Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
Sergeant Rupert Gyrus took a deep breath to steady his nerves and twitched his uniform, complete with his brand new Sergeant's stripes, a little better into place. Colonel Nixon was a fairly laid-back commander, although she was Sekhmet Herself if she thought one wasn't taking one's responsibilities seriously, but she radiated a natural intensity that instinctively made her subordinates make sure they were always at their best. Considering that her own previous mentor and commander was Colonel Sir Arthur Ramirez, Master of the Heir's Guard, it wasn't surprising.
When he was sure that his appearance was flawless, Gyrus knocked on the Colonel's office door, entering when he heard the occupant bark, "In!" Slipping inside and closing the door behind him, he saw that his superior officer was on the phone, and evidently quite unhappy. Standing at attention before her desk, he waited for her to formally acknowledge his presence. The Colonel's face was tight with anger, and Gyrus felt a moment of relief that it wasn't directed at him. While the Colonel was too thin and severe to be considered truly beautiful, not to mention being twice his age, her sheer presence and intensity had left Gyrus harbouring an attraction to her for a brief—a very brief—period of time. That had lasted until the first time he had screwed up royally in a training exercise, actually managing to "shoot" his own simulated protectee in the back, and the resulting dressing down he had received had firmly eliminated any lingering attraction. Fortunately, the Colonel didn't seem to harbour any resentment, and after the verbal flaying she had assumed that he had learned his lesson and would just get back to training.
"I don't care who has to sign off on it! I need them… Listen, if I have to I'll get the Director himself to come and jump on your head… I don't care… I. Don't. Care. What, you think Count Yesa takes priority over the Heir and her Consort? I could call His Majesty and ask his opinion on that if you'd like." The Colonel grinned evilly. "I thought so. I'll be expecting the delivery. Thank you for your cooperation." Just barely refraining from slamming down the phone, she hung up, running a hand through her short hair. "Damn, lousy, pencil-pushing ver'esh," she muttered, glancing up at Gyrus. "We're getting some new top-secret prototype carbon-fibre anti-ballistic uniforms, and they're making noises about needing Lord Rodrigo's permission as head of the Science Council. I didn't just tell you that, by the way."
"Of course not, Ma'am," Gyrus said instantly. "Do you need me to pencil in some training time for the new equipment I don't know is arriving?"
Colonel Nixon chuckled, relaxing. "No, not yet. I think I put the fear of Jad into them, but it will still take them some time to get their ba and khat together. I'll let you know." Realising that the Sergeant was still standing, she waved him to a chair. "At ease, Gyrus. Sit. So how's Te'Inti? I was afraid I might have broken her."
"Oh, she'll be fine, Ma'am. She's tougher than she looks. Apparently Captain Benson's teaching her a few moves so that she can get her own back the next time you spar. You didn't hear that from me, Ma'am."
"Of course not, Sergeant. So, if you're not here to challenge me to a duel over Te'Inti, why are you here?"
Gyrus swallowed and shifted nervously. "I, uh, have a development to report, Ma'am." He gestured to her spotless desk. "May I?" When his superior nodded, puzzled, he leaned forward and placed a single talen coin on the surface.
The Colonel looked at it, then back to him. "I'm not sure I understand, Sergeant. If it's a bribe you're reporting it sure isn't much of one. You should have held out for more."
"No, Ma'am.” He hesitated. “You know how Lady Alleandre can do the things she can?" The Colonel nodded, suddenly wary. "Well, ever since I found out I've been trying to do the same thing." He flushed, as though he had been caught trying to fly off the roof with a blanket around his neck.
Colonel Nixon laughed at the flush. "You're not the only one on the team who's been trying, Gyrus. Heck, you're not even the only one in this room."
"Yes, Ma'am. Well, anyway, yesterday I was trying and, well…" Giving up trying to explain, Gyrus focussed his attention on the coin on the desk, his face becoming a mask of intense concentration. The Colonel looked on curiously as the silence stretched on for almost a minute.
"I don't think—"
Abruptly, Gyrus' face relaxed. A moment later, the coin moved. Not very far, perhaps an inch or two, but the significant fact was that he hadn't touched it in any way.
"Holy Sekhmet," Nixon breathed, sitting bolt upright in her chair as her gaze went from the now-motionless coin to Sergeant Gyrus' sweating face.
