written for fiefgoldenlake dot proboards dot com's Merry Ficmas Exchange; recipient was fanfiction dot net's Quatre-sama.

Kourrem had written to her once that the North was a wonderful place. That it was grey and green and colors Kara had never dreamed of, and that it was louder than anything she had ever heard before.

She thinks of that letter Kourrem had written her, one of the first letters sent after the girl had left to seek her fortunes elsewhere, and Kara is glad they're spending Midwinter at Pirate's Swoop and not in Corus. Her husband is at her side and her daughter is sleeping, cradled against her chest. She looks at the landscape, grey and white and brown, and in the distance sees the sea.

She is here because of another letter, one affixed with the Lioness's seal: I want to see your daughter, Alanna had written, and so you can meet my son.

(Kara thinks of the day the letter had found her- she had been so tired, and Atiya was crying and crying, a sound so loud that Kara had wondered how this little girl-baby was any child of hers.

She had been wondering then: if Atiya had been a boy, Ekrem instead, the child she should have given her husband, would that one have been loud?

Or maybe it was the fault of the desert, the sand that ate sound stretching around her that made the noise seem like much more than it was. Or maybe it was that Halef was meeting another headman some twenty miles away and she was alone with the baby, who was barely a week old, and she had no idea what to do.

She had been so thrilled when young Amel ran up to her with a letter from the Woman Who Rides Like a Man, who must have found out about Atiya's birth from her king, and Kara was so happy to focus on something other than the screaming that she had nearly wept.)

Persepolis is a stone city. The North is so much more lively. She says as much to Halef and he laughs.

"More people," her husband says. "But also more trouble."

"Not trouble we have to concern ourselves with," Kara reminds him, and he nods.

They will be at Pirate's Swoop soon, riding up the coast as they are. The wind off the ocean is harsh, and the air smells mostly of salt and brine. Kara relishes the damp texture of the air.

Kourrem is with the Bloody Hawk for Midwinter, her first time back in eighteen months. She will be shaman while Kara finds her way out of the desert. (It's been fun to observe how the plants and air change. She's enjoyed it, and enjoyed knowing that she will always be able to conjure fire for them, if and when they need it.) They will talk through the Voice, if it is necessary.

There's no reason for her to be nervous. No reason for anything.

("I don't think I can do this," she had whispered to him in the dark, hands atop her belly. Her skin is stretched, almost grotesquely, and Kara wonders why she ever though it would be a good idea to put herself through something as ordinary and otherworldly as pregnancy.

"Of course you can," Halef says, voice sleepy and soft. "You're a women. Women have been doing this for centuries. And Mari will be there, and Kourrem may even return for the birth. And I will be right outside waiting for you. As long as it takes."

Kourrem hadn't been there, but he had waited for seventeen hours and when Mari Fahrar had allowed him in his eyes had been frantic and thrilled and alight with something Kara doesn't have the words to properly name.)

Baron George Cooper and a throng of men-at-arms meet them in the scrubby forest. He disembarks his horse and gestures for them to do the same. He looks older than he used to, lines etched around his mouth. Kara knows a little bit of what he does, and thinks of the famine and the further restlessness in Court. He looks happy to see them, she thinks, but he looks irreversibly harrowed.

"I've a wife in the keep just itching to see you," the baron says. "I'm sure you've heard that little Thom came a bit early, and Alanna's been put on bed rest. It doesn't exactly suit her." He grins ruefully. "So no Court for Midwinter."

He doesn't seem especially disappointed. Halef clasps hands with George.

"I cannot wait to see Lady Alanna again," he says. "Apart from the baby coming early, I trust that she is well?"

"More than," George says. "She can't wait to meet your daughter either." He gestures. "In fact, with the opportunity, I'd like to meet her right now."

Halef's face lights up. "But of course. Kara has her."

Kara hands him the baby. "This is Atiya," she says. Atiya is a little more than a month and has lost the red, squashed look she had at birth. She has a fine cap of downy soft hair too, Halef's chin, and Kara's dark eyes and delicate nose.

"She's lovely," the baron says.

(He enters their tent to find her dozing, the baby swaddled beside her. Kara wakes at his footsteps, though, and Halef wills her to go back to sleep. She appears more than exhausted.

"You waited," she says. "It wasn't my choice- I wanted you in here."

He shrugs. "It's custom," Halef says, "and one Mari wouldn't have let me disobey."

"Next time," she says, voice pleading. He goes immediately to her side and picks up the baby, peers into a face that seems familiar to him already. The child is small; her head fits into the palm of his hand.

"She looks like you," Halef says. Kara smiles, albeit slightly.

"Have you a name in mind?" He notices she looks almost nervous, eyes wide and searching, and he doesn't know how to comfort her- he doesn't know what's wrong.

Halef looks down at the little face, tiny eyelids and fingers smaller than he would have thought possible on a human being. "Atiya," he says, as her eyes flutter open. Kara starts to tear up.

He pulls her to him gently. "Why are you crying? Are you sad?"

"No," she says, dabbing her eyes with the corner of the sheet. "But I had thought- you'd want a boy- and I didn't know-"

"Why would I want a boy?" Halef asks. "If anything, it's been you who has proven to me how much value girls are." This only makes her cry more, and he kisses the top of her forehead. "I mean it, I truly do."

"I was worried," Kara says, "and I'd wanted a boy for you so badly, and the tribe expects you to have one- and then you name her Atiya-"

"She is a gift; her name should reflect that," he says firmly. "You know I once thought I would never have any children."

"I know," she says. "I still didn't-"

He arranges himself on the bed so that she can lean into him. "You're tired," Halef whispers. "You should rest.")

True to George's word, Alanna is waiting for them the minute they arrive at Pirate's Swoop. She is in the courtyard, the tip of her nose as red as her hair, but she breaks into a huge smile when Kara dismounts.

