Jaina woke to morning sunshine on white satin sheets.
Had she been dreaming? She could not remember what about.
Azshara lay beside Jaina, close enough to caress, with a stray arm cast aside in sleep. Her long hair spilled across plump pillows, looking even softer than the satin. Picture-perfect, the movie star managed an artful pose even while asleep. Jaina was almost afraid to move for fear of disturbing such a glamorous scene.
The sheets were a tangle around their bodies, threaded like streams through legs and over breasts, exposing far more than they hid. Azshara still wore nothing save that gold jewelry. Jaina looked down and realized she herself was naked, too.
The bed was enormous. Placed centrally like an altar of devotion, in a bedroom ridiculously huge. Star charts covered the walls, same as the room they dined in last night. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the sea. Jaina watched the waves for a time, their peaceful repetition the one thing familiar to Jaina in this stranger’s den of luxury.
Azshara stirred. Her golden eyes fluttered open, and she smirked when she saw Jaina beside her in the bed.
Azshara gave a languorous cat-stretch that flexed her statuesque figure all the way down to her long legs. The sheets rippled across her perfectly smooth skin. Jaina huffed. Unfair that Azshara woke up looking better than anyone else at their best. Jaina did appreciate the view, though.
“Mmmm. Good morning, my little pearl.”
Embarrassingly, Jaina could not recall how the two of them came to be naked in bed together. A hangover headache pounded inside her skull like a toddler going ape on a drum set.
Last thing she remembered was... an after-dinner dip in the hot tub?
That’s right. They went swimming. Jaina remembered the stripping and the kissing. The warm water, an orange light, her being held in a tight embrace. After that, nothing.
Jaina rubbed her forehead. There was something... dark hiding in those holes in her memory. She reached for it, but it slipped through her grasp like wet seaweed.
For some reason, Jaina felt sore all over. As if her whole body had been poked through and folded around itself like a stowed net. But when she looked down, there were no marks on her. What happened last night?
She drank some strange wine, she remembered that much. Probably explained her hangover headache and memory loss.
By the tides. Can’t believe I slept with the most beautiful woman in the world and I don’t remember it!
Oh, why must fate be so cruel to Jaina?
Azshara was still smirking. The crafty, criminal delight of a squirrel who just robbed a bird feeder.
“You look pleased with yourself,” Jaina remarked.
“Indeed.” Azshara stroked a hand along Jaina’s bare flank, down to her thigh. “I got what I wanted out of last night.”
Azshara’s voice was still thick with sleep. The low tone blended with her naturally dominant demeanor to produce a voice so intoxicating that Jaina could see why hundreds fell to their knees to worship this woman.
Jaina sat up. Her hair was loose, meaning Azshara must have unbraided and brushed it for her at some point. A small gesture of kindness, surprising from the ever-imperious Azshara, to spare Jaina the agonies of morning tangles. Jaina wished she could remember any of it.
“Last night, did we... um...”
Jaina made a vague wiggling gesture at their naked bodies entangled in the sheets.
“No, Jaina, we did not ‘um’ last night.” Azshara sounded thoroughly amused. “Whatever you may think of me, know that I would not force myself on someone passed out drunk.”
“Surprisingly noble of you,” Jaina said.
“I want people to be awake...”
Azshara gave another languid stretch, except this time it was to flaunt herself rather than work her muscles.
“...So they can lavish praise upon me, tell me how amazing I am, how blessed they are to be deemed worthy of my touch. What would be the point of pleasuring myself with someone too unconscious to appreciate me fully?”
With a sigh, Jaina changed her mind about the nobility of it all. “Yep, that’s definitely you.”
Azshara trailed a finger along Jaina’s bare collarbone. The caress made Jaina shiver with desire. A desire Azshara noticed, if that cunning twinkle in her eyes was any clue. Damn it, Jaina was putty in her hands, and they both knew it.
“Well,” Azshara admitted shamelessly, exulting in her power over Jaina, “We necked in the hot tub for a while, so I suppose I took a little advantage of your vulnerable state. You are simply too delicious to resist! However, when you passed out in my arms, I carried you to bed. Merely to sleep.”
“Sorry,” Jaina muttered, dropping her eyes in embarrassment. And regret. Not how she intended their date to end. “I don’t usually get drunk so easily. Must’ve been that strange wine.”
Maybe the wine caused that vague dream of the long corridor and the sealed door. Details of the dream were already fading from memory, as dreams usually did. Was she talking to someone? Who was he?
