Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
She crouched on the edge of the rooftop, hunched over, and looked out over the lights of the city.
So I'm back.
She found herself absently fingering the edge of the long, dark grey hooded cloak she wore, and smiled wryly, the expression seeming stiff and unnatural. I'm surprised this old thing held up so well. The garment was slightly more worn and faded than the last time she had seen it. She had been mildly surprised that it had still been where she had left it, but perhaps that wasn't so surprising. After all, the number of people who closely inspected the roofs of forty-story apartment buildings was rather limited. And finding the sealed package in its hiding place within an air vent decreased the odds even further. In fact, the garment had been discovered, but its new colonists had been gently relocated, squeaking in alarm, into a brand-new luxury shoebox, and seemed to be settling in well.
The figure on the rooftop wondered briefly if she should remain hunched over like a gargoyle, or whether to strike a more dramatic pose, then shrugged mentally. It's not as though anyone's going to see, she thought. Besides, it's still possible to hunch dramatically. Batman does it all the time. Sighing, she stood upright and breathed in deeply.
And sneezed explosively as remnants of dust, caught in the cloth wrapped around her face under the hood, attacked her nose. "Great," she muttered. "That's heroic. That can be my codename: Sneeze-Girl, the Maiden of Mucus."
The mild humour felt alien and unnatural, and the oddness of it reminded her of why it felt that way. Sobering at the memory, she carefully didn't react to the sensation in her chest that was at once painfully tight and achingly hollow. Pushing away both the sensation and memory once again, she forced her mind elsewhere with the ease of long practice.
Looking back out over the city, she mused on how quiet it seemed. There was noise, to be sure—cars, sirens, snatches of music, conversation—but it all seemed surreal, seen from this vantage point. Under it all, she knew better than many, was the reality. People loved, hated, fought, had fun, experienced tragedy, and generally lived.
There was pain down there, too, and if she couldn't do much for her own problems, occasionally she could do something about theirs. Taking a final breath—without sneezing this time—she stepped off into the air and was gone.
Evelynne looked up hopefully from the book she was reading as a figure momentarily darkened the doorway, and then subsided with mild disappointment as she saw who it was. If Claire harboured any resentment for that disappointment, she showed no sign. Instead, she rubbed her eyes blearily as she made her way over to the couch.
"Hi," Evelynne said quietly, mindful of the otherwise silent house. "Couldn't sleep?"
"Eh, a headache," Claire replied, rubbing her forehead reflexively, right along a line in her bicoloured skin. Her startlingly contrasting eyes, one brown, one an incredibly pale blue, looked at her friend. "She's not back yet?" Evelynne shook her head. "Jesus, it's after three in the morning! What does she do out there?"
Evelynne shrugged. "Oh, you know. Protects the innocent. Fights for Truth, Justice and the Canadian Way. Makes the streets safe for law-abiding citizens." She shrugged again, her expression troubled despite her attempt at humour. In truth, she didn't exactly know what Ally got up to on her nightly forays, and her partner's silence in that respect was almost as troubling as the lack of knowledge itself.
"I thought being friends with a Princess was strange enough," Claire mused. "Now I'm friends with a superhero, too." They both managed a strained laugh before sobering.
Evelynne rubbed a hand through her hair, the action drawing Claire's eyes. "That's still strange."
"What is?" Evelynne asked.
"Your hair. I'm still so used to it being red. When Corey suggested you dye it I wasn't really expecting you to do it."
Evelynne shrugged. Her hair had been styled shortly after they had arrived. Now it was about as far from her original long, flaming red style as it was possible to be. When first leaving Atlantl, she had cut it quite short, but left the colour. Now, while still short, it had been morphed into a spiky style and, most disconcertingly of all, dyed a blonde so pale that it was almost white. Wearing a pair of glasses to complete the disguise, Evelynne was now far removed from the princess she had once been. She amused herself sometimes by speculating on her father's reaction when he saw her. So far her money was on the big, tough, masculine Diarch fainting clear away.
