This time the curtains opened fully, revealing the presence of a baby grand piano. Diana, dressed in jeans and an untucked white dress shirt, took her seat on the bench, adjusting the microphone stand Xena had slipped into place. Xena, in jeans and an untucked black dress shirt, then walked over to Lucy and simply extended her hand, smiling when Lucy shook her head. The audience couldn't hear the words they exchanged, but they got the reference when Xena motioned to Gabrielle, then crossed her arms over her chest with a smirk.
Lucy blew her bangs out of her face, then stuck out her tongue at Xena before extending the microphone to her. The crowd laughed and cheered, enjoying the pantomimed action as much as it had the rest of the evening. Xena took the mic, then took a bow; Lucy crossed her arms over her chest and stuck her nose in the air... for the all of five seconds it took for her to join in the laughter. Then she headed back to her seat and waited for the next act to begin.
Xena stepped to the front of the stage, clearing her throat before bringing the mic to her lips. “So, um... Lucy was right – Gabrielle did give me more than an hour to prepare for this performance,” her smile garnering her light laughter from the crowd. “Yeah,” she added, scratching the back of her neck, “I'm even luckier in that Diana was nice enough to agree to accompany me and we've actually sung together before. However, it's been a really long time since we did, so....” trailing off, not mentioning how long that really long time was or the fact that it had been among the Amazons.
“But, as Emma can tell you, an Amazon Queen is entitled to a Champion, but a Queen's Champion has to be well-rounded and can never shirk her duty to the queen. In my case, that means on the rare occasion that Gabrielle asks for me to sing for her, I do.” Xena turned to face Gabrielle and bowed deeply before meeting her eyes. “With your permission, your majesty....” knowing no one would think it was more than a simple bit of theatrics and showmanship for Emma's benefit.
Gabrielle nodded regally and waved her hand. Xena smiled and moved back to stand behind the piano, still facing the audience and close enough that she and Diana could see and hear one another easily.
“Whenever you're ready,” Xena said softly, nodding her head. Diana smiled and riffed her fingers across the keys before smoothly segueing into the introduction of the medley they'd prepared. Xena returned the smile and began singing alone.
When you're down and troubled
And you need some love and care
And nothing, nothing is goin' right,
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night
You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I'll come runnin' to see you again
Then Diana harmonized with her on the chorus.
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All ya have to do is call
And I'll be there,
You've got a friend, you've got a friend.
Diana took over the melody on the next bit.
You've got a friend in me
You've got a friend in me
When the road looks rough ahead
And you're miles and miles
From your nice warm bed
You just remember what your old pal said
Boy, you've got a friend in me
Yeah, you've got a friend in me
Then Xena resumed the lead and Diana dropped back to harmonizing.
You've got a friend in me
You've got a friend in me
If you've got troubles, I've got 'em too
There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you
We stick together and can see it through
Cause you've got a friend in me
You've got a friend in me.
By this point, the room was singing along on the bits they recognized and swaying to the parts they didn't know. Xena signaled to Diana who nodded her agreement and extended the transition into the next piece, giving time for Xena to kneel in front of Gabrielle before she started singing again.
Ooh you make me live
Whatever this world can give to me
It's you - you're all I see
Ooo you make me live now honey
Ooo you make me live
Ooh you're the best friend that I ever had
I've been with you such a long time
You're my sunshine and I want you to know
That my feelings are true
I really love you
Oh you're my best friend .
Gabrielle blushed, but she held Xena's gaze and smiled, tenderly cupping Xena's cheek. Xena's free hand covered it briefly, then took it in her hand and lifted it to her lips while Diana let the music evolve from one song to the next. Xena let the words flow from her lips without letting her eyes leave Gabrielle's.
But of all these friends and lovers,
There is no one compares with you.
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new.
Though I know I'll never ever lose affection
For people and things that went before,
I know I'll often stop and think about them.
In my life I love you more.
Xena tugged on the hand she held, pulling Gabrielle to her feet and swaying with her gently on the floor beside the stage. Diana played a nice long interlude, then took over the singing. She'd seen the queen and her consort forget the world existed before when they got lost together like this.
Keep smiling, keep shining,
Knowing you can always count on me
That's what friends are for
For good times and bad times
I'll be on your side forever more.
That's what friends are for.
The room continued to sway with the music, watching Xena and Gabrielle sway with them, yet apart. Diana allowed the music to speed up so she could shift into the next tune, knowing it would pull Xena and Gabrielle back into the act. She waited for Xena to look up and nod her head, then started singing the next song grinning when the audience started clapping in time.
Oh, you got to have friends,
The feeling's oh so strong.
You got to have friends
To make that day last long.
Had some friends, but they're gone,
Somethin' came and took them away,
And from the dusk 'til the dawn
Here's where I will stay.
Xena led Gabrielle to the stage, joining Diana's singing about halfway through the song. When they were done, Diana kept up music in the background at Xena's signal. Xena handed Gabrielle the microphone, then put her hands on Gabrielle's hips and lifted her up onto the piano. Gabrielle laughed and crossed her legs as she handed the mic back to Xena.
“All right,” she said over the music. “Before we let Gabrielle do her thing and close us out for the night, Diana and I have one more bit of musical brilliance to leave you with. Pretty sure most of you'll appreciate the humor,” nodding her head at Diana one more time. Laughter and applause started almost immediately – most of the women did, in fact, recognize the music that Diana played leading up to the chorus. Then everyone started singing along.
'Cause I've got friends
In low places
Where the whiskey drowns
And the beer chases
My blues away
And I'll be okay
I'm not big on social graces
Think I'll slip on
Down to the oasis
Oh, I've got friends
In low places
I guess I was wrong
I just don't belong
But then, I've
Been there before
And everything is all right
I'll just say goodnight
And I'll show myself
To the door
I didn't mean to
Cause a big scene
Just wait 'til I
Finish this glass
Then sweet little lady
I'll head back to the bar
And you can kiss my....
Gabrielle gave Diana a pointed look and simply leaned forward and covered Xena's mouth with her hand before they could utter the final word. The crowd went crazy, cheering and whooping loudly in both approval and pleasure of the entertainment they'd been given.
Xena cocked her head in Gabrielle's direction and Gabrielle kissed her nose as she removed her hand. Xena smiled at her, then extended her hand to Diana, helping her from the bench. Together they walked to the front of the stage, bowing first simultaneously, then separately before wrapping their arms around one another and laughing.
After a moment, they pulled apart and Diana headed off the stage. Xena looked at Lucy, but she simply shook her head and gestured for Xena to continue. In anticipation, the women grew silent. Xena let her eyebrows go into her hairline.
“You guys expecting something else?” grinning when the audience went a little bit wild. That reaction, pure and honest, made everything they had done to get to this point more than worth it. She turned and looked at Gabrielle, not surprised to see a hint of tears in the green eyes she knew so well. Xena looked back out at the audience.
“Then without further ado... please welcome – Bard Gabrielle!!”
This time everyone jumped to their feet clapping, whistling and stomping enthusiastically. Xena turned back to Gabrielle and walked back to the piano. She handed her the microphone and leaned their foreheads together, putting her hands on Gabrielle's waist.
“You all right?” she whispered.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and nodded, swallowing hard before she spoke. “Yeah... it's just....” She shrugged. “I'm still a little overwhelmed. I never expected....”
Xena grinned. “Yeah, but it's nice, right?”
“Yeah, it is. Now put me down so I can tell my story.”
Xena bowed low, drawing screams from the still cheering crowd. “As you wish, my queen,” lifting Gabrielle from the piano and setting her gently on her feet before releasing her hips. “Go get ‘em, baby!” Xena whispered, then turned and somersaulted from the stage. Gabrielle grinned fondly at her and shook her head. Xena simply bowed again and took her seat, not surprised to find Emma next to her again.
“This is so exciting!” Emma whispered loudly to Xena to be heard over all the noise in the room, even as she bounced up and down in her seat. Xena smiled and nodded.
“Yes, it is. It's been a long time since the queen has told stories like she has this weekend.”
“Why? She's really good at it.”
“Yes, she is. But there isn't really a call for it anymore. People have television and movies and books.”
Emma narrowed her eyes. “I'll talk to my mommy. She can fix that. She can fix anything, you know,” Emma confided confidently.
Xena smiled and nodded. She had no doubt if Emma got involved, all kinds of things would be possible. She only hoped Emma's mother was ready for everything that meant. Then she realized the room was settling down and directed Emma's attention back to the stage.
“Thank you, everyone... thank you so much,” Gabrielle said as she wiped the corner of her eye and chuckled, causing more applause. She held up her hand. “Thank you ladies. Please... please be seated. Please... thank you.”
Gabrielle smiled and waited for them to calm down and settle back into their seats.
“Thank you – I can't tell you how amazing this weekend has been for me. Aside from all the wonderful seminars and networking we've done; besides all the new friendships we've made - your welcome for me... for this....” pausing when they cheered again.
“Now,” Gabrielle continued when the room quieted again. “I'm gonna tell you something... gods' honest truth,” she added, holding up her hand as if taking a pledge. “Xena and I didn't discuss what we were gonna do here tonight. Aside from knowing that she was singing and I was storytelling, we didn't talk about this at all. So the fact that she and Diana did a song medley about friendship and I'm telling a story about two best friends is simply karma.”
The women clapped their approval and Gabrielle took that moment to look at Xena. Without hesitation, she tapped Emma on the shoulder and handed her a bottle of water, then leaned forward and whispered in her ear. Emma took the bottle and nodded eagerly. Then she ran up the stairs onto the stage and gave Gabrielle the bottle. Gabrielle accepted the bottle and offered a hug that Emma gladly returned before she ran back to sit beside Xena once more.
“So sit back, ladies, and let me tell you the story of Nolie and Rysa.”
Gabrielle tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and looked out at the audience. “This is a beautiful story of love and friendship that takes place during one of the darkest parts of US history, and it begins in the waning days of peace before the Civil War tore this country apart….”
Nolie walked slowly down the cobbled streets, her head bent lost in thought. It was the fall of 1860, and the countryside was rumbling with the rumors of war. She found the talk unsettling, and she made her way to the bank at the corner of Franklyn & Rhodes to visit her papa. The walk made her introspective, and she thought back over her life, and what had brought her to the decision she'd come to that morning ---
Gabrielle smiled out at the quiet audience. “Now you need to know what Nolie was thinking about as she walked down that road towards the bank. It lays the foundation for this entire tale.”
