Chapter XL

“How you doing, Kid?” Helena asked as she fluffed her hair in the living room mirror, keeping a surreptitious eye on Dinah. Dinah met her eyes in the mirror.

“I'm good, Hel... honestly. The walls are still strong.” She tucked a bit of blonde hair behind her ear. “Whoever killed Desdemona isn't at either conference now... if they ever were. All I got from anyone when they were leaving was some residual anger about someone messing up their weekend and curiosity to know who did it. A majority of them think they can figure out who did it before the police do.”

“Really? That's it?”

Dinah shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Hope they're smarter than Reese ever was.”

“I um... I don't think that would be a real stretch, Hel. Most of them are decorated officers in their fields.”

“And you know this how?”

“The same way I know they think they can solve it first – they were broadcasting loud and clear. “

“Wait... I thought you said the walls were holding.”

“They are, Helena . I opened myself up to test things. I knew you would be worried and would want to know if we needed to do another session before Gabrielle's seminar. So I checked.”

Helena shook her head. “All right, D. If you're sure....” waiting for Dinah to smile and nod. She clapped Dinah on the shoulder, then she looked over towards the bedroom. “C'mon, Barbara... we're gonna be late.”

Barbara's voice came from around the corner. “Give me another minute, Hel. Some of us didn't get to nap all afternoon and we need more than a fluff of our hair to put ourselves together.”

Dinah and Helena looked at one another, eyebrows furrowed. Dinah motioned to the door, mouthing, I'll meet you two there. Helena nodded and jerked her head at the door, waiting until Dinah closed the door behind her silently before Helena moved to lean on the bedroom doorjamb. She watched in concern as Barbara slumped against the back of her chair. Without hesitation, Helena pushed off the door and knelt down in front of Barbara.

“I'm sorry, Helena . That was mean and uncalled for.”

“What's wrong, Red?”

Barbara closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Nothing, Hel... really. I think I'm just tired,” knowing without looking exactly what kind of disbelieving expression Helena was giving her. Barbara kept her eyes closed. “Why don't you go ahead without me, sweetie? I think I'm just going to stay here and go to bed early,” finally meeting Helena's eyes and drawing a deep breath at what she found gazing back at her.


One crimson brow popped into an equally red hairline. “Excuse me?”

“I don't think I stuttered, Barbara.”

“ Helena ....” her voice holding a note of frustration.

“Barbara, if I thought for one minute you were gonna actually tuck yourself into bed this early and get some sleep, I'd clear out for the duration.” Helena captured Barbara's hands in her own before Barbara could use them to hide behind again. “But I know you, Barbara. What gives?”

“Let it alone, Helena ... please.”

“No, Red. Now talk to me.”

“Dammit, Helena ! Don't you start treating me like some sort of cripple too!” realizing she'd pushed too far when she saw Helena's eye flicker to cat's eye yellow briefly before Helena rose to her feet and stepped out of Barbara's reach.

“That's not fair, Barbara! I have *never* - not once - treated you like a cripple!”

“Then why did you take Diana's side??”

Helena put her hands on her hips. “Barbara, I didn't take anyone's side,” throwing her hands out before letting them slap her thighs. “There were no sides!”

Barbara sighed and clenched her jaw. “Of course there weren't. Just give me a moment and I'll be ready to join you.”

“I don't think so, Red. We're not going anywhere until we get this settled.”

“Jesus, Helena... what in the hell do you want from me??”

“I want everything, Red... including honesty.”

Barbara didn't reply vocally, but Helena waited patiently, knowing the precise moment Barbara surrendered. She knelt and lifted Barbara into her arms, relying on her meta-human strength and balance to keep from hurting either of them.

“Put me down, Helena . Put me down now.” Barbara's voice was sharp but held a note of weariness Helena could easily detect.

“No, Barbara. This isn't about your supposed handicap or....”

“Supposed?? What... now I'm imagining...???”

“Supposed,” Helena confirmed, cutting in smoothly. “These,” hefting Barbara's lower body enough for Barbara to recognize the movement, “aren't where your strength is – it never was.” Helena took a seat on the edge of the living room couch, loosening her hold on Barbara's legs long enough to make a point. “Your strength is here,” touching her fingers to Barbara's head, then moving them to cover Barbara's heart. “And here. So not being able to use your legs like everyone else does is only a handicap if you let it be,” encircling Barbara's legs one again.

“You don't know....” Barbara's voice was full of anger and tears.

“No, I don't,” Helena agreed softly. “I don't know what it's like to lose something that is part of my very make-up – or to have it put out there to people who don't know better as being all that I am. But Barbara, I do know about loss.” Barbara shook her head and Helena stopped talking, arching an eyebrow at Barbara, who sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, shaking her head again.

Helena tightened her hold and rocked them slowly back and forth. To her astonishment, Barbara didn't flinch or push her away; instead she held herself stiffly. Helena continued to hold and rock, not pushing, not speaking, until finally, Barbara curled into her embrace. Only then did Helena rise and move them to the bed, confident Barbara was ready to talk. Not that Helena needed to hear – she wasn't stupid by any means and knew exactly what was troubling her partner. But she also knew Barbara needed to share it if they were to move beyond it.

She placed Barbara against the headboard, allowing her to situate herself comfortably before Helena flopped onto the bed and put her head in Barbara's lap. Then she settled in to wait, knowing Barbara needed to relax and gather her thoughts together before she spoke. And knowing when Barbara started combing through her hair absently, they were going to be there a while.



“Mommy?” Emma asked as she looked up from her cup of grapes.

“Yes, baby?” Olivia replied, glancing across the food court at all the law enforcement personnel gathered together at the bar for what looked suspiciously like a brainstorming session.

“What kinds of stories do you suppose Gabrielle will tell tonight?”

Olivia blinked and returned her attention back to Emma. “Well,” she replied thoughtfully, biting off the end of a fry, “I really don't know, Em. I don't know what kinds of stories she knows.”

“I liked the story she told last night. I thought that was kinda cool. I'd never heard of anything called Bacchae before. How do you think she came up with that idea?”

“I don't....”

“They sounded way cooler than vampires. Didn't you think they sounded way cooler than vampires, Mommy?”


“I wonder if she knows any princess stories. Or maybe some detective stories. Or maybe....”

“Or maybe we can wait and see what she's gonna talk about,” Natalie cut in when she recognized the overwhelmed look on Olivia's face. “But Emma, you have to remember that she's been asked to *teach* how to tell stories like she did last night. I don't know if that means that Gabrielle will actually be telling stories.”

Emma frowned. “Why wouldn't she? My teacher uses stories to teach us things.”

“I don't know that she won't, sweetie. I just don't know that she will either.”

“She will,” Emma stated confidently. “You just watch.”



“Gods, that feels good,” Gabrielle moaned into the pillow her head was currently resting on.

“Me or the massage?” Xena teased, leaning forward until the front of her naked body was just touching Gabrielle's.

She turned her head to meet Xena's eyes, her own twinkling in response.

“Yes,” she stated unequivocally. She turned over, taking Xena's hands in her own and raising them over her head, tugging gently until she and Xena were nose to nose. “This is wonderful.”

Xena put their lips together, claiming Gabrielle thoroughly for long, passionate moments. “Yes, it is,” she agreed with a smile as she pulled away.

“So what's the occasion?”

Xena cocked an eyebrow and smirked. “Do I need one?”

Gabrielle wrinkled her nose when she smiled in response. “Of course not.”

“Good,” Xena replied, releasing Gabrielle's hands and sitting up straighter. “I'm glad we're agreed on that point. Although this time, I do have a reason.”


“Um hmm. See, I thought you could do with a bit of pampering.” She slid from Gabrielle's hips and curled around her back, embracing her from behind. Gabrielle melted into her and Xena let her hands trace up and down the soft skin. “This weekend hasn't really been very relaxing for you so far.”

“I dunno - I'm feeling pretty loose at the moment,” feeling Xena smile against her skin. “Besides, it hasn't been a cakewalk for you either,” Gabrielle returned humorously.

