By PsiDraconis

Chapter 2

“The plane is on the ground, Sire.”

The quiet voice cut across King Jad’s concentration as he stared blankly out the window of the Base Commander’s office. He smiled, and managed a distracted nod in the direction of Sir Adun, the Chief of the King’s Guard, then returned to his musing. The air outside the window was quite foggy; not enough to cause a serious problem for aircraft, but thick enough to defeat mere ground-level eyes. However irritating it was for those peering out into the fog, that was actually a blessing, because it meant that eyes that shouldn’t have a view of the proceedings, wouldn’t.

King Jad wasn’t the only one straining to see through the mist, but he was probably controlling his anxiousness better than most of his companions. To his right was Queen Cleo el-Kareen, his co-ruler and sister-in-law, standing with her arm around the waist of her husband. To his right stood William Tretiak, father of his future daughter-in-law, deep lines under his eyes testifying to the lack of sleep he had been getting lately. Jad knew that William was torn between staying by his wife’s side at the hospital where her terrible wounds were being cared for, and coming to this out-of-the-way military base to greet his daughter on her return.

Behind them, a number of other people crowded the office. Maïda Amonet, Princess Evelynne’s long-time lady-in-waiting and surrogate mother, sat with Meghan Doherty, who had been the one person with the most direct contact with the returnees over the last months, for all that she likely had the most distant personal relationship with Alleandre and Evelynne. The former servant had been pressed into service as the covert communications pipeline between the Princess and her family, using a series of completely innocuous emails between herself and her “niece” and her “husband.” That consideration, amongst others, had earned her a place at this occasion.

Rounding out the group were Lieutenant-General Sir Adun al-Raziq and Major Ben Lafleur of the King’s omnipresent Guard detail, and Major Harold Bunker and Sergeant Irene Hama’in of the Queen’s.

Silence reigned for another fifteen minutes, until Sir Adun cocked his head at the information coming through his earbud and announced, “En route, Sire.”

That statement tore everyone’s attention from the window, and a kind of uncertain dance took place as the new focus became the door to the office. The room seemed to hold its breath, and then the door opened and the people everyone had been waiting for hesitantly walked through.

Evelynne and Alleandre were first, and Evelynne’s eyes widened and began to tear as she saw those assembled. “Za!” she shouted, tearing her hand free of her partner’s to bolt across the floor and throw herself into her father’s waiting arms.

Alleandre didn’t seem to mind as she rushed, with only slightly less speed, into her own father’s embrace, a quieter cry of “Daddy!” escaping her.

Jad said nothing as he closed his eyes and continued to hold his daughter, her feet dangling above the floor as she mumbled incoherently into his neck. He was distantly aware that Cleo and Jeremiah had moved in closer, Cleo dabbing at her eyes. After long moments, the embrace relaxed, and Jad lowered Evelynne back to the floor. “Evy,” he murmured, his voice suspiciously hoarse and un-Kinglike. “Thank the Universal you’re back.”

“Amen,” Cleo said, drawing first her niece’s attention and then her embrace.

“Aunt Cleo,” Evelynne sighed, falling willingly into the waiting arms, this time staying with her feet firmly on the floor. Her uncle joined in the hug, and she sighed again. “Uncle Jerry.”

“Welcome back,” Jeremiah said warmly.

Next was Maïda, who was sobbing so hard her words blurred together, until Evelynne pulled back with a watery grin and handed her a handkerchief from her pants pocket. Maïda half-laughed, half-sobbed as she took it and blew her nose noisily.

“Cheeky thing,” she muttered, bringing a low chuckle and corresponding release of tension from the group.

“Evy,” King Jad said, rubbing Evelynne’s shoulder, “how are you doing?”

Evelynne sighed wearily. “I’m scared, stiff, and so exhausted I’m about to wet my pants.” She grinned weakly, and then sniffed. “I also stink.” She wrinkled her nose. “We had a bit of a mix-up with packing, and ended up without any clean shirts or sweaters. Don’t ask. Consul Elseth did the best he could, but he didn’t have much to work with.” She looked down wryly, and for the first time Jad noticed the over-large Calgary Flames hockey jersey she was wearing. “We owe him a couple of sweaters.”

