Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major
For full disclaimers see Chapter 1
"I come from a land in the sun-bright deep,
Where golden gardens glow,
Where the winds of the north, becalmed in sleep,
Their conch shells never blow."
Jennifer Armston shivered, for several reasons.
The first was simple cold, caused by a combination of driving wind and the knife-like slivers of freezing rain and spray cutting into her skin. The wind-blown ocean spray was completely undeterred by her light shirt and pants - now thoroughly soaked - and her life jacket, while providing adequate protection from drowning, did nothing to separate her from the cold. Actually, given the condition of the sea around her tiny life raft, even the amount of protection offered by the life jacket was significantly degraded, with two metre waves threatening to capsize the raft at any moment. Although, given the events of the last hour, Jennifer's estimate of the danger she was in was thoroughly confused.
The second reason she was shivering was in reaction to at least two kinds of shock. The first was most certainly bad, and Jennifer felt - in the eerie calmness of her traumatised mind - that she was justified in her reaction. After all, it wasn't every day that her airplane, en route from Kilim to Ekion Bel, proceeded to crash into the Mulbaya Channel... and certainly not every day that she survived to tell about it.
Somehow, though, she felt that her survival might be more assured than it might otherwise be. Something was looking out for her and the other occupants of the life raft, although neither she nor any of the others were sure about exactly what that something might be.
The proof of their guardian sat huddled within the near-crushing circle of Jennifer's arms, and was the source of her more happy shock. As if sensing her thoughts, that source squirmed slightly and looked up into his mother's face, only just barely visible in the near-total darkness. "Mama, you're squishing me," he complained.
"I know, dear," Jennifer said, but she didn't let up her grip in the slightest. The life raft was still rocking alarmingly with the swells, and there was no way she was going to lose her son to the turbulent ocean again. She had miraculously recovered him once before, and she didn't want to tempt fate - or her son's unknown protector - by lowering her guard.
When the plane had first gone down, Jennifer had been sure that she, along with everyone else on board, was about to die, if not in the impact itself, then drowned in the ocean. In the first of what was about to be several miracles, both Jennifer and her son, Lemar, had survived. The businessman seated across the aisle from them had been less lucky, his neck snapping instantly when the aircraft hit the surface of the sea. The flight crew of the small plane had been exceptionally professional, successfully evacuating most of the passengers from the rapidly sinking craft to the emergency life rafts. Disaster had struck - again - just as Jennifer was scrambling onto the tiny rubber boat, as a sudden breaking wave nearly capsized it... and tore Lemar from her arms, despite her best efforts.
She vaguely remembered screaming, and trying to dive back into the frigid water, and being held back by those passengers and crew who had already boarded the raft. After a time, she had come back to herself, shivering with cold and grief, certain that her son had been lost forever. The raft had already been blown away from the wreckage of the downed aircraft, leaving its huddled inhabitants - eight passengers and a flight attendant - alone in the dark ocean.
Then the second miracle had occurred.
Before anyone realised it was happening, Lemar had somehow appeared by the side of the boat... not quite fully submerged in the water, but more as if he was being held up by something outside the boat. A stunned stewardess had reacted instinctively to reach out and grab the silent, shivering boy. Realising that her son was alive, Jennifer had scrambled to reach him, and a fortuitous flash of lightning had revealed to her a dark figure apparently moving away from the raft. She was still uncertain of what she had seen, if it had in fact been anything at all, and not a trick of the light and waves, but catching the stewardess' eye had left both of them oddly certain that something had been out there.
The miracle had been repeated twice since then, once with an elderly gentleman, who was now praying quietly but fervently in Arabic, and a second time with the co-pilot of the plane. The co-pilot was currently unconscious, likely due to the blow to the head he had received, the wound from which was still bleeding sluggishly. Both times the rescuees had suddenly appeared beside the boat - which was becoming somewhat overcrowded - somehow being supported by some outside force which kept them from the worst of the storm's effects.
The rain was lessening, although thunder and lightning continued to light the darkness intermittently, and Jennifer was on the verge of drowsing off, despite her discomfort, when a shout by one of the raft's other occupants startled her back to alertness. In what was becoming a near-routine action, two of the stronger men - both apparently military officers on leave - hurried to help the latest person rescued from the sea onto the raft. This time it was a middle-aged woman, who appeared stunned and groggy. Jennifer could sympathise.
One of the soldiers, who seemed to have some medical training, quickly checked their newest companion's pulse and breathing. "She'll be okay!" he shouted over the roar of the waves and wind. "Shock and hypothermia, but she should be fine." He didn't need to add that the continued survival of all of them rested on being rescued... soon.
Jennifer just nodded, unable to muster the energy for more of a response. The rest of the passengers were similarly exhausted.
Suddenly, the young woman was aware of a presence next to her where she sat huddled at the side of the boat. She looked over the edge, seeing a dark man-sized shape that appeared to be holding onto the raft's rubber rail mere centimetres away. Before Jennifer could cry out and alert the others, a low voice came to her ears over the whistling wind.
