Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
How to Celebrate Solstice in the Appropriate Manor
"I am never, ever, ever going to forgive you."
"What? This is the season for forgiveness isn't it? Aren't you always saying we should follow the seasons? Wait, or is that Sam?"
"No, it is not the season of forgiveness. This is the season to be jolly, and you can bet your sexy red underwear you won't be having any jollies with me." The frustrated woman flopped back in her seat, scowling in frustration.
"How many times do I have to say it? I'm sorry. I'm deeply remorseful. Really." The sexy red underwear thing had the driver worried.
"It doesn't matter how many times you say it, and it never will, because I can't believe you would be so cruel to me as to say yes to one of my crazy aunt's Solstice parties. So get used to having a cold butt or a sore back, because either you are suffering on the floor or sleeping without blankets because you are not cuddling with me."
"Surely it won't be that bad?" the driver asked plaintively.
"Oh yes it will." Xander turned and glared out the car window. Part of the whole problem was that the last thing she wanted to face was the rest of her wildly eccentric family so soon after getting out of the hospital. The rest was the fact that the stitches where the doctors had finally removed the shunt were killing her, and Lori had the heat up far too high. She felt ill. The car suddenly jerked to a halt.
"Please tell me what's wrong. You're two shades of green and three of white, and I can't understand why you don't want to see your family, especially – especially since you nearly died." Lori rolled down the window on her side, having realized too late that the heat, comfortable for her, was probably tormenting her lover.
A long sigh was her answer. "It's too hot. My side is killing me." Xander plopped her head back against the neck rest and turned her gaze on her partner. "My hair only started growing back last month. I still look like an escapee from a nuclear holocaust. The last thing I want to do is face all the relatives who are bound to freak when they see me." She swallowed. "Could I have that bottle of water?" The bottle in question was tucked into the overflowing compartment parked between the seats. Compact discs, garbage, chewing gum, and quarters cascaded all over the floor, joining the odd dirty sock, a pair of battered skates, and the various bags and boxes a Solstice visit must include.
Taking a long pull at the bottle, Xander sighed in relief as her innards settled down. Wiping a hand across her sweaty forehead, she shut her eyes and pressed the cool bottle against it. "Hey, listen." Lori said hesitantly. "We don't have to go. I'm sure they'll understand if we cancel, I just thought – that you know, family vibes and some time away from the usual stuff would be good." She ran her hands across the steering wheel, breathing loudly with frustration. "This whole damned time, all I've been able to do is hold your hand, and hope, and cry when the damned chemo made you so sick you could hardly move without throwing up, and feel like pummelling the physiotherapist when she makes you do something that obviously hurts. Dammit, I'm tired of feeling so helpless." Scrubbing angrily at the tears that were leaking out of the corners of her eyes, she glared into the sluggish traffic.
"Hey, c'mere." Xander managed to drag Lori across the seat and into her arms. Sighing, she settled her chin on top of one of the smaller woman's shoulders. "Maybe you're being too hard on yourself, huh? Cancer on top of a rotten heart condition isn't an easy thing for anybody whose got it or whose living with someone whose got it. Even superheroes." That drew a weak chuckle.
The reference was to the comic strip Xander drew, a rather peculiar fantasy epic carried by just enough publications to keep up with the bills before she had gotten so ill. Then she had stubbornly drawn it whenever she had the strength in her hospital bed. When her hands were too weak to hold a pencil, she had resorted to writing the dialogue into her prized laptop instead. Somehow the thing had grown into a story behind the story, so to speak, and a couple of her editors were sniffing around, liking the potential human interest angle. The idea of it made Xander laugh, because neither her comics nor the stories had humans in them.
"Tell you what." Xander said after a few moments.
"What?" Lori asked, unconsciously blowing a few runaway strands of golden hair out of her eyes.
"Since you already got the tickets, we're already packed, and we're halfway to the airport, if we get me an ice bag for my side and some drawing supplies, I'll try to get through Solstice. As for your nookie privileges – well, I don't know." Xander grinned, bringing a rare hint of healthy colour to her greyed face and breaking the intense severity of her steel framed glasses with now twinkling blue eyes.
"You got it." Lori smiled, lifting up a little to give her lover a gentle kiss. "Just for the record, you are still the most incorrigibly sexy woman I've ever seen – which leads me to wonder how I'm gonna survive once you've got back on your feet, grow hair, fill out, and all that other stuff."
"Oh, I'm sure you'll think of something." Xander pressed their foreheads together for a moment. "Thanks, Stretch."
"No problem, Lug."
"Oh. My. God." gripping the arms of the seat with terrified fingers, Lori tried to take a deep breath, but found the effort simply left her on the point of hyperventilating.
"It's just a little turbulence. Relax. Listen to the shitty music. It's better than the financial channel." yawned Xander.
"No I will not listen to the music, and I will not relax – dammit, this doesn't feel like a plane, it feels like a rollercoaster." the blonde woman's forehead was beaded with sweat, and so much colour had fled her face her lips had gone white.
"Okay, okay – whoa, this won't help, okay? Come on, give me your hand – come on..." Xander pried Lori's fingers off the arm closest to her, and wrapped them in her own. "Everything will be fine. Give the pilot a few minutes, these patches aren't that big." Chafing Lori's chilled hand between her own long, thin fingers, Xander found herself thinking over the past few months. Her doctor had warned her that Lori would probably be pretty strung out for awhile after bouncing from crisis to crisis, and feeling so powerless.
"Go easy on her, okay?" Stephanie had told her, smiling gently as she checked stitches, and temperature, then ran her gaze over a list of blood test results and the like. "Looks like you are in top shape, all things considered." Perched on the edge of the faux leather cushion on the examination table in one of those ridiculous wide-open-so-your-ass hangs out hospital gowns, Xander didn't feel at all sure of this.
"Top shape." she glanced toward the floor length mirror on the examination room door, gazing at the image of a very thin, brown skinned woman who was just under six feet tall, the rawest hint of stubble on her scalp. The fact she still didn't feel well was evidenced by the greyish tinge to her face – it had given her some dark humour when one of the nurses had been a bit shocked by that bit of colouring. It had never occurred to her that non-white people can't exactly turn white when blood leaves their faces.
There was a bandage on the back of Xander's neck, the legacy of having a bit of an accident at physiotherapy. A bandage covered over where an IV had been run in her right arm, and another covered where a second IV had been placed just behind her left thumb. "Bloody hell – I look like a recent releasee from the Matrix. Without Trinity in the drool worthy outfit to oggle."
"I did say all things considered." Stephanie chided gently, shining a light in each of Xander's eyes. "Go easy on yourself, too. And I resent that you think Trinity is better looking than me."
Xander had found she had little choice but to go easy on herself. Energy was a precious commodity, and she was struggling to let things build up, get back to normal, and get back to paying proper attention to her embattled partner. How Lori had managed to keep up with work at the geophysical survey firm, keeping an eye on her in the hospital, and deal with the folks who just couldn't seem to clue in to the fact that cancer simply did not go away in a week like it had never been there in the first place, she didn't know. And somehow, somehow, Lori was still there, now nearly breaking Xander's fingers as the plane seemed to plunge downwards, but still there. More determined to stay with her, too, Lori was. It boggled Xander's mind. She freely admitted she didn't understand it, and that she was more grateful for it than she could say. And that she hoped with all her heart she could live up to such a sterling example.
The pilot began speaking sonorously over the intercom system, and Lori jerked a little. "What is she saying?" she hissed. They were on the final airborne leg of their trip to the Amazon Nation, where a car would pick them up to run them out to the mysterious Adams estate, where Xander's equally mysterious aunt always held her grand Solstice parties. Despite the distance, and the reputation the parties had for general weirdness, they were attended as religiously as possible by as many Adams as could manage it. By the peculiarities of human nature, it had become a sort of major social event on many calendars.
"She says that we have left behind the turbulence, and it will now be three hours smooth flying to the airport at Erisopolis."
"I still think whoever named that city had a sick sense of humour." griped Lori, who was now able to relax a few muscles and consider not demanding a parachute or something. Something like general anaesthesia.
"Not at all – Eris is quite a marvellous Goddess. Without conflict, we'd never get anywhere. The key is not responding to every conflict by smacking each other over the head with sticks." declared Xander, running a palm over her now half centimetre long hair.
"Hmmph." folding up the seat arm between them, Lori gave her partner a bit of a tug, and the taller woman obliged by tucking herself into the blonde woman's side. They uttered a pair of long, gusty sighs. "You have no idea how much I've missed you." This earned her an arm slipped around her waist, and an even closer cuddle than before, heedless of any watchers.
One of the stewards padded over with a blanket, and spread it over them. "You both look wiped. Would you like me to put aside your meals until you wake up?" she asked kindly.
"Please." the two cuddling women managed to say in unison. The steward grinned broadly.
"Will do." Dimming the little spotlights over their heads and shutting the window blind, she left them to doze off.
Standing by the luggage belt, Xander whistled a bit, and tried not to feel self-conscious. Tugging up her jeans and cinching up her belt, she ran through the list of bags and boxes in her memory, all to be placed on the tidy little wheeled rack Lori had ferreted out of some awful store or other in Calgary before they left. The store was a near anonymous place on Stephen Avenue, wedged between ugly souvenir shops – both shop and souvenirs were ugly – no comment about the shopkeepers – and professional offices maintained by young architects or engineers who had just entered the business. There hadn't been any garbage on the ground, surprisingly, but there was evidence of spilled drinks and unhappy drunks. Crinkling her nose and pushing away that thought, Xander sighed in relief as the conveyer belt finally thumped, clunked, chugged, and began to move.
