“Claire, you're back!”
A startled Claire instinctively braced herself to accept the puppy-enthusiastic greeting—a very physical greeting—launched at her by a grinning blonde woman as she walked through the doors of the Fifth Age. Jean pulled back slightly from the friendly embrace.
“Still as hot as ever, I see.” Claire blushed black and red before her eyes opened wide as Jean placed a firm kiss on her lips. “C'mon, everyone's waiting.” The energetic woman tugged her along by the hand to where a group of people were watching indulgently. “You know everyone.”
“Ah, yeah. Hi all.” Claire waved a little bemusedly at the group.
“Claire, it's so good to see you again,” a slightly older woman greeted, coming forward for a hug. Narmin was the owner and manager of the bar and restaurant, and had instantly volunteered to host the little reunion on the day the establishment was closed. “How have you been?” She sobered. “How are Ally and Sophia?”
It was a little disconcerting to hear her friends referred to by their aliases after several months of knowing their true identities. “They're... better. Ally managed to get some help, so she's much improved. And you know that whither goest Ally...”
“... so goest Sophia.” Narmin laughed. “I know. I'm sorry they didn't come back for a visit.” Even as she said it there was the barest hint of uncertainty in her voice. The Fifth Age had been the site both of Ally's original encounter with an experimental date rape drug, and her showdown with the woman who had been discovered to have administered the drug. Focussed by rage and pain, and heedless of spectators, Ally had literally thrown the woman across the room before telekinetically pinning her to wall. It was clear that Narmin suspected something out of the realm of the ordinary had happened, but it was likely she had tried to rationalise it in her mind.
“They wanted to,” Claire assured her. “They did send a message, though.” she held up the DVD case in her hand.
Jean brightened. “Is it porn?” she asked eagerly. Claire blushed and shook her head half in resignation, and the blonde woman subsided. “Damn. I'd pay to see that.”
“Well, we'll be sure to put that on the screen later,” Narmin said. “Anyway, you've met everyone else.”
The next while was spent catching up with the staff of the Fifth Age, along with a few friends who had known both “Allison” and “Sophia.” They really hadn't changed in the intervening months. Reggie, the head chef, was still as large and garrulous as ever, though his assistant, Henry, appeared to have gained some confidence. The way he shyly doted on Theresa made her grin. Marc, Narmin's husband, was as quiet and reserved as ever, but he still smiled freely. Hal, Erin, Alice, and Ken were still servers, while Kelly had moved on to a job with a local advertising firm, but had returned for the party as one of the “alumni.” She was the target of much ribbing for a particular ad that was running in Horton City that apparently featured elderly men in their underwear. Rounding out the group were Sammy and his boyfriend Josh, who had not worked at the restaurant, but were regulars and had come to know Ally and Sophia very well.
“So what can I get you?” Jean asked, waving towards the bar.
“What are you having?” Claire asked back, peering at the glass of carbonated liquid sitting in front of Jean's chair.
“Oh, uh... Coke,” Jean replied, and Claire looked at her with surprise until she shrugged. “After that thing with Ally, I was, you know, kind of shook up. Started thinking and I realised I might have a problem.” Claire nodded. The few times Claire had actually hung out with the other woman Jean had always been well on the way to getting drunk. “So I started going to some meetings, and...” She shrugged again.
“You're still working here, though?”
“Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Temptation, right? Thing is, I'd be tempted anywhere. At least here I got people watching out for me, you know? And if I can spend a day not-drinking here, I can not-drink anywhere. Narmin lets me just work the restaurant bar, so I'm not behind the bar any more.”
“Okay. You know, Ally doesn't drink anymore, either.”
“Really? Well, with what happened to her you can't blame her. So anyway, what would you like? And before you get all noble,” Jean said, holding up a hand, “you don't have to do some solidarity shit with me, alright? That's your choice.”
“Okay. I'll have a gin and tonic.”
Claire spent the next couple of hours talking to the partiers, or more accurately, mostly listening to their conversations. She was amazed at just how strange it was to hear conversation that was so normal. There was no talk of amazing powers—beyond a rather bizarre argument on the merits of Aquaman versus the Silver Surfer—or conspiracies—beyond a heated discussion on The X-Files—or anything else of world-shaking import. These were just ordinary people talking about their ordinary lives, and Claire had a long moment of disorientation to realise just how different her life had become.
