DISCLAIMER: Only a very, very few of the characters herein belong to me - seriously.  However I can honestly say, though, that story is all mine, so.... If you're still reading my stuff at this point, you pretty well know what you're getting into.  If you don't have an open mind, why exactly are you still reading? However, if you do read it and you find something you think needs disclaiming, you are still more than welcome to let me know.  It won't change anything, but it may make you feel better.   Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.
THANKS: To Phil, Mac and Jeanne for beta reading this for me - twice.  They've picked up all kinds of dropped letters and missed quotation marks because Pink and Fluffy tend to leave a trail of them.  Their diligence is greatly appreciated. Honestly, I couldn't ask for a better group of women to beta read for me.  All errors belong strictly to me. And to J Crater, for taking all the pix Phil sent her and creating the massive collage so folks would know who's who in this tale. Total awesome-sauce! J
SPECIAL THANKS: To Phil for playing poker for me.  Otherwise we would have ended up playing Solitaire, and really... where's the fun in that?? And for doing all sorts of research that she's REALLY good at and which quite frankly gives me hives to do.  And for listening to me ramble while dusting on Saturday mornings – and practically every other day of the week as well as we got closer to the end of this thing.  Nothing like being able to list 'DIVA sitting' as a job skill. :-P Oh, and especially for giving me the basis for the riddles in the poker run and for playing Dinah for me – we know who does the straight man gig when it comes to comedy shtick around here. Seriously, I couldn't have written any of the fun stuff without her input and efforts. YOU ROCK, Babe!!!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is the result of two distinctly separate events colliding in the mother of all head-on impacts. The first was a mystery hunt we did for the third Orlando Bardcon that involved asking a desk clerk at the Grand Floridian Resort for chocolate syrup and duct tape – after informing him we were only going to be there for an hour or so. Man, the look on his face - I wish I'd had a camera!! The second came from my looking through the list of fandoms at Passion & Perfection one day and realizing how many of them I could tie together. So I decided to have a little fun – who knew I would develop writer's block before I even got started on it?? However, after 18 months of real time and almost 10 months of actual writing, this sucker is finally done. Hallelujah!! The Halloween story being told within this tale is mine as is the story Gabrielle tells near the end. The Storyteller's Cardinal Rule is in effect.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
GRAPHIC: Polaroid

A Diva's Demise
By D



Chapter XXXVI

"Shana, you need to calm down," Teresa instructed firmly. Blue eyes glared at her balefully, but Kennian stopped slamming things around. She took a deep breath and put her hands in her pockets to remove the temptation to resume her slamming.

"You do not understand, Teresa. Xena was mocking me."

"No, she wasn't. She was stating her opinion."

"She was patronizing – assuming she knows better than a police detective because of years of supposedly observing human behavior."

Bornlan shrugged. "She may. We have no way of knowing what circumstances have given her the knowledge she has or how long she's had to acquire that experience. For all we know, she is some kind of government spook – which would explain why we can't find anything about her, why she would have that kind of knowledge and why someone very high up is looking out for her."

"You agree with her," Shana stated flatly.

Teresa shrugged again, this time with a sheepish expression on her face, then nodded succinctly. "I do actually. I think our best bet for suspects is going to be among the victim's own employees. However, we have an obligation to follow all the leads we have, and at the moment that means we need to speak to each and every woman in both conventions and see if we can discover what the victim had on each of them – even if it is only to eliminate them from the suspect list. Who knows... maybe we have a version of Murder on the Orient Express playing out here."

Kennian just glared at her again. Bornlan returned the look stare for stare. Kennian looked away first.

"Look... we're doing all we can do. You've got the computer secured and set to ring you with any alerts and updates we might get. We've got unis standing by in case we need them and the Captain is trying to get a couple more detectives assigned to us to speed things along. Considering the constraints we are working under, we're not doing too badly at the moment."

"I suppose. I am simply... frustrated by this entire process. I feel as though we are being played by someone, though as yet I could not say for certain who that might be."

"Then I suggest we get to work and try to figure it out, because we're running out of time."

"Gabrielle?" Gabrielle looked up at Helena as she approached. "Whoa," she added, giving the busy room the once-over. "What'd I miss?"

Gabrielle smirked. "My class on storytelling has been extended to include the law enforcement conference as well." Helena's brows went to her forehead and Gabrielle smiled. "Diana asked... I couldn't tell her no."

"All right," Helena agreed. "And speaking of Diana," she added in a lower voice, "she needs to see you," jerking her head towards the back room she'd just vacated.

Gabrielle looked at her closely, seeing the residual exhaustion around her eyes. "C'mon," she said, taking Helena's elbow and guiding her back towards the green room. "You need a longer nap."


"But nothing," Gabrielle replied firmly, giving Barbara a reassuring nod before they crossed the threshold out of the monitoring room. "You and I both know you would be able to hear anything Diana and I said from here if you really wanted to. I trust you, and I promised Barbara...."

Helena stopped walking and pulled away from Gabrielle, crossing her arms over her chest defensively. "You promised Barbara what?"

Gabrielle stepped back to Helena, tugging on her arm gently until Helena relented and allowed Gabrielle to lock arms with her and move them along. "Nothing bad, Helena. I just promised Barbara I'd help keep an eye on you... you know, when she couldn't."

"I can take care of myself."

"Yes, you can... and you do, most of the time. But you have been known to be reckless with yourself more than once in your life." Gabrielle sighed. "Helena, you're the most precious thing in the whole world to Barbara Gordon, and if me making sure you get enough rest helps give her a little peace, then I will damn well make sure you get enough rest. Are we clear?"

Helena blinked, the augmentation disappearing as rapidly as it had appeared at Gabrielle's commanding tone. "Yeah... we're clear." She let Gabrielle get them to the door before she pulled them both to a stop once more. Gabrielle looked at her with a questioning expression. "Can I ask why?"

"Why what? Why I promised?" watching Helena nod her head. Gabrielle dropped her chin to her chest briefly and blew out a thick, heavy breath. Even now, the memories of Mt. Fugi had the ability to steal the very air from her lungs and make her heart clench in remembered agony. She felt Helena's hand cup her chin with a gentleness she had only known from one other. "Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle allowed her head to be brought up, but she kept her eyes closed until she felt Xena's arms wrap around her from behind. She relaxed into the strong body while bringing her hand up to cover Helena's that still rested on her face.

"You all right?" Xena murmured into her ear. Gabrielle nodded even as a tear trickled from her closed eyes. Then she opened watery green eyes and held Helena's questioning gaze.

"This, Helena... this is why I promised Barbara. I know what it's like to live without this."

Helena inhaled sharply, feeling a little of Gabrielle's pain through the physical connection of their hands. It was a residual effect of her helping Dinah - and thankfully for her a temporary one – that she could briefly feel strong emotion in others. That had been what had woken her originally – the announcement of DIVA's murder had created enough of a stir in the air around her that it had jolted Helena from a sound sleep. Diana's entrance into the green room had actually been a calming thing as she had helped ground Helena until she could wake up completely.

Helena's eyes augmented sharply and she met Gabrielle's pained ones squarely. "Now do you understand?"

Helena simply pulled Gabrielle's head towards her own until she could brush her lips over Gabrielle's forehead in apology. Then without a word, she slipped her hand from Gabrielle's grasp and walked into the green room.

Gabrielle let out a deep breath, and Xena let her hands draw soothing patterns on Gabrielle's belly. She felt Gabrielle relax further into her and pressed her lips to the juncture of her neck and shoulder. Gabrielle turned in her embrace, letting Xena see the flash of her eyes from green to red-rimmed yellow before forcing them back to their natural state.

"I'm all right, love. She just caught me by surprise... and so did the memory."

Xena didn't have to ask which memory – there was only one memory that still caused this kind of reaction in Gabrielle. Before she could open her mouth to speak, Gabrielle covered her lips and shook her head.

"Don't... please?"

Xena nodded and leaned down to catch Gabrielle's lips....

... before a throat clearing behind Gabrielle made Xena look up and glare into sheepish blue eyes. Still, Diana didn't look away and Xena sighed, pulling back reluctantly. She motioned to Gabrielle with her eyes and Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed Xena quickly and thoroughly, causing Xena's eyes to widen briefly before slamming shut and clenching her hands into Gabrielle's waist.

When it was over, Gabrielle eased away from Xena still licking her lips. Xena took a deep breath and forced her hands open. Gabrielle grinned and winked at her, then turned to face Diana with her Queen's mask firmly in place. She cocked an eyebrow, smiling big when she felt Xena's hands come to rest on her hips again. Diana cleared her throat and dipped her head, but didn't drop her eyes.

"My Queen?"

"Yes, Diana; speak, my friend."

"I'm sorry to interrupt – is everything all right? Helena came back into the room without a word, curled back on the couch and is either deep in meditation or sound asleep again. When you didn't follow, I came out to see...."

"Diana, it's all right," Gabrielle said gently. Diana nodded uncertainly, but straightened when the tone of Gabrielle's voice changed. "Now, what did you find?"

Diana jerked her head towards the green room. "C'mon... you're going to want to see this for yourselves."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances before turning to Diana simultaneously. "Is this for real?" Xena finally queried.

"Oh yes," Diana affirmed. "Paula ran the checks twice to be certain. Every single employee she had was being blackmailed by her in some way or another, so all of them had a motive for wanting her dead. Some of them should be in jail for the stuff she had on them." She hesitated, then drew a deep breath and continued. "In fairness, some of what she has on the people attending both conventions is just as bad... or worse. The question is – do we share with the police or do we make them work for it?" looking back and forth between Xena and Gabrielle.

Xena and Gabrielle looked at one another again. Xena arched an eyebrow and Gabrielle shrugged. Then Xena nodded and Gabrielle sighed.

"Have Paula send you the specs on everyone... even the ones who aren't here – men, women, corporations, whatever. If we're going to give the detectives a hand solving this, then we're going to be thorough."

Diana reached behind her and picked up another sheaf of papers. "I thought you might say that."

Xena accepted the pile of papers and straightened them, then passed them to Gabrielle. Within a few minutes, Gabrielle had them organized in the order Desdemona had placed them on her list. She gave them back to Xena and turned to Diana.

"Do we have any idea who did this yet?"

Diana shook her head. "Having looked through the list, I'd say there are a few likely suspects."


"But what? If I was Bornlan and Kennian, I'd be looking a lot closer at those employees. There's only so much the human mind can take before it breaks and who's to say what form that breaking would take." Diana shrugged. "On the other hand, we all know that what's on those pages doesn't necessarily reflect the whole truth."

"So we let the detectives dig through this themselves?"

Xena smirked. "You really think they will accept more help from us? Detective Kennian is convinced I am plotting against them."

Gabrielle's brows flew into her hairline. "Excuse me?"

Xena waved away her question. "Nothing to worry about." She smiled when Gabrielle gave her a look of patented disbelief. "Trust me, Sweetheart. I'm not letting them mess this up." She looked at Diana. "So we're good to go with this stuff."

"Absolutely, Consort."

"All right. Let's go find Detective Sergeant Bornlan. I have a feeling she will be more gracious about accepting our help than Detective Kennian."

"You and Diana go ahead, Xe. I'm gonna check on Helena and then go see how things are going in the monitoring room." She smiled at the skeptical look Xena gave her and smiled softly. "I'm all right, love. I just don't want to get into something with Detective Kennian, and if I see her right now, I just might."

"My defender," Xena murmured and Gabrielle nodded.


"All right, you two – enough... before I need a shot of insulin."

Xena snickered, even as she rose and grabbed the papers. "Jealous much?"

"You know it," Diana agreed instantly as they headed towards the door. "Every Amazon wants what you have... together, I mean," seeing the look in Xena's eyes when she glanced at Gabrielle and back to Diana.

"Xena, leave Diana alone."

"Yes, my Queen," sketching a half-bow in Gabrielle's direction before jerking her head at Diana. "C'mon, Princess. Sooner we get this done, the sooner the rest of this can be over with."

"You really think they'll figure this out in time?" Gabrielle heard Diana ask before the door closed behind them. Though she was interested in Xena's response, she was more concerned about Helena, and she rose and crossed to the room Helena was currently ensconced in. She allowed her Bacchae instincts to come to the fore, seeing the rise and fall of Helena's chest and hearing the even breaths that indicated the deep level of her sleep. Gabrielle noted how tightly Helena was curled and walked silently to the door, motioning Devon over with a slight motion of her head.

"Yes, Miss Gabrielle?"

"Devon, could you bring me a blanket?"

He blinked twice before swallowing and nodding his head. "Sure, Miss Gabrielle," tapping the phone he carried and putting in a request to housekeeping. "All done. Is everything all right? Do we need to adjust the temperature?"

"No, the temperature is fine, especially with all the people and the activities we've got going on. But Helena... you remember, from earlier?" He nodded again. "She's resting right now and she's a little cold, so I thought a blanket might help."

Just then a woman from housekeeping came around the corner with a perplexed look on her face. "Thank you, Stella," Devon said as he took the blanket from her.

"Yes... thank you, Stella," giving the woman a smile. "And thank you, Devon," Gabrielle added, accepting the blanket from him. The two cast members watched her disappear back into the green room, then returned to their current assignments.

Gabrielle studied Helena for a long moment. She knew from having talked to Barbara that Helena was hot-blooded by nature... a virtual furnace. Gabrielle wondered if Helena's current temperature was tied into helping Dinah and figured it probably was. She carefully covered Helena, seeing the younger woman relax almost immediately. Then she left Helena to her rest and returned to the converted monitoring room to reassure Barbara.

Xena and Diana crossed the hall, intent on finding Detectives Bornlan and Kennian before they started their interrogations. Hopefully the information they currently held would help narrow down the suspect list. Xena had the distinct feeling if the two detectives tried to take on a roomful of law enforcement specialists OR a room full of reporters, things would go badly rather quickly... for everyone involved.

They could hear the raised voices as they approached the room and Xena and Diana exchanged glances, glad when it became silent. Diana lifted her hand and knocked on the door, then opened the door to allow Xena to enter in front of her. Kennian stiffened; Bornlan sighed quietly and beckoned them into the room.

"What can we do for you ladies?"

Xena arched an eyebrow. "It's actually more what we can do for you," she replied as she passed the papers to Bornlan. The detective took a look at them, unable to keep the shock out of her expression. She handed the sheaf over to her partner, even as she pinned Xena with a look.

"Where did you get these?"

Xena shrugged. "I know people."

Bornlan glared. "I'm sure you do. But that's not what I asked. Where did you get these, Xena? I have experts that couldn't pull this stuff up... and they're the best at what they do."

"They're the best at what they do *that you know* - I just know better people."

"What is to keep us from arresting you for obstruction of justice?" Kennian asked in an irritated tone.

"Aside from the fact I'm not obstructing anything?" Xena replied mildly. "Probably the fact that you've been told I am untouchable if you want to do more than write parking tickets for the rest of your career," smirking just slightly when Kennian clenched her jaw. "Look, Detectives – doesn't it make sense that if I know people who can call off the dogs as it were, I also know people who can make things happen? Appreciate small favors and realize I'm doing this for myself and all the women here as much as I am for you."

"You really do think they're all completely innocent, don't you?"

Xena snorted. "Detective Bornlan, no one is completely innocent and we've all got secrets we'd rather keep hidden. But I don't believe any of the women attending either my conference or Gabrielle's committed this particular crime."

"And you, Agent Prince?"

"I believe Xena is correct, but I also know it is your job to investigate all avenues of interest."

"So you think talking to all the women here is a waste of time."

"I don't think you'll find your killer here."

Bornlan motioned them to chairs. "Please," she invited. "I'd like to hear what you have to say."

"This ought to be interesting," Kennian said before taking a seat and crossing her arms, waiting for the discussion to begin.


Chapter XXXVII

"So exactly how long are we expected to hang around here?" Warren asked, his tone petulant and whiny. "Desdemona's dead and we're free of her machinations. Can't we just get on with our lives now? I've got other things I'd rather be doing."

Melissa cut her eyes in his direction. "We all do," she huffed. "You'd like it to be that simple, wouldn't you, Warren? You figure you can step into Desi's shoes and life will be just peachy."

Graham frowned. "He's not stepping into anything. *I'm* still the President of AVID; if anything, this should move me up into the role of chairman."

"Careful, Graham," Harmon cautioned, leaning forward and lifting his drink from the table and bringing it to his lips for a long moment. "Your attitude could be construed as one of over-eagerness... something akin to joy. That kind of thing will make the police look longer and harder at you."

Graham rolled his eyes. "Whatever... I didn't do it, so I really don't care. Desi's dead and that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned. I'm not going to pretend otherwise."

Bailey nodded her head. "That's exactly what I told the detectives this morning." Every member of the AVID team turned and looked at her with astonishment and she returned their regard in equal measure. Then she shrugged. "What? I wasn't going to pretend upset when I felt exactly none. We already know these detectives are worth their salt; they know at least part of the truth about Desdemona... and about our relationships with her."

"So do you think one of us did it?" Adelia asked Bailey. Bailey looked at her and held her gaze for a long moment. Then she shook her head.

"I don't think so. I mean... if one of us were going to try to kill her, why would we wait til here... and now? Why not do it when we were actually somewhere we were familiar with... somewhere we could dispose of the body without anyone being the wiser to the fact that she was gone?"

"Given this some thought, have you?" Graham chuckled wickedly. Bailey just gave him a look.

"So who do you think killed her?" Dot asked, bringing attention to herself. "Because someone obviously did, and if it wasn't one of us...."

"Maybe it was one of those police people. God knows they would have the knowledge to kill Desi... or any of us," Franklyn offered petulantly. All eyes turned to him, and Buster sneered.

"Are you trying to be that stupid or is it just a natural talent?" Before Franklyn could sputter out a retort, Buster continued. "They would also have the knowledge to keep from being found out."

"What difference does it make?" Warren asked. "She's dead. We should be celebrating or something." They all turned to him with something akin to disbelief in their eyes. He rolled his eyes at them and shook his head. "Look... all I'm saying is I didn't do it. And if the rest of you claim to be equally as innocent, we have nothing to worry about. We should be making plans for our futures."

Bailey gazed at Warren with pity for a long moment. Then she sighed. "If they don't figure out who did this, we may not even have a future."

Everyone stared at the table thoughtfully, then Harmon signaled for their waitress. Given the way their weekend was shaping up, a little fortification was in order. The rest smiled their thanks at him and the conversation turned to other avenues of discussion.

Barbara removed her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. "I know for a fact my IQ is supposedly above the dim light bulb level, but I'm not sure I understand what you're saying, Gabrielle. If you had already erased the records of all the convention attendees, why did you feel the need to go back and share those records now?"

Gabrielle sighed. "Since Paula didn't catch the file that held the list of AVID employees and Desdemona's reasons for blackmailing them, it made the detectives especially suspicious of the listing of our attendees. By giving them the full list, Xena and I are hoping it will eliminate our guests as suspects."

"Gabrielle, I'm guilty of murder!" Her voice was a bare whisper in deference to the set-up crew that was putting the finishing touches on the room, even though they were far enough away from everyone not to be overheard.

"No, Barbara. What happened to Shiva's sister was an accident."


"No, Barbara. No buts." Gabrielle took Barbara's hand. "Trust me; I know the difference. Besides, no one is going to believe that an award-winning English teacher with ties to law enforcement is going to commit murder... especially of someone she has never met."

Barbara looked up and cut her eyes in Gabrielle's direction. "I'm over-thinking this, aren't I?"

"Pretty much, Brain," Gabrielle responded compassionately, though there was a distinct twinkle in her eyes. "Does this mean it's time to take over the world?"

Barbara snorted. "Not tonight, Pinky. One of my dearest friends is giving a command performance and I wouldn't miss that for any amount world domination." She smiled at Gabrielle's almost bashful reaction. "Helena will be thrilled, you know," her tone dry. Gabrielle arched an eyebrow in mute question. Barbara shook her head. "She's been telling me that for years."

Gabrielle smiled gently. "Sometimes it's easier to believe someone who isn't quite as, um... invested. Especially if that someone has personal experience from which to speak."

Barbara cocked her head to one side and studied Gabrielle for a moment. Gabrielle held her gaze unflinching, allowing Barbara to read everything Gabrielle wanted her to see and making her wonder once again at the depths of experience and agelessness of the woman who stood before her. Despite their friendship, she knew there was so much more to Gabrielle than she let on and Barbara wondered if she'd ever be able to get past the first few layers.

Two blonde brows went into an equally blonde hairline and Barbara blushed slightly and dropped her chin to her chest in embarrassment for being caught staring. Gabrielle smiled.

"Go check on Helena. I can finish up whatever needs doing in here."

"You're sure."

"Go," Gabrielle intoned. "Before I change my mind and find some serious grunt work for you to do."

Barbara smirked and headed out the back towards the green room. Gabrielle watched her go, turning only when she felt Dinah come up beside her.

"Everything all right?" Dinah asked, looking at the empty doorway.

Gabrielle nodded wearily. "Of the things we have control over... absolutely. The rest?" She shrugged. "No sense worrying about it."

"Do you think I should offer...?"

"No, Dinah," Gabrielle stated emphatically. "The power you have is used to protect so many, and it works so well in that capacity because no one realizes it's real. If people found out that it was..." She shuddered slightly and shook head. "Besides, do you really think they'd believe you?" asked gently.

Dinah blew out a breath and shook her head. "No, probably not." She nudged Gabrielle out of the way and took her seat behind the monitors once more. "I've got this if there is somewhere else you need to be," making a shooing motion with her hands.

"Are you trying to get rid of me Dinah?"

Dinah blushed but held Gabrielle's eyes. "Nah... I know you and Xena sent everyone back to their seminars. I figure there's some responsibility for that."

Gabrielle smiled. "Yeah, there is. You doing all right?"

"I'm fine. I'll be glad when this is over though."

"Me too," Gabrielle agreed as she headed for the door, only to turn back towards Dinah when the younger woman called out her name. She tilted her head to one side and waited.

"Do you think they'll find who did it?"

Gabrielle bit her lip. "Honestly? No. There are just too many variables in play, and they're running on a tight schedule."

"Does that bother you?"

"I'll let you know," Gabrielle replied, then headed into the media conference to check on how things were progressing.

"All right, Agent Prince. The floor is yours. Convince us that none of the women who are on your list could possibly commit murder." Bornlan leaned back in her chair and motioned Diana to speak before she crossed her arms over her chest and waited.

"Would you like me to do so woman by woman or would you simply like a general statement?"

Kennian rose from her seat, blue eyes flashing as she clenched her fists at her side. Diana returned her look calmly and watched curiously as Shana forced herself to relax. When she spoke, Kennian's voice was low and controlled.

"Agent Prince, the courtesy that has been extended to Xena and Gabrielle in this investigation does not automatically translate to you simply because Detective Sergeant Bornlan asked for your input. Please treat this seriously."

Diana returned her look evenly. "Detective Kennian, I have never treated this situation as anything other than serious and I resent your implication that I have. I was merely asking for clarification of what Detective Bornlan was looking for before replying."

Shana held her gaze another moment before nodding her acceptance. "Very well – I can appreciate that. I... apologize... for the interruption." She turned her attention to Bornlan. "Teresa?"

"Do you know any of these women personally... well enough that you would vouch for them in a court of law if called upon to do so?"

"A few, but I ran cursory background checks on everyone attending both conferences, so I can speak confidently on everyone from that standpoint."

"Wait... you ran background checks on everyone, and it didn't occur to you to be concerned about some of these things?" Bornlan asked with more than a hint of disbelief in her voice.

Diana smiled patiently. "Taken out of context, Detective, everything can seem bad... horrible, even. But sometimes, when you know the full story, your perspective tends to change. And sometimes, it's just something so personal, you'd like to keep it private."

"For example?"

"Simone Tillman. All she did to aid her first partner's suicide was to not prevent Amanda from taking her own life and holding her hand as she died." Diana held up a hand to keep Teresa from interrupting and Bornlan bit her tongue and motioned for Diana to continue. "Amanda was in excruciating pain... both physically and mentally. She'd recently had a miscarriage of the baby she and Simone had planned to have together, and the reason for the miscarriage was cancer that by the time they found it was inoperable. Simone simply allowed her partner to die by her own choice with dignity."

"And you agree with this, Agent Prince?" Shana asked quietly. Diana shook her head.