Alarmingly, the first thing that came out of the opening with its frond-like curtain of heavy rubber strips was a burst of black powder. Immediately the belt stopped moving and a couple of technicians moved in with detectors, brooms, dustpans, and what looked suspiciously like a dustbuster. For a few moments there was considerable argument as to what the stuff could be. There wasn't much of a smell, beyond that of hot rubber from the emergency braking applied to the conveyer belt. Losing all patience with the technicians, who had panicked themselves to the point of calling a hazardous goods team, Xander stepped past them to look at the stuff herself. Recently coming close to death made her feel reckless.
She reached out and drew aside the rubber strips. Then she began to laugh. Stepping aside and holding back as many of the strips as she could, she laughed harder and waited for the technicians to take in what the source of the black powder was. Smashed to bits on the belt was a tempera paint set, probably intended for someone's creative small child. The black container had spilled closest to the belt, and behind it tumbled little piles of red, green, blue, orange, and purple.
"Hell." sighed one of the technicians. Deftly cleaning the mess and collecting the name of the passenger on the shipping label, the women chatted about how relieved they were it wasn't some of that crazy germ warfare stuff that had been sent around the past few weeks. As it happened, the stuff sent around hadn't really been germs of that sort. A disgruntled employee in a major city had angrily sent their boss an envelope of ragweed bits, capitalizing on the employer's serious ragweed allergy to convince them they had been infected by some terrible plague. The employee was in jail pending a trial, and looked likely to be sent to a nastier place of incarceration for a minimum of ten years. This was known to most airport staff and passengers because it had been the subject of a feature article in the airplane magazine produced specifically to entertain you during flights. Rumour had it the people involved with allowing the article to feature and the resulting magazine to be fully distributed, making many passengers worried and unhappy, had wisely cleared their desks and left in a hurry, saving their supervisors the stress of firing them personally.
Standing back with the other waiting people, several of whom smiled shyly at her, Xander tried to be patient. Or at least look patient. She was sick to death of anything that had to do with the term patient, from being a patient to being patient, she decided. "And I want a cookie." she muttered rebelliously.
Bags, boxes, and suitcases began to arrive. They were mostly black, grey, or purple, Xander noticed. Every now and again a garish hockey bag or an olive green duffle would break the monotony. She began to fidget, and wished heartily the stuff she was there for would just hurry up and turn up already. At long last the first of Lori's carefully packed suitcases appeared. There were two of those, one complex mass of carefully taped together boxes roughly the same size as one of the two medium sized cases, and two backpacks. Hauling the first suitcase off the belt, Xander squinted, and sighed in irritation when the first thing to come up next was the box complex. Dragging it off, she pulled a pencil out of the chest pocket on her shirt and broke apart the tape to release the luggage rack. She had it set up and loaded with her first two pieces of luggage by the time the second suitcase and the backpacks showed up. "I begin to seriously wonder how long Lori thinks we're staying at Aunt Mach's place." muttered Xander. Luggage acquired, she put all of her weight into getting the rack rolling, then headed for the customs and immigration desk to meet Lori.
The airport was spotless to the point of near inhumanity, probably because it was by no means a busy one. The rack bumped almost soundlessly over the floor tiles, and soon Xander found her way to one of the conveyor belts for people with their luggage, and got on board. At first it was a little disorienting, because the thing moved along rather quickly. That was all right though, and Xander continued on through a short hall into what turned out, to her astonishment, to be a bazaar. It was full of haggling Amazons, including a highly entrepreneurial newspaper seller who periodically threw her wares at passersby. When they politely carried the things back after being assured it didn't belong to anyone immediately around them, the woman attempted to harangue them into buying something. Giving the aggressive tactic some credit for creativity but zero points for effectiveness because after a while customers simply ran, Xander went and bought a paper out of sympathy. It was in Turkish, which didn't bother her, as it was one of the nine languages she knew.
"Hey, go fly a kite! Go on – here, I've got one just for you." someone jabbed Xander in the side, or rather, tried to. She caught the hand and spun around so fast that the other Amazon looked visibly alarmed.
"Don't, do that." growled Xander. The other Amazon swallowed audibly.
"Sorry." her tone was quite subdued now.
Forcing herself to relax, and reminding herself she didn't have a sign attached to her head labelled, "I have stitches in my side and they're SORE! And I want a cookie." she turned her attention to the many brightly coloured kites arranged like birds on the Amazon's stand.
"There's great wind for kite flying all over this time of year. Well, okay, just this year because the weather has been so bizarrely warm – but I obviously have nothing to do with that – it's terrible, terrible – this time last year I was selling snowshoes. Now I'm desperately selling kites." A hopeful smile. Seeing the other woman was looking unconvinced, the Amazon amended simply, "They're pretty. Kids tend to like them. Not many kids in the crowd today, though."
"True enough." As it happened, there was a great field for flying kites in not far from her aunt's house, Xander remembered. In the course of many childhood visits she had had more kites eaten by the lone tree on one end of the field than the fictional Charlie Brown in his cartoon world, but it had been fun. She examined the various simple diamonds, gawky boxes, and garish cartoon characters without much enthusiasm. Even as a kid she hadn't much liked those. Higher up on the stand though, the kites were quite different. They were naturalistic birds, or cunningly painted things that would be hard to see in a cloudy sky, but better than all of those was the one consisting of three gorgeously detailed flying horses. One was a striking palomino, and the others were roans with golden manes and tails. "That one."
"Sure." grinned the kiteseller, using a stick with a hook on one end to take it down. "Eight dinars."
"Three. If I care to take the time, I can make one of those myself." drawled Xander.
"Hey, this thing represents four month's painting work! Seven."
"Four. If you painted that thing yourself, I have nuts." Xander said bluntly.
"Owwww – that's my ego you just kicked." the other Amazon shook her head a little. "Six, and that's my final offer."
"Five, or throw in extra string and that little pin right there." the little pin was a red enamel knot of Isis, and Xander knew for a fact Lori would first be absolutely scandalized by it, then she would be delighted and insist on putting it on her jacket where everyone would see it.
"Oh, all right. Serves me right for bargaining in Turkish money." the other woman mock grumbled as she wrapped the kite, the string, and the pin together.
"Why bargain in Turkish money?" Xander asked as she patiently counted out the currency.
"Because right now, Turkish dinars are worth more than Italian lira. And I have an arrangement with the currency exchange folks." Xander paused for a long moment.
"Currency speculation? Isn't that illegal now?"
"Only in amounts greater than one thousand of pretty much anything." the Amazon declared. "Come on, it finances my coffee habit." Xander snorted a little, but paid up and set the package on top of her rack with her paper.
Glancing towards the end of the bazaar, she saw that the customs and immigration office was at the very end, forcing each new arrival to walk the entire length of the myriad stalls. "How clever." Xander muttered, and bracing herself, began moving straight toward her objective, ignoring various stallkeepers, avoiding quickfooted fellow arrivals, and sighing when a small crew of cleaners hurried by, probably to clean up an exploded jar of jam or something. A recent study on what people tended to cart around during the holidays had found a startling proportion of preserves of various types, presumably passed on by industrious relatives who either spent too much time at the farmer's market or had gardens.
At last escaping into the little annex that acted as a sort of psychic decompression chamber after the clamour of the bazaar, Xander's first glimpse of something truly Solstice related was a big picture hung up beside a brightly decorated tree. The picture was of Hera in her red cloak trimmed with white fur, her arms full of wrapped gifts. She also wore knee high red boots and a somewhat scandalous red skirt. The skirt nicely highlighted absolutely wonderful legs. Xander couldn't repress a bit of a lascivious grin. Lori had even better legs, by her estimation, of course. The tree had the obligatory snowpeople, gingerbread figures, weirdly coloured balls, and tinsel, but it also had a scattering of amber coloured bears representing Artemis, who was also associated with Solstice, and little packets of candies and nuts children were allowed to take on Solstice day.
Pausing to make a respectful sign to the Goddess, although she had a sneaking suspicion the Goddess had probably enjoyed the lascivious look more, Xander resettled her hat and found her way up to the counter where Lori was struggling to get their papers finished with. Ordinarily the papers wouldn't have been a problem, but due to Xander's new pacemaker and the fact their status had changed to officially a couple since their last trip to the Nation, there seemed to be a bit of confusion. The woman struggling over the stuff finally burst out, "Ouk aitia eimi ego!" Stepping up behind her partner, Xander slipped an arm around Lori's waist and asked,
"What is our harried friend not responsible for?"
"She says we don't have a passport authorization." Lori grated.
"Oh. Hmmmph." Xander considered this. She waggled her eyebrows after a moment and shook her head a little.
"What?" Lori asked.
"How did we wind up using an ancient Greek dialect in Amazonia anyway, I'm wondering." wincing at Lori's unimpressed expression, Xander shrugged a bit and took a deep breath. Back to the original point. Enunciating clearly and carefully, she said, "Stop dicking around with my partner and get your ass in gear. My last name is Adams. Hers is Poites. Move it."