“We owe him a lot more than that,” Jad replied. “You’ll be happy to know that the ‘Acting’ and ‘Assistant’ have been dropped from his title. And I’ll personally send him a shirt from every hockey team on the planet.” The King stepped back a little, taking in his daughter’s appearance fully for the first time. “I have to ask, what in all the Gods’ Names did you do to your hair?” He looked with barely concealed horror at the spiky platinum style that had replaced her gorgeous red mass.

Evelynne burst into full-fledged laughter, an obvious release of days’ or weeks’ worth of anxiety and tension. She looked over at Alleandre, and Jad wasn’t totally surprised when her fiancée looked over, despite no words being said. There was a moment of silence before Alleandre grinned and shook her head before turning back to her own father. The casual, easy display of Evelynne’s telepathic talent was fascinating to the King. He had just been getting used to the fact that his daughter could speak mind-to-mind with people when she had left.

“Sorry,” Evelynne said, bringing her attention back to her immediate family. “I bet Ally that you would say exactly that.” She shrugged. “It’s the last thing anyone would be expecting me to have, though, isn’t it?”

“It certainly is that,” Jad murmured, while Maïda clucked disapprovingly as she ran her fingers through Evelynne’s hair.

“Come on,” Evelynne said, tugging her father’s and aunt’s hands as she led them over to where Alleandre and William appeared to be finishing up their own reunion.

Alleandre turned as they approached and, as one of the few people in the room who could almost match his height, looked into Jad’s eyes. Jad looked back and was impressed by what he saw. His mind flashed back to the very first time they had met, and the painfully shy, uncertain, practically terrified young woman she had been then. That woman was gone. The King thought he could still see the barest hint of her lurking somewhere, still a certain reticence and uncertainty, but it was almost completely eclipsed by a deep, hard-won maturity and quiet strength, and he wondered just what the cost of that strength had been. Certainly something had happened during the months she had been away, as though she had been broken down so totally that her only options were to give up, or rebuild herself with the strongest of materials. It hadn’t been pleasant, as he could tell from the lingering memory of pain in her eyes. The King remembered speaking with his friend Lord Thomas, Duke Avalon, immediately after Evelynne and Alleandre’s announcement of engagement, and commenting that the young woman would be a formidable force when she finally acquired some confidence. Obviously, she had gained that confidence, and then some.

Startled, Jad looked over at his daughter, and was uncomfortably unsurprised to see that Evelynne was also visibly more mature, at least to his eyes. Before she had left she had been a girl—intelligent, strong, and confident to be sure, but still with a happy immaturity that showed she still hadn’t grown up yet. Deep down, he had always been worried about her engagement to Alleandre because of it. That love and desire to be married, while certainly genuine, had been far more romantic than practical, a fairy tale ending with which she had been enamoured. Now, as Evelynne slipped her arm around her fiancée’s waist and leaned a head on her shoulder, subtly giving and receiving support, Jad could see that that relationship had matured along with them, likely not without a degree of pain and effort, to become the bedrock of a relationship that would be able to weather whatever came their way.

Realising that he had been silent for several moments, Jad smiled and held out his arms for his future daughter-in-law. There was only the slightest of hesitations before she accepted his embrace, and a moment later Evelynne was wrapped around them both. It didn’t last long, Alleandre’s discomfort with physical contact obviously still present, and she drew back slowly.

“Hello, za,” she said, and the hint of uncertainty and nervousness that accompanied her use of the title, along with the faint blush, made Jad smile. The old Alleandre wasn’t completely gone, after all, and he was inexplicably pleased.

“Hello… Ally,” he replied, seeing the pleased flash as he used the more familiar form of her name. He stood back and looked at her. She had changed physically as well, though perhaps less dramatically than Evelynne. Straight black hair that reached nearly to her shoulders had replaced the unruly mop she had once had, and she looked somewhat thinner—a truly unsettling concept, as she had never been overly large to begin with—but nothing much else. “I like the hair,” Jad said softly.

“So do I, dear,” William said as she flushed. His voice turned stern. “However, I’m not so sure about the piercings.”

