Modern Crusaders, Book 2

Even Heroes…

By PsiDraconis

Disclaimers in Chapter 1


Chapter 5

"Claire, you decent?" Corey called, knocking lightly on the door leading to their tiny bathroom. Dressed in a pair of loose black pants and a purple silk shirt, he was currently holding two silk scarves, one red and one blue.

"Yeah, c'mon in, Cor," came the muffled reply through the door.

The young man obediently entered, finding Claire standing at the sink, looking into the cracked mirror with a bottle of lotion in her hand. "You're not ready yet?" he asked. "We've gotta get going. This thing's supposed to start in a half hour."

"Yeah, I'm nearly ready." Claire absently indicated her own simple mauve dress, a choice of attire that helped accentuate the curves of her upper body while flaring out into a wide skirt at the bottom. It had been one of her best finds yet at the Salvation Army. "I'm just… I'm just trying to decide. To paint or not to paint?" She held up the bottle of lotion, revealing it to be a kind of face paint, perfectly matched to the darker portions of her skin. It had been a gift from one of Corey's long-departed boyfriends who had worked make-up in the theatre. Properly applied, it would conceal her variegated skin almost perfectly. However, there wasn't an endless supply, meaning that the choice to use it had to be made carefully. Her bi-coloured eyes could be hidden behind sunglasses, or explained away as coloured contacts, and her hair was easily assumed to have been dyed.

"Claire," Corey said firmly, taking the bottle and placing it back into the medicine cabinet above the sink. "This is not a job interview or an interview for a loan application. This is a party, to which you have been invited by someone who doesn't mind what you look like. Who, in fact, if I understood your semi-coherent ramblings the other day, thinks you look 'cool'. It is also taking place at the Sixth Age, a venue with a solid reputation for being very alternative. Not that that takes much in our painfully white-bread town. Still, I have been to the Sixth Age, so believe me when I say that nobody will be laughing, pointing, or otherwise making fun of you. In point of fact, there is a distinct possibility that you will not even be the most exotic-looking person there." He saw Claire's incredulous expression. "Darling, take my word for it, at least until we get there."

"Well, if it's so 'alternative', why haven't you taken me along before now?" Claire asked, aware that her tone was petulant.

"Because, my dear, the times that I have gone I have had a very specific goal in mind, one that would have been more difficult to achieve had another person been present. Not that I had much success in any rate." Corey faltered, frowning, then shook off the thought. "I also knew that you would have been painfully uncomfortable and unhappy sitting by yourself while I was out prowling. This time, while I will still be prowling—" Corey waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "—I know that you will have at least one other person willing and even eager to have you enjoy yourself. And, assuming this Sophia is as wonderful as Ally insists she is, there will be at least two."

Claire sighed, and her shoulders slumped. "So you're telling me to just go and be myself and try to have a good time."

"Precisely, Claire, my dear." Corey's face softened and he wrapped a comforting arm around his friend's shoulders. "And remember that if you really want someone to accept you for who you are, that includes your real physical self, as well as the wonderful personality I know you have."

"Oh, wonderful," Claire muttered. "Yet another person telling me about my 'great personality'."

"Oh, hush," Corey said, slapping her lightly on the arm. "So, are you thinking of more conventional makeup?"

"I dunno," Claire replied uncertainly. "It's been so long since I've been out to any sort of party. Not since…” She trailed off, then shook her head and thrust that memory behind her. "What do you think?"

"I say no," her friend said firmly. "You've already got the most exotic natural makeup going, anyhow. Adding anything is just going to look unnatural."

"Unnatural," Claire scoffed. "Right."

"I'm serious. I keep telling you that your face really does look natural," Corey protested. "It's like a tiger's coat or something."

"Great, that's me. Zebra-girl."

"Okay, Claire, enough. No matter how good you might otherwise look, it's all ruined when you're sulking."

