“Admiral, are you certain this is appropriate attire for this outing?” Seven asked, poking at the reindeer sweater currently covering her well-endowed torso. “Somehow I do not believe B’Elanna will find this to be suitable clothing for public consumption.”
Kathryn Janeway rolled her eyes. “Seven, Gabrielle asked that we try to get into the holiday spirit.”
“This is not helping,” Seven replied flatly. “I am feeling distinctly....”
“Hey Seven,” B’Elanna called out as she rounded the corner. “Are you about... what the hell? Please tell me you’re not wearing that... thing... on your chest to go meet the Amazons. Sweetheart, I’m not sure who told you wearing that was a good idea, but I’m pretty sure the Amazons shoot things like that.”
Seven glared at Janeway who shrugged sheepishly. “It appears I was grossly misinformed. Do I have sufficient time...?”
“Take the time you need, Seven. We’re not going anywhere without you,” smiling when Seven nodded bashfully before leaving the room. Then B’Elanna turned and glared at Kathryn. “What the hell were you thinking, Kathryn? Were you trying to embarrass her?”
Janeway returned the look, then dropped her gaze to her lap. “No, B’Elanna. I wanted her to get into the holiday spirit.”
“Don’t try so hard, Kathryn. Just because we’re family doesn’t mean we have to dress like it,” B’Elanna added with a smirk, then gulped when Seven re-entered the room. “Wow,” she said with a grin, rising to meet her. “C’mon, we’ve got a party to attend.”
“Have a holly, jolly Christmas.... C’mon Mommy! We’re not gonna be ready in time!” Emma shouted up the stairs as she put a bow on the last package she had just finished wrapping.
“Emma, inside voice, please,” Natalia scolded as she entered from the kitchen. “You know your mommy has been working extra-hard all week so we could go to this party. Maybe instead of yelling for your mommy, you should go wake her gently and see if there is anything you can do to help her get ready.”
“I’m sorry, Mama.”
“Don’t be sorry, Bean,” Natalia said as she riffled Emma’s hair. “Just improve.”
“Really, Natalia... how do you improve perfection?” Olivia asked with a wry smile, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and pushing her hair off her face. She turned to Emma. “You bellowed?”
Olivia smiled and took Natalia’s hand, drawing the three of them into a hug. “It’s all right, Bean. I know you’re excited. Why don’t you go up and make sure you’ve got everything you want to take with you?”
“You and Mama are gonna be mushy now, aren’t you?”
Olivia smirked. “A lady never kisses and tells, Jellybean.”
“You don’t have to,” Emma replied as she headed upstairs. “Mama’s dimples are showing and I know what that means. Don’t take too long,” she cautioned. “They should be here to pick us up soon,” she added before she disappeared around the corner into her room.
“Cheeky little thing.”
“That’s our kid.”
“What do you see?” Janet asked softly as she joined Samantha on the front porch as she stood gazing at the sky full of stars.
“Many things,” Sam replied. “Places I’ve been; places we will never visit; places left to explore. In a way the night sky represents my life... past, present and future.”
Sam shook her head quickly and wrapped Janet in her strong embrace. “No, Love... not at all. I’ve done things that most people can’t begin to imagine; seen more of the universe than most can fathom; saved the world a time or two; and been lucky enough to have the love of my life return to me despite everything. What’s to regret?”
“You won’t miss it?” Janet asked frankly.
“I didn’t say that, Janet. Of course I’ll miss it, but it’s not the be all and end all for me anymore. There is so much more to my life now than simply the Stargate program and the crisis of the week. I still have access to all the cool new technology and now I have time for my lab, my students; our daughter is expecting our first grandchild; and most importantly I get to come home to you every night. Besides, you make me see things I had forgotten.”
“Like the stars - I had forgotten how beautiful they were reflected in your eyes.”
“Maybe,” bashfully, “but still the truth. Now c’mon... I wanna see how they look at an Amazon party.”
“There’s something to be said for the warmth of a fire,” Nikki commented as she returned the rest of the pinecones to the kindling basket.
“Like... ‘I live in the South and shouldn’t need one’?” Nora responded drolly as she curled into Nikki’s arms. “There’s just something wrong with the whole scenario if there aren’t marshmallows and s’mores involved. I wonder if they will have s’mores at this shindig Xena invited us to,” she mused, clinking her glass with Nikki’s.
Nikki shrugged. “I dunno, Sugar. I’m still not sure I get what this shindig is or why we were invited.”
Nora frowned. “Nikki?”
“C’mon, Nora... Amazons?? And why us?” Nora gave Nikki a look of patented disbelief.
“Are you kidding me? Nikki, we’re the epitome of modern day Amazons. Maybe that’s why Xena asked us. Or maybe it’s because she and Gabrielle think we would make good friends.”
Nikki sighed. “Maybe - I’m just used to people wanting something from me when they find out who I am.”
“I didn’t,” Nora declared. “I bet they won’t either. They don’t strike me as the type.” A beat. “C’mon, Nikki... give them a chance.”
“I will. I just... Amazons?”