"I know it's not very impressive, Ma'am," Gyrus said, wiping his brow. "At least not compared to what she can do. But—"
"But it's leagues ahead of what any of the rest of us are capable of. So how did you do it?"
"Uh, well, for a long time I was trying to do it by concentrating really hard, Ma'am. I was really trying my hardest, but nothing ever happened. Then yesterday I was trying again, and then just gave up. And then it moved. It's like I built up the—the force, but was holding it back, and then when I relaxed I suddenly let it go. That's the best I can describe it, Ma'am." He shrugged.
"Mm. And you can do it at will?"
"Not quite, Ma'am," Gyrus said apologetically. "Obviously I've tried a whole lot of times since yesterday, and my success rate is only about twenty per cent."
"That's better than zero per cent," the Colonel murmured. "So, do you think you can teach the rest of us to do this?"
The Sergeant looked uncomfortable. "I don't know, Ma'am. I've been doing some research, and from what I can guess, this sort of thing is usually pretty individual. Every instance I've been able to find has a different technique. I don't know. Maybe Lady Alleandre would be able to teach it better, but of course I'm willing to try."
"I understand," Colonel Nixon said slowly, her mind racing with new possibilities. "Well, I think you can start with trying to teach me."
Claire walked into the living room, shivering a little from the chill that pervaded the house. The weather outside had turned cold and rainy, so she wasn't terribly surprised to see that even Ally had forgone her usual afternoon "walkabout" in favour of a drier, more comfortable environment. The other woman was half-reclining on the couch in the living room, a thick book resting on her stomach, while soft violin music filled the air.
Ally looked up as Claire approached, and managed to smile stiffly, although it had little of the joy and warmth Claire had become used to from their stay in the States. "Hi," she said, easing herself into an armchair. "Good to be out of the rain, huh?" It wasn't the most original conversation opener, but Claire was willing to try anything to draw Ally out of her shell.
"No kidding," Ally agreed. She glanced out the window into the greyness outside. "Ahh, good to be back in the Land of Liquid Sunshine."
Claire laughed. "Yeah, Vancouver does have that reputation, doesn't it? Rains all the time?"
"That's the reputation," Ally confirmed, "but really, it's exaggerated a bit, just like anywhere else. Sure, during the winter it rains almost constantly, but during the summer it can get really dry. Almost drought-like, really. My parents get their water from a well, and every few years it runs dry on them during the hottest parts of the summer."
"Well, lucky me to see it in the fall, huh?" Claire said wryly. "I haven't seen Evelynne around. Is she with Mrs. Chen again?"
Although Claire watched closely, Ally didn't seem to react to the mention of her lover's name, and she couldn't decide whether that was a good or bad sign. While Ally rarely displayed emotional pain any longer in association with Evelynne, the distance that was developing was almost more disturbing, especially considering the love and passion that Claire remembered from a mere month earlier.
"Yeah, they're practicing emotional projection. I thought you might be helping them."
"No, although they have got me to help out a few times. A guinea pig, you know. It isn't always fun. Suddenly getting angry or scared for no reason isn't something I'd like to do often."
This time there was the barest flicker of reaction from Ally, but it cleared almost before Claire recognised it. Ally had been deliberately avoiding the possibility of any sort of psychic contact with Evelynne, and recently that aversion had spread to Mrs. Chen as well. Shaking herself ever so slightly, Ally changed the subject. "Well, come and sit a spell. I found Mrs. Chen's music collection." She gestured towards the stereo system. "It's rather impressive."
"Yeah, I know. I saw it earlier," Claire said. "It is quite eclectic, isn't it? Everything from Beethoven and Mozart to traditional Chinese."
"That's only the surface. She's even got some Intl'izi."
Claire frowned. "I'm not sure I know who that is."
"Oh, she was an Atlantlan composer from the 1500s. She's considered the mother of Atlantlan classical music."
"Oh. Still, that's not the most disturbing." Claire shook her head. "The thought of Mrs. Chen boogying down to Glass Tiger and Nirvana is really scary."