“What are you thinking about?” Erin asked, leaning over the arm of her chair.
“Oh, just... stuff. Ally and... Sophia, partly.”
“Oh yeah, you have a video or something from them, don't you.” She called over to Narmin. “Hey, Narm! What do you think? Movie time?”
A chorus of agreement drowned out Narmin's initial response. “Well, it seems I'm outvoted,” she said when she could be heard again. “Claire, you have that disk?”
There was a sight delay as Narmin tried to set up the DVD player connected to the big TV on the wall. The bar manager was one of those unfortunate individuals who could wipe out a hard drive just by looking at it, and the work this time was tripled by the crowd of self-proclaimed techno-savvy people that crowded around her. Finally, after several false starts, the video was set up, and Narmin glared at everyone before pressing “Play” on the remote. Claire sat back nervously. She knew what was on the DVD, having been there for the original taping, and wondered what the reaction would be.
There was a general raising of brows as the video started, and the Atlantlan Royal coat-of-arms appeared beside Ally's blazon on the screen. They faded to show Ally and Evelynne sitting on a couch with that universal look of slight discomfort that everyone displays while sitting and waiting for a camera. Ally was wearing a simple light blue tunic and dark blue pants, while Evelynne was in an elegant beige skirt and white blouse.
“Okay, I think it's on,” came from somewhere off-camera. “Although... Wait... Is it...”
“It's on, Dad,” Ally said. “I can see the light.”
“Are you sure? Wait a second, I think I have to do this.”
“No, Dad, don't. It's working fine. Dad, don't! I said it's--”
The screen went blank for a moment, and Claire buried her face in her hand. It lit again to show Evelynne sitting alone on the couch, obviously trying to contain her laughter.
“--anything else and I'll kill you.” Ally's voice sounded tinny coming from off-screen. “Claire, if he touches that camera again I want you to bite his leg off.”
“I'd rather not.” Claire heard her own voice coming from the speakers. “I'll just borrow Dicky's sword.”
“Whatever.” Ally reappeared, and flopped down next to her fiancée. “Anyway, are we good now?”
“Go,” video-Claire confirmed.
“Finally. Hi everyone,” Ally said, waving slightly sheepishly into the camera.
“Hi Narmin, hi Jean,” Evelynne echoed. “And Reg, and Theresa, and Erin, and Hal, and Henry, and Kelly, and Alice, and Ken, and Sammy, and Josh.” She sucked in a breath. “Did I get everyone?” she asked her partner, who nodded. “In any case, I really hope you're all doing well. I'd love to hear from all of you one of these days.”
Evelynne took another deep breath. “So you're probably wondering where we are and what we're doing. Well, it's a little complicated, really. We went home. Actually, it's originally my home, although now it's Ally's home too.” Once again Ally nodded, squeezing her partner's hand. “So, we're back in Atlantl. That's pretty simple. Where it gets complicated is that you'll probably be hearing about it on the news, assuming you haven't already. You see, this was us before we came to Horton City.” The shot cut away to a now-famous video clip of Princess Evelynne deMolay announcing her engagement to Dame Alleandre Tretiak before the assembled Noble Conclave. “My real name is Evelynne Sophia al-Heru deMolay, and I'm engaged to Alleandre Tiffany Tretiak. From Parksville.” The shot cut back to the two women on the couch.
“So that's the big secret,” Evelynne said nervously, and Claire could hear jaws hitting the floor and eyes splashing into forgotten drinks. “I'm really sorry we had to lie to all of you, but we really couldn't go about telling the truth, could we? The truth is that the very fact that you didn't suspect anything and treated us so ordinarily is probably what kept us safe for all those months. And I really was friends with you, and that's another truth.”
“So was I,” Ally interjected. “Well, not with Jean, but I really liked the rest of you.” She was smirking as she spoke, and Jean recovered enough to blow a raspberry at the screen.