Nora chuckled, drawing a smile from Nikki. “Honey, this is New Orleans. You should be used to strange and unusual.”
“Listen to your woman, Nikki, and go to your party,” Darius instructed as he entered. “I’ve got everything under control.”
“Somehow that’s not particularly reassuring, but what the hell - let’s go meet some Amazons.”
“Brooke, you about ready?” Sam called out as she left the small bedroom they shared. Brooke turned from the window as the sleigh slid by and gave Sam a big smile.
“I am sooooo ready,” she admitted with an excited bounce. “Whoever thought we’d get to meet real, live Amazons?”
“I’m not sure we will,” Sam confessed gently, “but it should be fun regardless. Xena and Gabrielle are good people. I never would have been able to propose like I did without their help. So I’m glad they asked us to be a part of this celebration - it sounds like a good time.”
“Why don’t you think it’ll be real, Sammy?”
“I’m not sure Amazons were ever more than a myth, Sweetheart. It may just be the Gabrielle has planned a party that incorporates all their Solstice traditions. Remember, she’s a scholar first. I’m sure that sort of in-depth research is right up her alley.”
“Well, I think you’re wrong. I think they meant just what they said and there will be Amazons at this gathering.”
“I hope so,” Sam offered with a smile. “Do you have everything you’ll need while we’re gone?”
“I think so although I wasn’t sure what kind of gift to bring to an Amazon party.” She paused. “What are you bringing, Sammy?”
“Something we can both give. C’mon or we’re gonna miss our ride. And I don’t think we can walk to where we’re going.” They shut the door behind them and headed out.
“Well, this sure beats what I had to wear to the Christmas party last year,” Casey mumbled as she stepped out of the bedroom stomping her feet to settle her jeans around her boots. “Are you sure this is okay, though?” she asked Abbie who’d risen to meet her with a satisfied smile.
“Oh yeah,” Abbie drawled. “Xena specifically said to wear comfortable, casual clothing - but not business casual... casual casual. You look really nice.”
Casey blushed. “Thanks. You too.”
Abbie grinned. “I’m so happy not to be gussied up in heels and hose; I just can’t tell you.”
“I’m thrilled not to be an elf.”
“It was Hogan Place’s turn to do Santa for the kids last year. Somehow Alex and I got drafted to be elves to Jack McCoy’s Santa.”
“Brain melt... brrrrain melt!” Abbie yelped, grabbing her head. Casey smirked.
“Yes!” Abbie whined. “Whose idea..?”
“Alex and I figure it was Jack’s. Fortunately, the detectives of the one-six came to our rescue.”
“Should I ask?”
Casey chuckled. “Probably not. But I doubt Jack McCoy ever goes near a Santa suit again.”
Abbie laughed. “I have to say I’m looking forward to tonight. As much as I sometimes miss the antics of New York’s finest especially at this time of year, I think this is going to be a lot of fun. I mean... c’mon. An Amazon holiday party? This should be a riot.”
“As long as no one ends up in jail.”
Alex carefully blew out the candles on the mantle - one for each of her parents, one for Olivia’s mother - closing her eyes and whispering a short prayer before she turned back to the room and the lover that currently stood staring unseeing at the vista beyond. She carefully walked up behind Olivia, gratified when Olivia relaxed back into her though her eyes never left the window.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Alex whispered.
Olivia smiled and turned in Alex’s arms. “They aren’t worth that much. I was just thinking how different this holiday has been for me already from any I have ever had.”
Olivia gave Alex a disbelieving look. “You’re kidding, right? Alex, most of my Christmases even as a kid.... Christmas has always been just another day to me. I always worked so someone with a family could spend the holiday with them. This year... for the first time....”
“This year, I have you instead of just memories and wishes. We’ve been invited to a party that by all accounts should be a blowout by friends who I think will become even better friends as time passes. Elliot and Kathy are solid again; Munch and Fin are... well, Munch and Fin.” She smiled. “I’m happy.”
Alex grinned and leaned her forehead against Olivia’s. “I’m glad,” she replied. “So I am.”
“Good. Now c’mon. Our ride’s here and I’m ready to go find out what all the hullaballoo is about.”
They laughed together and headed out.
“I wonder if the Amazons ever get snow for Christmas,” Blair mused as she and Jo waited patiently for the ride Xena had promised them. Jo took another sip of her hot toddy and shrugged.
“I dunno, Princess. Guess it depends on where they live. And since Amazons were nothing but a myth to us until a few weeks ago.... Besides, I don’t think they celebrate Christmas.”
“Christmas, Solstice... same principle.”
Jo chuckled. “Maybe,” she conceded. “But I’m pretty sure they won’t think so, and I’ll bet the celebrations are vastly different.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah, but I’m guessing we’ll know for sure after tonight. Are Tootie and Nat coming?”
“They didn’t say anything about it but neither did we. I assume we’ll find out when we get... wherever there is for the Amazons.” Blair wrinkled her forehead thoughtfully. “I do have to wonder why we’ve never encountered them before, or why we have the opportunity to do so now. It’s highly unusual....”