"Sorry," Claire apologised, swallowing hard. "I'm just really nervous. It's been a really long time since I've done anything like this, and, well, I really like Ally, and even though I have no chance with her, I still don't want her realising I'm a freak."

Corey sighed. "I'll say this one more time for tonight, then I'm stopping, because I give up. You are not a freak. Trust me, I know."

"Sor—" Claire began, then stopped when she saw her friend's glare. Closing her eyes, she breathed in deeply once, and then exhaled in a long, slow breath. When she opened her eyes she had managed to attain a degree of calm. "Okay," she said. "So, we should get going, huh?"

"Yep. First, though, tell me, which scarf should I wear tonight? Red or blue?" Corey held both up against his throat in turn.

"Mmm, blue," Claire said. "The red's too jarring."

"That's what I thought," Corey agreed, tying the scarf around his neck as he turned and walked out into their living room.

The living area matched the bathroom in terms of size, and was just barely large enough to hold a small couch, tiny breakfast table, two chairs and a couple of bookshelves. One wall actually acted as their kitchen, although with only a sink, two-burner gas hotplate, and a few cupboards, it barely deserved the title. Despite the generally dilapidated air, it was kept immaculately clean, thanks mostly to Claire, although Corey could be persuaded to help out when needed.

Entering the room herself, Claire was reminded by another unpleasant topic that was looming over them both. "So, did you talk to Mr. Irons?" Her voice didn't hold much hope.

"I did." Corey's own voice was tinged with repressed anger. "No dice. We pay or we walk."

"So we're homeless at the end of the month."

"Yeah. A buddy of mine at work knows a cheap place that might be opening at the beginning of August, but that's a month too late." Forcing himself to smile, he turned to Claire. "Screw it, my dear. Tonight we are simply two dashing young queers out to paint the town in rainbow hues." He offered his arm to his companion. "Shall we?"

"Sophia!" the manager of the Sixth Age greeted loudly as Evelynne and Ally exited the doors from the kitchen, where they had previously let themselves in through the back door. "You made it." Narmin hurried over from the doors leading to the outdoor patio area at the side of the restaurant, having heard the telltale buzz that had announced their entry. She briefly embraced both of them, including a quick but firm kiss that startled Ally, but Evelynne accepted with aplomb, having become used to her boss' demonstrative manner.

"Hello, Narmin," Evelynne replied. She looked around the restaurant, taking in the chairs still up on the tables, and the total lack of anyone other than themselves. "Where is everyone?"

Narmin finished tossing Evelynne's light jacket and Ally's longer hooded cloak behind the bar and then looked at the assembled people. "Oh, they're all outside, in the process of getting soused. There's just no way these jokers are going to waste any time that they could be partying. Come on, let's get you introduced."

They passed through the restaurant quickly before heading back out into the sunshine on the outdoor patio area. It was a small walled area just off the side of the building, partially covered with grape arbours that Narmin's husband had painstakingly coaxed into growing. They gave the patio a very Mediterranean feel, and it was one of the places where Evelynne felt most at home.

Once they had been escorted over to where several tables had been pushed together under the arbour, Evelynne could see that a number of her fellow employees—it still felt very strange to be considered an "employee"—were already present. Jean and Theresa, two of the other servers, were there. Theresa was unsurprisingly alone, having recently gone through a messy break-up with her latest boyfriend that had spilled over into the restaurant one evening. Henry, one of the assistant chefs, was sitting nearby. Evelynne half suspected that he was waiting for the right moment to make his own interest in Theresa known, although he was so painfully shy, far worse than even Ally had ever been, that she highly doubted he would make any sort of move without some serious intervention. Evelynne and Jean had actually recently joined forces, after the nasty incident with Theresa's ex, to see what help they could provide in that department. Reggie, the head chef, would likely be arriving soon with his son, Rory, who was also the second assistant chef the restaurant boasted. Hal and Erin, who doubled as both bartenders and servers, would arrive later, once they had dropped their children off at the babysitter's. Kelly, Alice and Ken, who all worked the evening shift, when the establishment became less a restaurant and more a bar, Evelynne knew less well, and she didn't see them present either.