"Don't say anything," the figure said in English. There was a pause. "And hang on."
Jennifer instinctively responded to the order by tightening her grip on Lemar, ignoring his small cry of protest. Then, even over the constant irregular movement of the raft over the sea, she felt the small craft begin to accelerate, this time in one particular direction, although she couldn't see what made this vector any different from the others, except that it was at near right angles to the wind. None of the other passengers appeared to notice the movement, not surprising given its magnitude, compared to the violent swells of the waves, and Jennifer restrained herself from making it known, still unsure if what she was experiencing was real.
Unable to stop herself, she turned her head to look at the dark figure, attempting to piece together details in the gloom. It was definitely man-sized and shaped, although the majority of its form was obscured by a bulky black garment that looked almost like huge leathery bat wings. Still, looking closer, Jennifer was able, in the intermittent flashes of lightning, to make out legs trailing behind the figure as it appeared to stretch out on the water, and hands gripping the plastic rails along the side of the raft near to her position.
Hesitantly, Jennifer reached out with one hand and touched the pale hand nearest to her. She felt the hand give an involuntary jerk at the contact, which only made her reflexively grasp it more firmly. The hand felt incredibly ordinary, if noticeably cold and clammy, unsurprising since its owner had obviously been in the rain and spray for some time. It was most certainly not the immaculate appendage of an angelic being that Jennifer had been more than half expecting to encounter. In fact, the hand appeared startlingly white against the surrounding darkness, which also made the trickle of blood running down its back more readily apparent. The hand was unpleasantly cold and wet, but also unmistakably human.
Jennifer said nothing, just kept one hand in contact with the stranger's, and the other wrapped around her son, and was gratified that their shared body heat seemed to be warming the skin under hers. She resolutely refused to consider what she guessed might be happening.
Finally, after what seemed like hours in the cold and dark, but couldn't have been more than ten minutes, one of the military men shouted and pointed ahead of the raft. At first the rest of the passengers saw nothing, but then the boat cleared a swell and the lights of some larger vessel could be seen no more than a hundred metres away. The soldier scrabbled to load a flare from the boat's emergency box, and after a moment fired it into the air.
In the glare of the flare, Jennifer was able to see the figure she assumed was their rescuer for the first time.
It was swathed in what appeared to be a hooded cloak of some sort. In the flare's brief light, Jennifer could see under the hood, to the shockingly pale face beneath, and she sucked in a gasp as its appearance registered. At first it looked nearly spectral, but then she realised that what looked like empty eye sockets were in fact simply grey eyes, surprisingly behind silver-framed glasses, and surrounded by skin so dark and bruised that it appeared black. The nearly demonic visage was accentuated by three distinctive streams of dark red blood; one running from each nostril, and a third from the corner of the figure's right eye. Then the stranger looked directly into Jennifer's eyes, and the young mother was shocked at the incredible pain and weariness etched there. It was an image that remained with her for years, as the flare's light slowly faded and the face was thrown into shadow again.
The rest of the raft's occupants were completely focussed on the distant ship, and so missed what Jennifer had seen.
With the flare launched, Jennifer felt the figure release the boat, but she refused to likewise release the stranger's hand. Instead, she held on for a moment, forcing the dark form to hesitate. Somehow she knew that once she let go, she would never see her saviour again.
"Are you... alright?" she asked over the sound of the wind and surf, struck by the surrealism of the situation.
In some way she sensed the figure smile tiredly. "I... will be," it replied.
"Is there... someone who can help you?"
This time Jennifer got the feeling that the smile was more genuine. "There is."
"Good." After a last silent exchange, she released the hand.
A moment later, the being was gone, as if it had never been there. Jennifer wondered if it ever had been.
Then she turned back to the approaching vessel, which she vaguely recognised as an Atlantlan Navy Patrol boat, and prepared to board it to safety.
Evelynne winced as another crash of thunder shook the Summer Palace. "Isis, that sounded close," she murmured to Maïda, who was sitting and reading in a chair opposite.
"Indeed," the older woman agreed. "Thankfully, I believe the worst of the rain has stopped."
"I think you're right," the princess said. "Still, I wish Ally wasn't flying home in this."
While the mid-spring storm had not caught the region by surprise, its severity had. Such torrential downpours occurred quite often at that time of year, although Maïda claimed that it had been decades since the last storm of such magnitude.
"Oh, I'm sure Alleandre will be fine," the lady-in-waiting assured her charge. She didn't even blink at Evelynne's use of the word "home". In the four weeks since Ally had left to assume her work, the princess' lover had managed to return every weekend, and Maïda was slowly becoming used to the young knight's role in Evelynne's life. She remained concerned over the possible repercussions of the blooming relationship, but had to admit that the princess had never appeared happier... a state that extended to Ally as well.