“Princess, take a chill pill and relax, will ya? You know and I know that everything happens for a reason in its own good time.”
“But why us, Joey? And why now?”
“Why not us, Blair?” Jo asked, bringing Blair to a dead halt. She smiled and pulled Blair to her feet. “It doesn’t really matter, Princess. What matters is we’ve been invited to go have fun and maybe learn a few things.”
“At least we’ll get to see some old friends and make some new.”
“Yo, kid... why the long face? Aren’t you supposed to be all jolly and stuff this time of year?” Dinah glared balefully at Helena whose eyes widened. Helena held up her hands innocently and cocked her head. “You all right, D? You seem a little out of sorts,” not mentioning the on-going problem that had been since their return to Gotham shortly after Halloween.
Dinah sighed and shook her head even as she answered. “Yeah, Hel. I’m fine. I just....”
“C’mon, D... there’s only room for one brooding superhero on this team, and we all know that’s me. So spill.”
“I miss the Amazons. I’m not sure going back there is a good idea.”
Helena’s face crinkled up comically. “Um, D... you know that makes no sense, right? Shouldn’t you wanna go back if you miss them?”
“Not if I know I’m gonna have to just leave again. Hel, as much as you and Barbara are my family, Paradise Island felt like home more than anywhere else I’ve ever been. It’d be nice to be able to live at home - just for a little while. And I can’t... not yet anyway.”
“Enjoy every opportunity you’re given, kid. There’ll come a time when you can settle there if you want.”
“If she wants to what, Hel?” Barbara asked as she wheeled in.
“To learn to dance like an Amazon,” Helena replied without missing a beat.
“I’ll look forward to it,” Barbara smiled, then rolled to greet Diana at the elevator.
“Mother, will you settle down, please?” Diana asked as she finished braiding the ribbon into her hair. It had been a long, nerve-wracking day already and the party hadn’t even started yet. “Everything will be fine. Now, I need to go see the Queen to retrieve some greeting cards before I go back to man’s world to pick up my friends. Are you going to be all right?”
Hippolyta smiled tremulously. “I’m fine, Diana. I’m looking forward to meeting these women you and Gabrielle have shared so much about. Is it wrong that I’d like to make a good impression on them as well?”
Diana leaned forward and brushed her lips against Hippolyta’s cheek. “No, Mother. But all you have to do for that is to be yourself. The rest will naturally fall into place. After all, you and the sisters are a novel concept to them; it will be like history coming alive for them. Work with it.”
Hippolyta smiled up at her daughter. “When did you get so wise?”
Diana shrugged. “Wisdom is nothing more than experience hard learned, Mother. And I have had plenty of that since I first went to man’s world.”
Hippolyta studied Diana a long moment. “I’m glad you’re home for a bit. And I’m happy the Queen thought to give this party for those you consider friends. I look forward to meeting them.”
Diana smiled. “You’re not going to get to if I don’t get a move on. Be back shortly, Mother.”
The ringing of bells throughout their quarters alerted Gabrielle to Diana’s presence just outside the apartment, and she rose from behind her desk and crossed the room to the door. She opened it, smiling at Diana as she welcomed her inside.
“My Queen,” Diana offered with a dip of her head. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and shook her head, motioning Diana to the couch. “May I ask why you do that?”
Gabrielle frowned. “Do what?”
“Mock our desire to show you a token of respect.”
Gabrielle’s brows flew into her hairline. “I don’t....”
“You may not intend to, Gabrielle, but that’s what it seems like on this side of the equation,” her eyes dropping to the ground. Gabrielle blew out a breath and lifted Diana’s chin until their eyes met.
“That has never been my intention, Diana. I just don’t understand the continuing need to offer me that courtesy. We all know I shouldn’t be the queen of the Amazons; it has fallen to me simply by chance and your mother refuses to accept the title as long as I’m alive.”
“You’re wrong on several counts, my Queen,” emphasizing both parts of the title, “but I don’t have time to debate it with you at the moment if you want me to go and get back before the party is over.”
Gabrielle chewed her thumbnail thoughtfully as she studied Diana’s eyes, then nodded. “You’ll talk to me about this later then?” Gabrielle asked with only a hint of command in her voice. Diana bowed her head in agreement. “All right,” moving back to her desk and picking up a pile of stamped, addressed envelopes. “These are ready to be mailed, if you don’t mind taking care of it for me,” waiting for Diana to accept them. “Now go... be quick but be safe. Barbara tells me something has put Dinah in a funk and people tend to be reckless this time of year.”
“You don’t think...?”
“No, but it doesn’t make me less concerned about either issue.”
Diana nodded her acceptance of the truth Gabrielle spoke. She rose and gathered the envelopes in her hand, then she looked at Gabrielle. “Do you still write for them?” gesturing to the cards she held in abundance.
Gabrielle chuckled. “When the mood strikes,” she confirmed. “JC made sure I could for as long as I wanted when Xena and I first helped him and Rollie out.” She shrugged. “It works for us.”