Cyrus Brighton was the president of the First National Bank, and had guided it into prosperity in the years since its founding. He was well thought of in the community, and his plantation, though not large, was a thriving success. His house slaves were mostly devoted, as he was not a hard master to serve.
One was particularly faithful. Rysa was a mulatto who'd been brought into the house as a youngster to be a companion to his newborn daughter. The eight-year-old stared at the new baby with wide hazel eyes not realizing the difference the little brown-eyed child would make in her life.
It was 1844 when Magnolia Brighton was born, the only child of Cyrus and Rebecca Brighton. They'd been married for twelve years when she made her appearance, and never were two people so happy to welcome a baby into their home. Complications set in for Rebecca though, and before Nolie was two weeks old, her mother passed into God's arms, leaving Cyrus to raise their baby girl alone.
Cyrus was distraught, so his housekeeper slave who went by the name Twiggy took little Nolie in to Cyrus and laid her in his arms. He continued to look out the window, though his arms tightened convulsively around the tiny bundle.
“Massa Cyrus? Massa Cy? Ah knows ya don' wanna hears dis from me, sah, but Miz Nolie, she still needs ya, sah.”
He sat still so long that Twiggy wondered if he'd even heard her, but finally his attention turned to the sleeping baby, then his eyes tracked to Twiggy. “I do not know anything about babies, Twiggy. What am I going to do without Rebecca?”
Twiggy couldn't stop the tears that rolled down her face. “Massa Cy, if'n ya'd like sah, Ah'll take care of de baby, sah. I knows of someones I kin git to hep wif her....”
Nolie started fussing, and Cyrus awkwardly patted her behind. “You do what you think is best for her, Twiggy. I leave her in your capable hands.”
Rysa became Nolie's friend and companion, and they'd never questioned their right to be together. Rysa changed Nolie's diapers, fed her and rocked her when she cried. As Nolie grew older, Rysa taught Nolie how to climb trees and fish and swim, and Nolie in turn taught Rysa how to read and write. Though Rysa was eight years older, the two girls grew up together, and Rysa was mostly able to put the fact of her slavery out of her mind.
On the eve of Nolie's tenth birthday, Rysa's slavery was brought home to them both in a very real way.
“Xena?” Emma asked, tugging on Xena's dark sleeve and forcing Xena to lean down to hear her. Xena cocked an eyebrow and waited. Emma leaned up to she could whisper in Xena's ear. “Why's Gabrielle talking so funny?”
Xena smiled. Gabrielle had spent a long time getting Twiggy's inflection right – something Xena had appreciated more when she'd finally met the elderly woman in person.
“Because that's the way Twiggy talked, Jellybean. She didn't have the chance to go to school and learn better.”
Emma held her eyes for a moment, judging her honesty. Then she nodded her head and turned back to listen to Gabrielle.
Rysa was accompanying Nolie downtown to see her father at the bank. It wasn't something she particularly enjoyed because of the attention it got her. But Nolie wanted to see her father, and she could not, would not allow the precocious child to walk into town alone.
When they arrived at the bank, Rysa was stopped at the door by the doorman, who was unnecessarily rude and condescending. “Whaddya want here, nigger? Yer kind don't have business here.”
“That's a bad word,” Emma hissed, though this time, it was loud enough for Gabrielle to hear her. Gabrielle turned to the side of the stage, then walked over and knelt down.
“You're right, Emma – it is a bad word. But in that time and that place, it was commonly used in reference to everyone of color.”
Emma nodded. “All right. Go ahead. I like this story.”
Gabrielle smiled. “So do I,” remembering how glad she'd been when Nolie and Rysa had shared it with her the first time. She rose and went back to the middle of the stage, switching the hand that held the microphone and tucking yet another stray lock of hair behind her ear.
Nolie didn't understand the man's ugliness, but even as a child she knew she didn't like his tone in addressing her friend. She stepped in front of Rysa and pointed at the man, glaring up into his face.
“You don't talk to her like that, mister. She's my friend!”
The man sneered at her and tried to push the child away from him. “Watch it....” was all he managed before finding his hand caught in a vice grip and blazing hazel eyes burning into him.
“Why do you not go tell...?”
“I'm gonna tell my papa on you, you bad man.”
“Problem, Mr. Fulton?” Cyrus Brighton's quiet voice cut into the melee, effectively silencing everyone. One of his tellers had heard the disturbance and fetched him from his office in time to hear Nolie's youthful voice raised in anger.
“Yes, sir. This nigger was trying to get in the front door. We do not let her kind do business here.”
“I see. Perhaps you should know the facts before you start passing judgment, Mr. Fulton. Rysa is my daughter's governess, and as such is allowed in with my daughter when she accompanies her to town. If that is going to be a problem for you, perhaps you should find other employment, because I will not sacrifice Magnolia's safety for your petty bigotry. Do I make myself clear?” he asked, not understanding how bigoted he himself sounded.
“Yes sir. I didn't realize....”
“Very well, Mr. Fulton. Don't let it happen again.”
“Yes sir,” the young man said grudgingly, just moving out of the way to allow Rysa to pass by him into the building.
That night, Nolie went into Rysa's room without knocking, and for the first time noticed the scars on Rysa's back. Rysa quickly pulled on her nightshirt when she heard Nolie's gasp. “Rysa? What happened to your back?”
It was a little awkward between them now - Rysa was an adult while Nolie remained a child, and Rysa never lost sight of the fact that she was a slave, though she managed to put the fact aside most of the time. She silently mourned this day, knowing it would put a gulf between them that they would never be able to bridge.
She sat down on her bed, and Nolie crawled up beside her. Trusting brown eyes looked into hazel and asked again. “Rysa?”
Rysa looked down into Nolie's eyes, the shrugged as if it were of no great consequence. “I'm a slave, Nolie,” she answered quietly. “I was taken from the fields as a child, and brought in to be a companion to you. It's something I've always been thankful for; at first because it got me out of the fields. But later it was because we became friends. I never expected that. But I am still a slave.”
Rysa stopped talking, as though afraid to reveal too much, and Nolie sat quietly pondering her words. Finally, Nolie looked up into Rysa's eyes. “I don't care. You are my best friend, and nothin' is goin' to change that.” She jutted out her chin diffidently. “I will not let it.”
Rysa brushed a light kiss over the child's light brown hair, and they sat quietly for a time after that. Rysa began to think Nolie had fallen asleep she was silent so long, then her young friend spoke again.
“Rysa? Who hit you? Who left the marks on your back?”
“It does not matter, Nolie. It was a long time ago.”
“It matters to me, Ry. Please tell me.”
Rysa sighed, wondering how they'd gotten into this bizarre conversation of times and events she tried very hard not to remember. “It was Master Wilkes.”?
“Wilkes? The plantation foreman?” Nolie's childish brow knotted in thought. “I knew there was a reason I didn't like him. He's just mean.” Nolie scrambled from the bed and headed towards the door. “I'll ask Papa to fire him.”
Rysa rushed from the bed to stand in front of the door. “You cannot do that, Nolie, please.” She knelt down to be at eye level and went on quickly when the small face scrunched in confusion. “Please... it will only make things worse if you do.”
Nolie stared into the hazel eyes she had trusted since birth and saw truth and terror and sorrow. She nodded her head slowly. “Okay, Rysa. But I'm not letting the fact that you are a slave change things between us. You are still my best friend and always will be.” She clasped her arms around Rysa's neck and kissed her smooth cheek goodnight. “Maybe if I ask Papa to free you....” she mumbled mostly to herself, not seeing the eyes behind her widen in alarm. She slipped out of the room, closing the door behind her, then just as suddenly reopened it and stuck her head in.
“Good night, Ry.”
“Good night, Nolie,” Rysa whispered, still overwhelmed by what had just happened.
“Now keep in mind that all this happened when the rumblings of civil war were merely that... rumblings. Talk that happened around the dinner table and in libraries and studies in homes across the nation. Nolie grew up in this volatile environment and even as sheltered as she was kept, she still heard things, and considering the day and age, she was quite an independent young woman. It didn't make things easy, but it certainly kept them interesting.”
Nolie shook her head remembering that day six years prior as she walked up the short steps to the bank. She had been so young and so naïve, but she hadn't let it change their friendship. Even when her father refused to free Rysa and she'd been angry with him for weeks, her friendship with Rysa had remained steady.
“Good mornin', Charles,” she said politely to the doorman. Fulton had left shortly after the incident with Rysa, and Nolie for one was glad to see him go. His rudeness to her friend had marked him as unacceptable in her child's mind and she'd never gotten past it.
Now that she stood on the cusp of adulthood, she was even more adamant in her feelings and was coming to break the news to her father before he could send out invitations to her cotillion.
She stepped through the portal, nodding to the men who though busy with work took the time to greet her. She walked to the back area where Cyrus maintained his office, and waited for his assistant to announce her. Then she crossed the threshold and closed the door softly behind her.
Her father rose from behind the desk, and came around to meet her, arms extended for a hug. When the embrace ended, Cyrus stepped back with a smile and motioned her to a seat. “Nolie, what a nice surprise! Are you so excited about your coming out party that you came down to make sure I sent the invitations out today?” He gestured to the stack of thick, cream colored envelopes on his desk and grinned. “I was just finishing up the last of them. General is supposed to pick them up and deliver them round this afternoon.”
Nolie took a deep breath before looking up into his eyes. “I don't want a party, Papa. Ry cannot come, and I will not have one without her.”
Cyrus looked at his daughter in consternation. “Nolie, this has been the talk of the town for weeks. Why are you deciding this now? Folks expect this.”
“Well, folks will just have to lower their expectations. I will not have a party if Rysa cannot come, and I will not have her be shunned because of her skin color if she was able to come. There is no way to win, so I will simply not have a party.”
“And if I go ahead and give you one? There are a number of eligible young men who have been looking forward to this, Nolie. Rysa is just a slave. Is it fair not to give them the opportunity t....” Cyrus didn't finish, stopped by the fire in her almost black eyes.
“If you go ahead with the cotillion, Papa, I will not be there. You will have it without me.”
He looked at her in silence, the stubborn set of her jaw reminding him so much of her mother it almost hurt to see it. “You're serious.”
“Yes, I am,” she answered quietly, but with conviction. Her glance never wavered, and in that moment Cyrus Brighton had never been more proud of his willful, determined daughter. He sighed audibly though. She was making a statement he wasn't sure he wanted the world to know about in these turbulent times.
Cyrus was considered a fair and just man, but he still owned slaves and honestly saw no problem with it. He wasn't a cruel master and could not understand his daughter's attitude.