That dream was ominous, but not as uncomfortable as those intimate, too-real dreams about her stepmother that came unprompted every night. Where Sylvanas held her close and whispered that she belonged to Sylvanas forever.
Every night except last. Jaina realized that despite getting drunk and passing out before they could do anything, her plan worked! She came to Azshara to forget Sylvanas, and for one night she actually did.
Jaina whispered in wondrous relief, “Last night was the first time in a whole month I haven’t dreamt of her.”
Azshara’s eyes flickered in calculation. “In the water last night, when you said ‘make me forget’... It was a person you wanted to forget, wasn’t it?”
“I... Yes. A person.”
Despite barely knowing this woman, despite barely trusting this woman, Jaina found herself wanting to confide in Azshara.
Maybe being strangers actually made it easier. This, whatever this was, was temporary. In a few weeks, Azshara’s vacation to Boralus would end, and Jaina’s secrets would leave with Azshara. Jaina had nothing to lose by confiding in someone she would never see again.
“Tell me,” Azshara commanded.
There was such self-confidence in every inch of Azshara, strong as temple pillars. It seemed nothing could shake her. Not even details of Jaina’s bizarre life.
So, Jaina took a deep breath. Then spilled her darkest secret like a confession on death row.
“There’s someone I should not be interested in. Completely off-limits! And yet, I dream of her every night. As if we’re already a couple, as if we have been forever. I don’t understand it.”
Jaina raked fingers through her hair. She enjoyed those dreams. Quite thoroughly. And that was exactly the reason they needed to stop. She and Sylvanas could never be together, and even entertaining the fantasy of it was cruel.
“Sounds preposterous, I know.”
“I believe you.” Absolutely no doubt in Azshara’s voice. “I had my suspicions when we first met. I sensed some... interference.”
“Interference? What do you mean?”
Azshara sat up beside Jaina in the bed and regarded her seriously.
“I fear someone means you harm, Jaina.”
“What? Who would --”
Jaina stopped, her gut twisting when she remembered what caused her to nearly drown yesterday.
“That malevolent presence I felt underwater yesterday, before you rescued me from the oyster?”
Azshara brushed that off. “Oh, don’t worry about that. Something else is interfering, I suspect. Putting those unwanted dreams of her in your head.”
“Can you stop it happening again?” Jaina pleaded.
Anything for those intensely sensual fantasies of her stepmother to stop. Jaina would even take more visions of the ominous sealed door over those!
Azshara assured her, “My presence should be enough, as it was last night. Stay here. With me.”
“Stay here?” Jaina hesitated. “Thank you, but I must decline. I can’t stay away from home that long. I’d miss my... my mother, and my family house.”
Miss her stepmother, Jaina originally meant to say. How would she explain to Sylvanas why she was moving out for a few weeks? Not like Jaina could tell Sylvanas she dreamt of them making love every night. Jaina would absolutely die if Sylvanas ever found out.
Azshara pursed her lips. “Very well. On nights you cannot sleep beside me, take this.”
Azshara casually threw aside the sheets and climbed out of bed. Completely naked and completely unconcerned about being so, Azshara walked to a dresser across the room. She pulled something small from one of the drawers and returned to the bed.
Azshara held out her palm. On it lay a little idol the size of a thumb. A black fish, carved from rough-hewn obsidian. Jaina blinked down at it, confused.
“This little black fish will stop me dreaming about...” Jaina blushed. “...About the person I can’t be with?”
“Not this idol specifically, but who it represents. In some places, he is worshiped as a god. God of the deeps, and god of dreams.”
“Why god of both?” Jaina wondered aloud. “What do dreams have to do with the sea?”
“The deep sea and the deep mind. Both are unknowable. Both contain endless fathoms whose darkness, if ever brought to light, would drive a soul mad.”
Those words tickled something in Jaina’s mind, something she felt she ought to remember hearing. Before she could put her finger on it, Azshara kept talking and pointed at the star charts on the walls.
“We know less about the bottom of the ocean than we do about space. The sea is practically another world. And what are dreams but a passage to another world inside our head?”
With a secretive smile, Azshara pressed the black fish into Jaina’s palm. It was cold in her hand, colder than mere stone ought to be. Azshara wrapped Jaina’s fingers around the idol and sealed the gift with a kiss on Jaina’s knuckles.
“But him, Jaina, he knows the unfathomable. What is darkness to us is truth to him. Carry this idol with you. He will watch over your dreams, and keep out anyone who does not belong.”
It sounded like a load of superstition to Jaina. But with all the weird, unexplained crap happening to her lately, from heated sex-dreams to underwater presences to ominous corridors, she was willing to give this little fish buddy a shot. Could not hurt to try.
