Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
"Yo, Claire," Corey said, sliding over on the bench to allow his friend to sit.
"Yo? What the hell is 'yo'? Please tell me you're not trying to become a white rapper and just want to hang with your 'homies'," Claire said, sitting down in the shade on the park bench and stretching out her legs gratefully. At five foot ten, she required a lot of legroom, something that she had tried several times—unsuccessfully—to explain to her boss, meaning that she still had to cram her frame into a tiny cubicle and tinier desk. Working for a company that did telemarketing and survey work was bad enough without constant leg cramps. At the same as she enjoyed the delicious stretch of her leg muscles, she automatically checked her shade coverage provided by the tree overhead, making sure she was adequately covered. While the dark areas of her skin were nearly impervious to sunburn, the white patches could burn painfully within minutes. Even with her daily dose of sunscreen—she was the only person she knew to wear sunscreen in the middle of winter—painful experience had left Claire unwilling to depend on a single means of protection.
"I'm practicing at being more butch," Corey said, nodding his head solemnly. "Is it working?"
Claire looked at him, her eyes wide. She took in his brightly coloured Hawaiian shirt, blue thigh-length shorts, and decidedly delicate build. The only thing that might vaguely be called "butch" was his dark, buzz-cut hair. "Yeah, of course it's working," Claire said slowly. "You might want to practice a bit more, though." She kept a wary eye on him as she pulled a plastic bag wrapped sandwich out of her backpack.
"I'll do that," Corey said, unwrapping his own lunch. "Yo."
Claire just shook her head. "So how's your day going?"
"As well as it ever goes in the fast-paced, glamorous world of supermarket sales." Corey made a disgusted face. "A kid threw up in the canned goods aisle today. I feel sorry for the kid, 'cause he was obviously miserable, but eeeew." He continued in a quieter voice. "I talked to my boss about getting a raise this morning. He said he'd think about it." Purposefully pushing away the thought, he said, "In our more immediate vicinity, we've got a new luncher with us today. Yo." He pointed across the small park to another bench under a different tree, where a young brunette sporting an impressive array of ear adornments was looking over some papers while absent-mindedly chewing on a sandwich.
Claire followed his pointing finger, squinting her more sensitive left eye against the brightness. "Hmm. She's kind of cute." She frowned. "And kind of familiar. I've seen her somewhere before."
"Really?" Corey asked. "Maybe she goes to the college. Yo. You should go and introduce yourself."
"Not again, please, Cor," Claire begged. "I'm really not in the mood to have another person run screaming."
"Nobody's run screaming, Claire," Corey said intently. "And if you want to find someone you'll have to keep trying. Besides, I've been watching her for a while, and I don't think she'd react badly. Old Luke asked her for change about fifteen minutes ago, and she didn't even blink. Just looked him right in the eye and gave him five bucks, too."
Claire looked impressed. Old Luke was a homeless man who lived in and around the park. One half of his face had been horribly burned in some undisclosed fire, leaving vast areas of scar tissue and a white, milky eye. Anyone who could look directly in his face without flinching was either blind, incredibly skilled at controlling their reactions, or honestly unbothered by that kind of injury. Claire and Corey had spoken with him often enough that they were used to his appearance.
Corey continued, "If she isn't bothered by Old Luke, I don't think a little variegated albinism is going to bother her."
That was one of the things Claire loved about Corey. While he never let a person's appearance affect his view of their personality, he also wasn't in denial about how others reacted to it, leaving him blunt and matter-of-fact about the entire subject. In Claire's case, he acknowledged that others were often put off by her startlingly unique colouration, but was also firmly convinced that if she just let someone get past that initial reaction they would find her as appealing as he did.
"I'll think about it," Claire said finally. "But who knows, maybe she's just around for the day. I haven't seen her around here before." And in spite of your hopes, "homie", there's absolutely no guarantee that she's gay. Still, even another friend would be nice. But I know I've seen her before somewhere. I just can't remember where.
"Oh Paul, you really have no clue, do you?" Ally muttered to herself as she made yet another red mark on the paper in her lap. It was a physics assignment that she was helping one of her students with, and despite herself she was getting frustrated. It helped that Paul was really trying to understand—he was working diligently, in fact, to pass the course—but when he kept making the same tiny errors at the beginnings of his calculations, his final results were completely, even spectacularly, wrong.
