Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major

By PsiDraconis

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

"White Swans of the Wilderness, ye have flown o'er many lands. Tell me, have ye seen aught of Tir-na n'Og, where no one loses youth; or Tir-na-Moe, where all that is beautiful lives forever; or Moy-Mell, that is so honey-sweet with blossom?"

- The Children of Lir

Chapter 8

"Ah, Colonel, come in." The swarthy, heavy-set woman waved Sir Arthur into her office. She indicated a chair across the desk from herself. "Please, have a seat."

Sir Arthur obediently entered the room and carefully lowered his large frame into the chair with no small amount of relief. The last two days had been spent in endless interviews and debriefings, and even the bodyguard's prodigious stamina was feeling strained. Every single decision he had made, every minute detail he could recall, every insignificant thought he had had: they had all been expertly drawn from him and analysed in excruciating detail. Every minor discrepancy had been pounced upon, instigating a new round of questions. Not even the knowledge that the other members of his Guard detail had already concluded their own debriefings had given him any feelings of relief.

Now, though, his interrogators appeared to be satisfied, and their leader, General Dame D'vaya Danun of the Common Guard, had summoned him to her office. The General's sharp eyes picked up Sir Arthur's carefully hidden tiredness. She gave him a tight smile in commiseration. "Colonel, I want to officially thank you for your co-operation in the investigation." She held up a thick file. "The agents have made a note of your willingness to co-operate." That said, the General relaxed minutely. "Unofficially I wanted to tell you that the final report will clear both yourself and your entire team of any negligence or culpability. It will still be a couple of weeks before the report is officially released, of course, but I wanted to set your mind at ease."

Sir Arthur's posture did not change, but the General saw his relief. "Thank you, General. I still lost two good men, though. They were under my command and I feel responsible."

"Of course you do. It's what makes you a good commander. In this case, though, you are not at fault. Forensic evidence shows that Sergeant al-Latif and Corporal Garner were both shot from behind at close range. There were absolutely no signs of a struggle, so it appears they were taken completely by surprise, likely before they even had established their position. What is even more disturbing is the fact that the shooters who took their place knew enough of our codes and procedures to give the correct responses when Eagle Two flashed them."

Sir Arthur nodded. "I had considered that. It raises some very troubling questions."

"Indeed. Guard codes are classified Ultra-Top Secret. It means we have a leak somewhere in the organisation or in the King's oversight committee. For someone like Steven Jaspers, or his accomplice, to acquire the codes requires highly placed intelligence sources."

"Steven Jaspers?"

"The male shooter. Blood analysis has indicated that the second shooter was female. We identified him a few days ago. Steven Travis Jaspers, thirty-eight, citizen of Gades County, Hy Braseal. We have intel linking him to the Hy Braseal Liberation Army."

Sir Arthur couldn't contain a small gasp of surprise. "The HBLA? Jesu Christe. They've never tried anything like this before."

"With this latest increase in terrorist activity that they're claiming credit for, we may have to expect similar attacks. All military and police forces, as well as the Noble Guards and protection details have been warned. We'd like to keep it out of the public arena to avoid a panic, but that decision is Kind Jad's." General Danun smiled thinly. "But wait, it gets even better. Jasper's autopsy showed that he was not killed by one of your Guards like we initially thought. The bullet we pulled out of his head matches the one used to kill Corporal Garner."

"You mean he was killed by his own accomplice? But why?"

"We're not sure. Some of my analysts believe that Jasper was simply a tool, someone to put the blame on, maybe so that we would link the shooting to the HBLA. The problem is that the link is so obvious that it's suspect, and anyone planning something this elaborate would know that we'd be wary of making the obvious conclusion. So once again we're left in the dark, with a female would-be assassin - who is apparently the more dangerous of the two - on the loose. The lab is doing everything they can to try to pull genetic information out of the blood sample, but I'm not optimistic."

Sir Arthur shook his head. "I suppose we should be grateful that Ishta Tretiak intervened when she did."

