Modern Crusaders, Book 2

Even Heroes…

By PsiDraconis

Disclaimers in Chapter 1


Chapter 10

Taking a swig of water from her bottle, Ally squinted up at the cloudless sky, shifting the pack on her back. The heat was oppressive, especially since the pavement was equally scorching, turning the downtown area she was walking through, near Claire and Corey's previous apartment, into a sauna. Sheesh. When I get home I'll see if Evy wants to head down to the river. Although… Oh yeah, she's working 'till tonight. Damn. Well, I know Corey has the evening shift also, so maybe Claire will feel like going swimming. Ally didn't think it was likely. Claire was more conscious of her looks than Ally ever had been of hers, and would rarely be seen in shorts, let alone a swimming suit. While Ally had no negative opinions about Claire's appearance, she knew from personal experience that self-image was often more important than what others thought.

Ally was broken from her thoughts as a fire truck roared past, lights and siren wailing. She looked as it turned down a street just ahead and sniffed, smelling smoke. If someone's burning a leaf pile they're going to be sorry, she mused. There was a ban on all outside fires throughout several surrounding counties due to the parched hot weather. The Horton City Fire Department had been extremely busy putting out minor burns, as well as the "normal" house and business fires.

Ally looked up over the tall office building beside her and saw a thick column of smoke rising into the sky. Its base appeared to be a block or so away. That's way more than a leaf fire. Reaching the intersection, she peered down the street. Two blocks away the fire engine had joined two others, and firefighters were swarming around them. A few police cars had also arrived, and were trying to assert some control over the civilians who were milling about on the sidewalk.

Feeling mildly guilty, Ally set off at a brisk walk towards the crowd. She disapproved of gawkers and rubberneckers in general, and always hated joining them, but in the past she had been able to provide a certain amount of surreptitious "luck" to those involved in similar situations.

Reaching the crowd Ally could see that the fire was even worse than she had guessed. The burning ten-storey apartment building was situated in the middle of the block, enclosed by an office block to the right, and other apartments on the other sides, with only the narrowest of alleyways separating them. The fire seemed to be currently isolated towards the top left of the building, but even as Ally watched she saw flames take over another window, slowly marching to the right. Given the age of the building, coupled with the tinder-dry weather, she wondered if the firefighters would be able to control the blaze.

Apparently the fire crews had similar doubts, because while two trucks continued to pour water on the stricken building, the third was concentrating its efforts on soaking the structures around it. As she watched, firefighters were helping more evacuees down the ladders that had been raised, adding them to the growing crowd on the ground. Ally nodded to herself. The firefighters were obviously efficient and experienced, and seemed to have the situation as much under control as possible.

All that changed in an instant when nearly every window on the eighth floor blew out in gouts of flame. Ally ducked instinctively, along with everyone else, as glass and debris rained down around them. Thankfully the windows had shattered, which meant that the rain consisted largely of pebble-sized chunks, rather than larger knives of deadly glass. Only a few people on the ground were cut, and Ally looked up, wiping gingerly at a light scratch on her cheek, to see the fire chief shouting orders, as firefighters hurried out of the building and down the ladders with alacrity. Police officers were pushing the crowd back, obviously fearing another explosion. Now the entire eighth floor was ablaze, and the firefighters had obviously given up on saving the building and were concentrating their efforts on controlling and containing the fire.

Ally continued moving with the crowd as the police redoubled their efforts to move everyone back, until a sudden spike of pure knowledge through her mind caused her to stumble and almost fall. Shit, there's someone still in there. Managing to duck into a doorway, Ally closed her eyes, settled herself as best she could, and reached out with her mind, seeking. It was almost impossible to pinpoint anything exactly, the fire, which was almost alive itself, throwing up masses of interference, but after a moment Ally had at least a general fix. Top floor. She opened her eyes, looking at the burning building again. With the inferno that had engulfed the eighth floor, trying to reach the tenth from the ground would be suicide for any firefighter. From the ground… Ally turned and took off down the street.

She turned the corner, out of sight of the fire, and ducked into the small alleyway between two office blocks. Slipping off her pack, she dug inside for her water bottle and used it to douse a handkerchief, printed with kittens, and then tied the light blue cloth around her mouth and nose. Not perfect, but better than nothing.