Diana just shook her head and made her way to the door. She opened it slightly before turning back to meet Gabrielle’s eyes briefly. “I wonder how many things would be different if you hadn’t been part of them, Gabrielle. I’m pretty sure the Amazons wouldn’t be around anymore. Be back,” she added as she slipped out the door, closing it silently behind her before Gabrielle could protest. Gabrielle stood staring at it for a long moment before shaking herself out of her reverie and turning her attention back to her last minute preparations.
The bell ringing again drew Gabrielle from her work; a quick glance at the clock made her wonder what had happened. Xena wasn’t scheduled to return for another hour or so and the rest had their own tasks to complete before their guests arrived. Then her face crinkled in distaste and she took a deeper breath. She crossed the room and opened the door, frowning at the stronger scent of burning that assaulted her senses.
“Hippolyta?” gesturing her into the room.
“My Queen... my apologies. I was wondering if you could contact either Xena or my daughter. We’ve had a bit of an accident in the kitchen.”
“No kidding,” Gabrielle coughed lightly. “Did they burn it down?”
“Not exactly, but they did manage to catch the candy canes on fire.” Gabrielle eyebrow flew into her hairline and Hippolyta couldn’t help but chuckle. “Yes, I had a similar reaction. They are working on cleaning up the mess as we speak. With a little luck, the smell will be removed shortly.”
“Thank goodness because that really stinks.”
Hippolyta laughed this time. “Be thankful you’re not in the kitchen,” covering her mouth with her hand when Gabrielle’s face screwed up at the thought.
“Should I even ask what they were doing to catch candy canes on fire?”
“Probably not, my Queen. Suffice it to say that it didn’t work. But now we’re in need of more candy canes.”
Gabrielle’s eyes widened. “All right. I’ll see what I can do. How is everything else coming along?”
“Each of the fireplaces have new Yule logs and the bonfires in the courtyard are set and ready to light. The firs and greenery have been laid and the big tree is set. We figured we would let our guests decorate the wreaths for their doors. After all, we’re trying to make them feel what it’s like to be a part of us. Besides, we know so little of them - this way, they can create something that truly represents them.”
Gabrielle nodded her agreement. “Good idea. It will be interesting to see what they decide to do.”
“As for the rest... again, we’re waiting for the arrival of our guests. Half the fun of Solstice is the preparation. But their rooms are cleaned and ready for them and candy cane disaster aside, the welcome banquet is ready. Plenty of food and drink has been laid in and the musicians are just waiting for their cue.”
“Good, good. Fine work, Hippolyta. This should be quite a celebration for them and for us.”
Hippolyta grinned. “I know the Nation is looking forward to it. It’s been a while since we’ve welcomed new women into our circle. Now if you’ll excuse me, my Queen, I still have a few presents left to wrap before Diana and Xena return.”
“All right, Hippolyta. I’ll see you shortly?”
“You will indeed,” Hippolyta assured as she opened the door. She made a face and took a deep breath, then stepped into the corridor. Gabrielle chuckled, then turned her attention to contacting Xena before she left man’s world.
“Candy canes?” Xena repeated loudly enough to draw the attention of the rest of the women currently ensconced in the vehicle with her. She glanced at her watch. “That’ll put us behind schedule, Love.”
“I know, Xe, but the Amazons really like them and from what I gathered, the culinary disaster destroyed them all.”
“Culinary disaster?” Xena repeated, brows in her hairline. “Should I ask?”
“I didn’t,” Gabrielle replied. “The smoke was telling enough.” Xena winced.
“Okay... ew. I’ll see what I can do, Gab.”
“Just do your best, Sweetheart. And be careful - I’ve seen the weather reports. We won’t start without you.”
Xena chuckled. “You can’t - I’m bringing our guests. We’ll see you shortly.” She looked around at the women who were all looking back at her with interest. “All right, ladies. We have to make an unexpected stop before we can head out. Apparently the kitchen needs more candy canes. So I need the nearest discount store because we need a lot of candy canes.”
“So tell us about the Amazons,” Jo requested after they had all boarded the private jet Xena had ushered them to. It had taken a few minutes - they each carried a piece of luggage and then there were the myriad of candy canes Xena had purchased. Finally however, they were comfortably ensconced throughout the cabin and Jo ventured to ask the question no one else had dared.
“What would you like to know?”
“Everything,” Jo said honestly. “I mean we didn’t even realize they were more than a myth.”
“Oh no... they’re quite real.”
“Xena?” Sam spoke up, swallowing hard when bright blue eyes focused on her. Brooke took her hand and she smiled nervously, then swallowed again when she realized Xena had raised her eyebrow. “Um... how did we get chosen? Not that I’m not cool with it - I think it’s kinda awesome actually. But I mean why us?”
“We had our reasons, but they’re not mine to share. You will find out before the weekend is over, but in the meantime we’d like you all to enjoy yourselves. Solstice with the Amazons is something to be enjoyed.”
“Are you going to make us sing carols?” Nora asked dryly. “’Cause I gotta tell you - some of us are more suited to listening than singing.” Her words caused laughter to roll through the cabin. No one even noticed the plane take off.