In an unofficial alliance with Seneschal Nancu Ylan, the lady-in-waiting had successfully managed to conceal Evelynne's and Ally's true relationship from both the public and the majority of the Palace staff. She did not believe that they had fooled everyone, since at least three of the servants had displayed a remarkable creativity in inventing excuses to distract others when the two lovers were... indisposed in various parts of the Palace. Nobody had said anything, but the knowing smiles and veiled remarks spoke volumes to those who knew to look. In turn, Maïda and Ylan had discreetly rewarded those involved for their discretion.
"I'm sure you're right," Evelynne said, though a hint of strain in her voice showed her slight insecurity. She set aside the book on Atlantlan High Justice she had been reading and stretched, looking at a nearby clock as she did so. She frowned. "Shouldn't Uncle Arthur have called by now? Her flight was supposed to land at five, and it's almost six thirty now. Even in this weather it shouldn't take them that long to get back."
The princess bodyguard had offered that evening to go and fetch Ally from the airport in Kilim. Evelynne had desperately wanted to go herself, but had acknowledged that showing too much enthusiasm to meet her "friend" would certainly spark the curiosity of the press. And while the Atlantlan media was far less intrusive than their American or European counterparts, there were certainly limits to their discretion.
As if on cue, the ornate telephone on the end table by the princess' chair rang. Evelynne instantly snatched it up. "Yes?"
"Sir Arthur is on the line, Your Highness," the Seneschal's voice proclaimed.
"Oh good. Put him through, please," Evelynne requested, relief plain in her voice.
There was a click, then Sir Arthur's voice came through. "Your Highness," he said.
The strain in his voice instantly brought Evelynne's anxiety back. "Oh Isis, what's wrong?" she asked sharply, dread lacing her tone. Maïda looked up quickly at the sound, a concerned frown on her face.
"There has been an accident," the bodyguard said without preamble. "A plane crashed this evening. Not," he added quickly, "Dame Alleandre's aircraft. We heard about it just as she was arriving. We were on our way back to the car when Major Nixon picked it up on her radio. I immediately called the local control tower to offer my assistance. When I was finished... Dame Alleandre was gone."
"Gone? What do you mean, gone?" the princess barked.
"When I returned to the car, she was not present, You Highness," Sir Arthur explained. "Neither I nor Major Nixon saw where she went. I -" He broke off. "One moment, please, Your Highness." Evelynne waited impatiently as muffled voices came over the line. She was aware that Maïda had risen and was now standing behind her, warm fingers massaging her shoulders. "Apologies, Your Highness, but I just received some new information. It seems that a Navy vessel picked up two of the aircraft's life rafts a few minutes ago. Twenty one of the plane's thirty passengers and crew were on board."
"Thank Isis," Evelynne breathed, instantly guilty over forgetting the occupants of the downed aircraft in favour of more personal concerns. "Are they alright?"
"Most of them, yes. Most are suffering from hypothermia and shock, of course. Three have been listed as 'serious', and one is 'critical'." There was a pause on the line. "The boats were recovered nearly four kilometres from the crash site... in a direction not consistent with the prevailing winds. They were directly in the path of the nearest rescue ship. In addition, several of those rescued were thrown into the ocean following the crash... and report being helped back to the rafts by 'something'. One man claims it was 'one of Allah's messengers', while another insists it was a 'mermaid' or 'selkie'." He paused to let the information sink in.
Evelynne immediately reached the same conclusions. "Isis," she gasped, "Ally."
"It is... a possibility," Sir Arthur said cautiously. "However, she was not among the individuals picked up by the Naval vessel. It is possible that she will return to the car once she has done... whatever it is she is doing."
"Alright. Wait there for her. Also, help the rescue effort with whatever they need. Call in whomever you have to. And call me as soon as Ally -" Evelynne broke off suddenly, a distant look on her face. Without realising it, her gaze turned upwards, towards the upper floors of the Palace. "She's here," she breathed.
"I beg your pardon, Your Highness?"
Shaking her head, Evelynne spoke to her bodyguard again, though her tone remained distracted. "She's here," she repeated. It appeared as though she was looking at something nobody else could see. "I need to go."
Without waiting for a reply, Evelynne hung up. Standing quickly, she brushed past Maïda like she wasn't even there and rushed out the door. The lady-in-waiting looked after her ward in surprise, then quickly hurried after. She exited the study just in time to see Evelynne run up the stairs to the upper floor, nearly bowling over a pair of startled servants before disappearing up the stairs.
Maïda followed as quickly as possible, cursing her ageing knees as the stairs punished them. At the top she caught up with the princess just outside the Royal bedrooms. Evelynne had halted, and appeared uncertain of which door to enter. "Highness," the older woman said, puffing and panting, "what is happening?"
"Ally's here," Evelynne replied, still distracted. "And she's... hurt."
Maïda's eyebrows rose. "How do you know?"
