off her phone and started the car. They'd drive back to the convention center and get some breakfast before starting their day of investigation.



“So what's your professional opinion?” Sofia asked Lilly as they sat down to breakfast together. Lilly took a swallow of her juice, then set it down and turned her attention to her half-sister.

“Of the murder, you mean?” watching Sofia raise an eyebrow and smirk at her slightly. She slapped her forehead lightly and shook her head with a grin. “Of course you mean the murder. I've never been much of a storyteller, have I?”

Sofia chuckled. “Oh, I don't know. I seem to remember you told some pretty scary stories during our sleepovers as a kid.” A beat. “God that's been a long time ago.”

“Yeah, it has, but those were some good times... some of the best of my life.”

“Mine too,” Sofia concurred. “Who'd have ever thought we'd both wind up as police detectives working on opposite sides of the country? Especially caught in the middle of an unsolved murder in which we are implicated.”

“Yeah – us and several hundred other people.”

“That really is a huge field to narrow it down from.”

“Which is why I think ultimately, there will be no true resolution unless someone decides to confess.” Sofia tilted her head and Lilly shook her head. “C'mon, Sofie... you're a detective. What we got yesterday was cursory questioning. The convention ends today and unless they make an arrest, they can't really compel anyone to stay. They can't make an arrest without evidence, and they can't get evidence without having something to go on in the first place.”

“So you think it's headed down to cold cases.”

Lilly nodded. “It's the kind of case I see on a daily basis.”

“I don't know how you can stand it, Lils. I mean, that would drive me nuts.”

“It's all in your point of view, Sofie. I give people a second chance for justice. Sometimes, I even manage to find it for them. And there is nothing on earth quite like that feeling.”

“Fair enough,” Sofia agreed. “I know how I feel when we finally catch the bad guy. Hey,” changing the subject unexpectedly. “You're staying for a couple days after this thing is over today, right?” waiting for Lilly to nod her agreement. “Good! You got anything special planned?”

“Not really – I was hoping to see a launch from Kennedy while we're here, but there's nothing scheduled. I wouldn't mind going to see the new Harry Potter attraction at Islands of Adventure, or riding Test Track and Soarin' at Epcot, but nothing's set in stone for me. Why? Whatcha got in mind?”

“Well, I'd been thinking about seeing that Harry Potter thing too, and I'd love to go to the Food & Wine Festival over at Epcot.”

“Ooh... I'd forgotten about that. I'd definitely be up for that.”

“Good. So we've got a plan?”

Lilly snickered. “As much of one as we've ever managed anyway. Mama would be proud of us.”

“She already is and you know it. Have you heard anything more about the talent show tonight?”

“You mean aside from Abbie Carmichael belly dancing to pay off a bet?” shaking her head at Sofia 's nod. “Not really. I'm looking forward to it, though, ya know? It should be an interesting evening, and who knows... maybe Gabrielle will tell another story.”

“Oh, she's going to,” Emma said as she took a seat at the empty table next to Lilly in the crowded restaurant. “We made a deal last night.”

“You did?” Sofia questioned. “What was the deal?”

Emma had popped a grape in her mouth and held up a finger while she finished chewing. “I told her I'd tell a story if she'd tell one.”

“That was very clever,” Lilly commended. Emma's grin was contagious.

“I know,” she said with absolutely no hint of humility in her voice.

“That's my girl!” Olivia cheered. Natalia covered her eyes and shook her head, and the table exploded into laughter.



“Can I just say how much fun I've had this weekend... murder aside of course?” Sabrina asked as she took another sip of her coffee. The rest of the table - save Kelly - stared at her with varying expressions of disbelief. Kelly simply smiled into her coffee cup. Sabrina looked around the table. “What?” she whined.

“Aunt Bre... you're kidding me right? C'mon... this is Disney World. How did you expect *not* to have fun here?”

Sabrina just looked at Emily, fighting the blush that wanted to come. Kris, however, laughed aloud. “No... she's not kidding. We had to practically bribe her just to get her on the plane. She figured it was Disneyland all over again and that makes it a kids' place to her. She even had a bet going that the conference wouldn't be particularly enlightening either.”

Emily's eyes went to her hairline. “What on earth was your bribe?” noting the wideness of Sabrina's brown eyes.

Kelly shook her head and cut in before Kris could answer. “Um... no. That would be telling, and we promised.”

Emily gazed at Sabrina. “Not even for your favorite niece,” batting her lashes. Sabrina snorted.

“*Especially* for my favorite niece,” she confirmed.

Emily pouted, but before she could up the ante again, JJ spoke up. “Well, whatever the reason, we're glad you came too. We wouldn't have met otherwise, and I'm really glad we did.”

“Hear! Hear!” Garcia agreed, raising her glass of orange juice in a toast. The others grinned, but gamely lifted their cups and glasses, joining her. “And just think,” she added as they set the beverages down again, “we haven't even gotten to the real fun yet.”

“Oh, I don't know,” Kelly argued. “I thought that Halloween thing Friday night was fun.”

“It was,” Garcia said. “But there's the talent show tonight and then we've got a few days to do nothing but play in the parks.”

“That's right – you're performing in the talent show, aren't you?” JJ asked with a smile.

“Yeah – it's gonna be awesome.”

“Modesty, thy name is Garcia,” Emily snarked, though her smile was teasing. Garcia stuck out her tongue, causing laughter to ripple around the table.



“Well, it looks like Disney's put something in the water this morning,” Serena commented as she stepped into the food court seeing the groups of laughing conventioneers scattered throughout the seating area. Her companions looked around and nodded their agreement.

“Yeah, you kind of expect it from the people that work here,” Kelly replied, “but it's a little unusual from some of these guys. Especially with this whole murder business.” She reached for a bagel, but both Serena and Tracey shook their heads no. “But...?”

“They're not New York bagels, hon. Do you really want to chance it?”

Kelly grimaced. “Thanks, ‘Rena,” she said, moving over to the station that was making omelets. Serena snagged a couple Danishes and then followed. Tracey moved over to the waffle making station. In just a few minutes, they were searching for a table.

“Crowded this morning,” Serena said as she weaved her way to an open seat on the far side of the restaurant. She put her tray down and grabbed an empty chair from a nearby table. Kelly took the seat beside her and Tracey sat across from them both.

“Wow – that's better for a workout than taking the stairs at Hogan Place,” Tracey commented. “Aren't all these people supposed to be out playing tourist or something similar?”

“They are,” Serena returned with a smile. “Why do you think all these families are eating breakfast together this early?”

Tracey scowled. “Well, they need to be out somewhere... away from here.”

Serena turned towards Kelly who just shook her head. “Don't mind her,” she instructed. “She's just nervous.”


“Nothing... it's nothing,” Tracey instructed fiercely, glaring at Kelly who studiously avoided her gaze.

“About performing in the talent show tonight. Apparently she was bragging about her many skills before this convention and was pointedly told to put her money where her mouth is.”

“And do you have the skills to back up your mouth?” Serena asked without a hint of laughter or apology in her tone.

“Yes,” Tracey bit off. Serena reached over and patted her hand.

“Then you have nothing to worry about. I for one am looking forward to your performance.”

“You don't even know what I'm doing.”

“Doesn't mean I can't appreciate the beautiful woman doing it, does it?”

Completely flummoxed, Tracey's jaw dropped wide before she snapped it shut. Then she turned her attention to the food in front of her, methodically decimating Mickey's ears. Kelly's eyes met Serena's and she mouthed ‘thank you' before turning her focus to her own breakfast. Serena just smiled.

“So,” she asked a few minutes later when they had sated their first pangs of hunger, “what are your thoughts on the conference... murder notwithstanding?”

Kelly and Tracey exchanged glances and Tracey shrugged, motioning for Kelly to speak first. “I've enjoyed it,” she replied honestly. “I've met some new people and made some contacts; learned some things I don't think I'd have had the opportunity to otherwise; and even had the chance to get to know some of my colleagues a little better. God knows there's not much time for socialization in the DA's office.”

“Yeah, I have to say I don't miss that part of it,” Serena commented.

“That reminds me,” Tracey said, suddenly looking for all the world like a cobra with its prey in sight. “Why are you here? Or rather... *how* are you here? You don't work in the DA's office anymore.”

“That doesn't mean I'm not associated with law enforcement, Tracey,” holding the eyes that met hers across the table squarely. “I'm actually teaching now.”


“I'm teaching at a law enforcement academy.”

“Do you miss it?” Kelly cut in, hating the sudden rise in tension at the table. “Prosecuting, I mean.”

Serena held Tracey's eyes for another moment before she turned to face Kelly. “Sometimes,” she answered truthfully. “Other times... not so much. But I do enjoy what I'm doing now, so it's all good. And that's what counts, right?”

“I think it's wonderful,” Kelly offered.

“So do I,” Tracey agreed unexpectedly. “God knows we've all had moments when we wondered whether this job was worth it at the end of the day.”

“Even you, Tracey?” Serena asked kindly.

“Especially me – you know those days when you can hear your mother nagging in your ear?” getting nods from her tablemates. “Sometimes all I have to do is answer the phone to hear that.” The other two women cringed, knowing exactly what Tracey was referencing. “And given that my mother is a typical New York Jewish mother,” she added, letting the thought trail off when she saw the dawning understanding in the eyes across from her. “Exactly,” she confirmed. “So even me.”

“Well,” Serena said as she stood, “we have one more day of convention then the talent show tonight which should be fun. Are either of you staying on after today?”

“We all are, actually. Somehow everyone managed to get time off for a few days.” Serena's eyes widened.

“I'd love to know the blackmail that pulled *that* off,” causing her companions to laugh. And it was to that sound that they left the food court and headed towards their final day of conventioning.



Chapter XLVI

“House of Pie – Marshal Marshall Mann speaking.”


“House of Pie – Marshal Marshall Mann speaking.”

Detective Sergeant Bornlan pulled the phone from her ear and stared at the screen with a frown. Then she slid it back into place and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I'm sorry. I'm trying to reach the Albuquerque office of the US Marshal Service.”

“Well, you've hit the jackpot. It's your dime – what can we do for you?” Bornlan blinked. She didn't know what she expected, but she was pretty sure this wasn't it. Before she could speak, she heard the voice on the other end speak again. “Hello? You still there?”

“Yes – sorry. I'm trying to reach Marshal Mary Shannon.”

“She's not in the office at the moment. I'm her partner - can I take a message for her?”

Bornlan blew out an impatient breath. “This is Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan from the Orange County Sheriff's Department. I believe she might be in possession of some information pertaining to a murder investigation I'm currently conducting. I really need to talk to her. Can you have her call me as soon she comes in?”

Marshall sighed deeply and Bornlan slumped, pretty sure she wasn't going to like what was going to come out of his mouth.

“Detective, she's on assignment. It could be a day or two before she'd able to contact you.”

“Dammit! Listen, Marshal... what did you say your name was?”

“ Marshall ... Marshal Marshall Mann.”


“Would you make something like that up?”

“Um... not even close.”

“Yeah – trust me... neither would I.”

“Fair enough. Listen, Marshall , it's incredibly important I reach her.”

“Look, Detective – I understand that. I promise the next time I hear from her, I'll pass along your message. Let me have your number and I'll have her get in touch with you. It's the best I can do for you at the moment.”

Bornlan closed her eyes and blew her bangs off her forehead. “Thanks, Marshall . If that's the best you can do, I guess it'll have to do.” She rattled off her number.

“Got it. With any luck she'll be checking in the next hour or so and I'll pass this on.”

“I appreciate it, Marshall .” And without another word, Bornlan hung up the phone and slumped deeper into her chair.

“No luck?”

Teresa opened her eyes and met the blue gaze fixed on her. She straightened, only to lean forward with her elbows on her thighs and her hands dangling between her knees. “Not the kind we need,” she sighed. “Marshal Shannon is on assignment. I got in touch with her partner in Albuquerque , but of course he wouldn't give me any information. He's going to pass on the message to her as soon as she checks in with him, so hopefully we'll hear from her soon.”

“Do you think she is the guilty party?”

Bornlan bit her lip thoughtfully, closing her eyes and raking her free hand through her hair as she lifted the other to put her phone away. After several moments of contemplation, Bornlan opened her eyes again and shook her head.

“You know, Shana – I don't think she is.”


“I think she may have taken the murderer into custody.”

Kennian frowned. “I am not certain I understand. How did you reach this conclusion?”

Bornlan rose and jerked her head towards the stacks of paper they had been going through for the past hour. “C'mere,” pulling out the sheets she'd been reading over just before she'd started frantically making phone calls – ending with her call to Albuquerque . Bornlan laid out the sheets in front of Kennian and then stepped back, allowing her partner to reach her own conclusions.

Kennian looked over each page slowly. Finally she put them back on the table in a neat stack and looked at Bornlan. “I still do not understand. I do not see why you do not believe Mary Shannon is a viable candidate as a murder suspect. After all, the doctor told us it was a professional hit – is a Federal Marshal not a professional?”

“Of course she is a professional – practically everyone on the law enforcement side of the house could be considered a professional if you look at it that way.”

“You are not looking at it that way.” The statement was flat.

“No. Not now. Look,” moving the papers around and spreading them out in front of Kennian. “Mary Shannon never checked in to the convention. According to Jackie, she didn't even get to Orlando until yesterday afternoon - *after* the murder was committed. AND,” stressing the word and holding up a hand to keep Shana from cutting in, “she did an almost immediate turn around departure to Washington , D.C. ”

“All right – she's not our murderer, but she knows who is.”

“I think so, yes.”


Bornlan sighed. She hadn't realized Kennian was as green as she seemed to be. Nevertheless, it was her job to teach the rookie to the best of her ability, so she sighed and pulled another sheet forward. “Okay, look – everyone... *everyone* on these lists except Mary Shannon was checked into to their conventions before they started Friday morning, correct?” Kennian nodded. “And everyone from these lists is still here, right?” waiting for Shana to agree again. “All right, we know Mary is missing, but if we eliminate her as a suspect, who does that leave us?”

“No one!!” Kennian said in a frustrated tone.

“What about the instructors... those who were brought in to teach the professionals? They didn't check into the convention. They simply showed up to do their presentations.”

Kennian's eyes started to sparkle. “One of them is missing?”

“One of them is missing. AND she was on the same plane headed to Washington , D.C. as our missing Marshal.”

“You think she was placed under arrest?”

Bornlan shook her head. “I think she's been placed into protective custody.”


“I don't have all the answers yet – including why the government would protect her or what her motive was. Her name's not on the list.”

“This just gets curiouser and curiouser.”