Closing her eyes and leaning her head back, Ally rubbed her forehead with her fingers, enjoying the warmth that was penetrating the shade she was in. She opened them again when she felt a presence nearby and looked up to see a young woman standing uncertainly a few feet away. Unfortunately, the sun was shining brightly off the windows of a building across the street, leaving the woman backlit and in silhouette. The other woman seemed to hesitate, so Ally smiled. "Hello?"
"Uh… hi," the woman replied. "I-I hate to bother you, but would you mind if I sat here?" She gestured towards the empty seat beside Ally on the bench. "I normally sit over there—" She pointed to another bench across the park. "—but as you can see, someone's taken it for now. I can't stay in the sun for long, so I was hoping you wouldn't mind." She trailed off, and Ally could sense the uncertainty and nervousness coming off her in waves.
"Of course, sure," Ally said, quickly moving her bag and a few papers off the bench and onto the ground. She waved at the recently vacated seat. "Please."
"Thanks," the woman said. As she sat down, placing her own bag nearby, Ally was able to see her features clearly, and her eyes widened barely perceptibly.
Ally had seen the woman from time to time during the week she'd been having lunch in the park, always from a distance, and now her eyes were naturally drawn to the intriguing pattern that covered the woman's face and arms. At first Ally had thought the designs were tattoos of some sort, but now she could see that the vastly contrasting light and dark patterns were naturally occurring. It was a little startling at first, but also compellingly exotic.
For her part, Claire was watching the other woman's reaction very carefully, although without making it too obvious. She was immensely relieved when her new companion did not appear repulsed in the slightest, and beyond the initial surprise seemed to be looking at her consideringly. She decided to go for the acid test and held out a hand. "Hi. My name's Claire." She was even more reassured when the other woman didn't even look down at her hand to see whether the patterns on her skin extended to her hands—a very typical reaction, Claire had discovered—but just kept looking her in the eye as she took the hand.
"Hi. I'm All—Allison," Ally greeted, still unused to her new name. "Call me Ally."
"Nice to meet you, Ally," Claire said. She felt even more of the tension in her stomach evaporate. Hmm, maybe Corey was right. This might not be so bad. She had seen that her usual seat had been taken, and knowing that Corey would not be joining her that day, had hesitated for over a minute before approaching the other option. "Sorry about taking over your space, but I really can't stay in the sun long."
Ally waved away her concerns dismissively. "No problem. It's not like I own the bench, anyway. Sit a spell."
"Thanks," Claire repeated. She caught sight of one of the papers Ally had been studying. "Homework?" she asked.
"Pardon? Oh this? No, I'm helping out someone from the college. I'm working as a tutor there over the summer."
Ah, that might be where I saw her, Clair thought. "Really? What is it, math?"
"Physics, actually. Close enough." For her part, Ally was wondering why talking to this total stranger was so easy. A year ago she would have stuttered and stammered a few sentences before retreating into a book or work. She finally concluded that Claire's obviously diffident attitude and pleasant manner made her non-threatening. It never crossed her mind that nearly a year of socialising in the highest circles of Atlantlan aristocratic society had eroded a large measure of her own shyness and lack of confidence.
"Really? Are you a teacher?"
"No, I just have my Bachelor's. This just helps pay the bills."
Claire was revelling in having another person speak to her completely normally, without looking every few seconds to see whether her deformity was really present. It was usually either that, or the other person would avoid looking at her completely, as though to avoid being rude by staring, and not realising that pointedly not staring was equally offensive. Rather than doing either, Claire could somehow tell that Ally had seen her oddness, acknowledged it, and had not dismissed it, but had relegated it to a place where it was not the primary aspect of her person.
"I'm studying for a math degree myself," Claire admitted.
"At the college here?"
"Yes. It's slow going, since I can only go at night, but one of these days…"
"You're working, huh?" Ally asked.
Claire nodded. “Telemarketing and phone surveys. I'm one of those annoying people who interrupts your supper.” She shrugged. “It buys food.”
"I know that feeling. I was a starving student myself at one point. Fortunately my parents were able to pay for most of it, but I remember things being tight. Thank God I don't have to deal with that any more."