Ally had also changed. Now her hair was very short, nearly a buzz-cut, and she wore green contacts. With more makeup than she usually wore, including dark eyeliner and bright red lipstick, it was likely her own mother wouldn't recognise her.
Claire was well aware that she was the weak point in the group, since covering up her brown-and-white tiger-striped colouring was, if not impossible, then very difficult. So far her contribution to anonymity consisted of staying inside most of the time, out of sight. Evelynne considered it supremely unfair, but Claire accepted it, since in the past her unique appearance had led her to lead an equally reclusive life.
"Would you like some tea?" Evelynne asked, reaching for the pot on the coffee table. "Or some cookies?"
"Let me guess," Claire said wryly. "Mrs. Chen?" She grinned when Evelynne nodded. "'You girls today are too thin. You need some meat on your bones,'" she mimicked.
"Be careful," Evelynne cautioned, passing the plate over. "She'll hear you and make you sit through another ten-course meal."
Claire shrugged. "Even if I didn't say it, she'd hear me thinking it. Besides, I like her ten-course meals."
Evelynne chuckled again at the thought of their hostess, thinking back to the first time they had met.
"Here we are," Ally said, leaning forward to pay the cab driver, and then opening the door and holding it for her companions.
Evelynne spent a moment looking up and down the street while Ally collected their luggage from the trunk. It was a typical Vancouver residential street, she supposed, similar small houses lining the road, each with its own small, tidy garden in front. The garden they had stopped in front of was a little more crowded than most, with herbs and vegetables planted in neat rows, but otherwise matched the house in its nondescript nature. Evelynne felt a little nonplussed.
"Okay, here we go," Ally said, easily hefting both hers and Evelynne's bags as she made her way up the short walk. Reaching the top of the few stairs, she reached out to ring the doorbell, but halted as the door swung open.
Evelynne blinked at the young boy, probably about five or six years old, who stood there, looking at them seriously. "Hi," he said, his serious tone at odds with his high voice. "You're Ally, right? Grandma said you were coming." He paused, seeming to listen, although Evelynne could hear nothing. "Grandma says to leave your bags and come into the kitchen."
His task completed, the boy turned and walked back into the house, leaving his guests to make their own way inside. Leaving their luggage by the door, the trio did so, Evelynne and Claire hesitantly, Ally with more confidence. The smell of baking led them to the kitchen, where Evelynne got her first sight of the redoubtable Mrs. Chen.
She was nothing like Evelynne expected. Evelynne had heard Mrs. Chen described by Ally as "the most skilled, most powerful telepath I've ever met. Not that that means much." So she had been subconsciously expecting someone more impressive. She was not expecting a short, rather round and stooped Chinese woman, her face and hands deeply lined and spotted with age. She was wearing a simple red dress with a flower pattern, and an apron liberally dusted with flour. She was just finishing pulling a tray of muffins out of the oven, and turned to meet her guests with a smile.
"Ally, you're finally here," she said, hurrying around the kitchen table to wrap her arms around Ally's waist. She was short enough to only come up to Ally's chest, but still gave the impression that she was smothering the taller woman in her hug. Grasping Ally's face in her hands, she pulled her down to kiss both cheeks, and then pulled back slightly to look deep into Ally's eyes. "Oh, you poor dear," she murmured, her wince barely noticeable as Ally looked away uncomfortably. With a final pat to Ally's cheek, she turned to the other pair.
"And this is your wife," she said, smiling more fully at Evelynne, who blushed at the title.