“Thank you, Azshara. And thank you for all this.” Jaina gestured around them at the lavish bedroom. “I wish last night went differently. I was looking forward to... getting to know you better.”
Azshara smiled that devious smile again.
“Why confine pleasure to nighttime alone? Now that you are awake and sober, let us pick up where we left off.”
Jaina found herself pressed down into the bed, with the satin sheets soft against her back and Azshara’s firm body above her. Their bare flesh pressed together from head to toe, and every inch heated from the contact.
With hands both elegant and strong, Azshara spread Jaina’s thighs and lay atop her, between her legs. Azshara’s full lips claimed Jaina’s mouth. Teasing, working Jaina up to excitement. Promising mind-shattering pleasure. Strands of Azshara’s soft, perfumed hair trailed down to tickle Jaina’s cheek.
Jaina did not have romantic feelings for Azshara, and was quite sure Azshara did not for her, either. They merely enjoyed each other during this brief time their lives crossed paths. That was enough.
Jaina kissed back eagerly. She reached up and twined her fingers behind Azshara’s neck, threading through those soft white tresses. Azshara’s hands stroked and dipped down Jaina’s torso from breasts to stomach to hips, only to stroke back up again, lightly toying with her, just enough pleasure to make Jaina cant up her hips wantonly for more.
Azshara began a slow and wicked thrusting, rubbing herself against Jaina’s wet slit. Jaina moaned into the crook of Azshara’s neck and shoulder.
The bedroom door swung open.
Jaina squawked like a seagull choking on a corndog. She snatched up the bedsheet to cover her and Azshara’s bare parts.
Azshara was not embarrassed at being walked in on. Only annoyed. Still lying atop Jaina, with Jaina’s thighs spread beneath her, Azshara twisted her head to frown at the intruding servant.
“I am quite busy.”
The servant prostrated herself. Kneeling, she pressed her face into the carpet, her long dark hair in multiple braids spilling forward across her shoulders. Jaina recognized the woman from yesterday, on Azshara’s yacht. Vashj.
“Forgive the intrusion, my queen.” Vashj spoke without raising her head from her supplication. “Someone at the gate is asking to see Miss Proudmoore. Demanding rather than asking, really. Claims to be Miss Proudmoore’s mother.”
Jaina blinked. “Katherine’s here?”
Vashj finally raised her head. “She did not give her name.”
Was it anger in Vashj’s eyes when she looked at Jaina? No, envy. Ah. Clearly someone else wanted to be the one lying beneath Azshara.
Azshara waved her hand like shooing a mosquito.
“Send the visitor away.”
Azshara turned her head back to Jaina and resumed her slow gyration against Jaina’s wet slit, like the interruption was already forgotten.
“No, no. I’ll go meet her,” Jaina insisted.
Jaina wriggled out from under Azshara, a task made harder by trying to keep the sheet clutched modestly around her nakedness.
She could not just leave her mother waiting outside the gate. Hopefully Katherine was okay and this was not some emergency. How did Katherine even find her?
Vashj muttered acquiescence and shuffled backward out of the room, still on her knees, not rising until out of sight of her beloved movie-star-employer-queen.
Jaina spied her clothes from last night. Neatly folded and placed in a corner of the bedroom, probably by another servant. She dressed quickly. The black fish idol, she tucked safely into her pocket.
Azshara pointed out the attached bathroom and graciously told Jaina to make use of anything she found in there. Jaina availed herself of the deodorant and a breath mint, and hastily finger-combed her loose hair in front of the mirror to make sure there was nothing that screamed almost-just-got-fucked about Jaina’s appearance. Meeting her mother outside her date’s house would be embarrassing enough already.
When Jaina emerged from the bathroom, Azshara was knotting the cord of a robe around her waist. The white silk robe was sheer to the point of transparency and did nothing to hide her figure. A deep V exposed her chest nearly to her navel.
Azshara hooked her arm through Jaina’s like she was escorting the young lady to a grand ball instead of just walking her out of the house. Jaina was grateful for the show of support. And silently enjoying a few more moments of closeness.
Out the mansion they went, down the round driveway with its central fountain. Jets of water glittered in the morning sun. At the foot of the drive lay the gate, and just outside it, the visitor.
Jaina’s heart sank. It was not Katherine waiting for her.
Sylvanas sat on her parked motorcycle on the other side of the gate, watching through the curly ironwork for Jaina’s approach.