"And what are you gonna do if this stuff stays lost?" sneered the other woman, who was clearly on just a bit of a power trip.
"Do you really want to find out?" Xander's voice dropped an octave, and her eyes turned icy.
Keys rattled vigourously, and after a moment the appropriate documents were produced. Giving the clerk one last glare, Xander and Lori linked arms and left for where they'd be picked up for the final leg of their journey.
"That was impressive." Lori grinned, and gave her lover a hug.
"I have many skills." drawled Xander, earning a punch in the arm.
"You bought a kite?" the wrapping paper was marked 'Melitta's Kites' in bold green letters.
"Sure. There's a great field I used to fly kites in by my aunt's place all the time. And with such weird warm weather and the prospects of a brown Solstice, I figured, might as well make the best of it." Working one end of the package open, Xander grinned broadly and added, "But here's something you'll really like."
"Well, at least it isn't raining." sighed Lori, staring morosely up the road in hopes of willing their transportation into existence.
"True." agreed Xander, who wasn't feeling at all morose. She was after all, stretched out on top of their communal sleeping bag, her head pillowed on her lover's lap. On realizing that the next leg of their trip probably wasn't going to start until after lunch, they had made a quick foray into a nearby apple orchard and followed that up with a trip to a tiny corner shop with bread, cheese, and dried meat in abundance. Bottled water was always part of their travelling gear anyway, so those supplies collected, they had adjourned to a pleasant picnic spot to wait. Lori was feeling impatient and nervous, never having met her in-laws before. "Relax, they'll love you." Forcing her eyes open with an effort, Xander glanced upward to her partner's worried eyes.
"We'll see. Go ahead and sleep. I'll wake you when the car, or truck, or whatever other terrifying contraption finally gets here." Running gentle fingers along her partner's temples, Lori couldn't repress a delighted smile when the pale blue eyes fluttered shut, and the gaunt features relaxed into an almost childlike pose. "You know," she murmured. "I never thought I'd say something so corny in this lifetime. But you really are the best Solstice present."
For awhile Lori let her mind wander, sorting through old hockey scores and wondering whether anyone had remembered to pour out the old milk at home. Then she found herself teasing a problem that had been harassing her at work. Calgary had the unfortunate pretentious habit of considering itself 'Houston of the north, where the real cowboys live.' The resulting gift of snickers every time one of the hunky local cowboys turned out to be gay just kept on giving. In the meantime, the work wasn't bad for a geophysicist, if you could get it, and Lori was currently slogging through a sort of technician cum processor type job. This actually meant she spent a lot of time doing a glorified version of loading files onto computers and drawing pictures. The problem occupying her neurons at the moment was with a file that her work station would indicate had loaded completely, when in fact only ten percent of it had actually made it onto disk. She ran through the various possibilities, one more time – and then –
"What?" Xander asked groggily.
"You know that file I was bitching about from work?"
"Yes. You keep having to ask me for new swear words over it."
A soft laugh. "The whole thing is because it gets read off of a literal tape – one of the reels must get stuck before the whole thing has actually wound out." This explained everything. To a geophysicist.
"That's cool." Xander rubbed at her eyes. "Truth be told, I don't understand a whole lot of what you do at work love, because not much of it sounds like physics. But hearing about it is cool anyway."
Any reply was cut off by the arrival of a big, sleek, black car that reminded both women irresistibly of a hearse. Both women gaped from their spot on the grassy sward as one of the tinted windows rolled smoothly down, revealing a driver dressed in a neatly pressed grey suit and grey gloves, with a grey uniform hat. Her eyes were hidden behind dark glasses. Apparently satisfied she had located her passengers, the woman opened the car door, and stepped out. Tall as Xander with chestnut brown hair, she paused by the vehicle after closing the door again, turning her head slowly from side to side to check for other traffic in a manner that was unnervingly machinelike. Then she began stalking towards them.
"Eeeep." Lori declared.
"Yeah – not quite sure who that is, unless it's..." Xander rose to her feet as she spoke, reaching unconsciously to straighten a hat she wasn't wearing at the moment.
"Tobias, ma'am. I will be your driver on your trip up to the manor."
"Tobias?" piped up Lori. "Isn't that a man's name?"
"The same could be said for Xander." intoned Tobias, who appeared to have no sense of humour.
"Wow – Tobias, is that really you? You're so – so – well preserved." Xander was utterly baffled. Surely she had attended Tobias' funeral when she was twelve? It was an experience she'd never forget, due to the nasty suit she had had to wear for the occasion. She had never actually met the Tobias being honoured at the funeral, as it happened.
"Tobias is my surname." the driver began placing their things in the trunk of the car. "My mother used to drive for your aunt. Now I do."
"Funny, I thought she was too modern for servants." Lori muttered at her partner.
"I am not a servant. I am a family friend. Madam Adams cannot drive on account of her advanced age." Tobias gestured to her clothing. "This is my uniform for my job, which is not driving. Get in the car, please."
"Are you sure it's not a boat?" Lori piped up rebelliously. "With folded up back fins and rudders."
"Yes, quite sure. If Madam Adams had wanted it to have served as a boat, she would have installed a sail." growled Tobias.
"Okay, okay." muttered Lori, clambering into the back of the vehicle that seemed big enough to be at least an adult wading pool if properly filled. Folding up her long legs, Xander followed suit, and Tobias briskly shut the door on them.
"The trip will take approximately four hours. Possibly five, if it begins to rain." That said, Tobias started the engine, audibly stomped the gas, and the car sprang forward, hurling gouts of dust out from under its rear tires. Jamming down on the brakes next, then altering the car's heading slightly, the gas suffered another hit that must have come close to stalling the engine, and they were on their way.
After a few minutes Xander had opened the window on her side rather than suffer the heat, and found herself watching the newly growing trees lining the sides of the road. It was hard to believe that only a few decades ago, the entire region had been denuded, a souvenir from the arms races of ancient times. Neat little fences kept most walkers and hikers from interfering with the still delicate, gently swaying pines. At each crossroads there was a large wooden pillar, with signs indicating road name and distance from the nearest centre pegged on with what looked like actual dowelling, rather than nails or screws, which should have shown telltale silvery spots or orange streaks. The pillars were actually fairly interesting, and Xander blinked in surprise when she realized that the ones they were passing now must have once also marked crossroads. But now there was nothing but determined forest.
"Tobias, why have so many roads been closed here?" she asked curiously.
"Ten years ago now, the Nation brought in new laws regarding vehicles, roads, wild life corridors and the like. Among the things that slipped in, apparently due to the stubborn work of one of Madam Adams' cousins, was a new criterion by which many of the marginal roads that didn't really lead anywhere were officially abandoned. This has allowed the manor to be returned to its original state of considerable isolation, and helped the growth of the forest." Tobias replied, adjusting a mirror with a slow, exact movement.
"Why were the marginal roads there to begin with? If there was no one living there..." Lori fiddled a thermos out of her backpack and waited patiently.
"They were put in place originally by the various regimes in control of this part of Anatolia some sixty years ago. It was the only thing they could think of for their soldiers to do that would keep them fairly out of trouble." Tobias turned right, and then braked a bit, guiding the car smoothly around what seemed almost a giant corkscrew. "They didn't build this road."
"No, it looks like it should have 'Adams' stencilled on it instead of median lines." Lori agreed drily.
"Yeah, isn't it cool?" Xander warbled delightedly, enjoying the view, which was getting better and better as they ascended. The exchange drew the faintest of smiles from Tobias.
"There are two other ways to get to the manor, but Madam Adams suggested that you would ultimately enjoy this one more."
"Do you actually call her that? Madam Adams?" Lori asked next.
"Yes." No other information was forthcoming, so she shrugged her shoulders and turned her attention to her partner, who had leaned as far forward as she could in order to put as much of her torso outside of the car without damaging something as possible.
"What are you looking at?"
"Everything – hey, is that the house I can see to the west there, Tobias?"
"Yes – Madam Adams and a number of her nieces have spent considerable time repairing where the rockslide damaged the house a few years ago. They got slightly carried away."
"Slightly?" squeaked Lori, who had now managed to work her way into the window beside the skinny woman cheerfully hanging out of the car. "That's a bloody tower! What were they thinking?"
"Probably that it would be fun to have another tower." Xander commented mildly. "That's three now. Look, they even moved the old inn – I remember it used to be in Thrake, of all places. But some member of the family with no sense of history was going to tear it down and put up a theatre, so Aunt Mach rescued it."
"She rescued it? But it isn't close to that mutant house of hers at all."
"The Inn is half way between where I picked you up and the manor." Tobias butted in. "If you like, we can stop there for an early dinner. We are only an hour away." Lori's first instinct was to say no, push on and let her get the scary part of this trip over with. Then she glanced at Xander, who had pulled a small notepad out of her pocket and begun sketching the hillside with the inn parked in the middle of it, and realized the place was probably beyond picturesque, which would make her artistically inclined partner happy. And an early dinner wasn't such a bad idea.
"Want to? I bet the inn is even more interesting close up." she grinned, and mock batted her eyelashes, making her partner laugh when her green eyes popped open and shut like shutters in the wind.
"Sure. Even better than the pictures, it'll probably have real food." Xander was a firm believer in mid-eastern food, particularly pitas because you could put all sorts of neat, spicy things in them, then hide it with lettuce so a significant other who wanted you to eat healthy wouldn't notice. She firmly maintained when asked that her own mid-eastern heritage and her mother's now world famous talent at cooking mid-eastern and Mediterranean food had nothing to do with it.