"No, not quite, Mrs. Chen," she replied. "We haven't—"
"Oh, hush." Evelynne's eyes widened as words appeared in her head with crystal clarity. It was the first time anyone had ever projected their own thoughts into her mind before. Until now Evelynne had been the one in control of any conversations. *You just haven't gone through the ceremony yet. You're already connected more closely than most people ever are.* Mrs Chen studied Evelynne a moment longer, apparently completely unimpressed by Evelynne's royal status. "And you're what Ally calls a telepath, as well. Oh my. We're going to have some long discussions, dear." She smiled reassuringly at Evelynne before turning her attention to Claire. "And you… Oh my." She cast a sideways glance at Ally. "You've found another one, haven't you? Won't this be interesting?" she murmured, almost to herself. She shook head, coming back to herself.
"Hi. I'm Claire," the other woman introduced herself awkwardly.
"Indeed. Claire. It's wonderful to meet you." Turning back to the kitchen at large. "And you've already met my grandson, Deng. Although he hasn't introduced himself yet." She glared at the boy with mock severity.
"Mmm… I'm Deng," he mumbled, blushing. "I'm five." He kept looking at Claire's distinctive face.
"Hello, Deng," Evelynne said, grinning. "Nice to meet you. I'm Evelynne. I'm twenty."
"Oh." Deng looked at her seriously. "You're Ally's girlfriend, right?"
Claire and Mrs. Chen chuckled as Evelynne blushed. "Yes. That's right."
"Oh. Okay." Deng looked at Claire. "Are you her girlfriend, too?"
Evelynne almost laughed aloud as Claire turned red and black. "N-no," Claire choked out. "I'm just her friend."
"But you're a girl, right?"
"Yeah, I suppose I am."
That seemed to satisfy the five-year-old. "Okay. I like your face. It's neat."
Claire looked beseechingly at her bemused audience. "Thanks."
Mrs. Chen rescued her. "Well, the bathroom's down the hall if you'd like to freshen up. Once you're ready we can sit and have a cup of tea and you can tell me all about what you've been doing."
Evelynne came back to herself as she realised Claire was talking. "Pardon?"
"I said I was hoping Mrs. Chen makes that fish soup again."
"That was good. Brain food." This kind of casual conversation was extremely soothing, and Evelynne felt herself relaxing.
"Yeah. I need all the brain fuel I can get after all the exercise I've been putting mine through." Claire winced, rubbing her temples again
Evelynne smiled sympathetically. "Come on over here," she said, patting the couch beside her.
Claire complied hesitantly, allowing Evelynne to turn her around. Her eyes closed as Evelynne took over the task, gently massaging her temples and forehead from behind. "Ooh, that's good."
Evelynne smiled. "Ally's been working you pretty hard, hasn't she?"
"Yeah, I suppose so. Actually, she's been really great. Very patient. It's just that no matter how hard I try, I can't control this vision thing of mine completely."
"Well, maybe that's your problem. You shouldn't try so hard."
"That's what Ally says. She says I should just 'let it flow'. I already have the talent. I've just been repressing it so hard for the last twenty-two years. She says I have to let it flow like a river and let it clear out all the blockages that are there. She thinks a lot of it might be chemical, from the pills I always took whenever I had an attack." Claire shivered slightly, and Evelynne's hands shifted to her shoulders in comfort. Giving up her pills had been the hardest thing for Claire, after years of depending on them for defence against her "attacks".
"Well, trust her on that. She's had a lot more experience than either of us."
"True. She actually thinks that I have a whole lot more raw talent than she does in that respect. In the ESP thing, I mean. I still can't move things with my mind like she does." Claire's tone was wondering.
"I think the phrase is 'join the club.' Believe me, I've been trying to do that for months, without a hint of ability. I suppose we should just stick with what we're good at for the moment. I know that I've been learning a huge amount from Mrs. Chen. The things she can do? That's impressive."
"Yeah, her way of getting us up in the morning is… interesting," Claire said with amusement.
Evelynne laughed. "It's not like we can put the pillow over our heads and drown it out, either. Do you think she makes her mental singing voice as bad as her physical singing voice on purpose?"