Jad blinked. “Piercings?”

In reply, William reached out and brushed the hair back from Alleandre’s right ear, revealing a row of at least a half-dozen earrings. None of them was particularly extravagant, but just who was wearing them made them just as startling.

“And this is the daughter who said that she’d get her ears pierced the same day she got pieces of broken glass driven through her eyelids,” William said mournfully.

“Evelynne likes them,” Alleandre mumbled, ducking her head and allowing her hair to once again cover up the adornments, embarrassment finally overcoming her.

“I do,” Evelynne said firmly, mulishly looking around at the assembled gathering.

“And that’s that,” Jeremiah said, his eyes twinkling, and Alleandre flushed again as a chuckle ran around the group.

Looking around a bit more fully, Jad saw an older gentleman and an unusual woman standing by the door, near Sir Arthur Ramirez and Colonel Theodora Nixon, Evelynne’s and Alleandre’s Masters of Guard, respectively, who had entered just behind their charges. Sir Arthur had been recalled quite abruptly from his duties investigating those responsible for the Invasion to once again take up his duties protecting the Heir to the Realm. Jad looked at the newcomers and quirked an eyebrow at Evelynne.

Taking the hint, Evelynne grinned and tugged her father’s hand, the other still wrapped around Alleandre’s waist, leading him over to her companions.

Za, this is Ishta Claire Jones, of the United States of America. Our qor’ima,” Evelynne introduced, ignoring Claire’s puzzled look and her father’s raised eyebrow. “Claire, my father, King Jad Richard ibn Jad deMolay.”

Jad looked down at this very unusual-looking person and carefully kept both the curiosity at her appearance and the amusement out of his face as she very carefully executed a bow of high respect, touching her fingers to her forehead, lips and chest as she bent low at the waist, one leg slightly behind the other, her free hand held slightly in front of her, palm up. The almost painfully precise movements made it obvious the young woman had been practicing extensively for just this occasion—probably in front of a mirror, Jad mused. “Your Majesty,” she murmured almost inaudibly.

Jad firmly stilled his twitching lips with the ease of decades controlling his expression. Now this certainly brought to mind the first time he had met Alleandre, although it seemed likely that this young woman was even more nervous than the other woman had been, assuming such a thing was possible.

Ishta Jones,” he intoned just as seriously as he took her hand, noting the slight sharp breath of relief that Evelynne was unable to suppress. According to Atlantlan tradition, the honorifics “Ishta” and “Enku”—used for women and men, respectively—were given to an individual who had performed a great service or were held in the utmost respect. Traditionally, if the title was given by a member of high station, it would automatically be used by everyone of lower station, but not necessarily by those of higher standing than the issuer. Since Evelynne socially outranked everyone in Atlantl apart from the King and Queen, it was not obligatory for either of them to use the term of respect. The fact that King Jad had just confirmed the title showed the faith he had in her assessment.

“I’m very pleased to meet you,” Jad continued. “Welcome to Atlantl. My House is at your service.” That final statement wasn’t completely conventional, but given the esteem in which Evelynne obviously held this Claire Jones the King was more than willing to extend her every courtesy.

“Claire, this is my Dad, William,” Alleandre introduced. “Dad, this is my best friend, Claire.”

“Mr. Tretiak,” Claire greeted with much less trepidation, plainly relieved to meet someone outside the rarefied heights of the nobility. “It’s good to meet you. Ally’s told me a lot about you.”

William ignored Claire’s outstretched hand, instead pulling her into a hug. “I’m very happy to meet you, Claire. Any friend of Ally’s is part of the family.” When he released her, she was a most intriguing blend of red and black.

The introductions continued, Claire repeating her formal bow to Queen Cleo just as precisely and then being smothered in Maïda’s chest.

Then Joseph Black Crow was presented. The older Native American seemed respectful of the King and Queen, but certainly not intimidated in any way. The explanation that he was present in his role as Alleandre’s counsellor was met with surprise, but no questions were asked.