Xena shook her head, though she couldn’t contain her head. “No singing required. There’ll be some decorating to do, I’m sure. That always gets left until last so everyone can participate. Otherwise it’s just a big family party.”
“So tell us about them.”
“Rhea?” Gabrielle replied as she passed by the med center. Rhea motioned her in and Gabrielle crossed the threshold. “Rhea, why are you holed up in here this close to the holiday? Surely we don’t have party casualties already,” said drolly with a grin and garnering her a small smile in return.
“Not yet. I think everyone wants their senses about them to meet the newcomers. But that’s not why I asked to speak with you,” Rhea hurried on when she saw the frown cross Gabrielle’s features. “I was wondering if you could help me on a more personal level. See, I’m trying to do my own Solstice cards like you do every year, but I’m stuck. I really don’t know what to say.”
“Well, it really depends on what you want to say, now doesn’t it? I mean you can be funny or romantic or just general in wishing folks a good holiday. Rhea, I did this for a living for a while and I have trouble sometimes. It doesn’t have to become drama, though - just speak from your heart.”
Rhea sat quietly, considering Gabrielle’s words for a long moment. “Thank you, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle smiled. “Anytime. But you may want to put that on hold for a few minutes. We just got word that Diana and the Birds are inbound.” Rhea nodded and rose, grabbing her kit and accompanying Gabrielle out of the palace and towards the landing field.
“Hel?” Barbara asked quietly as they invisible plane made its silent trek towards Paradise Island. Dinah was sitting up front with Diana and Barbara felt confident in the privacy she and Helena shared at the moment. She waited for lazy blue eyes to open and pin her in their gaze before she continued. “Why did you lie to me?”
Helena blinked and her eyes flashed golden before she sat up and moved to the other side of the small couch she and Barbara were sharing. “Excuse me? When did I lie to you, Barbara?”
“Earlier... when you said Dinah wanted to learn to dance like an Amazon,” watching Helena’s eyes drop to the couch and scratching the back of her neck awkwardly. “C’mon, Hel... talk to me. I thought we were past this. If you can’t be honest with me....” seeing the dark head snap up and pained blue eyes meet her own. “Hel...?”
“I wasn’t lying... not exactly. I mean I’m sure Dinah would probably love to learn some of those Amazon dances we saw. But it’s not my secret, Red. You gotta believe me.”
Barbara turned to glance at Dinah. “Is she all right?”
“I think she will be. Just some growing pains,” looking like she was waiting to be kicked. Barbara sighed and held out her hand and Helena took it with alacrity, sliding back into place and putting her head back in Barbara’s lap with a relieved sigh.
“You’ll keep an eye on her?” feeling Helena nod against her stomach. “And let me know if it becomes serious?”
“You know it, Red,” easing the shirt up and kissing the bare skin she found. “Are you looking forward to this weekend beyond the obvious, I mean?”
“You mean aside from being able to walk again?” Barbara asked candidly with a smile. She eased her hands into Helena’s short locks and gently scratched her scalp. Helena arched her back and purred.
“Keep it up, Red - we’ll be joining the Mile High Club today.”
Barbara’s eyes widened, recognizing the words for the promise they were. Then she smirked devilishly. “Hold that thought, Hel. I want to take my time with you and we’ll be landing soon. Besides, I am looking forward to this weekend. Aside from being with our Amazon friends again, it’ll be nice to get to know some of these woman beyond a convention setting. I think they’ll make good friends.”
“You’re killing me, Barbara,” Helena whined even as she felt the plane begin making its decent. Barbara chuckled.
“C’mon. Time to go be an Amazon for a little while.”
Helena smirked and sat up. “As long as I get to be Huntress later,” she said with a leer in Barbara’s direction, letting her know exactly who the prey would be.
“All right, you two - knock it off,” Dinah called from the front of the plane. “You’re broadcasting loudly enough to be heard on the moon.” Diana chuckled when Helena raspberried in Dinah’s direction. Diana and Dinah shared a conspiratorial glance, then Diana turned her focus to setting the plane down safely.
“Ladies, welcome... welcome,” Gabrielle said with a smile as her guests slowly wandered into the Great Hall currently lined with tables and chairs, looking around them in bemusement but not speaking. When they spotted her, she could feel their sighs of relief and she gestured them closer. They immediately converged on her and huddled around her while Hippolyta watched with amusement.
Gabrielle gestured slightly, and everyone took a step back to give her a little space. She smiled at them again, meeting each pair of eyes for a long moment before moving to the next. Finally she took a deep breath and began to speak again.
“Welcome, my friends. We’re so glad you could join us for this Solstice Celebration. This,” motioning to Hippolyta and waiting for the crowd to part to let her regent through, “is my regent Hippolyta. She is a big reason why you’re all here. Now I know you all have questions, but for right now, I’d like you to put them aside. I promise you will all get the answers you’re looking for, but first we’re gonna celebrate the holiday together.”
“Is there anything we can do?” Janeway asked.