Evelynne shook her head. "I just do," she said. "And she's over... there." Choosing a door - the one to Ally's suite, although Evelynne had been using it just as much recently - seemingly at random, she quickly opened it and hurried through, Maïda on her heels. Taking a cursory glance around the sitting room, which was empty, her step didn't pause as she moved to the bedroom.
Once there, she immediately turned on the light and looked around, obviously disappointed not to find the object of her search there. The imperative that had been driving her disappeared, taking with it the sure knowledge of Ally's location. "She's not - " Evelynne began, but was interrupted by Maïda.
"What was that?" the lady-in-waiting asked, looking at the door to the balcony, where the rain had slowed, but not stopped completely. "I heard something."
Before she could even finish, her younger companion had hurried to the glass doors and thrown them open, and was now peering outside into the cold and wet. Suddenly, Evelynne's eyes widened, and she rushed out onto the balcony, heedless of the rain coming down, and dropped to her knees before a still figure sitting propped up against the railing.
Not completely still, however. Even in the dim light, Evelynne could see that Ally was shivering, although the movement was almost lost in the random spasms that seemed to be affecting all of her muscles. Ally's gaze was glassy and unfocussed, her eyes wide in her deathly white face, and she appeared unaware of her lover's presence. The remnants of bloodstains were smeared across her face from her nose and the corner of one eye.
"Ally," Evelynne whispered, slowly reaching out with her own shaking hand, as though afraid her lover would break if she moved too quickly.
She was immediately heartened at the way Ally's eyes focussed on her, though still alarmed at the slowness with which they did. "E-E-Evy," Ally managed to stutter. She smiled shakily, the muscles of her soaked and pale face twitching spasmodically. "H-H-H-Ho-Home." Then she closed her eyes, the strain of keeping them open obviously too much effort.
With a choked sob, Evelynne hurled herself at her lover, wrapping the other woman in a strong but tender embrace, and burying her face in Ally's chilled neck. "Home," she assured her lover, her tears mixing with the rain pouring down her face.
Ally managed a single shaky nod before going completely limp, sagging into Evelynne's cradling arms. Both reassured and alarmed by Ally's quick breathing, the princess looked up for aid from Maïda, only to see the older woman already dropping down to help. Seeing the naked fear in Evelynne's eyes, Maïda immediately took charge. "Let's get her inside," she ordered. Together they were able to lift Ally's limp, twitching body and manoeuvre it inside. Fortunately, the bed was nearby, and Ally was soon lying on top of the blankets, her wet clothing instantly soaking the spread.
"We need to get her out of this," Evelynne said. "Help me lift her." With Maïda's help she was able to lift Ally and strip her of the black rain jacket she wore. Sniffing, Evelynne could detect a slight odour of the sea clinging to the clothing. Shaking her head at having her suspicions confirmed, she murmured, "Love, when you wake up we're going to have a long talk about this." The thought that Ally might not come around was too frightening to contemplate. Refocusing on the matter immediately at hand, she turned to Maïda. "Maï-ma, go and get Doctor Rayssom. Quickly! And try not to alert the staff." I'm sorry, love, that I have to let yet another person in on your secret. Your private world has become very exposed recently, hasn't it? Still, maybe...
Realising that Maïda had already left to fetch the Palace's resident Royal doctor, who was always present in case of an emergency, Evelynne set about wrestling Ally's remaining wet clothes off her still shaking body. Suddenly realising that fresh blood had begun to leak from her lover's nose again, Evelynne cursed and used the wet shirt to stanch the bleeding, silently praying for the doctor to arrive soon.
This is what Annie was afraid of, she thought, feeling a sudden sympathy towards Ally's ex-girlfriend. I wonder how many times she had to deal with something like this. I only hope that I can.
Evelynne sighed, trying to focus once more on the book resting on her left leg. Giving up, she looked down and began to stroke the dark head pillowed on her right leg. She was heartened when Ally shifted slightly and tightened her hold briefly on Evelynne's leg before relaxing back into sleep again. Curled up against Aly's back, Cassie didn't even twitch at the movement. Evelynne sighed and leaned back against the headboard, closing her eyes and thinking back on the events of the last three days.
Dr Rayssom had arrived promptly upon Maïda's urgent summons. He had been surprised to find that it was not Evelynne who was injured, and even more so at both the identity and condition of his real patient, but had thankfully restrained himself from asking unnecessary questions until Ally's condition had been stabilised. It had been a difficult task, given the lack of information that Evelynne had been able to provide. He had finally diagnosed Ally's symptoms as being somewhere between a seizure and a mild stroke, but had confessed complete bafflement as to the cause.
Evelynne had successfully managed to deflect the doctor's questions about exactly how Ally had contracted her condition, professing ignorance over the exact mechanism... which was the truth, of a sort. Even Ally was uncertain over how her abilities functioned. However, the doctor had been able to convince Evelynne to allow Ally to be taken to the hospital for extensive testing. After the princess had bound him under a Decree of Royal Confidentiality, he had performed so many scans of Ally's brain that Evelynne was surprised it wasn't glowing.