"It's not my place to agree or disagree, but I can't say I blame either Simone or Amanda for the choices they made. I can also understand why Simone wouldn't want something like that to become common knowledge; she knows what it's like to live under the scrutiny of the press and public."

"All right," Teresa conceded. "What about this Nikki Wade? She committed murder of a police officer."

"Not exactly," Diana returned, smiling slightly at the disbelieving looks the words garnered her. "Nikki did kill a police officer," she acknowledged. "A police officer who was trying to rape her then partner. She was released on appeal with an apology from the courts for the injustice of her imprisonment."

"Hmm," was Bornlan's noncommittal response. "Lucy Reynolds – she's a criminal for God's sakes."

"A reformed criminal, Detective," Xena stated emphatically. "I trust her implicitly."

"And Barbara Gordon?"

Diana smirked, knowing Barbara would kick her ass, figuratively speaking, if she got wind of Diana's reply, but knowing it was the quickest way to end this line of questioning. "Detective Bornlan, do you know who Barbara Gordon is?"

Teresa shook her head. "Can't say that I do."

"You should – she's the woman in the wheelchair that's been running around the monitoring room all morning."


"And do you really think a disabled woman could physically commit a murder that wouldn't leave a body to be found or a mark on her own?" Diana waited a beat then continued. "Detective, no matter how physically capable you are, a physical altercation of that nature would leave marks, correct?" waiting for Bornlan to nod her agreement. "Now look at the reports."

"I don't see any reports."

"Exactly. And that type of fight would generate police reports, hospital reports, even eye-witness reports." She sat back and let the two detectives mull over her words.

"Then why would Desdemona have murder listed beside Barbara Gordon's name? Surely there isn't smoke without *some* fire?" Kennian looked at Bornlan who nodded and they both turned to Xena and Diana. Xena raised an eyebrow and Diana gestured for her to take over.

"I think you're considering this from the wrong angle, Detectives," Xena replied evenly. "Instead of what Desdemona had to gain, what did these women... these people on her lists have to lose from her accusations?" She paused. "Think about it. It takes years to establish a good reputation, and only minutes to lose it to mere whispers that hint of impropriety. And all of these women had something to lose if Desdemona's accusations got out... true or not."

"So some of these things are true?"

"Some of them are... yes. Others I doubt the veracity of, but the fact remains that any of the people on these lists could have been hurt by these things getting out, whether they were true or not."

"In what way?" Kennina queried.

"I know for a fact that Olivia Benson is the product of a rape. But if that fact became common knowledge, especially among defense attorneys, some might question her ability to separate herself enough to do her job without prejudice. Colonel Samantha Carter is one of the brightest scientific minds in the world, and yet if it was found out that she was gay, she'd be dishonorably discharged and shunned by many of her peers. Sara Sidle's mother murdered Sara's father because she couldn't stand the abuse he meted out to both of them on a regular basis and that tends to make her more vigorous when those kinds of cases come her way. Again, a reason for defense attorneys to cry foul."

Bornlan blew out an impatient breath. "All right! I get your point, since I'm pretty sure you could make a case for each and every name on this list. And yet I still have a dead body on my hands that my ME insists was murdered."

"Has she determined the actual cause of death yet?"

"Not that we've heard. But she does believe it's the work of a professional," a little surprised when neither Xena nor Diana blinked twice about that revelation. "Which would imply that pretty much the people from Gabrielle's convention could be cleared, because I'm fairly certain the Doc didn't mean someone interviewed her to death.

Xena cocked her head. "Did she say what kind of professional?"

"Excuse me?"

Xena sighed. "Detective Bornlan, there is more than one type of professional hit. There's the assassin, the sniper, the mercenary...."

"Stop, please. I get the point. I'll see what I can find out," pausing when Kennian rose and put a hand on her shoulder.

"I will go check the computer. Perhaps I did not set the alert correctly. Otherwise, I will call the doctor and let you know what she says."

"Thanks, Shana," watching the woman exit the room. "In the meantime, do you have any other suggestions? Is absolutely everyone in both conventions accounted for?"

"Last night or right this moment?"

Bornlan scrubbed a hand across her face. "Either," she answered wearily. "Both."

"Almost everyone was with us last night at the Halloween party at the Magic Kingdom. Those who weren't.... I'll get you the list. All of our attendees are present today."

"All right. Can you start sending them in one at a time? I need to make it look like I am at least trying to do this by the book."

Xena gave Diana a look and Diana gave a brisk nod and left the room. "So I take it you no longer believe you're gonna find your killer among my convention attendees?"

Bornlan sighed and scratched her head. "I don't know what I believe anymore. I just know I'm running out of time."



Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan blew out a frustrated breath and scrubbed her hands over her eyes. It was just early evening and still she felt like this day had been years long already. All afternoon she and Shana had separately interviewed the women from both conferences. None had taken long and nothing extraordinary had been revealed as far as Bornlan's interviews were concerned. As she had expected, no one had shown significant remorse over Desdemona's death, and most, though not happy to discuss the things on Desdemona's list, gave no indication of being more than aggravated at being forced to do so. At least some of what Desdemona considered 'secrets' were less 'secret' and more 'not for public consumption'.

Bornlan chewed on her lip while she let her mind run over some of the things she had learned – things that like Diana had told her, changed her thoughts about once she had at least part of the story and not just the accusation behind it.

She started slightly when her phone chirped and she snatched it from her hip. "Bornlan," she growled, a little agitated to have had her train of thought so neatly derailed.

"Teresa, it's Shana," she heard her partner say quietly into the phone. "The women have been dismissed from their conferences for the day and are making their way out of the convention rooms. That gives us about two hours before they return to this room," cluing Bornlan in to just where Kennian was.

"Have you heard from the Doc?"

"She is on video conference now – we are simply waiting for you to join us."

Bornlan scowled. "Why the hell didn't you say so?" she fumed. "I'll be right there."

Kennian blinked at the dial tone suddenly humming in her ear and she closed her phone carefully before meeting the coroner's expectant gaze. "She is on her way."

Just then, Bornlan stepped in through the unlocked back door, stepping to the side where Scud had placed their secure line access and sliding slickly into the seat next to Kennian. She gave her partner a cursory nod before turning her attention to the Medical Examiner.

"What's the word, Doc?"

"Well, the word from this end is it was definitely a professional that caused her death. I found a small puncture wound on her neck... just at the base of her skull. I am still analyzing the substance that entered her body, but I'm fairly certain it's a neuro-toxin. I can't say for sure what the neuro-toxin itself was or where it came from, but I have samples being rushed through the lab as we speak."

"If you don't actually know anything for certain, why do you believe it was a neuro-toxin?" Bornlan asked, flinching back from the monitor at the look the ME directed at her.

"I don't ask how you do your job, do I, Detective?" the woman growled. Then she let out a sigh and pushed her hair back behind her ears. "Look Terry... just trust me when I tell you that the blood work is going to show some sort of neuro-toxin present in her system. I will let you know exactly what drug compound it is as soon as I know, all right?"

"Okay, Doc. But what about all that other evidence you told us about this morning – you know... the possible poisoning, blunt force trauma and blood? Why have all those possibilities been eliminated?"

The doc leaned forward and reached beyond the monitor, then sat back with a glass in her hand. She took a deep draught and released the breath she'd been holding. "I'm not saying that those things weren't intended to contribute to her demise, but they didn't kill her." She took another sip of water and swallowed slowly before she continued speaking. "The food may have been poisoned, but she simply didn't eat enough of it to die from ingesting it. As for the blood...." The ME shrugged. "There was a lot considering there were no gunshots or stab wounds present on the body. But there wasn't enough for it to have been the cause of death. Part of it was from the blow on her head, but all indications are she did that to herself."

Blue eyes met brown and two sets of brows flew equally high into blonde and brown hair. Bornlan gave a tiny shrug and Kennian turned back to the screen first. "Excuse me, Doctor, but why would she have given herself blunt force trauma to the head? It seems a less than efficient method to employ if she was intent on committing suicide."

The Medical Examiner smiled, though she didn't laugh at the seriousness of the question. Given her own wording and the fact that Kennian was the most factual individual she knew, she basically set herself up for such a query. She waved her hand.

"I'm sorry, Detective – I worded that poorly. The blow on her head was a result of her falling and hitting her head on the corner of the nightstand and not someone hitting her with something."

Kennian nodded. "Thank you for clarifying that, Doctor."

"I wish the rest of it was as easy to explain."

"So do I," Bornlan agreed as she stretched. "But then what would we do with all that free time?"

"I dunno, Terry, but I for one wouldn't mind finding out," the doctor commented wryly. She tilted her cup up and drained the last of its contents before leaning forward and placing it beside the monitor once more. "I don't know what to tell you guys. I'll give you the rest of the results as soon as I have them, but my personal belief is you're not going to find your killer."

Teresa nodded. "Thanks, Doc. We'll be in touch."

The ME returned the nod before reaching forward and cutting the connection. Teresa and Shana sat still for another minute before Bornlan sighed and stood up. "C'mon. I'm starving. Let's go grab a bite to eat and some fresh air. Maybe that will give us some insight into what we know so far."

Kennian stood and together they walked out the door and down the hallway towards the food court. The investigation would wait for just a little while. And who knew – maybe a judicious time out would cause someone to give them the break they needed.

"Lucy! Calm down and take a deep breath," Xena commanded.

Lucy snorted. "Easy for you to say. You're not the one with a target suddenly painted on your back."

"Been there, done that... more than once."

Lucy whirled and Xena met her eyes unflinchingly. Lucy cocked her head and her eyes widened as she recognized the truth of Xena's words in her expression. She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "You really have, haven't you?"

"Yeah," Xena admitted, "and under much worse circumstances than this." She held Lucy's eyes. "Did you do it – did you kill Desdemona?"

"NO! I'm a thief, not a murderer! I can't believe you'd even ask me that. I thought you trus...."

"I do," Xena cutting off Lucy's accusation with serious intent. "But it got you to stop doubting yourself, didn't it?" chuckling at the comical bulging of Lucy's eyes. "Lucy, I told the police you weren't a viable suspect... that I trusted you completely." She quirked her lips into a crooked grin. "Besides... killing her now because you were thrown out of Australia years ago? It's a stretch."

Lucy nodded. "True. I hope Amy will understand that."

"She will, Luce. She loves you."

This time Lucy's smile was blinding. "Uh huh." She blew her bangs out of her face. "So now what?"

Xena shrugged. "Now you go find your girlfriend and have some dinner."

Lucy arched a brow at her. "What about you?"

Xena glanced at her watch. "Our dinner should be ready for me to pick up. Gabrielle and I will have a quiet meal in our room before we come back here for her storytelling seminar."

"How do you feel about that?" Lucy asked as they left the green room where they'd gone as soon as the day's activities were over. "I mean," stumbling to get the words out when Xena gave her a version of 'the Look'. "How do you feel about Gabrielle doing a seminar tonight? Didn't you have plans?"

"Storytelling makes her happy, Lucy. The fact that people who are respected in their fields not only asked for it but are excited about it is a bonus. Our other plans will wait."

"Whipped," Lucy muttered as they walked into the hallway where Amy and her cohorts were leaning against the wall. With a word, Max, Dom and Janet turned and headed up the hall towards the food court while Amy sauntered in Lucy's direction with deliberate concentration. When she was less than ten yards from Lucy, she squealed and ran, causing Lucy to drop what was in her hands to catch the blonde bombshell headed in her direction.

"We'll discuss that whipped comment later," Xena promised, then made her way around them to go to the Maya Grill. She had a bard to feed.

"That was uncalled for, Diana," Barbara said flatly. Green eyes glared into blue before Diana glanced at Helena and Dinah who were watching the proceedings with interest. Diana pinched the bridge of her nose in an oddly familiar gesture before bringing her eyes back to meet Barbara's.

"Oracle... Barbara – it was necessary. You know and I know that what I told them was the truth... at least as far as they can see it. There were no marks... no reports... nothing to implicate you in the crime you stood accused of. Just as you know that letting them think otherwise is counterproductive – to their investigation as well as to your... other pursuits." She hesitated, then resumed her speech. "You know how important it is for your opponents to underestimate you; you know the advantage that gives you. The fact that they can't see you past this chair is their loss."

Barbara nodded reluctantly, recognizing the truth in Diana's words as much as she hated it.

"I don't...."

"Red, lay off Diana," Helena said, watching the green eyes flare with anger. "She was protecting you and shouldn't be faulted for that. I'd have said the same thing if they'd asked me."

Diana cocked her head. "What did you tell them, Helena?"

"That killing's really not my style – I'd have just beaten the crap out of her."

Dinah snorted and Diana chuckled. Even Barbara couldn't stop a small smile from gracing her face at the droll reply. "So why didn't you?" Dark brows flew into an equally dark hairline and Helena's eyes asked her question silently. Diana cleared her throat before clarifying. "Why didn't you beat the crap out of her?"

"Because to beat out that much crap, I would've had to kill her. And that would have made Barbara unhappy. Besides," not seeing green eyes widen at her admission. "Her death might have triggered that list to go public, right? And no one wanted that."

They all halted as the implication of Helena's words sank into their consciousness. "This is bad, isn't it?" Dinah asked as she tucked her hair behind her ear.

"You've got a talent for understatement, Kid."

"This is highly unusual, Ms...."

"I understand, Marshal Shannon," the redhead said, smoothly cutting off her keeper's objection. "However, it has to be taken care of, and it's my responsibility to take care of it."

Mary Shannon screwed up her face in a frustrated frown. "Can I ask what the hell is so important you're willing to risk your life for it?"

The other woman's smile was big and predatory. "I'm not risking my life, Marshal. You're simply ensuring I made it out ahead of the dogs."

Blonde brows went into her hairline and Mary's frown deepened. "Excuse me?"

The redhead chuckled throatily. "I promise to fill you in... as soon as I take care of my business in here," indicating the large bank building they were currently standing in front of.

"Not without me," Mary stated firmly, opening the door and gesturing her charge in front of her. The woman sighed but acquiesced and immediately made her way to the safety deposit boxes. Mary shook her head, wondering not for the first time what the hell she'd gotten into getting this woman out of Orlando.

"Everything all right here ladies?" Mac asked as she approached the table in the bar where Sam and Janet were having a drink. "You look like you got your feet taken out from under you."

The two Air Force officers exchanged glances before turning their eyes to the Marine. Then Janet gestured to an empty chair and Mac took the proffered seat.

"We were just discussing the merits of retirement."

"Was your police interview that bad?"

Sam and Janet looked at one another again and Sam took Janet's hand in hers as Janet answered. "Not bad, necessarily... just wearing. It gets old having to pretend, especially when you've given so much...." Mac held up her hand and nodded her understanding.

"I'm sorry. I can't begin to understand," knowing both women had seen combat action. "But I hate that you feel like you're being forced to choose."

Sam shrugged. "We've always known it was a possibility; this just sort of brought it all home to us I guess. At least we could both still find work in our chosen fields as civilians."

"And probably with a lot higher salary," Janet continued wryly.

All three officers chuckled. "Boy, that's the truth," Mac concurred. Makes you wonder about us military types sometimes, doesn't it?" She paused then continued. "At least it's not something we have to decide today," motioning the waitress over. "Next round's on me," hiking her brows into her hairline when both of her companions ordered straight juice.

"We're going to hear Gabrielle shortly. We'd actually like to be sober."

Mac nodded her agreement and soon they were sharing a pitcher of orange juice while talk turned to other things.

"I think the military has the right idea," Liz said as the New York contingent filed into the bar and took over a large seating area in the back.

"We came to the bar to drink orange juice?" Tracey asked with a hint of disbelief in her voice.

"I didn't say that," not surprised when Abbie and Casey stopped by the table where Sam, Janet and Mac were ensconced to extend an invitation to join them. Liz watched as the three turned to glance at them and then rose as one body to make their way to the back of the bar. Abbie took over the introductions and they quickly rearranged chairs so they were all sitting in a large circle.

"What can I get you ladies?" the perky waitress asked. Liz turned to Sam.

"Is that orange juice straight up or with a twist?"

Sam chuckled and blushed, ducking her head. Janet took pity on her partner and met Liz's eyes. "Straight up. We want to be sober to hear Gabrielle tonight and figured one drink was enough for now."

"Right. I'll have what they're having... on the rocks, please. And some nachos... and some wings and – just bring one of everything on the menu. I'm pretty sure we can make it all disappear," noting the number of people gathered together seemed to be growing. Alex and Olivia had motioned Jo and her friends over, while Abbie had made sure Lindsay and her crew were among them. That had brought the two young women who had gotten engaged the night before as well as Claire's doppleganger and the CSI group from Las Vegas. Together with the NCIS and FBI agents, Liz figured that a good percentage of the Law enforcement conference was now located in Rix.

Liz let her attention focus on the conversation that had immediately turned to the demise of the DIVA and their implication in it, not wanting to miss a thing. She wondered how long it would be before the rest of the women involved decided to join them, figuring it would be sooner rather than later. There was pride at stake here if nothing else.

She looked around in amusement, wondering if this group of individuals would be able to solve the mystery of Desdemona's murder before the police could. Given the minds involved, she wouldn't be a bit surprised if they did.

It was shaping up to be a most interesting evening.


Chapter XXXIX

"It's gonna be REAL embarrassing if they figure out the solution to this murder before we do," Bornlan commented to Kennian as they passed the bar currently filled with a number of the women they had just finished interviewing. Kennian gave them a cursory glance, but her attention was focused inwardly and Bornlan decided to leave her alone.

She took Shana's elbow and guided her through the press of people making their way to the food court. It took a few minutes before Kennian realized that they had reached their destination and she looked around cautiously. Bornlan chuckled.

"Nice of you to rejoin us, Shana."

"How did we arrive here, Teresa?"

"We walked," snickered Bornlan. When Kennian arched a blonde brow, she made an effort to get her laughter under control, but she couldn't completely wipe the smile from her face.

"Thank you. Teresa. I believe I could have reached that conclusion on my own as I am fairly certain you could not have carried me such a distance."

Teresa arched her brow in response. "Would you like to put that theory to the test?"

"No, thank you. I do not wish to become a public spectacle," allowing her second brow to join her first when Teresa chuckled again. Bornlan raised her hands in surrender.

"Fair enough. We're close enough to becoming a public spectacle with this case as it is. C'mon. Let's grab something to eat and find a table outside before everyone here discovers it's nice out."

"And what of them?" motioning to the full bar across the hall.

"Well," Bornlan said as she accepted the loaded burger from the woman behind the counter. "If they figure it out, we won't have to," earning herself a glare from Kennian.

"That is not very ambitious of you. Besides, do you really think they would share if they reached a reasonable solution?"

"This isn't about ambition, Shana. It's about realism. You heard what the Doc said – it's very likely that this case will remain unsolved. And given what we have and what we know, I am inclined to agree with her assessment... especially given the time constraints we're working under. As for them sharing – they are law enforcement personnel under suspicion of murder. Do you really think they *won't*?"

"Excellent point," Kennian conceded, removing a salad and a fruit cup from the refrigerator unit. She placed them on the tray she carried and motioned for Teresa to lead the way.

"Nothing to drink, ladies?" the cashier asked as they reached the register. Bornlan gave a heavy sigh even as she reached for her wallet, causing the young woman to see the badge she carried. Without blinking, she held up a hand and motioned a manager over.

With a few whispered words and a slide of her card, the manager waved them out of the food court. "It's been taken care of, Detectives. If you'll tell me what you'd like to drink and where you're headed, I'll be happy to accommodate you."


"Boss' orders."

The two police officers exchanged glances, then Bornlan shrugged. "Well, thank you. We appreciate it. We'll take whatever you have on hand that's non-alcoholic and contains a significant amount of caffeine."

The manager chuckled. "One of those days, is it?" recognizing the look in their eyes. "Don't worry, Detectives. We'll take care of you. Where will you be?"

"We're going out for some fresh air," Teresa said with a nod towards the door just beyond them.

"Good choice," the manager said with a smile. "Go grab a seat; I'll be right there."

"That was unexpected," Shana commented as she set her tray down on the table Teresa had selected. Teresa put her food on the table and dropped the tray to the ground beside her.

"Yes, but I can't say it's unwelcome. Especially given how the rest of our day has gone."

Kennian nodded thoughtfully even as she dressed her salad. "So what are we going to do now?"

Bornlan picked up her burger and took a large bite, chewing with undisguised relish. "Well," she started, only to stop speaking when the manager came out of the building with a tray of drinks – drinks, plural – as in several choices for each of them. There were two Cokes, two Red Bulls, two what appeared to be cappuccinos and two chocolate milks. Brown eyes met blue in surprise and they turned simultaneously to thank the manager. She waved them off.

"I just wanted to make sure I had all the bases covered. Now is there anything else...?"

"No, thank you. This is more than enough... thanks."

"Good. The Market is open til ten and the Café is open until midnight, in case you change your minds." And with a nod, the woman left them in peace to eat.

They ate in silence for a few minutes, allowing themselves a bit of a respite from the case and everything surrounding it. When they were mostly done, their eating slowed to nibbling, Shana asked Teresa once more, "Now what?"

Bornlan swallowed the last of her milk, then she scrubbed a hand over her face and blew out a breath. "I think our best bet is to go over everything we learned today. Maybe between us we'll see something the other missed."

Kennian nodded her head and carefully wiped her hands and mouth on her napkin before setting her garbage on her tray and looking around for a trash can. Bornlan clearing her throat caused her to look up, realizing the other detective had already risen from her chair and now had a hand out to take her tray. Kennian handed it over without hesitation and sat back to wait for Bornlan to return.

"So what do you have?" Teresa asked, resuming her seat.

Shana blew out a breath. "Not much," she confessed, eyes on the table. "A lot of the secrets are as Xena indicated – things one would not want made public. However, I did not get an indication from anyone I interviewed that they felt their secret was worth killing for. Some of them...."

"Yes?" Bornlan prompted when Kennian hesitated too long for her liking. "Some of them, what?"

Shana gave her head a frustrated shake. "It is all so ridiculous, Teresa. We have several suspects who, by all accounts, should have criminal records and yet they do not. There are even more who have been caught in moral ambiguities to say nothing of legal ones and yet aside from the listing of these charges that the victim maintained, there is not one word to be found against them except in cases where they have been found to be too passionate in their work. And that brings us to something else."

"Would you like to share? Or should I try reading your mind?"

Shana glared before she relented. "Why is there no record of Xena or Gabrielle?"

"I'm not sure I'm following you."

Shana allowed her eyes to meet Teresa's and hold them. "There is no record of anyone named Xena in any way, shape or form – none. As though she does not exist and never has. As for Gabrielle... even running the bots that Desdemona tried, we cannot get a hit. It simply comes back to Desdemona herself. And Gabrielle, though not a common name by any means is still a very broad search parameter. The fact that their last names are purported to be Smith-Jones, you can see why we are having a bit of a problem pinning anything down."

"So neither Jackie...?"

"... or anyone else can find a word on either of them. And since we are no longer allowed to investigate them, we have absolutely nothing on them... good or bad."

"Well, let's put Xena and Gabrielle aside for the moment. We can't do anything about them regardless, and frankly, I don't think they had anything to do with this."

"Do you have your eyes on someone, Teresa?"

Bornlan shook her head. "No. There are women whose secrets should have landed them in an interrogation room at the least if not a jail cell. But none of them tried to hide anything when questioned directly about them. Even the ones who weren't with the group last night had alibis of one sort or another."

"And your... 'gut'? What does it say about them?"

Bornlan sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. "It says we're on a wild goose chase."

"Would it be better if they were tame water fowl instead?"

The question was asked so calmly and with such a straight face that Bornlan blinked slowly twice before recognizing the twinkle sparkling back at her from shining blue eyes. She chuckled. "Somehow I don't think so, smartass."

Kennian smirked. "All right. Where does that leave us?"

"We still have DIVA's employees. And we still have the list of guest speakers."

"Do we even need to concern ourselves with them? After all, they were not part of Desdemona's list."

"But they were present at the conferences – we need to check on their whereabouts... just in case."

"And the rest? Those that were on Desdemona's list who were not present at either conference?"

"Someone is checking on them on their end. But so far, everyone checks out clean."

"Did you ever stop to wonder if perhaps we were being set up to fail?"

Bornlan cocked her head in question. "In what way?"

