Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
Alleandre was engaged in one of her favourite activities: she was watching Evelynne sleep. It wasn't something she often was able to do, since by habit her lover usually awoke before she did, which meant that whenever she did, she was careful never to do anything to shorten the experience.
Right now Ally was lying on her side in the bed, simply running her eyes over her partner's slumbering features inches from her own face. A part of her desperately wanted to stroke the beloved face with her fingers, but she knew that doing so would disturb the sleeper, so she remained still, listening to and feeling warm breath on her cheeks.
Now, though, somewhere in the back of her mind, tickling along her link with Evelynne, came the knowledge that her bedmate was waking up. She had never been able to adequately explain exactly how she knew those kinds of things, although Evelynne, at the other end of the link, knew how it felt. It felt to Ally as though she herself was the one waking, but at some indefinable remove, more as though she was remembering feeling Evelynne wake up.
Now, with the desire to let Evelynne sleep no longer so urgent, Ally let herself raise her hand and gently stroke soft skin, starting with Evelynne's forehead and trailing down the side of her face to her chin. She carefully brushed her fingers over short flame-red hair as her lover wrinkled her nose slightly and made an ever-so-faint interrogative noise. Ally couldn't help but grin at the sound, and continued smiling as Evelynne's eyes opened sleepily.
"Good morning," Ally murmured, still trailing her fingers down the side of her lover's face.
Evelynne turned her face into the caress like a cat. "Mmm," she hummed, closing her eyes again briefly. "G'morning." In a quick, wormlike movement, she suddenly wriggled forward so that she was within the circle of Ally's arms, her head tucked comfortably beneath the taller woman's chin. "What're you doing?" she asked sleepily, her voice muffled.
"Well, I was watching you sleep," Ally admitted, closing her own eyes and transferring her caresses to Evelynne's back, while the sensation of her lover's breath between her breasts created interesting sensations throughout her body. "But this is good."
"Mmm," Evelynne agreed, arching her back as Ally's hand slipped under her oversized night-shirt. As usual, Ally was sleeping naked, but Evelynne had never been completely comfortable doing the same, preferring at least a t-shirt and underwear.
Ally watched, fascinated, as she felt the various parts of Evelynne's mind awaken fully. It always reminded her of listening to a hot car motor cool down, with various pings and clicks as the metal cooled, although admittedly this was the reverse. Still, Ally knew better than most just how active the mind was, even during sleep—more so at times—so perhaps the analogy was still a good one.
"I'm sorry about last night," Evelynne said softly into Ally's chest. "I was a real nusek, and it really wasn't your fault, and you didn't deserve that."
In reality, Evelynne hadn't truly done anything the previous evening. Once again she had become silent and curt, completely shutting out her partner's tentative verbal and mental probes. And, Evelynne was learning, that was one of the worst things one could do to an empath like Ally. On a subconscious level she was constantly if peripherally aware of most others' mental states, and the confusion created by the loss of that awareness, especially from someone she was usually even more aware of, was difficult. Even anger or sorrow on Evelynne's part, unpleasant though they were, would have been easier to handle.
"I understand," Ally said softly, and even now Evelynne could feel the subtle release of tension as she relaxed. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked.
"Not right now," Evelynne replied, her hands beginning to move with more deliberate intent. "I have other things on my mind." She nipped lightly at the hollow of Ally's throat.
Despite the very pleasant haze beginning to cloud her thoughts, Ally managed to pull back slightly and to look carefully into her lover's eyes. Evelynne, sensing her intent, let her, opening her mind completely to Ally's gentle probe.
They had few rules when it came to sex. It could be simple, exotic, slow, quick, gentle, rough, or experimental as they wished, but it must always be based in desire. Sexual "obligation" wasn't to exist, and "debts" were never to be paid in sexual favours. If one of them wished to make love to the other without reciprocation, that was one thing. The idea, Ally had said, was to prevent turning making love into some sort of domestic commerce.
Evelynne could have been insulted by the lack of trust the rule implied, she supposed. However, mysterious psychic bond or not, she knew Ally espoused the concept of clear communication, and it was one she whole-heartedly agreed with. Their relationship had almost been destroyed twice already, once nearly before it had even started, due to secrets and lack of communication. Besides, it was all very well to intimately know your partner's emotional state, but the bond couldn't tell you a thing about why they were feeling as they were.
Whatever Ally saw in Evelynne's eyes must have satisfied her, because she smiled slowly. "Something on your mind?" she murmured, slowly pushing her lover onto her back and stretching out on top of her. "Well, that's good, because so do I. Several somethings, actually." She bent her head to place her lips on Evelynne's neck, and then Evelynne felt a dozen phantom hands stroking her, caressing her, and rapidly lost all control.
