peroxidepirate: (kel/easy way)
[personal profile] peroxidepirate
Title: Holidays
Rating: PG-13
Fandom: Tamora Pierce (Tortall)
Disclaimer: These characters and their universe are not owned by me.
Characters: Kel/Aly, Alanna, Irnai, Myles, George, Thom (the younger), Alan (the younger), the Crow triplets

Summary:
Aly returns to Tortall after eight years in the Copper Isles. She and Kel slowly fall in love, while dealing with kids, jobs, court gossip, and international politics.

Notes: 1. Written for the Peculiar Pairings Ficathon at the Goldenlake fan community. 2. In the Provost's Dog books, the word "bardash" is used to refer to male homosexuals. "Honeylove" is supposed to be the female equivalent, but I think that's lame. So I'm fanwanking that usage has changed in the intervening years, and  "bardash" is now used for women, too.



Part 1: Midwinter, 470

".... went back to being a crow."

"...exiled because their new king..."

"... used to be a slave, and they shaved her head because..."

"... no better than she should be."

"... and her children!"

"Considering who her mother is..."



The whispers followed Aly throughout the ballroom. Or, more accurately, they rippled around her. She moved in the center of a silent bubble, people's words breaking off when they noticed she was near. But her ears were keener than they thought, and she could hear the comments all around the edges of that bubble.

She didn't let on, of course. Wasn't she an agent, even a spymaster? Hadn't she been trained by Tortall's very best? She danced and flirted and ate, and drank rather less than she seemed to, pretending to the be carefree belle she had been when she was last in Corus, eight years before. Better they think she was callus, for leaving her adopted country without a second thought, than they know how much she hurt.

At least half of the things they said were lies, anyway. Particularly the bit about Dove's husband.

The bit about Nawat was true, but it was hardly recent news.

The song came to an end, and Aly's most recent dance partner bowed over her hand. "You are still the Aly Bright-eyes I remember."

"And you are still the dashing squire," she teased, looking up through her lashes and trying to remember the lad's name. Was he one of Lady Kel's year mates?

He laughed, hand almost indecently low on her back. "If only I was that squire, free to..."

"Sir Quinden, do say hello to your lady wife for me," she interrupted, finally placing him. He'd been incorrigible as a teenager, and she was betting he hadn't changed a bit. "Tell me, are your children in Corus for the holiday? Mine are so eager to make new friends."

He muttered something about family obligations, and having to check with his lady, and needing refreshments. He excused himself very quickly. Aly dropped her eyes just in time to hide her triumphant smirk. Of course he'd want to protect his progeny from corrupting influences such as hers. Maybe his wife wasn't to know he'd even danced with her. He'd leave her alone, now.

... which meant there were no more than, perhaps, 200 men present who might yet try to get her into bed. Many of them knew her, naturally, and remembered the flirt she had been. When she was last in Tortall, she had been the only daughter of a noble house, expected (by society, if not by those who knew her well) to make a good marriage, so a line had been drawn and only the true boors had tried to cross it. Now she was a grown woman, a mother, and her low-born husband had run off. She'd lost count of how many times she'd been baldly propositioned.

She snagged a mug of fruit juice from a passing waiter, and sipped it as she headed for the nearest alcove. It was only the third night of Midwinter, and she was already tired of this game.

"Lady Aly," called a cheerful voice, and she turned.

*****

Aly stood framed in the alcove's white velvet curtains, beautiful as ever. A gown of deep blue satin (a message, surely, that she was still of Tortall) draped her slim body, and her red-gold hair was braided around her head. Her face was a carefully polite mask, though her eyes were tired.

Then a genuine smile lit her face. "Lady Kel. It's good to see you."

Kel bowed in answer to Aly's curtsy, taking the other woman's hand briefly in hers.

They stood and separated. "Don't mind me," Kel said, gesturing to the alcove.

Aly nodded. "Come along, then. I wanted to sit down, out of sight, for a minute. You might as well join me."

They arranged themselves on the couch, as carefully as possible so as not to rumple their finery. Aly sipped her juice again, then set the mug on a small table.

"How are you holding up?" Kel asked gently.

Aly shrugged. "I'm doing what I can," she said. "Half wishing I'd accepted my Aunt Rispah's invitation to Trebond. But that felt too much like running with my tail between my legs."