"You yourself have stated several times that this case is practically unsolvable given the constraints we are working under. The Doctor has concurred in this opinion. The Captain has made it entirely clear he is unhappy with the interference and restriction placed upon him by authorities higher up than he is and though our team is as crackerjack as can be found, we seem to be hitting walls every time we try to take a step forward in this case. So it does appear that we have been set up to fail."

"Except we were given this case *before* any restrictions were put into place or before any higher-ups felt the need to step in and interfere. I think it's mostly luck of the draw... even if it's only bad luck. The fact is, I think we would have been brought in regardless of who had caught the case originally; because I have a feeling we are better tolerated than any of our male colleagues would be."

"Those are excellent points," Kennian admitted with a defeated shrug of her shoulders.

"Then why are you still upset?"

"Because I do not like to be outsmarted by anyone."

"Then I suggest we get back to work," Bornlan said as she rose to her feet and grabbed their remaining drinks. "Who knows – we may get lucky."

Kennian grinned wryly. "At this point, I'll take anything."

"So what do they have... really?" Alex asked calmly, having managed to become the moderator of the conversation to keep things from becoming too heated or too personal.

"Well," Lindsay drawled slowly. "It appears they have a number of theories and a lot of conjecture."

"But as far as we can see, no physical evidence," Catherine added.

"So in other words...."

"It's all speculation," Garcia stated.

"And without evidence," Abby said.

"They can't file charges," Brooke finished.

"I don't know if I should find it scary or not that we're starting to finish one another's sentences. It's not like I have known most of you that long," Emily said dryly, causing laughter to titter around the barroom.

"All right," Liz spoke up. "Assuming that everyone here is telling the truth, and we're all equally innocent of killing that vile creature," shuddering dramatically and causing laughter to ripple around the gathering again, "then where does that leave us?"

"In a hell of a mess," Jo commented, seeing the other police officers nod in agreement, even as the lawyer and media types waited for further elucidation. "Because someone, somewhere *is* guilty of her murder, and until that person is caught people are always gonna wonder about us."

"So her death caused what her blackmailing didn't," came the flat statement from Sabrina.

"That depends," Olivia replied.


"Whether or not our secrets go public now."

"And that brings us to another point. Did Desdemona have a cache of these secrets stored somewhere?" Janet asked. "I know that's what we were told when she first approached us," seeing others nod their heads in agreement. "Not that I don't think she couldn't have been lying – hell, she probably was. But we couldn't risk it... not and keep our careers."

"None of us could," Helen commented. "And some, like Nikki here, coulda lost more than that."

"So we're just waiting for the other shoe to drop," Kate commented.

"No," Max stated unequivocally. "We figure out who did this first. Then we can decide what to do from there."

"In the meantime," Sam said, pointedly looking at her watch. "Gabrielle should be starting her seminar in about half an hour. I think I'm gonna head back down to the con room and get me a good seat."

Her words had the effect of lighting a fire under everyone, and as a single body, they rose and headed out of the bar.

"Uncle Sal?"

"Yes, my dear? I take it you were successful?"

"Completely, Uncle. The book has been left in your safety deposit box."

"Excellent, my dear. And you got away safely?"

"Not a problem. By the time they figure out I'm gone, I won't even be me anymore."

"You're sure about this?"

"A little late for me to decide otherwise, Uncle Sal."

"I know sweetheart. I just wish...."

"It had to be done, Uncle. And we both know I was the best qualified to do it."

"Perhaps," was Sal's only concession to the truth of her words. "Has Marshal Shannon given you any trouble?"

"No more than I expected. I'm afraid she's never had a charge like me before."

"Actually, that's not true," Mary broke in, loudly enough that Sal could hear her voice over his niece's cell phone. "I was in charge of Alexandra Cabot once upon a time. She was probably my most difficult client, though you're running a real close second, Ms...." trailing off when the other woman held up her hand.

"Uncle Sal could hear you. He'd like to speak to you directly."

Mary Shannon looked at the woman, then at her phone for a long moment before she sighed and accepted the device. "Hello? Yes sir... yes sir. I understand. All right, I will." She nodded her head even though the man on the other end couldn't see her. "Yes sir... we'll call you when we reach Albuquerque." Without another word, she handed the red head back her phone and moved away. She covered her face with her hands briefly, before allowing them to scratch through her hair.

It was shaping up to be one of *those* assignments.

The other woman finished her conversation with 'Uncle Sal' and without another word took Mary's arm. "C'mon, Marshal. I need a cup of coffee and I owe you an explanation."

"This ought to be a hell of a story."

The red head laughed and the sound caused Mary to smile despite herself. "Oh Marshal... you have NO idea."


Chapter XL

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

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

"Really? That's it?"

Dinah shrugged. "Yeah."

"Hope they're smarter than Reese ever was."

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

"And you know this how?"

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

"Wait... I thought you said the walls were holding."

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

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

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

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

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

"What's wrong, Red?"

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


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."


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 XLIX

"You sure you're all right with this, Max?" Amy asked as she and the DEBS made their way back down the hallway to the convention room.

Max nodded. "Sure... I mean, what the hell, right? We've actually gotten a lot out of this conference, and it's cool to be able to give a little back."

"Besides," Dom added with a smirk, "we'll have the best seats in the house, no?"

Amy chuckled. "Yeah, you probably will." She knocked on the door and it opened almost immediately, showing Scud in the doorway with a finger over his lips. They exchanged glances and nodded their agreement, then followed him silently into the room....

... only to bite their lips to keep from laughing out when they caught sight of Lucy lip-synching and dancing her way across the stage. Scud had put Erasure's A Little Respect on the sound system and it filled the room. Another knock caused him to turn away from Lucy's performance to let Helena in and she raised her eyebrows at the tableau playing out in front of them.

"What the hell?" she whispered directly into Scud's ear, knowing he would understand the gist of her growl even if he couldn't make out the words. He shrugged.

"This is kinda of Lucy's redemption song. When she started making amends to try and win Amy back, this was the song she did it to. She doesn't know you guys are here yet."

Helena shrugged. "All right. It's not like we don't have some time before the performers get here. Besides, I don't think she's unaware of us," Helena commented with a nod towards the front of the room.

Scud looked up just to see Amy go flying down the aisle. Lucy had activated her "Amy, Be Mine" device and had thrown the image up on the large wall that formed the back of the stage. Max and Dom just exchanged eye rolls and headed towards the front at a much more sedate pace. Janet leaned into Scud's embrace with a smile and Helena just shook her head and got to work on the camera set up.

Already it was shaping up to be one hell of a party.

The woman hesitated in the doorway of the restaurant, removing her cover and tucking it under her arm as she scanned the room. Mac noticed the uniform as she walked in and wondered; she and Sam and Janet had shed their uniforms after they'd checked in for the convention. Even though she had yet to see any uniforms... until this one... she found it fairly easy to pick out the military people who had come for vacation. They just had a certain bearing about them. Still, there was something about being at Disney that caused even the staunchest military member to relax and dress like a civilian. So seeing a uniform now – worn with such precision and stiffness – made her hesitate.

"Excuse me, Soldier?" causing the woman to turn and allowed Mac her first good look at the woman's face.

"Ma'am? Can I help you?"

Mac smiled and shook her head, holding the woman's dark eyes and pointedly ignoring the scarring down one whole cheek. "I wondered if I could help you. You look a little lost."

"Oh... I was looking for a friend. She invited me to dinner to meet some of her friends; they're here for some sort of meeting or something." The woman shrugged. "I'm not really sure, but Natalie said it was important, so here I am."

Mac's brows rose into her hairline. "Natalie... Natalie Green?"

"Yes – do you know her?"

"I do indeed. I had the opportunity to meet her this weekend as a matter of fact. C'mon... let's see if we can find her. I'm Mac, by the way," extending her hand.

The woman held up her hand a moment; first she shifted the walking stick Mac hadn't noticed she was using then tucked her cover under her other arm before accepting the hand Mac offered. "Rory... Sergeant Rory Talbot."

"Well, c'mon, Sergeant. Let's see if we can find our friends."

"I wouldn't want to keep you from something important, ma'am."

"I think *this* is important, Sergeant. And please call me Mac."

"All right, Mac. I'm Rory, then."

They walked slowly in deference to Rory's pronounced limp and looked around the room. When they didn't see Natalie, Rory risked a quick look at her watch. "I thought she asked me to meet her here at six. Perhaps I misunderstood."

"My friends and I would be happy to have you join us, Rory, and in the meantime, I'll see if we can contact Natalie through the hotel."

"I don't want to impose, ma.... Mac."

"It's not an imposition if you're being invited," leading her to a table where several of her compatriots were already seated. "Hey guys... this is Rory Talbot. Rory, please meet Sam Carter, Janet Fraiser, Sam McPherson, Brooke McQueen and Jordan Cavanaugh. Rory was supposed to meet Natalie Green for dinner, but she's a no-show at the moment, so I invited her to join us."

"Yes, please do," they invited, shifting closer together to add another chair to the table.

"I'm going to go make a phone call... see if we can find Natalie for you. Sam, will you please order me the scallops and the steak salad – medium – if the server comes before I get back?"

"Oh ma'am, I can't...."

"Sergeant, I respect the awards you're wearing, but please don't make me pull rank. I haven't had to be an officer all weekend and it's been *really* nice."

Rory had the grace to look chagrined. "I've stepped into it, haven't I?"

"Not yet," Sam Carter assured her with a grin, "but you've gotta be careful with that one," jerking her head in Mac's direction. "She's JAG."

"Naturally," Rory muttered, causing the rest to laugh. "I appreciate it, Mac. Thanks."

Mac nodded and walked away from the table, making her way back to the restaurant's foyer area. A quick call to the main desk connected her to Natalie's room, and Mac was reassured that Natalie and her friends were headed to the main building. She spoke to the maitre`d and she motioned a waiter to move another table to the one where Mac and her friends were seated.

"They're on their way over," Mac stated. "I figured we may as well have them join us," getting agreement from the rest of the party.

"So how do ya'll know each other?" Rory asked. "Are the rest of you journalists too?"

Sam McPherson chuckled. "I'm the only journalist here," she confessed. "Everyone else at this table is some kind of legal beagle."

"HEY!" came retorts from three tablemates.

Brooke laughed. "Really, Sammie. You of all people should know better than to generalize like that." She turned to Rory. "Mac and I are lawyers, Jordan and Janet are both doctors and the blonde Sam is with Homeland Security."

Rory's eyes went wide. "Wow! That's um... pretty diverse."

"How about you, Rory? What do you do?"

Before she could answer, Natalie spotted her and squealed, leading the way to the table. Rory stood up slowly, just in time to meet Natalie's fervent hug.

"Thank you for coming," Natalie whispered.

"You knew I would."

Natalie squeezed her one last time, then withdrew slightly. "I think everyone knows everyone here," she started, waiting for heads to nod, "except for you three," motioning with her hand. "Rory Talbot, meet Jo Polniaczek and Blair Warner. Guys, this is my friend, Rory Talbot."

"Nice to meet ya," Jo said, liking the firm handshake she got.

"Charmed," Blair commented with a sincere smile. "I'm sorry we're late. It's my fault. The marionette that was supposed to be part of my talent show act tonight is having an issue and well.... It doesn't matter. Suffice it to say that we lost track of time trying to fix it. I really am very sorry."

"Don't apologize, ma'am. These lovely ladies have been very kind... made me feel welcome."

"So how do you know one another?" Mac asked after the latecomers had given their orders to the hovering waiter.

Natalie met Rory's gaze and Rory shrugged minutely. Natalie turned back to the table and took a deep breath. "We met overseas during Desert Storm. Rory saved my life."

Janet leaned forward. "Can you share?"

Natalie looked around the table, seeing nothing but curiosity and friendly interest. "As long as it stays 'eyes only' for now – it doesn't go beyond this table," stating her case plainly. "Some of this story is deeply personal for me."

Janet reached over and covered the hands that rested on the tabletop. "Natalie, if it makes you uncomfortable, you don't have to share."

Natalie and Rory exchanged another glance and Natalie shook her head. "No... I think this story deserves to be told and I need to be the one to share it." She waited for the waiter to place their drinks and appetizers on the table. "You're gonna want to get comfortable, though. This story isn't short, and it's not very pretty."

The rest settled in and focused their attention on Natalie, anxious to hear what she had to say.

"Tell me, Blake... have you enjoyed the conference? Do you feel like it was a good use of your resources?" Miranda asked as they were seated with her daughters, Doris and Ashley. Emily had been dismissed for the evening and she was enjoying the brief respite before the talent show. Caroline, Cassidy and Ashley were talking quietly at one end of the table, leaving the three adults on the other end on their own for conversation.

Blake bit her lip thoughtfully and nodded her head. "I have really. I've made some new friends and found some new contacts, including a couple of distributors and some independent publishers. It's given me some ideas... things I want to think about as a possible direction for me to take my business in the future. What about you, Miranda?"

"Well, not a lot of what I learned from our seminars can be applied to the day to day operations of Runway, but I have made a number of contacts that I believe will prove most useful down the line. I also found a couple of ideas that will no doubt make their way into some future issues. What about you, Ms Wolfe? Did you find the law enforcement agenda enlightening?"

"I did, actually. We weren't limited to merely the aspects of law enforcement that we're a part of. So I was able to learn about other avenues in the broader outlook of the field of law enforcement. I found it very interesting."

"And the murder?" Miranda smirked. Doris snorted.

"I found that damned inconvenient," she replied wryly, causing Miranda's lips to twitch again and Blake to nearly choke on her wine. Doris shrugged, ignoring the glare Blake was sending her way. "What?" she asked. "I was just being honest. It was irritating."

"I'll agree with that assessment. Otherwise, though, I've had a most enjoyable experience."

Blake blinked. "You say that as if it's a surprise."

"It was," Caroline answered unexpectedly. "For all of us, actually. Mom generally doesn't do this, and on the occasions that she's forced to attend this sort of thing...." She shrugged.


"It's true, Mom, and you know it." Miranda shook her head but smiled fondly, waiting until her daughter turned back to her conversation with Cassidy and Ashley.

"Kids," she muttered, drawing grins from the other two women.

"S'all right, Miranda," Doris assured her. "We've all got 'em. They keep things interesting anyway."

"That they do," Miranda agreed solemnly, though there was a twinkle in her blue eyes. "That they most certainly do."

"So do you know what story you're gonna tell, Jellybean?" Olivia asked as she brushed out her daughter's thick hair. "Bean?" she said a second time when Emma didn't answer her immediately. Olivia tugged gently on the hair she held. "Hey... you all right, Sweetie?"

"Mommy! What'd you do that for?" frowning briefly before breaking into a smile.

"Everything all right, Bean? I was talking to you, but you weren't answering." She turned Emma's head away from her and resumed her brushing.

"Oh... sorry, Mommy; I was thinking."


"The story I'm going to tell. Do you think Gabrielle will be disappointed if I tell a story everyone already knows?"

"I don't think she'd mind at all, Bean. I'm pretty sure she's just happy you want to tell a story." She pulled Emma's hair up into a tight ponytail and fastened it up before pulling the brush through the long locks again. "I know I'm pretty proud of you, Bean."

"Emma?" Natalia spoke up, passing Olivia the bow she'd been preparing and taking the brush Olivia traded for it. Emma turned her head to look at Natalia; Olivia sighed and shook her head, then gently turned her head back so she could attach the bow.

"Yes, Mama?"

"Why did you decide to tell a story tonight?"

Emma scrunched up her forehead in thought. "Well, you know that Gabrielle is an Amazon Queen and that Xena is her champion."

Olivia and Natalia exchanged smiling glances and responded, "Uh huh."

"Right... so Xena told me that a Queen's Champion had to earn her place. She had to be the best warrior, the best tracker, the best hunter – she had to be able to take care of the queen no matter what kind of trouble the queen managed to get herself into." Emma turned her head again and crinkled her nose up when she smiled. "Xena made a really funny face when she said that; I think Gabrielle gets into more trouble than I do," she offered seriously. Olivia and Natalia studiously avoided looking at one another in an effort not to laugh aloud.

Finally Natalia nodded. "All right. But I still don't understand...."

"Well, Xena told me that a Queen's Champion has to be well-rounded. I didn't think she was very round and told her so. She told me it meant she had to be more than a fighter. Xena sings," she finished, as if that explained everything.

"Okay... so?"

Emma rolled her eyes. "So I can learn to fight and track and hunt – Amazons teach all those things. But I can't sing." She made a face. "And all Amazons can dance. But not too many Amazons tell stories. So if I can tell stories, it will make me well-rounded and I can be a Queen's Champion." She paused then gave a devious little smirk. "Besides, I wanted to hear Gabrielle tell another story."

"And you knew she would tell one if you did?"

"No. But I knew if we made a deal, she'd keep her promise. Amazon Queens always keep their promises – Xena said so."

"You really like them, don't you, Bean?"

"I do, Mommy. They've been really nice. And Gabrielle let me pick the prize I wanted for winning the scavenger hunt."

"Oh that's right... we still don't know what you got," reaching up to run tickling fingers along Emma's ribs. She squirmed and slid out of Olivia's grasp.

"No fair tickling," Emma protested. "You'll mess up my hair. Besides, you'll find out soon enough."

Olivia arched an eyebrow and traded glances with Natalia. "I'll find out soon enough?? When is soon enough? I'm not real patient, you know," flexing her fingers and edging closer to Emma. Natalia just watched the tableau with a fond smile.

"Tonight! After the talent show tonight!" Emma huffed.

Olivia shifted her stance, bringing her fingers to her face to examine the nails before lightly buffing them on her shirt. "All right, Bean. You've got yourself a reprieve. But if I don't find out tonight," wiggling her fingers and grinning wickedly, "you're mine."

Emma flung herself into Olivia's arms and squeezed her neck tightly before leaning back to catch Olivia's gaze. "Oh Mommy… I'm already yours – yours and Mama's."

Olivia grinned through the tears that suddenly flooded her green eyes. "You sure are, Bean," leaning back into Natalia's body when she wrapped them both in her embrace. "Now let's get going – we've got a talent show to attend."


Chapter L

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

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

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

"Giving them the best seats in the house," Lucy snarked.

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

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

"I think I'm gonna be sick."

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

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

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

Abbie smiled, already lifting her phone to her ear.

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

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

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

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

"You're sure?"

"Yes... but you are paying for dinner."

Bornlan chuckled. "Fair enough. Let's go."

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

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

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

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

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


"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.


Chapter LV

This time the curtains opened fully, revealing the presence of a baby grand piano. Diana, dressed in jeans and an untucked white dress shirt, took her seat on the bench, adjusting the microphone stand Xena had slipped into place. Xena, in jeans and an untucked black dress shirt, then walked over to Lucy and simply extended her hand, smiling when Lucy shook her head. The audience couldn't hear the words they exchanged, but they got the reference when Xena motioned to Gabrielle, then crossed her arms over her chest with a smirk.

Lucy blew her bangs out of her face, then stuck out her tongue at Xena before extending the microphone to her. The crowd laughed and cheered, enjoying the pantomimed action as much as it had the rest of the evening. Xena took the mic, then took a bow; Lucy crossed her arms over her chest and stuck her nose in the air... for the all of five seconds it took for her to join in the laughter. Then she headed back to her seat and waited for the next act to begin.

Xena stepped to the front of the stage, clearing her throat before bringing the mic to her lips. "So, um... Lucy was right – Gabrielle did give me more than an hour to prepare for this performance," her smile garnering her light laughter from the crowd. "Yeah," she added, scratching the back of her neck, "I'm even luckier in that Diana was nice enough to agree to accompany me and we've actually sung together before. However, it's been a really long time since we did, so...." trailing off, not mentioning how long that really long time was or the fact that it had been among the Amazons.

"But, as Emma can tell you, an Amazon Queen is entitled to a Champion, but a Queen's Champion has to be well-rounded and can never shirk her duty to the queen. In my case, that means on the rare occasion that Gabrielle asks for me to sing for her, I do." Xena turned to face Gabrielle and bowed deeply before meeting her eyes. "With your permission, your majesty...." knowing no one would think it was more than a simple bit of theatrics and showmanship for Emma's benefit.

Gabrielle nodded regally and waved her hand. Xena smiled and moved back to stand behind the piano, still facing the audience and close enough that she and Diana could see and hear one another easily.

"Whenever you're ready," Xena said softly, nodding her head. Diana smiled and riffed her fingers across the keys before smoothly segueing into the introduction of the medley they'd prepared. Xena returned the smile and began singing alone.

When you're down and troubled
And you need some love and care
And nothing, nothing is goin' right,
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night
You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I'll come runnin' to see you again

Then Diana harmonized with her on the chorus.

Winter, spring, summer or fall
All ya have to do is call
And I'll be there,
You've got a friend, you've got a friend.

Diana took over the melody on the next bit.

You've got a friend in me
You've got a friend in me
When the road looks rough ahead
And you're miles and miles
From your nice warm bed
You just remember what your old pal said
Boy, you've got a friend in me
Yeah, you've got a friend in me

Then Xena resumed the lead and Diana dropped back to harmonizing.

You've got a friend in me
You've got a friend in me
If you've got troubles, I've got 'em too
There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you
We stick together and can see it through
Cause you've got a friend in me
You've got a friend in me.

By this point, the room was singing along on the bits they recognized and swaying to the parts they didn't know. Xena signaled to Diana who nodded her agreement and extended the transition into the next piece, giving time for Xena to kneel in front of Gabrielle before she started singing again.

Ooh you make me live
Whatever this world can give to me
It's you - you're all I see
Ooo you make me live now honey
Ooo you make me live

Ooh you're the best friend that I ever had
I've been with you such a long time
You're my sunshine and I want you to know
That my feelings are true
I really love you
Oh you're my best friend.

Gabrielle blushed, but she held Xena's gaze and smiled, tenderly cupping Xena's cheek. Xena's free hand covered it briefly, then took it in her hand and lifted it to her lips while Diana let the music evolve from one song to the next. Xena let the words flow from her lips without letting her eyes leave Gabrielle's.

But of all these friends and lovers,
There is no one compares with you.
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new.

Though I know I'll never ever lose affection
For people and things that went before,
I know I'll often stop and think about them.
In my life I love you more.

Xena tugged on the hand she held, pulling Gabrielle to her feet and swaying with her gently on the floor beside the stage. Diana played a nice long interlude, then took over the singing. She'd seen the queen and her consort forget the world existed before when they got lost together like this.

Keep smiling, keep shining,
Knowing you can always count on me
For sure
That's what friends are for

For good times and bad times
I'll be on your side forever more.
That's what friends are for.

The room continued to sway with the music, watching Xena and Gabrielle sway with them, yet apart. Diana allowed the music to speed up so she could shift into the next tune, knowing it would pull Xena and Gabrielle back into the act. She waited for Xena to look up and nod her head, then started singing the next song grinning when the audience started clapping in time.

Oh, you got to have friends,
The feeling's oh so strong.
You got to have friends
To make that day last long.
Had some friends, but they're gone,
Somethin' came and took them away,
And from the dusk 'til the dawn
Here's where I will stay.

Xena led Gabrielle to the stage, joining Diana's singing about halfway through the song. When they were done, Diana kept up music in the background at Xena's signal. Xena handed Gabrielle the microphone, then put her hands on Gabrielle's hips and lifted her up onto the piano. Gabrielle laughed and crossed her legs as she handed the mic back to Xena.

"All right," she said over the music. "Before we let Gabrielle do her thing and close us out for the night, Diana and I have one more bit of musical brilliance to leave you with. Pretty sure most of you'll appreciate the humor," nodding her head at Diana one more time. Laughter and applause started almost immediately – most of the women did, in fact, recognize the music that Diana played leading up to the chorus. Then everyone started singing along.

'Cause I've got friends
In low places
Where the whiskey drowns
And the beer chases
My blues away
And I'll be okay
I'm not big on social graces
Think I'll slip on
Down to the oasis
Oh, I've got friends
In low places

I guess I was wrong
I just don't belong
But then, I've
Been there before
And everything is all right
I'll just say goodnight
And I'll show myself
To the door
I didn't mean to
Cause a big scene
Just wait 'til I
Finish this glass
Then sweet little lady
I'll head back to the bar
And you can kiss my....

Gabrielle gave Diana a pointed look and simply leaned forward and covered Xena's mouth with her hand before they could utter the final word. The crowd went crazy, cheering and whooping loudly in both approval and pleasure of the entertainment they'd been given.