“So now you know,” Evelynne continued after elbowing her fiancée in the ribs. “You're probably wondering why we're telling you this now. Well, the fact is that Claire's going to be rejoining us, probably in a few weeks, and sooner or later—probably sooner—someone's going to trace her back to Horton City. The town's going to be crawling with reporters in a while.” She winced. “Sorry. Anyway, once they're there you can bet they're going to hear something about the 'Lady Alleandre' and 'Princess Evelynne' lookalikes that used to live there. And all of you are smart enough to put the pieces together, so you would figure it out then anyway.”
“Again, except for Jean,” Ally said. She tapped the side of her head. “You know she's a little...”
She winced but kept grinning as Evelynne backhanded her in the arm. “Ally, what the blazes is your problem with Jean, anyway?”
Ally grinned in triumph. “Ladies and gentlemen, I present 'what the blazes.' You taught her that. You should be proud.”
Evelynne sighed long-sufferingly. “Why I didn't leave you there I'll never know.” She addressed the camera once more. “So we're asking you not to say anything to the press. Obviously we can't force you not to, but it would cause no end of problems if this became public knowledge.”
“Don't let her fool you,” Ally interjected again. “Evy was all for having you all terminated with extreme prejudice, but I managed to convince her not to. Oh, uh, Jean, on a totally unrelated topic, if you could be standing at the corner of Sixth and Thurman at 2:38 PM on Friday and face south we'd really appreciate it. It would just make things a lot simpler. Pay no attention to any construction workers on any rooftops.”
For that she got a backhand to the stomach. “What is with you today? Ignore her,” Evelynne instructed the raptly watching audience. “We know that reporters could be offering you a lot of money for information. What we're willing to do is double any offer you get from them not to say anything. Claire has all the information on contacting us to let us know.” She sighed, looking troubled. “I know, it sounds like bribery, or blackmail, but I also know that with the amounts of money the press is willing to spend on us, anyone would be tempted. But it doesn't make me... us feel any more slimy for having to make this offer. We simply can't afford to take the chance right now.”
“Yeah,” Ally said, serious now. “Believe me, the money they'll be tossing around won't be peanuts. You should have seen how much my ex-girlfriend was offered when I first met Evy. And that was nothing compared to how much was on the table after Evy and I got engaged.”
“She took it eventually, didn't she, though?” Evelynne asked.
“Yeah.” Ally smirked again. “Took fifteen grand for a one-hour interview and spent the time describing, in intimate detail, my recipe for macaroni and cheese.” There was a laugh from the still-shellshocked viewers. “Let that be a lesson, boys and girls. Get the money up front.”
“Good point,” Evelynne said. “So now you know. It's a lot to take in, I know. Like I said, Claire has the details on how to get in contact with us. I can't promise how direct the communication would be, but we'd still love to hear from all of you. Even... Especially as friends.” She glared at her partner.
Ally sighed. “Okay, okay, even Jean. Anyway, no matter what, you're all invited to the wedding.”
“That's true. So we'll go now. I really hope things haven't been totally wrecked between all of us.” Ally nudged Evelynne and nodded towards the camera. “What?” Another nudge. “Oh, alright.” Evelynne rolled her eyes. “Ally and Claire made me promise.” She held out a hand, thumb and pinky extended. “Dude.”
“There, now was that so--”
The screen went blank.
Then more writing appeared in large bold lettering.
THIS DISK WILL SELF-DESTRUCT IN FIVE SECONDS.
“Shit!” Narmin blurted, diving for her DVD player. She hadn't got there when a new message appeared.
“Son of a bitch,” she breathed, screeching to a stop.
There were the clichéd few seconds of silence when it became clear that no new messages would be appearing.
“Holy shit,” Reggie said out loud, and then looked startled that he'd said it.
“Yeah,” Josh agreed fervently. He whirled to face Claire. “They serious?”
Claire shrugged uncomfortably. “They are. I found out the night Ally... Well, you know. I was in Atlantl just before I came here. Met the King and Queen and everything.”
“This isn't some kind of warped Candid Camera thing, is it?” Hal demanded. “'Cause if it is, someone's pissing themselves laughing right now.”
“Nope. Ally wanted me to tape your reactions, but Evy and I talked her out of it.”
“Evy. You mean Sophia. You mean Evelynne? As in Princess Evelynne?”
Claire shrugged again. “That's the one.”