Actually, in a sense it was. The CAT scans had shown that parts of Ally's brain - parts normally unused in ordinary people - were incredibly hyperactive... but erratically so. The damage appeared to be healing itself, amazingly quickly according to Dr Rayssom, but for a while he had speculated that the erratically firing neurons had been the cause of Ally's apparent seizure.
After assuring himself that there was nothing more he could do at the hospital, Dr Rayssom had reluctantly agreed to transfer Ally back to the Summer Palace. Since then he had been constantly monitoring her condition, and was cautiously optimistic when it appeared that she had slipped into a more normal healing sleep. She had been sleeping that way for the last thirty six hours straight.
Evelynne had spent much of that time nearby, if she wasn't actually in the bed with her lover. Ally seemed to respond to her presence, instinctively seeking out her lover whenever she was close... as she was now. Currently the princess was sitting with her legs stretched out in front of her, and Ally was sleeping next to her on her side, one arm wrapped around Evelynne's leg and her head resting on a silk-clad thigh. Evelynne smiled and looked back down at the woman sleeping beside her, reaching down to run her thumb across a smooth brow. After the unnatural pallor of that first night, she was pleased to see a return to Ally's normally healthy colouring. Ally twitched her nose at the touch, but didn't move otherwise.
Evelynne had personally called the Dr Malloy at the Atlan excavation to explain Ally's absence from her new job, and the Doctor had agreed that Ally should do everything possible to recover quickly from her "bout with the flu". He had sent his wishes for a speedy recovery, and all of the people Ally had been working closely with had called at some point to express their own well wishes.
And Ally was worried about people not liking her, Evelynne thought with a wry smile. She really has no idea how charismatic she can be, and how people respond to her honesty. She's so completely non-judgemental, and a lot of people really like that. She seems to collect all these protectors... and she doesn't even know she does it!
The thought of two of those protectors in particular brought another crooked smile to Evelynne's face. The morning after Ally had appeared, the princess had called the elder Tretiaks and explained the situation to them. They had both been all for catching the next available flight out, and Evelynne had immediately arranged for them to do so. They had arrived, exhausted and completely distraught, several hours later, in time for Dr Rayssom to present his prognosis for recovery.
After realising that their daughter would be alright, and a good night's sleep, Catherine Tretiak had had a long conversation with her daughter's new lover. Evelynne, averse to lying to someone so important to Ally - and uncertain of her ability to get away with obscuring the truth to an empath - had been completely honest. It had been uncomfortable, and embarrassing, especially when Catherine had asked point blank about the possibility of either of them contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Evelynne had confessed that Ally was her first lover, something that Mrs Tretiak had found surprising but gratifying. However, ultimately it had been a rewarding and liberating discussion, even with Catherine Tretiak's final warning:
"Now, I know this is a first for you, and you think these feelings are going to last forever... and I hope they do. But I also know that if, for whatever reason, you don't work out, Ally is going to be devastated. If there's one thing I know about my daughter, it's that she will always give her whole heart to someone she's in love with. Fortunately, her heart is infinite, so she will be able to give it again eventually... but no matter what, you'll always have it. That is what makes her so vulnerable. What I'm trying to say is that if you ever hurt my girl intentionally, or callously, or out of neglect... I will find you and confront you. It won't matter if you're Queen of the entire Atlantic Ocean. I will hold you accountable."
Evelynne unsurprised at the message, if a little shocked by the vehemence with which it was delivered, had immediately assured Mrs Tretiak that she would never do anything to intentionally hurt her lover. Catherine had appeared to take her at her word, and the remainder of the conversation had passed in a much more pleasant manner.
Still jetlagged, Ally's parents had gone to sleep early this evening, leaving Evelynne to spend some time alone with a still-unconscious Ally. Looking at the clock, the princess decided that she would get no more done tonight, and leaned over to set her book on the bedside table. Then she stretched, feeling stiff back muscles strain in protest, careful not to disturb the sleeping woman using her as a pillow. She would get up and retire to her own bedroom in a few minutes. She felt too self-conscious to spend the night in the same bed with her lover, knowing that said lover's parents were sleeping just down the hall... despite the fact that she knew that they knew exactly where she had been sleeping recently. In fact, if she had decided to, Evelynne was wryly certain that William Tretiak's only response would be to ask if she wanted pancakes for breakfast the next day, remembering the story Ally had told of the first night she and Annie had spent together at Ally's parents' house.
The catalyst for all of these events, the crash of the Atlantlan Air shuttle from Kilim to Jamaz, had dominated the news for the last few days. Twenty four out of the thirty one passengers and crew had survived, a miraculously high number, given the conditions of the crash. In fact, the "Miracle of Flight 663" was already being touted as one of the first great mysteries of the twenty first century among some of the public. Rumours of a strange being - variously described as an "dark angel", "alien", or ney'rad, a kind of sea nymph - had been floating around ever since the first of the survivors had been interviewed by emergency personnel. Since then, however, there had been a distinct lack of information coming from those who had supposedly had the most "direct contact" with the mysterious figure. It was as though, Evelynne speculated, those particular passengers and crew had collectively decided to avoid speculation on the matter.