Claire lay in bed, trying to ignore the muffled sounds that were emanating from the next room. It was difficult, because a part of her—a fairly large part, actually—was incredibly intrigued, not to mention aroused, by the suggestive sounds. If she had been alone in the room she might have engaged in the guilty pleasure of listening and private fantasy, but she wasn't alone. Corey was snoring lightly in the other bed just a few feet away, so instead of guilty pleasure Claire was feeling incredibly exposed and embarrassed.
When she had realised what she was hearing, Claire had considered getting up and leaving the room in order to get away from the muffled sounds of pleasure. She hadn't for two reasons. First, she had been afraid of making some noise, thereby alerting those next door that she could hear them—although now it seemed unlikely they would notice if she started tap-dancing—which would cause massive amounts of embarrassment all around. Second, Claire hadn't wanted to wake Corey. It seemed somehow sacrilegious to have yet another person listening to the sounds of Ally's and Sophia's lovemaking.
So instead Claire lay back in the bed, put the pillow over her head, and tried to ignore both the sounds leaking through the wall and the highly arousing images they evoked.
Then suddenly the images were no longer a jumble of speculative pictures, as Claire's treacherous mind inserted her into the room next door. Her eyes opened wide, and the image of the room in which she was physically lying was overlaid by a vision as though she was looking down over the bed where Ally and Sophia were making love. Claire instantly knew what was happening, and was torn between relief that the attack had sent only one extra vision to confuse her, and cursing that it had chosen this image from her imagination to do it with.
In the vision, Ally lay between Sophia's legs, her face buried in her red-headed lover's neck. She was braced on one elbow, her other hand obviously active between their bodies, if the glassy-eyed expression and sheen of sweat on Sophia's face were any indication.
Damn, where are my pills? Claire wondered, stumbling to her feet and trying to figure out where the door was, while in the vision Sophia clutched her lover's shoulders and arched. In the bathroom, right.
Claire stumbled her way to the door through her doubled vision, vaguely aware that her noise had woken Corey, but the only thing on her mind was to end this experience. Even though she knew it was only a virtual image, a trick cooked up by her bizarre brain chemistry, it still felt like she was intruding on something intimate and private that she had no right to view. A personal fantasy scenario was one thing, but this was too much like spying on her friends, like watching a video of them taken without their knowledge.
Claire finally made it to the bathroom, almost falling once when she misjudged and collided with the doorway, not even hearing Corey's confused query as her vision was suddenly joined by perfect imagined sound. Sophia's gasps and breathless moans were suddenly loud in Claire's ears, as was Ally's quick, heavy breathing. The two lovers' vocalisations came faster, more urgent, as Claire fumbled in her toiletry bag for her medication, feeling her own body involuntarily respond. Claire had just frantically grasped the small orange bottle when she saw/heard the Ally in her mind whisper, "I'm here, Evelynne, I've got you," saw Sophia stiffen before latching her teeth into Ally's shoulder to muffle her long, drawn-out moan, and then Claire was slipping to the floor of the bathroom, small white tablets scattering, and the vision faded, leaving her own body pulsing in reaction.
"See you in a moment," Evelynne said, smiling at her lover as she left the bathroom.
"Mmhmm," Ally replied from her position by the mirror, where she was putting in her contact lenses. Slipping one in, she blinked rapidly several times, then smiled at Evelynne in the mirror and winked.
Evelynne grinned back, blowing a kiss and then turning back into the hall. She couldn't stop grinning as she thought about their morning. They had spent quite a long time in bed enthusiastically exploring each other before finally rising to shower and dress. The shower had delayed the latter action, however, and now Evelynne was feeling extremely sated and very hungry, for food this time.
The morning had also let her and her fiancée reconnect on a very direct spiritual level, letting Evelynne realise that she and Ally had grown not distant, but disconnected over the last weeks. It hadn't been the fault of either of them, just a result of the ongoing stress of making this new life together.
The events of the last few days had simply emphasized that disconnection. The fact of the Atlantlan mass memorial service had hit Evelynne especially hard. She had been raised from birth to feel a direct, personal connection with the citizens of her homeland, and being unable to participate in this important rite had shaken her deeply. For all her compassion and affection for her adopted country, Ally lacked that sense of personal obligation, and the subconscious realisation of that difference between them had been a factor in the way Evelynne had treated her the night before.