Ally actually laughed, and Claire couldn't help but feel her heart jump at the sound. It sounded almost like the old Ally she used to know. "So you found those, too, huh?" Ally asked, still chuckling. "Well, I don't know if they're in this batch." She waved at the system. "I just hit play with whatever was in the changer." The slow strains of Holst's Saturn faded, the stereo clicked and whirred as another CD was dropped into place. "We're going with the luck of the—" Ally halted, her gaze going distant as the new music began.
She appeared to be lost in the sound, and Claire frowned as she tried to place the music. "This is Enigma, isn't it?"
Ally seemed to come partially back to the present. "Yeah," she said absently. "Their first CD. This song's called… uh… Principles of Lust." She blushed slightly.
"Oh. You like this song?"
"Yeah. It's been a long time since I've listened to it, though. It brings back a lot…" She trailed off, then flushed again as she saw Claire looking at her.
"Good memories?" Claire wasn't sure she should push, but this was one of the few cracks she had seen in Ally's new armour, and she instinctively tried to gently pry it open further.
Ally got even redder. "Yeah." Her gaze grew distant again, and her voice became wistful as she continued. "I've told you about Annie, right? My first girlfriend?" Claire nodded, although Ally didn't appear to notice. "She was a dancer, and she loved music. Cooking, cleaning, reading, there was always something on. The first time we made love… I knew we were going to, and I really wanted to, but I was so nervous. I thought I was going to pass out at any moment. She was my first lover, you know. But she was so patient, and so gentle. She had these lava lamps everywhere, and she played this music, the whole CD, actually, and danced for me… and with me… and then we just…" She was silent for several moments. "And it was perfect. Nothing had ever been that perfect before. And nothing's been that perfect since. Until the first time Evelynne and I made love. We were in this grotto…" Her voice faded, and the mingled joy and desolation in her expression broke Claire's heart. "I miss that. I miss being…" She suddenly seemed to realise that she actually had an audience, and blushed deeply.
"You haven't… you know… since…?" Claire asked hesitantly.
Ally shook her head. "No. She wants to, I know, but I can't. I get scared sometimes that she's going to give up and not want to wait for me any more. And if she goes…"
"She'll never do that," Claire said firmly. As much as the thought of Ally being available appealed to her attraction to the other woman, the idea of Ally and Evelynne no longer together far outweighed it. "She'll wait for you. Forever, if she has to."
"Forever? Forever is a very long time," Ally said. Then, as Claire watched, her face shut down and the light went out of her eyes, and Claire could practically hear the heavy barriers falling back into place. Ally abruptly put down her book and stood. "The rain's letting up. I'm going for a walk." She was out the front door a moment later.
Evelynne leaned against the wall in the hallway, tears streaming down her cheeks. She had finished her "training session" with Mrs. Chen a few minutes before and had been on her way to find Ally and Claire and see if they could be coaxed into a quiet game of cards. She had made it as far as the hallway outside the living room when she had heard their voices in conversation and stopped. Ally had been so closed and withdrawn recently that Evelynne was unwilling to interrupt when she seemed to be opening up a little. She had felt vaguely guilty about listening in to a private conversation, but couldn't help herself. She had been thrilled when Ally had actually laughed, and was incredibly grateful to Claire for helping.
Now, after hearing Ally's confession, she simply stood and tried to control the sick feeling in her stomach as she cried. She managed to remain unheard until the front door closed behind Ally, then wiped her face and walked into the living room.
Claire started slightly as she appeared, looking up quickly. "Oh, Evelynne, hi," she said, looking a little guilty and flustered. "You just missed Ally. She, uh, went for a walk."
"Yeah, I know," Evelynne said, still standing. "I heard."
"You heard? Oh!"
"Yes." Evelynne was still for a moment, and then her face collapsed as she tried to control a sob.
In an instant Claire was before her, carefully wrapping her in a soothing embrace, murmuring nonsense words as she tried to console the stricken woman. Somehow they found themselves on the couch, Evelynne's head buried in Claire's shoulder as she slowly got herself under control.
Finally Evelynne surfaced and sat back, wiping her face in an embarrassed manner. Claire reached into her pocket and brought forth a handkerchief, which was gratefully accepted. "Thanks," Evelynne said hoarsely, clearing her throat.
"No problem," Claire replied. "I'm sorry you heard that. Well, not sorry, really, but…" She trailed off awkwardly.
"That's all right," Evelynne assured her. "I'm not upset about that."
"Oh. You're not jealous about Ally talking about… that?"
