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Pancakes and Seagulls

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Jaina moaned, deep in a dream.

Sylvanas lay atop her, their bare bodies intertwined, pressed together from head to toe.  Jaina could not see her lover in the pitch black of the unknown chamber.  But, she could feel Sylvanas on every inch of her body, feel the connection between them that ran deeper than flesh.

A soft bed lay beneath Jaina, its sheets tangled around both women and damp with their sweat.  Normally cool, Sylvanas’s flesh grew ever more heated from the friction of their lovemaking.

The bed swayed gently beneath Jaina in the darkness.  She realized from the familiar rocking motion they must be on a ship somewhere.  The dream’s location changed each night.

One of Sylvanas’s hands gripped Jaina’s braid and pulled her head back so Sylvanas could ravish her neck.  Sylvanas’s teeth clamped sharp on Jaina’s throat, but pain merged with pleasure into one volatile, addictive sensation.

Sylvanas’s teeth bit and held Jaina’s neck, as if fearful Jaina would escape her.  Not that Jaina wanted anything of the sort.  The bite pressure released, allowing Sylvanas to move to trace her tongue along Jaina’s collarbone for a few moments.  She soon returned to the possessive teeth-clutch, unwilling to let Jaina go.  Jaina’s pulse fluttered against Sylvanas’s bite.

Sylvanas’s other hand worked Jaina’s slick folds relentlessly.  With their bodies pressed flush against each other, there was not much room for Sylvanas to pump into Jaina.  Still, Sylvanas made it work, putting her impressively toned muscles to good use and stroking her strong fingers inside Jaina’s most intimate space.

Jaina moaned again.  Exultant in Sylvanas’s desire for her, while simultaneously greedy, needy, for more.

An unwanted thought dropped into Jaina’s mind like the drip of an icicle melting.

There was something... wrong.  About all of this.

Haziness blurred Jaina’s head, either from the dream state or simply from being so intimate with Sylvanas.  She could not think clearly.

“Sylvanas, stop!”

Immediately, Sylvanas stilled.

Jaina shook her head.  Her long braid trailed across their pillows, intertwined with Sylvanas’s loose tresses.

“We can’t do this,” Jaina said into the darkness of the ship’s bedchamber.  “We shouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

Sylvanas’s voice came out low, cautious.  Frustrated by the delay in their lovemaking, but unwilling to continue until Jaina consented again.

“I...”

Too dream-fogged, Jaina could not remember why not.  There was something prodding at the back of her mind, like a wind-rickety tree branch scraping a window during a storm.  Some reason she and Sylvanas could not be together.

Jaina floundered, reluctant while not able to articulate why.

Still lying atop Jaina, still entangled messily, forcefully with her, Sylvanas brought lips up to Jaina’s ear.  A hot, wet tongue traced the shell of Jaina’s ear.  Heated whispers soon followed, the breaths of air tingling against skin freshly wet from Sylvanas’s lick.

“Can you not give yourself to me fully, Jaina, even in a dream?  Do it.  Release your darkest hidden desires you would never tell me awake.”

Sylvanas bit the ear she had just licked.

“It is only us here.  You and me.  As it was always meant to be, before reality was written.  Give yourself to me.  Body and soul.”

Jaina struggled to remember why she should say no.  In the end, she could not find a reason.

So, Jaina delivered an emphatic yes by lacing her fingers behind Sylvanas’s head and pulling the other woman in for a kiss.

Triumphant, Sylvanas resumed the pace with renewed vigor.  Her hand claimed Jaina deep, ever so deep.  Firm yet gentle fingers pumped against the desire-slick flesh inside Jaina.

Ecstasy built with each thrust.  Jaina threw her head back against the pillow and let a scream tear from her lips.  She writhed atop the unknown bed in the darkness, in whatever this strange ship was that they found themselves aboard in tonight’s version of the dream.

Kissing her lover deeply, Jaina allowed her hands to stroke up and down and along Sylvanas’s back.  Feeling every inch of deliciously smooth skin and powerful muscle.

While running hands along Sylvanas’s back and torso, Jaina discovered a scar.  Small, placed high on the side of her ribcage.  Under her arm, cutting back toward her shoulderblade.  Nothing remarkable about it except that it was new to Jaina.  Sylvanas bore numerous scars, and this was far from the first time Jaina explored every inch of her lover’s body, yet somehow Jaina never noticed this particular mark before.

Jaina traced a fingertip over the little scar.  She stroked it tenderly, adoring every part of Sylvanas, even the scars.  Especially the scars.  They were proof of the strength inherent in Jaina’s lover.  Proof Sylvanas survived countless trials and other suffering Sylvanas still could not bring herself to confide in Jaina about.

Jaina lifted a thigh up between the apex of Sylvanas’s legs.  Sylvanas obliged herself with great satisfaction, working her own slit against Jaina’s thigh in increasingly wet strokes.  Happiness suffused Jaina, that she could give Sylvanas even a fraction of the pleasure the other woman gave her.

Sylvanas pulled away from their kiss only to let Jaina catch her breath.

“I have endured millennia to find you,” Sylvanas whispered, hot and close and urgent.  With all the desperate earnesty of a pilgrim who traveled miles to confess before a holy site.  “You are mine, Jaina.  Always and forever.  I will cross worlds, time, even death itself, to have you in my arms again.  You belong to me, since before you first drew breath in this world.”

“You always... say... the strangest things...”

Jaina forced the words out between heavy pants.  She wanted to ask what Sylvanas meant, but Sylvanas’s powerful thrusts picked up speed, blurring Jaina’s capacity for rational thought.

A heartbeat pounded in Jaina’s ears.  She was not sure which of them it belonged to.  Perhaps both, beating in unison.  Two lovers, one spirit.

