By Absinthe

Disclaimers: Ms. McCaffrey's wonderful planet of Pern belongs to her and her alone. No harm is meant by this little romp. Two of the characters are going to look suspiciously like a warrior and her bard, two characters that belong to Universal studios.

Part 5:

All of Pern, it seemed, turned out for the gather at Igen hold. Decked out in gather day banners and surrounded by a city of brightly colored tents, the hold rose out of the desert like a mirage. Nerath circled lazily downwards. The higher ranked riders were all expected to make an appearance, but the rest of the weyr was filtering in as well. Tara waved to a blue rider who appeared from nowhere a few lengths to their left. Merelan sat in front of her on Nerath's neck, anxiously fidgeting as they approached a clear courtyard set aside for dragon landings.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" The blonde asked.

"Of course. Stop worrying. You're worse than L'non hovering over a weyrling, I swear. Vath sleeps like a rock, you know it. We'll be back before he even knows you were gone. Relax. We're here to have a good time."

"How good?"

The pair exchanged a glance that was positively electrified.

"That good, huh?" Merelan answered her own question with a grin. Tara slid gracefully off Nerath's shoulder without replying, then watched Merelan dismount in her own awkward way. Nerath turned her head around to give Tara the equivalent of a dragon smile, and then launched herself skywards. The downsweep of her huge wings whipped the two women's gather-day clothing around their legs.

Nerath eagerly joined a host of other dragons sunning on the hot sandstone, settling herself next to Ilinth, a queen from Benden.

"It's been a long time since I've been to one of these," Merelan ruefully shook her head, "Come on, time's wasting, and all the good bargains are probably already gone!"

Tara groaned, but followed the younger woman into the maze of tents and quiosks. Merchants selling anything from leather to musical instruments lined both sides of the square, and the smell of baked goods wafted temptingly on the breeze. They stopped to listen to a young woman playing a flute. Tara tossed a quarter mark into her basket before they moved on. Merelan drove a hard bargain, once she got down to "serious" shopping, wrangling prices down and exchanging quite a few "words" with the boisterous merchants. She came away with a sheaf of fresh parchments as well as a beautifully embroidered tunic. When she noticed with dismay that Tara had not yet purchased anything she said;

"Didn't see anything?"

"I'm not much of a shopper, Merelan," she shrugged, "I don't really need anything."

Merelan proceeded to point out a great many things, asking each time: "What about that?" To no avail, for Tara remained disinterested. She bided her time until the late afternoon when she was sure that all the midday nappers were up and about again, then stopped in front of one of the cool blue tents set out for gather-goers to escape from the heat of midday. Merelan started when the dark woman finally pointed to one of the fully enclosed tents. She had noticed a few of them already, but they were untended and looked uninteresting to her bargain hunting eyes.

"What's that?" the harper asked. Tara said nothing, but pulled the flap open and gestured for Merelan to precede her inside. It was dark and cool, and the blue fabric gave everything an eerie tinge. They were alone, their words muffled by the fabric and the noise of the crowd outside.

"What is this?" Merelan repeated.

"It's the custom here to nap through the heat of the day. It's late afternoon now, and everyone has already gone. We have the place to ourselves . . ." Tara let her words trail off suggestively. Merelan caught her mood as the danger of making love here quickened her pulse and her breath. Tara took the opportunity to plant a kiss on the lips that she'd been craving for almost a turn of the moon now. When it occurred to Merelan that this was a colossaly bad idea, it was far too late for her to even bother trying to convince Tara. No . . . they just wouldn't do it again.

When they emerged, the dancing was already beginning. They caught the strains of a guitar from the dance floor. The shops were mostly abandoned, and the scent of food wafted through the aisles from the huge meal being served in the dining hall. Remembering herself, Merelan dropped Tara's hand while they half ran towards the banquet hall, sparing no time for regrets that they need be so furtive in their affections for one another.

They ate hurriedly, for with their re-emergence came a return of Merelan's worry for Vath. Turning down a few invitations to dance, the duo left the warm glow of the banquet hall and headed back to the couryard to meet Nerath -- who was on her way, albeit reluctantly -- to pick them up.

Good sun, she informed her partner with a satisfaction brought on by satiety.

"We had a good time as well," Tara replied with a grin, rubbing Nerath's warm and radiant hide affectionately.

I know. I am glad.