Morning sunshine hit just right on the dark leathers of her biker gear. Heavy boots, tight pants, and a roomy, pocket-filled jacket. Her helmet hung on the handlebars. Sylvanas held her gloves in one hand and was idly swatting them against her thigh in impatience.
Azshara eyed Sylvanas up and down, and arched a brow in skepticism.
“That is your mother?”
Jaina understood the skepticism. Sylvanas was only a decade older than Jaina.
“Stepmother,” Jaina corrected.
Sylvanas and Azshara looked at each other through the gate. Perhaps glared at each other was more accurate. Jaina winced. Their mutual glare said louder than words, “I don’t know you but I already don’t like you.”
“Well, whoever she is, she cannot take you from me,” Azshara declared, loud enough for Sylvanas to hear. “Clearly, this is not the person you came out to meet. Come back inside. I can think of plenty delicious distractions to fill your day.”
Sorely tempting. Jaina forced herself to decline.
“It’s fine. I gotta get going anyway. She can give me a ride home.”
Jaina shuffled her feet shyly.
“Thanks for last night, Azshara. I hope we can do this again before you leave Boral-- mmmph.”
Of course a simple goodbye would not satisfy Azshara. Jaina’s toes curled inside her boots as the fierce, invasive kiss went on. Azshara lips were so soft, her kiss so forceful. All-consuming. Utterly enrapturing. Jaina could drown in that kiss and be grateful.
Azshara finally released her breathless captive with a smug smile.
“Oh we shall certainly do this again, my little pearl. You and I have unfinished business.”
Azshara’s eyes flickered to Sylvanas, still impotently stuck outside the gate. Ah yes, Azshara just wanted Sylvanas to see Jaina melt in her hands. Wanted to feel superior over this stranger who rudely interrupted her morning pleasure.
Jaina risked a sidelong glance at Sylvanas, and yep, that was definitely rage burning in those red eyes above the smeared makeup. Good thing Azshara already had plenty of bodyguards in her employ.
Azshara tilted Jaina’s chin up and licked her jawline all the way up to her ear, then whispered hotly into it.
“Next time, invite your stepmother. She can watch. Or join in, if you wish.”
Azshara could feel Jaina’s pulse quicken beneath her fingertips on Jaina’s chin.
“Oh, you like that idea, do you?” Azshara purred. Too quiet for Sylvanas to catch, thank the tides. “It seems my little pearl is not entirely the good girl she pretends to be. Bit of a naughty streak.”
Jaina shook her head rapidly, too flustered to even deny it. She needed to leave right the hell now, before she embarrassed herself any further. She hoped Azshara did not make the connection that Sylvanas was the person Jaina confided about having inappropriate dreams of every night.
“Farewell, Jaina Proudmoore. We shall meet again soon. The stars are aligning.”
And with that strange parting, Azshara strode back up the fountained driveway and disappeared into her mansion.
A guard came out of the gate house to unlock it for Jaina, then closed it behind her with a sliding rattle of iron.
Now Jaina and Sylvanas were alone together outside the gate, with only the sunshine and seaside air between them.
They stood there in mutual silence for a time. Close enough to touch each other, but neither one willing to reach out.
Still sitting on the parked black bike, Sylvanas practically growled out, “Did you enjoy your little display with that woman?”
Jaina rolled her eyes. “Sylvanas, I had to watch you plow my mom. You can survive watching me kiss a date.”
Sylvanas only muttered sourly in response.
“Why are you here?” Jaina prodded. “How did you even find me?”
“You let slip the name Azshara yesterday. I had contacts of mine poke around the travel records to find the address of where this Azshara person is staying during her visit to Boralus.”
“Wow, that doesn’t sound illegal at all!”
“As to why I am here,” Sylvanas went on, ignoring Jaina’s sarcasm in favor of looking her up and down in concern, “I should think that is obvious.”
“I’m fine, Sylvanas. Really.” An added mutter, “In fact, if you’d waited maybe another half hour before showing up, I’d be better than fine.”
“Good. I didn’t think you would be harmed, but it still brings relief to see you safe. If I thought she would be bold enough to strike on the first night, I would have broken this gate down instead of waiting for you to come out.”
Jaina snickered. “Good luck getting into the mansion past fifty devoted servants.”
Somber as a graveside sermon, Sylvanas looked into Jaina’s eyes.
“For you, Jaina, I would fight through an entire army and bless each arrow that struck me, if my pain meant I could protect you.”
Not sure if that was romantic or just weird. Either way, it was not the kind of thing a stepmother should say.