Xena chuckled. “Sure it has... different circumstances. I didn't get thrown into an impromptu storytelling session followed by a request for a lesson on storytelling AFTER finding out that a murder had been committed that caused the local police to look at me as a suspect because the victim was running a search bot on me. I thought a little pampering might help you relax – a little dinner, a little massage, a little lovemaking....” She kissed Gabrielle's shoulder.

“Well, I'm feeling very decadent – pampered and well-loved.”

Xena grinned. “Good. Mission accomplished then.”


Xena shifted just enough to glance at the clock. “I hate to be the one to bust the bubble we've got going here, but if we don't get cleaned up, we're gonna be late for your storytelling seminar.”

Gabrielle frowned, the looked at the clock and sighed mightily. “Fine,” she huffed, though she never lost her relaxed smile. “Since I did promise.”

“Yes, you did,” Xena agreed solemnly.

“All right,” Gabrielle agreed as she slipped from the bed. She held out her hand to Xena. “Wash my back?”

“Like I've ever said no to *that* offer.”

Gabrielle's laughter could be heard long after they closed the door behind them.



“Boss?” Lucy looked up at the sound of Scud's voice. “You got a minute?”

“Have a seat,” motioning her to a seat across from her. He let his eyes cut to Amy and Lucy just arched an eyebrow at him. “Have a seat, Scud. What's on your mind?”

“Everything all right?”

Lucy cocked her head to one side and gave him a crooked grin. “Sure... why wouldn't it be?” Scud just held her gaze until a pat on her arm from Amy caused Lucy to change her focus. She looked at Amy who cupped her cheek and gave her a smile. Lucy covered the hand on her face before she returned her attention to Scud.

“I'm fine.”

“So you don't think the cops are looking at us?”


Scud's eyebrows popped to his forehead. “Really?”

“Really,” turning back to Amy. When she didn't add anything else, Scud nodded briskly and rose from his seat.

“Well, then. Good... that's good. It is good, right?” seeing them both nod. “Good. I'll go let Janet know.” They waited for Scud to walk out of sight before they chuckled.

“That wasn't very nice,” Amy said, trying to hide her smile behind her hand.

Lucy captured the hand and held in it hers, keeping their other hands trapped against her face. “He'll live,” she said with a smile and a shrug. “And I'll give him the whole story later, but right now I'm enjoying the fact that I have no responsibilities and I've been cleared of suspicion.”

“Are we going to hear Gabrielle tonight?”

Lucy's grin turned rakish. “Do you have a better offer?”

Amy slipped her hand from Lucy's face and tugged on the hands she still held. “I think,” she said as she rose from her chair, “I could come up with something.”

“Do tell.”

Amy tugged again, and this time Lucy didn't ask. She simply rose and willingly followed where Amy led her.



“So where's your partner, Nikki?” Andy asked as a group of writers made their way towards the otherwise empty convention room. They were early, wanting to get good seats, but were surprised to find themselves the first to arrive. They tried the doors and found them locked, so they settled in front of it to wait for someone to open it.

“She and some of the other law types have decided to solve this mess for themselves, I think.”

Blake's eyebrows went to her hairline. “Do they really think they can? I mean, they don't have the resources of the local police. Can they figure it out without access to all the facts?”

“I don't see why not,” Annabelle commented. “As long as they are equally willing to share what Desdemona was holding over them.”

“Why should that matter?” Emily asked. Everyone turned back to Annabelle, curious to hear the younger woman's thoughts.

“It seems to me that would help eliminate each other as suspects,” Annabelle said with a shrug. “And wouldn't they need to do that first?” Everyone sat silently for a few minutes, before Nikki spoke again.

“I'll just be happy to have it done with.”

Before the rest could agree, a bedlam coming down the hall caused them to glance at each other and rise from their places on the floor. When they realized it was a good portion of both conventions, they chuckled and waited for the rest to join them.

From the sounds of it, it was going to be a fun and relaxing evening.



Chapter XLI

Dinah sat alone at the monitoring table behind the stage area when Xena and Gabrielle walked in through the back door. Xena frowned.

“Everything all right?”

Dinah turned and nodded her head. “Yeah. I didn't know if you wanted me to let people in before you got here so I kept the door locked.”

Xena nodded but didn't say anything, knowing if there was a problem, Gabrielle would let her know. Instead she crossed to the other side of the room and opened the doors to allow the seminar participants to stream in and find seats. When Diana crossed the threshold, Xena jerked her head towards the back. Diana accepted the wordless directive and headed towards the empty chair beside Dinah.

She got everything on her side situated to her satisfaction, then she turned to Dinah. “Barbara's pissed, isn't she?” watching Dinah's face flush with color. “Yeah, I thought as much. I knew she would be if she heard about it. I had just hoped....” She shrugged. “You all right?”

Dinah nodded her head. “Yeah – Barbara's really focused; she's good at compartmentalizing things. And Helena sent me over here before she tackled her.”

“If anyone can get Barbara to open up, Helena will,” Gabrielle said with a knowing smile.

“Which is why they're not here now,” Diana commented.

Dinah glanced at her watch. “Pretty much. I doubt they'll be here if you want to get started,” she added sparing a look in Gabrielle's direction. Gabrielle looked at her own watch.

“We have a few more minutes. Are you all right to be here, Dinah?”

“Yeah, I'm good. Helena 's block seems to have done the trick.”

Gabrielle nodded. “I'm going to go find some water. You ladies need anything?”

Dinah and Diana shook their heads and Gabrielle headed towards the back. In a few minutes she returned, a bottle in her hand and an ice bucket with another couple bottles tucked into it. Xena swooped in and relieved Gabrielle of the bucket, slipping it onto the stage without raising an eyebrow from the women in the audience. Then she came back and quickly wired Gabrielle up, leaving her alone once she was done.

The murmur of the crowd was level and Gabrielle moved to a quiet corner to center herself. When she was ready, she gave Xena a wink. Xena nodded and took to the stage.

“Ladies, you know why you're here. So without further delay, allow me to present Gabrielle.”

The applause was loud, though not raucous by any means, and Gabriele smiled as she took the stage. “Good evenings, ladies.”

“Good evening,” came the unexpected response from the audience. Gabrielle chuckled.

“Well, I have to admit I never expected such a turnout.” She looked around the room. “You do realize I'm going to be teaching storytelling this evening, not telling stories, right?” No one moved and Gabrielle shook her head with a smile. “All right – just don't say I didn't warn you. Now, Ms McPherson – since you requested this session, you volunteered to be my accomplice by default. So please... come up here and join me on stage.”

Sam swallowed hard, but rose gamely when Brooke patted her leg. The women in the audience encouraged her by their applause and she made her way onto the stage, standing stiffly to one side as soon as she stepped onto the stage. Gabrielle tilted her head and chuckled before shaking her head and making her way to Sam's side.

“Okay – first things first,” Gabrielle said, crossing the platform and taking Sam by the arm to lead her to the center of the stage. “You need to relax, Sam. As uptight as you are, you're not going to be able to remember your name... much less the story you want to tell.”

“Huh?” Sam questioned after a long moment, drawing laughter from both Gabrielle and the audience. She blushed and shook her head. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I'm probably not the best choice for this.”

Gabrielle smiled and signaled to Xena, who hooked Sam up with sound even as Diana brought two stools to the stage. Gabrielle nodded her thanks, motioning Sam to one stool while she took the other. “Give the mic a test, Sam.”

“'Kay... what should I say?”

Gabrielle looked at Dinah who nodded her approval. “That was good enough, Sam. Now... how about we get on with the business of learning how to tell stories?”

“Is it really something you can learn, Gabrielle? I mean... I've been writing stories all my life. But I don't know that I've ever *told* a story before.”

“Sam, if you can *write* a story, you can *tell* a story. The difference is all in presentation.”