Xena cocked her head in Gabrielle's direction and Gabrielle kissed her nose as she removed her hand. Xena smiled at her, then extended her hand to Diana, helping her from the bench. Together they walked to the front of the stage, bowing first simultaneously, then separately before wrapping their arms around one another and laughing.

After a moment, they pulled apart and Diana headed off the stage. Xena looked at Lucy, but she simply shook her head and gestured for Xena to continue. In anticipation, the women grew silent. Xena let her eyebrows go into her hairline.

"You guys expecting something else?" grinning when the audience went a little bit wild. That reaction, pure and honest, made everything they had done to get to this point more than worth it. She turned and looked at Gabrielle, not surprised to see a hint of tears in the green eyes she knew so well. Xena looked back out at the audience.

"Then without further ado... please welcome – Bard Gabrielle!!"

This time everyone jumped to their feet clapping, whistling and stomping enthusiastically. Xena turned back to Gabrielle and walked back to the piano. She handed her the microphone and leaned their foreheads together, putting her hands on Gabrielle's waist.

"You all right?" she whispered.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and nodded, swallowing hard before she spoke. "Yeah... it's just...." She shrugged. "I'm still a little overwhelmed. I never expected...."

Xena grinned. "Yeah, but it's nice, right?"

"Yeah, it is. Now put me down so I can tell my story."

Xena bowed low, drawing screams from the still cheering crowd. "As you wish, my queen," lifting Gabrielle from the piano and setting her gently on her feet before releasing her hips. "Go get 'em, baby!" Xena whispered, then turned and somersaulted from the stage. Gabrielle grinned fondly at her and shook her head. Xena simply bowed again and took her seat, not surprised to find Emma next to her again.

"This is so exciting!" Emma whispered loudly to Xena to be heard over all the noise in the room, even as she bounced up and down in her seat. Xena smiled and nodded.

"Yes, it is. It's been a long time since the queen has told stories like she has this weekend."

"Why? She's really good at it."

"Yes, she is. But there isn't really a call for it anymore. People have television and movies and books."

Emma narrowed her eyes. "I'll talk to my mommy. She can fix that. She can fix anything, you know," Emma confided confidently.

Xena smiled and nodded. She had no doubt if Emma got involved, all kinds of things would be possible. She only hoped Emma's mother was ready for everything that meant. Then she realized the room was settling down and directed Emma's attention back to the stage.

"Thank you, everyone... thank you so much," Gabrielle said as she wiped the corner of her eye and chuckled, causing more applause. She held up her hand. "Thank you ladies. Please... please be seated. Please... thank you."

Gabrielle smiled and waited for them to calm down and settle back into their seats.

"Thank you – I can't tell you how amazing this weekend has been for me. Aside from all the wonderful seminars and networking we've done; besides all the new friendships we've made - your welcome for me... for this...." pausing when they cheered again.

"Now," Gabrielle continued when the room quieted again. "I'm gonna tell you something... gods' honest truth," she added, holding up her hand as if taking a pledge. "Xena and I didn't discuss what we were gonna do here tonight. Aside from knowing that she was singing and I was storytelling, we didn't talk about this at all. So the fact that she and Diana did a song medley about friendship and I'm telling a story about two best friends is simply karma."

The women clapped their approval and Gabrielle took that moment to look at Xena. Without hesitation, she tapped Emma on the shoulder and handed her a bottle of water, then leaned forward and whispered in her ear. Emma took the bottle and nodded eagerly. Then she ran up the stairs onto the stage and gave Gabrielle the bottle. Gabrielle accepted the bottle and offered a hug that Emma gladly returned before she ran back to sit beside Xena once more.

"So sit back, ladies, and let me tell you the story of Nolie and Rysa."


Chapter LVI

Gabrielle tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and looked out at the audience. "This is a beautiful story of love and friendship that takes place during one of the darkest parts of US history, and it begins in the waning days of peace before the Civil War tore this country apart…."

Nolie walked slowly down the cobbled streets, her head bent lost in thought. It was the fall of 1860, and the countryside was rumbling with the rumors of war. She found the talk unsettling, and she made her way to the bank at the corner of Franklyn & Rhodes to visit her papa. The walk made her introspective, and she thought back over her life, and what had brought her to the decision she'd come to that morning ---

Gabrielle smiled out at the quiet audience. "Now you need to know what Nolie was thinking about as she walked down that road towards the bank. It lays the foundation for this entire tale."

Cyrus Brighton was the president of the First National Bank, and had guided it into prosperity in the years since its founding. He was well thought of in the community, and his plantation, though not large, was a thriving success. His house slaves were mostly devoted, as he was not a hard master to serve.

One was particularly faithful. Rysa was a mulatto who'd been brought into the house as a youngster to be a companion to his newborn daughter. The eight-year-old stared at the new baby with wide hazel eyes not realizing the difference the little brown-eyed child would make in her life.

It was 1844 when Magnolia Brighton was born, the only child of Cyrus and Rebecca Brighton. They'd been married for twelve years when she made her appearance, and never were two people so happy to welcome a baby into their home. Complications set in for Rebecca though, and before Nolie was two weeks old, her mother passed into God's arms, leaving Cyrus to raise their baby girl alone.

Cyrus was distraught, so his housekeeper slave who went by the name Twiggy took little Nolie in to Cyrus and laid her in his arms. He continued to look out the window, though his arms tightened convulsively around the tiny bundle.

"Massa Cyrus? Massa Cy? Ah knows ya don' wanna hears dis from me, sah, but Miz Nolie, she still needs ya, sah."

He sat still so long that Twiggy wondered if he'd even heard her, but finally his attention turned to the sleeping baby, then his eyes tracked to Twiggy. "I do not know anything about babies, Twiggy. What am I going to do without Rebecca?"

Twiggy couldn't stop the tears that rolled down her face. "Massa Cy, if'n ya'd like sah, Ah'll take care of de baby, sah. I knows of someones I kin git to hep wif her...."

Nolie started fussing, and Cyrus awkwardly patted her behind. "You do what you think is best for her, Twiggy. I leave her in your capable hands."

Rysa became Nolie's friend and companion, and they'd never questioned their right to be together. Rysa changed Nolie's diapers, fed her and rocked her when she cried. As Nolie grew older, Rysa taught Nolie how to climb trees and fish and swim, and Nolie in turn taught Rysa how to read and write. Though Rysa was eight years older, the two girls grew up together, and Rysa was mostly able to put the fact of her slavery out of her mind.

On the eve of Nolie's tenth birthday, Rysa's slavery was brought home to them both in a very real way.

"Xena?" Emma asked, tugging on Xena's dark sleeve and forcing Xena to lean down to hear her. Xena cocked an eyebrow and waited. Emma leaned up to she could whisper in Xena's ear. "Why's Gabrielle talking so funny?"

Xena smiled. Gabrielle had spent a long time getting Twiggy's inflection right – something Xena had appreciated more when she'd finally met the elderly woman in person.

"Because that's the way Twiggy talked, Jellybean. She didn't have the chance to go to school and learn better."

Emma held her eyes for a moment, judging her honesty. Then she nodded her head and turned back to listen to Gabrielle.

Rysa was accompanying Nolie downtown to see her father at the bank. It wasn't something she particularly enjoyed because of the attention it got her. But Nolie wanted to see her father, and she could not, would not allow the precocious child to walk into town alone.

When they arrived at the bank, Rysa was stopped at the door by the doorman, who was unnecessarily rude and condescending. "Whaddya want here, nigger? Yer kind don't have business here."

"That's a bad word," Emma hissed, though this time, it was loud enough for Gabrielle to hear her. Gabrielle turned to the side of the stage, then walked over and knelt down.

"You're right, Emma – it is a bad word. But in that time and that place, it was commonly used in reference to everyone of color."

Emma nodded. "All right. Go ahead. I like this story."

Gabrielle smiled. "So do I," remembering how glad she'd been when Nolie and Rysa had shared it with her the first time. She rose and went back to the middle of the stage, switching the hand that held the microphone and tucking yet another stray lock of hair behind her ear.

Nolie didn't understand the man's ugliness, but even as a child she knew she didn't like his tone in addressing her friend. She stepped in front of Rysa and pointed at the man, glaring up into his face.

"You don't talk to her like that, mister. She's my friend!"

The man sneered at her and tried to push the child away from him. "Watch it...." was all he managed before finding his hand caught in a vice grip and blazing hazel eyes burning into him.

"Why do you not go tell...?"

"I'm gonna tell my papa on you, you bad man."

"Problem, Mr. Fulton?" Cyrus Brighton's quiet voice cut into the melee, effectively silencing everyone. One of his tellers had heard the disturbance and fetched him from his office in time to hear Nolie's youthful voice raised in anger.

"Yes, sir. This nigger was trying to get in the front door. We do not let her kind do business here."

"I see. Perhaps you should know the facts before you start passing judgment, Mr. Fulton. Rysa is my daughter's governess, and as such is allowed in with my daughter when she accompanies her to town. If that is going to be a problem for you, perhaps you should find other employment, because I will not sacrifice Magnolia's safety for your petty bigotry. Do I make myself clear?" he asked, not understanding how bigoted he himself sounded.

"Yes sir. I didn't realize...."

"Very well, Mr. Fulton. Don't let it happen again."

"Yes sir," the young man said grudgingly, just moving out of the way to allow Rysa to pass by him into the building.

That night, Nolie went into Rysa's room without knocking, and for the first time noticed the scars on Rysa's back. Rysa quickly pulled on her nightshirt when she heard Nolie's gasp. "Rysa? What happened to your back?"

It was a little awkward between them now - Rysa was an adult while Nolie remained a child, and Rysa never lost sight of the fact that she was a slave, though she managed to put the fact aside most of the time. She silently mourned this day, knowing it would put a gulf between them that they would never be able to bridge.

She sat down on her bed, and Nolie crawled up beside her. Trusting brown eyes looked into hazel and asked again. "Rysa?"

Rysa looked down into Nolie's eyes, the shrugged as if it were of no great consequence. "I'm a slave, Nolie," she answered quietly. "I was taken from the fields as a child, and brought in to be a companion to you. It's something I've always been thankful for; at first because it got me out of the fields. But later it was because we became friends. I never expected that. But I am still a slave."

Rysa stopped talking, as though afraid to reveal too much, and Nolie sat quietly pondering her words. Finally, Nolie looked up into Rysa's eyes. "I don't care. You are my best friend, and nothin' is goin' to change that." She jutted out her chin diffidently. "I will not let it."

Rysa brushed a light kiss over the child's light brown hair, and they sat quietly for a time after that. Rysa began to think Nolie had fallen asleep she was silent so long, then her young friend spoke again.

"Rysa? Who hit you? Who left the marks on your back?"

"It does not matter, Nolie. It was a long time ago."

"It matters to me, Ry. Please tell me."

Rysa sighed, wondering how they'd gotten into this bizarre conversation of times and events she tried very hard not to remember. "It was Master Wilkes."

"Wilkes? The plantation foreman?" Nolie's childish brow knotted in thought. "I knew there was a reason I didn't like him. He's just mean." Nolie scrambled from the bed and headed towards the door. "I'll ask Papa to fire him."

Rysa rushed from the bed to stand in front of the door. "You cannot do that, Nolie, please." She knelt down to be at eye level and went on quickly when the small face scrunched in confusion. "Please... it will only make things worse if you do."

Nolie stared into the hazel eyes she had trusted since birth and saw truth and terror and sorrow. She nodded her head slowly. "Okay, Rysa. But I'm not letting the fact that you are a slave change things between us. You are still my best friend and always will be." She clasped her arms around Rysa's neck and kissed her smooth cheek goodnight. "Maybe if I ask Papa to free you...." she mumbled mostly to herself, not seeing the eyes behind her widen in alarm. She slipped out of the room, closing the door behind her, then just as suddenly reopened it and stuck her head in.

"Good night, Ry."

"Good night, Nolie," Rysa whispered, still overwhelmed by what had just happened.

"Now keep in mind that all this happened when the rumblings of civil war were merely that... rumblings. Talk that happened around the dinner table and in libraries and studies in homes across the nation. Nolie grew up in this volatile environment and even as sheltered as she was kept, she still heard things, and considering the day and age, she was quite an independent young woman. It didn't make things easy, but it certainly kept them interesting."

Nolie shook her head remembering that day six years prior as she walked up the short steps to the bank. She had been so young and so naïve, but she hadn't let it change their friendship. Even when her father refused to free Rysa and she'd been angry with him for weeks, her friendship with Rysa had remained steady.

"Good mornin', Charles," she said politely to the doorman. Fulton had left shortly after the incident with Rysa, and Nolie for one was glad to see him go. His rudeness to her friend had marked him as unacceptable in her child's mind and she'd never gotten past it.

Now that she stood on the cusp of adulthood, she was even more adamant in her feelings and was coming to break the news to her father before he could send out invitations to her cotillion.

She stepped through the portal, nodding to the men who though busy with work took the time to greet her. She walked to the back area where Cyrus maintained his office, and waited for his assistant to announce her. Then she crossed the threshold and closed the door softly behind her.

Her father rose from behind the desk, and came around to meet her, arms extended for a hug. When the embrace ended, Cyrus stepped back with a smile and motioned her to a seat. "Nolie, what a nice surprise! Are you so excited about your coming out party that you came down to make sure I sent the invitations out today?" He gestured to the stack of thick, cream colored envelopes on his desk and grinned. "I was just finishing up the last of them. General is supposed to pick them up and deliver them round this afternoon."

Nolie took a deep breath before looking up into his eyes. "I don't want a party, Papa. Ry cannot come, and I will not have one without her."

Cyrus looked at his daughter in consternation. "Nolie, this has been the talk of the town for weeks. Why are you deciding this now? Folks expect this."

"Well, folks will just have to lower their expectations. I will not have a party if Rysa cannot come, and I will not have her be shunned because of her skin color if she was able to come. There is no way to win, so I will simply not have a party."

"And if I go ahead and give you one? There are a number of eligible young men who have been looking forward to this, Nolie. Rysa is just a slave. Is it fair not to give them the opportunity t...." Cyrus didn't finish, stopped by the fire in her almost black eyes.

"If you go ahead with the cotillion, Papa, I will not be there. You will have it without me."

He looked at her in silence, the stubborn set of her jaw reminding him so much of her mother it almost hurt to see it. "You're serious."

"Yes, I am," she answered quietly, but with conviction. Her glance never wavered, and in that moment Cyrus Brighton had never been more proud of his willful, determined daughter. He sighed audibly though. She was making a statement he wasn't sure he wanted the world to know about in these turbulent times.

Cyrus was considered a fair and just man, but he still owned slaves and honestly saw no problem with it. He wasn't a cruel master and could not understand his daughter's attitude.

"I am not going to convince you otherwise, am I?"

"No sir, and I do not want you to take this out on Rysa. She knows nothin' about this; it is completely my decision."

Cyrus had the grace to blush at Magnolia's intuition. He had been thinking exactly that, wondering in the back of his mind if Rysa had somehow influenced Nolie's decision. "Promise me, Papa. Promise me you will not take this out on Rysa."

He looked at her sheepishly. "You have your mother's strength of will, Nolie. I promise I will do nothing to Rysa for your decision. But you are going to have to explain to the neighbors. They have been waiting for this occasion - some of them for years."

She rose from the chair. "It's my choice, Papa and not their business. Thank you for allowin' me to choose."

"I have never denied you much of anything, daughter, and if you do not want a cotillion, I certainly will not make you suffer through one." He stroked her cheek gently. "You have such a tender heart. I hope you do not get hurt by this."

"I won't, Papa. Rysa means more to me than our gossipy neighbors," she assured him blithely. But she had no idea of the things that were to come.

Rysa noticed that fewer and fewer of Nolie's friends came around when Nolie refused to have a cotillion, and she did her best to step away from the younger woman and let her become the belle her father wanted her to be. Nolie was having none of it, however, and continued to cling to her friendship with Rysa. She didn't flaunt their friendship, but she did nothing to hide it.

Eventually, their attention turned towards the ever-increasing threat of war, and they lost interest in scorning Nolie for choosing a slave's company over their own. Instead they became more and more adamant in the vocal outcries for war, and stopped by frequently to talk about why war was becoming more necessary, and how it would change the country for the better and....

Gabrielle paused a moment and took a long pull of the water Emma had given her, then let her glance drop to her feet for a long moment. Then she looked back out into the silent audience. "Have you ever noticed that when it comes along, talk about war is always essentially the same?" She sighed. "And so are the results." She shook her head and blew out a breath, then resumed her story.

Nolie got sick and tired of hearing the incessant chatter, and took to escaping out the back with Rysa when she heard General headed her way. They had worked out a signal, and when General cleared his throat upon receiving callers, Nolie grabbed Rysa by the hand and ran out into the gardens so as to be unavailable.

The first time it happened, Rysa was stunned. She sat in the gazebo catching her breath and looking at Nolie. Finally, she opened her mouth and spoke quietly. "Do you want to explain to me why two grown women just went flying out of the house as though the hounds of hell and damnation itself were giving chase, especially when you have company?" Her tone wasn't accusing, but merely curious. She'd long ago given up trying to understand Nolie; Rysa simply loved her and accepted Nolie as she was.

Nolie stretched out along the length of the bench where Rysa sat, laying her head in the older woman's lap and enjoying her rather unladylike position. It reminded her a lot of the many times they'd sat here just like this during her growing up years, and for a moment she wished she could reclaim that time and go back to when things were so much simpler.

She closed her eyes and sighed when she felt Rysa's long fingers gently begin to comb through her hair. "I am tired of the singular focus of their conversation, Ry, and I know it gets to you. They are deliberately nettling you, and I don't like it. So General and I have worked out a signal, and when they stop by, I am conveniently not in to receive them."

Rysa sat silently absorbing the information Nolie had just imparted, gently massaging through the light brown hair, marveling at its softness. She felt Nolie unwind and smiled. Always, since Nolie had been a small child, this had been one of the best ways to calm and relax the tiny whirlwind the young woman had been. Rysa smirked to herself - and obviously still was. She sat a while longer in noiseless contemplation.

"Nolie?" Rysa said softly, finally. She did not want to disturb the younger woman if Nolie was asleep. One light brown eye peeked up at her.

"Hmm?" came the drowsy answer.


"Hmm?" came the sleepy response again. "Why what, Ry?"

"Nothin'... never mind." Rysa's shoulder's dropped. Both of Nolie's eyes popped open at the dropped 'g'. Since learning to read, Rysa had always taken great care with her language, and Nolie could count on her hands the number of times she had let her speech slide. It always coincided with upset or distress, and Nolie wondered what had happened. She turned her head to look directly at Rysa, and caught the tears glistening on the smooth skin.

Nolie reached a hand up and gently removed the traces of wetness. "This is not nothing, Ry. What's wrong?" It was times like this that Nolie was reminded of Rysa's fragility, and she felt the more grown up of the two of them.

Rysa clasped the fingers on her face and kissed the tips lightly before smiling through watery eyes. "You have always put me... put our friendship before everything, no matter the cost to yourself. I just sometimes wonder why. How can the life and friendship of a slave be worth so much?"

Nolie sat up so fast she nearly caught Rysa in the chin with her head. She grabbed Rysa's face firmly between her hands, making sure the hazel eyes were focused on her completely before she continued. "I know that it has been very hard for you, especially lately with all the rude and snide comments. But I only want to have to explain this to you once, and I want you to understand and accept that I mean every word that I say."

Rysa's eyes searched Nolie's and she nodded. Nolie looked back at her intently. "You were a child, and yet you raised me and taught me. You gave me everything you had Rysa, even when you had nothing left to give. Now as a slave, I am sure you did what was expected of you. But you went beyond that. More than that, more than anything, you loved me. You loved me and cared for me, and that *wasn't* expected."

Nolie took a deep breath. "So even if I did not love you, and even if you were not my very best friend, I would still look out for you, Rysa. But the fact is I *do* love you and you *are* my very best friend in the whole world. And friends, especially best friends, stick together... no matter what."

Rysa didn't answer, but laid her head on Nolie's shoulder and wept tears of joy and sorrow and relief. In all her years, though she'd known Twiggy and General cared for her and Master Cyrus liked her well enough, not once had anyone aside from Nolie ever expressed love for her, and never had Nolie put it so succinctly.

Nolie just held onto her and let her cry.


Chapter LVII

After their conversation in the gazebo, things seemed to calm down for a while. Winter settled into the land and Rysa and Nolie fell into a normal winter routine. At sixteen, Nolie was considered a grown woman now, so days were spent quietly and the evenings were even more so. Cyrus had tried, subtly for him, to encourage Nolie to dismiss Rysa from her service. He argued that now that she was grown up, she no longer needed a governess. She agreed and immediately made Rysa her companion. Cyrus gave in quietly, knowing in his heart that he could never separate them unless Nolie willed it so.

Though she cherished the time she and Rysa got to spend together, never was anyone so happy to see spring come as Nolie was. She was looking forward to getting out and seeing sun and green grass. The first nice day, she cajoled Rysa into a buggy ride, and they headed out into the still cool, muddy world to visit Cyrus at the bank.

The ride in was nice, relatively speaking, and both women were glad to be out in the fresh air and sunshine. The buggy slowed as they reached town, as most of the countryside seemed to have the same desire to get out.

Just as they came to the intersection of Franklyn & Rhodes, there was a horrendous crash and Nolie felt the carriage go flying as a heavy weight plowed into the side of it. She remembered Rysa's body covering her own protectively before her head slammed into the floor and everything went mercifully black.

When she came to, Nolie moaned and lifted her free hand to her throbbing head. She blinked her eyes opened, then slammed them shut again as pain lanced through her head at the brightness she encountered. "Ouch," she whimpered.

"Magnolia? Sweetheart, are you all right?"

"Papa? Papa, where is Rysa? And why does my head hurt?"

Cyrus knelt right next to the couch and cupped his hands around Nolie's face. "Nolie, can you open your eyes for me?" He waited as she blinked them open furiously, tears sliding down her face. "Good girl. Now, what's the last thing you remember?"

Nolie was confused. "Papa, where's Rysa??" She focused on that solitary thought. She clutched at his coat. "Papa, you're scaring me. Where is she, Papa??"

"Magnolia, Nolie... listen to me, honey. I want you to focus on the sound of my voice." Nolie tried to nod, but groaned at the motion instead. Her eyes closed again reflexively. "That's good, sweetheart. Just lie still, and tell me the last thing you remember."

She licked dry lips, forcing herself to think back. "Uh, we were coming into town to um... we were coming to see you. I... I... we slowed down, and...." Nolie started shaking. "Papa where is Rysa?"

Cyrus glanced at his desk where the woman was laid out as the doctor worked feverishly to staunch her bleeding. The doctor, something of a white supremacist had been somewhat surprised at Cyrus' vehemence that the mulatto be treated first, especially knowing Cyrus' own leanings. But he did so, knowing that the woman had saved Nolie's life and that she had practically raised the younger woman. For Nolie's sake, they both hoped Rysa survived.

"Nolie, when the accident happened, Rysa moved to cover you, to protect you like she has always done. She got somewhat injured in the process, and Dr. Smithers is working on her now. We need you to lie here quietly until he gets done and can take a look at you, all right?"

Nolie blinked her eyes opened again slowly, peering into her father's face with an intensity he found disturbing. She processed what he'd said and clutched his coat again. "Don't let her die, Papa," was all she said before closing her eyes and drifting off.

It was sometime later when Nolie opened her eyes again, wincing at the pain in her head and lifting a hand to find a bandage in place. She blinked, wondering if her sight had been affected or if she'd simply slept the day away. She sat up slowly, noting her father sitting in one of the chairs by the fireplace talking quietly to the doctor. Both men turned to look at her at the noise she made.

Nolie had caught sight of the body stretched out on Cyrus' desk, and muffled a small cry of distress. She rose on shaky legs and walked slowly towards it. Cyrus stood and rapidly headed for her. He intercepted her in two steps and took her firmly by the elbow.

"Magnolia? Look at me, daughter." Cyrus waited until he had her full attention. "Rysa is resting, sweetheart."

Brown eyes filled with tears stared into his own, making his heart break at the pain he saw in them. "She's not dead?" came the whispered question. Cyrus looked up at the doctor who'd come up on Nolie's other side.

"No, Miss Magnolia. Your friend is not dead. But she is going to need rest and quiet for the next little while."

Nolie moved her head around slowly to meet the doctor's eyes. "Thank you, Dr. Smithers. When can we take her home?"