“I am not going to convince you otherwise, am I?”
“No sir, and I do not want you to take this out on Rysa. She knows nothin' about this; it is completely my decision.”
Cyrus had the grace to blush at Magnolia's intuition. He had been thinking exactly that, wondering in the back of his mind if Rysa had somehow influenced Nolie's decision. “Promise me, Papa. Promise me you will not take this out on Rysa.”
He looked at her sheepishly. “You have your mother's strength of will, Nolie. I promise I will do nothing to Rysa for your decision. But you are going to have to explain to the neighbors. They have been waiting for this occasion - some of them for years.”
She rose from the chair. “It's my choice, Papa and not their business. Thank you for allowin' me to choose.”
“I have never denied you much of anything, daughter, and if you do not want a cotillion, I certainly will not make you suffer through one.” He stroked her cheek gently. “You have such a tender heart. I hope you do not get hurt by this.”
“I won't, Papa. Rysa means more to me than our gossipy neighbors,” she assured him blithely. But she had no idea of the things that were to come.
Rysa noticed that fewer and fewer of Nolie's friends came around when Nolie refused to have a cotillion, and she did her best to step away from the younger woman and let her become the belle her father wanted her to be. Nolie was having none of it, however, and continued to cling to her friendship with Rysa. She didn't flaunt their friendship, but she did nothing to hide it.
Eventually, their attention turned towards the ever-increasing threat of war, and they lost interest in scorning Nolie for choosing a slave's company over their own. Instead they became more and more adamant in the vocal outcries for war, and stopped by frequently to talk about why war was becoming more necessary, and how it would change the country for the better and....
Gabrielle paused a moment and took a long pull of the water Emma had given her, then let her glance drop to her feet for a long moment. Then she looked back out into the silent audience. “Have you ever noticed that when it comes along, talk about war is always essentially the same?” She sighed. “And so are the results.” She shook her head and blew out a breath, then resumed her story.
Nolie got sick and tired of hearing the incessant chatter, and took to escaping out the back with Rysa when she heard General headed her way. They had worked out a signal, and when General cleared his throat upon receiving callers, Nolie grabbed Rysa by the hand and ran out into the gardens so as to be unavailable.
The first time it happened, Rysa was stunned. She sat in the gazebo catching her breath and looking at Nolie. Finally, she opened her mouth and spoke quietly. “Do you want to explain to me why two grown women just went flying out of the house as though the hounds of hell and damnation itself were giving chase, especially when you have company?” Her tone wasn't accusing, but merely curious. She'd long ago given up trying to understand Nolie; Rysa simply loved her and accepted Nolie as she was.
Nolie stretched out along the length of the bench where Rysa sat, laying her head in the older woman's lap and enjoying her rather unladylike position. It reminded her a lot of the many times they'd sat here just like this during her growing up years, and for a moment she wished she could reclaim that time and go back to when things were so much simpler.
She closed her eyes and sighed when she felt Rysa's long fingers gently begin to comb through her hair. “I am tired of the singular focus of their conversation, Ry, and I know it gets to you. They are deliberately nettling you, and I don't like it. So General and I have worked out a signal, and when they stop by, I am conveniently not in to receive them.”
Rysa sat silently absorbing the information Nolie had just imparted, gently massaging through the light brown hair, marveling at its softness. She felt Nolie unwind and smiled. Always, since Nolie had been a small child, this had been one of the best ways to calm and relax the tiny whirlwind the young woman had been. Rysa smirked to herself - and obviously still was. She sat a while longer in noiseless contemplation.
“Nolie?” Rysa said softly, finally. She did not want to disturb the younger woman if Nolie was asleep. One light brown eye peeked up at her.
“Hmm?” came the drowsy answer.
“Hmm?” came the sleepy response again. “Why what, Ry?”
“Nothin'... never mind.” Rysa's shoulder's dropped. Both of Nolie's eyes popped open at the dropped ‘g'. Since learning to read, Rysa had always taken great care with her language, and Nolie could count on her hands the number of times she had let her speech slide. It always coincided with upset or distress, and Nolie wondered what had happened. She turned her head to look directly at Rysa, and caught the tears glistening on the smooth skin.
Nolie reached a hand up and gently removed the traces of wetness. “This is not nothing, Ry. What's wrong?” It was times like this that Nolie was reminded of Rysa's fragility, and she felt the more grown up of the two of them.
Rysa clasped the fingers on her face and kissed the tips lightly before smiling through watery eyes. “You have always put me... put our friendship before everything, no matter the cost to yourself. I just sometimes wonder why. How can the life and friendship of a slave be worth so much?”
Nolie sat up so fast she nearly caught Rysa in the chin with her head. She grabbed Rysa's face firmly between her hands, making sure the hazel eyes were focused on her completely before she continued. “I know that it has been very hard for you, especially lately with all the rude and snide comments. But I only want to have to explain this to you once, and I want you to understand and accept that I mean every word that I say.”
Rysa's eyes searched Nolie's and she nodded. Nolie looked back at her intently. “You were a child, and yet you raised me and taught me. You gave me everything you had Rysa, even when you had nothing left to give. Now as a slave, I am sure you did what was expected of you. But you went beyond that. More than that, more than anything, you loved me. You loved me and cared for me, and that *wasn't* expected.”
Nolie took a deep breath. “So even if I did not love you, and even if you were not my very best friend, I would still look out for you, Rysa. But the fact is I *do* love you and you *are* my very best friend in the whole world. And friends, especially best friends, stick together... no matter what.”
Rysa didn't answer, but laid her head on Nolie's shoulder and wept tears of joy and sorrow and relief. In all her years, though she'd known Twiggy and General cared for her and Master Cyrus liked her well enough, not once had anyone aside from Nolie ever expressed love for her, and never had Nolie put it so succinctly.
Nolie just held onto her and let her cry.
After their conversation in the gazebo, things seemed to calm down for a while. Winter settled into the land and Rysa and Nolie fell into a normal winter routine. At sixteen, Nolie was considered a grown woman now, so days were spent quietly and the evenings were even more so. Cyrus had tried, subtly for him, to encourage Nolie to dismiss Rysa from her service. He argued that now that she was grown up, she no longer needed a governess. She agreed and immediately made Rysa her companion. Cyrus gave in quietly, knowing in his heart that he could never separate them unless Nolie willed it so.
Though she cherished the time she and Rysa got to spend together, never was anyone so happy to see spring come as Nolie was. She was looking forward to getting out and seeing sun and green grass. The first nice day, she cajoled Rysa into a buggy ride, and they headed out into the still cool, muddy world to visit Cyrus at the bank.
The ride in was nice, relatively speaking, and both women were glad to be out in the fresh air and sunshine. The buggy slowed as they reached town, as most of the countryside seemed to have the same desire to get out.
Just as they came to the intersection of Franklyn & Rhodes, there was a horrendous crash and Nolie felt the carriage go flying as a heavy weight plowed into the side of it. She remembered Rysa's body covering her own protectively before her head slammed into the floor and everything went mercifully black.
When she came to, Nolie moaned and lifted her free hand to her throbbing head. She blinked her eyes opened, then slammed them shut again as pain lanced through her head at the brightness she encountered. “Ouch,” she whimpered.
“Magnolia? Sweetheart, are you all right?”
“Papa? Papa, where is Rysa? And why does my head hurt?”
Cyrus knelt right next to the couch and cupped his hands around Nolie's face. “Nolie, can you open your eyes for me?” He waited as she blinked them open furiously, tears sliding down her face. “Good girl. Now, what's the last thing you remember?”
Nolie was confused. “Papa, where's Rysa??” She focused on that solitary thought. She clutched at his coat. “Papa, you're scaring me. Where is she, Papa??”
“Magnolia, Nolie... listen to me, honey. I want you to focus on the sound of my voice.” Nolie tried to nod, but groaned at the motion instead. Her eyes closed again reflexively. “That's good, sweetheart. Just lie still, and tell me the last thing you remember.”
She licked dry lips, forcing herself to think back. “Uh, we were coming into town to um... we were coming to see you. I... I... we slowed down, and....” Nolie started shaking. “Papa where is Rysa?”
Cyrus glanced at his desk where the woman was laid out as the doctor worked feverishly to staunch her bleeding. The doctor, something of a white supremacist had been somewhat surprised at Cyrus' vehemence that the mulatto be treated first, especially knowing Cyrus' own leanings. But he did so, knowing that the woman had saved Nolie's life and that she had practically raised the younger woman. For Nolie's sake, they both hoped Rysa survived.
“Nolie, when the accident happened, Rysa moved to cover you, to protect you like she has always done. She got somewhat injured in the process, and Dr. Smithers is working on her now. We need you to lie here quietly until he gets done and can take a look at you, all right?”
Nolie blinked her eyes opened again slowly, peering into her father's face with an intensity he found disturbing. She processed what he'd said and clutched his coat again. “Don't let her die, Papa,” was all she said before closing her eyes and drifting off.
It was sometime later when Nolie opened her eyes again, wincing at the pain in her head and lifting a hand to find a bandage in place. She blinked, wondering if her sight had been affected or if she'd simply slept the day away. She sat up slowly, noting her father sitting in one of the chairs by the fireplace talking quietly to the doctor. Both men turned to look at her at the noise she made.
Nolie had caught sight of the body stretched out on Cyrus' desk, and muffled a small cry of distress. She rose on shaky legs and walked slowly towards it. Cyrus stood and rapidly headed for her. He intercepted her in two steps and took her firmly by the elbow.
“Magnolia? Look at me, daughter.” Cyrus waited until he had her full attention. “Rysa is resting, sweetheart.”
Brown eyes filled with tears stared into his own, making his heart break at the pain he saw in them. “She's not dead?” came the whispered question. Cyrus looked up at the doctor who'd come up on Nolie's other side.
“No, Miss Magnolia. Your friend is not dead. But she is going to need rest and quiet for the next little while.”
Nolie moved her head around slowly to meet the doctor's eyes. “Thank you, Dr. Smithers. When can we take her home?”
“I would like to keep her here overnight, but when she wakes up, she should be able to travel the short distance home as long as you go very slowly and carefully.” At that moment, a soft groan came from the desk, and Nolie swiveled toward the sound, clutching her head at the pain the sudden movement caused. “Easy, Miss Magnolia,” the doctor advised. “You still have quite a big bump on your noggin.”
Nolie nodded slowly, then resumed her slow walk towards her father's desk. Cyrus stayed at her side, a hand steadying her at the elbow. Then he seated her in his large leather chair and stepped away. Nolie slowly reached up and clasped Rysa's hand in her own.