Gabrielle smiled. “Tell me your story, Sam.” Sam looked nervously out at the expectantly waiting crowd. Gabrielle put a hand on her arm. “Don't worry about them,” gesturing to the audience that sat in partial darkness. “It's just you and me here,” removing her hand. “Tell me your story.”

“What story would you like me to tell?”

“It's your story, Sam. What story would you like to share with me?”

Sam sat quietly thinking, undisturbed by the eyes on her; she no longer saw them. For her, Gabrielle was her audience and it was only peripherally that she was aware of anyone else in the room. Sam started unexpectedly when Gabrielle's hand landed on her arm again.

“Sam, you're thinking too hard. Start off with something you know – something familiar... comfortable. It can be something that makes you laugh or cry, but it should be a memory – something that happened to you that you feel is important or worth sharing for whatever reason.”

Sam blinked, then scowled at Gabrielle. “Wait... what?”

Gabrielle chuckled. “The first rule of storytelling is that you stick with what you know.”

“Okay, so you knew about gods and Bacchae and immortals because you are all those things?”

“No,” glad she could reply truthfully because of the exactness of the parameters set in Sam's question. “Stories like the one I told last night fall into the second rule of storytelling.”

“Which is?”

“If you're gonna tell tall tales, sweat the details. And then practice, practice, practice.”

Sam looked out at the audience and unerringly zoned onto Brooke's eyes. “Remind me again why I thought this was gonna be a great idea?”

Brooke met her gaze unflinchingly. “Because you're a born storyteller, Sammie. And having a master teach you can only make you better.”

Sam scratched the back of her neck. “Oh yeah.” She turned back to Gabrielle. “Sorry. Sometimes I need a reminder.”

Gabrielle patted the arm she still held. “Sometimes we all do. Now... tell me a story, Sam.”



“That was amazing,” Alex commented as the New York contingent slowly filed out of the convention room at the end of Gabrielle's seminar. “I feel like I could be a storyteller now.”

“I think that's one of Gabrielle's gifts *as* a storyteller – she can make you believe anything,” Abbie said, ducking a swat from Alex. “Hey! Watch it, Cabot! You'll damage the merchandise!”

“Well then Casey can pick you up at a discounted price then, can't she?” Alex snarked, causing laughter to titter through the rest of the group. Abbie pouted; Casey wrapped an arm around her waist.

“I'd pay full price,” she assured Abbie. Alex wrapped an arm around Abbie's shoulders and brushed a kiss over her temple.

“Yeah, we still love you, Carmichael.” Tracey gagged at Alex's words.

“Is it getting deep in here?”

“This coming from a lawyer,” Olivia snorted, then skittered away from all of them when they all raised their hands to swing at her. “I'm gonna go walk over there now,” pointing towards Lindsay.

“Better stay and take your medicine, Detective,” Jo said with a grin on her face.

“Is that your professional opinion, Detective, or are you just whipped?”

“Oh no you didn't.”

Olivia took off running, with Jo hot on her heels. Alex and Blair exchanged glances and shook their heads, though they couldn't hide the smiles they sported. The rest of their comrades didn't even try to pretend indifference – they simply laughed aloud at the antics of the two police officers. Melinda sighed.

“And here I thought my kids were the children of the group.”

“Your kids *are* the children of the group,” Alex assured her drolly. “These are simply five-year-old adults with driver's licenses and credit cards.” Jo and Olivia stopped chasing each other and turned to glare at Alex. The look she gave them caused them to exchange glances and shrug sheepishly, then turn back to join their friends on the walk back to their rooms.



“You know,” Ziva said as the NCIS team exited the convention room, “despite everything, I am very glad we came to this conference.”

“Why is that, Ziva?” Catherine asked. The CSI team was walking just ahead of the group from DC, and Catherine was naturally curious.

“I am having a good time,” was Ziva's answer. Everyone was somewhat nonplussed by her statement and it took them a moment to respond.

“You didn't expect to? Ziva, this is Disney World,” JJ replied.

“Yes, but I did not know much of Disney World and I certainly never thought I would meet so many women with so many things in common with me. I was... hesitant... when it was first suggested we attend this event.”

“That's true,” Abby piped up. “Kate and I had to do some serious fast-talking to get her to agree.”

“Well, that and Gibbs insisted.”

“No one had to insist for us to come,” Garcia confessed. “In fact, we were the ones who had to do the fast-talking to convince The Powers That Be that it would be advantageous for us to be here.”

“Well, I for one am thrilled you girls insisted,” Sabrina said. “I wouldn't have missed the opportunity to get reacquainted with my niece again. Even Desdemona's death can't dampen that experience,” wrapping an arm around Emily's waist and smiling when the affectionate gesture was returned.

“Do you think the police will solve it?” Sara asked.

The groups looked at each other and finally lifted their shoulders in a unified shrug. “It's hard to say,” Kelly eventually commented. “Especially since we don't have access to their data or the facts and theories in the case. I personally don't think anyone here did it and I'm not sure they will ever find who did.”

“Can I ask why?” Lilly questioned.

“To which part?”


“Well, I don't think anyone here did it because doing so brought to light things most of us would prefer remained secret for one reason or another. But by killing her and making all of us viable suspects for however briefly, the waters were muddled long enough for the guilty party to get away. I don't think they will find the killer because they aren't looking in the right direction.”

“Do you know what the right direction is?” from Sophia.

“No,” Kelly replied calmly. “I just don't think it's among us.”



“Sam, that was amazing,” Jordan commented. The rest nodded their agreement vigorously.

“I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised. I really didn't think I could do it.”

“Why not, Sammie?” Brooke queried. “You're a natural.”

“I didn't expect to be... not in this. This was closer to acting than writing.”

Tootie nodded. “She's right – it really is. You have to put yourself out there. The difference is an actor puts themselves out there as someone else... for someone else. With a storyteller, it's all them.”

“Well, I thought it was fabulous,” Natalie said with a grin. “Thank you for asking for the seminar, Sam. I really enjoyed it.”

“We all did,” Cindy commented. “I think even the law enforcement types did,” squeezing Lindsay's hand and returning the smile she got.

“So, Ms McPherson,” Andy said with mock seriousness, holding up her pencil like it was a microphone. “When can we expect your first performance?”

“Andrea,” Miranda chided. “Don't put Ms McPherson on the spot like that. I'm sure she'll remember to invite us all to her debut.” Her tone was serious, but her blue eyes twinkled. The corner of her lip twitched when Sam's startled eyes met hers and Sam recognized Miranda's hidden sense of humor. She chuckled and shook her head.

“I'm certainly looking forward it,” Simone said. “I wonder if we could possibly teach this... add it to the curriculum in our schools.”

“Perhaps,” Miranda mulled, “though considering how the arts are disappearing from our school system, we might be better served to do something more along these lines,” motioning around her, “at our colleges and universities.” She shrugged. “Something to think about.”

“I think it's a wonderful idea, mom,” Caroline spoke up for the first time. “The question is could you sell the idea to them?”

“The bigger question is would Gabrielle be willing to do it?” Cassidy added.

“I think Gabrielle could be convinced,” Brooke said. “And with all the influential people on both sides of these conferences, I think we could open some doors to institutes of higher learning.”

Caroline and Cassidy exchanged glances. “Lawyer, right?” they snickered. Brooke just laughed and nodded, and the rest were happy to join in.

“So long as we can get some of those visits on the other side of the pond,” Nikki said.

“Absolutely,” Scribbs agreed. “I'd pay to see her in concert.”

“I think we all would, Emma,” Helen stated and the rest nodded their agreement.



“So what did you think, Sweetie?” Angela asked as they made their way back to the other side of the resort. Bones shook her head.

“I'm not sure that I can agree with her methods. After all, my work is nothing like that. My books are very factual and Gabrielle seems to deal in flights of fancy.

“That's what makes her so amazing,” Cameron said. “That she can take a thread of an idea and spin it into whole cloth... it's a gift. That she can teach others to do the same is extraordinary.”

“I don't understand that. How does it make her better?”

“I didn't say it did,” Cameron objected.

