Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
Claire walked along the pathway at the college, her head down as she puzzled over a problem from her math class. Third and fourth year mathematics courses were always tough, but the assignments from her Complex Math professor were, to use his favourite joke, complex. She grimaced. Doctor Miller was one of those unfortunate people who, in the face of all possible contradictory evidence, was convinced he had a great sense of humour.
Still, he was a very intelligent teacher, and constantly challenged his students to be as brilliant and creative as he was. Claire frowned as she considered possibilities. Well, if I use a logarithmic transformation and map the function into wz-space I could integrate over the transformed interval and—
"Miss Jones?" a voice just in front of Claire asked, and she jumped back with a gasp as she was torn from her considerations of imaginary numbers and complex vector spaces.
The speaker was a heavy-set motherly woman, who was accompanied by a teenager and a tall, black-garbed bearded man wearing a black hat. The younger boy was vaguely familiar, but Claire couldn't immediately place where she had seen him before.
"Yes?" she said uncertainly. Very few people were in the habit of stopping her in public to speak with her. Even panhandlers and people handing out religious flyers tended to avoid her, choosing targets who were less disconcerting to look at.
"Hello, I'm Sarah Stein," the other woman said. "This Rabbi Lyman." The bearded man nodded in greeting. "And I believe you already know my son, Micah." Her tone for the last introduction changed, becoming disapproving, although Claire thought it was directed more towards the teenager at her side. The boy looked down guiltily, confirming her suspicions.
"I don't—" Claire began, looking at the boy quizzically. Then she inhaled sharply and stepped back instinctively. Three weeks previously she had seen him on a dark street in the company of several other rough youths, many of whom had subsequently suffered from some painful bad luck.
"I see you remember him," Sarah Stein said severely, and Micah flushed and hung his head. "Miss Jones, my son has come to apologise in person, if that is all right with you." Confused, Claire nodded uncertainly, her eyes darting between the three people before her. "Thank you. We will give you two a few minutes alone. Don't worry, Miss Jones, Rabbi Lyman and I will be right over there." Mrs Stein pointed to a spot a few metres away.
Still uncertain, Claire stood tensely as the two older people walked away, leaving her with the fidgeting teenager. Despite the others present, the memory of this boy and his friends and their juvenile menace was raising her anxiety levels dramatically. Even the public locale was of little comfort, since in one of the ironies of her existence, Claire's odd appearance had, on occasion, seemed to make her even more invisible, at least when it came to seeking rescue.
The boy next to her seemed almost as anxious, however, but he swallowed once convulsively and said, "Hello, Miss Jones, my name is Micah Stein." He sounded like he was reading from a prepared script. "Um, I wanted to sincerely apologise for… for…" He stuttered to a halt and swallowed again. "For harassing you. It—it was wrong of me t-to persecute you because of your… your… um…" He glanced at her face and then looked quickly away again.
"Because of how I look," Claire finished for him in a voice that cracked only slightly. She cleared her throat.
"Um, yeah. I—You—Anyway, I wanted to say that I am really sorry, and I'll never do that to anyone ever again." The last words came out in a rush, and Micah almost sighed in relief. Then his face drew apprehensive again. "And also, if you feel you want to, um, lay charges or something I'm not going to deny anything."
Claire blinked, the dreamlike nature of the conversation striking her as even more bizarre. Nobody had ever apologised for taking advantage of or making fun of her condition before. "No. No, I don't want to press charges," she said dazedly. "But why are you doing this?"
Micah had breathed an almost-concealed sigh of relief, but now blushed again. "Oh. Well, you know that night?" Claire nodded warily. "Well, me and my friends were just hanging out, y'know? And I was just goin' along with it, y'know, and then Smitty saw you and your friend, and he was all, like, 'Let's go mess with the fr—'" He broke off suddenly, looking down guiltily. "The, uh…"
"The freak," Claire said with deceptive mildness. "I've heard the word before."