Now, though, she had explained how she felt to her lover, and apologized, and had cried into Ally's shoulder for a long time, and now felt better. Not wonderful, but more stable, knowing she had Ally there for support. It made her wonder if there was anything Ally wouldn't forgive her for, and then she hoped she'd never find out.
Lost in her own thoughts, Evelynne missed the tension permeating the kitchen until she was nearly inside, and Claire's terse voice could be easily heard.
"Listen, Corey. No, I'm not all right, and no, I'm not going to talk about it. So just back off, will you? It's none of your business."
Evelynne's brows rose in surprise at the asperity in Claire's normally quiet tone. She had obviously come in near the end of the discussion, because she almost ran into Corey on his way out of the kitchen.
"If you don't want to talk to me, fine," he was saying over his shoulder. "I have to get to work anyway. Oops, sorry. Oh, hi Sophia," he said, as they narrowly avoided colliding in the doorway. "Sorry to greet and run, but I have to get to work." He lowered his voice. "Watch out. Claire's in a really bad mood, and I don't know why. Maybe you'll have better luck." He glanced at his watch. "Anyway, say 'hi' to Ally for me, 'kay? Bye Sophia, bye Claire." Then he was out the door, barely giving Evelynne a chance to call a farewell after him.
Shaking her head bemusedly, Evelynne walked into the kitchen, catching sight of Claire hunched over a cup of some hot beverage at the tiny table. She frowned at the way the other woman was sitting so tensely and refusing to meet her gaze.
"Good morning, Claire," Evelynne said, keeping her tone light. "Wow, that was quick, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, you've never seen Corey after two cups of coffee, have you?" Claire's tone was distracted.
"Apparently not." Evelynne poured herself a cup from the pot on the stove, then took a seat across from Claire at the table. "So, how was your night? I'm sorry I didn't stay up to see you come in, by the way."
"No, that's okay," Claire said, her gaze still fixed on her coffee. This close, Evelynne could see that her hands were gripping the cup so hard her knuckles were white. "And the night was fine. Great, actually, considering that if it wasn't for you I'd probably have been in a homeless shelter."
"Good." Evelynne looked across the table at her friend, noticing that she was actually shaking slightly. "Claire, are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm—" Claire snapped, her head whipping up involuntarily. She stopped abruptly when she saw Evelynne's face, and Evelynne watched, fascinated, as Claire's own face changed from its normal white-and-black pattern to pink-and-black. Just then Ally walked into the small room, and Claire's face turned a deep red-and-black as her eyes fell on Evelynne's girlfriend before dropping like a stone back to her coffee cup. "I'm fine," she whispered.
Ally paused, uncertain, as she saw the reaction, and she looked quizzically at Evelynne.
*Something's wrong,* Evelynne said silently. *Just be calm, all right?*
Ally nodded slightly, and moved quietly to the stove, grimacing at the sight of the coffee in the pot. "Morning, Claire," she said evenly, putting a kettle of fresh water on to boil and getting an herbal teabag. Satisfied, she took a seat at the table between Claire and Evelynne.
"Hi, Ally," Claire, muttered, her voice tight. Her eyes remained fixed to the tabletop.
"Claire?" Evelynne said, trying unsuccessfully to meet the other woman's eyes. "Claire, you know you can talk to us about anything, don't you? You don't have to, but we're here if you want us, all right?"
Claire's response was a choking bark of half-hysterical laughter as she nearly shot coffee out her nose. "Sorry," she said, finally looking up, and her face had lost a fraction of its shuttered expression. "It's just that something's really funny… in a completely inappropriate way."
"That's okay," Ally said. "You don't have to be sorry. You just have to know that there are people here who want to help if you need it, okay? Or you can tell us to push off, if that's what you want."
"Thanks," Claire said. "I…" She was obviously struggling. "I had an attack this morning, and it was really confusing."
"Oh. Are you all right now?" Evelynne asked. "Physically, I mean?"
"Yeah, I think so. I tripped and hit my shoulder, but that's just a little bruise." She paused. "I just—I've never had one like this before, y'know? You know how I normally just see pictures, and hear things, right?" Ally nodded, and Evelynne murmured an affirmative. "Well, this time I had a… reaction." The red-on-black blush was back, and Claire sipped her coffee to try to hide it. "A—a physical reaction. That's never happened before. And it scared me, kind of."
"Oh. Do you want us to take you to see a doctor?" Evelynne asked. "We can, if you want."