“Listen, Sylvanas. Azshara is... well, she’s a high flyer. In more ways than one. I think she has more connections than she lets on. And I have a feeling she’s lying about coming here just to stargaze.” A troubled scowl bunched Jaina’s forehead. “Point is, no matter how stung your pride is right now, don’t keep making threats against her. I... I don’t want to see you hurt, any more than you want to see me hurt.”
At least there was one positive. Sylvanas seemed calmer now than their argument last night.
Jaina said as much, and Sylvanas replied, “I realized getting angry with you would only drive you away. You are always so stubborn.”
Well. A bit of progress, Jaina supposed. Jaina refused to back down. Like she told Sylvanas last night, caring about her did not entitle Sylvanas to trample into Jaina’s personal life.
Sylvanas reluctantly admitted, “I know I should not have stormed up here and demanded to see you. But I...” She drew in a deep, shuddering breath. “I was afraid, Jaina. I couldn’t find you last night.”
Jaina scratched her head. That made no sense. “You knew I went out for the night. You saw me leave.”
“But I couldn’t find you.”
“Literally just told you why.”
“That isn’t what I mean!” The leather of the motorcycle seat creaked as Sylvanas shifted her posture in frustration. “You do not understand. You cannot understand...”
Sylvanas grimaced and changed the subject.
“I passed a diner on my way up here. Have you eaten breakfast yet?”
The small kindness surprised Jaina. Maybe Sylvanas really did care for her wellbeing.
Jaina grinned. “Now you sound like a real stepmom. Sure, food sounds great.”
Sylvanas put on her driving gloves and revved up the engine. She pulled a spare helmet from the saddlebags and tossed it to Jaina.
“Maybe someday you can teach me to drive a motorcycle,” Jaina suggested while they readied to leave.
“First lesson: you don’t drive motorcycles, you ride them.”
Jaina threw up her hands in defeat. “Whoa there, cowboy. Just don’t ride us off the road, okay?”
Sylvanas laughed and pulled her black helmet on smoothly. Likewise, Jaina tugged the spare onto her own head and snapped the visor down. The helmet was a little tight, which did not help Jaina’s hangover headache.
Sylvanas came over to help when she saw Jaina struggling to fasten the chin-strap. Sylvanas’s gloved fingers worked deftly under Jaina’s chin.
“Here, let me. I’m good with a strap.”
Sylvanas eased the buckle. “Sorry, too tight?”
That’s not why I choked.
Jaina was extremely glad the helmet covered her face right now. Too bad Sylvanas’s helmet also covered hers, its reflective visor blocking Jaina’s view of Sylvanas’s mysteriously beautiful features.
Jaina mounted the bike behind her stepmother and wrapped her arms around Sylvanas’s leather-clad torso.
Off they zoomed.
This was Jaina’s first time on a motorcycle. Thrilling, but a little scary. The motorcycle’s steady roar filled her ears. Her enclosed helmet blocked most of the wind, but Jaina could still smell the fresh salt of the sea as they drove -- sorry, rode -- down the isolated, mansion-topped hill and into Boralus proper.
A few minutes into the ride, after the stylish modern mansion faded behind them and the town’s old-fashioned houses and shops took over, Jaina’s nerves calmed. She realized Sylvanas was deliberately going under the speed limit and taking the turns slow and gentle for Jaina. Another small kindness, like the offer of breakfast.
Jaina hugged Sylvanas tighter, warmed by the unspoken consideration. What a strange person. What a devoted heart.
Before long, Jaina was full-on enjoying the ride. It helped that she could feel Sylvanas’s firm muscles even through the leather biker gear. The perfect excuse to hug her stepmother without admitting that she wanted to.
And what I really want? I want you to lay me out over the parked motorcycle, tie my wrists to the handlebars, and have your way with me. Without taking off that leather outfit.
Oh for tides’ sake! Jaina shoved the mental picture out of her head. These fantasies were bad enough when they happened in her dreams. Jaina did not need them to bleed into her waking thoughts, too! Extremely inappropriate.
She’s a married woman! Jaina scolded herself. Married to your mother, no less! Have some decency.
Too soon for Jaina’s liking, the ride was over.
Sylvanas pulled into the parking lot of a small roadside diner with a yellow roof. Its snazzy neon sign promised tasty food and refreshing drinks. Diners like these were scattered across Boralus. They did good business in these summer months when the sleepy seaside town swelled with tourists.
Even this early in the morning, seagulls swarmed the dumpster behind the diner, hopeful for restaurant trash.