Leaving the pack behind a garbage can, Ally took one last look around the alley, then gathered herself and jumped.

A moment later she was on top of the office building, two structures away from the burning apartment block. Even from here the heat was detectable, adding to that generated by the sun on the gravel-covered roof. Fortunately the wind was nearly non-existent, allowing the smoke to rise straight up, without blowing it over the surrounding rooftops. Running across the roof, Ally easily cleared the gap between buildings, coming to a stop at the edge of the roof directly behind the burning building.

The heat here was truly intense, but Ally ignored it as she closed her eyes again, casting her mind outwards. The vision that formed was shaky and filled with "static", but the larger life-forms in the building were detectable. Thousands would die in the fire, she knew: uncounted mice, rats, insects, spiders. Nobody would think of them, but Ally would spend some time once it was all over mourning their deaths. For now, though, she focussed on the single human-strength life force still alive inside. It was on the top floor, as she had suspected, at the far end of the building. Taking note of the largest window near the person, she nodded.

Then, taking a deep breath, she stepped off the edge of the building.

Hovering before the window she had noted, Ally tried to ignore the flames licking out a window an uncomfortably short distance below, and kicked at the glass. With psychokinetic enhancement behind it, the kick shattered the window easily, and Ally winced as a piece of glass cut her leg. Damn, I should have hit it with something. She regretted that she was still wearing only shorts and had a brief mental flash of her appearance: khaki shorts, sandals, a kitten handkerchief, and a Powerpuff Girls T-shirt, a gift given as an inside joke by Evelynne. The Superheroes' Union is going to revoke my membership for this, she thought wryly, manoeuvring through the broken window.

Once inside what turned out to be the apartment's combined living room and kitchen, Ally touched down. Looking around, she saw that it was small, worn and run-down, but still clean and homey. Smoke filled the air, not particularly heavy yet, but that would quickly change if the amount leaking under the front door was any indication. Ally coughed, and was grateful she had decided to come in through the window, rather than land on the other roof and down the roof access stairs. Some of the smoke was being drawn out through the now-broken window, but more was accumulating, and Ally immediately started her search.

"Hey! Is there anyone here?" she shouted, opening the door to the right of the main entrance. The room beyond was a bedroom, largely smoke-free, and unoccupied. Turning back, Ally hurried to the short hallway that led off to the left of the front door, repeating the process at the first door in the left wall. That was also a bedroom, whose décor told her theowner was probably a young girl. It was also empty of anyone in need of rescue, which left only the last closed door at the end of the hall.

Ally headed to it, coughing and bent over to avoid the smoke, and had just reached it when a blast of heat and an audible "whumph" from behind her made her look around, wide-eyed. The apartment's front door had succumbed to the heat on the other side, and flames were now greedily licking at the cheap paint on the inside and rapidly spreading to the rest of the living room. A gust of smoke billowed down the hall, engulfing Ally before she could wrench open the final door and dive through, slamming it behind her.

Wiping her streaming eyes and coughing heavily, Ally saw that the final room was the bathroom, and it was here that she finally found the person she had come to rescue. A young pony-tailed girl, probably about eight or nine years of age, looked up at her with wide eyes from her place on the floor, wrapped in a blanket next to a large blocky object under a towel.

"Uh... hi," Ally said, her voice hoarse. "I'm here to help. Are you okay?"

The girl nodded. "I'm Callie," she replied, her tone remarkably calm. "I heard the fire alarm, and went to the door, but when I touched it like you're supposed to it was hot, so I didn't go out. If you can't get out you're supposed to stay on the ground and cover yourself in a wet blanket, and stuff wet stuff under the door." She looked down, and Ally saw that the wet towels that had been used to stop up the crack under the door had been shoved aside when she opened it.

"Oh, right," Ally said, quickly replacing them and blocking the smoke that was stealing through. Reaching up, she touched the handle, jerking her hand away when it burned her. That fire must be spreading really fast. "Damn. Is there any other way out of here?" she asked, already knowing that there wasn't. The only window was a tiny one high on one wall, much too small to pass an eight-year-old, much less a grown woman.

"Uh uh," Callie said, real fear beginning to show. "Are we stuck?"