The General's expression darkened. "Ah, yes, Alleandre Tretiak," she said in a flat voice. "Some questions have arisen about our mysterious saviour as well."

"Really?" Sir Arthur asked in surprise. "I reviewed her background dossier myself. While definitely remarkable, I didn't find anything that might be considered terribly suspicious."

The General waved a hand. "Oh, I agree, her background seems clean. Saving people from a fire, while impressive, is not exactly unheard-of, and her apprehension of that Australian serial rapist was thoroughly investigated by the local authorities. However, it's not her background that I'm directly concerned about. I'd like you to take a look at this."

Touching a button on the computer sitting on her crowded yet tidy desk, General Danun caused a portion of wall to slide away to reveal a large television screen. At the touch of another button, the screen lit up to display a frozen image of a city street, the sidewalk crowded with people. Sir Arthur immediately recognised the street on which le Centre da la Vieille Charité was located in Marseilles. The image was taken just prior to the princess' arrival at the museum.

"You recognise this?" the General asked. Sir Arthur nodded. "Good. It was taken by a French news team covering the visit." Pressing another button on the remote, the mass of excited people on the screen came to life. With the sound muted, the crowd's silent cheers went by in a surreal manner. The video continued to play out, until Danun stopped it suddenly. "Right there," she said. A mouse pointer appeared and floated up to indicate a pair of people in the front row. "We've been able to enhance the image -" A few commands typed into the computer. "- and..." The image, slightly blurred by distance, refocused to reveal the faces of Alleandre Tretiak and Chorus Tladi. "We have identified this point to be just under thirty metres from the spot where Princess Evelynne was hit." The video began playing again, and this time a timer appeared in the corner. The panning camera soon left Alleandre and her companion out of view, and as soon as they were gone, the image stopped again. "This is the last time that we know her exact location." This time the image played at half speed. It panned to the princess, already shaking hands with the mayor and turning to greet his wife, and then suddenly Alleandre was back on the screen, throwing herself at a startled Evelynne. As they tumbled to the ground, the General stopped the playback for the last time.

Even the imperturbable Sir Arthur looked a little shaken as the events replayed. It was the first time he had seen a detailed third-person account of the shooting. "She got there just in time," he said.

"Exactly," General Danun replied, her voice grim. "Look at the time index. We lose track of Tretiak at fourteen seconds. The first shot is fired at eighteen seconds. That gives our heroine at most four seconds to travel a straight-line distance of about thirty metres, giving her an average speed of seven and a half metres per second, minimum." She looked at Sir Arthur seriously. "The fastest man in the world runs at about ten metres per second. While those numbers on their own would seem to indicate that Tretiak isn't an Olympic quality sprinter, she also had to clear at least one barricade in order to get a clear path."

"I didn't realise she was that fast."

"It's not her speed that I'm worried about. Maybe she runs in her spare time. What I'm concerned with is her timing. She tackled the princess just after the first shot was fired, and was hit less than a second later by the third shot. What this suggests to me is that she's either Supergirl, or she knew exactly when the shooters would fire."

Sir Arthur looked at his superior incredulously. "Are you saying she was a part of the shooters' plan? She was hit twice!"

"Yes, but the first two shots missed, which should have been practically impossible, given the equipment Jasper was using. Plus, she survived the next two bullets, contrary what our experts tell me should have happened. So here is one possible theory of what happened: Tretiak is in contact with the shooters somehow, who tell her seconds before they fire. She is prepared, and moves instantly towards the princess. She's slightly slower than expected, so Jasper, not wanting to actually kill Evelynne for some reason, causes his first and second shots to miss. The third and fourth bullets are specially made and aimed to avoid fatal wounds. Once Tretiak is hit, the woman sniper turns on her companion and shoots him."

"That seems a little far-fetched. Why would Alleandre allow herself to be shot?"

"Look at how close she's become to the princess. I can't think of a better was to get someone close to the Royal Family. You know how they are about repaying debts. As to long-term plans, I don't know."

"She was shot in the spine. She could have died, or permanently paralysed. There are lots more safer locations to shoot someone so they'll survive."