That was a massive understatement. In fact, Ally was in possession of assets worth over a hundred million dollars, which had been a reward bestowed after she had single-handedly provided information leading to the single largest series of drug busts in history. It was actually a portion of that money, carefully channelled through a series of dummy accounts and holdings, which was paying for her and Evelynne's undercover existence. They could, of course, have been living in a much more opulent lifestyle, but that certainly did not mesh with the low-key, undistinguished cover they were trying to build.
"That must be nice," Claire said, and she was not completely able to keep some of the strain and bitterness out of her voice. She shrugged when she saw her companion looking at her questioningly. "Things are a bit tighter now than they usually are. However, 'This too shall pass.'"
"Hello, love. How are you doing?" Ally asked as her fiancée came out of The Sixth Age. She had been waiting for a few minutes for Evelynne to finish up with her work before beginning their now-nightly ritual of walking home together. No matter how accepting and supportive she might be about her lover's desire to find "ordinary" employment, the was no way she was about to let her walk home alone after only a few weeks of experience with the "real world".
Evelynne sighed tiredly. "Exhausted," she admitted peevishly. "I had a couple come in just an hour ago, and I couldn't do anything right as far as they were concerned. Apparently it was my fault that what they wanted on the menu wasn't there, just because the weekly fish delivery was late. Then apparently the wine was not chilled to exactly the right tenth of a degree, and I was obviously dragging my heels as their personal server. No, make that slave."
"Oh. Well, that was only part of the day, wasn't it?" Ally asked cautiously. She knew that her lover had been having a few problems settling into her new role during the past week, although not as many as some might expect. No matter how kind, pleasant, and non-egotistical Evelynne was, the fact remained that she had been born to a position of power and privilege—and responsibility—and she wasn't used to being ordered around or having her abilities so disrespectfully questioned.
"Yes, but it was the last part, and now I just want to forget the whole thing." Evelynne look up at Ally. "Sorry for being such a pi'reqet," she apologised, although there was still a current of stress in her voice. "I just feel… Grr."
"That's okay, love. I love you, anyway."
Ally carefully didn't mention that she knew that Evelynne's monthly cycles were about to start. While they had discovered that, unsurprisingly, they had begun to cycle together, Ally also had the mental discipline and meditative techniques to minimise, or at least manage, her own symptoms. Evelynne was learning, but Ally was even going to think of reminding her of that unfortunate fact.
"I know you do," Evelynne replied. She tried to settle her jangled thoughts and emotions, and was only partially successful. "So how did your day go?"
"Pretty well. Paul is still clueless as ever, although I made a breakthrough, and he now truly realises that he needs to break problems down into their component parts. Now the task is getting him to break them down correctly." Ally shook her head. "I did meet an interesting woman today over lunch," she continued, oblivious to her companion's sudden, carefully hidden rise in tension.
"Oh?" Evelynne asked, the higher level of stress in her voice going overlooked by Ally as just a lingering effect of her tension. "This was at the park?"
"Yeah. She had to sit in the shade, and my bench was the only place. She's actually going to the college night school, getting her math degree. We had an interesting discussion on complex number theory and how it applies to real engineering problems."
"Hm. Does 'she' have a name?"
This time Ally picked up on the bite to the words, although it puzzled her. "Of course. Claire. Is something wrong?"
Evelynne shrugged. "No. Nothing." She retreated into silence, despite her lover's hesitant efforts at conversation.
They remained in strained silence for the rest of the walk to their apartment, as Ally tried to control the gnawing at her gut. As an empath, even a low-level one, she was always deeply affected by the moods of those around her. Most of the time, of course, she had to actively 'switch on' her talent to sense others' emotions, but she and Evelynne shared a much stronger permanent link, which made Evelynne's thoughts and feelings much easier to detect. However, they had discovered that while Ally had much clearer access to her partner's feelings, for some reason it was Evelynne who had more control over the strength and intensity of the connection, sometimes being able to block the link completely. Now, though, Evelynne either wasn't able to, didn't want to, or hadn't thought of taking that step; in fact, the opposite was the case, and Ally could feel the mix of her lover's anger-resentment-love-embarrassment-exhaustion clearly, and she could feel her own protective instincts reacting, causing her to withdraw.