"Hey, Soph, you're here," Jean exclaimed, jumping up to hug her friend boisterously and planting kisses on both cheeks. She had obviously been among the first to arrive, and even now was certainly feeling no pain. "And the lovely and mysterious Ally," she continued, grabbing Ally's hand to press a kiss on the back, although it would have appeared more gallant if her gaze had been a little more focused. "So you finally coerced her to come." She leaned back a little to take in both their outfits, and pursed her lips in a soundless whistle. "And looking hot, too."

That was certainly true, Evelynne had to admit.

"Actually, no coercion was necessary," Evelynne replied, an amused smile tugging at her mouth.

"Since when is it necessary to use coercion?" Jean asked. "I personally find it a lot of fun to coerce someone into something they were going to do anyway." She waggled her eyebrows suggestively.

Evelynne chuckled as the meaning penetrated, and Ally followed several seconds later with a deep blush. "I'll remember that," Evelynne said, grinning.

Introductions followed, with most of the more energetic ones being directed to Ally, as the "birthday girl" and putative "reason" for the party. Still, she suffered the hugs and kisses well although, although Jean's wandering hands during her second greeting caused a heated blush, and earned the offender a deadly glare from Evelynne that only large quantities of alcohol prevented from becoming fatal. She had found herself firmly attached to her lover's side after that, although the amused twinkle in Evelynne's eyes showed that she wasn't particularly serious.

Seats and drinks were procured for the new arrivals: Evelynne being treated to a "Long Hard Screw Against the Wall", much to everyone's amusement, while Ally stuck to a plain gin and tonic.

Finally Narmin asked, "I thought you were bringing along a couple of friends. Are they still coming?"

"Yeah," Ally replied, looking at her watch. "They should be getting here any time now." As if on cue, a buzz sounded above the low music that was playing that indicated that someone was at the locked front door. "Ah, that's probably them. Do you mind if I go and let them in?" She started to stand up.

"Sure, no problem. It's just deadbolted right now."

"Thanks," Ally said, heading in that direction.

"I think I should warn you," Evelynne said in a low voice once Ally was out of earshot. "According to Ally, Claire looks a little strange. I know you don't mind about anything like that, but she said it's a little startling at first."

"Okay," Narmin said, shrugging, and everyone else made a similar gesture.

At the door, Ally unlocked the deadbolt and looked out into the street. It was still bright out despite the hour, being the day before the Summer Solstice. Sure enough, Claire and Corey were standing outside and they smiled in greeting. "Hey guys," Ally greeted. "Come on in."

"Thanks, Ally," Claire said. She was carrying a small wrapped box, and handed it to Ally as she entered. "Here you go. Happy Birthday."

"Thanks," Ally replied. "You didn't have to, really."

Claire shrugged. "I wanted to. I thought you'd like it."

"Well, thanks again." She greeted Corey in turn as he walked through the door. "Hi, Corey. Glad you could come."

"You think I'm going to miss a party?" he asked, turning to close the door behind him.

Ally caught his slightly concerned glance outside as he did so. "Problem?" she asked.

"No, not really," he said. "There was just a bunch of kids kind of harassing us as we were walking here. Nothing serious."

"You sure? I suppose we could call the police."

"No, it's okay. They're just a bunch of local high school kids trying to act like they're some big city gang. Having actually seen some big city gangs, it's kind of amusing." He was obviously still a little bothered, but was making light of the situation with the ease of long experience.

"Okay if you say so. Come on, let me introduce you to the others."

Claire sat quietly, watching the conversation carrying on around her, and slowly working her way through the brightly coloured cocktail, something Ken, the acting bartender, referred to as a "Bob Marley". She hadn't drunk nearly as much as some of the others, and was content to simply sit and occasionally take part in the surrounding discussions.