"Mmm," Ally hummed noncommittally. Hurrying to the far wall, next to the girl, she touched it. Closing her eyes, she sought to project her sight into the wall, and then through it to the open air outside. Nodding, she smiled reassuringly at Callie before realising that the girl couldn't see past the handkerchief. "Maybe not."

Callie smiled back tremulously before her eyes flickered and she gave a short scream. Ally whirled and saw that the towels stuffed under the door were smouldering, and flame could be seen around the edges. "Okay, let's go," she said quickly, grabbing Callie and pulling her up.

"Wait, what about Archimedes?" Callie blurted.


The girl pulled the towel off the square object, revealing a sleepy-looking guinea pig in a cage, and Ally blinked. Thinking quickly, she grabbed the towel, then snatched the animal and thrust him inside before tying the ends to trap it there. It wouldn't be comfortable, but the package would be easier to carry than a double-handful of squirming rodent. Grabbing another towel, she tied it into a sling and draped it around Callie's neck, the wrapped Archimedes inside. Then she picked the girl up and held her. "Okay, I want you to put your arms around my neck and hold on really tight?" Callie nodded and obeyed. "This might be a bit scary, but just hold on, okay?"

The heat from the burning door was becoming almost painful on Ally's back as she faced the wall. Putting that out of her mind, she focussed, visualising the result, her hands held at her sides. Then she took a shallow breath, almost coughing again as the smoke seared her lungs, and channelled.

Her hands thrust out in front of her around the girl holding onto her neck, striking the wall with incredible force. There was an audible crunch, and the wall dented but held. It was due to the area to which she was applying the force, Ally knew. If she'd simply struck an area the size of her fist she'd likely have broken through instantly, but the force being channelled through her hands was being psychokinetically spread over a much larger area, reducing its impact on any one region. Despite appearances, there really was no cheating the laws of physics.

Drawing back, Ally focussed and struck again. This time the section of weakened wall blew outward with enough force to strike the building on the other side of the alley and Ally instantly leapt for the opening.

Almost in time. The lower air pressure outside sucked the air out of the apartment, and the fire with it. Suddenly fuelled by fresh oxygen, the fire blew out the hole in a gout of flame, mere feet from Ally's back.

Ally hissed as the burning pain flashed over her back, but managed to hold her focus long enough to land herself and her cargo on the ground with relative gentleness, fortuitously hidden from view of the street by a large dumpster. She stumbled as soon as she landed, falling to one knee and coughing hard as abused lungs sought fresh air. The alley air was hardly fresh, but right now the odour of rotting garbage was like perfume. Callie managed to retain her feet, holding her squirming bundle as she crouched down, awe on her face.

"Oh my God," she breathed. "You're like a superhero, aren't you? Like-like Spiderman."

Ally finally managed to stop coughing and looked up with a hidden rueful smile. "I was hoping for Wonder Woman, actually, but…" She coughed, wiping her face. She turned serious. Now that she had time to think, it was time for damage control. "And you know how superheroes have secret identities?"

"Yeah." Callie's eyes widened. "Oh! You mean you don't want me telling about you, right?"

"Right." This is so much easier with kids. They take so much on faith. Usually. "Just tell them you got out earlier, or went down the fire escape or something."

Callie nodded solemnly. "Okay. I know it's wrong to lie, but this is, like, important, right?"

"Very." When her latest breath didn't cause her to nearly lose a lung, Ally stood, wincing at the pulling of the skin on her back. She looked up at the surrounding buildings, wondering how much energy she had left.

"Um…" Ally looked down as the young girl tugged her arm. "Do you, like, have a costume or something?"

Ally smiled with genuine humour despite her discomfort. "I'm working on it." Then she crouched and leapt, disappearing over the rooftop.

Claire looked longingly at the silent air conditioning unit in the corner of the living room and sighed. Turning back to the television, she settled instead for a long gulp of cold water. She was being foolish, she knew. She had known Ally and Sophia for long enough to logically realise that they would certainly not mind if she turned on the air conditioning, despite the way it added to the electricity bill. For that matter, they would have no objection to her drinking some of the juice in the fridge, rather than sticking to tap water.

A lifetime's conditioning was hard to break, however. Claire had learned early on that the key to acceptance, at least when one had few other attributes to recommend them, was to become as little a burden as possible. When the foster homes that you were staying in knew that you were unlikely to ever be adopted, the best thing to do was maintain as low a profile as possible and provide no excuses for them to shuffle you off to a new one.