After an hour or so, Tobias had turned off the main road onto a much rougher, bordering on dirt road that wound in a great counterclockwise loop up to the inn. It was hard to believe it had ever sat anywhere else now, with the grass grown in and a couple of trees already leaning familiarly towards it, branches stretching over the roof, dropping leaves and nuts. A well was off to the left, equipped with an old fashioned bucket and rope as well as a more modern pump tap. Sadly, modern times had rendered the removal of the ancient, teetery stable to these wooded parts prohibitively unuseful – without a regular compliment of horses to use it, a stable simply wasn't worth cutting trees down for. Astonishingly, two bicycles and a pair of Austin minis with baggage strapped all over them occupied much of the parking area in front of the inn, forcing Tobias to leave the hearse – or so Xander and Lori were referring to it anyway – in the road, blocking any exit. This didn't seem like a terribly Solsticy sort of act, but it was unavoidable.
The front of the inn had been covered in gorgeous carvings and finely smoothed wood, all carefully treated to prevent it from turning grey. The door was larger than most, a big iron ring in its centre. A tree and leaf motif had been carved all over its frame, but the panels were blank. Above it, the lintel was graced with a horseshoe surmounted by an oddly composed figure. Xander stared at it for a few moments, and then blurted, "Hey, that's a Sheila-na-Gig!"
"That she is. Be polite. She helps take care of the place." A woman even taller than Xander climbed up onto the porch and took hold of the iron ring in the door. "Name's Luko – I help out the innkeeper. You folks staying overnight or just for dinner?"
"Just dinner, thanks." Xander grinned a bit. "So which member of the Adams family is keeping the place afloat?"
"See for yourself." Luko took hold of the ring, and against expectations, shoved the door open. The sound of guitar music and the smell of some good stew promptly tumbled out. "Take your hat off, grumpy." This directed to Tobias, of course, who scowled so deeply her forehead looked like a buckled washboard, but complied. "Lamb stew and probably whole wheat bread is the special today. At first the bread accompanying the stew was pumpernickel, but the the other guests protested. Hey, blondie, is that a hickey on your neck?" Glancing back to see the quizzical expressions of the two new arrivals she added, "The cook and the innkeeper are actually from Ireland." Then the question Lori had had directed at her sank in, and she smacked her partner on the arm.
Xander was a little disappointed in her desire for various types of pita sandwiches, but soon forgot all about it as the inside of the inn proved to be full of even more carvings, some of them even in stone, little statues tucked in niches and the neatly carved stonework of the fireplace. Fascinated by the deep brown, well polished bar and the old fashioned brass fittings on its taps and spigots, she promptly flipped open her latest sketchbook and got to work drawing everything she saw. One corner of the bar quickly took shape, lit mainly by a few candles nestled in picturesque jars. A garland of ivy and holly graced the bar edge, and smaller settings sat by the candles on each table. A recessed niche contained a daring sculpture of a dragon. Deciding the scene still needed something, Xander shifted the lines and began sketching someone into one of the chairs.
Soon the source of Lori's nickname sprawled back in the chair, a big mug gripped in one hand. Stretch was an eight foot tall creature most of Xander's readers referred to as an orc, a term the artist did not subscribe to on the grounds that Stretch's skin was neither grey nor green but black. A mop of startling red hair, neat white fangs and green eyes made the peculiar character capable of livening up pretty much any situation simply by being present. This was before a reader had the chance to notice Stretch's red velvet pseudo-Middle Age clothes and knee high black boots. Or the club that was her preferred weapon and frequent source of comic relief, as Stretch had a knack for picking the branch that would go to bits as soon as applied to pretty much anybody. Then she'd scowl and growl in frustration, and scare away her foes. Rubbing the back of her neck, Xander pondered having a contest to name the race Stretch hailed from, with a caveat that 'orc,' 'goblin' or any of their variants were banned.
Now of course, Stretch needed her buddy Lug to drink with. Lug, Xander firmly declared whenever asked, was an elf, but an elf that turned the usual physical type authors used for that race on its head. Not a slender, gracile, white being was Lug, although she could do neat things like run lightly over deep snow without sinking, and move through the treetops faster than Spiderman while leaving behind less garbage. Nevertheless, Lug was short, barely five feet, built solid and stocky. She was great for knocking down doors and things, and fond readers had dubbed her 'the Elven Battering Ram.' She was also black, though not pitch black like Stretch – black as in from Africa black. Xander had never heard of a black elf, and considering she was a partly black woman herself, she liked the idea very much. Unlike the eccentric elegance of Stretch, Lug sprawled about in a loose tunic and vest with loose trousers and much shorter boots. She sipped at an oddly shaped little glass full of dry sack, her favoured drink.
"Ooooh – I like that one." Lori grinned and set a glass down in front of her partner. "Dry sack, of course." Taking a long pull of her ale she added, "When do you think the mysterious innkeeper will show?"
"Not sure. Who knows, maybe she's waiting at the house. Who must be running the place is on the tip of my mind, too. Haven't seen her in years, not since high school." Frowning at what looked suspiciously like a juice glass, although the dry sack looked fine, Xander blinked at her partner.
"Luko says they don't even have wine glasses here, so those goofy little glasses you're so fond of drawing won't be here either." Lori stretched her arms and slid down in her chair a bit. "You know, it's going to be so nice to get you into a bed."
"Is it?" Taking a sip of her drink, Xander wondered what had brought the comment on.
"Yes – I'm sick to death of cushiony seats and half hearted Solstice decorations for the edification of travellers. And there's just nothing like a full body cuddle." A mischievous grin, followed up by something under the table that made Xander jump.
"Hey, what does that have to do with full body cuddling?" Apparently her partner was in a mood, as she had slipped off a shoe and was now mercilessly teasing the artist by running a socked foot slowly up her inner thigh.
"Everything, insofar as full body cuddling can nicely precede other, more interesting things – provided you're up to it, of course, and you stop giving me impossible to hide hickeys." Lori added sternly.
"Oh, absolutely – and I'm supposed to build stamina – surely that counts."
A booming laugh interrupted the exchange, and they turned to see a new woman barrel into the inn. She thumped a big box down on the bar, then bustled up to Xander. Laughing again, she threw both arms around the other woman and squeezed, leaving her a bit breathless. "Well I'll be damned, it's little Xander." She hollered, causing the person in question to lean back a little in hopes of sparing her ears.
"You're not who I thought would be running the place at all." chuckling herself, Xander turned to Lori. "This here is Mach the Younger, my aunt's kid."
"That's me." boomed Mach the Younger, shaking Lori's offered hand so vigourously the smaller woman got shaken out of her chair. "What can I say? Running the place appealed to me, being as I actually like company. Dinner?"
Dinner was indeed lamb stew with whole wheat bread, although Mach the Younger ate pumpernickel with her stew instead, and they chatted about the upcoming Solstice party. "Luko is convinced our entire family is batty." drawled Mach the Younger. "I told her, no, of course we aren't batty. There aren't any bats in this part of the world." She took a long pull from a tall glass of tonic water. "Mom is really looking forward to seeing you. So much so she's pulled out all the stops, and you'll get to poke around the Gallery and have a nice little dinner. The bigger party is actually the day before Solstice, so you'll get to have the day of mostly to yourselves, if you want."
"So how did this big, weird party get started?" Lori asked curiously. She had asked Xander, but her partner had had no idea.
"Well, it all started when Zap brought a squid to the house..."
"A squid?!" an exclamation in incredulous unison. It would occur to them to ask who Zap was some other time.
"Yes." Mach the Younger replied with dignity. "She brought a squid to the house with the idea of having calamari for dinner. But even one not unreasonably sized squid is an awful lot for two or three people to eat, and on that particular day there was only Zap, my mother, and me. And since it was Solstice Eve and we weren't in Detroit, there was no way to do something like throw a squid on the ice after someone scored a hat trick in a hockey game or something." Pushing aside her plate, she leaned back in her seat and continued. "So we were in dire need of guests to help us eat the darned squid. Luckily it was winter, so Aunt Kirke had her feet up at Themiskyra with the rest of her circus." Dessert arrived. "A literal circus mind, with clowns and people who run along tightropes, that sort of thing. Mom invited the whole lot up to the house. Nobody came in costume or anything, and everybody enjoyed deep fried squid and squid in hot sauce, and some other stuff besides, and generally had a very nice evening. Sounds pedestrian, almost, doesn't it?"
"Well," commented Xander. "Nobody said the people in a circus had to be weird."
"Precisely. The wine had started flowing, and we had started singing Solstice carols, and the like. Then the doorbell rang. So I ran and answered it. Here it was the Von Adams, you know, the ones who are archaeologists. Okay, no problem. We got them fed and supplied with their preferred evening drink, and went back to singing Solstice carols. Then Mom happened to glance outside, and here, the snowstorm from who knows where had turned up, and you couldn't see beyond the windowframe on the outside. Turning on the radio revealed the whole region was under a travel ban, on Solstice Eve, no less." She threw up her hands. "Now we had a far grimmer problem than uneaten squid. We had bored Adams and other likeminded individuals, trapped in the house, together, after many of them had been consuming alcohol. The straits were dire." The melodrama was worse, reflected Lori, but Xander's cousin was obviously having a ball camping the thing up. For herself, Lori couldn't stand squid in any form that could conceivably go in her mouth.