Jaina’s climax approached.  Sylvanas’s must be upon her soon, too, judging by the quickening of her breath and how her teeth returned to their possessive clutch of Jaina’s throat.

About to peak, Jaina’s neck corded in a scream as pleasure wracked every inch of her.

“Sylvanas, I’m --”

Whrrr-ring-jingle-ring.

Jaina woke to the electronic jingle of her phone’s alarm.

Normally, she quite enjoyed this particular tune.  But right now, after it so cheerfully rang with the worst possible timing, Jaina groggily leaned over and smashed the alarm off so hard it nearly dented the phone screen.

Jaina cracked her eyes open.  It took a moment to re-orient herself from the dream.  She was alone.  At home, in her usual bed with its green blanket and white sheets like sea-foam.

Morning sunshine poured through the bedroom window, open to let in cooling ocean breezes amid the warm spring air.  Gulls called as they soared overhead, drowning out the distant lapping of waves.  Jaina’s family home sat atop a little hill overlooking the seaside town in which she grew up.

The sheets fell to her waist when Jaina sat up in bed.  They were damp with sweat and... else.

“Damn it, Sylvanas,” Jaina muttered.  “One night without needing to change the sheets.  One night!  That’s all I ask!”

Probably unfair to blame it entirely on Sylvanas.  Jaina was certainly a willing participant in these sleeping fantasies.

Jaina sighed and kicked off the covers.  She went to her bathroom to clean up and get the day started.

It came every night.  Always the same dream.  The setting changed each time, but always somewhere unknown to Jaina, and always just the two of them.  Her and Sylvanas, making love.  And something always interrupted them before Sylvanas could bring Jaina to fulfillment.

Jaina stepped into the shower and turned it up hot, almost painfully hot.  Still not as heated as Sylvanas’s embrace.  Jaina scrubbed herself methodically, her soap scented with seaside grasses and siren’s pollen.  She let the water wash over her body as if it could cleanse the embarrassing memory of the dream.  As if the ablution were an offering to unknown gods to make them stop torturing her with this indecent nightly fantasy.

Jaina should not be having these dreams.  The reason why, forgotten in her dream-fogged state of mind, now smacked her in the face with cold reality.

After showering and drying off, Jaina dutifully hung her used towel on the rack.

“I don’t need another scolding for leaving my towel on the floor,” Jaina said around her toothbrush.  “Honestly, she treats me like a child sometimes.  It’s not like I asked her to clean the bathroom.”

Despite Jaina’s protests, Sylvanas insisted on taking over household cleaning duties upon moving in.  Probably just as an opportunity to rifle through Jaina’s things to find topics to tease her about.  Tormenting Jaina in the best and worst ways seemed to be the newly-married Sylvanas’s favorite pastime.

Tooth-brushing done, Jaina set to brushing and braiding her hair.  A few wispy strands escaped, but she let them be.

The bathroom mirror cast Jaina’s image back at her, a young woman with long, unnaturally white hair with only a single streak of blonde remaining.  Jaina turned away from her reflection as soon as the braid was done.  She did not like to think about the... incident.  The same disaster which turned her hair white also took her father’s life.

Jaina left the bathroom and went to her closet.  She got dressed to distract herself from the grief and guilt.  Had to keep moving.  Just go forward, she told herself.  Could not let herself sink into that abyss inside her head.

She pulled on her clothes.  A white top with laces on the bodice and a dark blue skirt, held together by a leather belt with pouches and straps attached to it.

As she laced up her knee-high boots, Jaina glanced at the clock.  Enough time to eat before heading to work.  She made her way downstairs to scrounge up some breakfast.

The corridor’s runner carpet was seaweed green, patterned with gold anchor designs, and the walls were a dark, dignified old wood that stood strong for generations.  The Proudmoore family house.  Or what little remained of the Proudmoore family, now.  Jaina remembered happy days, all four of them living and laughing under one roof.  Daelin, Katherine, Derek, and Jaina.  Only Katherine and Jaina still drew breath.

At least one ray of sunshine existed to banish the gloomy thoughts.  Their little family grew by one member due to the recent wedding.  That happiness lightened Jaina’s steps a bit.

On her way downstairs, Jaina passed Cyrus in the corridor.  He tilted his head back to scowl up at her in judgment, disapproval pinching his face beneath his bushy gray hair and fluffy mustache.  How impudent of Jaina to dare existing in his field of view.

Jaina scooped up Cyrus and showered him with kisses, only relenting when he meowed in protest.  She set the cat back down and he sauntered off, tail in the air.  Oh sure, he acted like he was lord of the manor and she merely a filthy peasant, but more than once Jaina woke to find him curled on her pillow, cuddled up against her head.  Grumpy, irascible old bastard.  Jaina would kill for him.

Jaina’s booted feet reached the ground floor right as the grandfather clock chimed the hour.  It stood in the hall between the stairs and the open doorframe leading to the kitchen.  Taller than Jaina, the clock had been in the Proudmoore family for as long as they owned this house.  Ocean scenes were carved into the wooden clock-case, cresting waves and gnashing sharks and sucker-lined kraken tentacles.

Nautical motifs decorated the rest of the house, as well.  Jaina passed oil paintings of ships at sea hung in the hall as she made her way to the kitchen.  The kitchen itself had decorative netting and ship’s steering wheels along the walls.  Jars of colorful seashells brightened up shelves, and the dish towels hanging from the oven-handle were embroidered with anchor designs.  The mantel was carved in the image of dolphins jumping amid waves.

A different part of the house held a more formal dining room with a large table.  With just the three women living in the house, they instead used the kitchen’s breakfast nook with its little square table for their morning meal.

Sylvanas added only a few things to the kitchen when she moved in.  The main addition was a multi-level rack containing dozens of mysterious little dark glass bottles.