Of course, rationally Claire knew that her current benefactors were definitely not about to throw her out just for eating their food or using their appliances, but she still felt extremely uncomfortable. It had been a triumph for her to actually turn on the TV when they weren't around. The other key to longer-term acceptance, she had learned, was to become as useful as possible. And so she had practically taken over the cleaning and general tidying of the apartment. Ally was truly appreciative, which was enough incentive in itself, although Sophia seemed to take it almost as a matter of course. It wasn't that the other woman was unappreciative, but just that she appeared to take it as a given that someone else would do the chores, making Claire think that servants had been a common feature in her life in Atlantis.

That was only one of the puzzles raised by her hosts. Ally and Sophia had been remarkably reticent about their pasts in Atlantis, but from what Claire could deduce, Sophia was from a quite well-off family, and had met Allison while on vacation in Europe. They had gone back to Atlantis as friends, and eventually become a couple. There had apparently been problems with her family when Sophia had proposed to her lover, and—here the story got even more vague—they had come to the States to create some "space" just before the Invasion. Now it seemed that Sophia's family had generally accepted her choice of partner, but her father wanted her somewhere safer until the Atlantean situation settled.

It was really very mysterious, Claire mused, idly watching the antics of the Three's Company crowd on the TV. It was almost as if—

Her thoughts were interrupted by the front door opening. She knew that Sophia wouldn't be home until much later, and Corey had the evening shift, so as she turned she began, "Hi, Ally. How was—" She broke off abruptly when she actually saw the woman at the door.

It was Ally, but her appearance was a shock. Her hair was bedraggled, and her face was filthy with sweat and… soot? Her clothing wasn't much better, the white shirt she had been wearing that morning now smudged with black and grey. Ally's arms and legs were equally dirty, and it looked like there was a cut along one shin. She was leaning against the wall next to the door, looking at Claire with a surprised expression.

"Jesus, Ally, what happened?" Claire asked, jumping to her feet and hurrying around the couch to her friend. "Are you okay?"

Still apparently in shock, Ally nodded slightly. "I'm okay," she said, her voice hoarse. "I—" She bent over suddenly, unable to finish the sentence as a series of racking coughs shook her body. She almost fell, but Claire grabbed her arm in time to steady her, waiting until the coughing fit eased. "I'm okay," she rasped again, gasping for breath.

Claire guided her over to the couch and helped her sit, then crouched down to look at her. "You're not okay," she disagreed. "You need to go to the hospital. What happened?"

Ally shook her head as vehemently as she could. "No hospital," she ground out. "Can't go to the hospital. I'll be okay. I just need to rest."

Claire started to object, and then paused. If, as she was beginning to suspect, Ally and Sophia were in the country illegally, for whatever unfathomable reason, there were good reasons for Ally's reticence. Instead, she leapt to her feet again and ran to the kitchen, filling a large glass with cold water. Returning, she crouched down again, handing the glass to Ally, who drank gratefully. "Okay," she said finally, "but you have to tell me what happened."

Ally's sigh turned into another hacking fit, and when it eased she explained, "There was a big fire downtown, near where you used to live. There was an explosion and I got a big faceful of smoke."

Claire nodded. She had heard a few fire trucks earlier, and had assumed that they were out at another smaller fire. News that there had been an explosion surprised her. "Do you want me to call Sophia?" she asked.

Ally started to shake her head, then stopped. "I can't talk to her like this," she said, coughing again for emphasis. "She'll freak. I need to get clean first, then I'll call her." She seemed oddly reluctant.

With dubious agreement, Claire helped Ally to her feet and led her towards the bathroom. She couldn't help feeling guilty about the fact that it felt good to be able to help Ally. She made sure Ally was standing steadily in the bathroom, and then carefully closed the door behind her. Standing in the hall for a moment, she came to a decision and reached for the telephone.

Narmin bent down and looked over Sophia's shoulder as her employee confidently manipulated numbers on the computer screen, obviously knowing exactly what she was doing, which was certainly more than the manager could say. Shifting a number into another column of the spreadsheet for no particular reason Narmin could see, Sophia made a satisfied sound as the figures changed, and the older woman shook her head.