The helicopter bounced in the windy air as it made its way over the Atlantlan countryside. Claire was disappointed that she couldn’t see the landscape through the mist outside. Not only was she intensely curious about the country she was now in—it was only the third country she’d ever set foot in, after all, and the homeland of her two best friends on top of that—but she would also have liked something to distract and relax her after the events of the last half hour. Meeting the King and Queen—she still couldn’t quite think of them as Evelynne’s father and aunt—had been just as nerve-wracking as she’d expected, but at least she had avoided any obvious gaffes—at least that she knew of. She could have just insulted the entire deMolay line for the past seventeen generations through some misplaced word or gesture for all the in-depth knowledge she had of Atlantlan codes of propriety. Nobody had ordered her beheaded, though, so she figured she was fairly safe.

This was practically the first opportunity she had been able to grasp to sit back and fully process what had happened in the last day or two. The whirlwind had begun at the Calgary Trade Consulate with the arrival of two trucks full of fierce Atlantlan Guards, ostensibly dispatched to protect Atlantlan interests. It was unlikely anyone had guessed just how important those interests were, and from what Claire could gather they had done little to elaborate. According to the official story, the Guards had arrived to safeguard certain classified documents that were being stored at the Consulate. Several very important-looking boxes had certainly been carried out to the waiting trucks by several individuals in Guard uniforms. What nobody, hopefully, knew was that the four "Guards" had actually been Evelynne, Ally, Black Crow, and Claire, who had then been whisked away to a local Canadian Forces Base where they had boarded a very fast jet. That jet had been accompanied on its journey back to the Realm by a full escort of eight Atlantlan fighter planes and an early detection aircraft.

There could have been time to relax on the flight, but Claire's stomach had been tied in knots over the imminent meeting with her friends' families.

Now the entire party was packed into a military transport helicopter, on their way to some unknown location. As far as she could tell, the latest attack had brought a high degree of perfectly justified paranoia into play, such that she, Evelynne, Ally, and Black Crow had been flown in to a very remote military base under maximum secrecy. The Royal party had arrived at the base in equal secrecy, eschewing the use of the conspicuous Royal helicopter or jet in favour of a completely ordinary Royal Atlantlan Air Patrol transport under the guise of a run-of-the-mill personnel transfer. The entire operation had been so covertly planned that not even the King's or Queen's personal secretaries had known where they were going. The seats were arranged in two long rows running the length of the vehicle, facing the middle, and the less sophisticated aircraft lacked the sound muffling of a high-class passenger helicopter, making conversation difficult unless one was directly beside one’s companion.

Evelynne was engaged in just such a discussion with her father and aunt near the front of the aircraft, but fortunately Claire had managed to stick close to Ally and find a seat next to her. As though reading her thoughts—which, of course, was a quite literal possibility—Ally looked at her and smiled.

“So how are you doing?” she asked above the noise of the engine and rotors.

Claire let loose an explosive breath. “Okay, I think. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I still might have to change my pants, though.”

Ally laughed. “I know what you mean. The first time I met King Jad I almost puked all over his royal shoes.”

Claire laughed as well, feeling a welcome release of tension. “That sounds about right. Still, they seem nice enough,” she mused.

“They are, actually,” Ally agreed. “Evy likes you, so they’re definitely willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Upset her, though, and you’ll be out of the country so fast…”

“Hell, if someone made Evelynne upset I don’t think her father would have time to get there before she did something unpleasant to whoever it was. And if she didn’t, you would.” Claire looked sideways at Ally. “And if you didn’t, I would,” she finished quietly.

“I know,” Ally said just as softly. “Anyway, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. I think they like you.”

“Mm.” Claire hesitated. “One thing I don’t get. Evy said I was her qorqor’ima?” She stumbled over the tongue-click. “What does that mean?”

Ally frowned and Claire waited as she searched her eidetic memory. “I’m not sure,” she said finally. “Just a minute.”

Ally stared at Evelynne, and Claire knew she was getting her fiancée’s attention by “tugging” in some indefinable way on the link that bound the two. Sure enough, Evelynne looked up, and a brief, silent communication took place. It was an aspect of their respective abilities that only Evelynne could actually initiate true mental speech, Ally being confined to sensing surface thoughts.