“C'mon, Alice ,” Bornlan invited with a chuckle. “Let's see if we can find out what's on the other side of the rabbit hole before Marshal Shannon calls back.” Together they headed across the hall to access the computer, hoping Jackie had dug up more information they could use.



“So,” Gabrielle asked as she and Xena entered the back area of the main convention room, “are you gonna share your theory with Detectives Bornlan and Kennian?” They waved to Devon as they crossed the hallway. Xena paused with her hand on the door and shrugged.

“If they ask. Kennian already has a problem with me. I don't think she'll be thrilled to know I solved their murder before they did.” She pulled the door open. “Shit,” she muttered as realization sank in. Gabrielle frowned, then glanced at the room and understood Xena's comment immediately. The room was still set for the storytelling lecture she'd given the previous evening. And while it was perfect for the coming talent show, it wasn't really what they needed for the day's seminars.

“Damn... I forgot about that.”

Xena rubbed her forehead. “It should be all right. The breakout rooms are still set for the seminars. I'll just ask Rita to move lunch in here.”

Gabrielle nodded. “I'll go see about letting everyone know.”

“I'll take care of breakfast too,” Xena said as they headed in opposite directions. “Be right back.”

Gabrielle nodded and went in search of their associates.



“I have to admit I kinda like this, Sammie. It's nice being able to have lunch together,” Brooke said as Sam took a seat beside her.

“Yeah, but I kinda miss having a table to eat at.”

Olivia, sitting nearby, chuckled. “It's better than a stakeout. No steering wheel or gear shift to work around.”

Lindsay nodded. “That's true,” licking some butter from her thumb. “And the food is much better.”

“Not a hot dog fan, Inspector?” Andy asked, laughing when Lindsay and Olivia both shook their heads.

“You can only eat so many hot dogs,” Jo commented with a grimace.

“Speaking for the doctors present, I'm sure we all appreciate your high regard for your health,” Melinda said dryly.

Mac snickered. “It could be worse – you could all have to subsist on the MRE's the military gets stuck with out in the field,” laughing at the faces Sam and Janet made.

“I have to agree,” Natalie said with a shudder. “I remember those.”

“Did you serve?” Annabelle asked curiously.

“Only as a journalist,” Nat responded with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. “I couldn't hack the food,” she added before the moment grew too solemn, garnering her the laughter she expected.

“You know what I want to know,” Blake said before silence could settle over them. “I want to know if we're ever gonna find out who really killed Desdemona. I think I could turn it into a best seller if we just knew who the killer was.”

Scribbs snorted. “Only if the police have more information than we do.”

“You could always make it a fictional work,” Bones commented. “Then the killer can be anyone you want it to be.”

“That doesn't keep us from wanting to know who the actual killer is though,” from Kris.

“Well, all I know is if they don't figure it out soon, it's gonna be a moot point. We won't any of us be here for a denouement,” Nikki stated as Helen took her hand, earning her nods from the assembled women. Then their discussion turned to their plans for the week following the convention.



“Detective Bornlan? This is Marshal Mary Shannon. My partner said....”

“Yes, Marshal Shannon . Thank you for responding so quickly,” she said, though it had been the better part of three hours since she'd spoken to Marshal Mann in Albuquerque . Bornlan knew she'd been lucky to have caught him in the office so early and suspected it had a lot to do with her current case. “Listen, Marshal – I'm investigating a murder here in Orlando and I need to ask you some questions.”

“Detective, I was barely in Orlando long enough to get my luggage from baggage claim before I was put on assignment out of there. I'm not sure I can help you.”

“I think you can, Marshal. I believe your latest assignment has something to do with my primary suspect.”

“Detective, do you know what my job entails?”

“Of course.”

“Then you have to know that I can't help you if it puts someone in my charge in danger.”

“Marshal, if she is in your custody, I'm not gonna come looking for her. It just means I can close the case. That way, no one else will come looking for her later either. It won't be a *cold* case – it will be a *closed* one.”

Mary sighed. Just as her charge had intimated, the detectives had followed her trail right to Mary, and there her trail would stop. It made her shake her head in aggravation, but she didn't get to pick and choose who went into witness protection. In fairness, the other woman hadn't been a problem. And if what Marshall told her was true, they didn't even have to bother setting anything up for her once they got to Albuquerque . Mary simply had to get her there; after that, she would disappear.

“What would you like to know, Detective?”

“I need to know who you're protecting.”


“Marshal, please.”

“Detective, if I give you the information you need – you swear you're going to close the investigation?”


“All right. Let me put you on speaker. But Detective? Make sure you get everything you need. This is the only phone call you're going to get.”

Bornlan nodded, though Shannon couldn't see her response. She put her own phone on speaker and waved Kennian over. It was time to get their answers.



Bailey's phone, which had been ominously silent since Desdemona's death, rang – startling everyone at the table. The AVID people had been trying to figure out what they were going to do and had as yet to come to a consensus.

“This is Bailey,” she answered.

“It'd better be,” the voice on the other end joked. “It's who I was calling.”

“Sallie!” her exclamation drawing looks from the rest of her compatriots.

“Listen, sweetheart. I just wanted to let you know that everything at AVID will remain the same at the moment... except you'll be able to focus on your writing now.”


Sallie laughed. “It's all right, Bailey. I own AVID now.” There was silence for a long moment. “I love you, Bailey.”

“I love you too, Sallie… so much. I can't tell you....”

“I know, sweetheart. I love you too. I just wanted to let you know. See you soon, all right?”

“All right, Sallie. Bye.”

“Bye, honey.”

When Bailey hung up her phone, all eyes turned her way. She shook her head and rose. “I need some air. I'll be back.”

“Actually,” Detective Kennian objected, taking Bailey by the elbow, “you all need to come with us. “We know who killed Desdemona and how and why.”

“Sounds like a game of Clue,” Frank chattered. “Miss Scarlet in the library with the candlestick.”

“Shut up, Frank.” And as a group, they rose to follow Kennian and Bailey to the main con room.



Chapter XLVII

Barbara wheeled herself over to where Gabrielle stood talking quietly to Xena and Diana. She waited for a break in the conversation before clearing her throat and watching their attention shift to her immediately. She gave them a weak smile.

“I'm sorry to interrupt, but do you have a minute, Gabrielle?”

“Of course, Barbara,” Gabrielle replied with her own gentle smile. She whirled back towards Xena and Diana. “Excuse us a minute?” seeing the minutest nod of Xena's head. Then Gabrielle turned back to Barbara. “Walk with me?” knowing her friend would understand the spirit of her request.

They moved away from the monitoring table and headed out the door towards the green room. Helena came up beside Xena and Diana as they disappeared. Xena cocked an eyebrow at her.

“Everything all right?”

Helena shrugged. “Yeah. Red just wanted to apologize to Gabrielle for missing her thing last night, ya know?”

“Yeah – is everything all right?” Xena repeated and this time Helena grinned, recognizing the difference in the question.

“Yeah... everything's great. We... we talked some stuff out. It was good.”

“So I didn't make things worse?” Diana asked wryly.

“Only to start with,” Helena stated truthfully. “But at least it got things started.”

“Maybe I should go talk to her.”

“She wants to talk to you too... especially about letting Dinah hang with you last night. But wait til she's done talking to Gabrielle, okay? She really is embarrassed about missing Gabrielle's performance last night.”

“I loved having her. Dinah's a delightful young woman. She's welcome to hang with me anytime.”

“Who's being hung from what?” Dinah asked as she walked up on the conversation.

“Nobody,” Helena said succinctly. “How you doing, Kid? Shields still holding?”

“I'm good. And the energy in here isn't really that negative. I honestly don't think the killer is here.”

“Interesting observation, Miss... Dinah,” Bornlan corrected with a swift look at the nametag Dinah wore as she approached the small group. “May I ask what brought you to that conclusion?”

Dinah nervously tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and glanced around at the expressionless faces of her companions before meeting the detective's eyes squarely. “It's just... the vibe in here is all wrong, you know?” she said with a feeble smile and a shrug. She tucked her hair again, twirling the end around her finger. “I mean... no one seems nervous or upset – just kind of frustrated with the whole thing. Like this DIVA person got killed just to mess up their plans more than anything else.” She noticed the odd look Bornlan was giving her and tucked her hair behind her ear once more. “What?” looking around. “Did I say something wrong?”

Bornlan crossed her arms over her chest and cocked her head up to peer carefully at Dinah. “That's very astute for someone your age.”

“College psych course,” she answered, nodding her head for emphasis. Bornlan held her gaze for a moment longer before she turned brown eyes towards Xena and jerked her head for privacy.



“So we're okay?” Barbara asked softly as she and Gabrielle lurked on the loading dock just outside the kitchen doors. Gabrielle brushed an errant lock of red hair from Barbara's face and Barbara closed her eyes as the tender hand came around to cup her face. Though she was certain Gabrielle was closer to Helena's age than her own, there was something so soothing... so maternal in her caring and in her touch. For a moment, Barbara was content to simply breathe it in.

“Barbara,” Gabrielle coaxed, causing green eyes to meet. “We're fine. You and Helena needed the time, and gods know I of anyone in the world understand needing some time alone with your warrior,” smiling when Barbara blushed. “Especially after a fight. Besides, Dinah and Diana got it all for you on DVD. You can watch it later.” She paused. “Is everything all right?”

This time Barbara smiled. “Everything is... amazing.” She held out her hand and Gabrielle accepted it without hesitation. “C'mon... I still need to talk to Diana. I owe her an apology.”

“You probably don't, but it never hurts to offer one.”

They returned to the convention room and Barbara took Diana aside even as Xena jerked her head towards Gabrielle. Dinah and Helena moved to the monitoring table to wait.



Xena padded up onto the platform and whistled loudly, instantly silencing the room and drawing every eye to her. She didn't speak – instead she simply motioned towards the audience and waited for Gabrielle to step in front of her.

“Ladies... thank you for your attention. The police have asked that everyone remain in the main room for a few more minutes. They have an announcement to make.”

The murmurs started immediately, but they were happy to see that most of the women who had been seated remained so, and those who had been standing began looking for a place to sit. Those who had gotten up seemed intent on returning their dishes to the service table where they were being collected, then marched immediately back to their seats. Soon the whole room was in a state of quiet anticipation.

Helena casually lifted a hand to Dinah's shoulder, causing the younger woman to glance up. Blue eyes met and Helena cocked a dark brow in question. Dinah smiled and patted her hand, then allowed her attention to float across the room as the second detective entered with a new group of people. It only took a moment for them to be recognized as Desdemona's crew from AVID. They filed into the room, and the door closed noisily behind them, causing everyone in the room to jump at the sound.

Kennian lined the AVID people up against the wall, then nodded to Bornlan who was waiting casually by the monitoring table. Bornlan casually stepped onto the stage and accepted the microphone Gabrielle handed her.

“Thank you,” she muttered quietly, though most understood her words since the room had gone completely silent the moment she set foot on the stage. She turned her attention to the myriad of people staring back at her and cleared her throat.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” giving a cursory nod to the AVID employees ensconced along the wall by Kennian. “For those of you who do not recognize me, I am Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan and I'm the lead detective on the Von A'Calandra murder case. I just wanted to let you know that you have all been exonerated of any charges in the case and that you're all free to go about your business.” She handed the mic back to Gabrielle and started to exit the stage.

Silence in the room for several seconds as they contemplated her statement. Then....

“That's it? That's all you're going to tell us?” from a voice in the crowd. Bornlan's head whipped around to see who had spoken, but it was quiet by the time she got back to center stage and looked around.

“Who said that?”

“Does it really matter?” Lucy asked, stepping around the monitoring table and leaning against it with her arms crossed. “We all have the right to a few answers.”

Bornlan cocked an eyebrow. “How do you figure? I've just told you you're all in the clear. Isn't that enough?”

Lucy shook her head and snorted. “Would it be enough for you, Detective? Can you read a mystery novel and just stop before you find out whodunit? C'mon, Detective... cut us a little slack here.”

Bornlan held Lucy's gaze for a long moment, then her frown morphed into a reluctant smile. “All right – I see your point. I can't go into details, but I can give you the bare essentials.” Bornlan took a deep breath and looked around the room – honestly, this was almost worse than a press conference.

“First of all, let me assure you that the things that Detective Kennian and I have learned about you... the secrets that Desdemona held over each of you – they no longer exist. My tech team couldn't pull them up, so as far as we're concerned, they never did. They won't be part of the official report.” She felt as well as heard the sigh of relief flow throughout the room.

“Let me also add that I know no one in this room is mourning this woman's death. Give what we've learned about her, I can't say I blame any of you. However, she's as entitled to justice as much as the next person. Unfortunately, the most justice she's gonna get is for us to say her case is closed. Her killer has been placed into protective custody by US Marshals. She's going into the Witness Protection Program.”

Alex blinked and clutched Olivia's hand tighter, drawing concerned brown eyes to her. “At least we know why Mary was called away,” she murmured. Then their attention was called back to the detective standing casually on the stage.

“I don't know why,” Bornlan was responding to a question from the assembled women. “I was simply told that she was in custody and my investigation was over.”

“So who did it? Who's the murderer?”

“Katie O'Donnell.”

Dead silence, then.... “Who? What? The artist? Who? Why? Is this some kind of joke?” and other mutterings. Only one set of eyes widened in astonished recognition and she remained silent. Bornlan let the rumbling continue for another moment, then held up her hand for quiet.

“I really can't tell you more than that. My orders come from pretty high up.” She turned and looked directly at Xena. “Government high up,” she added. Xena didn't even blink and Bornlan turned back to the audience. “If you'll excuse me, ladies and gentlemen....” She stepped back and passed the microphone back to Gabrielle.

“Wait,” Graham called from the side where he and the other AVID people had been standing. “What about us?” motioning along the line of them.

Bornlan shrugged and accepted the mic from Gabrielle once more to keep from having to yell across the hall. “I suppose that's up to your new owners. I'm sure you'll hear from them sooner or later,” holding Bailey's eyes for a moment. “Or check with her lawyer – he should have her papers.” Then she handed the mic back to Gabrielle and left the stage.

“So that's it?” Gabrielle asked as she turned the mic off before holding it out for Diana to retrieve, nodding her thanks when it was taken.

“That's it. Case closed,” Bornlan agreed. She looked at Xena again a knowing twinkle in her eye. “You knew, didn't you?”

“I figured out the who yesterday. I think I know why. Not sure about the how, but I really don't have enough facts without hacking into the police computers to get the autopsy details.”