Jaina was not entirely sure what was in the bottles, given Sylvanas concocted them herself and labeled them with short-hand abbreviations and terminology Jaina did not understand.  The only thing Jaina knew about the bottles was absolutely not to fuck with whatever was inside.  One time, without Sylvanas’s knowledge, Jaina added a few pinches of some herbal-looking spice to her dinner because it smelled interesting.  Jaina spent the rest of the night getting acquainted with the inside of her gastrointestinal tract while Sylvanas mercifully held Jaina’s hair back and reassured her she would recover by morning.

“Do try not to poison my daughter,” Katherine had said from the doorway of the bathroom while Jaina and Sylvanas knelt in front of the toilet.

Gagging for air between retches, Jaina forced out, “Why -- was it -- in the kitchen -- if it’s -- not edible?”

“Dear, you have put stupider things in your mouth,” Katherine reminded Jaina.  She explained with a knowing little smile to Sylvanas, “When Jaina was three, she ate a beach crab.  A.  Whole.  Crab.  Just plucked it right up out of the sand and gulped it down before Daelin or I could stop her.  We rushed her to the doctor, but they just laughed us out of the waiting room and told us the little blonde seagull-scavenger we parented would be fine.”

Sylvanas and Katherine shared an amused look at poor Jaina’s expense.  When the two older women helped her to bed that night, Jaina was too miserably ill to notice what was happening around her in the dark bedroom, but she could have sworn it was Sylvanas, not Katherine, who tucked Jaina in protectively and laid a cool damp cloth on her brow.

This morning, Jaina’s nose twitched as she entered the kitchen.  Turned out she did not need to scrounge up breakfast before work.  The smells of something delicious cooking already filled the room.

Sylvanas stood at the stove.  Judging by the frying pan and bowl of batter, she was making pancakes.  The air popped with cracks and sizzles as the pancakes cooked.

Part of Jaina wondered if Sylvanas being here in front of her was just another cruelly tormenting dream, and that Jaina would soon wake again.  Hard to believe this was all real.

The wedding was a month ago, Jaina reminded herself. You’d think by now I’d be used to seeing her in the kitchen every morning.

Sylvanas always rose before Jaina.  Jaina was not entirely certain the woman slept at all.  Maybe she kept a coffin in the basement like a vampire or something.

“Good morning, Jaina.”

Sylvanas’s words bore traces of a foreign accent Jaina could not quite place.  A pleasant voice, sepulchral yet melodious.  Jaina wondered if Sylvanas ever sang.  She would be a marvel at it.

“Good mo--”

Jaina stopped short.  Bright red bloomed in her cheeks.

Sylvanas was wearing an apron.  And nothing else.  Only her wedding ring, a braided silver band.

It took enormous effort for Jaina to avoid feasting her eyes on all that gorgeous pale flesh.  Well-built and boasting athletic muscles, Sylvanas stood tall and confident.  Long hair spilled down her bare back in a faded blonde.

A vivid memory of last night’s dream stirred in Jaina.  Of running hands along Sylvanas’s bare back, tracing her spine, digging in fingernails when Sylvanas hit a particularly sensitive nerve from inside Jaina.

“Uh.  Morning.”

Mortified, Jaina cleared her throat.  What else could she say?  A casual, “By the way, in my dream last night you fucked my brains out.  They’re gone.  I’m not entirely sure I even know how to read anymore,” would not be well-received an admission.

Then again, Sylvanas might simply laugh it off.  A difficult person to predict.  Choosing to wear nothing but an apron this morning was probably just another of her attempts to tease Jaina.  Torment, rather.

Jaina joined Sylvanas in front of the stove.

“Sylvanas, must you find new ways every day to make fun at my expense?”

“Indeed I must.  Your reactions are too delicious to resist.”

Jaina groaned.  Maybe ignoring these pranks and not rewarding Sylvanas with a reaction might make her stop.

Dark cosmetics outlined Sylvanas’s striking red eyes, eyes that pierced sharper than awls.  Her smeared eyeliner trailed down her cheeks like black tears.  Macabre, but it was her usual appearance.  Jaina never saw her with anything else.  Just Sylvanas’s style, she supposed.

Jaina could not stop a flutter in her chest.  By the tides, Sylvanas was beautiful.  Not in the commonly accepted sense, true.  A sharp, stark beauty, perhaps.  Like bare trees in winter, standing firm against the onslaught of seasonal death, abiding alongside the very rock.  There was something darkly alluring about her.

Before Jaina could move, Sylvanas reached out and stroked a thumb across Jaina’s lower lip.

Jaina nearly melted on the spot.

“Toothpaste.”  Sylvanas held her thumb up, showing the white dot of paste she had cleaned off Jaina.  She wiped it away on her apron.

Flustered, Jaina quickly scrubbed the back of her hand across her lips.  She could not tell whether it was to wipe off the toothpaste residue or the memory of Sylvanas’s taste.

“I cannot let you barge off to work with leftover toothpaste on your lip, can I?  Try not to be so careless.”

Sylvanas’s tone was almost like chiding a young daughter.

Jaina scowled.  “You aren’t old enough to be my mother, you know.  I’m twenty-three.  There’s only ten years between us.”

Regardless of age, Sylvanas carried herself with a vicious grace.  An innate power held in restraint by her own will.  The image in Jaina’s head was of a hawk capable of shredding a creature with its talons if it so chose, but content for the moment to perch calmly on a favored person’s wrist.  Jaina by contrast felt more like an awkward seagull slapping webbed feet in a clumsy waddle while scouring for garbage.

“I didn’t know you could cook pancakes,” Jaina said to change the subject.

“There are many things about me you do not yet know.”  Sylvanas caught Jaina’s eyes.  Something... unidentifiable lurked in those red depths.  “We have the rest of our lives to get to know each other.  We are tied together, now.”