It had begun about a week before, when Narmin had come storming out of her office, frustrated beyond words after a day of going over the restaurant's records. Once she had calmed down, Sophia had offered to examine the records. "My father works for the Realm," she had explained. "In the government. Contract work, in a sense. I've been studying to take over the family business." By that point Narmin would have accepted help from the Count from Sesame Street and had readily agreed, not knowing just what she was unleashing.

So far Sophia had streamlined the restaurant's payment and deposit system, consolidated the books into a much smaller set of spreadsheets, and discovered that Narmin's regular accountant had been embezzling a small but not insignificant amount of money for the past year. Now Sophia had asked for her input on some other matter, and the manager was just waiting while her new financial advisor made some small corrections.

Finally Sophia was satisfied and leaned back. "All right, here's what I've found," she began. "At the moment you're using this one company to coordinate all your supply purchases, and they are actually quite good. However, it might be better in the long run to deal directly with some of the local producers."

Narmin shook her head. "I tried that a few years ago. It ended up costing more than going through the middleman."

"It's true that it'll cost a bit more out-of-pocket," Sophia agreed, "but I've discovered that there's a local tax credit that will more than make up for it. It was created a few years ago as to encourage patronage of local producers. If your regular accountant had been doing his job he should have discovered it for you." Sophia looked offended, and Narmin hid a smile. Ever since taking over the financial aspect of the restaurant Sophia had taken an almost proprietary interest in it, and had seen the former accountant's incompetence and, worse, dishonesty, as an almost personal affront. "It'll mean a bit more attention and paperwork—" She grinned at Narmin's groan. "—but it should save you roughly eight thousand dollars a year overall."

The manager looked impressed. "When you add that to the twenty grand that bastard won't be stealing from me this year, and all the other stuff, you've managed to save me close to thirty five thousand already. And you've only been doing this for me for a week. You are definitely getting a raise."

Sophia blushed, pleased. "I've been training to take over my father's company, and it's a lot bigger than this restaurant. When I—"

She was cut off by the phone on the desk, which Narmin answered. "Narmin… Yeah, she's here." She handed the phone to her employee. "For you."

"Hello?" Sophia said.

"Sophia, it's Claire."

"Hi, Claire. What's up?" Narmin smothered another smile. It wasn't often that Sophia used English colloquialisms, and when she did they always sounded odd.

"It's Allison. She was in a kind of accident, I think. She's fine!" Claire continued quickly as Sophia stiffened and paled. "Mostly fine. She's mostly just kind of sick, and she won't go to the hospital. It was some sort of fire. I think she'll be okay, but I wanted to—I thought you should—I just thought I should let you know."

"Where is she?" Sophia asked urgently.

"She's in the shower right now. I mean, she can walk and everything, although I think she's a bit woozy. She's also coughing a lot, because I think she inhaled some smoke, but she says she's okay."

"All right." Sophia took a deep breath. "Claire, is she okay?"

There was a pause at the other end, as Claire realised the importance of the question and the trust in her opinion that was being offered. "She is," she said finally. "She's not perfect, but I'm sure she'll be okay."

"Right," Sophia said. "I'll be home as soon as I can."

The phone hung up, Sophia turned to her boss. "Narmin, can you—" She stopped when she saw Narmin already on her cell phone.

The other woman murmured a final instruction and hung up. "I've just called you a cab. I heard. Hal can cover you tonight. Besides, I figure I owe you thirty five thousand bucks, so it's the least I can do."

Ally stood in the bathroom for several minutes and tried to think. Her head felt fuzzy and her thoughts were coming with glacial slowness. She was aware of concern, worry over how she would explain this to Claire, but the feeling was oddly muted. A sharper fear was how Evelynne would react to this latest escapade. The last time she had sped off to "save the day" the immediate results had not been pleasant. Her fears that her lover would leave because of the danger she put herself in had been allayed at the time, but the core of concern had never gone away.

Realising that she had been staring blankly at herself in the mirror, Ally shook her head gingerly and started into motion. The shower, with its promise of cool water and cleanliness, called urgently. Ally bent over, wincing as the movement pulled her tender back, and removed her shorts and underwear, and then reached for her shirt. She stopped instantly as that particular motion pulled even harder on the skin of her back, turning the tight feeling into a tearing pain. Hissing, she waited until the pain subsided a little, and then tried again, more slowly. It didn't help; once she reached a certain point it felt like someone was laying two red-hot metal bars between her shoulder blades.