"I would like to keep her here overnight, but when she wakes up, she should be able to travel the short distance home as long as you go very slowly and carefully." At that moment, a soft groan came from the desk, and Nolie swiveled toward the sound, clutching her head at the pain the sudden movement caused. "Easy, Miss Magnolia," the doctor advised. "You still have quite a big bump on your noggin."

Nolie nodded slowly, then resumed her slow walk towards her father's desk. Cyrus stayed at her side, a hand steadying her at the elbow. Then he seated her in his large leather chair and stepped away. Nolie slowly reached up and clasped Rysa's hand in her own.

Their conversation was too low to be heard, but the two men watched their interaction for a long moment before turning back to the fire.

"Thank you, George," Cyrus said softly. "I know it was a lot to ask of you."

The doctor shrugged. "I did it for Magnolia, Cyrus. The nigger is the only mama she's ever had, and whatever else you can or cannot say about the woman, she did a damn fine job raising her. I could not ask Magnolia to lose more, especially when that nigger risked her life to make sure your little girl was safe." He looked directly into Cyrus' eyes. "Magnolia would have been killed."

Cyrus swallowed hard and nodded. "I know. I saw the wreckage right after it happened. We were very lucky."

They both turned to look at the two women, and despite themselves found the tableau before them touching. Nolie's head rested on Rysa's hip, and their hands were tangled together. The look of peace on both faces caused an unexpected smile to form on both men's faces.

"You really think she will be all right?" Cyrus asked softly, referring to Rysa.

"I do not think Magnolia will permit anything less." Then they turned their attention back to contemplating the fire, and the silence of the night kept them company.

Gabrielle shook her head again, then pushed her hair back out of her eyes. "Rysa did make a slow recovery under Nolie's watchful eye, and that was the last bit of peace they would know for a long while. Because several weeks later, war broke out and split the Union and everything changed. It was a very dark period in history, but nothing compared to the darkness Nolie fell into, and all because of hatred and greed."

She looked out into the audience. "I know we have some distinguished members of the military in our ranks tonight, but speaking to the majority of you – have you ever lived through war? Where that is your only existence day in and day out?"

"I have," Ziva commented softly, not expecting Gabrielle to hear her. She was surprised when Gabrielle stepped to the stage directly in front of her.

"Tell me about it," Gabrielle asked. Ziva tilted her head thoughtfully.

"It's... draining – very wearing on your mind and spirit as well as your body," she replied quietly.

"Thank you, Ziva," Gabrielle said before she repeated Ziva's words to the rest of the room. "And this was worse than what most Americans have experienced, because there was nowhere to go to escape it. And you watched your neighbors and friends die around you... or turn into animals trying to survive. Rest assured, ladies... there is nothing civil about war, and there was nothing civil about what this did to people."

The winter of 1863 had been a very hard time for everyone, but especially Nolie who came down with a bout of coughing sickness so bad Twiggy and Rysa stayed by her side for three days fending off fever and chills. Twice they feared they'd lost her, but she fought back with a tenacity that brought happy tears to everyone in the house. It was the same fighting spirit that led to the confrontation in the spring the following year.

By the early part of 1864, the country was weary of war, but especially in the South where the way of life had been destroyed. Many slaves had run off when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and fields had been left to fallow.

For her part, Nolie considered herself very lucky. She had lost a majority of her field hands, but she still had the household slaves and a few of the outdoor ones. She had tried to encourage them to leave, but following Cyrus' premature death they had decided to stay with Nolie. She had promptly turned around and freed those that stayed.

Nolie had learned a lot since war had broken out, and even more since Cyrus had died. She had learned about washing, gardening, cooking, cleaning and just scraping along to get by. She had learned about loyalty and true friendship. She had seen the ugly business war was, and what it did to men whom she'd always considered upstanding gentlemen in the community. Nolie felt tired to her very soul.

Rysa had watched with pride as Nolie grew and matured through the trials that the war had brought to her door. The household had become her family and friends, and together they had survived.

Soldiers, both blue and gray, had preyed upon the house and its occupants. Nolie had hidden as many of the valuables as she could, but she couldn't hide herself or Rysa, and advances were made that made them both furious. Rysa had come into her own and had no problem standing up to those who wanted to take advantage of her for whatever reason. But there came a time when it caused Rysa and Nolie to separate from necessity.

The morning was warm and the sounds of the war were distant, though there were still troops wandering through the area. Nolie was out back, hanging the washing on the line when she heard Rysa's raised voice.

"NO!! Take your hands off of me!!" There was a male roar, then a female scream and then silence. Nolie dropped the laundry in her hands, gathered her skirts, and took off at a run around the house. What she saw caused a red wash to flood her senses, and time slowed as she allowed the fury to take over.

Rysa lay on the ground unconscious, bleeding from her nose and mouth. Her dress was ripped and torn, and all Nolie saw were two figures grabbing and mauling Rysa's body beneath them with dirty, anxious hands.

Nolie let out a guttural growl and ran towards them. The men were so involved with their assault that they didn't hear her approach or see the murderous intent in her eyes until it was too late.

Nolie snatched up the bayonet that lay to one side, having been cast aside by one of men in his haste to violate Rysa. Without hesitation, she rammed it into his back, feeling the warm blood coat her hands and arms as it spewed forth from his body. His compatriot didn't even have time to stand before Nolie yanked the blade from the fallen man's body and swung the weapon around in club fashion. The contact with the back of his skull sent shockwaves up her arms, but she swung twice more before he crumpled.

With a sob, she dropped the gun and cradled Rysa's upper body in her arms, jerking her out from under the two fallen soldiers. How long they lay tangled together, Nolie couldn't say. But when her tears stopped flowing and allowed her to see, she noticed Twiggy and General kneeling beside them.

"Miz Nolie? Ya bein' a' right ma'am? Kin we'uns hep ya and Miz Rysa inside?" Twiggy eased her arms around Nolie's small frame. "C'mon now, Miz Nolie," she coaxed when Nolie's arms tightened around Rysa's still form. "Gen'r'l take Miz Rysa, an' he'll be real easy. C'mon, Miz Nolie... ya gots ta let us hep ya now."

Twiggy continued to talk and coax until Nolie finally let loose of Rysa and General could lift her into his arms. There was a twin groan as he straightened and Rysa was shifted. Twiggy kept a firm hold on Nolie until they could get into the house.

General headed for the small spare bedroom just behind the kitchen, not wanting to take the chance of dropping Rysa on the stairs. He placed her gently on the bed, and moved back outside to dispose of the bodies before they brought down more problems than they could handle.

Nolie knelt down by the bedside and took one of Rysa's hands in her own. "Don't you die on me, Rysa! Don't you dare leave me like this, you hear me?? You fight this!"

Twiggy put a bowl of warmed water down beside her and put a cloth into Nolie's hands. "Here, chile, ya needs ta clean her up... lessen ya wants me to do it."

Nolie shook her head slowly. "I'll do it, Twiggy. Will you please fetch a nightgown for her? She needs somethin' more than this," indicating the torn dress.

"Yes'm. Ah'll brings sumpin' fo' ya too."

Nolie started to protest, then caught sight of the blood all over herself. "Thank you, Twiggy. I appreciate that."

She wet the rag, and winced as the red slid off her hands. Nolie put that fact and the reason for it out of her mind and concentrated her energies on Rysa. She spoke softly as she wiped blood and dirt off Rysa's face. Several times Nolie had to bite her lip to keep from crying. The bruises across Rysa's upper body were already becoming a lurid shade of purple, and Nolie winced to touch them.

Nolie moved the hair off Rysa's forehead, and brushed her lips across it. Then she put her head down on the bed and cried.

There was the slightest touch on her head and it just made the tears flow faster. Then Twiggy was reaching for her hands and pulling Nolie to her feet. "C'mon, Miz Nolie. Let Twiggy gets ya cleaned up so's we kin get Miz Rysa dressed."

Nolie nodded slightly and rose to her feet unsteadily. She stood passively while Twiggy wiped the blood from her hands, arms and neck. "Lif' ya ahms, chile, so's Ah kin get dis dress off'n ya an' git ya into sumpin' clean."

Nolie shivered when the clean linen slid over her skin, and she sighed in sheer reaction. "Thank you, Twiggy."

"Pawsh," the slave answered. "Ain't nuthin' we'uns roun' here wouldn' do fo' ya, Miz Nolie. Ya's always been one ta look out fo' us real good." She brushed the light brown hair out of Nolie's eyes. "Now, c'mon an' hep Twiggy git Miz Rysa into her nightie."

Nolie straightened then and moved back to the bedside. "What do you need me to do, Twiggy?"

"Ya set right dere behin' her and lif her up real gen'le like. Let her res' on ya. Twiggy'll do the res'."

Nolie slipped into the bed and eased herself behind her injured friend, tenderly lifting her and cradling Rysa's bruised and battered face and torso in her arms. She helped Twiggy ease the torn and ripped clothing away from Rysa's body, startled at the low moan and tight grip she found her wrist suddenly wrapped in.

Nolie looked down, pleasantly surprised to see hazel eyes looking back at her. They were pain-filled and slightly glazed over, and she brushed a light kiss over the now clean forehead. Rysa tried to smile, but the movement of her swollen lips caused another groan to emerge from her throat.

"Shh... easy. Just rest easy, Rysa. Twiggy and I'll take care of you. Close your eyes now."

Rysa gave the smallest nod and obeyed the command. Twiggy finished dressing her and moved to put a hand on Nolie's shoulder. "Miz Nolie? Why don' ya close ya eyes too? Ya need to res' and Ah'll wake ya up in a bit. Ah needs ta go fix sum broth fo' de bof ob ya. C'mon, now," she coaxed softly, watching as Nolie's eyelids fluttered and finally closed.

Twiggy stood in the doorway for a long moment and shook her head. "Sumpin's gonna haf ta be done," she muttered to herself, then turned her steps to the kitchen.


Chapter LVIII

Day turned into night before either body stirred from sleep. Nolie blinked open brown eyes at a muffled moan from Rysa. Twiggy appeared at the door at the identical moment as though she had been waiting there for them to awaken, which of course she had.

"Miz Nolie? I's gonna bring ya'll some suppah. Kin ya hep me move Miz Rysa so's ya'll kin eat a bite?"

Nolie's stomach rebelled at the thought of having food put in it, but she knew Rysa would need something to help her get better. Before she could move though, Rysa mumbled, "Help me up, Nolie. I think I can manage with help."

Nolie slid out from behind Rysa, gently propping her up and waiting beside the bed until Rysa swung her legs over the side and slowly stood.

"Are you doin' all right, Ry?"

"Mostly. My face and my head hurt and my chest is a little sore."

"Hmm," Nolie acknowledged. She could only imagine how Rysa hurt, given the lurid bruises she sported. "Let's see what Twiggy fixed us for supper. Bet it's somethin' good."

Twiggy chuckled softly as she stepped into the room, subtly guiding Rysa to the table. "Ya jus' be bettin' right, Miz Nolie. I done fixed chi'k'n 'n' dumplin's fo ya bof. I 'spect ya bof to sit up to table an' eat now."

Rysa tried to smile, though with her swollen face, it was more of a grimace. "Thank you, Twiggy. My mouth and my stomach appreciate that."

Rysa did a credible job eating a decent portion of what was on her plate, but Nolie pushed her food around until Twiggy took it away from her with a snort of disgust. Rysa rose and patted the elderly woman's hand. "Thank you Twiggy. It was very good."

"Leas'wise yo'd know, Miz Rysa, unlike sum pussons in dis house," with a glance in Nolie's direction. Nolie didn't answer, but simply turned on her heel and walked out the door, not even minding the fact that she was in a robe and nightgown. Rysa's eyes followed her in concern, then tracked back to Twiggy.

"What happened to upset, Miss Nolie, Twiggy?"

"I 'spect yo'd bes' be askin' her 'bout that, Miz Rysa. But give de chile a chance to think a while. She's done had a hard day. Now, why don' yo' let Twiggy draw yo' a warm baf? It'll make yo' hurt less."

Rysa's eyes followed the small figure pacing through the neglected gardens, and her heart ached at the defeated attitude so painfully apparent in the slumped shoulders and drooping head. She took a step towards the screen door before Twiggy latched onto her arm in a gentle but firm grip.

"C'mon, Miz Rysa. Yo' gif Miz Nolie sum time. She'll be comin' to fin' yo' 'fore too long. Gen'r'l keep a eye on her meantime. C'mon, now."

Rysa allowed herself to be gently led upstairs, then she was left to undress and climb into the warm water. She restrained a groan, but sank back into the warmth with a tiniest sigh of relief. She didn't allow herself the luxury of a long soak. She was still concerned over whatever was troubling Nolie.

She heard the sound of soft footfalls come up the stairs, then a door closing down the hall. Rysa eased from the tub, shaking her head at her bruised reflection. She dressed slowly, then eased into the hall and walked to stand in front of Nolie's door.

She raised her hand to knock, then hesitated until she heard the soft sound of sobbing emanating from inside. Rysa opened the door and crossed to Nolie's bedside, sitting down next to the younger woman who was curled into a tiny ball. Nolie reached a hand out and tugged gently, forcing Rysa to lie down beside her. Rysa wrapped her arms around Nolie, and simply held her until the tears passed.

"You ready to talk now?" Rysa asked softly when Nolie's crying had finally abated. She was quiet so long Rysa checked to see if Nolie had fallen asleep. She smiled into the sleepy brown eyes that gazed back at her, concerned when she didn't get an answering one in return. "Nolie?"

Nolie sat up and wiped her eyes, accepting the cool, wet rag that Rysa had gotten and now offered her. She looked at Rysa a long moment before smiling sadly, her eyes lingering on the bruises that marred her face.

"I think the time has come, Ry," Nolie said softly.

Rysa frowned, wincing in reaction to the pain that motion caused her. "What time has come, Nolie?" asked in honest confusion. "What are you referring to?"

"The Underground Railroad, Rysa. I think it's time for you to use it."

"You're sendin' me away, Nolie?"

"No, Rysa, No! I just think the time has come for you to decide to leave. It's getting' too dangerous around here for you to stay."

Rysa got off the bed and walked to the window, turning her back towards Nolie. "What makes me so special, Nolie? Why are you not sending Twiggy, General... anyone else, everyone else away as well?" Hurt confusion and not a little anger were clearly apparent in her voice.

Nolie twisted the rag in her hands in sheer frustration, not wanting to go into specifics. She could still feel the warmth of the soldiers' blood as it sprayed over her and the images continued to make her stomach roil.

The silence made Rysa's temper flare and she stalked back to the bed, reaching out and forcing Nolie's eyes to meet her own. "Why, Nolie? WHY??"

Now Nolie's own temper flared and she jerked her chin away from Rysa's touch. She stood, forcing Rysa to back up. She poked a finger into Rysa's chest, forcing the older woman to continue to step back. "Because I love you, Rysa. Because I cannot stand to have what happened to you today continue to happen. Because I killed two men today, and I don't know if I can do that again!!!"

Rysa's mouth dropped as Nolie's words penetrated her consciousness. For her part, Nolie rushed for the washbasin as the implications of what she had said washed over her. Rysa moved to comfort her, holding Nolie up as she retched.

When Nolie was down to shivering and shaking in reaction, Rysa eased Nolie the short distance to the bed, then snatched a blanket from the end and covered her. She moved and re-wet the cloth Nolie had dropped on the bed and gently cleaned Nolie up. Nolie fell asleep and Rysa got up and cleaned up the water bowl, then moved a chair to the window and sat down to stare out into the darkness.

Sometime in the darkest part of the night, Nolie cried out and Rysa crawled into bed next to her, reassuring Nolie until the younger woman settled back into a deep sleep. Near daybreak, Rysa came to a decision and waited for Nolie to awaken.

Gabrielle stopped here, wiping a tear from her cheek and closing her eyes as she tried to bring her breathing back under control. This was the hardest part of the story for her to tell as she knew all too well the despair Nolie and Rysa had suffered.

The audience remained so still, Gabrielle's sigh could be heard throughout the room. Then she raised her head and resumed her story once more.

When night returned to the land again, Nolie and Rysa made one final trip to the old bank building together – it had become a stop for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. For hours they sat curled up together reminiscing, remembering the good times in their lives together.

In the darkest part of the night, a bare touch on Rysa's arm awakened her and Nolie from the light doze they had drifted into. An older man stood in front of them, cap held in his gloved hands. He gestured for silence and motioned for Rysa to follow him. With a look, she asked him to give them a minute of privacy and he nodded and moved to wait by the door.

Nolie and Rysa stood together and embraced in silence for a long moment. Then Nolie stepped back a pace and looked into Rysa's face, memorizing what she knew she would never see again. She took a deep breath and spoke so softly Rysa had to strain to hear the words.

"I'm not sure what I'm goin' to do without you, Rysa. You've been my devoted friend and confidant since I was born." Nolie's voice shook slightly and she swallowed hard. "You will always have a place in my heart, but I want you to go and find better than what you can have here now. I...." She turned away to keep Rysa from seeing the tears spill down her face.

Rysa's hands clenched, and she stepped up behind Nolie. "I will never find better than what you've given me here, Nolie, and I will come home again." She brushed a light kiss across the top of the brown hair and stepped away. Nolie caught Rysa's hand and kissed her knuckles, then pressed her cheek against them before gently pushing Rysa towards the door.

"Go with God, my friend." Then she watched until Rysa disappeared into the night.

Nolie sat until dawn began breaking over the horizon absorbing the sudden loneliness before she turned to make her way out the door silently... only to run into another obstacle before she was completely outside.

She felt the breeze go by her head as the blade plunged into the wood. Her eyes widened as the man towered over her, and reached a hand toward her throat. Nolie pushed him away and stomped on his foot. He growled at her and lunged and was stopped by an unexpected barrier.

"I believe that you'd best look elsewhere for your entertainment. Miss Nolie isn't, nor never has been available to the likes of you. Now leave, before I give you the thrashin' you so richly deserve."

Nolie looked up in surprise as Mr. Fulton seemed to grow larger as he defended her. She still remembered him harshly from her childhood and the day he was hateful to Rysa. It was odd to see him represented to her so differently after all this time. Then her attention turned back to the soldier who tried to reach around Fulton, only to find his hand caught and twisted at a painful angle.

"Perhaps I didn't make myself clear." Fulton twisted harder until the man's legs crumpled under him. Then he shoved the soldier back and watched impassively as he fell onto his back.

"That was a stupid thing to do, old man. Two of my buddies disappeared after visiting that bitch and her nigger friend two days ago. And I saw them sneaking 'round last night... figure she sent that nigger out of here. I'll have my revenge one way or t'other."

"Well, goin' by your behavior, I'd say they got what was coming to them... if they didn't desert. Now git on out of here before I have to do somethin' you'll regret."

"You'd take action against a soldier?"

"Yer trying to do harm to a lady; I most certainly would."

The soldier stood then and came at Fulton, knocking the older man against the door. Fulton reached for the knife and yanked, pushing the soldier away from him simultaneously. The soldier changed directions slightly and headed for Nolie, but never reached her as he found his own blade embedded to the hilt in his chest. He looked over at Fulton who gazed back at him coolly.

"I did warn you," Fulton said calmly as the soldier sank to the ground. He turned and looked at Nolie. "Best if you head home, Miss Nolie. Robert here will see you home safely. I'll clean up the mess and check in on you later."

Nolie nodded absently and turned to allow Robert to help her up into the small wagon. Then she leaned back and closed her eyes, suddenly overcome with weariness.

Gabrielle paused long enough to take another drink of water, then plunged right back into her story.

Time passed even slower for Nolie with Rysa gone. She became more withdrawn and quiet, and Twiggy and General kept a close eye on her. The war made things harder and harder and they struggled from day to day to hang on to what precious little they had left. Nolie and Twiggy turned the conservatory into a garden that supplied many of their basic needs. Most of what they raised in the fields was stolen by one group of soldiers or another.

Still, they managed to get by and Mr. Fulton, surprisingly enough, became a good friend to them. He couldn't stop the looting and plundering that went on, but he did manage to divert a lot of attention from Nolie and her household. And with both Rysa and her father gone, Nolie took to wearing mourning and found thankfully that even the basest of human beings tended to respect that. The fact that her grief was palpable lent credence to the effect.

However, the war did finally end and a concerted effort towards rebuilding began. It was then that society saw what changes time and war had wrought on humanity and many of them weren't good. New people were moving in and Nolie was able to sell the old bank building at Franklyn & Rhodes for a nice little sum to a young couple looking to establish a mercantile.

In 1866, some sixteen months after the end of the war, Sanders Dry Goods opened to the public in what had once been the bank building owned by Nolie's papa, and life settled into a new routine. Then the unexpected happened....

It was early summer in 1867 when Nolie ventured into town for one of her rare visits. She had been luckier than many of her neighbors and had managed to hang onto her home and a bit of her land by sheer grit and determination. But she was no longer the pampered young lady she had once been, and even with help her days were long and hard.

She'd come to an arrangement with the Negroes who'd remained with her, and they worked the land for her in return for small wages and a percentage of the crop. But that still left the house, yards and garden as Nolie's responsibility, and she worked side by side with the help she had left to get things back in order after the war.

On this morning though, Nora Sanders had cajoled her into coming into the store for tea. The fact that she needed to come to town for supplies pushed her into agreeing and Nolie found herself preparing for a trip into town.

Twiggy smiled as she watched her young mistress dress in one of the few nice dresses she'd kept from the days before the war, knowing it had been reworked to fit into the fashion of the day. Nolie had done a very credible job with it and looked very much like the belle she'd once been. Then General brought the buggy around to the front of the house, and whisked Nolie away.

They went around to the back of the building where Nora and Sam kept a private entrance to their home. Nora welcomed Nolie into her home and immediately ushered her upstairs into the sitting room. Nolie looked around in honest curiosity, Nora's home not even vaguely resembling the bank building Nolie remembered.

The second floor was the kitchen and dining area, and held Nora's large sewing room where she tailored the shirts and dresses customers ordered in the store. The third floor held two bedrooms and the parlor and it was here that the two women sat down to take tea.

Nora fussed and puttered about, making sure things were just right. She kept up a running dialogue, so all Nolie had to do was nod her head occasionally. When she finally settled down, Nora found Nolie to be a very quiet young woman whose eyes belied her youthful features.

Talk ran the gamut of topics, and Nolie and Nora found they had many opinions and philosophies in common. After an hour of tea and conversation, Nolie made a move to leave. Nora understood and accompanied her new friend downstairs and into the store to take care of her shopping.

Nolie looked around in fascination, still able to see in her mind's eye the way the building had looked under her father's keeping as a bank. The marble floors seemed incongruously out of place with the groceries and cloth and other supplies. She shrugged and turned her attention towards gathering up her purchases. As much as she had enjoyed her outing, Nolie found that sharing tea and conversation simply made her miss Rysa that much more and she felt the tears building up in the back of her throat.

It had been more than three years since Rysa had left and everyday Nolie wondered what had become of her. She'd never heard anything else from nor about her and every night she offered up a prayer for Rysa's safety.

Nolie moved slowly around the shop, picking up the items she needed and placing them in her basket. The jingling of the doorbell didn't even catch her attention as she walked over to examine the bolts of cloth set to one side of the back.

Nora came round to help Nolie with the different types of material and they were deep in conversation about dress patterns when the door jingled a second time. The third time it rang, Nora and Nolie had moved behind the screen to lay out the pattern and measure it against Nolie's small frame.

"You're quite busy," Nolie commented as the door opened yet again to admit someone out of their line of sight.

"Yes," Nora answered with a smile as she held up the pattern. "We've been very fortunate in that business has been steady for us."

Nolie smiled softly in return. "I am glad. You have been very kind to me."

"Pure selfishness on my part, I'm afraid, my dear. I enjoy having a large circle of friends and I'm happy you're a part of it. Now," she added smartly, "let's see how much material you'll need for this."

In the meantime, business had picked up briskly as the end of the day arrived, and folks made a stop on their way home. Nolie finished choosing her material and was just finishing up her shopping when the door jingled again. It wasn't until the voice spoke though that she looked up in shock.

"Excuse me, sir," the voice said gently. "I was wondering what happened to the bank."

Sam smiled. Occasionally he still ran into the old-timer who remembered the building as the barrister's or the bank. He figured the young woman in front of him had probably left because of the war and had come home to find so many things changed from what she remembered. He wasn't far from the truth. He opened his mouth to answer, but was forestalled when Nolie came around the corner.