“Funny you should ask,” Gabrielle chuckled. “Hippolyta is going to take you to your rooms so you can freshen up if you like; then I’m going to ask that you meet back here for dinner. I would like to introduce you to the Nation then, and afterwards we have trees to decorate.”
“Trees plural?” Alex clarified.
“Oh yes,” Gabrielle confirmed. Each caste gets one. There is one especially for Emma and of course there’s the large tree here,” gesturing to the huge fir behind her. “That represents all of us so we all add something to it. It’s the reason we asked each of you to bring a couple ornaments that represented you or held some personal meaning. Then tomorrow, we’ll make wreaths and exchange Secret Santa gifts and eat, drink and....”
“And have stories!” Emma declared from the back of the group that parted at the sound of her voice. “We will get stories, won’t we, Gabrielle?”
“The Queen always shares a story or two on Solstice, Little One.”
Emma tapped Natalia’s arms, where she’d been cradled asleep until a few moments earlier. Natalia glanced at her, then set Emma on the floor, watching as she ran straight into Gabrielle’s arms who returned her hug enthusiastically.
“You really are a real Amazon Queen, aren’t you? And Xena really is your Champion.”
“I really am... and she really is.”
“Wow - that is so cool!” Emma said enthusiastically. “Do you think we can eat now though? I’m hungry.”
“Let’s get you settled into your rooms and then we’ll eat. The Amazons are waiting for us to clear the room so they can bring the feast in.”
“Like the Grinch’s roast beast?” Emma asked as she took Gabrielle’s hand. “It always looked like a ham to me.”
“Me too,” Gabrielle confided. “C’mon, everyone. And watch out for the mistletoe unless you don’t care who you get kissed by.” Eyes widened and the women fell into line, following Gabrielle into the hallway and towards the guest quarters they had been assigned. The holiday was off to a wonderful start.
Dinner had gone off without a hitch. Gabrielle had introduced the guests who were received warmly by all. Hippolyta had made sure to scatter their seats among the Nation so that each couple was part of a larger group of Amazons who had similar interests. That had paid off in spades as everyone was mixed together as though they had never been strangers while they added their decorations one at a time to the big fir. Most of them were sharing the story of each ornament while the rest listened carefully. Sometimes the stories got laughter or applause; a few times folks wiped a tear away. But always there was a response that showed the bonds of friendship strengthening between all the women present. Gabrielle smiled softly. She could see a lot of good coming from this. Xena nudged her gently.
“Penny for them,” holding up a shiny copper coin. Gabrielle turned her head and smiled.
“Do I even want to know why you have pennies in your pocket?”
“Because our friends from man’s world insisted they be allowed to help provide candy canes. Why do you think we came back with so many? I had to put a limit on how much they could each spend or the plane wouldn’t have been able to lift off.” She looked out at the socialization going on. “I think this was a good idea.”
Gabrielle smiled and nodded. “I think so too,” watching as Emma approached. “Are you having a good time, Emma?”
“The best,” Emma answered instantly. “All the ladies here are very nice, but where are all the other kids?”
“There aren’t any other kids,” Gabrielle replied sadly. “There haven’t been in a long time. That is why you have your very own tree to decorate.”
“That’s so sad.”
“Sometimes, but we still play and have fun, and everyone here is happy to have you with us. I don’t think you’ll lack for playmates or fun things to do. How’s your tree coming along?”
“I think I’m done.” Emma yawned and nodded. “Is Barbara okay? She didn’t stay very long after dinner.” Emma narrowed her eyes. “And how did you make her able to walk?”
“It’s part of the magic of this place. It’s why there aren’t any children, but it makes it possible for Barbara to walk while she’s here.” Emma looked at Gabrielle skeptically for a long moment, then nodded her acceptance.
“If you say so. So is she all right? I wanted to tell her about the play I was writing for school.”
Xena leaned over and picked Emma up, settling her in place where she could see the whole room. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged smiles when Emma burrowed deeper into Xena’s embrace and closed her eyes. “She’s fine, Emma. It takes her a little while to adjust to being able to use her legs again and it’s tiring. She should be all right tomorrow, and we’ll be celebrating all day so you’ll have lots of time to talk.” She paused. “How do you like having a room of your own? You know that means you have to make your own wreath for your door, right?”
“Really? That’s awesome,” she said with a sleepy smile. “Mommy said I can keep the door open between my room and hers, but I dunno.” She snuggled a little closer and her breathing evened out. Xena and Gabrielle just looked at one another and chuckled.
The next morning dawned bright and early, but instead of drag tailing, everyone was anxious to be up. There was a lot to look forward to.
“So what do you think, Nik?”
“I think I hope Darius hasn’t burned down the house,” Nikki replied, waiting for the glare she knew was headed her way. “And I think I’m glad we came. It’s kind of nice to make some connections outside the convention venue and even better... outside our job fields. Now let’s go find some coffee.”
“I can get behind that idea,” Nora said with a smile as she leaned in for a kiss. “Or maybe we could just stay here for a little while longer,” she added on an uneven breath when they separated. Nikki chuckled.