Taking a deep breath to control the pain set off another coughing spasm, leaving her weak and gasping when it passed. Marshalling her concentration, Ally tried to use her talents to lift the shirt off, but the combination of light-headedness, coughing and pain thwarted her attempts to focus. Damn it, what do I do? Cut it off? she wondered. The thought of ruining a gift from Evelynne was abhorrent, even though she vaguely knew that her fiancée would forgive her readily. Finally some part of her mind came to a decision, and she cracked the door. "Claire? Could you help me out?" she called hoarsely.

There was a click as Claire put something down, then she appeared from the living room. "Of course. What do you need?" she asked earnestly.

"I did something to my back, and I can't get my shirt off," Ally admitted, embarrassed. "Could you…?" She opened the door a little more.

"Oh! Sure." Claire entered the bathroom. She looked down, then back up instantly, her face turning a shocking black and red.

Ally looked at her, confused, until she looked down herself. "Oh! Pants!" Blushing furiously, Ally fumbled for a towel and awkwardly wrapped it around her waist. Oh God… her slow and dazed mind began, and then gave up. Slightly more decent, she tried to ignore the most recent embarrassment. "Can you…?" She indicated her shirt.

"Right," Claire said, obviously trying to forget the incident. Indicating for Ally to raise her arms, she carefully pulled off the shirt, wincing at the other woman's laboured breathing. When Ally was finally standing in only her bra and a towel, Claire looked down at the shirt in surprise. The cloth at the back felt stiff and hard, where the nylon fibres had partially melted under heat. "Jesus," she breathed, obviously wanting to question Ally. She held off, however, getting Ally to turn around so that she could unclasp the tall woman's bra. She winced again at the sight of Ally's back, which looked as though she had suffered a bad sunburn. The hair on the back of Ally's head was also scorched and burned. When Ally turned around again, awkwardly covering herself with her arms, Claire managed a smile. "Okay, do you need anything else?"

Ally was able to smile back in gratitude and shook her head. "No, I'll be okay. Thanks."

Claire nodded and left, firmly closing the door behind her. Ally stared at the door for a moment, and then managed to gather her scattered thoughts. She was vaguely surprised that she hadn't had a panic attack, but then figured that she simply didn't have the energy. Maybe tomorrow, she thought, turning to step into the shower.

Claire shut the door and leaned against the wall, the memory of what had just happened vivid in her mind. The vision of Ally's red and painfully burned back swam before her eyes, pushing aside the jolt she had received after seeing her friend half-naked. The latter would probably haunt her later, but for now Claire was more concerned with alleviating Ally's pain.

Steeling herself, Claire headed to her room. Opening her bedside drawer, she fished around until she came up with a tube of cream. She normally used it to soothe the painful sunburns she often got on the unfortunately frequent occasions that her lighter skin was exposed, but it would work with first-degree fire burns equally well.

That decided, she went to make some more preparations.

When Ally exited the bathroom in her bathrobe, holding herself stiffly and trying to create the least amount of contact between the material and her back, Claire was waiting. With only a few words Claire helped her friend into the bedroom and onto her bed, and Ally was so exhausted she acquiesced without resistance.

Claire had taken it upon herself to straighten Ally and Sophia's bed, and the bedside table was almost overflowing with drinks, snacks, and anything else she could think of that she thought the patient might want or need. While she had seen this bedroom from the hallway before, this was the first time Claire had been given a chance to investigate it more thoroughly. One thing that had surprised her had been the lack of any personal photos of either friends or family. From conversations she had deduced that both Ally and Sophia were close to their respective families, and since there were no pictures anywhere else in the apartment Claire had assumed that they were only in the bedroom, only to find that that room was equally bare of familial effects.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Ally paused uncomfortably. She twitched her shoulders lightly and asked sheepishly, "Can you give me a hand here?" She had removed her contact lenses, and her glasses and the dark circles under them made her look owlish.

"Sure." Claire eased her down until she was lying on her stomach, and her expression was a mixture or amusement and concern as Ally groaned appreciatively. "I have some cream if you'd like me to put it on your back. It might make it feel better."