"You're here!" the Lioness exclaims. "Oh thank the gods."

George is frowning. "You're not supposed to be out of bed, lass," he chides. "Who let you go out and about?"

"Maude said it was fine, as long as I didn't stray too far- or take my sword with me." Alanna grins. "I swear, you worry more than her."

George doesn't disagree, and Halef strides forward to give her a hug. "It is wonderful to see you, Lioness," he says. She hugs him back, then rushes to Kara.

"Come!" Alanna says. "You need to meet Thom."

"Hair red as his ma's," George says, and gestures to a stableboy to come and get the horses. "But we don't know how good a conversationalist he is yet."

"Oh stop," Alanna says. "Come. We'll have time to catch up on boring things after dinner. I want to hear all about everything."

(Kara had been so busy with the mages' school she'd barely even suspected she was pregnant. There had been a girl, an orphan, with fire-magic. She hadn't responded to anyone else, no matter how much they'd tried, and her control over her Gift was negligible. Kara was one of the only people who could get her to speak.

She'd known Kourrem could have done it even better.

She'd only noticed she was pregnant three months in, and it made her feel so ignorant, that it had been pointed out by one of the teenage girls who had asked, politely but obliviously, if she'd noticed she had gained some weight. And Kara had burst into tears in the most unprofessional fashion, and done the charm to confirm it alone in her tent, and had been so stunned when it all turned up positive.)

"So," Alanna says, sitting down in the nursery. "Now that we've gotten a moment to breathe."

"Ah, yes," Kara says, and smiles at her. Atiya is in her lap, giving Thom and his red hair suspicious looks- or as suspicious a look as a six-week-old baby can muster. "It's so lovely to be here. I can't thank you enough for the invitation."

"It was my pleasure," the Lioness says, "really. And you should've seen me, I was going insane. Jon took me off being Champion months ago, and I've had nothing to do in its stead. And every time I was at the palace he'd ask me about things like farming policy until I wanted to hit him, crown or no. He's got Gary for farming policy, he doesn't need me."

"I- see," Kara says, after she'd taken a moment to sort through the ramble. "Well. I'm glad you've survived."

"I have," Alanna says. "And yourself?"

Kara thinks for a moment. "I don't know," she says honestly; brutally. "I don't- Kourrem wasn't there."

"When? When Atiya was born?"

Kara nods. It's been balled up in her chest for six weeks now, Kourrem's palpable absence. "I don't know why she wasn't there- she sent word she was busy, but I haven't felt like that was enough. I wanted her to be with me so horribly much; they wouldn't let Halef into the tent and there were people twittering around me- there was nothing solid enough."

"I'm sorry," Alanna murmurs. "I would have thought she would have been there. As for the birth itself- well, I can't say my experience was the same as yours. The Goddess was watching over me in more ways than just one. But I'm sorry."

"She hasn't really been," Kara says. "But she's home now, and of course it's while I'm here."

Alanna shrugs. "Maybe she just wants some distance."

"But she's had it. And I understand how she might like to wander, even if I am the opposite. I don't understand why her distance is literal as well as figurative."

"Not everyone ends up with the life they choose," Alanna says, violet eyes serious.

"I know that," Kara insists. "If you had asked me how I thought my life would be, back when you lived with us- I never would have said I would be shaman of the Bloody Hawk, nor married to the headman. I don't know what I would have said."

"And if you had asked me, all I would have told you is that I knew I wasn't going to be queen." Alanna's grin is crooked as she bounces Thom in her lap. "Kourrem probably just doesn't have the answer to that question yet."

"I wish she did." Atiya is fussing. Kara cradles her. She is still careful with the baby, even though intellectually she knows her daughter will not break. "Or I wish she'd tell me what she thinks."

"Give it time," Alanna says. "I know I'm not the best example there, but as your former teacher, give it time. Kourrem wants to wander. Let her- maybe it's what she needs. Mithros knows it was what I needed, after I first got my shield."

"But you came home." Kara's mouth is a line. "What if Kourrem doesn't?"

("What do you think about having children?" Halef asks. They are walking by an oasis, Kara fancies the air is slightly cooler. She clasps her husband's hand, swinging it between them as they walk.

"Just someday," he continues. "It doesn't have to be soon. I would just- I want a child with you, Kara. A family we've created, as opposed to the family of the Bloody Hawk."

Kara takes a breath. "I would like that very much," she says, and he looks at her, and he knows how much she means it.

He kisses her. Their reflections in the water embrace too, a distorted mirror image.)


It is well after midnight, and Kara can hear the pattering of rain beyond the walls. It's colder than the desert, yes, but they're too close to the coast for it to snow.

"Yes?" She turns over to cuddle into Halef's body, fits herself in the warm space he has left for her. "You can't sleep?"

"I cannot," he admits with a low chuckle. "I think the rain is keeping me awake."

"Me as well." Under the sheets, his hand makes its way into hers. "The air is so different here."

His fingers trail down her side. "Kara?"


"Was it good that we came here?"

She turns her head. "Why do you ask?"

There's a hint of sadness in his voice as he answers, as well as a warmth she still sometimes finds herself searching for. "Ever since the baby- but before the baby too, now that I think of it- you've been subdued. Not entirely yourself. And I thought- I don't know. I wanted to do what I could." He squeezes her hand.

"It was good that we came here," Kara says after a moment. "It was a good idea."

"I think Kourrem will stay past the new year," Halef says. "I'd asked her to stay for a while. Not settle down- I think she's still plenty opposed to settling down- but stay in one place for you."

Kara's eyes are damp, and she leans scant inches forward to kiss him. "Thank you," she says.

"No, thank you," he says, and he doesn't need to specify for what. It is more than enough.