Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
"Well, I think this is it," Ally said, looking up at the sign above the door, then down to the card in her hand. Both sported an image of an eye set in an eight-pointed star, and both bore the name "The Sixth Age Bar and Restaurant". The tall woman looked down at her red-headed companion. "You still sure you want to do this?"
Evelynne was looking at the same storefront with a mixture of apprehension, curiosity, and determination, and absently pushed her glasses higher on her nose. It was the same look that she had borne when she had left their apartment to get into a cab—a plain, ordinary, slightly smelly cab—for the first time just before arriving here. Ally had carefully controlled her amused smile then, and did so again now.
The restaurant looked like a decent enough place, its red brick façade fronted by shrubs and small trees in planters. The large windows were darkened, making it difficult to see inside, and a short set of steps led down to the slightly recessed wooden door.
"I'm sure," Evelynne replied, firmly suppressing her nervousness. "If I get the job, great, if not, well…" She shrugged, then quirked a wry smile. "Job. I'm applying for a job. That sounds so strange."
"Only to you, love," Ally said, smiling as well. "Not everyone is born with their future employment waiting for them."
"True. Well, let's go for it. You have a job of your own to start in a couple of hours." With that Evelynne walked down the few steps and, with every appearance of confidence, opened the door and stepped inside.
The interior of the restaurant was eclectic. It was dimly lit, the wooden panelling around the walls lending a warm, comforting darkness. The lighting came from an impressive collection of lamps, no two alike, ranging from a green neon sign to a red glowing lava lamp. Candles on the tables added warmth to the surroundings. The artwork was equally impressive, abstract paintings competing with such classics as a print of The Birth of Venus, and a collection of sculpture that was just as diverse. Several potted plants kept the organic feeling alive. Over the sound system Gregorian chanting could be heard above the low murmur of diners. It was past the normal lunch hour, but there were still a fair number present. The bar area of the restaurant was situated at the back and was slightly raised. There was a small dance floor, along with the obligatory pool table and dart board.
Evelynne snuck a glance at her lover, and was unsurprised to see a small, delighted grin on Ally's face. She knew that this kind of eclectic ambiance appealed to her partner, who was, under it all, just as diverse.
"I've changed my mind," Ally murmured. "I want a job here." It wasn't a completely true statement, and they both knew it. Ally tended to be able to handle strangers only in small doses, and for short periods of time. Serving people day after day would grind her down in no time.
"Well, you could always perform as a resident magic act," Evelynne joked, waving at the small stage just off the dance floor. She peered at a piece of equipment on the stage. "What is that?"
Ally squinted through the dim light, still unused to the contact lenses that had replaced her glasses. "Karaoke machine, I think," she suggested.
"Oh. Maybe we should keep you away from it, huh?" Ally took her lover's teasing with ease, not to mention total agreement. She would be the first to admit that she would never win any awards for musical ability.
They had been standing and looking around for long enough that a tall, muscular woman in an apron stepped towards them, snagging a couple of menus as she did so. "Hi," she said, nodding her head slightly, causing the long blonde braid trailing down her back to sway. "Two?"
"Two what?" Evelynne asked.
"Actually, we were hoping to talk to the manager," Ally said to the waitress. "Ms Baihum? Is she around?"
"Not right now," the waitress replied. "She had to step out for a little while, but she aught to be back soon. Do you mind waiting? She shouldn't be more than—" She looked at her watch. "—about a half hour."
"That would be fine," Evelynne said. "Perhaps we could have lunch while we wait?"
"Sure thing, this way," the server said, leading the way into the restaurant.
Ally let Evelynne precede her, a small smile on her face as she did so, but also a degree of concern. This could be a problem, she thought, thinking of the erstwhile princess' response to their server's original question. She's never had to live in this kind of world before. She's never had to wait for someone to seat her. There are a lot of things that she simply hasn't been exposed to. Similar concerns had troubled the young woman ever since Evelynne had explained what she wanted to do—since before that, in fact. The fact that they were now living in a society that Evelynne, as Royalty, had never been immersed in, and one very different from her home culture at that, was sure to cause some problems down the road. Ally could only hope that they would be able to use the fact of Evelynne's foreign origins to explain away any faux pas she might make. Still, Ally was aware that her partner was intelligent enough to learn quickly, and Evelynne was also lacking the arrogant superiority that marked many other members of the aristocracy. That she was willing to take on a role as a server proved it. And she was right. The last place anyone will look for her is as a waitress in a restaurant in the States. That didn't completely stop Ally from worrying, however.