"She must," Claire replied, her voice becoming drowsier as she relaxed into Evelynne's massage. "Ally's lucky that she can shut her out." Her tone became clearer as she sobered. "When do you think Mrs. Chen will start working with Ally?"
"I'm not sure," Evelynne said. "She just says she has to wait until Ally's 'ready.'"
Claire hummed in agreement, and involuntarily relaxed further into Evelynne's massage. It was still wildly unreal to her that this was happening; a part of her was completely unconvinced that Evelynne was, in fact, Princess Evelynne deMolay. After all, it was simply impossible that she would be getting a shoulder massage from the Heir to one of the most powerful nations on the planet. Ergo, it could not be happening. Four months ago I was a nobody, living day-to-day in a vague attempt to, well, just continue living. I just knew I'd live and die in obscurity. Now I'm learning psychic remote viewing from a genuine demigoddess and her Royal lesbian lover, while hiding from assassins in the house of an old Chinese woman who happens to be a powerful telepath. Someone up there has a sense of humour.
Claire realised that Evelynne's hands were no longer moving, and she looked over her shoulder at her friend. The other woman was looking into space with a wistful expression. "Do you think she'll be all right?" Evelynne asked. "Do you think she'll get better?"
"I'm sure she will," Claire said, striving to project more confidence into her voice than she really felt. She had been there the first time Ally had come out of her drug-induced stupor at the hospital, and had witnessed the initial reactions. While she believed that it was possible for Ally to come back, she had no idea how it would happen. For now, though, she just wrapped Evelynne in a reassuring embrace. "She'll need help, which is why we're here, but I know she wants to come back. We just need to wait for her."
"I know," Evelynne said. "Only sometimes—"
She stopped as a slight clatter echoed through the house from back door. There was silence for a moment as both women strained their ears, then the soft patter of feet along the hallway. "She's back," Claire said.
A moment later Ally peeked around the doorway to the sitting room, her only expression one of mild surprise. "I didn't think you'd still be up," she said.
"We were waiting for you," Evelynne said, standing to walk over to her lover. She gasped as Ally's face registered. "Ally, your face…"
"What?" Ally reached up to rub what looked like a dark bruise. A black substance came away on her fingers. "Oh, it's just some oil, I think. You'd think they'd keep the docks cleaner. I'm just going to have a shower and clean off, then head to bed." She hesitated a moment, looking at Evelynne with an unfathomable expression, then turned and headed back down the hall.
Evelynne let out the breath she'd been holding in a near sob. "No," she said, so softly Claire almost didn't hear her. "She's not back. Not yet."
The squad room of the West Vancouver Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment was as loud and busy as it ever was, as Sergeant Oliver Marchant stared down at the file in his hands. The telephone conversation transcribed therein was electrifying. Called in to the local tip line, it was an information windfall, assuming it turned out to be accurate. Verifying that accuracy would be Marchant's first task, but somehow he knew that it was true. He had been on the local anti-smuggling task force a few years previously, and had been a "point man" acting on information from an anonymous source that had been erratic, but always perfectly solid, over a period of about four years. That source, or group of similar sources, had provided a wealth of tips on crimes ranging from drug trafficking, to robberies, to domestic disputes, to missing persons. Whoever it was obviously had an eye on just about every criminal aspect in the city, and Marchant would have given his left arm to know who it was. The source had dried up quite abruptly about two years ago, but the current tip had exactly the same flavour.
"She's back," he murmured. In fact, he wasn't absolutely positive about the source's gender, much less about anything else, but he had spoken to several of the tip line operators who had opined that the voice on the other end, while disguised, was female.
Grabbing the phone on his desk, Marchant dialled. "Henry? Oliver Marchant here… Good, how about you?... Really? Well, I'm calling to make you the second happiest cop on the west coast… Yeah, second happiest. I'm claiming the top spot. You know that heroin shipment all our street sources say is coming?... That's the one. I have it… I am serious… You remember a few years ago we had that source we called the Lady? I think she's back."
Continued in Chapter 18
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