“Are you jealous, Sweetie?” Angela asked softly.

“I'm not jealous! I'm not!” Bones stated forcefully. “I am a genius after all. That makes me better than gifted.”

“And people relate to her naturally. She makes it look effortless.” Angela took Bones hand in hers. “It's all right to be jealous, Brennan. It makes you human like the rest of us, all right?” waiting for Tempe to slowly nod her head. “Now, did you enjoy the stories?”

Brennan nodded. “I did. That's part of what I don't understand. I really didn't want to be impressed, but I was.”

Angela and Cameron exchanged smiles. “It's okay, Dr. Brennan,” Cameron offered. “People in our field feel the same way about you. You've found your place – don't be so anxious to give it up for something that may not satisfy your scientific curiosity or your search for the truth.”

“There's nothing that says you can't enjoy something just because it's new to you, Sweetie. How else do we grow as people if we don't try new things?”

Bones puzzled silently as they reached their rooms. “Maybe she'll perform again tomorrow night. I would like to hear her again,” she confessed.

Angela and Cameron nodded. “So would I,” they chorused as they crossed the thresholds into their rooms.



Chapter XLII

“Did you enjoy yourself, Jellybean?” Gabrielle asked Emma as Diana and Dinah were wrapping things up for the night. Emma had insisted that they say goodnight to Gabrielle and Xena, so the Spencer-Rivera family were among the last to leave the big hall.

Emma grinned and nodded enthusiastically. “Oh yes! That was awesome! You helped Sam tell some good stories. You told some good stories too.”

Xena put an arm around Gabrielle's waist. “It's what she does best, Jellybean,” not even drawing snickers from the rest. Gabrielle leaned into her, accepting it for the compliment it was meant to be.

“Well, I really liked it.” She looked at Gabrielle seriously. “You should go on tour or something. I'll bet lots of people would pay to hear you tell stories like that.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Maybe. But I'm glad you had a good time tonight. Are you coming to the talent show tomorrow night?”

“Are you telling stories again?”

“No, but Xena is going to sing.” Emma's eyes went round.

“You can sing?” Xena nodded. “Wow... I didn't know a Queen's Champion had to do so much stuff.” Emma turned and looked straight at Gabrielle. “I'll make you a deal,” waiting for Gabrielle to nod. “I'll tell a story if you'll tell a story.”

Xena chuckled silently, knowing Emma had just put Gabrielle up on the stage again, because there was no way Gabrielle would say no to that. Gabrielle held Emma's gaze a long moment, but Emma didn't even blink.

“Are you sure, Emma?” Emma nodded. “All right. You tell a story and I'll tell a story.” Emma pumped her arm in victory, causing a chuckle to run through the assembled adults.

“Too cool – I'll be a Queen's Champion yet. Queen's Champions can tell stories instead of sing, can't they?”

“Absolutely,” Gabrielle agreed. “You do know that some songs tell stories too right?”


“And on that note,” Olivia said, taking Emma by the hand on one side and Natalia by the hand on the other, “we'll see you ladies in the morning.”

“Goodnight, guys,” grinning when Emma turned around and waved enthusiastically as they walked out the door. Gabrielle leaned more heavily into Xena's body. Xena brushed her lips over Gabrielle's forehead.

“You all right?” she whispered, smiling when she felt Gabrielle nod against her.

“Yeah,” Gabrielle replied. “Just tired. Been a REALLY long day.”

“Well, Diana and Dinah are almost done. We should be able to leave soon.”

At that moment, Diana and Dinah walked over to them. “Everything's saved and backed up and we're ready to go for tomorrow's sessions,” Diana informed them. “Dinah's going to stay with me tonight.”

“Yeah, I think Helena and Barbara need a little time alone and Diana offered, so....” tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

“I think that's a great idea,” Gabrielle agreed. “ Helena will put Barbara in a better frame of mind and tomorrow, her anger will have turned into something less volatile. Maybe by then the detectives will have some other leads to follow.”

“That'd be nice,” Dinah said. “Though I have to tell you guys, I don't think the guilty party is here.”

“Really?” from Diana.

Dinah nodded and tucked her hair again. “Yeah. Everyone is projecting and when I dropped my walls earlier, all I got was frustration and confusion. I think if our killer was here I would have gotten something different.”

Xena nodded. “I think you're probably right. But I don't think we can do much about it tonight. C'mon,” she said, tangling her fingers with Gabrielle's and motioning Diana and Dinah to walk ahead of them. “Let the police worry about it.”

Three sets of eyebrows rose to three different hairlines. “That's it?” Diana asked incredulously.

“For tonight – yes,” Xena replied. “As Dinah pointed out, our killer isn't here and we've all had a very long day today already.” She waited for the other three to walk out the door in front of her, then pulled it shut behind her, making sure it was locked.

“You two go get some rest,” Gabrielle instructed before they could ask any more questions. “We'll meet you back here first thing in the morning?”

Both women nodded and Gabrielle gave them a sincere smile. “Thank you both for your help tonight.”

“I had a blast,” Dinah proclaimed with a smile.

“As did I,” Diana agreed with a nod of her head. “Thank you for allowing us to attend. You do realize Mother is going to be inconsolable when she learns she missed this.”

“How fortunate that you got everything on disc.”

“No kidding – Barbara's gonna be even more pissed when she finds out what she missed,” Dinah chirped.

“She'll get over it,” Gabrielle promised. “She's got Helena and for now, that's enough.” She crinkled her nose up when she smiled. “Besides, she can watch it later.”

“This is our stop,” Diana said, motioning to her room. She slid the key in the lock. “Goodnight, ladies.”

“Night,” Xena and Gabrielle chimed together as they turned and headed out towards the suite they were staying in.

“You know who killed Desdemona, don't you?” Gabrielle asked when she was certain they were alone.

“I know who killed Desdemona; I'm not certain why yet, though I have my suspicions.”

“I see. And how did you figure it out?”

Xena just gave her a look. “A little research... a little reading. I'm actually pretty good at putting these things together when I make an effort,” Xena replied wryly.

“Yeah, I've heard rumors to that effect, though I'd been told by someone in the know,” giving Xena a smirk, “that it was all just natural talent. I'm actually inclined to go with that natural talent theory, having seen it in action on more than one occasion about any number of skills you seem to possess,” drawing a smile from Xena.

“Hey! I work at some of them too,” she protested with the slightest pout.

“Oh, I know,” Gabrielle concurred. “You're all about practicing and improving. I benefit from that a lot,” she added with a grin that widened at Xena's cocky smirk. “So, would you like to share this particular bit of natural brilliance with me or are you gonna make me figure it out for myself?” asked with another smile.

“In the spirit of good time management and considering the fact that I have far more important things to do with you tonight than discuss this murder, I might be willing to share with you this one time. Next time, however....”

Gabrielle's eyes widened. “You expect us to do this again??”

“The convention... yes. The murder? Not so much.”

“Thank the gods. Once of that circumstance is enough, though I'm still not convinced Desdemona didn't do this deliberately... just to cause us all kinds of issues.”

Xena snorted. “I doubt she's that talented. Besides, it's a hell of a long way to go to make a point, and for most people, death is kinda permanent.”

“I guess we should count ourselves lucky she wasn't our kind,” Gabrielle commented drolly. “But that doesn't get me any closer to knowing who killed her.”

“What's it worth to you to know?” Xena asked as she unlocked the door.

“What's it worth to you to keep it a secret?” Gabrielle countered with a smirk as she crossed the threshold. Xena just dropped her chin to her chest knowing it was the one argument she would never win. Gabrielle chuckled. “Never try to out-barter a bard – especially one with my years of experience.”

“You'd think I'd remember that after a while,” shaking her head as she followed Gabrielle inside. They exchanged looks.

“Nah,” they commented together as they closed door on their laughter.



“You're amazing,” Barbara commented with a smile as she ran her hands over Helena 's smooth skin, still slick with sweat. She realized her error immediately as Helena reared up and leaned over her sporting a cocky smirk on her face.