Evelynne shook her head. "No, I'm not. All right, well, maybe a little jealous that she was with Annie before she was with me. But that's natural, right?"
"Yeah, I guess so," Claire agreed. "I know that if I was with Ally and she was—" She broke off abruptly and Evelynne saw her unique blush. "Uh, but I'm not. With her. And I don't think—"
"Claire, it's all right. I know what you mean." Evelynne chuckled. "I think everyone feels a bit jealous about their significant other's previous significant others." She wiped her face again. "No, if anything I'm still grateful that Ally's relationship with Annie was so good. The way she talked about their first time… How could I be resentful of that?"
"Yeah. Everyone's first time should be that special. It usually isn't, but it should be." Claire's voice was sad and resigned.
"Oh? Yours wasn't… Never mind, that's none of my business." Talking about sex with Claire felt rather surreal. Well, I did have some very explicit discussions about sex with Jean back in Horton City. Without her I never would have thought of trying… Anyway. Evelynne blushed. Still, this is different.
"No, it's okay. It wasn't great. You know how I was in the foster care system for just about my whole life?"
"Yes. Oh!" Evelynne's eyes widened. "You mean one of your foster parents…"
"What? No! No. I mean, that sort of thing does happen, but I actually had pretty decent caretakers most of the time. None of them ever tried anything. No, it was one of the other kids. Of course, the kids aren't supposed to sleep together either, but it happens. I slept with two boys when I was in care. The first one… Jason… I'd convinced myself that I was in love with him. We were both, oh, fifteen, I guess. He was just as lonely as I was, and I guess we mistook the attention we spent on each other for love. Anyway, eventually we slept together, and it was… okay, I guess. We did a few more times, but then he was finally adopted by a family in Alabama. I tried to tell myself I was devastated about him leaving, but I wasn't really. A couple of years after that there was another boy who set his sights on me. Later I found out he got in trouble because he'd got about three other girls pregnant. I was lucky, I guess. I wasn't enthusiastic with him, but he didn't force me or anything."
"I see." Evelynne could tell that this was something that Claire had been wanting to reveal for a long time. Ally was much the same; there were certain subjects she was too shy and reticent to usually discuss, but when the dam finally broke it meant she really wanted the listener to know what she thought. "But you're attracted to women, right? Have you ever…?"
"Uh, yeah." Claire flushed again, and this time her face twisted in bitterness. "Once I turned eighteen and was out of the system I managed to get a grant and go to college. Corey came with me; he'd been with me in my last home. Anyway, at college I finally realised what the attraction I was feeling towards various women was. Finally I managed to get myself to go to a lesbian bar in Philadelphia. I met this older woman there, and she seemed to find me attractive. I didn't sleep with her right away, but I went back a few times, and eventually convinced myself I was in love again. One weekend I let her take me home, and… And it was good. A whole lot better than Jason and Eric, that's for sure. But it was still kind of hollow, you know?" Claire laughed harshly. "The next weekend I went back to the bar and saw her chatting up this blind woman. In the end I found out that her strategy was to 'conquer' all the 'freaks' that went to the bar, in between fucking every 'normal' female she could get her hands on. She actually laughed at me when I asked her whether we were actually together in any way." Claire's gaze returned to the present, and she smiled crookedly. "Since then I've had trust issues. I really don't know why," She finished sarcastically.
Evelynne grasped Claire's hand in sympathy. "I'm sorry. But somewhere I know there's someone who will recognise you for the wonderful woman you are. Trust me, you're too special to let go."
Claire swallowed and looked down. "Thanks. Special, huh? You're special yourself." She chuckled. "Understatement. But still, you and Ally are just so good together." She squeezed the hand in hers. "You'll work this out."
"Thank you. It was just when she was talking about our first time… She was right, it was perfect. Even after, when we had to sneak around, it was still perfect. Or almost. I almost lost her at one point. Then I… What's that disgusting phrase? Oh yes, I got my head out of my ass—" Claire laughed outright at the expression coming from the Crown Princess of Atlantl. "—and asked her to marry me. And after that… Wow. I just want to get that back again." Evelynne's eyes teared up again.
Claire drew her back into her embrace. "You will. Trust me. I'm psychic. I know these things."
Continued in Chapter 20
Return to the Academy