Neither woman noticed when Nolie's basket slipped to the floor but the hug went on forever as things scattered at their feet.

Finally Nolie pulled back from the embrace just enough to look at Rysa with a critical eye. Standing before her was a cultured young woman in a fashionable new gown whose bearing spoke of money. She stepped back and dropped her head, suddenly ashamed of her appearance.

Rysa stepped right into Nolie's personal space and lifted her chin with gloved fingertips. She waited until brown eyes lifted to meet her hazel. "No 'Welcome home, Rysa' for me, Nolie?"

Rysa watched as a myriad of emotion crossed Nolie's face before two tears welled up and spilled down her face, then she gently wrapped her arms around Nolie again, holding on tightly for dear life.

"Welcome home, Rysa," Nolie whispered into the hug.

"C'mon, Nolie. Let's go home. We've got a lot to talk about."

Rysa's homecoming changed everything for Nolie and there was happiness in her smile again... especially when she would look up and meet Rysa's eyes across the table or the garden or the barn. Their happiness was felt throughout the household and though the manor never regained its former glory, it was a good place to live again.

Nolie and Rysa were delighted to be together again, despite the stares and whispers they drew from certain corners for their devotion to one another as well as their spinster status. They had one another and for them, it was more than enough. Still, they found friends in unexpected places and they rejoiced in those as well. But until the day that they passed away, Rysa and Nolie were beautiful women who loved and took care of each other. And isn't that what counts the most when all is said and done?


Chapter LIX

Dead silence for a full ten seconds after Gabrielle finished speaking before the crowd rose as a singular entity and applauded. There were no whistles or hooting or foot stomping. Instead, they merely stood and clapped for several long minutes, and more than one woman was seen wiping her eyes even as she smiled. Gabrielle simply allowed her tears to roll silently down her cheeks while she grinned and nodded and bowed in deference to the ovation she was receiving.

Emma climbed on her chair and tugged on Xena's arm again, recognizing there was no way she'd be heard otherwise. When Xena turned her head in Emma's direction, Emma held up her arms and Xena lifted her immediately, locking her arms under Emma's bottom even as Emma locked her legs firmly around Xena's waist and her arms around Xena's neck.

With just a tiny tug to encourage her, Xena ducked her head until Emma's lips were next to her ear. "You're her champion... can't you do something to make Gabrielle better?"

Xena frowned, then realized that Emma only saw tears and didn't realize they were happy ones. As the applause around them continued, Xena nodded and carried Emma to the backstage area with her. Xena jerked her chin at the item she wanted Emma to grab, and as soon as she had it in hand, they stepped back into the main room. Xena used one hand to grab the stool that had been used off and on during the night and climbed the stairs. When the crowd's noise grew exponentially louder and they added whistling and hollering back into their repertoire, Gabrielle recognized something had changed and she turned to find Xena and Emma joining her on the stage.

Her smile turned to laughter and she reached up a hand to wipe the wetness from her cheek. She stopped at the minutest shake of Xena's head, waited for Emma to extend the box of tissues she held. She took one and dabbed at her eyes. Xena, in the meantime, set the stool down and put Emma on it, then nodded her head in Gabrielle's direction. Emma nodded emphatically and waited.

Xena simply turned and opened her arms and Gabrielle moved into them with gratifying alacrity, causing an outcry of wolf-whistles to follow her action. She buried her head into Xena's shoulder, laughing in release even as Xena rocked them back and forth.

After a moment, Gabrielle pulled back though she kept a hand on Xena's hip. "What are you two doing up here?" she asked, bringing the microphone to her mouth so the room could hear the discussion. The women quieted their applause and settled down for the unexpected interlude.

"Emma insisted. You were crying and she reminded me it was my responsibility to make it better."

Gabrielle chuckled and shifted until she was between Xena and Emma. She smiled when Xena shifted with her, transferring her hold on Gabrielle to allow Gabrielle to drop an arm around Emma's shoulders.

"Oh she did, huh?"

"Um hmm... seems likes she's figured out that's part of my job."

Green eyes twinkled in tandem with the blue she was gazing into before they both turned to look at Emma who was watching them with a big grin. "Well, she's right, ya know. It is part of your job." Gabrielle turned back to Xena. "As a matter of fact, we still owe her. Her team did win the poker run Friday night and she gave her prize to her moms."

"Wait... excuse me?" Olivia said from the audience, causing all three of the females on the stage to look at her as she rose from her seat. "What did she win?"

Xena and Gabrielle turned back to Emma. "You didn't tell them?"

Emma shrugged. "I wanted it to be a surprise."

Olivia crossed her arms over her chest and arched an eyebrow. "Somebody wanna clue the rest of us in?" motioning around the room.

Gabrielle looked at Emma and waited for Emma to nod her head. Then Gabrielle handed the mic to Xena who met Olivia's eyes. "Emma told us you and Natalia hadn't had a honeymoon, so she chose to give the two of you a night in the apartment in Cinderella's Castle."

Olivia's eyes watered and she reached back her hand to Natalia who grasped it tightly as she moved to embrace Olivia from behind. The rest of the room broke into applause and Xena handed the mic back to Gabrielle.

"So," Gabrielle said to Emma, "Xena and I arranged for a special day at the Magic Kingdom for you tomorrow. You'll get private time with each of the princesses, including a special lunch and then you'll get to be Grand Master at the parades tomorrow."

"Really?" Emma asked, eyes wide and unbelieving.

"Really," Gabrielle promised with a smile. "There'll even be a photographer there to record everything for your moms so they won't miss out on anything that happens if they decide they want a little longer honeymoon together. I mean – you'd be cool hanging out with Xena and me for the day, wouldn't you, if your moms wanted to spend a little time alone together?"

Emma nodded excitedly. Gabrielle grinned.

"And to make sure you get to see all of the park, you'll get head of the line privileges all day."

"Awesome!" Emma cheered enthusiastically, causing a chuckle to ripple around the room.

"However," Gabrielle continued, "if you're gonna do all that tomorrow, you probably need to get some sleep tonight. Besides," she added, gesturing to where Olivia and Natalia still stood wrapped together. "I'm pretty sure your moms are waiting for you to join them so they can say thank you," watching the grins spread across both faces. Emma jumped down and headed for the stairs, only to turn back and hug first Xena, then Gabrielle.

"Thank you," she whispered, then raced to her mommies.

Gabrielle and Xena waited until Emma was engulfed in a hug before turning to the audience once more. "Ladies, this has been a fantastic ending to one of the most interesting weekends we've had in a very long time. We hope this is something you'll take with you as a treasured memory. We certainly will."

She paused when applause broke out at her words. "That being said, we're going to have to bid you all goodnight now. Our Disney clock strikes midnight very soon and we have to be out of here before then. So thank you all for coming - for being such eager participants and for making both conventions such successes. We look forward to seeing you all again soon. Goodnight," cuing Scud to start the music.

The cheering went on for another long moment before the women started collecting their things and exiting the room. Xena and Gabrielle separated as soon as they left the stage, going to opposite corners while Max and Dom lowered themselves far enough to help them begin to disassemble the curtains. Helena and Dinah started removing cameras while Barbara wound cords and Lucy, Amy, Diana and Janet began to pack up their electronics.

Sooner than they expected, all their equipment was packed and ready to be stored. About that time, the Disney convention crew came in and started removing chairs, tables and other sundry items. They watched for a moment before Gabrielle turned to look at their crew... their friends.

"Thank you ladies. We couldn't have done it without you."

"It was worth it," Barbara assured her. "I think we'd all agree to that," seeing everyone nodding their heads in accord. "We'd do it again," motioning around to Dinah and Helena.

"So would we," Max replied unexpectedly, then scowled when all eyes went her way. "What?"

"Everyone is staying a couple days, yes?" Gabrielle asked to draw attention from Max before she got defensive. All heads nodded. "All right. We have Jellybean's day out tomorrow, but we'd like to take you all out for dinner, so let's plan on Tuesday? Xena and I will let you all know when and where sometime tomorrow. Now please – go have some fun. And again... thank you."

In response, each of them took a moment to thank Gabrielle and Xena before trailing out one at time. Finally, only Xena and Gabrielle were left.

"Well, I'd have to say that was a success."

"Yeah... despite my misgivings. BUT... I don't want to hear ONE WORD about doing this again for at least a month. I need some time to decompress."

Xena smiled even as she dropped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "I can get onboard with that idea. In fact," she added with a wicked twinkle, "I can probably help with that decompression thing," steering them away from the bar where all the convention attendees had gathered.

"Oh really?" twining their hands together and letting Xena direct them towards their suite.

"Uh huh," Xena agreed. "Many skills, remember?"

The door closed on Gabrielle's reply.

"This is highly unusual, Katie," Mary complained even as she pushed the prepaid cell phone across the desk. "Of course," she added, waving an impatient hand, "this whole situation is highly unusual."

Katie laughed and shook her head. "I know, Marshal, and I am actually sorry you had to be involved. I'm sure you'd have much rather been attending the conference than escorting me here." Mary didn't dispute her words and Katie reached for the phone, accepting the paper Mary had placed under it.

It rang twice before it was answered. "Hello?"

"Bailey? It's Katie."

"Katie?! What happened?? Why did you...?? Where are you?? Are you all right??"

Katie smiled, having expected the reaction. "Bailey, take a deep breath and slow down, okay? I'm fine... I promise. I'm on my way out of Albuquerque," turning away slightly when Mary slapped her forehead in frustration. "I just wanted to call and say goodbye, Sweetie."

Bailey blew out a breath, trying to stave off the tears she felt forming in her eyes. "I'm gonna miss you."

"I'll miss you too, Little Cousin, but it's better this way. Uncle Sal will make sure I'm taken care of."

"Why did Sallie do this, Katie?"

Katie shook her head, but knowing Bailey couldn't see her, she was compelled to answer audibly. "He called in a marker. Ask him about it one day. But I want you to know something, honey – it was worth it. I'd do it again." She sighed when Mary gestured to her watch. "Bailey, I've got to go now, okay? I expect to see your name in print really soon though, all right?"

Bailey bit her lip and shook her head. "You're crazy – you know that right?" said with a sad chuckle.

Katie snorted. "Why do you think I've survived as long as I have? I love you, Cuz."

"Love you back, Katie. Be safe."

"See ya in the funny papers, Bailey," Katie replied and hung up the phone. She turned to Mary. "Thanks, Marshal. I'm ready to go."

Mary took the proffered phone and slid it into her pocket. Then she stood and opened the door of the conference room, leading Katie out and towards the plane that was waiting to take her away.

"Good luck," she tendered sincerely as they reached the gate. Katie accepted her hand and gave her a smile.

"I'm like a cat, Ms Shannon. I've got nine lives and I always land on my feet." Then she turned and entered the jetway without a backwards glance. Mary waited until Katie disappeared, then took her phone from her belt and pressed the speed dial to let her partner know she was done for the day and idling wondering if she could catch a flight back to Orlando.

Then she turned and made her way out of the terminal.

"Emma?" Olivia asked as she and Natalia tucked their daughter in for the night. "Why'd you do it? Why'd you give away your prize? And what about the rest, honey? What about your buddy Barbara and her friends?"

Emma looked between her moms, sitting on either side of the bed putting her to bed together as they had done since she and Olivia had moved back to the farmhouse.

"I asked Barbara about it first – I mean, Xena said she'd get them a chance to stay there too."

"Okay, but why give it to your mama and me? Don't you want to stay with us?" stopping when Emma shook her head vehemently. A frown crossed Olivia's face, but before she could open her mouth to speak again, Natalia reached a hand over Emma's body and covered hers. Green eyes looked up to meet brown and Olivia drew a deep breath and nodded.

"Sweetie, why did you think your mommy and I needed a honeymoon?"

"Cuz you didn't get one. I mean, I know you can't get married for real in a church yet, but you gave each other rings and said things to each other and that should count. And I know when people get married, they go away to be alone together... 'cept you really can't do that cuz of me."

Natalia brushed the bangs off of Emma's forehead. "Oh, honey... we love having you with us. We're family, remember? Besides, you're a big part of the reason your mommy and I are together. You saw what we were afraid to, and you made it a beautiful thing for us."

Emma crossed her arms over her chest, a fierceness in her countenance that was greatly diminished by the yawn that followed the action. "You still should get a honeymoon," she said defiantly.

Olivia squeezed the hand covering hers, bringing Natalia's eyes back to hers as she smoothly resumed the reins of the conversation.

"Are you sure, honey?"

"I'm sure, Mommy. Xena and Gabrielle promised to look out for me and I really do want to be a princess. Gabrielle told me they'll even teach me the princess wave."

"They have a special wave? I mean it's different from the queen thing?" twisting her wrist in an approximate imitation of the wave she'd seen Queen Elizabeth do on several televised occasions. Emma laughed and yawned again.

"You're silly, Mommy. Of course they have a special wave – they're Disney Princesses."

Olivia put her hand over her chest and widened her eyes. "Of course they do... what was I thinking?" She pulled the covers up under Emma's arms. "So in the meantime, young lady, you need to get some sleep so you'll be all rested for your big day tomorrow."

"'Kay, Mommy. Love you."

"Love you too, Bean," Olivia replied as she kissed Emma goodnight.

"Love you, Sweetie," Natalia offered as she leaned forward and kissed Emma as well. Emma smiled.

"Love you too, Mama." She was asleep before darkness blanketed the room. Olivia and Natalia rose and exited, leaving Emma to sleep in peace. They pulled the door to, but not shut and took a seat in the tiny living room.

"She's a pretty amazing kid," Natalia commented after a few prolonged moments of silence. "You've done a great job with her."

Olivia just shook her head. "She's something all right. And *we've* done a great job with her. She's doing this for us, you know."

"I know. It's just...."

Olivia smiled and tipped her head at Natalia. "Um hmm. So what do you say...?" standing and holding out her hand in invitation. "That we take advantage...." tugging lightly on the hand in hers and urging Natalia to her feet. "Of the opportunity we've been given...." leading Natalia towards the master bedroom. "And start our honeymoon early?" pulling Natalia's body into her own.

Natalia released the hand she held to wrap her hands around Olivia's waist, spinning them around until Olivia's back was to the door before pinning her in place. Green eyes widened at the unexpected reaction, especially when Natalia growled at her just before she grinned wickedly.

"I wasn't aware," she responded, leaning in and nipping Olivia's neck sharply. Natalia relished the gasp and subsequent arching which afforded her more flesh to tease. She did so, biting then laving each mark before moving on, until she reached Olivia's ear. "I wasn't aware," she repeated, "that we'd ever stopped having a honeymoon," licking around the ear before sucking on the lobe. "Did I miss a memo or something?" smiling as she moved forward to claim Olivia's lips.

"Or something," Olivia mumbled, then gave in to the sensations cascading through her body, trusting Natalia to get them to the bed. It was shaping up to be a hell of a night.


Chapter LX

"You're sure about this, Bailey?" Buster asked dubiously. Not only did she appear upset about something – odd, considering none of them had shown any real remorse over Desdemona's death - but this was simply beyond his purview of reality. She sighed and looked at him with red-rimmed eyes.

"Yes, Buster. I'm sure. All of our jobs with AVID are safe."

"Even yours?" from Dot. "After all...."

"After all, I'm a writer and will finally be able to be a published writer instead of being at Desdemona's beck and call," Bailey ground out from behind clenched teeth before taking a deep breath. "Sorry, Dot." She sighed again. "Look... all I know is what I was told. We're still employed by AVID."

"Are things going to change? I mean, obviously some things will change, but...."

"I'm sure things will change, Gordon, but for now can we just be glad we still have jobs?" Bailey asked tiredly. "Maybe things will be better than they were before."

"She's right," Graham replied. "We're rid of Desdemona. That makes it better already."

"And besides," Melissa offered, "I'm sure we'll hear from the new boss sooner rather than later."

"She really wasn't that bad," Franklyn jumped in.

"Shut up, Frank."

"C'mon," Harmon said after a moment of silence. "This has been a long damn weekend for all of us and Bailey looks about out on her feet. Let's table this discussion for now and go get some sleep. Things will probably look different tomorrow."

Violet nodded. "I agree," seeing the crush of women headed their way. "Besides, I think we wanna be gone before they take over." The rest rose and moved out of the bar just as the conventioneers swarmed in.

There wasn't any real division between the two groups of women anymore – instead, they were mixed and mingled together, reliving favorite moments of the talent show and making plans for the morrow. A few, however, had eschewed the opportunity for further socializing with others, preferring to give the bar a miss and heading towards their rooms.

"You're sure?" Wendy asked Nikki carefully, although truthfully, she knew the answer before Nikki opened her mouth to speak.

"As sure as I can be without DNA testing," Nikki confirmed.

Wendy blew out a shaky breath. "That's... a lot to take in."

"You all right?" Nora asked softly after a beat. "I mean... all things considered?"

Wendy blinked and jerked her head in a hard nod. "Yeah, um... yeah," surrendering to the hug when Nikki wrapped her in a firm embrace. She held on tightly and smiled through her tears when she felt Nora put her arms around both of them. Wendy drew a shuddering breath and pulled back just enough to look into eyes that were so much like her own.

"Sisters, huh?"

"Yeah," Nikki replied, putting a gentle hand on Wendy's cheek. Wendy covered that hand with her own.

"That's cool," Wendy said with a tremulous smile.

"Yeah – yeah, sugar... it is."

"So does this mean you two'll join me and the gang for breakfast tomorrow morning so I can introduce you all? They're really kinda curious about all this... and you."

"That sounds great," Nora answered when Nikki simply bobbed her head. "And maybe sometime soon you can come visit us in New Orleans?"

"I'd like that... I'd really like that."

"So what did you think, darlings?" Miranda asked her daughters as a small group of them walked back towards their rooms together. Emily bit her lips, still stunned by what she'd seen her boss do... publicly. Miranda was never so... relaxed or... undone or... something. It had definitely been something *she'd* never seen – or thought to see from her boss – *ever *in her lifetime.

"You were...."

"... fantastic, Mom," the twins said together, drawing a smile from Miranda. She extended her arms and Caroline and Cassidy tucked themselves into either side of her body. It made walking more difficult, but they were loath to give up the shared embrace.

"They're right, Miranda," Ashlee agreed enthusiastically. "You were astounding... truly."

Miranda smiled and Emily nearly fainted dead away. She was certainly seeing a side of her boss she'd never imagined being witness too. It made her wonder if the world was ending and she'd missed the memo.

"Thank you, Ashlee. I'm not certain where the talent came from, but I will admit – it was great fun."

"Well," Blake commented. "At least you know you have a skill to fall back on if something happens to Runway," causing a look of horror to spring forth on five different faces and a gasp to be ripped from deep within Emily's chest. "What? What did I say?"

"Sacrilege," Andy contributed succinctly. "Miranda IS Runway."

"I... I didn't realize...."

"It's all right, Blake," Miranda replied. "So many people don't."

"So," Doris said when the silence had begun to grow uncomfortable. "What's everyone doing tomorrow?"

Miranda nodded her thanks and replied, "Emily and I head back to the City in the morning. As interesting as this weekend has been, it's time to get back to work. The girls' dad arrived this afternoon and he will be staying with them a few more days before they return home as well."

"I actually have the week off," Andy said. "Some of the other writers and I are going over to the coast tomorrow. We're getting a behind-the-scenes look at NASA."

"For a story or....?" Blake asked.

Andy shook her head. "Not deliberately," she replied with a smile. "But we are reporters." That got her a small chuckle from the group and the tension seemed to dissipate.

"I haven't decided what I'm doing," Blake offered. "I'm supposed to fly back to Springfield tomorrow afternoon. I kind of decided to come last minute." Doris nodded.

"For me as well, though Ashlee and I are going to Sea World before my flight out tomorrow night." She looked around the group. "Should we get together for breakfast tomorrow before we head our separate ways?"

Agreement was swift in coming, so plans were made, then the group split up for the night.

"So are you glad we came?" Annabelle asked Simone as they reached their room. Simone waited until they had crossed the threshold and closed the door behind them before she answered.

"I am, actually... yes. We met some remarkable women; made some new friends...."

"And even had a good time."

Simone nodded. "Yes, and I'm looking forward to spending the next few days here with you. Did I hear you making plans for breakfast for us?"

"Yep. Penelope Garcia asked if we could join her in the morning. She mentioned my poetry," Annabelle offered bashfully. Simone smiled and cupped Annabelle's cheek before kissing her softly.

"I've told you that you're amazing, love, but it's nice to hear that from someone else, isn't it?" watching Annabelle's eyes drop to the ground briefly before meeting Simone's again.

"Yes, it is."

Simone slid her hand from Annabelle's cheek down her arm to clasp her hand, tugging her gently towards the bed. "C'mon, then... morning's going to come early."

Annabelle chuckled and used her free hand to creep under Simone's shirt, pushing it up as she went. When she reached Simone's breast, she tweaked the hardened nipple forcefully, then bent her head to capture the exclamation and turn it into a passionate kiss.

She and Simone separated to breathe and Annabelle chuckled as she finished removing Simone's shirt and fell into the bed, pulling Simone's body on top of hers. "Night's not over yet, baby," was all she said. No more words were needed.

"Wow, that was a short night," Garcia complained good-naturedly when Emily knocked on the connecting door just as daylight started creeping over the horizon. "Why did I want to get up at the butt-crack of dawn again?" she asked as she pulled a pillow over her head.

JJ opened the door and stuck her head in just far enough to see the bump in the bed that was Penelope. "Because, Sweetie – you wanted to have breakfast with Annabelle Tillman at oh-my-God o'clock in the morning so you could still get in a full day at Epcot."

"Yeah, Great Garcia. If we can get up, so do you," Emily said around a yawn.

"I hate you both so much," Garcia grumbled, her words muffled by the pillow still over her face. "OOF!" she grunted, jerking the pillow from herself and squinting up to glare at JJ when she landed on the bed beside her.

"C'mon, Garcia," tugging on an arm. "We've only got a couple more days here before we have to go home to be BAU agents again. You know what Morgan says."

Garcia held her glare for another moment, then she smiled. "You don't play very fair, you know."

"Of course not," JJ agreed around a yawn. "I play to win." She accepted a cup of coffee Emily offered her, inhaling deeply before taking her first sip. Then she blinked hard and allowed her blue eyes to widen and cross slowly. "Good God!"

"That bad?" Garcia asked with a smirk.

JJ cleared her throat and still squeaked. "Like rocket fuel." She was glad Emily was already in the shower. She set the coffee on the bedside table and stood, then offered Penelope her hand. Garcia threw off the covers and sat up before allowing JJ to help her up. "Can I ask you something?"

Garcia smirked. "As long as you're not looking for the secrets of my magic."

JJ chuckled and shook her head. "Nah – I know the rules, Maestro. I was just wondering what made you decide to have breakfast with Annabelle. It's not like we had a lot of time to meet the people from Gabrielle's side of the hall."

"Exactly," Garcia agreed as she put toothpaste on her toothbrush. "And I liked her book. She's got a depth to her that... I dunno... I just thought I'd like the opportunity to meet her... them. Would you like to join us?"

"Actually, Em and I made plans to meet with Lilly and Sofia, but we could probably share a table." She glanced at the clock as she heard Emily shut off the shower. "However, if I don't get out of here and start getting ready, we're going to be late."

Garcia nodded. "Me too. Let me know when you're ready to walk over."

JJ smiled and headed back over the threshold. "You betcha," she agreed and hustled to get her morning started.

"Good morning," Sofia greeted Lilly when she reached the table Lilly had already been seated at. "Am I late?"

Lilly shook her head. "Nope. I was up early this morning."

Sofia frowned. "Problem?"

Lilly chuckled and shook her head. "Not at all. I was watching the sunrise."

"You still do that?"

"It helps me center myself for the day."

"And do you need to be centered today?" Sofia asked with a smirk.

Lilly gave her a wry look. "I'm spending the day with my crazy sister at Islands of Adventure," she answered drolly. "What do you think?"

"I think your crazy sister is gonna have to do something about you in a minute," holding Lilly's gaze for a long moment before they both started laughing. And though they weren't loud, they did manage to draw the attention of other patrons in the otherwise quiet restaurant.

"Someone seems to be having a good morning," Nikki commented to Helen as they were seated a few tables away from Sofia and Lilly.