The initial introductions had gone extremely well, she thought. There had been a few widened eyes at her unusual features, and were still occasional casually intrigued looks, but as Corey had promised, nobody had stared or made any kind of scene. Except for Jean, who was easily the most inebriated of the bunch, and who had simply gushed over how "cool" and "awesome" she looked, and finally had to be pried away from an extensive and—due to eyes that wouldn't quite focus—very close-up examination of her face and hands. Though embarrassed, Claire had managed to endure the scrutiny with good grace, easily sensing that the drunken woman meant absolutely nothing derogatory by it.

On a couch a few metres away, Ally was animatedly trying to explain to the restaurant's chef, Reggie, how gravity wasn't really a force, but a consequence of curved space-time and variations in the flow of time, with apparently limited success. From what Claire could overhear, the beachball analogy wasn't working, although Ally was pressing gamely on, while her girlfriend, Sophia, looked on with an amused smile.

Meeting Sophia had been interesting. Claire had been prepared to feel jealousy—totally irrational, she admitted—but that had quickly faded before the redhead's friendly nature and immense charisma. Sophia had easily drawn her out of her nervousness, and before she quite knew what was happening, Claire had been chatting easily with her and then skilfully brought into a group of equally gregarious guests. The fact that Ally doted on her had been obvious, and equally obvious was that Sophia returned the affection. They seemed to almost have an eerie, unspoken communication going on at times, so completely in tune with each other that they didn't even need to ask if the other was hungry, or needed a drink refill, and more than once Claire had seen them look at each other for a few moments and suddenly break out laughing, apparently enjoying some inside joke.

Claire started when Jean suddenly flopped down on the couch next to her, grinning at her with the complete garrulousness of the highly inebriated. “So, Claire,” Jean stated loudly. “Claire, Claire, Claire, Claire, Claire.” With an effort the drunken woman pulled herself out of the rut her mind was in. “So, Claire, when's your birthday? We gotta know so we can plan another one of these cele… celebububrations?”

Claire grinned nervously, looking around to see who else was paying attention. She had been half-expecting a question of this sort, but it always threw her off-balance when it was asked. “My b-birthday?”

“Yeah, your birthday. You know. That date that shows up on your birth certit… certic… certitificacate.” Jean looked proud of getting the word at least partially correct.

“Oh. Uh… February seventeenth.” Or thereabouts. When you're dumped on a hospital doorstep it's a little tough for the doctors to ask your mother what day you were born. The best they can come up with is, “Sometime last week.”

Fortunately, Claire was saved from having to elaborate when Narmin stood and, after a whispered conversation with her husband, clapped her hands to get everyone's attention.

"Right," she said, her voice carrying easily over the music that was playing, and even as she spoke, her husband turned it off. "I think it's time for the birthday girl—" She grinned at Ally, who blushed. "—to get her presents. And as most of you know, we have a birthday tradition here at the Sixth Age." Ally, Sophia, and a few others looked uncertain, but the veteran staff was now grinning enthusiastically. "In order to earn her gifts, the guest of honour…" Narmin paused for effect. "… must sing!" She gestured with a flourish towards the small stage with the karaoke machine, and on cue her husband flicked a switch, bathing the area in light.

A chorus of cheers, applause, and catcalls greeted Narmin's announcement, although Ally seemed to be vacillating between blushing and paling, and was shaking her head briskly. "Oh, no, no, no," she denied loudly. "Uh-uh. No way. Trust me, you don't want me singing." She smiled, but Claire could see it was forced, and was surprised that there was actual fear behind it.

"Oh, come on, Ally, you think any of us are any good?" Alice called, looking around at her fellow employees for support.

"Hell, no," her husband, Ken agreed. "Being good has nothing to do with it."

"Hey!" Reggie objected, a mock scowl on his face. "Speak for yourself."

"Well, right, except for Placido Domingo over there," Ken allowed, waving at the large chef dismissively. "But the rest of us are awful. Right, mates?"