"Aunt Kirke and her troupe came to the rescue yet again, being as they had ridden one of their main caravan vehicles to the house, they actually had most of the barebones necessities for a show. They put one on right in the grand ballroom, with the trapeze artists swinging on the chandelier, and the jugglers tossing around old family heirlooms, and the acrobats performing dervish dances in the middle – it was great." Mach the younger beamed happily. "And ever since then the troupe has always come back to party for Solstice, and Mom works to get the party a bit more unusual every year – just because, mostly."
The remainder of the trip up to the manor was relatively quiet. Xander jotted down notes for some storyline that had come to her over dinner. Lori tried to doze without dreaming about squid. Tobias glowered at the road by the glow of the orange tinted headlights as dusk began to descend on them. The sky was clear, so clear that when Xander poked her head out the window and squinted upwards at the sky, it seemed like she could maybe, maybe, see a hint of the things you could usually only see with binoculars. Away from the car's headlights the darkness became abruptly opaque. Every now and again the pools of moving light would light up the eyes of a mother fox as she hunted mice by the side of the road. One had five mice gripped in her jaws, all in a neat row.
Fingering the horseshoe Mach the Younger had presented her before they had left the inn, Xander smiled a little. After hearing a bit about her recent serious health problems, the innkeeper had fiercely insisted a bit of healthy superstition never hurt anyone, and a bit of portable luck couldn't possibly be a bad thing. Xander had given in, and carefully stowed the horseshoe in her left jacket pocket. All very silly, but it was somehow comforting, especially after the thing had warmed up.
The road had gotten quite bumpy as they went along, and now the distinct crunching of spiky gravel became so intrusive Xander shut the window to keep it from waking her tired partner. Lori had dark circles around her eyes, and she had lost far too much weight. Frowning worriedly and sending a hurried prayer for the smaller woman's health, Xander cuddled up with her and dozed off herself. How much time passed before they woke was something they could never agree on, neither of them having glanced at the sky or their watch to mark time before falling asleep.
"We have arrived." Tobias declared. That said, she climbed out of the car and began removing luggage from the trunk. "Ring the bell. There is a large button. I must go to my other job now."
"You work the day before Solstice eve?" Xander asked.
"Of course. And Solstice eve. Some work must be done, or else many people would be very disappointed." Satisfied she had been consistently enigmatic, Tobias turned off the car and dropped the keys into a little box by the front door. Then she climbed onto a moped parked half under a wildly overgrown hedge, switched hat for helmet, saluted politely, and drove off.
"Spectacular." Lori marched up to the door. The area in front of it was lit by a brave little lightbulb, hanging bare to the elements from a socket attached to an incongruous piece of wood protruding from well above the door. A few minutes careful scrutiny revealed the wood was part of a frame for a bit of an overhang, presumably to allow people waiting for the door to be answered to get out of the rain when it was finished. Locating the bell, Lori pushed it vigourously, only to hear nothing. Not even a squeally little buzz. Another push. Still nothing. "Oh, I don't need this!" she burst out in frustration.
"Hey, there's a note right here." Xander pulled a folded bit of paper out of a gap between the doorframe and the wall. Unfolding it, a lockpick dropped out, and she barely kept it from falling to the ground where it would be effectively invisible. The note was short and to the point, and read,
"Hello, Xander and Lori. Afraid there's been a bit of a catering problem, so I'm in the main kitchen at the back of the house, cooking like crazy. The doorbell is broken too, so please be dears and let yourselves in."
"By picking the lock, apparently." Xander muttered, before explaining things to her fairhaired partner.
"Have you ever picked a lock?" Lori looked at the large doorknob, with its equally large lockplate and requisite large hole to stick a key in.
"No. But surely it can't be that hard, or Aunt Mach would have been waiting outside for us." Famous last words. Over the next two hours, the couple took turns trying to use the lockpick to release the lock, after doublechecking the door actually was locked. They fiddled and twitched the tumblers determinedly, but all to no avail. The lockpick was long and thin, made of sturdy metal that didn't bend easily. It was surprisingly wide, which made manipulating the tumblers rather difficult. Finally they sat down together on the step to discuss their options.
"You know, I'm starting to think this lockpick isn't even for this lock. The thing is such a stupid size it's like trying to manipulate seed beads with a popsicle stick." Lori threw up her hands in disgust.
"True, all very true." agreed Xander. She glanced up at the door, and glared at it. The doorknob turned a full three hundred sixty degrees, yet still the door wouldn't open. A round panel suggestive of another lockplate tantalized her, positioned roughly fifteen centimetres above the doorknob. Once, she remembered, her aunt had gotten a certain type of lock unlocked by sliding a credit card between the door and the doorway, and then sliding it upwards, pushing up the locking bar. She glanced at the unusually wide, but still thin lockpick. "I wonder." she muttered. Slipping the pick between door and doorframe, she tried pulling it upward. Sure enough, she felt the locking bar lift, and with a gentle click, the door swung open.
"Thank Goddess, the horseshoe has finally kicked in." Lori sighed in relief.
They worked their still luggage racked stuff up the two broad steps and into the house. Xander glanced around, hunting for something. Lori was about to shut the front door, but then she paused and looked for a light switch, or a candle, or something. She suspected the barely lit hall would become impossible to navigate if she shut the front door. Her partner was casting about the hall, presumably looking for a lightsource herself. "Did you pack a flashlight by any chance, love?"
"No – I only brought the sleeping bag because I wanted something along that smelt like home." Lori frowned worriedly as Xander finally got a door open, apparently to a closet, and began groping around inside.
"If memory serves, there should be a lamp in here. We used it during a thunderstorm I was here to see. There's a light switch not far from the front door, but nothing happens when I turn it, so it seems the electricity is out. " Shuffling and rattling temporarily drowned her out. "Quite a thunderstorm too, as I remember, ah here it is." Lifting something carefully out of the closet, she walked back to her partner. "See, it's an old fashioned type oil lamp." For some absurd reason Lori had packed matches and could get to them easily, so Xander pulled the shaped glass cylinder that protected the wick from draughts out so the other woman could light it. Now they could close the front door, and Xander followed that up by replacing the glass cylinder. For a moment both women stared at the lamp.
"That's – that's – it's like trying to describe a lava lamp. There are serious flaws, but there are also borderline redeeming qualities." Lori shook her head in disbelief. The bottom of the glass cylinder had been skilfully shaped into a large apple, then tinted a gentle golden yellow. So it looked like a golden apple with a sort of nimbus around it. The resulting light was a gorgeous, warm, buttery gold that threw the slightly dusty hallway into friendly tones of sepia and brown. The floor was covered in thick carpet, a mirror hung on the wall near the coat rack. A variety of plants clustered around the two big hall windows.
"Hmmph – well partner, best to run along and find that thar kitchen and say howdy, don't you think?" drawled Lori, deftly imitating a Coca Cola cowboy.
"Certainly." grinned Xander. They brought their luggage up to the bottom of the stairs running off of the foyer, then left it where it was to travel to the kitchen by the light of their golden apple, as they had cheerfully nicknamed the lamp.
Lori had half expected the journey to be a bit spooky, considering the electricity seemed to be completely out and the house was so big it made her think of the labyrinth of the ancient Greek stories she had read as a girl, but it wasn't so bad at all. There was tinsel, ribbons, bunches of holly, and the like everywhere. The strains of 'Hera Wore a Miniskirt' drifted from somewhere, probably the kitchen they were heading towards. Periodically a red and green potted plant of one type or another would show up in the warm light of the lamp, or a picture of some appropriate scene. One in particular showed an outrageously cute stuffed bear with a charming little red hat perched on its head. They had just passed through another doorway when Xander stopped them.
"Wait, wait..." she dragged Lori back to the doorway and carefully set the lamp on the floor. "Okay, what do you think?" she pointed upwards. Above their heads hung a good sized sprig of mistletoe. So good sized in fact, it must have brushed the top of Xander's hat.
"Oh ho – you think we should kiss under the mistletoe? I didn't think we needed the excuse." Lori grinned.
"No – I've just never done it. And it is Solstice." Xander's eyes twinkled.
"True – but usually the whole reason you stand with somebody under the mistletoe is so you can kiss someone you wouldn't usually get to." Giving the matter some thought, Lori's grin widened. "So I guess that means since we usually kiss each other, we'll just have to kiss unusually." Her partner went cross-eyed.
"I don't follow – except for the kissing part."
"No problem." this was a real, honest to goodness patented Lori drawl. Xander loved those, because they gave her goosebumps. Not that she would admit to the goosebumps part.
Lori gently removed Xander's hat, pulled her close, and made her bend down so they were breathing each other's air. "Now," she murmured, "For the unusual part."
The actual time the kiss took was about as debatable as the time they had spent asleep in the hearse. Later the two women would never be able to even agree on when the kiss had changed from Lori making a point of knocking Xander's figurative socks off, to a very heated exchange that was coming well close to causing the literal removal of more than socks. It was one of those kisses that you felt everywhere at once.
"Ahem – sorry to interrupt dears, but the bedroom and the kitchen are better places for cooking." warbled an elderly woman's voice. Despite arriving in a way that would have caused most couples to spring apart and blush, it took a few moments for the two distracted women to come close enough to Earth to really take in that they had company.