“Son of a bitch,” Narmin said again. A look of horror crossed her face. “I complimented the next Queen of Atlantis on her hickey technique!”
“I know,” Claire said calmly. She really was having much more fun than she thought she would. “She told me.”
“I had Princess Evelynne of Atlantis working as a waitress in my restaurant! She cleaned up vomit! She helped me with my bookkeeping!” The bar owner was sounding more and more hysterical, a drastic change from the normally in-control woman. “Ha! 'Family working for the government' indeed!”
Sammy's soft voice cut through her rising hysteria. “And here I thought I was the biggest queen in the place.”
There was a brief, loaded pause, and then the entire gathering burst into gales of uncontrolled laughter. Josh actually fell out of his chair, and Narmin collapsed on the floor where she had been standing, shrieking. Hal and Erin were literally clutching each other to remain upright, and Kelly was folded completely in half, holding her stomach. The hilarity died for a moment, until everyone looked at everyone else, and then they started up again.
“Oh God,” Erin gasped, “I told Princess Evelynne that I wanted to sleep with her fiancée!”
“Oh?” Alice asked, still giggling. “When was this?”
“You were off that night,” Jean told her. “That was the night Ally practically did a strip-tease to Ride the Wildwind.” She halted, her eyes widening. “Holy shit! Dame Alleandre practically did a strip-tease in this bar!”
“It wasn't really a strip-tease,” Kelly said. “She just took off her jacket. Actually, she borrowed yours, didn't she, Josh? But still... I think we would have had to call in the paramedics from eight counties if she'd taken off anything more.”
“Damn, yes,” Josh agreed vehemently. “I mean, shit, I wanted her and I'm gay!”
“Trust me, I don't think there was a person in here who wasn't walking funny for the rest of the evening,” Jean said, nodding. “You remember her birthday party? That was tame compared to this.” Suddenly an expression of abject terror crossed her face. “Oh, God, her birthday! I gave the Princess of Atlantis and her Consort sex toys!” she wailed, hiding her face in her hands.
Everyone winced, but Claire just grinned. “Don't worry,” she said with utter calm. “They quite appreciated it, really.”
A look of horrified fascination passed over the whole room. “Really?” Jean asked in a small voice. She looked around at her companions and squirmed. “Damn, now nobody's going to be able to stand up tonight, either.”
That set of another round of laughter, and when it was over a more calm rationality descended.
“So what are we going to do?” Narmin asked finally. “If they really are who they say they are, and Claire is going back there, reporters are definitely going to be crawling around this town.”
“And they're right about the money, too,” Henry added softly. “Reporters pay thousands just for photos of useless celebrities, and here we're talking about actual important people.”
“Well, we could certainly get rich on that,” Reggie said. A number of people glared at him, and he hurried to add, “I'm just saying we could. Not that we should.” He turned to Claire. “Were they serious about doubling any offers? I'm just asking!”
Claire nodded. “They'll do it. I know how you can contact them, and they'd get the money to you. How, I'm not quite sure, but they'd do it.”
“That's a lot of trust,” Marc said, frowning. “What's to stop us from calling and saying, 'Hey, I got an offer for fifty thousand. I'd like a hundred grand, please.'”
Claire shrugged. “Nothing. It's like you said: it's a matter of trust.”
Jean was silent, and staring into the distance with her head cocked.
“Jean, what are you thinking?” Narmin asked.
“I'm thinking...” Jean said slowly. “I'm thinking that I just an invitation to the most awesome wedding in a million years. And the party afterwards. How insane would I have to be to throw that away? Besides, I've never met the Princess of Atlantis in my life. Oh, there was that chick that used to work here who looked like her—quite a lot, actually—but she was from... Nevada, wasn't she?” She looked around with a raised eyebrow.
“No,” Kelly said, equally slowly, “I'm pretty sure it was a New Mexico accent. Although she could sure put on a real authentic Atlantean accent if she wanted to.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Alice agreed nodding. “Her and her girlfriend. They used to dress up and go through the whole 'I am a lesbian' speech like before that Noble thing. It would crack me up. I remember them saying they might actually make a show of it.”