A loud, enthusiastic affirmative answered his question, and Henry nodded with comic enthusiasm. Still, Ally looked unconvinced. "I just—I don't—I—"

Sophia drew her partner's head down and spoke quietly in her ear, holding and stroking Ally's hand as she did so. The taller woman still looked sceptical, but it slowly morphed into an expression of uncertain agreement, and finally she nodded.

"All right," Sophia said to the room at large, "we're good to go. But only as long as I get to choose the music."

"No problem," Narmin said promptly, handing over a large black binder. "So, what did you promise to get her to agree?"

"Nothing you need concern yourself with," Sophia replied airily, as Ally blushed again. "Well, you get up there, love," she continued, kissing Ally briefly before nudging her towards the stage. Still manifestly reluctant, Ally complied, Narmin and Alice in tow to show her how to use the equipment, while Sophia paged through the list of available music. It wasn't long before she stopped at a particular page. "I don't know this song, exactly," she said, "but the title is simply too good to pass up. Can you put on I-7?"

"I-7, I-7," Narmin muttered, punching numbers into the small keypad. She peered at the screen, and slowly grinned as the name of the song came up. She gave a thumbs up. "Perfect choice. Ally, you ready?"

"As I'll ever be," Ally muttered, standing awkwardly with the microphone clutched in one white-knuckled hand. She frowned as she concentrated on the first few notes that came through the speakers, then her eyes widened and she cast a brief glare at her broadly smiling girlfriend as the tune registered and the first lyrics appeared on the screen. Still, she took a deep breath and only missed a couple of beats before gamely launching into the first verse, complaining about being too sexy for her car.

Ally would never be a professional singer, Claire mused, as she watched the woman on stage concentrating intently on the lyrics appearing on the screen before her. Still, the fact that she was willing to do something that was obviously very difficult for her, and the way she was obviously putting so much effort into it more than made up for any minor—or major—flaws in pitch or rhythm. Thankfully, the original lyrics did not require much in the way of tune or variation. Then, in the brief pause between the second and third verses, Ally closed her eyes, took another deep breath, and when she opened them again, something had obviously changed. She was no longer looking at the words on the screen, but at the audience, and Sophia in particular, singing from memory. Her voice was still quite apparently out of tune, but it was much more confident, and she even managed to smile, blushing at least three shades of red as she did so, and put on a little show for the audience, "shaking her little tush on the catwalk," and only laughing when she complained about being "too sexy for her shirt" and Jean yelled at her to take it off.

Evelynne sighed happily as she rested her head on her lover's shoulder and they swayed softly to the music. Ally responded by squeezing her closer reflexively, and Evelynne smiled as she let her eyes close. It had been an excellent evening, she mused. After Ally's brief foray into the musical realm, not to mention the added delight of seeing her dancing on stage to music, the focus had shifted to the bestowing of gifts.

Evelynne's co-workers had been most generous, with books and CD's making up the bulk of Ally's haul. Corey had broken the mould with a gorgeous blue and purple blouse, and Ally had peered suspiciously into the paper bag holding Jean's gift before abruptly slamming it closed and refusing to show anyone else. Not even Evelynne had been able to get her partner to give a hint, although her deep flush and Jean's canary-eating grin suggested a few possibilities. Even Ally's thoughts had been embarrassed when she had finally promised to show Evelynne what it was once they got home that evening.

The princess' own gift, a simple silver ring bearing a deep purple amethyst, had been accepted with near awe by her fiancée, and everyone else had been highly impressed and speculative when Ally insisted on putting it on the ring finger of her left hand. They had been able to keep the exact details of their impending marital status fairly vague, and the logical side of Evelynne's mind would really have preferred it if her lover had put the ring on some other finger, but the larger portion had firmly overruled it. Wherever she wants it is where it will go, she had thought.