Helen returned her smile. "Glad we're not the only ones, though isn't everyone that comes here?" Almost on cue, a screaming child was heard. "Okay," Helen conceded. "Maybe not quite *everyone*."

Nikki laughed. "Judging by the way the parents look, the kid's probably tired. Hell, I'm a bit knackered myself, and we haven't even done much here yet."

"Oh, I dunno, Nikki. We've had a pretty busy weekend."

"Yeah, but I'm looking forward to just having a little fun with you for a few days."

Helen took the hand that Nikki offered and twined their hands together. "Me too, love. Whaddya wanna do first?"

"After breakfast?" Nikki asked with a smile. "I dunno. I thought maybe we could go over to the Animal Kingdom. I'd like to try that roller coaster," pulling the brochure from the collection they'd gotten from the concierge a few minutes before.

Helen bit her pinky nail and nodded her head. "That sounds like good fun. What d'you think?" she asked the waitress that had just reached their table. The girl's eyes widened, but she didn't miss a beat.

"I think you can't really go wrong with much of anything around here, but I could probably be more specific if I knew what we were talking about."

Nikki and Helen both laughed and the girl grinned in response. Then she started giving them their breakfast options, shifting out of the way as the hostess brushed by her with patrons to be seated at the table next to them.

When the waitress finished with Nikki and Helen, she turned to the table behind her. "Coffee for everyone?" and smiling when she got three affirmative answers. "Be right back," she promised.

Kris looked at their neighboring table and cleared her throat. "Excuse me... are you Nikki Wade, by any chance?"

Nikki smiled. "By birth, actually." She extended her hand. "But I'm afraid you have me at a distinct disadvantage, Ms...?"

"Munroe... Kris Munroe. And these are my friends Kelly Garrett and Sabrina Duncan."

"Nice to meet you, ladies," as she retrieved her hand. "And this lovely lady is my partner, Helen Stewart," waiting for them to murmur their greetings again. "So what can I do for you, Ms Kris Munroe?"

Kris cleared her throat. "Well, when we all ended up together in the big room yesterday, I saw your book for sale and I... well, I bought it. I was wondering if you'd mind signing it for me."

"Please don't be embarrassed, Ms Munroe. I'm flattered. And I'd be delighted. Um... do you...?"

"Oh yes," sliding it from the big bag she'd set down beside her. "I was planning to read it out by the pool today," putting the book on the table. "But I don't have a pen."

Nikki smiled. "That's okay. I'm betting our server does and she's perky – she'll probably let me use it for a minute."

"They're all perky here," Sabrina grumbled, looking at her empty cup, only to have it filled as their waitress returned to the table with a full pot.

"Job requirement," the girl confessed as she filled all five cups and passed Nikki her pen. She waited until Nikki was done and took their orders, moving away again to leave the women to continue their discussion.

"That was a little unreal," Helen commented as Kris thanked Nikki and put her book away. "You didn't even ask for her pen." Then she looked at the women seated next to her. "So you're not going out to Disney World then? The parks, I mean?"

Kelly smiled. "Maybe later. We're gonna relax first though."

"That's not a bad plan. Wonder how many others will try that," Nikki mused, then sat back to allow their server to put their food in front of them. Then their attention was focused on eating, and conversation, when it resumed had moved on to other things as the restaurant continued to fill with their compatriots.


Chapter LXI

"Are you sure about this, Sweetie?" Angela asked as she and Cameron took a seat beside Bones in the food court.

Bones looked at her with a frown on her face. "Of course I'm sure. Angela, I thought you'd be glad about this."

"Oh I am, Sweetie – you don't know how much. It just took me a little by surprise, that's all."

"Me too," Cameron offered just as they were joined by their impromptu companions. "Good morning," she greeted as the women of NCIS took their seats at the table. They returned the salutation and everyone tucked into their food for a few minutes before Kate decided to take the initiative.

"We appreciated the invitation this morning."

"Well, Angela has been after me to 'loosen up', and I had a good time singing with Ziva last night, so...."

"Either way," Abby cut in, "we're glad you asked."

"Um... excuse me," a lightly accented voiced interrupted. "I'm sorry to intrude, but would you mind if we took the two chairs on the end of the table here? It's fairly crowded in here and you're at least familiar looking faces."

"Sure," Angela offered before anyone else could speak. "Please join us."

"Thanks. I'm not sure with everything going on that we were ever introduced during the conference - I'm Kate... this is Emma, by the way." Introductions were made around the table.

"I thought the two of you were absolutely brill last night," Emma commented. Bones and Ziva exchanged grins.

"It was... fun," Ziva commented without cracking a smile.

"Oh, c'mon Ziva; you enjoyed yourself," Kate said with a sly grin.

"I admit nothing," causing smiles to ripple around the table.

"Well, I thought the whole thing was outstanding. I'd sit through being a murder suspect again just for that," from Angela.

"Except next time, we just turn the forensics experts loose to start with," Bones said wryly.

"I'd vote for there to be no next time," Scribbs spoke up. "At least so far as the whole murder thing goes. The rest was fantastic, and I certainly wouldn't mind another trip to Disney World," added with a genuine smile. "That's the best!"

"Speaking of - what are we going to do today?" Cameron asked, glancing around.

"I'd like to go to Epcot," Abby replied instantly. "Although Sea World's a good choice too. Or maybe...." She looked around the table. "What do you guys think?" directing her question at Ash and Scribbs.

"Um... dunno that we should have an opinion on where you all are going," Scribbs said after a moment of stunned silence. Abby blinked.

"Why not? Aren't you going to join us? Oh sure... why not? It'll be fun!"

And before they knew what had hit them, it was all arranged – the going all-together part anyway. The where was still up for debate when the CSI crew entered the food court just a few minutes later.

"You're sure?" Catherine asked as they made their way through the maze that was the food court's seating area towards the registers. Wendy nodded as she handed the cashier her room key to pay for breakfast.

"As sure as we can be without DNA testing. It makes sense, anyway." She crossed the threshold and waited for Sara and Catherine to join her. "I invited them to breakfast this morning."

Catherine's brows went into her hairline. "Will they be able to find us in all this?" as they stepped outside to find a table that overlooked the small lake.

Wendy chuckled. "I think they already have," motioning to the couple who was waving them over. "C'mon... I wanna introduce you to my sister and her partner."

They made their way over to the table and Wendy performed the introductions before they all resumed their seats. It was a little awkward for a few minutes as they each tried to find something to break the silence. Then Sara jumped in with both feet.

"We could do a DNA test if you wanted... I mean, just to make things official."

Catherine snorted. "Sara," she said dryly. "Look at them," motioning to Nikki and Wendy who were sporting identical blushes. "I think it's pretty official." She saw Sara's shoulder's slump and narrowed her eyes. "This is about testing that new field kit of yours isn't it?"

Sara shrugged but kept her eyes on her plate. "Figured we could kill two birds with one stone – kind of a win/win."

"I think it's a great idea, actually," Nora piped up. "It would give us irrefutable proof to show to Arthur when we introduce Wendy to him."

"Intro..." Wendy sputtered. "Wait... WHAT??" snapping her head around to look at Nora.

Nikki chuckled and covered Wendy's hand. "Sugar, that's one reason we want you to come visit us in NOLA. You need to meet Daddy."

"Meet Da... holy shit! I hadn't thought about... shit," she muttered again, causing light laughter to run around the table. She jumped when she felt an arm land on her shoulder, then looked up into Claire's compassionate eyes.

"What are you doing to this poor woman? I heard her squeak when I stepped out the door."

"Long story," Catherine replied. "Would you like to join us?"

Claire let her glance encompass everyone and nodded. "If you're sure I won't be intruding."

"Not at all," Nora assured her, seeing Nikki nod her head in agreement. She looked over the patio area. "Where's the rest of your group?" Claire laughed.

"Jill finally got her voice back last night, so she also got a date. I haven't seen her since the talent show ended. The other two I'm not as sure about. I'm sure I'll hear from them eventually," shaking her cell phone before placing it on the table in front of her. "Now tell me what caused you to flush such an interesting a shade of eggplant."

Not even the noise of a bunch of boisterous DEBS and their significant others headed out for Epcot could distract them from their discussion.

"Who's got the passes?" Max asked as they crossed the foyer area of the lobby headed towards the front parking lot.

"I do," Scud replied, pulling his wallet from his pocket. "I've been the only one able to use them til today, remember?" holding Max's eyes until she shrugged.

"Whatever," she answered, taking her card from him without quite snatching it out of his hand. He rolled his eyes. "It is just way too weird not to be wearing plaid," motioning to the atypical shorts and t-shirts she, Janet and Dom were wearing. Amy narrowed her eyes at the outfit.

"Max, you're not carrying, are you?" biting her bottom lip when Max glared at her. "MAX! You can't go around Disney World carrying a gun. It's *Disney World*!"

"And your point?" said dryly.

"My point is you can't carry a gun around Disney World. Pretty sure those two lovely detectives who were asking questions all weekend would be more than happy to come out here *again* and explain to you *exactly* why you can't carry a gun here – right before they took it away from you."

Max glared. "Nobody touches my gun."

"Then I suggest you go put it away," Janet spouted. "I mean if you want to." Max held her eyes for another minute before turning on her heel and back the way she'd come.

Dom checked her watch and huffed. "I have a date, so if you'll excuse me...." heading out the door before anyone else could make an objection.

"Okay, so..." Lucy said, clapping her hands together and giving a sly smile. "We can scoot out of here with no one the wiser, right?" she asked, her eyes twinkling.


"What? I'm just saying...."


"All right, all right – Jesus! We'll wait." She cut her eyes at Amy. "You're taking all the fun out of this ya know."

"S'okay," Amy said with a grin. "I'll make it up to you later."


"Oh will you two get a room already?" Max complained as she came around the corner to catch them in an embrace. "Well, c'mon already. We're running behind already and I wanna ride Test Track. So let's go, people! Move it!" snatching the keys out of Scud's hands and heading out the door.

"Hey! Hey, waitaminute...." he called, clambering after her and pulling Janet along with him.

Lucy and Amy just watched their antics, exchanging grins and enjoying the hug they'd never broken, despite Max's caustic words. Then the door slid open and Max stuck her head in again. "Will you two hurry the hell up?" rolling her eyes and dramatically flopping her arms as she turned back towards the car. Lucy and Amy just smirked and loosened their embrace until they were holding hands, then they followed Max out to the car, not noticing Melinda Warner and her family followed out behind them.

"Okay, so whose idea was it to have tear-away clothes?" Serena asked Liz and Tracey as they rode the bus towards the Hollywood Studios. Kelly tentatively raised her hand. Serena's brows jumped into her hairline. "Excuse me?? Really?"

Kelly glared. "Yes, really," her tentativeness lost in the belief that she wasn't smart enough to think of something like that. "When Tracey backed herself into the proverbial corner, I volunteered to help, but honestly, I can't dance if the steps are laid out for me. Jud... Liz overheard us and offered to help, but only if we kept it a secret. So...." Kelly shrugged.

"So it was pretty clever," Serena confessed. "I enjoyed it a lot."

"I thought the whole night was a hoot," Liz said.

"Yeah, but I gotta tell you – I'm glad I don't have to keep up with that Emma kid. I have a feeling she keeps her moms on their toes." The rest chuckled and nodded their agreement to Tracey's words.

"I want to know how Barbara did that mentalist thing. That was uncanny." This from Kelly.

"Maybe she could tell us where the rest of our little entourage disappeared to this morning," Serena commented. Tracey just snorted. "What?" in an aggrieved tone.

"Oh honey... do you *really* think we'll see Cabot and her detective or Carmichael and Novak after that performance last night?? And Doc Warner was headed out to the Magic Kingdom with her family this morning."

"All right... fair enough," Serena said, turning the shade of a pomegranate. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "I forgot about that."

"Been a while, has it?" Tracey teased.

"I'm not gonna answer that," Serena growled.

Liz bumped her shoulder. "If it makes you feel better, I'd forgotten about it too until Tracey mentioned it," giving Tracey a look before she could offer a retort. Before anyone else could make another comment, she looked around the bus and discovered several faces she recognized.

The bus came to a stop and slowly they departed and headed for the gates. "So," Liz said, causing three dark heads to whip around in her direction before they gave her tentative smiles. "Are any of you trying American Idol today?" chuckling when three heads shook vehemently.

"Are you two?" Jordan asked, pointing at Liz and Tracey.

"Heaven forbid!" Tracey exclaimed. "Once of that was more than enough for me, thank you. I prefer to limit my appearances to a courtroom."

"Me too," Mac agreed, "though I'm pretty sure they'd be jerking me off the stage with a hook if I even thought about trying to perform."

"That bad?" Diana asked.

Mac snorted. "Some people should never be anything other than an audience member. I accepted a long time ago I was one of those people."

"Me too," Kelly concurred.

"We all have to be good at something," Mac smirked. They walked through the turnstiles and grabbed a map. Serena just kept on walking, and the rest followed as a matter of course.

"Where are we headed?" Jordan asked.

"Toy Story Mania," Serena said. "Fast passes there first, then we can go ride Rockin' Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror."

"You sound like a woman with a plan."

"Best way to get things done," Serena replied with a smile.

"I'm not sure this is the best way to get this done, Nat," Tootie offered as they walked up Main Street. "It's not that I don't like her, but...."

"But she hasn't been one of us for our whole lives?" Natalie asked with a wan smile. "That's one of the things that makes her perfect for this, Tootie. She's an award-winning journalist...."

"So are you!!" said with a hint of angry confusion. "Nat, you've been doing this since before she was born. I don't understand why you think you need a kid like Cindy Thomas to help you write your own story."

"For that reason exactly, Tootie. I'm too close to this and it's very likely I'd screw this up by making it too personal. Cindy's not gonna write it *for* me – we're collaborating. She'll help keep me on track. This story is too important for me to do less than the best I can for it."

"And you think collaborating with Cindy Thomas will make it the best it can be."

"I really do."

Tootie sighed. "All right. I do still get to proof the whole thing, right?"

Natalie grinned. "Absolutely. That hasn't changed in twenty-five years. I'm not starting now. Now come on. I wanna go ride Space Mountain before the line gets too long."

"Are you sure about this Cindy?" Lindsay asked as they made their way towards Big Thunder Mountain. They were going to meet the rest of their party for lunch, but they had the morning to themselves to play. "It's a big commitment."

"It's a huge commitment," Cindy agreed, "but I want to do it. I *need* to do it, Lindsay. It's important." She paused and cracked open the water bottle Lindsay handed her and took a deep draught. "You heard the story."

Lindsay nodded. "I did, and you're right... it *is* important. I'm just not sure I understand why she wants YOU to help her tell it." Seeing storm clouds darken brown eyes to almost black, Lindsay stumbled on. "Not that you're not fantastic at your job – I mean, you are... I KNOW you are. But so is she. So why does Natalie Green need you to help her do something she's been doing since you were in diapers?"

Cindy held Lindsay's eyes - not seeing condescension or mockery, but sincere confusion. She took a deep breath. "She needs me to keep her honest... kinda like the club does for each other sometimes."

"For me, you mean," Lindsay said without blinking. Cindy smiled.

"Usually, yes... but not always."

"Fair enough," Lindsay finally breathed as they got into line and started wending their way uphill. "Do you think I could read it as well? Just for curiosity's sake?"

Cindy blinked. "We can ask; the worst thing she can do is say no. But I don't think she will. You were there when she told the story last night." She took Lindsay's hand in hers and tugged on it lightly. "Now c'mon, Inspector. There's fun to be had around here before lunch, and I for one don't intend to miss out on anything."


Chapter LXII

"I'm so glad you're here, Cass," Janet said as they waited together for Sam to ride Splash Mountain. She'd really been looking forward to it, and Janet and Cassandra assured her they were happy to wait for her to do so. So they now sat on a bench near the ride's exit, listening to the trains roll by periodically and people watching. They had both been highly entertained so far.

"So am I, Mom. This place is... why haven't we been here before?"

"That's a good question, honey. I guess saving the world every week kinda got in the way before."

Cassie snorted. "Yeah... I can see where that could screw up your plans."

"I don't think that's gonna be a problem for us any more, though," Janet confided, watching another couple emerge soaking wet from the ride. Then their conversation got her attention when they stopped right beside them to try and dry off a little.

"Delusional much?" the brunette asked sarcastically. "C'mon... there is no way that's a hidden Mickey. I've been coming here for years – I would have noticed it before now."

"The nice cast member confirmed it, and you know he wouldn't lie about it. I mean, really… why would he? There's no reason to."

"Sure there is – dead brain cells. Acting happy all the time kills them exponentially." She cocked an eyebrow when the blonde woman glared at her. "Besides, have you looked in the mirror?? He thought you were cute and agreeing with you meant he got to see your dimples again."

Blue eyes narrowed at her. "Oh no you didn't."

The brunette snorted. "Sure I did."

The blonde held the darker woman's gaze for another long moment before she shrugged. "It doesn't matter. I told you so. I was right, and I am awesome."

"No... you were lucky."

"And if you want to be lucky again in this lifetime...."

"I hate you."

"No you don't." A beat. "Say it."


"Say it," the blonde asked in a wheedling tone of voice.

The brunette huffed mightily and stuffed the wet towel into the backpack she'd been carrying. "Fine – you were right."


"You were awesome," she mumbled.

"Yep," the blonde agreed as they walked away from the bench. "But not as awesome as I'm gonna be later," tucking her hand in the crook of the other woman's elbow before they moved out of sight. Cassandra and Janet exchanged glances before bursting into laughter.

"All righty then," Janet said once they got themselves under control. "That was pretty darn funny. Actually, the whole day has been a lot of fun so far, and we just got here."

"Yeah," Cass agreed. "I'm glad you invited me along."

"If we'd even been thinking, we'd have planned it all ahead of time. It's just... it's still all so new for us. But we'll do better. We just need more practice at being a real family again. We wanna be ready by the time your little one makes an appearance."

There was silence for a moment, then green eyes met brown and held them. "Are you giving up the Air Force?" Cassandra asked bluntly. Janet blinked in shock and felt her jaw drop before she snapped her mouth closed.

"How did you...?" She shook her head. "What makes you say that?"

"A lot of little things," Cassandra stated, "which we can talk about later," motioning to a soaking wet Sam who was headed their way. "But I want you to know that I think this baby," covering her belly protectively, "is already pretty lucky. Its grandmothers are amazing women and the rest of the family is pretty incredible too."

Sam arrived right about then and was astonished when Janet turned into her despite her waterlogged state. She looked at Cass with eyebrows raised into her hairline. "You made your mother cry... at Disney World?"

Janet slapped Sam's belly gently. "They're happy tears, baby." Then she opened her eyes and pulled her head back, frowning up at Sam. "You're all wet."

"Yeah – they do call it SPLASH Mountain for a reason. Now c'mon you two. Let's go find something we can all do together."

"Dad! Dad!! DAD!!!" Brooke finally raised her voice loud enough that Sam took her hand and pulled them over into a tiny alcove off of Main Street where she'd be able to hear Mike without feeling the need to yell back to be heard. Then she realized that Brooke was simply trying to shut Mike up to get a word in edgewise. Sam took the phone from Brooke before she could protest and brought it to her lips.

"MIKE!" she said without putting the phone to her ear to hear whatever he was going on about. "Be quiet and let Brooke talk," she commanded and handed the phone back to Brooke. Brooke stared at it and Sam for a long minute before lifting the now silent device back to her ear.

"Yes, Dad... we're fine. The murder has already been solved and.... No. I mean not at all. Um hmm," holding out her hand to study the ring that graced her left ring finger. "Other than that, um...." Brooke bit her lip and Sam wondered what Mike was saying. Then Brooke's eyes met hers and her expression softened. "No... no. Yes, I'm sure. I love her."

Sam captured Brooke's hand in her own and lifted it to her lips. Brooke opened her hand to allow her palm to cradle Sam's cheek, pleased when she nuzzled into the touch.

"Listen Dad, we're at the Magic Kingdom, so we're gonna go have some fun now," clearing her throat when her voice started to rise when Sam began to nibble at the center of her hand. "We can talk about this later, but nothing except marriage is gonna change the fact that we're engaged to one another. Try to be happy for us... please?" sighing before she ended the call.

"Is my phone gonna ring now?" Sam asked sadly, taking Brooke's hand in hers and leading her from the alcove back into the flow of Main Street once more. Brooke shook her head.

"I think Mom will talk to him first... *then* she'll talk to you. I think he's actually more upset that we didn't talk to them *before* it hit YouTube, but only time will tell." Brooke shrugged and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "However, I don't want to worry about them today. I don't want to worry about anything. I wanna spend the day having fun with my gorgeous fiancée."

Sam grinned. "I love the sound of that. I love you."

Brooke couldn't help the smile that split her face at Sam's words and expression. "Not as much as I love you," knowing it would get a playful response back and laughing when Sam's brows went into her hairline.

"Do you really want to get into THAT debate, McQueen? Remember, I'm the writer here."

"Yes, but I'm the lawyer. I can draw it up iron clad."

Sam snorted. "Guess we're pretty evenly matched." She jerked her head. "You wanna ride Pirates of the Caribbean with me?"

Brooke smiled. "Love too."

"Are you sure about this, Xena?" Olivia asked as they made their way into the castle. Emma was between them, eyes darting everywhere as she took in all the activity around them. "I mean...."

"Olivia, if you'd feel more comfortable staying with us today, or even the three of you going off by yourselves, that's perfectly okay," Gabrielle said from just behind them. "We can arrange to have a Disney Ambassador escort you to ensure you get the VIP treatment that is part of Emma's prize."

Xena flashed a badge and the cast member nodded her through and in a moment they had all entered the elevator. A swipe of the card Xena still held and the doors closed and it started to move up.

"We just thought you and Natalia might appreciate a little more time to yourselves to honeymoon," Xena said as the elevator doors opened into the suite. Emma let go of Olivia's hand and pushed her forward when she seemed frozen in place. In reflex, Olivia reached for Natalia's hand and they walked off the elevator into the center of the room and simply stood still, gawking at the accommodations around them. Neither of them had ever seen anything like this.

Emma dropped Xena's hand and crossed the threshold into the room. Xena and Gabrielle stayed in the elevator watching the tableau.

"Do you like it, Mommy? Mama?"

Simultaneously, Olivia and Natalia turned and Natalia opened her arms for Emma to jump into. Then Olivia embraced them both. "We love it, Jellybean, but not as much as we love you," Olivia said with a tickle, causing Emma to laugh. Natalia leaned forward and brushed a kiss over Emma's cheek.

"This is fabulous, Sweetie. Are you sure you don't want to stay here with us?" Emma clapped her hands over her ears.

"Mushy stuff!!" she yelled, then squealed when both Olivia and Natalia tickled her again. Xena and Gabrielle just snickered.

After a minute of giggles and laughter, things settled down again. "Now Bean," Olivia said seriously, motioning Natalia to put Emma down and dropping to one knee to bring them to eye level. "What do you want to do? Do you want Natalia and me to go with you or would you rather go with Xena and Gabrielle?"

Emma looked between her parents. "Would it hurt your feelings if I said I'd like to go with them?"

Olivia swallowed and shook her head. "Not at all, Bean."

"Awesome!" she exclaimed, pumping her fist in victory and causing chuckles to ripple around the room. Emma hugged Olivia, then Natalia and kissed them both. "Have a nice honeymoon, you guys," she wished them as she ran back towards the elevator. Gabrielle stepped off just as Emma reached her and Xena and she simply nodded her head. Xena held out her hand and Emma took it without compunction while they waited for Gabrielle.

"Naturally, you can go out into the park today if you want, though once you get a good look around the room I doubt you're going to want to leave. The restaurant downstairs will provide your meals today unless you request otherwise, and they'll be waiting for your order – so you can have what you want... within reason, of course," grinning at their flummoxed expressions. "Oh... um, we'll bring Emma by to say goodnight before we leave the park – we'll let you know when we'll be by so you can let us know if that works for you or not. And you have our numbers if anything comes up and visa versa." Gabrielle paused and bit her lip. "Did I forget anything?"

"Yes!" Emma said from the elevator, jumping up and down in place just a little bit. "We need to go before we miss the Princesses!"

Everyone laughed and Gabrielle turned back to the elevator, only to be stopped by a hand on her arm before she could move towards it. She looked at Natalia who squeezed once before she released her hold.