Arriving at a table along the wall, their waitress, who introduced herself as Jean, left them with the menus and a smile.
Evelynne picked up hers almost hesitantly. "You know, I think this is the first time I've had to order something from an actual menu?" she commented.
Ally's brows rose. "Really?"
"I think so. I've been to restaurants before, but they were all as part of some official event, and the choice of food was made well in advance. I think the last time I was in a restaurant was a few years ago when I went with za to meet the Greek president."
"Mmm, Greek food," Ally hummed. "Now that you mention it, I suppose this has to count as our first actual official date."
Evelynne looked up from where she had been perusing the menu in surprise. "You know, you're right," she said. "We've been together for a while, but we've never really dated." Ally was looking at her with a shy, pleased smile. "We'll have to do this more often." She paused. "What do people do on dates, anyway?"
"Well, there are all the old classics," Ally replied. "Movies, dinner, dancing. Then you can expand to concerts, museum trips, stuff like that. There are probably whole boatloads of things that I've never considered. I never was much into the dating scene."
"You and Annie didn't go out much?" Evelynne was well aware of how grateful she was that they could talk about Ally's previous relationship so calmly, and that she could ask these questions with only a twinge of jealousy.
"Not a lot," Ally admitted. "We went out for dinner occasionally, but we were both starving students, so that wasn't too often. I went to see most of her dance recitals, of course, and she could get us into a lot of other related events for free. Neither of us were big drinkers, and I passionately hated the bar scene, although she liked going once in a while. Most of the time we just made dinner for each other and relaxed at home."
"That sounds great, actually," Evelynne said. "Among the Nobility, dates tend to be much more formal affairs. Balls, concerts, that kind of thing. All planned and choreographed well beforehand in fine detail."
Ally's reply was interrupted by Jean's return bearing an order pad. "Hi, have you decided?"
Evelynne hastily turned back to her menu. "I'll have the chicken quesadilla," she said. "And an apple juice. Thank you." She snuck a glance at her partner, just to see if she was doing it right. She hadn't been joking about never having ordered at a restaurant before. Fortunately, Ally wasn't looking at her like she'd grown a third arm, so she assumed she was doing all right.
"Sure. And you?" their server asked Ally.
"The chicken souvlaki roll, please. With the Caesar salad and an apple juice as well, thanks."
Jean murmured under her breath as she wrote down their order. "Okay, that'll be a few minutes," she said, scooping up their menus.
"I love the décor," Evelynne said as the server did so.
"Thanks," Jean replied, smiling. "That's Narmin's thing. Every time she hires someone new they have to bring in some piece of art or something that they like. That's mine over there." She pointed to a large framed poster of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
"The manager, that's Narmin, right?" Evelynne asked. "We met her briefly the other morning."
"That's her," Jean confirmed, then looked thoughtful. "You're the couple who are staying in Roger's old place, aren't you?" Her eyes twinkled. "You made quite the impression, let me tell you."
"That's us," Ally said, blushing hotly. "She gave us her card and told us to ask for her. I'm Allison, by the way, and this is Sophia."
"Good to meet ya," Jean said. "Well, I'll just go and get this ready for you." With a final friendly grin, she turned and began to make her way through the tables to the kitchen.
Once she was out of earshot, Ally murmured in a low voice, "I'm still not used to using those names."
"You? At least you're still 'Ally'," Evelynne said.
Realising that getting people to accept that a lesbian couple, one Atlantlan and one Canadian, with red and brown hair respectively, who happened to bear a certain resemblance to another well-known pair, and whose names were Evelynne and Alleandre would be stretching the bounds of credibility, the couple had agreed on pseudonyms to use while in public. Alleandre was now "Allison", which had the advantage that when Evelynne called her partner "Ally" nobody would think twice about it. Evelynne had considered using "Eve" for similar reasons but had decided that it was just too similar to her real name. Instead, she had gone with her second given name, becoming "Sophia". Splendidly official-looking documents confirmed their new identities as Allison Parks and Sophia Doherty.
"I know," Ally said, reaching across to take her fiancée's hand. "I just hope I don't screw up with your name."
"You won't," Evelynne reassured her. The princess looked down at their clasped hands and then around the restaurant somewhat worriedly. "Is this all right? Us holding hands? Narmin didn't seem to be upset that we were together when she saw us the other evening." Ally blushed predictably at the memory. "But I don't know how normal people react to people like us." She shrugged sheepishly. "I hardly even knew how the Atlantlan Nobility would react to us, let alone everyone else."