Tara mounted, helped Merelan up after, and Nerath leaped skywards. Merelan used the excuse to wrap her arms around Tara's middle and hold tight, sighing in contentment. Their arrival back at the weyr found Vath still sound asleep, though he usually woke to feed a few hours after sunset.

"I think he grew in the time we were gone."

"You may be right," Tara whispered. A handful of the other weyrlings were already asleep, though most were still hard at work enjoying their restday. Times like this were frustrating for them -- it seemed that they were alone, but still they daren't so much as stand too close together -- with so many people living in the weyr, no place was truly private.

Vaths' bronze side rose and fell with his rhythmic breathing. Merelan felt a surge of love and pride so strong that she almost cried on the spot. The strength of her emotions stirred the not-so-little-anymore dragonet. He yawned, squeaked, and then uncurled his growing body. Tara folded her arms across her chest and watched her lover speak with her dragon.

I remember when you were that size, Tara mentally poked Nerath.

Me? I was never that small, the golden dragon responded in mock outrage.

Lighten up, my love, lighten up. Can't I be a little nostalgic now and then?

Certainly, but there is no need to bring me into it.

But who better to be nostalgic about than you? The dragon made no further reply, although Tara could sense her contentment.

The queen rider helped with little Vath's feeding. He gorged himself determinedly until his belly bulged.

"You can almost see the individual chunks of meat in there," Merelan speculated with a half-smile.

You can? Vath asked with consternation, twisting his head to peer at his stomach.

"I was just kidding, little one!" Merelan laughed. The dragonet yawned hugely.

I itch, he whined, scratching feebly at his hide. Merelan rolled her eyes, but moved quickly to rub him down with oil to soothe his tender skin. They took him back into the barracks where he dropped into sleep a few minutes later. Merelan shook her head.

"How much longer before he stops doing this?"

"Don't wish it gone, it'll be over too soon as it is," Tara cautioned, but smiled indulgently nevertheless. She suddenly felt a wave of love wash over her like water on fresh burns. A glance at Merelan revealed that they were all caught up in it, and for a moment all four -- dragons and riders -- felt connected by the strength of their bonds to one another. Tara found that her arm had snaked around Merelan's waist, and Merelan's head had nested quite happily in the crook of the taller woman's shoulder. They both took a step back and glanced around as though they'd done something wrong.

"Why don't we go upstairs?" Tara suggested breathlessly.

"I'm not sure that's such a good idea. I think we could both use some sleep," Merelan replied, amazed by her own self control.

"I hate this."

"So do I."

They parted for the night without another word, each to lay awake for hours lingering over their memories of the gather as though they actually caressed one another. With her hands behind her head, Tara lay in her big empty bed, her eyes distant and tired. These stolen moments, and the constant alertness were telling their toll on her. She could have gone crazy on a night like that night; every thought contained unfulfilled promise.

The next morning Tara was awakened earlier than usual by Miriam's insistent knocking. Groaning, she groggily pulled a tunic over her head and shouted the former weyr woman in.

"What? Why so early? After a gather?" Tara did not bother to hide her irritation from the older woman.

"I do apologize for disturbing you," Miriam replied drolly, "But I need to speak with you. Something came to light yesterday about Khlara and I need your help to set things right."

"What do you mean ‘came to light'?" Tara demanded around a yawn.

"I spoke to Fayn, you remember, she impressed the queen from Willenth's clutch?" Tara nodded, she and the young woman were acquainted with one another, "Khlara has been neglecting her duties to her. She's dreadfully behind in her training. I want you to fill in the gaps, discreetly if you can."

Miriam ran her fingers through her hair, scrubbing at her scalp in frustration, "I thought that I taught her better than this."

"You did," Tara nodded, "You did teach her better than this."

"She doesn't listen to me, Tara. This really couldn't have happened at a worse time. The weyr needs strong leadership now, not this. We have a little more than a turn left to get it all together. F'deron and the wing leaders have been doing a blessedly wonderful job with drills, but . . ."

"I understand. This is going to cut into my time with Merelan, but she's quick. I think we can work around it," her mind raced over how she was going to work all this into her already hectic schedule. She swallowed down her anger and decided that she would just throw her weight towards covering for Khlara . . . for the moment at least. She was the weyrwoman. Unless that changed there was nothing else to be done.

"So if she's not doing her duties, then what is she doing?"

"What do you think . . . or more to the point, who?"

"Augh!" Tara threw up her hands, "How does she think that she can do this? What is she thinking?"

Part 6

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