“Oh,” Ally said out loud, nodding, as Evelynne turned back to her own conversation. Ally blinked. “A qor’ima is a kind of… heart-sister. That’s not quite accurate, since there isn’t actually a direct translation into English. Heart is close, but not quite right. Maybe soul is closer, but even that’s not perfect. It isn’t quite sister either. Not really family, but more…” Ally shrugged. “I don’t know. I do know what it means now, but I can’t put it into English. Ask Evelynne to explain mind-to-mind; she can give you the true feeling.”

“Oh. Okay.” Claire looked rather stunned. Then she slowly grinned shyly. “I think I like that.”

Ally squeezed her knee. “I think I do, too.”

There was quiet between them for a few minutes. Finally Claire cleared her throat. “Uh… What about your mother? Is she okay?”

Ally immediately tensed and her eyes squeezed shut. It took several tries for her to speak. “My Dad talked to me about her first thing. He says that she’s in a military hospital. She’s out of immediate danger, and she’s been awake off and on for short periods. She had a broken arm, some broken ribs and they… and they had to reinflate her lung.” Her throat moved as she swallowed convulsively several times. “She, uh… she lost her leg.”

Claire pulled her newly designated qor’ima to her as Ally could no longer hold back, cradling her awkwardly across the armrest as Ally sobbed into her shoulder. Then her other qor’ima was there, summoned by the surge in Ally’s emotions, kneeling on the floor to wrap her arms around both of them, heedless of the discomfort and unstable motion of the aircraft. Ally’s father managed to reach across the aisle from where he was sitting to grasp one of her hands firmly.

Finally Ally’s bout of crying slowed and she pulled back slightly, squeezing her father’s hand before she let go. Claire felt tears on her own cheeks, but kept her arm around her friend as Ally used a free hand to wipe her face. Evelynne pulled back as well, but left a hand on both of their shoulders.

“Sorry,” Ally muttered, still partly leaning against Claire’s chest. Evelynne’s hand moved up into her hair to scratch the back of her neck, and Ally relaxed into the caress like a cat. “I was just trying to hold everything together until we got there. Then I had scheduled my breakdown.” She chuckled ruefully. “Jeez, what is it with our family? I get shot and almost paralysed, and now Mom…” She swallowed again and then pointed sternly at her father. “If anything happens to you I’ll kill you. Just so you know.”

William smiled sadly back at her and managed a weak smile. “I don’t know, honey. I’m a schoolteacher, so I probably have the most dangerous job of all.”

Ally laughed out loud at that as Evelynne grinned. “You know, love, if you actually look at your family this shows just how tough you all really are.” Evelynne grinned cheekily. “With these kinds of genes, our kids are probably going to be bullet-proof.”

Ally’s mouth opened and closed soundlessly and Claire laughed as she imagined a gaggle of tiny red-haired children with grey eyes tossing cars to each other around the back yard, and then was startled as a little girl with exotic colouring showed them all a totally new way to play hide-and-seek…

The hospital floor was quiet. Corridors where nurses and doctors would normally have patrolled were empty. Only the hum of an air-conditioning system broke the silence.

The only places that showed any activity were a single waiting area and a single room. Ally barely suppressed a shudder as she listened to the doctor give her some final instructions, although she didn't really hear them. She knew she would be able to play them back verbatim later, but for now her attention was on the sick sensation in her stomach.

I hate hospitals. I really hate hospitals. It seemed like she had been in far too many in the last couple of years. Although, to be fair, there had really only been three, but it felt like far more.

The first, of course, had been almost a year and a half previously, where she had spent several days in a coma recovering from the bullet wounds to her shoulder and back she had received after the first time she had thrown her body over that of the Heir. Well, that didn't turn out too badly in the end, Ally thought grudgingly, squeezing the hand in hers.

The second hospital had been hidden deep in the bowels of an Elysium bunker, one of the ultra-secure boltholes available for the Royal Family in the event of an attack. That time she had visiting Lord Thomas Baker, Duke Avalon, who had been seriously injured by an assassin during the Invasion attempt seven months ago. She had spent several hours probing deeply into his mind, unsure of what she would find. She still didn't know exactly what she had found, as the alien mental landscape of the deep unconscious was something that simply could not be comprehended by the waking mind, but whatever she had found had left her with the conviction that Lord Thomas had to remain alive.