Their conversation was too low to be heard, but the two men watched their interaction for a long moment before turning back to the fire.
“Thank you, George,” Cyrus said softly. “I know it was a lot to ask of you.”
The doctor shrugged. “I did it for Magnolia, Cyrus. The nigger is the only mama she's ever had, and whatever else you can or cannot say about the woman, she did a damn fine job raising her. I could not ask Magnolia to lose more, especially when that nigger risked her life to make sure your little girl was safe.” He looked directly into Cyrus' eyes. “Magnolia would have been killed.”
Cyrus swallowed hard and nodded. “I know. I saw the wreckage right after it happened. We were very lucky.”
They both turned to look at the two women, and despite themselves found the tableau before them touching. Nolie's head rested on Rysa's hip, and their hands were tangled together. The look of peace on both faces caused an unexpected smile to form on both men's faces.
“You really think she will be all right?” Cyrus asked softly, referring to Rysa.
“I do not think Magnolia will permit anything less.” Then they turned their attention back to contemplating the fire, and the silence of the night kept them company.
Gabrielle shook her head again, then pushed her hair back out of her eyes. “Rysa did make a slow recovery under Nolie's watchful eye, and that was the last bit of peace they would know for a long while. Because several weeks later, war broke out and split the Union and everything changed. It was a very dark period in history, but nothing compared to the darkness Nolie fell into, and all because of hatred and greed.”
She looked out into the audience. “I know we have some distinguished members of the military in our ranks tonight, but speaking to the majority of you – have you ever lived through war? Where that is your only existence day in and day out?”
“I have,” Ziva commented softly, not expecting Gabrielle to hear her. She was surprised when Gabrielle stepped to the stage directly in front of her.
“Tell me about it,” Gabrielle asked. Ziva tilted her head thoughtfully.
“It's... draining – very wearing on your mind and spirit as well as your body,” she replied quietly.
“Thank you, Ziva,” Gabrielle said before she repeated Ziva's words to the rest of the room. “And this was worse than what most Americans have experienced, because there was nowhere to go to escape it. And you watched your neighbors and friends die around you... or turn into animals trying to survive. Rest assured, ladies... there is nothing civil about war, and there was nothing civil about what this did to people.”
The winter of 1863 had been a very hard time for everyone, but especially Nolie who came down with a bout of coughing sickness so bad Twiggy and Rysa stayed by her side for three days fending off fever and chills. Twice they feared they'd lost her, but she fought back with a tenacity that brought happy tears to everyone in the house. It was the same fighting spirit that led to the confrontation in the spring the following year.
By the early part of 1864, the country was weary of war, but especially in the South where the way of life had been destroyed. Many slaves had run off when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and fields had been left to fallow.
For her part, Nolie considered herself very lucky. She had lost a majority of her field hands, but she still had the household slaves and a few of the outdoor ones. She had tried to encourage them to leave, but following Cyrus' premature death they had decided to stay with Nolie. She had promptly turned around and freed those that stayed.
Nolie had learned a lot since war had broken out, and even more since Cyrus had died. She had learned about washing, gardening, cooking, cleaning and just scraping along to get by. She had learned about loyalty and true friendship. She had seen the ugly business war was, and what it did to men whom she'd always considered upstanding gentlemen in the community. Nolie felt tired to her very soul.
Rysa had watched with pride as Nolie grew and matured through the trials that the war had brought to her door. The household had become her family and friends, and together they had survived.
Soldiers, both blue and gray, had preyed upon the house and its occupants. Nolie had hidden as many of the valuables as she could, but she couldn't hide herself or Rysa, and advances were made that made them both furious. Rysa had come into her own and had no problem standing up to those who wanted to take advantage of her for whatever reason. But there came a time when it caused Rysa and Nolie to separate from necessity.
The morning was warm and the sounds of the war were distant, though there were still troops wandering through the area. Nolie was out back, hanging the washing on the line when she heard Rysa's raised voice.
“NO!! Take your hands off of me!!” There was a male roar, then a female scream and then silence. Nolie dropped the laundry in her hands, gathered her skirts, and took off at a run around the house. What she saw caused a red wash to flood her senses, and time slowed as she allowed the fury to take over.
Rysa lay on the ground unconscious, bleeding from her nose and mouth. Her dress was ripped and torn, and all Nolie saw were two figures grabbing and mauling Rysa's body beneath them with dirty, anxious hands.
Nolie let out a guttural growl and ran towards them. The men were so involved with their assault that they didn't hear her approach or see the murderous intent in her eyes until it was too late.
Nolie snatched up the bayonet that lay to one side, having been cast aside by one of men in his haste to violate Rysa. Without hesitation, she rammed it into his back, feeling the warm blood coat her hands and arms as it spewed forth from his body. His compatriot didn't even have time to stand before Nolie yanked the blade from the fallen man's body and swung the weapon around in club fashion. The contact with the back of his skull sent shockwaves up her arms, but she swung twice more before he crumpled.
With a sob, she dropped the gun and cradled Rysa's upper body in her arms, jerking her out from under the two fallen soldiers. How long they lay tangled together, Nolie couldn't say. But when her tears stopped flowing and allowed her to see, she noticed Twiggy and General kneeling beside them.
“Miz Nolie? Ya bein' a' right ma'am? Kin we'uns hep ya and Miz Rysa inside?” Twiggy eased her arms around Nolie's small frame. “C'mon now, Miz Nolie,” she coaxed when Nolie's arms tightened around Rysa's still form. “Gen'r'l take Miz Rysa, an' he'll be real easy. C'mon, Miz Nolie... ya gots ta let us hep ya now.”
Twiggy continued to talk and coax until Nolie finally let loose of Rysa and General could lift her into his arms. There was a twin groan as he straightened and Rysa was shifted. Twiggy kept a firm hold on Nolie until they could get into the house.
General headed for the small spare bedroom just behind the kitchen, not wanting to take the chance of dropping Rysa on the stairs. He placed her gently on the bed, and moved back outside to dispose of the bodies before they brought down more problems than they could handle.
Nolie knelt down by the bedside and took one of Rysa's hands in her own. “Don't you die on me, Rysa! Don't you dare leave me like this, you hear me?? You fight this!”
Twiggy put a bowl of warmed water down beside her and put a cloth into Nolie's hands. “Here, chile, ya needs ta clean her up... lessen ya wants me to do it.”
Nolie shook her head slowly. “I'll do it, Twiggy. Will you please fetch a nightgown for her? She needs somethin' more than this,” indicating the torn dress.
“Yes'm. Ah'll brings sumpin' fo' ya too.”
Nolie started to protest, then caught sight of the blood all over herself. “Thank you, Twiggy. I appreciate that.”
She wet the rag, and winced as the red slid off her hands. Nolie put that fact and the reason for it out of her mind and concentrated her energies on Rysa. She spoke softly as she wiped blood and dirt off Rysa's face. Several times Nolie had to bite her lip to keep from crying. The bruises across Rysa's upper body were already becoming a lurid shade of purple, and Nolie winced to touch them.
Nolie moved the hair off Rysa's forehead, and brushed her lips across it. Then she put her head down on the bed and cried.
There was the slightest touch on her head and it just made the tears flow faster. Then Twiggy was reaching for her hands and pulling Nolie to her feet. “C'mon, Miz Nolie. Let Twiggy gets ya cleaned up so's we kin get Miz Rysa dressed.”
Nolie nodded slightly and rose to her feet unsteadily. She stood passively while Twiggy wiped the blood from her hands, arms and neck. “Lif' ya ahms, chile, so's Ah kin get dis dress off'n ya an' git ya into sumpin' clean.”
Nolie shivered when the clean linen slid over her skin, and she sighed in sheer reaction. “Thank you, Twiggy.”
“Pawsh,” the slave answered. “Ain't nuthin' we'uns roun' here wouldn' do fo' ya, Miz Nolie. Ya's always been one ta look out fo' us real good.” She brushed the light brown hair out of Nolie's eyes. “Now, c'mon an' hep Twiggy git Miz Rysa into her nightie.”
Nolie straightened then and moved back to the bedside. “What do you need me to do, Twiggy?”
“Ya set right dere behin' her and lif her up real gen'le like. Let her res' on ya. Twiggy'll do the res'.”
Nolie slipped into the bed and eased herself behind her injured friend, tenderly lifting her and cradling Rysa's bruised and battered face and torso in her arms. She helped Twiggy ease the torn and ripped clothing away from Rysa's body, startled at the low moan and tight grip she found her wrist suddenly wrapped in.
Nolie looked down, pleasantly surprised to see hazel eyes looking back at her. They were pain-filled and slightly glazed over, and she brushed a light kiss over the now clean forehead. Rysa tried to smile, but the movement of her swollen lips caused another groan to emerge from her throat.
“Shh... easy. Just rest easy, Rysa. Twiggy and I'll take care of you. Close your eyes now.”
Rysa gave the smallest nod and obeyed the command. Twiggy finished dressing her and moved to put a hand on Nolie's shoulder. “Miz Nolie? Why don' ya close ya eyes too? Ya need to res' and Ah'll wake ya up in a bit. Ah needs ta go fix sum broth fo' de bof ob ya. C'mon, now,” she coaxed softly, watching as Nolie's eyelids fluttered and finally closed.
Twiggy stood in the doorway for a long moment and shook her head. “Sumpin's gonna haf ta be done,” she muttered to herself, then turned her steps to the kitchen.
Day turned into night before either body stirred from sleep. Nolie blinked open brown eyes at a muffled moan from Rysa. Twiggy appeared at the door at the identical moment as though she had been waiting there for them to awaken, which of course she had.
“Miz Nolie? I's gonna bring ya'll some suppah. Kin ya hep me move Miz Rysa so's ya'll kin eat a bite?”
Nolie's stomach rebelled at the thought of having food put in it, but she knew Rysa would need something to help her get better. Before she could move though, Rysa mumbled, “Help me up, Nolie. I think I can manage with help.”
Nolie slid out from behind Rysa, gently propping her up and waiting beside the bed until Rysa swung her legs over the side and slowly stood.
“Are you doin' all right, Ry?”
“Mostly. My face and my head hurt and my chest is a little sore.”
“Hmm,” Nolie acknowledged. She could only imagine how Rysa hurt, given the lurid bruises she sported. “Let's see what Twiggy fixed us for supper. Bet it's somethin' good.”