"So maybe Jasper's aim was slightly off." The General rubbed her hands over her face, suddenly showing her fatigue. "Hell, maybe I'm wrong about the whole thing. Maybe she knew about the shooting because she's psychic, and she survived the shooting because she's bulletproof. Maybe she's an alien, or an angel. Or a devil." Her expression strengthened once more. "Until I know for sure, though, I'll be keeping an eye on Ishta Tretiak."

The battle was turning into a disaster, and the young, inexperienced commander of the Forces of Light watched helplessly as her troops succumbed to what could be described as a rout. She looked across the battlefield at her counterpart, who had been expertly directing the Forces of Darkness all afternoon.

"How does the Druid move again?" she asked.

Evelynne sighed. "Either horizontally, vertically, or like a chess knight."

"Okay." Ally studied the game board closely again. She reached out and picked up a piece in the shape of a berobed man bearing a sickle and hesitantly advanced it three spaces. With great reluctance, she removed her hand prom the piece, then looked up at the princess. "I can do that, right?"

"Yes," Evelynne confirmed. "But you might have used your move instead to open your Astral portal and bring your other Angel into play. As it is -" She moved a dark piece in the form of a snarling demon forward. "- checkmate."

Ally looked down on the Fidchell board in resignation. "Of course it's checkmate. Was there ever any doubt?" She leaned back in her wheelchair and shook her head. "That is one seriously complicated game. I mean, chess is bad enough, but no, some genius decided to add another eighty spaces to the board, and twenty more pieces per side. Then there are those damned 'portals'..." She snorted in disgust.

Evelynne grinned ferally. "So are you giving up? Can't hack it? And here I thought Canadians were so intelligent."

"Are you dissing my country?" Ally bantered back. "Where I come from we don't like uppity foreigners dissing our country. We prefer to make fun of our homeland all by ourselves, thank you very much."

"Blah, blah, blah." Evelynne's hand made a talking motion. "Come on, show me what you've got." She began setting up the board again.

"Oh, you're on, princess. Prepare to win by a smaller margin than last time!"

As she helped to arrange the game pieces on the Fidchell board, Ally reflected on the events of the last two days. Once she had reviewed the list supplied by the Foreign Affairs Office, Ally and the princess had spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon touring the Palace. Ally had been somewhat awed by the building, and fascinated by its history. Evelynne had been happy to play tour guide and had enthusiastically showed her companion every nook and cranny that a wheelchair could access.

Fatigue had forced Ally to sleep in the afternoon, but she had awakened in time to join Evelynne and Maîda for dinner. The lady-in-waiting had been oddly subdued, but Ally suspected that she was coming down with a cold.

Ally had used the evening as an opportunity to get back in touch with friends and family members, and had spent hours talking on the phone. The next day the weather had turned rainy, so Evelynne and Ally had spent the day inside, reading, talking and watching movies on the gigantic television in one of the sitting rooms. In the afternoon, Ally had spoken to more people, though there was one number that went undialled.

Today, the weather showed no signs of improving, so the princess had taken it upon herself to teach Ally how to play Fidchell, which was apparently the game of choice among the Atlantlan citizenry. Ally likened the game to "chess squared".

Just as the last pieces were put into place, and Evelynne was about to make her first move, a discreet knock sounded at the door to Ally's sitting room, where they were currently located. Both women looked up to see the unsmiling form of Nancu Ylan, the Palace Seneschal. "I beg your pardon for the interruption, Your Highness," he said, "but there is another telephone call for Ishta Tretiak." He indicated the portable phone he was carrying.

Several people had called over the last few days, so Ally glanced at the princess, then held out her hand for the phone. "Thank you, Ylan. Do you know who it is?"

"Indeed," the Seneschal answered as he crossed the floor to the young women. "It is a Ms Anabel Bourne calling for you, Ishta Tretiak."

Ally froze with the phone in her hand and Evelynne looked on with concern as she paled. "Anabel Bourne? Are you sure?"

"Yes, Ishta. I believe you designated Ms Bourne as an individual who should be allowed to speak to you. Has there been some mistake?"