"I can understand that."

"So here I am, home again and showing the world --  or Corus, anyway -- just how much I'm completely fine."

"You're doing a good job of it."

"Of course I am. You do know what I did in the Isles?"

Kel smiled, then deliberately averted her eyes. "I'm just a simple knight, my lady."

Aly watched her for a moment, and then grinned. "Grandfather coached you on that line, didn't he?"

"Whatever do you mean?" Kel asked, feigning innocence.

Aly giggled. She grabbed Kel's arm. "Sometime -- somewhere else -- you and I should have a talk about that."

"I'd like that," Kel said simply.

Then the curtains parted, and a young woman in a green gown entered the alcove, backside first. She backed up until she was almost in Aly's lap, and a man quickly followed, arms around the woman. Kel and Aly looked at each other in alarm, as Aly scooted close to Kel to avoid being crushed.

The new arrivals were kissing now, eyes closed with passion, as they moved still closer to the couch. Aly scooted even nearer to Kel, and began to giggle.

"Hello there!" Kel said, and the man's eyes snapped open in surprise.

The girl's head spun around, and she gaped at the two women on the couch.

"Pardon me," the man said, taking a step back. He grabbed the girl's hand.

"Lady Kel?" the girl said, still staring. "And... and..." She shook her head, and let her partner drag her away.

"Pox and murrain," Kel muttered. "Aly, I'm sorry."

"What for?" Aly laughed.

Kel looked down. Her tunic was rumpled, the hem askew and showing part of one thigh above her hose. Aly was still half in her lap, and Kel's arm was around her, keeping her in place. Kel wanted to extricate herself from the situation -- and yet she didn't. And the woman who had stared with her eyes so wide...

"That was Cerise of Eldorne. Lerant's sister. The Eldornes are born gossips, one and all." She dropped her arm to her side, and used her other hand to try and tug her tunic back into place. "The court's been trying for years to sort out whether I prefer men or women. They'll have us in bed together..."

Aly didn't move away. "Does it have to be one or the other?"

"No, of course it doesn't. Only that's too complicated for-- oh!"

She broke off as Aly kissed her, quick but hard. "Midwinter luck, Kel."

Aly stood, smoothed out her gown, and left the alcove.

"Midwinter luck," Kel whispered.

*****

Winter travel was too uncertain, and the Mindelan clan too wide-spread, for Midwinter reunions to be in the realm of the possible. Kel's sisters and brothers were at their respective home fiefs, and her parents were spending the winter getting to know their youngest grandchild. The only family Kel had in Corus just then was her sixteen-year-old foster daughter, Irnai, now a Rider trainee. Even Tobe, her foster son, was stationed near the Northern border with his own Rider group.

So when Kel woke the next morning, on the central day of Midwinter -- the one most devoted to family -- she shoved her hounds off the bed and tried to go back to sleep.

She would have a leisurely morning, she decided drowsily. Maybe a ride with her horse, Ruby -- and here Stella and Jude, her hounds, appeared at her bedside, as though they'd heard her thinking about going out of doors.

"Yes, I'll take you, too," she promised, rubbing their smooth-furry heads. Jude lifted his ears, as though she'd complimented him, and Stella tried to climb back into bed. "But not now."  She got up, though, and opened her courtyard-facing shutters, shooing the dogs out into the snow.

She stood at the window for some time, watching the hounds romp and play. Then there was a knock on the door, and she turned. An envelope rested on the floor, just inside. She crossed the room and picked it up. Her heart began to pound when she saw the colors of the seal. The wax was brown flecked with gold: the colors of Pirate's Swoop.

*****

Lady Alanna had reserved one of the palace's smaller halls. Dinner was now done, the wooden tables clear of the main course, and only sweet finishing touches remained. The oldest members of her family, Myles and Eleni, had retired to their rooms for a nap before the evening's festivities. The youngest, Aly's six-year-old triplets and Thom's three-year-old son, ran about, shrieking like wild animals and hiding from one another under the tables.

In one corner, George and Aly whispered with their heads bent together. In another, Alan paid perhaps a bit too much attention to the pretty blond teenager who had arrived with Lady Kel. At the table between, Kel herself was deep in conversation with Thom, although Aly had been the one to insist on asking her to dinner.