"Well, in some circumstances we probably shouldn't be so affectionate," Ally said, shrugging. "Sad, but true. Right here, though…" She trailed off and looked around the restaurant. None of the other diners appeared to have taken the least notice of their closeness. At a table near the front window a pair of gentlemen dressed in business suits were eating and talking together, and even Ally, who was not particularly skilled socially, could tell that they were more than mere business partners. "See them over there?" She subtly nodded in their direction.
"Yes? What—Oh," Evelynne said, as one of the men briefly brushed his companion's hand in an affectionate gesture. "I see. All right." She looked at them a moment longer. "Are we like that?" Ally cleared her throat and looked pointedly at their own entangled fingers, pleased when this time it was Evelynne who blushed. "Oh. Right. Never mind."
"Well, to get back to your original question, I don't think we'll have any problem here, at least as long as we refrain from making out on the table."
"I'll try to restrain myself," Evelynne said wryly, smirking.
"As for other places, we can just go on a case by case basis."
"Right. No kissing in—What do they call them? Redneck bars?"
"Exactly," Ally said. "Although you'd be surprised at a few of the places you can find in Alberta."
They continued chatting idly until their food arrived, then dug in with gusto once they realised just how good it was.
As they were eating, Jean came back to their table. "Narmin just got back," she said. "She'll be out in a few minutes if you still want to talk to her."
"That would be great," Ally said, and the server smiled and turned away. "So, you ready?" she asked.
"I think so," Evelynne replied. "Although I'm really nervous." She felt that this was some kind of acid test that would determine whether she would, in fact, be able to fit in the "outside" world.
"Relax," Ally said, squeezing her hand. "Just be yourself. You know, the Clark Kent version. Which actually is the real you in any case. You're gorgeous and charming enough that I wouldn't be surprised if you got the Manager position right off." It was an exaggeration, but it got Evelynne to flush, as well as relax slightly.
"Flatterer," Evelynne muttered, though her tone was pleased. She looked up to see the form of her possible future employer heading their way.
"Hi there," Narmin said once she reached their table. "Please, don't get up." She waved at them to remain seated. "I know you, don't I? Oh yes, that's right, the other morning, right? I remember…" She gestured vaguely in the direction of Ally's neck. The other woman blushed as one of her own hands flew up as if to shield it from further scrutiny. "And yes, once again I put my foot in it." The manager drew a deep breath. "So I'll shut up now. I hope you enjoyed your lunch?"
"Very much so," Evelynne replied. "It was fantastic. Please, sit down if you've got the time." She was amused to find that the older woman seemed possessed of just as much energy as she remembered from before.
"Of course I've got time," Narmin said, pulling up a nearby chair. "At least for a while, anyway. By the way, I never got your names."
"Sophia Doherty," Evelynne said without hesitation, holding out her hand. "And this is my partner, Allison."
"Well, pleased to meet you. Properly, this time." Narmin paused. "You look familiar, somehow." She squinted at Evelynne's face, her head cocked slightly to the side.
Evelynne affected a sigh. "I get that a lot," she said. "Apparently people think I look like Princess Evelynne of Atlantl." She was aware of Ally looking at her with a concealed expression of anxiety. They hadn't discussed this particular tactic, which Evelynne had thought up only a short time before. *Relax, love,* she said. *This is just the pinnacle of hiding in plain sight. Draw their attention to what you want to hide, then dismiss it as irrelevant, and they never think of it again. It's a common practice in politics.* "I don't see it, personally. But then my great-great-grandfather was cousin to Queen Irene al-Heru, so I suppose we are related somehow." *And that's the literal truth, also. No need to mention that he actually succeeded her when she died.*
"That would be it," Narmin said, nodding. "Although I think she's taller. Are you from Atlantis also?"
"Yes, I am," Evelynne replied.
"So you must have been so happy when your princess proposed to that woman, huh? What was her name? Alexandria?"
"Alleandre," Ally corrected, self-consciously.
"Right, that's it. We happened to be tuned into CNN that morning, so we caught it I guess just after she announced it." Narmin pointed to a television mounted behind the bar. "We had a party in here that night, I'll tell you. Someone happened to tape it, and we kept watching it on repeat. And then the next morning when all those nobles came out… Wow. And they ratified her decision. There wasn't a dry eye in the place."
Both Ally and Evelynne were carefully controlling their reactions. This was the first time they had discussed the events of those days with someone who wasn't somehow involved, which had the effect of making this situation rather surreal.