"No, no mistake," Ally said faintly. "I just wasn't expecting her to call again." Of course you were expecting her to call, she thought. She called almost every day that you were incommunicado, and since then you've been avoiding calling her back.

Satisfied that he had discharged his duty, Ylan bowed briefly to the princess and Ally, then turned and left the room.

Evelynne waited until he had closed the door behind himself before turning back to Ally, who was staring blankly into space. "Ally? What's wrong?"

The young woman shook herself out of her thoughts. "Nothing's wrong," she said unconvincingly. She hefted the phone. "I should talk to her. Um... do you mind if I take this in private? It's just..."

The princess was a little surprised. Until now, her friend hadn't seemed to mind her being nearby while speaking to others on the phone, and had actually appeared to take comfort in her presence. Still, she's entitled to her privacy, so...

"No, that's okay," Evelynne said, rising to her feet. "I'll go and -"

"No, stay here," Ally said, waving her back. "I'll go into my bedroom. Although I don't know how long this will be, so if there's something you need to do..." Despite her disclaimer, Ally's eyes were entreating.

"Okay, I'll just read for a while. I'll be here when you get back," the princess assured her.

Ally sat in the darkened confines of her bedroom. The lights were off, and the sky outside the balcony doors was dark with rainclouds, leaving the room gloomy. I wonder when the rain's going to stop, she thought irrelevantly. She knew that she was concentrating on the weather to avoid thinking about the upcoming conversation she was going to have, and with an effort of will, she pulled her mind back to the telephone in her hand. The blinking light on its face told her that the caller was still on hold, and Ally had a sudden hope that the person on the other end would get impatient and hang up.

As soon as the thought crossed her mind, Ally scolded herself. Come on, she's half way around the world. It's not like she can hurt me. A small part of her countered, She already did.

Taking a deep breath and gathering her courage, Ally punched the button which would connect the call. "Hello?"

A heavily accented voice answered, "Ishta Tretiak? Anabel Bourne is holding for you. One moment while I connect you."

There was a click, followed by a silence that seemed to last forever. The reprieve was still over far too quickly, and ended when a quiet voice with a mild Spanish accent said, "Ally? Are you there?"

With a final fortifying breath, Ally answered just as quietly, "Hey, Annie. I'm here."

The woman at the other end gave a sob of relief. "Oh my God, Ally, are you alright? I saw on the news about how you were sh-shot, but they didn't say if you were d-dead, and I tried calling the hospital, and they wouldn't tell me anything, and then you were released, and I tried calling every day, and they still wouldn't let me talk to you, and -"

"Annie. Annie! Anabel!" Ally finally managed to interrupt the emotional outpouring. She felt incredibly guilty. She hadn't thought about how events might have affected her ex-lover. Face it, you didn't think about her, period. You were having too much fun with your new friend and didn't want to consider how someone who used to love you was reacting. "I'm so sorry, Annie. When I was in the hospital I was kind of out of it, and since then..." She trailed off. "I still should have called."

"I know," Annie said. She had calmed down, and her tone said that she knew exactly why Ally hadn't called. Rather than raise that particular subject yet, she asked, "Are you okay now?"

"I'm fine," Ally replied. "Well, not exactly fine, but better. I'm still in a wheelchair, but that's only until the muscles knit properly."

"Jesus Christ, Ally, a wheelchair?" The anxiety was back in Annie's voice. "What the hell happened?"

"I was shot twice," Ally said, and heard a shocked gasp over the line. "Once in the shoulder and once in the back."

"Oh, hell, are you paralysed?" Annie tended to ask blunt questions when upset.

"No, the bullet missed my spine. The doctors were worried for a while, but now they say I should make a full recovery."

"Oh, good, then I can slap you for not calling and letting me know how you were." Annie's tone turned biting.

"I'm sorry," Ally said miserably. "I just -"

"No, I'm sorry," Annie interrupted, her voice now contrite. "I know why you didn't call. I also wanted to apologise -" She took a deep breath. "- for... breaking up with you like I did. I know a phone call is the last way anyone wants to hear something like that."