"Oh, hello aunt Mach." Xander's voice came out all breathy and hoarse. Aunt Mach laughed merrily.
"And hello to you. And this pretty blonde lady must be Lori – I'm delighted to meet you, and am glad to see you making yourself at home. Is that a hickey?" Lori blushed deeply, but managed to say thanks properly and ignore the hickey comment. "Well, come on, come on. Normally there's electricity available to the whole house, but I had a mishap with the oven and managed to blow a fuse. I'll replace it first thing tomorrow morning." Mach strode off ahead of them, a tall, solidly built woman with a determined, powerful gait with a wild mane of white hair.
It was only after they had followed Mach for a few moments that they realized she had neither lamp nor flashlight, and had apparently found them in the near complete darkness of the house. She wasn't blind, so it was hard for her young guests to imagine how she could have done it, or learnt how to do it. In a rather startling parallel to the fictional Lug, Mach was decked out in loose tunic, vest, and trousers. A dark coloured belt cinched in the voluminous trousers, luckily or the tall woman might have fallen over them, and half undone laces held her collar and her sleeves shut.
"How was your trip, so close to Solstice? I was a bit worried you find things crowded or uncomfortable." Mach pulled a cigar out of her pocket, and lit it with what looked suspiciously like a snap of her fingers.
"There was just a bit of turbulence. Other than that, the trip was great."
"A bit of turbulence? A bit of turbulence?" Lori blurted in outrage. "If that was a bit of turbulence, I shudder to think what a lot is."
"Well dear, I suppose it all depends on whether you like flying very much to begin with. If you didn't, that would certainly further detract from the experience. Now, Xander here should have been born with wings." Mach smiled at them, waiting for them to walk past her so she could shut the most recent set of doors they had passed through. "Or hooves. Maybe both." she winked one startling silvery-green eye, and Lori couldn't repress a broad grin back. She had to admit, if all of Xander's peculiar family was like Mach the Elder, meeting them certainly wouldn't be so bad.
Well, barring the seeing in the dark and lighting cigars by snapping fingers. Maybe it was foolish, but Lori found that she couldn't find it in herself to be afraid of this woman. And Solstice was supposed to be a time of magical beings and happenings.
They finally arrived at the kitchen, which proved to be a riot of food colouring, rising bread dough, and half finished dishes. "This mostly gets finished tomorrow before dinner time, or else it probably wouldn't be too nice to eat." Clearing off part of the stove, she put the kettle on and motioned for her charges to take a seat. "So, tell me everything, and then I'll tell you a bit more about the party."
Lori opened her eyes and uttered a long, contented sigh. After all, it was Solstice Eve morning. She was laying in a gorgeously comfortable bed in a gorgeous room with her gorgeous partner. Laughing to herself and searching for a different superlative, Lori glanced over at her partner, who was still sound asleep. The night before, Xander had carefully removed the horseshoe and set it on the night table by her side of the bed. It hadn't been until later, after a complex and heated exchange, after which Xander had been completely unable to repress her desire to prance merrily around the room, doing a happy dance, while stark naked. Now in the first light of day, Lori could feel how sore her sides still were from laughing and crying at the same time as her partner warbled happily, "I did it, I did it – I'm exhausted – I did it..." Being intimate used an awful lot of energy, and last night had been the first time in far too long desire and energy levels had corresponded nicely.
Kissing Xander on the cheek, Lori slipped out of bed and made her way to the bathroom, which happily was part of the master bedroom suite they were staying in. She wasn't too sure how their luggage had gotten to the room, but she found herself adjusting almost disconcertingly easily to the fact that some things were magical and weird here. She paused, toothbrush halfway to her mouth. Almost like she had lived in just these sort of circumstances before. Giving herself a shake, Lori got busy on her early morning ablutions.
She was just wiping soap off of her face when her partner slipped both arms around her waist and gave her a hug. "Morning, beautiful." Xander burred in her ear.
"Morning yourself, beautiful." Lori replied, patting the hands clasped around her stomach. "You in the mood for breakfast? I'm starving."
"Yeah, actually." taking over the sink, Xander dug out her toothbrush and toothpaste and frowned at her head. "Hey, those hairs are all coming in grey."
"Not all of them – just a few. Think of them as a sprinkling of extra dignity." Lori made a face at her right big toe, which she had just put right through her sock.
"Mmm – I guess." Xander was soon dressed and raring to go, while her partner tried to find her shoes from the night before.
"Where did they go? All of my other stuff turned up, well except for – you know."
"Yes, I do." agreed Xander, glancing up at the ceiling light, hanging from which was a pair of sexy red underwear. She'd get them down later, she decided, being as she was the one who had managed to toss them up there. Pulling out her sketchbook, she wondered how, exactly.
Breakfast was a quiet affair. Mach gently plied them with a couple of early morning mostly meaningless questions, then she had sat back and smiled benignly while Xander and Lori kept forgetting to eat because they kept making eyes at each other. This was precisely what the older woman had had in mind, since she had decided to give the young couple a wonderful time as their Solstice present. Taking a sip of her tea Mach grinned happily. And it just so happened, she had all sorts of ways and means to do that, being as she was in charge of that sort of thing. After setting Little Mach up so nicely, it had seemed only fair to put these two under her wing, being as neither of them had immediate family to spend the holidays with anymore.
Both young women immediately offered to help finish preparations for the party that evening, but Mach shooed them away. "Hush, I have plenty of helpers, a whole circus troupe worth. You just haven't seen them yet. Go and have a look at the Gallery. It's quite different from the last time you saw it, Xander."
The Gallery was simply a long, wide hallway full of various mementoes and things of the long and curious history of the Adams family. There were plenty of 'normal' members, all faithfully represented by portraits, records of where they had lived, any wars they had served in and the like. But of course, the more eccentric members were far more interesting. More often than not, the more eccentric members of the family did the more ordinary jobs. Mechanic, librarian, shopkeeper, teacher, professor, and so forth. Lori found one Adams with an unpronounceable first name particularly fascinating, because she had been a pirate. A pirate who dressed more like a Renaissance age accountant, if there was such a thing.
"You used to use this place for inspiration, didn't you?"
"I still do now – I just don't have updated sketches. The last set I made are from when I was fifteen years old." Xander paused in front of one of the 'conjectural paintings' a sort of hypothetical portrait of a family member who had lived before creating an accurate image of a person was common. The woman was wearing a mix of Greek and Roman clothing and armour that suggested someone who fought for a living.
"You think she was a gladiator?" Lori asked, leaning into her partner's side.
"Not impossible. But I wouldn't expect so. Gladiators didn't tend to escape slavery and live to old age without recording how they did it." A pause. "Unless we're just missing information on that part."
By the time it had hit midafternoon, they had wandered back to the kitchen and from there to the grand ballroom, observing the near orgy of Solstice decorations, the now clearly audible music, and the occasional harried Amazon in unmistakably circus type costume. Xander and Lori soon joined the relay lines moving food and drinks from the kitchen to the grand ballroom, and after twenty minutes of that they began to wonder if the kitchen had grown during the night and the morning. The heavy stuff went by first, big punch bowls, still unfilled, then the containers of juice and wine meant to fill them. Platters of meat and vegetables, then the bread. Only after all that did things like cutlery, napkins, and bags of ice make their way through the many pairs of hands to their destinations in the ballroom.
The woman who took things from Lori was dressed in a curious, web like costume, and had little black widow spider earrings. "While we're handing things back and forth here, probably I should introduce myself. My name's Lori. What's yours?" she put on her best winning smile.
"Arachne." the other woman answered, accepting a gravy boat and passing it on. "I like spiders."
"So I see." Lori's eyes got big, because a spider happened to be crawling over Arachne's shoulders at that moment. "What..." her voice squeaked. "What sort of spider is that?"
"Ssssicarius – sand spider – verrry deadly. They give nasty bites, and at first they look like hickeys." Arachne smiled a distinctly discomforting smile.
"No, it isn't really – is it? And the bites..." Xander glanced worriedly at the buff coloured creature as it wandered to Arachne's left shoulder. If the damned thing chomped either her or Lori, there'd be no way to tell until it was too late.
"Yes – I like the poisonous ones best."
"The huge poisonous ones, apparently." Lori agreed. The damn thing looked as long as her palm was across. The spider walked to Arachne's other shoulder and seemed to glare at her with its many eyes.
"Arachne, are you scaring those poor kids? You mean thing." The circus strongwoman tsked at her from Xander's left side. "Relax, this big nasty thing is a mechanical spider. You aren't allowed to take real sand spiders out of Africa, as a general rule. For good reason." Arachne rolled her eyes.
"They would have caught on without you – obviously a sand spider has to have sand to live in. Do I look like a good pile of sand to you?" Arachne held out her arms to demonstrate her point, revealing she had pseudo-webbing in a sort of fan between her body and her arms down to her elbows.
"Nope." Lori declared, handing over a tureen. "Definitely not." The answer garnered Arachne's approval, although the strongwoman got pinched for her efforts.
"Stop spoiling my fun, Stheino." The relay finished without further incident, leaving everyone else to get cleaned up and dressed for the evening. Heading to the ballroom was an adventure in itself for the cartoonist and the geophysicist, who found they were as much of a novelty to the circus members as the circus members were to them.