Alanna sat at another table with Lorelei, her daughter-in-law, who seemed glad for the chance to relax. They sipped their wine, and Alanna leaned back in her chair and surveyed it all with a grin. It wasn't the perfect family most nobles would want, maybe, but she was happy.

Three-year-old Edward suddenly began to wail. Alanna looked up in alarm, but Lorelei waved a dismissive hand. "He just bonked his head. He'll be fine."

Alanna laughed. "I knew I liked you."

Across the room, Thom excused himself to Kel and went to check on his son. Kel grinned, again grateful she had acquired children only after the stage where they were most prone to that sort of thing.

On the other hand... she glanced to the right, at Irnai, who laughed at one of Alan's jokes, clutching at the young knight's arm. On the other hand, hers were now teenagers, and that brought its own set of problems.

"Kel!" Aly came up on Kel's left side, resting a hand on her arm.

"My lady." Kel turned to face her.

"I didn't know you and Thom would have so much to talk about."

Kel grinned. "My youngest brother is at the City of the Gods. He can't be bothered to stop researching long enough to write home. But thanks to Thom, I know more about what he's been up to these past few years..."

"When Thom's at the University, I didn't think he noticed anything outside his own research," Aly said lightly. "Walk outside with me for a moment?"

Kel started to bow, then remembered she was wearing a dress, and settled for nodding her head. "If you wish."

They spoke of the weather until they were out of earshot of Aly's family. "About what happened yesterday--"

Kel held up a hand. "It's over, my lady."

"I want to thank you."

"What?" Kel blinked.

Aly grinned. "Do you know how many men have tried to sleep with me since I've been back?" she asked. "Most of them are married, and half of them are at least my father's age. It's disgusting! If word goes round that I'm a bardash, it'll make things so much easier..."

Kel tilted her head. "Well, I'm happy to help, I suppose."

"Oh! There's not some man who will get the wrong idea, is there? I'll say I seduced you, and you regret it terribly."

"No, nothing like that. Not for quite some time." She tried to keep her face Yamani-smooth, agent-smooth, but Aly must have seen through the mask.

"You don't like it, though."

"I won't lie for you." Kel returned the smaller woman's gaze steadily. "Not for personal reasons, not like this. I'd rather you didn't lie about me."

Aly lifted her hand, running her fingertips gently down Kel's cheek. "I won't, lass. But you said it yourself, Cerise of Eldorne will have half the court thinking we're in bed together. We couldn't stop them believing that if we tried."

Kel took a step back, away from Aly's fingertips on her face and Aly's hand on her arm. "Well, there is that."

She tried to think clearly, but her body was distinctly, disturbingly away of the warm, soft shape of Aly so close beside. The whole thing made her feel like a teenager again.

"I won't pretend to something that isn't so," Kel said slowly. "Lady Aly, will you allow me to escort you to the ball tonight?"

Emotions warred on Aly's face, and with all her talents, she must have been deliberately letting them show. Finally she shook her head, sadly. "It's too soon, Kel."

Kel took Aly's hand, lifted it to her lips, and gently kissed the back of the knuckles. "I know."

*****

Kel and Irnai said their goodbyes to the folk of Pirate's Swoop. Just before she turned away, Kel saw Aly and Alan watching them go with identical expressions of conflicted longing. She sighed.

As they stepped outdoors, Irnai gave Kel a knowing smile. It had been several years since she cured herself of the tendency to blurt out whatever she had Seen, but Kel could always tell when she'd had a vision.

"Yes?" Kel asked.

Irnai looked away. She never, ever answered direct inquiries about her Seeings. "It's good that Lady Alianne invited us."

"Do we have a future, then? Aly and I?"

The girl scuffed a shoe in the light dusting of snow on the path. "Sir Alan seemed quite taken with me," she said at last. "Tell me, Kel, are you more my mother or my elder sister? I'd hate for the family ties to become too twisted."

*****
*****

Part 2: Beltane, 471

The entire fief turned out, peasants and nobles alike. Beltane in Corus was a splendid thing, but it couldn't compare to the way the holiday was celebrated in the North. The last of the autumn's potatoes and the first of the spring's eggs were baked in the outdoor fires. The new asparagus was sweet enough to eat raw, dipped in the season's first fresh butter. The year's best beer and the last of the apple cider were drawn from their barrels. And the weather was perfect. To Kel, who'd spent the past six months in Corus developing plans for expanding the King's Own, Mindelan at Beltane was marvelous.