Ally's final present had been received almost as appreciatively as the one Evelynne had given her. Claire had shyly and hesitantly handed over a small box, wrapped with incredible precision in plain brown paper. On opening it, Ally had found a small silver pendant in the shape of a dragon, wings outstretched in flight and bearing a tiny quartz crystal in its claws. It wasn't a new piece, and Claire had admitted finding it in a small antique store nearby, although Evelynne had learned in a whispered comment from Corey that the other woman had spent quite some time polishing it back to its current brilliant shine. It had been a greatly appreciated gift, given Ally's affinity for all things draconic, and Sophia had seen her partner absently caressing it often throughout the evening.

Thoughts of the giver of the present caused Evelynne to frown a little mentally, and she turned her head to glance at Claire, who was being led expertly around the dance floor by Reggie, who had proven to be as good a dancer as he was a singer, which had been quite a revelation, and was giggling shyly at some comment he was making. Given her lifelong experience in social situations, Evelynne was more than capable of reading at least some of the emotions behind other people's expressions, if not so directly as Ally was able to when she wished, and she could tell that Claire was harbouring at least a small crush on her fiancée. With her memory of her previous insecurity still in her mind, Evelynne was sensitive to the fact. It was odd, though, she thought. Jean, for example, was just as obviously attracted to her Ally, and flirted much more outrageously than Claire ever had. Actually, Claire had not done a thing that could truly be called flirting, yet Evelynne felt much less threatened by Jean than by the much quieter Claire. Maybe it's because Jean is much more blatant, she considered. With her it's like she does it out of habit, so it's less serious. But Claire's a lot more like Ally. She's quiet and shy, but also very intelligent. I suppose I can see Ally being interested in her more than she would be in Jean. I don't know her all that well yet, but I can see that they could be a good couple. Of course, I'm hardly quiet or shy, and I like to think that Ally and I are a good couple, so maybe I'm overreacting. She looked at Claire again, remembering the hesitancy with which the other woman had entered into the social scene, and the almost-hidden surprise as she was actually welcomed into the group. Besides, I really don't believe she would ever make any kind of move on Ally, even if she wants to. And I know Ally would never seriously consider making a move in the other direction. Oh, it might cross her mind—we've both admitted that we at least look at other women after all—but really doing something? No. Evelynne relaxed and rested her head back on Ally's shoulder again, pleased to have resolved matters in her own mind. Besides, I like her. She's a good person. Maybe I should try to get Claire and Jean together? No, I don't think so. I know Jean plays a little—what's the phrase?—fast and loose, and if Claire is anything like Ally I don't think her emotions would be able to handle something like that. I don't know anyone else who might work, though. Although maybe—

She was jolted from her musings when a finger poked her in the side, and looked up to see Ally looking at her with an eyebrow cocked, an amused expression on her face. "Having a good conversation?" Ally murmured.

Evelynne felt herself blush lightly. *Yes, actually. You know what they say. If you talk to yourself at least you're guaranteed an interesting conversation. Besides, I was busy planning alliances and engaging in preliminary planning for possible future attacks. Politics, you know,* she intoned, managing to project a sense of great self-importance and pompousness. She waved a mental hand dismissively. *You wouldn't understand, being the ignorant, unsophisticated peon that you are.* She sniffed at Ally's look of mock outrage. *But that's all right. You were born that way, so I don't suppose I should hold it against you.*

Ally hooted in mental laughter, some of which spilled over into physical chuckles. *Oh, that's very good. Well, if you're going to be that way, this 'ignorant, unsophisticated peon' might decide not to show you her very, um, sophisticated present when we get home.* The deep blush was back, and Evelynne was very intrigued by some of the vague images that leaked out with Ally's thoughts.