Naturally, most of the media was reporting it as a kind of "mass hallucination" or a form of "traumatic stress". Knowing at least some of the facts of the matter, Evelynne couldn't help but speculate on how many other "mass illusions" reported in history had some basis in reality. It made her appreciate just how much her horizons had expanded since learning Ally's secret.
As it always did, thought of her lover made Evelynne look down at the tousled brown hair resting on her leg, and she couldn't hold back a smile. Sleeping like this, Ally hardly looked like the "Dark Angel" that had single-handedly saved seven people from drowning and helped rescue over a dozen more. Well, maybe an angel, Evelynne thought, but not a dark one. Almost of its own volition, her hand drifted down to lightly brush Ally's cheek. Isis, I love you.
As if she had heard, Ally shifted slightly and sighed. Then Evelynne heard Ally mumble, quietly but clearly, "Love you, too."
Startled and uncertain if she had actually heard anything, Evelynne paused in her stroking of Ally's cheek. The sleeping woman frowned slightly, as if in protest. "Ally? Are you awake?"
There was no response, and the princess had just about given up, putting the words she had heard down to either wishful thinking or a dream on the part of her lover – which pleased her – when another thought stole into her mind. While her and Ally's attempts to develop her psychogenic abilities had been largely unsuccessful, Ally had never given up hope. "Hell, I don't know how my talents work," she had said. "I have no idea if yours – assuming you have any – work the same way. For all we know, you could be the most powerful telepath or psychokinetic in the world, and you've just never 'thought' the right way yet."
Remembering how she had simply known that Ally was both nearby and hurt three nights previously, Evelynne hesitantly tried to "think" in Ally's direction, while at the same time attempting to recapture the mental frame she had been in at the time. *Um... Ally? Can you hear me?* Feeling more that slightly foolish, she was actually somewhat relieved when there was no reply. Putting the incident down to coincidence, Evelynne yawned. I love you anyway.
This time the response was unmistakable, as Evelynne heard clearly inside her own head, *I love you, too.*
Startled, the princess looked down at the head in her lap with wide eyes. *Ally, is that you? If you can hear me, please wake up.*
The reply came in a combination of words and feelings. Warm. Happy. *Don't want to wake up.* Safe. *Love you.* Sleepy.
*Ally, please,* Evelynne pleaded mentally. *I need you to wake up. I need to know I'm not imagining this. Please. I have to know you're alright.*
Ally frowned in her sleep, then her features softened as her eyes slowly opened. She looked confused for a moment, then smiled as she focused on the blurry but well-known face above her. "Heard you," she murmured fuzzily. Then her voice and gaze both sharpened. "I love you."
Before she could answer, one long arm snaked up and wrapped around Evelynne's head, pulling her down into a kiss that was a gesture of love, passion, affirmation, and desire. When she could finally think again, she found herself on her side, held firmly in Ally's arms. "Ally..." she began, only to be interrupted by her lover's lips on her own again.
"Later," Ally whispered hoarsely, placing a row of kisses along Evelynne's jawline to a point just behind her ear. "Be with you now." She pulled back slightly to look into the princess' eyes, and Evelynne was struck by the combination of love, lust, and fear etched on her lover's face. "Please."
Evelynne responded by beginning to unbutton Ally's light silk shirt. "I need you too," she said, brushing her lips against newly uncovered skin.
It was much later, and the sun was already well on its way across the sky that Evelynne woke up again. She was briefly confused by her nakedness, until the sensation of an equally naked body in her arms jogged her memory, and she couldn't help but blush. Ally had never been as... aggressive as she had been the night before, a fact that several sensitive areas of the princess' body were happily reminding her of. It was almost completely against her lover's normal submissive demeanour, and she wondered just how much was due to what Ally had gone through.
Suddenly concerned, Evelynne listened carefully to the breathing of her lover in her arms. The princess was lying on her right side, and Ally was curled in a loose foetal position facing her, her head nestled under Evelynne's chin and partially covered by red hair. The taller woman's arms were resting in the warm space between their bodies, and one knee was comfortably ensconced between Evelynne's legs... almost too comfortably, the princess' awakening body was telling her.
Pushing that aside -- for the moment -- Evelynne listened to the sound of Ally's breathing, and realised that, while it was slow and even, it was not the sound of sleep. "Ally? Are you awake?" she whispered, just in case she was mistaken.
The response was a low, gentle chuckle, followed by a kiss placed between her breasts. "I am," Ally replied in a low voice. "There's a part of me that doesn't want to be, but it's being soundly drowned out by the part that's happy to be exactly where I am, and conscious to appreciate it." One hand briefly stroked the underside of one breast to demonstrate.