“Could you?” Bornlan asked, then snickered at the level look Xena gave her. “Never mind.” She cleared her throat. “If you had it figured out, why didn't you tell us? Why let your attendees wonder?” She paused a moment, then continued. “Would you have told us if we hadn't figured it out or just left it as an open case?”

“I would've given you my suspicions, though I don't think Detective Kennian would have appreciated it.”

Bornlan smirked. “She's young. She has yet to learn that you take your help where you can find it. So tell me how you figured it out – because Katie's name wasn't on the list of people being blackmailed.”

“You first,” Xena countered. Bornlan just rolled her eyes.



“But why?” Mary asked as they got off the plane in Albuquerque. “Why give up your whole life for your cousin? And why wait til now? I mean all that did was cause all kinds of grief for a whole lot of people who didn't really deserve it.” They headed down to baggage claim while Katie thought about her answer.

“Why now?” Katie finally replied. “It was the perfect opportunity. The sheer number of suspects made it easy for me to get it done without casting suspicion on myself or my cousin. And by the time the police started putting things together, the book was taken care of and I was long gone. Given what was in that book, they would all have been suspects regardless – I just worked it to my advantage... and theirs.” She grabbed her suitcase from the belt, then resumed her place beside the marshal.

“And was it worth it?”

Katie smiled. “Since this makes things right for Bailey, Uncle Sal will make sure I'm well taken care of. The fact that it will make the world a little better place for a lot of people is just a bonus.”

Mary studied Katie quizzically. “It really doesn't bother you that not only did you kill this woman in cold blood, but that she suffered horrifically for several hours before she died does it?” She stepped forward and recovered her luggage. Together they headed out of the airport.

“Not at all, Marshal. I have done much worse to many more for much less. This was personal – a debt to be paid.”

Mary shook her head. “I'm not sure I understand. But then, I'm still not clear on why you needed me.” She held up her hand before Katie could speak. “I get that the trail ends here. I just don't see why that was necessary; you obviously could have simply disappeared.”

“Yes, but then the case would have remained open. And despite the fact that I was happy to use all those women to cover my tracks long enough to get away, I wouldn't leave murder hanging over anyone's head. This way there's an ending – they have a killer that will allow them to close the case. No strings left hanging – problem solved.”

Mary shook her head again, but didn't argue. At this point she didn't care if she understood – she just needed to get Katie on her way as someone else. Then her job here... however twisted... would be done.



“It was fairly straightforward,” Xena said to Bornlan as they watched the slow exodus of people from the room. Gabrielle, having already heard Xena's story, had taken charge of getting the last of the seminars underway and was busy getting folks herded towards their proper breakout rooms.

“I noticed Katie's absence, but I didn't take much note of it at first – even when you and Detective Kennian informed us of Desdemona's murder. After all, she'd only been contracted to be here on Friday to teach her seminars. The instructors were given the option of staying, but there's nothing to compel them to stay for the weekend.”

“Except for a free weekend at Disney.”

“There is that,” Xena replied drolly. “However, when I realized she was missing, I went looking. It threw me briefly when she wasn't on Desdemona's list. So I went looking for a connection to someone who was.”

“And you found it.”

“I found it.” Xena looked out at the now empty convention room. “Have you talked to her?”

“Not yet. You wanna come along?” pushing off the wall she was leaning against.

For answer, Xena gestured her to lead the way. Diana, Lucy and Dinah watched them go. “Wonder if we'll ever know the full story,” Dinah thought aloud.

Lucy snorted. “I'm not holding my breath.”

Diana grinned. “Me either.”



They found Shana Kennian sitting in the room the police officers had been using as an office. Bornlan acknowledged her with a nod, then turned her attention to the woman sitting with her. “Do you know why you're here, Ms Bonner?”

“I can only assume that you believe I had something to do with Desdemona's murder, but I assure you I had nothing to do with it. I didn't know what Katie was doing.”

“We believe you, Ms Bonner,” Teresa assured her as she motioned to herself and the other two women in the room. “Do you have any idea why she did this?” Bailey shook her head.

“No... I mean, she knew I was unhappy at AVID because we talked about it. But she just encouraged me to get out – to find something that would make me happy.”

“And what about your step-father?”

“Sallie? I didn't talk to him about it at all. He has enough responsibilities in his life without worrying about my screw-ups. I wasn't going to ask him to fix my mistakes.”

“Would he have... do you think? If he'd known, I mean.”

Bailey nodded. “Absolutely. He's always looked out for me from the time I was little and he became my dad.” The three exchanged looks and Bailey looked at each of them. “Is it all right if I go now? I... we... the AVID folks are getting together to figure out where we go from here – if there is anything left for us at AVID or if we should make a fresh start somewhere else.” Bornlan nodded and Bailey rose from her seat. “Detective?” she asked as she reached the door. “Do you know where my cousin is?” Bornlan shook her head no and Bailey's shoulders slumped. “All right – thanks.” Then she left without a backwards glance.

“Well that pretty much fills in the rest of the blanks we had. And knowing exactly who Sallie is means this investigation is officially closed.” Bornlan held out her hand to Xena. “I'd say it's been fun, but....”

Xena accepted the hand and squeezed it briefly. “If you two want fun, stay for the talent show tonight. It's gonna be something else.”

Bornlan smiled. “We might just take you up on that.”

“Good,” Xena answered, releasing the hand she held. “We'll look forward to it.” Then she followed Bailey out the door. Kennian just tilted her head in Bornlan's direction.

“So we are planning to observe this talent event?”

“If we can lock this stuff up quickly enough, you betcha! Given the BS this case was from beginning to end, I think we deserve a little entertainment.”

“As long as we do not become part of it,” Kennian stated flatly. Then they turned their attention to wrapping things up.



Chapter XLVIII

“Well, ladies – what did you think?” Gabrielle asked as both conferences resumed their places in the big room. Although this hadn't been the ending either she or Xena had foreseen, Gabrielle had to admit that she was pretty happy with how things had turned out. It was nice to see women from both conventions making friends across the aisle as it were. She had a feeling there would be some interesting alliances coming out of this.

A loud cheer greeted her words and she smiled, exchanging looks with Xena. Xena nodded her agreement and Gabrielle turned back to the large audience. “So maybe we should do this again some time... without the murder, of course?” Another raucous shout of approval went up and Gabrielle let it run for a long minute before she held up her hands for quiet. The sound died down and the women sat back expectantly, waiting for Gabrielle to speak again. She didn't disappoint.

“All right... so – you've all gotten the information from the seminars you each participated in, and we'll be sending each of you a DVD of the all the activities that took place on your side of the hall. And before you ask, it will include the storytelling seminar we had last night as well as tonight's talent show. However, before that happens, we have to *have* the talent show,” garnering more laughter and applause. “So with that in mind, I'm gonna bring the first Women in Law Enforcement and Women in Media conventions to a close with the reminder that the talent show starts at eight o'clock. And trust me, ladies… this is something you don't want to miss.”

“So please – go get something to eat and relax for the next few hours. Doors will open at seven-thirty. Performers, we need you here by seven o'clock.” Gabrielle cast a glance in Xena's direction and Xena shrugged at her in return. “That's it... that's all we've got. Now shoo... out. We've got work to do. We'll see you back here in a little while.”

Taking their cue, the women rose almost as a singular body, applauding politely before the buzz of their conversation escalated to make a comforting background noise as they exited the room. Soon only the core few remained in the room – and Xena looked around in satisfaction.

“Well ladies – I think we could call this a success.” She turned to Lucy. “Is Scud coming in to do the sound tonight?”

Lucy glanced at her watch and nodded. “Yeah... he should be here in the next fifteen minutes or so. Then we'll get started setting up stuff for tonight.”

“You got all the help you'll need?”

“I think so. The DEBS offered to give us a hand and most of our work is gonna be adding the curtain.”

“All right. You know how to find us if….” Lucy cut her off, shooing her off much as Gabrielle had done to the attendees only a few minutes earlier.

“We've got it under control, boss. Now get outta here, will ya? Rumor has it you and Diana here are supposed to be singing; Barbara and Dinah are juggling and Gabrielle is telling stories. So go get ready... or whatever it is you creative types need to do. We've got things covered.”

Xena looked a little flummoxed at the speech. Gabrielle just took her arm and said, “Thank you, Lucy. Let's go, troops,” motioning the rest ahead of her and they dutifully headed out the door. Helena hung back for a moment.

“I'll be back in to do the camera set up. It shouldn't take much, but....”

“Take your time. We won't be back here for at least an hour,” Lucy assured her. “We're gonna grab a bite to eat.” Helena nodded her thanks and moved to catch up to Barbara. Barbara extended her free hand and Helena took it as a matter of course.

“Everything all right?” Barbara asked, bringing Helena's knuckles to her lips briefly.

“Yeah – I'm on camera duty tonight since you and Dinah are doing your thing, remember? I just wanted to let Lucy know I'd be back soon to help set things up.”

Barbara nodded. “Gabrielle's had snacks delivered to their suite and invited us to join them.”

“Sounds good,” Helena agreed. “The way I hear it, you still owe her a story.”

“Yeah, I do. You okay with that?”

Helena gave Barbara a fond look that bordered on amusement. “Red, if we can't trust them,” gesturing to Xena, Gabrielle and Diana, “who in the world *can* we trust?”

“Good point. I just know how personal that story is for you and Dinah and I told her I needed to ask you two first.”

“And of course Dinah said yes.”

“I said yes to what, exactly? What am I being accused of now?”

“Being perky,” Helena replied flatly. Dinah narrowed her eyes in Helena's direction.

“That's not a crime, ya know. Especially here.”

“She does have a point,” Diana agreed solemnly.

“No kidding,” Helena mock-groaned. “It's fucking disturbing really... when you think about it. I mean, c'mon... it's not natural. Normal people... people who live outside of Gotham and Metropolis... don't act this happy all the time. It's just not natural,” Helena repeated and looked at Barbara who was doing her best not to laugh. “You should probably run some tests on the water around here – or check into whatever they're offering in the employee kitchen. It's got to be some sort of drug therapy regimen or something.”

“Really?” Barbara asked, her grin wide and infectious. Helena was having a hard time holding onto her scowl and Barbara could see the blue eyes twinkling.

“Yes,” Helena replied emphatically, drawing chuckles for the rest of the group. “It's probably the next great criminal plot to take over the world.”

Barbara lifted her free hand and patted Helena's, glad they had reached Xena's and Gabrielle's suite. “I'll look into it, Pinky. But first, we have a talent show to enjoy.”

Helena cut her eyes at Barbara and removed her hand from Barbara's grip so she could cross her arms over her chest. “You're pandering to me, Barbara.” Helena pouted and green eyes widened in an innocent expression.

“Not at all, Kitten. We can run all the tests you like... after the talent show.”

“Speaking of,” Xena cut in, seeing both Barbara and Helena start chuckling at the ridiculousness of their conversation. “How did you manage to escape performing?” pinning Helena in place. Helena simply offered her a wry expression.

“Probably because I don't have a creative bone in my body.”

Barbara frowned. “That's not true, Hel. Your particular talents simply do not lend themselves well to the stage,” causing Helena's eyes to pop open before she started laughing, followed immediately by the rest. Barbara reconsidered her words and couldn't stop the furious blush that started at her toenails when the implication of what she said occurred to her. “That's not what I meant,” she muttered.

Helena swooped over and dropped into Barbara's lap, wrapping her arms around Barbara's neck and nuzzling her like a cat. Barbara gripped the arms of her chair to keep from embracing Helena in return. “It may not have been what you meant,” Helena whispered in a voice so low Barbara almost missed it, even as close as she was. “But we both know it's true.”

Barbara's facial muscles didn't twitch, but she couldn't keep the twinkle out of her eye. “Maybe,” she responded without hesitation. “But if you don't be nice to me, it's gonna be a long, LONG time before you get to demonstrate them to me again.”

Helena captured Barbara's mouth with her own, kissing her with increasing passion until Barbara's hands left the arms of the chair and wrapped themselves around Helena's body of their own accord. Helena smiled into the kiss, easing down the intensity until they were slowly pulling away from one another with gentle, chaste kisses. Then she leaned forward and breathed into Barbara's ear. “I'm always nice.”

Barbara traced her face tenderly and smiled. “Yes... you are.” After another moment, they remembered they were in a room with four of their closest friends, and Barbara ducked her head into Helena's chest. Helena looked around, then whispered into Barbara's ear.

“They're not paying attention to us. We're alone.”

And it was true. The minute Helena had fallen into Barbara's lap the rest had removed themselves from the living area and into the master bedroom. Helena looked around again and chuckled, then removed herself from Barbara's lap.

“I'll go find them. It's not like they'll have gone very far.”

“We just went into the next room to retrieve the food. Devon laid the snacks out in our room and bathroom,” Xena commented as she opened the door so everyone else could exit in front of her carrying a laden tray before she crossed to the fridge and started removing beverages. “Coke okay for everyone? Or we've got milk. I don't think alcohol is a good choice before a performance.”

Dinah snorted. “Alcohol's never a good choice for me. Even Helena couldn't strengthen my walls enough for that.”

“What's that all about anyway?” Diana asked curiously. “I've never seen you do that before.”

Gabrielle squeezed Barbara's shoulder lightly as she handed her a drink, then made her way to sit beside Xena without a word. Barbara sighed, appreciating everyone's efforts to keep things casual. She wasn't much for PDAs, but the weekend had pushed her until she was glad for Helena's reassurance, and for friends who understood her need without making her feel more uncomfortable about it.

“It's....” Helena sighed and turned to Barbara who nodded her encouragement. “Did you read about the Gladiatrix incident – where meta-women were being kidnapped and forced to fight to the death for paying spectators?”

“I read the report,” Diana confessed, “but I don't remember....”

“I didn't put everything in the report,” Barbara muttered, causing all eyes to turn to her and Helena to take her hand.

“Let me tell it,” Dinah commanded, forcing their attention to her. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “When the women got taken, they were injected with a substance that brought their meta-skills to the fore. In Helena's case it made her more feral... and much more dangerous. She didn't recognize me at all, except as a familiar scent. Unfortunately, the feral part of her only remembered my scent as a threat to her security and she went on the attack as soon as I was put into the cell with her.”

“Was this for the paying customers?” Diana broke in to ask. Dinah shook her head.

“No – one of the ‘trainers' saw how she reacted to me and wanted to have a little fun. He wasn't happy with the ass kicking I'd handed him getting into the dungeon where the women were being kept and decided I needed to learn a lesson.”