“I suppose we are.”

Their shoulders brushed as they stood side by side in front of the stove.  Sylvanas was slightly taller, even barefoot.  With her skin completely bare except what the apron covered, her perfume was more noticeable than usual.

As with whatever was in those strange glass bottles on the rack, Sylvanas concocted her perfume herself.  A heady blend.  Some alchemical, vaguely wild-plant-brewed mixture.  It minded Jaina of dried black herbs hanging from a witch’s window.

Goodness sake, Jaina.  She’s not a witch, she’s not a vampire.  She’s a real live woman.  Stop being so harsh just because she is strange.  And because you cannot sort out how exactly you feel about her.

Like Sylvanas said, they were tied together now.  They might well be seeing each other every day for the rest of their lives, so they better get used to each other’s oddities.

Truth was, Sylvanas was right when she said there was much Jaina did not know about her.  To Jaina’s knowledge, Sylvanas had no family.  Apart from the Proudmoores, now, that is.  And Jaina never met Sylvanas’s friends, if she had any.  Jaina was not even sure where exactly she was from.

Jaina wanted to know more about this woman.  So much more.  But... she worried it would be rude to pry.  Sylvanas would tell her when Sylvanas was ready.

Sylvanas barged into Jaina’s life only recently.  That wedding was barely a month ago.  A whirlwind romance, from first meeting to exchanging vows in the space of a few days.

Not even a proper wedding ceremony.  The two women simply signed the necessary papers at the county clerk’s office and notified friends and relatives after the fact.  That caused quite a stir, at least on the Proudmoore side.

A few in their social circle claimed Sylvanas only married into the Proudmoore family for their money.  Something Jaina herself briefly suspected, until she found out Sylvanas already had money.  Sylvanas owned some sort of apothecary business.  Jaina did not know details, only that they developed new chemical compounds and sold them to the pharmaceutical industry for a hefty profit.

Many people, some condescending and some caring, declared the marriage would not work.  For a basketful of reasons.  “You two are practically still strangers to each other.”  “You’re rushing into things.”  “The age gap is too wide.”  “You have nothing in common.”  And on and on...

Sylvanas ignored the naysayers.  Jaina admired that unshakable determination.  Even Jaina’s own doubts about the marriage slowly eroded under the force of that infectious confidence.  Sylvanas could lead a battle-charge and even bystanders would take up arms to follow her.  She possessed such a strength of presence.  A curious combination, such charisma amid such inscrutability.

She can’t help the way she is, Jaina told herself.  Stop being so close-minded and give her a chance.  Say something positive.

“Your pancakes look splendid, Sylvanas.”

Remaining beside Sylvanas at the stove, Jaina bounced on her toes, excited for the meal.  She was a sucker for breakfast food, would eat it any time of day.  She inhaled the delicious scent with eager anticipation.  Batter sizzled and solidified in the frying pan as Sylvanas tended it.

“I can cook a few basic dishes, but I never mastered pancakes,” Jaina admitted.  “Couldn’t figure out when to flip them.  Always tried too soon and got nothing but a gooey mess on the spatula.  How do I tell if the underside of the pancake is solid yet, when I can’t even see it?”

“You do not need to see the underside.  Truth hides beneath the surface.”  Sylvanas pointed into the frying pan.  “Look for little bubbles in the liquid pancake batter.  See?”

Jaina peered into the pan where Sylvanas pointed.  Ah, yes!  There really were tiny air bubbles popping up through the round dollop of batter.

When Jaina nodded in interest, Sylvanas explained, “Pancake batter is mostly milk and flour, with a few other ingredients.  Those bubbles mean water from the milk is bonding with starch from the flour.  This chemical bonding, induced by the heat of the stove, creates carbon dioxide.  Bubbles form when the CO2 rises to the liquid’s surface, from the pressure changes inside the batter as it fries.  These air-expansion pockets are what give pancakes that light, fluffy texture.”

“You really are an alchemist, huh.”

There was no condescension in Sylvanas’s explanation.  She seemed genuinely pleased to share her field of expertise with Jaina.  Jaina knew Sylvanas would be equally as happy to listen to Jaina explain something the younger woman was interested in.

Sylvanas smoothly slid the spatula underneath the current pancake in the pan and flipped it for demonstration.  Now topside, it was a perfect warm brown, cooked to precision.

“That’s all there is to pancakes, Jaina.  Patience.  Discipline.  Simply wait to flip until you see this many bubbles in the batter.  Like tiny trapped souls rising up from below to cry out for release.”

“Wow, that’s not an unsettling image at all.  Thanks for the tip, though.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll try making us pancakes.”

Truth hides beneath the surface, Sylvanas had said.  Maybe it did, maybe it did.  Despite wanting to know everything beneath Sylvanas’s surface, it was clear Jaina could not sate her curiosity in the direct way.  She must be patient, just as Sylvanas advised.

Even with the connection they shared, Jaina remained uncomfortable and awkward around Sylvanas.  Wildly attracted to her, too, although too embarrassed to admit it aloud.  That would be quite improper.  Besides, it would only give Sylvanas more ammunition to tease Jaina.

While Sylvanas cooked the rest of the batch, Jaina set the breakfast table.  After a month living together, they had settled into a comfortable rhythm of sharing chores and working around each other in the kitchen.

Cheerful morning light warmed the breakfast nook.  Jaina laid three place mats onto the blue tablecloth covering the little square table.  She folded the napkins neatly and aligned the cutlery just so.  Her father was always a stickler for propriety, and old habits died hard.

Table now set, Jaina made drinks.  Orange juice for Jaina.  Black coffee for Sylvanas.  At least that was one predictable thing about her.  Sylvanas showed up naked this morning, and maybe tomorrow morning she would devise a new method to make Jaina blush, but she would always take her coffee black.