Twiggy chuckled softly as she stepped into the room, subtly guiding Rysa to the table. “Ya jus' be bettin' right, Miz Nolie. I done fixed chi'k'n ‘n' dumplin's fo ya bof. I ‘spect ya bof to sit up to table an' eat now.”
Rysa tried to smile, though with her swollen face, it was more of a grimace. “Thank you, Twiggy. My mouth and my stomach appreciate that.”
Rysa did a credible job eating a decent portion of what was on her plate, but Nolie pushed her food around until Twiggy took it away from her with a snort of disgust. Rysa rose and patted the elderly woman's hand. “Thank you Twiggy. It was very good.”
“Leas'wise yo'd know, Miz Rysa, unlike sum pussons in dis house,” with a glance in Nolie's direction. Nolie didn't answer, but simply turned on her heel and walked out the door, not even minding the fact that she was in a robe and nightgown. Rysa's eyes followed her in concern, then tracked back to Twiggy.
“What happened to upset, Miss Nolie, Twiggy?”
“I ‘spect yo'd bes' be askin' her ‘bout that, Miz Rysa. But give de chile a chance to think a while. She's done had a hard day. Now, why don' yo' let Twiggy draw yo' a warm baf? It'll make yo' hurt less.”
Rysa's eyes followed the small figure pacing through the neglected gardens, and her heart ached at the defeated attitude so painfully apparent in the slumped shoulders and drooping head. She took a step towards the screen door before Twiggy latched onto her arm in a gentle but firm grip.
“C'mon, Miz Rysa. Yo' gif Miz Nolie sum time. She'll be comin' to fin' yo' ‘fore too long. Gen'r'l keep a eye on her meantime. C'mon, now.”
Rysa allowed herself to be gently led upstairs, then she was left to undress and climb into the warm water. She restrained a groan, but sank back into the warmth with a tiniest sigh of relief. She didn't allow herself the luxury of a long soak. She was still concerned over whatever was troubling Nolie.
She heard the sound of soft footfalls come up the stairs, then a door closing down the hall. Rysa eased from the tub, shaking her head at her bruised reflection. She dressed slowly, then eased into the hall and walked to stand in front of Nolie's door.
She raised her hand to knock, then hesitated until she heard the soft sound of sobbing emanating from inside. Rysa opened the door and crossed to Nolie's bedside, sitting down next to the younger woman who was curled into a tiny ball. Nolie reached a hand out and tugged gently, forcing Rysa to lie down beside her. Rysa wrapped her arms around Nolie, and simply held her until the tears passed.
“You ready to talk now?” Rysa asked softly when Nolie's crying had finally abated. She was quiet so long Rysa checked to see if Nolie had fallen asleep. She smiled into the sleepy brown eyes that gazed back at her, concerned when she didn't get an answering one in return. “Nolie?”
Nolie sat up and wiped her eyes, accepting the cool, wet rag that Rysa had gotten and now offered her. She looked at Rysa a long moment before smiling sadly, her eyes lingering on the bruises that marred her face.
“I think the time has come, Ry,” Nolie said softly.
Rysa frowned, wincing in reaction to the pain that motion caused her. “What time has come, Nolie?” asked in honest confusion. “What are you referring to?”
“The Underground Railroad, Rysa. I think it's time for you to use it.”
“You're sendin' me away, Nolie?”
“No, Rysa, No! I just think the time has come for you to decide to leave. It's getting' too dangerous around here for you to stay.”
Rysa got off the bed and walked to the window, turning her back towards Nolie. “What makes me so special, Nolie? Why are you not sending Twiggy, General... anyone else, everyone else away as well?” Hurt confusion and not a little anger were clearly apparent in her voice.
Nolie twisted the rag in her hands in sheer frustration, not wanting to go into specifics. She could still feel the warmth of the soldiers' blood as it sprayed over her and the images continued to make her stomach roil.
The silence made Rysa's temper flare and she stalked back to the bed, reaching out and forcing Nolie's eyes to meet her own. “Why, Nolie? WHY??”
Now Nolie's own temper flared and she jerked her chin away from Rysa's touch. She stood, forcing Rysa to back up. She poked a finger into Rysa's chest, forcing the older woman to continue to step back. “Because I love you, Rysa. Because I cannot stand to have what happened to you today continue to happen. Because I killed two men today, and I don't know if I can do that again!!!”
Rysa's mouth dropped as Nolie's words penetrated her consciousness. For her part, Nolie rushed for the washbasin as the implications of what she had said washed over her. Rysa moved to comfort her, holding Nolie up as she retched.
When Nolie was down to shivering and shaking in reaction, Rysa eased Nolie the short distance to the bed, then snatched a blanket from the end and covered her. She moved and re-wet the cloth Nolie had dropped on the bed and gently cleaned Nolie up. Nolie fell asleep and Rysa got up and cleaned up the water bowl, then moved a chair to the window and sat down to stare out into the darkness.
Sometime in the darkest part of the night, Nolie cried out and Rysa crawled into bed next to her, reassuring Nolie until the younger woman settled back into a deep sleep. Near daybreak, Rysa came to a decision and waited for Nolie to awaken.
Gabrielle stopped here, wiping a tear from her cheek and closing her eyes as she tried to bring her breathing back under control. This was the hardest part of the story for her to tell as she knew all too well the despair Nolie and Rysa had suffered.
The audience remained so still, Gabrielle's sigh could be heard throughout the room. Then she raised her head and resumed her story once more.
When night returned to the land again, Nolie and Rysa made one final trip to the old bank building together – it had become a stop for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. For hours they sat curled up together reminiscing, remembering the good times in their lives together.
In the darkest part of the night, a bare touch on Rysa's arm awakened her and Nolie from the light doze they had drifted into. An older man stood in front of them, cap held in his gloved hands. He gestured for silence and motioned for Rysa to follow him. With a look, she asked him to give them a minute of privacy and he nodded and moved to wait by the door.
Nolie and Rysa stood together and embraced in silence for a long moment. Then Nolie stepped back a pace and looked into Rysa's face, memorizing what she knew she would never see again. She took a deep breath and spoke so softly Rysa had to strain to hear the words.
“I'm not sure what I'm goin' to do without you, Rysa. You've been my devoted friend and confidant since I was born.” Nolie's voice shook slightly and she swallowed hard. “You will always have a place in my heart, but I want you to go and find better than what you can have here now. I....” She turned away to keep Rysa from seeing the tears spill down her face.
Rysa's hands clenched, and she stepped up behind Nolie. “I will never find better than what you've given me here, Nolie, and I will come home again.” She brushed a light kiss across the top of the brown hair and stepped away. Nolie caught Rysa's hand and kissed her knuckles, then pressed her cheek against them before gently pushing Rysa towards the door.
“Go with God, my friend.” Then she watched until Rysa disappeared into the night.
Nolie sat until dawn began breaking over the horizon absorbing the sudden loneliness before she turned to make her way out the door silently... only to run into another obstacle before she was completely outside.
She felt the breeze go by her head as the blade plunged into the wood. Her eyes widened as the man towered over her, and reached a hand toward her throat. Nolie pushed him away and stomped on his foot. He growled at her and lunged and was stopped by an unexpected barrier.
“I believe that you'd best look elsewhere for your entertainment. Miss Nolie isn't, nor never has been available to the likes of you. Now leave, before I give you the thrashin' you so richly deserve.”
Nolie looked up in surprise as Mr. Fulton seemed to grow larger as he defended her. She still remembered him harshly from her childhood and the day he was hateful to Rysa. It was odd to see him represented to her so differently after all this time. Then her attention turned back to the soldier who tried to reach around Fulton , only to find his hand caught and twisted at a painful angle.
“Perhaps I didn't make myself clear.” Fulton twisted harder until the man's legs crumpled under him. Then he shoved the soldier back and watched impassively as he fell onto his back.
“That was a stupid thing to do, old man. Two of my buddies disappeared after visiting that bitch and her nigger friend two days ago. And I saw them sneaking ‘round last night... figure she sent that nigger out of here. I'll have my revenge one way or t'other.”
“Well, goin' by your behavior, I'd say they got what was coming to them... if they didn't desert. Now git on out of here before I have to do somethin' you'll regret.”
“You'd take action against a soldier?”
“Yer trying to do harm to a lady; I most certainly would.”
The soldier stood then and came at Fulton , knocking the older man against the door. Fulton reached for the knife and yanked, pushing the soldier away from him simultaneously. The soldier changed directions slightly and headed for Nolie, but never reached her as he found his own blade embedded to the hilt in his chest. He looked over at Fulton who gazed back at him coolly.
“I did warn you,” Fulton said calmly as the soldier sank to the ground. He turned and looked at Nolie. “Best if you head home, Miss Nolie. Robert here will see you home safely. I'll clean up the mess and check in on you later.”
Nolie nodded absently and turned to allow Robert to help her up into the small wagon. Then she leaned back and closed her eyes, suddenly overcome with weariness.
Gabrielle paused long enough to take another drink of water, then plunged right back into her story.
Time passed even slower for Nolie with Rysa gone. She became more withdrawn and quiet, and Twiggy and General kept a close eye on her. The war made things harder and harder and they struggled from day to day to hang on to what precious little they had left. Nolie and Twiggy turned the conservatory into a garden that supplied many of their basic needs. Most of what they raised in the fields was stolen by one group of soldiers or another.
Still, they managed to get by and Mr. Fulton, surprisingly enough, became a good friend to them. He couldn't stop the looting and plundering that went on, but he did manage to divert a lot of attention from Nolie and her household. And with both Rysa and her father gone, Nolie took to wearing mourning and found thankfully that even the basest of human beings tended to respect that. The fact that her grief was palpable lent credence to the effect.
However, the war did finally end and a concerted effort towards rebuilding began. It was then that society saw what changes time and war had wrought on humanity and many of them weren't good. New people were moving in and Nolie was able to sell the old bank building at Franklyn & Rhodes for a nice little sum to a young couple looking to establish a mercantile.
In 1866, some sixteen months after the end of the war, Sanders Dry Goods opened to the public in what had once been the bank building owned by Nolie's papa, and life settled into a new routine. Then the unexpected happened....
It was early summer in 1867 when Nolie ventured into town for one of her rare visits. She had been luckier than many of her neighbors and had managed to hang onto her home and a bit of her land by sheer grit and determination. But she was no longer the pampered young lady she had once been, and even with help her days were long and hard.
She'd come to an arrangement with the Negroes who'd remained with her, and they worked the land for her in return for small wages and a percentage of the crop. But that still left the house, yards and garden as Nolie's responsibility, and she worked side by side with the help she had left to get things back in order after the war.