“You were pretty amazing yourself. Wanna go again?”

Barbara chuckled and shook her head, drawing Helena 's lips to hers and allowing Helena to deepen it for long moments. She pulled back slowly, smiling at the golden cat's eyes that stared back at her hungrily. “That's not what I meant,” brushing the dark bangs away from Helena 's eyes, “and you know it.”

“Hey, can I help it if you spoke the truth and it sounded like an offer?” said teasingly... lightly.

“Why do you do that? Why do you downplay how important you are to me?” Gold eyes went deep blue and widened. Helena opened her mouth to respond, but no sound came out. She dropped her head back to Barbara's shoulder and replaced her arm on Barbara's torso.

“ Helena , you do so much for me – make such a difference in my life just by being you. That's one reason....” Barbara trailed off and Helena tilted her head up, bringing Barbara's profile into view. She watched Barbara bite her lip and sat up again, keeping her eyes on Barbara's face even though the green eyes were closed to her.

Helena 's brow furrowed. “This isn't about what happened with Diana earlier is it?” feeling Barbara's heartbeat skip before going into overdrive. “Barbara, look at me.” Barbara scrunched up her eyes tighter, allowing a tear to leak out from one corner. Helena leaned up and kissed it away, the lightest touch of her tongue pulling a shiver out of Barbara. “Baaaaar-barrrrra,” she drawled slowly, the tiniest hint of laughter in her tone. “Look at me, Barbara.”

“Please don't make me,” came the barest whisper from Barbara's nearly unmoving lips.

Helena stroked the side of Barbara's face tenderly before cupping Barbara's cheek. “Barbara... when have I *ever* been able to *make* you do anything? Open your eyes for me... please? I wanna see those beautiful green eyes looking back at me with love that's all mine.”

Barbara couldn't resist that quiet plea any more than she could stop breathing and live. She blinked her eyes open, and felt another tear slide down her face at the look of loving adoration that was shining from Helena 's very blue eyes.

“Barbara,” Helena said softly. “You have nothing to worry about. There's no reason for you to be jealous. I love Dinah and I'm proud that she trusts me to protect her like that, but I'm *in love* with you. I think I always have been.”

“I know that in my mind,” Barbara admitted, pushing her hair off her face, then covering Helena 's hand with her own. “I know that in my heart too – really, I do. But sometimes... seeing it – it's incredibly intimate, Hel - and then being so forcibly reminded of my physical challenges....” Helena 's hand slid from beneath hers and Barbara felt the slightest soft touch on her lips when Helena 's fingers covered her lips to stem the tide of her words.

“Barbara, if you would like to experience what we share when Dinah and I do an energy transfer, we'd be glad to show you.”

“No, Helena... no. I would never put either of you in danger like that. It was just everything and at the end of the day....”

“At the end of the day, even superheroes need some down time. But Barbara, I need you to remember something for me.”

“What's that, Sweetheart?”

“I want everything.”

Barbara nodded. “Then you have to remember something as well, Helena . So do I. Please don't discount your importance in my life anymore. Or pretend you're not the romantic I know you are.”

“You're gonna ruin my rep, Oracle.”

“Don't worry, Huntress – your secret's safe with me.” Then Barbara pulled Helena to her again and they stopped talking.



“I was kinda surprised Wendy decided we should go to that storytelling seminar tonight,” Nikki commented to Nora as they made their way back towards their room. “I mean, I enjoyed Gabrielle's presentation and all – she should really come to New Orleans ... they'd love her there – but I wouldn't have had a problem giving it a miss to talk to Wendy a little more.”

“I asked her to,” Nora confessed, holding tight to the hand she was clasping. Nikki snapped her head around swiftly, meeting Nora's eyes and holding them while silently demanding an explanation with her own. Nora sighed, but didn't look away.

“I know what you suspect, Nikki. I felt the tremor that ran through you when she mentioned the name of the man her mother dated.” Nora blew out a breath, never dropping the outraged brown eyes now burning into hers. “I wanted to give you a chance to come to grips with it before we talked to her again. You deserved the chance to do that privately.”

“You mean before I have to tell her she's my bastard half-sister? That the man I've idolized and looked up to my whole life is nothing but a cheat and a liar??” Her voice never rose above a harsh whisper, but the tears slid down her face in rivulets. Nora pulled them to a halt and cupped Nikki's face, only to stiffen when Nikki jerked away from her touch. She grabbed on a second time... a little more forcefully, but only enough to get Nikki's attention.

“Oh no, Nikki – you don't get to hide from me. We're a couple... as legal as we can make it in the state of Louisiana . We may not get to be married, much to my mama's disappointment, but that doesn't lessen our responsibility to or for one another. You don't get to carry this by yourself – I won't let you!” Nikki blinked at the ferocity in Nora's voice. “Are we perfectly clear?” Nora asked. Nikki just nodded.

“Good. Now, let's go back to our room and crawl into that soft bed and snuggle for a while. This day has been forever long and I want a little time to just be with you. We can worry about what to tell Wendy tomorrow.”

Nikki wiped her eyes and nodded, taking Nora's hand in hers once more and holding onto it like it was a lifeline. “That sounds wonderful. I love you, Nora.”

“And I love you Nikki... so much. Who knows – you may grow to like the idea of having a sister.”

“As long as I've got you, Sugar, it's all good.”

They didn't even notice the local detectives pass them on their way out.



“Wow,” Bornlan commented. “Wonder what that was all about.”

“Given the way these women have responded to the death of our victim, I believe it is safe to say it had nothing to do with our case,” Kennian replied.

“I'd be inclined to agree with that.” Teresa stretched and yawned. “God, I'm tired. It's been a long time since I had to work round the clock like this.”

“Would you prefer to return home for the night and resume our investigation in the morning?”

“I would prefer this investigation be over and we have our murderer in custody. However, since that is unlikely to happen in the next five minutes....” Bornlan glanced at her watch. “Damn! When did it get so late?”

Kennian suspected it was a rhetorical question, so she chose not to answer it, instead continuing down the hallway that led back to the convention rooms. “Where are we setting up?”

“Let's check the computer... see if anything new came in. Then we can go over to the other room. I feel better about spreading out in there. I don't think anyone will bother us.”

Kennian looked around at the empty hall, deserted by everyone but themselves and a couple custodians. Still she nodded her head and headed for the main room, only to discover it was locked. Bornlan banged her head against the wall.

“Of course it's locked. There's a lot of equipment and gadgets in those rooms.” She blew out a frustrated breath. “Look, I'll go see if I can find someone to open this up for us and you go on and get started on my list. I'll be as quick as I can. Then I'll start going over your list while you check the computer.”

Shana nodded. “That seems to be the wisest course of action. You will call...?”

“... if anything comes up – yes.”

“Very well,” Kennian agreed and slipped across the hall to the room that had been set aside for them. Bornlan waited until Shana opened the door, then she turned and headed back the way she'd come from.



Chapter XLIII

“My brain hurts,” Bornlan complained as she dropped her head down onto the table. Her actions knocked over a Red Bull can, but she couldn't bring herself to care enough to pick it up. Kennian ran a hand through her disheveled hair, wondering absently if she'd be able to find enough pins to put it up again.

“Perhaps we should quit for the night, Teresa, and pick it up fresh in the morning. A few hours of sleep would do us both a world of good and might give us a different perspective on things.”

Bornlan groaned. “I know you're right, Shana, but it feels like we're soooo close. Have we gone over everything?”

“At least twice,” Kennian replied cuttingly, rubbing her eyes with her fingertips. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I believe I have hit a wall.”

“I think we both probably have,” Bornlan confessed as she lifted her head off the desk. She reached forward and rescued the can, tossing it into a nearby trashcan before beginning to straighten the stacks of papers on the table. Kennian tilted her head in question.

“Let's go see if they've got a place we can crash in for a few hours. All these rooms... there's bound to be something, right? And if not, we can probably at least get a nice hot shower somewhere. That would probably help wake us up if nothing else.”