They remained in uncomfortable silence until they reached their apartment, which was set on a quiet side-street on the outskirts of Horton City. Of course, with a population of only thirty thousand, almost all of Horton City could be said to be on the outskirts. The apartment building was a four-story edifice with only twenty units. Its red brick façade, carefully-tended flower gardens, and surrounding trees, made it a peaceful area, though very different from the Atlantlan architecture Evelynne was used to.
Upon climbing the stairs to their third-floor apartment, the two women entered, and once the door was closed Ally hesitated, uncertain of what to do next. Evelynne took the choice from her by announcing, "I'm going to get changed," and heading to the bedroom.
At a loss, Ally chose to fix some tea for them both. Her fiancée seemed to be taking her time as she waited for the kettle to boil, and then poured the water over the green tea blend they had both come to like. A healthy blob of honey went into each cup, and then Ally paused a moment before taking them both out onto the small balcony. She stood looking out over the town, so wrapped up in her own turbulent thoughts that she jumped when a pair of arms snaked around her from behind and a face pressed into her back.
"I'm sorry," Evelynne whispered, breathing in her partner's slightly sweaty scent. She could also detect a faint hint of cinnamon from the lip balm Ally wore, and her mind instantly flashed back to the very first time they had met, on a street in Marseilles, when assassins had tried to kill them both.
For her part, Ally hugged the arms to her belly, and then lifted one of the hands to drop a kiss on the back. "It's okay," she murmured. She had the urge to apologise for something, but didn't know what. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Evelynne sighed, then turned and led Ally to one of the chairs on the balcony, urging her to sit, and then curling up in her lover's lap. "Just hold me for a moment, all right?"
Ally just nodded and wrapped her in a warm embrace, and they sat quietly for a while as the tea cooled on the small table.
"I'm sorry for being such a… bitch," Evelynne said finally. "I just figured out that it's about that time of the month, so that sure isn't helping. And on top of everything else… Still, that doesn't excuse it."
"Maybe not," Ally said calmly, "but it does explain it. So I forgive you. I've been known to be less than charitable myself when the moon aligns against me."
"Thank you," Evelynne murmured, shifting to kiss the hollow of her lover's throat, smiling at the first hints of purring that erupted. She settled back into her position with a sigh.
"There's something else, isn't there?" Ally asked hesitantly a few moments later. She knew she was right when the body in her arms stiffened suddenly.
"I don't—It's—" Evelynne sighed again. "It's stupid," she admitted finally.
"Please? I want to make you feel better."
Evelynne struggled with herself for a moment over simply repressing and ignoring the whole thing. And it is stupid. I know that, intellectually. But damn it to the Duat, I'm not feeling intellectual right now. "I'm worried," she said after several long seconds. "Actually, I'm scared. About you."
"Me?" Ally asked, startled. "Why?"
" You're so much more familiar with this type of life," Evelynne began, waving a hand out towards the world at large. "You know how to react, how to talk to people. What kinds of music and movies people listen to and watch, what they do for fun. And yes, I know you're not the most social person in the world, but at least you're familiar with it."
"But that's just experience," Ally protested. "And you'll learn. You are learning. I mean, you're kind of like any other immigrant from, say, China or somewhere."
"Oh, I know. I know that I'm still learning. But that's not—" Evelynne exhaled explosively. "I'm not explaining this well." She took a minute to arrange her thoughts, while Ally waited patiently. "I'm not really worried about not learning how things work 'out here'," she said. "I know I can pick that up. I took etiquette training for years: Court, Church, European. This is just another set of rules to learn. But the thing is that I know I'll be going home sometime. I'm never going to really fit in here. And even that's not a problem. The fact remains that I don't belong here. And when I think of that, I can't help but wonder whether you belong in my world. Not that I don't want you!" She said quickly, as she felt her lover tense. "Isis, I want nothing more than to marry you and have you with me! But even so I have to wonder whether you'll be truly happy with me in that world." She swallowed and continued, knowing that she was reaching the crux of the matter. "And when you told me that you met a woman in the park, the first thing that went through my mind was whether you'd be happier with her, whoever she is. Not her in particular, but you know what I mean. And then you tell me that you were discussing—What was it? Complex number something? Anyway, something that I have no clue about, and it just came to me that there must be thousands of women who are far more compatible with you than I am. And then that landed on top of the day I had, and the general stress of being out here and worrying about what's happening back home, and me about to start my period. I'm sorry you had to meet the ank-lu'p—the werewolf."