Married life suited Sylvanas, Jaina decided as she watched Sylvanas lift out a finished pancake and add it to the growing stack on a plate beside the stove.

It was rather distracting to watch her from behind, wearing nothing but an apron, but Jaina tried to focus above the shoulders.  Sunshine from the kitchen windows kissed a sheen into Sylvanas’s faded blonde hair.

Wide kitchen windows.  Thank goodness their house did not have close neighbors. Jaina disliked the idea of strangers seeing Sylvanas nearly naked, though Jaina could not have explained why the idea irked her so.

Sylvanas was not quite the picture of domestic bliss one imagined of a newly married wife, Jaina must admit.  Sylvanas was happy in the relationship, just more subdued in showing it than most.  Not an upbeat, social type of woman.  When they first met, Jaina mistook that aloofness for dislike.  Jaina now realized Sylvanas merely showed fondness differently.  If Cyrus the cat could hiss at Jaina and refuse affection during the day, only to curl up contentedly in Jaina’s warmth at night, maybe Sylvanas was not so different.

The first batch of pancakes was ready.  Sylvanas piled them up and handed Jaina the stacked plate.  She even added a little cluster of blueberries atop the pancakes.  Disgustingly adorable.

Jaina accepted the food with shy but sincere thanks.  At Sylvanas’s urging to go ahead while it was still hot, Jaina carried her plate to the breakfast nook and settled in to eat.  She flicked her braid over her shoulder so it would not get messy.

Sylvanas remained at the stove to fry the next batch.  However, she watched Jaina at the table with a secretive side-eye, as if she knew something Jaina did not.

Right before Jaina took her first bite, Sylvanas casually tossed out, “Do you enjoy taking it in dry?”

Jaina’s fork missed her mouth entirely.

“Ex-- excuse me?”

“You forgot syrup.  Most people find pancakes too dry without it.”  Sylvanas tilted her head slightly, like a crow plotting mischief.  “What did you think I meant?”

“Oh.  Right.  Syrup.  Uh, nothing.”

Jaina returned to the counter by the stove, where Sylvanas held out a bottle of pancake syrup for her.  Jaina's face twisted when she saw the flavor label.

“Raspberry, vile.  I trust faithful old maple.”

Jaina swapped that bottle for a different one in the pantry.  She shoved the raspberry to the back of the shelf.  Way back.

Sylvanas rolled her eyes.  “You mean faithful old High Fructose Corn Syrup.  There is no actual maple in that bottle.”

“Let me live my dreams.”

Jaina blurted the retort before thinking.  Poor choice of phrasing.  A sudden heat flooded her cheeks when she remembered exactly what she dreamt about lately, and it was not pancake syrup.

The blush amused Sylvanas to no end, though of course she possessed no way of knowing why Jaina was so flustered.  Jaina would die in a puddle of shame if Sylvanas ever found out about her nightly fantasies.

To cover embarrassment, Jaina scurried back to her seat in the breakfast nook.  She drizzled syrup over her pancakes and started chowing down.  Whenever they ate together, Sylvanas was always so graceful she made Jaina feel like an inelegant snuffling hog rooting through mulch for truffles.

Three places Jaina had set at the breakfast table.  Her, Sylvanas, and Katherine.  Katherine usually rose earlier than Jaina.  No sign of her yet.  Perhaps she got tired out last night and was sleeping in to recover.

“You do realize that when my mother comes downstairs for breakfast, she will see you like... that.”

“That” being naked save an apron and a wedding ring.

Sylvanas casually lifted a finished pancake from the pan and ladled in another dollop of batter for the next.

“Bold of you to assume I did not specifically have Katherine in mind when I put on the outfit.  This is her house, after all.”

Sylvanas shot Jaina a rakish wink.  It looked odd above those black-stained cheeks.

“She is quite an attractive woman, your mother.”

Open approval threaded Sylvanas’s voice in sing-song chimes.

“Please stop,” Jaina whispered into her orange juice.

“Some people prefer a mature partner.  A woman with experience, who knows how to please.  I admire a lady like Katherine.  So strong and determined.  Fantastic legs, too.”

“Please stop!”  It was a wail this time, and Jaina clapped her hands over her ears.  Only when she was certain Sylvanas stopped did Jaina let her hands fall.

Jaina sighed so hard it stirred the napkins on the breakfast table.

“Sylvanas, while I have no right to police your desires, I’d very much appreciate not being told how attractive you find my mother.”

Sylvanas relented, chuckling softly to herself at the stove.

For a few moments, the only sounds were the clink of Jaina’s knife and fork, the sizzle of Sylvanas’s frying pan, and the gulls wheeling in the sky outside their hilltop home, calling into the morning sun.

Eventually, Jaina spoke into the silence.

“It won’t be this way for the entire marriage.”

“Hm?”

“The three of us living together.  It’s just...  She’s too proud to admit it, but my mother was lonely.  After Father died, she lived alone in this big old house for years, with no one but Cyrus the cat.  So, I moved back in with her for companionship.”

That, and trying to mend their relationship.  After all, it was Jaina’s fault Katherine became a widow.  Jaina pushed down painful thoughts of her father.

However hard it was for Jaina, it was harder for Katherine.  Lost her son Derek when Jaina was a child, then lost her husband.  Jaina was the only family Katherine had left.  Well, and Sylvanas now, by law rather than blood.

Said Sylvanas, “Perhaps it was not Katherine who was lonely.  Which one of you truly needed companionship?”

Jaina blinked.  Taken aback that Sylvanas could see through even Jaina’s hardest emotional armor.  Such a secretive woman, yet it proved difficult to hide secrets from her.