"It's okay. I -"

"No, I have to say this. You had just caught that guy in Australia, and that was a truly amazing thing to do. But all I could think was what if he had caught you instead? What if he had hit you over the head and knocked you out? What if, instead of being the hero, you were lying in a ditch somewhere? What if you had overestimated your... abilities? I just couldn't handle the thought of having you simply disappear somewhere, and never know what had happened to you. Or you would get into a situation that you thought you could handle and get yourself hurt or killed instead. It was bad enough when you were... working here at home. I also know that, being who and what you are, the chances of something happening are always present." Annie gave a bitter laugh. "And I was right, too. Look at what happened. You were shot and almost killed saving someone's life. I'm sorry, Ally, but I need to be with someone whom I can be reasonably sure will come home at the end of the day."

Ally was surprised. She hadn't realised that her ex-girlfriend had been so affected by the potentially hazardous possibilities raised by what she was capable of. "I guess we never talked about that, did we?" she said ruefully. "I know you were never really comfortable with what I could do."

"I know, and we probably should have talked about that, too. You can blame my Catholic upbringing. 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.'" The quote was a morbid joke between them. "I hated the fact that you could know exactly what I was thinking and feeling at any time."

"You know I would never do that without your permission," Ally protested.

"I know you wouldn't," Annie said, though the tone of her voice revealed that she was actually less than sure, "but I always knew that you could if you wanted to. I should have said something, but..."

"I knew you were uncomfortable, and I guess I should have brought it up, too." Ally sighed. "Well, I suppose we learned a few things to take into our next relationships, huh?" she joked tentatively.

The remark startled a brief but genuine laugh out of Annie, and the mood of the conversation lightened. There were still hurt feelings and discomfort on both sides, but also the acknowledgement that such things would fade in time. "I guess so."

Ally put on her best exaggerated "gossip" voice. "So, dahling, are you seeing anyone new?"

"Wellll... there is this really cute Chinese girl who just started in the orchestra. I think she's been checking me out. She plays the cello, and -"

"- and you wouldn't mind her fingering your frets."

"Actually, a cello doesn't have frets, but -" Annie paused. "Wait a minute, what the hell happened to the shy, repressed Alleandre I used to know?"

Ally laughed, pushing down the small sliver of jealousy that sprang up when Annie had started talking about the person who had caught her eye. "Actually, you can blame Chorus. He's a guy I met -"

"A guy? Really, Ally, I had no idea."

"Oh, shut up, it's not like that and you know it. Anyway, I met him just after I left Australia, and he's been corrupting me ever since. Between him and Evelynne, it's a wonder I'm as chaste as I am."

"Evelynne? Who's... Wait a minute, Princess Evelynne? The Princess Evelynne? You're on a first name basis?"

"She's the person I've been staying with. Since I saved her life, she and her father, the King, are paying all my medical bills and they invited me to stay here at the Summer Palace."

"Madre de Dios, Ally! You're hobnobbing with royalty?" Annie's voice dropped conspiratorially. "Is she as gorgeous in person as she is in all the pictures?"

"More so. She's also smart, funny, friendly, kind, gentle..." Ally trailed off as she heard the heavy silence on the other end of the line. "Annie? You still there?"

"Oh my God, Ally, are you falling for her?" Annie waited for the other woman to deny the charge. When the denial was not forthcoming, she said, "Oh God, you are falling for her. Ally, this is bad. She's a princess. Even though this is the year 2000, princesses do not date, especially not lower-class foreigners, and most especially not other women. And remember, I know you, Ally. When you fall for someone, you fall completely. I should know. Despite everything, I don't want to see you hurt when you finally have to leave, or she marries some 'suitable' prince, or whatever they have in Atlantis."

"I know," Ally said quietly. "I don't want to, but I can't help it. I didn't want to fall in love with you, remember, but I couldn't help it then either. For the moment, she's just becoming a really good friend. When she does move on, I'll wish her the best, mourn for a time, then move on myself. I'll survive." The last was said in a firm voice.