"Oh!" Evelynne gasped. She battled with the desire to simply allow Ally to continue with what she was doing, but finally her more concerned side won out. She managed to capture Ally's distracting hand, and pull back far enough to look her lover in the face. The sight of her lover's calm, relaxed visage, free of pain, allowed her to relax a little more. "Ally... are you alright?"
Ally sighed. "I think so," she said, deciding to not even try to avoid the coming discussion. "I haven't tried anything... extraordinary yet, but I feel pretty much okay. Very okay in some places." She blushed and lowered her eyes, an action that Evelynne found endearing, even if it was completely incongruous with her actions last night.
"Good. Then you won't get hurt when I yell at you for scaring the soul out of me the other night." Evelynne's tone was only slightly joking.
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't," Ally said, her eyes still downcast, although now not out of embarrassment, and Evelynne could detect a return of the fear that had been there the night before.
The princess used one finger to force her lover's eyes up to face her own. "Ally," she murmured, "what are you afraid of?"
Ally looked like she wanted to look anywhere but at her lover, but Evelynne wouldn't let her. "I'm afraid... I'm afraid that you won't want to be with me now that you know... what sometimes happens," she whispered. "I know how badly I was hurt. I know there was a chance I might not have come back. Now you know it too. Some... people can't deal with that."
Some people... like Annie, Evelynne thought. "Ally... I'm not 'some people'. Do you remember when you said that you wouldn't compare me and Annie when it came to... making love?" Ally nodded. "Well, now I'm going to ask you to do the same thing with this. I'm not her, and I won't act the same way she did. Please try to realise that."
"I try," Ally admitted. "I know it intellectually, but emotionally... Well, it's harder."
"I know it is. And I'm glad you know it, too. Now, as for me leaving you because you might get hurt." Evelynne laughed, though there was a touch of bitterness to it. "Ally, you got shot saving my life, and I was still willing - eager even - to be in a relationship with you. And this was before I knew about your talents and all the unique ways you have to protect yourself. So, am I concerned about you getting hurt? Of course, how could I not? Am I going to leave you because I'm afraid I might get hurt in the process? Of course not." She paused. "Because you're with me, you stand a very good chance of being the target of any political attack that happens to be launched my way. Anyone who does could dig up your past relationships, your sexuality - because you're openly 'out', and I'm not - every embarrassing moment in your life, and throw it out into the public eye for everyone to see. Despite that risk, do you want to be with me?"
"Of course," Ally said instantly. She hesitated. "I see what you mean." She sighed. "I'm sorry. Like I said, I know this intellectually, but emotionally..."
"Emotionally, someone you loved ultimately rejected you - through no fault of her own - and you're afraid it will happen again. I understand. And I know that kind of trust will take time."
"Yeah," Ally said. She blinked and when she looked in Evelynne's eyes again her own were misty. "Be patient, please."
"Oh, I will be," Evelynne assured her, drawing the other woman into a tender hug. She pressed a kiss to the side of Ally's head. "I'm not going anywhere."
"I'm glad," Ally whispered into Evelynne's neck.
"Good. Now," Evelynne said, pulling back slightly, "what exactly happened the other night?"
Ally frowned. "The other night? How long was I out?"
"Love, you've been asleep for three days."
Ally looked startled. "Three days? Holy cow. Oh my god, my parents! What are they -"
"Your parents are fine," Evelynne reassured her. "In fact, they're here." She smiled wryly. "Your mother had a long... discussion with me about how I'm never supposed to break your heart. She was quite... vehement on the subject."
"They're here?" Ally repeated. She paled. "You mean I... we... we did... in the same house?"
Evelynne chuckled. "We certainly did. Why? It's not like they would have walked in unannounced."
"Don't be so sure," Ally muttered. At Evelynne's questioning glance she explained. "It's... happened before. Only once, but still..." She shuddered. "It was at exactly the... wrong moment, too." She glared at her lover, who was suppressing laughter. "Go ahead, laugh. I still have nightmares. Talk about ruining the moment."
"Sorry," Evelynne said, although she sounded anything but. "In any case, they're fine. They're going to be really happy to see you awake. Now, enough stalling. Tell me what happened."
Ally sighed. "Well, I got into Kilim just fine, although the weather was sure shaking us around a lot. Now, I'm not afraid of flying -- obviously -- but I've become less of a fan of airplanes ever since I discovered I didn't need them. Anyway, we landed, no problem, and I met up with Sir Arthur. We were just heading out to the car when he got the emergency dispatch on his radio." She shrugged with one shoulder. "I couldn't just do nothing. I heard that the plane had gone down only a few kilometres out to sea, and I knew I could make it that far. I also knew that the more conventional rescue teams would be having a hell of a time in that weather. Now, you know that I don't usually go out looking for people to save, but when something like that happens, and I'm right there... Well, it's almost like the universe, or God, or the collective unconscious, or something, wants me to be there so that I can do something. Like when I saved you. Of all the days to be in Marseilles, to hear about your visit to the Museum, to find a place near enough that when everything went down I could do something... I don't really like the idea of something or someone else controlling my actions like some character in a story, but sometimes I can't help but feel that way."