“C’mon, Sugar. Plenty of time for that later. We don’t want to be bad guests.”
“Oh yeah we do,” Nora mumbled but obediently followed Nikki out the door of their room.
“Mommy! C’mon! We’re gonna miss all the fun if you don’t hurry up!” Emma called out as she crawled into bed between Olivia and Natalia. “You shouldn’t have stayed up so late talking to God, Mommy. You and Mama wouldn’t be so tired this morning!”
Natalia groaned as she flushed in embarrassment and pulled a pillow over her head. Olivia was torn between laughing and wanting to go back to sleep. Emma solved the dilemma by tugging on the covers until they both had to hold tightly to the sheet to keep from being completely exposed. Olivia opened one eye.
“That’s enough, Bean. Go back to your room. Your mama and I need to go get a shower and then we’ll be ready, all right?”
Emma sighed. “All right. But no funny stuff. I don’t want to miss anything today,” she added sternly before disappearing back into her room. Green eyes met brown and it was all they could do not to laugh aloud. Instead they bit their lips and slid from the bed, slipping into the robes that had been provided for them before sauntering off to the bathroom to start their morning.
“This is so real,” B’Elanna said as she and Seven made their way back towards the Great Hall. “I mean... I know holo-programs are supposed to seem that way, but this is like something beyond.”
“Perhaps,” Seven conceded with a slow nod of her head. “But I am happy Gabrielle invited us to participate. I have missed her and Xena greatly since they have been gone. Besides, I am enjoying interacting with the people from the convention without being regarded with trepidation. I am glad we are not the detectives we were in that simulation.”
“At least you weren’t the murderer,” Kathryn said as she caught up to them. “Good morning, ladies.”
“Admiral,” they responded together. “What do you think of the simulation, Kathryn?” B’Elanna asked.
“I’m enjoying myself. Hippolyta is a very interesting character and of course it’s nice for me to actually be able to be able to talk to some of the other women involved. I missed out on that last time.”
“Missed what, Kathryn?” Casey asked as she and Abbie stepped into the hallway. “Good morning, everyone.”
“My coffee this morning,” Kathryn answered without missing a beat. “I usually have a cup or two before I even leave my rooms in the morning.”
“Me too,” Abbie agreed quickly. “But I bet whatever they’ve got here is better than the sludge we get at work. The stuff has eaten a spoon or two - joys of working for the government,” drawing winces all the way around.
“Can’t be worse than Air Force coffee,” Sam commented as she and Janet joined in the discussion. “Some days I swear thy drain the oil from the fighters after about a hundred combat missions and serve that.” Casey laughed.
“My dad said the same thing about the Army, though for them it was the tanks.”
“I was lucky,” Kathryn offered. “My crew made sure to lay in a supply of fresh whenever they could find it.”
“Only because she was impossible to deal with otherwise,” B’Elanna offered with a smirk. Janeway arched a brow, then reluctantly nodded her agreement.
“It’s true - although any coffee... even instant... was preferable to none at all,” smiling at the shudders and nods of agreement that went around the circle.
“I’m just glad Daniel took over the coffee preparation for us,” Janet said with a significant look at Sam. “He makes his own blend,” she confided to the rest. “I’m not sure the Colonel would have survived otherwise.” There was laughter but before anyone else could comment, Hippolyta came out of nowhere and spoke.
“Ladies, would you like to join us inside? Breakfast is being served and I promise it won’t kill you.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Abbie groaned. “Not if last night was any indication.”
Hippolyta frowned. “Was there something wrong, Abbie?” She moaned pitifully and put her head down on Casey’s shoulder. Casey rolled her eyes but wrapped an arm around Abbie’s torso and gently stroked her back.
“The only thing wrong with dinner last night was that Abbie ate too much. It has been an incredible visit so far otherwise. The women here are very nice and I have to admit - I haven’t laughed so much decorating a tree since I was a kid.”
“Good... we want you to enjoy your time with us. We’re certainly enjoying your being here. I will caution you however, Ms Carmichael,” waiting for a brown eye roll in her direction. Hippolyta bit her lips to school her features. “This isn’t Texas - bigger isn’t always better.”
Everyone laughed at the solemnness of Hippolyta’s words and Abbie’s grown-up reaction. Then they entered the dining hall and set about collecting breakfast and finding a place to sit with each other and their new Amazon friends.
“You missed breakfast,” Abbie commented as Olivia and Alex crossed the threshold into the Great Hall some time later.
“That’s okay,” Olivia said with a smirk, her eyes following Alex as she retrieved tea for both of them. “We found the mistletoe.”
“Did you go looking for it?” Jo asked as she and Blair approached the group late themselves.
“Of course we did,” Alex said, passing Olivia her cup. “You can’t be too careful, you know.” She looked around at the busy-ness with interest. “So what’s on tap for this morning?”
“Wreath-making,” Gabrielle replied as she reached them. “Good morning, ladies. Was everyone comfortable last night?” smirking at the nods and blushes she got in response. “Good - then please join us,” motioning them towards the tables. “This is always interesting.”