Sylvanas slid the black bike into a parking space. A car parking space instead of the designated motorcycle spaces, because that’s just how bikers were. Her boot nudged the kick-stand into position, and she switched off the engine.
When releasing the hug to dismount, Jaina’s forearm brushed against a hard object holstered on the side of Sylvanas’s chest, concealed beneath her jacket.
Jaina froze in shock. Once she regained movement, she clambered hastily off the bike and stepped away. Her hands shook as she ripped the spare helmet off her head.
“Why are you carrying a gun?”
A demand, thoroughly shaken.
The reflective visor blocked Sylvanas’s face. Inscrutable. The eventual reply came through the helmet, voice muffled almost to unrecognition.
“It’s legally registered to me.”
“Not what I asked.”
Sylvanas finally took off her helmet. She hung it and the spare on the handlebars. Her expression was perfectly unruffled, as if Jaina merely asked why she was carrying a spare set of keys.
“The pistol is for protection.”
Jaina scoffed. “Sylvanas, you’re scary enough not to need protection. You radiate Don’t Fuck With Me.”
“Not my protection,” Sylvanas said, with a pointed look at Jaina. “I’m your stepmother. It’s my job to keep you safe.” As a quick add-on, “You and Katherine.”
“My mother is a tough old bird. Doesn’t need your protection any more than I do. If you try to baby her, you’re the one who’ll end up with a spanking.”
Jaina was not afraid of Sylvanas. Not exactly. Still straddling the awkward line between being uncomfortable around her and craving more of her company. But carrying a gun certainly unsettled Jaina. What dangers could Sylvanas anticipate facing in this quiet beach town?
Sylvanas pulled off her leather gloves and tucked them into her back pocket. “Come. Let’s go eat.”
“Only if you leave the piece,” Jaina insisted.
Sylvanas grumbled, but complied. She reached under her jacket to unstrap the holster, then sealed the pistol inside one of the motorcycle’s lockable saddlebags.
The bell above the diner’s door jingled when Jaina and Sylvanas walked in. Most tables were empty at this hour. Just a few early-bird patrons, and some truckers filling their bellies before delivering Boralus’s fresh-caught fish to markets further inland.
Jaina and Sylvanas took a booth by one of the windows. They scooted onto the yellow vinyl seats across from each other, Sylvanas making considerably more noise with her leather gear.
A cheerful young waiter came over to take their orders. Cheerful, this time of the morning? Boy must be on something stronger than caffeine.
“What can I get for you lovebirds today?”
Oh great. He thinks we’re a couple.
Had he looked a little harder, he would notice that of the two women, only Sylvanas wore a wedding ring. Actually, no, that was worse. He would assume Sylvanas was the married sugar-daddy and Jaina the moll.
Jaina debated whether it was worth correcting the waiter’s assumption. She decided against it. This morning contained enough embarrassing conversations already.
“Fried eggs and bacon, please. With orange juice.”
Jaina was in the mood to chow down something hearty. When it came to breakfast food, her self-restraint was only slightly above those seagulls dumpster diving out back.
“The same for me,” Sylvanas ordered. “With coffee instead of juice. Black.”
After the waiter scribbled down their orders and left, Sylvanas said to Jaina, “I expected you to order pancakes.”
“Why bother?” Jaina pulled her loose hair over her shoulder and braided it while they waited. She could still smell Azshara’s perfume lingering in her hair. “They won’t be as good as the ones you make at home.” Her hands paused in their weaving. “Why are you grinning all of a sudden?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
The dolt was still grinning ear to ear like a snake in a jacuzzi!
“Sylvanas, you are the strangest person I’ve ever met.”
I am glad I met you, though, Jaina thought as she finished her braid. Even with your strangeness, even with those unwanted dreams.
Before long, the waiter returned with their food. He carefully slid the hot plates onto the placemats atop the table.
The diner’s placemats had cute cartoon drawings of flowers and bugs. Jaina’s mat depicted a snoozing butterfly with “Zzzz” coming out of it, while Sylvanas’s mat had a beetle pushing a rock up a hill.
Jaina called out a thank-you to the retreating waiter, then dug in. Sloppily. Sylvanas watched with amusement, wielding her own knife and fork with a mortician’s cutting precision and a noblewoman’s banquet grace.
They ate in companionable silence. The only sounds were the clinking of cutlery, the occasional jingle of the door-bell, and the bubbling of a nearby coffee maker.
On a whim of playful mischief, Jaina stole a strip of bacon off Sylvanas’s plate in plain view. Her stepmother retaliated in kind, by reaching across the table and stealing Jaina’s cup of orange juice for a loud and obnoxious gulp.