Finally getting that off her chest had made Evelynne feel immensely better, and she settled back into the warmth of her lover's arms, awaiting Ally's response. Some time passed before the reply came, but Evelynne was reassured that the arms around her didn't loosen in the slightest.
"Okay, the first thing I want to say is that I love you," Ally began fiercely. "It doesn't have anything to do with compatibility. Well, not completely. I love you. Everything about you. Well, except for the fact that you still have a lot to learn about folding clothes." This elicited a chuckle from her companion. "I challenge anyone to define compatibility for me, beyond the fact that we're better together than we are apart. And we are. This doesn't mean that I don't find other people attractive, and we've done enough chick-watching together for me to know you do too." That brought wry smiles from both women. "But I want to be with you, and that's not going to change. So please just accept that." Ally sighed. "As for the other thing, it's true that I don't really feel as 'at home' among the Atlantlan Nobility as you do. And so when I do interact there it is an act to a certain extent. But the thing is that I really don't feel any more comfortable in this society that you think I find so much more familiar." She shrugged when Evelynne looked up at her in surprise. "Oh, it is more familiar, because I've lived in it all my life, but at the same time I've always been apart from it. I've always had to hide what I am and what I can do. There's never been anyone truly like me that I could connect with, no society that I fit into. Or if there is some underground Adept culture I've never found it. I connect with individuals, of course; my parents, Annie, Chorus, you. But they're all ones who know my secret, and, in most cases, they have abilities at least somewhat similar to mine. But for the most part, people out there are completely oblivious to the things I can do, so I'm left pretending, wearing a mask so that I look just like everyone else." Ally smiled wryly. "So I kind of have a choice: be out here, where I don't really fit in; or stay with you, where I don't really fit in. That last option has the deal-breaker, of course. It's with you."
"Oh," Evelynne murmured, her voice stunned. She knew that her lover was usually uncomfortable in social situations, but had always assumed that it was simply a matter of uncertainty and unfamiliarity, made stronger by a large dose of innate modesty and shyness. To learn that Ally was actually, at heart, on a lonely quest searching for a place where she truly belonged… "Do I make you feel uncomfortable? Do you wear a mask around me?"
"No," Ally replied instantly. "I mean, at first I did, because you didn't know about me, so of course I didn't tell you everything there was to know about me. But since you learned about that what you see is me. I don't hide myself from you. Well, obviously there are some things that I haven't told you, like really embarrassing things that you're never going to drag out of me, but that's because they're so embarrassing that I'd prefer that nobody ever learn about them. But the real me, all the important stuff, you know. I'm just so comfortable with you."
"Or I'm learning," Evelynne murmured, and Ally conceded the point with a nod. It would take some time to come to terms with these new revelations, the younger woman knew. What she had learned so far had already increased the amount of sympathy—not pity—she felt towards her partner. To realise at last just how alone Ally considered herself to be was unfathomable to her. Evelynne had grown up knowing exactly who she was and where she fit into her society. That place had moved several times, naturally, but she had never felt truly alone, even in the knowledge that she would one day be one of the most politically powerful people in the world. Perhaps it was the underlying knowledge that even as Queen she would inevitably have a King as co-ruler, someone who was her equal in every cultural sense, and therefore that she would never be alone. This new knowledge made her realise just how wise her Kingdom's creators had been in building the system that they had. "You're really comfortable around me?"
"I am," Ally said simply. "More than I am with anyone else. Even with my parents, and my Mom being an empath, they just don't understand what it's like to be able to… I don't know, bench press a Beetle, or see what the clouds look like from the other side. And even though you can't do that either, I still just get the feeling that you know what it's like somehow." She shook her head. "I can't really explain it any clearer than that."