Ally hesitated a moment before grunting affirmatively, coughing as she did so. "Ugh," she groaned when she recovered. Suddenly she tried to sit up. "Sophia!" she exclaimed.

"Relax," Claire said, pushing her carefully back down. "I called her and she's on her way back. She should be home soon." Ally slowly relaxed back onto the bed. Claire tugged at the collar of her robe. "Can you lift up a bit so I can get this down?"

With some pained manoeuvring Ally untied the belt and Claire slowly peeled down the robe, exposing her back. The first thing she noticed was that the redness she had noticed before was undiminished. If anything it appeared worse, without a layer of sweat and grime to cover it. Ally flinched visibly when Claire touched it gingerly. The second thing she noticed was the coin-sized shiny scar in the centre of Ally's lower back, and remembered the brief story of how the woman had been shot defending her lover. What did surprise her was another similar scar in Ally's right shoulder, and she almost reached out to touch it before pulling back. It was a shock to see two bullet wounds, but Ally had never said exactly how many times she had been shot. She also recalled that she had never seen the other woman in a tank top or anything else that would reveal the scar. Claire could relate to the desire to cover up physical blemishes. The last thing she noticed was the chain around Ally's neck, and the dragon pendant that was now lying on the mattress next to Ally's head, and felt a bubble of pleased happiness that the other woman was still wearing her birthday gift.

Squeezing some cream onto her hands, Claire began to rub it into Ally's back and recognised the observable relief from discomfort Ally was exhibiting. She worked the cream into the red skin, watching as Ally relaxed. She took the opportunity to touch the smooth skin of the shoulder scar, intrigued by how different it felt. Her fingers strayed down to the one by Ally's spine, wincing internally at the thought of the pain and fear that must have accompanied it. There was also something familiar somehow about the appearance of Ally's back, as though she had seen it before somewhere.

"This is where you were shot, huh?" she murmured, not realising she had spoken aloud until Ally replied.

"Mmm. Yeah," the woman on the bed whispered, her voice and expression sleepy. "Had t'save Evel-Sophia."

Claire continued her ministrations, now simply trying to relax the muscles under her fingers. "You really love her, don't you?" she found herself asking.

"I do," Ally murmured, her face, turned to the side, creasing in a genuine smile. "She's… everything."

Claire felt a pang of emotion in her chest, but was surprised that it wasn't jealousy, at least, not directly. She realised that she was jealous of neither Ally nor Sophia, or what they had. She felt a longing for it, a desire for what they had—a desire, if she was being honest with herself, for either of them—but absolutely no wish to do anything that would ruin what already existed. Alas, no seducing Ally while she's in a vulnerable state, she thought with amusement. "I'm glad," she said finally. There was no reply, and peering at Ally's face Claire saw that she was asleep.

Evelynne entered the apartment urgently, but thankfully without a sense of panic. She had been nearly frantic when she had left the Sixth Age, but in the cab she had been able to calm herself enough to focus on the link between herself and her partner, and what she had read had enabled her to calm further. The sensations coming over the link were ephemeral and confused, as always, but while a great deal of discomfort was present, there was no fear or great urgency.

Nevertheless, she had remained nervous and fidgety, especially when the taxi had gotten stuck in traffic. Cars were being redirected around a large area of the downtown core, and Evelynne had gathered that a massive fire had engulfed a local apartment building. She immediately remembered Claire's description of Ally's smoke inhalation, and wondered whether her unusual lover was somehow involved. If she was… Evelynne shoved the thought away, uncertain of the emotions that evoked. The last time Ally had performed some sort of mass rescue she had ended up unconscious for almost three days, and while Evelynne appreciated her partner's unique calling and how she was sometimes drawn to heroism, that didn't make dealing with the consequences much easier.

Finally reaching their apartment much later than she thought she would, Evelynne let herself in. Nobody was in the living room, and she hurried down the short hallway to the bedroom. She looked inside and paused.

Ally was lying on the bed on her front with her face turned to the door, her eyes closed. She didn't appear injured. What gave Evelynne pause was the fact that her fiancée was bare from the waist up, her robe draped over her hips. Claire was gently rubbing Ally's back, and the sheen to the painfully red skin suggested that she was applying some kind of lotion. The expression on Claire's face was caring and somewhat wistful, and for a moment Evelynne could see that if she herself hadn't been a factor, Claire and Ally would have likely made a very happy couple.