"Well, even though we're not together any more, I want you to know that if you ever need to talk, I'm always willing to listen."

"Thanks, Annie," said Ally. She was still sad that their relationship was irrevocably over, but happy that they weren't irreconcilably estranged. "Maybe when this is all over I'll come and visit you and your new cellist and you can comfort me."

"All three of us, Ally? Goodness, I know you've loosened up, but I didn't realise you had become quite so... licentious." Annie chuckled as her remark was met with inarticulate objections. "I can feel your blush over the phone, Ally. It's good to know some things haven't changed."

Evelynne cast yet another glance towards the closed door to Ally's bedroom. She had been attempting to read a summary Countess Abram's Proposal - an altering of the tax-reduction inducements in order to encourage foreign investment - but had been unable to concentrate on the document. Every time she tried to focus, the princess' memory would turn to Alleandre's expression just before she had disappeared into the privacy of her bedroom: her friend had seemed... scared. Perhaps even terrified.

Ally had answered, and made, well over two dozen phone calls in the last two days, and Evelynne had seen her excited, eager, surprised, even indifferent and resigned, but had never appeared frightened. Whoever this Anabel Bourne was, she had affected Ally strongly without even speaking with her.

Evelynne looked up at the door again. It had been half an hour since Ally had gone through it, and the princess was considering knocking to see if everything was all right. Before she could make up her mind, the heavy wooden door swung open, and Ally wheeled herself back into the sitting room.

The first thing Evelynne noticed was that the near-paralysing anxiety was thankfully gone from Ally's expression. There was still a certain brittleness and lingering sadness in her demeanour, but they were nearly eclipsed by her obvious relief.

Ally wheeled herself beside the table and sat for a moment, staring blankly out the window at the pouring rain. She remained that way for over a minute, until a concerned Evelynne prompted, "Ally? How did it go?"

The woman in question looked startled, then shook herself visibly and refocused on her companion. "Sorry, what was that?"

"I asked how it went. Your conversation." The princess indicated the phone, which was lying forgotten on Ally's lap.

"Oh. Right. Sorry. It went... okay. Better than I was expecting, actually."

"You looked like you were upset. Was it someone you don't like? You don't have to tell me if you don't want to," Evelynne hastened to assure her.

"Yes. I mean, no. I mean... It was..." Ally took a deep breath. Well, here goes... "That was Anabel Bourne. She was... she is my ex-girlfriend." She held her breath for Evelynne's reaction.

"Oh. Oh! By girlfriend you mean..."

"We... used to be lovers."

"Really." Evelynne sat for a moment looking slightly shocked, digesting the information. "I, um... I didn't know you were..."

"Gay? It's not like I advertise it. And, contrary to certain stereotypes, you usually can't tell just be looking." Ally tone was slightly bitter.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean... I just meant that you never told me." Now Evelynne looked mildly hurt. "You could have, you know. I thought we were friends enough for that. You must have known I would be okay with it."

"Actually, I'm never sure of things like that." The bitterness was still present. "Just as you can't tell that I'm gay just by looking at me, I can't tell how you'll react even though I know you." Ally laughed harshly. "I've known people, family even, who are good, kind, generous and loving, whom I've known for years, and they've treated me like a freak when they've found out what I am. On the other hand, there are people like a boss I once had, who was the meanest, most ornery jerk I know, and he couldn't have cared less who I slept with. I didn't like him, and he didn't like me, but at least he didn't like me for the same reasons he didn't like anyone else."

"But you know how I've been supporting Domdom in his defence of the Equal Marriages Decision! You know I'm -"

Ally's shaking head interrupted her. "It's not that simple. It's very easy to support something like gay rights in the abstract. Most of the family I told you about is very 'tolerant' and 'open-minded'. Actually put them face to face with a homosexual and the reaction can be very different. They usually act polite, but you can tell." At least I can.