Micah flushed again. "Uh, yeah. So anyway, then later on we saw you again, and you were with those two girls, and this time Smitty was, like, 'Let's show those d—those homosexuals what they're missing.'" Claire nodded again. Of course, it was highly unlikely that "Smitty" had used that particular word to refer to Ally and Sophia. "And then—And then God talked to me." Micah's face took on a look of awe, and Claire blinked. "Yeah, I know it sounds nuts. I mean, why would God talk to me, but I swear He did. And He was angry that I was messing with you guys and He wanted me to stop. And then He protected you. I mean, He made that can trip Smitty and hit Joe in the face, and that wasn't normal, y'know. And I know Rory heard something, too, but he ain't saying what it was. But for me, I know God was telling me something." The teenager took a breath, seeming to come back to himself. "So anyway, a few days later I went and talked to Rabbi Lyman about it, and one of the things he said I should do was apologise. My brother remembered seeing you around here, and he found out your name, and, uh…"
"Oh," Claire murmured. She looked into Micah's face, and, to his credit, he looked back directly with only the tiniest flinch of his eyes. "Well, thank you. And I don't know if it was God you heard, but then I've never talked to Him." She shrugged. She was actually experiencing a sensation of exhilaration and an unfamiliar peace.
"Yeah," Micah said, and his own voice was much more relaxed. "I know." He hesitated. "I dunno how to ask this, and I don't wanna be a jerk, but those girls you were with, y'know, on that night? Were they, like, together?"
"Together? Oh! Yeah, they're… partners," Claire replied cautiously.
"Oh, okay, partners. Uh, and you—Are you…?" Micah's face was bright red.
"Oh. I also… prefer women." The feeling of bizarreness was back.
"Okay. Sorry. It's just, like, say if God did talk to me, and he didn't want me, y'know, persecuting you, maybe it was because you all were gay, or whatever." The young man glanced in the direction of his mother and the Rabbi. "I talked to Rabbi Lyman about that, and he wasn't sure. I mean, if God was protecting you because you were, y'know, gay, that's, like, different from what I was taught. Rabbi Lyman's been great, though. He told me that everyone has to understand God in his own way. So if God really isn't against gays and stuff, maybe I should be trying to teach that to people. I'm starting to think about becoming a Rabbi. Whaddaya think?" He looked at Claire shyly out of the corner of his eye.
Claire smiled at him. "Well, I'm not Jewish, or, well, anything really, but personally I'd be happy to have more people like you as teachers. Well, maybe not how you were before," she felt comfortable enough to tease.
Micah ducked his head and blushed again. "Yeah, I was kind of a jerk, wasn't I?" he said sheepishly. "Do you think you could maybe help me meet your friends? The ones from that night? I wanna apologise to them, too."
"I think I can do that. Give me your number and I'll see what I can do."
"Thanks. Uh… do you want to come and talk to my Mom?" Micah asked, standing. "She and Rabbi Lyman wanted to talk to you."
"Sure," Claire agreed tentatively as she began to follow him.
"Okay. You know something really weird about God talking to me? I mean—" Micah gestured broadly. "—beyond God talking to me?"
"I think God's a girl."
Evelynne laughed at the expression on Jean's face. "So, what do you think? Good, eh?" she teased with a smirk.
"Ye Gods, but that's foul!" Jean exclaimed, her whole face puckered. She swallowed reluctantly, and then started trying to wipe her tongue with a napkin. "Bleah."
"I told you so," Ally said from her place at the table next to her girlfriend. "I told you, it's Tabasco or nothing. Barbeque sauce just doesn't cut it." She demonstrated by taking up a spoonful of ice cream, tipping a few drops of Tabasco sauce on it, and placing it in her mouth with great relish. Her mouth puckered reflexively but she still hummed with pleasure.
Jean shuddered, and her reaction was mirrored by most of the people around the table. "That's still disgusting," she proclaimed to general agreement.
"Well, of course it's bad if you try to soak the whole spoonful in Tabasco," Sammy, one of Jean's friends, said. He held up his own spoon. "Just a couple of drops."
Josh, Sammy's boyfriend, scowled. "Well, all I can say is that if you think I'm kissing you with ice cream-Tabasco breath, you are sorely mistaken, dear."
"Well, that's all right," Sammy said dismissively. "Ally'll kiss me, won't you Ally?"
"Of course," Ally said. "Just remember, no tongue!"