"I get that feeling too sometimes," Evelynne said. "I think everyone does."
"Maybe. Anyway, I didn't really think, I just reacted. I, uh, ditched Sir Arthur and just, er... took off."
"Uh, yeah. Anyway, once I was away from the town, I was able to... sense where the survivors were and went to see what I could do. I knew it was a small plane, so I wasn't expecting it to take long, one way or the other." She shook her head. "They were really lucky. Most of them had managed to get on board a couple of life rafts, so they were relatively safe, but I could feel some others in the water. Some of them hadn't survived. So once again I just reacted, and I started picking the one who were alive up and taking them to the rafts. I think I managed to keep out of sight for the most part. But I hadn't counted on the cold, and the wind, and the ocean. Now, as any helicopter pilot will tell you, flying in calm weather is pretty easy, but once you start into gusting wind you start burning a whole lot more fuel, and that's basically what I was doing. I was getting really tired, and thinking about heading back to safety. After all, the passengers were relatively safe, and I knew the rescue boats would come along soon. But then..." Ally's eyes were distant as she remembered the sensation. "Then one of the survivors - I don't know who - started having a heart attack or something, and it was almost like what happened that night at Aztlan. Whoever it was just reached out and somehow latched onto my mind, and I couldn't get free. They weren't making me do anything, but... Now, I've been in contact with a person as they're dying before. A very old friend of the family. She was old, and just... dying. It wasn't a bad thing, and she wasn't in any pain, and in the end she just slipped... away. Not really gone, just... somewhere else." She shook her head. "I simply can't describe it. But the dying person in the raft wasn't like that. They were afraid, and in pain, and instead of just going, it was as if they were being ripped away. And I had to get them to help. It may sound self-serving, but I don't think I could handle living with that experience in my head. So I went back and... pushed the life raft closer to the rescue boats." Ally laughed harshly. "By then I was fried, and I knew it. And the ironic thing is that whoever it was that was having the heart attack basically recovered as I was doing it. I don't remember much after that. I just remember trying to get to this bright, warm... beacon, where knew I'd be safe." Ally's eyes refocused on Evelynne's. "And then someone was calling to me, telling me they loved me, and that I should wake up. And I did. And you were there."
"I was," Evelynne whispered, her eyes shining. "I still am." She moved forward to kiss Ally intently. Ally returned the kiss, slightly hesitantly at first, then with equal passion.
"So how did you do that?" Ally asked when they finally parted.
"Talk to me with your mind like that. I know you heard me, like I heard you."
Evelynne frowned. "I thought that was you. I thought you were just... I don't know, receptive."
"I don't think so. I've never done that in my sleep before. At least, not that I can remember." Ally paused, and seemed to be concentrating intently. "Well?"
Evelynne was puzzled. "Well, what?"
Ally shook her head. "I was trying to project my thoughts to you. Apparently it didn't work. You try."
"Um... okay." Feeling a little self-conscious, Evelynne tried to focus in the same way she had before, concentrating on her link with Ally, and the emotion invested in it. *Alright, can you hear this?*
Ally's eyes widened. *I can. And I know I'm not trying to read your thoughts. Can you understand me?*
"Isis," Evelynne breathed. *Isis. It's like you're a ventriloquist. Your mouth isn't moving, but I can hear you as though you're speaking out loud.*
*Exactly,* Ally said. *And that's how I know it's not me doing it. Whenever I scan someone else it's usually just a jumble of thought, concept, and emotion. This is like actual mental telepathy. I can't pick up anything except what you're sending. Just words.*
"Oh," said Evelynne aloud. "Wow." She appeared stunned. "And you're sure you can't do it yourself?"
"Well, stop trying to 'talk' to me or 'listen' to me for a moment." Ally concentrated again. A moment later she said, "Nope, I think it's just you. I don't even know what 'muscles' to use."
*Really. So... what does this make me? Am I an Adept, like you?* It was certainly going to take some time for the novelty of this experience to wear off.
*I don't know. Obviously a Talent at the very least. Just be sure to let me know if you start levitating or teleporting, huh?*
*One superpower at a time, thank you,* Evelynne sent back. *Still, this opens up a whole range of possibilities.*
"Well, yeah. I'm sure Sir Arthur will be thrilled that you have a method of communication with him that can't be intercepted or traced. Assuming that you can do this with other people, that is."
"Oh. Well, yes. But I was actually thinking..." Evelynne's smile was seductive. *You're always so quiet when we make love. Now maybe I can... hear what you're really thinking. Especially when you...*
Further experimentation took some time.
To be continued in Chapter 30
Return to the Academy