At precisely three minutes to six, although no one knew why, Mach the Younger swept into the ballroom wearing a sleek black suit with tails and a long black cloak with a red lining. In deference to the season, a jaunty wreath of carefully trimmed and arranged holly graced her head. Luko hurried in afterwards, a lyre tucked under one arm. Beyond an almost ironed looking shirt and clean shoes, she had made no concessions to the whole concept of dressing up for the party. She did seem to be quite important to the proceedings though, because she quickly found a seat on a stool at the front of what looked like a lopsided bandstand. Letting the guests mill and talk for a little longer, she strummed a jangled cord, enforcing a chorus of 'ows' as people tried to protect their ears, and then silence.
"Good evening everyone, and welcome to my Solstice Eve party." boomed Mach the Elder, who now joined Luko on the bandstand. "From the number of new faces I see here, it looks like we've had some fine luck – barring the lack of snow of course." Some clapping and sighing. "I would like to specially introduce Xander Adams and her partner Lori Poites."
After that it had gotten a bit crazy, as all sorts of people neither of the people in question had ever seen before took turns greeting them, hugging them, and pumping their arms in lieu of more sedate handshakes. It was only after the appetizers and a round of drinks had been served that they got to retreat to a nice spot near the bandstand. Luko was playing interesting music on the lyre, and the circus musicians were gearing up behind her.
Taking a long sip of her punch, Xander finally allowed herself to relax. At the last moment she had stuffed the horseshoe in her pocket before leaving the room, and it had proved a welcome distraction when a few too many handshakes and hellos were forthcoming. The glass was barely half empty when the end of a bullwhip coiled around her arm and jerked her out of her seat. Before she had a chance to put together what was going on she was standing on one side of a large circle. "Excellent! Thank you for volunteering!" hollered Kirke. "And now, ladies and ladies..." A chorus of booes and a mild pelting with cheesies followed. "All right, all right – and now, everyone watch." Scowling a little at having her intro interrupted by cheesies of indeterminate age that she was certain Mach the Elder handed out specifically to be thrown by hecklers, Kirke got Xander arranged against a little standalone board.
"Now, I will show you. My accuracy and precision are unparalleled."
"Your accuracy and precision to what?" Xander's eyes got round as Kirke shook the bullwhip loose. The lyre twanged somewhere behind her, as Luko played a tune to raise the tension. "Hey, I have a heart condition, this is a bad idea!" There were nine target balloons all around her. This was all thoroughly alarming.
"Psssst – relax. It's just a trick, or we'd never do it for fear of your partner wrecking us. In my experience, the smaller your lover is, the better she is at kicking butt on your behalf." Xander could just see a bright silvery green eye through a gap in the board, and it winked. "It's all timing. The end of the whip never reaches you, but people think it does because of the noise."
Sure enough, despite the resounding snap every time Kirke snapped the whip, and the booming pop when the balloons exploded, Xander hardly felt the whoosh as the leather swept through the air. And then it was over to the cheers of the crowd and the jaunty tune of the lyre, and someone pushed a tall mug of cold ale into Xander's hand while someone else gave her a big hug and patted her on the back for being such a great sport.
The whole reason Lori hadn't come to her partner's rescue was a bit of very loud, raucous teasing she was suffering for being from 'cowtown.' The various Adams and circus members wanted to know what she rode besides Xander, inspiring a blush nearly as bright red as the Solstice ribbon Lori had tied back her hair with, and why she didn't wear a cowboy hat. "Would you wear a cowboy hat?" Lori had asked, trying to buy time. A few people were puttering away in one corner, and that made her nervous.
"Just playing, love. All the newbies get nuisanced – wait until you see what we do to the youngest Von Adams." nevertheless, the purveyor of this news turned Lori to face the corner contraption. "But you know, I seem to remember you getting into the campus paper for being so good at mechanical bull riding." The weedy woman grinned broadly. "Oh yes, I too went to the most ivy infested university in the west." The corner contraption was a mechanical bull, complete with a real saddle and a pair of heavy saddlebags. "You get to keep one saddlebag if you fall off. Both if you manage to hang on for eight seconds."
"Oh, I don't know, that was a long time ago..."
"There's twenty pounds of chocolate in one of those saddlebags." piped up a woman with long, curly auburn hair.
"Chocolate? Well hell, why didn't you say so in the first place? Let me at that thing!" she could get into the spirit of this, Lori decided. Surprising the motley crowd around her, she managed to get up onto the thing on her own. Fortunately she had opted for her sneakers, one of the keys to her success on the mechanical bull at university. Cowboy boots had nothing to grip with. Those, together with her sturdy blue jeans, and the gloves she accepted from the bull runner, made her feel quite confident. Before considering the twenty pounds of chocolate. Settling herself one more time, Lori took a deep breath and wrapped the rope around her left hand. "Let's go."
Okay, so she hadn't counted on the damned thing having a bit of a kick every other turn, and that nearly unseated her the first time, but Lori still managed to hold on for dear life. After all, she figured if all the windmill handshakes hadn't taken her arm off, the mechanical bull certainly wouldn't. Tottering triumphantly to where she could see Xander nursing a tall mug of something, weighed down by both saddlebags afterwards, Lori couldn't repress a shit eating grin. Not only was she having a fabulous time – did she ever have butch points, and now nobody would make silly comments about hickeys. She hoped.
The youngest Von Adams had what turned out to be the wildest time of all. Activities shifted from eating and drinking to dancing, and the back doors and all the windows were thrown open, allowing the nippy evening air to blow through the room. A few people, including Xander and Lori spilled to the out of doors to build a fire and sit around that to chat and drink by. Some argument occurred over whether the fire was a bonfire or campfire, or if it mattered – then they decided someone would just have to sleep outside under one of the smaller tents from the circus, just to make it a campfire for sure. The demand was completely illogical, and clearly inspired by a certain level of drunkenness. Mach the Elder came out and checked that the tent so created would be warm enough to prevent anything like hypothermia, and once satisfied merrily told the partiers to go ahead and enjoy themselves. It was probably safer for them to just sleep where they were rather than go wandering around the house anyway.
After a short time out to stow away her hard won saddlebags, Lori cheerfully pulled up a log and rubbed her hands together vigourously. She loved tall tale exchanges over gently burning bon – camp, fires, outdoors, with ale and beer to help things move along. Xander, feeling a bit more drunk than she would have expected, hiccuped loudly, then settled herself against Lori's legs. "That woman over there, she likes to tell how one of her great uncles survived the Titanic disaster. Don't believe her. She never had any great uncles. Sitting with the Von Adams there, that one, as soon as she starts talking, listen to every word. She's really good." Settling her tankard against her belly, Xander asked mildly, "Where'd you go, before the dancing started?"
"Oh, had some visiting to do. You know how it is in a new group of people. Everybody wanted to meet Xander's special someone." Lori tickled her lover behind one ear.
"Quit – you know as well as I do they wanted to meet you because you're you." Shifting so she could look Lori in the eye. "After all, that's why I wanted to meet you." Followed up by a dazzling smile.
"Hush. But only for a few minutes. My ego is enjoying the attention."
The tent was set up by now, set up so that its back was actually the wall with the door leading into the ballroom. It was made of thick, brightly coloured canvas, and with a peculiar extension put together in the front, it held a good part of the heat from the fire inside the space, balancing the cool air from outside against the need for just enough heat to not bother with a heavy jacket. Someone dug out a big bag of marshmallows, and after acquiring a number of sticks, most of the taletellers were roasting them – or creating mini-fireballs.
"Okay," shouted the woman with curly auburn hair. "Three people have brought out a heap of sleeping bags, and now we're roasting marshmallows. Ergo, or something like that, this is a campfire."
"I'll drink to that."
"You'll drink to anything, you lush."
"Somebody start telling a story."
"Who's gonna start? Volunteers?"
"Okay, okay, we'll draw straws. Or sticks. Or something." Someone managed to find stick bits and a bit of charcoal to create enough numbered lots for the draw, then the bits were dumped in a hat, shaken with vigour (forcing the retrieval of several of them out of the brown grass), and handed around.
"Right, whoever drew lot one, you start."
Xander forced her eyes to focus a bit, then she gave up and fished her glasses out of her pocket. She returned her gaze to the slightly smudged lot. Hers said four. "Ah shit." Lori muttered in disgust. Visible amidst the smudging on her own lot was an unmistakable numeral one. She sat up.
"Umm, I'm not a storyteller, at least, umm – I'm not a storyteller, I'm a geophysicist!" she pleaded. There was not a sympathetic eye to be seen anywhere, except by her knees, where her lover's gentle blue ones were fixed on her worried face.
"It's okay, you'll do fine." Xander grinned and gave her legs a hug.
"You always say that." griped Lori.
"Because I believe in you. I mean, look at all the stuff you've managed to handle. This is nothing." Xander declared proudly. Then, in a more mischievous tone, "When I grow up, I wanna be just like you."
"Hmmph – well – you asked for it." Lori ran her fingers through her hair and fished around for an interesting story. She was trying not to grin and make it obvious her lover had talked her into it, but she couldn't help it, resulting in a few snorts of laughter. "Hey, you've all heard of Orpheus, right?"
"Yeah, but we don't want to hear about him now, tell us an Amazon story!" said the youngest Von Adams.