Helena kept her eyes on the floor, trying to remember that the women Dinah was sharing her humiliation with were her friends – women who would not see or treat her any differently once they knew the truth. Barbara's hand in hers kept her grounded and the light scratching of her skull forced her to relax, especially when Dinah leaned forward and took her other hand, forcing Helena to look up and meet her smile.

“Go on, Kid,” she finally said. “Tell the rest.”

Dinah nodded and turned back to her audience, still holding Helena's hand. “I don't know how the drug worked, but it made her impervious to my TK and she was beating the crap out of me. When she had me down on the floor, I finally managed to break through the drug haze enough that Helena recognized who I was. She stopped fighting and backed away, curling into a corner.”

“I was pretty messed up physically – I suddenly understood just how easy she'd been going on me in sparring practice,” Dinah added with a smile. She turned to look at Helena who gave her a timid smile. “Mentally I was drowning in all the emotions I could feel coming from all those women and I didn't have the strength left to shield myself from it.” She drew a breath and let her eyes go distant. “I'm still not sure what triggered it, but after just a few minutes, Helena inched over beside me. Her eyes were still feral and I could hear a rumbling purr coming from her chest, but her hands were incredibly gentle... so different from what they'd been mere moments before. She nuzzled me softly – like a mama cat does to its babies – checking to see how much damage I had. My hands rested on her hips – not for any reason other than it was the easiest place for me to touch her and I needed the grounding that gave me. She wiped the blood off my face, cupping my cheeks tenderly as she looked into my eyes. Then she placed her forehead on mine and closed her eyes.

I still don't understand exactly what she did or how she did it, but in that moment, I felt like her strength was flowing through me. It was amazing, because though I was still hurt, I hurt less. Then she collapsed on top of me and I realized that what I'd felt from her was real, and she was in serious danger... again.”

“But you learned to control it?” Gabrielle asked, breaking the silence as Dinah tried to figure out how to end her story.

“Not right then,” Helena answered with a crooked smile. “When the jackass with the collar device came in and saw us together, he nearly had a shit fit. He ordered us separated and had Dinah treated, then he put the trainer into the ring in the next bout and gave Dinah and me a chance to recover. We were supposed to be his main event,” she added with a smirk. “What it did, besides give us time to recover physically, was to give Dinah a chance to get through to me psychically. So when we went into the ring, I was able to hold back long enough for Reese to get to me with the antidote.”

“That's astonishing,” Diana commented on a low whistle. “Does it work for anyone else?”

“We haven't tried it. It bothers Barbara that we do it at all.”

“That's not true,” Barbara broke in. “I don't want to see you suffer needlessly, Dinah... especially if there's something that can be done to make things better for you in a situation like this.”

“I know, Barbara,” shifting her body to kneel in front of Barbara and using her free hand to cover the clasp of Helena's and Barbara's hands. “But you don't like that Helena risks herself in ways that you don't understand and that you can't do anything about it other than sit by and watch,” Dinah stated gently. “And we're both aware of that, Barbara. It's why we only use this sparingly and only when there isn't another option.”

“If I can arrange a way to study it safely, would you be willing to give us a chance to do so? I believe Paula and I could remove most of the risk involved to both of you, and with the state-of-the-art equipment we have it might give Barbara some peace of mind by giving her an opportunity to at least monitor it. The scientist in her would probably appreciate the effort to understand it even if the lover wouldn't.”

“Please don't talk about me as if I'm not even here,” Barbara requested, though her voice was not sharp... just tired. “Where exactly could you find anything more state-of-the-art than the Delphi?”

Diana glanced at Gabrielle who gave her the barest of nods before she turned back to Barbara. “Home,” she responded softly. “Paradise Island.”

“Wait,” Dinah said, holding her hands up and rising to her feet. “That's real? There's really an island home full of immortal Amazon warriors?”

“Yep,” Diana said with a smile. “And we would be honored to have you as our guests.”

“Cool!” Dinah exclaimed. “I'd be a lab rat for the chance to visit... especially if it made us Amazons. Could we actually become Amazons?”

“Um... not to rain on your parade or anything, Kid, but don't you think you oughtta clear this with someone first, Diana? I mean I know it's supposed to be a secret and all. I'm pretty sure the people in charge are not gonna be real happy with you inviting five mortal women to join you, even if you can justify it by calling it scientific research.”

“Well, one of the nice things about being Wonder Woman is that I do have a little bit of leeway, especially in regards to bringing home amazing women who might possibly have something to contribute to our society. But even if that wasn't true, I'm still an Amazon Princess and that gives me special consideration as well.”

“So as Queen, your mother wouldn't mind having us basically sprung on her?”

Diana smiled and caught the slight motion from the corner of her eye. “My mother is Regent to the queen and if you decide you'd like to do this, I'll contact her tonight and let her know we should expect guests. Trust me – they'd know all about you before you even stepped foot on the plane.”

Barbara narrowed her eyes thoughtfully and cocked her head in question. “If your mother is the regent, how does that make you a princess?”

“For all intents and purposes, my mother is the queen, though she refuses to accept the title of anything other than Regent. She rules in the queen's stead, overseeing the Nation and its day-to-day operations as our queen prefers to live in the world of men. Therefore, as her daughter, the title of Princess falls to me – even when I'm not there.”

Helena's brow furrowed. “Why does your queen prefer to live here? I don't understand.”

Gabrielle stepped forward and smiled, her hands on Diana's shoulders keeping her from speaking. “It's all right, Helena. Most of the Amazons don't understand it either. They have simply learned to accept it for the truth that it is.”

Barbara straightened in her chair and bowed her head towards Gabrielle. “You're the Amazon Queen,” she stated flatly. Helena and Dinah exchanged startled glances, trying to figure out how they were supposed to act now, because Barbara's voice held complete conviction in its tone. Gabrielle held up a hand to Helena and Dinah, causing them to cease all movement. Then she tucked her hand under Barbara's chin and raised it until they were looking eye to eye again.

“I am. And we'd be happy to welcome you all into the Nation if you'd like to be a part of us.”

“Why didn't you tell me?” hurt coloring her tone.

“For the same reason you didn't share about Shiva's sister. It's just not something I go around announcing. I knew you'd find out when the time was right.”

Barbra smiled. “Fair enough. Can we...?”

“You don't have to make a decision today,” Gabrielle assured her. “But the sooner you let Diana know, the sooner arrangements can be made for your visit.”

“And you'll both be there?”

Gabrielle nodded with a smile. “We'll be there. We owe the sisters a visit soon.”

Barbara looked at Helena and Dinah for a long moment, then turned back to Diana. “Guess you better let your mother know to expect company soon.”



Chapter L

“Lucy?” Xena asked with a marked look at the ceiling above the stage area as she stepped into the convention room. “Something you want to share?”

Lucy tilted her head, noting the ease with which Max and Dom sat in their swing chairs manning the curtains currently hiding the stage. “Nope,” she said with a smirk.

Xena returned the smirk and shook her head. “All right. I guess you know what you're doing.”

“Giving them the best seats in the house,” Lucy snarked.

Xena just chuckled and shook her head again, then followed Gabrielle into the green room where most of the performers were patiently waiting for their arrival. Xena checked her watch and nodded at Gabrielle. “C'mon,” Gabrielle invited as she held the door open. “We have seats set to one side of the stage for us. Let's get our seats and then we'll run through our sound checks before we start letting the rest of the women in so we can get this show on the road,” causing a titter of nervous laughter to run through the assembled women.

Xena gestured the performers out ahead of her and noticed Abbie sitting quietly in her chair, arms crossed defensively over her chest. Xena motioned Gabrielle to lead the rest to their seats and Xena knelt down next to Abbie. “You all right?”

“I think I'm gonna be sick.”

Xena smiled sympathetically. “Been there, done that. Can I get someone for you? Ms Novak, perhaps?” having witnessed Casey's reluctance to leave Abbie alone and Abbie's insistence that she go.

“No... she's actually excited about this – well, as much as she can be without gloating.” Brown eyes met blue and Abbie gave Xena a weak smile. “After all... she did try to warn me to keep my big mouth shut.” She narrowed her eyes. “Could you let Alex back here? Alex Cabot.”

“Um... sure. You wanna call her and let her know to meet me at the door?”

Abbie smiled, already lifting her phone to her ear.



“What do you think?” Bornlan asked Kennian as she put the rest of the paperwork into a file and dropped it into her outbox. “We've still got time to get back for that talent show tonight.”

Kennian shrugged. “I do not know how welcome we would really be. I am certain a number of people would be happy not to see us again.”

“Maybe,” Teresa agreed with a shrug of her own. “On the other hand, it might be nice to see some of these women as more than just suspects in a murder investigation. I think we would have enjoyed being part of the conference.”

Shana ducked her head in acknowledgement. “I believe we might have made some useful contacts.” She paused. “I would like to go.”

“You're sure?”

“Yes... but you are paying for dinner.”

Bornlan chuckled. “Fair enough. Let's go.”



“Have I mentioned how wonderful it is to be able to talk again?” Jill asked Claire as they made their way back towards the convention center. Claire rolled her eyes, but gave Jill an indulgent smile.

“Several times, actually. But if you don't shake a leg, we're not gonna get a good seat. And if Lindsay doesn't have a good view of her cousin paying up on her bet, being silent for two days is gonna seem like a cakewalk to what Lindsay will do.”

Jill grimaced, but sped her steps appreciably. Then her expression became petulant. “Why do we have to be the ones saving the seats?”

“Because Natalie invited Cindy to meet the friend who saved her life.”

“I wouldn't have minded meeting a hero,” Jill pouted.


“All right, all right – let's just get there. With any luck, everyone else is still at dinner and we'll be first in line.”

Claire chuckled. “You just keep thinking those good thoughts.” And they continued to make their way to the convention hall.



“Hey, Gabrielle!” Emma greeted as she entered the large room, turning to shoo her moms away before closing the door soundly and running down the aisle. Despite the disruption, her enthusiasm brought smiles to the faces of everyone present. “I'm sorry I'm late.” She rolled her eyes. “Mommy wanted to take pictures.”

Gabrielle put an arm around Emma's shoulders and hugged her briefly. “Of course she did, Jellybean. She's your mom. Now c'mon... you need to do a check for Scud so we can get a level on you,” leading her up the steps to the microphone. “Do you know what story you're going to tell?” Gabrielle asked, smiling at the eager excitement conveyed in Emma's nod. “Good girl... now, do you want to sit or stand while you tell it?”

Emma frowned and tilted her head to look up at Gabrielle. “What do you do?”

“Well, it depends on the situation, but usually I stand so I can walk around.”

“Then I'll stand too,” Emma responded with a smile. Gabrielle grinned and nodded.

“All right. Then you need to take this,” loosening the mic from its stand and handing it Emma. “Now just start telling your story like you're going to tell it in a little bit.”

“But I want it to be a surprise.”

Gabrielle blinked. “Um... okay. Just tell me a story then – tell me about your friends at school.” Emma smiled and started talking. She never even noticed when Gabrielle took the microphone away and led her from the stage until they were sitting together in the performer's area.



“How's everybody doing tonight?” Lucy asked, a huge grin on her face as the cheering and shouts erupted across the room. “Excellent!! Are you ready to have a little fun?” More screams and whistles and she let it go on for another minute before she held up her hand for quiet. “I have to tell you - you ladies are in for a real treat tonight. We've got something for everyone – singing, dancing, magic....” She looked at the list she held that gave her the artists and their acts in order of appearance. “Puppets, a mentalist, a mimic and, of course, storytelling.”

Lucy smiled. The energy in the room was electric, and the performers – most of them – were sitting to one side of the stage eagerly awaiting their turn to go on. Only the first act was hidden behind the curtain, waiting for their cue to perform. A motion at the back of the stage drew her attention, and she made her way over to where Xena was standing, leaning down to hear her words.

Liz, sitting next to Olivia, leaned over and whispered, “Where's Alex?” Olivia shook her head and shrugged.

“I dunno. She got a call from Abbie about an hour ago and I haven't seen her since. She promised she'd been here as soon as she could, but.... She's not answering her phone, so I'm stuck here until I can reach her since this is where she'll come looking for me first.”

“I hope she gets here soon,” Liz stated. “I don't think she's going to want to miss this.”

“That's true,” Lindsay agreed with a grin. “Especially since Abbie is paying up on her bet.”

Cindy mock punched her. “You're enjoying this a little too much.”

Lindsay snorted. “Of course I am. She set herself up for this. Besides, I didn't hear Casey complaining.” Cindy rolled her eyes and shook her head, turning her attention back to the platform where Lucy was walking back towards center stage.

“Okay – so who's ready to get this show started?” Lucy asked, her smile growing exponentially as the sound in the room grew. “All right then! Give it up and welcome our first act – Abbie and Alex rockin' the Kasbah!”

Alex and Abbie shimmied from behind the curtain, undulating to sensuous music that poured from the speakers. Olivia's mouth dropped open at the sight of Alex belly dancing and Liz reached over and pushed her jaw closed.

“Well... at least we know where Alex went now.” Olivia nodded, but her eyes never left the stage. She tugged on the collar she wore though it wasn't tight. It occurred to her to wonder when and how Alex and Abbie had managed to put their act together, and then Olivia decided it didn't matter. She leaned back with a big smile and settled in to enjoy it.

Casey, meanwhile, was sitting with the performers and was watching with an enthralled smile on her face. Like Olivia, she couldn't take her eyes from the stage. She'd known Abbie had been nervous about belly dancing in front of everyone, and she'd been a little upset with Lindsay for putting Abbie into such an uncomfortable position. Now she was trying to find a way to thank Lindsay and convince Abbie to do a private performance later.

Alex and Abbie wiggled and twirled as though they had been dancing together forever and just before they ran out of removable veils, the music ended and the dancing stopped. They stood still, chests heaving as they tried to catch their breaths while applause rang out long and loud. Lucy let it roll around the room for a long moment before she returned to the stage. Alex and Abbie took their cue and stepped from the stage, disappearing backstage before Casey or Olivia could protest. Then the point was moot as Lucy spoke again.

“Holy crap! Is it hot in here or what?” She looked towards the back of the stage. “I have *got* to learn how to do that.” She turned to Amy. “Remind me to look for lessons, babe.” Amy covered her face to hide her blush but laughed and nodded.

“Good – so our next act also hails from New York....” She paused and turned to look at Xena with a hand on her hip. “You know... seems like half of our conference was from Manhattan.” She looked back to the audience then turned back to Xena. “Okay – so if every female law enforcement agent from Manhattan is here, who's working in New York City?” Her question brought cheers from the whole room and Lucy smiled again.

“I'm just saying.... Now please put your hands together for Ms Tracey Kibre.”