Everyone laughed, and Evelynne joined in, looking around the table with satisfaction. Sammy and Josh were Jean's friends, and Hal and Erin were enjoying an evening away from their kids. Even though four of the seven present worked at the Sixth Age they still tended to migrate to the restaurant for their off-time recreation. It wasn't so odd, Evelynne mused. With two gay couples and Jean, who was always on the lookout to create a temporary gay couple of her own, the Sixth Age represented one of the few hangouts in Horton City they could go and have no fear of harassment. Even Ally, never a very social person at the best of times, was enjoying herself.
Of course, most of Evelynne's experience with Ally in social situations had taken place in Atlantlan high society, and it was obvious that Ally felt much more at ease outside the stratospheric heights of Nobility. Still, by the time they had been forced to flee Ally had made great strides in overcoming that discomfort. It had probably helped that nobody at any of the social events they had attended had dared to purposefully insult the woman who had saved the Heir to their Realm, and that everyone had been uncertain of her ultimate status, which had given her time to adjust before the true social manoeuvring began.
Evelynne came back from her musings as Sammy scowled dramatically. "Awww. How will I know how good she is, then?" He brightened and turned to Evelynne, who was sitting next to him. "You can tell me, Sophia. How good is she?"
Evelynne looked speculatively at her partner, who blushed. In spite of the flush, she appeared to be fairly relaxed, and Evelynne considered that she was comfortable enough for some teasing. "Well…" She leaned over to whisper in Sammy's ear. "Pretend I'm telling you something really personal," she murmured. She couldn't quite whisper, but tonight was Karaoke Night, and the ambient noise was enough to muffle her voice. "I don't want to really embarrass her, all right?"
Sammy listened eagerly and intently, and the glint in his eye showed he understood. By the time Evelynne had finished he had a considering look on his face and looked at Ally, who blushed deeper, with an expression of impressed speculation. "Really?" he said aloud so that everyone could hear, looking Ally up and down. He glanced at Evelynne. "That many times?"
"Oh yes," Evelynne replied seriously. "More, sometimes." She steadfastly refused to look in her lover's direction, knowing she'd be unable to keep a straight face if she did so.
"And like…" Sammy made a complicated gesture with both hands in the air that really could have meant anything.
"Yes. Not all the time, of course, because frankly who could survive it? But still…" This time she looked at Ally, who appeared torn between total mortification and confused pride at whatever was being implied, and couldn't stop her lips from twitching.
"It's a bit like that with this one," Sammy said, jerking a thumb at Josh. "I mean…" He held up both hands, fingers spread.
Evelynne pursed her lips in a soundless whistle. "I didn't think that was even possible."
"Neither did I," Sammy said. "But you know…"
Josh looked wryly across the table at Ally. "Do you get the impression that our so-called significant others are messing with us?"
"Kind of," Ally replied, her face still red. "Although I can't decide whether to hope they are or hope they're not."
"Well, think of it this way," Erin interjected, "if you're both really as good as they're implying, imagine what it would be like if you two got together."
Josh's eyebrows rose. "Ooo," he breathed, and Ally managed to look contemplative.
"I'd do you both," Jean stated.
Evelynne and Sammy looked at each other, then grabbed their respective partners' arms almost in unison. "Mine!" they proclaimed together.
"And we have drinks," Josh said, setting down a double handful of glasses. The bar had filled up significantly as the evening wore on, and the servers were incredibly busy. It almost made Evelynne feel guilty that it was her day off and she wasn't helping them. Almost. "Sorry it took so long, but this girl up there just wouldn't believe I wasn't interested. Has he started yet?"
"Not yet," Erin replied, looking up to the stage where her husband was waiting for the karaoke machine to start up. "Oh, here he goes," she said as Hal started in on a rendition of It's Raining Men to much cheering from his audience.
Hal's performance was the latest round in a game of "Irony Karaoke" that had been suggested by Jean. According to the "rules", it was up to the rest of the group to pick the most ironic song possible for the challenged. Jean had already taken her own turn with a rendition of Madonna's Like a Virgin that had been hilarious, considering that several women in the audience could personally attest to the inaccuracy of the implication. Sammy—all six foot four inch, blond, sleek, well-muscled two hundred pound ex-linebacker of him—had taken his turn with I Feel Like a Woman, a song that his friends agreed had double irony. And now it was Hal's turn to sing It's Raining Men as his devoted wife and mother of his children watched with delight.