“You are called Proudmoores for a reason,” Sylvanas added.  “Pride seems to run in the family.  I like that about both of you.”

Not sure how to respond to that, Jaina continued.  “Not long after I moved in, you came into the picture and the whole marriage thing happened so suddenly and there hasn’t been time to find a new place yet.  So, here the three of us are.  Two newlyweds and a third wheel all in one house.”

Musing to herself, Sylvanas absently poked her spatula at the pancake currently frying.

“I do not mind these living arrangements,” Sylvanas eventually said.  She sounded honest for once, not a scrap of her usual teasing.  “Neither does Katherine, she assured me.  She enjoys having you close by.”

“She said that?”

Jaina sat up straighter in her seat, pleased.  Katherine could be distant at times.  Cold and salty as seawater.  Still, even seawater nurtured life.

Speaking of Katherine, Jaina heard footsteps descend the stairs and pass the old grandfather clock.

Katherine walked into the kitchen.  Back straight, she strode with authority everywhere she went.  Jaina hoped to someday gain such confidence.  A well-dressed, handsome, dignified woman, Katherine’s hair was done up in her usual braided bun, not a stray wisp in sight.  Her hair was not the unnatural white of Jaina’s, rather the steel gray of someone who had weathered life to the fullest, though she was not even fifty.

The elder Proudmoore cast her eyes around the kitchen as she entered.  They were gray-green, like a stormy sea.  A contrast to her daughter’s, blue like a mountain lake.

Normally stern, today Katherine wore a serene smile.

“Good morning to my wonderful family.”

Katherine maintained a good mood ever since Sylvanas moved in.  Still cold at times, but slowly melting, releasing warmth previously freeze-locked for years.  Maybe Sylvanas told the truth, Katherine really did enjoy all three of them living together.  She was certainly not lonely anymore.

Am I?  Jaina wondered.

Companionship aside, these living arrangements presented... difficulties.

It was rather inconvenient for newlyweds to share a house with a family member.  Hard to ignore that you heard your own blood relative moaning and screaming with ecstasy practically every night.  Jaina avoided Katherine’s eyes in chagrin, but Katherine breezed ahead, unfazed.  Pretending nothing happened.

Hell, Katherine did not even remark on Sylvanas being naked under the apron.  Was Jaina the only person in this house with any sense of decency?!  Her mother was usually so strait-laced about decorum.

“That smells delicious, Sylvanas dear,” said Katherine.

Showily, Sylvanas twirled her spatula in the air and caught it.  “I aim for it to taste even better than it smells.  Jaina, you’re the first victim, tell us how my aim is.”

“It’s good.  Um.  The pancakes are nice.”

When all three of them were together, Sylvanas always tried to include Jaina in the conversation.  Tug her in.  While Jaina appreciated the gesture, she almost wished Sylvanas would not.  Sometimes it felt less a gentle tug and more a serpent’s tightening coils preventing escape.

Katherine poured herself coffee and sat at the breakfast table opposite Jaina to wait for Sylvanas to finish cooking the remaining pancakes.

Lips pursed in disdain when Katherine noticed the syrup bottle on the tabletop between her and Jaina.

“Sweetheart, what is this fake maple rubbish I see before me?  Where is the raspberry syrup?”

“Fuck’s sake,” Jaina muttered under her breath in defeat.  Quietly, for despite Jaina being a grown woman old enough to marry, she still got lectures from her mother over foul language.

With a scowl, Jaina got up and dug out the raspberry syrup from the Way Back shelf.  She returned to the table and slammed the bottle down harder than was necessary.  All while trying to ignore Sylvanas’s silent victory gloating.

Cyrus sauntered into the kitchen like he owned the place.  He looked around, meowed exactly once, then decided nobody here was worthy of his magnificent attention and promptly sauntered back out.

Done cooking, Sylvanas turned the stove dial off with a click and carried one pancake-heaped plate to the table.  She set it down in front of Katherine, who thanked her graciously.

No third plate?  Jaina noticed, confused.  Didn’t Sylvanas make any for herself?

Sylvanas settled in beside Katherine, the two of them opposite Jaina.  She scooted in close and pressed her hip against Katherine’s.  Her intent became clear.

By the tides!  They’re sharing the plate.

Jaina cast Sylvanas a look pleading for mercy.

Seriously?  Why must you do this to me?

Sylvanas’s only answer was an aside smirk Katherine could not see from that angle.

Sylvanas fed Katherine the pancakes, one tender forkful at a time.  Jaina hid her face in her cup of orange juice, certain Sylvanas must be doing this just to embarrass her.

Despite the torment, Jaina could not say anything.  It was none of her business how her mother and Sylvanas ate their breakfasts.

Katherine played along.  Relaxed and content, she allowed Sylvanas to feed her.  Underneath that stern front, she enjoyed being doted on after years living alone.

Sylvanas gets on better with my mother than I do.

The thought was not quite bitter, but it came close.  Jaina felt a hot prickling inside her veins.  Jealousy?  She was not sure of whom.  Jaina struggled inch by inch, day by day, to repair her broken relationship with her mother.  It was a little frustrating that Sylvanas swooped in and so easily won Katherine’s heart.

Still, it was good the two of them got along so well.  Jaina should just be happy for them.  Banishing the bitterness and jealousy inside her, Jaina vowed never to let her own insecurities put a damper on the other women’s happiness.  She cared for them both, and they each deserved whatever joys they could find in this often harsh world.

“Quiet this morning,” Sylvanas said to Jaina as she lifted another raspberry-drizzled forkful of food to Katherine’s mouth.  “Something on your mind, Little Admiral?”

Jaina choked on her juice.  She shot an accusatory look at Katherine.

“You told her, Mother?”