The applause was polite and Tracey stepped out from the curtain wearing dark pants and a white shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal the top of her cleavage, waiting for the room to grow quiet. Then she folded her hands together and cleared her throat. “First I would like to say that like Abbie, my big mouth got me into this. So please bear with me. It's been a very long time since I've danced... and even longer since I performed like this.” She looked towards the back of the room and nodded to Scud. “Maestro if you please....”

The music for ‘Tea For Two' started playing and Tracey started tap dancing slowly across the wooden floor. Without warning, Liz Donnelly stood up and walked over to Lucy, taking her microphone before she stepped to the stage with one hand on her hip. “Tea For Two, Tracey? Really? That was the best that you could do?”

Tracey smirked, the twinkle in her eye barely visible to the woman in front of her. “This from a woman wearing a granny dress,” she snarked, motioning to the high-necked, calf-length dress Liz wore. “You think you could do better?”

“Oh honey... you don't even want to play that game with me.”

“Sure I do,” Tracey replied with an evil grin. Then she looked at the audience. “Whaddya say, ladies? Should we give Liz here a chance to put her money where her mouth is?”

The cheers were loud and Tracey stepped back and gestured for Liz to join her. Liz held out the mic and Gabrielle took it as a matter of course. Then Liz walked onto the platform and took her place center stage. “Maestro....” with a gracious nod of her head.

The music started and soon Liz was tapping to ‘Jeepers Creepers'. Tracey let it go one for a long moment, then she signaled to Scud to cut the music. Liz stopped dancing and glared at her.

“Excuse me... I wasn't done.”

“Yeah, you really were,” Tracey argued. “I don't care how flawless your footwork is, that granny dress is just too distracting for words.”

Liz put her hands on her hips. “Oh really? And what do you propose I do?”

Without warning, Tracey yanked at the shoulders of Liz's dress, ripping it from her body and leaving her dressed in a black leotard and tights. She nodded approvingly.

“Better,” she stated succinctly.

“Allow me,” Liz offered, unexpectedly stripping Tracey of her breakaway pants and tossing them behind the curtain as Tracey tied her shirt into a halter. Then they grinned at one another and in tandem turned towards the soundman in the back of the room and gave him big grins.

“Hit it, Scud!” And as ‘Hot Honey Rag' started playing over the sound system, they started dancing together, much to the delight of the audience who had enjoyed their antics. When they were finished, posed together in the backlight, applause once again burst forth. And they hugged one another while laughing, then exited the stage while Lucy claimed the microphone from Gabrielle before taking the stage again.

“All righty then,” Lucy said with a chuckle as she resumed her place onstage again. She turned back to Xena and tugged at her collar jokingly. “We are at Disney, aren't we? We don't have PG guidelines to follow or something?”

Xena quirked an eyebrow. “We told our participants no blood, no fire and no lion-taming.”

Lucy made a show of looking at her list. “Well, I guess we're safe, then.”

Xena smirked. “We've still got a ways to go,” motioning Lucy to continue.

“Right....” She cleared her throat. “Well, we've already heard our next performer singing a Disney ballad as she proposed to her girl. So let's hear it for Sam McPherson!”

Sam waited for the curtains to part to admit her to the stage, then walked forward and took the mic from the stand on one side of the stage. She dropped her head bashfully and sighed before raising her eyes to look out into the darkened room.

“Wow... um, okay. So believe it or not, I normally don't sing in public. I mean until the other night, the last song I sang publicly was an STD warning song in eleventh grade.” Laughter greeted her announcement and she smiled and tucked a lock of dark hair behind her ear as her eyes focused on the ground again. “Yeah,” scratching her head. “We had a science teacher that was just....” She shuddered dramatically, then glanced up with a grin. “I did pass,” she added with a chuckle, causing an impromptu round of applause.

“So I was thinking... trying to decide what to sing. I mean, after the other night and all – you've already heard me do a ballad. I realize that most of you probably don't know who the Animaniacs are, but I hope you'll enjoy the song anyway.” Sam composed herself, allowing her expression to become serious, then nodded her head for Scud to start the music.

After very little introduction, Sam started singing ‘Yakko's Universe'. Brooke covered her eyes and shook her head the minute she recognized the song. Lucy and Amy exchanged grins and Helena chuckled to herself, mindful of the camera she was operating. The rest waited politely, as Sam had been correct in suggesting that most of them were unfamiliar with the song she'd chosen.

Everybody lives on a street in a city
Or a village or a town for what it's worth.
And they're all inside a country which is part of a continent
That sits upon a planet known as Earth.
And the Earth is a ball full of oceans and some mountains
Which is out there spinning silently in space.
And living on that Earth are the plants and the animals
And also the entire human race.

It's a great big universe
And we're all really puny
We're just tiny little specks
About the size of Mickey Rooney.
It's big and black and inky
And we are small and dinky
It's a big universe and we're not.

By this point the entire room was in stitches, understanding the absolute non-seriousness of the song and the singer. They were laughing, cheering and clapping along, having almost as much fun learning about the Animaniacs point of view in regards to human beings as Sam was having sharing it. Then she got down to the end and the entire room simply howled at that appropriateness of the lines.

You might think that you're essential
Try inconsequential
It's a small world after all!

At that, they just rose to their feet and hollered. Sam grinned and blushed, taking a bow before she scooted from the stage and took a seat next to Brooke – who promptly backhanded her in the belly before rubbing it gently.

Lucy just laughed as she approached center stage once more. “Well, what do you think so far?” laughing again as the audience continued to cheer and clap. She turned back towards Xena once more. “You do realize,” she said casually, listening to the applause die down so they could hear her words. “You do realize we're gonna have to do this again... just so we can have another talent show right?”

Xena just smiled and shook her head. The women in the room roared their agreement.



Chapter LI

“All right, ladies! Make some noise and welcome Blair Warner and Charlie!”

Blair stepped from the partially open curtain and pulled forward the stool that had been put there for her use, taking a seat before looking out at the expectant audience. “Hey, everyone. I um... I suppose you're wondering where Charlie is.” She bit her lip and grimaced. “There's a story there actually, and it's really not pretty.”

Jo walked out from behind the curtain. “Blair, Chucky was never pretty.”

“Not helping, Jo.”

“Hey, it's not my fault he looks like he got hit in the face by a tree.”

Blair crossed her arms over her chest. “You're really not helping, Joanna.”

“And it's not my fault he's got splinters up his....”

“Joanna Marie Polniaczek!!” Blair glared at her. “Just... turn blue!”

Jo smirked and cut her eyes at the audience. “This is serious; that's the most powerful response in her arsenal.” By now the audience was tittering. Blair straightened and smiled devilishly.

“How about this – keep it up and Natalie and Tootie are going to have another roommate tonight?”

“Oh no....” Natalie called out from the audience over all the catcalls and laughter. “Don't put us in the middle of this! We already spent years rooming with the two of you! We don't wanna be in the middle of yet another domestic squabble!” causing the laughter to grow even louder.

Jo huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Damn - all right... fine.”

“You are so whipped, Polniaczek,” drawing howls from the rest of the New York contingent. Jo glared.

“Pot... kettle, Benson,” sticking out her tongue before she looked more generally at the audience. “The fact is that Chuck, for all his ugliness is a puppet....”

“Marionette,” Blair corrected regally. Jo rolled her eyes but dutifully changed her wording.

“Marionette that has been a part of Blair's life for a long time. Unfortunately, his trip to Disney World was a little more traumatic than ours and we weren't able to make him... presentable for you this evening. And not for lack of trying either,” she muttered almost under her breath then cleared her throat. “So yeah... anyway, um....” Jo clapped her hands together. “Since the tree... um, marionette doctor is in New York and we've gone green - meaning no cutting down another tree for a new puppet - we had to come up with something on the fly.”

Blair cleared her throat and all eyes went back to her. “What we came up with was our take on Sid Caesar's skit Argument to Beethoven's Fifth which we've renamed ‘A Day in Our Life That Was'. Natalie and Too... Dorothy can vouch for the accuracy of what you're about to see.” She nodded to Scud. “Maestro, if you please....” setting the mic back on the stand and moving the stool to one side of the stage.

Without another word, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony started playing over the speakers and Jo and Blair started storytelling an argument with no words... miming a typical day's disputes during their growing-up years with only the feel of music and their own actions to speak for them.

It started with them trying to share space at a make-believe sink – pushing and shoving one another out of the way. Sam and Brooke exchanged fond looks, recognizing all-too-well the antics playing out before them. When the music mellowed, they took a deep breath and visibly tried to calm the anger that was so apparent between them, only to have it ratchet up again.

As the music crescendo'd, Jo and Blair slammed their way out of the bathroom and into the bedroom. Blair stomped into the closet while Jo jerked open the drawers of her dresser and started throwing clothes on the bed. Then she took a deep breath and stepped back into the bathroom. Blair meanwhile came out of the closet and placed her clothes on her bed... and then on top of Jo's – and when Jo walked back into the room, the argument started again.

Natalie and Tootie exchanged looks, eyes wide and mouths open in disbelief. The scene was so familiar to them it was spooky, especially in light of the fact that no words were being spoken. Mock clothes went flying and a make-believe door slammed. “Oh God... I remember THAT argument.”

Tootie nodded frantically. “Me too. Wasn't that...?” leaning in and whispering in Natalie's ear.

“Oh yeah. I wasn't sure any of us were gonna survive it.”

Across the room, women were marveling at how much was being said without words and as the music crashed to its finale, Jo and Blair made up – wrapping their arms around each other and leaning their foreheads together... before turning to smile at the audience.

The crowd roared its approval and Jo and Blair laughed and took a bow before disappearing behind the curtain Max and Dom had parted for them. Lucy watched them go before she marched back onto the stage.

“Holy shit!” Lucy exclaimed as she approached center stage. She looked back at the curtain, then turned back to the audience. “That must have been some household.” She scanned the room, smiling when she located Natalie and Tootie whispering to one another. “So how accurate was it?”

“Dead spot on,” Natalie said flatly.

“Yeah... we actually recognized the exact fight they were having,” Tootie added.

Lucy's brows went to her hairline. “You two should probably write a book. It'd be a best seller,” drawing laughs from the crowd. Lucy smiled and cleared her throat. “All righty then. Let's give a warm welcome to Annabelle Tillman,” shifting the stool back to center stage before she walked off.

Annabelle leaned her guitar carefully against the legs of the stool, then she grabbed the mic stand and lowered it to belly level. She took the mic from the stand and walked to the edge of the stage. “Hi,” smiling when she got a good response from the audience. “Um, I'm afraid what I have for you tonight isn't nearly as exciting as what you've already seen or probably what's coming later either. I'm simply a musician and I would like to play for you one of my favorite pieces for the classical guitar called. ‘Canon in D'. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I do.”

Annabelle placed the microphone back on the stand and grabbed her guitar before seating herself. She bowed her head and took a deep breath, then simply started playing.

The hush throughout the room was profound... almost as though the air had been sucked out in anticipation and then remained that way as the beautiful melody wafted flawlessly around the ears of the stunned listeners.

Annabelle kept her focus tight on the guitar itself, eyes on the slim neck as her fingers trailed up and down the strings with ease. She didn't see a number of women surreptitiously wipe wetness from their eyes, nor did she notice the few who let the tears roll down their cheeks. But Simone did and her smile was proud, even as goosebumps covered her arms in reaction.

When Annabelle finished, she dropped her head and drew a deep breath in the silence that followed the fading of her last note. She'd done her best. Then without warning, applause erupted across the room. Annabelle's head flew up, surprise and then joy flitting across her features as every woman in the room rose to her feet.

Olivia clasped Alex's hand. “That was my mom's favorite piece,” she confided through her tears. Alex lifted her free hand and wiped the wetness from Olivia's face.

“Mine too,” she replied with a smile. Their attention was drawn back to the stage as Annabelle took a final bow and left the platform. Lucy simply shook her head.

“Wow,” she said reverently. “That was... I don't have words. I've never heard that done with a solo instrument before; there's always been a full orchestra involved.” She took a deep breath. “All right. Our next act....” She frowned and turned to look at Xena. “Our next act is Julia Child?” Xena shrugged and motioned for Lucy to simply go with it. “Well then, ladies – please welcome Julia Child.”

The clapping was polite but bewildered... until the moment Miranda Priestly stepped from the open curtain dressed in her Halloween costume. “Good evening, everyone,” she greeted in that distinct, soprano voice, grinning when the crowd returned her salutation. “You know, in France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport. And I have to tell you – I think that's just a marvelous thing. Because let's face it... they know their business, don't they?”

She bowed her head slightly at the smattering of applause and laughter that followed her pronouncement. “Thank you,” reverting to Miranda Priestly's more whispered tone briefly before her expression and mannerisms changed once again. Then she swiftly became Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ( You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if the room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. ) ; Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice ( When the train arrived at Auschwitz... the Germans made the selection.  Who would live and who would die. ) ; Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump ( My momma always said, "Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. ”); and George C. Scott as General George S. Patton ( Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. ) This time the applause was strong and went on for several minutes before it quieted down and Miranda resumed her own voice and personality to speak again.

“So here's the deal,” she said quietly. “I had considered just sliding from one famous impersonation to the next, but that is somewhat boring, really, and boring just doesn't have a place in my business. So what I'd like to do instead is ask for some audience participation. You tell me who you'd like to hear and I'll make it happen. And to make it interesting – you have to tell me privately and we'll see if I can do it well enough for the rest here to figure it out.”

Before the silence could go on too long, Xena walked up to the stage and Miranda leaned down carefully to hear her whispered words. Matching grins crossed their faces as Xena's words registered and Miranda nodded before she straightened.

"I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya punk?"

Dead silence was all she heard and Miranda turned to Xena with a look of bemused consternation on her face. Whatever response she'd expected, as sheer lack of reaction wasn't even remotely on her list. Finally Andy stood up cautiously. “That was simply incredible, Miranda. That was spot on to one of my favorites - Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry.”

Miranda grinned again and beckoned her forward. “Yes, it was. And of course you'd know that, Andrea,” her tone wry but not biting. “Do you have someone you'd like me to try?”

“Actually, I have something. It's a favorite passage, but you may wanna choose a line or....” Miranda held up her hand and Andy stopped speaking. Then Miranda leaned down and waited for Andrea to give her the quote. Miranda narrowed her eyes thoughtfully, then nodded.

“It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It's a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”

“Hey, isn't that William Shatner as Captain Kirk in The Wrath of Khan ?” Ziva asked quietly into the murmuring that could be heard around the room as women tried to identify the piece and player Miranda had done. Her movie tutorials with Tony had actually covered this bit of Americana. Bones, whom she was sitting next to, leaned over and shook her head.