They laughed together. Tides, Sylvanas was beautiful when she smiled.
Maybe it was just the easy mood between the two of them cheering her up, but Jaina’s headache felt better already. The simple pleasure of sharing a warm meal with each other.
The waiter came by to ask whether their food was all right and to leave the check for whenever they were ready.
He set the check down in front of Sylvanas. Jaina blushed at the unspoken implication.
Fantastic. Not only did he assume we’re a couple, he assumed Sylvanas is the top.
From Sylvanas’s smug little half-smirk, she knew exactly what it meant, too.
The waiter noticed Sylvanas’s empty coffee cup. “Can I offer you a coffee refill, ma’am?”
“A glass of water will suffice.”
“Er, sorry, ma’am. I can’t bring you water.”
Sylvanas and Jaina both turned to him in bafflement.
The young waiter shifted under their stares, abashed.
“I apologize for the inconvenience,” he blurted. “There’s something odd going on. With the water pipes.”
He shook his head, his pimply teenage face scrunched up in confusion and perhaps a little... fear?
“I mean, the water comes out, but it’s... it’s not right. One of the cooks is already feeling adverse effects. I think it -- Er, sorry! I shouldn’t discuss back-of-house stuff. Excuse me, ladies. I see another table needs me!”
There were zero occupied tables nearby. He skittered off, embarrassed over his slip.
“The water pipes,” Jaina whispered. “Of course!”
Sylvanas looked at her in question. Jaina explained.
“You know I work for Boralus’s Water District, right? Yesterday, my boss sent me diving down to the harbor bottom to check the underwater pipeline that leads in from the ocean. He suspected something might have infected the pipe, because a few people in town were experiencing unpleasant, unexplained side effects from their taps. He was right.”
Jaina had gathered two sample vials of the unknown corrupting substance from the infected pipeline. The first vial was already sent back to the Water District for official lab testing. They were still looking into it.
In the mean time, Jaina had gathered a second vial for Sylvanas to look at. She intended to give it to her stepmother last night, but got derailed by their argument over Jaina leaving.
“Where is that second vial...” Jaina muttered. “I think I still have it on me.”
She rummaged in her various pockets and belt pouches. Her fingers brushed something small and hard. The black fish idol. She paused for a moment, then kept searching. Probably best not to tell Sylvanas about Azshara’s gift.
There it was! Jaina pulled out the little glass vial of whatever she had scraped off the infected pipe.
She set the vial down on her placemat, near the snoozing cartoon butterfly. A strange purple goop filled the sealed vial. Dark and viscous and clinging.
“Whatever this goop is, I saw lots of it stuck on that rupture in the harbor’s pipeline. If this diner is also experiencing water problems, the effects must be spreading already. It could contaminate the whole town before long!”
That massive ocean pipeline supplied all of Boralus. Once desalinated and refined, its water came out of every tap in every home and business in the town. Drinking water, bathing water, cooking water, washing water for plates and clothes, irrigation water for yards and fields. If something corrupted Boralus’s water supply, no one was safe. Not the plates they ate off nor the clothes they wore. The corruption could get everywhere.
Who knew what long term problems this strange substance could cause? They needed to figure out what the hell it was and how to get rid of it. Fast.
“Sylvanas, you’re an alchemist, and you own a pharmaceutical research company. I hoped you might have some idea what kind of weird chemicals went into this stuff. It sure doesn’t look natural.”
Their happy morning together died the moment Jaina brought out the vial.
When Sylvanas saw the purple ooze inside the glass vial, the blood drained from her already pale face. She squeezed her eyes shut like a condemned prisoner who was just told the exact date and time of his execution.
“You’ve seen this substance before?” Jaina prompted, tapping the vial.
Sylvanas snapped her eyes back open, but she refused to look at the vial anymore.
“I have a suspicion where it might originate from,” Sylvanas admitted reluctantly. “But no, I have not seen anything like this substance specifically. He’s never tried this befo--”
She cut herself off and stared down at her plate.
Jaina pressed, “If you have a suspicion, even an inkling, of what this stuff might be, please tell me. If it’s contaminating our pipelines, everyone could get horribly sick. Or worse!”
Silent, Sylvanas poked at her plate. Not eating, just pushing the food around aimlessly with her knife. It was a few minutes before she spoke again.
“We should leave.”
Halfway through a forkful of egg, Jaina let out a puzzled, “But we’re still eating?”
“Not this diner. Boralus.”