The last hospital had been in Horton City, Pennsylvania, where Ally had been taken after a very bad reaction to an experimental date-rape drug she had inadvertently consumed. The effects of that drug had very nearly destroyed her mind, and the echoes of the ordeal were still with her.

And now she was in another hospital—although, technically, it was more of a clinic—where her critically wounded mother was in intensive care after the missile attack on her research ship. Catherine Tretiak was, by far, the most severely injured of the survivors. Two of her crewmates had died instantly in the attack, but most of the rest had survived with miraculously minimal injuries. The next most severe injury was that of a researcher who had a broken hip and leg, along with second-degree burns over much of his back.

I hate hospitals, Ally thought again, and could feel that hatred burning somewhere in the back of her mind, snarling restlessly as it threatened to awaken some vicious, primal part of her subconscious that would stop at nothing to destroy its enemies. After all, three of these four hospital visits had been a direct result of those same faceless enemies, and a part of Ally's mind was frightened by the thought of what she might do when she found them. Another part didn't care.

"… so just remember that she'll probably be a bit confused if she happens to wake up. The pain medication she's on is pretty strong, so it's possible she won't awaken. If she doesn't, don't worry. She really needs to rest as much as possible." The doctor tried to smile reassuringly, but his action seemed wooden. A tall man with a fringe of snow-white hair surrounding his bald head, he seemed to lack any emotions whatsoever, but it didn’t matter. The part of Ally that was actually paying attention was more reassured by his aura of competence than whatever social skills he might or might not possess.

Ally nodded, heading for the door to her mother's room while her father quietly spoke with the doctor behind her. Her whole body felt cold, except for the heat of Evelynne's hand in hers, thawing her slightly and preventing her from slipping into the mask she had hidden behind after her encounter with the drugs. She could feel herself gripping those fingers with what must have been painful tightness, but the good thing about Ally's state of mind was that it was so unfocussed that she didn't think she could psychogenically enhance her strength to dangerous levels, even if she wanted to.

As if in a dream, the door opened, and they entered the room. Machines monitoring Catherine Tretiak's vital signs beeped softly and with regularity, and Ally caught her first sight of her mother in the bed.

Catherine Tretiak had never been a large woman—her daughter's impressive height was inherited entirely from William Tretiak—but now she looked even smaller among the machines surrounding the big hospital bed. Tubes and wires ran everywhere. It looked like the majority of the damage was on her left side, only a few cuts and scrapes on her right side, and an admittedly spectacular bruise on her right forearm. A nasty-looking burn covered her left ear, and her left eye was hidden beneath white gauze. A blanket was pulled up neatly under her arms, one of which was encased in a plaster cast. Her compact body, still in excellent shape for her age, showed clearly under the blanket.

The empty space where her left leg abruptly ended just above her knee was starkly obvious.

"Mommy?" The quiet word was more a whimper than a whisper, as the full reality of the situation collapsed on Ally. She blindly dropped Evelynne's hand and crept closer to the bed. There was no response from the woman in the bed, and Ally hesitantly took her right hand, which was almost obscenely pristine and undamaged.

"Hey, Mom," Ally said softly, stroking the hand in her grasp. "I'm back." She cleared her throat roughly. "I'd really like to talk to you."

There was no response, and Ally inhaled shakily. One of the positive things—possibly the only positive thing—about actually seeing her mother was that it had focussed Ally's mind perfectly. Taking another, more steady breath, she closed her eyes, easily slipping into the first stage of trance. The outside world seemed to fade, becoming distant, muffled, the only real component the hand in hers. Another breath and Ally focussed on that hand, sinking deeper, allowing her mind to flow down and through that connection.

For years Ally had possessed the talent to detect the energies of other living things in her vicinity when she focussed correctly. She had even learned enough to distinguish between the different types of life she "saw" in her mind. Plants had a very different "colour" than animals. Gradations between types of animals were more subtle. Insects were fairly easy to recognise, but even differences between the life forces of, for example, fish and mammals were so small as to be almost indistinguishable. Ally had never really decided exactly what it was she was sensing, but thought that the minute electrical fields surrounding every living thing were a viable possibility. It had been scientifically proven that even plants had an "aura" of sorts, so it seemed a reasonable hypothesis.