"That's all right. I think I understand." Evelynne's mind kept going over what she had just been told, and kept coming back to one thought. She feels comfortable with me. Only me. I'm the only one in the world she feels she can truly be herself around. That thought alone caused a kernel of warmth to blossom deep within her. Then she frowned mentally as she recognised the flip side of that sentence. That means that there's nobody else she can really turn to, and that's lonely. So from now on I promise that I won't get on her case when she happens to connect with someone else on any level. She winced internally. Even when I'm PMSing. She snuggled even closer into Ally's warmth as she felt the beginning of the evening chill begin to make itself known. "Well, I'm glad you've met someone you can talk with about complex thingies and quantum watchamacallits. You'll have to introduce me some time."
"I'd like that," Ally said, relieved that their relationship appeared to be back on an even keel.
"And now, at the risk of becoming an ank-lu'p again, I really need to get inside and lie down." Evelynne looked up at her lover pathetically. "I feel icky." Since they had been together, Evelynne had been picking up the odd colloquialism from her partner, in contrast to the more formal style of English she had been taught growing up. "Icky" was now one of her favourites.
"Okay." Channelling power through her muscles, Ally stood, carrying Evelynne as easily as she would a kitten. Evelynne knew that if she wanted to Ally could lift her over her head one-handed—actually, no-handed if she really wanted—and spent a moment revelling in the knowledge that that power was devoted to keeping her safe and happy. Which was how she felt at that moment, even with her hormones and emotions all jumbled.
"Why don't you actually go and have a bath?" Ally suggested, setting Evelynne down near the short hallway to the bathroom and bedroom. "Just lie down and relax and I'll make us some supper."
"Macaroni and cheese again?" Evelynne teased.
"Well, it's quick and easy and it isn't hard on 'icky' stomachs," she protested mildly.
"Relax, love, I'm just kidding," Evelynne murmured, drawing her lover's head down for a long, steamy kiss. "You are a goddess," she whispered when they finally broke. Turning towards the bathroom, she called over her shoulder, "Put the food in the oven to keep warm when you're done. I'll be waiting for you in the bath."
Corey blinked and rubbed his eyes as his friend practically skipped into the small, thirty-person classroom, but those actions did nothing to dispel the image, forcing him to conclude that he wasn't hallucinating. When she made her way towards him and plopped into the chair next to his, he looked at her sidelong, as he would a particularly colourful bug in some Amazon jungle. "Hi, Claire," he ventured. He nearly fell out of his chair when she turned and smiled at him fully. It wasn't that the smile was particularly wide or intense, but any kind of real smile was rare enough on the other woman's face, making those that did break through even more impressive.
"Hey, Corey," Claire said happily, before reaching to get her textbooks and supplies out of her bag. As she did so, Corey could almost swear she was humming.
Okay, time for some Magnum, P.I. he thought, mentally changing into a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses. "So what's got you in such a good mood?" he asked, casually tapping a pencil against his teeth. "Did you get a raise or something? Sorry I couldn't meet you for lunch, by the way."
"Oh, no problem," Claire dismissed. "And no, no raise, alas. But I did, um, meet someone." She blushed, turning her black-and-white face into a black-and-red one.
This time Corey almost swallowed his pencil. "You what?" he choked out. "Who?"
"Well, I didn't actually 'meet someone' as in romantically. At least… No, not romantically. But you remember that woman that's been at the park the last week?" Corey nodded. Of course he remembered. His favourite pastime for the past week had been teasing his friend and speculating wildly on the mysterious woman's background, personality, profession, and sexual abilities. "Well, when I got to the park today someone was at our bench, and I still needed to get out of the sun, so I asked her if I could sit with her."
Corey's eyes widened comically. For someone as insecure as Claire was, this was a huge step. "Wow. You go, Claire. And so obviously she said, 'Yes.'"
"Uh, yeah. And you were right, she didn't say a thing about, you know, this." Claire indicated her variegated face. "I mean, I could see that she noticed, but after that it was just like she didn't care."
"Told you so," Corey proclaimed. "So dish, girlfriend. Info, info, info. Name, job, favourite food, is she single? Tell me everything."
"Well, her name's Allison, and—" Claire broke off and blushed again as she noticed the math professor, who had entered the room unnoticed, looking in their direction with a disapproving expression on his face. "And I'll tell you later," she promised in a whisper.
Continued in Chapter 4
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