Then she wondered why the thought didn't bother her as much as it perhaps ought to.

It's because Ally and I are together, she realised. And I trust Ally completely not to stray. And I trust Claire not to doing anything dishonourable either. It was true, she mused. If Claire had been trying to make a move on Ally she would have been trying to drive some sort of wedge between her and Evelynne, and there had been absolutely nothing of the sort going on. She had been given a golden opportunity in this very event, and could have caused a great deal of strife simply by letting Evelynne come home to discover Ally's condition without warning. On the contrary, she had striven, not just today but in the past weeks as well, to ensure that Ally and Evelynne's relationship remained strong, despite her obvious—to everyone but Ally—attraction to Evelynne's lover. She had acted as a conciliatory presence several times when one or both of them had been feeling the stress of their situation keenly. Evelynne knew that even without Claire around their relationship would have survived, but the other woman's subtle encouragements lessened the tension. Claire, someday some woman is going to adore you just as much as you deserve to be adored, Evelynne thought. Even if I have to invade this country to find her!

Her soul more at ease, Evelynne finally announced her presence. She knocked lightly at the door, even though it was her own room. She felt that Claire and Ally were having some sort of private moment, and it only felt right to seek permission before intruding on it. Claire jumped up instantly, her guilty expression telling Evelynne that the attraction she had been musing on was still strong.

"Sophia!" Claire blurted, just managing to modulate her voice to a quieter pitch. "I didn't hear you. I was—"

Evelynne cut off her nervous babble with a compassionate expression. "It's all right. How is she?" She crouched down, brushing her lover's cheek gently and saw that Ally was asleep.

"She's doing okay, I think. She was coughing a lot, and she burned her back pretty badly. And her hair. But she had a shower—" Evelynne wondered what had happened to put a blush that colour on her friend's face "­—and I put something on her back. She just fell asleep." Claire lowered her voice still further. "Do you—I don't—Do you know what happened?" Her face was a picture of concern and curiosity.

Evelynne sighed. "I can guess," she said finally. "But I need to talk to Ally first, all right?" Claire nodded readily, and Evelynne felt a surprising urge to confide everything in the other woman. However, this wasn't her secret alone, no matter how trustworthy Claire had turned out to be. "I just want to stay with her for a while, then can you come back and watch her? I need to make a phone call."

"That's it, isn't it, Mohammed?" King Jad asked, dropping the last of a series of documents into his "out" basket.

The King's secretary smiled sympathetically, scooping up the same pile for distribution to the necessary parties. "It is, Sire," he said. "You have an early morning meeting with Duke Lyonesse," he reminded. "Oh yes, and Meghan would like a few minutes."

"Of course," King Jad said. "Show her in, please. Then you can go. Thank you, Mohammed."

"Certainly, Sire." It would be a while yet before the secretary could actually leave, since he still had to make sure all the King's work was sorted, copied, forwarded and filed as necessary, but that was all part of the job he had been holding for almost a decade. Gathering the final documents, al-Shan opened the door and ushered in Meghan Doherty, then headed off to finish his work.

Meghan closed the door and bowed to her Liege.

The King waved off the obeisance. "Please, Meghan, it's just us here. So how are you today?" As he spoke Jad tidied up his desk in preparation for leaving.

"Quite well, Sire. I-I heard from my niece today," Meghan began, and the tone of her voice made the King look up quickly. "Apparently her husband was in an accident." King Jad was frozen, looking at her anxiously. "She assures me that he will recover, but is rather sick at the moment. She also said I should remind her Uncle Arthur about the 'Angel Incident' last fall." It was obvious Meghan didn't really understand the last instruction, but the King was apparently able to decipher it.

"Oh yes, I believe I heard something about that," he said. Rubbing his face, he sighed. "Have you had dinner yet, Meghan?" he asked in a seeming non-sequitor.

"Er… no, Sire," Meghan replied, startled.

"Well, would you care to join Cleo and myself for a meal? You can tell me more about your niece while we eat."

"Certainly, Sire. I would be honoured." One didn't turn down invitations like this.

"Please, Meghan, while we're in private, at least, you can call me Jad. We're practically family, after all."

"Yes, S-Jad," she said, blushing.

Continued in Chapter 11

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