On this morning though, Nora Sanders had cajoled her into coming into the store for tea. The fact that she needed to come to town for supplies pushed her into agreeing and Nolie found herself preparing for a trip into town.
Twiggy smiled as she watched her young mistress dress in one of the few nice dresses she'd kept from the days before the war, knowing it had been reworked to fit into the fashion of the day. Nolie had done a very credible job with it and looked very much like the belle she'd once been. Then General brought the buggy around to the front of the house, and whisked Nolie away.
They went around to the back of the building where Nora and Sam kept a private entrance to their home. Nora welcomed Nolie into her home and immediately ushered her upstairs into the sitting room. Nolie looked around in honest curiosity, Nora's home not even vaguely resembling the bank building Nolie remembered.
The second floor was the kitchen and dining area, and held Nora's large sewing room where she tailored the shirts and dresses customers ordered in the store. The third floor held two bedrooms and the parlor and it was here that the two women sat down to take tea.
Nora fussed and puttered about, making sure things were just right. She kept up a running dialogue, so all Nolie had to do was nod her head occasionally. When she finally settled down, Nora found Nolie to be a very quiet young woman whose eyes belied her youthful features.
Talk ran the gamut of topics, and Nolie and Nora found they had many opinions and philosophies in common. After an hour of tea and conversation, Nolie made a move to leave. Nora understood and accompanied her new friend downstairs and into the store to take care of her shopping.
Nolie looked around in fascination, still able to see in her mind's eye the way the building had looked under her father's keeping as a bank. The marble floors seemed incongruously out of place with the groceries and cloth and other supplies. She shrugged and turned her attention towards gathering up her purchases. As much as she had enjoyed her outing, Nolie found that sharing tea and conversation simply made her miss Rysa that much more and she felt the tears building up in the back of her throat.
It had been more than three years since Rysa had left and everyday Nolie wondered what had become of her. She'd never heard anything else from nor about her and every night she offered up a prayer for Rysa's safety.
Nolie moved slowly around the shop, picking up the items she needed and placing them in her basket. The jingling of the doorbell didn't even catch her attention as she walked over to examine the bolts of cloth set to one side of the back.
Nora came round to help Nolie with the different types of material and they were deep in conversation about dress patterns when the door jingled a second time. The third time it rang, Nora and Nolie had moved behind the screen to lay out the pattern and measure it against Nolie's small frame.
“You're quite busy,” Nolie commented as the door opened yet again to admit someone out of their line of sight.
“Yes,” Nora answered with a smile as she held up the pattern. “We've been very fortunate in that business has been steady for us.”
Nolie smiled softly in return. “I am glad. You have been very kind to me.”
“Pure selfishness on my part, I'm afraid, my dear. I enjoy having a large circle of friends and I'm happy you're a part of it. Now,” she added smartly, “let's see how much material you'll need for this.”
In the meantime, business had picked up briskly as the end of the day arrived, and folks made a stop on their way home. Nolie finished choosing her material and was just finishing up her shopping when the door jingled again. It wasn't until the voice spoke though that she looked up in shock.
“Excuse me, sir,” the voice said gently. “I was wondering what happened to the bank.”
Sam smiled. Occasionally he still ran into the old-timer who remembered the building as the barrister's or the bank. He figured the young woman in front of him had probably left because of the war and had come home to find so many things changed from what she remembered. He wasn't far from the truth. He opened his mouth to answer, but was forestalled when Nolie came around the corner.
Neither woman noticed when Nolie's basket slipped to the floor but the hug went on forever as things scattered at their feet.
Finally Nolie pulled back from the embrace just enough to look at Rysa with a critical eye. Standing before her was a cultured young woman in a fashionable new gown whose bearing spoke of money. She stepped back and dropped her head, suddenly ashamed of her appearance.
Rysa stepped right into Nolie's personal space and lifted her chin with gloved fingertips. She waited until brown eyes lifted to meet her hazel. “No ‘Welcome home, Rysa' for me, Nolie?”
Rysa watched as a myriad of emotion crossed Nolie's face before two tears welled up and spilled down her face, then she gently wrapped her arms around Nolie again, holding on tightly for dear life.
“Welcome home, Rysa,” Nolie whispered into the hug.
“C'mon, Nolie. Let's go home. We've got a lot to talk about.”
Rysa's homecoming changed everything for Nolie and there was happiness in her smile again... especially when she would look up and meet Rysa's eyes across the table or the garden or the barn. Their happiness was felt throughout the household and though the manor never regained its former glory, it was a good place to live again.
Nolie and Rysa were delighted to be together again, despite the stares and whispers they drew from certain corners for their devotion to one another as well as their spinster status. They had one another and for them, it was more than enough. Still, they found friends in unexpected places and they rejoiced in those as well. But until the day that they passed away, Rysa and Nolie were beautiful women who loved and took care of each other. And isn't that what counts the most when all is said and done?
Dead silence for a full ten seconds after Gabrielle finished speaking before the crowd rose as a singular entity and applauded. There were no whistles or hooting or foot stomping. Instead, they merely stood and clapped for several long minutes, and more than one woman was seen wiping her eyes even as she smiled. Gabrielle simply allowed her tears to roll silently down her cheeks while she grinned and nodded and bowed in deference to the ovation she was receiving.
Emma climbed on her chair and tugged on Xena's arm again, recognizing there was no way she'd be heard otherwise. When Xena turned her head in Emma's direction, Emma held up her arms and Xena lifted her immediately, locking her arms under Emma's bottom even as Emma locked her legs firmly around Xena's waist and her arms around Xena's neck.
With just a tiny tug to encourage her, Xena ducked her head until Emma's lips were next to her ear. “You're her champion... can't you do something to make Gabrielle better?”
Xena frowned, then realized that Emma only saw tears and didn't realize they were happy ones. As the applause around them continued, Xena nodded and carried Emma to the backstage area with her. Xena jerked her chin at the item she wanted Emma to grab, and as soon as she had it in hand, they stepped back into the main room. Xena used one hand to grab the stool that had been used off and on during the night and climbed the stairs. When the crowd's noise grew exponentially louder and they added whistling and hollering back into their repertoire, Gabrielle recognized something had changed and she turned to find Xena and Emma joining her on the stage.
Her smile turned to laughter and she reached up a hand to wipe the wetness from her cheek. She stopped at the minutest shake of Xena's head, waited for Emma to extend the box of tissues she held. She took one and dabbed at her eyes. Xena, in the meantime, set the stool down and put Emma on it, then nodded her head in Gabrielle's direction. Emma nodded emphatically and waited.
Xena simply turned and opened her arms and Gabrielle moved into them with gratifying alacrity, causing an outcry of wolf-whistles to follow her action. She buried her head into Xena's shoulder, laughing in release even as Xena rocked them back and forth.
After a moment, Gabrielle pulled back though she kept a hand on Xena's hip. “What are you two doing up here?” she asked, bringing the microphone to her mouth so the room could hear the discussion. The women quieted their applause and settled down for the unexpected interlude.
“Emma insisted. You were crying and she reminded me it was my responsibility to make it better.”
Gabrielle chuckled and shifted until she was between Xena and Emma. She smiled when Xena shifted with her, transferring her hold on Gabrielle to allow Gabrielle to drop an arm around Emma's shoulders.
“Oh she did, huh?”
“Um hmm... seems likes she's figured out that's part of my job.”
Green eyes twinkled in tandem with the blue she was gazing into before they both turned to look at Emma who was watching them with a big grin. “Well, she's right, ya know. It is part of your job.” Gabrielle turned back to Xena. “As a matter of fact, we still owe her. Her team did win the poker run Friday night and she gave her prize to her moms.”
“Wait... excuse me?” Olivia said from the audience, causing all three of the females on the stage to look at her as she rose from her seat. “What did she win?”
Xena and Gabrielle turned back to Emma. “You didn't tell them?”
Emma shrugged. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”
Olivia crossed her arms over her chest and arched an eyebrow. “Somebody wanna clue the rest of us in?” motioning around the room.
Gabrielle looked at Emma and waited for Emma to nod her head. Then Gabrielle handed the mic to Xena who met Olivia's eyes. “Emma told us you and Natalia hadn't had a honeymoon, so she chose to give the two of you a night in the apartment in Cinderella's Castle.”
Olivia's eyes watered and she reached back her hand to Natalia who grasped it tightly as she moved to embrace Olivia from behind. The rest of the room broke into applause and Xena handed the mic back to Gabrielle.
“So,” Gabrielle said to Emma, “Xena and I arranged for a special day at the Magic Kingdom for you tomorrow. You'll get private time with each of the princesses, including a special lunch and then you'll get to be Grand Master at the parades tomorrow.”
“Really?” Emma asked, eyes wide and unbelieving.
“Really,” Gabrielle promised with a smile. “There'll even be a photographer there to record everything for your moms so they won't miss out on anything that happens if they decide they want a little longer honeymoon together. I mean – you'd be cool hanging out with Xena and me for the day, wouldn't you, if your moms wanted to spend a little time alone together?”
Emma nodded excitedly. Gabrielle grinned.
“And to make sure you get to see all of the park, you'll get head of the line privileges all day.”
“Awesome!” Emma cheered enthusiastically, causing a chuckle to ripple around the room.
“However,” Gabrielle continued, “if you're gonna do all that tomorrow, you probably need to get some sleep tonight. Besides,” she added, gesturing to where Olivia and Natalia still stood wrapped together. “I'm pretty sure your moms are waiting for you to join them so they can say thank you,” watching the grins spread across both faces. Emma jumped down and headed for the stairs, only to turn back and hug first Xena, then Gabrielle.
“Thank you,” she whispered, then raced to her mommies.
Gabrielle and Xena waited until Emma was engulfed in a hug before turning to the audience once more. “Ladies, this has been a fantastic ending to one of the most interesting weekends we've had in a very long time. We hope this is something you'll take with you as a treasured memory. We certainly will.”
She paused when applause broke out at her words. “That being said, we're going to have to bid you all goodnight now. Our Disney clock strikes midnight very soon and we have to be out of here before then. So thank you all for coming - for being such eager participants and for making both conventions such successes. We look forward to seeing you all again soon. Goodnight,” cuing Scud to start the music.
The cheering went on for another long moment before the women started collecting their things and exiting the room. Xena and Gabrielle separated as soon as they left the stage, going to opposite corners while Max and Dom lowered themselves far enough to help them begin to disassemble the curtains. Helena and Dinah started removing cameras while Barbara wound cords and Lucy, Amy, Diana and Janet began to pack up their electronics.