Finally he finished with a flourish and a bow to his cheering fans and made his way back to the table. He leaned down to kiss his wife and asked, "So?"
"You were awesome," Sammy attested. "I'd do you."
"You were good," Ally agreed, taking a sip of her drink. She immediately screwed up her face and swallowed hastily, coughing. "What the hell is that?" she asked, peering into the glass. "Gah. Whatever it is, it's not Amarula."
Josh picked up her drink and sniffed. "You're right. Here, let me get you another."
"No, that's okay. I think I'm about at my limit for the night, anyway." She really hadn't drunk that much, but was beginning to feel the effects of the alcohol she had imbibed.
"You're sure?" Ally nodded. "Okay, then I think I've found Ally's song," Josh announced, holding up the list of karaoke songs.
"Oh, no no no no no," Ally said immediately, and Evelynne grinned at the typical reaction. Recently she had begun to suspect that some of Ally's reticence was due more to habit than true shyness.
"Oh, come on," Hal coaxed. "I got up there. You can't do much worse."
"Wanna bet?" Ally muttered.
"Sophia, you can get her to do it, can't you?" Jean said.
Evelynne hesitated while Ally looked at her beseechingly. She knew that she could almost certainly coax Ally into going up, but manipulating her lover into doing something she really didn't want to do made her uncomfortable. She usually used her persuasive abilities only in cases where she felt that a part of Ally really did want to do something but just needed a little push, and she wasn't quite sure that was the case here. "Listen," she said finally, "I'm going to go to the bathroom. If you haven't convinced Ally by the time I get back… we'll see." By that time Ally would either have been mostly convinced and just need that little push, or have dug her heels in because she really was too embarrassed.
Evelynne waited in line for the bathroom and mused on just how normal it felt. Which was truly bizarre, because a few months before this would have been the last thing she would have considered "normal". Prior to her flight from Atlantl she had never had to wait in line for her place in the bathroom. She would never have been in such an unsecured situation with so many strangers, for that matter. Even on a trip to the bathroom in a public place she would have been accompanied by at least three members of the Heir's Guard, who would have cleared the entire area before allowing her to proceed. Now she wondered what would happen when she went back to that life, and how many of the habits she was picking up would drive her Guards to distraction.
The line inched forward and Evelynne inched along with it.
Even her job as, effectively, a servant was beginning to feel almost normal. She would probably never be completely comfortable with it, since twenty years of life on the other side of the social spectrum left a mindset too ingrained to break after only a few months, but Evelynne felt that it certainly gave her some insight into what her fiancée had experienced during her time trying to fit into Atlantlan high society. If this sensation of disjunction was what Ally had really been feeling, Evelynne was even more impressed by how well her partner had actually fit in.
Evelynne frowned at the thought as the line moved forward again. It was easy to see just how much more at ease Ally had been in this much more familiar environment, and part of Evelynne was concerned about her lover's state of mind once they did get back to Atlantl. Assuming all went well, they would be going back to the Realm not as "Ally and Sophia", but as Crown Princess Evelynne and Heir Consort Lady Alleandre. And while she had no doubts about the love that Ally had for her, she really didn't want her Consort to have the same constant feeling of alienation. I'll have to make some changes, she thought. Maybe schedule some regular times where we can go to Ally's house and just spend some time being "Ally and Evy". Make "time off" more informal when we're not involved in state duties. Whatever it takes, I want her to be comfortable wherever she is and whatever she's doing.
When Evelynne finally got back from the bathroom she sat back down and looked around the table. "Where's Ally?" she asked.
Sammy didn't answer, just pointing towards the stage, and she looked to where she realised everyone else was gazing. There was a woman standing up there with her back to the audience, and it took Evelynne a moment to realise with a shock that it was Ally, wearing what appeared to be Sammy's black leather jacket over her white shirt and black jeans. Evelynne opened her mouth to ask what was happening when the sound of a motorcycle engine revved over the speakers. Ally turned around and Evelynne froze as she sang the title line to Queen's Ride the Wildwind. Evelynne could only stare as her shy, repressed, unassuming lover started in on the adrenaline-inducing tune.
It wasn't just that that she was singing in front of this room packed with strangers. It was the way sensuality was practically rolling off her in waves, turning her into an avatar of arousal. Ally's normally low voice had moved beyond that, into a husky drawl that reached down into Evelynne's libido, attached a leash and gave it a sharp tug.