Sylvanas looked up from her plate and met Jaina’s gaze. The look in her red eyes was urgent and somehow... hopeless.
“You and I, we should leave town today. We’ll bring Katherine with us, and anyone else you care for, and never look back.”
“Are you joking?” Jaina spluttered, nearly dropping her fork in shock. “Boralus is my home. I grew up here, like generations of Proudmoores before me. My friends are here, my career is here. I can’t just drop everything and leave! Mother wouldn’t want to, either. Especially if you won’t even tell us why!”
Sylvanas reached across the table and grabbed Jaina’s hand in both of hers. She squeezed, urging, nearly begging.
“Jaina. You’re in more danger than you know. You, specifically.”
“In danger? From whom? ...Azshara?”
Jaina’s vinyl booth seat squeaked as she shifted. She remembered the black idol Azshara gave her for protection, along with the warning that someone out there meant Jaina harm.
“Azshara thinks you’re the danger, Sylvanas.”
“Of course she would say that!” Sylvanas snapped. “Who knows what vile designs that stranger has on you? I don’t know who she is or what she wants, but I’m dead certain you cannot trust her.”
Sylvanas’s eyes were wild, desperate. She squeezed even tighter around Jaina’s hand, nearly painful.
“Please, Jaina, I have to stop it this time!”
“Stop what? Sylvanas, if Boralus’s people are at risk because of this pipe contaminant, I need to stay and help, not run away with you to save my own hide.”
None of this made any sense! Sylvanas was always coldly mysterious or teasing, yet here she was in genuine distress over something she could not bring herself to share.
Jaina tried to soothe her. Could see Sylvanas was serious. Jaina was willing to give her a chance.
“Talk to me, Sylvanas,” Jaina urged, soft but supportive. “Tell me what’s going on with you. If not me, tell Katherine. Whatever’s tormenting you, we can get through it together. All three of us. We’re family, as messed up as that is.”
Sylvanas let Jaina’s hand fall. Her urgent fervor faded to something approaching resignation.
“I cannot explain.” Sylvanas’s whisper was hollow. “You would not understand. Not yet.”
Jaina recoiled in hurt.
Okay then. No chances for you after all. I tried to support you, and you shut me out with more of your cryptic bullshit.
Jaina’s knuckles went white, she was gripping her fork so hard in fury. Fury to mask the pain of rejection. Oh why did it hurt like this? Her stepmother confused her and teased her, drove her wild with desire until Jaina suffered every night from dreams of forbidden intimacy. Jaina should be glad to walk away from Sylvanas. Yet... Jaina wanted to be friends. Wanted to understand this strange yet devoted woman.
“I see how it is,” Jaina said stiffly. “You expect me to answer all your questions about where I’m going, who I’m with, and whether I plan to see her again. You want me to drop everything in my life and follow you blindly. Yet you refuse to answer any of my questions. How is that fair?”
“Jaina, it’s better if --”
“GOOD NEWS, LADIES!”
With a triumphant bellow, the young waiter dashed along the row of empty booths and skidded to a stop in front of theirs. He held out two bottles like he was proffering Olympic medals.
“I found some bottled water! Should be free of any pipe problems. Here ya go.”
He set the bottles down on their table and beamed in obvious expectation of praise. Oblivious to the mood storming between the two women.
Sylvanas spoke without looking at him. Terse and clipped.
“One of your other tables needs you.”
“But I don’t have any other ta--”
Sylvanas jerked her head to glare at him like she was aiming a death-laser. “Go.”
“Gone!” he peeped, and spun on his heel.
Jaina winced at his rapidly-disappearing back. She would leave the poor boy a big tip for that. Service workers deserved the utmost patience.
Sylvanas’s eyes burned. Her voice was colder than the promise of death itself.
“You may hate me for it, Jaina, but I will accomplish what I came here to do. No matter the cost.”
Good thing Jaina’s hair was already unnaturally white with only a streak of blonde remaining, or this conversation would give her gray hairs. Frustrated to the point of disgust, Jaina tossed her fork down onto her plate with a clang.
“For the love of fuck and French fries, can you give me a straight answer instead of --”
Jaina’s phone rang.
She pulled it from her pocket and saw the name Neppo flash across the screen.
Huh. Her boss usually texted her. A call could only mean something serious. Jaina swiped to accept the call.
“Neppo, you okay? What’s this about?”
His voice crackled through the phone. Uneasy and unbelieving.
“It’s about that weird purple ooze you gathered yesterday. Results came back from our testing lab. Come to the office, you need to see this.”