She found herself alone after dinner, until Aly slid into the seat beside her.

"You made it!" Kel didn't try to mask her joy.

"Of course." Aly looked around the crowded courtyard. "Are these people all Mindelans?"

"Half of them are, in one way or another. Half are from the village."

Aly whistled. "This is what Trebond will look like in ten years, if my cousins ever make it home all at once."

"You should have seen Adie's wedding," Kel said. "Her husband's a Nond. They had to hold it on the banks of the Olorun -- even the Grand Ballroom wasn't big enough."

"I heard about that," Aly said. "It's infamous, actually."

Kel laughed, then changed the subject. "Have you been here all day? I didn't see you."

Aly grinned. "Your sister-in-law caught me. The one with the embroidered apron..."

"Ah, Vorinna. She's the one I usually avoid. Stuck you in the kitchen, did she?"

Ally nodded. "I don't mind. I've gotten quite lazy since I've been back."

"I don't believe that. Not when you have three small children... Are they with you, by the way?"

Aly smiled, as she always did when she spoke of them. "No, they're back at Trebond with my cousin. It's a short enough trip."

"You miss them, though?"

"I do. But it's good to have a break."

Kel nodded. It's something every parent she knew had said at one time or another.

"I shouldn't be surprised that I've been tricked again," Aly continued. "I thought it would be easier having them all at once, boom! Three children the same age ought to have something in common... but Ulasu is happy to sit and study whatever is in sight, Junim won't sit still for anything, and Ochobai remembers everything that happens and incites the other two to trouble they wouldn't otherwise think up."

Kel grinned, thinking abut Aly and her brothers. "Sounds like the makings of a knight, a scholar, and a spy."

Aly rolled her eyes, but she didn't deny what Kel said. "And your youngsters? How are they?"

Kel fairly glowed with pride. "Tobe's on leave for the holiday, and Irnai joins her Rider group the day after tomorrow. It's been wonderful having them both here... I think it's the last time I can even pretend they're 'children.' I try to be realistic, but it's hard to think of them as adults."

Aly nodded, a slightly wicked grin lighting her face. "If you're thinking of them as children, you might not want to turn around." A few tables over, she could see a group of young people that included Kel's foster children. Most of the couples were skirting the bounds of public decency, even in terms of the relaxed standards applied to the Beltane holiday.

Kel sighed. "I know. Tobe's with Melia, from the village, as he has been every time he's been at Mindelan in the past three years. Every holiday, I half expect them to announce their engagement. And Irnai..."

Aly peered. "I know the lad with Irnai, but I can't place him."

"Broad-shouldered, plain-faced, mouse brown hair?" Kel asked, and Aly nodded. "Still the same as earlier, then. It's my nephew, Lachren. Why they suddenly took to each other this Beltane..." She shook her head.

"She likes knights," Aly observed.

Kel laughed. "It does seem to be a pattern. I hope your brother wasn't expecting--?"

"Alan's the one with the short attention span," Aly interrupted, grinning. "I'm sure he scarce remembers a girl he flirted with months ago."

"And you're the one who remembers everything."

Aly gave a player's bow. "I am."

Kel swallowed the rest of her cider. "Why did you come back to Tortall?" she asked.

Aly looked down, into her own mug. Then she stood up, holding out an arm. "Walk with me for a while?"

Kel got up, then rested her hand on Aly's arm. It was awkward, with Aly being several inches shorter than Kel, and they looked at each other and both began to giggle.

"Try it the other way around," Aly said, and Kel held out her arm. That, they had discovered at Midwinter, worked fine.

They left the courtyard and walked between the cherry trees, the sounds of celebration fading behind them. Later this grove, one of the fief's prettiest places, would be occupied by numerous couples making love. Right now, though, most people were still at the tables, eating and drinking. The bonfires wouldn't be lit until sundown, perhaps an hour hence.