Now, Ally focussed on this one body before her, slowly seeing its energy take form in her mind. Nothing really specific could be "seen," only its general state. It was surprisingly healthy; people often forgot just how extensive the human body is, such that even apparently severe damage usually leaves a very large amount of healthy tissue. There was certainly damage here, ugly black streaks throughout the aura, although colour didn't really exist in this realm. There was a very faint intrusion that Ally instinctively guessed was an infection of some sort, but it was a weak thing, being beaten back by the body's defences, likely with the aid of antibiotics. The most jarring thing was a barely-sensed, ghostly region, as though the body's aura hadn't yet realised that part of it was missing.

All in all, it was a reassuring vision. Even with the severe damage, this body was fighting back, valiantly rallying its resources to heal itself.

Ally let the trance slip away, pulling back to the world of the five conventional senses. She didn't know how long she had been under—time worked very differently in that realm—and looked down at Evelynne, seeing her partner looking back up at her with concern.

"How long was I out?"

"Oh. Not long. About ten minutes." Evelynne frowned, squeezing her hand. "How is she?"

The easy way with which Evelynne accepted her unique talents bemused Ally for a moment. She had once thought she would never find someone who could so easily accept the things that made her unique on the planet—as far as she knew—but Evelynne had, after an initial episode of natural uncertainty, taken the things she did in stride.

"Good," Ally replied, looking up at her father to include him. He was probably feeling a little isolated, having absolutely no extra-perceptual talents at all, which made him a minority in a family that contained an empath and a full Adept. "I hate to say it looks worse than it is, but…" She sighed, some of the tension leaving her body. "She's healing," she said finally.

"That's what the doctor said," William said, smiling tentatively. "At first they were worried about her lung, and obviously, the shock of…" He trailed off, unable to bring himself to mention his wife's missing limb. "They both seem to have stabilised. It's too soon to know if the lung damage is permanent. But there's no detectable brain damage, which is a relief. They're still concerned about her eye."


The barely heard noise brought their attention immediately to the bed. Catherine's good eye was looking at them blearily. "P'ch," she muttered again, barely moving her jaw. "P'g."

"Hey, honey, how are you doing?" William asked quietly, leaning over to kiss his wife on her forehead.

"Mm." The woman obviously wanted to speak, but the combination of exhaustion, drugs, and pain defeated her attempts. Her eye shifted to Evelynne, and she blinked twice, slowly and deliberately.

Evelynne leaned closer, and there were several moments of silence. Suddenly, Evelynne laughed, surprising her companions. She shook her head, still chuckling. "She says that if her eye doesn't work, she'll just have to get a patch, a peg-leg, and a parrot. She'll be Cap'n Cat, Scourge of the Atlantic."

Catherine's husband and daughter joined in the laughter, which was more than a little hysterical with relief. Even Catherine's eye held a fuzzy twinkle.

"And I suppose I'll just have to be Will the Merciless, your gallant and dashing first mate," William joked.

There was another moment of silence, and then Evelynne winced. "Ew, ew, ew. No, there is no way I'm going to tell him that. Isis, Mom. That's between you and Dad and the four walls of your bedroom. Thanks so much for the visual, by the way." She turned and buried her face in Ally's shoulder. "I'm going to have to scrub out my brain."

Ally looked just as comical, for once cursing her vivid imagination. "She didn't."

"She did." Evelynne's face peeked out. "Your mother is one sick, twisted individual."

Ally shrugged. "Oh, I've known that for years."

Evelynne looked back at Catherine again, and another exchange took place, then the sick, twisted individual in question closed her eyes. "Okay, I'll tell them," Evelynne said softly. She turned back. "She can't stay awake any longer, but she wanted you to know that she loves both of you, and she'll see you again soon. And Ally, she says you're too thin and wants you to fatten yourself up."

Ally sighed. "Yeah, she's going to be fine."


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