Kennian stretched, then flinched as she heard her vertebrae pop back into place. Bornlan cut her eyes in Shana's direction.

“That sounded evil.”

“Yes, but surprisingly I feel better,” rising to her feet. “Come. Let us find somewhere to get some rest. We can start again in a few hours.”

“I like the sound of that.”



“I have to tell you – this is highly unusual,” Mary Shannon confided in her charge as she sipped from a fresh cup of piping hot coffee. The truck stop was clean and was a welcome respite from the driving they'd been doing for the past several hours.

“I'm aware, Marshal. But it's necessary.”

“So you wanna tell me how I got involved?”

“Because eventually the police will figure out that I'm missing and will start looking for me. They're not gonna be looking for you or someone traveling with you.”

“But with your obvious resources....”

The redhead smiled. “You're legitimate, Marshal. *If* they get as far as you in their search for me, they'll have to stop looking at that point.”

Mary frowned. “I'm not sure I like that.”

“Marshal, I assure you that both you and your job are perfectly safe.”

“Why do I get the feeling that the less I know in this situation, the better off I am?”

“Because you're a really smart cookie,” the other woman said with a smile. Mary just shook her head.

“C'mon,” she said as she rose and dropped a few bills on the table. “We need to get on the road and I need to make a phone call.” The other woman nodded and stood as well.

“You want me to drive for a while?”

Mary looked at her for a long moment. “This is just so weird,” handing over the keys. “Most people just aren't this accommodating.”

“Yeah, but most people don't want to be where I am at the moment.” She popped the locks and opened the driver's side door. “Make your call, Marshal. Your partner's probably wondering what the hell by now.”

Mary dialed the number and turned on the speakerphone. She figured introducing this woman to her partner, even via phone, would be partial payback for the psychedelic hallucination her life had suddenly become.

“House of Pie... Marshal Marshall Mann speaking.”

“Hey, Marshall – it's me,” Mary replied, trying desperately not to snicker at the expression on her companion's face. It was going to be an interesting ride to the airport.



“You know, Ash... I never expected our first trip to America to be quite so....”

“Convoluted?” Kate offered as she slid into bed.

“I was going to say exciting,” Emma stated drolly as she rinsed her toothbrush and dropped it into the cup. She shook her head and crawled into bed, shifting the covers until Kate sat up and glared at her.

“Will you *please* stop that this instant? It's most annoying.”

Scribbs pouted just the least little bit. “I'm just trying to get comfortable.”

“Well do so quickly. You're keeping me awake with all your fidgeting.”

“I could keep you awake with conversation if you'd rather,” Emma answered cheekily. Ash just gave her a baleful stare. “Oh c'mon Ash - can you honestly say you aren't having fun here?”

“I am learning some useful information and making some good contacts,” Kate conceded, watching a frown crease Emma's forehead. “And I did enjoy the scavenger hunt we participated in last night.”

“That was great fun. Too bad we can't do something like that at home.”

Ash chuckled. “The boys would never stand for it – too much effort,” she added. Emma shrugged.

“You're probably right,” she agreed, sliding down until her head hit the pillow. “Wonder what they'd think about Gabrielle.”

“Oh... that would be bad,” Kate said seriously. Emma rose up to catch the look on Ash's face and didn't see even the hint of a twinkle in her eyes. She frowned again.

“Why'd you say that? I thought she was amazing.”

“Oh she was,” Kate confirmed instantly. “But despite their apparent easygoing nature, I don't think she or her partner would put up with lewd comments. And you know there would be some,” thinking of some of their personal experiences.

Scribbs bit her lip. “I'd pay good money to see that,” she stated plainly. “It'd be nice to see someone give them their comeuppance. And I got the feeling they'd be just the ones to do it.”

Ash smiled, letting her mind daydream about it for a moment. “C'mon then,” she said, turning over on her side and pulling the covers up over her shoulder. “Shut off the light and let's get some sleep. We have another full day tomorrow.”

“Hopefully without any more murders.”

“Bite your tongue, Emma,” Ash commanded sharply. Emma smirked, having clearly heard the glare behind her words.

“What?” she asked innocently. “I want to see the talent show tomorrow night. I hear it's going to be very entertaining. I don't want anything else interfering in our weekend.”

“I think it's safe to say no one does, Emma. Now go to sleep.”

“Yes, mom,” Scribbs grumbled, but the room fell into silence and soon only the sound of two women breathing the deep breaths of sleep could be heard in the room.



“That was fun, mom. Thanks for inviting me along,” Ashlee said as they pulled back into the parking lot of her apartment building. Doris smiled and turned to face her daughter.

“It really was, wasn't it? I have to admit I was kind of surprised you wanted to come along.”

Ashlee tilted her head at Doris . “Why?”

“C'mon, Ashlee... hanging with your old mom on a Saturday night? You've gotta have better things to do. Don't you?”

Ashlee shrugged. “Sometimes,” she replied honestly. “Don't worry, mom. I've got friends here – we go out and do things. But I am here to work, so it's not like I go out every night... or even every weekend. Geez... I didn't do that at home with people I grew up knowing.”

Doris tucked a loose strand of blonde hair behind Ashlee's ear. “I know. I just worry.”

“Don't. I'm all right.”

“I know. But I'll always worry. It's my job.”

Ashlee rolled her eyes and reached for the door handle. “C'mon. It's late and I've got to work tomorrow while you're conventioning.”

They exited the car and headed to Ashlee's apartment. “But you're coming tomorrow night, right? I made sure it was okay.”

“Yes, mom. I'll be there tomorrow night,” Ashlee agreed as she opened the door and ushered her mom inside. “Are you participating?”

“As a performer?” Doris asked, shaking her head. “No. But if the rumors I've heard going around are true, it should be a lot of fun.”

“Really?” Ashlee cringed, recognizing the disbelief in her voice. “I mean... I'm sure it will be. But anything has to be better than that whole murder thing, right?”

Doris sighed and dropped onto the couch. “God, yes. What an utter disaster that has been,” smiling wryly when she heard Ashlee giggle. “You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I do,” snagging a couple water bottles and passing one to Doris . “Do you think they'll catch the guy who did it?”

Doris swallowed the mouthful of water she'd taken and tilted her head at Ashlee thoughtfully. “Honestly, I don't know. And I really can't claim to care very much either. Desdemona was an ass, and personally, I'm glad to see her dead.”


“Ashlee, I'm not going to pretend to feel remorse or upset because she's dead. And I doubt many of the others will either. She was a leech.”

“Don't you think your attitude might make the police scrutinize you a little more closely?”

Doris shook her head. “No, because everyone else feels the same way.”

Ashlee thought about that statement a long moment and shook her head. “You know... that's a really sad commentary to have made about your life.”

“Yeah, it really is. C'mon,” Doris added as she stood. “It's late and I'm tired.”

“Me too,” Ashlee agreed, “but I'm glad you're here.”

“Me too, baby girl. Me too.”



“So did you all get it solved then, love?” Nikki asked as she wrapped her length around Helen's. Helen scooted back until they fit perfectly.

“What's that, swee'heart?” snuggling close and smiling when Nikki tucked her head into the crook of Helen's neck. Nikki brushed a kiss over the juncture of Helen's neck and shoulder, grinning and doing it a second time when she felt Helen shiver in her arms.

“What's what?” trailing her lips up Helen's neck to her ear as her hand skittered up and down Helen's torso.

Helen closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Nik, what're you talking about?” feeling Nikki smile against her skin. “You know I canna think when you do that.”

Nikki nodded and propped her head on her arm so she could look down at the woman cradled by her body. “I know, but it's fun to make you lose focus so easily now that I can without fear of reprisals or worrying that you might pull away from me. Do you know how many times I held myself back from you?”

Helen shifted until she was laying flat on her back, causing Nikki to frown until she cupped Nikki's face in her hand and tenderly stroked away the expression. “Yes,” she replied simply. “I canna tell you how glad I am that you were as damned persistent as you were. I wouldna have wanted to miss this, Nikki... not for anything.”