“I don't think so. The quote is, but the voice inflection is wrong.”

Before Ziva could form a retort, someone in the audience gave her answer – William Shatner from The Wrath of Khan . Miranda shook her head.

“I can honestly say I have never seen that movie although my daughters' reaction tells me that you could be correct. However, that was not who I was impersonating. Go further back – think classic American movie.” She turned to Andrea. “I think we may have stumped them.”

Kelly stood after a long moment of whispering throughout the room. “I think that's Ronald... um, Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in Tale of Two Cities .”

Miranda chuckled. “You would be absolutely correct.” She motioned Kelly forward. “Who would you like me to try?” Kelly's eyes twinkled and Miranda leaned down to hear her whispered request. When she stood, she gave Kelly an evil smirk. “You are a very wicked woman.” Kelly curtsied.

“Ratt, what brings you to Terra?”

“You, you vixen you. Starlet, I love you. That gown is gorgeous.”

“Thank you. I saw it in the window and I just couldn't resist it.”

Squeals and laughter went up around the room as Miranda, with only the inflection of her voice and her posture gave the appearance of wearing a curtain rod across her shoulders. Answers were called out across the room; it was obvious Carol Burnett's Went With the Wind skit was a huge favorite of all the convention attendees.

From there, it only got more hysterical. Miranda mimicked Eddie Murphy as Donkey from Shrek ( You might have seen a housefly, maybe even a superfly, but I bet you ain't never seen a donkey fly! Ha, ha! ); gave a plausible imitation of Gabrielle as a storyteller; became Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men ( You can't handle the truth! ) ; John Wayne in McLintock's Mud Brawl ( I haven't lost my temper in forty years, but Pilgrim, you caused a lot of trouble this morning, might have got somebody killed... and somebody oughta belt you in the mouth. But I won't, I won't. The *hell* I won't! ); and Sandra Bullock in The Blindside ( Michael, I want you to have a good time but if you get a girl pregnant out of wedlock, I will crawl into the car, drive up to Oxford and cut off your penis. ). For her finale, she played both parts in Abbott and Costello's famous baseball skit, leaving the women howling in laughter as she turned into Julia Child once more by admonishing them.

“In department stores, so much kitchen equipment is bought indiscriminately by people who just come in for men's underwear.”

Then she gave a brief bow and with a smile and a wave, Miranda Priestly left the stage. Lucy walked slowly back towards center stage, frantically waving the clipboard she held in an effort to get more oxygen to her brain.

“Oh my God... has anyone tested that woman for multiple-personality disorder?” she asked with a glance back towards the curtains that were thankfully still closed. “That was amazing... and a little bit terrifying,” she added with a grin. The women in the room chuckled.

“All right,” Lucy said again, consulting her clipboard. “Next up we have Ms Emma Spaulding who's going to tell us a story. C'mon out, Emma.”

Max and Dom parted the curtain just enough to allow Emma to step through and she walked onto the stage with a huge grin on her face.

“Hi, Emma,” Lucy welcomed. “I hear you made a deal with Gabrielle.”

“Uh huh.” Emma nodded enthusiastically, accepting the microphone from Lucy. “I promised I would tell a story if she would tell a story. Besides, this could help me become a Queen's Champion,” she added as an aside, though the entire room heard her.

“That sounds like a good goal. How about a round of applause to get her started, ladies?”

Emma bowed as the applause sounded throughout the room. Then she straightened and started her story.



Chapter LII

“When I told Gabrielle I'd tell a story tonight, I kinda wondered, um... what kind of story I could tell. I mean, she said last night to tell what you know, but I didn't think that meant I could tell Hannah Montana or A to Z Mysteries stories. ‘Cuz even though you guys have probably never heard of them before, those stories belong to someone else and that's kind of like cheating.”

Emma blew out a frustrated breath and tried to tuck a non-existent lock of hair behind her ear. Gabrielle grinned privately, recognizing one of her own nervous habits. Emma scuffed the toe of her shoe against the floor and looked back out at her audience.

“Then I remembered - ya know... this is Disney World. I mean... Walt Disney took all kinds of faerie tales and told them his way, right? So I thought maybe I'd try that. Now,” she added as she stuck a hand in her pocket and walked towards one end of the stage. “This isn't actually *my* story... I mean, it didn't happen to me. But I watched it,” rolling her eyes. “Oh boy, did I – at least the good stuff. Honestly, sometimes adults can be so dumb.”



Her sentiment drew laughter as much as her demeanor did. However, Natalia's eyes widened and she covered her mouth to keep from saying anything. In contrast, Olivia's eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips momentarily before she muttered, “Oh no she isn't.” She took the hand that was searching for hers and clasped it on her lap. Then they both turned their attention back to their daughter.



“Okay, so… um, first I had to talk to my daddy this morning. See, I know a little bit of this story, cuz, you know... I was there when it happened. But lots of it happened before I was even born or anything. Not the most important parts, but I wanted to know why Mommy didn't stay with Daddy if he was her prince.

And Daddy told me that Mommy didn't have a prince because she was waiting for her princess.

So I was thinking about what faerie tale this story was most like – I mean, it's kinda like Sleeping Beauty cuz there was a princess that needed to be woken up by a kiss. And it's a little like Cinderella cuz there was a hard-working princess who was swept off her feet by Charming. And it's sorta like Beauty and the Beast because there's dusting and cleaning and a grouch.”



More laughter and this time it was all Natalia could do to keep from letting a squeak escape. Olivia cut her eyes in Natalia's direction, noting the dimples she was trying to disguise and the tears she couldn't possibly hide. She switched her handhold, taking Natalia's right hand in her right hand and wrapping her left arm around Natalia's shoulders. She was gratified when Natalia immediately leaned into her, snuggling down into Olivia's shoulder and covering their hands with her left one. Then they turned their focus back to Emma who had wandered over to the other side of the stage.



“Now what was I gonna call this story? Sleeping Cinder Beast was the best I could come up with and that just wasn't working for me,” eliciting more snorts of laughter. “So I just decided to call this story, My Two Mommies and How We Got To Be A Family. ”

Laughter and applause greeted her words and Emma smiled.

“Once upon a time there was a beautiful wicked queen named Olivia.”



“Oh no she didn't,” Olivia grumbled. “She did not just make me the villain in this story.”

“No, Sweetie... she made you the beautiful wicked queen. Now hush and listen.” Natalia chided. Olivia glared and stuck out her lip the tiniest bit, then looked back at Emma who was rocking on her heels.



“And although Wicked Queen Olivia was a wonderful mommy to Little Princess Emma, she was a very unhappy wicked queen. She didn't *want* to be wicked, but she didn't know any other way to be. See, Olivia had heart problems and it made her real cranky with almost everyone.

Wicked Queen Olivia wanted to have someone love her and to love someone in return. She was very lonely. But she, um... wasn't looking with her heart – she didn't know how to. Still, she tried... over and over again she tried. She tried by making lots of money... only to discover it was just money. She tried by being a successful business mongrel, but that was just a lot of hard work. She even tried to find her prince, but that only got her heart broken over and over and it made her angrier inside.”



“Mogul, honey... business mogul.”

“That's what I said, Mommy... business mongrel,” Emma replied adamantly, drawing quiet chuckles all over the room.

“The puppy didn't fall far from the mongrel, Sweetie,” getting a look in response.



“So finally, Wicked Queen Olivia decided it would just be her and Little Princess Emma because Big Princess Ava wanted to go off and find her own prince. And for a little while, that was okay because Wicked Queen Olivia was never a wicked queen to Emma. She was just Mommy and they were happy... or as happy as they could be when Wicked Queen Olivia could be while still looking for the part of her heart that was missing.

And then she found out that not only was part of her heart missing – the whole thing had gone bad. Wicked Queen Olivia needed a new heart. But who would give up their heart so a wicked queen could live? And who would share their heart so the wicked queen wouldn't be unhappy any more?

Right before Wicked Queen Olivia found out about her heart, there was a new princess that came to town... only no one knew she was a princess because, like Cinderella, she was a maid. She actually worked for the wicked queen. See, the wicked queen owned the hotel where she and Little Princess Emma lived, and Princess Natalia had been hired to be a housekeeper there.”



Natalia squeezed Olivia's hand as she chuckled lightly. “She made me a princess.”

Olivia growled. “It's the dimples. Besides,” she smirked superiorly, “I still outrank you.”

She felt Natalia's brow go up against her neck. “How do you figure?”

Olivia snorted. “Natalia, like it or not, a queen is always more powerful than a princess.”

“Sweetie, as your wife, that makes me more powerful than anyone throughout the land.”

Olivia opened her mouth to retort, then snapped it closed, knowing Natalia spoke the truth. “Dammit!” she muttered and resolutely turned back to Emma, trying to ignore the gentle shaking of the shoulders she was embracing.



“Princess Natalia didn't wear rags and she didn't scrub the floors on her hands and knees like Cinderella did. Instead, she wore a uniform and she made beds and folded towels and dusted... a lot.

Princess Natalia had come looking for her prince – the man who was her son's daddy. And she found him, so they started making plans to become a family. But the wicked queen decided she wanted him for her prince, because Gus had been kind to her and that made the wicked queen happy. See, the wicked queen didn't have many real friends. She didn't know how important it was to have friends in her life. And Wicked Queen Olivia's action put her and Princess Natalia against each other. It made them enemies.”

Emma rolled her eyes and shook her head. “They thought they were hiding it from me, but it was hard to miss all the yelling they did... about everything... especially when they stopped the minute I walked into the room.”

She looked out into the audience. “For those of you who haven't been a kid for a while, please don't think you can hide the important things from us. We're not stupid – just like you weren't when you were young. ‘Kay?”

She changed her cadence and shifted smoothly back into her story. “So Princess Natalia and Prince Gus got married. Wicked Queen Olivia found out that she had missed her chance at a new heart and they only expected her old, broken one to last a few more days.”



Olivia drew in a deep breath, feeling the hopelessness and rage she had felt then flow through her once more. Only this time, Natalia was beside her and she seamlessly altered their positions so that she cradled Olivia. Natalia brushed a kiss over Olivia's forehead and felt Olivia marginally relax against her.

“Shh....” she chided. “I'm sorry, Olivia... so sorry. But we got through this, remember? It's what got us where we are today.”

“Yeah, but God in the meantime....”

Natalia chuckled soundlessly against her and Olivia smiled against her neck. “Listen to our daughter, Sweetheart. She tells a good story.”



“Big Princess Ava had come to stay with Little Princess Emma while the wicked queen was in the hospital. At the same time, Prince Gus had a really bad motorcycle accident and he was dying. So Princess Natalia was at the hospital when Big Princess Ava brought Little Princess Emma in to see Wicked Queen Olivia who was waiting on her new heart.

Little Princess Emma and Princess Natalia met in the hallway and Little Princess Emma saw that Princess Natalia had been crying. Wanting to make her feel better, Little Princess Emma offered Princess Natalia one of the flowers she had been taking to her mommy. It made Princess Natalia smile, but Little Princess Emma could see it didn't take away her sadness.

Prince Gus died, and his heart was given to Wicked Queen Olivia. It made the wicked queen unhappy, but Princess Natalia, who had made the decision to give her prince's heart to the wicked queen, got angry and told the wicked queen she didn't get to die now – she had a responsibility to live... if only to honor Prince Gus' memory.

That made the wicked queen mad, but Princess Natalia kept on her case. They still yelled and argued with each other, but that seemed to be helping Olivia get better more than babying her would. It was how she talked to everyone except, you know... Little Princess Emma. So slowly, the wicked queen started to recover.

In the meantime, Princess Natalia had troubles of her own and she and the wicked queen started moving from enemies to kinda friends but boy... did it take a loooong time. I mean, it was *really*slow,” Emma added, rolling her eyes once more and getting some scattered chuckles across the room. She smiled.

“It was... really. Princess Natalia made sure Wicked Queen Olivia lived, then the wicked queen rescued the princess when she got into trouble.

The princess had to cover for the wicked queen when the queen was too sick to work and then she became the queen's assistant when the wicked queen's new heart stopped working. That scared the princess very much, and she realized she didn't think of Wicked Queen Olivia as wicked anymore. She simply thought of her as Olivia.

When Princess Natalia took the job as Queen Olivia's assistant, she included taking care of the queen and the little princess as part of her duties, and this time, the queen accepted the help like she was s'posed to... or she tried to anyway. Most people still saw her as a wicked queen, and the queen didn't know how to change that image... but Princess Natalia did.

Wicked Queen Olivia helped Prince Rafe get better living conditions, even though they *really* didn't like each other. See, Prince Rafe felt that the wicked queen was taking advantage of his mommy Princess Natalia and it made him really mad. The wicked queen thought Rafe was a childish brat who needed to grow the fu....” Emma stopped and cleared her throat. “She wanted him to grow up and act like a man. Still, she helped him because he was Natalia's son, and it bothered her to see Natalia upset for any reason, but especially because of Rafe.”



Natalia slapped Olivia's leg, holding sparking green eyes when they met equally fierce brown. “Don't think I don't know where she got THAT word!!” Olivia frowned but looked back at the stage. “You owe the swear jar for her!” Olivia just smirked.



“When Princess Natalia, with a little help from the queen, became proud owner of a farmhouse, she was very happy... until she realized she would need to rent some rooms to be able to make the payments on it. Reluctantly, Queen Olivia agreed to live there, if only so Natalia could continue to look out for her and Little Princess Emma.

Now Emma really loved the farmhouse. The farmhouse had ducks, and Little Princess Emma liked the ducks very much. But mostly Emma liked having a real home – it was the first real home she had ever known and she knew it made her mommy very happy to be there.

Except, of course, the wicked queen and Princess Natalia still continued to bicker and fight. It seemed to be the only way they could talk to one another sometimes. And the wicked queen decided she and Little Princess Emma couldn't stay there because they were just too different from Princess Natalia in every way to make anything work. That made Little Princess Emma *very* unhappy and she ran away, hoping to make a point.”



“She damn sure did that,” Olivia muttered, earning her a smack in the belly from Natalia.


“Well, she did,” Olivia mumbled, rubbing the spot Natalia had hit.

Natalia rolled her eyes and took over the rubbing. “Hush,” she commanded and nudged Olivia's attention back towards the stage.



“About this time, Little Princess Emma had a family project at school, and her presentation was called ‘My Two Mommies'. Everybody liked her presentation, but it made things at the farmhouse weird. The wicked queen decided it was time for her and Little Princess Emma to move back to their rooms at the queen's hotel.