Sooner than they expected, all their equipment was packed and ready to be stored. About that time, the Disney convention crew came in and started removing chairs, tables and other sundry items. They watched for a moment before Gabrielle turned to look at their crew... their friends.
“Thank you ladies. We couldn't have done it without you.”
“It was worth it,” Barbara assured her. “I think we'd all agree to that,” seeing everyone nodding their heads in accord. “We'd do it again,” motioning around to Dinah and Helena.
“So would we,” Max replied unexpectedly, then scowled when all eyes went her way. “What?”
“Everyone is staying a couple days, yes?” Gabrielle asked to draw attention from Max before she got defensive. All heads nodded. “All right. We have Jellybean's day out tomorrow, but we'd like to take you all out for dinner, so let's plan on Tuesday? Xena and I will let you all know when and where sometime tomorrow. Now please – go have some fun. And again... thank you.”
In response, each of them took a moment to thank Gabrielle and Xena before trailing out one at time. Finally, only Xena and Gabrielle were left.
“Well, I'd have to say that was a success.”
“Yeah... despite my misgivings. BUT... I don't want to hear ONE WORD about doing this again for at least a month. I need some time to decompress.”
Xena smiled even as she dropped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. “I can get onboard with that idea. In fact,” she added with a wicked twinkle, “I can probably help with that decompression thing,” steering them away from the bar where all the convention attendees had gathered.
“Oh really?” twining their hands together and letting Xena direct them towards their suite.
“Uh huh,” Xena agreed. “Many skills, remember?”
The door closed on Gabrielle's reply.
“This is highly unusual, Katie,” Mary complained even as she pushed the prepaid cell phone across the desk. “Of course,” she added, waving an impatient hand, “this whole situation is highly unusual.”
Katie laughed and shook her head. “I know, Marshal, and I am actually sorry you had to be involved. I'm sure you'd have much rather been attending the conference than escorting me here.” Mary didn't dispute her words and Katie reached for the phone, accepting the paper Mary had placed under it.
It rang twice before it was answered. “Hello?”
“Bailey? It's Katie.”
“Katie?! What happened?? Why did you...?? Where are you?? Are you all right??”
Katie smiled, having expected the reaction. “Bailey, take a deep breath and slow down, okay? I'm fine... I promise. I'm on my way out of Albuquerque ,” turning away slightly when Mary slapped her forehead in frustration. “I just wanted to call and say goodbye, Sweetie.”
Bailey blew out a breath, trying to stave off the tears she felt forming in her eyes. “I'm gonna miss you.”
“I'll miss you too, Little Cousin, but it's better this way. Uncle Sal will make sure I'm taken care of.”
“Why did Sallie do this, Katie?”
Katie shook her head, but knowing Bailey couldn't see her, she was compelled to answer audibly. “He called in a marker. Ask him about it one day. But I want you to know something, honey – it was worth it. I'd do it again.” She sighed when Mary gestured to her watch. “Bailey, I've got to go now, okay? I expect to see your name in print really soon though, all right?”
Bailey bit her lip and shook her head. “You're crazy – you know that right?” said with a sad chuckle.
Katie snorted. “Why do you think I've survived as long as I have? I love you, Cuz.”
“Love you back, Katie. Be safe.”
“See ya in the funny papers, Bailey,” Katie replied and hung up the phone. She turned to Mary. “Thanks, Marshal. I'm ready to go.”
Mary took the proffered phone and slid it into her pocket. Then she stood and opened the door of the conference room, leading Katie out and towards the plane that was waiting to take her away.
“Good luck,” she tendered sincerely as they reached the gate. Katie accepted her hand and gave her a smile.
“I'm like a cat, Ms Shannon. I've got nine lives and I always land on my feet.” Then she turned and entered the jetway without a backwards glance. Mary waited until Katie disappeared, then took her phone from her belt and pressed the speed dial to let her partner know she was done for the day and idling wondering if she could catch a flight back to Orlando .
Then she turned and made her way out of the terminal.
“Emma?” Olivia asked as she and Natalia tucked their daughter in for the night. “Why'd you do it? Why'd you give away your prize? And what about the rest, honey? What about your buddy Barbara and her friends?”
Emma looked between her moms, sitting on either side of the bed putting her to bed together as they had done since she and Olivia had moved back to the farmhouse.
“I asked Barbara about it first – I mean, Xena said she'd get them a chance to stay there too.”
“Okay, but why give it to your mama and me? Don't you want to stay with us?” stopping when Emma shook her head vehemently. A frown crossed Olivia's face, but before she could open her mouth to speak again, Natalia reached a hand over Emma's body and covered hers. Green eyes looked up to meet brown and Olivia drew a deep breath and nodded.
“Sweetie, why did you think your mommy and I needed a honeymoon?”
“Cuz you didn't get one. I mean, I know you can't get married for real in a church yet, but you gave each other rings and said things to each other and that should count. And I know when people get married, they go away to be alone together... ‘cept you really can't do that cuz of me.”
Natalia brushed the bangs off of Emma's forehead. “Oh, honey... we love having you with us. We're family, remember? Besides, you're a big part of the reason your mommy and I are together. You saw what we were afraid to, and you made it a beautiful thing for us.”
Emma crossed her arms over her chest, a fierceness in her countenance that was greatly diminished by the yawn that followed the action. “You still should get a honeymoon,” she said defiantly.
Olivia squeezed the hand covering hers, bringing Natalia's eyes back to hers as she smoothly resumed the reins of the conversation.
“Are you sure, honey?”
“I'm sure, Mommy. Xena and Gabrielle promised to look out for me and I really do want to be a princess. Gabrielle told me they'll even teach me the princess wave.”
“They have a special wave? I mean it's different from the queen thing?” twisting her wrist in an approximate imitation of the wave she'd seen Queen Elizabeth do on several televised occasions. Emma laughed and yawned again.
“You're silly, Mommy. Of course they have a special wave – they're Disney Princesses.”
Olivia put her hand over her chest and widened her eyes. “Of course they do... what was I thinking?” She pulled the covers up under Emma's arms. “So in the meantime, young lady, you need to get some sleep so you'll be all rested for your big day tomorrow.”
“'Kay, Mommy. Love you.”
“Love you too, Bean,” Olivia replied as she kissed Emma goodnight.
“Love you, Sweetie,” Natalia offered as she leaned forward and kissed Emma as well. Emma smiled.
“Love you too, Mama.” She was asleep before darkness blanketed the room. Olivia and Natalia rose and exited, leaving Emma to sleep in peace. They pulled the door to, but not shut and took a seat in the tiny living room.
“She's a pretty amazing kid,” Natalia commented after a few prolonged moments of silence. “You've done a great job with her.”
Olivia just shook her head. “She's something all right. And *we've* done a great job with her. She's doing this for us, you know.”
“I know. It's just....”
Olivia smiled and tipped her head at Natalia. “Um hmm. So what do you say...?” standing and holding out her hand in invitation. “That we take advantage....” tugging lightly on the hand in hers and urging Natalia to her feet. “Of the opportunity we've been given....” leading Natalia towards the master bedroom. “And start our honeymoon early?” pulling Natalia's body into her own.
Natalia released the hand she held to wrap her hands around Olivia's waist, spinning them around until Olivia's back was to the door before pinning her in place. Green eyes widened at the unexpected reaction, especially when Natalia growled at her just before she grinned wickedly.
“I wasn't aware,” she responded, leaning in and nipping Olivia's neck sharply. Natalia relished the gasp and subsequent arching which afforded her more flesh to tease. She did so, biting then laving each mark before moving on, until she reached Olivia's ear. “I wasn't aware,” she repeated, “that we'd ever stopped having a honeymoon,” licking around the ear before sucking on the lobe. “Did I miss a memo or something?” smiling as she moved forward to claim Olivia's lips.
“Or something,” Olivia mumbled, then gave in to the sensations cascading through her body, trusting Natalia to get them to the bed. It was shaping up to be a hell of a night.
“You're sure about this, Bailey?” Buster asked dubiously. Not only did she appear upset about something – odd, considering none of them had shown any real remorse over Desdemona's death - but this was simply beyond his purview of reality. She sighed and looked at him with red-rimmed eyes.
“Yes, Buster. I'm sure. All of our jobs with AVID are safe.”
“Even yours?” from Dot. “After all....”
“After all, I'm a writer and will finally be able to be a published writer instead of being at Desdemona's beck and call,” Bailey ground out from behind clenched teeth before taking a deep breath. “Sorry, Dot.” She sighed again. “Look... all I know is what I was told. We're still employed by AVID.”
“Are things going to change? I mean, obviously some things will change, but....”
“I'm sure things will change, Gordon, but for now can we just be glad we still have jobs?” Bailey asked tiredly. “Maybe things will be better than they were before.”
“She's right,” Graham replied. “We're rid of Desdemona. That makes it better already.”
“And besides,” Melissa offered, “I'm sure we'll hear from the new boss sooner rather than later.”
“She really wasn't that bad,” Franklyn jumped in.
“Shut up, Frank.”
“C'mon,” Harmon said after a moment of silence. “This has been a long damn weekend for all of us and Bailey looks about out on her feet. Let's table this discussion for now and go get some sleep. Things will probably look different tomorrow.”
Violet nodded. “I agree,” seeing the crush of women headed their way. “Besides, I think we wanna be gone before they take over.” The rest rose and moved out of the bar just as the conventioneers swarmed in.
There wasn't any real division between the two groups of women anymore – instead, they were mixed and mingled together, reliving favorite moments of the talent show and making plans for the morrow. A few, however, had eschewed the opportunity for further socializing with others, preferring to give the bar a miss and heading towards their rooms.
“You're sure?” Wendy asked Nikki carefully, although truthfully, she knew the answer before Nikki opened her mouth to speak.
“As sure as I can be without DNA testing,” Nikki confirmed.
Wendy blew out a shaky breath. “That's... a lot to take in.”
“You all right?” Nora asked softly after a beat. “I mean... all things considered?”
Wendy blinked and jerked her head in a hard nod. “Yeah, um... yeah,” surrendering to the hug when Nikki wrapped her in a firm embrace. She held on tightly and smiled through her tears when she felt Nora put her arms around both of them. Wendy drew a shuddering breath and pulled back just enough to look into eyes that were so much like her own.
“Yeah,” Nikki replied, putting a gentle hand on Wendy's cheek. Wendy covered that hand with her own.
“That's cool,” Wendy said with a tremulous smile.