“How so?” Blair asked.
“We find it tells a lot about the people you are,” Xena answered, smiling when everyone jumped at the sound of her voice. “Sorry,” she said but without any real sincerity. “Oof!” she exhaled when Gabrielle backhanded her in the belly. “What’d ya do that for?” she growled.
“Be nice,” Gabrielle commanded. Xena sighed.
“Take all my fun,” she grumbled but smiled at the grins she received in return. “C’mon... I’ll show you all where you can get started.” Gabrielle placed a hand on Xena’s arm.
“I’m gonna go check on the Birds,” waiting for Xena to nod and move off towards the craft table. Then Gabrielle headed back down the guest hallway towards the Birds rooms.
“I could get used to this,” Helena confessed, rubbing her arms up and down Barbara’s bare back while Barbara’s head lay pillowed on her chest. Normally it was the other way around, and Helena decided she liked being able to hold Barbara in her arms like this.
“What?” Barbara murmured, her breath and lips tickling Helena and causing her to chuckle silently. Barbara frowned. “Wha’s s’funny?”
“You’re tickling me,” Helena confessed. “And I could get used to you being here... being able to hold you like this.”
“I like it too,” Barbara admitted. “I like being here with the Amazons. It’s renewing for me.”
“For all of us, I think,” Helena agreed softly, squealing when Barbara gently pinched her. She raised her head and glared down into twinkling green eyes. “What’d you do that for? Are you looking to start something with me, Red?” eyes flashing to gold.
A knock sounded on the outer door before Barbara could reply and they heard Dinah move to answer it. “Guess that’s our cue, Sweetheart. What I had in mind will have to wait.”
They heard Dinah greet Gabrielle and the two of them leave together. Then Helena turned to Barbara with a feral look in her eyes and a bare pout on her lips. “Are you sure bout that whole waiting thing?”
“Um hmm,” Barbara said with a nip, grinning at the yelp it garnered her. “But we do both need to shower....”
Helena was out of the bed with Barbara in her arms before Barbara could finish her sentence.
“Good morning, Gabrielle,” Dinah welcomed, taking her by the arm and leading her back into the hallway. “Trust me; you don’t wanna go in there right now.”
Gabrielle chuckled and shook her head. “Are they driving you nuts, Dinah? Would you rather have a room of your own?”
“Could I?” she asked, much to Gabrielle’s surprise. Gabrielle nodded.
“Of course. We only put you together in a suite because you’re a family. Emma got her own room because Olivia requested connecting rooms.”
“You’re right... we are. But they’re also a family... just the two of them. Sometimes I think it might be better for everyone if I....”
“I’ll tell you what,” Gabrielle broke in. “We’ll move you to your own quarters for now; see how you like it. The rest? You’re welcome to stay here as long as you need, Dinah. We can figure it out as we go.”
“How did you know?”
Gabrielle offered Dinah a droll look. “YEARS of practice. Now c’mon. You don’t want to miss making a wreath for your door, do you?”
Dinah looked at her a long moment, then brightened. “No. I know what I want to do.”
Gabrielle chuckled and patted her arm. “Good girl... now c’mon!”
The wreaths had been made and hung; cards handed out; the candy canes shared between everyone. There had been some singing and some dancing; another big Yule log had been lit. The trees twinkled and sparkled and and there were a number of gaily wrapped gifts beneath the branches. Other than the feasting that would take place later that evening to kick off another Amazon party, the only remaining part of the Solstice Celebration that remained was the exchanging of Secret Santa gifts.
Xena loved this part of Solstice, though she put up a token fight every year before acquiescing gracefully. So now she stood beside the tree handing presents to Emma to distribute with Diana’s help. When she finished, everyone had a Secret Santa gift... except Gabrielle. Xena looked at Sam who nodded and rose, then cleared her throat to speak.
“Um... hi everyone,” starting slightly when the room responded politely. “Um... yeah. I uh... I asked Xena - well, I asked her two things, actually. I asked if I could stand here and make an idiot of myself,” shaking her head at the chuckles she heard and looking down at the floor until Brooke squeezed her hand. Sam cleared her throat. “I also asked if Brook and I could be hers and Gabrielle’s Secret Santas. I know that’s not the way it’s supposed to be done, but I had something for them particularly. Um... I don’t know if the Amazons know about Gabrielle’s storytelling at the convention we met her at, but I um... Brooke and I put together a book for her and Xena,” extending her arm to Emma to let her take the book to Gabrielle. “I just thought... it makes a nice keepsake.”
Gabrielle took it with trembling hands, then raised one to her mouth to contain her gasp. Xena reached over and took the hand in her own, chafing it lightly and exchanging smiles with Gabrielle. It had been a good Solstice.
Tomorrow they would sit their guests down and explain why they had been invited and what they were being offered. Later Gabrielle would talk to Diana and see if they could perhaps come to an understanding about Gabrielle’s significance to the Nation. But for tonight - for this one moment - everything was right with the world.