"It was easier to let people think I came back because of Nawat," Aly began. "But that wasn't it. Word may not have reached Tortall, but... he left four years ago. He really makes a much better crow, anyway." She spoke of him completely without pain or remorse, for this was a chapter of her life that was solidly over.

Kel nodded in understanding. "He went back to his flock, and you kept on as... the Whisper Woman of the Copper Isles? And no one guessed?"

"Oh, yes. Folk were just starting to question my place in the realm when Nawat left. After that, they assumed I was the queen's lover."

Kel lifted her eyebrows in a silent question. And how can I compete with a queen? she wondered.

"...and they weren't wrong," Aly confirmed. "But then she married -- she had to, she's a queen, I understand that."

"So you really are suffering from a broken heart?"

"Oh, no," Aly said quickly. "I mean, in a way, but not because of Dove. You've heard the phrase 'friends with benefits'?" Kel nodded, and Aly continued. "Our friendship was strong, and that remained even after the benefits had gone."

They were silent for a while, Aly wondering how to tell the next part of the story, and how much to tell. "You'll keep this between us?" she asked.

"Of course."

"It was because of the king. But not like people say -- he was never my lover." She spoke slowly. It was the first time she'd told anyone this much of the story -- on the off chance that she was ever able to go back, she couldn't even tell her father. "He had a Whisper Man of his own, a full-blood Raka. I still don't know how much that man was behind it, but... there's a lot of hostility to full-blood Luarin now. I know why that is. Horrible things were done to the Raka, and now it's their country again, really and truly, and they have to protect that.

"Part of the marriage contract was the choosing of new ministers, by the queen and king together. My post wasn't in the official listing... but if all the ministers are being re-chosen, of course that includes the spymaster. They kept more than half of Dove's ministers, but they didn't keep me. They chose the king's Whisper Man. And he gave me three months to get out of the country."

"Oh, Aly," Kel said softly. She squeezed the woman's hand where it still rested on her arm, and received a tight smile in return.

"I wouldn't have gone, of course," Aly continued. "I was going to send the triplets to Pirate's Swoop, to live with Thom -- when he's there, anyway -- and Lorelei. I would have missed them terribly. But it wouldn't have been safe for them to stay, and I wasn't going to leave. Keeping tabs on things in the Isles is bigger than seeing my children grow up."

"What happened?"

"Ky--" Aly stopped herself, and spat on the ground. "I received a visit from a certain deity I hoped never to see again. He told me in very clear terms that I was to go. The Copper Isles are not my islands. They belong to the Raka. They needed me in the beginning, but they don't need me now.

"So here I am. I think he  -- the deity -- must have interceded with Da, too, because Da was there at the dock to welcome me back, as though nothing ever happened." She sighed. "I did land in Tortall with a broken heart, but it wasn't because I'd lost a person I love. It was because I'd lost my home."

"And now?" Kel asked quietly.

Aly looked around. The sunset lit the cherry blossoms pink, and the new grass was soft and bright underfoot. As night approached, the day's warmth faded, and a cool breeze ruffled Aly's hair. Kel watched her, serious and steady, with something warmer than sunlight in her eyes. "I think my heart is starting to mend."

*****

"It's been eight years since I was in Tortall for Beltane," Aly said. The bonfires were lit by the time they returned to the castle's courtyard, and the music and dancing had begun. "They don't do all this in the Isles."

"It's my favorite time of year," Kel said happily.

"And how often do you celebrate it properly?" Aly teased.

Kel felt herself blush, and was glad it was nearly dark. She had done the traditional Beltane thing only once, several years ago, and she hadn't cared for it anyway. "What do you mean by properly?" she heard herself ask.

Aly shrugged. "There's more than one way, of course. There's the celebration and renewal of a continued love. There's love-making with a relative stranger, as a tribute to the Goddess solely because of the holiday. Or there's using Beltane as a beginning, with a person you hope will be in your life for a long time to come." Aly's voice was steady, and her nonchalant tone did not change. But as she described the third option, her fingers tightened on Kel's arm.

I wonder if she knows she's doing it, Kel thought. "I haven't had the chance for the first choice," she said honestly. "Not yet. And I've found I don't care for the second."

Aly looked up at her. "Why did you invite me here, Kel?"

Kel was terrified -- she had always been a chicken when it came to romance. But she swallowed, hard, and turned to face Aly. "Because I hope you will be in my life for a long time to come."