She explained to the little princess that Princess Natalia had found a new prince and that he would be moving into the farmhouse to live with the princess. The queen swore it would make Natalia happy and that was what was important. The little princess didn't believe Princess Natalia would be happy without her and her mommy, but she could tell her mommy needed to believe it.

So one day they were a family living at the farmhouse with Princess Natalia and the ducks, and the next day they were back in their royal rooms at the queen's hotel. And the wicked queen was very unhappy, but she continued to help Princess Natalia, convinced that Prince Frank would make Princess Natalia happy because he would love her and give her the family she wanted.

Princess Natalia didn't really think she wanted Prince Frank. After all, she had been very happy when Queen Olivia and Princess Emma had lived with her and been her family. But Queen Olivia insisted and Princess Natalia, sure that what she'd thought was the queen's love for her was only friendship, went along with the queen's statement that Prince Frank was what Princess Natalia needed to be happy.

Princess Natalia liked Prince Frank as a friend. He was nice and he had been a good friend to Prince Rafe. And agreeing to marry him seemed to make his whole family happy. Even Little Princess Emma was happy, because she got to wear a pretty dress and drop rose petals on the ground before Princess Natalia walked down the aisle.

But at the wedding, Princess Natalia couldn't make her promises to Prince Frank. She knew that she liked him, but she loved Queen Olivia. And she knew the queen loved her too. Now she had to convince the queen that they could be together. But it wouldn't be easy because the wicked queen believed that Princess Natalia would never accept what loving her really meant. And more than anything, the wicked queen didn't want the princess to hate her.

Things went from really weird to really bad, and for a while Little Princess Emma wasn't sure what was going to happen. She knew the queen loved the princess and that the princess loved the queen. Slowly... waaaaay slower than the little princess wanted, Princess Natalia and Queen Olivia allowed themselves to be a couple and show the world that they loved one another and they were a family.

It didn't make everyone happy – Prince Frank was a toad about it and Prince Rafe was a frog. Father Ray was an as... he was just mean. But mostly, people were happy for the wicked queen and the princess.”



Olivia snorted at Emma's description of Frank and Rafe, but she bit her lips to keep from smiling when Natalia raised her head slightly and glared. Olivia shrugged.

“It's the truth.”

“I know,” Natalia sighed. “But it doesn't make me happy to remember the way they acted then.”

“Maybe not, but we're here together now and they're both okay with that,” leaning up and claiming a kiss that Natalia was happy to return. Emma stomped her foot and cleared her throat loudly, causing the audience to titter.

“Mommy!! I'm not to that part yet!”

Olivia chuckled and Natalia blushed, but couldn't hide her dimples. “Sorry, Jellybean,” motioning with her hand. “Please continue.”

“Thank you,” Emma replied regally.



“Queen Olivia discovered that she didn't need to be a wicked queen all the time anymore – that people could like her because of who she was and wouldn't see her as weak because she was nice to them. Suddenly, she realized she had friends and this made her happy.

Princess Natalia figured out that God wasn't gonna turn his back on her just ‘cause. And this made Princess Natalia happy because God was very important to her.

So finally, one day in the fall, Princess Natalia insisted it was time for the queen and the little princess to come home to the farmhouse.

That was a very happy day for Queen Olivia, Princess Natalia and Little Princess Emma. Even the frog and the toad helped them move back home.

And so far, they're living happily ever after.” Emma looked back at her parents. “All right, Mommy - *now* you can kiss her,” drawing hoots and cheers from the audience, and then wild applause for Emma as she took her bow to a standing ovation.



Chapter LIII

The applause made Emma blush and she took another bow before replacing the microphone on the stand and running off the stage with a wave. Lucy watched her go before turning back towards the audience and looking at Emma's moms.

“You two need to think about getting that kid an agent. That was incredible.” Drawing another round of cheers and applause from the women present. Lucy turned to Gabrielle. “What did you think?”

Gabrielle wrapped an arm around Emma's shoulders and squeezed lightly. They shared a huge smile. “I think Little Princess Emma has a natural gift.” A beat. “And I hope her moms loved the way she told their story as much as I did.”

Lucy turned back to the audience once more. “And let me just add that I think the next few years are gonna be real interesting for the two of you, judging by what we heard tonight,” garnering more chuckles. “Okay... moving on – our next act is all about mystery and magic. Please welcome the Great Garcia.”

Garcia was posed as the curtains opened wide for her and she took a bow before she and Lucy moved her table of props closer to the edge of the stage. Then Lucy resumed her seat off to one side of the stage and Garcia took the mic from the stand.

“So whaddya think? Should we make this a yearly event?” smiling when the crowd roared their approval. She turned towards Xena and Gabrielle. “All right, ladies – the masses have spoken,” grinning at them impishly.

“However, first I have to do my act, so just sit back, hold on tight, and watch the Goddess of Love do her thing.”

They exchanged glances and rolled their eyes in tandem, then turned their attention to the performance in front of them.

Garcia pulled the top hat from her head and showed it was empty. Then she pulled a string of colorful scarves from inside and turned it into confetti as she showered the crowd of spectators with it. This was followed by several card tricks involving different, random members of the audience.

She offered a coin trick and a rope trick, drawing laughter and applause for her showmanship and entertainment. Garcia grinned and bowed with aplomb.

“Okay, so... for my next trick, well... seeing is believing.” She showed them her empty hat again, then waved her magic wand over the top. Suddenly, a flock of butterflies flew out of the hat and over the group of women who gasped as the butterflies flew over them and simply disappeared.

This time the applause went on for a long moment and Garcia accepted it with a curtsy and a smile. “For my final trick... well, actually, I was gonna swallow fire – then I found out that fire wasn't allowed. Then I was gonna juggle knives – and I found out that wasn't allowed either.” She huffed. “So, I guess that *was* my final trick.“

Garcia bowed again and blew kisses as the women clapped and cheered. And with a final curtsy, she started off the stage. Lucy rose and motioned to the prop table. Garcia shook her head and held up a hand, stopping Lucy from coming closer. Instead, Garcia focused on the table and lifted her hand, raising it off the ground.

The audience grew silent... stunned by what they were seeing. Slowly, the table rose from the stage and floated towards Garcia until it and she were behind the curtains - which dropped to roaring cheers.

“Well, that was pretty impressive,” Lucy commented with admiration in her voice. Then her brow furrowed into a frown. “Wait a minute! If she could do that before, why'd I have to help carry it out?? That table was damn heavy!”

Snorts of laughter followed her pronouncement and she frowned harder. “Maybe Amy'll offer you a rub down tonight,” Xena commented with a straight face, drawing hoots and hollers of her own. Lucy brightened and waggled her eyebrows in Amy's direction.

“What say, babe? Sound like a plan?”

Amy just covered her face and shook her head.

Lucy scowled and muttered under her breath before bringing the mic back to her mouth. “It's time to make some noise for Ms Casey Novak!”

“Good evening ladies! And thank you for letting me be part of this fantastic show tonight. It's been a long, long time since I was on stage like this. Actually, stand-up comedy helped pay my way through college – yeah... no kidding. And somehow, going up in front of a judge and jury on a regular basis isn't nearly as nerve-racking. I mean, they teach that in law school – stand-up comedy... not so much.

So anyway, first off I need to thank whoever was in charge of scheduling. I'm pretty sure if I'd have been the one following Abbie and Alex dancing, I'd have been a blithering idiot. As it is, I'm not sure that still won't happen.” Casey cleared her throat.

“All right, so I've got to ask – how many of you believe in God? C'mon... raise your hands. I'm not passing an offering plate or anything. I'm just nosey.” A number of women raised their hands and Casey nodded.

“Okay... now of those of you that believe in God, how many of you believe that God is a man?” Most of the hands stayed up, but a few dropped. Casey nodded her head.

“Congratulations, ladies... you're right. You can put your hands down, thanks. God is a man, and despite the lovely Ms Garcia's assurance that she's the Goddess of Love, there's divine proof showing there is no Goddess... of love or otherwise.”

Another glance was exchanged, but otherwise, there was nothing in anyone's expression to give away any thoughts to Casey's pronouncements.

“Are you sure?”

Casey chuckled. “Absolutely – divine proof, remember? Any of you ladies ever hang clothes out on the line at sometime in your life?” watching as a number of hands went up in acknowledgment. “Me too. Now, especially for those of you that lived in the Southeastern part of the United States – how many times did it rain? Either just after you got everything on the line and up to your elbows in something else or just before you went out to take them in once they were dry?”

“That didn't just happen here in the States,” Helen commented. “Have you ever been in the highlands of Scotland?”

“Who said that?” Casey asked, then nodded in acceptance when Helen stood up. “Exactly – and how many times did it rain detergent and fabric softener in the highlands of Scotland?”

“Um... never?”

“My point – if God was a woman, it would rain detergent and fabric softener just so the clothes would come off the line ready to go instead of needing to be washed again. And think of how clean the yard would be, right?” smiling at the laughter. “It's a win/win.

And then there are the children – I know we have a few moms in the audience. How many of you have ever wished for a manual to know how to handle certain situations or attitudes? Especially once the kids hit puberty??”

Casey chuckled at the cheers and clapping she got in response to that question. “I know I heard my mother mumbling more than once about wishing my brothers and I had come with operating instructions. If God was a woman, kids would come with an off button and babies would come out of the womb with an information booklet strapped to their bellies.

And let's be completely honest – if God was a woman, childbirth would be a *much* different process. I don't think men would be doing it because let's face it... if men had to carry a child for nine months and then give birth, the human race would've become extinct a long time ago,” grinning when there was hooting and hollering around the room.

“But if God was a woman, pregnancy would come without swollen ankles and lower back problems and when it was time to give birth, there'd be a hidden zipper that could just be opened and boom! Out pops the kid!” letting the women cheer for a long moment before she began to speak again.

“Or how about full-grown responsible adult children? Couldn't they just be born ready to move out? I think if God was a woman, we'd have been given a choice about that as well... or at least given a button to make them grown after they pop out from that zippered compartment.

And speaking of buttons – what about an opt-out button? Is there a reason a woman should suffer with cramps and bloating and bleeding to death for days on end every single month - unless of course she's *pregnant* - for thirty or forty years of her life?? I mean seriously... what kind of Divine Being would come up with that?? I'm pretty sure it wasn't a woman!” More cheering and clapping.

“And really, if God was a woman, we could get out of bed looking like a million dollars every morning. No bed head, no morning breath, no ridiculous amounts of make-up to put on to cover the lines and sags and circles we seem to find more of everyday. If God was a woman, we'd be the ones who aged gracefully and got more distinguished looking with age.” This time she got the women to their feet.

“Finally, let me ask – how many of you have had a mother figure in your life? Not all of us are lucky like Emma in that we have two moms, but most of us have had at least one mom in their life, right? If not our actual mother, there's been a step-mom or a favorite auntie or even an older sibling that somehow filled that role in our lives, right?” waiting for a smattering of applause in recognition of the truth of her words.

“All right, for those of you that've had a mom – the kind of mom that makes you clean your room and eat your peas and wash behind your ears – answer me this. Do you really think if God was a woman that she'd have let the world get in the shape it's in?? I don't know about you guys, but if God was a woman like my mom, she'd have already stepped in and done some head smacking.

I mean, seriously? ‘What the hell do you think you're doing?' SMACK!! ‘I give you something nice and this is what you do with it?!' SMACK!! ‘What have I told you about picking up after yourself??' SMACK!! ‘Clean up this mess!!' SMACK!!

Honestly, if God was a woman, the earth would be a much nicer place to live, but we'd all be walking around with brain damage.” Laughter greeted her words followed by applause when Casey put the mic back on stand and waved as she exited the stage.

Lucy walked back towards center stage gently rubbing the back of her head. “That explains so much,” she muttered, garnering more laughter. “Okay, our next up is an accidental duet.” Lucy turned and looked at Xena. “Really?” Xena nodded. Lucy just shook her head. “All righty then – put your hands together for our dueling Divas – Ziva David and Temperance Brennan!”

The two stepped out from the semi-open curtain dressed in glamorous finery and bowed slightly in acknowledgement of the clapping and wolf-whistles that greeted them.

“So first I should tell you why we're up here together,” Bones started, accepting Lucy's microphone.

“Why should you tell them?” Ziva asked as she removed the mic from the stand. “Why not me?”

“Oh,” Bones gestured towards the audience. “By all means.”

“Well, you see, we were each going to sing separately... only we discovered....”

“... we were going to be singing the same song. So instead, we decided....”

“... to do a different song together. We hope you'll enjoy it.”

The music from “Annie Get Your Gun” blared through the speakers and the audience grinned and clapped their approval of the Dueling Divas' choice. Bones started them off.

Anything you can do,
I can do better.

I can do anything

Better than you.

No, you can't.

Yes, I can. No, you can't.

Yes, I can. No, you can't.

Yes, I can,

Yes, I can!

Then Ziva took a turn.

Anything you can be

I can be greater.

Sooner or later,

I'm greater than you.

No, you're not. Yes, I am.

No, you're not. Yes, I am.

No, you're NOT! Yes, I am.

Yes, I am

This was followed by Bones.

Any note you can reach
I can go higher.

I can sing anything

Higher than you.

No, you can't. (High)

Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can't. (Higher)

Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can't. (Higher)

Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can't. (Higher)

Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can't. (Higher)

Yes, I CAN! (Highest)

Ziva started on the next verse even as Bones coughed to clear her throat.

Anything you can say
I can say softer.

I can say anything

Softer than you.

No, you can't. (Softly)

Yes, I can. (Softer) No, you can't. (Softer)

Yes, I can. (Softer) No, you can't. (Softer)

Yes, I can. (Softer)

YES, I CAN! (Full volume)

Bones took a deep breath before beginning the next set.

Any note you can hold
I can hold longer.

I can hold any note

Longer than you.

No, you can't.

Yes, I can No, you can't.

Yes, I can No, you can't.

Yes, I can

Yes, I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I No, you C-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-N'T--

CA-A-A-A-N! (Cough, cough!)

Yes, you ca-a-a-an!

Ziva licked her lips and started the next stanza.

Anything you say

I can say faster.

I can say anything

Faster than you.

No, you can't. (Fast)

Yes, I can. (Faster) No, you can't. (Faster)

Yes, I can. (Faster) No you can't. (Faster)

Yes I can! (Fastest)

They both grew haughty as they entered the final verse.

Anything you can sing

I can sing sweeter.

I can sing anything

Sweeter than you.