"We were really proud of her, yes," Evelynne said. "Of course, you've seen Dame Alleandre. How could Her Highness have resisted?" She managed a surreptitious glance and half-wink at Ally, whose blush deepened considerably.
"No kidding. Here's to hoping it sets a precedent." Now Narmin's face turned serious. "But what came after… Oh man, I'm so sorry about what happened. Were you there when that attack went down? Did you lose anyone you knew over there?"
"Two of my cousins were in Jamaz when it happened," Evelynne replied, her voice and face heavy with pain. "They got caught up in it, along with a lot of my friends."
Ally's hand was warm and supportive in hers, since her partner was the only other person present who also knew that her cousins had been Lord Argyle and Lady Reylinn, the second and third in line for the Thrones as well. It was their deaths, leaving Evelynne as sole Heir, that had prompted their flight and concealment. Many of the others who had been killed had been members of the Hall of Nobles, and even if not all of them had been friends, the princess had at least respected the vast majority. Beyond that there was the fact that Evelynne already saw Atlantl and its inhabitants as "hers" in a sense, which made any of the deaths a personal blow.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Narmin said, and her honest sympathy was obvious. "Was it really Americans who did it? Attacked, I mean?"
"From what I know, yes," Evelynne said, a tinge of anger entering her tone. "Some others, but mostly Americans."
"I heard it was a bunch of whacked-out survivalist and cultist types."
"Many of them, yes. Also mercenaries and ex-military. The government's putting a lot of pressure on your President to do some serious investigating."
That was putting it mildly. While the American administration was seeking to put across the image that it had been a handful of possibly unstable paramilitary "whacked-out survivalists" who had orchestrated and carried out the terrorist attack on the Atlantlan government, the fact that close to ten thousand had participated was seriously weakening that position. Analysts on all sides of the issue knew that an operation this complex had to have some kind of highly-placed help. The Atlantlan government was undertaking an internal investigation that was only barely stopping short of thumb-screws and hot pokers in an effort to find those responsible in their own hierarchy, and were pulling out all the stops to get other governments to do the same.
As it was, the Atlantlan government was already heightening all customs inspections on shipping through their waters, and because that included all ships entering or exiting the Mediterranean Sea through the Straits of Gibraltar it corresponded to an overwhelming amount of strong-arm influence. No country's trade could afford to have its ships become the focus of more intense scrutiny, and hence even longer delays and loss of revenue, or, even worse, have them cut off from the ports of the Mediterranean should Atlantl decide to ban their traffic. So far that had not happened, but any rational government knew better than to tempt that fate, and that the easiest way to avoid it was to do some serious housekeeping.
Unfortunately, the current American administration was not the most rational, and was dragging its feet, loudly proclaiming their innocence and “unwillingness to be bullied” to all who would listen. And America also had enough influence and military strength to make even the Atlantlans wary about pushing too hard, lest they begin using military assets to escort cargo ships through Atlantlan waters, thereby upping the tension to a truly frightening degree.
Ally and Evelynne had discussed all this often over the two weeks since they had left Atlantl, and it quickly ran through their heads again as everyone spent a moment in contemplation.
"Well, I hope the President does get off his ass and do something," Narmin said earnestly. "I mean, if there are terrorist groups in the States that they can go and attack another country, there are certainly enough to attack someone in our own country, if we want to take a selfish view. Still, the Secretary of State's pushing for it. He kind of put himself out there by thanking your people for protecting him."
"True," Evelynne said. "It remains to be seen whether he's let off his leash enough to do anything more."
"Well, here's hoping." Changing the subject, the manager said, "As fascinating as this is, I get the feeling you didn't come around to talk international politics with me." She lifted an eyebrow in question.
"Well no, actually," Evelynne said, as Ally sat back and let her take charge. As much as the she wanted to protect and help her lover, she also knew that the erstwhile princess would not appreciate, and might even resent, too much interference. "We're—I'm actually here because you said you need a server on pretty short notice, and I wanted to talk to you about filling the position."
Narmin looked surprised but interested. "You don't say? Well, before we go any further, first I'd just like to make sure you have a Green Card. Not that it's a dealbreaker if you don't, but it would make my life a lot easier."
"I do," Evelynne replied. Of course, the Green Cards that they both had were about as real as the rest of their "official" identification. Ally was actually a Canadian citizen, a fact that had carried over onto her false papers, leaving her with false documentation that actually told the truth… up to a point.
"Excellent," Narmin said, pleased. "So what sort of experience have you had? Waitressing, bartending?"