“So you don't miss it then? Being a Governor? Working in the prison system like before?”

“Not at all, Nik.” Helen shifted again until they were facing one another, her head propped on her hand mirroring Nikki's position though they still were not equal in height. “Nikki, I've learned a lot at this conference; I've made some good contacts that might be useful for me down the road. But working in the system... that's not for me anymore. I truly believe that I was there for one reason and one reason alone.”

Helen waited for Nikki to look up at her from under her lashes. “Nikki, I was there to find you. “

Nikki couldn't stop the grin that started curling the edges of her mouth until it widened to show sparkling white teeth even as a blush crawled up her face. “Really?” she asked softly, her eyes dropping to the bed again. Helen slid her hand from Nikki's cheek until it was under her chin. Then she gently urged Nikki's face up until their eyes met.


Nikki leaned forward until their lips met. Their verbal conversation was over for the night.



“So what do you think?” Amy asked while tucked naked into bed with Lucy sharing a snack.

“I think I feel really relaxed,” Lucy said with a smirk. “This was a great idea.” She leaned over for a kiss that Amy was more than happy to provide. They separated after a moment and Amy leaned back slightly to remove the tray of food from between them. She placed it on the floor and twisted until she was facing Lucy again.

“Yeah, it was. But that wasn't what I was talking about.”

“I know,” Lucy said, giving Amy a rakish grin. “But this really was a good idea.” She cupped Amy's face. “I missed you today. It seems like....”

“... today was years long?” watching Lucy nod her agreement. “I know, but at least at the end of it we're together.”

Lucy's smile grew impossibly brighter and Amy leaned in for yet another kiss. “I love you, ya know?”

“I know - and I love you... so much. What happened with Desdemona just brings it home.” Lucy frowned and Amy smoothed the lines out with a gentle smile. “Not the Desi part so much. She got what she deserved,” she declared with more than a hint of force. “But knowing that things can change in an instant....”


“But that still didn't answer my original question,” Amy said and cuddled into Lucy's body. Lucy smiled and wrapped an arm around her, brushing a kiss over slightly sweaty blonde hair. “What do you think?”

“About?” Amy shifted enough to look at Lucy, poking her in the side, then wrapping an arm over her stomach when she tried to squirm away. “What?” she added with a hint of laughter. “Stop that!” when Amy started tickling up her ribs. “All right! All right! I surrender!”


“I think I don't care who killed her. I know I didn't and you didn't and Xena made sure the cops understood I didn't kill her. That's enough for me.”



“I hope they figure it out, just so a cloud doesn't hang over all the folks here. Most of them seem like decent sorts and it'd suck to have this following them around for the rest of their lives.”

“Do you think they figured it out – the law enforcement people that were all sitting around the bar earlier, I mean?”

Lucy shrugged. “I dunno. Guess we'll hear tomorrow if they did,” she added with a smile. “But we have lots of time before tomorrow comes.”

Amy simply reached over and turned out the light.



Chapter XLIV

“Polniaczek,” Jo whispered into her phone as she squinted in the direction of the clock. She slid out from under Blair's body, slipping her pillow into Blair's arms as a substitute and sitting up on the edge of the bed. “Jamie, is everything okay?”

“You went to Disney World without me,” came the flat answer. Jo yanked the phone from her ear and glared at it before she glanced at the clock again.

“You're calling me from Europe at five o'clock in the morning to complain that I came to Disney World without you?”

“Yes!” A beat. “No... well, sorta,” she added with a semi-whine. Jo scrubbed a hand through her hair.

“Jamie....” impatience apparent even in her whisper.

“I heard about the murder.”

“WHAT?!” Jo's voice was hushed, but still harsh enough to convey her dismay. Blair stirred behind her and she dropped her voice back to the merest whisper. “What did you hear? *How* did you hear?”

“There was a blurb about Desdemona's demise in one of the papers.” Jo frowned. Jamie didn't know anything about Desdemona, so what would she care enough to read an article about her? Then Jamie was speaking again. “Actually, it wasn't about her specifically. It was an article about this massive media convention at Walt Disney World that she had supposedly been attending when she was murdered. Then it mentioned that there was a sister law enforcement convention that several prominent members of the NYPD as well as the New York bar were attending. It didn't take me long to figure it out – you went to Disney World without me,” finishing on a petulant note.

“And you're in Europe – I'm not seeing the problem.” Jo jumped when Blair wrapped her arms around her belly and leaned into her back, brushing a kiss on the back of her neck.

“The problem,” Blair growled in a sleep-laden voice as she took the phone from Jo's hand, “is that her moms went to Disney World without her. Hey Jamie,” she greeted without missing a beat as she lifted the phone to her ear.

“Good morning, Mother. Are you both all right? Seriously?”

Blair smiled and pushed her hair off her face. Then she shifted to accommodate Jo's moving form, lying back and putting her free arm around Jo's back when Jo snuggled up into her body and buried her nose in her neck. “We're fine, Sweetie,” Blair said with complete assurance. “It didn't involve any of us directly.”

“So why didn't you tell me you were going to Disney World?”

Blair's eyes widened. She didn't think Jamie was angry; instead, she had the distinct impression that despite Jamie's age and adult status, her feelings were really hurt by the fact that her moms hadn't included her.

“We didn't realize it would matter to you, honey. Your mom and I have done a lot of things without you since you went away to college – just like you have done any number of things without us. We didn't know this was any different.”

“Of course it's different – it's *Disney World*,” like Blair should understand that it made all the difference. “I've never been to Disney World,” she added in a much softer voice.

And finally, they were at the crux of the problem. “Oh Sweetie,” Blair cooed, making Jo sit up and glare at her. “You know... the conference is over tonight and your mom and I are going to be here all week. Would you like to join us?”

“Really?” tone cautiously hopeful.

“Really. You'd have to fly commercial, but I bet you could get a ticket out tonight that would get you here in the morning.”

“What does mom say about it?”

Blair tilted her head awkwardly to meet Jo's eyes. “Our daughter wants to know how you feel about her joining us for the rest of the week,” handing her back the phone. Jo looked at it in confusion for a moment before putting it up to her ear once more.

“Jamie, you're a grown up. If you wanna see Disney World with me and Blair, then I suggest you get your ass on a plane today.”

“JO!” Jo just shrugged and gave the phone back to Blair. She snuggled back down into Blair's neck, closing her eyes and humming in contentment. Blair glared at her, even as she hugged her close and raised the phone back to her ear. She heard Jamie laughing.


Jamie took a deep breath and then spoke, though Blair could still hear traces of laughter in her speech. “I see she's still your barbarian, Mother.”

Blair sighed dramatically. “Yes – there are some things I've actually given up hope of ever changing. Your mom's barbarianism is at the top of that list,” biting her lips to keep from squealing when Jo pinched her in a delicate place. Jamie snorted.

“I can hear she's bent on making things difficult for you this morning, so I'm going to go and find me a flight to Orlando and a room there at the Coronado.”

“You can stay with us, honey.”

“I don't think....”

“Don't think,” Jo instructed as she snatched the phone from Blair's hand. “We have a suite. Now get your ass on that plane and call us when you land.”

“Love you, Mom. Love you too, Mother,” in a much louder voice, causing Jo to wince and jerk the phone from her ear.

“Love you, baby girl.”

“Love you, Jamie.”

Dual answers made them smile at each other and they could hear Jamie's laughter before Jo flipped off the phone and placed it on the nightstand. Then she rolled back over to face Blair again.

“Well, Princess, it looks like this will be our last day here alone. And since our kid woke us up at the ungodly butt crack of dawn, I think we should make wise use of the time we have left alone together.”

“What did you have in mind, Grease Monkey?” asked as she wrapped her arms around Jo's neck and urged her down until their lips were nearly touching.

Jo simply grinned and surrendered.



“'Lo?” Janet growled as she tried to force her eyes open.