“Yeah – yeah, sugar... it is.”
“So does this mean you two'll join me and the gang for breakfast tomorrow morning so I can introduce you all? They're really kinda curious about all this... and you.”
“That sounds great,” Nora answered when Nikki simply bobbed her head. “And maybe sometime soon you can come visit us in New Orleans ?”
“I'd like that... I'd really like that.”
“So what did you think, darlings?” Miranda asked her daughters as a small group of them walked back towards their rooms together. Emily bit her lips, still stunned by what she'd seen her boss do... publicly. Miranda was never so... relaxed or... undone or... something. It had definitely been something *she'd* never seen – or thought to see from her boss – *ever *in her lifetime.
“... fantastic, Mom,” the twins said together, drawing a smile from Miranda. She extended her arms and Caroline and Cassidy tucked themselves into either side of her body. It made walking more difficult, but they were loath to give up the shared embrace.
“They're right, Miranda,” Ashlee agreed enthusiastically. “You were astounding... truly.”
Miranda smiled and Emily nearly fainted dead away. She was certainly seeing a side of her boss she'd never imagined being witness too. It made her wonder if the world was ending and she'd missed the memo.
“Thank you, Ashlee. I'm not certain where the talent came from, but I will admit – it was great fun.”
“Well,” Blake commented. “At least you know you have a skill to fall back on if something happens to Runway ,” causing a look of horror to spring forth on five different faces and a gasp to be ripped from deep within Emily's chest. “What? What did I say?”
“Sacrilege,” Andy contributed succinctly. “Miranda IS Runway .”
“I... I didn't realize....”
“It's all right, Blake,” Miranda replied. “So many people don't.”
“So,” Doris said when the silence had begun to grow uncomfortable. “What's everyone doing tomorrow?”
Miranda nodded her thanks and replied, “Emily and I head back to the City in the morning. As interesting as this weekend has been, it's time to get back to work. The girls' dad arrived this afternoon and he will be staying with them a few more days before they return home as well.”
“I actually have the week off,” Andy said. “Some of the other writers and I are going over to the coast tomorrow. We're getting a behind-the-scenes look at NASA.”
“For a story or....?” Blake asked.
Andy shook her head. “Not deliberately,” she replied with a smile. “But we are reporters.” That got her a small chuckle from the group and the tension seemed to dissipate.
“I haven't decided what I'm doing,” Blake offered. “I'm supposed to fly back to Springfield tomorrow afternoon. I kind of decided to come last minute.” Doris nodded.
“For me as well, though Ashlee and I are going to Sea World before my flight out tomorrow night.” She looked around the group. “Should we get together for breakfast tomorrow before we head our separate ways?”
Agreement was swift in coming, so plans were made, then the group split up for the night.
“So are you glad we came?” Annabelle asked Simone as they reached their room. Simone waited until they had crossed the threshold and closed the door behind them before she answered.
“I am, actually... yes. We met some remarkable women; made some new friends....”
“And even had a good time.”
Simone nodded. “Yes, and I'm looking forward to spending the next few days here with you. Did I hear you making plans for breakfast for us?”
“Yep. Penelope Garcia asked if we could join her in the morning. She mentioned my poetry,” Annabelle offered bashfully. Simone smiled and cupped Annabelle's cheek before kissing her softly.
“I've told you that you're amazing, love, but it's nice to hear that from someone else, isn't it?” watching Annabelle's eyes drop to the ground briefly before meeting Simone's again.
“Yes, it is.”
Simone slid her hand from Annabelle's cheek down her arm to clasp her hand, tugging her gently towards the bed. “C'mon, then... morning's going to come early.”
Annabelle chuckled and used her free hand to creep under Simone's shirt, pushing it up as she went. When she reached Simone's breast, she tweaked the hardened nipple forcefully, then bent her head to capture the exclamation and turn it into a passionate kiss.
She and Simone separated to breathe and Annabelle chuckled as she finished removing Simone's shirt and fell into the bed, pulling Simone's body on top of hers. “Night's not over yet, baby,” was all she said. No more words were needed.
“Wow, that was a short night,” Garcia complained good-naturedly when Emily knocked on the connecting door just as daylight started creeping over the horizon. “Why did I want to get up at the butt-crack of dawn again?” she asked as she pulled a pillow over her head.
JJ opened the door and stuck her head in just far enough to see the bump in the bed that was Penelope. “Because, Sweetie – you wanted to have breakfast with Annabelle Tillman at oh-my-God o'clock in the morning so you could still get in a full day at Epcot.”
“Yeah, Great Garcia. If we can get up, so do you,” Emily said around a yawn.
“I hate you both so much,” Garcia grumbled, her words muffled by the pillow still over her face. “OOF!” she grunted, jerking the pillow from herself and squinting up to glare at JJ when she landed on the bed beside her.
“C'mon, Garcia,” tugging on an arm. “We've only got a couple more days here before we have to go home to be BAU agents again. You know what Morgan says.”
Garcia held her glare for another moment, then she smiled. “You don't play very fair, you know.”
“Of course not,” JJ agreed around a yawn. “I play to win.” She accepted a cup of coffee Emily offered her, inhaling deeply before taking her first sip. Then she blinked hard and allowed her blue eyes to widen and cross slowly. “Good God!”
“That bad?” Garcia asked with a smirk.
JJ cleared her throat and still squeaked. “Like rocket fuel.” She was glad Emily was already in the shower. She set the coffee on the bedside table and stood, then offered Penelope her hand. Garcia threw off the covers and sat up before allowing JJ to help her up. “Can I ask you something?”
Garcia smirked. “As long as you're not looking for the secrets of my magic.”
JJ chuckled and shook her head. “Nah – I know the rules, Maestro. I was just wondering what made you decide to have breakfast with Annabelle. It's not like we had a lot of time to meet the people from Gabrielle's side of the hall.”
“Exactly,” Garcia agreed as she put toothpaste on her toothbrush. “And I liked her book. She's got a depth to her that... I dunno... I just thought I'd like the opportunity to meet her... them. Would you like to join us?”
“Actually, Em and I made plans to meet with Lilly and Sofia , but we could probably share a table.” She glanced at the clock as she heard Emily shut off the shower. “However, if I don't get out of here and start getting ready, we're going to be late.”
Garcia nodded. “Me too. Let me know when you're ready to walk over.”
JJ smiled and headed back over the threshold. “You betcha,” she agreed and hustled to get her morning started.
“Good morning,” Sofia greeted Lilly when she reached the table Lilly had already been seated at. “Am I late?”
Lilly shook her head. “Nope. I was up early this morning.”
Sofia frowned. “Problem?”
Lilly chuckled and shook her head. “Not at all. I was watching the sunrise.”
“You still do that?”
“It helps me center myself for the day.”
“And do you need to be centered today?” Sofia asked with a smirk.
Lilly gave her a wry look. “I'm spending the day with my crazy sister at Islands of Adventure,” she answered drolly. “What do you think?”
“I think your crazy sister is gonna have to do something about you in a minute,” holding Lilly's gaze for a long moment before they both started laughing. And though they weren't loud, they did manage to draw the attention of other patrons in the otherwise quiet restaurant.
“Someone seems to be having a good morning,” Nikki commented to Helen as they were seated a few tables away from Sofia and Lilly.
Helen returned her smile. “Glad we're not the only ones, though isn't everyone that comes here?” Almost on cue, a screaming child was heard. “Okay,” Helen conceded. “Maybe not quite *everyone*.”
Nikki laughed. “Judging by the way the parents look, the kid's probably tired. Hell, I'm a bit knackered myself, and we haven't even done much here yet.”
“Oh, I dunno, Nikki. We've had a pretty busy weekend.”
“Yeah, but I'm looking forward to just having a little fun with you for a few days.”
Helen took the hand that Nikki offered and twined their hands together. “Me too, love. Whaddya wanna do first?”
“After breakfast?” Nikki asked with a smile. “I dunno. I thought maybe we could go over to the Animal Kingdom. I'd like to try that roller coaster,” pulling the brochure from the collection they'd gotten from the concierge a few minutes before.
Helen bit her pinky nail and nodded her head. “That sounds like good fun. What d'you think?” she asked the waitress that had just reached their table. The girl's eyes widened, but she didn't miss a beat.
“I think you can't really go wrong with much of anything around here, but I could probably be more specific if I knew what we were talking about.”
Nikki and Helen both laughed and the girl grinned in response. Then she started giving them their breakfast options, shifting out of the way as the hostess brushed by her with patrons to be seated at the table next to them.
When the waitress finished with Nikki and Helen, she turned to the table behind her. “Coffee for everyone?” and smiling when she got three affirmative answers. “Be right back,” she promised.
Kris looked at their neighboring table and cleared her throat. “Excuse me... are you Nikki Wade, by any chance?”
Nikki smiled. “By birth, actually.” She extended her hand. “But I'm afraid you have me at a distinct disadvantage, Ms...?”
“Munroe... Kris Munroe. And these are my friends Kelly Garrett and Sabrina Duncan.”
“Nice to meet you, ladies,” as she retrieved her hand. “And this lovely lady is my partner, Helen Stewart,” waiting for them to murmur their greetings again. “So what can I do for you, Ms Kris Munroe?”
Kris cleared her throat. “Well, when we all ended up together in the big room yesterday, I saw your book for sale and I... well, I bought it. I was wondering if you'd mind signing it for me.”
“Please don't be embarrassed, Ms Munroe. I'm flattered. And I'd be delighted. Um... do you...?”
“Oh yes,” sliding it from the big bag she'd set down beside her. “I was planning to read it out by the pool today,” putting the book on the table. “But I don't have a pen.”
Nikki smiled. “That's okay. I'm betting our server does and she's perky – she'll probably let me use it for a minute.”
“They're all perky here,” Sabrina grumbled, looking at her empty cup, only to have it filled as their waitress returned to the table with a full pot.
“Job requirement,” the girl confessed as she filled all five cups and passed Nikki her pen. She waited until Nikki was done and took their orders, moving away again to leave the women to continue their discussion.
“That was a little unreal,” Helen commented as Kris thanked Nikki and put her book away. “You didn't even ask for her pen.” Then she looked at the women seated next to her. “So you're not going out to Disney World then? The parks, I mean?”
Kelly smiled. “Maybe later. We're gonna relax first though.”
“That's not a bad plan. Wonder how many others will try that,” Nikki mused, then sat back to allow their server to put their food in front of them. Then their attention was focused on eating, and conversation, when it resumed had moved on to other things as the restaurant continued to fill with their compatriots.
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