Sylvanas replied, “She told me that nickname, but not the story behind it.  We got distracted before she could explain.  Care to do so now, Katherine?”

Katherine swallowed the forkful of pancake Sylvanas tenderly held out for her, then nodded emphatically.

“Indeed!  You know those small plastic boats?  Bath toys?  Jaina was obsessed with them as a child.  Not just for bath time.  She took her boats everywhere!  The park, the library, stuffed in her kindergarten backpack.  She even rejected plushies in favor of sleeping with a toy boat in her arms.  Every birthday and Winter Veil, the only presents she asked for were more boats.  Tugboats, cruise liners, pirate ships, any kind of boat.  She gradually amassed dozens of the little things.  We started calling it her ‘fleet’ she was ‘admiral’ of.”

Sylvanas threw back her head and laughed with Katherine.

Rare to hear an unguarded, honest laugh out of Sylvanas instead of playful teasing chuckles.  And though Jaina felt mortified by the story, it warmed her heart to hear her mother’s laughter again.  Katherine spent too many years in grief.  They both did.

Sylvanas’s mysterious eyes twinkled above her teary black eyeliner as she looked at Jaina.

“And do you still have your ‘fleet’ in a box somewhere in the house, Little Admiral?  Should I get them out for your bath time tonight and sing you a nursery rhyme while I wash your hair?”

“I can bathe myself, thank you.  And no, I donated those toys once I outgrew them.  My fleet is out there somewhere making other little admirals happy.”

Jaina sullenly stabbed a pancake.

“How many embarrassing childhood stories did you inveigle out of my mother for the sole purpose of humiliating me?”

Sylvanas breezily flicked a lock of faded blonde hair.

“All of them, eventually.  I am stockpiling ammunition.  Arrows in my quiver, to strike when you least expect.”

Katherine reached across the table to pat Jaina’s hand soothingly.

“The three of us are family now, my daughter.  No secrets between us.”

Jaina was not so sure Sylvanas shared that sentiment.  The woman wore secrets like a shroud.

“Katherine is right,” said Sylvanas.  She held Jaina’s gaze as she spoke.  “We are bound together now.  Stronger than law, stronger than promise.”

Jaina was about to ask what Sylvanas meant by that, when the grandfather clock in the hall chimed the half hour.  Jaina took the opportunity to excuse herself from the breakfast table.  Time for work.  Somewhat of a relief, actually.

Still, Jaina must maintain politeness, no matter how awkward things were between the three of them.  She could not just get up and leave without saying anything.

“Thank you for breakfast, Sylvanas.”  A sincere gratitude.

“It was my pleasure.  Jaina.”

Was Jaina imagining that soft caress on her name?

Jaina shrugged it off and cleared her empty plate and cup away.  She put the syrup-sticky plate in the sink to soak, making sure it was fully submerged in the water.

A week ago, she made a hasty mistake by not properly pre-soaking a messy plate after dinner.  The unpleasant result was a plate caked with sticky residue and food morsels, too tough to wash off without heavy duty scrubbing.  On a day when it was Sylvanas’s turn to do dishes.

That day, Sylvanas did not lecture her as Katherine would have.  Instead, Sylvanas merely soaked that sticky plate in soapy water overnight.  In Jaina’s bathroom sink.  Without telling her.  So Jaina, waking in the morning and stumbling half-woozy to the bathroom to splash her face with cold water in hope of clearing her head from one of those improper wet dreams of Sylvanas, ended up splashing gross food-chunked soap water all over her face.

The worst of it was a little note in spidery handwriting left beside the sink that read, “If only you were as dirty in other parts of your life as you are with your dishes.”  Jaina crumpled the note with a furious blush, cleaned the plate properly this time, and neither she nor Sylvanas spoke of the incident again.

This morning, Jaina made sure to soak the pancake plate properly.

Jaina went upstairs to gather her things for work.  Preferring not to carry a purse around, Jaina instead tucked her phone and wallet and other necessities into the leather pouches on her belt over her dark blue skirt.

When she returned to the kitchen, Sylvanas and Katherine were still eating their shared plate.

Jaina went around to their side of the breakfast table to give her mother a goodbye kiss on the cheek.

Physical affection was something they were working on, trying to repair their mother-daughter relationship.  The most they managed so far was a goodbye cheek-kiss in the morning and hugs on special occasions.  Katherine had as difficult a time showing affection as Jaina did.  Though not toward Sylvanas, Jaina noted, who Katherine held no hesitation in cosseting.

Even so, both Proudmoores remained determined to keep trying.  They still loved each other, even with the sins of the past, even if it was hard to say.

“I’m off to work, Mother.  You two enjoy your day.”

She turned to leave.

“Jaina, don’t be rude.”

Katherine’s chiding tone stopped Jaina in her tracks.

Hiding a wince, Jaina looked over her shoulder at the other women.  She knew exactly what Katherine was about to demand.  Same thing every time the three of them shared a morning together.

“Give your stepmother a kiss, too, Jaina.”

Sylvanas said nothing.  Only sat there beside her wife and looked expectantly at Jaina.  Her face was smooth and expressionless, but those red eyes were smug.  And, as always, careful not to let Katherine notice it.

When Jaina stubbornly made no move toward Sylvanas, Katherine’s face fell.  Katherine took Sylvanas’s hand in her left and Jaina’s hand in her right, linking all three of them with Katherine between.

“You two are the most important people in my life.”  Katherine’s voice carried an honest vulnerability that made Jaina’s heart ache.  “My daughter and my wife.  I know things are still new and there are... strains between us.  But, it would mean the world to me if you could be friends.”

All they had was each other.  Three very damaged souls, trying to build a family out of this odd, lopsided mess.

Sylvanas nodded.  “I am willing to try, if Jaina is.”