"No bartending," Evelynne admitted. "I've done… Well, in Atlantl we call it 'hosting'. Sort of like a maitre d'. And I spent a few months as a Page in the Court of Duke Thomas of Avalon, serving meals and the like."
"Really?" Narmin looked impressed. "I don't suppose you have a résumé showing all of this, do you?"
"Sorry, no," Evelynne apologised. "We—They don't really give out certificates for that kind of thing."
"Well, even without one I'm leaning towards giving you the job. You can't be any worse that Roger was. And with the college closing for the summer, most of the students are heading off to wherever they call home, leaving the employee pickings pretty slim around here. That's where I was just now," the manager explained. "Unfortunately—or fortunately, I guess—there are enough employers around that young people have their pick of jobs, at least in the service industry. So I suppose I should be grateful you dropped into my lap. Plus, this isn't the most open town in America, which means that a lot of people aren't happy working in an openly gay-friendly place like mine. I'm assuming that isn't the case with you."
Ally and Evelynne exchanged a look, and Ally blushed. "Certainly not," Evelynne murmured.
"Well then, Sophia, as long as you can stand having a third of our staff and half our clientele flirt with you, I'd say you've got the job. I suppose I should ask your partner whether she's okay with having a third our staff and half our clientele flirt with you, also." Narmin cocked an eyebrow in Ally's direction.
Evelynne listened curiously while Ally answered. While Evelynne knew that her fiancée had been displeased, and even resentful, at the attention others had shown her in the past, that had been while their relationship was still very much a secret. Now though, the circumstances were very different, and she knew that Ally was confident of her devotion. Still, she was curious as to exactly how Ally felt about the possible attention that would be shown.
Ally blushed again. "Flirting's okay," she said. She looked appreciatively at her lover's gorgeous features. "I mean, trying to stop them is pretty much a hopeless task. Anything more than that and, well, I'd just have to take them out."
Both Evelynne and Narmin chuckled at that, the manager at the thought of this unassuming, albeit tall, young woman taking on some of the more butch elements of her clientele. Evelynne laughed to hide her knowledge of just how easily Ally would be able to deal with anyone who got in her way.
"You're kidding," Claire said, looking across the tiny living room at her friend sitting in the room's single rickety armchair. The chair's occupant didn't look up from where he was sitting with his head cradled in his hands. "Please tell me you're kidding."
"I'm not," Corey said in a dull voice, still looking at the floor. "I knew I shouldn't have been so goddamned honest. But the form said to list all assets, so…" He trailed off hopelessly.
"But couldn't you explain to them that—"
"Please, Claire. Like explaining that is going to make any difference. No, the 'simple' fact is that I have a bank account with close to four thousand dollars in it, and that means I no longer fall within their definitions of 'needful'. So, as of right now I'm no longer entitled to support."
"Oh, God," Claire murmured, sinking down onto a decrepit, yet scrupulously clean, sofa that matched the one her friend was sitting in. Her mind raced as she tried to process this news. With money generally being as tight as it was, she had plenty of practice thinking about financial worries, but the suddenness of this news had her unprepared. "I suppose it's good that we've got rent already paid up 'till the end of the month. We've got a little breathing room at least." She smiled stiffly, trying to find some good in the situation.
"I know," Corey said hollowly. "I'll be checking into other programs, obviously, but who knows how long that'll take." He hesitated. "If we have to I could always—"
"No," Claire stated firmly. "You've worked so hard for that money, and it's too important to spend on anything else."
"Claire, it won't matter how important it is if we're both living on the street." He shrugged dismissively, but Claire could still see the pain and sadness in his face. "So it takes me another few years to pay for everything. It's not like it's the end of the world. Now, I want you to promise me something, and that's if you ever need money for your medication, you'll tell me. None of this heroic martyr suffering crap, okay?"
Claire nodded reluctantly. "I promise," she said, knowing that when her friend got that particular expression on his face there was no arguing. "But only if you promise that you won't touch the money you've set aside until absolutely necessary."
Corey nodded his own promise, and Claire got up to sit back down next to him and wrap her arms around his slight frame. "I love you, you know," she said. "Darn it, why couldn't you have been a woman?"
Corey nodded at the old joke. "Sorry," he replied in a lighter voice. "But even if I was, I still wouldn't swing your way." He shrugged, a wry smile on his face. "Sorry." His face became more sympathetic, and he reached up to stroke the black and white patterns that covered Claire's face. "Don't worry, though. There is someone out there for you."
Continued in Chapter 3
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