*Well, we can't have that, can we? I suppose I'll just have to—*

Evelynne's projection was cut off by a shout for help from Reggie over the music, and both quickly turned in that direction to see the big man awkwardly trying to lower an apparently boneless Claire to the floor. Satisfied that he had gained the attention of others, the cook turned back to his erstwhile dance partner, who was lying prone on the floor, her eyes squeezed shut and her hands over her ears, as her breath escaped in hisses from between her clenched teeth. "Claire? Claire? Are you okay, Claire? Claire, can you hear me?" He obviously didn't know what to do, and looked up helplessly at the group of approaching people. "Someone call a doctor!"

"No, wait!" The voice was Corey's, as he pushed through the crowd of concerned onlookers and knelt by his friend's side, her small bag in his hand. The music that had been playing cut off abruptly, and the sound of Claire's personal effects being dumped unceremoniously on the floor was loud in the ensuing near silence. "Just wait a second." Corey's voice sounded much higher pitched from the stress. He quickly grabbed a pill bottle from the clutter, wrenched the top open, and poured two of the small white tablets inside into his palm. "Everyone just stand back, give her some room." He looked up at Evelynne and Ally, who had knelt down next to Reggie. "Hold her hand, touch her face," he instructed all three, taking Claire's right hand in his own, gently prying it from her ear. "Give her an anchor, let her know where she is."

They complied, Reggie laying a hesitant hand on Claire's leg near her knee and squeezing gently, while Evelynne, as confused as anyone as to what was happening, took her left hand and held it, stroking carefully, and Ally used both hands to brush the hair back from Claire's face, then ran her hands over the prone woman's forehead and back. Through it all, Corey kept up a constant litany. "Claire, can you hear me? Listen to my voice, Claire. Follow my voice. Feel the people touching you. They're real, Claire. Follow them back. Right here, Claire…" He continued for over two minutes, though it felt like hours to the watching people, before Claire's tightly shut eyes began to relax and she opened them to look dazedly at her surroundings. "Hi Claire. Are you back?"

"I… uh… I-I think so," Claire managed, eliciting a collective sigh of relief from her audience. Her eyes still didn't completely focus, but then they widened as her surroundings sunk in once more, Ally kneeling by her head and Evelynne and Reggie next to her, and the darker parts of her skin paled. "Oh, shit."

"It's okay, Claire," Corey said soothingly. "Here, let's help you up." With Ally's assistance, he managed to manoeuvre her into a sitting position, and held out his hand containing her pills. "Here you go."

"Thanks," Claire muttered, taking the small white objects from his before tipping them into her mouth, grimacing at the bitter taste. She started when a hand bearing a glass of water suddenly appeared before her, and managed to smile wanly up at Narmin. "Thanks."

"Okay, let's get you into a chair," Corey said, taking charge again. With Ally's assistance, he managed to help Claire to her shaky feet, and towards one of the armchairs near the side of the room, Evelynne and Reggie in tow.

As he did so, Narmin began moving everyone back, giving them at least a semblance of privacy. "Okay, guys, let's give 'em some room, okay?"

Several minutes later, Claire was ensconced as comfortably as possible in a deep overstuffed armchair, overseen by a very attentive Reggie and sipping a glass of ice water, as Corey, Ally and Evelynne talked quietly nearby.

"Is she going to be okay?" Ally asked, casting a glance at the woman in question.

Corey rubbed his face wearily. "Yeah, she'll be fine for now."

"So what was it?" Evelynne asked. "If it isn't too personal."

"The doctors really aren't quite sure," Corey admitted. "It's kinda like a seizure, but instead of affecting her motor centres and muscles, it hits her memory and perception areas. The way this one doctor described it, parts of her visual and auditory memory go haywire and start sending random messages to her visual and sound processing areas. So she has all these images and sounds in her vision and hearing, and can't tell which ones are the real ones. She said it's kind of like looking at the world through about a dozen transparent movie screens, while listening to ten stock sound records at the same time." He shrugged. "I have a feeling it's more complicated than that, but it ain't like she can explain it so that we can really understand."

"It isn't permanently damaging, is it?" Evelynne asked, concerned.