"Oh." Evelynne's mind was still trying to process the information she had just been given. She looked up at Ally's form across from her. The young woman was sitting motionless in her chair, her head bowed and shoulders hunched as if to ward off an expected blow. The princess reached out and raised her friend's shuttered face to her own. "Well, I want to officially tell you that I'm okay with it. Look at me," she ordered when Ally refused to meet her eyes. "Now, can you tell that I'm telling you the truth?"

Ally met Evelynne's eyes. In them there was nothing but honesty and compassion. Ally carefully reached out with her mind, staying carefully away from Evelynne's actual thoughts, seeking only the barest hint of the emotions behind them. She wants me to know the truth, she justified to herself. Besides, I need to know. Insinuating herself into the very topmost layer of Evelynne's mind, Ally was surprised with the ease and clarity with which the princess' emotions came through her normally unreliable sense. Foremost was the friendship and acceptance that Evelynne was striving to project through her expression, unaware that they were being sensed in a much more direct and intimate manner. Underneath were true surprise, presumably at the recent revelations, and a barely sensed, odd mixture of confused elation. Ally couldn't deduce the source or direction of the latter emotion, and didn't even try as she pulled her mind back as easily as it went forth. She had trespassed on Evelynne's most private possessions enough.

Dropping back to her more mundane senses was always accompanied by a sense of confusion as Ally's mind attempted to separate her own thoughts from those she had been merged with. Shaking off the effects, she looked back into Evelynne's, which were still staring at her earnestly. She realised only a few seconds had passed.

"I believe you," Ally whispered, trying to project her own friendship and trust, though her talents did not extent to sharing her own thoughts.

For her part, Evelynne was slightly shaken. For several long seconds Ally had looked at her with an intensity she recalled from several weeks ago, when she had been lying on the hard ground, with Ally's body interposed between herself and bullets aimed at her. This time that intensity had been accompanied by an indescribable feeling of vertigo, and it took the princess a moment to comprehend Ally softly spoken words.

"Good," Evelynne said, and proceeded to hug her friend strongly. Ally, surprised, awkwardly returned the hug as best she could while still sitting in her wheelchair.

Pulling back, the princess strove to lighten the mood. "So," she said, "now I'm curious. You have to tell me everything about this Anabel who was stupid enough to break up with you. How did you meet?"

Ally was relieved beyond words. This might not be so bad after all. "Well, I was near the end of my second year at the University of British Columbia studying physics. I was also so far in the closet that I didn't even know I was in a closet. Then one night some of the women in my residence dragged me along to see a dance performance by the University Dance School. And there she was: strong, athletic, graceful, beautiful, blonde, stunning green eyes. Everything that I thought I wasn't. I watched her for an hour. Anyway, one of the people who took me was dating one of the accompanying musicians, and after the show she took the rest of us backstage to the little party the performers were having. I was there, doing my typical wallpaper impression, when the gorgeous woman I had been watching all night came up to me and said, 'Hi, I'm Annie. Did you like the show?' I must have mumbled something vaguely affirmative, because she invited me to the next performance, and the next, and after a while we became friends." Ally shook her head. "The last thing I wanted to do was fall in love with her. I had always been kind of an outcast, a freak, and I really didn't want to add admitting I was a lesbian to that. She wouldn't give up, though, and eventually we actually... well..."

"You became lovers." Evelynne's tone was understanding.

"Um, yeah. It took a while. I didn't realise until much later that she had been courting me since that first performance." Ally laughed genuinely for the first time since her emergence from the bedroom. "Taking her home for the first time to meet my parents was... interesting." She trailed off.

"Oh, you have to tell me this story," Evelynne begged.

"Well... I'd told my mom and dad that I was bringing a 'friend' from university. I hadn't come out to them yet. So I arrive home with Annie, who was very understanding, and decided to break the news to them one at a time. You know, in case one of them keels over with a heart attack, at least the other won't know. We get home in the afternoon, and I leave Annie discussing... politics, I think, with my dad, while I go for a walk with my mom. We're talking about this and that, and I'm really nervous and finally I just blurt out, 'Mom, I'm gay. Annie and I are dating.'" She chuckled again.