“Mom?” Janet removed the phone from her ear and glanced at the caller ID before she spoke again.

“Cassandra? Honey, what's wrong?”

“Are you and Sam all right?”

Janet frowned, but nodded her head before realizing her daughter couldn't see the action. “We're fine, Sweetie. Why? What's wrong?”

“General Landry called – said someone had been murdered at the convention you were attending together.”

Janet's eyebrows flew into her hairline. She hadn't known Desdemona's death would make nationwide news like that. “No, honey – we're both fine,” smiling when Sam shifted over in her sleep and wrapped her arm around Janet's middle before settling down once more. “It wasn't anyone from our conference or anything. Didn't he tell you that?”

“He didn't tell me much of anything,” Cassandra groused. “He told me that you were in Orlando for a convention and that there had been a murder. He said you two were all right, but he didn't have any other details at the moment. So I thought I'd better call and check for myself.”

“We're fine, Sweetie... honestly.”

“Who'sit?” Sam mumbled, pressing her lips to the back of Janet's neck.

“Our daughter,” Janet replied. “Hang on a second, Cass,” passing the phone into Sam's outstretched hand.

“Cassandra? Everything okay?” sitting up on an elbow and pushing her hair behind her ears. Janet rolled over and pushed Sam back into a fully reclined position, then tucked her head under Sam's chin and sighed. Sam grinned and brushed a kiss over the top of her head.

“Yeah,” Cassandra was saying. “I just wanted to check on you and Mom... since you went to Disney World without me,” she added in a mock-irate tone.

“Whoops – gotta go,” Sam blurted, shoving the phone back into Janet's hands. Janet looked between the phone and Sam stupidly for a moment, watching Sam bury her face with a pillow before putting the phone to her ear once more.

“Cassie?” hearing snickering coming from the other end of the line. “Cassandra?”

“Sorry, Mom. I was teasing Sam about the two of you going to Disney World without me.” Another snicker. “I think she sometimes forgets that I'm all grown up now... not that twelve-year-old kid she rescued so many years ago.”

“Probably,” Janet agreed. “Would you like to join us?” feeling Sam remove the pillow from her face and hearing Cassandra's sharp intake of breath simultaneously. “You'd have to get your own room,” Janet cautioned, looking at the king-sized bed she and Sam were currently sharing, “but we'd love to have you join us if you can get the time off.”

“Are you sure?” Cassandra asked. “This is like the first time you've taken a trip together since Daniel brought you back to us and Sam came home from Atlantis,” said with only a hint of tears in her voice. “I don't want to butt in.”

Janet chuckled and wiped a stray tear from her eye, hugging Sam fiercely when she felt the strong arms tighten around her. “We're sure, Cass. You're family... *we're* a family. And you've been so busy lately... it'd be nice to spend some quality time together. Besides, I know you're as anxious to visit Disney World as we were. I'm your mom, remember?” Janet added before Cassandra could ask.

Cassandra laughed. “All right – you talked me into it. I'd love to. I'll see what I can arrange on this end and let you know the details when I have them.”

“You do that. Love you, Cass.”

“Love you too, Mom. Give Sam a hug and kiss for me.”

“Will do. Bye, honey.”

Janet tapped off the phone and snuggled deeper into Sam's embrace. “So,” Sam asked casually. “Is she coming?”

“I think so. She's seeing what she can arrange and will let us know.” Janet tilted her head until she could just see Sam's profile. “You don't mind, do you?”

Sam chuckled. “Not at all. I'm kinda surprised we didn't do this before... like when she was still a kid.”

“We were a little busy – and our priorities were a lot different then too.”

“Hmm,” Sam hummed in agreement. “Speaking of that – after everything that's happened lately, do you want to stay with the Stargate Program?”

Janet shifted again – this time so she could lean over Sam and look into her eyes. “Sam, the Stargate Program is not the be all and end all for me... it never was. I love my job and the work I do there. And some of what I do can only be done in that environment. But I can be a doctor anywhere and I can be a civilian and still be part of the Stargate Program. So it's not really up to me – leaving the Air Force isn't gonna change that much of my life... except for the clothes I wear,” she added impishly.

Sam nodded and smiled but didn't speak, her eyes focused somewhat distantly. Janet watched her for a long moment before she spoke again.

“What do you want to do, Sam?”

“I really don't know,” Sam responded honestly. “But I think we should talk about it... think we should consider all the possibilities.”

Janet nodded and chastely kissed the soft lips below hers, drawing a sparkle from the depths of blue eyes that looked back at her full of love. “All right,” she agreed. “Whenever you're ready, Sam.” Then she slid back down and tucked herself into Sam.

Sam cocked an eyebrow. “You've made up your mind?”

Janet nodded. “I don't need the Air Force or Cheyenne Mountain to be able to do my job. But I'll do whatever it takes to stay with you... even if that means staying in the Air Force and in the Stargate Program for another twenty years.”

Sam chuckled. “They won't let us stay that long.” She brushed a kiss over dark hair, just beginning to show a few strands of gray. “At least we have choices,” she added. And the conversation languished as they took comfort in simply being together, watching the sky lighten as the rising sun signaled the start of another beautiful day.




“Mom? Is everything okay?”

“Lindsey?” Catherine said, trying to shake the cobwebs from her sleep-addled brain. “Is everything all right, honey?”

“I dunno... that's why I called. I just saw the news.”

Catherine blinked and pushed the hair out of her eyes, sitting up slowly and pressing her body into the headboard. “Um... what news, honey? And why are you up at...?” She glanced at the clock. “Lindsey Willows! It's two in the morning where you are! What the...?” Catherine broke off and took a calming breath. Lindsey took the opportunity to cut in.

“You went to Disney World without me and you're worried because it's two a.m. here? Really, mom... c'mon.”

“Lindsey, you are eighteen years old and in college now. Did you really want to come to Disney World with your old mom?”

“YES!” was the resounding answer. Then she took a deep breath and spoke a little softer. “But that's not why I called. We had a late football game and went out afterwards. When I got back a little while ago, I turned on the news to help me wind down and they were talking about the murder of some woman at Walt Disney World.” She frowned and Catherine could hear it in her voice. “It was kinda weird, actually. But anyway,” she added after a moment, “I wanted to call and make sure you were okay.”

“I'm good baby – we're all fine, actually.”

“If you're sure....”

Catherine smiled. “I am, honey... thanks. So I guess you're settling in pretty well now?”

“It's all right. It was really nice of Sara to pull some strings to make sure I got a good place here. And my roommate and I get along pretty well. Oh, did I tell you...?” Catherine leaned back deeper into her pillows and listened to the sound of her daughter's voice as they caught up on things they had missed in each other's lives in the past few weeks. Even at this ungodly hour of the morning, it was nice to be able to reconnect.

“So when are you coming home?” Lindsey asked as the conversation wound down.

“Next week. We decided we might as well have a little fun as long as we're here.”

“Yeah, well don't have too much. I wanna visit Disney World soon.” Catherine chuckled.

“I'll do my best. I love you, Lindsey,” hearing Lindsey yawn in her ear for the third time in three minutes. “You go get some sleep, young lady.”

Lindsey rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mom.”

“Don't roll your eyes at me, Lindsey Willows. I am still your mother.”

“I know... and I'm glad. Love you, Mom.”

“Love you too, honey. Night.”

Catherine set the phone on the nightstand, then jumped slightly when she heard Sara's voice coming from the other bed. “Everything all right?”

“Yeah,” she said, sliding down under the cover and closing her eyes again. “She was just checking on us. Seems Desdemona's murder made national news.”

Sara frowned. “That's kinda weird. I didn't think she was that important.”

Catherine shrugged. “Slow news day, maybe. I suppose we need to get up,” glancing at the clock.

“Probably. At least today is a short day and tonight is the talent show. That should be fun.”

“It should,” Catherine agreed. “And at least this conference has been enjoyable... murder aside, of course. I'd do it again.”

Sara snickered. “Wonder if the local cops feel that way.”




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