No, you can't. (Sweetly)

Yes, I can. (Sweeter) No, you can't. (Sweeter)

Yes, I can. (Sweeter) No, you can't. (Sweeter)

Yes, I can. (Sweeter) No, you can't, can't, can't (sweeter)

Yes, I can, can, can (Sugary)

Yes, I can! No, you can't!

Together, they belted out the tag line – “YES I CAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!” and immediately leaned against one another, laughing as applause and cheers rang out across the room. They accepted their due with a bow, then replaced the mics and turned to leave the stage with a backwards glance and a wave before disappearing behind the curtains.

Chapter LIV

“I gotta say – if Divas gotta duel, they need to duel like that. That was pretty fantastic! Whaddya say, ladies?” Applause rose across the room and Lucy smiled. “So, let's welcome our next act, the Mystic Mentalists – Barbara Gordon and Dinah Lance!”

The response was good – everyone was having fun and enjoying themselves. Still, Barbara found herself putting on her teaching persona as she wheeled onto the stage, followed by Dinah. “Good evening, everyone!” smiling when the crowd answered as a group. “I'm Barbara; this is Dinah,” pulling the younger woman up beside her. “And tonight we'd like to amaze you with a little bit of mind reading,” waiting until the applause died down again.

“Now since it will be easier for Dinah to walk among you for obvious reasons,” she added wryly gesturing to her chair, “I'll be attempting the mind reading part of this act. So before we get started....” She pulled a long length of cloth from the side pocket of her chair and handed it to Dinah. “I'll need to be blindfolded.”

Dinah took the cloth and went down into the audience, allowing a number of women to see and feel the material, determining that it was thick and non-see-through.

“So is everyone satisfied?” she asked, waiting for an affirmative before returning to the stage. She motioned Lucy over and handed her the blindfold.

“You *do* know how to use one of these, right?” Barbara asked with a smirk. The blush that ran up Lucy's and consequently Amy's face couldn't be missed. Lucy tied it tight, careful not to catch Barbara's hair in the knot. She bent to check that there were no peeking spots, then nodded to Dinah.

“She's all set.”

“All right, ladies – this is how this works. Dinah's going to wander around the room. If you've got an object you'd like me to do a little mind reading about, let Dinah know. And we'll see what we can do with it, all right?”

Dinah stepped off the stage again and before she could go very far, Kate Ashurst walked up beside her and offered her a small article. Dinah nodded enthusiastically and turned Kate to face the stage, keeping a hand on her shoulder.

”Oh All-Knowing Oracle, I hold in my hand an object.” Dinah watched the blindfold shift as Barbara arched her brow beneath it. In the back, Helena just shook her head, knowing the Kid was in trouble.

“Is it an elephant?”

Dinah looked at her hand and rolled her eyes, then mentally slapped herself for even looking. The women watching her chuckled at her reaction. “No... no elephant.”

“Lions, tigers, bears?”

“Oh my. NO, of course. No, it isn't.”

“Just checking…. Our contract with Disney doesn't cover that in our deposit.”

“Among a number of other things, I'm sure. Now concentrate, Oracle, and I'm sure you'll be able to *unlock* the mystery of this object.”

Barbara put two fingers on one side of her temple. “Um... I'm getting a lot of interference, Dinah.”

“Concentrate, Oracle – you can *unlock* the identity of this item if you concentrate.”

Barbara paused thoughtfully. “You hold in your hand a key.”

“Can you be more specific?”

Barbara furrowed her brow. “The key you hold unlocks a safe – the safe in room... 2314.” She hesitated. “The safe contains two police badges.”

From her spot in the audience, Scribbs snarked. “No effing way! What are the badge numbers?”

“Middleford Police Detective Inspector 426 and Middleford Police Detective Sergeant 841.”

Scribbs shook her head. “Blimey! She's exactly right!” The crowd burst into amazed applause.



It didn't take but a minute and Dinah had her next willing volunteer. Mac held up her hand and Dinah took the small item, remaining next to Mac and keeping in contact with her.

“Oracle, I hold in my hand an object.”

“Is it an elephant?”


“It's never an elephant.”

“Focus, Oracle. This one's a bit of a *challenge*, but a good *toss* will give you the right answer.”

“You're sure about that, Dinah?”

“I am.”

“I've got something but it's still really fuzzy. It's round and....” She paused and tilted her head. “It's a coin.” Barbara held up her hand before Dinah could prod her again, then pressed two fingers to her temple again. “It is in fact a coin from Col. Sarah MacKenzie – a coin that you absconded with, Colonel, after Lt. Cmdr. Bud Roberts loaned it to you and your partner Harmon Rabb to determine which of you would remain in the service and which of you would follow the other when you were being sent to San Diego and Harm was going to London. The top reads Judge Advocate General and the bottom has the dates 1995-2005, indicating the 10 years Admiral Albert J. Chegwidden was the Judge Advocate General of the United States Navy.”

“Son of a bitch,” Mac muttered. “That's absolutely right.”

“Nice going, Oracle,” Dinah cheered. The women cheered loudly as well.



Abby waved her hand to get Dinah's attention this time, but it was Kate who offered the next piece to challenge Barbara's ability. Dinah stood beside her, holding Kate's wrist. She pulled the microphone away from her mouth. “Can you take it off for me?” waiting for Kate to comply and getting a good read on her in the meantime. “Thanks,” she muttered before returning the mic to her lips.

“All-Seeing Oracle, I hold in my hand an object.”

“Still not an elephant, right?”


“All righty then.”

“Concentrate, Oracle – you're running out of *time* on this object.”

Barbara took a deep breath. “I'm running out of time to find that freaking elephant,” she muttered.

“Focus, Oracle. *Time* is moving right along here.”

“Of course it is... time is a constant, Dinah.” She rubbed her temple again. “It's a watch, but I can't see.... Wait – it's starting to come in a little more clearly.” She paused a moment. You're holding a very special watch. This watch is engraved on the back and was given to Caitlin Todd for her service on behalf of the President of the United States – dated September 23, 2003.”

“I'll be damned,” Kate said aloud. “How the hell did you know that?” Barbara simply smiled and the crowd went wild.



Emma had been signaling her mother and finally Olivia held up the item Emma wanted her buddy Barbara to guess. With a whispered word from Gabrielle, Emma ran over to join Olivia and Natalia just as Dinah reached them. She grinned and Emma nodded her head enthusiastically.

“Oracle, I hold in my hand an object.”

“Is it...?”

“Why yes... yes it is.”

“I didn't even ask yet.”

“Aren't you gonna ask if it's an elephant?”

“Why? I've guessed that three times already and it's been wrong every time. I think the elephant – like Elvis - has left the building.”

“Try again.”

“All right... is it an elephant?”

“It is, in fact, an elephant.”

“Oh man… that was too easy,” Emma broke in, giggling. “I knew you were gonna say that. Tell me, Bar... Oracle - what's my elephant's name?”

Barbara's eyebrows went into her hairline. “Emma, why did you name your stuffed elephant?”

“Because everyone needs a name.”

“That's a good reason,” Barbara agreed with a succinct nod of her head. She furrowed her brow in thought “Your elephant's name is... Frank??” Emma giggled and nodded her head enthusiastically.

“Emma!” Natalia exclaimed. Olivia just snorted.

“Okay, Emma,” Barbara offered. “Since you thought that was too easy, go ahead and ask me something else.”

“Kay. Um.. Bar... Oracle, what color underwear is Mommy wearing?”

“EMMA!!!” both her mothers shouted.

“Emma, whisper the color to Dinah,” Barbara instructed after delicately clearing her throat. Dinah leaned down and heard Emma's answer and frowned. Then she deliberately leaned on the back of Olivia's chair and promptly turned a disturbing shade of red. She cleared her throat and spoke directly to Emma, keeping her eyes away from Olivia's and Natalia's.

“Okay Emma... think of the color and concentrate. You got it?” waiting for Emma to nod. “All right, Oracle – she's concentrating really hard. What d'you think?”

“I'm getting the image,” rubbing her forehead thoughtfully. “It's... it's... coming in really weird. It looks like....” She paused and tilted her head as though trying to make sense of what she was seeing. “It's... camo? Olivia, you're wearing camouflage underwear??” Barbara shook her head before Dinah could speak. “Wait... not camo... COMMANDO!”

Olivia covered her eyes and hissed, “Emma!!!”

Natalia slapped her hand over Olivia's belly. “Olivia!!!”

In the midst of the mayhem, Emma looked between her two mommies trying to figure out why Natalia just hit her mommy. But that didn't dampen her curiosity and she met Olivia's eyes when she asked, “Mommy, what color is commando? Is that like pink?”

The entire room burst into hysterical laughter. Olivia covered her eyes; Natalia buried her entire face in her hands. Emma just looked at Dinah and shrugged her shoulders. Dinah sent Barbara a silent message – I'm really glad Helena is getting this on camera... THAT was priceless.



It took a few minutes for the room to settle down again, but even once the laughter had receded Dinah still didn't speak. There was some shuffling around the room that Barbara could hear and she tilted her head to try and determine what was going on.


“Sorry, Oracle. I hold in my hand….”

“Yada yada....” Barbara broke in.

“And no, it's not an elephant.”

“I wasn't going to guess that.”

“Why not? You've guessed that every other time.”

“Because what are the chances of two people packing an elephant in the same room?”

Dinah snorted. “And people think I'm a blonde.”

“Hey! I know where you live and you have to sleep sometime.”

“And back to the object before I end up sleeping by the pool tonight” smiling when the crowd laughed. “Try to *restrain* yourself from making outrageous guesses on this, Oracle.”

A pause.

“Oh no she didn't,” Barbara muttered, face flushing almost the color of her hair.

“C'mon, Red,” Helena encouraged. Barbara just shook her head.

“Of course she did,” causing laughter to ripple around the room. “Is the object yours, Helena?”


Barbara cocked her head thoughtfully and rubber her temples, willing away the flush she could still feel. Then she smiled slyly. “No it isn't... those aren't ours.” She pursed her lips and crinkled her forehead thoughtfully. “They're standard police issue,” pausing again briefly, “from here in Orlando, no less.” She tilted her head. “Besides, ours are fur-lined and they don't make noise. Where did you get those and why did you give them to Annabelle?” drawing gasps from the amazed crowd. She smirked. “Did you *really* think you could get one over on me like that?”

Helena held out her hand in frustration and Annabelle chuckled as she dropped the handcuffs in Helena's outstretched palm. Helena nodded her thanks... only to turn and find Detective Shana Kennian standing behind her scowling fiercely at her.

“I would appreciate the return of my property.” Helena smiled sheepishly and handed them over to Kennian with a flourish. Kennian nodded briskly and resumed her seat next to Bornlan.

“That was unexpected,” Teresa whispered to her partner. Shana frowned.

“I did not realize that was her intent.”

“I'm kinda afraid to ask what you thought her intent was,” Bornlan commented, then turned her attention back to Barbara.

Barbara tsked at Helena. “Oh, Sweetheart – you should know better. I'm not the All-Knowing Oracle for nothing. I expect there'll be hell for you to pay later.”

“I should be so lucky,” Helena said with a grin as ooohs and applause followed Barbra's pronouncement.



“M'kay,” Dinah said. “We have time for one more object.”

Janet looked at Sam, who nodded her agreement. Then she rose and offered a slip of an article to Dinah, who accepted it with a smile and a hand on Janet's shoulder.

“Oracle, I hold in my hand the final object.” A beat. “You know you're dying to ask,” Dinah teased.

“No I'm not. We already had our elephant, remember?

“Fine,” Dinah huffed theatrically. “I'm sure if you just *focus*, Oracle, all will become *clear* and you will have the answer in a *flash*.”

“I'm going to have wrinkles from all the focusing I've done tonight,” trying to smooth out the lines on her forehead before pressing her fingers to her temple once more.

“And I'm sure Helena will be glad to rub them out for you, Oracle. Now concentrate.”

“I am concentrating, Dinah. All I'm getting is ‘Printed on Kodak Paper.”

“Okay, so what does that tell you?”

“I can only see the back?” causing a ripple of laughter across the room. Barbara smiled in response, then pressed her fingers to her temple and bit her lips in contemplation.

“You hold in your hand a photograph... A very special photograph.” Barbara cocked her head and looked in Janet's direction even though her eyes were still hidden by the blindfold. “Are you certain you want me to share this with the audience? Dinah, can you bring Dr. Fraiser to the platform please?”

Dinah frowned but nodded and took Janet by the arm. Janet didn't pull away, allowing the touch as it grounded her after the unexpected shock of Barbara's question. She reached the stage and Barbara motioned her closer, handing the microphone to Dinah. Then Barbara whispered to Janet what she had read. Janet's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.

“My God,” she said loud enough for the room to hear. “That's exactly right!! How did you...?” She shook her head. “No wonder Dinah calls you Oracle – it's true.”

Barbara shook her head, but gave her a heartening smile. “The question is – can I share it with the audience?”

Janet looked directly at Sam, who smiled her encouragement, but left the decision to Janet. “Sure,” she finally agreed. “I don't think anyone here is going to go running to the Air Force with this... I hope.”

“I think we can all keep a secret – right, ladies?” Barbara asked as she brought the mic back up and turned her head towards the audience. Loud cheers greeted her question.

“So,” Barbara continued without missing a beat. “Dinah is holding a very special photograph. It's a picture taken a few weeks ago at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. It's of you and Samantha Carter with your daughter Cassandra on the day she told the two of you that you were going to become grandparents for the first time.” Barbara didn't reveal the secret of Cassandra's alien origins, but there was no need nor did she want to. That particular knowledge would be something to contemplate later. For now, the women were whooping and cheering their excitement over what she had seen and shared with them that evening.

She removed the blindfold and took Dinah's hand in her own, allowing the accolades to wash over them. Janet leaned over and hugged her and Barbara stiffened momentarily before briefly returning the embrace. “Thank you,” Janet whispered. “You don't know how wonderful it is to be allowed to share our excitement like this. Thank you.”

Barbara patted her hand, passing her microphone to Dinah to reset. “I'm glad. It was wonderful news to be able to share. Thank you for letting us.” Then Janet led the way down the stage, followed by Dinah and Barbara.

“Well done, ladies,” Gabrielle murmured sotto voce as they reached her. “Excellent job!”

“That was astounding. One day, you're gonna have to share your secret,” Lucy enthused from the stage as they resettled themselves. “And in the meantime, it's time for Xena to pay the piper. At least Gabrielle gave her more than an hour to prepare, and she gets help besides. So give it up for our singing warriors – Xena and Diana Prince!”

The room was filled with clapping and cheering as Xena and Diana took the stage. This promised to be entertaining at the very least.



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