"Not as far as the doctors have been able to tell, at least so far. We don't really know if it'll get worse, though. Right now it's really only kind of an inconvenience, no matter how weird it may look. She's not allowed to drive, obviously, and if she got an attack when she was even riding a bike…" Corey shrugged again. "She's always careful about taking the stairs, and she won't take a bath without someone else in the house. The thing is that it is like a seizure, and they're kind of unpredictable. We don't know if it'll ever hit something else. Something vital." Throughout his explanation, Corey had maintained his matter-of-fact tone with the resigned air of one long used to the facts, but now his voice changed as he rubbed his eyes again, obvious worry coming through. "Like I said, she's managed to get by so far, and I've been around to help for the last few years. But I don't know what would happen if I wasn't. Like next month…"

"What about next month?" Ally prompted when he trailed off.

Corey shook himself. "Oh, it's noth—" He stopped on seeing the expression on Evelynne's face. "We—we can't afford to pay rent next month. I used to get a government allowance that paid for most of it, but I… Well, I lost it. Technically, I do have the money to pay for it, but it'll come out of… Anyway, Claire won't let me do it. So we don't have anywhere to go next month, and I'm worried. Now I figure I can handle myself just about anywhere, but I'm really worried about Claire."

"Nowhere to live?" Evelynne asked, her expression puzzled. "There's no government housing or anything similar?"

"Not really."

Evelynne shook her head, anger and disgust in her expression. "Sorry, it's only that in Atlantl the Nobles are legally bound to provide adequate housing to those who cannot otherwise afford it. It's not spectacular, but it's always liveable. I forget sometimes that you don't have the same here."

"Well, there are some things like homes and asylums. With her condition, Claire would probably be put into a mental institution, and she won't do anything like that again. I don't blame her. We've both had enough of those." He saw the questioning expressions on the faces of the two women opposite him. "We—we both grew up in homes and orphanages," he explained quietly. "Claire couldn't get adopted because of how she looks, and I couldn't because… Well, anyway."

"Oh. Well, we—" Ally stopped suddenly and looked at Evelynne, as though she had just remembered that there was another thing to consider.

"What, love?" Evelynne asked.

"Oh, well, I was just thinking… I mean, we have that extra bedroom in our apartment, and, well, I was just thinking that—But of course we'll have to…" Ally stumbled, obviously thinking she had overstepped her bounds.

Evelynne frowned speculatively. *What were you thinking, love?*

*Well, when I was living at home with my parents, we always had people staying with us. Friends, family. The neighbours' house burned down once, and they lived with us for two months while their new house was being built. I guess I'm just in the habit of offering people places to stay, and I was thinking that Claire and Corey could stay with us. Even if just for a little while.*

"Ah." Evelynne thought for a moment. While she certainly had no experience with personally offering assistance to victims of misfortune, the Atlantlan ideal of aiding those in need had been bred into the Royal family for centuries, as had the concept of providing their subjects with the necessities of life. And while Claire and Corey weren't her subjects, they were her friends, which was enough to tip the scales.

Turning back to Corey, who hadn't quite followed Ally's tentative suggestion, Evelynne said, "I think what Ally's suggesting is that we have a spare bedroom in our apartment. We're using it as a study right now, but we could fix it up for you if you and Claire don't mind sleeping in the same room."

Corey's eyes opened wide. "You mean stay with you? But what about rent?"

Ally waved off the question. "Forget it. Believe me, money really isn't an issue. And if you really insist, you can do Sophia's laundry." She grinned at her lover, pleased that her suggestion had been accepted.

Evelynne glared back. "And you can do Ally's dishes." Ally just shrugged in agreement. "So, what do you think?"

"I-I'll have to talk to Claire," Corey said weakly, seemingly dazed by the sudden reversal in the fortunes of his friend and himself. "I'll just go and…" He waved towards his roommate, who had recovered enough to start talking with Reggie once again, and was casting uncertain glances towards the nearby trio. "I'll let you know, okay?"

Continued in Chapter 6

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