"So what did your mom say?"

Ally changed her voice to a higher pitch than usual. "'Oh, I knew that, dear. So did you want two beds or just the one?'"

Evelynne joined in the laughter. "You're joking."

"I swear to God. Apparently she knew I was gay before I did, but didn't want to say anything, just in case she was wrong."

"So how did your father react?"

"I told him later that evening. He was... less than thrilled, but told me that no matter what, I was his daughter, and he would love me and support me no matter what I did. Except, of course, if I voted for the Social Credit Party." Ally waved off Evelynne's uncomprehending look. "Never mind. Since then he's become more comfortable with how I am. He tends to be little old-fashioned when it comes to family values. Still, he didn't blink an eye when Annie came out of my room the next morning, where we'd shared a bed for the night, dressed in her pyjamas. As I recall, he asked if she wanted pancakes for breakfast."

"Wow," Evelynne said. "Your parents sound wonderful."

"Oh, they are," Ally replied emphatically. "I wouldn't trade them for anyone. Not even your dad."

"I don't blame you. Although I'll keep the za I already have, thank you." I wonder what za and Patrick would say if I were to do what Ally did? "So how long were you and Annie together?"

"We went out for a total of two years. We lived together for one. Then six months ago I started on my trip around the world." Ally was silent.

"Was that when you broke up?" Evelynne asked. She immediately followed the question with, "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."

"No, it's okay. It's actually helping to talk. We were actually still technically together when I left. She knew and understood why I was travelling, and I knew and understood why she didn't want to."

"If you understood each other, why did you break up?"

"It turns out that we didn't understand each other as well as we thought. Even before I left there were... things about me that Annie wasn't comfortable with."

"Things?" Ally seemed to be struggling for words. "It's okay, you don't have to say."

"No, a part of me really wants to. It's just..." She fought for the right words.

"No, really. If you want to tell me, you can when you're able. I understand it's private." What would Ally be unable to tell me about? Knowing her, it's probably something to do with sex. Maybe Annie was into bondage or something, and Ally didn't like it. Heck, maybe it's Ally who's into bondage. The mental image that appeared was so incongruous that Evelynne immediately dismissed it, though it was oddly enjoyable.

"Some day I hope I can tell you about it," Ally said, and her face showed her thankfulness that Evelynne wasn't pushing for an answer. "Anyway, I was partially hoping that some time apart would enable her to come to terms with... things. But it came to a head in Australia, when I helped find Arnold Lassiter." Evelynne knew that her friend was downplaying her role in the encounter. From what the princess had read, Ally had actually caught the serial rapist single-handedly. "Annie kind of freaked out because of what might have happened and dumped me in a phone call. To her, it justified her concerns about..."

Evelynne nodded in understanding, although she actually didn't. What would Ally's 'problems' have to do with catching a criminal? It was dangerous, sure, but it's not as if she does it all the time. Does she? She did jump in front of a bullet meant for me. Maybe she's a secret agent or something. Evelynne laughed at her own conclusions. Yeah, right, and maybe she's a vigilante who puts on a costume and goes out to fight crime. Please.

"So if you broke up, why did she call you?"

Ally smiled wryly. "Because despite everything she still cares. She also admitted that she overreacted a bit to the thing in Australia and wanted to apologise for the way she broke up with me."

"Oh. So are you getting back together." For some reason, the answer seemed vitally important.

Ally shook her head. "No, we're not." Evelynne felt an inexplicable sensation of relief. "The... problems are still there. In fact, she's apparently been checked out by a cellist in her orchestra. I have to admit that I'm still a little jealous, but right now I just want her to be happy, and I know she won't be with me. So..." Ally made a gesture as if throwing something to the wind.

"I'm sure she want you to be happy, too."

Ally nodded. "She does. She told me so just now." She smiled sadly.

Evelynne reached over and squeezed her hand. "So now remember the good times you had together," she said encouragingly. "You said she courted you. So tell me some of the things she did."

Ally perked up. "Well, you know she's a dancer, so this one time during a performance..."

Continued in Chapter 9

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