Claire shook her head. "No. They've already done just about every kind of test they can think of. What more are they gonna do? I'm not hurt, I'm just…"
Just scared, Evelynne finished. She looked at Ally, who reached across and was gently massaging one of Claire's tight shoulders, which relaxed slightly under the ministrations. I know how Ally gets scared sometimes about the things her mind does and how it's developing. She knows what that's like.
"I think I'm going to call in and take the day off," Claire continued, her voice now measurably more relaxed. "The world can get by without me selling useless crap over the phone today." She looked up finally. "If that's okay, I mean."
"Sure," Ally agreed. "Do you want one of us to stay with you? I have a student in about an hour, but I can postpone if you'd like."
"No." Claire shook her head. She was still obviously embarrassed and uneasy, but the brittleness that had been present earlier was gone. "I'll be okay. Thanks, though."
"No problem," Ally said. The kettle on the stove began to whistle, and she stood to tend to it, and then winced as the movement pulled at her shirt. "Ouch." She pulled back the collar of her shirt and rubbed at the red mark where her left shoulder met her neck.
Evelynne blushed as she saw the reminder of her enthusiasm earlier that morning. She looked away from her lover and saw Claire looking at the same mark with a half-puzzled, half-wondering expression on her face. As soon as Claire saw her staring the other woman looked away, but not before Evelynne thought she heard her mutter to herself, "That's some imagination…"
"Chorus, good to see you again," Taldas Islin greeted, standing to shake the other man's hand.
"Bon'jier'a, Taldas," Chorus replied, returning the handshake firmly. "Sorry I'm so late, by the way." Rounding his desk, the young man half-collapsed into his own chair and cast a quick eye over the messages waiting for him. "So, how have things been?"
"Not too bad," Taldas said. "The research is progressing, but without the Boss there…" He shrugged helplessly. "She was—is the heart of our team, you know. And much as I hate to admit it, Laura was the brain." The degree to which Laura McGarrity's betrayal had affected him personally was evident in his hesitation in saying her name. "I seem to be spending half my time doing paperwork these days, even with the new people."
Chorus looked at him sympathetically. "And Rena and Marjorie? How are they?"
"Marj is doing well. She's going to be calling you in a day or so to get your input on a translation she's working on. As for Rena…" Taldas' face fell. "I haven't seen her recently. She's still an Initiate so she's still in seclusion."
"Oh yes, she still wants to become a priestess, then?"
"Most definitely. I told her I'd wait for her, but I still miss her."
The revelation of Ally's abilities during the Invasion had deeply affected all those who had witnessed them, although they had all reacted in different ways. Some, like Taldas, while awed, had accepted Ally's powers as an aspect of her natural talents. Most were still unsure of the implications but, for the most part, were ready to adopt a "wait and see" attitude. The reactions of a few, however, were more extreme.
Like Rena bel'Oman. Rena had seen in Ally's impressive display proof of the existence of the Gods she had always worshipped, albeit theretofore with much less fervour. She had expressed her belief that Ally was, in fact, the earthly Avatar of the Goddess Isis, despite Ally's nearly frantic attempts to convince her otherwise. According to Rena, even such an earthly incarnation might not be truly aware of her semi-divine status. Rena's final decision had been to seek initiation into the Priesthood, not to worship Ally, but to properly serve and understand the Entity that was the source of her power. Chorus and Taldas both wondered what Ally's reaction would be when she returned and realised what Rena had done, and both knew her well enough that it would not be good.
"So how long does her Initiation last?"
"Fourteen months," Taldas said. "Then, if she continues, she'll become an Acolyte. I get to see her once every three months until then."
Chorus nodded. "Well, the business reason I asked you to meet me was that I was hoping you could become my teacher."
"Yes. As you know, I'm doing a lot of work for Guard Intelligence now, and these days obviously a vast amount of that work involves computers." Taldas nodded in understanding. "Well, you also know I'm a Savant when it comes to languages, and one day it came to me that I could be really effective if I could talk to the computers. Literally."
Taldas looked shocked. "You mean speaking with a computer?"
"Well, maybe not literal speech. I just thought that if I could really understand how they 'thought' then I could communicate with them to their full potential. Now I did some research and found out that the most basic computer language is 'machine language', which is straightforward enough." Taldas stared at him. This was the first time he had heard anyone refer to machine language as "straightforward." "The problem is that machine language interacts directly with the hardware, and that's where I get lost. Unfortunately my skills do not extend into electronics, any more than they extend into neural biology. That's where you come in. I need someone to be my 'interpreter', and teach me how to translate the machine language into something people can understand. Or that I can understand . Preferably someone who knows about talents like mine, and also can remain discreet about speaking about it."
Continued in Chapter 9
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