"I asked you if you had heard of him, not if you wanted to hear a story about him." Lori replied witheringly. "Anyway, the reason I asked is so that I could find out if you would need to be convinced about magical lyres and stuff like that." Just then Luko's lyre bounced unceremoniously out of the ballroom and landed with a sproing noise just outside of the campfire circle. A head popped out the door.
"Everybody all right? The bandstand fell over."
"We're fine thanks." Stheino the strongwoman this time. The head disappeared before the lyre could be passed back, so Xander wound up with it.
"What am I going to do with this?" she asked in astonishment.
"Use it as a prop." suggested Stheino.
"But I'm not telling a story right now." protested Xander.
"So? Play nice background music." shot back Stheino.
"Oh yeah? I'll use it as a prop all right." with that Xander tucked the lyre under her side and moved so that she could lean against it and watch her partner in comfort.
"Not like that!" Stheino protested in her turn.
"Oh, cut it out you two." Lori rubbed her face and tried to put her thoughts in order. One story had immediately come to mind, but somehow, the one she told was much different. Mainly because telling a story involving a lyre when one had just nearly smacked someone due to a collapsing bandstand seemed ill omened. "As you know, Xander and I come from Canada. Right now we live in a city that sits smack in the middle of a huge territory that used to belong to the Peigan people. Well," she paused. "Really, it still does. But anyway, never mind that, because it's hard to explain how I think about that without boring people to death – this story is related to ones they tell. Related, but not the same. It's about how a holy woman saved her lover and her band, from something that sounds like tuberculosis, to me. Anyway, this is what it says."
"When the prairies were still where only bison and Indians lived, there were all sorts of bands – those are groups of families, basically – travelling around the area with the seasons, tracing their paths by the mountains and the rivers. One of those bands included a shaman and a holy woman. They were well loved by their people, because the shaman was powerful, and successfully cured many illnesses. The holy woman was both a hunter and a bison caller. Each year she brought the herds without fail. The shaman and the holy woman lived together, and while two women living together wasn't terribly common, no repeated disasters fell on the band, so it seemed to the others there couldn't be any problem with it.
"The winter and spring bled into each other one year, and it stayed cold and wet far longer than usual. This turned out to be a boon, as the grass sprang back rich and green, and the bison grew tall and fat. Berries and roots, herbs and mushrooms good for medicines and for food were easy to get. But the shaman fell ill with a terrible cough that wouldn't go away, and soon she was forced to take to her bed, fevered and coughing blood. This put the band in a bad position. If her illness was contagious, they could all be decimated. But the holy woman refused to leave her partner. And the band needed the holy woman and the shaman both.
"In the depths of one night, seeing the shaman was sleeping peacefully at least for now, the holy woman left their tipi to gaze at the stars, hoping to find some answer there. She sat outside, in the cold, and fell asleep herself. In her dreams, she saw a robe decorated with shells and copper, dancing across the prairie. 'Make me and dance in just this way,' it said. 'The shaman will be cured, and her illness will not stalk your people.'
"The holy woman didn't waste a moment. She ran from tipi to tipi, explaining her dream and what she had learned from it. People weren't as grimly skeptical then, they felt that a holy vision was a holy vision. They willingly helped her make the robe, and then she had fires placed all around the camp, and her lover placed near one of them. She marked the position of each tipi, for in her dream the robe had danced around every living thing she could see on the prairie, protecting them from harm. So the holy woman would have to dance around each tipi and each person and animal in the camp.
"She danced all night. She danced all the next night, and the next day again. And on the morning of the third day, the shaman opened her eyes, and rose to join the dance. And this is how the shaman and the band were saved." Lori finished simply. The story was still a bit rough, but the audience reaction was wildly enthusiastic.
They had followed it up by taking the now passed out youngest Von Adams, and duct taping her to the wall of the house. "What do you think she'll do when she wakes up?" Xander asked mildly, as they left the stripped to underwear and thoroughly taped woman under the watchful gaze of the people who had determined to camp out for the night.
"Scream like a new born babe." Stheino laughed.
Finally feeling tuckered out by their evening, Xander and Lori made there way back into the house, threading their way through the grand ballroom, and then onto the final stretch to their room. "Hey you two, wait up!" Mach the Elder bounded up to them "What are your plans now?"
"Sleep." sighed Xander.
"Ditto." Lori blinked groggily.
"No worries. Munch on this on your way." Mach the Elder handed them a golden apple. The two women glanced at it doubtfully. "Special blend of caramel, looks beautiful and burnished, and tastes even better."
"Lori, hey!" Mach the Younger jogged up, lugging Lori's saddlebags.
"Honey, what are those?" Xander asked in bafflement.
"Chocolate, and something else I haven't looked at yet." Lori chuckled. "Thanks, Mach, Aunt Mach – Mach and Mach? Mach squared?"
The rest of the trip to the room was uneventful, and by the time they finished the apple both women were feeling refreshed, even a little frisky. "Hey, is it after midnight?" Xander asked.
"You know it." yawned Lori. "Hey, is that my under..."
"Okay, horseshoe at the ready, let's see what's in the saddlebags." Xander interrupted. Luckily this was sufficient to draw Lori's attention from her underwear, still caught up in the light fixture on the ceiling.
One saddlebag was full of twenty pounds of chocolate – chocolate in bars, chocolate in little squeeze bottles, fancy chocolates, chocolate sprinkles, chocolate covered fruit and nuts – an outrageous selection of chocolate. Lori immediately put aside the syrup for future applications. The second saddlebag was full of Solstice decorations for the room and a big card signed by everyone who had come to the party.
"Well, since it's after midnight and officially Solstice, I can give you this. It was hard finding you the perfect gift, but I'm proud to say that I did finally find one." Xander beamed, and handed Lori a crookedly wrapped gift. The ribbon was held on mostly by magic tape, and the wrapping paper didn't completely cover one end, but it was the thought that counted, after all.
Lori promptly crossed her legs and settled the gift on top of them, eagerly ripping it open. She pulled off the lid and moved aside the wrapping paper only to reveal –
"A pink nightie?!" Lori squeaked in outrage.
"No no, keep going. You'll see. Trust me."
Feeling more than a little doubtful, Lori unfolded the nightgown, and sucked her breath in sharply. Nestled in the middle of the fabric was a scroll, a tiny box, and a candle. "The pink nightie was just packing material, love. I understand, acknowledge and accept your hatred of that colour when it has nothing to do with certain body parts." smiling, Xander pointed at the things still in the box. "Go ahead, have a look." Then she crossed her fingers behind her back.
First Lori unrolled the scroll. "I'm gonna read it out loud and embarrass you." she warned her partner.
"I'm sure I'll live."
"Like I said already, it was really hard finding you the perfect gift. Especially since I hate shopping. Then it finally hit me. The candle is a sort of orangey red colour, combining the colours of healing and passion. You've been looking pretty tired and whatnot the past while. It seemed only fair to give back some of the special energy you've given me. The box is a bit different. If you don't want what's on it, that's no problem. Either way, you know where I stand, which is right beside you. Always. Being as I love you so much, and I let the various life ending authorities know in unmistakable terms that I'm in this for the long haul, and either we go out together or we don't go out.
Logic suggests this could create certain difficulties. Well, I don't give a damn about difficulties. I give a damn about you.
For a few moments, Lori held absolutely still. The moment was like a bubble, she was afraid to break it. Slowly she picked up the box, and burst out laughing when it stuck to the nightgown, due to a carefully placed set of staples. Her partner blushed.
"I didn't want the other thing to get lost, and the box was already full."
Intrigued, Lori opened the box. Folded and half crumpled in it were two pieces of coloured cardboard, In the small volume left over were the original contents of the box, a silver owl pendant.
"See, I got the pendant, then I had another idea – and then another one, and ah..." Xander stumbled to a halt as her partner took a careful look at the pieces of cardboard.
"How did you do this?" Lori stared at the things in disbelief.
"Got lucky?" A level stare. "Mercilessly demanded a fat advance for the story I wrote in my hospital bed so I could take you on a really nice trip?"
"A nice trip – right." Lori pulled the box loose from the nightie, and retrieved the ring it had been sitting on top of. "Just a trip?"
"Ah, sure, if you want." Xander's eyes were a little round.
"As if. Of course I want a honeymoon." Delightedly slipping the ring on her finger, Lori shook her head slightly. "You're still running a little slow. Might have to take it easy on you."
"Nah, I feel great." which was true.
"Okay." They tumbled into bed, resulting in a resounding bang as the headboard sprang forward then back against the wall.
"Hickeys will not be necessary, as I am not in fear of falling asleep at an inopportune moment."
"So am I."
"Oh good. Where's that horseshoe?"
"On the nightstand, why?"
"Just making sure our extra luck is ready – you didn't look that closely at some of this chocolate. Like these – these are x-rated."
Xander coughed, then laughed. "What did they think you were going to do with that?" She also wanted to know how the chocolate factory got away with having molds in such shapes. Surely shipping those around freaked out customs? Or titillated customs, one of the two.
"Oh, I don't know. Same thing we'll do with the rest of the chocolate. But more like this – than this."
"Ohh – I get it. Sort of. You'll have to show me that again, I think I may be a bit cloudy on the concept."
"Hedonist." A beat. "All right." Another beat. "But my underwear had better not be in hanging on that fixture in the morning, otherwise somebody is getting coal instead of the cool Solstice present I found for them."
- The End