Aly's immediate reaction was joy, but then her gaze flickered away. "And if I were to tell you that my heart is only starting to mend?"

Kel tried to hide her disappointment. "There's a fourth way to celebrate Beltane," she said, slowly. "There's sitting and talking with your single friends, who would also rather not make love with a relative stranger. It's what I do most years." She touched Aly's cheek with her free hand. "It could be another kind of beginning."

"You're a good woman." Aly turned her cheek into Kel's hand, the warmth of flesh comfortable against her skin.

Kel's breath caught in her chest. She wanted to enfold Aly in her arms. More than that. She wanted to take her back into the cherry grove and sink down, together, onto the soft grass. She wanted to take full advantage of the holiday and the darkness. "Don't give me too much credit," she said softly. She moved her hand from Aly's cheek to her neck, stroking the soft skin there. "Is it still too soon?"

"I don't think it's too soon... for a beginning." Aly leaned her head against Kel's chest, and it fitted perfectly in the hollow between shoulder and neck. Kel wrapped her arms around Aly and bit back a sigh.

Then Aly took a tiny step closer to Kel, pressing their bodies together. She moved her head until her lips were an inch from Kel's ear. "Can we begin now?"

All around the bonfires, drumming began in earnest. The beat was primal and intense, and the noise made further speech useless. Kel looked at Aly, slowly coming to understand what she meant. A beginning. She cupped Aly's cheek in one hand, slid the other hand to the small of her back, and kissed her. This kiss went on and on.

*****
*****

Epilogue: Midwinter, 471

Six days before the holiday began, Aly sat at her grandfather's desk, opening a stack of coded reports, while Sir Myles lounged in the leather chair on the other side of the room. "So you told Da? And he wasn't upset?"

Myles tapped the arm of his chair. "I won't say he was pleased. But he's got no head for this side of the work, and we all know it." He gave his granddaughter an indulgent smile. "You do. You make me proud."

Aly flashed him a quick grin, then went back to work. She hated to admit it, but Kyprioth had been right: she belonged here, now.

She opened another envelope and began to read the message it contained. Then she let out a shriek of joy, dropped the paper, and stood up. "I've got to go! See you tonight, Grand-da." She dropped a kiss on the top of his head, and rushed from the room.

Moving carefully because of his aching joints, Sir Myles bent to retrieve the paper that had caused such a reaction. It was written in one of the newer ciphers -- one Aly had introduced -- and it took him a minute to remember the key. Then he began to read the message, and he smiled. The new Deputy Knight Commander of the King's Own was finished recruiting. She was on her way home.

*****

When Kel hesitated outside the ballroom, the first night of Midwinter, Aly squeezed her arm. "Are you sure you're ready for this?"

Kel drew in a deep breath. She could face a Scanran war party, Flyndan's reluctance to accept a female commander, and the Prime Minister's inquiries as to why Third Company's trip to Port Caynn had run over budget. It was plain silly to be scared by a room full of self-important nobles. "Are you?" she countered.

Aly grinned. "I was perfectly fine with this a year ago, lass, when the gossip about us wasn't even true. But you're rather more careful with your reputation."

And somehow, Aly made everything better -- as she always did. Kel's nervousness disappeared. She suddenly wanted all of Corus to see the affection she felt for the amazing person beside her. So Kel made her eyes wide with innocence. "You're not careful with my reputation?"

"Not a bit." There in the hall, just yards from the Grand Ballroom, Aly drew Kel into her arms and kissed her soundly.

When they pulled apart, at last, Kel could not keep the smile from her face. Putting as much heat as she could into her voice, she said, "We don't have to go to the ball."

Aly gazed up at her, considering, and then leaned close again.

"Yes, you do," said a familiar voice. They turned, and there was Lady Alanna, standing with her arms crossed and grinning. "Mother's orders."

Aly rolled her eyes, but Kel nodded gravely and let go of Aly long enough to curtsy.

Alanna reached out and took one of Kel's hands and one of Aly's in hers. "I'm so proud of you both... and I love shocking the court. Let's go."

They weren't the perfect family most nobles would want, maybe. But then, they weren't most nobles. Kel and Aly entered the ballroom arm in arm, and they were happy.

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