"Thank you, Gabrielle... for everything."

Gabrielle nodded and grinned at the two of them. "It's our pleasure, Natalia. We expect this to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Olivia slipped an arm around Natalia's waist as Gabrielle got back onto the elevator, gratified when Natalia naturally leaned into her. She smiled. "It already is, Gabrielle," she assured them as the doors closed. Then Xena, Gabrielle and Emma headed out into the Magic Kingdom in search of some fairy tale princesses of their own.

"So what's the wire for?" Dinah asked as they crossed the hub area and turned towards Tomorrowland.

"Tinkerbell," Helena stated succinctly, though she was literally vibrating with excitement. "Will you two hurry up? I wanna go ride Space Mountain and play Buzz Lightyear."

Dinah smirked. "What are you – five?" watching Helena's eyes flash gold before they narrowed at her. "We're getting there."

"Girls," Barbara cut in before Helena could snipe back. "Do you think we could get a couple pictures?" motioning to the photographer waiting patiently just off the beaten path. Helena and Dinah exchanged surprised glances, then shrugged together and followed Barbara's lead.

They exchanged greetings with Jo and Blair and were introduced to Jo's daughter, then the photographer was positioning them for pictures. Jo, Blair and Jamie headed across the hub towards Liberty Square and the Haunted Mansion.

"I can't believe we've never been here before," Jamie said, her eyes wide as she tried not to miss anything around her.

"Your dad and I never really talked about it," Jo confessed as they walked. "We never seemed to have much time off together and when we did...." She shrugged. "There's always been so much to do at home that the subject never really came up."

Jamie nodded. She knew that much was true. The farthest her family had ever traveled together had been to Atlantic City, and both her parents had seemed content with that. She turned to Blair. "What about you, Mother? Have you ever been here before?"

Blair shook her head. "No. It's one of the few places in the world I hadn't visited. First it was because it was a family place, and my family... well," shrugging her shoulders, then leaning into the embrace when Jo wrapped a solid arm around them. She straightened and smiled. "Then of course, I was simply too cool and too worldly for something as childish as Disney."

Jamie's green eyes widened. "And now?"

Blair took the arm from around her shoulders and clasped Jo's hand in hers instead. "Now, I'm at a place in my life where I can appreciate the wonder and beauty found here."

Jo snickered. "Don't let her fool ya, kiddo. When we heard about this conference being held here, Blair couldn't get us signed up quick enough. She was like a kid in a candy store with a credit card without a limit."

"Oh... turn blue, Jo!" Blair said, dropping the hand she held and picking up her pace to move away from Jo. Jo rolled her eyes and stepped a little livelier to catch up and Jamie just rolled her eyes. Some things just never changed.

Jo caught up with Blair as they reached the line entrance and reached for her hand, only to have Blair cross her arms over her chest. Unfazed, she slid her hands to Blair's hips and stepped into her personal space, pressing her front to Blair's back.

"Jo!" Blair hissed. "You're making a spectacle of us," trying to pull away and realizing almost immediately her struggling brought more attention to them than Jo's initial actions. She froze.

"Nah, Princess. It's still early. There's nobody much here yet to care, and those that do don't know us from Adam's housecat. Besides, it's not like we'll ever see most of these people again in our lives anyway, so why should we care?"

Blair leaned her head back just enough to catch Jo's eyes. "You really think I'm some sort of kid?"

"What?? Aw, hell no! I think your eagerness to come here was a lot like a kid's would be. And that's a good thing. The world could use more of that sort of enthusiasm and vision."

"All right, you two," Jamie growled though she couldn't hide the twinkle in her eyes. "Can you try to control the mushy stuff for a while? Young, impressionable mind here and I wanna have some fun!" pushing them forward just enough to get them moving into the line. Blair and Jo traded looks.

"Why did we ask her to come here with us again?"

"Beats the hell out of me, but it shouldn't be too late to send her back. Pretty sure she came with a warranty."

Jamie glared. "No refunds. Now move it before I hafta get tough with both a you broads," doing a credible 'tough guy' imitation.

The three looked at one another for another long moment before they couldn't hold their laughter any longer. Then Jamie took Blair's hand and tugged. Blair caught Jo's hand and pulled her along as well.

"Besides," Blair teased as they passed through the turnstiles. "I know you were as happy to be coming here as I was. I saw you surfing the net."

Jo glowered, though her eyes still twinkled in merriment. "Move it, Blondie. There's fun to be had."

Blair just grinned and held tighter to the hand she held as they passed into the cool darkness of the Haunted Mansion.


Chapter LXIII

"So was it worth it?" Casey asked Abbie as they got into line to have a photograph taken with Pluto. The indolent smile Abbie gave was its own answer, but Abbie took a deep breath to reply.

"Oh yeah," she said as they took their places on either side of the silent Disney dog. When the photographer was done snapping the picture, Casey accepted the card they offered her and they moved on to wait for a turn with Minnie Mouse. However," Abbie continued unexpectedly, "next time remind me to keep my mouth shut around my cousin. I love Lindsay, but...."

"But I'd rather keep that private between us," Casey offered with a squeeze to Abbie's bicep. Abbie's grin was brilliant.

"Yeah... me too."

Meanwhile, Olivia and Alex finished their picture with Goofy and were moving on to the next character. "Can I ask you something?" Olivia asked as she and Alex found the line to have a picture made with Daisy Duck. Alex pulled her sunglasses down just enough for Olivia to see the incredulous look in her eyes before shoving them back into place. Given what they shared, Olivia had to smile. "Why did you dance with Abbie last night?"

Alex smiled. "I wondered when you were going to get around to that question," she admitted. "I'm a little surprised it took as long as it did."

Now it was Olivia's turn to give Alex a skeptical glance. She snorted. "You're kidding, right?"

Alex grinned. "Maybe a little," chuckling when Olivia's eyes narrowed. The attendant motioned them forward and they stood on either side of Daisy and smiled for the camera. Then they spotted Casey and Abbie in Minnie's line and headed that way.

"So...?" Olivia prodded when Alex didn't answer immediately.

"Hmm...? Oh... um, when I first came to the DA's office, Abbie was the first person to reach out to me... to be a friend. We actually went out a few times after work and after one particularly bad day, we ended up at this Moroccan place for dinner. We had just enough alcohol in us that we decided to play along when the dancer invited us up on stage."

Olivia shook her head. "That tells me how you learned to belly dance. It doesn't tell me why you decided to dance with Abbie last night."

Alex chuckled. "Actually, that's *why* we decided to learn to belly dance – we never wanted to be that embarrassed again. Liv, we were BAD. Of course being slightly drunk and completely uncoordinated didn't help, although it would have made for some funny video."

Olivia grinned at the visual Alex's words had given her. "Okay," waving at Casey and Abbie who gestured towards the Emporium. "So why?"

Alex shrugged. "She asked."

"Really? That's it?"

"That's it."

"So if I asked...."

Alex grinned. "Only if it's a private dance," she replied and moved forward to hug Minnie before tucking herself into one side while Olivia took the other. Then they accepted their photo card from the photographer and moved off to find Casey and Abbie.

"This was a good idea, cuz," Lindsay said as their waiter left their table after taking their orders. "I kinda like being in the John Paul Jones room."

Abbie snickered. "That's because you were a Navy man in another life."

Lindsay narrowed her eyes, but before she could comment, Alex cut in. "So what are we going to do after this?"

Casey gave her a grateful glance and picked up the ball. "We have fast passes for Splash Mountain, but I'd also like to see the Country Bear Jamboree."

"And don't forget we wanna see Emma in the parade," Cindy reminded them, getting affirmative nods from around the table.

"Did any of you get tickets to the dessert party over in Tomorrowland?" Olivia asked. The waiter brought their drinks and disappeared almost as quickly.

"I think most of our group that came here is going to be there," Cindy answered. "I know Natalie mentioned it."

Olivia nodded. "So did Jo. Maybe we can get a big group picture together," waving her photo pass around before dropping it back into her pocket and leaning back so their server could put her food down in front of her.

"You're really enjoying that, aren't you?" Lindsay asked without a hint of mockery in her tone. Olivia nodded.

"Yeah... I really am. I've never been here before... never had this kind of opportunity. I wanna make sure I remember every single minute."

Lindsay smiled. "I don't think this trip is something any of us will *ever* forget."

"Me either," Cindy agreed. "Now eat up. We still have rides to ride and a parade to watch."

"Wow, Emma! You look like a fairy tale princess," Gabrielle said as Emma exited the boutique. "Are you ready for your ride down Main Street?" grinning when Emma rapidly nodded her head before remembering the piece that had been clipped into her own hair. Without warning, first Gabrielle and then Xena found themselves the recipient of a crushing hug.

"This has just been the best day ever!" she said enthusiastically.

"C'mon," Xena said, extending her hand. "Day's not over with yet."

"She looks like she's having a great time," Detective Sergeant Teresa Bornlan commented to Detective Shana Kennian as Emma rode down the street in the parade. Kennian cut blue eyes towards brown without actually moving her head.

"Everyone here looks like they are having a great time... well, except for the parents of small children. They look rather miserable," nodding her head in the direction of a bedraggled looking family. "I believe they need to return home at this time."

Bornlan chuckled. "Or at least back to the hotel." She took a deep breath. "This is nice though."

Kennian turned and pinned Bornlan with her eyes. "Yes, but why are we here?"

Teresa let her brows go into her hairline. "Why not? It's a beautiful day; we have the day off and we've been working here all weekend. Why shouldn't we have a little fun here instead? It is 'the happiest place on earth' after all."

"You do not think the women we dealt with all weekend might feel we are stalking them for some reason?"

"I sincerely doubt they'll even notice we're here, Shana. Besides, even if they do see us, why would they care? Case closed, remember? They're no longer suspects and we're no longer investigating." She watched as Kennian processed her words, and knew the moment she accepted them as truth. "Right," taking her partner by the elbow. "So let's go have some fun," directing them farther up Main Street. "Where to first?" Bornlan asked as they disappeared into the crowd.

Diana snapped her phone shut and looked around at the women she had spent a surprisingly fun day with. "I hate to break up a good party," she apologized, "but I've got to go."

"Problem?" Mac asked, concerned immediately. Diana smiled and shook her head.

"Not like you're thinking. Gabrielle asked me to come over to the Magic Kingdom. Apparently there's something going on she doesn't want me to miss." The rest exchanged looks and then Mac took Diana's elbow on one side and Jordan linked arms with her on the other.

"So what are we waiting for?" Jordan asked as they started walking towards the front gate of the Studios. "Let's go."

Diana laughed, but didn't shrug them off. "You do realize it may not be anything that interesting." Six pairs of eyes cut her way in a patented look of disbelief and she held up her hands in surrender. "All right," she conceded. "Just don't say I didn't warn you."

"Helena, where's Dinah?" Barbara asked as she kept her hands folded in her lap trying desperately not to clench them together. Helena had asked to steer her chair and Barbara had graciously acceded control, though it was becoming increasingly difficult not to restrain her impulse to demand to know what was going on.

"Hmm? Oh... she went ahead to get us a good place to watch the fireworks from. I told her there was something I needed to show you first."

A frown creased Barbara's forehead. "I thought our seats were reserved... you know, with the dessert party and all?"

"Oh, they are," Helena granted with a nod, glad Barbara's attention was focused on her and not on their surroundings. "But there are still some places there that the view is better from than others." Barbara nodded thoughtfully as she slowly turned her head back to the front. Only then did she notice the actual environment they had somehow managed to find themselves in.


But Helena didn't speak. She simply gave Barbara a wicked smile and pressed the button for the elevator.

Gabrielle was busy checking in the women of their group as they arrived. Thankfully, they had reserved the whole area in Tomorrowland Terrace, which was a blessing as more women arrived with Diana than she had expected. Diana gave her an apologetic look and shrugged her shoulders. Gabrielle just smiled and motioned them in. The space was filling up fast and she was glad they'd been able to accommodate all the extras that had decided to join them last minute.

Emma spotted Dinah off to one side near the front and looked around, scowling when she realized Barbara and Helena weren't with her. Before she could decide the best way to approach Dinah, Olivia Benson stopped beside her and dropped down to one knee. Emma wasn't scared exactly, but she waited for Olivia to speak.

"You're Emma, right?" getting a confirming nod. "My name's Olivia and I'm a police officer," offering her badge. "I heard you tell your moms' story at the talent show last night."

Emma smiled. "You have the same name as my mommy," studying the badge and shield intently before handing it back to Olivia.

"Well, I kinda like it," Olivia confessed with a smile. "Um, listen... I was wondering something. Would you mind taking a picture with me and my friends over there?" pointing to a rather large group of women. "I'm going to make a memory book of my trip here, and I'm trying to include as many new friends as I've met here that I can."

Emma held her gaze for a long moment, and Olivia just let her look. Satisfied, Emma nodded. "You have good eyes," she finally replied. "But I gotta ask Gabrielle first. Is that okay?"

Olivia nodded and stood. "I think that's an excellent idea."

"Gabrielle," Emma called as they approached, coaxing Gabrielle around to greet them. "This is my new friend Olivia – she's a police officer. She wants to do a group picture for her memory book and she wants me to be in it with them. Can I? Please?"

Gabrielle contemplated Olivia for a long moment, then nodded her head. "I'll go you one better," gesturing to the Disney photographer that had been assigned to Emma for the day. "How about we have Arturo take the pictures for you? Then you can be in them as well, Detective."

"Thanks," was all Olivia said, but it was enough. Then they started herding people together to get the pictures done before Tinkerbell arrived to start the fireworks.

Cassandra looked around at all the women gathered on the terrace as she rejoined them. It took a moment to find her mom and Sam, but when she did, the sight of them made her smile. They had found something here – something they had been missing ever since Janet had returned from the dead, as it were. She made her way over to them and took a seat.

"I'm glad you came here," she said sincerely. "It looks like this is a good group of women to call friends."

Sam and Janet looked around and nodded. "It is. And it's the beginning of a new start for us."

Cassie nodded, not surprised by the statement. "Well, I for one am looking forward to the next chapter in all our lives. Going by this, it should still be interesting."

Sam laughed. "Isn't it always?"

Dinah stood at the rail with her back turned to the castle as she searched the people lining up for the fireworks show that was due to start in the next few minutes. She knew Helena and Barbara knew where to meet her, but the way things looked, they weren't going to make it before the show started. She wished, not for the first time, that their comms worked here... especially since Barbara wasn't picking up her cell.

"Gabrielle?" Gabrielle moved closer at Dinah's beckoning and bent her head down to hear over the noise that seemed to be growing as the hour approached. "Have you heard from Barbara or Helena? They were supposed to meet me here in time for the fireworks, but...." She trailed off. "And I can't reach either of them on their cell."

Gabrielle glanced at her watch to hide the twinkle in her eyes. "I'm sure they'll be here directly," she responded, just as the lights dimmed and the announcer's voice boomed over the PA system. The women crowded closer so the could get a better look at Tinkerbell as she flew from the castle to start the fireworks.

Only this time, instead of being in green, Tinkerbell was in black leather. Dinah's eyes narrowed.

"Oh. No. She. Didn't." watching the figure slide down the wire to the roof of the building just above and behind them. "Barbara's gonna kill her," pushing her way out of the crowd to see if she could find a way to the roof.

"Barbara's gonna kill who, D?" Helena asked as she swooped in beside her from where she'd obviously been standing leaning next to a support pole. Dinah blinked and looked at her; then the roof; then Helena – then she shook her head.

"How'd you do that?" pointing to the wire. "And where's Barbara?"

Helena grinned. "Relax, Kid. I didn't do anything. And Barbara should be here any minute."

"Wait... you mean that was... you weren't... how'd you *do* that??"

Helena laughed. "Many skills, D. I have many skills."

"And a friend named Xena who knows people," Gabrielle added with a chuckle. Helena crossed her arms and frowned, though she couldn't keep the twinkle out of her eyes.

"Well yeah... there's that too."

Xena caught Barbara around the waist and eased her to a stop before she could hit the wall. Unexpectedly, Barbara threw her arms around Xena's neck and hugged her for all she was worth. Xena just held her and let her cry even as she removed the line attaching Barbara to the wire.

The moment didn't last more than a few seconds, and Barbara pulled away and wiped her eyes with embarrassment. "I'm sorry. That was...." stopping when Xena shook her head.

"Did you enjoy it?" The expression on Barbara's face was answer enough. "Then make sure you tell Helena. This was her idea; I just made the arrangements." Xena lifted Barbara up just a little higher to give her room to work off the harness she had on.

"Why did she let me think otherwise?"

"You'll have to ask her, but I'm glad she thought to do it for you."

"So am I... for so many reasons. This has been the perfect end to a wonderful day."

Xena smiled. "I think it's a perfect end to any number of things, and it'll be something I'll never forget," she added as she set Barbara in her chair and motioned them to the edge of the roof to watch the rest of the fireworks show going on around them.

"I don't think any of us will, Xena. This has been the trip of a lifetime."

"It's certainly has."


"Computer – end holodeck simulation," Xena called out and watched as the Magic Kingdom faded around her and became the yellow and black grid she was familiar with. Blue eyes met green, recognizing the residual sadness she found there. Before it could cement into something identifiable, her attention was drawn to the others in the room.

Teresa Bornlan became B'Elanna Torres and Shana Kennian resumed the attributes of Seven of Nine. Katie O'Donnell shifted until she was Kathryn Janeway. B'Elanna's brows flew into her ridges and she exchanged glances with Seven to find her as flummoxed by the admiral's presence as she was.

"Admiral?? You were playing with us?" Janeway cracked a smile and pushed off the wall she was leaning against.

"Sure. You didn't think I was gonna let the two of you have all the fun, did you?" She smirked. "I was your murderer, Detective."

Seven looked between the two of them stoically, then asked deadpan, "Should we arrest her?"

Kathryn and B'Elanna looked at her for a long moment before noting the wicked twinkle in blue eyes sparkling back at them. They burst into laughter, then turned their attention back to Xena and Gabrielle... only to realize there was someone else on the holodeck with them.

"Emma?" B'Elanna asked, recognizing the child from their adventure. "Um... how....? I mean, who...?" She looked between Xena and Gabrielle. "How'd she get here? Who is she?" knowing that while the admiral could certainly enter the holodeck while a program was in progress, there was no way an unauthorized human child could access the facility... much less get into an on-going simulation without setting off a number of safeguards and alarms.

"Oh, Sweet Cheeks," Emma cut in before B'Elanna could trip over her tongue anymore than she already had. "Take a chill pill and relax, babe. It's all good." Emma shimmered causing B'Elanna, Seven and Kathryn to blink. When they opened their eyes, in Emma's place stood a voluptuous, scantily-clad blonde woman.

Kathryn opened her mouth to call for security, but a motion from Xena kept her still. Instead, she cocked an eyebrow and crossed her arms over her chest, obviously waiting for an answer to her unspoken question. Gabrielle stepped forward.

"Kate, B'Elanna, Seven – allow me to present Aphrodite. Dite, these are some of our friends from the twenty-fourth century."

Dite gazed at the women who were staring at her with expressions of disbelief. Then she turned back to Gabrielle. "I think there's something radically wrong with these gnarly babes. They look, you know... totally gobsmacked."

Kathryn cleared her throat. "It's not everyday you meet the Goddess of Love." She paused while Dite preened. "You really are the Goddess of Love aren't you?"

"Live and in the flesh."

"And lots of flesh," B'Elanna muttered, garnering her a glare from Seven and a scowl from Kathryn. "What?" she shrugged. "It's true."

"Yeah," Dite agreed without blinking an eye. "But it's luscious flesh," giving her a grin and causing a flush of red to color B'Elanna's features. "And you," she said, turning to Xena who had rolled her eyes behind Dite's back. "Not a word."

Xena held up her hands in surrender, but couldn't keep the smile from crossing her face. Gabrielle shook her head – the two of them had been going at each other like that forever. She tucked herself under Xena's arm, relishing the strength wrapping around her naturally.

"Behave... both of you," she admonished. She looked back at the three women who *had* become dear friends in this time and place. "Did you enjoy yourselves?"

"It was fabulous, Gabrielle. I'd like to do it again some time."

"It's all there, Admiral... whenever you'd like to go again."

"And will you be able to join us?"

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances, then they turned back to Kathryn. "Not for a little while. I think we're gonna go home for a bit."

"I can understand that... we all can," seeing B'Elanna and Seven nod their agreement. "Be safe in your travels, and let us know when you return."

"We will, Kate – thank you."

They turned at the holodeck doors and waved, then stepped across the threshold with Aphrodite right behind them. Kathryn, B'Elanna and Seven blinked at one another, and with a grin and a shake of their heads followed them out... only to discover all three of them were nowhere to be seen.

"Do you think we will see them again?" Seven asked as they made their way down the corridor. "They have been very good friends. I would not like to lose them as such."

"I think we'll see Xena and Gabrielle again," Kathryn stated unequivocally. "It may be a little while, but they'll be back. Aphrodite on the other hand...?" She shrugged.

"Do you really think that was the Goddess of Love?" B'Elanna asked skeptically.

Kathryn stared at her as she thought about the question. Just before B'Elanna felt the need to squirm, Kathryn sighed and nodded.

"I really do. After all, stranger things have happened."

"So I totally let Diana and her Amazon babes know you two are heading her way. Make sure you give Barbara a hug from me, right? I miss those guys," Aphrodite said somewhat seriously.

"So come with us, Dite. You know you're always welcome there." Dite shook her curly blonde hair.

"Nah... this is something you need right now, ya know? I'll be around when something bitchin' happens. Til then, it's all good," slipping out of sight before either of them could comment and leaving a trail of rose petals in her wake.

Xena extended her hand to Gabrielle who took it without hesitation. "Home, my Queen?"

"I'm already home, love," squeezing the hand she held and smiling as the light in Xena's eyes grew fierce. "But let's go visit the Amazons."

The End


Bad Girls: Shed Productions, created by Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus

Birds of Prey: Tollin/Robbins Production, The WB, created by Laeta Kalogridis AND DC Comics

Bones: Josephson Entertainment/Far Field Productions/20th Century Fox Television. FOX, created by Hart Hansen

CSI: Jerry Bruckheimer Television, CBS, created by Anthony Zuiker

Charlie's Angels: Spelling/Goldberg Productions,ABC, created by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts

Cold Case: Jerry Bruckheimer Television, CBS, created by Meredith Stiehm

Criminal Minds: The Mark Gordon Company/ABC-Touchstone/CBS, CBS, created by Jeff Davis

Crossing Jordan: Tailwind Productions/NBC-Universal, NBC, created by Tim Kring

DEBS: Andrea Sperling Productions, Samuel Goldwyn Films, created by Angela Robinson

Devil Wears Prada: Wendy Finerman/Karen Rosenfelt, 20th Century Fox, created by Lauren Weisberger

Facts of Life: TAT/Embassy Television, NBC, created by Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon

Grey's Anatomy: ShondaLand Productions, ABC, created by Shonda Rhimes

Guiding Light: P&G/Telenext Media, CBS, created by Irna Phillips

In Plain Sight: NBCU Productions, USA Network, created by David Maples and Paul Stupin

JAG: Donald P. Bellisario Productions, NBC/CBS, created by Donald P. Bellisario

Law & Order (all): NBC-Universal/Wolf Productions, NBC, created by Dick Wolf

Loving Annabelle: Katherine Brooks/Gregory Carroll, Wolfe Releasing, created by Katherine Brooks

Murder in Suburbia: Carlton Television, ITV, created by Nick Collins

NCIS: Belisarius Productions, CBS, created by Donald Bellisario and Don McGill

Nikki and Nora: UPN Network (Pilot), created by Nancylee Myatt

Popular: Murphy/Matthews Production, The WB, created by Ryan Murphy and Gina Matthews

Stargate: Sony Pictures Television,Showtime/SciFi, created by Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner

Voyager: Paramount Television, UPN, created by Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Jeri Taylor

Women's Murder Club:  20th Century Fox Television, ABC, created by Elizabeth Craft, Sarah Fain and James Patterson 

Wonder Woman: Warner Brothers Productions, ABC/CBS, created by William Moulton Marston AND DC Comics

X-Files: Ten Thirteen Productions/20th Century Fox Television, FOX, created by Chris Carter

XWP:  Pacific Renaissance Pictures Ltd/Universal, syndication, created by John Schulian, Rob Tapert and RJ Stewart


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