“She wasn't a natural redhead anyway,” Theresa added. She looked around at the incredulous stares. “What? I could see her roots, that's all. It's not like we made out in the bathroom.” She instantly looked guilty as everyone else looked uncomfortable. That was a little too close to what had actually happened to Ally.
“I remember them,” Narmin said thoughtfully, taking up the thread of the story. “Sophia. Good worker, but quite a mouth on her. She and Ally went back to... New Mexico when Ally was attacked. To Ally's parents, as she told me when she handed in her letter of resignation which I shall have to, ah, dig out of my files.”
“You know,” Reggie said mildly, but with an evil smile, “I'm sure any reporter would be fascinated to hear anything we had to say about Allison and Sophia. After all, if they're going to pay me for talking about two women who certainly have no relation to Atlantis at all, who am I to refuse?”
“So how did it go?”
Claire smiled and relaxed, wanting to literally curl up into the voice in her ear, even if it was distant and slightly distorted by static. “Amazing, actually,” she said into the phone. “You can tell Ally that her goofing around worked wonders.”
Evelynne, a few thousand kilometres away, laughed. “Really? That's actually why I let her keep going. I figured everyone would be more receptive if they could remember us as just their friends. Ally had no idea, of course. She isn't that devious.”
“Oh, I know.” Claire knew that Ally was only truly capable of deliberately concealing the truth about her abilities, and little else. Even then she was, in some strange way, quite straightforward about her deception. The thought of using emotional manipulation was alien to her. In contrast, Evelynne was much more at home in adjusting the emotions of those with whom she interacted; that was a core of diplomacy, after all.
“So what's going to be happening? Or have they all decided yet?”
Claire laughed. “Well, they have some quite detailed stories in development about you for when the reporters arrive. You're from New Mexico, by the way. Oh, and I'm sorry to inform you that you slept with Jean.”
“Oh yes. You were quite the slut, apparently.”
“Really.” Claire could hear Evelynne trying to wrap her mind around this. “So what did Ally know about all this?”
“Oh, she was quite okay with it, really. You two had an open relationship. Kelly's quite sure you both took a few women home for a threesome, anyway.” Claire grinned at the memory of just how creative the group had become.
“Isis,” Evelynne breathed. There was a pause. “Do you want me to have a camera ready when I tell all this to Ally?”
“God, yes!” Claire laughed again. She sobered a little. “I'm missing you guys.”
There was an audible smile in the response. “We're missing you, too, qor. Still, you'll be here soon enough. I haven't been able to keep hands-on control over your application process, but you should be hearing from someone in the next two weeks or so.”
“That'll be good. How are you two doing, anyway?”
A sigh. “Alright, I suppose. Busy. I'm getting back into the swing of picking up za's overflow, and Ally's been spending hours working with Chorus and Taldas on the investigation. Although her mother was moved to Jamaz today. That's where she is right now. I wanted to go, but I think they could use some time alone.”
“That's good to hear. Well, I should go. The CIA bugging my phone might be wondering why I'm taking so long talking to an insurance agent.” Claire shook her head.
In an arrangement straight from a spy novel, the procedure for getting in touch with her friends was to call a toll-free number that was putatively assigned to an insurance company. Upon asking to speak with either Ms. Harolds or Ms. Fane, the receptionist would transfer her to the appropriate “extension.” Of course, the proper “extension” was actually located somewhere far distant, and after several minutes of painful hold music Ally or Evelynne would reply. Claire didn't know if “Clearwater Insurance” was an actual company, and only the receptionist was in on the arrangement with Atlantlan Intelligence, or whether it was just some tiny room somewhere.
“I suppose so. Wouldn't want to titillate them with stories of my indiscretions, now would we?” There was no chance of that. Claire had no idea of the technicalities involved, but she knew Evelynne was confident that the CIA wouldn't be able to hear a word of their conversations. “So I'll let you get back to whatever else you have to do.”
“I'm making supper. Corey should be home soon.”
“Alright. Tell him we said 'hi.' And take care of yourself, do you hear?”
“Yes, ma'am. Don't let Ally work too hard.”
“Oh, I don't know about that. We've got a lot to do if we're going to live up to our licentious reputation. Now we just have find someone to have the threesome with!”
Claire nearly swallowed her tongue.
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