“I will try, too.  For your sake, Mother.”

Jaina added that last part so her stepmother would be clear on exactly who Jaina was doing this for.

Jaina leaned down and gave Sylvanas the barest peck on the cheek.  Her skin was cool and smooth and utterly tempting.  Jaina pulled back quickly.

Satisfied, Katherine wished Jaina a good day at work.  The newlyweds returned to their breakfast and lovey-dovey-ness.

Jaina shook her head at the sight.  The other two women settled in as naturally as if they already spent years together instead of a mere month.  Jaina was the one still trying to adjust to this new reality of their family.

Jaina did not know exactly how Katherine met Sylvanas.  All she knew was her mother went out of town on some casual trip over a long weekend, then came home with a new wife in tow, moving van and all.

Jaina’s understandably flabbergasted questions of who, what, where, and WHY all met with handwaved excuses and dismissive cheek-patting and assurances of “You’ll get used to it, dear,” from her mother.

Sylvanas said little that first day beyond a basic introduction.  Instead occupying herself with moving her things into the Proudmoore family house like she was on a mission.  At Katherine’s insistence, Jaina helped carry boxes and suitcases out of the moving van, still dazed and half-expecting the other women to jump up laughing and admit this was all some bizarre joke.  Though her new stepmother spoke only a few words to Jaina that day, more than once Jaina peeked over the top of a cardboard box and caught red eyes burning toward her above black-marked cheeks.

At first, Jaina was suspicious of this mysterious broody woman who came out of nowhere to sweep Katherine off her feet.  As anyone would be if their parent suddenly fell into the arms of a stranger.  Stark facts were that Katherine was middle-aged, lonely, and wealthy.  Exactly what unscrupulous types preyed upon.  What kind of daughter would Jaina be if she let her beloved mother fall victim to some cruel scam?

To Jaina’s utmost relief, those worries proved unfounded.  Despite the outwardly dark demeanor, Jaina never saw Sylvanas be anything but doting toward Katherine.  Sylvanas was affectionate, in her own aloof way.  Pampered Katherine’s every need.  Always listened to her wife and respected Katherine’s input.  No indication Sylvanas would ever mistreat Katherine or be unfaithful.

And so, Jaina swallowed doubt, wished blessings upon the happy couple, and buried her suspicions.  Even deeper, she buried her attraction.

The inappropriate dreams started the same day Sylvanas showed up and moved in.  Jaina told no one of these dreams.  Not coworkers, not friends, not even the lapping waves along the shoreline Jaina walked some nights when she could not sleep for fear of falling into more of those dreams.

Jaina’s attraction was one-sided, she was certain of it.  Sylvanas harbored no improper feelings for Jaina.  Too besotted with her new bride.  Sylvanas just liked teasing Jaina for her own amusement, that was all. Nothing more.

Despite every attempt at overcoming her own mental blocks, Jaina remained ill-at-ease around her stepmother.  Worried she might someday slip and say, or worse do, something both of them would regret.

But, this strange woman made Katherine happy, and Jaina would never come between that.  Never!  Maybe a friendship could someday take root between Jaina and Sylvanas, after all.

It was not for Jaina to decide who her mother loved.  Katherine was her own person.  Jaina wanted to repair their relationship, and disparaging Katherine’s life choices was no way to go about that.

Mother was supportive back when I was engaged, Jaina reminded herself.

And when he turned out to be scum and they broke off the engagement, Katherine never criticized Jaina’s judgment or belittled her heartbreak.  Her mother offered comfort, a shoulder to cry on, and assurances that Jaina would find love with someone better someday.  The least Jaina could do was return that support.  Daelin was years gone, and Katherine deserved to be happy.

Still, Jaina did not need to live here with them.  She could crash on a friend’s couch while she looked for her own place.  Jaina’s job was stable enough to support herself.  She was under no obligation to stay here in the family home.

Yet...  Jaina did not want to move out.  Not only because she wanted to mend her relationship with her mother, but because of the sneaking suspicion those dreams of Sylvanas would follow Jaina even if living in a different house.

I want to stay.  I want to learn who you are, Sylvanas, learn everything there is to know about you.  To find out what truths hide beneath your surface.

As Jaina prepared to head out for work, Sylvanas lifted another forkful of pancakes to Katherine’s mouth.  She was still completely bare beneath the apron.

When Sylvanas’s arm raised the fork, the motion exposed something small on the bare skin under her arm.  High on the side of her ribcage, cutting back toward her shoulderblade.  A little scar.  Jaina never saw it before.

At least, not in real life.

Kissing her lover deeply, Jaina allowed her hands to stroke up and down and along Sylvanas’s back.  Feeling every inch of deliciously smooth skin and powerful muscle.  Jaina discovered a scar.  Small, placed high on the side of Sylvanas’s ribcage.  Under the arm, cutting back toward the shoulderblade.  Jaina traced a fingertip over the little scar.  She stroked it tenderly, adoring every part of Sylvanas.

Jaina’s mouth went dry in shock.  Prickles crept up her spine like insidious vines poisoning a tree trunk.

No way.  Absolutely no way Jaina could have known that scar existed.  She never saw this much of her stepmother’s bare skin before this morning, when Sylvanas decided to play this silly apron prank.

Yet, somehow, Jaina had known.  In that fanciful realm of dreams, she had known.  Impossible.  Beyond mere coincidence.

Still in the middle of feeding Katherine, Sylvanas’s eyes flickered toward Jaina.  Those eyes held such knowing, such depths that Jaina feared she might drown in them.

It was just a dream.  Wasn’t it?

Head spinning, Jaina left.  Out of the kitchen, out of the hall, out the front door.  Into the sunshine and the sea air and the calling gulls.  Every step, unsettled.  She could not shake the dark secrets burning in those eyes.