Evelynne didn't know if it was affecting everyone else the same way, but she did know that Ally's audience was certainly getting into her rendition, responding with cries of "Hey hey hey" as she played them with seeming effortlessness. The singer wasn't even fazed by the cheers and whistles coming her way, which only increased when she slipped off the leather jacket and threw it, with the kind of unerring accuracy only possible through psychokinetic ability, back to its owner across the room. Sammy didn't even have to catch it as it draped itself over his shoulder.
The music finished with a final chord and flourish from the performer, and Evelynne felt light-headed. She drew in a gasp, realising that she'd been breathing shallowly for the last few minutes.
"Sophia," Erin said seriously as Ally made her way back to the table, fending off grasping hands as she did so, "if you don't take that woman home now and get her into your bed, I'm going to get her into mine." The heretofore relentlessly heterosexual woman's husband could only stare, his own brain stunned.
"Damn, Erin," Sammy added, "get in line."
Evelynne just nodded dumbly, grabbing her fiancée's hand as soon as she could reach and dragging her out of the bar to a chorus of cheers and catcalls.
Ally opened her eyes and immediately shut them tight again against the sunlight that stabbed into her brain, carved out a home for itself, and started playing the bagpipes. She groaned.
She slitted her eyes and ever so slowly opened them, giving them plenty of time to adjust. They felt gritty, and she realised that she hadn't taken out her contacts the night before. The light was actually fairly dim, merely the remnants that had leaked through the curtains of their bedroom.
Thought of her lover brought several more facts to light. Contrary to how Ally usually woke up, Evelynne was not wrapped around her, and looking to the side she saw her fiancée sprawled next to her, completely exposed to the air. As appealing as the sight was, Ally wondered what had happened, now noting that she herself was equally bare. The bed was devoid of blankets, save for a small part of the sheet clinging valiantly to the corner of the bed.
Then the events of the previous evening came back in an eidetic rush, and Ally groaned again, this time in embarrassment, and covered her face with her hands. Oh God, what was I thinking? she wailed mentally. How much did I drink last night? I have never done anything like that before. Getting up there in front of all those people. Oh my God, that was so… so… She sought for the proper words. Inspiring. Ally frowned at the new thought. No, it was embarrassing, mortifying. And I liked it. The thought was troubled. It was a rush, she admitted to herself reluctantly. It was like I had no more inhibitions, and I was… free. Memories of what had happened after Evelynne had dragged her out rose up, and her whole body flushed. Evy seemed to like it, she thought, as perfect recall served to inspire a first rush of arousal.
As though summoned by the thought, Evelynne moaned softly and turned, throwing an arm and a leg over her bedmate and burying her head into Ally's shoulder, humming happily. Slowly her eyes blinked open and she looked up into Ally's turbulent ones. "Mmm, morning," she hummed, lifting herself up and draping herself over Ally's body, then dipping her head to kiss her deeply. Ally responded readily, but there must have been some hint of hesitation in her caress that caused Evelynne to pull back slightly.
"How are you feeling?" Ally murmured.
Evelynne grinned and arched her back, causing all sorts of interesting sensations to ripple through Ally's body. "Mmmm… Woooonderful," she drawled. Looking back down, she asked, "What about you?"
"I'm sorry about last night," Ally said softly. "That wasn't—I didn't—"
"Oh, I'm not complaining, love," Evelynne assured her. "Most certainly not complaining. Although," she added with concern, "it wasn't really like you to get up on stage like that."
Ally blushed at the memory, although it was largely lost in the persistent flush of arousal. "Yeah, I think I had too much to drink." She looked at her lover shyly. "I wish I could be like that all the time for you."
Evelynne shook her head. "Don't," she said seriously. "I fell in love with you as you are. I don't want you to change just for me, especially if you need alcohol to do it." She grinned again. "Besides, I had a hard enough time keeping people's hands off you last night. I don't think I have the energy to do it full time." Her voice dropped and she pressed her body into Ally's once more. "On the other hand, what you did afterwards is something I'm quite interested in repeating."
"Let me see what I can remember," Ally murmured, pulling her lover down.
Continued in Chapter 10
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